Paul English, the long time drummer, manager, and right hand man for Willie Nelson, has died, Saving Country Music can confirm. A member of Willie’s band from his start in shady bars in Fort Worth, Texas, all the way up to Willie’s most recent shows, he was the seminal member of Willie Nelson’s Family Band, and considered by many to be one of the most revered sidemen in American music. He also acted as Willie Nelson’s personal manager for many years. He died at a hospital near his home in Dallas after a bout with pneumonia. Paul English was 87-years-old.
Of all the rough characters in Outlaw Country’s past, only one had a glass eye, and was a former gang leader and pimp. When asked once by a 20/20 reporter during Willie Nelson’s peak popularity if he carried a gun, and if so could he see it, Paul English answered, “Which one?” because he notoriously carried two at all times. And for years wore a cape to go along with his nickname, “The Devil.”
Born in 1933, Paul’s parents were devout Christians, but despite his upbringing, English ended up becoming the leader of the “Peroxide Gang” in Ft. Worth, TX, and later a pimp running women. Fort Worth was the first place Willie Nelson really started playing music professionally, and in the late 50’s and early 60’s, it was a rough scene. The downtown corridor was full of brothels and night clubs, and stabbings and shootings were very common. One club Willie played at was Gray’s Bar. They had to rig up chicken wire in front of the stage to protect the band from flying beer bottles and would-be homicidal stage crashers.
Sometimes Willie Nelson would not get paid. This is when Willie met Paul, and Paul told Willie he could help him with that. Paul became Willie’s strong man, and eventually Willie’s drummer. Many believe that if it wasn’t for Paul, Willie would have not been nearly as successful. And Paul says, “Had it not been for Willie, I would be dead or in the penitentiary.”
“I started making the papers in 1956 when the ‘Fort Worth Press’ started running a ’10 Most Unwanted” list,’ Paul English recalled in Willie Nelson’s biography with Bud Shrake. “I made it five years in a row. I was involved in three murder trials, but they never led to anything. I was the kind of guy they were always trying to stick charges on . . . In ’55 I started running girls. This went on for a long time. It was a good business but you had to work hard . . . I had become really adept at picking locks. We had a contest on how many daytime burglaries we could pull and I think I pulled twelve. I don’t think I was ever legitimate until I started playing drums for Willie in 1966.”
Willie Nelson’s band is notorious for being like one big family, and Willie gives a lot of credit to his success to the fact that he’s been able to keep the same people around him for so long. The very first part of that family was Paul English. Paul officially became Willie’s drummer when Willie asked Paul, ironically, if he knew any good drummers. The only reason Willie never considered Paul was because he thought he couldn’t pay Paul enough money.
But Paul saw something in Willie, and he might have been one of the first to see it. Paul gave up his high living lifestyle to go play for Willie for sometimes no money at all, or IOU’s, because he could see Willie’s singular talent, and knew it would eventually pay off. And pay off it did. During Willie Nelson’s heyday, Paul English was the highest paid drummer/sideman in music according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Whatever Willie made, Paul got a 20% cut of.
Initially, Willie Nelson preferred Paul’s brother Billy English to play drums in the band, believing he was a better drummer. But Paul’s skills as a manager and businessman made him a mainstay in Willie’s band all the way until he passed away. As Paul’s motor skills began to slow down over the years, brother Billy would spell his brother behind the snare drum—a stripped-down version of country brush drumming that Willie Nelson preferred, and became part of Willie’s signature sound. He also went from being known as “The Devil” Paul to “Sweet Paul” for the kindhearted spirit he treated everyone with.
Just last month, Saving Country Music named Paul English one of the Greatest Drummers of All Time, specifically for his work behind-the-scenes for Willie Nelson. Paul English also played with Delbert McClinton and others, and acted in the movie The Red Headed Stranger. Paul’s contributions were chronicled in the song, “Me and Paul,” which appeared on the iconic 1976 compilation Wanted: The Outlaws.
Paul English is survived by his wife, Janie English, and others.