Paul English, drummer for Willie Nelson from 1966 to 2020, was born Robert Paul English on November 6, 1932, in Vernon, Texas. He was the son of Henry Newton English and Arizona (Clay) English. Sometime after 1940 the family moved to Fort Worth where English attended school. His parents encouraged their children’s interest in music. Paul and his brothers Oliver and Billy English all became musicians, and all played with Nelson at some point in their careers. Paul took trumpet lessons and played the instrument in junior high and high school bands and in the Fort Worth Salvation Army band. He graduated from Fort Worth’s Polytechnic High School.
Paul English first played the drums in the mid-1950s. (He recalled the year of 1954 during an interview. Other sources credit 1955 and 1956.) At the time, Willie Nelson was the disc jockey on the thirty-minute, live radio show The Western Express on KCNC in Fort Worth. Paul’s older brother Oliver performed as the guitarist, and their drummer was Tommy Roznosky. One day when Roznosky failed to arrive, Paul was asked to fill in even though he had never played drums before. He continued to play on the radio show for three weeks with his brother and Nelson and then played with them for several weeks at a club called Major’s Place. Nelson left Fort Worth shortly after this, but English continued to play the drums as a hobby and remained close with Nelson and joined his band a decade later.
English led a colorful life even before joining Nelson’s eclectic band. He was an amateur boxer who competed several times in the Golden Gloves competition, but most of his fights were outside of the ring. When he was a teenager, he joined a criminal group called the Peroxide Gang. During his time with them, he became adept at fighting with a knife and gun as well as his fists. He was arrested numerous times and served nine months in an Ellis County jail for burglary. English claimed innocence of the actual burglary but drove the getaway car and was apprehended when the car broke down.
After prison, English worked alongside his cousin, Arvel Walden, tooling decorative leather saddles. His leatherwork was featured on the cover of Nelson’s album Tougher Than Leather (1983). After taking up drumming, he performed wherever he could, often alongside his brother Oliver and cousin Arvel. Some of the bars and clubs where they performed were notoriously dangerous, especially those along Hell’s Half Acre; fights broke out regularly. Fort Worth had an active criminal underground. When his leather trade began to struggle, English fully embraced life as a racketeer. Among other activities, he pimped prostitutes. His prostitution ring initially operated out of the Western Hills Inn in Euless. English found his criminal enterprises to be very profitable and later expanded to Dallas and Waco. In time, he was run out of Fort Worth and eventually settled, together with his prostitution business, in Houston. During this time, he continued playing drums with various music groups. He played alongside Delbert McClinton and Ray Chaney, the owner of the Stagecoach Inn in Fort Worth.
After relocating to Houston, English provided Nelson with a place to stay when he was playing in the area. During one such visit in 1966, English offered to drum for Nelson, who needed a new drummer because his current drummer, Johnny Bush, was moving on to become a full-time singer. Nelson asked English if he had Tommy Roznosky’s phone number, but English insisted that he be brought on as drummer instead, despite being less experienced. Shortly after English joined, Bush, who also managed the band’s account books, quit. English took on these responsibilities as well and spent the rest of his life as Nelson’s drummer and business partner. He gave up his lucrative criminal life and used some of the wealth that life had afforded him to help Nelson and the struggling band stay afloat. Alongside Jack Fletcher, one of English’s associates from Fort Worth, he was one of Nelson’s principal investors. Nelson’s publishing company, Willie Nelson Music, was co-owned by Nelson and English. In addition to funds, English helped supply the band with a steady stream of high-quality narcotics.
English kept his penchant for brawling after he started playing for Nelson and leveraged his intimidating demeanor, hardball tactics, threats of violence, and love of guns to ensure that reluctant club owners paid their promised fees. He also lashed out violently at anyone he thought was disrespectful to members of the band, and he drew one of his guns with little provocation. However, he credited Nelson’s calm and tolerant demeanor with tempering his own aggressive behavior, and he gradually got into fewer fights as they traveled together. Although he had a reputation for violence against those whom he thought were deserving of it, he was also known for his evenhandedness and amiability. He lived out the code of honor that was supposed to exist among Fort Worth racketeers. His sharp-edged sideburns and sculpted goatee prompted comparisons to the “Devil,” which he took as a compliment. Beginning in 1967, at Nelson’s urging, English leaned further into this image by performing in a black satin cape with a red lining. He was extremely loyal to Nelson and took it upon himself to protect Nelson, whether from stingy venue owners, from brawls, or from himself. Nelson regarded English as his closest friend and wrote the song “Me and Paul” as a tribute to their friendship. Nelson’s songs “Devil in a Sleeping Bag” and “You Look Like the Devil,” the latter written by Leon Russell, are also tributes to English. Nelson also named his daughter Paula in his honor, and the two friends walked her down the aisle together at her wedding.
Not long after English joined the band, his brother Oliver was brought on to play pedal steel guitar. Oliver English, who had lost a finger in a firearm accident, struggled to play and quit after nine months. Younger brother Billy English, also a drummer, occasionally toured and recorded with the band, beginning in 1969. He permanently joined the band, by then called the Family, in March 1984. Paul’s wife Carlene English committed suicide at their home in Austin on January 3, 1973. Nelson wrote the song “I Still Can’t Believe You’re Gone” as a tribute to Carlene. English credited Nelson for helping him get through this difficult time in his life. Jimmy Day, who played steel guitar, was fired after joking about the suicide, but not before English beat him up and threatened to kill him. English married Helen Diane Cantwell Huddleston onstage at the first Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic in 1973. They divorced in 1976. On July 12, 1979, he married Janie Gray, with whom he stayed married for the rest of his life. He had three sons, Darrell Wayne, Evan, and Robert Paul English, Jr.
Paul English was one of the founding board members of Farm Aid, which Nelson founded, alongside several other musicians, in 1985 to raise money to support American farmers. English served as the organization’s treasurer for many years. He suffered a minor stroke in 2010 and broke his hip in 2013 but continued playing the drums and managing the Family’s finances. He died of pneumonia at the age of eighty-seven in Dallas on February 12, 2020. His remains were cremated. A memorial celebration was held at Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth on March 3, 2020.
Austin American-Statesman, February 13, 2020. Dallas Morning News, February 21, 2020. Patrick Doyle, “Paul English: The True Outlaw in Willie Nelson’s Band,” Rolling Stone, February 14, 2020 (https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-country/paul-english-willie-nelson-band-outlaw-country-952745/), accessed April 6, 2021. Scott K. Fish, “Paul English: On the Road with Willie Nelson,” Modern Drummer, May 1981. Billy Jeansonne, “Paul English: On the Road... Again,” Classic Drummer, Winter 2005. Joe Nick Patoski, “Watching Willie’s Back,” Oxford American, January 13, 2015 (https://www.oxfordamerican.org/magazine/item/463-watching-willie-s-back), accessed April 6, 2021. Joe Nick Patoski, Willie Nelson: An Epic Life (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008). Graeme Thomson, Willie Nelson: The Outlaw (London: Virgin Books, 2006).
Business, Promotion, Broadcasting, and Technology
Texas Post World War II
Texas in the 21st Century
Dallas/Fort Worth Region
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