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Paul English, Willie Nelson’s Drummer and BFF, Dies at 87

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Paul English, longtime drummer, enforcer, and manager for country music icon Willie Nelson, died February 12, 2020, following a battle with pneumonia. He was 87 years old, an age he probably never expected to reach before meeting Nelson in 1955.

They met at country music radio station KCNC in Fort Worth when Paul accompanied his older brother to the studio. Oliver English was a renowned guitarist, playing on Nelson’s Western Express interview show that day.

Nelson later wrote in his memoir, “It’s a Long Story: My Life,” that he liked Paul from the first. “He was a gun-toting, fun loving outlaw with plenty of charm but no fears,” Nelson wrote.

Outlaw Past in Fort Worth

Paul English, Willie Nelson's Drummer and BFF, Dies at 87

Photo: Copyright Ron McKeown, used with permission

Although he was only 22, Paul already had a troubled past. He’d been a member of “The Peroxide Gang,” a thief, and a pimp. He even made Fort Worth Press’s “Ten Most Unwanted” criminals list five years in a row. English later said if he hadn’t met Willie, he would have been dead or in the penitentiary.

The two young men became fast friends, and English joined Nelson’s band as an accountant, enforcer, and part time drummer. He collected past due fees from slow-paying bars and honky-tonks. One club they played had to rig up chicken wire in front of the stage to (hopefully) protect the musicians from flying beer bottles.

His dark beard and somewhat sinister good looks earned Paul the nickname, “the Devil.” Willie bought him a black satin cape they spotted in a Hollywood store window. English wore it onstage with a black hat for the next fifty years to enhance his devilish image. He was also rumored to carry a gun or two, hiding one in his boots.

Willie Nelson Family Band

Paul English, Willie Nelson's Drummer and BFF, Dies at 87

Photo: Copyright Ron McKeown, used with permission

In 1966, Paul joined the Willie Nelson Family band as their fulltime drummer. The road adventures of the two BFFs included several narrow escapes and scrapes with the law, as they journeyed from playing joints and dives to far bigger stages across the country. Their talents, and Paul’s management skills, eventually led to much better paying gigs. During the Nelson Family band’s heyday, Guinness Book of World Records pronounced Paul English the highest paid drummer/sideman in music.

In his 1985 album, “Me and Paul,” Nelson sings, “We received our education, in the cities of the nation, me and Paul…They said we looked suspicious, but I believe they like to pick on me and Paul.”

A native Texan, English was born in Vernon November 6, 1932. He is survived by his wife, Janie, and three sons: Robert Paul, Jr., Evan, and D.W. English.