Happy 75th Birthday, Waylon Jennings!
June 15th would have been Waylon Jennings’ 75th birthday anniversary and also marks 10 years since he lost his fight with diabetes. He and his late friend, Buddy Holly were born in west Texas nine months and forty miles apart. They were booked to fly together on a small plane that crashed and claimed Buddy’s life in 1959. Waylon was fortunate enough to get talked out of his seat by fellow performer, J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper) who was suffering with the flu.
Seventeen years later, Waylon became a friend of mine. We were not best friends like Waylon and Buddy, but he did once give me a C-note on a cold November evening in Idaho. I had just joined his fall ’76 west coast tour, promoting the release of his latest LP, Are You Ready For The Country. He noticed I was not wearing a jacket and asked where it was. I told him I left Florida the week before and never thought about the weather out west. That’s when he pulled out the hundred and instructed me to “get yourself a jacket,” and that’s when our friendship began.
He had just hired me to help him write a biography about the first forty years of his life; or at least that’s why I thought he hired me. Never one of his famous friends, I was mainly around him in the offices on the corner of 17th & Edgehill, part of Nashville’s Music Row. I did spend more time with him than most folks, interacting late night in that building for almost two years. We both had stereo systems and on our separate floors cranked up the music so loud, the old former residence, a brick two-story, vibrated throughout.
We never wrote the book. One evening, he said to me, “Bill, I can’t write that book right now.” I knew his manager, Neil “Maddog” Reshen” had gotten wind of the plan, and vetoed it with extreme prejudice. Waylon continued, “If I did write it, I wouldn’t want to sugar-coat the facts like Cash did in his; and if I wrote the truth, either I’d get arrested or Jessi would kill me.” He never cracked a smile. He was dead serious, and I understood his dilemma. His ego wanted to write the autobiography while he was at the top of his game, and his cocaine addiction was telling him to write it before it was too late. But Reshen was in control of everything except the music. Before I returned to my office that evening, he wanted me to know “You’ve still got a job here. You just keep doing what you’ve been doing.”
What I had been doing was in-house publicity and promotion. I had migrated out of Jacksonville and Tallahassee, Florida as a manager/booking agent for struggling rock bands. A brief employment in L.A. with producer Ken Mansfield allowed me to meet and befriend Waylon and Jessi. Mansfield had risen to prominence as Capitol Records’ stateside liaison for the Beatles during their final years together. He was chosen to produce Jessi Colter’s “I’m Not Lisa” country ballad which became a huge crossover hit in ’75. Waylon liked Ken and, a year later wanted to co-produce an album with him, featuring a cover version of Neil Young’s “Are You Ready for the Country.”
I was Ken’s “personal assistant” (read “go-fer”) and throughout the sessions that produced the subsequent gold album, was able to hang with Waylon and his entourage. When he needed a pack of Marlboro Lights, I was handing it to him with a smile. I knew immediately I had to work with him and his “outlaw” possee.
Six months later, I politely resigned from Mansfield’s payroll and discreetly continued communicating with Waylon through his drummer and old friend, Richie Albright. “Waylon’s lived more in forty years than most people live in eighty.” I told them as I pitched the idea of a life-so- far biography. What I learned later was that a split between Waylon and his pal, Tompall Glaser, had occurred in the Outlaw camp. Maddog Reshen had questioned Tompall’s publishing royalty payments to Waylon and Jessi. Lawyers were called and two people who had been handling publicity, Hazel Smith and Roger “Capt. Midnight” Schutt, chose to stay with Tompall. Waylon needed a new PR person. He decided to consider my book idea while testing me as a media wrangler.
Basically, it came down to this: Waylon was constantly on a cocaine high and didn’t want to talk to anybody outside his immediate social circle. He was highly annoyed with journalists because People Magazine had written that he wanted no more children—he already had five—and was considering a vasectomy. The fallout from that article caused him to cancel a Rolling Stone cover article already written by Chet Flippo. In addition to avoiding most media coverage, he didn’t like the suits at RCA, so their PR department was stymied as well.
My job as in-house publicity, PR, and promotions director was the proverbial three-ring circus, and I loved it. I wrote press releases and fielded calls from media types all over the lower forty-eight. The drug thing had stalled all plans for any European tours. Waylon was loved in England and on the continent but he feared getting busted abroad or at customs. Years earlier, problems at the Canadian border had planted that fear in him. He was often asked why he no longer toured outside the states, and his stock reply was a candid, “They might not let me back in.”
Working with graphic artists on t-shirt designs was most gratifying for me. The co-creation of his “Flying W” logo is my proudest legacy. It began as a belt buckle drawing. RCA had pressed and numbered 250 buckles featuring a “Superman” crest and Waylon’s original logo in what I called “Coca-Cola” script. Below his name was the word “Superbilly” in the comic hero script. The lucky few that were gifted with those buckles coveted them. I looked at the cost of pressing through Lewis Buckles in Chicago and decided we could make some money by adding them to the t-shirt concession which was already a cash cow and operating under the tax man’s radar.
A talented young graphic artist named David Hogan was working in Nashville, mainly cranking out country album covers. I commissioned him sketch a few ideas that might work on a buckle. Waylon was extremely proud of the name “Soaring Eagle” which the Navajo had bestowed upon him following a concert on their reservation. Paul McCartney was sporting a stylized “W” as part of his Wings package. I told Hogan we were going come up with a “W” that everyone would associate with the name Waylon Jennings, and to give me a “Wings” and “Soaring Eagle” mix.
Hogan returned to my office about six weeks later with three of the most beautiful belt buckle sketches imaginable. I taped them on the wall beside my desk and waited for Waylon to show his face. Probably a week passed before I grabbed him and got him to take a look. His mind was rarely in the souvenir marketing mode. He looked at the three sketches and didn’t really get it, so I let it go for a couple more weeks until I caught him walking past with Richie. “Get in here.” I gently commanded. I stood the pair of them in front of the three drawings and said, “I need you to pick one of these for a belt buckle.” They looked at them for all of fifteen seconds, the Waylon said, “That one.” He chose the sketch that became his “Flying W” logo that is etched into his tombstone in Mesa, Arizona.
My time with Waylon Jennings was too brief. I was in the office on August 23rd 1977, the night the narcs arrived with their warrant, and pretty much ended my stay. I didn’t have to leave after the bust, but the cocaine was too much with us and I thought it best for Waylon and myself. I stayed long enough for the sensational media coverage to pass and was quoted in the Nashville Banner: “I don’t believe they busted Waylon Jennings. He’s innocent of the charges and they will have a hard time making a case against him. The outlaw image is a record label marketing tool. Waylon has never been in trouble and charging him with intent to distribute is ridiculous. The man earns fifteen thousand dollars a show. He doesn’t need to deal dope.”
When charges were dropped six weeks later, prosecutor Hal Hardin, echoed my sentiments, “He does drugs, but he’s not a criminal.” Collateral damage caused the person who shipped the coke to serve a hand-slap sentence in a minimum security pen. He is Mark Rothbaum, and back then was Maddog Reshen’s assistant.. When Rothbaum was released from prison, he was hired as manager for Willie Nelson, and remains in that position to this day.
Waylon teamed in 1996 with a talented writer-musician, Lenny Kaye, to write “that book”—the one he never wrote with me. I am pleased to report that it is a very candid autobiography, and it helped me write the 10,000 word article that will appear in several installments on this brilliant website www.nodepression.com I will endeavor to acknowledge every quote I have lifted from Waylon-An Autobiography, and from Michael Bane’s oversized paperback, The Outlaws – Revolution In Country Music (’78). Thanks to Richie Albright for getting me hired, and to Lori Evans—Waylon’s faithful secretary from that bizarre moment in time—who remains my friend.