Longtime Willie Nelson Drummer Paul English Dead at 87

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Longtime Willie Nelson drummer Paul English has died at the age of 87. Nelson’s publicist has confirmed English’s death to Rolling Stone Country.

Paul English was born in Vernon, Texas, in 1933, and by his own admission, he was on a bad road before he began to perform with Nelson, who formed the Family Band when he moved from Nashville to Austin in the late ’60s. Prior to that, English was splitting his time between trying to establish a music career and his activities as a gang member and pimp. He first played with Nelson at a show in 1955, and became his full-time drummer in 1966.

“If I hadn’t gone with Willie, I would be in the penitentiary or dead,” English told Rolling Stone in 2014. “I was running girls and playing music at the same time.”

English continued to cut a very flamboyant, larger-than-life character even after his success in music, taking on a persona as “the Devil” by wearing all black, sporting a cape and grooming his facial hair in a deliberately sinister fashion. It wasn’t unusual for him to get into fistfights or pull the .22 pistol that he kept in his boot, and in addition to their longtime musical relationship and personal friendship, English also served as Nelson’s unofficial bodyguard over the years, as well as helping manage his business and collect the money he was owed at live shows.

In addition to playing drums with Nelson over the course of decades, English provided inspiration for more than one song in the icon’s catalog, including “Devil in a Sleeping Bag,” which appeared on Nelson’s seminal Shotgun Willie album in 1973. Nelson also immortalized their friendship in a song from Yesterday’s Wine in 1971 titled “Me & Paul,” which documents their various scrapes with authority over the years.

“And at the airport in Milwaukee / They refused to let us board the plane at all / They said we looked suspicious / But I believe they like to pick on me and Paul,” Nelson sings ruefully in the song, which also told of the hard time they’d had in Nashville’s more staid music scene.

English’s unique drumming style served as a defining element of Nelson’s free-form concerts over the years, as he and bass player Dan “Bee” Spears provided the flexibility Nelson required in his live shows. He suffered a stroke in 2010 and broke his hip in a 2013 bus crash, but continued to perform with Nelson until his death, sharing percussion duties in later years with his younger brother, Billy English.

Nelson’s daughter, Amy Nelson, tells Austin 360 that English died at a hospital near his Dallas home after a bout with pneumonia. Family members were with him at the time of his death.

Several posts at a Facebook page dedicated to Paul English mourn his passing. Willie Nelson has not commented publicly on English’s death, and no funeral plans have yet been announced.

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