Working With Willie Nelson: Houston's Joe Sample Takes Us In the Studio

Categories: In Print

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Photo courtesy of Columbia Records
Willie Nelson in the early 1960s
Working on this week's cover story on Willie Nelson was a blast -- and a blast from the past. One minute I'd be typing and the next the phone would ring.

"Hey, this is Johnny Bush, I hear you're doing a story on Willie. Why didn't you call me?"
Stuff like that just kept happening. Willie's worldwide.

Cover Story:

Mr. Record Man: Willie Nelson, Houstonian

And this week's cover was not the only Willie work in the past couple of months. I also had a long feature in "Willie's birthday" issue of Texas Music magazine that hit the usual outlets April 1.

One part of all this Willie-ing that got left on the cutting-room floor was a highly interesting email from none other than Joe Sample, the extraordinary keyboardist and composer of the Crusaders who himself recently appeared on a Houston Press cover.

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A consummate musician, Sample has been called on by a who's who of rock, pop, and R&B artists over the course of his career. But, as he relates in his email, in spite of all the famous artists he rubbed up against over the course of his 50-plus-year career, one of his biggest highlights was getting an invitation to work with the Red Headed Stranger himself.


The New Crusaders: TSU Restarts Its Jazz Program

Sample was pleased to learn that he would also be working with one of the top producers in the world, Tommy LiPuma, the producer of no fewer than 35 platinum-certified albums and famous for his work with Barbra Streisand, Anita Baker, Paul McCartney, George Benson, Michael Franks and dozens of others, including Sample's own Crusaders.

What came out of this historic collaboration was Nelson's 2009 release, American Classic.

The story, in Mr. Sample's own words:

The call came asking if it were possible to travel to Willie Nelson's home and participate in a recording that Tommy LiPuma was producing. I admit I was very excited and honored to make music with Willie Nelson.

I flew to Austin and spent the first night at a local wonderful hotel. Tommy LiPuma and I were driven out of Austin to Mr. Nelson's home and surrounding property. I could see the hilltop and the unusual house sitting on top of the property.

As we pulled up, Willie and his beautiful wife greeted us as they stepped out of the front door. Right away, you could sense that Willie and wife were very excited that this meeting was going to be something special. I remember asking Willie if thought heaven would be better than this. I think he said, 'I'm living in my heaven right now.'

Immediately after Tommy and I entered the home, I became aware that a mystery that had remained a mystery until that moment was suddenly resolved. Sitting on a coffee table was the complete collection of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli recordings. Suddenly, it all made sense. We were going to make a swing record.

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The "unknown" person in the picture is the great Leon Russell. How soon we forget.

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