Amazing grace: After 70 years of playing music with Willie, ‘Sister Bobbie’ takes turn in spotlight
Originally published: September 29, 2007
She had done whatever it took to raise three sons alone after their father died in an automobile accident in 1961. She demonstrated organs for Hammond, taught at J.R. Reed Music on Congress Avenue and at night played elegant solo piano at local lounges and restaurants.
But what Bobbie Nelson really hungered for, especially after her boys had grown up and moved out by the early 1970s, was to play again with her brother Willie. The pair had forged an undeniable musical bond since she was 6 and Willie was 4 and their grandparents showed them the chords to "The Great Speckled Bird."
Then one day in early 1973, Bobbie got a call from Willie, summoning her to New York to play piano on his gospel album "The Troublemaker." Willie had just signed a deal with Atlantic Records that gave him the creative control, including choice of session players, that had been denied him in Nashville.
So at age 42, empty-nester Bobbie Nelson took her very first airplane flight and embarked on a glorious musical journey that is still en route. Willie and " Sister Bobbie," as she's known in the extended Nelson family, have been musical partners for an incredible 70 years.
"There's just no way to explain how lucky I am to have a good musician in the family," Willie Nelson said last week from the tour bus he shares with his sister. "Whenever I've needed a piano player, I've had Sister Bobbie right there."
While Brother Willie has become a major music icon, as instantly recognizable as anyone on the planet, Sister Bobbie has happily remained in the shadow, except for the one spotlight turn - usually "Down Yonder" from "Red-Headed Stranger" - she gets at each Willie Nelson and the Family concert. "I've always been very shy," said Bobbie. "I sang a little when we were kids, mostly in church. But Willie had such a beautiful voice. I'd always tell him, 'you sing, Willie, and I'll play the piano.'"
This week , 76-year-old Bobbie stepped out of the background with her first solo album, "Audiobiography," titled so because it's the story of her life through the songs she's played. "I've always expressed myself best through music," she said recently at the Pedernales recording studio owned by her son Freddy Fletcher. "I remember when I got my first piano. I thought, 'I'll never be lonely again.'"
Not that there weren't painfully trying times in the devout Christian's life. She lost two of her three sons, Michael to leukemia and Randy in a car crash, in a six-month period in 1989. "Me and my three boys grew up together, and we had so much fun ... and then to lose two of your three babies, well, it's something you never get over," Bobbie said. "It taught me to never take life for granted." Another reminder came in March, when Bobbie underwent heart surgery to insert a pacemaker.
"I've never been so happy as this past April 15," Bobbie said with a smile as radiant as Willie's. "That's when I flew to L.A. and joined up with the band. It's just the most wonderful therapy in the world to play with Willie." She said that sometimes when she's away from Willie for more than a couple weeks, she gets a cold and feels worn down.
"Audiobiography" contains 10 piano instrumentals, bookended by a pair of Willie Nelson originals. It's just Willie and Bobbie on those two new tunes, just like on their tour bus, where Bobbie slides a keyboard from the bottom of an adjoining bunk and Willie pulls out a guitar whenever inspiration hits. Even after two and a half hours on stage, the brother and sister - whose ages add to 150 - will often play gospel standards or work out new songs on the Honeysuckle Rose IV bus as it hurtles through the deep darkness between gigs.
It will also be just Willie and Bobbie on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" Tuesday and "The Tonight Show" Wednesday, as the younger brother has pledged to promote his sister's album however he can. "It's long overdue," Willie said. "Whenever our band plays, Sister Bobbie is the best musician on the stage."
Bobbie Lee, born on the first day of 1931, and Willie Hugh, born April 30, 1933, were children of the Depression. Their biological parents were a pair of married teenagers who had recently moved from Arkansas to Abbott, a farming community about 70 miles south of Dallas. But Bobbie and Willie were raised by their paternal grandparents, whom they called Mama and Daddy.
"Daddy Nelson was the sweetest person I've ever known," Bobbie said. "He had the most gorgeous tenor voice." A proficient player of stringed instruments, Daddy Nelson taught Willie how to play guitar, while Mama Nelson, who lived to be in her 90s, showed Bobbie how to play piano. "It was just so amazing to us that I could play one part and Willie could play another and together we had a song. We'd look at each other and our eyes would light up."
After Daddy Nelson died when Willie was 7 and Bobbie was 9, the brother and sister took to tunes, both spiritual and secular, to soothe their sorrow. "Playing music made us realize that there was something bigger out there, something more than human life," she said.
They played together for hours every day, and on Sundays they played and sang at the Abbott Methodist Church (which Willie bought in July 2006 when he heard prospective buyers had planned to move it to another town). Bobbie, who could read music at age 6, also played at other churches in the area. When she was 16, she met 21-year-old ex-GI Bud Fletcher at a revival at Vaughn Methodist Church, near Hillsboro. The couple married a few months later, while Bobbie was a senior at Abbott High. "I'd kiss my husband goodbye every morning then get on the school bus," she recalled.
Seeing so much talent in his new bride and the brother she called "Hughtie," Fletcher organized a western swing dance band around them - Bud Fletcher and the Texans. A non-musician in the beginning, Fletcher took on the role of emcee, adding a Bob Willsian "Ah-HA" to hot solos, introducing band members and pumping up the crowd. He eventually learned to play bass fiddle and then the drums.
"Bud was one of those outgoing guys who could talk to anyone," Bobbie said. "And he was a fabulous dancer."
Bobbie became pregnant with Randy when she was 19; by age 23 she had three sons and was still playing in her husband's band. But too many nights in a roadhouse were wearing Fletcher down. "Bud was a great person and we loved each other very much, but he was having a rough time," she said. "That's why, to this day, I hate alcohol. I'm so glad Willie doesn't drink anymore."
The young parents of three small boys also had very little money. In 1955, Bud's parents went to court to get custody of Randy, Michael and Freddy and won. "Bud's father was the road commissioner of Hill County and had a lot of influence," Bobbie said. "They tried to portray me as unfit because I played honky tonk piano. It just broke my heart."
Bobbie said she had a nervous breakdown after losing her children.
"The Fletchers hated the Nelsons," said Freddy Fletcher. "They looked down on musicians and blamed my mother for getting my father involved, when in reality it was his idea to start a band."
After she gave up the nightlife, took bookkeeping courses and got a job with the Hammond organ company in Fort Worth, Bobbie got her sons back after a year with their grandparents. She later divorced Fletcher and remarried, but that union ended in divorce after a few years, as did her third and final marriage in the late 1960s.
While Bobbie's life revolved around her three sons, Willie had hit the jackpot as a Nashville songwriter. In 1961, three of his compositions were big country hits: "Hello Walls" by Faron Young, "Crazy" by Patsy Cline and "Funny How Time Slips Away" by Billy Walker.
"I was just so proud of him," Bobbie said. "People got tired of hearing me say 'my brother Willie wrote that one' whenever one of his songs came on the radio."
It was Bobbie, not Willie, who moved to Austin first. She came down from Fort Worth in 1965 to demonstrate a Hammond organ for the El Chico restaurant set to open at the spanking new Hancock Center. Impressed by her interpretations of such standards as "Stardust" and "Laura," as well as her boogie-woogie and swing numbers, the owners offered Bobbie a job playing nightly. She later opened the Chariot Inn in North Austin and played regularly at the Lakeway Inn.
"When Willie called me (in 1973) to come to New York, I was ready," Bobbie said. "I was always playing the piano, using music to survive, so I never got rusty."
Although Willie and producer Arif Mardin had blocked out five days at Atlantic studio, Bobbie would be needed only the first day, when "The Troublemaker" was knocked out in ten hours. The next day, Willie was back with his band to record what would become "Shotgun Willie." Bobbie had planned to do some shopping and then head home to Austin. "They must've missed me," Bobbie said, "because when I stopped by the studio the next day, Willie asked me to stick around and play the piano some more." Sister Bobbie has been with the Family ever since.
Willie said there's an instinctive connection between him and his sister that he doesn't feel with any other musician. "She knows what I'm going to do even before I do sometimes," he said with a laugh.
In 1976, Willie bought Bobbie an $85,000 Bosendorfer grand piano like the one she played on "Red Headed Stranger." But when IRS agents seized Willie's property in 1990 to help satisfy a $16.7 million tax lien, Bobbie's piano was among the Pedernales studio contents auctioned off.
Friends of the Nelsons bought the Bosendorfer and gave it back to Bobbie. It's the piano she plays so exquisitely on "Audiobiography" and all of Willie's records.
The brother and sister have never had an argument, Bobbie said, even after she was awakened by police in Louisiana in September 2006 and charged, with Willie and three others, with possession of a pound and a half of marijuana and three ounces of psychedelic mushrooms. The prim and proper churchgoer has never used drugs, but since they were found on the bus she was traveling in, Bobbie was cited with the others. "All I knew was that if Willie was going to jail, they'd have to take me to jail, too," she said. But Willie and company were issued only misdemeanor citations and sent on their way.
In the mid-'70s, when "Red Headed Stranger" hit and the parties and groupies got crazy, Bobbie didn't ride with Willie and the band but flew to gigs and stayed in hotels. But she's traveled with Willie since 1983 and has learned to tolerate the ever-present illegal perfume.
"I think he smokes (marijuana) too much," Bobbie said, "but that's just because I'm worried about his health." Willie said his sister's physical well-being is also foremost in his mind. "We were all very concerned (in March), but she has great doctors and they caught the problem early," he said.
If any two people deserve to live forever, they are Bobbie and Willie Nelson, who have filled the air with beautiful music and helped whomever they could . But one day, one of them will have to go on without the other, a prospect neither Willie nor Bobbie wants to face.
"Every day is so precious," Bobbie said. "Every time I play with Willie is a gift. We are just so blessed to be still doing what we're doing after all these years."
In a small Texas town in the 1930s, a 6-year-old girl and her 4-year-old brother learned the power and magic of making music together. And they've been doing it ever since.