In a business built on changes in cultural fashion, Willie Nelson seems very much the same as he was when he rose to national prominence in the mid-1970s -- still the same sinewy, off-the-beat, jazz-inflected voice, the same benign countenance and the same hippie/thrift-shop costuming. The mileposts along his way tell a lot: He first charted in 1962 (with "Willingly"), had his first No. 1 in 1975 ("Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain"), scored 19 more No. 1's over the next 14 years and then returned triumphantly to the top again in 2003 via his duet with Toby Keith, "Beer for My Horses."
Willie Hugh Nelson was born April 30, 1933, in the tiny farming community of Abbott, Texas. After his parents separated, he and his sister Bobbie (who still plays piano in his band) were raised in that small farming town by their grandparents. He developed an interest in music early, singing in church when he was 4 and writing his first song when he was around 7. He also began assimilating from his community and the radio such different musical influences as gospel, western swing, pop, jazz and polka. At 9, he began playing in a local band.
After high school, Nelson served briefly in the Air Force and then spent some time as a student at Baylor University. Beginning in the mid-'50s, he worked as a disc jockey in Texas and Washington, played in honky-tonks and continued refining his skills as a songwriter. In 1960, he moved to Nashville and signed as a songwriter with Pamper Music. He joined Liberty Records in 1962, his first major label deal. It didn't take long for country artists to notice his talent as a composer. In 1961, Faron Young scored a No. 1 with Nelson's "Four Walls." Later that year, Patsy Cline hit it big with "Crazy," and Billy Walker did moderately well with "Funny How Time Slips Away." In 1963, Ray Price, in whose band Nelson had once worked, had a No. 28 hit with the urbane, jazzy "Night Life."