In honor of the holiday season and my cover of the Christmas classic “Pretty Paper,” I wanted to take a look behind the origins of the song and its various interpretations. The track was originally penned by Willie Nelson back in 1963.
It paints a soft and gentle festive scene from the point of view of a disabled man selling stationary on the street, in particular…wrapping paper. The lyrics are full of romantic imagery and offerings for passing shoppers at Christmastime. As a tribute we filmed the video in the Mission Inn area of downtown Riverside, California while it was decked out for the season.
However, this vignette was not something that Willie conjured from his own imagination; in fact, the song is based on a true story. In October 1963, he was walking around his farm in Ridgetop, Tennessee, and remembered a man he had frequently passed by back in Fort Worth, Texas. Willie had lived in Fort Worth for about a year in the late 1950s, after a period of traveling around the Midwest and the west coast, working odd jobs singing in clubs, making local television appearances, and as a radio announcer. He made a couple of recordings during this time, but they failed, so he moved back to Texas and quit the music business for a year. It was here Willie sold bibles and vacuum cleaners door-to-door, and where he often passed Leonard’s Department Store. Outside the store a double amputee on rollers would sell paper and pencils to shoppers, grabbing their attention by calling out “Pretty paper! Pretty paper!”
By October 1963, when Willie was reminded of the man, he had had a couple of minor hits with Liberty Records and had recently married his second wife, moving from California to their new ranch in Ridgetop (just outside of Nashville). Earlier that year, Fred Foster had signed him to Monument Records, and when Willie played Fred the finished song, he was impressed and decided to send a demo to Roy Orbison in London. Roy ultimately released his official version the following month, attending the studio session with a 102-degree fever and completing the vocal in 12 takes. The struggle was worth it, as the track reached the top 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 and upon its UK release the following year, peaked at #6 on the UK Singles Chart.
At the same time as the UK release, Willie decided to record his own version of the now-hit song. He had moved to RCA Victor, and worked with famed producer Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed on guitar for the recording. The remainder of the 60s saw Willie garner success with his new label and his induction into the Grand Ole Opry, but by 1970 his career was once again dwindling, he had divorced Shirley Collie, and the Ridgetop ranch had burned down, leading him to move back to Texas. The “Pretty Paper” era was over, but it was a new beginning, and Willie was about to become a star.
In 1979, now bonafide outlaw country star Willie returned to “Pretty Paper” for a full-length holiday record. The 12-track album was named for the 16-year-old song and included his renditions of classics such as “White Christmas,” “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Silent Night.” He re-recorded “Pretty Paper” for the collection, making it only one of two originals included (the second was an instrumental entitled “Christmas Blues”). The album was well-received, and in 1997 Willie yet again returned to the song for a duet with his sister Bobbie.
The song has been recorded by multiple different artists over the years. In addition to Willie’s versions and the original Roy Orbison release, Glen Campbell covered it in 1968, and there are renditions from Mickey Gilley (1976), Randy Travis (1986), Asleep At The Wheel (1997), Kenny Chesney (2003), Chris Isaak (2004), Shameless star Emmy Rossum (2013), and dozens of others.
The same year as Emily Rossum’s cover, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram decided to do some digging. They found the man who had inspired “Pretty Paper” in the first place; a Frankie Brierton of Santo, Texas. His legs were affected by a spinal disorder, and growing up he had learned to move by crawling, leading him to refuse to use a wheelchair in adulthood. He would sell his pencils and paper in Fort Worth, Dallas and Houston, commuting from Santo to crawl down the street on all fours, wearing clunky gloves and kneepads made from old tires. He supported his family without government assistance and was married an astonishing seven times. He apparently never knew about the song, and died in 1973 aged 74.
“Pretty Paper” is a classic Christmas tune and a reflection on the less fortunate during this time of loving and giving. It’s one of my favorites and I greatly enjoyed covering it. You can check out my version below, and buy it on Amazon here.