“If I hadn’t gone with Willie, I would be in the penitentiary or dead,” Paul English once said of working alongside the music legend
Paul English, the legendary drummer, best friend and bodyguard of country music icon Willie Nelson, has died, several outlets report. He was 87.
Nelson’s publicist, Elaine Schock, was notified of English’s death on Tuesday, according to The Washington Post. When speaking to the outlet, she said she did not know the cause of death, but family friends of the late drummer had told her that English recently battled pneumonia.
Schock did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.
Nelson’s company, Willie’s Reserve, also confirmed the news in a series of tweets on Wednesday.
“Sad news today, wonderful memories forever. RIP Paul English AKA ‘The Devil.’ Paul was Willie’s longtime drummer who started playing with him in Forth Worth in 1955,” they shared on Twitter.
“In their early career often clubs would withhold payment from Willie. This is when Willie met Paul, and Paul told Willie he could help him with that,” the company added. “Paul became Willie’s strong man, and eventually Willie’s drummer.”
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English and Nelson were a duo like no other, and their friendship will forever be immortalized in Nelson’s 1985 autobiographical road song, “Me & Paul,” in which he sings of their adventures and life touring together after first meeting in 1955.
Born on Nov. 6, 1932, in Vernon, Texas, English became involved in gangs at a young age and was even listed on a Fort Worth list of “10 Most Unwanted” criminals for five years in a row, before first meeting Nelson on a small country radio show, according to The Post.
Nelson’s drummer didn’t show up to the Forth Worth radio show gig, and with little experience, English stepped in and found his calling. The pair immediately hit it off after their first encounter, and by 1966, English became the famous crooner’s official drummer with Nelson and Family, staying with the group up until his death.
“If I hadn’t gone with Willie, I would be in the penitentiary or dead,” English told Rolling Stone in 2014.
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However, he didn’t just become a drummer, he also became Nelson’s accountant, road manager and enforcer — pulling out the notorious guns he kept in his boots whenever someone tried to cross the Family.
One 2015 story reported by the Oxford American recalls a time when English shot at Nelson’s son-in-law’s car after he had hit the artist’s daughter, Lana.
“I told Lana we could do something,” English explained to the outlet at the time. “We could break his legs. We have to do something to him. We cain’t go and leave him walking. We’d of done that to him. That’s nothing.”
The gun-toting drummer soon landed the nickname “The Devil” for his tough-guy persona, which he emphasized by wearing a black-satin cape and matching hat.
Many say English was not just instrumental to Nelson’s success as a music icon, but also an American icon — including English’s son, Robert Paul, Jr.
“Without Paul, Willie’s story is half as interesting,” Robert Paul, Jr. told Oxford American in 2015. “The music’s still gorgeous but there’s no shootout at Lana’s house. All these stories are part of the legend and serve to define outlaw as outlaw, legitimately outside the law. He was the real deal.”
English is survived by Robert Paul, Jr. and his two other sons, Evan and D.W.