“Pretty Paper” is up there on my list of favorite classic country Christmas songs.
Written by the one and only Willie Nelson in 1963, it was first made famous by Roy Orbison when it peaked at #15 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. Willie later recorded his own version of the song in 1964 and again in 1979 for his own Christmas album.
In the lyrics, Willie references a man selling “pretty paper, pretty ribbons” alone on the sidewalk, and as it turns out, there actually was a disabled street vendor Willie knew from his time as a radio DJ in Fort Worth who did just that.
Though he regrets never stopping to actually talk to the man whom he would walk by every single day on his way to work, the image of seeing him on the sidewalk always stuck out to Willie long after he moved from Texas to Nashville to pursue a career in country music.
He specifically remembered the man announcing, “Pretty paper! Pretty paper!”, to get the attention of passerby’s, which is where the instantly recognizable title and lyrics came from.
In 2004, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnists were finally able to identify the man who inspired such an iconic song. Up until that point, he had remained a mystery to the general public.
As they put the word out to their loyal readers to see if anyone had any information regarding the man, many readers who at one time shopped at Leonard’s Department Store actually remembered seeing him there.
Though no one actually knew his name or who he was, quite a few people reported that he traveled from Santo, in Palo Pinto County, to downtown Fort Worth to sell his goods.
As it turns out, a man named Bob Neely, a nearby rancher from Santo, called one day when he found out they were inquiring about his neighbor, Frankie Brierton. Bob says you could always hear him crawling up and down Houston or Throckmorton streets on all fours:
“You could always hear him in town, dragging himself along the gravel street.”
Eventually, the paper got in contact with Frankie’s daughter, Lillian Compte, who lived in Conroe. She had no idea the song was about her dad, or that anyone would be asking about him, seeing as he had passed away in 1973:
“It’s a pretty song. I just never thought of it being about my father. He sold pencils. He crawled around on his hands and knees. But we never did without.”
Frankie had suffered from a spinal disorder as a child, and learned to crawl when his spine was weakened as a result. He would travel to Fort Worth, Dallas, and Houston to sell his goods at the State Fair of Texas and the Stock Show in Fort Worth.
Eventually, the landlords in downtown Fort Worth wanted to ban street vendors and missionaries in front of stores. Charlie Ringler, a former store manager at Leonard’s, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that the Leonard family allowed all of them to stay as long as they were actually selling something:
“Some people wanted them moved out, but we never moved them. We couldn’t turn them away. As long as they were selling pencils or something, that was fine.”
As it turns out, on a rare, snowy Christmas Eve in the Stockyards, Willie was doing some last minute Christmas shopping and decided that he was going to buy wrapping paper from the man when he left the store.
When he walked back outside, the snow had picked up, and he circled Leonard’s to see if he could locate Frankie. He never did, and it’s still something he thinks about to this day.
Willie actually wrote a book about the man he saw in Fort Worth, where he imagines what would’ve happened if he’d actually gotten to know him:
“And all these years, I’ve wondered about the man that inspired that song.
A poor soul who was selling wrapping paper by the side of the road, singing to lift his spirits and stay warm.”
Another refreshing reminder this holiday season from the great Willie Nelson about what’s important… and I don’t think the writers of “Jingle Bells” or “Frosty the Snowman” can come close to that.
His performance of it at Austin City Limits in 1993 is one of my favorite’s:
Back in 2020, Willie teamed up with his friend and fellow country music legend Dolly Parton for her Christmas album, A Holly Dolly Christmas, to do a new rendition of “Pretty Paper”: