Most of you reading this have heard the Christmas song “Pretty Paper.” Written by Willie Nelson (born 1933), it was a big hit during the holiday season of 1963 for Roy Orbison (1936-1988). But the song is based on a real person at a real location, and odds are that the song’s subject never knew the song was about him.
Here’s the story of my Christmas Song of the Day for December 22.
Once upon a time, in the days when it was still a big deal to make special trips from the boonies to downtown, every city, large and small, had its own, often large, department store. Some larger municipalities had multiple choices. I remember when Philadelphia had John Wanamaker, Strawbridge and Clothier, and Lit Brothers, all on Market Street, an easy walk from the Reading Terminal train barn. New York (Manhattan) famously had Macy’s and Gimbels. Minneapolis had Dayton’s, Detroit had Hudson’s, South Bend (Indiana) had Robertson’s, Allentown (Pa.) had Hess’s and Leh’s, neighboring Bethlehem had Orr’s. Even Souderton, Pa., population 5,000 or so in the 1960s, had Yocum & Godshalk. Changing shopping habits and the growth of suburbia ended the heyday of the downtown emporium, but they are fondly remembered by people of a certain age.
Fort Worth, Texas, had a couple major downtown stores, but the big one was Leonard’s, which was founded in 1918 and lasted under that name until 1974. From all accounts, by the early 1960s, Leonard’s was huge. It even had its own subway line from a distant parking lot that dropped off patrons in the middle of the store. And for Christmas, it went all-out.
Outside Leonard’s during the bustling holiday season was a street merchant named Frankie Brierton (1899-1973). He sold wrapping paper, ribbons, and his main stock in trade, pencils. Other merchants in downtown Fort Worth had issues with Brierton and others like him, but Leonard’s didn’t mind, as long as they didn’t interfere with the flow of customers and didn’t directly compete with what was in the store.
Nelson remembered his trips to Leonard’s as a youth from the area, and the man outside the store inspired the songwriter to compose “Pretty Paper.”
Brierton was left with mostly useless legs from a bout with childhood spinal meningitis, but he refused to let that stop him. He pridefully refused to use a wheelchair; instead, he used his strong arms to drag himself where he wanted to go. Thus, when he sold his wares at Leonard’s and elsewhere, he indeed sat on the sidewalk, hoping customers wouldn’t pass by without buying something.
Not until the early 2000s did readers and a writer from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram solve the mystery of who the disabled man in front of Leonard’s was. When contacted, Brierton’s descendants were surprised at the story behind the song, which was long known to have been based on a street scene at Leonard’s in Fort Worth, but even Nelson didn’t know all the details.
In 1963, Orbison was still one of the most popular singers in not only America, but Britain as well. He had one of the most unusual voices in all of pop music, which already had been put to good use in hits like “Only the Lonely,” “Running Scared,” “Crying,” “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream),” and “In Dreams.” He co-wrote most of his hits, but he wasn’t averse to doing songs written by others; “Dream Baby” came from country songwriter Cindy Walker, for example.
Orbison heard Nelson’s demo of “Pretty Paper” in 1963 and, learning of the basic backstory and recalling his own trips to Fort Worth, decided to record it. But at the time, he was on tour in England, and time was short to get it out in time for the holiday season. So on September 11, he recorded the song at the Pye Records studio in London, based on an arrangement by Bill Justis, with Ivor Raymonde producing and conducting. It was the only hit during his classic Monument Records period (1960-65) recorded outside Nashville.
In a year loaded with new Christmas songs, “Pretty Paper” was the biggest, as it got to #11 in Music Vendor, #15 in Billboard, and #16 in Cash Box in 1963. Nelson made his own version for RCA Victor in 1964; it was reissued on 45 in 1966, 1970, and 1975 with different catalog numbers. He would make a brand-new version for his 1979 Christmas album Pretty Paper. It’s been covered dozens of additional times, too.
I first heard Orbison’s version of “Pretty Paper” in the 1970s. A promotional copy of the 45 was in a box lot I bought at a yard sale, and because it was Orbison, I played it. I was surprised that it was a Christmas song, as “Pretty Paper” doesn’t immediately stick out as a holiday title.
Before learning the song’s history, it sounded like a typical lovelorn Orbison lament. On the surface, the chorus sets the scene. The verse makes it sound like a man who is alone, and a woman (his ex?) sees him and tries to decide whether to stop. The man sees her, but she’s too wrapped up in the hustle of the holiday, and as she continues on, he can’t help himself and starts to cry.
Of course, it works on that level, which is why I’ve always loved it. But the focus on the paper, ribbons, and pencils in the chorus becomes clear with the song’s true motivation.
To me, “Pretty Paper” is beat heard in its original hit version by Roy Orbison, so that’s what I present today.