Bud Kennedy

A Fort Worth street vendor inspired Willie Nelson, ‘Pretty Paper’

Disabled street vendor Frankie Brierton of Santo is believed to have inspired the Willie Nelson song Pretty Paper.
Disabled street vendor Frankie Brierton of Santo is believed to have inspired the Willie Nelson song Pretty Paper. Courtesy photo

The mystery of Fort Worth's Christmas song is solved.

It took help from readers in Palo Pinto County, plus one surprised family in Conroe.

Since 1963, we’ve heard songwriter Willie Nelson's sad ballad Pretty Paper, plucking heartstrings with a lyric about holiday shoppers rushing past a disabled street vendor selling “pretty paper, pretty ribbons” for pennies while crawling “all alone on a sidewalk” downtown.

Readers who shopped at the old Leonards Department Store downtown remember that vendor. So did Nelson, a Fort Worth country radio personality, door-to-door vacuum salesman and Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher until he moved to Nashville in 1963.

The late country music writer and expert Chet Flippo of CMT.com grew up here and even worked at Leonards. He has called Pretty Paper a “lasting tribute” to that vendor:

Crowded streets — busy feet hustle by him

Downtown shoppers, Christmas is nigh

There he sits all alone on the sidewalk

Hoping that you won't pass him by

But until now, we never knew the man’s name.

He crept on all fours along Houston or Throckmorton streets outside Leonards, wearing clunky gloves and kneepads made from old tire tread and a custom leather vest with a pencil rack and coin box sewn onto the back.

For years, readers only remembered that the man commuted from Santo, in Palo Pinto County.

Finally, rancher Bob Neely, 82, of Santo called about his former neighbor, Frankie Brierton.

“You could always hear him in town, dragging himself along the gravel street,” Neely said.

We now also know that Brierton refused a wheelchair. He chose to crawl.

That’s what he learned growing up after his legs were weakened by a spinal disorder, said his daughter, Lillian Compte, 84, of Conroe.

She couldn't figure out why anybody would be asking about her father, who died in 1973 at 74 and is buried in Mineral Wells.

“It's a pretty song,” she said.

“I just never thought of it being about my father.”

Former downtown store clerk Ernestine Wakefield of Amarillo has written online about how she watched the man from her job in W.C. Stripling's across Houston Street.

“I was just a West Texas girl in the big city then, and here was this poor man who had nothing,” she said by phone in 2004 at age 84.

“I cried every time I looked out that store window.”

Nearby, couples named Douglas and McAdams sang hymns and sold pencils. In another 2004 interview, former store manager Charlie Ringler said the Leonard family let street vendors and missionaries stay even when other downtown landlords protested.

“Some people wanted them moved out, but we never moved them,” he said. “We couldn't turn them away. As long as they were selling pencils or something, that was fine.”

Brierton worked as a street vendor in Fort Worth, Dallas and Houston, Compte said.

Besides Leonards, he also sold pencils at the Fort Worth Stock Show, at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas and on Main Street in downtown Houston, she said.

He earned a living without government assistance, Compte said.

“He was my father — that's all I knew,” she said.

“He sold pencils. He crawled around on his hands and knees. But we never did without.”

Her son, Rick Compte, 58, said he admires his grandfather. And Rick Compte spilled one more secret: Brierton was married seven times.

“You might say,” Rick Compte said, “that he really liked attention.”

He doesn’t think Brierton ever knew about the song.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, bud@star-telegram.com, @BudKennedy. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.