1988 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Nobody can really give you anything in this business. You have to make your own breaks."
Born in Texas to hard-working teenaged parents, Waylon Jennings was the oldest of four boys. His father, a sharecropper and truck driver, made a home for the family in a one-room corrugated metal lean-to with a dirt floor.
Music was always important in the Jennings household. His father was a guitar player and was responsible for teaching his son to play. By age 10, Jennings was working in the cotton fields, and playing guitar in his spare time. When he was 12, he had his first radio show singing country songs. At 14, he was offered a job as a disc jockey on the local radio station. Anxious to get his career going, Jennings left school after his sophomore year and put together his own country music band.
He moved to Lubbock, Texas, to sing on a program called "Sunday Dance Party." Jennings met Buddy Holly there, and they became friends. In 1958, Jennings had his first record produced, and he began playing bass in Holly's band. When Jennings was 21, he began touring with the band. He was scheduled to fly with Holly to an engagement in Minnesota, but gave up his seat on the plane to another band member, J. P. "Big Bopper" Richardson. Everyone was shocked when the plane crashed, killing Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. Richardson.
In 1963, Jennings became a local legend when he began singing at J.D.'s, a nightclub in Phoenix. Chet Atkins gave Jennings a contract with RCA, and in 1965 his first RCA single, "That's the Chance I'll Have to Take," made the Top 50 chart. Jennings moved to Nashville and received a Grammy in 1968 for Best Group Performance for "MacArthur Park," which he recorded with the Kimberleys.
In 1972, Jennings began producing his own records, using his own road band. His new approach won critical acclaim, and in 1974 he had his first number one single, "This Time," which was co-produced by Willie Nelson. In 1975, Jennings was named Male Vocalist of the Year by the Country Music Association. He went on to make nine gold records, two platinum albums, two double platinum albums, and one quadruple platinum album. He won his second Grammy in 1978 for a duet with Nelson, "Mammas, and Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys." In 1985, he teamed up with Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson to record "The Highwayman," which became another gold record.
Jennings once said his success came from his strong belief in himself. It was that faith that eventually helped him win a 20-year struggle with drugs, which started in the 1960s. Contemplating his Horatio Alger Award, he said, "This award symbolizes the fact that you make your own successes. Nobody gives you anything in this business. You have to make your own breaks."* Deceased