Features

Who Sang Willie Nelson's 'Night Life' Better: Aretha Franklin or B.B. King?

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images and Harry Langdon/Getty Images

In between writing "Night Life" in the late 1950s and scoring a Top 20 country hit with it in 1980 alongside band leader Danny Davis, Willie Nelson watched as an original from less prosperous times suited the catalogs of tastemakers outside of country music. To this day, its brilliance transcends genre.

Nelson dreamed up the song's chorus ("The night life ain't no good life, but it's my life") while driving home to Pasadena, Texas from a late night gig at the Esquire Ballroom in Houston.

As happened with multiple early Nelson compositions, he sold it out of desperation to support his family. In this case, guitar instructor Paul Buskirk purchased the rights for $150. A partner of Buskirk, Walt Breeland, shares songwriting credit. For legal reasons, the first recording involving Nelson was billed as "Nite Life" by Paul Buskirk and the Little Men featuring Hugh Nelson.

Ray Price made "Night Life" the title track of a 1963 album and a Top 40 country hit. The "City Lights" singer practiced poetic license when recording his version's intro, claiming the song "was especially written for me by a boy down Texas way."

One of Nelson's better versions got recorded for the 1965 RCA album Country Willie: HIs Own Songs while he lived in Nashville and worked for Price's publishing company.

Nelson's mid-'60s version inspired covers in the years to come by Dottie West (1965), Wanda Jackson (1965), B.J. Thomas (1986), the duo of George Jones and Waylon Jennings (for Jones' 1979 album My Very Special Guests) and other students of the Red Headed Stranger's songwriting.

Read More: 'Where Corn Don't Grow': Why Travis Tritt Related to the Waylon Jennings Deep Cut

Just as the greatest works of Hank Williams fit the vocal styles of pop crooners and others outside of Nashville's sphere of influence, "Night Life" never belonged in a country music box.

Aretha Franklin did Nelson's song justice, as heard on 1967's Aretha Arrives and celebrated during Jennifer Hudson's performance at the 2021 CMA Awards.

B.B. King went to the "Night Life" well more than once, starting with his 1967 live album Blues is King. He later revisited it as a medley with "Please Send Me Someone to Love" and recorded it as a duet with Nelson for the 1997 album Deuces Wild.

Others to sing "Night Life" with Nelson range from Price (for the 1980 collaborative album San Antonio Rose) to Cyndi Lauper (for Lauper's 2016 album Detour).

Rock 'n' rollers love it, too, with Thin Lizzy's different-enough song "Night Life" (from the 1974 album Nightlife) borrowing from Nelson's chorus. Twenty years later, David Lee Roth covered Nelson for the 1994 solo album Your Filthy Little Mouth.

Editor's Note: Products featured on Wide Open Country are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission.

recommended for you

Who Sang Willie Nelson's 'Night Life' Better: Aretha Franklin or B.B. King?