Boxcar Willie - Sold A Million On TV
Born in a small shack along side the railroad tracks in 1931, Boxcar Willie was the son of a farm and section hand for the railroad in Sterratt, Texas. The railroad provided a small 3 room tool shed which served as a house for them. From the front porch to the first set of railroad tracks was about six feet. This is where he spent his childhood, playing on and around the rail cars.
Boxcar joined the Air Force in May of 1949 and fulfilled his dream of becoming a pilot, training on the B-36 bomber. In 1952 the Korean war was in full swing, Lecil was sent for final training in preparation for the conflict. Flight engineers were needed, so he was re-assigned to the magnificent B-29 super fortress as a Flight Engineer and sent to Lincoln, Nebraska.
Boxcar soon had a television show in Lincoln on Channel 10. He also became a radio disc jockey, all this while he held down a job in the Air Force! He formed a band on the TV show called Marty Martin and The Rangers, which traveled all over the plains states. Boxcar, Kurt Doolen and Ray Fino went on the road, calling themselves The Four Black Crows.
In 1962, while playing a club in Boise, a girl came in and sat in front of the bandstand. On first sight he had to have her. He went over and introduced himself, thinking she would already know who he was, since he had been on the radio for years. She had never heard of him. They fell in love, got married and had four children. Her name was Lloene, and she turned out to be a very important part of Boxcar Willie's success. She was supportive of his music, believed in him, and stood by him through some very hard times.
He was still calling himself Marty Martin, but during a trip to California he decided to enter a talent contest as Boxcar Willie at a club called Sam's place. He borrowed a buddy's car and drove to San Jose to sing in the contest. He won $150 for first place - the first time he had performed as Boxcar Willie.
All the while he was still in the Air Force. He had been checked out on C-5s and was flying daily missions. He decided that he was doing his fellow crew members a disservice. Because he had music on his mind and played nightly he could not give his full attention to the aircraft and crew. In 1976 he took his honorable discharge from the Air Force and became Boxcar Willie full time.
The family moved to Middlothian, Texas and rented a small house. Times were hard and there wasn't much money. It was Christmas Eve and Boxcar went to the post office to check his mail and there was a check for $88. The proceeds were royalties for a song he had written called "Golf On The Moon."
Boxcar Willie had the talent but the gimmick just hadn't been there until now. He just put on a hobo costume and the crowds loved it. He was playing at the Silver Saddle in Grand Prairie Texas, and George Jones was there. George's agent saw Boxcar perform and ask him to come play at George's club in Nashville "The Possum Hollow". When he got off stage everybody was patting him on the back. Waylon was there, George, and others congratulated him. A Scottish talent agent wanted to book him in England. Boxcar went over and worked one month. Getting his start in England proved to be another rung in the ladder of success for Boxcar Willie. The media began to notice this genuine railroad hobo. He didn't have the flash and sparkle of most of the stars. He was a hobo with a tune and the public loved him. Within a span of four years he became world famous, conquering Europe first then the United States. He acknowledged the media coverage as the reason his fame began to spread. He was working hard and always thinking of ways to sell records.
He went to New York and recorded a television commercial featuring a double album set. When it ran on national television the phones rang off the hook, it was his big break here in the U.S. he sold millions of albums on TV. Most of them were sold on late night commercials, and in some quarters Boxcar Willie was a laughingstock. He was the punch line of jokes and called a no-talent ass clown. But the cash still rolled in.
That year he sold more yardage of 8-track tapes than any other country artist.
Was Boxcar Willie excellent enough to be inducted? Yes, because he was a prolific lyricist and a genius at marketing. He was also an excellent entertainer, often telling funny little stories to go along with his homespun tunes.
One of the highlights of Boxcar's career was when Roy Acuff had invited him to the Grand Ole Opry. It was a dream of a lifetime for Boxcar, having grown up in awe of the performers on the show. Roy and the Smoky Mountain Boys were impressed with his brand of entertainment. In 1981 Boxcar became the sixtieth member to be inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. This touched Boxcar to the point of tears.
In 1985 Boxcar had been on the road 300 days a year for the last ten years. He had found something happening in the entertainment scene in Branson, Missouri and took Lloene there to check it out. They thought it was the best place in the world, moved there, and opened a Music theater across from Roy Clark's place.
On Halloween of 1996 Boxcar was diagnosed with cancer. Boxcar's subsequent battle with leukemia was tough, and he fought hard. He wasn't afraid of dying, but he was upset because he knew he wouldn't be here to watch after his family. Lecil Travis Martin, aka Boxcar Willie died April 12th, 1999 in Branson, Missouri.