Whoopi Goldberg Wants to Have Willie Nelson Over to Her Place for Dinner

To hear Whoopi Goldberg tell the story, there is no way a person could grow up the way she did, as a little girl listening to AM radio in New York City in the sixties and seventies, and not become a musical omnivore. Still, the breadth of the artists she cites as formative finds for her young ears—the list ranges from Glen Campbell to the Four Tops to English song-and-dance man Anthony Newley to Willie and Waylon—is impressive, not to mention well-informed. On this episode of One by Willie, she details the exact moment she went from being a casual Willie fan to an abiding devotee.

It came a few years later, when she was a young mother scraping by in San Diego’s avant-garde theater scene and Willie’s 1978 recording of “Stardust” literally floated into her home through an open window. It was a song her own mom had sung to her, one that she’d always admired; she describes it as “a love song to a love song.” But hearing Willie sing it changed her understanding of both the composition and Willie himself. When she hears his version now, she pictures herself barefoot in the clouds with her mom and older brother, who have both passed on.

From there, she gets into the night she shared a stage with Willie and two of her other musical heroes, Leon Russell and Ray Charles, and the ways Willie’s work with Farm Aid is akin to the Comic Relief benefits she used to host with Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, before ending with a dinner invite to Willie and his wife, Annie, whom Whoopi describes as an American standard, just like “Stardust.”

We’ve created an Apple Music playlist for this series that we’ll add to with each episode we publish. And if you like the show, please subscribe and drop us a rating on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

One by Willie is produced and engineered by Brian Standefer, with audio editing by Aisling Ayers and production by Patrick Michels. Our executive producer is Megan Creydt. Graphic design is by Emily Kimbro and Victoria Millner.


John Spong (voice-over): Hey there, I’m John Spong with Texas Monthly magazine, and this is One by Willie, a podcast in which I talk each week to one notable Willie Nelson fan about one Willie song that they really love. The show is brought to you by Still Austin craft whiskey.

This week, we visit with the incomparable Whoopi Goldberg, who, in addition to being one of the few people who’s won an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy, and a Grammy, is also a best-selling author, AND . . . a monster Willie Nelson fan. She’s going to focus on his 1978 recording of “Stardust,” explaining how on the one hand, it’s what she calls “a love song about a love song,” but also why, when she hears Willie sing it, she pictures herself barefoot in the clouds with her late mom and brother. From there, she’ll get into Waylon, the Four Tops, and English song-and-dance man Anthony Newley; the ways that Willie’s work with Farm Aid is akin to the Comic Relief benefits she used to host with Billy Crystal and Robin Williams; and then, finally, she’s gonna issue a dinner invite to Willie and his wife, Annie—who Whoopi describes as an American standard, just like “Stardust.”

Oh, and Willie and Annie, if y’all are listening, Whoopi means it. So let’s do it.

[Willie Nelson singing “Stardust”]

John Spong: You know, we start every show at the same place, and that is: What’s so cool about “Stardust”—either just the song “Stardust” or Willie’s version of “Stardust”?

Whoopi Goldberg: Well, Willie’s version of “Stardust” will stop you in your tracks, and insist that you hear the words. And I like that. I like songs that insist that I listen. And it’s not anything he’s doing. I think it’s just—it’s his breathing, it’s the ease with which he’s singing it, and it reminds me of family, because it reminds me that I’m missing people that I love tremendously.

John Spong: I was kinda floored when we talked a little earlier—because I’ve had people talk about Willie songs on the show, and they weren’t able to essentially recite songs, in total, the way you can this one. The lines in this song live somewhere inside you already.

Whoopi Goldberg: Yeah, yeah. Music has a real place inside me. And things that have stuck are in there somewhere, and sometimes on good days, I can pull ’em from wherever they need to come from, and on other days, I have to lean over to the youth in my life and say, “Hey, what’s the name of that building, you know, where this one sang? You know what I’m talking about.” And he said, “Carnegie Hall?” “Yes! That’s right. Thank you.”

John Spong: “That one!”

Whoopi Goldberg: Yeah.

John Spong: “That one!” Exactly.

Whoopi Goldberg: So, it’s helpful. But this whole album, for me, is an album I love, because it takes you a lot of different places. If you remember the cover of Johnny Mathis’s Heavenly, where he’s standing in the clouds, he’s barefoot—that’s what listening to Stardust is like for me. It’s like I’m standing in the clouds and I’m barefoot, and Willie is just saying, “Get your hat, get your coat, leave your worries on the doorstep. Life can be so sweet on the sunny side of the street.” You know? You think, “Yeah. Okay. I can groove with that.” Or “Georgia On My Mind,” also from the same album. There’s just not a bad song.

John Spong: There’s not a moment on there that doesn’t, I don’t know, that doesn’t put its arms around you.

Whoopi Goldberg: Yeah. That’s a lovely way to put it. Yeah.

John Spong: Yeah. 

John Spong: But so then, that’s the album, but we’re gonna talk about the specific song.

Whoopi Goldberg: “Stardust.”

John Spong: And why you love “Stardust.”

Whoopi Goldberg: And why I love it. And why I love Willie’s, in particular, his rendition. You know, because it’s a standard, I’ve heard lots of people sing it. But nobody has ever sung it to where it stuck with me. Stardust came out a hundred years ago?

John Spong: Just about, yeah.

Whoopi Goldberg: It’s one of the albums of standards that I can listen to endlessly. And it’s his voice—it’s because of him. I guess I was thinking about my mom and my brother, who have both gone beyond, to the Great Beyond, and I suddenly realized that the song was about them. “My stardust memories, the memories of love’s refrain.” People who you grow up with and, if you’re lucky, really love you. And they loved me a lot, and I loved them a lot. I didn’t realize how emotional a song it was. But it is.

John Spong: Yeah. And that’s Emma and Clyde?

Whoopi Goldberg: Yeah.

John Spong: Well, then now, yeah, I do—I want to listen to that with you.

Whoopi Goldberg: Okay.

John Spong: Let’s do that.

Whoopi Goldberg: All right.

[Willie Nelson singing “Stardust”]

Whoopi Goldberg: It’s just gorgeous. It’s just gorgeous. And I think of parents and siblings. “Each kiss an inspiration” . . . your mom kissing you, your brother kissing you, giving you a noogie on the side of your head, or whatever. So, it’s really that longing for someone—longing for times past, or better times, or you thought they were better times.

John Spong: When you were talking about it just now, and about how it’s about memories—there’s even that line, “Though I dream in vain.” Literally meaning, they’re not coming back, they’re not going to sit here. “In my heart, there always still remains.” I mean, no, they’re not coming back, [but] they never went anywhere. And that’s all captured in those two lines, really.

Whoopi Goldberg: Yeah. I mean, it’s a stunning song, and if you are newly separated from someone who’s passed away, it’s a song that will break your heart, but help you get through, I think.

John Spong: Yeah. And that you get to keep coming back to. That’s the whole point of it.

Whoopi Goldberg: Yeah, yeah.

John Spong: It’ll be there next time, too.

Whoopi Goldberg: That’s right.

John Spong: It’s interesting, because I remember, when I researched about it a long time ago, Hoagy Carmichael wrote the melody, and then it existed as just a melody for a couple of years, and then Mitchell Parish, he put lyrics to it, and he wrote a song about the power of song. The lyrics—I mean, it’s such a beautiful, perfect, exquisite melody that he decided to write about the melody itself, which is this kind of wonderfully meta kinda thing to have pulled off.

Whoopi Goldberg: Yeah. I mean, musicians are amazing to me, because they hear and see and feel things quite differently, I think, than other kinds of artists. And so, when you get someone who is writing a love song to a love song, it’s kind of fabulous. And then people like me come along and go, “No, no. For me, it’s this.” But in fact, it’s a love song to a love song.

John Spong: That’s the other cool thing. It gets to mean something different to everybody. Even if that brings up my mom and brother, it’s not Emma and Clyde. It’s yours; it’s mine. 

Whoopi Goldberg: Yeah.

John Spong: Any idea what version of this you would’ve discovered first, like as a little girl or whatever?

Whoopi Goldberg: Oh, Sinatra, I’m sure.

John Spong: Yeah?

Whoopi Goldberg: Yeah, I think so.

John Spong: And so you knew it pretty well, then, by the time Willie’s version gets to you?

Whoopi Goldberg: Yeah, but again, it was—you know, my mom loved to sing in the house. She loved to sing. And so she would sing this, and she would sing “Who Can I Turn To?,” which always used to upset me. To this day, still, it makes me so uncomfortable. It makes me so sad, because I felt like, “You could turn to me.” But she would sing it with this feeling, you know—”Who can I turn to if you turn away?” It’s just like, “But I’m not gonna, Ma. I’m not gonna turn away.” So she would sing Anthony Newley, or she would sing standards, Sinatra. And so this came to me in some kind of squiggly, backward way, because I heard it being played in somebody else’s house, and I was in San Diego. And I knocked on a door and said, “What is that?”

And the lady said, “Oh. It’s Willie Nelson singing ‘Stardust.’ ” I was like, “Oh.” And so she played the album for me, which was just—like, I knew Willie from lots of other music, but him and the standards, I hadn’t known. And I just, I lost my mind for it.

John Spong: Right. But that was somebody’s house you were at. You didn’t go to the neighbor’s house to say, “Hey, what do you—” and knock on their door?

Whoopi Goldberg: Yeah, it was the next-door neighbor. Yeah, no. I could hear it. I could hear it, because in San Diego, it was always summertime, so windows were always open.

John Spong: Oh, s—.

Whoopi Goldberg: Yeah. So somebody was playing it, and I couldn’t figure out who it was, because I knew I knew the voice, but for some reason I hadn’t put it together. And she said, “It’s Willie Nelson.” I was like, “What? Okay, wait a minute. What is this album?” She said, “Come in.”

John Spong: That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.

Whoopi Goldberg: So we had tea. And listened to it, yeah. Wafting on the air.

John Spong: And so then, you just sat in that lady’s den and listened to Willie with her?

Whoopi Goldberg: And listened to Willie with her. And then when I could—because I was raising a little kid and had no money—when I could afford it, I went and got it.

John Spong: Oh, wow.

Whoopi Goldberg: Yeah, yeah. I went and got it.

[Willie Nelson singing “Stardust”]

John Spong: And so, as a little girl yourself, growing up in New York City in the late sixties and seventies, I don’t know, would there have been an awareness even of Willie, at that point?

Whoopi Goldberg: Oh my God, yeah. Willie and Waylon? Oh, yeah.

John Spong: Okay.

Whoopi Goldberg: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. One of the great things about radio, when I was growing up, is you heard everything. You heard Glen Campbell, you heard Willie Nelson, you heard the Four Tops. So you had an abundance of music to pick from. I had Willie in my head, because I liked Waylon; I liked how Waylon looked. And I loved Johnny Cash. I love those guys. They felt like people I would like to hang out with. And in fact, it turned out that was so. I enjoyed spending time with Johnny and June, and I enjoyed spending a little time with Waylon, and I love spending time with Willie—because they come from a certain time. We know them more for country now, but Waylon was singing, you know, Johnnie Ray stuff. I mean, it was a different time. So the flexibility of these artists was always exciting to me.

John Spong: Yeah.

Whoopi Goldberg: Yeah.

John Spong: I did a story last year about a young guy named Charley Crockett, and one of his producers was explaining to me what was so cool about Waylon, because what Charley does is Charley likes to mix soul and country, and a little bit of Tex-Mex, and there’s some people out there that said, “Nah, he needs to stick with country. He’s not country. He’s messing up country music.” I said, “Whatever. He gets to do what he wants.”

Whoopi Goldberg: Don’t they know where country music came from?

John Spong: Exactly! Yeah.

Whoopi Goldberg: Hello.

John Spong: Well, this producer dude was explaining, he said, “The thing is, when you listen to something like ‘Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line,’ by Waylon, from the mid-sixties, that’s so familiar now, and we understand it as country now. What you can’t tell, with our contemporary ears, is that what Waylon was doing was, he was mixing Motown and . . .

Whoopi Goldberg: Everything! Yes! Yes!

John Spong: . . . With country music. And I was like—pow!—I mean, I knew Waylon was cool, because he’s the coolest. But I didn’t know all that.

Whoopi Goldberg: Well, but, if you—again, I grew up here in New York. I had WABC, WMCA, so you’d hear people experimenting with their music. Glen Campbell would sing this, and then you’d hear him sing something else, and then suddenly you listen to “Seven Rooms of [Gloom],” and you hear strains of “I’m a lineman for the county.” It’s like you get those, I guess—what do they call it when they take a little piece of music and they use it? Sampling.

John Spong: Sampling.

Whoopi Goldberg: Yeah. It wasn’t a sample then, but people were just doing it. They were doing what they heard being played, and I always just thought that that was the norm. Then people started saying, “Oh, no. This is what this is. This is what this is,” and to me, it was always just music. Just great music.

John Spong: Yeah, yeah. Have you spent much time around Willie?

Whoopi Goldberg: Not as much as I would’ve liked. Not as much as I would’ve liked. But by the time I could hang out with Willie, I was working. So, he’s on the road; I’m on the road; our buses maybe pass in the night. But I once was at some fundraiser, some concert or something, and Ray Charles was there, and I was there grooving with Ray. He said, “Hey, I got somebody coming in.” And I said, “Oh, great,” and so we’re sitting—and it was Willie! And Willie and Ray played together. It was kind of extraordinary.

John Spong: Oh, wow.

Whoopi Goldberg: Now, double-check with him, because this brain has been misused many times, and maybe I dreamt it. But I don’t think so. I was backstage, and Willie came in, and all I could do was look at him. It was just like, you know, because he just—he just good. He’s just a good guy. And I’m trying to remember if I . . . Who wrote “Superstar”?

John Spong: Leon Russell.

Whoopi Goldberg: “Long ago . . .” Leon Russell. He and I may have had a conversation at one point about Willie as well, as just being another musician who could go from here all the way to here, and go back if he wanted to, and what a magnificent thing that was. And when I said to Leon, I said, “Kinda like you do.” There are not a whole lot of people who could do what Willie has done, and what Leon was able to do, and that is to hold people so close that we will follow you, whatever you’re doing. You want to try something new? We’re there for you. Because in a fan’s mind, in my mind, there’s something new to discover.

John Spong: Yeah. A long time ago, I was interviewing Willie, and we were talking about Leon, because it just became clear that, you know, there’s this impression, this idea that everything comes naturally to Willie. He makes it look effortless. You don’t necessarily see that there might be a business mind at work in all that stuff. And somebody in the room suggested that that was kind of what happened.

I was like, “Oh, really? So, you’re not just some leprechaun floating on a cloud of dope smoke and things are happening, going your way.”

He said, “Yeah, no. That’s not what it is at all.” He said, “Did it occur to me that if Leon Russell came to town and his fans mixed with my fans, we might both leave the show with twice as many fans as we had? Yeah, that had occurred to me.” But in addition to that, they genuinely loved each other. It became this hugely significant friendship for the two of them, and to collaborate, and all that stuff. I think about that—so then Willie uses his platform to create Farm Aid. So you and your buddies, Robin and Billy, do Comic Relief, and it’s not a onetime telethon. It’s this thing, year in and year out, to give back, to make the world a better place.

Whoopi Goldberg: Well, I mean, we were lucky, and the folks that did Farm Aid with Willie were lucky, because we know what that is. We know what it is not to have.

John Spong: To grow up without.

Whoopi Goldberg: Willie knew what it was—yeah, to grow up without, and to just get just the simplest thing. We knew what Mom’s face looked like when she had to go get that government cheese. We know those things. And so, we want to make it easier on somebody and say, “Hey, let us all try to elevate each other, to the point where there’s no shame in what we don’t have.”

John Spong: Yes.

Whoopi Goldberg: The shame is not on us. It’s on the places where they’re ready and willing to go to work, and there’s no work for them. That’s not our shame. That’s not the farmer’s shame. But the shame comes because people, they write their own scenarios about why you don’t have. And so I think that all the folks you mentioned understood all of those things. We had to help those who grew up with much to understand what it’s like to be part of the very many who grew up without.

John Spong: That point about keeping the shame out of the frame is so cool, because I know better than to use the word “charity” when I describe Comic Relief or Farm Aid, because of that point. But the thing that y’all do—because that’s still going to be hard to keep that out; that’s still going to be hard for some of the people out there looking not to think, “Oh. Well, you know, it’s just a handout,” unless you create art with your event, unless you create something beautiful and give somebody another reason to look at it. And that’s exactly what y’all did every time. And so Bob Dylan just showed up at Farm Aid. That’s what they’re talking about. They’re talking about Bob Dylan showing up at Farm Aid. Of course that’s cool.

Whoopi Goldberg: Yeah. Well, it’s cool also because you think, “Oh. He cares enough about me to show up to something like this to help.” It wasn’t a bunch of highbrow—it was a bunch of regular people who happened to figure out where they wanted to get to and were able to get to, who turned around and said, “Here’s my hand. Hold on, and I’m going to pull you forward.” And we all either got pulled forward or were pulling people forward.

John Spong: Yeah. That’s good.

Whoopi Goldberg: But it’s a humanitarian effort, because it’s for the people.

John Spong: Yeah.

Whoopi Goldberg: Yeah.

[Willie Nelson singing “Stardust”]

John Spong: You mentioned Ray Charles a second ago, and then also Leon Russell, which is perfect because—I don’t know how many times you might’ve seen all them together, but there was one that was for Willie’s seventieth birthday.

Whoopi Goldberg: I feel like maybe that’s what it was.

John Spong: That’s the one. That’s the one.

Whoopi Goldberg: Maybe that’s what it was.

John Spong: It’s the one. It was at the Beacon Theatre, in New York.

Whoopi Goldberg: Yes, that’s right. That’s right.

John Spong: And I’ve seen you talk about it in other interviews too, because it sounded like watching Willie—they sang “A Song for You.” Old Leon song.

Whoopi Goldberg: Yeah.

John Spong: And what I hadn’t known until I dug a little deeper is, so the MCs that night, the masters of ceremony, were Ethan Hawke, and you, and Kris Kristofferson, and Bill Clinton. It’s a heady lineup.

Whoopi Goldberg: Yes, that sounds right.

John Spong: It’s a heady lineup. They sang that song together. And, do you know—I can’t imagine you remember; you probably didn’t know at the time—that was the last time Willie and Ray Charles were ever together?

Whoopi Goldberg: I feel like I did know that, because Ray was on the road, for a while, and then he was gone.

John Spong: Yeah. He was sick, and I think—there’s a documentary coming out about Willie that I’ve already seen; it’s going to be out later this year. And they talk in it about how, I think, Ray had flown in special from Switzerland.

Whoopi Goldberg: Special, yeah.

John Spong: Because he wanted to see Willie, and everybody knew he was sick. And so Willie knows that this is his best friend, this is probably the last time they’re ever going to be together, and so . . . On that note, can I share my screen with you again?

Whoopi Goldberg: Yes, please.

John Spong: Oh, man. This kills me. 

Whoopi Goldberg (recorded at Willie’s seventieth birthday concert): Now, Ray Charles is a musical pioneer, child. He’s got one of the most powerful musical voices the world has ever heard.

Whoopi Goldberg: G—damn, I’m cute.

John Spong: Yeah, you are.

Whoopi Goldberg (recorded at Willie’s seventieth birthday concert): Leon Russell is also one of those legendary pioneers, and a gifted songwriter. Tonight they’re here to perform, with Willie, one of Leon’s most treasured classics, “A Song for You.” 

Whoopi Goldberg: God, I was cute. Oh, yes. Wow.

[Leon Russell plays and sings “A Song for You”]

Whoopi Goldberg: Oh God. G—damn.

John Spong: How about that?

Whoopi Goldberg: How about that? How about that?

John Spong: Yeah, yeah. When I talked to Kacey Musgraves for this show, she said when she gets alone with Willie, all she does is ask him for Ray Charles stories.

Whoopi Goldberg: Yeah. Yeah. Wow.

John Spong: And you knew Ray pretty well? Or got to know him, meet him a few times? You did a show together, The Nanny?

Whoopi Goldberg: Yeah, we did The Nanny. Whenever he was performing, I would always try to—if I was able to—get over to see him. But I grew up on his music, because, again, my mother would play “Unchain My Heart.” She’d play all of the old Ray Charles. And then, he did The Blues Brothers.

John Spong: Oh, right.

Whoopi Goldberg: And it’s just wonderful. He was just extraordinary. He was extraordinary. That radiance. He radiated. Even when he was in the low spots, he radiated the heat of music, the love of music. There was never a bad album. There’s just not a bad Ray Charles song. There’s songs you think, “Well, I wouldn’t have sung that, but I’m not a singer, so why am I saying anything?” But there’s not a bad Ray Charles song. And that’s kind of, really, with those three men—those three men, who I really was so glad I got to know. And as my brain starts throwing stuff away, things like this happen, and I am reminded of something. And it’s like, “Oh—a) I was cute; b) My hair looked great. I’m going to do that again; and c) How f—ing lucky am I?”

John Spong: Yeah.

Whoopi Goldberg: Because it wasn’t one-offs. They were in my blood, these three men.

[Willie Nelson singing “Stardust”]

John Spong: I can’t talk to you all day, as much as I’d like to. I like listening to records with you, Ms. Goldberg.

Whoopi Goldberg: Thank you, sir.

John Spong: It doesn’t sound like Willie has been to one of your famous dinner parties.

Whoopi Goldberg: No, but he’s never been in New York when I’m doing it. That’s one of the problems. Because they’re relatively new, in the last ten years. Because I’m a lot less . . . I used to not really be comfortable around a lot of people. And so I began to change that, because I bought dishes, and I learned about silverware, and I put stuff in—that lives in the house—on the table, so we’d have stuff to talk about. I was never good at it, and then once I started doing all of that, I started to be able to bring people together who were around. If I had my way, I would take Willie to Italy. You know, I want to marry Willie’s wife. I want Willie’s wife, also.

John Spong: Keep going. What? Annie?

Whoopi Goldberg: Annie is—she’s like a standard. She’s like a standard. She’s there, she’s strong, and she’s got him. And so I have a place in Italy, and I’d have to put some suntan lotion on him, because he’s pale, and the sun gets hot. But just to sit with them and just shoot the s—. 

John Spong: I know his manager sends these episodes to him, and I think Willie’s listened to at least some of them on the bus, and so, it sounds like the invitation has been extended.

Whoopi Goldberg: Oh my God. Yeah.

John Spong: Y’all be sure to take pictures for me.

Whoopi Goldberg: Well, why aren’t you coming?

John Spong: Yes, ma’am.

Whoopi Goldberg: Okay.

John Spong: It’s that easy.

Whoopi Goldberg: It’s that easy. But you also are going to need some suntan lotion, because the sun will darken you.

[Willie Nelson singing “Stardust”]

John Spong (voice-over): All right, Willie fans, that was Whoopi Goldberg talking about Willie’s version of “Stardust.” A huge thanks to her for coming on the show; a big thanks to our sponsor, Still Austin craft whiskey; and a big thanks to you for tuning in. If you dig the show, please subscribe, maybe tell a couple friends, and visit our page at Apple Podcasts and give us some stars. Oh, and please also check out also our One by Willie playlist at Apple Music.

Oh, and be sure and tune in next week to hear one of the true titans of American music, Booker T. Jones, talk about how he came to be close friends with Willie and producer of Willie’s 1978 masterpiece Stardust, and specifically, the crazy way they recorded a song they’d both loved since they were little kids, “Georgia On My Mind.” We’ll see y’all next week.

First appeared on www.texasmonthly.com

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