By Pierre O’Rourke
Two things worth taking the time to pick, are your friends and your guitar. Jerry Reed began picking on the guitar as a small child and it helped him survive seven years in orphanages and foster homes. As for friends, he made them all his life. He was so blamed likeable that he could have it no other way. I am blessed to have met and befriended many of my heroes. Jerry was a wonderful, good person, who treated me well. He said, “People are to be treated as gifted treasures,” as was Jerry and is Prissy.While I haven’t looked forward to writing this tribute, I am honored by the responsibility, and the gift.
Jerry caught my young ear in the mid-60’s when I heard “Guitar Man” and “Amos Moses.” Then with the film release of Gator where he plays one of the best bad guys I ever saw, I became a life-long fan. Never dreamed I’d have the honor of even meeting him. Guess I double-dipped by getting to know Prissy too.
In 1986, Jerry hired me to assist with his media appearances in Arizona to promote What Comes Around, the first movie he produced and directed. When I asked how he felt taking a hand at directing he said, “I use insurance, son. I put the best cameraman on my left, and the best director on my right. Then they smack me if I go to break the 360-degree rule.”
Although the film is influenced by comedy, check it out for a couple of heart-wrenching scenes in which Jerry portrays a super star addicted to heroine and booze, but forced through detox in a remote cabin by his brother who was played by Bo Hopkins. In real life, they’d spotted each other at one of Jerry’s concerts and discovered fans would mistake Bo for Jerry, commending him on his songs until Bo would politely explain that he wasn’t “that guitar guy” from Smokey & The Bandit.
While Prissy, Jerry’s wife and soul mate of almost 50 years, hinted the last few times we talked that the emphysema was gaining on our good ole boy, I was no more ready then, than when I got the news…bringing me to writing this tribute. Again, I fell for the fallacy of there always being enough time and I reflect back over the twenty-some years since meeting him.
At one point, seeing Jerry Reed as one of the living legends and multi-talented people who deserved more recognition, Prissy helped me with an idea to pen a musical tribute and roast. I’d hoped Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck would emcee. Lordy, that was over fifteen years ago. Jerry side-kicked to both Burt and Tom. “You see, back in 1979, Thomas and me did this here TV movie as a series opener called, Concrete Cowboys. Later it got called Ramblin’ Man, but whilst them network knot heads twiddled their thumbs, Thomas got talked into this part as some beach detective. Well, we figured it might be good for a few episodes run so I’d do a few concerts and make a couple albums and we’d start the series the next year. That there year lasted until 1989 – but I’m happy for the boy. But he coulda given me a Ferrari though, to park by my black Trans AM Burt gave me.”
About ten years ago, although not a supporter of sequels, I’d inked a revival for Smokey and the Bandit with a strong message against drugs which interested Carroll O’Connor, who had had recently lost his son Hugh to drugs. He liked the idea of portraying the brother of the late ‘Sheriff Buford T. Justice’ and had practice as a red-neck sheriff from his hit series, In The Heat of the Night. I envisioned Toby Keith with the CB-handle of ‘Abominable,’ playing the son of ‘Cledus Snow.’ When her trucker brother is framed and incarcerated in a Mexican prison, I saw hoped for Lari White in the role as ‘Snow Baby,’ the daughter of ‘The Snowman. It would be up to her to roust Burt as ‘The Bandit’ out of retirement. I had met Lari years earlier when she opened Jerry’s concerts. Some may recognize her as the mysterious artist in the conclusion of Tom Hank’s Cast Away. “Son, she is easy on the eyes I admit, but more than that – that lil’ gal has talent. So when she makes it big, she can say ole Jerry (Reed) had faith in me!” Then that lovable cackle.
And as I keep looking back, still in a file folder sits the western script I wrote for Hugh O’Brian, in which Jerry wanted to play one of the bad guys. We sat on his tour bus and he spoke ever so low, forcing me to lean across the table as if in an audition. “You speak slow and low, son. Get the man to come in real close. And ya’ look him straight in the eye. Then ever so lightly…..you slap him, right across the jaw.” And that he did. Not hard, but sure convinced me.
Not like Jerry needed more things to his credit. That is, if someone didn’t recognize his name, he left his fingerprints on enough things to still be recognized. Just mention any number of songs such as “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot,” “ The Bird,” “Ko-Ko Joe,” “East Bound & Down,” or characters in movies like ‘Cledus Snow’ in The Bandit flicks or the mean-spirited Cougars’ coach in The Waterboy. Over 40 albums, over 70 singles, 12 films, and a few rooms full of awards. But still, I feel like I let him down.
Years ago, Dolores Tropiano had a cable show where I made my screen debut and also placed Jerry as a guest. He wore this cool tan leather jacket I threatened to swipe. An added appeal was that Elvis, who recorded some of Jerry’s hits, had given it to him as a gift for playing lead guitar on his albums.Folks stopped Jerry to rave on “his” performance in the TV series Dynasty. Ole Jerry thanked them, signed Bo’s name, and cackled. By the time I shipped him back to Prissy in Tennessee, my sides were aching.
After half-day of media appearances, Jerry drawled, “I think it’s time to stuff some groceries down our neck.” We hit El Charro where he smiled to the waitress, “Lemme have a piece of dead cow.” Now my friends will know where I coined those phrases. He was so blamed down to earth. When he dropped his knife and someone rushed to replace it, he said, “What’s that for?” Dontcha clean your floors?” And he wiped it on the napkin with a wink to the bus boy. Later when the young waitress made eyes, he handled it diplomatically. “Well thank you, darlin’ but I have a good woman’s love. Have you met my pro-toe-jay?This here’s Mista Pierre Amos Moses O’Rourke. He’s like a salad dressin’ for the U-knighted-nay-shuns!” In all fairness, after I excused myself to “tap a kidney,” I hear he later swiped my line.
Next stop was at TV-12 where Jerry had the GM, Pep Cooney, laughing until he had tears in his eyes. When some local news delayed us, Jerry found an old Reader’s Digest which he perused in the restroom. Emerging he asked, “So tell me, Mista Pierre . . . is it proper pro-toll-call, just to tear out this h’year art-teal-cle (drawing out the syllables with an accent on the first syllables) or betta yet, we just stuff their mag-o-zeen down your jeans? Hold onta this son.” He stuffed it in as he stood straight and strutted with a grin. “I think I found ole Jerry a moo-vay!”
What he’d found was the true story of Lt. Col. Iceal Hambleton, retired ironically to Sun City. He’d been a high level desk jockey shot down in Viet Nam behind enemy lines, and had to play a deadly mental game of golf to find his way out. Two years after swiping that magazine, Bat 21 starred Gene Hackman and Danny Glover, with Jerry as the commander of the helicopter pilots.
Jerry was fascinated by people, even more so, in what they did for a living. He asked questions. He listened to what folks said. He had read my first manuscript and in the evening’s meal, at a place I won’t mention, he gave me honest critiques and urged me to, “Go for it son. You be toppin’ cotton in no time!”Later on, a waiter spotted Jerry and slipped, breaking a huge stack of dishes. Jerry tilted his head following silence, breaking the embarrassment with, “It’s okay son. I broke alotta dishes before I broke any records.” As we left, he asked to see the manager and quietly handed him several bills, placing one hand on his shoulder. “I expect that fine boy to still be here next week. I’ll be a checkin’ in with my pro-toe-jay here.”
On my first trip to Tennessee, Jerry told me to call his office – and Nashville opened up for me.Thanks to him, I was the most musically inept person to walk the floor- boards of the Grand Ole Opry.Then I was directed to introduce myself to legendary Jimmy Dickens to have him show me around.Introduced later to Roy Acuff, Mr. Acuff pulled on his suspenders with, “So you’re a friend of Jerry’s? Well shooooot. Sit down and play me some checkers.” He placed his violin on my lap, leaving me as nervous as the time Willie Nelson entrusted his weatherworn guitar to me. Jerry was ever supportive with, “Careful.Don’t break it, son. That thar’s a museum piece!”
Introduced to Jerry’s mentor, Chet Atkins, the guitar guru swung his arm around me and winked, “Let’s get you backstage. Jerry’s friends don’t travel all the way from Arizona to sit in the audience.” I still have one of the guitar picks he gave me after his set. It was several years later when Chet’s office called to invite me to an outdoor concert on the east lawn of the Scottsdale Center for the Arts.
Author John Lescroart blessed me with a guitar one year, and I had mentioned it to Jerry as Jerry liked John’s books. “It’s ‘bout time you finally got yerself a gee-tar. She’s your friend when no one else is there.She’ll listen to you with no judgments. And if you listen close and you’re fair with her, she’ll talk back.” In the same breath he added, “Now, we need to find you a ‘Priscilla.’ Then son, you will be all set!” I once asked what he used for inspiration on his songs, the ones that pulled at the heart strings. He flashed that disarming smile and gleamed. “Prissy, though she still may not know it or realize it. Always her.” He had me convinced. That’s the kinda love and marriage I want.
Jerry’s last project was one of love, as was all his fine work, but this last one was one he faced and won, a personal war to see it to completion. It is a CD album entitled, “The Gallant Few” and contains 10 incredible songs. Jerry explained, “This CD was produced to raise funds for our wounded veterans, who went in harms way willing to sacrifice their very lives for our freedom. Your purchase of this CD will go directly into a non-profit fund, THE GALLANT FEW, to help with their many needs.” You can click on www.thegallantfew.com to get your copy.
I cannot help but think of Jerry Reed and smile. More than that, I feel good and warm inside – hearing him cackle that unmistakable laugh. I loved I could make him laugh. Proud he liked my stories. My columns and tributes. I hated it being time to write this one, so I hope he likes it. With that, this is your pro-toe-jay – and I am Arizona bound and down.
Pierre O’Rourke assists publicists with their client when in Arizona, is still pickin’ on his guitar, and was a friend of the legendary, Jerry Reed.