Jerry Reed, 71, succeeded on stage,screen, records, and as songwriter
By WALT TROTT
Jerry Reed was a true individualist, a man who stood apart from the competition. The essence of Reed, however, was that whatever he did, he enjoyed doing. Just before midnight, Aug. 31, the singersongwriter-musician-comedian-actor died, after suffering several years from emphysema. The 71-year-old Local 257 Lifetime Member had been in the care of hospice. When asked which of his talents best defined him, the colorful Reed disclosed, “I am what I am . . . ‘A Thing Called Love’ (a song he wrote, recorded by Johnny Cash), that’s what I am; ‘Amos Moses’ (the first million seller he wrote and recorded), that’s what I am, too. As for which is the real Jerry Reed?, I never took the time to ask myself that question. As long as you’re honest in what you’re trying to create, there’s no conflict.” Musicians probably best remember his unique, frenetic pickin’ style, described in song as “The Claw,” descriptive of how his hand looked while playing with five fingers. In 1971, he earned CMA’s Instrumentalist of the Year award, and was much in-demand at sessions, whether for country buddy Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City” or for Dean Martin crooning Reed’s “Georgia Sunshine.” Moviegoers recall him raising a ruckus in such action-comedy adventures as “W.W. & The Dixie Dancekings,” “Gator,” “Smokey & The Bandit,” “High Ballin’,” “Hot Stuff” and “The Waterboy.”
Record buyers rushed to get copies of some 57 singles he charted on Billboard, the trade weekly, notably his #1s “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot,” “Lord, Mr. Ford” and “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft).” Of some 30- plus albums charted, the biggest sellers included “When You’re Hot . . . ,” “Lord, Mr. Ford,” “Ko-Ko Joe” and “Hot A’Mighty!” In 1958, rock pioneer Gene Vincent covered Reed’s first writing success “Crazy Legs”; next came “That’s All You Gotta Do,” a Top 10 pop success for Brenda Lee (and B side to her million-selling #1 “I’m Sorry,” 1960); followed by his “Misery Loves Company,” which Porter Wagoner took to #1 in 1962. Other Reed songs covered include Elvis Presley cuts “U.S. Male” (#28, 1968) and “Guitar Man” a pop Top 40 in 1968, then remixed in 1981, a #1 for the king.
Last spring, an ailing Reed introduced his last album “The Gallant Few,” its songs dedicated to those who have served. Proceeds benefit wounded soldiers. In ddressing a crowd of veterans at the Alvin C. York VA Medical Center in Murfreesboro, Tenn., he said, “I want to help you help yourselves . . . I want to be the seed where this starts and grows across the country.” During our 2005 interview at BMI, we discussed his then-latest self-penned recording, “Father Time & Gravity,” a lighter look at the way we are. Still hyper, he spoke mostly in exclamation points.
“You have to look at life with a little sense of humor; otherwise, it’ll drive you nuts!,” he exclaimed, laughing heartily. “My life was very simple really. Growing up, I went to church with my Aunt Maggie. I was saved! Became a Christian! Then got in this business and went to Hell in a handbasket! And no matter what I did, no matter how much money I made, there was an empty place . . . “One day it dawned on me that the problem with my life was my focus was on the wrong thing. My focus was here! I’ve since come back, renewed my relationship with Christ and now everything is on Go. I’m full again! If I go to meet Chet and Waylon tomorrow, fine, we’ll just plug in up there. And maybe I’ll play ‘The Claw’!”
An NBC-TV crewman shooting Reed, hosting a short-lived 1973 variety series Music Country probably best summed-up the versatile showman: “Where Reed is, there’s electricity! He’s like a 300-watt bulb in a room full of 60-watt lamps. You can feel it. He buzzes!” Jerry’s early guitar heroes were Chet Atkins and Merle Travis, both of whom he came to know. Musicologist John Knowles, a member of the Thumbpickers Hall of Fame, is a Reed fan (who had his music recorded by Reed): “His playing has the complexity of classical music, but the rhythmic sense that comes from country rock and gospel.” “There will never be another like Jerry,” echoes songwriter-musician Henry Strzelecki, well known for his “Long Tall Texan” composition. “He was a true talent. People think about all those novelty numbers he played, but he was very well-rounded. Jerry could play a little jazz, a little classical, a little R&B, but he didn’t like people to know that. None of us did, because they would think we weren’t really into country and that’s what we played most in sessions. I think Jerry got his roots the same place I got mine, listening to Southern blues, country and gospel. We were raised on a mixture, and it came out funky; that’s what we called it, funk.”
Seasoned sesssion bassist Henry’s fondest memory of playing with Reed was for not one of his bigger selling albums: “It was one of the first he ever did, and wasn’t the funny stuff, but I think it was so fine. He sang so good, and I remember it well.” All but its title, that is: “Hey, after about 10-to-12,000 sessions, they kinda all blend together. (Reed’s first RCA ’67 LP actually was ‘Unbelieveable Guitar & Voice of Jerry Reed.’) It was such a privilege to play on his albums. Honest to goodness, I just love his music. I’d sit backstage and listen to him and Chet (Atkins) play before they went on; I mean, they really played so well together. I think they would teach each other.” Atkins rated major credit careerwise from Reed, who had already blown two major label deals – Capitol and Columbia – when the legendary guitarist-turned-label chief signed him to RCA in 1964. “He’s a nonconformist, and he suggested that I just play my guitar and sing my songs and he’d release singles,” noted Reed, adding Atkins mainly encouraged him to just be himself. Under additional Atkins’ prompting, Reed began improving on his own inimitable fingerpickin’ style of playing guitar, and a number he cut which reminded folks of Elvis, the satirical “Tupelo Mississippi Flash,” became his first important Billboard charting (#15, 1967). Additionally, there were two successful RCA collaborations spotlighting the two guitarists: “Me and Jerry” (1970) and “Me and Chet” (1972).
Jerry would also appear on “Chet Atkins & Friends” album along with fellow pickers like Les Paul, Hank Snow and Merle Travis (1976), and they got together again for Columbia’s “Sneakin’ Around” (1992), which won them a Grammy, as did the earlier “Me and Jerry.” Jerry Reed Hubbard was born March 20, 1937, in Atlanta, the second child of Cynthia and Robert Hubbard, who worked in the cotton-mill. Shortly after his birth, the Hubbards split up, placing him and his sister in an orphanage initially, before being assigned to foster homes. “What do you think about a 5-year-old kid sitting on a woodpile in Palmetto, Ga., with a stick – a piece of kindling bark actually – and it’s the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, and he’s the star with a mic?” By age 7, Jerry was back with mom, who married factory laborer Hubert Howard in 1944. When he was 9, Cynthia gifted Jerry with a second-hand guitar she purchased for $7, and taught him a couple chords; thereafter, he was self-taught. “I played it the first day and I never put it down. Mama taught me C and G, and I sat out on the backporch and played right off. I think the good Lord sent me here that way. I ain’t got sense enough to plan my life . . . The first music I ever heard besides country while growing up, was Southern black gospel music, and music in the church, quartet music. Why, Lord yeah, I’m from Georgia, son!”
Reed also affectionately recalled Atlanta music man Bill Lowery, “There would be no Jerry Reed if there hadn’t been a Bill Lowery. I used to listen to him on (WGST) radio every Saturday morning as Uncle Eb Brown, one of the funniest guys I ever heard in my life. Come to find out, he was discovering new artists. “I remember he played records on a guy he discovered named Kenny Lee. And I kept telling this friend of mine, who lived in the cotton mill village with me, Leroy Sumner, ‘Man, I’d like to meet Bill Lowery, ’cause I wanna be on records.’ So next thing I knew he took me up to meet him. So I sang Bill some songs (one he wrote titled ‘Aunt Meg’s Wooden Leg’) and he says ‘You keep writing songs and bring them up here and let me hear them.’ Two years later, he got me signed to Capitol Records. I was in the 11th grade.”
Meanwhile, Reed worked part-time himself at WGST and played in Lee’s band The Western Playboys (boasting Pete Drake on steel guitar): “That’s how I broke in, playin’ dances, clubs, skull orchards . . . ” Lowery also hooked the teen-ager up to Ernest Tubb, who engaged him for a 30-day tour with his Texas Troubadours, and Reed promptly dropped out of high school: “School was never the same after that. I knew what I was gonna spend my life doin’. Nothin’ else made any sense. Nothin’ else made any difference.” Strzelecki says he’s known Reed since 1958, “We signed with the (Lowery) NRC label and were from Birmingham, me, my cousin Kenny Wallis . . . and there were artists there like Tommy Roe, Joe South, and we had two groups that did well, The Four Flickers (with brother Larry Strzelecki) and The Four Counts, and we were doing stuff like The Hilltoppers and The Four Aces did, as they were popular then. Players like Jerry, Joe, Ray Stevens, were our band.” Actually, NRC’s basic studio band consisted of Joe South, guitar; Jimmy Estes, bass fiddle; Nelson Rogers, drums, and players like Reed or Stevens filling in as needed. Henry says Jerry also played on some of the rockabilly records Decca cut on singer-songwriter Baker Knight (“Lonesome Time,” “The Wonder Of You”) in trying to launch his late 1950s career. “I was 16 when I came up here and it was Hank Garland (session guitarist) who told me to move up here when I was 21. Well, I came in and Jerry came here in 1961 or ’62, and moved in right across the street from me . . . We recorded and played golf together.” One trip standing out in Henry’s mind, occurred overseas: “Jerry and I went to Paris together, because RCA sent him there to do French TV. Well, Jerry wanted me to go along with him, and the label paid all the expenses. We stayed in a hotel in Versailles, outside Paris, that looked like it had been a palace. Jerry had a suite, and I had a suite, each big enough to hold 10 people. Well the suite looked out on this huge patio, and when the moon was out and the curtains were blowing, it reminded you of those horror movie sets like ‘Dracula.’ I was spooked and couldn’t sleep, so I knocked on Jerry’s door to ask was he asleep? Jerry said,‘Hell no! This place scares me to death!’ So we decided to share his room, that way we could both get some sleep.”
Again it was Bill Lowery who arranged for Reed to move on to Capitol Records. That label’s A&R producer Ken Nelson helmed his first session when Jerry was 18: “You know, he really was the person behind Lowery getting out of the radio DJ business and into music publishing. He made me wait a year before signing me, saying ‘You’re too young, yet.’ I’m sorry I signed with him so young and couldn’t have been some kind of success story for him.” The first songs Jerry ever recorded for Capitol were cut on Oct. 17, 1955 at the old Castle Studio in Nashville: “If the Good Lord’s Willing, And the Creek Don’t Rise” (inspired by a saying Hank Williams used on radio) and “Here I Am,” comprising Jerry’s first single release. It was quickly forgotten (though Cash did cut “If the Good Lord’s Willing . . .”).
During 1956, Reed performed on WLWTV’s Midwestern Hayride in Cincinnati, Ohio, Saturday nights, while also appearing occasionally with “Uncle Joe” Allison and players such as Jerry Byrd, on Nashville’s WSIX-TV. Reed spent time performing with Ric Cartey’s Jiv-A-Tones in Memphis, and even recorded a rockin’ session for Lowery’s Tars label. When Jerry met Priscilla Mitchell in June 1957, he was smitten by the Marietta, Ga. peach (who became a session singer, moving up to the mic in 1965 with Roy Drusky, cutting their #1 duet single “Yes, Mr. Peters”), and called her by the abbreviated “Priss.” “But when I proposed to my wife, I said, ‘If anybody in this family is going to work at an everyday job, it’s going to be you, because I’m gonna play this guitar the rest of my life. Now, do you wanna get married?’ She said, ‘Yeah,’ so we did (in 1959). And I meant it.” Jerry and Priss have two daughters Seidina Ann and Charlotte Elaine.
Life wasn’t always so comfortable, however, “I recall being in the Army starving to death, with a wife and kid. In critical times, things happen. But they didn’t happen the way I planned ’em.” In boot camp at Fort Jackson, Reed met up with “Pappy” Burns, a Sergeant First Class – and brother to Jethro of Homer & Jethro fame (who incidentally was Chet Atkins’ brother-inlaw) – in the Third Army Band. Jerry asked Pappy to “requisition” him to join his unit: “Well, I was in radio school and scheduled to go to Germany or Korea. When I was in the (immunization) shot line, they called my name . . . So I didn’t have to go overseas (intead he went to Fort McPherson, near Atlanta). I was attached to Third Army Band for my entire hitch (including their Circle A Wranglers unit, originally formed by Faron Young). I was very fortunate.” Somebody up there liked him because Brenda Lee cut his composition “That’s All You Gotta Do,” which hit Top 10 in 1960. “A year later, Porter cut ‘Misery Loves Company.’ It went to #1 (country) and stayed on the charts 29 weeks. That’s the money that got me up to Nashville.”
Reed landed lots of session work pickin’ while seeking his own recording pact, performing on records of such country artists as Dick Curless (“Shoes”), as well as pop legends like Frank Sinatra, Joan Baez and Ringo Starr. In addition, writing supplemented his income, as his songs became cuts for a variety of
acts like Lee (“Born To Be By Your Side”), Nat “King” Cole (“Misery Loves Company”), Jimmy Dean (“A Thing Called Love”) and Elvis Presley (“Girl Of Mine,” “Talk About Good Times,” “A Thing Called Love”). “Where you get fulfilled in this business really is writing,” said Reed. “When you write a song that people love enough to go buy it, then you sort of feel like you’ve earned your keep, fulfilled your purpose here . . . I don’t know where songs come from really. I think they come from God.”
A brief early 1960s’ liaison with Columbia Records turned out among others the Reed singles “Goodnight Irene,” a revival of the folk hit, and “Hully Gully Guitar,” a novelty number never quite making it. Chet Atkins recorded some 20 Reed instrumentals, initially “Scarecrow” and “Down Home,” which impressed him before signing the newcomer. “What can you say about The Chief?,” reminisced Reed. “Are you kidding me! This building (BMI), you and me, this town, why it was guys like Chet and Owen Bradley, who helped pioneer this place. We owe them! They built it! And when you look at Chet’s life and all the people he recorded, it is amazing!” One of Reed’s fondest memories occurred after his own modest (1967) success “Guitar Man” got dusted off by no less than Elvis Presley: “The story is he wanted it to sound like my record, and there were no finger pickers on that session – they were all straight pickers. So they told him if he wanted that sound, he’d have to get Jerry Reed in here. That’s how I come to go down there. “Son, as soon as I hit that intro, his face lit up and here we went. We had a blast! You know later someone sent me a tape with me and Elvis kibbitzing back and forth on the microphone, and I wouldn’t take a million dollars for that!” Spicing up the memory, no doubt, occurred when Elvis’ producer Felton Jarvis remixed it a baker’s dozen years later. Presley’s cut became a posthumous #1 single on March 14, 1981, for both Elvis and Felton, who unexpectedly died Jan. 3, but not before making “Guitar Man” the title track for RCA’s near-Top Five Presley album that year.
For his Atlantic album “Old Dogs” a project teaming him with fellow veterans Waylon Jennings, Mel Tillis and Bobby Bare, he included his take on “Elvis Has Left the Building” no doubt in memory of Presley’s impact on his own career. Following its release, he recorded “Pickin’,” for Bill Lowery’s Southern Tracks indie label in 1998, on which he featured “My Priscilla” a valentine to his Mrs. When he wrote, Jerry did so on guitar: “I’m guitar-oriented and the guitar figures into everything I write. My whole musical mind is wrapped around and engulfed in the guitar. Thet’s my consciousness, you see, it defines me.”
Chet also got him with Glen Campbell, who would record Jerry’s ballad “Today Is Mine” for his 1971 album “Last Time I Saw Her” produced by Al DeLory. At the time, the Capitol superstar was underway with his Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, a network CBS-TV variety series, featuring Reed pickin’ and grinnin’. Reed did the summer TVshow When You’re Hot, You’re Hot Hour in 1972, titled after his #1 crossover song. “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot” that also garnered a 1971 Grammy.
Never regarded as great a singer as he was a picker, nonetheless his intense vocal version of “Georgia On My Mind” ranks right up there with the best (as heard on RCA’s Top Five 1972 LP “The Best of Jerry Reed”).
It was in 1974 that Jerry made his big screen debut in John Avildsen’s rollicking Burt Reynolds’ romantic “W.W. & The Dixie Dancekings,” filmed partially in Nashville. “Man, what a hoot! We had more fun on that first movie I made with him. We hit it off right away. Burt loved Nashville. I mean why not, he’s from Florida, he plays football, he’s Southern. He loved it. He really did.” Little did Reed realize that would be the start of a new phase in his career: “Then he called from Hollywood (in 1975) and said he wanted me to do ‘Gator,’ and wanted me to be the heavy. I said, ‘Heavy? I weigh less than 155 pounds soaking wet. How’re you gonna make a heavy outa me?’ Burt said, ‘Don’t worry about it. I’m gonna put a sawed-off shotgun in your pocket!’ “I said fine! I had OJT (on the job training) as an actor, and I never forgot the lessons. He said the only time I’d get in trouble is if I tried to be an actor . . . I’m a re-actor not an actor by
any stretch of the imagination. I can be natural, but that’s about all I can do.” Reed became Reynolds’ favorite sidekick in such follow-up films as the box office blockbuster “Smokey & The Bandit” (1977, with Sally Fields and Jackie Gleason) and its two sequels (II in 1980, III in 1983), plus 1978’s Peter Fonda starrer “High Ballin’,” Dom DeLuise’s “Hot Stuff” (’79), “The Survivors” (1983) with Robin Williams, and Adam Sandler’s “The Waterboy” (1998).
There was a 1977 TV movie “Concrete Cowboys” which eventually spun-off into a proposed 1981 series of that title, but closed down after six episodes. Jerry also guested in both acting and singing parts for such sitcoms as Mama’s Family, Alice and Burt Reynolds’ Evening Shade. Then came his ’85 lackluster “What Comes Around,” which he produced, directed and starred in with Bo Hopkins. In retrospect what would he do differently with that effort we asked? “I wouldn’t do it at all,” Reed replied. “I was stupid when I did it. I was so full of myself back then I thought I could bang heads with Hollywood. But I learned my lesson well, and my next one was ‘Bat-21’ with Gene Hackman and Danny Glover.” That 1988 drama – the true story of a Colonel shot down during the Vietnam War and rescued dramatically – was applauded by critics. How about being the heavy again, this time in “Waterboy”? “All I know is they called me looking for a redneck to be the bad coach. (Henry Winkler was the good guy.) So I sent ’em a little video and they sent me a script, and I read it, and put a little camera on. Next, they called to say they wanted me to come read for the producer. I said fine, went and read for it and he told me, ‘Well, you’re the coach.’ Adam’s a talented young man. We had a great time on that movie (also starring Kathy Bates).” Jerry received glowing reviews for playing against type.
Still he emphasized that making music remained his first love, especially playing guitar. Reed’s signature finger-pickin’ style dubbed “The Claw,” is so intricate, few instrumentalists could master it. He combined complex independent lines in the guitar’s bass and treble, while also using rippling combinations of fretted and open strings. “I’m a finger-picker and I was in the mode of where I was writing a lot of instrumentals. I just found out recently that I’ve composed about 70 instrumentals, and that was a time when I could really finger-pick my stuff. That is the way I thought about guitar and I just sat down one day and started foolin’ around with it, and I thought ‘I’ll play this for Chet and see if he wants to record it.’ Well, he loved it, and I guess it seems to have become my signature – and who would’ve thunk it!?”
In 2005, he co-produced “Jerry Reed Live! Still” with son-in-law Chet Hinesley for the indie R2K Records. Included in the CD mix are five of Reed’s greatest hits: “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot,” “Lord, Mr. Ford,” “East Bound and Down,” “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft)” and “Amos Moses.” Was the million-selling “Amos Moses,” Reed’s first Top 10 pop entry (and a country Top 20), about a fellow back home? “No. I like the name Amos Moses and I just decided to make him Cajun. The interesting thing about the song is when I was playing it for Chet Atkins, he said he liked it, then he asked, ‘Did you ever hear that story about Freddie Hart?’ “I said no and he commenced to tell me, ‘Well, his daddy used to tie a rope around around Freddie’s waist and threw him in the swamp and then pulled him outa the water before the gator got him!’ I said, ‘You’re kidding me!,’ and he said that’s what he heard. So I put it in my song. That part’s about Freddie Hart. If you see Freddie, tell him.”
Typical of Jerry Reed, he requested that his services be quick. Without fanfare, his funeral was conducted Sept. 2, by the Woodlawn-Roesch-Patton Funeral Home, Nashville. Survivors include wife Priscilla, daughters Seidina Hinesley and “Lottie” Stewart, and grandchildren Jerry Rorick and Lainey Stewart. The Army veteran had also suggested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Wounded Warriors Project, P.O. Box 758517, Topeka, Kan. 66675, that was so dear to his heart.