Guitarist, singer, songwriter, actor & director.
(1937 – 2008)
Truth be told, Jerry Reed may be the greatest entertainer ever.
Now, that’s a bold statement and I’m only half serious but Jerry not only checks a lot of boxes and can thrill you in many ways but, as an actor, he also may have a lot in common with – and may be in the same league as – the likes of John Wayne, Cary Grant and Dean Martin. Hear me out.
Jerry Reed Hubbard was born in Atlanta and he would remain the quintessential country boy throughout his career. After a stint in the US Army, Reed moved to Nashville and began to attract notice as a songwriter. I was surprised to learn recently that, early on, he wrote a song by Brenda Lee that I’ve loved for years. Occasionally I would hear Brenda singing “That’s All You Gotta Do” on The Doo-Wop Express and one day I decided that the song was delightful so I looked it up. I learned Jerry had written it and his stock rose even higher in my book.
In the late Sixties, Jerry’s early records were heard by Chet Atkins, legendary picker and producer at RCA Records in Nashville. Chet recognized Reed’s playing style as unique and of a high quality. Jerry’s tune “The Claw” demonstrates an intricate picking style that many have tried to duplicate in dozens of instructional videos.
Jerry started making records with Chet at RCA and his discography is varied, exciting and distinctive. His first album, released in February of ’67 and featuring an unfortunate cover, set the standard for Jerry’s records to come, mixing good-time music with serious ballads. Jerry was a prolific songwriter and wrote many of the songs he recorded by himself. He composed all of the tracks on his first album and they include “Guitar Man” and “U.S. Male”. Which brings me to Jerry’s significant connection to Elvis Presley.
Jerry Reed was “instrumental” in the rejuvenation of Presley’s career in 1967, starting with Jerry playing on EP’s recording of Jimmy Reed’s (no relation) “Big Boss Man”. Presley’s next two singles were “Guitar Man” and “U.S. Male” and Reed was on hand for both sessions. Elvis was excited by Jerry’s sound on “Guitar Man” and wanted to record the song himself. The session wasn’t going well until finally King demanded they get Jerry himself to play on the record. Legend has it that Reed was found out in a fishing boat. He walked into the studio dressed in his fishing togs, sat down and thrilled all with his sparkling technique. Presley would later also record Reed’s “A Thing Called Love” and “Talk About the Good Times”. Reed would also play on Presley’s “Too Much Monkey Business” and two great songs from the sessions for the Stay Away, Joe soundtrack, “Stay Away” and “Goin’ Home”.
Check Out Jerry Reed’s first five albums, released on RCA in the last years of the 1960’s:
- The Unbelievable Guitar and Voice of Jerry Reed (1967)
- Nashville Underground (1968)
- Alabama Wild Man (1968)
- Better Things in Life (1969)
- Jerry Reed Explores Guitar Country (1969)
Reed wrote all but a handful of the songs on the first four records while the fifth was a concept album of sorts that featured Jerry’s takes on traditional songs. So, he was a prolific writer, yes, but look at the styles he presents on these records. Jerry could easily move between a deadly serious, heartfelt, string-laden countrypolitan balladeer and a lighthearted, life-in-the-South, wise-cracking, storytelling hillbilly boy.
The first track on his first album, “It Don’t Work That Way”, borders on baroque pop and employs harpsichord. A similar sound is used on “You’re Young and You’ll Forget” from the same record; a delightful pop tune. From Nashville Underground, listen to the achingly beautiful “You Wouldn’t Know a Good Thing”. This gentle tone is carried on with “Losing Your Love” from Alabama Wild Man. From the same record, “Today is Mine” is indescribably wistful. Reed’s trademark guitar sound brightens “The Likes of Me” from Better Things in Life, a record that also boasts “Someday You’ll Call My Name”, a recording that is the very epitome of countrypolitan.
The other side of the coin – from the same records mentioned above – features Reed’s blistering takes on his legendary “Guitar Man” – one of the most enjoyable songs to sing along to – and the jokey “U.S. Male” with lyrics warning other men to stay away from Jerry’s woman or else he’ll “lay one on ya”. “Tupelo Mississippi Flash” from Jerry’s second album is a comical fictional tale of Jerry the record company man discovering the hottest thing since…Elvis Presley. The character is a nod to the King and the Flash approaches Jerry claiming that “I’ll sing you some songs that’ll knock your hat in the creek”. The title track of his third record tells a whimsical (and again fictional) version of Reed’s life story that has his daddy calling him a wild man as young Jerry would sit on the front porch pickin’ that gi-tar. After Daddy kicked him out, Jerry went to Nashville and became a star. He returned to play the clubs back home and his daddy was there bragging on his boy, the Alabama Wild Man; “Yeah, that’s my boy, alright. Taught him everything he knows…keep them cheques comin’ in, boy. We gon’ pave the drive next week!” The same record has “Broken Heart Attack”, an outrageous number punctuated by blasting horns.
At the dawn of the new decade, Reed helped popularize swamp rock with the rock/country/funk/Cajun number “Amos Moses”, a song that was a hit for Jerry reaching #8 on the pop charts. Amos apparently lived out in the swamp hunting alligators; “he’d just knock ’em in the head with a stump”. This outstanding tune may epitomize what Jerry Reed is best known for; this tune moves, it is solid, groovy, and it features great picking and humourous lyrics about life in the South. THAT is Jerry Reed. Along the same lines was “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot”, another Top Ten pop hit for Jerry and another energetic tune that features Reed’s cackling and joking as he tells of his successes as a gambler. “Lord, Mr. Ford” was a #1 country hit for Reed in 1973;
“Well, I’ve got a car that’s mine alone
That me and the finance company own
A ready made pile of manufactured grief
And if I ain’t out of gas in the pouring rain
I’m a-changing a flat in a hurricane
I once spent three days lost on a cloverleaf”
Jerry followed this up with two great soundtrack songs. Gator (1976) featured the swamp rocker “Ballad of Gator McCluskey” that made Burt Reynolds’ film character sound like the coolest dude this side of the Bandit and features the great line “everything’s okey-dokey in the Okeefenokee”. The other soundtrack tune is the immortal “East Bound and Down” from Smokey and the Bandit (1977). The lyrics refer to the action of the film and have ever since provided a backdrop for anyone driving fast to get somewhere in a hurry; “we got a long way to go and a short time to get there…”. This legendary tune was another huge hit on the country charts for Jerry. Another #1 country song came in 1982; “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft)” featuring a stellar lyrical set-up:
“I asked this little girl I was goin’ with to be my wife.
Well, she said she would, so I said “I do”.
But I’da said I wouldn’t if I’da just knew
How sayin’ “I do” was gonna screw up all of my life!”
One of my points here is that the same man that wrote all these hilarious lyrics also wrote “Today is Mine” in 1968: “Today is mine to do with what I will…To die a little that I might learn to live. And take from life that I might learn to give. Today is mine.”
“A Thing Called Love” qualifies as perhaps the only country standard that Jerry wrote and originally recorded. Johnny Cash had a worldwide hit with it and it was recorded not only by Presley but by numerous other performers. Second Hand Songs lists 34 cover versions.
Jerry Reed was able to translate his easy-going country boy persona to the big screen in the 1970’s. Reed appeared in many films with his good friend, Burt Reynolds, starting with W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975) and continuing with Gator, in which Reed plays the heavy with style and relish. And his character’s name is one of the best in movie history: Bama McCall. The next year, Reed made his most notable screen appearance in Reynolds’ legendary Smokey and the Bandit. As Cledus Snow – “the Snowman” – Reed plays the Bandit’s truck-driving partner in a role that proves that Reed is in the same acting realm as Wayne, Grant, Martin and even Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. In front of the cameras, Reed simply played himself and his affable charm shines through brightly. Burt Reynolds always maintained that Reed was an actor of the finest calibre and this may be attributed to Jerry’s immense personality. He was a regular Joe, a cool dude and that was easily apparent in films.
Reed followed up Bandit with another trucker film, the Canadian-made High-Ballin’ which co-starred Peter Fonda and was shot in your humble blogger’s neck of the woods. Jerry would also go on to star in both sequels to Smokey and the Bandit. The second film made an effort and missed the mark while the third – in which Cledus takes the mantle of “the Bandit” – seems to simply have fun with itself and comes off much better. Interestingly, Reed would take on the role of director for 1985’s What Comes Around.
Reed was married to a country singer, Priscilla Mitchell, and the couple were together for 49 years. They had two daughters, both of whom became country singers. Poor Jerry – a lifelong smoker – died of emphysema in 2008. Before he passed, he released a song that took a comical look at the dangers of smoking called “Another Puff”. Along with this warning, the Snowman left behind a legacy of great music and good fun.
*Check this out; there is a website out of the Netherlands dedicated to Jerry. Click here*