Jerry Reed, country music’s howling virtuoso and a star of stage, studio and screen, has died. Born Jerry Reed Hubbard, Mr. Reed suffered from emphysema and was in hospice care. He was 71, and he leaves an unparalleled legacy of laughter and song.
Elvis Presley recorded two songs from Jerry Reed; “U.S. Male” and “Guitar Man.” Presley was unhappy with others’ attempts to recreate Mr. Reed’s guitar sound, and Mr. Reed received a telephone call from producer Felton Jarvis, asking how he did what he did. Mr. Reed told Jarvis that the only way to get the Jerry Reed sound was to have Jerry Reed on the session, asserting that most studio players are “straight pickers,” while, “I play with my fingers and tune that guitar up all weird kind of ways.” Jarvis, and Presley, took note, and Mr. Reed performed on the Presley sessions. It all made sense: The only way to sound like Jerry Reed was to be Jerry Reed.His life story
By the time Mr. Reed came to popular attention as Burt Reynolds’ truck-driving sidekick “The Snowman” in the Hollywood trilogy Smokey and the Bandit, he was already a musical deity to the guitar players who admired the syncopated flurries he unleashed with a casual gleam. He was also a hit recording artist by that time, having topped the charts with “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot” and “Lord, Mr. Ford,’ and having written songs for Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Porter Wagoner, Brenda Lee and others. Then there was his work as session guitarist for Presley, Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare and many others.
Mr. Reed enjoyed his comedic Hollywood roles (which included a part in the 1998 Adam Sandler film, The Waterboy), and he often smiled when movie fans would ask for an autograph without realizing that he was a singer and guitarist of significance. Music was most important to him, though. Asked by interviewer Frank Goodman which facet of music he preferred – songwriter, solo guitarist, session man or entertainer – Mr. Reed said, “Hey, that’s like trying to pick out your favorite leg.”
“There’s nothing on earth as powerful as music, period,” he told Goodman. “I mean, it’s pretty hard to fight and hate and be angry when you’re making music, isn’t it?”
As Mr. Reed’s health declined in recent years, he focused on spiritual studies and on bringing attention to veterans’ issues.
“For 50 years, all I’d done was take, take, take,” he told The Tennessean’s Tim Ghianni in 2007. “I decided from now on it is going to be giving. And I’m way behind. We’re all way behind. We live this life like what’s down here is what it’s all about. We’re temporary, son, like a wisp of smoke.”
Mr. Reed was born in Atlanta, Ga., on March 20, 1937. He was the son of cotton mill workers Robert Spencer Hubbard and Cynthia Hubbard, who divorced in their son’s first year. From fall of 1937 until 1944, the boy lived in orphanages and foster homes. He rejoined his mother when she married mill worker Hubert Howard in 1944.
Already transfixed by music, he listened to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio each Friday night, jumping around on a woodpile in lieu of a stage, and playing a hairbrush as if it was a rhythm guitar. Noticing his enthusiasm, Cynthia Howard bought a used guitar from a neighbor for $7, presented it to her son and taught him two chords. He began striking the strings with a thumb-pick, a practice he continued throughout his career. When a guitar teacher told him to discontinue that method, an already headstrong Mr. Reed dropped the teacher rather than the pick.
Hearing finger-style guitarist Merle Travis play “I Am A Pilgrim” caused young Mr. Reed to aspire to something beyond simplicity.
“I thought when I heard it, ‘Boy, there it is! That man is walking with the big dog. He knows where the bodies are buried, and I want some of that,’” Mr. Reed told Bob Anderson in a 1979 interview.
Another hero was banjo great Earl Scruggs, and Mr. Reed ultimately arrived at a guitar style that fused Scruggs’ rapid torrents of notes with the rhythms heard in Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.” That is the style that made Mr. Reed an inspiration to generations of guitarists, and though he would not fully realize his signature sound until the 1960s, he spent his high school years honing his musical and performing chops and displaying a talent and magnetism that set him apart from others at school.
In 1954, he played a self-penned song called “Aunt Meg’s Wooden Leg” for Atlanta publisher and radio host Bill Lowery, who began managing and booking the young man. A 30-day tour opening shows for Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours ensued, and the experience was enough to convince Mr. Reed that high school was of little use to him.
“I knew what I was going to spend my life doing,” he later said. “Nothing else made any sense. Nothing else made any difference.”
In 1954, a 17-year-old Mr. Reed played a show in Atlanta in honor of country star Faron Young, who had been discharged from the Army. Ken Nelson ran Capitol Records, and Nelson attended the Atlanta show. Lowery, who had hired Mr. Reed as a disc jockey at Atlanta’s WGST, told Nelson that Capitol could do worse than to sign the cotton mill boy from Georgia.
Reluctant to sign such a young act to Capitol, Nelson acquiesced. He told Mr. Reed to wait until his 18th birthday before recording, and in October of 1955 the men entered a Nashville studio and made a record. First single “If The Good Lord’s Willing And The Creeks Don’t Rise” did not make any great commercial waves, and neither did follow-up single “I’m A Lover, Not A Fighter.” And neither did any others of Mr. Reed’s Capitol recordings, as he flailed about for a form that rang true. He moved through country, pop and rockabilly, to little avail.
“My records were selling like hot cakes: About fifty cents a stack,” he often joked in later years.
In 1958, Mr. Reed ended his association with Capitol. He enlisted in the United States Army in 1959, the same year he married Priscilla “Prissy” Mitchell. Army brass thought Mr. Reed’s talents better suited for a stage than a battlefield, and the would-be warrior became a member of the army’s Circle A Wranglers band. Meanwhile, Lowery kept pitching Mr. Reed’s songs to others. In 1960, Brenda Lee had a Top 10 pop hit with Mr. Reed’s “That’s All You Gotta Do.” That song was the “flip” side of Lee’s wildly popular single “I’m Sorry.” That success was a change for the better, as was a 1961 military discharge and the development of a unique guitar-playing method that would later be called “Claw style.”
“If (Merle) Travis’ thumb and index finger picking style was first generation, and Chet Atkins’ use of thumb, index and middle finger was second, Reed’s use of his entire right hand to pick (the famous “claw” style) was the wild, untamed and dauntingly complex third generation,” wrote historian and journalist Rich Kienzle.
Mr. Reed switched from a steel-stringed acoustic guitar to a nylon-stringed Baldwin model, with an electronic “pickup” that allowed the guitar to be heard above a full band. He signed a Columbia Records contract in 1961, but that deal yielded no hits. His songwriting and session playing proved more lucrative, as he performed on hits for Bobby Bare and he penned Porter Wagoner’s 1962 No. 1 hit, “Misery Loves Company.” And Mr. Reed attracted a high-powered fan in Chet Atkins, the guitar star who ran Nashville’s branch of RCA.
“Chet and I had got friendly, and he told me, ‘You ain’t never going to have a hit recording what’s not you. Just go in there and be what you are.’ Chet thinks I’m funky,” Mr. Reed told Morton Moss of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner.
Atkins expressed interest in Mr. Reed signing to RCA, and Mr. Reed broke the news to a Columbia Records executive that he would like to go to