RAMBLIN ROUND: Jerry Reed: When the 'Guitar Man' stood up to the Colonel

James Beaty, McAlester News-Capital, Okla.
·6 min read

Apr. 11—As I've mentioned before, when I was a kid I liked to look at the names listed in parentheses under the titles of songs on vinyl records — especially after I learned those were the names of people who wrote the songs.

I soon learned some of my favorite artists, such as Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Buck Owens and others usually wrote their own songs, while others, such as Elvis Presley, had other people writing hits for him.

Even then, I thought it strange that Elvis was listed as a songwriter on only a handful of songs from early in his career. I noticed his name as a songwriter of "Love Me Tender." If he could have a hand in writing one of his biggest hits, why did he suddenly stop?

It wasn't until years later I learned about the predatory practice of his manager, Col. Tom Parker, regarding songs Elvis recorded. In the early days, he would sometimes insist that Elvis be given a co-songwriting credit on a song he had nothing to do with writing, such as "Love Me Tender."

Apparently because Elvis didn't like the idea of being listed as the writer of a song he didn't write, he had Parker cease and desist in listing him as a co-writer of songs written by others — a rare instance of Elvis standing up to Parker.

Although Parker stopped insisting writers of songs Elvis recorded cut him in as an equal songwriting partner, he continued with another practice — insisting songwriters give half of their publishing to Presley and Parker.

It put many songwriters in an unenviable position. Having Elvis record one of their songs could result in massive royalties for a songwriter. If it was a hit, the money could be really big — which all worked into Parker's pressuring tactics. If the songwriter and the songwriters' publishing company would not agree to sign over half of their publishing rights, they could always find another song to record, written by somebody else.

Many songwriters gave in, obviously figuring half the publishing on a song recorded by Elvis would be more than the zero royalties they would get from an Elvis recording if Col. Parker made good on his threat regarding the publishing rights.

That worked out to Parker's advantage in most instances — until he encountered a Nashville-based artist who refused to go along with his scheme, which Parker called "the rule."

In 1967, and up-and-coming songwriter and performer named Jerry Reed had just made his biggest dent in the country music charts, with his funk-grooved song, "Guitar Man." Even though it peaked at No. 53 that July — surprising to me, since it's since become such an iconic song — it still proved to be be Reed's biggest hit up to that point.

That made 1967 a great year for Reed, but it was about to get a whole lot better. Elvis heard the song, by all accounts loved it, and decided to record it himself when he went to RCA's Nashville's studios for a recording session that September. His producer, Felton Jarvis, assembled a studio band of top-flight musicians, but they soon encountered a problem. None of the guitarists could nail the funky guitar riffs heard on Reed's original recording.

Reed was not only a singer-songwriter and a performer. He was also a brilliant guitarist with a unique and original style many other guitar players found difficult to emulate. Since the guitar riff is a key part of Reed's "Guitar Man," the session soon bogged down and stalled.

But hey! There were in Nashville, right? Why not track down Jerry Reed and ask him to advise the guitarists on how to play the part?

The tracking down part took some time and Presley's producer, Felton Jarvis, had to enlist the help of Reed's buddy and guitar mentor, Chet Atkins, to find him — doing some fishing on the nearby Cumberland River.

Reed has recounted what he told Jarvis over the phone: "Well, if you want me to sound like that, you're going to have to get me, because these guys are straight pickers. I play with my fingers and tune that guitar up all weird kind of ways."

By then, Elvis had already decided he wanted the same guitar player on his session who had played on Reed's hit record — namely, Reed himself.

With the musicians for the session assembled in the studio, Reed was asked to rush over, which he did — wearing the fishing clothes he'd worn the past few days, along with a three-day stubble of whiskers. No matter. Some who were there said the immaculately-dressed Elvis and Reed in his worn fishing clothes hit it off, sharing a similar sense of humor.

Reed picked up his gut-string classical style guitar, retuned the strings to his own "weird" tuning and broke into the "Guitar Man" riff. Soon, they had the completed recording in the can and Presley loved it.

Musician Otis Gibbs has related what happened next. Some of Col. Parker's business reps realized no one had told Reed about the Parker's "rule" that he must sign over half his publishing to "Guitar Man" if Elvis recorded the song.

One of Parker's business reps went over to Reed and told him he needed to sign some papers. When Reed asked what they were, he was told about Parker's rule that if Elvis records your song, the writer has to sign away half his publishing.

Gibbs recounted that Reed said "Whoa! That's not going to work for me." When Parker's rep insisted that was the deal, Reed pointed out that Elvis had been trying to record "Guitar Man" the entire day and nothing worked until he arrived to play the guitar part.

"Just look over there. Elvis is sky high and loves this song," Reed is quoted as saying. "If you'd like to walk over there and explain why it's not going to be released, that's your business, but I'm not going to sign that paper. Good to see ya," Reed said as he walked out the door.

Parker backed down; RCA released the record and it became a hit for Elvis as well Reed. Elvis went on to perform the song as part of a medley on what is now called his televised "1968 "Comeback Special." When "Guitar Man" was rereleased in a new studio arrangement in 1981, several years after Presley's passing, it became a hit again — this time becoming a number one country hit.

If Parker held a grudge against Reed, he had to overcome it, because Elvis invited Reed back to the be the "guitar man" on some of his later recording sessions, about five months after the "Guitar Man" sessions. He even recorded several more of Reed's songs in later years, including "A Thing Called Love."

By standing up to Col. Parker, Reed got to keep all of his publishing royalties for "Guitar Man" — which no doubt proved substantial.

He also got something else from the "Guitar Man" recording session — inspiration for a new song called "Tupelo Mississippi Flash."

Gee, I wonder who that could be about?