Jerry Reed, whose roles in three “Smokey and the Bandit” Southern comedy films opposite Burt Reynolds often overshadowed his gifts as a prolific country singer-songwriter and virtuoso guitarist, died Monday at his home outside Nashville of complications from emphysema. He was 71.
“He was still recording right up until he couldn’t any more,” his booking agent, Carrie Moore-Reed, who is not related, said Tuesday. “He had been ill for some time.”
Reed gained widespread fame as Reynolds’ wisecracking foil starting with “W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings” in 1975, followed the next year by “Gator” and then, in 1977, the first of three “Smokey and the Bandit” movies in which he played Cledus “Snowman” Snow. In his last major film role, he played a harsh football coach in the 1998 Adam Sandler comedy “The Waterboy.”
But before he made the jump to Hollywood he had established himself as one of the most sought-after guitarists in Nashville, a songwriter who wrote hits for Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Brenda Lee and many others. He became a regular presence on the pop and country charts in the ‘70s and ‘80s with humorous hits including “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot,” “Amos Moses,” “East Bound and Down” and “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft).”
“The general population might recognize him most as Snowman in the ‘Smokey’ films, but they should be aware of so many important contributions he made in music,” Michael Gray, museum editor for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, said Tuesday.
Added current country star Brad Paisley: “I drew a lot of inspiration from him in various ways. His overall artistry and persona was so much fun and entertaining -- that is just one way I want to emulate him. Another is his total musicianship -- anyone who picks a country guitar knows of his mastery of the instrument -- one of the most inspirational stylists in the history of country music.”
Reed, however, said that growing up he had admired comedians as much as musicians, and that he had long hoped to emulate them in his own career. “My favorite people on Earth are the Jack Bennys and Jackie Gleasons and Red Skeltons and Sid Caesars -- those guys that could just tear your head off,” he said in 1999. “If you’re laughing your guts out, how can you be depressed?”
Besides, he said, the movies kept his face and voice in circulation long after his 16-year string of 57 Top 100 country singles tailed off in 1983.
“To this day, kids follow me down the street talking about those movies. They see the reruns on Saturday afternoons,” he said in 1999. “The pictures gave me an [image] that kept me out there long after the music industry wasn’t interested any more.”
Jerry Reed Hubbard was born March 20, 1937, in Atlanta, into a family of cotton farmers. He started playing guitar at a young age, and by the time he was a teenager he was performing with the likes of Ernest Tubb and Faron Young. He got his first record contract in 1955 -- he was 18 -- with Capitol Records.
His own records didn’t click, but one of his songs, “Crazy Legs,” was recorded by Capitol’s big rockabilly star, Gene Vincent. Then Brenda Lee charted a Top 10 hit in 1960 with Reed’s song “That’s All You Gotta Do.”
After a two-year stint in the Army, he moved to Nashville and switched to Columbia Records to further his music career.
Once in the country capital, his songs and guitar playing caught the ear of Chet Atkins, the esteemed guitarist who worked for RCA as a producer and talent scout. He signed Reed in 1965.
The first tangible result of that deal was “Guitar Man,” which reached No. 53 on the country singles chart.
Because he was a label mate of Presley, Reed suggested that Presley record the tune.
Presley’s version became a Top 50 hit and helped usher in Presley’s late-'60s career revitalization that followed his round of fluffy Hollywood movies. Presley followed “Guitar Man” with another Reed song, “U.S. Male.”
Reed landed the first Top 10 pop hit of his own in 1970 with “Amos Moses,” a country funk tune about a Cajun alligator hunter built around Reed’s chicken-cluck electric guitar leads and cackling laugh. That year the Country Music Assn. named him instrumentalist of the year.
After “Amos Moses” came “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot,” the 1971 hit for which Reed won the Grammy for male country vocal. He won two others for duets he recorded with Atkins.
The colorful narratives in his quasi-novelty hits set the stage for his TV and film persona, which emphasized his ability to turn homespun catch phrases and Southern wisdom.
duets he recorded with AtkinsEarlier this year he released “The Gallant Few,” a collection of songs he wrote about wounded war veterans, an outgrowth of what he described as his mission in recent years to help ensure that they would not be forgotten.
Reed is survived by his wife, Priscilla; two daughters, Sedena and Lottie, and two grandchildren. There are no plans for a public memorial service, Moore-Reed said.
In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting that donations be made to the website for his latest release, thegallantfew.com. Proceeds go to Amvets.