“Every dream I ever dreamed came true in my life. I got to write hit songs... And I got to be on phonograph records... I‘m a cotton mill boy, and I got to go to Hollywood. Can you imagine that? Why, yeah, my goodness gracious. Go figure.” -Jerry Reed, country music star and movie actor, to Calvin Gilbert, CMT.com, in 2005.
OK, now, I‘ve cranked on the 1977 movie “Smokey and the Bandit” in this space before and for good reason - I mean, it portrayed truck drivers are nothing more than crude, profane, reckless buffoons and didn‘t do much for law enforcement personnel either (especially sheriffs from Texas).
[Jerry Reed, born March 20, 1937, died August 31, 2008.]
But the recent death of Jerry Reed, 71, who portrayed truck driver Cledus “The Snowman” Snow in the movie - plus co-wrote and sang the movie‘s still-popular theme song, “East Bound and Down” - brought back a lot of memories of that movie and that time for me. His death of complications from emphysema is a sad coda on that time and place for me, especially because I still love that song so much (it‘s on my iPod shuffle right now as we speak).
[Take a listen to "East Bound and Down" below - the unique banjo picking by Reed alone makes it a timeless classic.]
I mean, I was all of nine years old when this movie about the wild and illegal antics of a trucker who goes by the handle “The Bandit” (portrayed by Burt Reynolds) and his sidekick “Snowman” hit the big screen - and I loved every minute of it.
And 1977 was a HUGE year for movies, if you recall - giving “Smokey and the Bandit” MAJOR competition at the box office - the kind that make‘s Hollywood executives jump off buildings. For that‘s the year Steven Spielberg rolled out his epic “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the James Bond franchise released one of its most popular films in the series, “The Spy Who Loved Me,” and - the crème de la crème for geeks like me - George Lucas made history with “Star Wars,” the finest science fiction film of all time.
Still, “Smokey and the Bandit” held its own against some of the biggest movie heavyweights of all time, earning over $126.7 million at the box office - not in the least because, despite its schlock and buffoonery, driving trucks for a living just seemed so COOL, with its own unique linguistics (10-4, choke and puke, putting the hammer down) and fashion statements (Snowman‘s “Cat Power” mesh baseball cap for one). All those big rigs, the sleek black Trans Am driven by the Bandit, miles of open highway - it was simply an awesome visual spectacle.
Remember, this is from the perspective of a nine-year old, who knew absolutely ZERO about trucking. Today, watching the characters in this film cranking their big rigs up to 90 miles per hour, scoffing at the law - if not downright running law enforcement vehicles off the road - and everyone (state police officers included) making all kinds of sexist comments makes me just cringe inside. Back then, however, it all seemed like fun.
[Here‘s a short compilation of scenes from “Smokey and the Bandit” set to Reed‘s classic tune.]
Jerry Reed didn‘t take any of it too seriously. He thought it all great fun and frankly a dream come true for someone who grew up as poor as he did. According to The Tennessean newspaper, Jerry Reed Hubbard was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on March 20, 1937 -- the second child born to Robert Spencer Hubbard and Cynthia Hubbard. Jerry‘s birth strained an already troubled marriage, and four months later the couple separated. For the next seven years Jerry and his sister Patricia where shuttled between Georgia orphanages and foster homes. They finally returned home in 1944 when their mother married Hubert Howard, another mill worker.
Music provided a welcome diversion for the family. He was exposed to gospel music via his religious background, and a natural aptitude for singing gave him a yearning to become a musician at a very early age. Encouraged by her son's continuing passion for music, Cyntia Howard saved seven dollars to buy a no-name second-hand guitar from a neighbor. Using a nickel as a flat pick, she taught the nine-year-old his first chords, the newspaper reported. And the rest, as they say, is history.
[Reed was first and foremost a musician and song writer -- acting came second, largely by accident.]
He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1959 and due to his musical talents became a member of the army‘s Circle A Wranglers band. His career took off after his discharge, where Reed‘s unique style drew the attention of none other than Elvis Presley - yes, THAT Elvis - who covered two of Reed‘s songs, “U.S. Male” and “Guitar Man.” Johnny Cash recorded another of Reed‘s tunes as well - “A thing called love.”
He won a Grammy in 1971 for best country male performance for his first No. 1 country hit, appropriately titled “When You‘re Hot, You‘re Hot.” Two years later, he hit No. 1 again with the modern times lament, “Lord, Mr. Ford.” He became a regular on Glen Campbell‘s “Goodtime Hour” television program as a result, and his natural charisma displayed on the small screen got him on the big screen. His first move role came in 1974, playing a joke-cracking sidekick in “W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings” with Burt Reynolds. That led, of course, to his co-staring role in “Smokey and the Bandit.” The theme song Reed co-wrote and sang - “East Bound and Down” - spent two weeks at No. 2 on the Billboard Country singles chart.
[Just one of the really REALLY bad trucking films that followed the unlikely sucess of "Smokey and the Bandit." Trust me -- it's not even worth renting.]
A lot of dreary trucker movie knockoffs followed (1978‘s “High Ballin‘” and the 1980 and 1983 "Smokey and the Bandit" sequels among them) and Reed‘s career went into a steady fade. I think his last movie role was in Adam Sandler‘s mediocre comedy “The Waterboy” as the “bad coach” for the opposing team, with his last musical hit “I‘m a Slave” back in 1983.
Yet Reed spent his last years doing a lot of good, though few may know about it - working to raise money for wounded veterans. In early 2008 he recorded his last album “The Gallant Few” to help generate much-needed money for them.
“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.”
That‘s all too true. Thanks, Snowman.