A Closer Look At “Guitar Man”

The story about a down-on-his-luck guitar player looking for a ticket to stardom is common. More often than not, the songwriter’s own story mirrors the one the one he made up in lyric. For Jerry Reed, this was the case; the towns and some of the scenes were rearranged or renamed to flow, but the premise is the same. He grew up in Georgia playing guitar on the porch, joined the military, finally moving to Nashville to cash in on his dreams of success. Only when he knocked on the door, success didn’t answer immediately. She made him wait ten years before letting him in. True, he was able to peek in the windows, and look through the crack under the door, but he wasn’t let in to the big time until “Guitar Man” hit the airwaves.

Jerry had been dogging it in and out of Nashville since 1958, when he got a cut with Gene Vincent, called “Crazy Legs”. 1960 brought him a successful cut with Brenda Lee, “That’s All You Got To Do”, but he had yet to successfully put out any recordings of his own. 1967 was the year. He released “Guitar Man”, a tune about a good ol’ boy roaming around the South, from Memphis to Macon and everywhere in between, looking for a band to set in and play with. His misfortune brought him to Mobile, AL, where he found Lady Luck waiting all along. His version hit the charts and also the ear of Elvis Presley. From there, Elvis took the ball and ran.

Presley was in Nashville in 1967 for a recording session with Felton Jarvis. This was leading up to his big comeback, and he had a certain list of songs he wanted recorded, “Guitar Man” being at the top of the list. After a few days of unsuccessful results, the song just wasn’t gelling. It didn’t have that same frenetic fire that Reed’s version did. It was straight and it was boring; the only thing to do was to call up Reed to find the missing link. Jarvis finally tracked him down: he was in the middle of the Cumberland River, attempting to catch his limit. Felton laid it out for him; Elvis is here in the studio recording your song, but he isn’t satisfied with the way it’s turning out. He wants it to sound more like your version, but how do we do that?

Jerry’s response was typical Jerry: “Well, if you want it to sound like that, you’re going have to get me in there to play guitar, because these guys (you’re using in the studio) are straight pickers. I pick with my fingers and tune that guitar up all weird kind of ways.” And that was it; he was in the studio later that evening, meeting Elvis for the first and only time, nervous and fumbling around for the first few takes. He finally got warmed up, and everyone got in the groove. By the fifth take, they were pretty solid, and by the tenth take, they had it. Elvis was fine tuned and Jerry provided the funked-up groove that made everything else fall effortlessly into place.

Elvis’ version was used as the opening number of his ’68 Comeback Special, which launched him back into the spotlight, igniting the second phase of his music career that would carry him until his death in 1977. It also solidified Jerry Reed as a songwriter and innovative guitar player, putting him into the pantheon of country musicians for his contributions to the genre.

Not bad for a “swingin’ little guitar man…”

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