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, Tenn., of complications from emphysema. He was 71.
“He was still recording right up until he couldn’t anymore,” 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’d 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 1970s and ’80s with humorous hits including “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot,” “Amos Moses,” 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,” said Michael Gray, museum editor for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
Jerry Reed Hubbard was born March 20, 1937, in Atlanta, into a family of cotton farmers. He started playing guitar when he was young, 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.
Following a two-year stint in the Army, he relocated to Nashville and switched to Columbia Records. There 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 following 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 Association named him instrumentalist of the year.
“Amos Moses” was followed by “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot,” the 1971 hit for which Reed won the Grammy for male country vocal. He won two others during his life for duets with Atkins.