Guitar Man

Album: Clambake (1967)
Charted: 28
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Songfacts®:

  • In the movie Clambake, Elvis Presley played an oil heir masquerading as a water ski instructor – the type of frivolous role he had come to despise. Over the past decade, his film career had also dictated his musical output, with most of his releases being soundtracks to his movies. By 1967, he had enough, especially when the film only yielded a handful of tunes, some of which were cut from the movie, and left the producers scrambling to fill out the album. Elvis solved the problem by picking some of his radio favorites.

    One that excited him was "Guitar Man," the recent country hit from future Smokey and the Bandit actor Jerry Reed. It tells the story of an aspiring musician who quits his job at a car wash to hitchhike around the South in search of a place to play his guitar. But it seems no one is interested in a guitar man, not even Memphis, where Elvis caught his big break at Sun Records. His luck turns around in Mobile, Alabama, where he fronts a four-man band at a bar called Big Jack's.
  • Peaking at #53, this was Reed's first hit on the country chart. Elvis took it to #1 and had some minor crossover success with a #43 entry on the pop chart. Elvis had even better success with a posthumous release in 1981 that featured his original vocals backed with a new electrical arrangement. The single peaked at #28 on the Hot 100 and landed at #1 again on the country chart.
  • Elvis started the recording session with this song, but couldn't get into the same funky groove as Jerry Reed's record. Frustrated, he sent for Reed, who was on a fishing trip. "See, I had my own tuning, and they were trying to record 'Guitar Man,' and they couldn't make it feel like my record," Reed recalled. "And I forget if it was Pete Drake or Charlie McCoy or Chip Young - one of those musicians said, 'Well, these guitar players in here are playing with straight picks, and, you know, Reed plays with his fingers.' So they called me, and I went down, and I hooked up that electric gut string, tuned the B-string up a whole tone, and I toned the low E-string down a whole tone, so I could bar straight across, and as soon as we hit the intro, you could see Elvis' eyes light up. He knew we had it."

    He continued: "It was just a jamming session. I thought I was going to be so damn nervous I couldn't play, but it was right the opposite. I got pumped, and then Elvis got pumped, and the more he got pumped up, the more I did - it was like a snowball effect. To tell you the truth, I was on cloud nine. And once Elvis got the spirit, things really began to happen. When the guitars and the rhythm sounded right, I guess the guitar lick kind of reminded him of [Ray Charles'] 'What'd I Say,' and he just sort of started testifying at the end. That was how it happened - one of those rare moments in your life you never forget."
  • Despite a hit country single and the non-movie bonus songs, the album sold less than 200,000 copies, making Clambake his worst-selling album to date. Elvis was in danger of becoming a has-been, but the following year he made an astounding comeback with the NBC special Elvis, which featured a performance of "Guitar Man."
  • Reed's version was used in the 2005 movie The Dukes of Hazzard, starring Johnny Knoxville, Seann William Scott, and Jessica Simpson.

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