A new, official CD finally gives overdue tribute to the Picasso of prank phone calls, John Bean.
by Betty Bean
On Nov. 4, a new CD is going to start showing up here and there, and it will sound like something you've already heard. It's called The Real Leroy Mercer (is John Bean), and is a collection of underground tapes that have been around so long and spread so widely that they have almost become part of the culture, especially here in the South. In the fall of 1993, Metro Pulse ran a story called "The Whup Ass Man," and the CD is a direct (though belated) result of that story, which I'd remember even if nobody else did, because I wrote it.
It has turned out to be (I know this because I checked with editor Coury Turczyn) the most-noticed piece ever to run in this publication, in terms of local and national reader response. People still ask for copies six years later. While I'd love to credit the "Whup Ass Man's" popularity to its brilliant writing, everybody'd know that was a lie. What made the story was its subject mattermy brother, John.
Among those who eventually heard about it were two Chattanooga filmmakers, Dave Lang and Bobby Stone, who have a company called Atomic Films. One day Bobby played the tape at the office, and Dave was instantly hooked. They did a little research and started looking in the Knoxville area for names like Leroy Mercer.
"The only person we could come up with was Eddie's Auto Parts. We called Eddie, and he gave me the name Betty Bean," Lang says.
I got together with them the next time they were in Knoxville on business, and Lang pitched the idea of doing a documentary film. This was not the first such offer I'd heard, and I was wary. John's tapes had been poorly imitated and just flat ripped off so many times over the years (Roy D. Mercer, The Jerky Boys, etc.) that I was not enthusiastic, and I wondered why these guys were interested.
Here's how Lang explains it:
"There are so many people who feel so passionately about these tapesI'll bet that a lot of them sit around and do what we did'Let's see if we can't figure out who this guy is...'
"There are so many rumors... And being filmmakers, we just thought this would be such a great documentary, and the more we found out about John, the more strange roads were veering off the main story... What I had envisioned in my mind was that I was going to find somebody who was ill, locked up in a room, had very little life outside these conversations... To my amazement, this was not the case at all."
Lang and Stone worked on the documentary for more than a year, finding time when they could before they became overwhelmed by the scope of the story. Early this year, we decided that the logical order of the John Bean Project would be to back burner the film in favor of first producing a CD. We searched out the best copies we could find, and, courtesy of John's friend Woody Hutson, even came up with some heretofore uncirculated materiala tape called "I Hate Atlanta" that contains an impromptu song recorded in real time while John was driving around lost and not entirely sober in the Big Peach. They had the tapes re-recorded and cleaned up, edited out some (but not all) of the most objectionable parts, and turned graphic designer Jimmy Hammond loose on the cover and liner art.
John would have liked the result.
"What I really, really hope is that everybody will realize who the genius behind this was. That this Roy D. Mercer [the most successful of the imitations of John's tapes now in commercial distribution] is nothing but a second-rate hack. Sure, we know that John Bean did not invent the prank phone callbut Picasso wasn't the first one to lay paint on a canvas, either. They stole a name John created, and I just want everybody down the road to realize who was really behind all this..."
For those who missed it the first time, or have wanted a copy of it, here's a slightly revised and condensed version of the 1993 story that started it all:
You better read this story.
If you ever heard anybody say "Ain't nothin' for me to whup a man's ass," or "hunh"no question mark, two syllables, dripping with attitudeor perhaps even said it yourself, you might want to know who you're quoting, and why.
And if you already know about the prank phone call tapes variously know as the "Whup Ass Man" or "Leroy Speaks," you'll probably want to find out the truth about them. If you flat don't care, skip this page and go listen to some Judy Garland albums.
It's pretty much a guy thing. An East Tennessee tush hog Prince-Albert-in-a can thing stretched so far over the top it's liable to snap back and take your head off. Or miss you altogether.
Just ask Eddie Harvey.
The 70-something Harvey is the proprietor of Eddie's Auto Parts, and it's nothing for him to whup a man's ass. He barely cracks a smile when you ask him what it's like to be a cult figure courtesy of the prank call purporting to be "Bill Morgan just this side of Maynardville," who got him on the phone years ago and offered to whup his ass over a bad oil filter.
"That is one of the most popular damn tapes in the country," Harvey says.
"Every truck driver in the U.S.A. has one. I never knew who did it, but I did hear he's died. I wish he hadn't of, 'cause me and him could've made a goddamn fortune... He was good. I'll give him that. He never hesitated and he never backed up. He'd agitate a person so badget 'em so mad they could kill him."
An old race car driver who's pretty well known in his own right, Harvey says he's heard from people all over the country wanting to know if he's the Eddie Auto. His soldier nephew, furloughed home from Desert Storm, couldn't rest until he got a Polaroid and five Eddie's Auto Parts T-shirts to take back to Saudi Arabia to rub in the faces of skeptics who doubted he was who he said he was.
Local Knoxville music legend Todd Steed says he first heard the tapes when a customer brought a copy into the old Raven Records, where he used to work. Before long, Steed had memorized "Eddie's Auto Parts" tape and "Tom McCann's" and "C&C Auto Parts," and he started trying to figure out who the voice was behind the craziness.
"I heard 30 completely falsified, fictionalized versions of who was on those tapes," Steed says. "The FBI had been bugging somebody, it was an insane lawyer from Maryville, a convict. Everybody had a different theory. A lot of people think it's not a joke. They don't think it's a put-on. That's part of the artistry of the thing... I got so frustrated. I wanted to understand what makes them so damn funny, and it got to the point where I wanted to know who this guy was more than anything. So I started asking questions. I called up people cold out of the phone bookput the word outasked everybody I knew. I followed up all the leads I had."
Finally somebody called him up and told him "Betty Bean would know something about those tapes."
I tried to figure a way around this point, but the story can't be told unless I step in and tell you how I know for sure who the guy is.
Eddie Auto's version is pretty close. The guy did die. On Aug. 18, 1984. His name was John Bean, he was 33 years old. A lot of you knew him, and the rest of you probably wish you had.
He died from the radiation treatment that "cured" him of Hodgkins Disease back when he was a college athlete. Fried his heart and lungs, which shriveled up over a long period of time until respiratory failure killed him. But he never, ever gave up.
"He never held back," says Sam Anderson, who played football with John and remembers racing with him in a car race back to Knoxville from college in Cookeville long ago.
"We took the overland route, but John comes down the dirt road where they've had all the landslides, jumps the ditches, and when we got down the mountain, he was gone. I wouldn't have driven through there with an ATV.
"Because of his illness, he lived intensely, I think he told himself 'I'm going to live every year I've got, if there's one or 100 of them.' Knowing John was a good time."
Pianist Marcus Shirley put the tapes together a few years after John died.
"I never had any idea it was going to be such a big thing," Shirley says. "I just thought they were hilarious and made them for those of us who'd known him. I never thought people would make copies down to the 20th generation."
Shirley says the tapes got "out" through country players like Merle Haggard and Roy Clark, who heard them at Dollywood. The tapes were circulated and multiplied without any effort on the part of John's family and friends.
"This all happened in spite of itself," Shirley says.
That's because the tapes strike a primordial funny bone. John was a prism through which others were able to see the world in a new way.
"He could see the humor in things that would just pass ordinary people by," Shirley says. "When you were around him, situations took on a new look.
"He had charisma. A certain kind of energy I've never known in anybody else, and even though his condition was slowly killing him, he didn't complain about it, hardly at all, ever. I still miss John."
Woody Hutson was the recipient of John's last fast onethe old dead skunk in the basement gambit, perpetrated just days before John turned up dead himself.
"He wasn't feeling good, and he had to crawl under the house to get it there. He puked a couple of times in the process. That's dedication," Hutson says.
But he's tired of people telling him they wish they'd known John.
"I guess I'm a little defensive about it. This guy was absolutely, totally bizarre. Nuts. Most people wouldn't tolerate it. These were experiences we shared at the time, and maybe I'd feel differently about it he weren't dead. But now, since the world didn't know, I'd like to just keep those experiences to myself."
Don't Try This At Home
It was another year or so after Steed found out who John was before he realized just how popular the tapes had become.
"I was working at Raven and a truck driver came in from Atlanta and said, 'Hey, I'm looking for the redneck tapes. I heard a guy at a 7-11 in Knoxville had all of them.' He'd gone to every 7-11 in Knoxville until someone told him where I was. He heard about the tapes through truck drivers. Everybody sent people that wanted the tapes to me."
He figures he's the Johnny Appleseed of the John Bean tapes, since he's dubbed hundreds of copies over the years, even sampling a signature "hunh" for Smokin Dave and the Premo Dopes CD Huh?.
Shirley say he's glad Steed has spread the tapes, but he hopes there aren't too many imitators out there.
"There's a big difference between John and some average dummy trying to pull a prankJohn did it with such finesse... The important thing with him is, he wasn't doing it just to cause trouble. It was a much greater scheme, an art to him.
"No one could ever even begin to do what he did. Somebody thinking it would be fun to call people like that, they'd just be fooling themselves. It's already been done."