Somebody's Fixin' to Get Their Ass WHUPPED: The True Story of John Bean

The life and death of Knoxville's Picasso of prank phone calls

Prank-call visionary: In the late '70s, John Bean tapes his elaborate pranks for his friends' amusement; 20 years later, such calls became an industry.

Prank-call visionary: In the late '70s, John Bean tapes his elaborate pranks for his friends' amusement; 20 years later, such calls became an industry.

You better read this story. Unlike a lot of the crap you waste time on, it contains useful information. Because one day you'll be sitting in the movies and some butthead will be talking, until somebody else cuts through and tells the talker that he's fixing to get his ass whupped, whereupon a third voice will join in: "Ain't nothin' for me to whup a man's ass."

And somebody else will ask: "You got those tapes?"

'Then there'll be a "hunh"–no question mark, two syllables, dripping with attitude–and a bunch more will pitch in, and snicker like they know what's going on. But most of them won't have a clue who they're quoting and that's where you'll come out ahead, if you read this story.

If you don't want to embarrass your future self, you'll read this for educational purposes. If you already know about the prank phone call tapes variously known as the "Whup Ass Man" or "Leroy Speaks," you'll want to find out the truth. If you flat don't care, skip this page and go listen to some Judy Garland albums.

Because it's pretty much a guy thing. An East Tennessee tush hog Prince Albert-in-the-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 of Knoxville, Tenn.

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 caller 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'd died. I wish he hadn't of 'cause me and him could've made a goddamn fortune…"

Harvey, who's not real big but still plenty damn tough, dispatches a would-be customer who's trying to trade in some kind of grungy-looking rotor. ("That's your problem, buddy. Take it on out with you.") The edges of his mouth stretch the tiniest bit so you know for sure he's smiling, and he leans across the grimy counter.

"He was good. I'll give him that. He never hesitated and he never backed up. He'd agitate a person so bad–get ’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. The tapes were a hot property, and the troops evidently talked a lot about "whupping" Saddam's ass.

The Middle East isn't the only exotic locale where the tapes have turned up. They're all over the place in Nashville, where musicians crank them up on the their tour buses. They've spread to Charlotte and New York and Scandinavia and Los Angeles and Indianapolis. A lot of people suspect they may have inspired the Jerky Boys, a couple of big-city ghetto pranksters who've hit the Top 40 with their efforts on Atlantic Records. There are literally dozens of theories–none of them true–about who made the local tapes and how they came to be circulated. But you'll read the plain truth that can be backed up in court, as East Tennessee grocer/politician Cas Walker used to say, right here.

THE STRAIGHT SKINNY

Knoxville musician 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 book–put the word out–asked 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."

BROTHER JOHN

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.

Was.

Eddie Auto's version is pretty close. He did die. On Aug. 18, 1984 before the sun came up. His name was John Bean, he was 33 years old, and I know this because he was my brother. A lot of you knew him, and the rest of you probably wish you had. I know that because I'd be a lot richer than I am today if I had a dollar for every time somebody's called me up and wanted to know if he was really my brother and what was he like. They always say they wished they'd known him.

I tell them maybe they do and maybe they don't. Not everybody could stand up to the punishment. On the anniversary of his death, I went over to Woodlawn Cemetery and sat down by his grave and talked to him about how it's a shame he couldn't have hung around long enough for the smartasses to take over the world, which evidently has happened, judging by his posthumous popularity. Somebody had been there before me and left a Budweiser and a daisy. After a while I walked back to my car and stuck a cassette into the player and drove through the graveyard listening to his voice.

"Sometimes death can be a blessing," the woman from Lynnhurst Cemetery cooed.

She made her living selling burial plots over the telephone, and she'd had the major bad luck of ringing up my brother John, who played her real slow, like the biggest bass in the pond.

"Don't see how," John said, his voice choked up with phony grief, "unless a fellow was a pest or something. Then he might as well go on and shove off." Sometimes when people ask why anyone would invest so much energy into heaping abuse on hapless purveyors of shoes and auto parts and cemetery plots, I wonder whom they see in their mind's eye. A perverse hick with a switchblade tongue and a knack for mind control?

Pretty close. John was skinny, muscular, a natural athlete and musician who had the devil's own smile. He was tenacious, tough as pig iron, good at anything he turned his hand to, including cultivating his own strain of killer marijuana: "Tennessee Shorty." He played the piano like Jerry Lee Lewis and practical jokes like nobody you ever want to know. One minute you wanted to kill him and the next you were laughing so hard you'd lose control of your bodily functions. He died at 33 of the radiation treatments that "cured" him of Hodgkin's 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, Tenn. 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."

DUPED

Knoxville 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, where John's friend Burton Akers plays in a house band. The tapes were then 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 one–the 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 in 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 if he weren't dead. But now, since the world didn't know him, 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 (Records) 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-l1 in Knoxville until someone told him where I was," Steed says. "He heard about the tapes through truck drivers. Everybody sends people that want 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 the Smokin' Dave and Premo Dopes CD Huh? Shirley says 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 prank–John 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 form 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."

FINALLY, A RELEASE

Among those who eventually heard about John Bean and the redneck tapes were two Chattanooga filmmakers, Dave Lang and Bobby Stone, who run a company called Atomic Film and Audio. One day Stone played the tape at the office, and Lang 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 tapes–I'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. Eventually, 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 material–a 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," Lang says. "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 call–but 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…"

© 1999 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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