Lee Roy Mercer has got a good thing going for himself. The self-described “infamous Tennessee prank call comedian” runs his own website and an online “Whoop Ass Store” with lots of merchandise: T-shirts with slogans like “It Ain’t Nothin’ For Me To Whoop A Man’s Ass!”; posters of his 1995 album cover for Huh! I’ll Whoop Yer A@*!; and even Lee Roy Mercer hot sauce (“It Ain’t Nothin’ For My Hot Sauce To Whoop A Man’s Ass!”). He’s got a new CD of crank calls to NASCAR drivers and Lee Roy Mercer ring tones for sale and something called A Whoop-Ass Movie—an animated feature with characters based on his “work.”
But then there’s Roy D. Mercer out of Tulsa, Okla.—and damned if his prank-call empire doesn’t look and sound a whole lot like Lee Roy’s. His website’s “Royisms” include oddly familiar declarations like, “It ain’t nothin’ for me to whup a man’s ass.” Although his own online “Whup-Ass Store” recently closed, you can still buy his CDs (the latest being More Greatest Fits on Capitol Records) at Wal-Mart and Amazon.com. Plus, he’s got his own voice tones, he can be heard streaming live at KMOD.com each week, and he even has his own Roy D. Mercer slot machines at casinos around the country.
How is it that two redneck pranksters living over 900 miles apart could be so similar—using the same words, the same gags, the same identities? Are they twin brothers, or could it be a remarkable case of divine comedic coincidence?
Most likely, they both heard the same legendary prank-call tapes recorded by John Bean of Knoxville, Tenn., in the late ’70s and copied them all the way to the bank. But now, with a newly remastered CD release of the old “Whup Ass Tapes” coming Aug. 19 on Dualtone Records, the original LeRoy Mercer may finally get his due.
“So many people have gained notoriety, fame, and fortune based on John Bean and John Bean’s moniker of LeRoy Mercer that the credit was never really given to John himself,” says Dualtone’s head of production, Joey Luscinski. “So that was a big part of us becoming involved due to the fact that we wished to shed some light on John Bean and his family, and what he had done and how he had paved the way for so many people that have come behind him and capitalized on something he created.”
By now, the story behind those creations—the persona of LeRoy Mercer, his characteristic “Huh?”, and his absurd quests for retail justice—has become a matter of local legend. Bean was an unrepentant wiseacre of epic proportions, constantly formulating new ways of pulling the legs of people he had just met or had targeted with a call. He often recorded his exploits for the enjoyment of his friends, amassing a collection of elaborately devious crank calls to local shops, including the holy trinity of “Eddie’s Auto Parts,” “C&C Auto,” and “Thom McAn.” He would often time himself to see how quickly he could make someone reach their breaking point and start cussing.
“John was just the world’s worst or best—depending on how you looked at it—practical joker,” says his sister (and Metro Pulse contributor) Betty Bean. “And it wasn’t always practical jokes. John was just a very funny person, and he enjoyed getting reactions from other people. He was a pretty good armchair psychologist, and he could size up perfect strangers and almost magically find a way to push their hottest button and get the biggest reaction out of them.”
But unlike his current imitators, he didn’t get people’s goats by simply being abusive; Bean would instead create expansive backstories for his characters that were believable enough to snare his victims and exasperating enough to draw blood. Careful study of even the prototypical Eddie’s Auto recording, and Bean’s promises of ass-whuppings to owner Eddie Harvey, reveals a simple man just trying to get his motor replaced due to a bad oil filter. And who can’t relate to someone seeking restitution for damaged goods? But it’s his single-minded insistence that put many of his victims over the edge: How can this yokel be so damn thick-headed?
“Part of John’s shtick was that almost everybody he dealt with just assumed he was stupid,” says Betty. “He would lure them into that—they would always think they were smarter than he was. That was one of his secrets to how he would get people to do such ridiculous things—they all felt superior to whoever this person on the phone or in front of them was.”
Bean engaged in his shenanigans simply “because that’s what he did—that’s who he was,” says Betty. Thoughts of turning his hobby into commercial releases probably never even entered his mind. But after his death in 1984 at age 33 due to pulmonary fibrosis after radiation treatment for Hodgkin’s disease, his home recordings began an unlikely journey to a record label. First, his friend, local pianist Marcus Shirley, made cassette copies of the phone pranks for family and friends. Then they started to multiply. Country musicians like Roy Clark and Merle Haggard would hear the tapes at Dollywood, and would then get copies made for themselves.
“There’s no doubt that a lot of the old country and western stars had it playing on their tour buses and over the P.A.s before shows,” says Luscinski. “Waylon Jennings and all of the old-school country guys, who made Nashville what it is today, were familiar with the stuff. I think they’re responsible as much as anybody for getting it out there.”
And “out there” it certainly was, as just about anyone who got a cassette would soon dupe it for friends. Over the next decade, it became a renowned cult item across the country; local people mentioned on the tapes would get long-distance phone calls from strangers trying to track down the crazy guy who had made them. One such obsessed fan was Dave Lang, co-founder of Atomic Films in Chattanooga.
“All of our friends loved these tapes, but there was always a story associated with them—that this guy was in a mental institution, that he was in the FBI undercover,” Lang says. “So you heard all of these strange stories and you wondered, ‘What is the real deal?’”
In his quest for the truth in the late ’90s, Lang got ahold of Eddie Harvey, who referred him to Betty Bean. He wrangled an appointment with her and drove up to Knoxville.
“I met with her and just fell in love with Betty and the family, and she told me the whole story about John and about how tragic his death was,” Lang recalls. “And then I met all of his friends—we had a picnic around the Fourth of July and we sat around for probably 15 hours telling stories about John. And I sat there enamored. And the one underlying thing that everybody brought up was how John was their best friend. So I felt like I knew John through all of these friends who took us in, like we had been friends all of our lives.”
Lang proposed that Atomic Films produce a CD of the recordings, and received permission from the Bean family. This resulted in a 1999 CD release that finally brought the long-underground tapes out into the public—with a very pointed title: The Real Leroy Mercer Is John Bean. By this time, the tapes had inspired several new redneck pranksters named “Mercer”—only they weren’t quite as imaginative as Bean.
“It’s not just a guy making prank phone calls—he’s almost this comedic genius,” insists Lang. “I think that if somebody had realized what he was doing back then, he could have been Jeff Foxworthy or any of those Blue Collar comedians. He was just that smart and just that funny. You hear these other people that are trying to copy him, and they’re nowhere close. They don’t have the style, the intelligence, or the comedic presence whatsoever.”
There’s little doubt to Dualtone’s Luscinski that Bean is the true original—not just for creating LeRoy Mercer, but also in sparking a small industry of prank callers.
“The thing that really separates (Bean) from the pack is that he was such a pioneer of the concept,” Luscinski says. “Given the timeline of when his pranks occurred, there wasn’t a precursor. He was it. You think of some of those who have come after him, like the Jerky Boys or Crank Yankers on television, he was the precursor to all of that. So the originality is really what’s so amazing. For all intents and purposes, you can say he’s the grandfather of the prank call.”
Nevertheless, these new “Mercers” have made lucrative record deals for themselves, and one of them apparently does not appreciate the upcoming competition of the new Dualtone release, The Real LeRoy Mercer, which should be getting much better distribution and marketing than the first homespun CD. According to Betty, this Mercer has had his attorney send Dualtone a letter threatening legal action. (On Leeroymercer.com, it states, “LEE ROY MERCER® Is A Registered Trademark Owned And Licensed For Use By WarHead™ Records.”) Luscinski says he can’t comment on the matter, but adds that the MySpace page used to promote Bean’s recordings “has been shut down and is currently under review.”
Lang says he wouldn’t mind confronting Bean’s imitators himself:
“There are people out there who are using parts of his actual recording. They have gotten a copy of a copy and have claimed it as their own. I would tell them: ‘Meet me wherever. I will stand up with Betty Bean and the family, I will look you in the eye, and call you a liar.’ John Bean did ‘Eddie’s Auto,’ ‘C&C,’ ‘Thom McAn’—everything on the CD that Dualtone’s putting out is from John Bean, and not from any of these other imitators.”
Until now, the Bean family has kept its distance from those who have been using John Bean’s signature routines and phrases; now that one of the Mercers is actively trying to stop the release of his source material, that may change.
“It doesn’t bother me that somebody else profits off of it,” Betty says, “but when they try to pretend that John didn’t exist, that’s what bothers me. They are no better than grave robbers. Or worse, actually. It feels, in my heart, like they are trying to claim John never existed. They are killing my brother all over again.”
How would the real LeRoy Mercer deal with a situation like this?
“I think he wouldn’t be amused at the notion of being ripped off somehow,” Betty says. “John was also a real tough guy—I mean, really, really tough. He lived a lot longer than he should have, he was just very physically strong. When he said, ‘It ain’t nothin’ to me to whup a man’s ass,’ he meant it. He was hard as iron. I imagine somebody would get their ass whupped. John would not put up with this if he were here.”