Ed. Note:

At his day job, Brent Douglas is a disc jockey in Tulsa, Okla. In his off-hours, he becomes "Roy D. Mercer," a grumpy old redneck who calls people up and threatens to "whup their ass." Recordings of his prank calls have sold a reputed 1.5 million records, with seven volumes of CDs released on the Virgin Records label.

Too bad he didn’t come up with the idea first.

The evidence can be heard on The Real Leroy Mercer is John Bean, the only official CD compilation of a series of recordings made in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s by a man who up until now has been a mystery. Alternately called "The Redneck Tapes" or "Leroy Speaks," the prank calls are legendary among truckers, country stars, and record shop employees. Taped, retaped, and circulated from fan to fan around the country, the raspy recordings go beyond simple cussing out–they capture a true genius of psychological manipulation at work. These masterpieces of practical jokery inspired a modern industry of prank phonecallers, from the Jerky Boys to the Touch-Tone Terrorists. (To buy your own copy of The Real Leroy Mercer is John Bean, head on over to asswhupper.com.)

Over the past decade, many a fan has made a pilgrimage to East Tennessee in search of the man called LeRoy Mercer–only to fail. That’s because the author of the tapes, a born prankster by the name of John Bean, died in the early '80s. His sister, Betty Bean, wrote the following story of John Bean the man and Leroy Mercer the phenomenon.

 * * *

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."

Next: Duping the Tapes
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