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Big Jeff and His Radio Playboys
Born:  September 2, 1920
Died:  August 23, 1998
WLAC Nashville, TN
WSIX Nashville, TN

About The Artist

Although largely forgotten today "Big Jeff" Bess and his bands were major figures on the Nashville scene for over a decade. However, Jeff worked at WLAC, the other 50,000 watt station in "Music City, USA" rather than WSM and the Grand Ole Opry. To the degree that he is remembered at all, it comes from being the ex-husband of "Tootsie" Bess, operator of Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, "watering hole of the stars."

Grover Franklin Bess was born near Ashland City, Tennessee where his parents sharecropped a 60 acre farm. The nickname "Big Jeff" came from pronouncing his initials and his six foot frame. Jeff moved to Nashville about 1940 and by 1942 was appearing on WSIX, maybe with his own show or more likely on that of someone else. He also seems to have worked in tent shows. By late 1945 or early 1946, he was on WLAC with a show of his own. This station had several daytime acts with shows including Mac O'Dell, Ted & Wanda Henderson, Jack & Louise Henderson, and later Mel & Stan. But Big Jeff & His Radio Playboys seemed dominant and most long-lasting. His tenure at the station lasted about sixteen years, eventually as mostly a deejay.

Promo Ad - Tex's Western Style Bar - South Bend, IN - Barrier Brothers - October 1965
Promo Ad - Shady Acres Ranch - Mulberry, IN - Barrier Brothers - July 1959

Promo Ad - Tex's Western Style Bar - South Bend, IN - Barrier Brothers - October 1965
Promo Ad - Shady Acres Ranch - Mulberry, IN - Barrier Brothers - July 1959

The Radio Playboys were not only a popular band but were something of a proving ground for musicians who became better known later. These included Benny Martin, George McCormick, Grady Martin, Johnny Sibert (steel player for Carl Smith in his prime years), Carl Tipton, and Hillious Buttram.

Promo Ad - Shady Acres Ranch - Mulberry, IN - Barrier Brothers - July 1959 Big Jeff put out some songbooks and owned several nightclubs, but recorded rather sparingly on small labels. The greater number of Jeff's recordings appeared on Randy Woods' Dot label that was based in Gallatin, Tennessee before it had attained much prestige (that came from Pat Boone's rise to fame). At the time, phonograph platters were not of much consequence to one who was doing well.

Big Jeff also appeared in a couple of movies, A Face in the Crowd and Wild River. In the former film, he played a husky sheriff named "Big Jeff Bess," in the latter he sang "In the Pines."

Big Jeff also owned and managed several night club establishments which led to other entanglements. In one instance he was fined $25 for hitting someone who he was trying to force to leave "Big Jeff's Place" on Clarksville Highway in June of 1957. He thought the person had too much to drink and possibly tried to hit Jeff as Jeff was trying to get him into a car.

In October 1960, Sheriff Leslie Jett was trying to crack down on minors frequenting drinking establishments. After repeated warnings, he said the next step would be arrests. On a Friday night, Franklin (Big Jeff) Bess was cited at Tootsie's Car Hop on Clarksville Highway for allowing minors to loiter where beer is consumed. However, the charge was dismissed in General Sessions Court on Monday, October 24, 1960 after three deuties disagreed in their testimony.

A year later, he was involved in a hit and run accident at Fourth Avenue and Broadway in Nashville. He was cited for reckless driving, leaving the scene of an accident, failing to report an accident and driving on a revoked license. Apparently after the accident, Big Jeff had driven his car around the corner and parked his car behind the Wagon Wheel Cocktail lounge where he worked and then reported the car stolen. But police were able to trace the license of the car involved in the acciden to Big Jeff and a passenger had identified him as the driver.

Troubles seemed to find him. He was given a $100 fine and a 30-day workhouse term after he pled guilty to charges of illegal possessing whiskey for resale. He was operating of an unnamed Nashville beer tavern at the time. Another article reported his establishment was raided in November 1962 and he was charged with selling, tippling and storing 46 half-pints of whiskey which was confiscated. However in April, his sentence had been suspended. His attorney had argued that the publicity resulting from his client's trial had provided "sufficient punishment" of Big Jeff in this case.

As the 1960's came and went, Big Jeff's fortunes began to decline. Live radio on morning shows were fading away as deejays began to replace most of them (Flatt & Scruggs on WSM being a notable exception). He and second wife, Hattie Louise (Tootsie) divorced in 1961; she got what became famous as Tootsie's Orchid Lounge and he got another club or two that soon folded.

A 1960 article told of Big Jeff's dreams after the two movies he had been in. He was hoping to get a part in a third movie at the time. He told Mr. Barker that if things went right, he was thinking of moving him and Tootsie out to Hollywood. He said:

"And when we get out there, the first thing we're going to have is a swimming pool — just like all the rest of them."

Later he worked for a time as a deputy sheriff (reprising his movie role). He made some recordings for Delta in the early seventies.

Then in the 1980's, Big Jeff suffered a stroke. His third wife, Jo Neill, died in 1996 and becoming diabetic he had a leg amputated. Living alone in a mobile home, he declined rapidly and was sometimes cheered by old friends like Benny Martin and Hillous Buttram.

He died at age 77. He was survived by a son Steve from a first marriage and a daughter Judy from his marriage to Tootsie (Judy had a brief musical career herself).

Later five of his numbers appeared on the Bear Family Boxed-Set, A Shot in the Dark, of early recordings from Nashville.

A little later a single CD from Bear Family covered his entire output including some hitherto unreleased numbers. It included as detailed a biography by Martin Hawkins as could be assembled.

Big Jeff and Radio City Playboys - Hillous Buttram - Jerry (Lucky) Stricker - Tommy Vaden - Big Jeff Bess - WLAC

Big Jeff and Radio City Playboys - Hillous Buttram - Tommy Vaden - Big Jeff Bess - Jerry (Lucky) Stricker - Grady Martin - WLAC

Big Jeff Bess - WLAC - Nashville - Portrait

Credits & Sources

  • Hillbilly-Music.com would like to express its thanks to Ivan M. Tribe, author of Mountaineer Jamboree — Country Music in West Virginia and other books that can be found on Amazon.com and numerous articles in other publications for providing us with information about this artist.
  • Big Jeff Bess Fined $25 On Assault Charge; June 29, 1957; The Nashville Banner; Nashville, TN
  • Actor Fined; Hit Truck Driver; June 29, 1957; The Nashville Tennessean; Nashville, TN
  • Big Jeff's Big Break; George Barker; February 28, 1960 ; The Nashville Tennessean; Nashville, TN
  • Jett Warns Operators Of Beer Taverns; October 1, 1960; The Nashville Banner; Nashville, TN
  • Bess Cleared in Tavern Case; October 25, 1960; The Nashville Banner; Nashville, TN
  • Big Jeff Bess Freed Of Charge; October 25, 1960; The Nashville Tennessean; Nashville, TN
  • Big Jeff Booked In Hit-Run Case; October 30, 1961; The Nashville Tennessean; Nashville, TN
  • Fine, Workhouse Term Given Bess; February 21, 1963; The Nashville Banner; Nashville, TN
  • G. F. (Big Jeff) Bess Draws Fine, Term; February 21, 1963; The Nashville Tennessean; Nashville, TN
  • Ex-actor Bess Gets Clemency; April 1, 1963; The Nashville Tennessean; Nashville, TN

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Recordings (78rpm/45rpm)

Rec. No. Side Song Title
  103 A A Kiss and a Memory
  103 B Poppin' Bubble Gum
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  1040 A I'm Out to Get Even
  1040 B You
  1050 A We Wonder if Mr. Nixon Knew
  1050 B The Assassination of JFK
  1077 A Those Little Things You Do
  1077 B Slowly Dying
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  1004 A Juke Box Boogie
  1004 B You Talk in Your Sleep
  1058 A Step It Up and Go
  1058 B After We Are Through (different recording, same song as World)
  1064 A Lifetime to Regret
  1064 B Fast Women, Slow Horses and Wine
  1088 A Move on Baby
  1088 B I?m in Love Dear with Thee
  1096 A I Courted an Angel (George McCormick-lead vocal on verses)
  1096 B I Don't Talk to Strangers
Ma & Pa Say
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  1 A Home Bru Boogie
  2 B Ten-E-Cee Hom-Bru
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  1520 A After We Are Through
  1520 B Poppin' Bubble Gum (different recording, same song as Cheker)

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