‘Big Boy Pete’ was written by Don & Dewey (Don Harris and Dewey Terry) and released by them as a single in 1959. Don Harris introduced the electric violin to rock and he is thought to be the person that Dylan mentioned when he said “You would not think to look at him, but he was famous long ago for playing the electric violin on Desolation Row”. The duo worked with Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and their song ‘I’m Leaving It All Up to You’, was recorded by Dale and Grace, Freddy Fender, Ben E. King, Donny and Marie Osmond and others. Neil Young covered their garage rock classic ‘Farmer John’. ‘Big Boy Pete’ became a hit when the Olympics covered it the following year in 1960, where it reached #100 on the R&B charts and was recorded on their debut Doin’ The Hully Gully album.
The Olympics started out as The Challengers in 1957, and they were a doo-wop group consisting of Walter Ward, Charles Fizer, Walter Hammond and Melvin King who were all friends that attended high school in Los Angeles along with Eddie Lewis who came from Texas. The Olympics recorded several singles which were ‘dance craze’ themed, including ‘The Chicken’, ‘The Stomp’, ‘The Scotch’ and ‘The Bounce’. The song ‘Good Lovin’’ was written by Rudy Clark in 1955 and a month later the Olympics recorded it with different lyrics and this arrangement is what Felix Cavaliere used for the Young Rascals first hit.
‘Big Boy Pete’ became a huge influence on the Pacific-Northwest garage rock group, The Kingsmen, as they recorded ‘The Jolly Green Giant’ in 1965, which was their second most-popular single next to ‘Louie Louie’. The song was based on Libby Foods, owners of Green Giant’s mascot the Jolly Green Giant and it was originally only credited Lynn Easton as the writer, but Harris and Terry were later added when it was determined the song was a re-write of ‘Big Boy Pete’.
This is a fun song about a tough guy named Big Boy Pete who runs into another guy that is tougher than he is. Real tough guys will end up getting into their fair share of confrontations because they believe the only way to resolve anything is to fight their way out and you can always tell a tough guy by looking at their bloody knuckles. There is an idiom which says, “Never bring a knife to a gunfight”, which means that you are poorly prepared for a given situation, but Big Boy Pete was packing a gun and he got cut down by Bad Man Brown who was carrying a knife. I got into a lot of fights when I was younger and I developed a bit of a reputation in High School after I beat up this guy who was a grade older than me, and after that it seemed like everyone wanted to pick fights with me, because they were trying to prove that they were tough.
Probably one of the earliest tough guy songs is ‘John Henry’ which tells a story about a man who is known for his strength and skill in driving the steel drills into the solid rock. Ernie Ford’s ‘Sixteen Tons’ written in 1947 by Merle Travis is a story of how hard the life is of a coal miner, while ‘Mack the Knife’ was first introduced by Louis Armstrong in 1955, but it was made famous by Bobby Darin and this is about a violent murder. ‘Smokey Joe’s Café’ by the Robins was written in 1955 by Leiber and Stoller and it is a story about a man that gets threatened with a knife just because he is sitting next to this girl, and the 1959 Lloyd Price song ‘Stagger Lee’ tells the story of Stagger Lee shooting Billy because he thought he got cheated when they were gambling on dice. A similar song about another tough guy ‘Big Bad John’ was written and performed by Jimmy Dean in 1961 and it went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Jim Croce had to have been influenced by this song when he wrote his 1972 song ‘You Don’t Mess Around with Jim’ and his 1973 song ‘Bad, Bad Leroy Brown’.
Ray Sharpe, The Righteous Brothers, Paul Revere and The Raiders featuring Mark Lindsay, Coco Montoya and several other groups covered this song. ‘Big Boy Pete’ was first performed by the Grateful Dead in 1966 and it was played in an acoustic set in 1978 and then for the last time in November 1985.
The joint was jumping on the corner
Down on a Honky Tonk Street
When all of a sudden up drove a Cadillac
And out stepped a cat named Pete
He busted on through the doorway
Bad as-a he could be
He pulled out his pistol, he turned around
He said, ‘My name is a Big Boy Pete’
The music stopped, there wasn’t a sound
A-over in the corner stood-a, Bad Man Brown
Brown smiled a grin, he said, ‘My friend’
You take your three steps forward and I’m ‘onna-a, clue you in’
Pete said, ‘A look it, here buddy
Before I tan your hide’
I got a forty-five to keep me alive
Seven bullets on my side
Brown pulled a knife, he jumped on Pete
They fought from the counter right on out to the street
They swung from north, they swung from south
Brown cut that black cigar right outta Pete’s mouth!
Brown slipped around behind poor Pete
Cut him from his head right on down to his beak
Pete hit the ground, he yelled and screamed
(Pete took his Stetson hat and beat the scene)
Now if you’re ever down on the corner
Down on-a Honky Tonk Street
Don’t mess with Brown
He’ll cut you down
Take a message from-a Big Boy Pete
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Written for Thursday Inspiration #120 You’re No Good.