Born in the Gold Rush: The History of the 49ers Part 5: Joe Reed: the 49ers’ Songbird Backup QB
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The 49ers have a rich history of backup quarterbacks who went on to have success, either with the Niners or elsewhere: Steve Young, Steve Bono, Elvis Grbac, Jeff Garcia, Colin Kaepernick. This is the story of a backup QB who didn’t have much of a playing career, but who concurrently indulged in a completely different vocation.
Back in 1995, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman released a country music album titled Everybody Wants to Be a Cowboy under the group name “Super ‘Boys’.” It featured Aikman as the lead vocalist, with several of his teammates providing the backup.
It contained songs with perfectly anodyne and country-esque names such as “Oklahoma Nights” and “Ship My Body Back to Texas.”
It boasted a cheaply done album cover that, well, looked very 1990s.
It was awful.
(Image via Discogs.com)
Pity Troy. He was an über-talented, ultra-successful football player who won a trio of Super Bowls and gained a much-deserved place in the hallowed halls of Canton. He, quite simply, did not have the pipes to be the next Travis Tritt or Alan Jackson. He sounded as if he was choking on a jackfruit.
Cowboy was the only album that Aikman – ahem – the “Super ‘Boys’” released, and that’s for the best. Today, in this gilded age of fast-and-easy information on the Internet, you are free to search for the album on YouTube and listen for yourself. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Flash back to 1974. If you were around back then, you were probably blasting from the speakers of your El Camino Super Sport the latest effort from the somewhat-obscure Australian proto-metal band Buffalo, Volcanic Rock. Or, perhaps, you were grooving to Linda Ronstadt while doing a little work around the house. Or shuffling your feet to one-hit wonder Paper Lace’s earworm “The Night Chicago Died” at a campus party.
Or maybe you were immersed in a comfortable bubble bath, glass of wine in one hand, transfixed by an obscure football player crooning a suite of standards such as “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” The voice you heard was that of Joe Reed, the 49ers’ backup quarterback.
Joseph Butler Reed had an unremarkable eight-year stint in the NFL. Born in 1948 in Newport, Rhode Island, Reed was a multi-sport star at Lorenzo High School in Texas before matriculating to Butler University, then to Mississippi State University, where he earned a pair of varsity letters as the Bulldogs’ dual-threat starting quarterback. As a senior in 1970, Reed completed 138 of 294 passes (47 percent) for 1,616 yards, eight touchdowns, and 16 interceptions. He also ran 155 times for just 316 yards, an average of two ticks per carry, but he did cross the goal line seven times. The Bulldogs, helmed by head coach Charles Shira, finished at 6-5 with a 3-4 conference record that was good for eighth place in the ten-team Southeastern Conference.
Reed’s numbers certainly weren’t eye-popping, and he didn’t project to be a high-round draft selection in 1971, if he were to be picked at all. Indeed, the 49ers nabbed him in the eleventh round – a round that was discontinued in the early 1990s – and 283rd overall. Reed was stashed on the Niners’ taxi squad for all of the ’71 regular season, then elevated to the active roster for the NFC title game against the Cowboys. Weirdly enough, Reed wasn’t there to be a quarterback, but as an emergency defensive back. Injuries to cornerbacks Jimmy Johnson and Bruce Taylor and safety Mel Phillips decimated the DB depth chart late in the season, and head coach Dick Nolan was forced to rely on the likes of Mike Simpson, Johnny Fuller, and Rosey Taylor down that crucial stretch. Reed watched from the sidelines at Texas Stadium as John Brodie threw three interceptions and no touchdowns and the 49ers lost to Dallas 14-3.
The 1972 season saw Reed begin as the third signal-caller on the depth chart behind Brodie and backup Steve Spurrier. Reed didn’t start, but he appeared in nine games, attempting just four passes. He finally saw significant action in 1973, including three starts. His first career win came in his third game, a 20-6 trouncing of the Green Bay Packers at Candlestick Park. Reed attempted just 16 passes, completing five, for 44 yards and no touchdowns, before giving way to Spurrier for some mop-up duty. The 1973 season was a tumultuous time to be a 49ers quarterback, as Brodie, Spurrier, and Reed all made multiple starts. That team finished 5-9, and it marked the beginning of Nolan’s downfall after the successes earlier in the decade. He would be fired after the 1975 season.
Joe Reed hands off to Ken Willard in a 1973 game.
Photographer unknown. Via Amazon.com
If the San Francisco quarterback room was a jumbled assortment of bodies in 1973, then 1974 was somehow even worse. Brodie had retired, and the 49ers spent a thirteenth-round pick on a quarterback from Wichita State named Tom Owen. Now, a QB taken at the end of the draft would usually never see a single snap anywhere but with the taxi squad and in charity flag football exhibitions, but this was the wild, wild world of 1970s San Francisco 49ers football. Owen started – started – seven games. Reed started four. Dennis Morrison, an erratic lefty whom the Niners had drafted the previous year in the fourteenth round, got a pair of starts. Spurrier was sidelined with a shoulder injury for much of the year. Reed went 2-2 in his starts, including a 7-for-22 performance for 101 yards and a touchdown in a victory at Atlanta on September 22. A month later, Reed was sent to the Detroit Lions for a draft pick. That same day, the 49ers acquired thirty-five-year-old Norm Snead, who had spent much of his career toiling for some piss-poor Philadelphia Eagle squads, to serve as a veteran mentor to the young Owen.
(Also on that same day, the baseball San Francisco Giants, who had just wrapped up an awful 72-90 season, sent talented but unhappy outfielder Bobby Bonds to the Yankees for Bobby Murcer, knocking the two football stories to afterthought status.)
It was during the 1973 season that Joe Reed began seriously entertaining his other talent: singing. The 49ers knew he could carry a tune; they had him sing the national anthem prior to the team’s home opener on September 30 against the L.A. Rams, and he longed to become a professional crooner, either during or after his football career. He began making appearances around the Bay Area and later decided to record an album. Little is known about who he contacted about producing the record, though a man named Peter Marino Jr. is credited with producing it. The musical accompaniment was provided by a quartet named “Goliath”: Woodie Berry, Rich MacDonald, Peter Glindeman, and Cliff Caesar.
Providing the background vocals: the Niner Nuggets.
It’s hard to characterize just who the Niner Nuggets were. They weren’t exactly cheerleaders, so they cannot be rightly considered as a precursor to the Gold Rush. The Nuggets didn’t tote pom-poms on the sidelines or try to exhort apathetic fans to make noise with the home team on the sick end of a 51-7 score. They weren’t your usual eye-catching buffet of lusty college-age beauties; a typical Nugget was closer to thirty, maturely attractive, and genial in demeanor. They were, in essence, a marketing arm of the San Francisco 49ers. They donned an ensemble that featured red polyester pants and white oversized cowboy hats, along with white vinyl knee-high boots that Sports Illustrated columnist Stephanie Salter criticized as better suited for “car hops, hookers, and ladies in Terre Haute, [Indiana].” The Nuggets made appearances at various functions, performing songs such as “America the Beautiful” and “Nothing Could Be Finer Than to Be A 49er” to adoring onlookers. They even showed up at hospital maternity wards bearing infant-sized replica jerseys emblazoned with “I’m a 49er Baby.” Wrote San Francisco Chronicle sports editor Art Rosenbaum of one the hospital visits, “Everybody involved seemed happily obliging, except the babies who were not consulted. The kids may grow up hating football, or worse yet, become Oakland Raider fans.”
Screenshot via YouTube
The exact release date of Joe Reed’s untitled twelve-song album isn’t readily known. The cover is minimalist in appearance, with “JOE REED & THE NINER NUGGETS” in a replica of the 49ers’ characteristic “saloon” end zone font on the upper left. The photo itself, in black and white, features the handsome Reed, decked out in full uniform with jersey number 19, kneeling with a football in his right hand, planted nose-first into the ground. He is surrounded by eighteen members of the Nuggets, and the two towers of Golden Gate Bridge can be spotted faintly in the background; the photo was apparently taken on a foggy day from a vista point in the Presidio, at the time still an active military base and not yet adorned with Yoda fountains.
Joe Reed is no Sinatra. He does a passable imitation of Ol’ Blue Eyes, but whereas Frank sang with New York bravado, Reed’s tone is a California cool that belies his Southern upbringing. “Summertime” features a swinging beat and opens with the Nuggets singing background in harmony. Reed’s vocals enter and the song seemingly increases in pace. The instrumental interlude is accented by a single, leisurely guitar solo that is vaguely reminiscent of the psychedelic jam bands from just a handful of years earlier. There is an operatic, theatrical feel to the Niner Nuggets’ vocals.
Sadly, it appears that only “Summertime” exists online; it can be found on YouTube.
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Funkybeatdown. (2011, May 4.) Joe Reed & The Niner Nuggets - Summertime [Video]. YouTube.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NTYgrR1bSto
Rosenbaum, Art“Starting Young.”San Francisco Chronicle,22July1973, p. 112.
Salter, Stephanie. “There’s Gold in Them Nuggets - Sports Illustrated Vault.” SI.com, Sports Illustrated Vault | SI.com, 23 Sept. 1974,https://vault.si.com/vault/1974/09/23/theres-gold-in-them-nuggets
San Francisco 49ers 1974 Media Guide