Dean Manuel (1934–1964)

Dean Manuel played piano for several noteworthy bands of the mid-twentieth century, on the West Coast and in Nashville, Tennessee. Most notably, he played with Jim Reeves and the Blue Boys. Manuel died in a plane crash with Jim Reeves after leaving Independence County, where he had been helping Reeves with a land purchase.

Dockie Dean Manuel was born in Cleveland (Conway County), where his family was working, on January 1, 1934. His parents were Dockie Dickson “Doffie” Manuel, who was a noted fiddle player, and Josephine Clementine (Josie) Burks; he was the youngest of four children and grew up in Jamestown (Independence County). Dean Manuel learned piano on his own at an early age and devoted much of his time to music. Because he was self-taught and played by ear, he developed a unique way of playing from the bass end of the keyboard. The piano was his favored instrument, but he sometimes played the fiddle and other instruments.

Manuel attended school in Jamestown, which consolidated with nearby Desha (Independence County) in the 1940s. His family moved from time to time to find work, however, which often interrupted his education. They first moved to Oklahoma and then in 1947 to California. In 1948, he started playing music professionally in Bremerton, Washington, with the band of Jesse Lee “Arkie” Shibley, a native of Van Buren (Crawford County).

Manuel continued performing professionally on the West Coast and in 1955 was playing piano in the Chester Smith Band in Modesto, California, when he met Barbara Lee “Bobbi” Brake, a Missouri native who played fiddle for the group. The two were married on October 6, 1955. They had two daughters.

Chester Smith had a popular radio show on KTRB in Modesto when he, with Manuel and the band, teamed up with Del Reeves to perform on television shows. Smith had a hit with “Wait a Little Longer, Please Jesus” in 1954, which had boosted his drawing power. The group often played at Shady Oaks Park in nearby Riverbank, where Jim Reeves (no relation to Del Reeves) sometimes played.

Manuel’s blossoming music career was suddenly put on hold when he entered the U.S. Army; he served for two years, 1956–1958. While attempting to re-establish himself in the West Coast country music scene after returning, he received a phone call from Jim Reeves in Nashville, who was reorganizing the Blue Boys, named for Jim’s big hit of 1958, “Blue Boy.” Manuel and his family moved to Nashville.

Manuel became part of the Jim Reeves Blue Boys band in 1959. He recommended drummer Mel Rogers and bass player James Kirkland to be in the band. Manuel, Rogers, and Kirkland, along with Leo Jackson (who was returning from the military), formed the nucleus of Jim Reeves and the Blue Boys.

Manuel became a close friend of Reeves, serving as his piano player and unofficial road manager. Reeves was reportedly free with his money and, as a means of forced self-discipline, had Manuel take care of the pay on the road. Author Larry Jordan noted, “Dean also carried the cash in a gym bag underneath his underwear, so it was inconspicuous.” The band members were on salary, unlike most band members of the period, and were on call at all times, whenever Reeves needed them.

Shortly after Manuel became a member of the Blue Boys, Reeves had a massive hit, “He’ll Have to Go,” released in the fall of 1959, which not only topped the country and pop charts, but was also played on rhythm and blues stations. While the Blue Boys were Reeves’s road band, RCA—guided by Chet Atkins—used Nashville studio musicians for the recordings. Arkansan Floyd Cramer did the piano work, although Manuel was called in a few times by Reeves when he was unsatisfied with Cramer’s accompaniment. Reeves often showcased Manuel’s virtuosity on the piano, especially his version of Floyd Cramer’s hypnotic “Last Date.”

Manuel and Reeves died in a plane crash on July 31, 1964. The two had spent about twenty-four hours in the Jamestown area. Reeves intended to purchase the old Manuel Place on Jamestown Mountain for a retreat and was in the midst of closing the deal just before flying out of the Batesville Regional Airport located in Southside (Independence County). About two hours after taking off, the plane, a single-engine Beechcraft Debonair piloted by Reeves, crashed during a thunderstorm near the Nashville airport. The official ruling was pilot’s error. It is believed that Reeves became disoriented and experienced vertigo, causing him to misjudge distance and direction, leading to the crash. The plane went down in a wooded area in Brentwood, Tennessee. On the morning of August 2, 1964, after an intense search (aided by country music stars Chet Atkins, Eddy Arnold, Stonewall Jackson, and Ernest Tubb) the bodies of Reeves and Manuel were found in the scattered wreckage of the aircraft.

Following the deaths of Reeves and Manuel, the Blue Boys continued to record and perform for several years, with Bunky Keels replacing Manuel on piano. Dean Manuel is buried in Spring Hill Cemetery in Nashville.

For additional information:
Anderson, Frank C. “Bunky Keels and the Blue Boys.” Jim Reeves Fan Club. (accessed September 25, 2020).

Cochran, Robert. Our Own Sweet Sounds: A Celebration of Popular Music in Arkansas. 2nd ed. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2005.

Jensen, Joli. The Nashville Sound: Authenticity, Commercialization and Country Music. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998.

Jordan, Larry. Jim Reeves: His Untold Story. Panora, IA: Page Turner Books International, 2011.

Kenneth Rorie
Van Buren, Arkansas


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