Singer and composer Jim Wann ’70 saw his career take off when his first name became his last and he took to the stage as the bank robber Jesse James.
It happened in 1974 when Diamond Studs: The Life of Jesse James, A Saloon Musical debuted in Chapel Hill and later opened off-Broadway in New York. Wann collaborated on it and several other shows with Bland Simpson ’70, UNC’s Kenan Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing and longtime member of the North Carolina string band the Red Clay Ramblers.
The musical focused on the James brothers’ experiences during the Civil War. It was directed by John L. Haber ’70, who suggested that Wann play Jesse James.
Wann initially balked: “I’m not an actor.” Haber told him to simply take his guitar, point it like a gun, “and the people pretending to be in front of a ‘bank’ — which would be the piano — will just hold up their hands. And everyone will believe that you’re an outlaw holding up a bank!”
It worked. The show opened New Year’s Eve in New York. The New York Times called it “sheer delight” and printed what Wann considers “the review of all reviews.”
“Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes!” the late drama and dance critic Clive Barnes wrote.
From Chattanooga to Chapel Hill
Wann was born in Chattanooga, Tenn. As a co-author and performer, he pioneered a format that put musicians center stage as actors. Among his hits: Pump Boys and Dinettes (a 1982 Tony Award nominee for Best Musical) and King Mackerel & The Blues Are Running.
His love of music bloomed at a rustic North Carolina mountain retreat. He was a 14-year-old at Sky Valley Pioneer Camp in Henderson County when a visitor began playing Woody Guthrie and old folk songs around the campfire.
“I just flipped over the sound of the guitar and these songs,” recalled Wann, who taught himself to play on a guitar borrowed from the family preacher.
Wann headed to UNC as a Morehead-Cain Scholar and majored in English with little idea about what to do after college. During breaks, he worked for his father, a Chattanooga funeral home director, as a pallbearer and chauffeur.
At Carolina, a key mentor was the late professor Jerry Leath Mills, who entranced Wann with his Shakespeare class and later contributed lyrics and stories to Pump Boys and King Mackerel.
After college, Wann bartended, wrote songs, played in a band and co-founded Cat’s Cradle, the Carrboro music venue. Then Diamond Studs happened and Wann was on a roll.
Inspiration for Pump Boys and Dinettes
His career got another boost from Pump Boys and Dinettes, a hybrid of country, rock and pop that Wann wrote with several collaborators. The musical premiered off-Broadway in 1981 and opened on Broadway a year later, playing 573 performances. It’s the story of four “gas station guys” and two waitresses at a small-town North Carolina diner.
Inspiration came from Merritt’s Esso, a gas station and store with wood floors and a potbelly stove on U.S. 15-501 in Chapel Hill where Wann and friends used to hang out.
Pump Boys was such a hit that before long, limos were snaking around the block. Willie Nelson and Robert Redford were photographed at one show. After another, Liza Minnelli sauntered onstage and said in her smoky voice:
“We have no idea what we’re in for when you start your show, and you just lead us down the garden path.”
‘Like a vintage Mustang’
Over the years, Wann has released numerous CDs. In 2013, he received Carolina’s John L. Haber ’70 (“Habey”) Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Arts.
These days, he divides his time between the Hudson Valley and Tybee Island, Ga. He still performs in King Mackerel and with the Coastal Cohorts, a trio that includes Simpson and Don Dixon that often performs to benefit environmental organizations.
In July 2014, Pump Boys and Dinettes returned to Broadway for a four-day run at the New York City Center. The Times said the new production “still hums along like a vintage Mustang that’s just had a full tuneup.”
Before one show, original cast members reunited and performed for a packed crowd that included plenty of Tar Heels. The scene was emotional, “full of joy and life,” Wann said.
“The original show was half my life ago, so a lot of my journey has been with a sense of gratitude for Pump Boys. Sitting in the audience and playing and singing with the originals for the first time in 30 years or more, that [gratitude] felt like it was turned up to 10.”
Read a New York TImes review of the Pump Boys & Dinettes revival.
Read more about the show.
Listen to Jim Wann’s music on YouTube.
[ Story by Pamela Babcock ]
Published in the Fall 2014 issue | Tar Heels Up Close
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