The man who wrote ‘Teddy Bear’

By: Leon Smith - Contributing columnist

I thought I was a pretty good judge of character because I could often intuit things about persons I met. But writing this article, I have discovered that intuition must not be my only guide, if I would be serious about knowing the truth. Here’s why.

A buddy of mine, who I will call “Slick,” received acclaim in his senior yearbook, as the most talented man in his senior class of 1960. Because he could make up songs readily, then sing them while he played his guitar, Slick’s class prophet envisioned his touring the world with the Grand Ol’ Opry.

Years later, in a series of telephone conversations, he told me that he joined the U.S. Army shortly after his graduation from high school, that he served in Germany at the same time Elvis Presley was there. Slick said he never got to meet the King, but he did meet some of Elvis’ military buddies. Writing songs in his spare time, Slick was able to convince some of those buddies to show his songs to Elvis.

Elvis recorded one of them,“Teddy Bear,” which sold its first million records within a week after its release, but Slick never received one penny for writing it.

“That song sounds a lot like something he wrote,” I thought, after Slick hung up. “I can just hear him singing the words:

Baby, let me be

your lovin’ teddy bear

Put a chain around my neck and lead me anywhere

Oh let me be (oh let me be) Your teddy bear.

During our high school years, we played a lot of guitar together, so I not only agreed with his yearbook prophet, but also knew that he was really intelligent, as well. So, I took Slick’s assertion the way an eager carp takes bread dough: swallowing the hook, then ingesting the line, as well as the red and white plastic sinker that kept the bait off the river floor, where I was feeding at that time. Reason had no part in my decision. There the matter rested for more than 25 years.

The long distance conversations continued for a few months, then I lost contact with him. Six or eight years later, in January 2000, I read his obituary in the morning paper, which stated Slick’s memorial service would be held that very afternoon. Wanting to say goodbye, and to hear some words of my old friend, I left right away to drive to the funeral home.

There were perhaps one hundred people in the funeral home chapel, none of whom I knew. When the minister stood to speak, he told us he met “Brother Slick” during the patient’s extended stay in the hospital, finding him to be a simple man, who worked hard for a living, took good care of his family, and maintained a ready smile and quick wit. He said other things I don’t remember … before he got to the part I will never forget.

It began when the preacher said, “On what turned out to be our last visit, Brother Slick said ‘Preacher, you know, this’ll be the last time you see me.’”

“I just looked at him,” the preacher continued. “Then Brother Slick looked me in the eye and said, ‘You’re worried about me, aren’t you?’”

“I told him I was.”

“’Don’t worry about me, Preacher,” Brother Slick smiled. ‘I’m looking forward to finding out what’s next.’”

Although the preacher kept speaking, I stopped listening because I couldn’t get past the import of Slick’s words. I asked myself whether Slick said them to get a rise out of the preacher, or if he had really been facing the end of his life — knowing he was going somewhere, but not knowing where. I don’t remember anything else until the congregation stood to pray. By the time we moved outside, the hour was late — and the January weather even colder — so I did not follow the procession all the way across town to the cemetery, but turned toward off toward home, pondering Slick’s last words as I drove. After a while I put the matter aside.

Ten years after Slick died, some friends asked me to speak when his name came up at a school reunion. I told them that Slick had accomplishments which virtually no one knew about, because he once wrote a million-selling hit for Elvis Presley. I said that Slick told me all about writing “Teddy Bear,” and that I believed him because I heard him sing those very words when he was a sophomore.

Looking at their faces, I saw that only one of the 20 in the dining room refused the carp bait. Her skeptical glance troubled me, causing me to wonder why she would not believe Slick could write a song for Elvis. But, seven years later, her dissenting vote caused me to collect objective information on the matter. I remembered Slick told me he joined the Army in the spring of 1960, right after he finished high school. Searching under his name and his place of residence, I found a listing in find.a.grave.com, which provided his birth and death dates, some family background, and a photo of the bronze plate which marks his grave. I also located some military records for Elvis but none for Slick. Then I stacked my findings away.

On March 21, 2018, I ran across them, and read a printout of the report from the Army Center for Military History. Those records stated that Elvis Presley entered the Army on March 24, 1958, completed basic and advanced training at Fort Hood Texas, then was shipped to Friedberg, Germany to serve at Headquarters Company of the first Medium Tank Battalion. According to the report, Elvis left Germany on March 2, 1960, to be discharged four days later at Fort Dix, New Jersey.

Then I began to research the song, thinking that perhaps Elvis’ friends sent Slick’s song to him in the states. But according to Wikipedia, “Teddy Bear” was released on June 11, 1957. The label on the vinyl disc lists Kal Mann and Bernie Lowe as the song’s writers, and surely the same credits appeared for the song in Elvis’ movie “Loving You,” which hit theatres one week after the audio recording came out. Mann and Lowe’s other hits like “Let’s Twist Again Like We Did Last Summer,” and “Limbo Rock” made it reasonable to believe these established writers had the ability to write “Teddy Bear,” as well as the connections to get it published.

Then I looked up a definition of “truth,” which states “truth is made up of intellectual facts which can be proven true or false.”

I used this definition of truth to examine the facts I had assembled. They indicate that Slick could not have been in Germany at the same time Elvis was there. The facts indicate that two established songwriters wrote “Teddy Bear.” They indicate that “Teddy Bear” was published while Slick was just a sophomore in high school. Taken together, the facts suggest no reason whatever to believe Slick could be the man who wrote “Teddy Bear.”

The facts also suggest that although Slick enjoyed joking, jesting, and telling tall tales, he never tried to deceive me when he was being serious. But if Slick didn’t deceive me, how was I deceived? In my desire to believe good things about my friend, I allowed my emotions to override my reason — and to deceive myself. Then I used my will to continue believing an assertion that the facts will not support.

Still, emotions have their proper place in decision making, for they speak for what we want, but they are not at all effective in determining what we should have. That’s the realm of the intellect, the reason.

I can use my will to support decisions based on emotion or reason. I now think it best to choose reason, informed by emotion, and maintained by will … to make decisions as to what is true and what is not. So I conclude that even though Slick could not have written “Teddy Bear,” I value the memories of our friendship, I want to believe our friendship was true, and reason allows me to do so.

Carrying this reasoning a bit farther, if I could deceive myself these many years, might I conclude that Slick could do the same? Could his “I’m just looking forward to what’s next,” be another instance of self-deceit?

Sadly, this thought seems reasonable to me.

Leon Smith, a resident of Wingate who grew up in Polkton, believes the truth in stories and that his native Anson County is very near the center of the universe.

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Leon Smith

Contributing columnist