Remembering Dean Webb
Beloved Mandolin Legend of The Dillards and Mayberry’s Darlings
by Jim Clark
Fans of Mayberry and mandolins lost a tremendous friend and talented musician with the passing of Dean Webb in Branson West, Mo., on June 30. He was 81.
Dean was a founding member of The Dillards, who had their first taste of national fame in their first episode as the musical Darling boys on “The Andy Griffith Show” in 1963. The group went on to international acclaim as masters of bluegrass and pioneers of country rock music.
Known for being the quiet member of the group, the rail-thin Dean cast a wide shadow with his expertise on the mandolin and his smooth vocals. The breadth of his vocal range allowed him to glide effortlessly from tenor to baritone and even bass.
Roy Dean Webb was born on March 28, 1937, in Independence, Mo., where he and brother Gene were raised by their parents: Clarence, who ran a pair of gas stations, and Carol Crawford Webb, a registered nurse.
As it happened, Carol Webb’s brother, Bob Crawford, was a singing cowboy of note, especially around Independence. Dean became interested in music because of his uncle.
Dean started playing piano in elementary school, but never really loved it and by his early teens he became keenly interested in country music and particularly a new sound beginning to get increased radio airplay–the bluegrass music of Bill Monroe. And it was the mandolin, Monroe’s instrument, that became Dean’s choice when he, two cousins and a friend began performing around the Independence area.
Dean continued to pursue music in his teens and, after graduation from William Chrisman High School (Go Bruins!) and various odd jobs, he first got serious about being a professional musician as a member of the Ozark Mountain Boys with Lonnie Hoppers.
As the group performed live on radio stations and at festivals throughout Missouri, Dean became acquainted with radio announcer Mitch Jayne and, not long after that, brothers Doug and Rodney Dillard, who were starting to make a name for themselves around their home base of Salem, Mo.
Doug and Rodney took an immediate liking to Dean and his musicianship, and Dean liked them right back. The Dillard boys decided to form their own band and invited Dean to join them, with Mitch Jayne rounding out the group as their storyteller, emcee and budding bass player. In 1962, The Dillards played their debut show at Washington University in St. Louis.
The group decided California was the place they ought to be, so they loaded up Mitch’s ’55 Cadillac and headed west with Rodney teaching Mitch how to play the bass along the way.
Once The Dillards arrived in Los Angeles, they soon realized that the place to be heard was a club called The Ash Grove. During an after-hours jam session at the club, Jim Dickson, an A&R man from Elektra Records, was dazzled by the talented new group from the Ozarks. The next night, The Dillards were signed to a recording contract with Elektra.
Richard O. (Dick) Linke, Andy Griffith’s manager and also an associate producer of “The Andy Griffith Show,” saw the announcement of the record deal in Variety magazine.
Dick contacted Elektra Records and arranged to audition the band for TAGS, which was looking for a group to play the musical brothers of the Darling family alongside patriarch Briscoe (Denver Pyle) and sister Charlene (Margaret Ann Peterson). Proving enormously popular with audiences and Andy himself, the Darlings went from a one-shot appearance to a total of six episodes between 1963 and 1966, as well as one more trip to Mayberry for the high-rated reunion movie, Return to Mayberry, in 1986.
For the record, Dean’s Mayberry character was originally scripted by writers Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum to be called Ward Darling. (Dean’s $255 contract for three days of playing that character in “The Darlings Are Coming” was drawn up on February 4, 1963.) By the time Dean came up (and down) the rope of the hotel window in that episode, his name had been changed to Other, which was Andy’s wink to makeup man Lee Greenway, whose middle name was Other. By the final Darlings episode in 1966 (“The Darling Fortune”), all of the Darling boys were going by their real first names. Dean was said by Briscoe to be “strong as an ox and almost as bright.”
Briscoe also could’ve mentioned that Dean was one of the nimblest pickers ever to pick up a mandolin. Like Doug Dillard on banjo, Dean was known for being lightning fast on the mandolin. Dean slung his mandolin strap over his right shoulder the same way Bill Monroe did. (It’s more common for players to wear the strap across the opposite shoulder and behind the neck.) Maybe Dean and Bill’s style allowed for a little freer, faster hand movement. Whatever the secret, Monroe himself was among the many admirers of Dean’s technique.
The Dillards also made many guest appearances on other high-profile TV shows, including “The Judy Garland Special” and “The Tennessee Ernie Ford Special.” They likewise were a hit at the Newport Folk Festival and other top festivals. The Dillards toured with Elton John (during his first North American tour), Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and many others. While touring the United Kingdom, they received The Edison Award for excellence in music.
The Dillards had many stellar configurations over the years. Even the existence of the band itself ebbed and flowed. The two constants from founding into the 2000s were Rodney and Dean. They also performed together with others, including a favorite tour with Earl Scruggs beginning in 1979.
Leaving the road for a more tranquil lifestyle in the early 1980s, Dean and Rodney were the core of Dillards bands that were mainstays first at the Gaslight Theater and then for six years at the Silver Dollar City Jubilee, both in Branson, Mo., which became their home base, while working both separately and together.
Always with a keen eye for business, Dean was in charge of merchandising for The Dillards under the shingle of Stick & Stone Productions. From time to time, he also handled merchandising for others, including the Tony Orlando Theater, in Branson.
Dean’s practical side also made for good yarns for Mitch Jayne to weave on stage. Here’s a typical example about selecting a night’s lodging that Mitch shared in Lee Grant’s Everybody on the Truck: The Story of the Dillards (1995, Eggman Publishing):
Dean would march through the room and check all of these things while the rest of us would sit outside in the van and wait. Sometimes Dean would look at two or three places before he would settle on one. Once, while Dean was checking out a motel, Douglas said to me, “Why does Dean have to take so long?” I told him that it was just Dean’s way, and he replied, “Well, it don’t take me that long to look at a horseshoe. That is a great Ozark expression that is useful for all kinds of things.
Well, I watched Dean through the van window as he marched through the motel lobby, flipped the room key onto the reception desk and headed back to the van.”
“What’s the matter with this place?”
“Bullet holes in the connecting doors,” Dean answered in that calm voice of his. “Always a sign of unrest.”
“Back in those days, I had to play sort of the cool one, the straight man, because Rodney was acting goofy and Mitch was talking and Doug was smiling ear to ear,” Dean told TAGSRWC in 2010. I needed to be somebody else. We had a lot of fun in the years we played together.”
Beneath that calm exterior, the wheels were always turning in Dean’s mind. Blessed with a natural curiosity, he was a true student of many things, including Mayberry. He was ever ready with an observation or question about TAGS. He wasn’t the master of Mayberry trivia the way bandmate Doug Dillard was, but he had a thoughtful, inquiring mind. And just the fact that he worked on the show gave him interesting Mayberry knowledge and insight that today’s rerun watchers can only dream of having.
In addition to performing, Dean also had a hand in writing more than a dozen songs, most notably “The Old Home Place,” which he co-wrote with Mitch Jayne and which has become a bluegrass standard. In fact, its is widely considered to be one of the most performed and recorded songs in the genre–certainly one of the most beloved.
Speaking of old home places, the hit Return to Mayberry movie in 1986 ended up being an impetus for the original Dillards to reunite, both in the studio and on the road. A tour that started out to be just a handful of dates turned into about 11 dozen performances worldwide.
The band also continued to reunite for various Mayberry reunion shows, from the late 1980s till the band’s final paid reunion performance at the 2004 Mayberry Days festival in Mount Airy, N.C., which also included reuniting with Andy Griffith and other TAGS cast members for the unveiling of the town’s TV Land Landmark statue. (The four original Dillards also gathered around the microphone one more time to sing “The Old Home Place” together as part of their IBMA Hall of Fame induction in 2009.)
Around 2003, Dean began playing with The Missouri Boatride Bluegrass Band (named after a favorite Clint Eastwood line in The Outlaw Josey Wales) aboard Branson’s American Star showboat on Table Rock Lake. The Missouri Boatride became Dean’s main gig in the years that followed, though he would still do occasional Dillards reunion shows as well. The band toured throughout the Ozarks and a wide swath of the Midwest.
Dean performed with The Missouri Boatride until the band docked for the final time in late 2017, when Dean had decided to retire from professional performing after more than six decades of delighting audiences. On May 5 of this year, the band was inducted into the local Reeds Spring Hall of Fame in recognition of their years of entertainment in their community.
Dean and The Dillards likewise received many professional honors and accolades through the years, among them recognition by the Missouri Walk of Fame in 2008 (as the Darlings, along with Maggie Peterson and Denver Pyle) and being named Outstanding Missourians by the Missouri House of Representatives in 2010.
An especially meaningful professional recognition was when the Original Dillards were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Fame on October 1, 2009. Longtime friend John McEuen, founder of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, presented The Dillards with the honor at the awards show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.
Awards are nice, but Dean’s legacy extends far beyond such things. Recordings and memories of his music will live on for as long as music and memory themselves. More than that, Dean’s many acts of kindness to all he encountered and his love of his family and friends are an inspiration and are deeply cherished by those who knew him.
Dean was preceded in death by his parents, half-sister Gloris Webb, and half brothers Clarence Webb and Clyde Webb. Survivors include wife Sandy, stepdaughter Jennifer, stepson Michael and wife Erica, brother Gene and wife Carolyn, and three step-grandchildren.
A celebration of life memorial service was held August 11, at Dean and Sandy’s church, the Shepard of the Hills Lutheran Church in Kimberling City, Mo. Here’s a link to Pastor Rich Futrell’s Funeral Sermon. The pastor’s words beautifully capture dimensions of the way Dean lived his life that extend far beyond what fans might know about Dean just from Mayberry and from his music.
Memorials in lieu of flowers can be made to either Southern Stone County Food Pantry c/o Our Lady of the Cove Catholic Church, 20 Kimberling City Blvd., Kimberling City MO 65686, or to Shepard of the Hills Lutheran Church, P O Box 484, Kimberling City MO 65686-0484.
Editor’s Note: To read more about Dean Webb, here are two informative articles previously published online: