The phones don’t ring as much as they once did at the Paul Meade Insurance Agency, but Nick Meade knows its phone number is still stuck in quite a few memories of those who lived through the heyday of UHF television.
Three decades have passed since the Tall Paul commercials with the catchy jingle last aired, yet the character and the song have an online following. A few years ago, Oklahoma native Blake Shelton posted a video declaring the commercial jingle his favorite followed by his own performance of the tune.
“Protecting all the things you own like cars and trucks and mobile homes, accidents and tickets too, just call and he’ll take care of you, 524-1541.”
Nick Meade, who works at the agency with his father, Raymond Meade, often gets calls from people wanting them to bring Tall Paul back to television. The old commercials still entertain online with views topping 70,000.
“I think it brings back memories that people are fond of – it was that time during the 1980s and 1990s,” Nick Meade said. “They like the Tall Paul character. He’s got this rabbit at his side and he plays a guitar.”
Tall Paul and the real Tall Paul loom large at the office the family has maintained at 4220 N Classen for the past four decades.
The puppet used in the stop-animation commercial greets visitors at the entrance while a larger version is seated at a nearby desk. Portraits of founder Paul W. Meade and his wife, Madeline, are prominently displayed at the opposite end of the lobby.
Paul W. Meade attended what is now the University of Central Oklahoma and married a fellow student (and homecoming queen), Madeline, in 1935.
They were both education majors who ended up in the business of selling life insurance in the years after they graduated. Meade opened his agency in 1946 after a stint in the Navy toward the end of World War II.
Was Tall Paul really that tall? His grandson Nick responds that Paul W. Meade was 6 feet 2 inches tall, but it wasn’t really his height that made him “tall.”
“When people would come into the front lobby, he would greet them as if they were coming into his house,” Nick Meade said. “He had the people skills no one else really had here. People believed in him and he was a leader.”
Raymond Meade and his brother Paul G. Meade joined the agency with Raymond taking on individual insurance policies while his brother handled commercial fleet policies. Their mother, Madeline, oversaw accounting and kept the office running right.
The Tall Paul campaign started with Raymond Meade and local advertising executive Ken Cloclasure. Cloclasure’s son David recalls it was a connection between his brother and Paul G. Meade’s son both playing on the same ball team that got the conversation started about the Meade agency experimenting with advertising.
“Everything back then was who you knew, and they would refer people to you,” Raymond Meade said. “We talked about advertising, and I decided we should try it. He (Paul W. Meade) went along with the idea.”
The cowboy first appeared in 1970 in a series of multi-panel cartoon advertisements in The Oklahoman’s television guide. The look of that early cowboy character with the guitar resembles the Tall Paul that would grace television screens.
His name, however, was not Tall Paul.
“We named him ‘Guy,’ as in ‘good guy insurance,” David Colclasure said. “At first we did the print ads, and then it went to doing phone book ads.”
People were urged to call “Guy” for help with their insurance, and they did just that.
“There wasn’t anybody at the office by that name,” Raymond Meade said. “I guess we just answered ‘He’s on the other line, let me get someone to help you.'”
‘Poor man’s cable’ provides cheap TV ads
David Colclasure, whose father died in 1991, and Bill Billen, who sang the jingle with music partner Ken Johnson, agree the television campaign started in the mid- to late-1970s. The commercial hit first with just the cowboy speaking, voiced by Johnson.
They built puppets and sets to create commercials mimicking the Rankin Bass holiday specials and “Davey and Goliath” kids’ shows that were popular in the 1970s.
“We hadn’t fully developed the character yet,” Colclasure said. “There was overlap in the printed advertising.”
Ken Colclasure assembled a team to assemble the commercials. Drew Barlow was tasked with overseeing audio production and helping voice the radio spots. D.L. Richardson and George Holmes created the animation.
The jingle was created by Johnson and Billen, local performers who aspired to follow in the steps of singers like Loggins and Messina.
“I was out of a job, and Kenny was working for the Ken Colclasure advertising agency,” Billen said. “He invited me to join him and learn a trade.”
Billen and Johnson wrote and sang the song that remains as popular as the puppets.
“We just sat down and played some country ditties,” Billen said. “Originally it was about the phone number. So it went ‘When you’re looking high and low, when other folks come and go, there’s a number you should know, just dial it on your telephone, 524-1541.'”
Within a year, the pair wrote new lyrics to promote the agency’s services, and they cranked out the version performed by Blake Shelton. The commercials first aired on radio, and then sporadically on the network channels in the pre-cable age.
In 1979, television choices doubled with the addition of KOKH-25, KGMC-34 and KAUT-43 on the largely unused UHF dial.
“UHF was a poor man’s cable,” Billen said. “We were able to watch television 24/7 and watch old movies. And it was interesting to see who would put their commercials in those spots.”
More:John Ferguson, “Count Gregore,” shares tales about heyday of late night monster flicks.
Thanks to the low cost of UHF advertising, local commercials enjoyed a heyday over the next decade with classics like B.C. Clark’s Christmas sale jingle being joined by favorites. including Tall Paul and Linda Soundtrak.
The Meade Agency struggled to keep up with the new customers calling 524-1541. Raymond Meade’s wife, Marcella, recalls the phones ringing non-stop.
The Cloclasure crew, meanwhile, took Tall Paul to bigger stardom by sponsoring late night movies on KGMC. They filled some breaks with expanded skits and even filmed 20-minute Halloween and Christmas specials featuring Tall Paul and odd plots in which an evil wrench tries to steal Christmas.
The end of Tall Paul
The UHF craze was coming to an end as cable expanded throughout the city. And the Meade agency lost its real Tall Paul when the founder died in 1977 just as the advertising was taking off.
“People believed in him, and he was a leader,” Nick Meade said. “That’s how the business started. After he died, it wasn’t the same. It was the rest of the family managing it all.”
The family started going in different directions, with Raymond Meade’s brother, Paul G. Meade, departed to start his own agency.
Ken Colclasure, who gave birth to the Tall Paul campaign, passed away in 1991 at the age of 54.
An era of rapid growth where phones wouldn’t stop ringing was coming to an end, and the industry itself changed with national online competitors like GEICO and Progressive moving into the market.
“As the internet changed everything, obviously it made it where there are a tremendous number of sellers of insurance, and they don’t have to be local,” Nick Meade said. “Our business did shrink during that time. We’ve done our best to sell from different companies and offer different options, but still be that local agent you can call when you’re in a bind and you have a problem.”
Raymond Meade recalls how customers once regularly interacted with their agents, even often paying their bills in person if they couldn’t get their check to a mailbox.
“With electronic payments, you don’t get that face to face anymore we need to find ways to connect to our customers without that face-to-face time,” Nick Meade said. “The technology is always changing, and it’s me and my dad.”
Finding new customers a challenge
The Meade family is in a race against time to reinvent, and in recent years, Nick Meade brought Tall Paul back for a run online that included shirt giveaways and pictures of Tall Paul’s “travels” across the state.
“We’ve had a lot of people from 80s and 90s who kept their policies forever until they died,” Nick Meade said. “Replacing those people with new accounts is what we have to do now. But to get with people to get them to buy, to do all we can to serve them, is harder than ever to do.”
The Meades and the advertising team behind Tall Paul agree the lasting popularity of the guitar playing cowboy with the rabbit sidekick represents the relationship the agency built with its customers.
“Things like the B.C. Clark jingle, Tall Paul, have hung on for 50 years for Clark, 40 years for Paul Meade,” Billen said. “It’s interesting to see who keeps it alive. Paul Meade remains popular online because it’s kitschy. I don’t believe it would be remembered now if it as been a modern approach. I love kitschy. And that’s what it takes to stick around so long.”
Staff writer Steve Lackmeyer is a 31-year reporter, columnist and author who covers downtown Oklahoma City, related urban development and economics for The Oklahoman. Contact him at [email protected] Please support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a subscription today at subscribe.oklahoman.com.