Pallbearers wore bright blue shirts last Friday as they bore townsman Billy Mays from a funeral home in McKees Rocks , Pennsylvania. When the ceremony was finished, they gave a thumbs-up, just as Mays did at the end of some of his commercials. With due respect and reverence to the unbridled talents of Michael Jackson, I admit feeling a greater sense of loss for Mays, the ultimate pitchman. I’m just not sure why.
The roads we take are more important than the goals we set out to reach and, for each of us, decisions determine destiny. Billy Mays was that kind of guy. He came from modest roots, hawked products on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, sold stuff at county fairs, and tried any number of corridors into the indecorous world of “the pitch” before breaking through the Home Shopping Network where he ultimately became best known as the spokesman for OxiClean. Along the journey Mays hawked everything from the Wash-matik, a device for pumping water from a bucket to wash your car to Orange Glo, an environmentally friendly cleanser.
Sporting his jet black beard, high-energy gestures and booming voice, Billy became an American pop culture icon. This April , at the pinnacle of success, Mays was invited to star in Discovery Channel’s new series, Pitchmen. Producer Chris Wilson reflects, “Billy didn’t sell you, he told you, and had an amazing way of making you believe everything he said was true.”
Billy Mays was neither purely talented nor highly cultivated as a performer, yet those stereotypical standards embedded in the radio-television paradigm weren’t required in Mays’ blue-shirted legion. Sincerity, eye contact, a winning smile, booming voice and an aura of just a really decent guy carried Mays to national familiarity and acceptance few ever reach. In a year when Radio failed to win a single Mercury Award, Billy Mays won the attention and affection of millions, just by being himself. Those in the Tampa Bay Area who knew him personally, says my son Heath, saw him through the same lens the studio camera portrayed; kind, full of life, and ever-modest about his success as the quintessential pitchman. Billy Mays was the walking breathing personification of Emerson’s incantation, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” And in living it, he defined the phrase “the power of persuasion.”
BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE… get your credit card ready and order the following Billy Mays credo for success: Four things never come back to you: the spoken word, the spent insult, the past, and neglected opportunity. What a life he had, what fun we had watching him, and what a difference he made through his unique presence. A candle that burns twice as bright burns only half as long.
Billy Mays 1958 – 2009