Life with Gracie: Diane Pfeifer’s quirky journey from hits to grits

Listening to Diane Pfeifer recount the days of her life, I couldn’t help remembering that ancient proverb that claims a cat has nine lives.

For three he plays, for three he strays and for the last three he stays. Truth or myth, some believe it foretells cats’ ability to always land on their feet, which gets me back to 66-year-old Diane Pfeifer and how this Midwesterner ended up atop a “grits empire.”

She lives now in Buckhead in a three-story house built 30 years ago with song royalties, but her story begins back in St. Louis, where she grew up with her identical twin, Suzanne, in a middle-class family of four, teaching herself to play ukulele and guitar and playing at college parties and sock hops with an all-girl rock band called Sweet Young Things.

After just two years majoring in chemistry at St. Louis Community College, she left to work as a pharmaceutical chemist (her only salaried job) by day and sing in clubs by night. It was at a club one night in 1973 where she got her first break.

“If you ever get to Atlanta, here’s my business card,” a local booking agent told her.

She took him up on the offer, and on Jan. 9, 1973, Pfeifer, 22, arrived during one of the biggest ice storms the city had ever had.

“I fell in love with Atlanta,” she remembered recently. “It was the friendliest place I’d ever been.”

She promptly moved to Atlanta, and for the next seven years, Pfeifer made a name for herself, playing happy hours, singing jingles for radio ads, and, despite her inability to read music, trying her hand at writing songs.

During a jingle recording session, a producer complimented her Midwestern speaking voice. Long story short, Pfeifer began doing radio and TV voice-overs. Then, another radio client suggested she audition for their on-camera TV spot, which led to yet another career doing television commercials.

“I just sorta let the universe guide me,” Pfeifer said. “I’d say ‘yes’ and figure it out later.”

She even recorded wrong-number messages for the phone company: “The number you have reached is not in service at this time. Please disconnect and try again or call your operator for assistance.”

In 1979, Pfeifer played one of her songs for a contest and won the chance to perform at Opryland. She was there when she ran into a girl with whom she once sang jingles.

Tammy Wynette was looking for a backup singer, she told her.

Pfeifer was familiar with the country singer’s hit “Stand by Your Man,” but that was it. She said sure anyway.

By then, Pfeifer had a lucrative career as a voice-over artist, but at the end of a two-week run, they asked her to stay and, well, she said yes.

When they handed her an itinerary, it included two weeks in Europe, and dates at Carnegie Hall, on “The Phil Donahue Show” and at every county fair in the nation.

“I’d never been overseas but toured 10 countries,” Pfeifer said, her eyes twinkling.

The magic continued when she stopped in Nashville to play her newest song, “Free to Be Lonely Again,” for her performing rights rep before heading home to Atlanta. Halfway through the song, he picked up the phone, called someone and said, ‘We’ll be right over.’”

Despite hurt feelings and confusion that her song was interrupted, Pfeifer followed with her guitar and minutes later was playing for Grammy-winning producer Larry Butler.

“Do you have anything else?” he asked.

She played something else.

“Would you like a record deal?”

Pfeifer said, “No, thanks. I just want to be a writer.”

A week later, she got a call. Butler had recorded three of Pfeifer’s songs with Debby Boone, two of which became Top 15 country singles.

“After that, I decided maybe I did want to try a record deal,” she said.

Her Capitol Records album “Diane Pfeifer” hit the country charts in 1980 with modest success, but that was it for the singer. Pfeifer had found a sweet spot writing songs in the genre of Dolly Parton and Crystal Gayle, but country music had gone from “girly pop country” to “good ole boy” and that just wasn’t her. The cheating and drinking themes bored her, and she was done being on the road all the time.

“I didn’t get out of the music business,” she said, “the business went on without me.”

She never recorded again, but what happened next will blow your mind.

Pfeifer left Wynette’s group in 1980 and returned to Atlanta for good. The jingle and voice-over jobs had dried up, but she had enough royalty income to stay afloat. In 1986, on a random movie date, her life took another turn.

She told her date she loved popcorn, wanted her own bucket, and didn’t share (a quantity issue, not germs). When he joked, “Just for that, I won’t share my secret recipe for Mexican popcorn,” Pfeifer got a weird feeling.

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For the rest of the night, she wondered if there was a popcorn cookbook. For the next nine months, she did research, walking grocery aisles, imagining what toppings she could put on popcorn.

Soon Pfeifer had 150 pages of original popcorn recipes ready for a book. When no one would publish it, she self-published it, just as she did with all her songs.

Meanwhile, her five-year NY-ATL friendship with comedian Jeff Justice had turned into romance, and on Jan. 9, 1988, they were married during another Atlanta ice storm.

The night before she was scheduled to be a guest on a morning television show to promote her popcorn cookbook, the chef at a sushi bar asked Pfeifer how they made sushi in Atlanta.

“We use grits instead of rice,’’ she quipped.

She got that funny feeling again, and after a little talk with Jesus to show her a sign, she happened upon Gregg Allman, yes, that Gregg Allman, ordering grits at a coffee shop. Pfeifer took that as her sign.

They talked for two hours, and Pfeifer knew she had to write the cookbook “Gone With the Grits,” which was featured on 16 million boxes of Quaker Grits and sold over 100,000 copies.

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When customers requested a ready-to-eat grits snack, Pfeifer obliged, inventing a “Grits Bits” cheese biscuits and cookie line, which made it all the way to the Obama White House in 2013 as the featured Georgia treat.

She sells them to gift shops and specializes in Georgia-themed gift baskets and goodies for weddings, corporate events, reunions, and hotel welcome bags. She speaks at luncheons and events, demoing recipes, singing her hit songs, and sharing her uniquely inspiring career tales.

These days, when the mother of two sings at nursing homes or cooks grits at homeless shelters, few would ever guess that’s the Diane Pfeifer who once performed with Tammy Wynette.

Should anybody ask, just say “yes” and figure it out later. That’s what Pfeifer has always done.

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