The Local Elvis: From Good Kid to Garbo in Rock n’ Roll Legend

By Matt Chaney, ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Sunday, April 2, 2017

Copyright ©2017 by Matthew L. Chaney

By the latter 1960s, Memphis guitarist Bob Tucker knew people throughout rock-and-roll music. Tucker led the Bill Black Combo and toured internationally, playing alongside bands such as The Beatles. Yet Tucker hadn’t met the rock star, right at home, Elvis Presley, enigmatic icon of the music world. Tucker even worked with Presley’s former band mates.

Elvis was notoriously reclusive, beginning on his turf, Memphis, Tenn. But Tucker was bound to encounter him and the meeting in fact materialized, although unannounced, without introduction.

Late one night downtown, Tucker detected a presence looming—Presley. Nocturnal signals were clicking for an Elvis sighting in Memphis. Locals knew the famed cat moved about in shadows, trusting only family members and further confidants.

“I was dating this gal from St. Jude’s Hospital,” Tucker recalls in a recent interview. “We were at the Memphian Theater in midtown, where Elvis rented it a lot to go see movies late at night. We went to a 10 o’clock movie that’s over about midnight, when they start poppin’ popcorn like crazy. And we’re the only two in the theater at the time. So I thought something’s goin’ on.”

Tucker wasn’t surprised to find George Klein in the lobby, an associate and radio guy. Klein was among Presley’s closest pals, a leader of the entourage, tight with the living legend since junior high. “G.K.” was the reputed advance man for tasks like scouting women and securing safe zones in public.

“George, what’s goin’ on?” Tucker queried. “Is Elvis coming?”

“Yeah,” Klein said. “He’ll be here in a minute. If you want to, just stay.”

***

Earth tremors of the New Madrid Fault weren’t the only shaking goin’ on at the Mississippi River in winter 1954-55. Genesis rock n’ roll was hatching at Memphis on the valley, spreading forth through radio and stage. “The beat” swept great delta flatland from Louisiana north to Missouri and flew southwesterly, taking Texas.

The driving force was a prophet trio from Sun Records in Memphis: Elvis Presley, age 19, on vocals and rhythm guitar; Scotty Moore, 23, at electric guitar; and Bill Black, 28, upright bass player. The three had hit breakthrough “rockabilly” sound under Sun producer Sam Phillips, recording fresh covers of established songs like “That’s All Right,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “Good Rocking Tonight.” They sold tens of thousands of records and garnered acclaim across the South.

Initially the trio worked without a drummer to create a pristine sound, Sun musician Charlie Feathers surmised decades later. “Rockabilly consists of three pieces: the upright bass, the rhythm guitar and a lead instrument like the electric guitar. When you go beyond that, you are doing rock.”

Thus it was rock n’ roll—merging country with rhythm and blues, according to Feathers—when teen musicians like drummer D.J. Fontana and pianist Jerry Lee Lewis stepped in at Sun Records. The Louisiana natives were among youths inspired by the revolutionary “bop” beat. The Sun studio setup and tape-mastering were key, particularly “slap-back” echo, which Phillips drew out between near-simultaneous recorders.

Feathers hailed from Mississippi while college student Roy Orbison, a ballad warbler, came to Sun from Texas. In a related development, Buddy Holley, fresh high-school graduate in Lubbock, had opened once for Presley as a country steel guitarist then switched to rock. Within a couple years Buddy dropped the “e” from his surname and signed with Decca Records.

Young guitar players Carl Perkins and J.R. Cash showed up at Sun studio from Jackson, Tenn., and Dyess, Ark., respectively. Singer-guitarists Billy Lee Riley and Sonny Burgess entered the fold, along with guitarist Roland Janes, all from Arkansas. Singer-guitarist Narvel Felts drove in from Missouri, a teen cotton hand hooked on rockabilly. Charlie Rich, Arkansas, and Harold Jenkins of Mississippi were arrivals at Sun—the latter to rename as “Conway Twitty”—who would follow J.R. “Johnny” Cash into country music.

A rocker concentration was gelling in the upper delta of western Tennessee, northeast Arkansas and southeast Missouri. Farther north, St. Louis contributed an impact player in Chuck Berry, 28, dynamic guitarist-songwriter who adapted his smash hit “Maybelline” for the Chess label of Chicago.

“It seems there’s a strip that starts in St. Louis and goes all the way to the Gulf, about a hundred miles wide, where more damn good musicians came from than anyplace in the world,” Bob Tucker says in retrospect, speaking recently with this author.

For delta rockabilly, Presley lit the fire.

“Oh! He did. Hell, yes,” Tucker says. “That was such a phenomenon. It’s been repeated with other actors since then, but nothing’s really had the impact. He changed culture. It wasn’t just a musical change. It was precipitated or enjoined with movies—Marlon Brando’s The Wild Ones, James Dean’s Rebel Without A Cause. And musically and physically with his presence, Elvis was saying ‘My generation wants to do it this way.’ And every generation since then has followed that lead.”

“Elvis made me do it,” recounted Joe Keene, recording artist, composer and studio founder in Kennett, Mo. In summer 1956, following high-school graduation, Keene “caught a severe case of ‘Elvisitis,’ ” he wrote in opening his 2001 book, Songwriting: From Ideas to Royalties. “Like many other young men in America, I was swept up in the swirl of rock ’n’ roll and rockabilly music.” Now Keene has accompanied, wrote for and recorded talents spanning four decades. Before ceasing stage work as guitarist and singer, Keene appeared with stars like Felts, Twitty and Fats Domino.

Tucker was another regional product, born in Bootheel Missouri, reared in Trumann, Ark. Today Tucker lives in northeast Arkansas, across river from Memphis, as a businessman, retired journalism professor, and former touring musician. “You can imagine, as a teenager, comin’ to Memphis, which was like Valhalla, you know,” he says. “Everybody came to Memphis, who was musically inclined, to try to be a picker. To be in the game. And getting in the game—that was enough, man.”

“I grew up on country music, and I used to go to country music shows when I was a kid,” Tucker recalls. “I liked The [Grand Ole] Opry when I could get it—but more of rock n’ roll, cause it busted wide open in Memphis. And Elvis, Cash and all of ’em would play little schoolhouses and things in the area, and I got to see a few of those shows.”

One night stands vivid for Tucker. “I went to a show when we were in high school, just kids. I hadn’t really even got my music going yet. They had a show over at Bono, Ark., in the high school gym. Elvis played over there once or twice. This night they had Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. This would’ve been about ’56. We went over there in my ’39 Chevrolet, me and three of my buddies.”

“We saw a great show, of course. I mean great. Roy Orbison had one record out, ‘Oobie Doobie.’ And Cash could pick forever, and Carl Perkins had ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and ‘Boppin’ The Blues.’ ”

Tucker and his classmates paid 50 cents each for admission, after the doorman took pity, realizing none had the dollar asking price.

***

Memphis wasn’t so big a city in 1955, and many citizens still knew or encountered Elvis Presley on friendly terms. He’d been a regular figure downtown and on the riverfront since relocating to Memphis with his parents, Vernon and Gladys. The young parents had left behind hardscrabble farming at Tupelo, Miss., in 1948, when their son was 13.

Before music stardom struck Elvis Presley, local folks generally viewed him as mannered and musically inclined, a church-goer. He was shy and a loner often, but a good kid. Some Memphians considered him a mama’s boy, but Elvis was tough and no pushover.

Elvis was the only surviving child of Gladys and Vernon Presley, after his twin brother was stillborn, and the little family stayed tight-knit while hovering above poverty, no disgrace locally. As Elvis completed grades at public Humes High School, graduating in May 1953, the family residence was in “The Courts,” a complex of subsidized, segregated housing. The foremost historian of this focus is biographer Peter Guralnick, who first wrote of Presley in 1967, and whose remarkable information-gathering continues in the Memphis region. Among sources, Guralnick has interviewed hundreds of firsthand witnesses to the Elvis phenomenon.

At outset of ’55 young Presley was positioned to blow apart American pop culture, to refit the entire model, not only music. For a final brief period in his life, through spring, he would live and work in relatively common fashion. The local Elvis character remained personable if flashy, affable on the street, well-liked, according to his profile drawn from numerous accounts.

Presley likely felt at ease in driving across the bridge from Memphis and keeping north on Highway 61, the river road through Arkansas and Missouri. This carried him through familiar delta country and communities, on the highway Elvis traveled since a boy, with family, to visit Presley relatives.

In 1955 it became route for paying work, building his audience and popularity. Presley’s band scheduled at least nine shows along Highway 61 from West Memphis, Ark., to Cape Girardeau, where the delta flatland ended at Missouri foothills. Young Elvis would appear at roadhouses, dance halls, schools, armories and fairgrounds. Small venues across six states would dominate the 200-plus dates for his band, according to available news reports, advertisements and additional evidence, notably the comprehensive dateline at ScottyMoore.net.

That January, northeast Arkansas, schoolkids from Leachville High burst into a newspaper office. The giddy teens promoted their fundraiser with Elvis Presley on stage, the fabulous rockabilly heard afternoons and nights on radio from Blytheville and Memphis. “He’s great! He’s going to be a star!” the students raved to editors.

The paper published a show notice complete with publicity photo of Presley’s trio, becoming known as The Blue Moon Boys: Elvis smiles radiantly at center, darkly handsome in sporty tie and jacket, draping his arms around guitarists Scotty Moore and Bill Black, beaming in their cowboy shirts. The three had become good friends since summer, however long they’d last under mounting pressure.

Within days America’s hottest new band reached Sikeston, Mo., a bustling agri-center of about 17,000 at the intersection of U.S. Highways 61 and 60. This Presley event, Friday, Jan. 21, 1955, has left a quality cache of fact and credible recollection, displayed in composite at the Scotty Moore site. A portrait emerges of youthful Elvis at Sikeston, mixing freely, endearing locals. Presley charmed and impressed people, winning fans during a night he enjoyed, apparently.

The rural area felt homey for Presley, with a cluster of his relatives nearby. Another factor was the presence of recording artist Onie Wheeler, budding Nashville star by his peers at Grand Ole Opry, if not the public. Presley admired and respected the classy Wheeler, a soft-spoken music talent and war veteran.

Positive publicity preceded the band in Sikeston and the players were welcomed, a relief anytime on the road. But most folks were clueless about the act, promoted as cowboy pickers. The Presley trio came out on the armory stage and broke into song.

Elvis, billed as a “country music star,” strutted in pink suit and white shoes bought on Beale Street. He’d bust loose in a circle, strumming guitar, swinging hips and knees, dancing on toes. At the microphone he wailed familiar lyrics but to beats faster, louder. Scotty and Bill banged out rock riffs, with a box amp blaring electric guitar.

Mouths had to be hanging open. This wasn’t country music. Armory guardsman Barney Cardwell hardly knew what to think. Later at home, his wife asked about the show. “Well, he was a man named Elvis Presley and I’ve never heard of him, but I’ll say one thing, he’s different. We’re transitioning into something different.”

Others heaped praise led by Wheeler, who had interviewed Presley on Sikeston radio. Wheeler later recalled: “I knew from the very start that Elvis was absolutely the most talented and different entertainer I had ever seen. And I think I was one of the first to tell him so.”

The performance was successful and Elvis stuck around afterward, following people to Wheeler’s show at Lakeview Inn in Sikeston. Presley joined his new friend on stage at the nightspot, even playing drums as Wheeler sang. Another memorable anecdote was the rocker’s departure from town. Presley had a new car at home but still drove beaters on road trips, logging thousands of miles from Sikeston to southwest Texas. And he might leave a broken-down heap where it sat.

“He was here in an older car that didn’t run good and he parked it behind the armory,” Caldwell later told The Sikeston Daily Standard. “When he left, some of the fellows had to push him to get him started, and I remember him turning back and waving to us as he drove out of town.”

Superstardom beckoned, meanwhile. Time was running out for the local Elvis among everyday folk.

***

Bob Tucker, guitarist for the Bill Black Combo, would finally meet Elvis Presley in Memphis. Tucker and his girlfriend had seen the late show at the Memphian Theater, on a weeknight circa 1966, when Elvis confidant George Klein told Tucker to stick around.

Tucker rejoined his girlfriend in the auditorium, where the lights were on. “And ol’ Elvis comes walking in by himself,” Tucker recalls. “He walks over, sits down right in front of us. He turns around and says, ‘You’re not even gonna speak to me?’ I introduced myself and later we went out in the lobby and talked about Bill Black. Bill had died by then, so it would’ve been after ’65. He was very nice. But when Elvis was in front of his cronies, he’d pull out a cigarette, and of course the lighters would come out. He was different then. But one-on-one, he was okay. But this was very limited exposure on my part.”

Elvis exposure impacted Tucker’s girlfriend, compounded by another Memphis happening of timing. Next morning she met Hollywood hunk Clint Walker in her job at St. Jude’s, renowned children’s hospital. Clint Walker played “Cheyenne” on TV and Tarzan in film, exuding animalistic appeal that rated above Elvis for many fans. Women went wild over Walker’s dark hair, blue eyes and major physique. At his Memphis appearance, the tanned Cheyenne star modeled a blue stretch shirt, muscles rippling, for devastating effect.

Tucker’s girlfriend wasn’t the same afterward, and he could dig it. Tucker himself, say, could’ve encountered Natalie Wood immediately followed by Raquel Welch. “Within 12 hours, she’d met Elvis and Clint Walker at their prime,” Tucker says, chuckling 50 years later, amazed yet.

“And that next night, she tells me, ‘Look, Bob, you know I think a lot of you, but—Elvis and Cheyenne—you just can’t cut it anymore. I’ve been exposed to the ultimate. I said, ‘You know what? Hell, I understand. I agree with you.’ ”

Tucker laughs, says, “Elvis, in his prime, I was only around him one time. But I caught him at the time when he was lean, good-looking, and he was dressed all in black. He was the best-looking guy I ever saw in my life… This was when he was young. When he got the longer hair and jumpsuits, I don’t think he looked near as good then. Good lord.”

By the mid-1970s, Presley stonewalled all media requests and hardly engaged fans. Divorced, nearing 40, battling a weight problem, Presley showed up only at concerts, “reduced to total self-parody… practicing his karate kicks onstage,” observed biographer Peter Guralnick. The bloated, sweaty Elvis split a pantsuit up his ass under spotlight for 62,000 fans in Pontiac, Mich.

The svelte, youthful Elvis of 20 years previous, singing new rock n’ roll, signing autographs, shaking hands, smiling on the street—seemed distant history. In Memphis it had come to Elvis death rumors, routine and evoking laughter, derision. Waves of fans still found his Graceland mansion, arriving all hours, but the scene was getting weirder. The crowds were no longer just silly girls; Elvis stalkers constantly breached the fortified fence, having to be stopped by security personnel.

“The real truth about Elvis is that he is a lonesome person,” Paul Shafer, a family friend, told Women’s News Service in 1974. “Everything came so fast that he didn’t have time to think things out. But he’s gotten used to this life-style and he knows no other.”

Living like a phantom was survival mode for Presley, obviously. Females had chased him to tear away clothes since ’55, and goofball males tried to fight him—at least two got smacked by the paranoid star.

But Garbo mystique was also marketing strategy of Colonel Tom Parker, Presley’s manager.  Elvis as cutting-edge artist was long over. Sure, 300 million records had moved, umpteen movies were made, two thousand shows sold-out, but much was mediocre, a few films awful. Parker crassly commercialized Elvis while finangling exorbitant cuts of profits, high as 50 percent for himself. And Parker lost millions to gambling, sometimes dropping seven figures within hours.

Yet Elvis deserved no pity, intoned Guralnick. “Don’t feel sorry for him,” Guralnick wrote. “For Elvis is merely a prisoner of the same fantasies as we. What he wanted he got. What he didn’t he deliberately threw away… encapsulated in the gauze-like world.”

Then Elvis died for real in 1977, at age 42. Doctors initially said a heart attack killed Presley, but toxicology indicated a deadly painkiller cocktail, among 10 drugs found in his system. Some members of Presley’s last male entourage said abuse of speed, downers, alcohol—and womanizing—was ridiculous among them in the Elvis eras of Hollywood and Vegas. Now The King was dead and most his buddies divorced.

Presley was said to have never recovered from losing his beloved mother in 1958. Some friends thought he would’ve lived differently if Gladys hadn’t died too young herself.

Others saw an earlier watershed, 1956-57, after Sun Records relinquished Presley rights and Parker kicked aside Scotty Moore and Bill Black, among changes for the new Elvis. “He was in a cocoon from that point on, and the characters around him didn’t challenge him to rise to the occasion intellectually,” Tucker says. “And Colonel Parker wasn’t the best for him.”

Tucker concludes as much from the music itself, that old Sun sound, which today’s production whizzes say can’t be duplicated. Phillips tweaked recording machines for echo, Scotty Moore gave style on guitar, and local kid Elvis walked in the door. Even the Sun building’s interior formed just right for the sound, some believe. It was rock n’ roll Brigadoon, igniting an eternal beat.

“I saw a thing in Rolling Stone one time…,” Tucker says, “and it was if you’re going to be locked up the rest of your life, and you only had ten albums to take with you for listening, what ten would you take? And they got a bunch of [music] folks to comment, and every one of ’em had the original Sun sessions in there, the collection.”

“And you listen to those early Elvis records—they’re so damn good.”

Select References

Appear at Leachville. (1955, Jan. 19). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.14.

Blackwell, B. (2008, Sept. 11). Memories of Elvis’ show in Cape remain strong as Tribute to the King takes grandstand at SEMO District Fair. Southeast Missourian, Cape Girardeau MO [online].

Cp. Onie D. Wheeler. (1944, Oct. 12). Sikeston Herald MO, p.6.

Drug link recurs in Elvis’ death. (1977, Oct. 19). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p.11.

Editor’s Note. (1977, Aug. 18). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.6.

Earth tremors reported along New Madrid Fault. (1955, Jan. 27). Sikeston Herald MO, p.8.

Eisenberg, D.D. (1974, July 4). Elvis Presley: Star and country boy still. Burlington Times-News NC, p.41.

Elvis Presley Gang Of Western Entertainers To Perform at Armory. (1955, Jan. 20). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, see www.elvisconcerts.com.

Ex-Aide Claims Elvis Was Addict. (1977, Aug. 17). Lowell Sun MA, p.48.

Fallwell, M. (1974, Aug. 31). The unknown influence of Moore. Indiana Gazette PA, p.32.

For Conway Twitty. (1970, June 18). Corbin Times-Tribune KY, p.8.

For Johnny Cash. (1972, Feb. 10). Salina Journal KS, p.13.

Fox, M. (1980, Oct. 26). Elvis—Memphis and timing created a legend. San Bernardino County Sun CA, pp. C9 & C12.

Graham, C. (1976, April 27). Records In Review. Tucson Daily Citizen AZ, p.15.

Guralnick, P. (1977, Aug. 20). Lonely days in high school left their mark on the man who changed history of rock. Ottawa Journal Canada, p.34.

Guralnick, P. (1977, Aug. 28). A prisoner of rock & roll. Mansfield News-Journal OH, p.2.

Guralnick, P. (1977, Aug. 30). ‘Rocker’ launched skyrocket career. Mansfield News-Journal OH, p.7.

Guralnick, P. (1977, Sept. 1). Saga ends with ‘perfect deline.’ Mansfield News-Journal OH, p.39.

Guralnick, P. (1994). Last train to Memphis: The rise of Elvis Presley. Little, Brown and Company: New York.

Heuring, L. (2005, Jan. 21). Elvis visited Sikeston in 1955. Sikeston Daily Standard MO [online].

Jacobs, J.E. [Mrs.] (1954, Sept. 16). Dyess News. Blytheville Courier News AR, p.20.

Kegg, J. (1974, Nov. 9). Jack’s Music. Cumberland Evening Times MD, p.12.

Man believes bop music is fading. (1959, May 22). Amarillo Globe-Times TX, p.17

Millward, J. (1977, May 1). Greedily grasping success, Elvis sold his rebellion to top bidder. Lincoln Star NE, p.2.

O’Donnell, R. (1977, Aug. 17). Rumors of Elvis’ death were heard many times. San Bernardino County Sun CA, p.3.

Onie Wheeler to appear on Grand Ole Opry. (1954, Jan. 11). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p.6.

Palmer, R. (1977, Dec. 2). Southern rebels find a rock haven. Bytheville Courier News AR, p.21.

Redding And Bar-Kays. (1968, Jan. 9). Kannapolis Daily Independent NC, p.7.

“Run ’Em Off” Wheeler Attends Convention. (1954, Nov. 29). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p.3.

Swift, P. (1974, Aug. 18). Keep Up… With Youth. Lincoln Star NE, p.175.

Tucker, B. (2017, March 10). Interview with author, Marion AR.

Van Matre, L. (1976, Oct. 13). The Elvis mystique: Secrecy pays off. Long Beach Independent CA, p.26

Welles, R. (1976, May 27). Phillips missed Presley bonanza. Clovis News-Journal MN, p.19.

Western bop king heads show in Paris Tuesday. (1955, Oct. 3). Paris News TX, p.1.

Wisniewski, J. (1976, April 10). Presley’s vibes spark an era. Syracuse Post-Standard NY, p.25.

Matt Chaney is a writer, editor and publisher in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

1964: Beatles Flee For The Hills of Missouri

By Matt Chaney, ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Thursday, March 16, 2017

Copyright ©2017 by Matthew L. Chaney

When The Beatles toured North America in 1964, late summer, fan mobs tracked them like a public prey.

“The Beatles couldn’t get out anywhere,” recalled Bill English, a singer on the tour, decades later. “When we played Vegas [the second stop] they couldn’t go down and gamble or play slot machines. We’re staying at the Sands Hotel, and they took slot machines up to the rooms.

“When we played at Indianapolis, people started rocking the bus… And New Orleans was the worst. It was scary.”

The Beatles took refuge on their chartered tour jet, airborne, letting loose in high seclusion. “There wasn’t any sitting in your seat on flights. It was a wild party every time,” said English, formerly of the Bill Black Combo, front band of the Fab Four. “We had a tail section on the plane, a big round couch with a bar. We’d be back there talking and drinking, having a big time.”

That’s how English learned of a Beatles plot for escape to the Ozarks, at the plane bar, Thursday night of the final week on tour.  A secret trip to the Missouri hills had been arranged, exclusively for the famed rockers, but they wanted English on that party too. He recounted the conversation:

“Come ’ere,” said Paul McCartney, motioning to English, an Ozarks native. English drew close and McCartney briefed him in Brit accent. “We’re going to a place called Alton, Missourah. ’ave you ever heard of it? We want you to go with us.”

“Alton, Missouri?” English replied, sensing another Beatles prank. “Man, that’s only about 50 miles from my hometown, Piedmont, Missouri.”

“Yeah,” McCartney said. “We’re going to leave for Alton and nobody knows. We’re going to this ranch and ride horses and everything. Then they’re going to pick us up and we’re going on to New York City.”

Thirty years later, English laughed at the memory. “It takes me about 10 or 15 minutes, and I realize McCartney’s serious. I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll go.’ ”

***

In early August of 1964, Bill English prepared for his second year of teaching junior-high PE classes at Potosi, Mo., in the state’s Lead Belt. He was 24, stalled in rock n’ roll after showing potential. Then his college band-mate Bob Tucker phoned from Memphis, a rising guitarist and booking agent.

Tucker now led the Bill Black Combo, named for its founder, the former bass player for Elvis Presley. The Beatles had requested The Combo for their new American swing through 28 cities in 31 days, and Tucker needed a singer.

“I had three weeks to go before teaching school,” English said. “And Tucker calls me, says, ‘I’ve talked to Bill Black, and he said call English and see if he wants the job.’ I’d set in, sung with different groups around northeast Arkansas and Memphis, and Black had heard me. Well, my mom and dad had worked all my life to put me through school, to get me a degree to teach or coach—but I wanted to play rock n’ roll. So bad.”

English would make $4,420 in salary for the school year. Tucker guaranteed him a year’s music dates for about $10,000 plus pay for the Beatles tour. English’s decision seemed easy, but first he had to see his father, Joe English, long-time music director at Piedmont High. “So I drive from Potosi to Piedmont, dreadin’ to tell my dad. But he said, ‘Man, get your clothes packed! Go for it.’ ”

Potosi Schools had to find a new PE teacher and Bill English was on his way to the Beatles tour, however slowly the ride began. “Bob Tucker, great guy—he always figured out how he could save some money, because he was manager of the group,” English said. “And Tucker put us on a bus in Memphis. Greyhound. We rode fifty-seven hours… to the Cow Palace in San Francisco. From then on it was first class.”

English and Tucker didn’t begin as Beatles fans, really. They were “rockabilly” players from the ’50s, influenced by Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, more. But so were The Beatles, as Tucker found out.

“When we were in Key West, Florida, Ringo and Paul came up to me and said, ‘Look, can you go to town and buy us some albums? We want to hear some music,’ ” Tucker recalled, speaking with me in Marion, Ark. “So they give me $600, and I went into town and I bought every damn album I could find.

“And, man, they would put an album on, and play a cut, then set it sailing across the room. But when they got to Carl Perkins, or Jerry Lee Lewis, or anything that came out of the Memphis region, by god they played every cut. They really listened. And I feel like they came up with doing a couple of Carls [Perkins songs on the tour] because of that. They had a high regard for Memphis music and southern music. Definitely Memphis music.”

The Beatles show began with the Bill Black Combo, followed by The Righteous Brothers, The Exciters, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Jackie DeShannon, additional acts depending on locale, before the big headliner.

The Combo landed “a lot of work because we were instrumental, we had some chart records, so we were a viable opening act,” Tucker said. “That’s why we were on the Beatle tour, because we went out and did our two or three songs, and then we backed the other solo artists. They didn’t have to have four bands. On the Beatle tour, there were four acts in front of them. Today it would be only The Beatles.”

English remembered: “We’d come on, the Bill Black Combo, and I was the fortunate person—or unfortunate one—to walk out there. The first person to say, Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to The Beatles tour. Well, you just said the word Beatles anytime, people went crazy.”

English and Tucker held no illusion of their own stardom, or lack of it. Yet ego duped English at least once, on stage at Forest Hills Stadium in New York. “I got into about the third song…,” he said. “And the crowd was nice; they’d applauded and everything.

“But I mean, buddy, all of a sudden they came to their feet. And I think, Man alive, I’m gettin’ to ’em! They’re diggin’ me! And Tucker, he’s kinda sarcastic and loved to do this—he could tell I was really gittin’ off—and he walks up behind me on stage, says, ‘English, you idiot. They’re not clapping for you. The Beatles are landing backstage in a helicopter right now!’ ”

***

Friday evening, Sept. 18, 1964, The Beatles tour played in Dallas at Memorial Auditorium. From there the Fab Four and Bill English bolted for the Missouri Ozarks, bound for a private estate along the spring-fed Eleven Point River. “We left Dallas right after The Beatles hit the last note,” English recalled.

“We went backstage, out the back, and got into laundry trucks. They took us to a limousine and out to the airport. We flew that night to the old Walnut Ridge Air Force base in northeast Arkansas.”

Reed Pigman, owner of the charter airlines transporting The Beatles, had set them up at his secluded ranch on the Eleven Point. There they could unwind some 36 hours in solitude, supposedly. A local man, Junior Lance, came to Walnut Ridge to meet the rock stars, fetch them back to the Missouri hills.

Junior Lance,” English said, smiling, reminded of the name. “So he picked us up. Back then you called his Chevrolet a Carryall, and now they’re Suburbans. And we go through Pocahontas [Ark.] and McCartney wanted to stop and get a cheeseburger, something to eat. Junior said, ‘Nope, I have orders to take you straight to the ranch.’ He kinda thought they were goofy, the Beatles. And we show up there and nobody was supposed to know. Nobody. It was top secret.”

But awry had gone the plan, already. “We had no more got into the house and the phone started ringing,” English said. “At that time, KXOK in St. Louis was the Top 40 station around. For years on radio. And we’d answer the phone—I’d answer—and they’d say, ‘Are the Beatles really there?’ I’d say, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’”

Thus, typically of wherever The Beatles slept that August and September in America, fans awaited them next morning outside—a rural stone road notwithstanding. Number estimates vary on the small crowd who country-stalked The Beatles at Pigman Ranch that Saturday, appearing at the gate from wee hours onward. A few hundred total, perhaps, with the proverbial crying girls.

One young woman didn’t fuss over rebuff by Beatles security. Judy Woods, reared locally, knew an alternative route to see The Beatles at Pigman Ranch—through her husband, Don, budding premier guide of Ozarks fishing. I spoke with Don Woods in 1994, streams expert, the same week I interviewed other locals and Bill English about The Beatles in ’64.

“The front gate [at Pigman], they had it guarded. They wouldn’t let people in that big ol’ buffalo fence,” Woods said. “I told Judy I’d go home and get the boat and motor.”

Woods met back with his wife a couple miles upstream from Pigman property at Riverton village, a country store and dwellings. They launched boat below the bridge of Highway 160, joined aboard by a couple friends. Oldest age of the group was barely 20. “The moon was out. We didn’t even take a flashlight, afraid somebody would see us, you know,” recalled Woods, a friend of the Pigmans.

“We went on down the Eleven Point, and I’d been a guide about four years at that time. I was familiar with the water, and I knew where to park the boat down there and walk up a road to the ranch… We opened a backyard gate and walked in around this large home, which had about 14 rooms. Just slipped in there, stillness of night, and peeked in the big window and there they were [The Beatles]. That was the first long hair I’d ever seen on a man,” Woods said, chuckling. “And they were playin’ cards, havin’ a good time. They had some women in there with ’em.”

English didn’t know those groupies in the house on Eleven Point River. The women weren’t local, he said later, and Pigman barred stewardesses from this Beatles trip. Whatever, twas a fine time, apparently, although rock stars were paranoid in moments, even out in the sticks.

McCartney managed to rattle English a bit himself, the Ozarker, what for the Londoner’s country driving. The two had grabbed fishing poles and headed for a pond on the Pigman estate. “McCartney gets into about a ’50 Ford and we’re driving down this gravel road,” English said. “Paul says, ‘I haven’t driven a car in years!’ I said, ‘Slow down.’ He said, ‘I don’t have a driver’s license! They took my license away from me!’

“So we end up goin’ fishing at a pond, me and Paul McCartney… We’re sitting there at the pond, just fishing, and here out of nowhere these people start comin’ on. Paul says, ‘If they get to the other side of the pond, we’re making a mad dash to the car.’ And we did, because he was scared to death. It was wild.

“We had a good time though. We rode horses,” English said. “A lot of people will remember the cover of Life Magazine, shot by Ron Joy. We had about five photographers [on the tour], and he took the picture of the Beatles sticking their heads out of the horse stall at the barn at Alton, Missouri.”

***

Bill English died of recurring cancer at age 66 in 2006, a retired salesman and musician, longtime resident of Van Buren, Mo., on the Current River near Big Spring. Many folks near and far had lost a beloved friend, but one of character unforgettable, forever alive in mind.

Last week Bob Tucker laughed in northeast Arkansas, river delta land across from Memphis, discussing his old college roomie and stage mate. “English—The Beatles liked him, and invited him to go to the ranch with ’em, and all that stuff.”

Tucker’s round face lit up, eyes twinkling. He’d get in the last shot between two smart-assed pals, with love. “Bill English did more with less talent than anybody in the history of music. You can quote me,” Tucker declared, laughing.

“What Bill English did have was personality and showmanship. Now, he was long and tall on that. And he was a great friend, and he had a talent for making everybody feel like he was their best friend. And that’s a gift.”

Matt Chaney is a writer, editor and publisher in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

Excerpts IV: 1925 Tri-State Tornado, 1949 Baseball Dream of A Patriot

Passages adapted from stories of the book Legend In Missouri by Matt Chaney

Copyright ©2017 by Matthew L. Chaney

Tornado

Excerpt 4: The Tri-State Tornado, deadliest land storm in American history, continues its path on the afternoon of March 18, 1925

Would this storm ever die? It was 80-minutes old on a run exceeding 70 miles from its start in the Ozarks to Perry County, Mo., and now approaching the Mississippi River. The amorphous cloud mass crossed what would become roadbed of Interstate 55, carrying its obscene baggage. Chunks of houses and outbuildings rolled along like milk cartons. Roofing sheets swirled about like tissue paper, draping over tree lots to resemble surreal laundry lines for decades to come. Horses, cattle and hogs were spun aloft then blown through woods, severing them to pieces.

Eight lives had been lost in Missouri, with another to succumb of wounds, and hundreds more had injuries ranging from minor to serious. People in the tornado’s path ahead were imperiled, regardless of their shelters. No one was safe unless completely underground, like the miners of Annapolis-Leadanna in the previous hour.

Apple Creek was a hillside community facing west. At 2:20 p.m., a priest at St. Joseph’s School gazed out a second-story window that creaked against the winds. The day had grown menacingly dark under the approach of puffed-up, jittery clouds resembling blackberries. The priest turned back to his religion class comprised of grade-schoolers, concern etching his face. “We better say a prayer,” he said. “It looks like a real bad storm is coming.”

The children obeyed, and the clouds continued northeast, missing Apple Creek and striking the other side of the ridge to cross Route 25 [present-day U.S. Highway 61]. At the farm of Theodore Unterreiner, the top story of a log house was blown off, leaving a single timber balancing unsecured over a lower wall. A little girl was rolled up in floor linoleum but unhurt. The barn was demolished and 200 chickens were killed, with some stripped clean of feathers.

The twister tore through more hardwoods and farms and along ridges and creeks, including five consecutive properties “battered down as if a giant roller had passed over them,” a newspaper reported. People were injured but none killed. A well-known physician in the area, Dr. Theodore Estel, was enroute to a house call when he was caught exposed on a road. Leaping from his car an instant before winds smashed it, Estel was knocked to the ground under a barrage of debris. He was struck in the head, impaled in the back, and absorbed a blow that fractured a hip. But he held onto the ground and was not blown away. He would survive.

Racing in excess of 60 mph with upwards of 300-mph winds, the tornado was six miles from the Mississippi. More would die in Missouri. On a farm near Brazeau village, 63-year-old Crittenden Bull and his sister, Annie Bull, sought cover in their house. But it crashed down and trapped them, and fire spread quickly from the broken stove. Neighbors saved them from burning to death, but Mr. Bull never regained consciousness and died four days later. At an estate north of Frohna, the tornado surprised Judge Claus Stueve and others. The big house literally exploded before anyone could react. The judge’s widowed sister-in-law, Martha Kaempfe, was in her upstairs room when the walls disintegrated; snatched and launched almost 100 yards, she was found dead.

The hilltops were tighter together as the storm closed upon the final village before the river, Ridge. Sitting atop the tallest point was Ridge School, a two-story brick building that once had been a church. Twenty-two students and a teacher were inside on the bottom floor when flying objects began rat-tatting against the walls and breaking windows. The back door flew open and a pupil rushed to close it. Then the building slid forward 10 feet and the brick walls crumbled. The wooden interior went high up, flew across the road and over trees, and crashed roof-first down a ravine, strewing human bodies the entire way. Bricks and boards rained down on the victims, but the intact floor fluttered down on air currents, dropping gently enough that those it covered were not crushed.

No one from Ridge School died, and only a few debilitating injuries would last among the students from that terrifying afternoon. This extraordinary case of schoolhouse survivors would long be cited in studies on tornadoes.

***

Leaving Missouri, the strange cloud appeared to break up in the Mississippi River bottoms. The black fog began dissipating, but that only unveiled twin funnels moving side-by-side. Plowing across the water, the storm shrouded itself in fog again, and 500 people in Gorham, Ill., had no idea what was coming.

Gorham was two miles off river in the eastern floodplain. A resident, Judith Cox, would later describe seeing a mammoth front approach “that seemed to be black smoke,” driving a white wall of water before it. Cox was standing in front of Cox’s Restaurant: “My God!” she cried. “It’s a cyclone! And it’s here!”

“The air was full of everything…,” Cox recalled for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “boards, branches of trees, garments, pans, stoves, all churning around together. I saw whole sides of houses rolling along near the ground.”

The wind struck like a giant fist, punching Cox backward through the front door of the restaurant, followed by an airborne brown-and-white cow. As the building collapsed, the cow’s body saved Cox from being crushed by beams that fell.

Clocks stopped at 2:35 across Gorham. A house lost its roof as a young mother, Wanda Mattingly, clung desperately to her small children while grasping a staircase banister. But the walls blew away. Mattingly’s infant daughter was sucked from her arms, and her 3-year-old boy was stabbed in the head by a darting piece of wood.

In the darkened 8th grade classroom at Gorham School, an upward rush of air through the floor’s heating vent sent straw, feathers and leaf bits swirling, amusing the students. But giggles turned to shrieks of panic when they looked outside and saw tall trees bend over, come back up, then go flat to the ground, uprooted. Fourteen-year-old Clara Mattingly—Wanda’s sister-in-law—rushed for the door. Reaching the hallway, Clara heard screams ringing through the school then the whole building collapsed into rubble, burying her and 200 other students.

On the east side of town, railroad tracks were ripped out of the ground and wadded like chicken wire. Grass was removed from ground by the roots. A frame house was lifted 30 feet high and tossed into a great elm tree, its branches crashing through windows to hold the full structure in brief suspension. The house began cracking and splintering, a wall blew out, and the elderly couple inside, Paul and Alice Tomure, were drawn into the air. They landed in a cornfield behind the tree, side-by-side. Alice looked over to see a railroad spike driven through her husband’s lip.

“I’m dying, Alice dear,” he said, and the couple prayed together a final time.

A Patriot

Excerpt 4: Barnstorming major-league players on tour, led by Robin Roberts, future Hall of Famer, struggle to score against local pitcher Lloyd “Lefty” Fisher in an exhibition game at Sikeston, Mo., October 1949

When Lloyd Fisher returned to St. Louis after his release from the Dodgers organization, 1947, he was a little downcast but realistic. He still believed he could play pro baseball, but until a team called he had a family to care for. He took jobs pitching batting practice for the Cardinals and driving a cab.

Then the rural life beckoned, especially the farm owned by his wife Louise’s family in southeast Missouri, on Crowley’s Ridge near Puxico. The couple moved there and never left, raising their children and retiring in same spot. Lloyd and Louise were married 47 years when he died of lung cancer in 1989.

Two months after Lloyd’s passing, this author went to the farm to meet Louise, who was joined by her son, Larry, for an afternoon interview. The Fishers were cheerful, warm hosts, and although still grieving, they discussed Lloyd’s life with smiles and laughter, as though remembering a grand friend as much as a husband and father.

Louise recalled how she and Lloyd left the city for the farm in the fall of ’47. The country setting was peaceful, idyllic, but hardly free of pressures. “We started in down here trying to make a livin’, you know,” Louise said, smiling. “We bought land and everything. And we made it—barely.” She laughed heartily.

Aside from farming, Lloyd took jobs as a rural mail carrier and a truck driver. Soft-spoken about himself, hardly anyone knew his baseball past, and he initially stayed away from the game. Finally one Sunday afternoon—as the local legend goes—Lefty Fisher showed up at a semipro doubleheader in Asherville, a tiny community near his farm.

Eyeing the pitcher’s mound and watching the home team get beat in the opener, Fisher used the help of Louise’s brother, Bud Madden, to convince the manager to let him pitch the second game. Stepping to the mound in work boots and winding up to throw in overalls, Lefty was untouchable.

Opposing batters were shut down. Asherville won big and the word began spreading, although apparently not too far too soon. There was gambling on baseball in southeast Missouri, and a talent like Lefty could help tip the scales awhile. Asherville gamblers keyed on the fact he was virtually unknown in the region, and they made a plan. “They’d tell him to show up for games wearing overalls and walking barefooted,” said Larry, chuckling. “And those boys [betting the other team] would really lay the money down.”

Asherville sought to keep Lefty as long as possible, but the Puxico Vets soon lured him away with better pay. In due time, the Holcomb team visited the Vets in Puxico. Holcomb expected to win with a roster boasting many of the region’s best hitters, but Lefty shut them out over nine innings. Holcomb did push home a run in the 11th to win, 1-0, but the team’s wealthy organizers found they did not have the region’s best pitcher on the payroll.

They did the next season, 1949, when Lefty Fisher joined Holcomb. With heavy bets riding on games, Lefty’s pitching pay was as high as $100 and more for victories. Odds are, however, that no one bet on Holcomb when Lefty faced Robin Roberts that October in Sikeston.

***

The game moved past the middle innings, still scoreless despite vicious hitting displays by the big-league players. Muscular Hank Sauer ripped a line drive rising toward left field, and Holcomb shortstop Clyde Martin leaped high to stop it. The shot tore away Martin’s glove, and the ball popped out, but Sauer was held to a single. Fisher got out of the inning.

Backed by tight defense, Lefty pitched around repeated scoring threats by Harry Walker’s All-Stars. Fisher showed no emotion, whether retiring a batter or giving up a hit. Occasionally he would step off the rubber to squeeze a resin bag, or remove his cap to rub fingers through sandy blond hair. The pros began to wonder how close Fisher was to a record for the number of “scattered” hits, those he allowed without a run.

Fisher had success in the batter’s box, too, rapping a single off Roberts, but he was stranded on base when no one else reached safely for Holcomb. At this point Roberts had pitched nine innings of shutout ball that day, including three in Arkansas. But he kept mowing through batters, and the fans cheered for any ball that Holcomb managed to put into play.

Walker still did not mention a pitching change, which Roberts would have nixed; this was his game to win or lose now, and he focused on Holcomb as though facing the Dodgers. The pitching duel moved into late innings, but neither pitcher would relent, and the score remained 0-0 after nine. Fisher had matched Roberts in the shutout!

The game went into extra innings. Fans, bouncing in their seats, were rowdy with the game’s excitement on a chilly autumn night. Men got up to crowd around the infield screen, cheering for Holcomb and shaking the wire.

The big leaguers led off the 10th and Walker strode to the plate. A classy left-handed hitter, Walker already owned two hits off Fisher, a double and a single, among the nine safeties for his team. Fisher wound and pitched; Walker swung, pulling a long high fly into the darkness over right field. Holcomb outfielder Charley Hart followed the flight to the fence, until he was out of room, but he had the ball in sight as it fell almost straight downward. Hart reached over the fence, stretching out, but the ball landed just beyond his glove.

Hart turned around dejectedly and the crowd was quiet. The only sounds were the whoops from the Stars as Walker circled the bases for a home run. The big leaguers were finally ahead, 1-0.

Fisher retired the side, and Roberts took the mound, determined to finish Holcomb. Clyde Martin led off, batting right-handed, and slapped an outside fastball down the right-field line. The ball landed fair and rolled to the corner before Terry Moore chased it down and fired it back in. Martin stood atop second base with his second double, and the grandstand roared back to life.

But Roberts was oblivious to the racket. He could tune out the crowd at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, and he easily ignored the fans at VFW Memorial ballpark in Sikeston. He was pitching in his 13th inning of the day, and he would not be denied victory now. Rearing back on the mound and stepping hard to the plate, Roberts whipped his arm around and grunted on pitches, sending screaming fastballs and curves to catcher Clyde McCullough. Holcomb batters were missing and the catcher’s mitt was popping; McCullough was basically playing catch now with his pitcher.

Roberts claimed one strikeout, then a second, and a final third in a row, stranding Martin on base. The game was over, the big leaguers were grateful to win. They lined up to shake the hands of Fisher, Martin, and the other Holcomb players.

Matt Chaney is a writer, editor and publisher in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

Rock n’ Roll Thrived in Underworld of the Missouri Delta

By Matt Chaney, ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Monday, March 6, 2017

During the 1950s, fledgling rock n’ roll music hooked up with rough company along the lower Mississippi River. Pioneer rockers were musicians of controversy—like jazz and blues artists preceding them in the “delta” valley—and they relied on gigs at roadhouses and honky-tonks, often run by gangsters, from St. Louis to New Orleans.

The rock n’ rollers got work, made money with underworld figures while sharing a defiant, bunker mentality. Both parties felt heat of adversaries, and neither backed down.

“Rockabilly” broke out from Memphis in 1955 and the first stars were ridiculed, especially Elvis Presley, condemned nationwide by music reviewers, preachers and politicians, among critics.

But “the beat” was unstoppable from west Tennessee. Rockabilly blew into Arkansas and upriver to Missouri, following Highway 61. Wunderkind Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins won fans and inspired players in flatland locales like Pemiscot County, tucked into Missouri’s southeast corner—where good times reigned even as lawmen cracked down on illicit gambling and alcohol. Police raided several Bootheel taverns and dance halls of the Fifties that nurtured genesis rock and modern country.

Today, piecing together Pemiscot history and legend, a rich story emerges from news texts and personal recollections: the rockabillies and their shady associates in the Missouri delta, 60 years ago.

***

Before rockabilly there were “cowboy songs” and “hillbilly music,” which most reviewers didn’t take to, regardless their proximity to the yodeling and twangy strings. “The ether is full of hillbilly music and other moronic krap that is passed to the dear public as radio programs,” an Arkansas columnist declared in 1940, for The Journal-Advance in Gentry.

Hillbilly bands played radio stations and beer halls coast-to-coast by World War II, including in the Hudson River Valley of New York. Shortly the tunes invaded Manhattan, to chagrin of many. “There are more hillbillies in the New York City metropolitan area than a revenuer, say, could ever find in them thar hills of Tennessee,” cracked Herald Tribune writer M.C. Blackman in 1948. “You must believe this when you consider the sustained and growing popularity of hillbilly programs that fill the urban air day and night.”

“They must have listeners. They do have listeners. I am one,” confessed Blackman. Indeed, the big-city scribe demonstrated learned ear for hillbilly formula. “The recurrent themes of hillbilly music are loneliness, remorse, love lost or never gained, reproach and yearning,” he observed. “And what is there down in the valley, the valley so low? Why, hear than train blow, love, hear that train blow. Hillbillies just love trains.”

Goofball hicks, legit songwriters or whatever, their music pulsed through that famed lowland down center of America, the Mississippi Valley, meshing with blues, jazz and gospel. And it percolated everywhere else.

Rock convergence went warp speed circa 1950, when rhythm cats Fats Domino and Ike Turner hit new sound in the delta, and Bill Haley, frustrated cowboy singer, struck fresh beat on the East Coast. What, who was the father of rock and roll? Argue all day, but appears there were at least three: Fats, Ike, and Haley.

But the king of rock was Presley, fairly by consensus: Pelvis Elvis, who really offered more than swinging hips. This guy was pure stage presence, the Full Monty down to voice, a warbling that finished the melt on waves of females, falling over, already staggered by his looks. At age 19 Elvis cut “That’s All Right Mama” for Sun Records in Memphis, summer 1954. Local radio listeners were hooked, burying stations with requests for Presley.

The musical revolution had its front man, Elvis, a year before the term rock and roll hardly meant anything besides a baby appliance. Elvis and more rockabillies hit the road to claim audience, build market, operating from Memphis and flooding delta spots like Pemsicot County, Mo.

But in Bootheel Missouri, players of a different sort made headlines—gamblers and bootleggers, with capable thugs among them.

***

A new prosecuting attorney took over in Pemiscot County at outset of 1955, declaring “an all-out fight on vice of all kinds.” James A. Vickery was a young, rookie DA who’d grown up locally and graduated law school at the University of Missouri. State police had raided Pemiscot joints for years as local authorities stood by, and Vickery promised change. He immediately ordered five establishments padlocked for illegal gambling and cited the proprietors.

The situation grew hotter on a murder. One of the bar owners in trouble, Hubert Utley, was shot dead by hit men in an ambush. Utley, 46, had a history of violent encounters, such as surviving a shooting that killed a friend. As a young man Utley acted as enforcer for rigged elections and owned a tavern where he busted heads—the business custom across southeast Missouri. After one crazed brawl Utley and his bouncer were co-charged with murder, for the beating and shooting of a customer nicknamed “Tarzan” who succumbed of injuries. The trial resulted in a hung jury, reported The Blytheville Courier News, and the case lapsed.

Utley had roamed among fearsome characters in the area known as “Stateline,” along Highway 61 in southern Pemiscot County. This was border country with Arkansas bounded by big river and drainage canals, tangle and swamp where people could disappear.

The zone included Gobler, Mo., an agricultural crossroads widely known for dual, conflicting attractions: family shopping and forbidden nightlife. By daylight the place was bargain destination for the Gobler Mercantile, a complex of 71,000 square feet offering “everything from safety pins to tractors,” per the popular promo.

But partiers and gamblers ruled Gobler after sundown. A week after Utley’s murder in March, Elvis Presley booked a show for Gobler’s raucous B&B Club, also closed by the county’s injunction, temporarily.

The B&B was back in business by Friday, April 8, 1955, with Elvis onstage for a few hundred revelers making it inside. Outside the roadhouse, many people denied admission stuck around to swig beer and liquor. A package store sold bottles to practically anyone, and sheds offered dice and poker. Vested individuals enjoyed a profitable night, evidently; Elvis collected his cut, a couple hundred bucks or so, and no serious incidents showed up in newspapers.

Presley returned to Gobler for a second show at the B&B, in autumn ’55 as pressure mounted on everyone involved. A shooting in broad daylight roiled locals, a murder near the club over a dice game gone bad. Cops buzzed around on patrol and the usual suspects were jittery, watching their backs.

Elvis was enjoying rising fame, meanwhile, his perks like silly money, Cadillacs, gifting family and friends. But he also brooded, experiencing anxiety. Surely sometimes he longed for  simpler life and solitude, again. Elvis relished that often as a boy, the only child of Vernon and Gladys Presley, regular folks from Tupelo who’d migrated to Memphis in ’48. The private Elvis surfaced the night his first Sun record blew out on Memphis radio, playing repeatedly by request. Deejay Dewey Phillips went wild on-air, making noise, and Elvis slinked away, hiding out in a dark movie theater.

There was no turning back by the second Presley show in Gobler, Mo., Sept. 28, 1955. A press release updated his story:

Since he started his career with the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, Presley’s career has come along by leaps and bounds. He has drawn record crowds in Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas, Florida, Virginia—as a matter of fact, all through the South.

Elvis is 20… unmarried. His main interests are his cars, a 1955 Cadillac Fleetwood sedan in a striking pink and black color, and a 1954 Cadillac convertible. He has acquired one of the biggest collections of unusual and flashy clothes any artist owns, preferring the “cool cat” type of dress rather than Western apparel.

Elvis reportedly lost clothing that second night at Gobler, when waitresses couldn’t penetrate dense crowd inside the B&B. “I knew he was gonna make it big… girls at the club jumped up and started tearing off his shirt,” said J.G. McCuin, musician for the opening band. Around that Gobler date, Presley apparently performed in nearby Cardwell, Mo., at the Rebel Club, according to 706unionavenue.com.

Elvis in the Bootheel that September marked his final acts in small venues of Missouri, among his last anywhere. In October Elvis energized a major stage in St. Louis, appearing with stars of Grand Ole Opry at the Missouri Theatre, a spectacular auditorium seating 4,000.

“When performing Presley is like a steam engine,” a reporter observed. “His legs begin to shake. He jumps. His head snaps up and down. His hair whips the air. He jiggles his leather-covered guitar like a bartender working a cocktail shaker.”

Back in Pemiscot County, the late Hubert Utley’s shuttered dance club was torched by arsonists. “Utley was shot down in a gangland style killing last March,” The Courier News reminded. “His murderers remain at large.” Lawmen vowed to step up their anti-vice campaign; the state assigned a fourth highway patrolman to the district.

Prosecutor James Vickery pledged “to strictly enforce early closings of roadhouses and honky-tonks and close any places where gambling is found.” He promised “extensive effort to curb selling of intoxicants to minors.” More arrests occurred and even bingo and raffles were quashed, snuffing the fundraising for organizations.

In 1958 a local columnist without byline waxed optimistically on vice, characterizing the problem as past-tense:

Over the years several counties in Southeast Missouri have had more or less open gambling, depending on the situation in Jefferson City, [with] prosecuting attorneys and law enforcement officers. This was not limited to Pemiscot County, but in those years it may have been flagrant here. Those were the days of the famed “Ark-Mo Stateline,” where a person could “get action” in most anything he wanted. The situation, however, became too competitive, resulting in resort owners blasting away at each other with submachine guns. This finally led the cycle’s swinging the other way to the point there “the lid” was locked and stayed locked for many years.

In 1961 three men from out of state were convicted of murder in the gunning of Utley. The killing was authorized by unnamed delta gamblers, according to the lead hit man, Charles “Rocky” Rothschild. The former delta cop was imprisoned in South Carolina, facing convictions of gangster crime across multiple states.

***

Elvis Presley hired Colonel Tom Parker as his manager in winter 1955-56. RCA purchased his recording rights from Sun Records for an unprecedented $30,000, with Elvis garnering $5,000 and a Cadillac. His first single for RCA, “Heartbreak Hotel,” sold a million copies.

That spring Presley was headliner in New York City, home of RCA. “Wherever he appears, screaming crowds of teenage girls make his entrances and exits a test of strength, and the young rock-n-roll hillbilly, or ‘rockabilly,’ invariably ends up minus a jacket, shirt and tie,” United Press reported.

Presley’s bunker perspective, his feeling besieged, had not abated. Memphis, Arkansas and southeast Missouri—joints like the B&B and racketeers—might’ve seemed quaint at this juncture.

“It’s all happening so fast that some nights I just can’t fall asleep,” Elvis said in New York. “It scares me, you know. It just scares me.”

Matt Chaney is a writer, editor and publisher in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

Excerpts III: 1925 Tri-State Tornado, 1949 Baseball Dream of A Patriot

Passages adapted from stories of the book Legend In Missouri by Matt Chaney

Copyright ©2017 by Matthew L. Chaney

Tornado

Excerpt 3: The Tri-State Tornado continues its Missouri path on the afternoon of March 18, 1925

A few minutes before 2 o’clock, residents of Patton, Mo., gaped at sky to their north. Gigantic black and blue clouds rushed eastward, seemingly stacked to heaven itself. The tornado was passing a few miles above Patton. Farther north at the Bollinger County line, the view southward was even more spectacular. A man and his daughter watched curiously, wondering whether this was a tornado—then they saw a large tree swirl through the clouds like a wisp of straw. But no one reported a funnel vortex extending down from the mass.

The tornado crossed Whitewater River and bore down on Conrad School, which sat less than 100 feet up the east slope of the valley. Before teacher Oma Mayfield and the pupils could react, the little frame building was splintered, and everyone was blown and scattered into the hillside. Mayfield and at least 17 children lay injured, some seriously.

The storm topped the ridge and rode a mile through dense timber, cutting trees like blades of grass. At a farm directly ahead, Christina “Grandma” Fellows was tending to baby chicks when she saw the blackness coming. She went back into the house, where her husband, a son and daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren were enjoying each other’s company.

“It’s a storm a comin’ up,” said Grandma, which did not alarm anyone. Everyone continued talking, for whether a rain shower or worse was on the way, Grandma always said, It’s a storm a comin’ up.

There came a sudden roar outside and the two-story farmhouse lurched sideways, jolting against an incline to the east. Then if lifted back up, whirled around, and blew apart. Seven people, from infant to elderly, spiraled through the air with debris smacking against them.

When teenager Ann Fellows came to, she was sitting upright near the crown of the hill. The woodstove had landed nearby, and she felt the heat of smoldering blocks. Above her the barn lay flattened, and a trapped horse nickered in distress. A trail of debris led back to where the house had been. A pair of Model T touring cars had their canopies torn off but were otherwise undisturbed—the only objects around that had not moved or disappeared.

Ann could not stand up; one of her ankles felt like it was broken. Grandpa and Grandma were on their feet, and Uncle Ernest and Aunt Rosie rushed to pick up their baby son: but the 18-month-old, Harley Fellows, was dead from a deep gash through his skull. Ann’s brother, 14-year-old Perry Fellows, also perished in the wreckage.

After the storm passed the Fellows farm, it ripped through Henry Bangert’s property, destroying two barns and a house, and firing dozens of tin roofing sheets into a stand of 75 oaks. The metal wrapped into those trees like aluminum foil, and it would not be removed for 70 years.

Lixville village was hit next as people dove for shelter, including one man who found himself in a pipe under a road. The Lutheran Church slid off its foundation, Loberg’s store was lifted and twisted, and two barns and a blacksmith shop were destroyed. More than a half mile away, the northern span of the giant tornado severely damaged the new concrete home of Judge Louis Lix, leaving strands of straw impaled in the mortar sides.

The funnel remained hidden, covered in the cloudy black fog that continued to roll over the land at speeds approaching 60 mph. Elevation of the terrain had dropped more than 200 feet in the last 10 miles.

At Garner Schoolhouse east of the Lix home, about 20 pupils and a teacher were preparing for a music program when someone screamed to get in middle of the room, away from the windows. In seconds the roof flew upward followed by the woodstove, and then everyone was airborne, spraying across a field outside. Several bodies lay unconscious with head wounds, including the teacher, Sidonia Bangert, and 10-year-old Trula Henry,  who would die a week later.

Less than a mile beyond the school, young farmer Will Statler was running and not looking back, fleeing from the roar he instinctively knew could kill him. Reaching his father’s house, he dove past one of the four stacked-rock supports holding the structure. The din was deafening; dirt, leaves and sticks pelted Statler in the crawl space, but he did not hear or feel the house come apart. Quickly the winds quieted and he was optimistic in emerging from underneath the house. But all he found was the bottom floor stripped clean of walls, furniture, rugs—everything but the kitchen table, which stood in place with plates still set for supper. He shuddered, realizing the house could have easily fallen on him.

The tornado smashed every building on Louis Clements’ farm, where his baby daughter, Irene, was killed while clasped in her mother’s arms. At Schumer Springs, 24-year-old Grant Miller died in a barn that was leveled, marking the fourth death within four miles, including three children, along with Trula Henry, her injuries to prove fatal.

***

In 1925, Biehle was a busy village of 100 in heart of the band of small, picturesque German-American communities stretching from Bollinger County east to the Mississippi River. A key railroad stop, Biehle was in Perry County less than five miles northeast of Lixville, perched on hills overlooking Apple Creek Valley.

At 2:10 p.m. on Wednesday, March 18, several men conversed in front of the Biehle general store. Local mechanic A.H. Kirn took notice of the unusual cloud formations in the southwestern sky, and remarked, “I believe we are in for a storm.”

The Southeast Missourian newspaper reported:

As [Kirn] spoke an observable change took place in the nature of these clouds. Originally dark, but loose-flung and scattered, they seemed to gather in their garments, growing denser, lower and more black. This process of assimilation continued as the clouds drew nearer to Biehle. Then as they cleared the horizon… the clouds had become one lowering nimbus.

Kirn, realizing tornado, shouted the warning and dashed across the street to scoop up his daughter in front of his garage. The Kirns made it to cover, but down in Apple Creek Valley, farmer Joe Blechle was out in the open.

Blechle had seen the mass rolling over the 100-foot-ridge from Schumer Springs, where it had ravaged the Miller farm. And now the 35-year-old was in a death race, sprinting for his house on a knob hill beside the creek. There came a bright flash of blue lightning, a thunderclap, and tremendous roar. Blechle had less than 30 seconds before the tornado reached him.

The Southeast Missourian continued:

First the twister, with its deadly stride, cleaved a path several hundred years in width over the wooded hilltop. Uprooting beeches, elms and maples, and snapping like twigs the trunks of 14- and 20-inch oaks. True to its course, as though steered by a mariner’s compass, it next descended upon the valley and the prosperous farming estate of August Lappe. A mule, caught in the open, was lifted high into the air only to be hurled with a sickening thud, a lifeless mass, to the earth some hundred yards ahead. Three horses, two pigs, and dozens of chickens met a similar fate. Two of the horses were found literally wrapped around the trunk and limbs of a fallen oak, while the other was hurled amid a denser portion of the wood to where its cumbersome body never could have penetrated in life.

The neat, two-story home of Lappe was cut in half diagonally, the severed portion scattered in bits far from its original site. The barn merely vanished, while a gang-disc plow was twisted almost beyond recognition. Long lines of lathe and split-rail fences were shattered and thrown, in tangled heaps, as the tornado, gathering impetus, advanced to its next attack.

Blechle reached his house and got inside, only to have it picked up and thrown 75 feet into the creek. The farmer lay dead across a tree trunk in the creek; his wife landed hundreds of feet away, in the bottoms across the water, injured seriously but alive.

The tornado swept from the valley into Biehle, strafing the town with flying livestock and timber. Shaving through a short stand of woods, it came upon the Catholic church and school, where priests and children huddled in terror, praying. Debris crashed through the rear wall and roof of the church, and falling rock demolished the altar. The steeple was ripped from atop the front and thrown down beside the school, its tip spearing seven feet into the ground. Incredibly, the school was spared as the storm flew over and past. Up on the roof of the damaged church, just behind where the steeple stood, a thin wooden cross swayed but remained fixed in place.

More properties were destroyed around Biehle, including a Gieringer farm where a woman had to be dragged from the burning wreckage of her home. The tornado rushed forward on its line of travel, staying 21 degrees north of east, a bearing in which the Mississippi River was less than 20 miles away. Every farmstead and community in between would become devastated similarly.

A Patriot

Excerpt 3: Barnstorming big-league players on tour, led by Robin Roberts, future Hall of Famer, are startled by crafty local pitcher Lefty Fisher in an exhibition game at Sikeston, Mo., October 1949

Lloyd B. Fisher was born in 1920 in St. Louis, the first son and second child of Iva Lee and Benjamin Franklin Fisher. Ben Fisher was a railroad foreman, and Iva Lee was the homemaker in charge of a brood of children to grow to five, three girls and two boys.

The Fisher children were active and talented, with a range of interests that included music, art and fashion. And the entire family, including the parents, shared a passion: baseball, particularly the St. Louis Cardinals. When the Fishers moved north from the city’s south side in 1933, it was no coincidence they took a flat within shouting distance of Sportsman’s Park on Grand Avenue. During the 1934 World Series the family saw every game in St. Louis, with the kids watching from “knothole gang” areas outside the ballpark.

Ben’s hobby was updating Cardinal statistics every inning, and he was prone to get angry with radio broadcasters who did not concern themselves with correct records, like announcer Dizzy Dean in the 1940s. Iva Lee also kept a personal scorebook on the Cardinals, but she loved to attend games such as the Ladies Day events that offered her free admission. During World War II, many games had special admission for scrap metal donations, and Ben complained the house was running out of pots and pans; Iva Lee and her sister were using up inventory to see the Cardinals.

Lloyd Fisher grew up with a dream to play for the Cardinals, not unusual. His family’s love for the team aside, most any boy in St. Louis kept the same fantasy. But Lloyd was different as an especially gifted child; baseball was definitely in his future.

By his teen years Lloyd was a legitimate baseball prospect, one of few in a city teeming with amateur players. He could hit, catch, throw and run, and he became a dominant player in the urban area’s competitive youth leagues. The boy had nicknames, including “Slats” and “Skinny,” but “Lefty” stuck. Lloyd’s real identity was baseball, as an elite talent among players.

At 16, Lloyd was selected for the prestigious All-Star Game of the Junior Municipal League. The event was held at Sportsman’s Park, where Lloyd took the field for the first time in front of his beaming family in the stands. It was 1936 and the Cardinals were The Gashouse Gang with Medwick, Martin, the Dean Brothers, and more stars. St. Louis could not get enough of baseball and young Lefty Fisher thrived in the atmosphere.

His goal began to materialize after he graduated from Beaumont High School in 1938. Pro scouts were in constant contact, led by those representing the Cardinals, and Lloyd competed during the summer in the top local circuit for amateurs, the Municipal League. Lefty Fisher was an all-around success: On the pitching mound he compiled an 11-3 record, but he also starred as an outfielder who hit extremely well. The Cardinals offered a contract, and he signed it at age 18.

The following spring Lloyd Fisher was a touted prospect for Union City, Tenn., in the Kitty League. His won-loss record was 8-12, but he pitched strong over 28 games with 121 strikeouts and a 2.96 earned-run-average. In 1940 Fisher returned to Union City with the eye of Cardinals management upon him; general manager Branch Rickey visited the team at the start of the season, taking special interest in the lefthander from St. Louis. There were expectations surfacing elsewhere too, like a newspaper article in Louisville previewing the Kitty League, declaring “Fisher should be one of the league’s outstanding southpaws.”

And he was. He won the opening game for Union City, pitched the league’s first shutout the next week at Paducah, and kept on winning.

Fisher moved up to Class D ball in 1941, going to Fremont in the Ohio State League, and he had his best baseball season ever. He scarcely lost on the pitcher’s mound and excelled as a hitter. “Southpaw pitcher Lloyd Fisher has been playing in the outfield for the Fremont Green Sox since the sale of Bill Ramsey, and he’s clouting well over .300,” noted one report. “In three consecutive games last week, he was 8 for 12 at the plate.” As a pitcher, Fisher won 18 games and established himself as bona fide prospect for the major leagues.

Fisher was a young man of 21, close to reaching his athletic goal, yet conflict churned within him. His priority was shifting away from playing baseball to serving his country. He decided to volunteer for the war effort before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

“Lloyd Fisher, St. Louisan, who pitches minor league ball in the Ohio State League, has joined the Army,” noted The Post-Dispatch. “Fisher reported yesterday at Jefferson Barracks. The lefthander pitched for the Fremont club last season and won 18 games while dropping 3 contests.”

At the Fisher apartment on the north side, the scrapbook on Lloyd had a new section, switching from promise in baseball to one on preparation for war: “Starting a New Chapter in Lloyd’s Life,” his mother wrote bravely in the headline. At Bethany Lutheran Church, the printed program made the announcement with prayer: “Next Tuesday, another of our boys is answering the call of the country, Lloyd Fisher. Our prayers follow him and all our boys. Oh, Heavenly Father, protect them, wherever they are.”

***

Lloyd Fisher survived World War II’s European theater, but not unscathed. He took part took in some of the war’s most intense ground-fighting, serving with valor as the Allies pushed the Nazis out of France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, then back into Germany, where they surrendered. For almost a year, Fisher’s division fought and drove the Germans 1,400 miles, and he was wounded twice.

He came home to a wife and two small children, an older man with body banged up a bit. Once, under heavy fire, he had caught shrapnel in a leg. Then a bomb explosion in a log bunker wrenched his back, severely. Fisher was a decorated soldier but he quietly stashed away the medals. The 26-year-old’s patriotic duty was behind him, and he wanted to return to baseball, the dream that remained.

But so did a multitude of others like him. The war’s end released a torrent of American workers, and pro baseball was overrun with athletes. Jobs were at a premium, but Browns executive Bill DeWitt signed Fisher to a minor league contract.

He pitched and played outfield at Springfield, Ill., but presumably had health problems. He did not get many at-bats and he pitched in only 15 games. His hitting average was a poor .208, and while he logged a 4-1 mark on the mound, his ERA was high, 4.83.

Branch Rickey was impressed enough, however, and signed Fisher to a 1947 contract for Montreal. Lloyd went to spring training with the Dodgers in Florida and witnessed the furor surrounding Jackie Robinson, who would break the color barrier in baseball. But problems arose in Montreal; the war wounds must have affected Fisher, and he was released.

Over 40 years later, his widow, Louise, knew few details. “I’m not a very good one to talk about what happened,” she confessed. “I can’t tell you the straight of it. He went to Montreal, but he didn’t stay there long.”

Matt Chaney is a writer, editor and publisher in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

Excerpts II: 1925 Tri-State Tornado, 1949 Baseball Dream of A Patriot

Passages adapted from stories of the book Legend In Missouri by Matt Chaney

Copyright ©2017 by Matthew L. Chaney

Tornado

Excerpt 2: The Tri-State Tornado continues its path on the afternoon of March 18, 1925

Averaging about 55 mph, the tornado flew on a beeline into Iron County, Missouri, showing no deference for the rugged Ozarks topography, whether peak or plain. Its width hugging the ground was a quarter- to a half-mile and destined to expand. Any tree or wooden structure in the storm’s path was subject to destruction; any living being was in mortal danger.

In the twin mining towns of Annapolis and Leadanna, 700 citizens did not know the largest breed of tornado was on its approach.

Lunchtime had just ended. At the school, more than 200 students were back at their desks; downtown, people were back at work. Darkening skies had thundered and rained during lunch, so a storm was expected. But when huge hailstones hit a few minutes past 1 o’clock, people took real notice. Adults gazed anxiously to the southwest, up the valley heading out of town. Schoolchildren fretted when light outside dimmed rapidly, turning their classrooms dark.

Still, there was no funnel cloud visible from town, just a thick, dark fog rolling over the hills—“like a huge column of very black coal smoke,” described one witness—covering everything before it. Many people began dashing for cover, while some lingered a moment or two longer before the spectacle. Then a roar like multiple freight trains burst through the valley, and winds 200 to 300 mph blasted Annapolis.

In a rare benevolent act, the tornado damaged but did not destroy the two-story brick schoolhouse, sparing the children inside. At a house nearby, a terrified housewife clutched her small son, unable to move because plunging air pressure had sucked the front door shut on her dress. That house was left standing too. But save for a handful of other structures, Annapolis was leveled in seconds. All three churches and most of the business district were destroyed. Loaded railroad cars were thrown off tracks and dumped; automobiles were lifted and hurled.

On street after street, houses blew apart around cowering victims. Adults were swept up by wind and launched, landing with injurious thuds, while the small bodies of babies offered no resistance whatsoever against the force. One infant was carried hundreds of yards before being laid down unharmed, but another was seriously injured in a long flight.

The air was full of debris: glass, splinters, metal, bricks, timbers, even chunks of buildings. A young teamster, Raymond Stewart, was struck and killed instantly. Nearby, an airborne wooden beam stabbed through two brick walls.

Annapolis, sitting on a hillside sloping south and west, had been swallowed in the storm’s path. On the ridge top above town, tombstones in the cemetery scraped a pile of trees and wreckage from the tornado’s gut.

The next valley beyond—also in line for a direct hit—was site of the lead mine and Leadanna, a community of mining families in about 30 houses and tents.

The home of Osro and Nell Kelley sat on a west slope in the Leadanna valley. Osro had been predicting “a twister was coming,” and he and his wife each held one of their two small daughters. A hailstone crashed through the dining room window, and when Nell looked out she saw the garage flattened atop their new Chevrolet car. Instantly the house itself was picked up and thrown, launching the family backward. Osro flew against a tree stump near a creek, striking his head and killing him; Nell landed unconscious, covered in debris and nearly dead from injuries through her shattered body. The winds had yanked the little girls from their parents’ arms, 4-year-old Lucille and 2-year-old Wilma. But they landed clasped together in the creek, bruised and cut but not injured seriously. Lucille held her baby sister’s head out of the water until help arrived.

Every other house in Leadanna was blown down, and the mine was wrecked at surface level, ruining the crusher mill and other heavy works. The tipple tower above the shaft was mangled, ruining the cage hoist and cutting off electrical power. Seventy-five miners stranded 450 feet underground would have to climb up a ladder to reach the surface.

The terror had lasted barely a minute before the storm screamed off at great speed on a virtual straight line northeast—21 degrees north of east, the same general bearing it had flown from the start.

Within minutes, the sun was shining over the sudden chaos of Annapolis and Leadanna. This storm left its devastating signature with two communities flattened in a straight track. The ground was strewn with wreckage: boards, bricks, broken glass, twisted automobiles, bolts of store cloth, clothes and household goods. One home stood oddly intact amidst the ruins, but fire broke out nearby and flames spread unchecked to engulf the house and force out the elderly occupants.

Bleeding, dazed survivors roamed the town, some cradling maimed children. Screams shot from under piles of rubble, where rescuers dug urgently to reach the trapped victims. Two lives were lost, Stewart and Osro Kelley, and more than 100 were injured. Seven hundred people were left homeless, virtually the entire local population.

About 10 miles northeast of Annapolis-Leadanna, the storm crossed into Madison County to demolish rural homes, farms, orchards and timber. It plunged into the deep St. Francis River Valley then mowed back out with no change in course. Two country schools were destroyed near Fredericktown, but both were unoccupied. Missing Fredericktown, the tornado struck near Cornwall community, hurling three men. They landed without serious injuries, however, which reflected the miraculous outcome for the area. Properties lay wrecked along a 25-mile path through Madison County, but no one was hurt beyond scrapes and bruises.

The storm had traveled 50 miles in under 60 minutes of life and expanded to three-quarters of a mile wide, dwarfing specifications of the average tornado. Already a ferocious freak of its kind, the storm was only growing in intensity. Shooting past a 1,300-foot mount above Marquand, it swooped down off the eastern Ozarks Plateau toward the Mississippi River Valley. With all telephone and telegraph communications destroyed in affected areas, no warnings could be forwarded ahead.

Next in line was Bollinger County, where the tornado began its penchant for killing children.

A Patriot

Excerpt 2: A local baseball pitcher shocks big-league stars on their exhibition tour, October 1949

The bus with barnstorming major-league baseball players rolled into Sikeston, a bustling agriculture center of 11,600 in “Swampeast” Missouri. People on the streets looked up and some waved, those expecting the famed athletes.

At VFW Memorial Stadium on the east side of town, grids of lights burned against the evening dusk, visible for some distance across the flat farmlands. Baseball fans were still on their way, but a crowd of 1,000 already packed grandstands as the bus for Harry Walker’s All-Stars wheeled onto the gravel parking lot. Spectators craned their necks to see the door swing open and the big leaguers step out wearing uniforms emblazoned Phillies, Reds, Cardinals, Cubs and Giants.

The fans cheered loudly. Big Ted Kluszewski marched with his biceps bared, and Hank Sauer wrapped one huge hand around three bat handles. Harry “The Hat” Walker grinned and waved, as did his former St. Louis teammate Terry Moore, both local favorites.  The 6-1, 195-pound Robin Roberts had a look of intensity. These visitors were national heroes of newspapers, newsreels, radio, and the new broadcast medium, television, preparing for live baseball. Folks were delighted.

The Stars’ opponent, the Holcomb Cardinals, were the Missouri semipro champions. The Holcomb players stole glances at the big leaguers on parade, and some turned completely to watch. A few were not awestruck, especially pitcher Lloyd “Lefty” Fisher and Clyde Martin, both former minor leaguers who relished the chance to compete with players recognized among the best in the game.

Holcomb was a tiny Bootheel town in the delta south of Sikeston. The baseball team was bankrolled by wealthy cotton planters who enticed standout players all over the region, from Cape Girardeau south to Arkansas. The exhibition with Walker’s Stars was played at Sikeston because of the accommodations for a large paying crowd.

The confident big leaguers warmed up quickly and Walker signaled their readiness to play. An umpire in his dark bulk of protective gear strode stiffly to home plate, stooping over like Frankenstein to brush it clean. The infield had been dragged and raked, smoothing dirt from clods to flake, and white chalk lines gleamed under the lights.

In the shadows along the leftfield line, Roberts began loosening his arm to pitch, pausing just a moment to watch the opposing hurler for Holcomb, Lefty Fisher, trot in from rightfield. Some of the major-league hitters watched too, from the visitors dugout, but others paid no attention.

Fisher was a handsome athlete, 6-1 and 185 pounds. He reached the pitcher’s mound in smooth gait, then began toe-digging the rubber with a cleated shoe. Satisfied with the foothold, he looked in at the catcher, wound up and fired a warm-up pitch. The fluid delivery sent the ball as a dart over home plate, popping the airy catcher’s mitt.

The stands held many fans who followed Fisher, and they clapped and yelled encouragement. Fisher was among the top semipros in Missouri, and he used to pitch for AAA-level Montreal in the Dodgers organization; if any local pitcher could compete with the major leaguers, he was the one.

The game began and Fisher did not disappoint the locals. He gave up hits to the Stars but remained composed, pitching around threats to keep them scoreless, which made the game interesting. Otherwise it was unfolding as expected with Holcomb batters flailing hopelessly at Roberts’ pitches; the sensational young Phillies hurler felt good, despite appearing in his 20th exhibition game over 10 days across multiple states.

Holcomb’s Charley Hart had batted .580 during the semipro season and starred at the state tournament in Jefferson City. But Roberts overwhelmed him, sending 90 mph fastballs with “action” that Hart struggled to merely foul off. Unleashing one pitch wild, Roberts yelled “Watch out!” barely in time for Hart to duck it. With two strikes, Hart whiffed at a hard slider. Back in the dugout, he placed his bat in the rack as teammates asked about facing the Philadelphia ace. “It’s like trying to hit a rifle bullet,” Hart replied.

The major leaguers, meanwhile, continued having problems with Fisher. The top of their batting order came back up in the third inning, but Lefty was now compiling his mental “book” on every hitter, finding weaknesses to exploit. His fastball was topping 80 mph with lots of movement, and he mixed-in off-speed pitches and curves. Walker’s Stars could not get a base-runner home, and the score remained 0-0 at a time when they usually were building a comfortable lead.

With two outs in the Holcomb third, leadoff man Martin stroked a liner to the fence in left center, a double. Roberts bore down to retire the next batter on strikes, stranding Martin, but the pitcher felt peeved returning to the dugout. He strode up and snatched a towel, wiping dirty sweat from his face, then gazed down the bench at his teammates. No one looked back, including player-manager Walker, who would not consider inserting himself on the mound yet. Roberts would not have allowed that, anyway; ever the competitor, he wanted to put away this upstart opponent himself, backwoods team or not.

The fans sensed something special occurring. Semipros in southeast Missouri had a long tradition of hosting barnstorming big leaguers, including great pitchers like Dizzy Dean. But no one in the stands could recall a local team ever winning such an exhibition. They watched Fisher stymie the Stars—including Kluszewski, the cleanup hitter who struck out to start the fourth—and became more vocal in supporting Holcomb.

The crowd roared and hooted as Big Klu trudged back to the dugout, muttering and kicking dust. Roberts, both impressed and confounded by Fisher, motioned to a local through the dugout screen. Nodding toward Lefty, he asked, “Who the heck is this guy?”

Matt Chaney is a writer, editor and publisher in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

Excerpts: 1925 Tri-State Tornado, 1949 Baseball Dream of A Patriot

Passages adapted from stories of the book Legend In Missouri by Matt Chaney

Copyright ©2017 by Matthew L. Chaney

Tornado

“I could just see a big black cloud and it was rollin’. It was really rollin’. And it seemed to be right on the ground.”

Cecil Hackworth

Sam Flowers could not have known the peril that lay ahead when he left Ellington, Missouri, during the noon hour on March 18, 1925, and began the familiar walk to his farm five miles northeast of town.

Flowers did know he was probably walking into a storm. Heavy, dark clouds swept across the Reynolds County sky from the southwest, fast as any train could travel. At Ellington, a remote town in the Ozark Highlands, the clouds appeared to fly low enough to touch trees on the ridge tops.

But Flowers was a hearty middle-aged man who worked a hard-scrabble homestead. He had made this trip hundreds of times before, in wagons, automobiles, and on foot. And he had made it day and night, year-round, through every kind of weather the volatile skies of southern Missouri could bring.

Or so he must have thought. But the gathering storm was no ordinary weather event. It would become catastrophic.

Flowers walked the gravel highway, Route 21, through woods toward the tiny county seat of Centerville. Black clouds rushed overhead, massive and just above the treetops, it seemed. Winds snapped tree limbs back and forth, and rain began to pelt the road. He moved over to the rim of the west ditch, where the woods broke the big drops somewhat, but footing was tricky with the red clay turning wet and slippery around the stones.

A Model T rattled by, headed south, with top down and the driver soaking wet. Flowers might have considered turning back but he pressed on, still not overly concerned about a rainstorm. He stayed alert for old, heavy timbers that might crash down, and he watched for rocky banks to shield him if the storm worsened. He figured he would be all right in getting home to his wife and children.

In these minutes, a massive storm boiling 50,000 feet in the sky topped a 1,500-foot peak near the Current River and, on the downslope, hit ground along Logan Creek west of Ellington, heading northeast.

Three miles north of Ellington, Flowers came down a hill into Dry Valley. The rain was a torrent, blue lightning bolts exploded all around, and winds came in powerful gusts that almost swept him from his feet. The road crooked northeast, and hundreds of yards ahead lay the path up and over a short ridge into Spring Valley, leading to Flowers’ place near the village of Redford. But Spring Valley seemed a million miles away. Flowers could hardly see. The rain was blinding, and the valley had been enshrouded in a huge shadow, dark as night. Flowers had to look down with lightning flashes to see he was still on the road.

Suddenly, hailstones the size of small potatoes beat from above, and Flowers panicked. Too late, no shelter could save him. An ungodly rumble, like some flying earthquake, rushed up from behind as incredible winds sheared through the valley, tossing large trees. Flowers felt uttermost terror—then he was struck in back of the head.

What would become the deadliest land storm in American history, The Tri-State Tornado, had claimed its first human life: Sam Flowers.

***

A Patriot

“Lefty wasn’t your regular cornfield pitcher.”

Melvin Williams

The research on a local legend began with a death of note in southeast Missouri—Lloyd B. Fisher of the Stoddard County community of Puxico. Folks were remembering Mr. Fisher in the multiple roles he lived: as a loving family patriarch, a war veteran, teacher, farmer, mail-carrier and athlete. Many people had known Lloyd “Lefty” Fisher, the baseball pitcher of exceptional talent, and the effect his service as an infantryman had on that.

It was the summer of 1989, baseball season, proper time to imagine Lefty Fisher on the pitching mound. And, invariably, a storyteller would recall a special exhibition game from decades ago: the night Lefty matched the great Robin Roberts, his mound opponent, in hurling a shutout.

***

On a clear October evening in 1949, a silver bus cruised north through the sprawling flatlands of the Missouri Bootheel. The charter’s roomy interior was quiet. Most of the riders, major league baseball players on a barnstorming tour, were napping, their heavy uniforms soiled from an afternoon exhibition in Arkansas.

One strapping young athlete, Robin Roberts, sat gazing out a window. The 23-year-old enjoyed the scenes of harvest in the great delta. Mechanical cotton-pickers were just starting to chew through the wide fields of white bolls clinging to brown stalks. But the cornfields really commanded his attention, the rows of stiff yellow stalks falling to the cumbersome combines. That reminded Roberts of home in central Illinois, Springfield, where the capital city limits ended as the cornfields and hog farms began.

Roberts only recently had completed his first full major league season in Philadelphia. Then he and a dozen other players met in Illinois to board the bus for the barnstorming tour, which would conclude that night in southeast Missouri. The young man was ready to go home.

Sikeston was the final stop in 20 games for “Harry Walker’s All-Stars.” Their travel accommodations were much improved over the early days of exhibition tours, when players often slept in barns, or “barn-stormed,” but the grind of play was just as grueling. Now in their 10th day across three states, Walker’s Stars had played two games daily in different communities. The big leaguers dominated their rural opponents, of course, but 18 innings a day for the entire trip had worn them down, and injured some.

They did it for money: $1,000 apiece motivated these pros to barnstorm. Each man received $50 a game on the tour, an excellent supplement for a major league salary in 1949. Roberts, for example, had been paid $9,000 while winning 15 games that year for the Phillies. The barnstorming tour made it an even $10,000 for Roberts from baseball that year, and he had a winter job lined up selling menswear.

Walker’s Stars had no idea what team they would face in Sikeston. They did not know the pitcher they would face, and they did not care.

Roberts would be on the mound, and the team’s player-manager and organizer was Harry “The Hat” Walker, who led the National League in hitting two years before with a .363 average. Walker was gaining experience for his future as a major league manager and coach.

The Stars lineup would intimidate some pro pitchers, much less one from the backwoods. The names included Cincinnati power hitter Ted Kluszewski, large, agile athlete at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds. The former football player for Indiana University played first base for the Reds, and “Big Klu” was already known for biceps bulging from his trademark sleeveless jersey. Kluszewski was bound for stardom in the big leagues, like his buddy on the barnstorming trip, Hank Sauer, who had hit 31 home runs for the Cubs. Sauer was a big outfielder who in a few years would be named the National League MVP.

Besides Roberts, there were two other pitchers on the trip, veteran Kirby Higbe of the Giants and young Herm Wehmeier of the Reds. The pitchers normally split the games equally, or three innings, apiece, and Walker helped out by taking the mound to finish easy victories. But as the bus approached Sikeston, Walker sat down next to Roberts.

“Higbe and Wehmeier both say their arms are shot,” Walker told Roberts. “You pitch the first three innings or so tonight, then after we get way ahead, I’ll relieve you. We’ll win and then we’ll go home.”

“Sure thing, Skip,” Roberts replied.

***

Matt Chaney is a writer, editor and publisher in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.comEmail: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

Missouri Boasts Its Place in Rock n’ Roll History

By Matt Chaney, ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Thursday, February 16, 2017

Classical piano teacher Louise Mercer was worried in Memphis. Musical forces were afoot in the Mississippi River Valley and progressing, but not for this instructor’s preference. It was 1948, and Mercer saw nothing positive for her concerto affection within the region’s folk music, jazz and blues. And hillbilly music, so-called, appalled her.

Mercer fought back, or brought Bach back to the South, according to The Associated Press, by organizing concert piano competitions for deprived youths. “The nation’s greatest musical talent comes from the South,” she said. “We have the romantic and cultural background, although we haven’t the opportunities for study that are offered in other sections of the country.”

The piano teacher was right on, mostly. Southern musical talent stood boundless along the river, the great “delta” landscape of beauty and struggle, spawning creativity from Cape Girardeau to New Orleans. And Mercer apparently detected musical revolution at hand—it just wouldn’t happen for her classics.

Memphis would mother the uprising, blending music from every direction into what would become known as rock and roll. The components were in place by 1948, including a teenager of destiny, Elvis Presley, having relocated to Memphis with his parents from Mississippi.

***

The hundred rural counties of Missouri today, as always, generally maintain allegiance to the state’s three cities—St.  Louis, Kansas City and Springfield—for extended shopping, entertainment, medical services and more. But two counties are unique, Pemiscot and Dunklin, which stand out together on a Missouri map for essentially comprising that Bootheel appendage of the southeast corner.

As far as an adopted city for people of Pemiscot and Dunklin counties, the roads lead to and from Memphis, Tenn., less than two hours away by Interstate 55. And maybe that’s the best explanation why the Pemiscot-Dunklin area—a thousand square miles of flat delta ground, largely farm fields—stands tall in musical heritage, especially the evolution of rock and roll.

Most “rockabilly” stars of the 1950s staged shows around here, and many local musicians made a good living, with some cutting records. I recently visited Pemiscot-Dunklin as a writer in search of history. There were legendary spots to see, with an old sharecropper crossroads topping my list: Gobler. “There ain’t nothing there now,” a friend remarked at Hayti, where I exited the interstate.

What he meant relied on a pretext: There used to be something at Gobler, something quite special, the notorious B&B Club, rockabilly showplace for Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, among players.

The B&B was an old wooden roadhouse serving watery 3.2 beer, reputed for gambling and fighting. A liquor store next door sold bottles for carry-in. The B&B could seat a few hundred patrons, and Gobler population was 116 in the 1950s. But on a big music night a thousand young people might show up, ready to party, driving from multiple states.

Jimmy Haggett, a radio deejay, musician and promoter, keyed success for the B&B. His Memphis connections included producer Sam Phillips at Sun Records, who stabled rising stars like Elvis, Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Haggett, a minor recording artist for Sun, was often instrumental in booking big names for shows across Pemiscot and Dunklin counties, elsewhere in southeast Missouri. And he promoted events on-air and in newspapers.

“Jimmy Haggett, he had an afternoon radio show, and he would advertise the B&B,” recalls Al Jordan, a Hayti musician who toured with rockabilly and country legends. “Jimmy would say, ‘Weelll, we’re gonna have a big dance Friday night at the B&B Club at Gobler, and we’re gonna feature the bombshell from Memphis, Tennessee—Elvis Presley.’ ”

Gobler is some 10 miles across the fields southwest from Hayti, sitting smack on the borderline between Pemiscot and Dunklin counties. True, Gobler doesn’t show much these days: a trucking company, a tiny post office, a hunting outfitters store near the old B&B site, and a few dozen homes ranging from clapboard to neat brick. There’s no booze for sale, no gas, just canned soda from a machine on someone’s porch.

But there never could’ve been much to see around here, in literal sense. This is flat country, where the horizon begins at top of a tree or fence line. Crop fields stretch out of sight beyond the Gobler structures; in summer the corn plants, beans and cotton are seemingly endless.

I considered my own boyhood in the delta decades ago, and occasional despair. In daylight I might spy a jet airliner streaming overhead at 30,000 feet, flying on to exotic locales, carrying exciting people, and I’d feel small, isolated in this world.

But moonlight turned the delta dreamy in blue hue. Barren fields transformed into calm, glowing sea. Scattered farmsteads cast imaginary boat lights. The night sky was enormous but inviting, intimate, stars glistening like diamonds within a child’s reach. Anything seemed possible in those moments.

There’s an inspiration about this region, rather inexplicable, that fosters individual expression. Among youths, I see that manifest typically in regional sport, tremendous athleticism, but delta mojo also motivates art. Southeast Missouri first stirred my creative soul in the 1960s, long after piano teacher Louise Mercer knew the dynamic among Memphis kids, post-World War II.

Passing through Gobler last month, I thought of an observation by writer John Pyle, who reviewed one of my Missouri books. “We live our lives in a place, and sometimes it’s just place that’s important,” he wrote.

***

During the mid-1950s, Al Jordan’s brother-in-law owned a rockin’ roadhouse in southeast Missouri, Smitzer’s Club east of Malden, down in the bottoms along Highway 62. Al was around 10 years old when his father started toting him along to Smitzer’s on Sundays, for live music. The 3.2 beer flowed while little Al enjoyed bottles of soda, plopping himself at the stage to watch history in the making.

“Back then Roy Orbison, Conway Twitty and Narvel Felts all used to play there,” Jordan says of recording artists at their outset. “They’d be up there playing that rockabilly, and I’d drink a Dr Pepper. I’d think, Boy, I’d like to do that someday.”

Jordan was 14 when he visited a friend’s house in Gideon, his hometown where New Madrid County edges down into the Bootheel by latitude. Another youth brought his guitar for a jam session. “I’d never sat down at a set of drums before in my life,” Jordan remembers. “They had a little set of drums, and this guy played guitar. He was doing a song called ‘Walk, Don’t Run,’ a Ventures song. I accidentally ended up sitting down at the drums, and just started keeping the beat. And it just came natural for me, God-given.”

Like most Bootheel boys, Jordan had one option for paying work, picking cotton. The job was back-breaking, knee-tenderizing, finger-slicing, and hot as hell in delta sun and humidity. Meanwhile Jordan kept at the drums, practicing by avocation until a local bandleader hired him for a teen dance at Puxico, Mo.

Jordan received eight dollars for the evening gig, astounding him. In the cotton field he had to bag almost 300 pounds of fluffy bolls to earn eight bucks, more than a day’s work except for champion pickers. “Next morning my mom woke me up. She said it’s time to go to the field. I said, ‘Nope, I ain’t going to the cotton field no more. I’ve found an easier way to make a living.’ ”

It was 1959, and kid Jordan’s drumming paid off. By age 16 he’d played in fifty clubs between Memphis and St. Louis, accompanying luminaries on stage such as role model Twitty and Charlie Rich. “Most of the places were honky-tonks,” Jordan recalls, who saw it all, as the saying goes.

“We’d be in an old place playin’, and everything would be lovely, and then all at once you’d hear beer bottles crashing and tables turning over. I’d just duck down behind my drums and let ’em get with it. But I played for years and never had a problem. Most of the time they never bothered the band guys, you know. And the old stories you hear about the bandstands with chicken wire across the front—I played a couple places like that, to keep us from gettin’ hit by flying beer bottles.

“The music was rockabilly—that was the term. What they did, they took country music and put a jazzed-up beat to it. Actually, Bill Haley and the Comets [in Pennsylvania], he was like the father of rockabilly, and rock n’ roll. But then Elvis came along and they christened him as ‘The King’ of rock n’ roll.”

Elvis certainly energized youths of the delta; their music production spiked. “Elvis kicked everybody off, you might say. He jump-started everybody. They thought, My God, if Elvis Presley can do it, I can too,” Jordan says, chuckling. “But—they failed to realize, Elvis had the looks, Elvis was something new, and Elvis had Colonel Tom Parker to promote him.”

Elvis appeared twice at the B&B in Gobler during 1955, on April 8 and Sept. 28. At the latter date the village was in uproar over a murder at a dice game outside the club. Elvis, his career soaring, had outgrown venues like the B&B. Colonel Parker made sure of that.

Gerald Burke, an owner of the B&B, later told Jordan he paid Elvis $300 after the September show. Soon Elvis signed with RCA Records and released “Heartbreak Hotel,” smash hit. Burke said he checked again on booking Elvis, and the new price was $3,000.

“Needless to say, the B&B didn’t have Elvis anymore,” Jordan says.

***

Elvis Presley died in 1977 at age 42, reduced to a caricature for crass commercialization and his weight problem. Twenty years later, Pennsylvania writer Cathleen Miller personally reflected on the icon in her piece for The Washington Post:

“When I was in high school, I went to see the fat, bejeweled singer in concert at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, and sat in awe—not of the man, but of the crowd’s reaction. He sang the same old songs I’d listened to a million times on the jukebox in my grandma’s diner—but with the slightest swivel of those infamous hips, the women in the audience would go insane. The Pelvis, it seemed, was taunting them: a little swivel here, then reverse, then stop dead in the middle and wait for the screams.”

Miller was native of Kennett, Mo., the Dunklin County seat. She grew up only a few miles by blacktop from Gobler, years after its Elvis heyday but hearing plenty. Miller recalled “everybody had stories about Elvis—and not the kind of stories that would make you think he was anything special.”

“When my mom and dad were dating in the ’50s they used to go see him play at the B&B Club, a honky-tonk in nearby Gobler that was the rowdiest place around for white people. My uncle best described it by saying, ‘If they didn’t have five fights on a Friday night, they didn’t have a crowd.’ The B&B Club was prestigiously located in the middle of a cotton field… My best friend’s dad said he went there to see Elvis once and after the show handed him $50 to come back out and sing his favorite song. He said the young King took the money but left hurriedly through the back door.

“So we didn’t think much of Elvis.”

Miller passed through Memphis with her husband in the 1990s, intent on purchasing goofy trinkets for an Elvis theme party in California. Her husband planned his costume as Singing Elvis Lamp. “But while visiting Graceland and the haunts of my childhood, I gradually realized that I had taken for granted Elvis’s contributions to American music,” she wrote. “On this trip, I discovered the ‘real’ Elvis.

“When my husband and I drove into Memphis on a steamy summer afternoon, boarded-up storefronts were much in evidence on the west side of the city, and families sat out on the front stoops of run-down tenements, fanning themselves in the heat. Still, the streets were clean, and the parkways exploded with azaleas. As we headed east toward Overton Park, the sights began to look like the Memphis I remembered: large Southern homes separated from the street by expanses of shady lawns, magnolias, moss-covered oaks and willow trees. The contrast had intensified during 20 years—or maybe 20 years had changed the way I looked at things.”

Gaudiness surely met the couple at Graceland, home of late Elvis, but a 1960 film of the young man captivated Miller. “He was so young and handsome and fresh. Joking with the reporters, smiling that gorgeous smile, wearing no visible jewelry,” she noted. “He hinted that he had met someone special in Germany [during military service], but no, he couldn’t call her his girlfriend.

“In the museum, we learned that Elvis had been awarded more gold and platinum records than anyone on the planet. We watched a film about his life, and when he sang ‘Blue Christmas’ I remembered listening to the same song on the radio as a child, wondering why he sounded so sad when it was Christmas time. The music had reminded me of the songs we sang in Sunday school; most of them were sad also.

“Sadly, I realized that the Elvis I had known all these years was the ‘Old Elvis,’ the King of Kitsch in jeweled jumpsuits. The real Elvis was a simple Southern boy who, through his music, had given a voice to the restless, pent-up youth of the ’50s. He had taken gospel, blues and country and fused them into a unique style—a style that would revolutionize the music industry.”

“And it all happened because of this place. Memphis,” saluted Miller. “Sometimes we have to leave home to see things for what they really are.”

We live in a place, often all that matters. We make do, and big things can happen when we strive, even from a lonely crossroads and cotton fields. In the great American delta, folks understand.

Matt Chaney is a writer, editor and publisher in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

1967: AMA Touts Head-Up Tackling, Avoids Judging Youth Football

By Matt Chaney, ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Saturday, February 4, 2017

Fifty years ago, officials of the American Medical Association publicly endorsed “head-up” chest tackling for football—or longtime, qualified quackery of coaches, doctors and trainers—while avoiding a responsible stance in the protest over youth players then led by the American Academy of Pediatrics, among a wave of concerned physicians. The medical football follies of 1967 and the period still reflect how leaders of America’s foremost medical associations, including editors of trusted publications like Journal of the American Medical Association, sidestep the blatant violation of Hippocratic ethos and assumption-of-risk doctrine that is juvenile collision football in this country. Currently, the billion-dollar question for headliner “concussion” lawsuits remains: When did football officials understand the risk of traumatic brain disease in their sport and did they properly inform players and families? But the relevant football question confronting most Americans, today and since the 1880s, remains: Should juveniles be banned from playing the tackle game? Historic public information sheds light. Below is an unprecedented collection of medical remarks and opinion, including essential AMA proclamations and JAMA content, regarding tackle football from 1907 through the establishment of enforceable “anti-butting” policy and rules in 1976. Quadriplegic former schoolboy player Jim Wallgren concludes, in 1986, symbolizing legal-ethical dilemma. Then and still.

The historical texts and notes on football issues previously posted here in timeline were publicly available only for a term. The collections are now in reserve by the researcher for future use. The following remain posted:

Chaney, M. (2016, Dec. 21). ‘Safe Football Failed in 1880s, Talking Points Lived On. ChaneysBlog.com

Chaney, M. (2015, July 28). The 1890s: Brain risks confirmed in American football. ChaneysBlog.com.

Chaney, M. (2016, Jan. 30). 1900-1912: ‘First Concussion Crisis’ for beloved football. ChaneysBlog.com.

Chaney, M. (2016, May 11). ‘Heads Up’ theory, football helmets and brain disease, 1883-1962. ChaneysBlog.com.

Chaney, M. (2016, May 31). Teddy Roosevelt loved football, except when it brutalized his son. Sports.Vice.com.

Chaney, M. (2016, Nov. 29, 2016). “Slaughter of the innocents”: When D.C. considered banning high school football. Sports.Vice.com.

Matt Chaney is a writer, editor, researcher and consultant on public issues in sport, specializing in American football for three decades. Chaney, with an MA in media studies, is a former college football player and coach whose books include Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Footballfrom his Four Walls Publishing in 2009Chaney’s study for graduate thesis, co-published with the University of Central Missouri in 2001, analyzed print sport-media coverage of anabolic substances in football from 1983-1999. Email him at mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com or visit the website for more information.

1907 JAMA: ‘Football is no game for boys to play’

By Matt Chaney, ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The year 1905 would become storied for “reform” of American football, even if the large majority of critics only wanted “open” play and elimination of “foul” tactics like punching. College football was a national tradition and big business, with famed teams like Yale and Harvard constituting major entertainment enterprises. Universities, newspapers and magazines capitalized in their symbiotic commerce of promoting the blood sport. Very few individuals spoke up for college football’s abolition in 1905, despite legend to endure. But juvenile football at schools and preps was different, facing distinct threat in a controversy overlooked by future historians. Abolitionists confronted schoolboy football nationwide at outset of the 1900s, and supporters of the youth game rallied for the fight. President Theodore Roosevelt enmeshed himself in football debate and impacted public opinion; the immensely popular “T.R.” heartily endorsed school football, often mentioning his sons’ game exploits in speech, conversation and letter. But prickly questions loomed. Ostensibly this was time of “progressive reform” and citizen welfare, child protection—led by President Rooseveltand the issue of juvenile football confronted institutions of medicine, government, education and athletics, over ethics and law. Voices of college football and higher education increasingly denounced the game for minors. The boys game had grown since the 1880s within football’s trace blazed by colleges, and the latter weren’t always appreciative of junior imitation. Many football insiders believed young adult players of prep academies, high schools and athletic clubs were sufficient to stock college teams. Moral arguments aside, such critics believed football players had but a shelf life for administering and withstanding game violence and stress, and that wasn’t served by premature starts. A majority of doctors ripped boys football in public, meanwhile, and girls tackle sport was unfathomable. When the widely promised “safer football” failed to materialize by end of 1907, especially for schoolboys, officials of the American Medical Association declared a clear stance in their prestigious journal.

The historical texts and notes on football issues previously posted here in timeline were publicly available only for a term. The collections are now in reserve by the researcher for future use. The following remain posted:

Chaney, M. (2016, Dec. 21). ‘Safe Football Failed in 1880s, Talking Points Lived On. ChaneysBlog.com

Chaney, M. (2015, July 28). The 1890s: Brain risks confirmed in American football. ChaneysBlog.com.

Chaney, M. (2016, Jan. 30). 1900-1912: ‘First Concussion Crisis’ for beloved football. ChaneysBlog.com.

Chaney, M. (2016, May 11). ‘Heads Up’ theory, football helmets and brain disease, 1883-1962. ChaneysBlog.com.

Chaney, M. (2016, May 31). Teddy Roosevelt loved football, except when it brutalized his son. Sports.Vice.com.

Chaney, M. (2016, Nov. 29, 2016). “Slaughter of the innocents”: When D.C. considered banning high school football. Sports.Vice.com.

Matt Chaney is a writer, editor, researcher and consultant on public issues in sport, specializing in American football for three decades. Chaney, with an MA in media studies, is a former college football player and coach whose books include Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Footballfrom his Four Walls Publishing in 2009Chaney’s study for graduate thesis, co-published with the University of Central Missouri in 2001, analyzed print sport-media coverage of anabolic substances in football from 1983-1999. Email him at mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com or visit the website for more information.