1955: Elvis Effect Rocked The Missouri Delta

Fourth in A Series

By Matt Chaney, ChaneysBlog.com

Posted July 11, 2017; Revised July 22, 2017

The stories about Elvis Presley carried on around southeast Missouri, for generations, after he’d played local dance halls and bars in 1955, rising to stardom.

“Elvis Presley was the greatest entertainer in the whole, wide world,” Onie Wheeler, Nashville performer and a Missouri Bootheel native, said upon Presley’s death in 1977. “Ordinary things don’t get attention. Elvis had movements with his music. He was different and that’s what it takes.”

The late John Mays always confessed: “I’m the guy who said, ‘This guy here [Presley], he’s got nothing. He’ll never make it.’ ” Mays, a longtime announcer and newsman for KBOA radio in Kennett, Mo., met the 20-year-old Elvis in spring 1955. Presley visited the radio station before his show at the B&B Club in tiny Gobler, a dirt crossroads on the county line.

“Jimmy Haggett was our country deejay, and he brought Elvis Presley to appear on a [Friday] night at the B&B Club,” Mays said, speaking later on KBOA. “Jimmy was good at booking. He had a lot of contacts down in the Memphis area. Elvis hung around the studio, and I’ve told this story before… I remember hearing Elvis on Sun records, and he didn’t impress me.” Mays chuckled, noting that Presley was interviewed on-air, “but nobody was really excited about it.”

Presley rated second-billing that night at the B&B, with Wheeler the headliner. Haggett also opened with his band, The Daydreamers. Presley’s songs for Sun Records were regional hits expanding south and southwest, riding on his radio play and live performances from Missouri to New Mexico. The titles included “That’s All Right Mama,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” and “You’re Right, I’m Left, She’s Gone.”

Haggett later said of Presley: “I knew he had a different style when he first started recording for Sun. And when I started working on shows with him, and saw the reaction of the crowds, and the crowds he drew, I knew the boy had something.”

Retired musician Al Jordan recalled 1955, when he was a schoolboy in the Bootheel, hurrying home each afternoon for Haggett’s radio show from Kennett. Jordan would tune the AM dial to 830, KBOA, for live music, records and Haggett. “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 blonde bombshell from Memphis, Tennessee—Elvis Presley.’ ”

Similar to sport, early rock inspired waves of youths in the delta flatland, Jordan among them. “We had a lot of musicians from this part of the country, northeast Arkansas and southeast Missouri,” he said. “The music from here, and Memphis, it’s like a combination of gospel, blues, and country. And back then they called it rockabilly. It was hillbilly music, actually, what they called that, with a beat to it. Up-tempo, swing.”

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

Haley and The Comets swept the East and West coasts in 1955, rolling on their hit “Rock Around The Clock,” immortalized in a movie. But in the heartland, the Mississippi River Valley, Elvis Presley captivated young people, accompanied by his cutting-edge band mates Scotty Moore, on guitar, and Bill Black, upright bass.

The Elvis experience felt personal in southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas. “Because Elvis, ya know, he worked the B&B Club, he worked the National Guard Armory at Sikeston, worked the National Guard Armory at Poplar Bluff—all around here,” Jordan said at his home in Hayti, Mo., during a 2017 interview. “Wherever he could find a place to play, he played it.”

All along the corridor of federal Highway 61, kids took up guitars and more instruments for making music, rock n’ roll. “Elvis kicked everybody off, you might say. He jump-started everybody,” Jordan said. “They thought, ‘My God, if Elvis Presley can do it, I can too.’ But—they failed to realize Elvis had the looks, Elvis was something new, and Elvis had Colonel Tom Parker to promote him.”

“The thing is, down through the 55 years that I’ve been involved in the music, there’s only one Elvis Presley.”

Special thanks to Steve Mays for his website on historical KBOA radio

Select References

Gallaher, E. (1955, June 19). WTOP’s Eddie Gallaher on records. Washington Post, p.J10.

Jordan, A. (2017, Jan. 11). Interview with author at Hayti MO.

Payne, S.E. (1977, Oct. 5). Country music star remembers King of Rock as ‘greatest.’ Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p.1.

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

As Rockabilly Fell, Musicians Adapted in Delta

Third in A Series

By Matt Chaney, ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Saturday, June 3, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

Buddy Holly wanted clean clothes. Richie Valens planned a haircut. And J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson felt ill enough for a flu shot.

Foremost, the young musicians sought a break from bus-riding on their hellish winter tour through Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

After 11 days and nights on snowy highways, the players felt like grungy, chilled meat. All had faced hypothermia on a bus, stalled hours in Wisconsin darkness with minus-30 degrees and howling winds. A drummer had to be hospitalized for frostbite, midway through tour dates.

So, following an Iowa show the night of Feb. 2, 1959, the three pop stars—Holly, Richardson and Valens—crammed into a four-seat prop plane at Mason City.

Their pilot was young but gaining experience, and the weather qualified as safe for flight. Local 1 a.m. conditions registered 18 degrees with light snowfall, winds of 35 mph, visibility at six miles. The little plane took off down the runway and rose airborne, northbound for Fargo, North Dakota.

Flight service owner Jerry Dwyer watched the aircraft ascend in the night, reaching about one thousand feet where it banked left, northwesterly. Then, farther distant, the lights seemed to dip toward earth. Dwyer brushed that off as optical illusion, but eight hours later he discovered crash wreckage—and the four dead—in a farm field five miles from the airport.

The Holly tragedy would symbolize downfall of early rock n’ roll, rockabilly, although other factors weighed heavier. Primarily it was Fifth Avenue commercialization, New York City’s influence as pop-music capital, this time for rock, and any pristine sound was snuffed.

Even Holly’s music was softening at his death. The Texan had met his wife in New York and moved to Manhattan, collaborating on song with the likes of crooner Paul Anka and orchestra musicians. “He was moving away from rockabilly…,” historian Craig Robert Morrison later observed of Holly, “had he lived, it is unlikely that he would have added to his rockabilly works.”

In spring 1959, Memphis record producer Sam Phillips declared rockabilly was finished, the music his studio had unleashed. “It’s all over but the mushroom cloud,” Phillips told a reporter.

“The kids just got tired of the ruckus and we are moving into a period of greater variety in taste. More people are going to have big records, but we’ll have fewer fantastic ones,” explained Phillips, whose Sun Records had first released Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore, Bill Black, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, among innovators.

Six decades later, retired musician Al Jordan echoes Phillips. “The rockabilly thing actually only lasted about five years,” Jordan says in the Missouri Bootheel.

“Buddy Holly was kind of like Carl Perkins; he was a stylist. Johnny Cash had a style completely different from everybody, you know, and Elvis had his style. There was a boy from over at Senath, Missouri, Jimmy Edwards, who was a rockabilly artist. He had two chart records then he just kindly fell out of the scene.”

“Because music was changing,” continues Jordan, former drummer in rock and country. “Rockabilly was being changed because of Nashville and New York. In other words, that style of music didn’t go to town anymore.”

“Even country music was changing about then, to more of a pop sound than actual grassroots country.”

***

Music percolated in southeast Missouri a century ago—jazz, blues, gospel and “hillbilly”—amidst raw landscape.

This was an American frontier, still, with 10 delta counties subject to swamping by the Mississippi at flood stage. During catastrophic events the great river went everywhere, spilling south at a hundred miles wide, sparing only ridges of high sand and jutting limestone.

Southeast Missouri was typically wet with muddy roads, whether in hills or bottoms. But musicians carried on, like jazz leader Raymond F. “Peg” Meyer at Cape Girardeau, where delta flatland met high ground.

“Managing a jazz band in the 1920s was an enlightening experience due to all of the predicaments that could suddenly pop up,” Meyer recalled in his 1989 book, Backwoods Jazz In The Twenties. “If we booked a job five miles from home, and it rained, we never knew if we could get there or not.”

Heading for a wedding dance in the hills, Meyer’s “Melody Kings” sank their Model T in a bog. The four jazzmen got out in tuxedos and pushed, wallowing in mud like hogs. One fell into ditch water, to his neck.

“It is easy to imagine the expression on the faces of the wedding party when we entered the hall,” Meyer noted.

The band trekked to gigs down in the delta, including at Portageville, 70 miles from Cape Girardeau. In rainfall the flats “had no bottom,” Meyer wrote. “Roads through the sandy sections of the area were soft and produced no mud or chuck holes, but were marked by two ruts which the wheels of the car followed as closely as wheels on a railroad track.”

“The only difference was that railroad tracks were straight, and the sand ruts were like a snake’s trail. You could just turn the steering wheel loose, and the car would follow the ruts.”

Returning home one night in the 1921 Ford, from deep in the Missouri Bootheel, the Melody Kings heard talk of a graded section on new federal Highway 61. The stretch remained under construction but did lead due north, a tantalizing prospect for the Cape boys. Police barred traffic at daytime but locals cruised over the grade by night, they heard.

“We started up the new roadbed and it was fine, straight as a ruler,” Meyer wrote. “With nothing in sight we were sailing along at a good clip when all at once I saw a telephone pole lying across the road, obviously to prevent vehicles from entering… Fortunately both front and rear wheels hit the pole at the same angle, and we just took a flying leap and landed on all fours. What elevation we reached I do not know.”

Meyer decided to accompany the Kings’ wunderkind pianist, Jess Stacy, into riverboat entertainment for smoother travel and better pay. They had a blast.

“The wild Twenties brought everyone to life,” Meyer recalled. “Musicians in the Twenties practically became contortionists playing their musical instruments in any unconventional manner, standing on chairs, swaying in unison to the rhythms, wearing crazy hats and clowning in general.”

“Many times I saw Jess Stacy standing on the piano stool, squatting down just enough to reach the piano keys. Much of the popularity of bands in the Twenties came from their actions as much as their musical production.”

In the evolution toward rock music, jazz or “big band” swing is often overlooked as factor.

Jerry Lee Lewis was wearing diapers when Jess Stacy moved up to Benny Goodman’s orchestra in New York City. Stacy, native of Bird’s Point, Missouri, in the delta, contributed memorably to Goodman’s revolutionary “swing” of the latter Depression Era. Stacy was spotlighted during Goodman’s landmark concert of 1938, soloing on the keys to applause in Carnegie Hall.

“Jess Stacy was my first piano player, and he became one of the best jazz pianists in the world,” wrote Meyer.

During the 1940s critics decried swing bands and “jitterbug antics” for supplanting the popularity of symphony orchestra and staid ballroom dance. Rudi Blesh of The New York Herald Tribune ripped “banal music of the large swing bands playing an arranged product.”

“It has been virtually impossible to escape hearing swing, so thoroughly has our atmosphere been saturated with it by a determined effort to sell it,” the reviewer complained.

But an English music historian qualified free movement to beat music as ancient, declaring jitterbugging enthralled humans since the Romans at least. “People want to dance together and have lots of fun in groups,” said Douglas Kenney, London. “They are beginning to tire of just moving around the floor with a member of the opposite sex.”

Few would’ve disagreed around southeast Missouri, where hep jazz music filled roadhouses, dance halls and armories, especially along Highway 61. A 1940 show in Sikeston for Cab Calloway, famed “King of Swing” from Harlem, sold out immediately at a whopping $3 per ticket.

In 1945 Jess Stacy—“America’s famous piano stylist”—returned home to perform at the Colony Club, swank establishment located across the river bridge from Cape Girardeau.

The Colony Club was operated by gamblers in the wild Illinois bottoms. Stacy was among major names to appear on the stage, such as bandleaders Lawrence Welk, Guy Lombardo, Harry James and Woody Herman. Nearby, the Purple Crackle club hosted Count Basie and his orchestra. Louis Armstrong played dates along this strip of Highway 146.

“The Colony Club was a great one,” says Matt Lucas, hit recording artist from southeast Missouri who worked regionally in the latter 1950s and early ’60s. “I played the Colony Club with the Ray Chilton Band, the Bill Bradley Trio and Narvel Felts.”

“I remember how shocked I was to see [jazzman] Al Morgan playing in the lounge. He was big stuff and had a big hit of ‘Jealous Heart.’ I had a drink with him and he said he played there a lot.”

“Those were some great days and nights…,” Lucas recalls, “as the music was changing from the big bands to rockabilly—rock n’ roll.”

***

Country music headlined in New York City following World War II, and practically everywhere else in America.

“Grand Ole Opry’s current invasion of one of New York’s fancy nightspots is a milestone inevitable for this booming entertainment fad,” reported The Associated Press, June 1952. “Eddie Hill and his troupe of 15 will play folk type music for dancing at the Hotel Astor roof in New York [Times Square] all summer long.”

“Groups of Opry headliners, with all their players, will appear two weeks each. Meanwhile, Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry will go on as before, minus the ones missing in New York.”

In Nashville, reserved seating was sold-out for the summer of Opry performances at Ryman Auditorium. Scrambles ensued over weekly allotments for general admission. “3,600 people pack into the barnlike building for the first hours of the [Saturday] show,” The AP reported. “At 10 p.m. there’s a block-long line outside waiting to grab the 1,400 or so seats vacated at that hour.”

The Opry mainstreamed a distinct music known by various terms. “Some call it folk music,” The AP noted. “Others refer to it as country, hillbilly, mountain or western music.”

It was called pickin’ in the southeast Missouri delta and foothills. This was home region of legendary Opry fiddler Dale Potter and guitarist Onie Wheeler, up-and-comer. The area also claimed a native in Ferlin Husky, star of the Nashville sound in California.

Country music’s mystique was infectious for youngsters like Fred Horrell at Cape Girardeau. “I started playing harmonica at 7 years old… I just loved the sound of that dang stuff,” Horrell says, speaking in a recent interview.

In the 1940s Fred would cock ear to a box radio, concentrating to hear lyrics and notes. He tried to memorize because hearing a song was ephemeral, momentary, since the youngster was without means to record. “Shoot, I’d sit around when I was a boy, and ol’ Hank Williams would come on, moaning them songs, all that stuff. And Roy Rogers, Gene Autry’s singing cowboy.”

Fred idolized his uncle Lawrence Horrell, a champion fiddler who’d joined Eddy Arnold on stage and radio in St. Louis, during the latter’s rise in country music. “I had uncles, fiddlers… and Lawrence, he was excellent.” The boy was bound to play music on stage himself. “That’s what led me,” Fred says.

Fiddle players were a regional hallmark and Dale Potter stood peerless in his time, for anywhere, says Steve Sharp, former drummer and retired judge in Kennett, Missouri. In the 1960s Sharp played on stage with Potter and budding songwriters Jerry Foster and Bill Rice. “We were playing rock n’ roll basically but had the world’s greatest fiddler, Dale Potter, in the band,” Sharp says.

Potter was a native of Puxico, a little community on Crowley’s Ridge at Mingo Swamp. “He grew up listening to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and taught himself to play fiddle listening to them,” Sharp says. “Dale thought there was one fiddle playing, but they were dual fiddles. And he developed a style of playing—called Potter Style of fiddling—where he emulated two fiddles.”

Potter was among country stars and bands appearing at the Sikeston Armory and fairs of southeast Missouri in the ’40s and ’50s. Most were on Opry tours from Nashville.

They included bluegrass maestros Bill Monroe and Art Wooten; Eddy Arnold and The Tennessee Plowboys; Tex Ritter, the “Western Movie Star”; Minnie Pearl, “Comedy Sensation of The Nation”; Ernest Tubb and The Texas Troubadours; “Little Jimmy” Dickens; Lloyd “Cowboy” Copas and wife Kathy Copas; and Ray Price, famed baritone.

Meanwhile, an alternative pickin’ gained popularity in delta honky-tonks and roadhouses, an up-tempo beat of “hillbilly” and rhythm-and-blues that dancers loved. Many musicians would identify this postwar trend as genesis of rockabilly.

***

As Elvis Presley’s fame rocketed in 1956, he told a Nebraska reporter “rock n’ roll” had really begun about five years earlier. At that time in Memphis, Presley was a schoolboy trying to learn from local musicians like Paul Burlison, maverick guitarist, and his band mates the Burnette brothers, Johnny and Dorsey.

Burlison recalled their trio “combined country and blues” for dance music in bars. Rocky Burnette, Johnny’s son, said the three solidified rockabilly genre in 1953 by “taking Hank Williams tunes, old Joe Turner tunes, and putting a beat to them.”

There were more pioneers, apparently. Mississippi singer Charlie Feathers said he crafted rockabilly early as 1949, declaring the pure sound was limited to vocals, guitar and bass.

Billy Lee Riley, an Arkansas native, believed his delta band made rockabilly. “We’ve never gotten credit for that, but it’s a fact,” Riley said in 1984. “I was doing what Elvis was doing before Elvis did it: mixing blues and hillbilly, putting a laidback, funky beat to hillbilly music.”

The Perkins Brothers Band savored up-tempo picking at Jackson, Tennessee, before Elvis was known. The Perkins boys came up amid the flatland and ridges north of Memphis, influenced by Opry picking but also blues and gospel. As young men they played a sharp beat that melded styles. “It didn’t have a name; we called it feel-good music,” Carl Perkins said later.

Perkins hired a drummer in early 1954, Tony Austin, notes historian Craig Robert Morrison. The addition was unlike country bands, along with other differences. “Carl’s band was popular in Jackson, Tennessee, and was unusual for not having a fiddle or steel guitar,” Morrison observed in 1984, for his interviews with regional musicians.

“Tony [Austin] states that they were playing country music with a black influence, and he feels that Perkins was ‘the original rockabilly.’ This was also expressed by Smoochie Smith, who played piano with Perkins in 1954. Perkins has stated that he realized he had a chance in the music business when he heard Presley’s record [that summer] because: ‘It was exactly what I was doing.’ ”

To the southwest, change was afoot in Texas music by early 1954, when record distributors said the R&B of black musicians was gaining on “hillbilly” and pop tunes. “For the uninitiated, [R&B] can be identified by its strong swaying rhythm and wailing saxophones,” The AP reported.

“But rhythm and blues, from the beginning, was an extremely limited sound,” analyst Robert Hilburn, a delta native, intoned for The Los Angeles Times in 1970. “Alone it could not have reshaped pop music. It needed help. Fortunately, country-western provided that help.”

Enter Scotty Moore, his cutting-edge electric guitar. “As a musician, I consider him one of the co-founders of rock n’ roll because of the guitar licks that he invented,” remarked James L. Dickenson, biographer.

Moore grew up listening to jazz players and Opry pickers on radio at Gadsden in western Tennessee. He learned guitar, modeling greats like Les Paul. After his Navy discharge in 1952, Moore joined bass player Bill Black in a country band at Memphis.

“Around the same time, Scotty began working on the thumb-and-finger style associated with Merle Travis and Chet Atkins, in which the thumb plays the rhythm on the bass strings while the other fingers pick out a melody on the higher strings,” Jay Orr reported for The Nashville Banner in 1997.

“It sounded like two guitar players,” Moore said. “I finally went and bought two or three of Chet’s records, 78s. I was listening and listening and began to get it a little bit. I couldn’t pick out the notes, but I could do it with the rhythm.”

Paul Burlison discussed Moore for Dan Griffin, co-author with Ken Burke of The Blue Moon Boys: Elvis Presley’s Band. “Scotty Moore had such an unusual style,” Burlison said.

“You could walk into a building somewhere and not even know he was there and tell it was him… He played with all his fingers… He’d make those big old crab chords and we’d say, ‘What’s he doing?’ He had the sound that just knocked you out.”

On July 5, 1954, Moore and Black hooked up with unknown Memphis musician Elvis Presley for a recording session at Sun Records. Presley thought himself a country singer and was unimpressive on initial takes, Moore would recall. But around midnight Elvis found his rockabilly voice, swinging into a cover of “That’s All Right” written by bluesman Arthur Crudup.

Moore added his stylish riffs in solos and bursts—“Rather than just play a few notes, I was trying to fill up space,” he recalled—while Black picked strings and tapped on upright bass. Sun producer Sam Phillips recorded single takes on one track, no dubbing, and quickly declared a wrap.

Within days the Elvis Presley record was a smash in his hometown and the surrounding delta. Radio stations were buried in listener requests for “That’s All Right.”

The term rock and roll wasn’t yet applicable to music, but the pioneers at Sun Records grasped it nonetheless, observes Joe Keene, retired producer, songwriter and rockabilly in Kennett, Missouri, north of Memphis.

Keene says, “That moment when Elvis did ‘That’s All Right,’ Sam said, ‘That’s what I’ve been looking for, that raw, energy feeling.’ Now when they did the next record, ‘Good Rocking Tonight,’ they knew who they were.”

Keene recounts: “Have you heard the news, there’s good rockin’… And they said, ‘Okay, that’s us.’ They knew exactly who they were, then and from that point on.”

Rockabilly had arrived certifiably at Memphis, in the delta, and for the planet.

”All I wanted to do in the world was to be able to play and sound like that,” stated Keith Richards, Rolling Stones guitarist, in prologue for Moore’s 1997 biography. “Those early records were incredible. Everyone else wanted to be Elvis. I wanted to be Scotty.”

***

Meteoric rockabilly plummeted as The Fifties closed, flaming out for multiple reasons. The tragedy of Buddy Holly, Big Bopper and Richie Valens, killed in the Iowa plane crash, only punctuated rockabilly’s downfall.

“Despite its enormous popularity in the mid and late 1950s, rock appeared ready to be counted out in 1960 as a force in pop music,” Hilburn observed. “Those who had long predicted that rock was nothing more than a youthful, passing fad were ready to collect their bets.”

Talent flight from delta studios took a toll, an exodus that had begun early with Elvis Presley. He left Sun Records in late 1955, after some 15 months under contact, going for riches with RCA Victor and Hollywood filmmakers.

Presley made millions but lost his edge under new music masters, singing their tunes like “Teddy Bear” in forgettable movies. Then the military drafted him. “My heart just bled when Elvis was raped with those damn stupid songs and movies and stuff,” Sam Phillips later complained.

“The early stars, for various reasons, had faded from the scene,” Hilburn wrote. “Elvis Presley had been in the Army. Little Richard quit music to study religion. Jerry Lee Lewis’ marriage to his teen-age cousin caused disc jockeys to stop playing his records and Buddy Holly was dead. And on and on.”

Major recording studios “had no intrinsic interest or belief in the new sound,” Hilburn noted. “In fact, they were probably more than a little uncomfortable being associated with what the adult world viewed largely as a primitive, talentless, almost sinful music.”

Fifth Avenue marketers wanted pop rock sung by cute crooners and warblers, faces for television. The breed proliferated around New York and Los Angeles, including former rockabillies.

At Nashville, producers sought hot beat and instruments like saxophone for country music but little else, having always belittled delta rockers. And novelty songs were chart-toppers, such as “Purple People Eater” at No.1 on Billboard, burying rockabilly recordings that persisted.

Genres overlapped and gimmicks flourished, for which Chet Atkins later blamed the Elvis effect. “Ever since he came along, we’ve been losing our musical identities,” said Atkins in Nashville. “There used to be pop and gospel and country and so on.”

***

No one said music was dead around southeast Missouri in the early 1960s. Ambitious musicians kept hammering at their craft and enjoying multiple styles; they performed, wrote and composed.

Missouri musicians played country, the music of blurring lines around rock, R&B and jazz. They played pristine rockabilly, broader rock n’ roll, and the blues.

Southeast Missouri music venues continued to thrive and draw names including Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Bill Black and Charlie Rich—stars likewise ready with songs from across the spectrum.

“The music from here, and Memphis, everything, it’s like a combination of gospel, blues and country,” Al Jordan says, former drummer for country stars, speaking at his home in Hayti, Missouri.

Steve Sharp, former drummer for Rich, says, “It was very normal to do ‘Whole Lotta Shaking Goin’ On’ followed by ‘Together Again,’ followed by B.B. King’s ‘Sweet Sixteen.’ You didn’t think a thing about it.”

“I mean, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buck Owens, B.B. King—in one set.”

Sharp adds, “Down here, if you were interested in music, you grew up listening simultaneously to WSM [radio] and Grand Ole Opry and XER from Del Rio, Texas, and WLAC, Nashville and Gallatin, Tennessee. You listened to R&B, gospel, country.”

“Jerry Foster wrote and recorded a song about a year ago called ‘Sunrise In Memphis.’ It talks about the delta and the fields, where the music was born.”

Foster was among players of southeast Missouri to emerge in the 1950s and ’60s. Others included Bill Rice, Narvel Felts, Matt Lucas, Leon Barnett, J.W. Grubbs, Charlie Thurman, Fred Horrell, Billy Swan, Dennis Turner, Terry Cobb, Don Hinton, Joe Keene, Terry Ray Bradley, Ken Williams, Jimmy Null and Bill English. All became accomplished professionals with a few recognized as greats, particularly in songwriting.

Sharp and Jordan hailed from Gideon, Missouri, as did Foster and wordsmith Jimmy Payne. The tiny town produced a cluster of music talents.

“The thing about it, there were lots of musicians in this part of the country—fine musicians,” Jordan attests.

Series continues soon at ChaneysBlog.com

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Man Believes Pop Music Is Fading. (1959, May 22). Amarillo Globe-Times TX, p.17.

MCA Presents Ted Weems And His Celebrated Orchestra. (1945, July 24). [Colony Club advertisement.] Sikeston Standard MO, p.9.

Meyer, R.F. (1989). Backwoods jazz in the Twenties. Center for Regional History and Cultural Heritage, Southeast Missouri State University: Cape Girardeau.

Moody, N.M. (2004, July 2). Rock’s birth debated. Salina Journal KS, p.29.

Morrison, C.R. (1984, June). Rockabilly music and musicians [MA thesis in fine arts]. York University: Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Nationally Famous Lawrence Welk. (1945, Feb. 2). [Colony Club advertisement.] Sikeston Standard MO, p.11.

On The Stage In Person: Tex Ritter. (1945, Oct. 18). Sikeston Herald MO, p.3.

One Night Only: Count Basie. (1951, Nov. 30). [Purple Crackle advertisement.] Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p.3.

Orr, J. (1997, Aug. 15). Meet the guitar player who changed the world. Nashville Banner, p.3.

Palmer, R. (1977, Dec. 2). Southern rebels find a rock haven. Blytheville Courier News AR, p.19.

Palmer, R. (1978, April 23). The punks have only rediscovered rockabilly. New York Times, p.D19.

Palmer, R. (1981, March 4). Recapturing the magic of the early Elvis Presley. New York Times, p.C19.

Piazza, T. (1996, Nov. 13). Lost man of R&R rediscovered. Salina Journal KS, p.27.

Provencher, N. (1998, Jan. 20). Rockabilly artist avoided bitterness. Ottawa Citizen, Canada, p.B8.

Rock N’ Roll Is Condemned At Music Meet. (1959, April 22). Paris News TX, p.4.

Rock N’ Roll Troupe Go On With Show. (1959, Feb. 4). Canonsburg Daily Notes PA, p.8.

Rockabilly Special Features Ex-Beatles. (1986, Jan. 5). Salina Journal KS, p.31.

Rocky Burnette Is Rockabilly Product. (1980, Oct. 25). Kokomo Tribune IN, p.9.

Scotty Moore, Elvis’ First Guitarist, Dies At 84. (2016, June 29). The Associated Press [online].

Show Pilot Precautions Before Crash. (1959, Feb. 18). Mason City Globe-Gazette IA, p.21.

Shumaker, J. (1952, June 2). “Grand Ole Opry,” more solid than ever, puts hillbilly mark on N.Y. Mt. Vernon Register-News IL, p.9.

Snow, T. (1954). From Missouri. Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston.

Square Dance: The Grand Ole Opry Show. (1955, Nov. 5). [Advertisement.] Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p.5.

Tonight. (1959, Nov. 12). [Colony Club advertisement.] Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p.8.

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

WSM Grand Ole Opry Tent Show. (1942, Sept. 25). [Advertisement.] Sikeston Standard MO, p.9.

Your Favorite Radio and Movie Stars In Person: Minnie Pearl. (1945, Nov. 6). Sikeston Standard MO, p.23.

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

Memphis Cast Delta Beacon for Rockabillies

Second in A Series

By Matt Chaney, ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Saturday, May 6, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

In 1970 an Ontario writer interviewed musician Ronnie Hawkins at the latter’s backwoods home in his adopted Canada. John Lennon had recently visited—or hidden—at Hawkins’ place, and the famed Beatle topped the writer’s topics. Hawkins also answered questions on his former American band The Hawks, which led to founding of legendary group The Band.

But Hawkins relished discussing Arkansas, his native home south in the states, and Memphis, Tennessee, fading rock n’ roll capital.

“On that circuit you’d play with Carl Perkins and some of those cats,” Hawkins said. “You’d travel one-nighters then, and some of those dates were 400 or 500 miles apart. That’s why I ended up in Canada.”

“A friend of mine, Harold Jenkins, was playing in Hamilton, and he convinced me to come up here because you could play one club for six nights at a stretch. He eventually wrote a song called ‘It’s Only Make Believe,’ changed his name to Conway Twitty and split.”

“There are two choices in Arkansas,” Hawkins continued. “You either pick cotton for three or four dollars a day, or you can play music and get out. So there’s an awful lot of people trying to pick guitars in that area.”

Eastern Arkansas encompassed thousands of flat square miles in row crop, but a hungry musician could find light across the muddy Mississippi in Memphis, city on the hill. “There were so many of these real good rockabilly acts that came out of Memphis that you’ve never heard of. Maybe they had one hit in the Memphis area and that’s all,” Hawkins said.

“There was Johnny and Dorsey Burnette with their big old slim cousin playing guitar. They were the ones that showed Elvis Presley how to play a little bit. That was when he had pimples, broken teeth and blond hair.”

Paul Burlison was guitarist for the Burnettes, and, following Hawkins, the musician and former deejay took his own look back for journalists.

Burlison recalled the Memphis area in post-World War II, when a special sound was fermenting, growing audible from streets and farms. Burlison said the emerging strain had that name too, rockabilly, long before kid Presley entered a recording studio.

“Back in the early ’50s, you would hear black groups from out in the fields playing the blues over the radio in Memphis,” Burlison said. “I used to play country music over KWEM in West Memphis [Arkansas], and sometimes I’d play blues on the same station behind Howlin’ Wolf. That was around 1951.”

“See, all of us liked certain parts of the blues and certain parts of country, so we just tied them together and put a little beat to it, and that was what we called rockabilly. And the people [in bars] really liked it. Whenever we’d blast ’em with something that had a pretty good beat, they’d get out there on the dance floor and the dust would get to flying.”

Burlison was speaking in 1981, during separate interviews with Robert Palmer and Robert Hilburn, of the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, respectively. The writers were natives of the “delta” valley along the lower Mississippi River.

In 1953 Burlison was older than Presley when they worked together at Crown Electric in Memphis. Elvis had just graduated from Humes High, and on breaks the buddies strummed guitar and harmonized. When Presley cut “That’s All Right” at Sun studios, shaking the music world, Burlison felt energized.

“That record opened the door for all of us around here,” Burlison said. “It combined country and blues, which we had been doing in clubs but which no one would play on the radio. Suddenly, we all had momentum.”

***

Fred Horrell remembers his Elvis Presley moment in 1954, at Cape Girardeau, Missouri, along the Mississippi River.

Horrell was 16, driving to school when the radio blared Presley’s hit “That’s All Right,” released by Sun Records in Memphis. “It was the darnedest sound that I’d ever heard in my life. Man, it was crazy,” says Horrell, who played football as a schoolboy and worked nights, weekends.

A busy kid already, the passionate Horrell was stoked over rockabilly, and he traded for a guitar. “I bought a book and started learnin’ chords,” he recalls, during a recent interview in Cape Girardeau. “I learned how to get the [fingertip] coordination, how to strum and change. And it just kind of evolved from there.”

“I loved the sound of that guitar.”

Today, Horrell owns a carpet business on Highway 61, historic river road known as the “Rock and Roll Highway.” Downhill from his store, great delta bottoms stretch southward to the Gulf of Mexico. This vast flatland, lightly populated, has yielded waves of musical talent in rock, country, blues, jazz and gospel. Stars of American music hail from the delta, always.

At the breakout of rockabilly, Highway 61 traversed 100 miles from Cape Girardeau south to the Arkansas border. Throughout the corridor, youths grabbed guitars to bang “the beat.” They sang up-tempo and jittered and swung, trying to emulate the “Blue Moon Boys” on stage: Presley, guitarist Scotty Moore, and bass player Bill Black.

Across southeast Missouri, boys dreamed of going to Memphis. They talked of playing guitar and cutting records like Elvis, taking their crack at stardom.

Fred Horrell would be one to do it.

***

Call it a good problem, but Sam Phillips had one nonetheless at Sun Records in the wake of Elvis Presley. His suddenly famous studio was besieged by youths, begging to cut discs.

“These were the rockabillies, the first punks, the original wild men of rock and roll,” Palmer recalled for The New York Times. “Beginning around 1955, encouraged by the early successes of a young man who called himself the Hillbilly Cat—his real name was Elvis Presley—they came pouring out of the southern backwoods, pounding on record company doors to ask for auditions. For a brief, incandescent moment, it seemed that they were about to take over the western world.”

At independent Sun Records, Phillips and his small production staff would hear practically anyone, at least. “If you walked in with a guitar, they would record you,” recalled Hayden Thompson, a Mississippi musician. “They might not release you, but they’d record you. There must have been 1,000 guys they recorded there and stuck up on the shelf.”

“Every boy in the South with a guitar lined up outside Sam’s door,” Carl Perkins said later. “He just picked the best of them.”

Perkins was rock icon in the making when Phillips signed him in late 1954. Sun Records also latched onto future superstars in J.R. “Johnny” Cash, from Dyess, Arkansas, and Jerry Lee Lewis, the piano revolutionist from Ferriday, Louisiana.

But Phillips and staff missed on legitimate artists, including Burlison and the Burnette brothers. The hot Memphis trio tired of waiting for Phillips’ attention, particularly since they’d help bring up a raw Elvis, and bolted for New York City. Known as Johnny Burnette and the Rock n’ Roll Trio, they won an ABC talent show, signed with Coral Records, and appeared prominently in the movie Rock, Rock, Rock!

Missourian Narvel Felts was overlooked at Sun while Roy Orbison fell disenchanted and returned to Texas. Harold Jenkins languished, of Mississippi, as did Charlie Rich, an immense talent from Forrest City, Arkansas, across river from Memphis. Rich wrote and sang the Top 30 hit “Lonely Weekends” for Phillips, but he left Sun in following Felts, Orbison and Jenkins—Conway Twitty—out the door.  All charted hits on other recording labels.

Major studios plucked away Sun stars as their popularity exploded. In late 1955, for example, Phillips felt forced to sell and relinquish Elvis rights to RCA and “Colonel” Tom Parker, the badgering, conniving agent.

Perkins, Lewis and Cash recorded No. 1 songs for Sun, but they departed too. Sun Records suffered of constant capital shortfall, problems in promotion and booking, and for a distribution network that Phillips had to tend himself, driving thousands of miles. Plastic discs and audio tapes piled up everywhere in the modest building.

“There wasn’t any way for Sam to deal with all that,” says Joe Keene, retired musician and studio owner in Kennett, Missouri, who was friend and associate of Sun personnel. “Sam couldn’t get big enough to be like RCA, or Decca. I think that after Elvis came along, the door was flooded with people.”

“It got to be a little bit overwhelming, and they had to start making choices.”

***

By his senior year in high school, 1956-57, Bill English fashioned himself a rock n’ roll singer. English was an Ozark kid in little Piedmont, Missouri, secluded in rocky hills, who was a natural showman aspiring for big stage.

Elvis was role model for English, naturally, much to the chagrin of Louis Chaney, athletics coach and math teacher at Piedmont High. “Forget Elvis Presley, he’s a flash in the pan,” Chaney griped. English liked the youthful instructor, respected him, but didn’t buy the dire prediction for Presley and rock music. Mr. Chaney wasn’t much older than the students but square, man.

English continued answering to the nickname “Hound Dog,” proudly, and kept up appearances, greasing his hair in the Elvis do. English wowed kids at the school talent show, looking snazzy on stage in blazer without necktie, moving in his suede shoes. Fluid and handsome, the dark-haired English sang Presley songs, snapping fingers and shaking in time.

Hound Dog English loved rockabilly and Memphis beckoned. The Elvis hometown was barely three hours from Piedmont by car, driving fast enough. For young Bill English, a rockin’ attitude and Memphis visions could get serious.

***

Singer-guitarist Fred Horrell got his chance to audition at Sun Records in 1958. From southeast Missouri, however, that involved more than merely walking in “down there” with a guitar.

Horrell fronted Mert Mirly and The Rhythm Steppers, hotshot band based in Cape Girardeau, 170 miles north of Memphis on Highway 61. Sun Records typically didn’t schedule appointments by phone or letter. The matter involved being there, per the old saying, to corner Sam Phillips or another producer.

Horrell assumed the task himself. He’d already made the Memphis trek to see Presley’s Graceland mansion and to hunt music contacts. “I was wantin’ to go with this business, and I’d been down there before,” Horrell says.

Horrell, 20, drove to Memphis and strode into the Sun office, where he encountered Leon Barnett and Jerry Tuttle, two top musicians from Missouri. Barnett and Tuttle sat waiting, as members of the Felts band, but Horrell wouldn’t take a seat. “I said, ‘Hell with it. I ain’t got time.’ I went on back to the studio, up to the control room. [Producer-musician] Bill Justis was in there, and I’d never met him before. But I set up an appointment for us to come down there.”

A couple weeks later, Mirly’s Rhythm Steppers traveled to hallowed Sun studios for audition. “We went down there and did it,” Horrell says, smiling. “Course, they didn’t take us. I wouldn’t either, with the songs we had. But Justis did tell me I had a good recording voice.”

Incredibly, dynamite song content was at hand for the Cape band. Horrell heard it one evening after a session, when a teen-aged group member, schoolboy poet, rapped out his own tune right in Horrell’s car. “He got down in the damn floorboard, and he was beatin’ it out on the dash, and singin’ that song. And I knew that was a great song,” Horrell declares yet, excitedly.

Indeed, that kid songwriter was Billy Swan, and his fresh verse was “Lover Please.”

Horrell considered Swan’s lyrics as prime opportunity for the band. Others weren’t so impressed. “We had a practice session, and I learned that song, and I wanted us all to learn,” Horrell says. “I wanted to record that song.”

“I tried to get the guys to practice it, and they were out of the mood for that stuff. They sat around playing ‘Wildwood Flower,’ crap like that. And we had an excellent guitar player, Charlie Thurman.” The Lover Please project sputtered as Horrell left Mirly’s to form his own band, and an eventual cut by Dennis Turner, another Cape phenom, didn’t fly with record buyers.

Finally, for music posterity, pop singer Clyde McPhatter released his cover of Swan’s tune, which rose to No. 7 on the Billboard chart. “McPhatter took the same arrangement, changed the key, put the R&B styling in,” Horrell says.

Horrell did catch a break in 1962, when former Presley bass player Bill Black raided Cape Girardeau for musicians. The Bill Black Combo was charting hits and Black wanted Horrell for touring. Horrell took the job and hit the road, as The Combo headlined big clubs and opened for stars like Orbison.

***

By August of 1964, Bill English had resigned himself to a career as schoolteacher, not a rock singer. English had given his all to music in college at Arkansas State University. His band had played the Memphis circuit, met music stars and cut songs. But the records didn’t sell and the group broke up.

Now English was working for Louis Chaney, his former teacher and coach at Piedmont. Chaney, an administrator of Potosi Schools in the Missouri Lead Belt, had hired English to teach PE and coach in the junior high. The new school year would begin in three weeks.

Then English got a phone call from Memphis.

Bob Tucker, former band mate and college roomie of English, was playing guitar for the Bill Black Combo and managing the group. The Combo had just signed as opening act for the Beatles tour of North America, and Tucker wanted to hire English as singer. They would leave immediately for San Francisco, first show date for The Beatles.

“I wanted to play rock n’ roll. So bad,” English later recalled. Moreover, Tucker’s offer would almost triple the teaching salary of English, with the Beatles tour and further bookings for the coming year. But English begged time from Tucker, for apprising two mentors of this development.

Hound Dog drove to Piedmont to tell his father, Joe English, school music director, who gave his blessing. Then the young man returned to Potosi to inform Mr. Chaney, the guy who used to trash Elvis and rock music.

But Chaney’s perspective had mellowed; he supported English in joining the Bill Black Combo and Beatles tour. Chaney had to find a new PE teacher, quickly, but he better understood Bill English’s music passion in 1964. Chaney’s three young sons were Beatles fans, after all, including this writer.

“I was proud of him,” Dad wrote in 2006, following the death of Bill, our family friend, to recurring cancer.  “Bill English was making music… something he always wanted to do.”

“We were all happy for him.”

Series continues soon at ChaneysBlog.com 

Select References

Assembly Memories. (1957). [Photographs collage.] Bobcat’s Meow, p.22. Piedmont High School: Piedmont MO.

Artist looks for chance at fame. (1993, April 5). Greenwood Index-Journal SC, p.12.

Bate, M. (1973, Aug. 24). Charlie knuckles under to new musical image of sweet blandness. Ottawa Journal, Ontario Canada, p.32.

Burke, K., & Griffin, D. (2006). The Blue Moon Boys: The story of Elvis Presley’s band. Chicago Review Press: Chicago.

Chaney, L. (2006, Feb. 16). Letters to the editor. Wayne County Journal-Banner MO, p.2.

English, B. (1994, Dec. 21). Interview with author, Poplar Bluff MO.

Gormley, M. (1970, Feb. 13). Canadian music legend: The story of an Arkansas rock singer and his band. Ottawa Journal, p.30.

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

Henderson, B. (1954, Feb. 18). Hillbilly record demand continues heavy in Texas. Corsicana Daily Sun TX, p.3.

Hilburn, R. (1969, July 13). Sun discs back in the spotlight. Los Angeles Times, p.M42.

Hilburn, R. (1969, July 14). Clearwater revives its delta heritage. Los Angeles Times, p.B18.

Hilburn, R. (1970, Jan. 4). Rock enters 70s as the music champ. Los Angeles Times, p.P1.

Hilburn, R. (1981, April 7). Rockabilly survivor looks back. Los Angeles Times, p.G1.

Horrell, F. (2017, April 19). Interview with author, Cape Girardeau MO.

Jerry Lee’s got himself another ‘smash’ album. (1973, March 27). Anderson Daily Bulletin SC, p.8.

Johnny Cash Stars in Crown Film. (1969, Nov. 16). Florence Morning News SC, p.26.

Keene, J. (2017, April 20). Interview with author, Kennett MO.

Mox. (1956, Sept. 21). [Display ad for Mox Theater.] Blytheville Courier News AR, p.5.

Narvel Felts Gains Fame After 17 Years. (1974, June 22). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p.7.

Nostalgia Big Point For Felts. (1975, Sept. 24). Danville Bee VA, p.41.

Palmer, R. (1978, April 23). The punks have only rediscovered rockabilly. New York Times, p.D19.

Palmer, R. (1981, March 4). Recapturing the magic of the early Elvis Presley. New York Times, p.C19.

Piazza, T. (1996, Nov. 13). Lost man of R&R rediscovered. Salina Journal KS, p.27.

Rock N’ Roll… It’s Busting Out All Over As Pop Music Enters Boom. (1955, April 12). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.7.

Soberanes, B. (1960, Oct. 6). All about Johnny. Petaluma Argus-Courier CA, p.14.

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

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

The Missouri Delta Nurtured Rock n’ Roll

First in A Series

By Matt Chaney, ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Thursday, April 27, 2017

Copyright ©2017 by Matthew L. Chaney

In 1958 rock n’ roll claimed the musical soul of young Steve Sharp, amidst prime setting—the raucous, renowned B&B Club in Gobler, Missouri, a crossroads village at the state’s southern tip.

“I was 15,” Sharp recalls. “I had a 16-year-old friend who had a driver’s license, and we went down to the B&B. It was a dirt road—not gravel—I’m talking dirt. And muddy… the mud ruts were two-feet deep. But we went down there.”

Steeped in legend, the B&B showcased rockabilly stars like Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and, a few years before, Elvis Presley. Artists of Sun Records, among players in rock and country music, regularly appeared at the roadhouse situated 80 miles from Memphis in Missouri delta farmland.

Entering the B&B electrified Sharp, experiencing his rockabilly epiphany. Talented teen singer Don Hinton commanded the stage but Sharp focused on the drummer, Clyde Lee Farrow. “I’d never heard the sound before, like the snare drum echoing around inside that joint,” Sharp recalls. “It changed my life, right there.”

American youths were passionate about roots rock music, and many in southeast Missouri strove to be performers themselves. Sharp, of Gideon High School, resolved to play drums and bought a used set, practicing diligently.

Today, Stephen R. Sharp is a retired public servant of the Bootheel, known for his career as a state senator, circuit judge, and decorated Vietnam veteran. But his repute extends to accomplished musician, as a notable who appeared on stage with Fats Domino, Charlie Rich, Dale Potter, Narvel Felts, Jerry Foster and Bill Rice, among talents.

Potter, Felts and Foster were native southeast Missourians, leading a local music wave of the ’50s and ’60s that swept up Sharp. “You’re talking about good musicians,” Sharp says, speaking during a recent interview at Kennett.

“I mean, there were some jack-leg musicians out there, but basically we’re talking about people who were good, playing these places of southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas.”

***

In 1931 federal highway crews paved the last section of Route 61 from Cape Girardeau to Memphis, completing the “river road.” During the same period, a massive levee and drainage system finally diverted the mighty Mississippi from its natural, wide spillways that had ravaged southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas in high water. Now the great flatland stood dry enough for human habitation and year-round commerce. Agri-business dominated.

A cluster of roadside merchants materialized at the Missouri-Arkansas border, the notorious “state line” area. Vice and violence had thrived here for years and would remain. Following repeal of Prohibition, several bootleggers established legitimate ventures fronting Highway 61—gas stations, diners, taverns—to accompany their rackets of gambling, narcotics and prostitution. Police officers and a postmaster were convicted in the corruption, among criminals.

Alcohol sales to minors continued openly, helping a boom of music venues along 61. Music evolved perpetually in the delta, with this route destined to be known as the “Rock n’ Roll Highway.”  First, however, jazz, blues, gospel and “hillbilly” strains filled the river valley north from Memphis.

A rhythm-and-blues joint gained prominence in Pemiscot County, Missouri, at the state line. The Casablanca Club was located near 61 on north side of a gravel road marking the border. Racial tension and conflict notwithstanding, Casablanca performers drew mixed-race audiences from several states. The Casablanca booked R&B names of the 1940s to become huge, like Chester “Howling Wolf” Barnett and McKinley “Muddy Waters” Morganfield, along with young cats Bobby Bland, Isaac Hayes and B.B. King.

Venues for country musicians and dance orchestras flourished in southeast Missouri of the early 1950s, according to available newspapers, local recollection, further evidence. Underage drinking and backroom gambling carried on commonplace. Nightspots of wild Pemiscot County included the B&B in Gobler and Club Zanza at Highway 61 in Hayti. Elsewhere a music scene burgeoned around Malden town, driving crowds to Smitzer’s and Pop Werner’s, a pair of establishments along Highway 62 in New Madrid County.

Regional radio stations broadcast records and live music from morning until night. Following suit, television stations brought in solo artists and musical groups for studio shows on the fledgling medium.

Cutting-edge rock n’ roll, meanwhile, percolated from Missouri to Louisiana with an impact from Billy Haley’s band in Pennsylvania, whose 1952 record “Rock The Joint” reached the Midwest. “Beat” music reverberated throughout the Mississippi River Valley.

The musical vacuum was drawing distinctly different genres toward a broad, driving sound that would revolutionize pop culture and marketing. Delta artists both black and white accelerated their beats of guitar, piano and vocals. Forerunners included Fats DominoIke Turner and Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton of R&B; “Sister” Rosetta Tharpe in gospel blues; and Eddy Arnold and Tennessee Ernie Ford from Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.

In Jackson, Tennessee, Carl Perkins and his brothers cranked-up tempo on their guitars, savoring a sharp newness above familiar twang picking. “I don’t think none of us even ever quite knew what it was,” Carl later recalled. “It didn’t have a name; we called it feel-good music.”

“A few guys got brave enough to get out and start playing it in the honky-tonks.”

Series continues soon at ChaneysBlog.com

Special thanks to Al Jordan, Al Jackson and Joe Keene for their lists of historic nightclubs in southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas

Select References

24 SEMO Persons Arrested In Raids Now Free On Bonds. (1952, July 21). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p.1.

A Tennessee Editor Visits Charleston, Sikeston And Vicinity. (1931, June 12). Sikeston Standard MO, p.3.

Bedell, T. (2017, March 8). Interview with author in Van Buren MO.

Brains Behind The Tigers. (1957, April 3). [Photos with cutline.] Blytheville Courier News AR, p.11.

Builds Station At State Line. (1934, March 13). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.5.

Caruthersville Boy Is Gaining Popularity As Rock And Roll Singer. (1960, June 14). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p.6.

Constable In Auto Is Shot From Car. (1931, Sept. 29). Sikeston Standard MO, p.1.

Crawford Asks Gas Tax Zones. (1935, Feb. 1). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Edgar Pullen Dies of Wound Inflicted Saturday. (1933, Nov. 3). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

English, B. (1994, Dec. 21). Interview with author in Poplar Bluff MO.

Former Postmaster At Leachville Sentenced. (1934, May 10). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Friday Night. (1950, May 25). [Display ad for Club Zanza.] Blytheville Courier News AR, p.6.

Grand Opening. (1947, June 13). [Display ad for Club Velvet.] Blytheville Courier News AR, p.11.

Harry Bailey Is Coming Home From Uncle Sam’s “Big House.” (1934, June 28). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Highway 61 Officially Opened. (1931, June 23). Sikeston Standard MO, pp.1,5.

Hilburn, R. (1981, April 7). Rockabilly survivor looks back. Los Angeles Times, p.G1.

Jordan, A. (2017, Jan. 11). Interview with author in Hayti MO.

Keene, J. (2017, March 9 & April 20). Interviews with author in Kennett MO.

Kaiser, C. (2013, Jan. 9). Respected judge closes the book on lengthy career. Daily Dunklin Democrat MO [online].

Man Shot, Refuses To Name Assailant. (1935, May 14). Sikeston Standard MO, p.6.

Missouri Man Killed At State Line Joint. (1930, April 7). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Missouri Night Clubs Raided. (1952, July 19). Alton Evening Telegraph IL, p.1.

New Year’s Eve Bill Haley With Haley’s Comets. (1952, Dec. 29). [Display ad for Berky’s Seafood House.] Delaware County Times PA, p.3.

Night Club Operator Held For Murder. (1938, April 21). Sikeston Herald MO, p.12.

Official Raked For Routing Road Along Own Land. (1927, Sept. 13). Sikeston Standard MO, p.1.

Pharmacy Now Serves Missouri Resort Patrons. (1933, Sept. 15). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Piazza, T. (1996, Nov. 13). Lost man of R&R rediscovered. Salina Journal KS, p.27.

Push Pemiscot County Cleanup. (1937, Feb. 20). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.3.

Roadhouse Problems. (1931, July 31). Sikeston Standard MO, p.6.

Russell, R. (1973, March 23). Black blues giants once made state line club a port of call. Blytheville Courier News AR, p.7.

Seize Whisky, Stills and Beer at State Line. (1930, Nov. 21). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Sharp, S. (2017, March 9). Interview with author in Kennett MO.

Shooting Case Defendant Dies. (1931, Jan. 16). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Shootings Mark Pemiscot Election. (1934, Nov. 6). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Shotgun In The Southeast. (1923, March 9). Sikeston Standard MO, p.4.

Sikeston A City Of Opportunity. (1924, May 6). Sikeston Standard MO, p.1.

Southeast Missouri Conquered By Years Of Toil. (1930, June 6). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.3.

Ten Arrested In Raid On Highway 61 Resort. (1934, Sept. 10). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Tentative System Of Main Roadways For State Mapped. (1920, Dec. 19). St. Louis Post-Dispatch, p.3.

The Gasoline Tax. (1936, May 20). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.4.

Tomorrow Night Bill Haley And The Saddle Men. [Display ad for Berky’s Seafood House.] Delaware County Times PA, p.13.
Trial Of Bailey And Companions Is Nearing End. (1932, Feb. 25). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1

Trimble, B. (1973, March 27). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.6.

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

U.S. Jury Indicts Pemiscot Sheriff. (1931, April 17). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Whiskey Stills Seized Just Over State Line. (1930, Feb. 19). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Youth Found Slain Near Night Club. (1936, Oct. 26), Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

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

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 at 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 content was mediocre, a few films awful. Parker crassly commercialized Elvis while finagling 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 were 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.