1955: The Local Elvis in Missouri, Cut 2

Seventh in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Saturday, August 12, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

A version of this passage posted previously in my article ‘The Local Elvis: From Good Kid to Garbo in Rock Legend.’ This richer draft is for my book on 1950s rockers in the Missouri delta, set for release next year. Chaney

Memphis wasn’t so big a city in the mid-1950s; many locals knew or encountered Elvis Presley on everyday terms. The kid was a regular figure downtown and on the riverfront since relocating to Memphis with his parents, Vernon and Gladys, in 1948. The family had left behind a hardscrabble existence at Tupelo, Miss., when Elvis was 13. He was the surviving child, after a twin brother was stillborn, and the little family stayed tight-knit while hovering above poverty. As Elvis completed high school, the Presleys dwelled in “The Courts” of north Memphis, an urban complex of subsidized, segregated housing.

Music stardom beckoned Presley at outset of 1955, when he turned 20, already a singing sensation on the Louisiana Hayride circuit. Around Memphis he remained known as a mannered youth enamored with song. As a schoolboy he’d been shy and often solitary, but a good kid, a church-goer, always working a part-time job. Many people called Elvis a mama’s boy, too attached to Gladys, but he was no pushover at physical maturity, standing six-foot tall and solidly built.

Presley hadn’t yet blown apart American pop culture, refitted the model, and for a final period he would live and work in relatively common fashion. The local Elvis character remained personable on the street, liked by others, even if flashy and a bit nervous, according to his profile drawn from numerous accounts.

Presley was fond of extended family like cousins, aunts and uncles, and he surely felt at ease in driving across the bridge from Memphis and keeping north on Highway 61. The river road carried Presley through Arkansas and Missouri, delta countryside and communities familiar to him since a boy on visits to relatives.

During 1955 Presley would travel federal 61 north for gaining work and building audience, popularity. At least nine Elvis shows were scheduled in the delta corridor from West Memphis to Cape Girardeau, a 170-mile belt of flatland through Arkansas and Missouri. His trio, now promoted as the “Blue Moon Boys”—Presley, Scotty Moore and Bill Black—would appear at roadhouses, dance halls, schools, armories and fairgrounds.

Smaller venues largely booked the act that year, among some 280 shows in 14 states. The Blue Moon Boys opened January on a tour of Texas, playing schools and halls for enthusiastic audiences. A local deejay declared excitedly, in mispronunciation, that “a kid named Parsley played to 800 folks at Boston, Texas, and they went plumb crazy.”

In mid-January, northeast Arkansas, school kids 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 gushed to editors. The paper published a show notice complete with publicity photo of Presley’s trio: Elvis smiled radiantly at center, darkly handsome in sporty tie and jacket, draping his arms around Moore and Black, who beamed in cowboy shirts. The three had become good friends since summer, however long they’d last under mounting pressure.

Soon America’s hottest new band reached Sikeston, Mo., a bustling agricultural center of 17,000 at intersection of U.S. Highways 61 and 60. For the history of Presley appearances in small-town Missouri, the Sikeston event on Friday, Jan. 21, 1955, left a cache of documented fact and credible recollection. The evidence portrayed a friendly Elvis in Sikeston, mixing freely, endearing locals. Presley charmed and impressed people, winning fans during a night he apparently enjoyed.

The Sikeston area felt homey to the young entertainer, for ancestral ties and a cluster of his relatives. Calhoun Presley, a great uncle and family patriarch, was a local fixture in farming, and cousins of Elvis were becoming established in business. Jesse Presley, Elvis’s grandfather and a brother of Calhoun, once farmed in southeast Missouri as a sharecropper. Additionally in Sikeston, Elvis appreciated meeting recording artist Onie Wheeler, area resident and Nashville performer with Grand Ole Opry. Presley admired the classy Wheeler, a soft-spoken music talent and war veteran who offered positive encouragement and advice. Elvis returned his best compliment, remarking that Wheeler reminded him of mother Gladys.

Newspaper and radio coverage preceded the band in Sikeston yet most folks were clueless about the act, publicized as cowboy guitarists and yodelers. Then the Blue Moon Boys came out on the armory stage and broke into song. Presley, billed as a “country music star,” strutted in his pink suit bought on Beale Street. He’d bust loose in a circle, strumming guitar, swinging hips and knees, dancing on toes in white shoes. At the microphone he wailed familiar lyrics but to beats faster, louder. Moore banged out rock riffs on electric guitar while Black hit bass notes and slapped wood. And now the sidemen dressed snazzy themselves, in black shirts and pants with pink vests, white ties.

Mouths had to hang open in the audience. 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,” Cardwell said. “We’re transitioning into something different.”

But others applauded Presley led by Wheeler, who had interviewed the budding showman on radio. After the Sikeston show the Opry performer raved over Presley, Wheeler later recalled, as “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 a qualified success 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.

The rocker’s departure from town was emblematic of the local Elvis among everyday folk, a persona on short time. Presley had a new car at home but still drove beaters on road trips, logging thousands of miles. He was prone to leave a broken-down heap where it sat—a souvenir Sikeston almost inherited. “He was here in an older car that didn’t run good and he parked it behind the armory,” Caldwell later told The 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.”

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.

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

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

Fans Mourn Elvis. (1977, Aug. 17). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, pp. 1, 16.

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

Jennings, C.R. (1968, Feb. 18). Elvis Lives! Los Angeles Times, p. M28.

Morrison, C.R. (1984, June). Rockabilly Music and Musicians [MA thesis]. York University: Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

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

Payne, S.E. (1977, Oct. 5). Country Music Star Remembers King of Rock as ‘Greatest.’ Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p. 1.

Presley’s Record Sales Jump Here. (1977, Aug. 17). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, pp. 1, 16.

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

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

Rockabilly Born of Boomer America

Sixth in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Anonymous 19-year-old singer Elvis Presley was building confidence, self-esteem by the time he cut That’s All Right Mama for Sun Records. But he retreated into his loner shell when deejay Dewey Phillips debuted the song on Memphis radio. As listener response exploded that night for WHBQ, in July 1954, Presley’s mother fetched him from hiding at a movie theater. “Quick, Elvis,” said Gladys Presley. “They want you over at the radio station. They’ve been playing your record.”

Sun owner Sam Phillips remembered “all hell broke loose” over Presley, speaking later with Rolling Stone. “People were calling that station, and it really actually surprised me, because I knew nobody knew Elvis. Elvis just didn’t have friends, didn’t have a bunch of guys he ran with or anything, you know? Anyway, it was just fantastic. To my knowledge, there weren’t any adverse calls.”

Presley recorded songs for Sun Records through 1955 and the portfolio was soon regarded as pioneer rockabilly, a rock genre of the Fifties variously defined.

Malcolm Yelvington simplified rockabilly as “just a hopped-up version of country,” but rangy characterizations continued for decades. In 1984 music historian Craig Morrison stated: “The definition is based not only on the characteristics of the sound, but in part by the musicians who performed it. A rockabilly performance, for me, is any song in a rock n’ roll or rhythm-and-blues style played by Southern country musicians, reflecting some aspects of the synthesis of black/white styles. I expand on this to include songs by artists who can be perceived as emulating the style of Southern country musicians… and by others who were influenced by these artists.”

Rockabilly resulted of marrying musical strains amid Baby Boomer America. Modern mass media pushed musical integration, particularly television’s influence on pop culture. Morrison noted the factors fostering rockabilly after World War II included audience spikes for country and black music, rise of the disc jockey, urbanization of the working class, marketing toward youths, and durable 45-rpm records, cheaply produced.

“In the early Fifties, country [music] was chic,” Terry Gordon, rockabilly discographer, told Morrison. “Hank Williams songs would be covered by pop singers. You’d have square dancers on TV, etc. By ’54, ’55, rhythm-and-blues was the ‘in’ thing, and that was at the expense of country. There were radio stations that would change format from country to rhythm-and-blues.”

Morrison emphasized rockabilly was spurred by “need for dance music, unfulfilled by the pop music of the day.” The point was echoed by guitarist Carl Perkins and his delta peer of the early 1950s, Paul Burlison. “See, all of us liked certain parts of the blues and certain parts of country,” Burlison said, “so we just tied them together and put a little beat to it, and that was what we called rockabilly. And the people 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.”

Presley corroborated on rockabilly roots, tracing back to his school days in Memphis. Presley, defending himself in 1956 against moralists who alleged “vulgar” music and stage behavior, said, “It’s not bad, it’s just rock and roll, and it has been around for five years now.” Presley described his style as “a little rock and roll and a little hillbilly.”

Burlison, who as a boy used phone wire to electrify a guitar, worked with Presley at Crown Electric in Memphis before the latter made it at Sun. During work breaks the two picked guitars with Burlison offering tips, as moonlighting musician. Burlison felt energized, celebratory, when Presley recorded That’s All Right Mama then Blue Moon of Kentucky for the A and B sides of a 45 disc, which quickly sold 20,000 copies primarily through Southern radio.

“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.”

And so did the crusaders against heathen “beat” music for young people. “Rock n’ roll probably put more money in the collection boxes of the churches across America than anything the preacher could have said,” Sam Phillips remarked. “Not only them. Disc jockeys broke the hell out of my records. Broke ‘em on the air. Slammed them over the damn microphone. Now if I hadn’t affected people like that, I might have been in trouble.”

The producer Phillips had said, before he knew Elvis: “You can’t tell where you’ll strike gold.” And Phillips’ big strikes only began with Presley.

Carl Perkins heard Presley on the radio and met him in person. Then Perkins and his brothers approached Phillips outside the door at Sun Records, pleading to audition. Phillips complied, recalling: “I guess Carl was the best natural country musician that became—mainly through his guitar work—one of the top rockers of all time.”

“This guy, for then, could have been an unbelievable country singer,” Phillips told The Memphis Commercial Appeal. “I was not interested in trying to do country because I thought Nashville was doing fine with it. So we started to play around. Carl could get down on that guitar pretty good. When we started getting a little sassy in the old matchbox [studio]… it showed me that this guy, he wanted to rock like Elvis.”

Another walk-in at Sun hailed from northeast Arkansas, John “J.R.” Cash, who was raw like Elvis to begin, of novice music experience. Cash, 22, had been discharged from the Air Force, arriving at Memphis within days of Presley’s recording That’s All Right Mama. Cash came home with priorities in mind: his fiancé in Texas, Vivian Liberto, and his dream for a musical career. Young Cash got married, relocated to Memphis from rural Dyess, Ark., and took a job in door-to-door sales while attending radio school at night.

Cash met Presley as the breakout singer developed Good Rockin’ Tonight with Moore and Black, and he found Elvis to be engaging. Cash didn’t ask Presley for help in the music business, taking his own path.  Cash wrote songs, played guitar, formed a trio, and purchased radio time.

Cash and his sidemen took an audience where they could find it, including a few family members and friends in January 1955. “The Ray Cash family enjoyed a musical in their home last Sunday afternoon put on by J. R. Cash, [Marshall] Grant, Mr. Tate and Leroy Perkins of Memphis,” reported The Blytheville Courier News, via correspondent from Dyess. “Their wives accompanied their husbands. Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Pickens were also present.”

John Cash gained an audition at Sun, destined to become the label’s best-selling artist. “Elvis was the beacon that brought us all there,” Cash said later. “But we were out there just waitin’ for our chance and opportunity to do it the way we felt it.”

“Elvis opened the door, and Sam let us stay.”

Select References

Allen, M. (2015, Spring). “Just a Half a Mile From the Mississippi Bridge”: The Mississippi River Valley Origins of Rock and Roll. Southern Quarterly 53 (3), pp. 99-120.

Brennan, R. (1956, Dec. 6). Blasé Critics in N.Y. First to Cry ‘Vulgar.’ Daily Boston Globe, p. 17

Crider, B. (1953, Aug. 30). Cellblock Harmony. Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram CA, p. 109.

Crisafulli, C. (2010, Oct. 11). Johnny Cash’s Radio Debut. GibsonNews.com.

Dearmore, T. (1969, Sept. 21). First Angry Man of Country Singers. New York Times, p. SM32.

Ellis, B. (2000, Jan. 9). Phillips on Wolf, B.B., Jerry Lee, Rufus… Memphis Commercial Appeal, p. F5.

Gray, D. (1977, Aug. 17). Legend’s Death Shocks Fans. Lincoln Star NE, p. 6.

Guralnick, P. (1977, Aug. 20). Lonely Days in High School Left Their Mark on the Man Who Changed History of Rock. Ottawa Journal, Ontario, Canada, p. 34.

Guralnick, P. (1994). Last Train To Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley. New York, Boston, London: Little, Brown and Company.

Guralnick, P. (2000) Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll. [Dir. by Morgan Neville]. A&E Networks.

Guralnick, P. (2015). Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll. New York: Little, Brown and Company [book].

Hathaway, B. (1968, Oct. 27). Johnny Cash Did It The Hard Way. San Antonio Express and News TX, p. 139.

Hilburn, R. (1981, April 7). Rockabilly Survivor Looks Back. Los Angeles Times CA, p. G1.

Jacobs, Mrs. J.E. (1954, July 21). Dyess News. Blytheville Courier News AR, p. 2.

Jacobs, Mrs. J.E. (1955, Jan. 19). Dyess News. Blytheville Courier News AR, p. 17.

Kwitny, J. (1975, Sept. 4). Tough Guy on Stage, Johnny Cash Is a Gent as Soon as He’s Off It. Wall Street Journal, p. 1.

Morrison, C.R. (1984, June). Rockabilly Music and Musicians [MA thesis]. York University: Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

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

Shearer, L. (1971, April 25). Johnny Cash: The Prisoner’s Pal. San Bernardino County Sun CA, pp. 142, 144.

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

Memphis, Sun Records Integrated Music in Race and Genre

Fifth in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Saturday, July 29, 2017

In the early 1950s Sam Phillips enjoyed a measure of success for his upstart recording studio in Memphis, marketing black artists of rhythm-and-blues such as B.B. King, Bobby Bland and Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett. Phillips directed and recorded a pioneering rock song, Rocket 88, by Ike Turner and The Kings of Rhythm, released in 1951 through Chess Records of Chicago. Soon after, Phillips founded his own label in Memphis, Sun Records.

By 1954 Phillips sought a different sound for Sun, and he surely heard the contemporary beat around Memphis. A new music was meshing at bars, halls and fairs since World War Two, although hardly played on radio stations. Essentially, musical tempo was cranked-up on guitar, bass, piano, drum and horn, by players white and black, to fill dance floors like jazz swing of the 1930s.

A music vacuum was drawing distinctly different genres into a broad, driving sound that would revolutionize pop culture and marketing. Forerunner artists of impact in the delta included Turner, Fats Domino, and Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton of R&B; “Sister” Rosetta Tharpe in gospel blues; and Eddy Arnold and Hank Williams of country music.

The Perkins brothers, white “pickers,” developed hot guitar licks in honky-tonks around Jackson, Tenn., north of Memphis. The Perkins band added a drummer, unheard of in country music, to really inject folks with dance fever. “In fact, we called it feel-good music,” Carl Perkins said later. ”We were just taking country music and putting that black rhythm in it, that’s what it was. It was a marriage of the white man’s lyrics and the black man’s soul.”

Phillips envisioned that breakthrough for Sun Records, for America, as a producer in both black and white music. Undeterred by social segregation, Phillips knew white youths increasingly bought “race records,” the R&B of blacks, despite industry fear and ignorance emanating from New York and Nashville.

“Black styles” were sparking “quiet revolution” among young whites, wrote Peter Guralnick, preeminent biographer of Elvis Presley. “Many of the small independent [record] producers were becoming aware of it, and in Memphis, where there had long been a relaxed social, was well as musical, interchange, it was particularly noticeable. White kids were picking up on black styles—of music, dance, speech and dress. ‘Cat clothes’ were coming in; be-bop speech was all the rage; and Elvis Presley—along with Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, and all the other Southern children of the Depression, who would one day develop the rockabilly style—was seeking his models in unlikely places.”

Phillips sensed his chance to harness and harvest a musical convergence of talented and innovative individuals along the Mississippi River. He saw a musician prototype required to lead change. “Enjoying success on the R&B charts, Phillips began searching for a white artist who could move Sun into the more lucrative pop field,” observed Robert Hilburn, music critic and rock historian for The Los Angeles Times, following 12 hours of interview with Phillips in 1981. “Seeing a void in the youth market, he wanted a white singer who could sing convincingly in the upbeat blues style that Phillips enjoyed most.”

Phillips told Hilburn: “I had grown up in the South and felt a definite kinship between the white southern country artists and the black southern blues or spiritual artists. Our ties were too close for the two not to overlap. It was a natural thing. It’s just that the record business in those days looked at the music as totally separate. They didn’t realize that it was a natural exchange and that the public would eventually accept it.”

“But rhythm-and-blues, from the beginning, was an extremely limited sound,” Hilburn noted. “Alone it could not have reshaped pop music. It needed help. Fortunately, country-western provided that help.”

Malcolm Yelvington was a country player who introduced himself to Phillips at Sun around 1954. “I just asked him for an interview, asked him for an audition,” Yelvington recounted. “And he told me, ‘I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for but I’ll know it when I hear it.’ He said, ‘That’s the reason I listen to everyone that comes in. One of these days somebody’s going to come in here and do something that I’m looking for.’ ”

“And lo and behold, it turned out that Elvis was the one…”

***

In early 1953, Memphis television presented a young performer named Presley—Toleitha Presley, 9-year-old baton twirler from Sikeston, Mo., appearing on a talent show. Her cousin Elvis Presley, meanwhile, was finishing his senior year at L.C. Humes High School in Memphis. Elvis’s public performances stood limited at that point, to occasions of spot singing since his boyhood at Tupelo, Miss.

After graduating high school, Elvis Presley drove a delivery truck in Memphis for $1.25 an hour. He also started showing up at Sun Records on Union Avenue, often hesitating outside, afraid to enter, according to recollection of Sam Phillips. “I saw that Crown Electric Company truck that he was driving pull up a number of times outside the studio,” Phillips said decades later. “He would sit in it and try to get his courage up.”

Presley was bold enough to come in and pay for cutting two records at Sun, singing four established ballads and strumming his guitar. Phillips assisted Presley on one such vanity production, when the kid was impressive enough. “I could see that he was a highly sensitive person,” Phillips told Hilburn.

“I took him back in the studio and sat him by the microphone. I told him to sing just like he would at home. He was very nervous. He’d sing a couple of words and then look over at me. But we finally got it together. I think we charged people $2 for one tune or $3 for two at the time and Elvis paid for two. They came off good.”

“I wrote his name down, the only time I can recall doing that with a singer,” Phillips said, “and I mentioned the possibility of making a real record if we could find the right song. Well, this just thrilled the hell out of him. He lit up like a Christmas tree with a thousand bulbs on it.”

In spring 1954, Phillips suggested Presley should “woodshed” or jam music with Scotty Moore and Bill Black, country players associated with Sun. A band might result. Presley agreed, even if Phillips still lacked a song for him, along with clear instruction. “I wanted them to get together and get a feel for each other,” Phillips said of the trio. “I also told them to keep an eye out for material. After a while, they came back and we went into the studio a number of times, and it was real rough.”

Presley, Moore and Black finally struck rock music at Sun Records on July 5, 1954, during a demo session in the studio of 11-by-13 feet. They covered familiar songs of pop and country, exploring melody and beat without impressing Phillips, before Presley’s knowledge of discography paid off. Young Elvis “was a big fan of people like Arthur Crudup and Junior Parker,” Phillips said. “He was a great blues and great country music fan.”

The session paused for a soda break but Presley was restless with a Crudup song in mind. “Elvis picked up his guitar and started banging on it and singing That’s All Right Mama. Just jumping around the studio, just acting the fool,” Moore later recalled for author Jerry Hopkins. “And Bill started beating on his bass and I joined in. Just making a bunch of racket, we thought.”

“The door of the control room was open and when we was halfway through the thing, Sam came running out and said, ‘What in the devil are you doing?’ We said, ‘We don’t know.’ He said, ‘Well, find out real quick and don’t lose it. Run through it again and let’s put it on tape.’ ”

Phillips returned to the production board and Presley repeated his Crudup rendition. Moore added electric guitar in stylish solos and bursts: “Rather than just play a few notes, I was trying to fill up space,” he said. Black picked strings and slapped the upright bass, knocking out a beat. Phillips recorded straight takes on one track, without over-dubbing, and quickly declared a wrap.

That’s All Right Mama by Presley wasn’t the first rock-and-roll song but epic nonetheless, historians would proclaim. “At a time when popular music was straining for something new, there was no better catalyst than Presley,” wrote Richard Harrington, music critic for The Washington Post, in 1985. “He was the one who most publicly and effectively sowed the seeds of the new rhythm, and in so doing, unleashed a million libidos. He was the fuse as well as the flame.”

While Moore lauded Presley, he didn’t go far in designating That’s All Right Mama as a great moment in American history. “We got through the song and then we listened to it. We all liked it,” Moore said simply in 2004. “I think Elvis would’ve happened anyway. Whether he would have made it and had the popularity he gained, I don’t know. All I know is that he was just eat up with music like we all were.”

Moore praised Phillips for vision and spontaneity, a point echoed by former Sun personnel. “Nobody could duplicate the sound,” said Charlie Feathers, Sun singer-guitarist in the 1950s. “Elvis could make it here with a man like Sam because Memphis was open to anything: cotton-patch blues, country, bluegrass, soul, rockabilly. If there ever was such a thing as the ‘Memphis Sound,’ Sam came closest to it. The music that came outa here was a sorta let’s-try-it-and-see-if-it-works thing.”

Roland Janes, guitarist and sound engineer, said, “What Sam was doing was totally different than anything else that’d ever been on the music scene. And only Sam Phillips would have had the nerve enough to have done it.”

A Phillips trick involved positioning microphones around the little studio, not directly upon singers and instruments. Moore noted that “Sam kept Elvis’s voice close to the music” or set back with the band. “In essence, Elvis’s voice became another instrument.”

Microphone placement was “the most important thing that I had to do,” Phillips said in 2000. “Because I had a very limited board, everything was monaural—there was no such thing as overdubbing. So mikes were placed to complement not only the instruments but especially the voice… I worked sides [of performers]. Very seldom did I work anybody directly. And it wasn’t because I was worried about them huffing. I just had to get what I knew was the best sound, the most natural sound of that person’s voice when he was talking to me a few steps away.”

Phillips mastered slap-back echo, trademark of Sun recordings, “just to make it sound more live,” he said. Producers and disc jockeys tweaked the period’s monophonic equipment, adding sonic textures like electronic echo and reverb. Phillips manipulated a reel-to-reel machine for his echo, setting a recording delay between tape heads, milliseconds apart. The tape gap required skill to gauge precisely, avoid distortion, and Phillips was expert. Feathers said the man pulled “stereo sound” from monaural setups.

***

On the night Phillips cut That’s All Right Mama with Presley, he shared the tape with radio host Dewey Phillips, a Memphis star for his No. 1 music show on WHBQ. Dewey Phillips, a friend of the Sun owner but of no relation, wanted to air Elvis immediately and requested two acetate record copies.

Next day the Elvis song was cut on acetate discs by needle lathe at Sun Records, and possibly an additional copy went out the door, beyond the pair promised Dewey Phillips. Sun assistant manager Marion Keisker apparently took an initial Elvis record to her second job at WREC radio, the CBS affiliate in Memphis where she co-hosted shows.

Later, longtime WREC voice Fred Cook said he may have been first to broadcast Elvis Presley on radio—briefly. Keisker “came in all excited” with the Elvis record, Cook recalled on his Memphis show in 1991, two years after her death. “She said it was the greatest thing she ever heard.” Cook, however, aired the Presley music only seconds before fading out the volume. “That’s the worst piece of shit I’ve ever heard,” he told Keisker off microphone.

Cook’s opinion of Presley reflected traditional morality of Memphis, but not fresh thought in the river city. Dewey Phillips and listeners proved that on his show at WHBQ, where That’s All Right Mama most assuredly debuted in its entirety, historians agree, and likely on Thursday night, July 8, 1954.

Dewey Phillips was undoubtedly a radio man to cross lines in music, of race and genre, for Sam Phillips and his Presley recording. Dewey’s show “seemed the only place to go,” Hopkins wrote. “A the time, mixing black and white music wasn’t as acceptable as it would be just a few years later.” Hilburn observed that early Elvis style on Sun records “was too country for blues stations, too ‘black’ for country stations, and pop stations weren’t going to touch it.”

Dewey Phillips had already aired R&B songs to the satisfaction of his young white audience, for years, including Rocket 88 by Turner and The Kings of Rhythm. Dewey “challenged all who heard him to step into a new realm, one free of racism and bound only by a good beat,” wrote Bill Ellis, Memphis Commercial Appeal, in retrospect.

Presley’s song was a smash hit that first night on the Daddy-O-Dewey show, with WHBQ besieged by phone calls for replay. Telegrams, postcards and letters piled up. Presley kept his day job a little longer at Crown Electric, where females and phone callers tracked him down. The 19-year-old, living near poverty level thus far, was on way to music stardom and financial security for his family.

Larger progress was forged, public rather than personal, Elvis analysts conclude. “That Presley made his first record within weeks of the historic 1954 Supreme Court decision on school desegregation was just one more indication that new winds were blowing in America,” Harrington wrote in 1985. “The social intermingling of black and white was being eased by the kind of musical intermingling provoked by rock’s pioneers, an evolution much more important than the sexual one rock ‘n’ roll’s critics fixated upon (though that was real as well).”

“Elvis’ importance in the ’50s was both musical and sociological,” Hilburn wrote in 1987. “Presley—young, white and handsome—was unquestionably in the right place at the right time. Those factors made him far more marketable in the mid-’50s (on radio, television and film) than older rivals (Bill Haley), less handsome ones (Carl Perkins) and, most undeniably, black ones.”

Harrington concurred. “Elvis was so essential at the beginning… He simply dipped into America, the America that he heard singing on the radio, the record player, in the church, on the tin-roof shack porch, at the roadhouse. Presley listened to the heartbeat of Tupelo, Miss., and Memphis, Tenn., and imbibed from all sources, black and white, holy and profane. He understood precisely the distance between the hedonism of Saturday night and guilt of Sunday morning and tapped the middle ground, drawing on the energy and fervor that bound as much as separated them.”

“Presley’s sources—blues, gospel, country—shared another trait: They were working-class art forms, the property of the South’s two disenfranchised minorities, poor whites and poor blacks.” Harrington wrote that “Presley never made any bones about his sources.”

Series continues soon at ChaneysBlog.com

Select References

Allen, M. (2015, Spring). “Just a Half a Mile From the Mississippi Bridge”: The Mississippi River Valley Origins of Rock and Roll. Southern Quarterly 53 (3), pp. 99-120.

Brennan, R. (1956, Dec. 6). Blasé Critics in N.Y. First to Cry ‘Vulgar.’ Daily Boston Globe, p. 17

Eisenberg, D.D. (1974, July 4). Elvis Presley: Star and Country Boy Still. Burlington Daily Times-News NC, p. 41.

Ellis, B. (1999, Aug. 14). Music’s Kingmaker—Phillips As DJ Debuted Elvis, Bridged Racial Gap. Memphis Commercial Appeal, p. F1.

Ellis, B. (2000, Jan. 9). Phillips on Wolf, B.B., Jerry Lee, Rufus… Memphis Commercial Appeal, p. F5.

Fox, M. (1980, Oct. 26). Elvis—Memphis and Timing Created Legend. San Bernardino County Sun CA, pp. C9, C12.

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

Ghianni, T. (2004, July 4). And They Called It Rock ‘n’ Roll. Nashville Tennessean, p. D10.

Guralnick, P. (1977, Aug. 20). Lonely Days in High School Left Their Mark on the Man Who Changed History of Rock. Ottawa Journal, Ontario, Canada, p. 34.

Halberstam, D. (1993, June 27). The Youth Revolution Begins: Part One of a Five-Part excerpt from “The Fifties” by David Halberstam. Baton Rouge Advocate LA, p. 1A.

Harrington, R. (1985, Jan. 6). Elvis: At Half-Century, The Legend Lives On. Washington Post, p. F1.

Hilburn, R. (1970, Jan. 4). Rock Enters 70s as the Music Champ. Los Angeles Times, p. P1.

Hilburn, R. (1975, Jan. 19). Elvis: Waning Legend in His Own Time? Los Angeles Times, p. O1.

Hilburn, R. (1981, April 19). Sam Phillips: The Man Who Found Elvis and Jerry Lee. Los Angeles Times, p. L1.

Hilburn, R. (1987, July 12). The Tragic Elvis: Despite Grotesqueness of His Final Years, A Lasting Triumph. Los Angeles Times, p. L3.

Hopkins, J. (1977, Aug. 21). ‘Elvis, A Biography’: The Young Years. Baltimore Sun, p. D2.

Lammers, B. (1995, July 9). Memphis Cradles Rock: Blues Gives Birth to a Revolution. Cleveland Plain Dealer, p. 1J.

Lloyd, J. (1977, June 5). Elvis Presley: The Once and Past King. Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram CA, p. 40.

MacDonald, P. (1987, Aug. 14). Pilgrimage to Memphis. Seattle Times, p. C1.

McKenney, M. (1995, June 3). Elvis’ Tape Deck Moves to Cleveland’s Rock Hall of Fame. Kansas City Star, p. E3.

Morrison, C.R. (1984, June). Rockabilly Music and Musicians [master’s thesis]. York University: Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Orr, J. (1997, Aug. 15). Meet The Guitar Player Who Changed The World. Nashville Banner, p. 3.

Payne, S.E. (1977, Oct. 5). Country Music Star Remembers King of Rock as ‘Greatest.’ Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p. 1.

Rea, S. (1986, Jan. 5). The ‘Father’ of Rockabilly Is Once More on a Roll. Philadelphia Inquirer, p. I1.

Roberts, M. (2000, March 2). The Sideman. Dallas Observer TX [online].

Sikeston Talent To Appear on TV Tomorrow. (1953, Feb. 20). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p. 4.

Smallwood, S. (1994, Dec. 15). Rising of Sun Casts Music in New Light. Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, p. E1.

Sun Launched ‘King’s’ Career. (1992, Aug. 10). Kokomo Tribune IN, p. 11.

Walter, T. (1991, Aug. 18). Doubt Cast on ‘First’ DJ to Play Elvis. Memphis Commercial Appeal, p. G5.

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

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

Select References

2 New Dance Steps Shown. (1939, Aug. 3). Manitowoc Herald-Times WI, p.8.

‘3 Reasons’ For Flight. (1959, Feb. 4). Mason City Globe-Gazette IA, p.2.

Anderson, P. (1975, Aug. 31). The real Nashville. New York Times, p.171.

Anticipatory Obituary. (1959, April 27). [Editorial.] Sedalia Democrat MO, p.4.

Appearing in Person, Guy Lombardo. (1961, Nov. 24). [Colony Club advertisement.] Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p.6.

Attend The Southeast Missouri District Fair. (1955, Sept. 9). [Advertisement.] Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p.3.

Billy Lee Riley, Rockabilly Singer. (1984, Jan. 4). Paris News TX, p.19.

Birl, J. (April, May, June 2002). Southern Illinois Illegal Clubs: McClure to Cairo. Casino Chip and Token News, pp.79-80.

Blesh, R. (1947, Feb. 23). The jazz audience. New York Herald Tribune, p.C7.

Boyle, H. (1952, Sept. 17). Angel Gabriel only rival of Armstrong as trumpeteer. Sedalia Democrat MO, p.2.

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

Collison, J. (1959, Feb. 4). Open probe of accident here. Mason City Globe-Gazette IA, p.1.

Cowboy Copas: Star of Grand Ol’ Opry to Be At The Armory Tonite. (1953, Nov. 6). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p.5.

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

Ernest Tubb And Troubadours Will Appear Here Wed. (1946, March 12). Sikeston Standard MO, p.4.

Fabulous Al Morgan. (1962, Feb. 16). [Colony Club advertisement.] Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p.8.

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

Four Killed In Clear Lake Plane Crash. (1959, Feb. 3). Mason City Globe-Gazette IA, p.1.

Fox, M. (1980, Oct. 26). Elvis—Memphis and timing created legend. San Bernardino County Sun CA, p.58.

Full House Expected To Hear Calloway. (1940, June 6). Sikeston Herald MO, p.4.

G.A.C. Presents: Jess Stacy And His Orchestra. (1945, Nov. 13). Sikeston Standard MO, p.2.

Ghianni, T. (2004, July 4). And they called it rock n’ roll. Nashville Tennessean, p.D10.

Grand Ole Opry Group To Present Show Here. (1952, July 12). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p.1.

Grand Ole Opry Presents In Person: Eddy Arnold. (1945, May 31). Sikeston Herald MO, p.8.

Gray, D. (1977, Aug. 17). Legend’s death shocks fans. Lincoln Star NE, p.6.

Hance, B. (1978, Aug. 16). Elvis—a year later, the legend lives on. San Bernardino County Sun CA, pp.C1,C5 & C7.

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

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 at Cape Girardeau MO.

Huey, P. (2009, Feb. 3). Buddy Holly: The tour from hell. Minneapolis Star Tribune [online].

In Person, Tex Beneke. (1961, May 5). [Colony Club advertisement.] Southern Illinoisan, p.17.

“Jitterbug” Dancing Is Old Custom, Says Scholar. [1939, Feb. 24]. McComb Daily Journal MS, p.1.

J.F.W. [Writer’s byline.] (1955, Jan. 24). Like sad songs best. Kansas City Times MO, p.4.

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

Keene, J. (2017, March 9). Interview with author at Kennett MO.

Komorowski, A. (1979). Sun Special Issue. New Kommotion 3(2).

Laing, D. (2006, Sept. 5). Rockabilly singer helped up by Elvis. Guardian [online].

Lucas, M. (2017, May 17). Interview by telephone with author.

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 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.