1964: Beatles Flee For The Hills of Missouri

By Matt Chaney, ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Thursday, March 16, 2017

Copyright ©2017 by Matthew L. Chaney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright ©2017 by Matthew L. Chaney

Tornado

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Patriot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rock n’ Roll Thrived in Underworld of the Missouri Delta

By Matt Chaney, ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Monday, March 6, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright ©2017 by Matthew L. Chaney

Tornado

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

The Southeast Missourian newspaper reported:

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

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

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

The Southeast Missourian continued:

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

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

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

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

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

A Patriot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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