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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.