Third in A Series
By Matt Chaney, ChaneysBlog.com
Posted Saturday, June 3, 2017
Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney
Buddy Holly wanted clean clothes. Richie Valens planned a haircut. And J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson felt ill enough for a flu shot.
Foremost, the young musicians sought a break from bus-riding on their hellish winter tour through Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
After 11 days and nights on snowy highways, the players felt like grungy, chilled meat. All had faced hypothermia on a bus, stalled hours in Wisconsin darkness with minus-30 degrees and howling winds. A drummer had to be hospitalized for frostbite, midway through tour dates.
So, following an Iowa show the night of Feb. 2, 1959, the three pop stars—Holly, Richardson and Valens—crammed into a four-seat prop plane at Mason City.
Their pilot was young but gaining experience, and the weather qualified as safe for flight. Local 1 a.m. conditions registered 18 degrees with light snowfall, winds of 35 mph, visibility at six miles. The little plane took off down the runway and rose airborne, northbound for Fargo, North Dakota.
Flight service owner Jerry Dwyer watched the aircraft ascend in the night, reaching about one thousand feet where it banked left, northwesterly. Then, farther distant, the lights seemed to dip toward earth. Dwyer brushed that off as optical illusion, but eight hours later he discovered crash wreckage—and the four dead—in a farm field five miles from the airport.
The Holly tragedy would symbolize downfall of early rock n’ roll, rockabilly, although other factors weighed heavier. Primarily it was Fifth Avenue commercialization, New York City’s influence as pop-music capital, this time for rock, and any pristine sound was snuffed.
Even Holly’s music was softening at his death. The Texan had met his wife in New York and moved to Manhattan, collaborating on song with the likes of crooner Paul Anka and orchestra musicians. “He was moving away from rockabilly…,” historian Craig Robert Morrison later observed of Holly, “had he lived, it is unlikely that he would have added to his rockabilly works.”
In spring 1959, Memphis record producer Sam Phillips declared rockabilly was finished, the music his studio had unleashed. “It’s all over but the mushroom cloud,” Phillips told a reporter.
“The kids just got tired of the ruckus and we are moving into a period of greater variety in taste. More people are going to have big records, but we’ll have fewer fantastic ones,” explained Phillips, whose Sun Records had first released Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore, Bill Black, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, among innovators.
Six decades later, retired musician Al Jordan echoes Phillips. “The rockabilly thing actually only lasted about five years,” Jordan says in the Missouri Bootheel.
“Buddy Holly was kind of like Carl Perkins; he was a stylist. Johnny Cash had a style completely different from everybody, you know, and Elvis had his style. There was a boy from over at Senath, Missouri, Jimmy Edwards, who was a rockabilly artist. He had two chart records then he just kindly fell out of the scene.”
“Because music was changing,” continues Jordan, former drummer in rock and country. “Rockabilly was being changed because of Nashville and New York. In other words, that style of music didn’t go to town anymore.”
“Even country music was changing about then, to more of a pop sound than actual grassroots country.”
Music percolated in southeast Missouri a century ago—jazz, blues, gospel and “hillbilly”—amidst raw landscape.
This was an American frontier, still, with 10 delta counties subject to swamping by the Mississippi at flood stage. During catastrophic events the great river went everywhere, spilling south at a hundred miles wide, sparing only ridges of high sand and jutting limestone.
Southeast Missouri was typically wet with muddy roads, whether in hills or bottoms. But musicians carried on, like jazz leader Raymond F. “Peg” Meyer at Cape Girardeau, where delta flatland met high ground.
“Managing a jazz band in the 1920s was an enlightening experience due to all of the predicaments that could suddenly pop up,” Meyer recalled in his 1989 book, Backwoods Jazz In The Twenties. “If we booked a job five miles from home, and it rained, we never knew if we could get there or not.”
Heading for a wedding dance in the hills, Meyer’s “Melody Kings” sank their Model T in a bog. The four jazzmen got out in tuxedos and pushed, wallowing in mud like hogs. One fell into ditch water, to his neck.
“It is easy to imagine the expression on the faces of the wedding party when we entered the hall,” Meyer noted.
The band trekked to gigs down in the delta, including at Portageville, 70 miles from Cape Girardeau. In rainfall the flats “had no bottom,” Meyer wrote. “Roads through the sandy sections of the area were soft and produced no mud or chuck holes, but were marked by two ruts which the wheels of the car followed as closely as wheels on a railroad track.”
“The only difference was that railroad tracks were straight, and the sand ruts were like a snake’s trail. You could just turn the steering wheel loose, and the car would follow the ruts.”
Returning home one night in the 1921 Ford, from deep in the Missouri Bootheel, the Melody Kings heard talk of a graded section on new federal Highway 61. The stretch remained under construction but did lead due north, a tantalizing prospect for the Cape boys. Police barred traffic at daytime but locals cruised over the grade by night, they heard.
“We started up the new roadbed and it was fine, straight as a ruler,” Meyer wrote. “With nothing in sight we were sailing along at a good clip when all at once I saw a telephone pole lying across the road, obviously to prevent vehicles from entering… Fortunately both front and rear wheels hit the pole at the same angle, and we just took a flying leap and landed on all fours. What elevation we reached I do not know.”
Meyer decided to accompany the Kings’ wunderkind pianist, Jess Stacy, into riverboat entertainment for smoother travel and better pay. They had a blast.
“The wild Twenties brought everyone to life,” Meyer recalled. “Musicians in the Twenties practically became contortionists playing their musical instruments in any unconventional manner, standing on chairs, swaying in unison to the rhythms, wearing crazy hats and clowning in general.”
“Many times I saw Jess Stacy standing on the piano stool, squatting down just enough to reach the piano keys. Much of the popularity of bands in the Twenties came from their actions as much as their musical production.”
In the evolution toward rock music, jazz or “big band” swing is often overlooked as factor.
Jerry Lee Lewis was wearing diapers when Jess Stacy moved up to Benny Goodman’s orchestra in New York City. Stacy, native of Bird’s Point, Missouri, in the delta, contributed memorably to Goodman’s revolutionary “swing” of the latter Depression Era. Stacy was spotlighted during Goodman’s landmark concert of 1938, soloing on the keys to applause in Carnegie Hall.
“Jess Stacy was my first piano player, and he became one of the best jazz pianists in the world,” wrote Meyer.
During the 1940s critics decried swing bands and “jitterbug antics” for supplanting the popularity of symphony orchestra and staid ballroom dance. Rudi Blesh of The New York Herald Tribune ripped “banal music of the large swing bands playing an arranged product.”
“It has been virtually impossible to escape hearing swing, so thoroughly has our atmosphere been saturated with it by a determined effort to sell it,” the reviewer complained.
But an English music historian qualified free movement to beat music as ancient, declaring jitterbugging enthralled humans since the Romans at least. “People want to dance together and have lots of fun in groups,” said Douglas Kenney, London. “They are beginning to tire of just moving around the floor with a member of the opposite sex.”
Few would’ve disagreed around southeast Missouri, where hep jazz music filled roadhouses, dance halls and armories, especially along Highway 61. A 1940 show in Sikeston for Cab Calloway, famed “King of Swing” from Harlem, sold out immediately at a whopping $3 per ticket.
In 1945 Jess Stacy—“America’s famous piano stylist”—returned home to perform at the Colony Club, swank establishment located across the river bridge from Cape Girardeau.
The Colony Club was operated by gamblers in the wild Illinois bottoms. Stacy was among major names to appear on the stage, such as bandleaders Lawrence Welk, Guy Lombardo, Harry James and Woody Herman. Nearby, the Purple Crackle club hosted Count Basie and his orchestra. Louis Armstrong played dates along this strip of Highway 146.
“The Colony Club was a great one,” says Matt Lucas, hit recording artist from southeast Missouri who worked regionally in the latter 1950s and early ’60s. “I played the Colony Club with the Ray Chilton Band, the Bill Bradley Trio and Narvel Felts.”
“I remember how shocked I was to see [jazzman] Al Morgan playing in the lounge. He was big stuff and had a big hit of ‘Jealous Heart.’ I had a drink with him and he said he played there a lot.”
“Those were some great days and nights…,” Lucas recalls, “as the music was changing from the big bands to rockabilly—rock n’ roll.”
Country music headlined in New York City following World War II, and practically everywhere else in America.
“Grand Ole Opry’s current invasion of one of New York’s fancy nightspots is a milestone inevitable for this booming entertainment fad,” reported The Associated Press, June 1952. “Eddie Hill and his troupe of 15 will play folk type music for dancing at the Hotel Astor roof in New York [Times Square] all summer long.”
“Groups of Opry headliners, with all their players, will appear two weeks each. Meanwhile, Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry will go on as before, minus the ones missing in New York.”
In Nashville, reserved seating was sold-out for the summer of Opry performances at Ryman Auditorium. Scrambles ensued over weekly allotments for general admission. “3,600 people pack into the barnlike building for the first hours of the [Saturday] show,” The AP reported. “At 10 p.m. there’s a block-long line outside waiting to grab the 1,400 or so seats vacated at that hour.”
The Opry mainstreamed a distinct music known by various terms. “Some call it folk music,” The AP noted. “Others refer to it as country, hillbilly, mountain or western music.”
It was called pickin’ in the southeast Missouri delta and foothills. This was home region of legendary Opry fiddler Dale Potter and guitarist Onie Wheeler, up-and-comer. The area also claimed a native in Ferlin Husky, star of the Nashville sound in California.
Country music’s mystique was infectious for youngsters like Fred Horrell at Cape Girardeau. “I started playing harmonica at 7 years old… I just loved the sound of that dang stuff,” Horrell says, speaking in a recent interview.
In the 1940s Fred would cock ear to a box radio, concentrating to hear lyrics and notes. He tried to memorize because hearing a song was ephemeral, momentary, since the youngster was without means to record. “Shoot, I’d sit around when I was a boy, and ol’ Hank Williams would come on, moaning them songs, all that stuff. And Roy Rogers, Gene Autry’s singing cowboy.”
Fred idolized his uncle Lawrence Horrell, a champion fiddler who’d joined Eddy Arnold on stage and radio in St. Louis, during the latter’s rise in country music. “I had uncles, fiddlers… and Lawrence, he was excellent.” The boy was bound to play music on stage himself. “That’s what led me,” Fred says.
Fiddle players were a regional hallmark and Dale Potter stood peerless in his time, for anywhere, says Steve Sharp, former drummer and retired judge in Kennett, Missouri. In the 1960s Sharp played on stage with Potter and budding songwriters Jerry Foster and Bill Rice. “We were playing rock n’ roll basically but had the world’s greatest fiddler, Dale Potter, in the band,” Sharp says.
Potter was a native of Puxico, a little community on Crowley’s Ridge at Mingo Swamp. “He grew up listening to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and taught himself to play fiddle listening to them,” Sharp says. “Dale thought there was one fiddle playing, but they were dual fiddles. And he developed a style of playing—called Potter Style of fiddling—where he emulated two fiddles.”
Potter was among country stars and bands appearing at the Sikeston Armory and fairs of southeast Missouri in the ’40s and ’50s. Most were on Opry tours from Nashville.
They included bluegrass maestros Bill Monroe and Art Wooten; Eddy Arnold and The Tennessee Plowboys; Tex Ritter, the “Western Movie Star”; Minnie Pearl, “Comedy Sensation of The Nation”; Ernest Tubb and The Texas Troubadours; “Little Jimmy” Dickens; Lloyd “Cowboy” Copas and wife Kathy Copas; and Ray Price, famed baritone.
Meanwhile, an alternative pickin’ gained popularity in delta honky-tonks and roadhouses, an up-tempo beat of “hillbilly” and rhythm-and-blues that dancers loved. Many musicians would identify this postwar trend as genesis of rockabilly.
As Elvis Presley’s fame rocketed in 1956, he told a Nebraska reporter “rock n’ roll” had really begun about five years earlier. At that time in Memphis, Presley was a schoolboy trying to learn from local musicians like Paul Burlison, maverick guitarist, and his band mates the Burnette brothers, Johnny and Dorsey.
Burlison recalled their trio “combined country and blues” for dance music in bars. Rocky Burnette, Johnny’s son, said the three solidified rockabilly genre in 1953 by “taking Hank Williams tunes, old Joe Turner tunes, and putting a beat to them.”
There were more pioneers, apparently. Mississippi singer Charlie Feathers said he crafted rockabilly early as 1949, declaring the pure sound was limited to vocals, guitar and bass.
Billy Lee Riley, an Arkansas native, believed his delta band made rockabilly. “We’ve never gotten credit for that, but it’s a fact,” Riley said in 1984. “I was doing what Elvis was doing before Elvis did it: mixing blues and hillbilly, putting a laidback, funky beat to hillbilly music.”
The Perkins Brothers Band savored up-tempo picking at Jackson, Tennessee, before Elvis was known. The Perkins boys came up amid the flatland and ridges north of Memphis, influenced by Opry picking but also blues and gospel. As young men they played a sharp beat that melded styles. “It didn’t have a name; we called it feel-good music,” Carl Perkins said later.
Perkins hired a drummer in early 1954, Tony Austin, notes historian Craig Robert Morrison. The addition was unlike country bands, along with other differences. “Carl’s band was popular in Jackson, Tennessee, and was unusual for not having a fiddle or steel guitar,” Morrison observed in 1984, for his interviews with regional musicians.
“Tony [Austin] states that they were playing country music with a black influence, and he feels that Perkins was ‘the original rockabilly.’ This was also expressed by Smoochie Smith, who played piano with Perkins in 1954. Perkins has stated that he realized he had a chance in the music business when he heard Presley’s record [that summer] because: ‘It was exactly what I was doing.’ ”
To the southwest, change was afoot in Texas music by early 1954, when record distributors said the R&B of black musicians was gaining on “hillbilly” and pop tunes. “For the uninitiated, [R&B] can be identified by its strong swaying rhythm and wailing saxophones,” The AP reported.
“But rhythm and blues, from the beginning, was an extremely limited sound,” analyst Robert Hilburn, a delta native, intoned for The Los Angeles Times in 1970. “Alone it could not have reshaped pop music. It needed help. Fortunately, country-western provided that help.”
Enter Scotty Moore, his cutting-edge electric guitar. “As a musician, I consider him one of the co-founders of rock n’ roll because of the guitar licks that he invented,” remarked James L. Dickenson, biographer.
Moore grew up listening to jazz players and Opry pickers on radio at Gadsden in western Tennessee. He learned guitar, modeling greats like Les Paul. After his Navy discharge in 1952, Moore joined bass player Bill Black in a country band at Memphis.
“Around the same time, Scotty began working on the thumb-and-finger style associated with Merle Travis and Chet Atkins, in which the thumb plays the rhythm on the bass strings while the other fingers pick out a melody on the higher strings,” Jay Orr reported for The Nashville Banner in 1997.
“It sounded like two guitar players,” Moore said. “I finally went and bought two or three of Chet’s records, 78s. I was listening and listening and began to get it a little bit. I couldn’t pick out the notes, but I could do it with the rhythm.”
Paul Burlison discussed Moore for Dan Griffin, co-author with Ken Burke of The Blue Moon Boys: Elvis Presley’s Band. “Scotty Moore had such an unusual style,” Burlison said.
“You could walk into a building somewhere and not even know he was there and tell it was him… He played with all his fingers… He’d make those big old crab chords and we’d say, ‘What’s he doing?’ He had the sound that just knocked you out.”
On July 5, 1954, Moore and Black hooked up with unknown Memphis musician Elvis Presley for a recording session at Sun Records. Presley thought himself a country singer and was unimpressive on initial takes, Moore would recall. But around midnight Elvis found his rockabilly voice, swinging into a cover of “That’s All Right” written by bluesman Arthur Crudup.
Moore added his stylish riffs in solos and bursts—“Rather than just play a few notes, I was trying to fill up space,” he recalled—while Black picked strings and tapped on upright bass. Sun producer Sam Phillips recorded single takes on one track, no dubbing, and quickly declared a wrap.
Within days the Elvis Presley record was a smash in his hometown and the surrounding delta. Radio stations were buried in listener requests for “That’s All Right.”
The term rock and roll wasn’t yet applicable to music, but the pioneers at Sun Records grasped it nonetheless, observes Joe Keene, retired producer, songwriter and rockabilly in Kennett, Missouri, north of Memphis.
Keene says, “That moment when Elvis did ‘That’s All Right,’ Sam said, ‘That’s what I’ve been looking for, that raw, energy feeling.’ Now when they did the next record, ‘Good Rocking Tonight,’ they knew who they were.”
Keene recounts: “Have you heard the news, there’s good rockin’… And they said, ‘Okay, that’s us.’ They knew exactly who they were, then and from that point on.”
Rockabilly had arrived certifiably at Memphis, in the delta, and for the planet.
”All I wanted to do in the world was to be able to play and sound like that,” stated Keith Richards, Rolling Stones guitarist, in prologue for Moore’s 1997 biography. “Those early records were incredible. Everyone else wanted to be Elvis. I wanted to be Scotty.”
Meteoric rockabilly plummeted as The Fifties closed, flaming out for multiple reasons. The tragedy of Buddy Holly, Big Bopper and Richie Valens, killed in the Iowa plane crash, only punctuated rockabilly’s downfall.
“Despite its enormous popularity in the mid and late 1950s, rock appeared ready to be counted out in 1960 as a force in pop music,” Hilburn observed. “Those who had long predicted that rock was nothing more than a youthful, passing fad were ready to collect their bets.”
Talent flight from delta studios took a toll, an exodus that had begun early with Elvis Presley. He left Sun Records in late 1955, after some 15 months under contact, going for riches with RCA Victor and Hollywood filmmakers.
Presley made millions but lost his edge under new music masters, singing their tunes like “Teddy Bear” in forgettable movies. Then the military drafted him. “My heart just bled when Elvis was raped with those damn stupid songs and movies and stuff,” Sam Phillips later complained.
“The early stars, for various reasons, had faded from the scene,” Hilburn wrote. “Elvis Presley had been in the Army. Little Richard quit music to study religion. Jerry Lee Lewis’ marriage to his teen-age cousin caused disc jockeys to stop playing his records and Buddy Holly was dead. And on and on.”
Major recording studios “had no intrinsic interest or belief in the new sound,” Hilburn noted. “In fact, they were probably more than a little uncomfortable being associated with what the adult world viewed largely as a primitive, talentless, almost sinful music.”
Fifth Avenue marketers wanted pop rock sung by cute crooners and warblers, faces for television. The breed proliferated around New York and Los Angeles, including former rockabillies.
At Nashville, producers sought hot beat and instruments like saxophone for country music but little else, having always belittled delta rockers. And novelty songs were chart-toppers, such as “Purple People Eater” at No.1 on Billboard, burying rockabilly recordings that persisted.
Genres overlapped and gimmicks flourished, for which Chet Atkins later blamed the Elvis effect. “Ever since he came along, we’ve been losing our musical identities,” said Atkins in Nashville. “There used to be pop and gospel and country and so on.”
No one said music was dead around southeast Missouri in the early 1960s. Ambitious musicians kept hammering at their craft and enjoying multiple styles; they performed, wrote and composed.
Missouri musicians played country, the music of blurring lines around rock, R&B and jazz. They played pristine rockabilly, broader rock n’ roll, and the blues.
Southeast Missouri music venues continued to thrive and draw names including Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Bill Black and Charlie Rich—stars likewise ready with songs from across the spectrum.
“The music from here, and Memphis, everything, it’s like a combination of gospel, blues and country,” Al Jordan says, former drummer for country stars, speaking at his home in Hayti, Missouri.
Steve Sharp, former drummer for Rich, says, “It was very normal to do ‘Whole Lotta Shaking Goin’ On’ followed by ‘Together Again,’ followed by B.B. King’s ‘Sweet Sixteen.’ You didn’t think a thing about it.”
“I mean, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buck Owens, B.B. King—in one set.”
Sharp adds, “Down here, if you were interested in music, you grew up listening simultaneously to WSM [radio] and Grand Ole Opry and XER from Del Rio, Texas, and WLAC, Nashville and Gallatin, Tennessee. You listened to R&B, gospel, country.”
“Jerry Foster wrote and recorded a song about a year ago called ‘Sunrise In Memphis.’ It talks about the delta and the fields, where the music was born.”
Foster was among players of southeast Missouri to emerge in the 1950s and ’60s. Others included Bill Rice, Narvel Felts, Matt Lucas, Leon Barnett, J.W. Grubbs, Charlie Thurman, Fred Horrell, Billy Swan, Dennis Turner, Terry Cobb, Don Hinton, Joe Keene, Terry Ray Bradley, Ken Williams, Jimmy Null and Bill English. All became accomplished professionals with a few recognized as greats, particularly in songwriting.
Sharp and Jordan hailed from Gideon, Missouri, as did Foster and wordsmith Jimmy Payne. The tiny town produced a cluster of music talents.
“The thing about it, there were lots of musicians in this part of the country—fine musicians,” Jordan attests.
Series continues soon at ChaneysBlog.com
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Matt Chaney is a writer, editor, publisher and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.