Twentieth in a Series
By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com
Posted Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Copyright ©2018 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney
In early July, 1960, a peach-colored Cadillac traveled south through Pemiscot County, Mo., along U.S. Highway 61. At Hayti the Caddy pulled up to gas pumps outside Gwin’s Café, and Elvis Presley and two buddies got out, causing but a stir in the little town.
“Elvis was here,” local columnist Verna Hampton reported a week later. “Friendly, good-looking and polite, he chatted with [Gwin’s] attendants on generalities.” A worker wanted his children to meet Presley, requesting a few minutes’ leeway, and the singer-actor obliged. “While waiting, he and his companions drove across the street for lunch at the Dairy Queen, then back to the station.”
Presley was arguably America’s biggest celebrity, taking a break from Hollywood, but Hayti folks were used to seeing him pass through, especially around Gwin’s and the highway intersection. Elvis, with his Memphis home 95 miles south, once played the B&B Club in Pemiscot County, legendary roadhouse of early rock ’n’ roll. Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins still appeared locally, among name players.
Moreover, great performers had appeared in this Missouri river country, tucked within curling bends of the Mississippi, since the 19th century.
Circuses and showboats exhibited along the river shore of Pemiscot County, Mo., during the Victorian Era, with local newspapers publishing Amusements sections by turn of the century. “This place has always been known as a ‘river show’ town,” declared The Pemiscot Argus in Caruthersville, 1910, while additional landing spots for entertainment included Gayoso, Tyler and Cottonwood Point.
Caruthersville hosted big-top events such as Howe’s London Circus, Markle’s Floto Shows, Sparks Circus, Menke and Coleman’s Hippodrome, and Wallace Circus. The Ringling Brothers Circus set up across the river at Dyersburg, Tenn., and ferries provided transport for Missourians.
Showboats visiting Pemiscot were the essential historic lot, ranging from New Sensation flat barges and tugs of A.B. French to W.R. Markle’s Goldenrod luxury steamer.
The Goldenrod was hailed as river wonder for its Caruthersville debut in 1910. “Never since the beginning of the show business on the river has a show boat so tremendous in size been seen,” proclaimed a review. “Its beautiful outside appearance is set off by the front entrances with its plate glass doors and mirrors, all studded with thousands of electric lights and flaming arcs.”
French’s New Sensation presented “first-class” variety shows with two dozen performers, a journalist reported, describing the program as “a short play, or, perhaps, a minstrel scene as an introduction, followed by an olio of signing, ventriloquism, slack-wire walking, sleight-of-hand feats, dancing and trapeze performances.”
French avoided metropolitan areas and larger towns for his floating theater. “The cities usually have amusements of their own, but the little hamlets scattered along the bank of the river have no pleasure beside an occasional singing school,” he said in 1889. “Wherever there is a church or footpath there must be a more or less scattered settlement, and anything in the nature of a novelty coming to one of these places will be advertised by word of mouth through a radius of ten miles in the course of a day.” French fired a cannon from his barge to alert potential customers of a vicinity.
A large showboat like Markle’s broadcast its arrival with a calliope, or “steam piano,” for extraordinary amplification. “No other music has the long-range effectiveness of that of the steam piano,” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. “It penetrates into the faraway hills. It percolates through the thick woods of the bottoms. The farmer’s boy hears it, and the farmer’s help. ‘The show boat’s come!’ they cry, one to another, and they are very glad.”
“Played in the city street, [a calliope] makes only discordant and strident noise. But played on the river—ah! Is there any music so sweet as that?”
“We couldn’t think of doing business without the calliope,” said W.P. McNair, captain of the New Era showboat, in 1905. “The steam piano brings the crowd. It carries all the way from five to ten miles. Few can resist its seductive strains.”
Steam calliopes blasted the river valleys for a half-century before bandleader Fate C. Marable, a black pianist from Paducah, Ky., lent jazz and ragtime to the pipe melodies. “Fate Marable, the demon calliope artist [is]… generally conceded to be the premier harmonic tooter of the Mississippi,” The Rock Island Argus and Daily Union saluted in 1912.
“There are calliope players and then more calliope players, but when Fate allows his fingers to wander dreamily over the brass keys all lovers of ragtime sit up and take notice.”
Marable, to become recognized as “one of the important figures in the dissemination of jazz,” hired New Orleans masters like Louis Armstrong for his orchestras on the Streckfus Steamers line. Armstrong, cornet wunderkind, left New Orleans for the first time with Marable, heading up the Mississippi on the excursion steamer Sidney in spring of 1919.
Armstrong performed his breakout trumpet solo at the Caruthersville wharf, Pemiscot County, Mo., according to recollection of Verne W. Streckfus. The milestone possibly occurred May 23, 1919, on the first visit to Caruthersville for 17-year-old Armstrong, but period newspapers didn’t confirm in a recent electronic search. Streckfus management resisted star recognition for musicians, and only the bandleader Marable was mentioned in reports and advertisements available from 1919 to 1921, during Armstrong’s three seasons traveling on riverboats.
But this American music was epic, unmistakably. Modern analysts concluded that the black youth nicknamed “Satchmo” by Marable, the kid marked by parental neglect, juvenile crime and racial segregation, stood as the jazz genius of single-most impact. And Armstrong was gifted in bridging racial and cultural differences of audiences, for his trumpet sound, enthusiasm and humor.
“His arrival on the excursion boat scene found him near the start of his long career as a crossover musical entertainer, and he was then a timid young man, as yet unsure who he was,” observed author William Howland Kenney, for his book chapter “Louis Armstrong and Riverboat Culture” of 2005. “But even he could not ignore his amazing talent, so Armstrong gradually discovered the courage to confidently project an image, one at which American audiences marveled in the 1930s and 1940s.”
“Much of Armstrong’s unusual persona came from his childhood of extreme poverty and limited education, but his past also found encouragement in the process of his migration to the North and his subsequent chasing after the gigs. He and his jazz, even the partially tamed jazz that he played on the excursion boats, took some of its optimistic spirit from an important link between music and movement. Like the blues, jazz is a form of culture that readily travels,” Kenney wrote.
“Jazz may have been invented in New Orleans, but its new context on the Mississippi and the Ohio and in the major river cities changed it.”
In 1920 Caruthersville and southeast Missouri buzzed over Marable’s “Palmetto Jazz Band,” marquee act on the mammoth steamer Capitol. The old showboats might’ve attracted three or four hundred for a landing performance, but a water ride with Marable’s band would top the mark. “The dance fans of this community will be given a real treat on Tuesday, September 28, when the new steamer Capitol comes to Caruthersville for a moonlight dancing excursion under the auspices of the Junior Chamber of Commerce,” touted The Democrat-Argus. “It is next to impossible to keep your feet quiet when you hear Palmetto Jazzerites play the popular dance numbers.”
The night lived up to hype and Armstrong was surely brilliant, if unmentioned in dispatches. “Almost 600 people attended, there being a large number from nearby towns in the crowd,” the Caruthersville paper noted in a glowing review. “The jazz experts manufactured scads of harmonious concatenations for the edification of the onlookers and the generous use of the jazzes and the whole big party set themselves diligently about the work of enjoying the occasion.”
“It was a real moonlight affair, for once, for a big moon rode majestically through the heavens while the big boat no less majestically plowed the bosom of the mighty Father of Waters.”
Decades later, Cape Girardeau jazz legend Raymond F. “Peg” Meyer reflected on his colleague Fate Marable. Meyer’s first jazz band in southeast Missouri had featured pianist Jess Stacy, reared in Malden and Cape Girardeau, who went on to fame with Tony Catalano, Benny Goodman and Bob Crosby, among bandleaders. Meyer and Stacy worked for Streckfus Steamers in the 1920s, and Meyer lauded Marable for the “best excursion boat orchestra I ever heard.”
“Louis Armstrong, Baby and Johnny Dodds and many others who became nationally known played with his group,” Meyer wrote for his exquisite book Backwoods Jazz in the Twenties, 1989. “Fate Marable’s orchestra performed what I call riverboat jazz. It was not Dixieland. I am pleased that today he is beginning to be recognized by jazz lovers around the world as the ‘King of Riverboat Jazz.’ ”
Marshes were drained, forests were cut, and roads constructed in Pemiscot County, Mo., finally, during the early 20th century.
Population boomed, peaking at 46,857 in 1940, having quadrupled over four decades. Poor blacks and whites arrived in waves from the Old South, tenant farmers and sharecroppers, seeking betterment in the flat, reclaimed acreage. The former Swamp-east Missouri had assumed proverbial status, as yet another “promised land,” although mechanization was already trimming manual jobs. Indeed, this was the last frontier for traditional Southern agriculture.
Black blues musicians and white country pickers multiplied in Pemiscot County through the Depression Era and World War II, and the honky-tonks and roadhouses grew thick, especially along new federal Highway 61.
Bootlegging was wide-open along Sixty-One from the “state line” border zone north to Hayti, with repeal of Prohibition only legitimatizing a portion of the market. Illegal gambling and prostitution were rife in the county with police and public officials on the take. A citizens group denounced the political corruption, vice and underage drinking. A newspaper reported “roadhouse and dance-hall establishments being run ‘outside the law’ and mushrooming in cities along the highways in Pemiscot County.”
Music was clearly top choice in entertainment for the northern delta masses. Song and dance went along with alcohol in most effective fashion for any joint or gathering. And street drugs of Bootheel Missouri were led by marijuana, cocaine, “speed” and painkillers. Morphine was available, especially at state line, in tablet and injectable forms.
Lethal violence was constant, considered a byproduct by the good-timers of Pemiscot County. Prejudice influenced many conflicts but the overriding force just amounted to mean, rough people—dangerous individuals of any color, male and female, too high on booze and dope, always ready with weapons.
The scene was magnet for talented musicians who saw prospects in Pemiscot besides farming. Blues artists came up from Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi. Early on Gertrude Pridgett passed through, known as “Ma Rainey, and Albert “Sunnyland Slim” Luandrew, Robert Johnson, Johnny Shines, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, and Eddie Boyd.
The storied roadhouse Club Casablanca, known for great music and bloody assaults, sat on the Missouri side of a gravel road at state line, west of the concrete arch where Highway 61 crossed into Arkansas. Electronic bluesmen frequented the concrete-block hotspot run by James “Dizzy” Vance, Memphis native and former Negro Leagues baseball player, during the joint’s heyday following World War II.
Casablanca headliners included guitarists Chester “Howling Wolf” Burnett and McKinley “Muddy Waters” Morganfield, along with trumpet man Willie Mitchell and keyboardist Isaac Hayes. In summer 1949, Vance met Riley “B.B.” King at WDIA Radio in Memphis and booked him for the club.
“I remember I paid [King] $35 a night, and the audience went wild that first night,” Vance told Blytheville writer Ron Russell in 1973. “We must have had 400 people in here by the time they had heard of him. B.B. still calls every now and then, just to keep in touch and see how things are going.”
“There were others…,” Russell recounted of name players at the Casablanca: “Bobby (Blue) Bland, who later went on to star at New York’s Apollo Theatre; Jimmy Reed, who rose to the top of the charts with his recording, Take Out Some Insurance On Me Baby, in 1957; and equally prosperous Little Milton and Bill Harvey.”
“And then there was Hank Ballard, who with his Midnighters created the twist while doing one-night stands in the Casablanca and similar Mid-South nightspots almost a year before Chubby Checker made it go.”
King, speaking with author Sebastian Danchin, recalled meeting guitarist Earl Hooker in “Club 61” at the Missouri border during 1952. When the bar closed B.B. and Hooker joined other musicians to jam; “we played all night; we just sit and played,” King said. “That was my first time meetin’ him, and from then on, we was friends the rest of his life.”
Bluesmen appeared at Caruthersville, including B.B. King, Howling Wolf, Earl Hooker and pianist Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins. Accounts lacked venue details, but Caruthersville was notorious for black juke joints along the riverfront, in the clapboard “Tin Town” section on both sides of the seawall, with place names like Jump Spot, Cotton Club and Sportsman’s Hall.
Droves of white performers hit Caruthersville and companion town Hayti, meanwhile, many already packing star names in “hillybilly” and “western” music, associate movies. Singing cowboys appeared locally such as Buck Jones, Tex Ritter and Zeke Clements, of radio and film fame.
The traveling troupes of Grand Ole Opry in Nashville were major draws. Appearing locally were Minnie Pearl, Ernest Tubb and The Texas Troubadours, Uncle Dave Macon, The Wilburn Family, Louvin Brothers, Roy Acuff and The Smoky Mountain Boys, Tommy “Butterball” Page, “Little” Jimmy Dickens, and Ferlin Husky, native of southeast Missouri, along with Don Helms.
Opry idol Lloyd Estel “Cowboy” Copas, “The Country Gentleman of Song,” was big in Pemiscot County. Copas appeared with his band The Oklahoma Cowboys at the Caruthersville Armory in 1953, a decade before his fatal plane crash with Patsy Cline and Hawkshaw Hawkins in western Tennessee.
A great local favorite was Eddy Arnold, dashing guitarist and singer, the RCA Records sensation of manager Tom Parker and Pioneer of the Nashville Sound, per the 1997 biography by Michael Streissguth. “Smiling Eddy Arnold” first won fans in southeast Missouri through his early radio broadcasts from Jackson, Tenn., and St. Louis. In the mid-1940s Arnold packed shows at the Caruthersville Fairgrounds.
Tex Ritter’s strong following spanned decades in Pemiscot County, beginning with his movies and promo stops in Caruthersville during the Depression. Local crowds turned out on steamy July 31, 1959, to see the aging celebrity paraded through Hayti and Caruthersville under threat of thunderstorms. “Tex sang his famous Boll Weevil song and a few other numbers,” reported a local correspondent.
“The young hung on his every sounding word, and gathered around afterwards to have him autograph scraps of paper.”
Elvis Presley’s local shows notwithstanding, the first rock ’n’ roll event to attract thousands in southeast Missouri was likely Caruthersville’s centennial celebration in June 1957. Fairground stages featured four young musicians from Sun Records in Memphis: Carl Perkins, with his hit song Blue Suede Shoes; Jerry Lee Lewis, of Crazy Arms; Warren Smith, Rock and Roll Ruby; and Billy Lee Riley, with Flying Saucer Rock and Roll.
The cast were regular performers in Pemiscot County, at venues like Zanza Club and Joy Theatre in Hayti, and the B&B Club in Gobler. The area crawled with more rock pioneers, rockabillies, on local shows by Narvel Felts, Matt Lucas, Charlie Feathers, Eddie Bond, Travis Wammack, Hayden Thompson, Carl Mann, Joe Keene and many more.
Modern country performers appearing in Pemiscot were led by Harold Jenkins, or “Conway Twitty,” and the multi-talented Charlie Rich.
Drummer Al Jordan, native of Gideon, Mo., toured with Felts, Twitty and Rich, among stars. In 2017 Jordan discussed music history in the region and particularly of Hayti, where he retired. “Elvis used to stop here in Hayti all the time,” Jordan said, setting up personal anecdote about Gwin’s Café at the highway, circa 1960.
“Right after I first started music, we went in there one night after we’d played in an old place, and I sat down in a booth where they had a little sign there, said, ‘Elvis Presley sat here.’ I took a napkin, wrote on there and stuck it over, said, ‘Al Jordan sat here.’ ”
“My little sign didn’t last long.”
Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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