The Missouri Delta Nurtured Rock n’ Roll

First in A Series

By Matt Chaney, ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Thursday, April 27, 2017

Copyright ©2017 by Matthew L. Chaney

In 1958 rock n’ roll claimed the musical soul of young Steve Sharp, amidst prime setting—the raucous, renowned B&B Club in Gobler, Missouri, a crossroads village at the state’s southern tip.

“I was 15,” Sharp recalls. “I had a 16-year-old friend who had a driver’s license, and we went down to the B&B. It was a dirt road—not gravel—I’m talking dirt. And muddy… the mud ruts were two-feet deep. But we went down there.”

Steeped in legend, the B&B showcased rockabilly stars like Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and, a few years before, Elvis Presley. Artists of Sun Records, among players in rock and country music, regularly appeared at the roadhouse situated 80 miles from Memphis in Missouri delta farmland.

Entering the B&B electrified Sharp, experiencing his rockabilly epiphany. Talented teen singer Don Hinton commanded the stage but Sharp focused on the drummer, Clyde Lee Farrow. “I’d never heard the sound before, like the snare drum echoing around inside that joint,” Sharp recalls. “It changed my life, right there.”

American youths were passionate about roots rock music, and many in southeast Missouri strove to be performers themselves. Sharp, of Gideon High School, resolved to play drums and bought a used set, practicing diligently.

Today, Stephen R. Sharp is a retired public servant of the Bootheel, known for his career as a state senator, circuit judge, and decorated Vietnam veteran. But his repute extends to accomplished musician, as a notable who appeared on stage with Fats Domino, Charlie Rich, Dale Potter, Narvel Felts, Jerry Foster and Bill Rice, among talents.

Potter, Felts and Foster were native southeast Missourians, leading a local music wave of the ’50s and ’60s that swept up Sharp. “You’re talking about good musicians,” Sharp says, speaking during a recent interview at Kennett.

“I mean, there were some jack-leg musicians out there, but basically we’re talking about people who were good, playing these places of southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas.”

***

In 1931 federal highway crews paved the last section of Route 61 from Cape Girardeau to Memphis, completing the “river road.” During the same period, a massive levee and drainage system finally diverted the mighty Mississippi from its natural, wide spillways that had ravaged southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas in high water. Now the great flatland stood dry enough for human habitation and year-round commerce. Agri-business dominated.

A cluster of roadside merchants materialized at the Missouri-Arkansas border, the notorious “state line” area. Vice and violence had thrived here for years and would remain. Following repeal of Prohibition, several bootleggers established legitimate ventures fronting Highway 61—gas stations, diners, taverns—to accompany their rackets of gambling, narcotics and prostitution. Police officers and a postmaster were convicted in the corruption, among criminals.

Alcohol sales to minors continued openly, helping a boom of music venues along 61. Music evolved perpetually in the delta, with this route destined to be known as the “Rock n’ Roll Highway.”  First, however, jazz, blues, gospel and “hillbilly” strains filled the river valley north from Memphis.

A rhythm-and-blues joint gained prominence in Pemiscot County, Missouri, at the state line. The Casablanca Club was located near 61 on north side of a gravel road marking the border. Racial tension and conflict notwithstanding, Casablanca performers drew mixed-race audiences from several states. The Casablanca booked R&B names of the 1940s to become huge, like Chester “Howling Wolf” Barnett and McKinley “Muddy Waters” Morganfield, along with young cats Bobby Bland, Isaac Hayes and B.B. King.

Venues for country musicians and dance orchestras flourished in southeast Missouri of the early 1950s, according to available newspapers, local recollection, further evidence. Underage drinking and backroom gambling carried on commonplace. Nightspots of wild Pemiscot County included the B&B in Gobler and Club Zanza at Highway 61 in Hayti. Elsewhere a music scene burgeoned around Malden town, driving crowds to Smitzer’s and Pop Werner’s, a pair of establishments along Highway 62 in New Madrid County.

Regional radio stations broadcast records and live music from morning until night. Following suit, television stations brought in solo artists and musical groups for studio shows on the fledgling medium.

Cutting-edge rock n’ roll, meanwhile, percolated from Missouri to Louisiana with an impact from Billy Haley’s band in Pennsylvania, whose 1952 record “Rock The Joint” reached the Midwest. “Beat” music reverberated throughout the Mississippi River Valley.

The musical vacuum was drawing distinctly different genres toward a broad, driving sound that would revolutionize pop culture and marketing. Delta artists both black and white accelerated their beats of guitar, piano and vocals. Forerunners included Fats DominoIke Turner and Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton of R&B; “Sister” Rosetta Tharpe in gospel blues; and Eddy Arnold and Tennessee Ernie Ford from Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.

In Jackson, Tennessee, Carl Perkins and his brothers cranked-up tempo on their guitars, savoring a sharp newness above familiar twang picking. “I don’t think none of us even ever quite knew what it was,” Carl later recalled. “It didn’t have a name; we called it feel-good music.”

“A few guys got brave enough to get out and start playing it in the honky-tonks.”

Series continues soon at ChaneysBlog.com

Special thanks to Al Jordan, Al Jackson and Joe Keene for their lists of historic nightclubs in southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas

Select References

24 SEMO Persons Arrested In Raids Now Free On Bonds. (1952, July 21). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p.1.

A Tennessee Editor Visits Charleston, Sikeston And Vicinity. (1931, June 12). Sikeston Standard MO, p.3.

Bedell, T. (2017, March 8). Interview with author in Van Buren MO.

Brains Behind The Tigers. (1957, April 3). [Photos with cutline.] Blytheville Courier News AR, p.11.

Builds Station At State Line. (1934, March 13). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.5.

Caruthersville Boy Is Gaining Popularity As Rock And Roll Singer. (1960, June 14). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p.6.

Constable In Auto Is Shot From Car. (1931, Sept. 29). Sikeston Standard MO, p.1.

Crawford Asks Gas Tax Zones. (1935, Feb. 1). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Edgar Pullen Dies of Wound Inflicted Saturday. (1933, Nov. 3). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

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

Former Postmaster At Leachville Sentenced. (1934, May 10). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Friday Night. (1950, May 25). [Display ad for Club Zanza.] Blytheville Courier News AR, p.6.

Grand Opening. (1947, June 13). [Display ad for Club Velvet.] Blytheville Courier News AR, p.11.

Harry Bailey Is Coming Home From Uncle Sam’s “Big House.” (1934, June 28). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Highway 61 Officially Opened. (1931, June 23). Sikeston Standard MO, pp.1,5.

Hilburn, R. (1981, April 7). Rockabilly survivor looks back. Los Angeles Times, p.G1.

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

Keene, J. (2017, March 9 & April 20). Interviews with author in Kennett MO.

Kaiser, C. (2013, Jan. 9). Respected judge closes the book on lengthy career. Daily Dunklin Democrat MO [online].

Man Shot, Refuses To Name Assailant. (1935, May 14). Sikeston Standard MO, p.6.

Missouri Man Killed At State Line Joint. (1930, April 7). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Missouri Night Clubs Raided. (1952, July 19). Alton Evening Telegraph IL, p.1.

New Year’s Eve Bill Haley With Haley’s Comets. (1952, Dec. 29). [Display ad for Berky’s Seafood House.] Delaware County Times PA, p.3.

Night Club Operator Held For Murder. (1938, April 21). Sikeston Herald MO, p.12.

Official Raked For Routing Road Along Own Land. (1927, Sept. 13). Sikeston Standard MO, p.1.

Pharmacy Now Serves Missouri Resort Patrons. (1933, Sept. 15). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Piazza, T. (1996, Nov. 13). Lost man of R&R rediscovered. Salina Journal KS, p.27.

Push Pemiscot County Cleanup. (1937, Feb. 20). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.3.

Roadhouse Problems. (1931, July 31). Sikeston Standard MO, p.6.

Russell, R. (1973, March 23). Black blues giants once made state line club a port of call. Blytheville Courier News AR, p.7.

Seize Whisky, Stills and Beer at State Line. (1930, Nov. 21). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Sharp, S. (2017, March 9). Interview with author in Kennett MO.

Shooting Case Defendant Dies. (1931, Jan. 16). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Shootings Mark Pemiscot Election. (1934, Nov. 6). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Shotgun In The Southeast. (1923, March 9). Sikeston Standard MO, p.4.

Sikeston A City Of Opportunity. (1924, May 6). Sikeston Standard MO, p.1.

Southeast Missouri Conquered By Years Of Toil. (1930, June 6). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.3.

Ten Arrested In Raid On Highway 61 Resort. (1934, Sept. 10). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Tentative System Of Main Roadways For State Mapped. (1920, Dec. 19). St. Louis Post-Dispatch, p.3.

The Gasoline Tax. (1936, May 20). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.4.

Tomorrow Night Bill Haley And The Saddle Men. [Display ad for Berky’s Seafood House.] Delaware County Times PA, p.13.
Trial Of Bailey And Companions Is Nearing End. (1932, Feb. 25). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1

Trimble, B. (1973, March 27). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.6.

Tucker, B. (2017, March 10). Interview with author in Marion AR.

U.S. Jury Indicts Pemiscot Sheriff. (1931, April 17). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Whiskey Stills Seized Just Over State Line. (1930, Feb. 19). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Youth Found Slain Near Night Club. (1936, Oct. 26), Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

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