Second in A Series
By Matt Chaney, ChaneysBlog.com
Posted Saturday, May 6, 2017
Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney
In 1970 an Ontario writer interviewed musician Ronnie Hawkins at the latter’s backwoods home in his adopted Canada. John Lennon had recently visited—or hidden—at Hawkins’ place, and the famed Beatle topped the writer’s topics. Hawkins also answered questions on his former American band The Hawks, which led to founding of legendary group The Band.
But Hawkins relished discussing Arkansas, his native home south in the states, and Memphis, Tennessee, fading rock n’ roll capital.
“On that circuit you’d play with Carl Perkins and some of those cats,” Hawkins said. “You’d travel one-nighters then, and some of those dates were 400 or 500 miles apart. That’s why I ended up in Canada.”
“A friend of mine, Harold Jenkins, was playing in Hamilton, and he convinced me to come up here because you could play one club for six nights at a stretch. He eventually wrote a song called ‘It’s Only Make Believe,’ changed his name to Conway Twitty and split.”
“There are two choices in Arkansas,” Hawkins continued. “You either pick cotton for three or four dollars a day, or you can play music and get out. So there’s an awful lot of people trying to pick guitars in that area.”
Eastern Arkansas encompassed thousands of flat square miles in row crop, but a hungry musician could find light across the muddy Mississippi in Memphis, city on the hill. “There were so many of these real good rockabilly acts that came out of Memphis that you’ve never heard of. Maybe they had one hit in the Memphis area and that’s all,” Hawkins said.
“There was Johnny and Dorsey Burnette with their big old slim cousin playing guitar. They were the ones that showed Elvis Presley how to play a little bit. That was when he had pimples, broken teeth and blond hair.”
Paul Burlison was guitarist for the Burnettes, and, following Hawkins, the musician and former deejay took his own look back for journalists.
Burlison recalled the Memphis area in post-World War II, when a special sound was fermenting, growing audible from streets and farms. Burlison said the emerging strain had that name too, rockabilly, long before kid Presley entered a recording studio.
“Back in the early ’50s, you would hear black groups from out in the fields playing the blues over the radio in Memphis,” Burlison said. “I used to play country music over KWEM in West Memphis [Arkansas], and sometimes I’d play blues on the same station behind Howlin’ Wolf. That was around 1951.”
“See, all of us liked certain parts of the blues and certain parts of country, so we just tied them together and put a little beat to it, and that was what we called rockabilly. And the people [in bars] really liked it. Whenever we’d blast ’em with something that had a pretty good beat, they’d get out there on the dance floor and the dust would get to flying.”
Burlison was speaking in 1981, during separate interviews with Robert Palmer and Robert Hilburn, of the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, respectively. The writers were natives of the “delta” valley along the lower Mississippi River.
In 1953 Burlison was older than Presley when they worked together at Crown Electric in Memphis. Elvis had just graduated from Humes High, and on breaks the buddies strummed guitar and harmonized. When Presley cut “That’s All Right” at Sun studios, shaking the music world, Burlison felt energized.
“That record opened the door for all of us around here,” Burlison said. “It combined country and blues, which we had been doing in clubs but which no one would play on the radio. Suddenly, we all had momentum.”
Fred Horrell remembers his Elvis Presley moment in 1954, at Cape Girardeau, Missouri, along the Mississippi River.
Horrell was 16, driving to school when the radio blared Presley’s hit “That’s All Right,” released by Sun Records in Memphis. “It was the darnedest sound that I’d ever heard in my life. Man, it was crazy,” says Horrell, who played football as a schoolboy and worked nights, weekends.
A busy kid already, the passionate Horrell was stoked over rockabilly, and he traded for a guitar. “I bought a book and started learnin’ chords,” he recalls, during a recent interview in Cape Girardeau. “I learned how to get the [fingertip] coordination, how to strum and change. And it just kind of evolved from there.”
“I loved the sound of that guitar.”
Today, Horrell owns a carpet business on Highway 61, historic river road known as the “Rock and Roll Highway.” Downhill from his store, great delta bottoms stretch southward to the Gulf of Mexico. This vast flatland, lightly populated, has yielded waves of musical talent in rock, country, blues, jazz and gospel. Stars of American music hail from the delta, always.
At the breakout of rockabilly, Highway 61 traversed 100 miles from Cape Girardeau south to the Arkansas border. Throughout the corridor, youths grabbed guitars to bang “the beat.” They sang up-tempo and jittered and swung, trying to emulate the “Blue Moon Boys” on stage: Presley, guitarist Scotty Moore, and bass player Bill Black.
Across southeast Missouri, boys dreamed of going to Memphis. They talked of playing guitar and cutting records like Elvis, taking their crack at stardom.
Fred Horrell would be one to do it.
Call it a good problem, but Sam Phillips had one nonetheless at Sun Records in the wake of Elvis Presley. His suddenly famous studio was besieged by youths, begging to cut discs.
“These were the rockabillies, the first punks, the original wild men of rock and roll,” Palmer recalled for The New York Times. “Beginning around 1955, encouraged by the early successes of a young man who called himself the Hillbilly Cat—his real name was Elvis Presley—they came pouring out of the southern backwoods, pounding on record company doors to ask for auditions. For a brief, incandescent moment, it seemed that they were about to take over the western world.”
At independent Sun Records, Phillips and his small production staff would hear practically anyone, at least. “If you walked in with a guitar, they would record you,” recalled Hayden Thompson, a Mississippi musician. “They might not release you, but they’d record you. There must have been 1,000 guys they recorded there and stuck up on the shelf.”
“Every boy in the South with a guitar lined up outside Sam’s door,” Carl Perkins said later. “He just picked the best of them.”
Perkins was rock icon in the making when Phillips signed him in late 1954. Sun Records also latched onto future superstars in J.R. “Johnny” Cash, from Dyess, Arkansas, and Jerry Lee Lewis, the piano revolutionist from Ferriday, Louisiana.
But Phillips and staff missed on legitimate artists, including Burlison and the Burnette brothers. The hot Memphis trio tired of waiting for Phillips’ attention, particularly since they’d help bring up a raw Elvis, and bolted for New York City. Known as Johnny Burnette and the Rock n’ Roll Trio, they won an ABC talent show, signed with Coral Records, and appeared prominently in the movie Rock, Rock, Rock!
Missourian Narvel Felts was overlooked at Sun while Roy Orbison fell disenchanted and returned to Texas. Harold Jenkins languished, of Mississippi, as did Charlie Rich, an immense talent from Forrest City, Arkansas, across river from Memphis. Rich wrote and sang the Top 30 hit “Lonely Weekends” for Phillips, but he left Sun in following Felts, Orbison and Jenkins—Conway Twitty—out the door. All charted hits on other recording labels.
Major studios plucked away Sun stars as their popularity exploded. In late 1955, for example, Phillips felt forced to sell and relinquish Elvis rights to RCA and “Colonel” Tom Parker, the badgering, conniving agent.
Perkins, Lewis and Cash recorded No. 1 songs for Sun, but they departed too. Sun Records suffered of constant capital shortfall, problems in promotion and booking, and for a distribution network that Phillips had to tend himself, driving thousands of miles. Plastic discs and audio tapes piled up everywhere in the modest building.
“There wasn’t any way for Sam to deal with all that,” says Joe Keene, retired musician and studio owner in Kennett, Missouri, who was friend and associate of Sun personnel. “Sam couldn’t get big enough to be like RCA, or Decca. I think that after Elvis came along, the door was flooded with people.”
“It got to be a little bit overwhelming, and they had to start making choices.”
By his senior year in high school, 1956-57, Bill English fashioned himself a rock n’ roll singer. English was an Ozark kid in little Piedmont, Missouri, secluded in rocky hills, who was a natural showman aspiring for big stage.
Elvis was role model for English, naturally, much to the chagrin of Louis Chaney, athletics coach and math teacher at Piedmont High. “Forget Elvis Presley, he’s a flash in the pan,” Chaney griped. English liked the youthful instructor, respected him, but didn’t buy the dire prediction for Presley and rock music. Mr. Chaney wasn’t much older than the students but square, man.
English continued answering to the nickname “Hound Dog,” proudly, and kept up appearances, greasing his hair in the Elvis do. English wowed kids at the school talent show, looking snazzy on stage in blazer without necktie, moving in his suede shoes. Fluid and handsome, the dark-haired English sang Presley songs, snapping fingers and shaking in time.
Hound Dog English loved rockabilly and Memphis beckoned. The Elvis hometown was barely three hours from Piedmont by car, driving fast enough. For young Bill English, a rockin’ attitude and Memphis visions could get serious.
Singer-guitarist Fred Horrell got his chance to audition at Sun Records in 1958. From southeast Missouri, however, that involved more than merely walking in “down there” with a guitar.
Horrell fronted Mert Mirly and The Rhythm Steppers, hotshot band based in Cape Girardeau, 170 miles north of Memphis on Highway 61. Sun Records typically didn’t schedule appointments by phone or letter. The matter involved being there, per the old saying, to corner Sam Phillips or another producer.
Horrell assumed the task himself. He’d already made the Memphis trek to see Presley’s Graceland mansion and to hunt music contacts. “I was wantin’ to go with this business, and I’d been down there before,” Horrell says.
Horrell, 20, drove to Memphis and strode into the Sun office, where he encountered Leon Barnett and Jerry Tuttle, two top musicians from Missouri. Barnett and Tuttle sat waiting, as members of the Felts band, but Horrell wouldn’t take a seat. “I said, ‘Hell with it. I ain’t got time.’ I went on back to the studio, up to the control room. [Producer-musician] Bill Justis was in there, and I’d never met him before. But I set up an appointment for us to come down there.”
A couple weeks later, Mirly’s Rhythm Steppers traveled to hallowed Sun studios for audition. “We went down there and did it,” Horrell says, smiling. “Course, they didn’t take us. I wouldn’t either, with the songs we had. But Justis did tell me I had a good recording voice.”
Incredibly, dynamite song content was at hand for the Cape band. Horrell heard it one evening after a session, when a teen-aged group member, schoolboy poet, rapped out his own tune right in Horrell’s car. “He got down in the damn floorboard, and he was beatin’ it out on the dash, and singin’ that song. And I knew that was a great song,” Horrell declares yet, excitedly.
Indeed, that kid songwriter was Billy Swan, and his fresh verse was “Lover Please.”
Horrell considered Swan’s lyrics as prime opportunity for the band. Others weren’t so impressed. “We had a practice session, and I learned that song, and I wanted us all to learn,” Horrell says. “I wanted to record that song.”
“I tried to get the guys to practice it, and they were out of the mood for that stuff. They sat around playing ‘Wildwood Flower,’ crap like that. And we had an excellent guitar player, Charlie Thurman.” The Lover Please project sputtered as Horrell left Mirly’s to form his own band, and an eventual cut by Dennis Turner, another Cape phenom, didn’t fly with record buyers.
Finally, for music posterity, pop singer Clyde McPhatter released his cover of Swan’s tune, which rose to No. 7 on the Billboard chart. “McPhatter took the same arrangement, changed the key, put the R&B styling in,” Horrell says.
Horrell did catch a break in 1962, when former Presley bass player Bill Black raided Cape Girardeau for musicians. The Bill Black Combo was charting hits and Black wanted Horrell for touring. Horrell took the job and hit the road, as The Combo headlined big clubs and opened for stars like Orbison.
By August of 1964, Bill English had resigned himself to a career as schoolteacher, not a rock singer. English had given his all to music in college at Arkansas State University. His band had played the Memphis circuit, met music stars and cut songs. But the records didn’t sell and the group broke up.
Now English was working for Louis Chaney, his former teacher and coach at Piedmont. Chaney, an administrator of Potosi Schools in the Missouri Lead Belt, had hired English to teach PE and coach in the junior high. The new school year would begin in three weeks.
Then English got a phone call from Memphis.
Bob Tucker, former band mate and college roomie of English, was playing guitar for the Bill Black Combo and managing the group. The Combo had just signed as opening act for the Beatles tour of North America, and Tucker wanted to hire English as singer. They would leave immediately for San Francisco, first show date for The Beatles.
“I wanted to play rock n’ roll. So bad,” English later recalled. Moreover, Tucker’s offer would almost triple the teaching salary of English, with the Beatles tour and further bookings for the coming year. But English begged time from Tucker, for apprising two mentors of this development.
Hound Dog drove to Piedmont to tell his father, Joe English, school music director, who gave his blessing. Then the young man returned to Potosi to inform Mr. Chaney, the guy who used to trash Elvis and rock music.
But Chaney’s perspective had mellowed; he supported English in joining the Bill Black Combo and Beatles tour. Chaney had to find a new PE teacher, quickly, but he better understood Bill English’s music passion in 1964. Chaney’s three young sons were Beatles fans, after all, including this writer.
“I was proud of him,” Dad wrote in 2006, following the death of Bill, our family friend, to recurring cancer. “Bill English was making music… something he always wanted to do.”
“We were all happy for him.”
Series continues soon at ChaneysBlog.com
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Palmer, R. (1978, April 23). The punks have only rediscovered rockabilly. New York Times, p.D19.
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Tucker, B. (2017, March 10). Interview with author, Marion AR.
Matt Chaney is a writer, editor, publisher and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.