1955: Elvis Effect Rocked The Missouri Delta

Fourth in A Series

By Matt Chaney, ChaneysBlog.com

Posted July 11, 2017; Revised July 22, 2017

The stories about Elvis Presley carried on around southeast Missouri, for generations, after he’d played local dance halls and bars in 1955, rising to stardom.

“Elvis Presley was the greatest entertainer in the whole, wide world,” Onie Wheeler, Nashville performer and a Missouri Bootheel native, said upon Presley’s death in 1977. “Ordinary things don’t get attention. Elvis had movements with his music. He was different and that’s what it takes.”

The late John Mays always confessed: “I’m the guy who said, ‘This guy here [Presley], he’s got nothing. He’ll never make it.’ ” Mays, a longtime announcer and newsman for KBOA radio in Kennett, Mo., met the 20-year-old Elvis in spring 1955. Presley visited the radio station before his show at the B&B Club in tiny Gobler, a dirt crossroads on the county line.

“Jimmy Haggett was our country deejay, and he brought Elvis Presley to appear on a [Friday] night at the B&B Club,” Mays said, speaking later on KBOA. “Jimmy was good at booking. He had a lot of contacts down in the Memphis area. Elvis hung around the studio, and I’ve told this story before… I remember hearing Elvis on Sun records, and he didn’t impress me.” Mays chuckled, noting that Presley was interviewed on-air, “but nobody was really excited about it.”

Presley rated second-billing that night at the B&B, with Wheeler the headliner. Haggett also opened with his band, The Daydreamers. Presley’s songs for Sun Records were regional hits expanding south and southwest, riding on his radio play and live performances from Missouri to New Mexico. The titles included “That’s All Right Mama,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” and “You’re Right, I’m Left, She’s Gone.”

Haggett later said of Presley: “I knew he had a different style when he first started recording for Sun. And when I started working on shows with him, and saw the reaction of the crowds, and the crowds he drew, I knew the boy had something.”

Retired musician Al Jordan recalled 1955, when he was a schoolboy in the Bootheel, hurrying home each afternoon for Haggett’s radio show from Kennett. Jordan would tune the AM dial to 830, KBOA, for live music, records and Haggett. “Jimmy would say, ‘Weelll, we’re gonna have a big dance Friday night at the B&B Club at Gobler, and we’re gonna feature the blonde bombshell from Memphis, Tennessee—Elvis Presley.’ ”

Similar to sport, early rock inspired waves of youths in the delta flatland, Jordan among them. “We had a lot of musicians from this part of the country, northeast Arkansas and southeast Missouri,” he said. “The music from here, and Memphis, it’s like a combination of gospel, blues, and country. And back then they called it rockabilly. It was hillbilly music, actually, what they called that, with a beat to it. Up-tempo, swing.”

“They took country music and put a jazzed-up beat to it. Actually, Bill Haley and The Comets [of Pennsylvania], he was like the father of rockabilly, and rock n’ roll,” Jordan said. “But then Elvis came along and they christened him as The King of rock n’ roll.”

Haley and The Comets swept the East and West coasts in 1955, rolling on their hit “Rock Around The Clock,” immortalized in a movie. But in the heartland, the Mississippi River Valley, Elvis Presley captivated young people, accompanied by his cutting-edge band mates Scotty Moore, on guitar, and Bill Black, upright bass.

The Elvis experience felt personal in southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas. “Because Elvis, ya know, he worked the B&B Club, he worked the National Guard Armory at Sikeston, worked the National Guard Armory at Poplar Bluff—all around here,” Jordan said at his home in Hayti, Mo., during a 2017 interview. “Wherever he could find a place to play, he played it.”

All along the corridor of federal Highway 61, kids took up guitars and more instruments for making music, rock n’ roll. “Elvis kicked everybody off, you might say. He jump-started everybody,” Jordan said. “They thought, ‘My God, if Elvis Presley can do it, I can too.’ But—they failed to realize Elvis had the looks, Elvis was something new, and Elvis had Colonel Tom Parker to promote him.”

“The thing is, down through the 55 years that I’ve been involved in the music, there’s only one Elvis Presley.”

Special thanks to Steve Mays for his website on historical KBOA radio

Select References

Gallaher, E. (1955, June 19). WTOP’s Eddie Gallaher on records. Washington Post, p.J10.

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

Payne, S.E. (1977, Oct. 5). Country music star remembers King of Rock as ‘greatest.’ Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p.1.

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