1955: Elvis Effect Rocked The Missouri Delta

Fourth in A Series

By Matt Chaney, ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Tuesday, July 11, 2017

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

“Elvis Presley was the greatest entertainer in the whole, wide world,” Onie Wheeler, a Bootheel native and Grand Ole Opry performer, said after 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, 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, adding 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’s band also opened.

Haggett recalled Presley “had his original Sun records out… ‘That’s All Right Mama,’ ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky,’ and ‘You’re Right, I’m Left, She’s Gone,’ [and] ‘You’re A Heartbreaker’—those type songs.’ ”

“I knew he had a different style when he first started recording for Sun,” Haggett said, decades later on KBOA. “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.”

Al Jordan was a schoolboy in the Bootheel, typically hurrying home to hear Haggett on the radio from Kennett. Jordan tuned the AM dial to 830, KBOA, for live music, records, and Haggett, often accompanied by his band The Daydreamers.

“Jimmy Haggett, he had an afternoon radio show,” Jordan said in 2017, a retired musician.  “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.”

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

In southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas, the Elvis experience felt personal. “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. “Wherever he could find a place to play, he played it.”

Kids grabbed guitars and more instruments for “makin’ music,” rock n’ roll, all along the Highway 61 corridor.

“Elvis kicked everybody off, you might say. He jump-started everybody. 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.”

Jordan smiled. “The thing is, down through the 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.