Remembering Jimmie Rodgers, Music Greats In Mo-Ark Delta

Billy Springer, retired guitarist at Kennett, Mo., recalls the Blue Yodeler, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Perkins brothers, among players

By Matt Chaney, for chaneysblog.com

Posted Thursday, October 24, 2019

Copyright ©2019 for original content and historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney, Four Walls Publishing

Historical evidence continues to surface on the last musical tour of Jimmie Rodgers, yodeling great, as he looped through southeast Missouri and Arkansas at end of 1932.

Recently I have uncovered news texts and witness accounts that confirm a minimum 10 scheduled shows for Rodgers in Missouri—at Kennett, Malden, Dexter, Sikeston and Charleston—along with two shows at Blytheville, Ark., during that holiday season. Time gaps in the dates suggest more discoveries remain, additional shows in other towns to affirm.

Here is the list of scheduled stops for Jimmie Rodgers on local tour in 1932, with corroborating news texts in the References section:

  • Nov. 30 at Kennett, Palace Theatre.
  • Dec. 8 at Malden, Liberty Theatre.
  • Dec. 9 at Malden, Liberty Theatre.
  • Dec. 10 at Malden, two tent shows with Billy Terrell’s Comedians.
  • Dec. 13 at Dexter, Weeks Theatre.
  • Dec. 14 at Dexter, Weeks Theatre.
  • Dec. 15 at Sikeston, Malone Theatre.
  • Dec. 16 at Sikeston, Malone Theatre.
  • Dec. 17 at Charleston, American Theatre.
  • Dec. 18 at Blytheville, Ritz Theatre.
  • Dec. 19 at Blytheville, Ritz Theatre.

Regarding Jimmie Rodgers and more music talents, I’ve come to know a living link, Billy Springer, legendary steel guitarist at Kennett.

Springer is 90, born 1928, embodying music history for his experience, associates and accurate anecdotes. The man recalls songs and artists from World War I to present, male and female, of music like “old-time” folk, “hillbilly” and western, jazz, blues, gospel and rock. Springer played alongside greats of rockabilly and country—Scotty Moore, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Conway Twitty—among his colleagues crossing decades and genres.

Springer has been a Jimmie Rodgers fan since wee boyhood in the delta. From Billy’s earliest memories, circa 1932, the Blue Yodeler stood huge for Springer clan and kin of northeast Arkansas and Bootheel Missouri, marshy farm country along Highway 61 and the Mississippi River.

“I was pretty young, and we’d get Jimmie Rodgers records from Sears, Roebuck Catalog. My mama, every time one would come out, she’d order it,” Billy said. “We had a big ol’ Victor Electrola, set up kinda like a desk.”

“My mama would set me up in that chair, and I’d stand there and listen to them Jimmie Rodgers songs. That was the only way she could get me quieted down.”

About this time, mother Ollie Belle Springer heard exciting news—the “Singing Brakeman” was coming, Rodgers himself, on local tour.

***

Musical revolution rushed the northern delta in 1954-55, rockabilly, breaking from Memphis, impacting southeast Missouri. A call for musicians went out from Kennett by Jimmy Haggett, an ambitious promoter, bandleader and deejay on KBOA radio.

Haggett solicited artists from Sikeston to Memphis and scored big, securing Elvis Presley, rockabilly king of Sun Records, for stage shows in the northern delta. Haggett had instantly established rep as promoter, attracting more rock stars for his marketing in Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee.

In early 1955 Haggett billed shows for the Blue Moon Boys, Presley’s trio with Scotty Moore on guitar and Bill Black, keeping beat on upright bass. Haggett packaged them with other acts, including his own hillbilly band, for stage stops like Leachville High School, the Sikeston Armory, and the B&B Club at Gobler, Mo., remote crossroads.

“I knew he [Presley] had a different style,” Haggett later commented. “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.”

Haggett rebranded his outfit, dropping the moniker Ozark Mountain Boys for one to embrace western swing and rockabilly. Trumpet, saxophone and piano were added to the band he renamed Jimmy Haggett’s Daydreamers.

Haggett phoned his former steel guitarist Billy Springer, finishing a job at Cairo. “I sure need you now,” Haggett told Springer. “I’m gonna start booking stars, artists, and I gotta have a big band to back ’em up.”

Billy recently recounted the conversation. “I started hearing about Elvis through Jimmy. He booked everybody that came outa Memphis: Bud Deckleman, Warren Smith, Charlie Feathers, Eddie Bond, a bunch of ’em. There wasn’t a soul down there Jimmy didn’t book.”

Springer accepted Haggett’s offer and returned to Kennett, opening a new phase of his career, glittery already. Springer had known and accompanied fine musicians for a decade, many from Grand Ole Opry or headed there. Springer met the artists primarily while a radio musician at Kennett, Caruthersville, Blytheville and Memphis.

Names included Jerry Jaye, Buddy Emmons, Paul Howard, Clyde Moody, Wilburn Family, Sonny Boy Loden [Sonny James], Louvin Brothers, Pappy Stewart, Stoney and Wilma Cooper, Tommy Paige, Lonnie Glosson, Wayne Ranney, Pete Pyle, Ted and Wanda Henderson, Kern Kennedy, Curly Hickson, Speed Moody, Onie Wheeler, Dale Potter, and the veteran Slim Rhodes—who regaled Billy with stories of shows alongside Jimmie Rodgers, old friend.

American rockabilly proved epic if brief during the latter 1950s, and Billy Springer stood out, made his history. Today Springer is humble of his role and amazed as anyone, reflecting on this Field of Dreams, pioneer rockers in the delta.

People often ask him about Elvis Presley, specifically September 1955, when Haggett booked the singer a final time for the B&B. The show in Pemiscot County marked one of Presley’s last at small venues, anywhere, and Haggett’s Daydreamers, with Springer on steel, opened for the roadhouse crowd.

“Elvis’ band was nice guys,” Billy said. “Elvis, I don’t remember ever talkin’ to him… I talked to Scotty. I always went with the musicians, ya know. I was interested in the music, and Scotty had that great cotton-pickin’ sound on guitar.”

Moore utilized the EchoSonic amplifier designed and manufactured by Ray Butts, a buddy of Springer in Cairo. When Springer played at Turf Club in the storied river town, he hung out next door at Butts music store. Ray, former touring accordionist with Chuck Harding, made good conversation for visitors as he tinkered around in electronics.

The revolutionary Butts amplifier was rage among guitarists such as Chet Atkins and Les Paul. Butts hand-crafted his EchoSonics, building more than 60 total, and today’s surviving models are prized by collectors worldwide. In Kennett, Springer declares the amp elevated Scotty Moore and thus Elvis.

“Scotty’s the one that come up and made Elvis,” Billy argued. “He made that sound, Scotty Moore did. That lick of his… with that echo chamber, man. Heck, it sounded like a 10-piece orchestra, and then he never got credit for that.”

Later, Springer wrote songs and cut a 45 disc at Moore’s Fernwood Studio. Scotty played guitar for Springer’s record, featuring singer Buford Peek on Wishing and Knock Down, Drag Out, A- and B-side titles. The latter was Billy’s ode to the raucous B&B.

In the rockabilly years Haggett’s Daydreamers cut several discs at Sun Records, with Springer on steel. Billy had initially worked the Memphis studio in 1951, arranging his swingy instrumental Hot Foot Rag. Slim Rhodes recorded the song for the Gilt Edge label of 4-Star Records, featuring composer Billy Springer on lead at steel.

Springer’s music stories are fascinating for the genesis factor, grassroots details of stars in making, operating locally, largely yet unknown.

Whenever Haggett’s Daydreamers played at Newport, Ark., an aspiring singer always managed to get on stage: Harold Jenkins, from Mississippi. “But we didn’t pay no attention to him because he didn’t have no hit or anything,” Billy recalled, chuckling. Then, under new name, Conway Twitty amassed his incredible mark of No. 1 songs, 40 that topped Billboard country charts.

Around January 1957, Springer was booked to back a Deckleman combo at the B&B in Gobler. Springer set up at stage right with a youth on piano, newly arrived from Louisiana: “Jerry Lee Lewis was Bud Deckleman’s piana player that night,” Billy recalled. “He didn’t do no singing and you’d never heard of him.”

“I also played a dance at the B&B with Charlie Rich; sure did, all night long. He was a dandy, boy, I liked him. He was a heckuva piana player, too.”

Springer backed young Johnny Cash on several occasions, 1955-56, but not according to plan. Before Cash shot to fame, Haggett booked him around at the B&B, Zanza, the Watermelon Festival in Hornersville, Mo., more spots. And Cash preferred backing by Haggett’s band instead of his own sidemen, Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant, according to Springer. Western swing was likely factor, specialty of the Daydreamers and a love of Cash since his childhood at Dyess, Ark.

“Yeah, good night, he played with our band a lot,” Billy said. “Now when Haggett started bookin’ Johnny Cash, he wouldn’t play with his band! He wanted to play with our band, see, because we had a great big band. We’d try to play like his band, but we had our style… Johnny sounded right, but our music wasn’t right.”

Haggett intervened after four or five episodes. “At the Zanza Club one night we had Billy Walker, and Warren Smith, Johnny Cash,” Springer said. “When it come time to get Johnny up on stage, he didn’t want to sing with his band. He just had a two-piece, ya know. But Jimmy said, ‘Now, Johnny, you gotta get your band up here now. The people want to hear what you sound like on your records. You get ’em on up here.’ ”

“And from then on, that’s the way we played for Johnny Cash. He’d get Luther and Marshall up ’ere and that’s what the people wanted.”

Springer apparently enjoyed every star he accompanied, but Carl and Clayton Perkins were favorites, from Jackson, Tenn. “I loved them guys,” Billy attested. Haggett booked the brothers and backed them with his band for years, including shows at Reelfoot Lake near Tiptonville, Tenn., native ground of the Perkins boys, sons of sharecroppers.

“Carl Perkins would come over and stay a week, two weeks at a time with us,” Billy said. “He’d bring his band with him… Jimmy had a big house in Blytheville, and he could keep anybody in there. A lot of these artists like Carl Perkins would come and stay with Jimmy, play every night we would. And we’d go over to Jackson. I’ve had the Perkins boys in my house to eat breakfast, supper, whatever.”

“Clayton was wild as a deer, boy. Played upright bass. Carl wasn’t much better.” Billy paused, laughed fondly. “Yeah, it was a lot of fun in them days. We all had fun.”

“When we booked Carl Perkins, you had to go fishin’. We had to fish everywhere.”

***

Jimmie Rodgers, beset with tuberculosis, arrived in Kennett on Nov. 30, 1932, for a night show at Palace Theatre. Wife Carrie accompanied him on the roadtrip from Texas, via Alabama and Mississippi, as confirmed by newspapers and biographer Nolan Porterfield.

Rodgers, 35, drove up alone in his Cadillac outside The Palace that afternoon, “sickly looking,” per a witness account. The story goes a man met Rodgers for distributing showbills in Kennett, and they conversed amicably. Rodgers said, “Just put these fliers out in the poor class of town here, and that’ll be all right.” That evening a packed house saw the Blue Yodeler perform around film showings, his mode of “independent vaudeville.”

“Jimmie Rodgers didn’t have no band with him, just him and his guitar,” Billy remarked in Kennett. “He did that yodeling, ya know, what he always wanted to do. That took care of a band, see. Instead of an instrumental section of stringers, he’d yodel.”

“I was a kid in Manila [Arkansas] then and we couldn’t get here. Back then, to get to Kennett was like going to St. Louis now. There wasn’t no way we could come that far. But I remember him.”

Rodgers died within months of his delta tour, spring 1933, succumbing to TB hemorrhage in New York City hotel room. Back in Kennett, for long afterward, Billy Springer gravitated to locals who saw or met Rodgers, savoring their stories. A relative gave him a showbill of the Palace show, printed on blue paper, since lost in a home fire, as were original Rodgers 78 discs.

“That T for Texas, T for Tennessee, that’s the song that made him, Blue Yodel Number One,” Billy said. “There was 12 Blue Yodels on records.”

“Gene Autry, now, he come along in the ’30s and was puttin’ out records and yodelin’ like Jimmie Rodgers. Then he went on like Jimmie.”

But Rodgers “was the first, the one that started it,” Billy said. “Jimmie Rodgers was the one who started country music.”

Writer and consultant Matt Chaney is compiling companion books on Southern music. Tentative titles are River Shows, Jazz and Country Music in the Northern Delta: Legends of Song, Dance and Circus; and Rockabillies in the Missouri Delta. See Chaney’s page Stories from River Music to Rock in the Northern Delta. For more information, including Chaney’s previous books, visit www.fourwallspublishing.com.  Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

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