Preview episode of the upcoming book River Shows, Jazz, Blues and Country Music, by Matt Chaney
Copyright ©2020 by Matthew L. Chaney, Four Walls Publishing
Sunday, July 19, 2020, chaneysblog.com
This post is in memory of Benjamin Keough, grandson of Elvis Presley
During the 1960s, U.S. Highway 61 was reduced to a byway in southeast Missouri—and throughout the lower Mississippi River Valley—supplanted by Interstate 55 of the new federal road system. And traveling southbound from Cape Girardeau and Scott City, where I-55 blazed over knobby foothills, motorists met a stunning sight: the great delta flatland, stretching into beyond. The interstate’s twin tracks bore straight south, melding together in the distance, with the horizon a flat line.
Southeast Missouri had been ocean coastline in eons past, an ancient embayment subsequently altered through ice ages and meltdowns, concluded geologists. The modern Mississippi River stood relatively young at around 10,000 years of age, scientists calculated in the 20th century, with the delta basin composed of sediments washed from across the continental interior. Core drilling indicated more than 1,000 cubic miles of sediment filled an entrenched rock valley from Cape Girardeau to New Orleans. Geologists determined that the New Madrid Fault, notorious seismic rift, would never resolve for boulders far underground, encroaching perpetually.
Delta swamps and spillways were drained, levees fortified in the early 1900s, as farms and communities developed from Missouri to Louisiana. Population influx was led by planters and sharecroppers from the Old South, escaping regions beset by soil depletion and the boll weevil. In “reclaimed” delta land, the basic scenery was crop rows, flat, rolling on in expanses of cotton, corn, beans and alfalfa, framed only by fence and tree lines.
On appearances the delta seemed no place for artistic greatness to influence a civilization, yet it became wellspring for American music. Multiple genres were impacted, including folk, gospel, blues, ragtime and jazz, “hillbilly” music or country, and, ultimately, rock ‘n’ roll. And the essential delta factor, according to authorities, was the rub of class and race in a harsh frontier.
“All the music culture that’s come into Memphis has come in here from poor whites and poor blacks,” said Judd Phillips, record producer, in 1979. “I think we need to take into consideration that poor whites and poor blacks came in here looking for jobs… and they were singing their hearts out. It’s not there in Chicago, or New York, or on the West Coast. It came from right here in the melting pot of human suffering.”
“These untrained musicians in the Mid-South, from the delta of Mississippi, the delta of Arkansas, west Tennessee, southeast Missouri, northwest Alabama—you had a combination of country people,” said Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records, brother of Judd. “I mean really country musicians, amateur musicians, black and white, the likes of which no other section in this land had.”
Delta songsmiths “created a sound out of the way they lived and their backgrounds and their roots,” said Al Bennett, recording magnate reared on a farm in northeast Arkansas. “I don’t think it was designed.”
“There are two choices in Arkansas…,” said singer Ronnie Hawkins, founding member of The Hawks. “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.”
As a boy Johnny Cash helped his family clear tangled swampland for a meager farm at Dyess, Ark., with floodwater the perennial threat. Cash believed the experience translated later for his music, attracting wide audience. “When you work close to the earth on some poor dirt farm… you learn to understand the basic things about love and hate and what people want from life,” Cash observed.
“I think the Mississippi delta was just as fertile to American culture as the delta was in ancient Egypt,” said author Nick Tousches, biographer of Jerry Lee Lewis, in 1994. “It was where black people heard the white man’s music and made something new out of it. It was where the white man heard the black man’s music. And people say the blues came from Africa; well, I think they really came from the Deep South.”
Author Rose Marie Kinder heard lyricism in everyday delta expressions. The language of her native southeast Missouri “differs from anywhere else in the state or country,” Kinder said. “It’s subtle, perhaps, but you’ll know the true southeast Missouri vernacular when you hear it. It’s not Southern inflection, not just metaphor and certainly not just colloquialisms. It’s wit and pacing and sharp, apt observation.”
“An added pronoun or two can make music if they’re in the right place.”
Elvis Presley appreciated modern aircraft, he just didn’t like flying, and now the TWA jet he’d boarded in Los Angeles struck turbulence at 35,000 feet, bearing east at 600 mph. A massive storm system draped the country this early Thursday morning, June 30, 1960, with damaging winds having struck St. Louis at midnight. But Presley’s flight charged on through rough skies and then, three hours airborne, the Boeing 707 decelerated noticeably, dropping in elevation.
The aircraft nosed downward, immersed in clouds, jumpy through pockets, pitching about. The fuselage quivered and visibility was zero outside. A few years earlier young Elvis would’ve been terrified in his seat, but he’d learned better about flying in the Army, especially on jets. Presley was tense on descent in the 707 but knew landing was near at Lambert Field in St. Louis. He thought of good thoughts, like the old saying, of reaching home in Memphis, Graceland mansion, and of getting there by car, his preferred mode of travel.
The plane’s landing navigation was state-of-the-art electronics, leading pilots and aircraft to earth. Cloud cover began separating and Lambert Airport came into view below, its runways crisscrossing in giant outlay. Morning sunlight burned in from the east, shimmering off the Mississippi River at downtown St. Louis.
The urban sprawl westward represented St. Louis County, suburbia and commercial development including the airport and auto plants, so fascinating from above. Super highways snaked along with cars swirling round “cloverleaf” interchanges. Lindbergh Boulevard marked the metro’s outer belt, and new Interstate 70 was pure freeway, a few miles pavement adjoining Highway 40. Subdivisions clustered along Lindbergh in honeycombs of streets and cul-de-sacs; strings of homes were uniform below, cookie-cutter models of ranch and split-level.
The big plane came down right over Lindbergh traffic to land yonder on Runway One at Lambert. Pilots hit brakes and reversed thrust, big rubber tires bowed and groaned, and the Boeing slowed down to taxi speed within 4,800 feet. Elvis Presley—age 25, heartthrob singer-actor, more famous than the president—exhaled after a long night and morning yet. He was wide awake now, no amphetamines needed, ready to go home after 10 weeks shooting the movie G.I. Blues in Hollywood.
St. Louis weather was sultry and blustery, rain light, with storms still forecast. Presley and cousin Gene Smith disembarked the aircraft, donning sunglasses under dark skies, avoiding recognition. Passing incognito wasn’t exactly their goal, for Elvis enjoyed meeting fans and signing autographs, posing for photos. Mobbing was his constant fear, capable of manifesting in seconds, as the superstar experienced worldwide. Nothing of the sort transpired at Lambert and local media had no clue Elvis was here.
He and Gene loaded a rental Cadillac without interference. Elvis slid into the driver’s seat as usual, turning the ignition key and hitting the gas. The luxury car shot out of the lot to a cloverleaf exit for Lindbergh Boulevard and looped the down ramp, tires squealing. Elvis merged quickly into traffic, southbound.
Presley put pedal to the metal, coming up fast on the new Holiday Inn at the Lindbergh intersection with “I-70.” The Holiday Inns of America Inc. was brainchild of Kemmons Wilson, Memphis businessman, acquaintance of Presley and an investment partner of Sam Phillips, Sun Records. Phillips had produced pioneer rockabilly hits of Elvis with Scotty Moore and Bill Black during 1954-55. Sun sold Presley’s contract to RCA for $40,000, and Wilson, reputed genius for launching his hotel chain, was rather infamous for advising Phillips to release the singer.
Presley glanced at this first Holiday Inn of St. Louis, occupying choice location at major highways and the airport. On another morning he might grab a room for sleep, to “crash” after a restless night, but not today. Rainy weather meant no chicks at the hotel pool, none Gene could herd to meet Elvis in his room. The celebrity was Memphis bound, besides, where plenty females awaited him, girls to women.
The Cadillac sped on, weaving through cars and trucks on Lindbergh, a most dangerous roadway labeled Racetrack of Death by a coroner. The notorious Dead Man’s Stretch, some three miles of the four-lane, would tally 150 casualties for the year, including 12 fatalities. White crosses stood at roadside, reminders of the dead erected by activists. Presley tore through in the big car, never minding track hazards. Heck, since ’56 he’d driven New York expressways, California freeways and German autobahns. Elvis relished flying low, in vehicles on ground, like hauling ass around Memphis on his motorcycle.
Presley wouldn’t stop for food in St. Louis although restaurants lined Lindbergh. Local classics were Schneithorst’s for breakfast, Dohack’s for barbecue, and The Parkmoor for burgers. Spencer’s Grill in Kirkwood was an institution, open 24 hours “If You Want Good Food,” per the advertisement. Franchises bustled along the boulevard like Steak ’N Shake, Dairy Queen, Big Boy Burger and Howard Johnson’s.
Billboards pasted the roadsides of St. Louis, prompting the Post-Dispatch to complain “our highways are being disfigured.” Billboards for Meramec Caverns and Onondaga Cave were everywhere, a joke among locals and visitors alike. Lindbergh stood littered with cave ads since the parkway linked highways to the Ozarks, particularly Route 66.
Suspect advertising drove cave signs, “Ozark truth” in marketing myth, such as the claim Daniel Boone discovered Onondaga. Billboards blared: “VISIT THE FAMOUS Jesse James CAVERN… MERAMEC CAVERNS… JESSE JAMES HIDEOUT… World’s Only Natural Air-Conditioned Restaurant and Souvenir Stand.”
Elvis always noticed a theater marquee, filing movies in memory, and Ronnie’s Drive In was a suburban fixture at Lindbergh and Route 21. A double feature was slated to begin at nightfall with Stop! Look! and Laugh!, starring The Three Stooges, and the opener, My Dog, Buddy, starring a German shepherd. The outdoor theater also served as travel marker for Lindbergh drivers.
Presley’s next turnoff came directly, Lemay Ferry, where he struck the “River Road” south to Memphis—U.S. Highway 61.
Matt Chaney is compiling companion books on Southern music, tentatively titled River Shows, Jazz, Blues and Country Music and, the sequel, Rockabillies in the Missouri Delta. See the page Stories from River Music to Rock in the Northern Delta. For more information, including Chaney’s previous books, visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.