Preview episode of the upcoming book River Shows, Jazz, Blues and Country Music, by Matt Chaney
Copyright ©2021 for historical arrangement and original content by Matthew L. Chaney, Four Walls Publishing
Posted Monday, May 31, 2021, chaneysblog.com
When Elvis Presley was an Army private in basic training at Fort Hood, he went home to visit Memphis on a furlough widely publicized. Texas folks waited at roadside to see Presley’s Continental sweep by, and signs were posted in on trees and fences: Elvis Passed Here.
Later in eastern Missouri, 1960, no one expected to see Presley’s Cadillac headed south on U.S. Highway 61, a summer morning. Surely someone recognized the matinee idol in country and town below St. Louis, flying by in the Caddy rental—he was driving—which would jibe with sightings elsewhere. Memphians spoke of Presley on motorcycles around the city, clung to by exotic women, actress Natalie Wood and leggy dancers. Once near Graceland a girl playing catch with friends spied Elvis on a Harley. She turned her glance and was hit in the mouth by a baseball, losing two front teeth. She said it was worth it, seeing Elvis.
No Presley reports made Missouri daily papers after he and cousin Gene Smith sped down 61 on Thursday, June 30. Presumably they enjoyed themselves in the hinterland, heading home to Memphis following a Hollywood film shoot and their harried jet ride to St. Louis, through night storms.
Highway 61 southbound traversed exquisite scenery of the Mississippi Valley, especially below Festus and Crystal City, Mo., where hills and valleys resembled an American Rhineland. Motorists were stunned for the highland views and antiquity communities founded by French and German settlers. Travel writers lauded the trip, “wandering along banks of history in backroads Missouri… rich in legends and lore, time-haunted towns and evocative byways,” as one described.
The road moved through Ste. Genevieve, renowned for French Creole architecture under Spanish rule, attacked by Osage Indians in the 1700s. Farther south, the counties of Perry and Cape Girardeau counties boasted the historic Saxony Lutherans, rustic district of postcard farms and way stops, Brewer, Perryville, Longtown, Uniontown, Altenburg, Old Appleton, Pocahontas and Fruitland.
Sixty One became Kingshighway Street in college town Cape Girardeau, population 23,000, overlooking the Mississippi, where began a frontier trading post about 1794. “Cape” teemed with lore ranging from explorers, Indians and military leaders to steamboat pilots, musicians, composers, circus performers and baseball players. A rich line of American figures were visitors and many dwelt here.
Cape Girardeau’s entertainment past predated the Civil War with flatboat theaters and steam showboats. American circus industry broke out along interior rivers and railways, with major outfits training and touring in southeast Missouri for generations. Circus owners included ringmaster Dan Rice, premier clown, singer, actor and equestrian from the 1840s to ’80s. There was Isaac Van Amburgh, “Lion King” trainer, lord of the animal menagerie. Gilbert R. Spalding and Charles J. Rogers were creators of the Banjo showboat and innovators of the calliope steam organ, among circus standards. Phineas T. Barnum brought sensational acts and exhibits from New York, arriving under maximum hype. The Ringling brothers were regulars in southeast Missouri, particularly Cape, having begun with a wagon show in Wisconsin.
Jazz greats of the 1920s and ’30s played boat excursions from Cape, including local product Jess Stacy, pianist, and Fate Marable of Paducah, Ky., a bandleader for Streckfus Steamers Inc. Marable recruited Dixieland talent from New Orleans, notables such as Louis Armstrong. Swing bands later performed at East Cape, Ill., across the river bridge, orchestras led by Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Guy Lombardo, Harry James, Stan Kenton, Tex Beneke, Lawrence Welk and more.
Cape Girardeau hosted traveling shows of “hillbilly” musicians, “radio stars” with dancers and comedians. Hillbilly groups of clear-channel radio were local favorites through World War II, namely the troupes of WLS Barn Dance Show, Chicago; WSM Grand Ole Opry, Nashville; and Barnyard Follies of KMOX in St. Louis.
Rockabilly pioneers toured Cape in the Boomer Fifties, representing Sun Records in Memphis, led by Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Presley’s Blue Moon Boys—Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black—who played the fairgrounds Arena Building in July ’55.
A writer described Cape County as “Snortherner,” where foothills leveled off into the Mississippi delta, bridging North and South, if not bringing sides together. In June 1960 Elvis Presley drove a bypass route around Cape city, down into the great flatland. Memphis was 170 miles away on delta highways, and he knew every place in between since a kid.
Elvis was right at home.
Generations of entertainers worked the northern delta, common flatland of Missouri, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee. American music styles and players blended here as water, the heartland intersection of rivers, rails and roads. “Country western” and gospel artists flowed back and forth between Nashville and the Southwest. Blues and jazz players moved up and down the Mississippi and railways, catching the Illinois Central Railroad for Chicago, “The IC.” Packs of bluesmen strolled highways and byways, jumping trains at Clarksdale, Helena, Memphis and Cairo.
Rockabilly was spawn of delta music, all of it, and performed live in bars and halls well before disc releases by Sun Records in 1954, according to a host of musicians black and white.
“We were doing what they called rock ’n’ roll,” said A.C. Reed, bluesman reared in southeast Missouri. Reed was born Aaron Corthen at Wardell, a son of sharecroppers and grandson of slaves. A horn player, he came up focused on jazz but switched to blues when swing bands declined in popularity. Reed starred as saxophonist and singer for Chicago bands of the 1940s and ’50s. “We were all playing the same thing—Little Richard, Fats domino. They called it [rhythm and blues] back then, but when Elvis Presley came along singing black music, they decided to call it rock ’n’ roll.”
Carl Perkins had similar impressions, growing up a musician near A.C. Reed but on opposite side of the Mississippi. The Perkins family share-cropped at Tiptonville, Tenn., a landing town bounded by the river and Reelfoot Lake, watery expanse formed by earthquakes. Carl, his siblings and parents were sometimes the only whites on a plantation.
Perkins helped found rockabilly, becoming an American great in songwriting and guitar. “It all started for me in the cotton fields of Lake County,” he said in 1974. “The type of music I’ve always played, I always just called it ‘music with a beat,’ and there’s no question it came from colored people in the field… I couldn’t get away from their rhythm. I loved it. It was in my head. So I started adapting country music to that colored rhythm beat. There were just a few of us white boys doing that type of thing, and one of them was a Tupelo, Mississippi boy named Elvis.”
Elvis Presley commented on roots of rock in 1958, as he entered the Army. “Rock ’n’ roll has been around for many years,” Elvis said. “It used to be called rhythm and blues, and as far back as I can remember it’s been very big, although in the last five years it’s gotten much bigger.”
Rockabillies at Sun Records of the mid-’50s included Presley, Scotty Moore, Bill Black, Charlie Feathers, the Perkins brothers, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Narvel Felts, Malcolm Yelvington, Hayden Thompson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Warren Smith, Eddie Bond, Charlie Rich, and Harold Jenkins, who switched his name to “Conway Twitty.”
Rockabilly featured “electric guitar leads based on both blues and country music models,” observed Robert Palmer, delta-born musician and author. The essential band or sound was “cutting electric guitar [with] furiously strummed acoustic rhythm guitar, slapped string bass, sensual lead vocals with heavy vibrato… and sometimes pounding drums, barrelhouse piano, and rasping saxophone.” Rockabilly sax gave nod to river horn-blowers but also to “cowboy jazz” of the Southwest, masters of western swing like Phil Baxter and Bob Wills, both huge in the delta.
Presley, Moore and Black recorded at Sun Records on July 5, 1954, laying a cover of That’s All Right Mama by bluesman Arthur Crudup. Studio owner Sam Phillips made an acetate dub for WHBQ radio in Memphis, and stations relayed the rockabilly hit, exciting youths of the Mississippi Valley. Radio audiences latched on at Blytheville, Ark., Kennett, Mo., Jackson, Tenn., more delta locations, and the initial press of 45-rpm records sold in weeks. Phillips distributed thousands regionally, unloading plastic discs from his car, and rushed back to print more in Memphis.
Phillips had marketed black artists for years, of jazz, blues and R&B, along with white gospel quartets, hillbilly pickers and yodelers. Then he recorded Elvis, Scotty and Bill, as the trio were quickly known. Some critics charged racism, alleging Phillips had found a white man one to sing “Negro rhythms” and make a fortune. Phillips bristled for decades, finally responding in interviews after Presley’s death in 1977. “I was trying to establish an identity in music, and black and white had nothing to do with it,” said Phillips, once a farm boy with preacher aspirations.
“The Southern black man and the Southern white man understood each other, despite everything, because that basic deprivation existed for both, even though it was extremely more pronounced for the blacks, and we all loved fundamental religion. The fundamental thing for me is that spirit and fervor… I’m no genius, but I had patience, and I hope I had an understanding of where people were coming from and why.” Phillips said Elvis “knew those good old black blues” as a sharecropper’s son. “He was as close to them as I was.”
“I had grown up in the South and I felt a definite kinship between the white southern country artists and the black southern blues or spiritual artists. Our ties were too close for the two not to overlap. It was a natural thing. It’s just that the record business in those days looked at the music as totally separate [racially]. They didn’t realize that it was a natural change and that the public would eventually accept it.”
Washington Post writer Michael Harrington, 1985, pondered cultural impact of the late Elvis. “We discovered that the shock was less musical than ideological. That Presley made his first record within weeks of the historic 1954 Supreme Court decision on school desegregation was just one more indication that new winds were blowing in America. The social intermingling of black and white was being eased by the kind of musical intermingling provoked by rock’s pioneers, an evolution much more important that the sexual one rock ’n’ roll’s critics fixated upon. Little wonder then that it’s as a symbol that Presley still dominates. He was the one who most publicly and effectively sowed the seeds of the new rhythm, and in so doing, unleashed a million libidos. He was the fuse as well as the flame.”
“He simply dipped into America, the America that he heard singing on the radio, the record player, in the church, on the tin-roof shack porch, at the roadhouse. Presley listened to the heartbeat of Tupelo, Miss., and Memphis, Tenn., and imbibed from all sources, black and white, holy and profane. He understood precisely the distance between the hedonism of Saturday night and guilt of Sunday morning and tapped the middle ground, drawing on the energy and fervor that bound as much as separated them.”
“Presley’s sources—blues, gospel, country—shaped another trait: They were working-class art forms, the property of the South’s two disenfranchised minorities, poor whites and poor blacks. Unlike many musicians, Presley never made any bones about his sources. As to charges that he stole his style, one has only to listen to those sources to understand just how much transcendence was involved. Presley displayed enough character to be seen as fresh and innovative. The same could be said of early Dylan and Beatles material.”
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.