Pioneer American Pop Star: Nelson Kneass

Tenth in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for

Posted Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

With the 19th century concluding in America, as the first musical notes of jazz and “ragtime” rose along the Mississippi River, a pioneer pop artist was remembered again for his great old song.

Nelson Kneass was famous before the Civil War, playing his hit Ben Bolt on piano and banjo, when the sheet music sold thousands in America and abroad. The legend revived during the 1890s, long after Kneass died in rural Missouri. A popular novel and stage drama featured Ben Bolt, the “plaintive melody” sung by comely heroine Trilby O’Ferrall—under hypnosis of the evil Svengali, no less—and suddenly fans worshipped a dead pop star in Kneass.

Kneass was a Pennsylvania native who sang Ben Bolt as early as May 1847, according to advertisements of the Eagle Ice Cream Saloon in Pittsburgh, although initially he might’ve used music of other composers. Various musicians were adapting the song from a poem, in forgettable versions, until Kneass arranged his smash hit. “Kneass was not only an excellent singer but also a very capable pianist, a versatile banjoist, and a talented composer [presenting] first-class entertainment,” observed historian Ernest C. Krohn.

Vocalist Joseph H. McCann said Kneass produced his golden take of Ben Bolt during a riverboat trip they shared from Memphis around 1847, steaming up the Mississippi then eastward on the Ohio. Kneass finished his composition on a landing at Grahamton, Ky., and summoned McCann, according to Will S. Hays of The Louisville Courier-Journal. “If we are not mistaken, Mr. McCann was the first person who ever sang [Ben Bolt by Kneass]… He did so from the manuscript,” reported Hays, a noted lyricist and columnist. McCann toured with the famed Kneass Operatic Troupe and other companies, but ceased in the early 1850s to open a music store in Louisville, among his successful business ventures.

Kneass continued in entertainment but his name faded in the war period. Struggling financially, Kneass complained of receiving paltry royalties for Ben Bolt, a tune beloved in America like Home Sweet Home and the classic Oh Susanna—which Kneass had introduced, incidentally, on stage. A wife died in a riverboat accident while his drinking and declining health caused problems. One story had Kneass arriving at his own funeral, after missing for days, to stun family members and friends gathered round a corpse they’d mistaken for him, fished from a river.

The performer felt illness creeping by September 1869, stomach malaise, while a Kneass troupe toured northern Missouri. His condition worsened on a train ride and he succumbed that night, Sept. 8, at a boarding house in a railroad town named Chillicothe. Nelson Kneass died virtually penniless at about age 46, leaving a young wife and children. His widow could afford $6 for the burial but no gravestone, and the family relied on charity for money to travel home in the East. Surviving troupe players made do from Missouri, largely on their own.

Publicity, praise revived for the showman in his wake. “Nelson Kneass… is dead,” announced a theater critic, unidentified, in The Memphis Appeal. “He was one of those men that worked hard, lived poor and died miserably. He was a genius.”

“He was a fine musician and composed much…,” saluted a newspaper commentary, widely printed. “Ben Bolt was sung in the lordly mansions and in the lowly cottages all over the land. There was a sadness and sweetness that touched all hearts alike.”

“He was the author and originator of very many popular songs,” said Sam S. Sanford, American stage legend, in remembering Kneass. “He and Stephen Foster are the two bards of the minstrels… Kneass belonged to Philadelphia, and as a boy was dressed in petticoats [impersonating girls] on the stage. He was with the Wood’s [minstrels] at Park Theatre in New York, when English opera was first produced. He died poor and unattended by friends… The publishers of Ben Bolt made $50,000 from that one song alone, and its author often needed bread.”

Eventually a modest granite marker was placed on the Kneass grave in Missouri, and the site stood undisturbed a few decades. Then came the “Trilby” sensation, 1890s, the sexy storyline made fashionable through a magazine serial, a best-selling book, and a stage production.

Neo-fandom for Kneass was vogue and visitors to the Chillicothe cemetery cracked into his tombstone, carrying away pieces. “Kneass’s grave was marked until within the last year or so, when curiosity and relic hunters have chipped souvenirs from the slab,” reported The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1899, adding that “scarcely enough of it remains to show that a headstone had ever been there.”

Select References

A Monument To Be Built at Chillicothe, Mo., in Honor of Nelson Kneass, Composer of “Ben Bolt.” (1899, May 21). St. Louis Post-Dispatch MO, p. 34.

Amusements. (1869, Sept. 19). Memphis Daily Appeal TN, p. 4.

Andrews’ Eagle Ice Cream Saloon [advertisement]. (1847, Aug. 12). Pittsburgh Daily Post PA, p. 2.

Ben Bolt. (1869, Oct. 1). Fort Wayne Daily Gazette IN, p. 1.

Ben Bolt. (1894, Oct. 21). Washington Post DC, p. 4.

“Ben Bolt” Author in Missouri Grave. (1913, March 9). St. Louis Star and Times MO, p. 24.

Chillicothe Cullings. (1883, Dec. 11). St. Joseph Gazette-Herald MO, p. 3.

Chillicothe’s 1897 Yesterdays. (1928, June 8). Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune MO, p. 2.

Death of The Author of “Ben Bolt.” (1869, Sept. 25). Clarksville Chronicle TN, p. 1.

Free Concerts Every Evening This Week At The Eagle Saloon [advertisement]. (1847, May 27). Pittsburgh Daily Post PA, p. 2.

From Thursday’s Daily, Sept. 16. (1869, Sept. 18). Weekly Atchison Champion KS, p. 3.

Grise, G.C. (1947, August). Will S. Hays: His Life and Works [master’s thesis]. Department of English, Western Kentucky State Teachers College: Bowling Green KY.

Hays, W.S. (1883, May 26). The Late Joseph McCann. Memphis Public Ledger TN, p. 1.

Krohn, E.C. (1971). Nelson Kneass: Minstrel Singer and Composer. Anuario Interamericano de Investigacion Musical, 7, pp. 17-41. University of Texas Press: Austin.

Missouri Points. (1897, Feb. 18). Kansas City Journal MO, p. 4.

Most Melancholy Accident—Death of Mrs. Kneass, Late Mrs. Sharpe. (1848, Feb. 26). Poughkeepsie Journal NY, p. 2.

Naming Theatre “Ben Bolt” Revives Famous Old Song. (1949, Aug. 16). Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune MO, p. 11.

Nelson Kneass’ Double. (1896, April 12). St. Louis Post-Dispatch, p. 34.

Personal. (1868, July 4). Nashville Tennessean, p. 2.

Songs We Used To Sing. (1890, Sept. 20). Sterling Daily Gazette IL, p. 3.

The Kneass Opera Troupe [advertisement]. (1847, Oct. 16). Cincinnati Enquirer, p. 3.

Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit Email:

The Delta Factor In Great American Music

Ninth in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for

Posted Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

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 vista: the great delta flatland, stretching out of sight. The interstate’s twin tracks bore straight south, seemingly 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, according to 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 one thousand cubic miles of sediment filled an entrenched rock valley from Cape Girardeau to New Orleans. Geologists concluded that the New Madrid Fault, notorious seismic rift of the valley, would never resolve for the encroachment of boulders far underground.

Pristine delta swamps and spillways were drained in the early 1900s, giving way to farms and communities 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 the “reclaimed” delta, basic scenery amounted to level crop rows, on and on—gigantic 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 the talent wellspring of American music. Multiple musical genres were impacted: gospel, jazz, blues, country, folk, and, ultimately, rock ‘n’ roll. And the primary delta factor, said music authorities and others, was the struggle of class and race for people who tried to forge a living from a harsh frontier.

“All the music culture that’s come into Memphis has come in here from poor whites and poor blacks,” said Sam 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.”

The delta musicians “created a sound out of the way they lived and their backgrounds and their roots,” said Al Bennett, a records 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, in 1970. “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 family clear tangled swampland for their meager farm at Dyess, Ark., where floodwater was a constant 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 in 2006. “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.”

Select References

Brown, T. [Prod.], & Perry, H. [Dir.] (1994). Rhythm, Country and Blues [VHS]. MCA Records: Universal City CA.

Chipmunks to Millions. (1977, Aug. 24). Manhattan Mercury KS, p. 15.

Drew, R. (1967, Aug. 19). Listen Hear. Pasadena Independent Star-News CA, p.7.

Eberhart, J.M. (2006, May 14). ‘The Land Is Rich’: Missouri Author Brings a Sense of Place to Her Writing. Kansas City Star, p. H6.

Elvis ‘Got Black Music Into White Homes.’ (1979, Aug. 17). Oklahoma City Daily Oklahoman, p. 15.

Fisk, H.N. (1944, Dec. 1). Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River. U.S. Mississippi River Commission, War Department Corps of Engineers: Vicksburg MS.

Gormley, M. (1970, Feb. 13). Canadian Music Legend: The Story of an Arkansas Rock Singer and His Band. Ottawa Journal, Ontario, Canada.

Hilburn, R. (1969, July 14). Clearwater Revives Its Delta Heritage. Los Angeles Times, p. B18.

Holbrook, J.M. (1994, June 6). Interview with author at Southeast Missouri State University, Cape Girardeau.

Holbrook, J.M. (2017, Sept. 14). Email correspondence with author.

Holbrook, J.M., Snowden, J.O., & Aide, M.T. (1996, Feb. 5). Interviews with author at Southeast Missouri State University, Cape Girardeau.

Interstate 55 Portion South Opened Today. (1965, Sept. 1). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p. 1.

Landforms of Southeast Missouri [map]. (1987). USDA-SCS-National Cartographic Center: Ft. Worth TX.

Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit Email:

1956: Girls Mob Elvis from Missouri to New York

Eighth in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for

Posted Thursday, August 24, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

Screaming girls confronted Elvis Presley in the South by early 1955, signaling his popularity. In southwest Texas his name wasn’t yet electric, “but his star was already destined to rise heavenward,” reporter Sam Kindrick later recalled. “He had that indefinable charisma which turns female innards to mush, female knees to rubber, and sends them into a hysterical state of screeching woozels. When he finished his performance in the Alpine High School auditorium, girls were hoisting their dresses so that Presley could autograph their petticoats.”

The “first Presley riot” concluded a show in Jacksonville, Fla., on May 13.  Elvis kidded about meeting every girl backstage so a mob chased him there, scaring his mother in the audience. That summer females tore away his shirts, including at the B&B Club in Bootheel Missouri. Soon Presley signed a recording contract with RCA Victor and sold a million copies of his Heartbreak Hotel.

Elvis starred on national television, easily passed a Hollywood screen test, and fan madness escalated. “Wherever he appears, screaming crowds of teen-age girls make his entrances and exits a test of strength…,” The United Press reported from New York City in spring 1956, “and the young rock-n-roll hillbilly, or ‘rockabilly,’ invariably ends up minus a jacket, shirt and tie.”

Presley said, “It’s all happening so fast that some nights I just can’t fall asleep. It scares me, you know. It just scares me.”

Weeks later, he showed up shirtless for a press conference in Kansas City, Mo. “Elvis wore a thin sport jacket, gray with black flecks in it,” reported The Kansas City Star Times, “and otherwise was entirely buff bare above the waist.”

Rabid fans necessitated the style, claimed Presley. “These people, teenagers mostly, kept tearing my shirt off—just had to quit wearing ’em,” said the 21-year-old heartthrob. “Never wear a necktie, of course. It can be dangerous—some girl grabbing at my neck could choke me. Never wear a belt. Seems like that’s what they go for next to neckties.” Presley said fans removed watches and rings from him. “They strip anything off me if they get a chance.”

The paper described Presley as “rather handsome. He has big, solemn eyes [of] gray-green, long brown hair cut ducktail and long sideburns.” Presley declined to smile for a photographer, “brooding” instead for the shot.

A newsman posed: “Now you’re in the big time and in the big money. How does it feel to be mobbed by teen-agers everywhere you go?”

“First of all, I wouldn’t say I get mobbed,” Presley continued at the airport presser. “I wouldn’t call a bunch of teenagers a mob. I’d just say they get very excited. They’re excitable… like down in Tulsa a few weeks ago they threw rocks to break out the windows so they could get at me. But when they get inside they only want to shake hands with me, get an autograph or maybe tear off some of my clothes for souvenirs.”

“Now, about being in the big time. It’s really great but I’m more nervous than I used to be… After a show I go up the alley to my hotel and in through a back door… so people can’t contact me. I got to get a little rest.”

A reporter noted that girls chased Presley far more than pop icons Frank Sinatra and Johnny Ray, previously.

“I don’t just know how big they went for Sinatra or Johnny Ray,” Elvis responded. “I hate to say how big they go for me. It would sound like bragging. I guess it’s because I sing rock ’n’ roll, and rock ’n’ roll is so hot right now.”

Shrieking females greeted Elvis at Kansas City Municipal Auditorium on May 24, 1956, when he took the stage with guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black and drummer D.J. Fontana. The music started and Presley went into action. “Between gyrations, Elvis jigs across the stage dragging the microphone after him and leaning at almost horizontal angles,” Bill Moore reported for The Star Times. “He whangs the daylights out of a guitar. He shouts and moans.”

The few policemen on hand sensed a bad situation. “Police gathered on the stage,” Moore recounted. “Others strode at a sort of a dog trot around the sides, attempting to herd the girls back—gently but just sort of firmly… Elvis got through four or five songs before the roof finally fell in. A girl got past the police, bounced up on the stage, and hugged and kissed her panting [idol]. A policeman got her off again, but the signal for the avalanche was on… [kids] poured over the front and over the sides of the stage.”

The United Press reported: “Rock and roll singer Elvis Presley and his band just gave up and quit in the middle of their show… hundreds of teenagers rushed up onto the stage, threw his drummer into the orchestra pit, tore a bright red coat off Presley, and damaged band equipment. Lights were quickly turned out and Presley and his crew escaped further danger from the crowd of mostly girls who reduced [Black’s] upper clothing to a collar of shred-like tassels.”

Moore watched Presley flee, with or without his side men. “Elvis fought his way clear of the hysterical swarm of teen-age girls that broke through the police lines, then he jumped into a motor car parked in the corridor backstage, and was off like a frightened gazelle.”

The Elvis escapade, only the latest to make headlines, amused entertainment columnist Dorothy Kilgallen in New York. “Elvis Presley’s brain trust is having a harder time keeping his name out of the papers than getting it in these days—the crown prince of rock ’n’ roll leads such a colorful life and has such impetuous admirers,” Kilgallen declared.

Presley had rare places to hide by Thanksgiving 1956. Not even in delta southeast Missouri, around relatives, could the pop superstar enjoy privacy. Holiday dinner for the Presley family was foiled, at least for Elvis to attend. Relatives were notified he couldn’t leave Memphis for the get-together at Sikeston, where the negative development dampened “considerable excitement,” according to a local newspaper.

“Sorry, girls, maybe another time,” the reporter cracked.

Not likely. Now Presley starred in movies, banking his first million dollars. People pursued him everywhere, media and all sorts, including sanctimonious preachers who condemned rock music. Fan mail brought 10,000 letters a week. Girls at Springfield, Mo., were irate to learn Presley had stopped in town on a train without public notice; a reporter who’d kept the secret in exchange for an interview received 300 nasty letters.

Elvis stalkers reached family members, who learned silence regarding the reclusive celebrity. Personal information about Elvis, like his coming and going, was becoming family confidential from Mississippi to Missouri.

If the public Elvis were gone along Highway 61, his effect carried on in southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas. Presley’s former local presence and his exploding publicity—national spotlight, global fame in ’56—left lasting impact in the upper delta. More young males passed over activities like ball sports to concentrate on music.

A New York marketer joked he might move to Memphis and “open a used guitar lot.”

Series continues soon at

Select References

706 Union Avenue Sessions. (Accessed 2017, Aug. 24).

Bass, M.R. (1956, Sept. 18). The Lively Arts. Berkshire Eagle MA, p. 16.

Belser, E. (1956, March 30). Elvis Presley and His Guitar Locate Success. Corsicana Daily Sun TX, p. 3.

Eisenberg, D.D. (1974, July 4). Elvis Presley: Star and Country Boy Still. Burlington Daily Times-News NC, p. 41.

Elvis Will Not Be Here. (1956, Nov. 21). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p. 4.

Fans Mourn Elvis. (1977, Aug. 17). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, pp. 1, 16.

Gardner, H. (1956, Nov. 6). Coast To Coast. New York Herald Tribune, p. 13.

Jennings, C.R. (1968, Feb. 18). Elvis Lives! Los Angeles Times, p. M28.

Johns, P. (2016, May 26). Elvis Comes to The Ozarks. Bolivar Herald-Free Press MO [online].

Kilgallen, D. (1956, June 4). Elvis Keeps Brain Trust Rocking. Washington Post, p. 32.

Kindrick, S. (1972, March 16). Offbeat: It’ll Be a Madhouse When Presley Appears. San Antonio Express TX, p. 22.

Lloyd, J. (1977, June 5). Elvis Presley: The Once and Past King. Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram CA, p. 40.

May 13, 1955—Jax Fans Chase Elvis After Show, Tear Off His Clothes. (Access 2017, Aug. 24).

Million Sellers Launch Legend of a Heartbreaker. (1977, Aug. 20). San Antonio Express TX, p. 4.

Moore, B. (1956, May 22). Cool, Man, Especially Minus Shirt: To Keep Teen-Agers From Ripping Them Off, Singer Elvis Presley Just goes Without. Kansas City Times MO, pp. 1, 2.

Moore, B. (1956, May 25). Rolls When They Rock: Elvis Presley Flees to Car After 20 Minutes On Stage. Kansas City Times MO, pp. 1A, 2A.

Presley Says He’s Scared. (1956, May 14). Monroe County News IA, p. 8.

Robertson, H. (1957, Oct. 23). Presley Families Shudder When Telephone Rings. Harrisburg Daily Register IL, p. 7.

Ross, D. (1956, Nov. 11). Long-Haired Idol of Bobby-Soxers. New York Herald Tribune, p. D1.

Teenagers Mob, Break Up Show of Elvis Presley. (1956, May 25). Monroe News-Star LA, p. 10.

Wilson, E. (1958, Jan. 14). It Happened Last Night. Newsday, p. 4C.

Wood, D. (1956, April 19). Presley Leaves’Em Limp—8,000 Squeal at 1st Show. Tulsa World, pp. B1, B7.

Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit Email:

1955: The Local Elvis in Missouri, Cut 2

Seventh in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for

Posted Saturday, August 12, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

A version of this passage posted previously in my article ‘The Local Elvis: From Good Kid to Garbo in Rock Legend.’ This richer draft is for my book on 1950s rockers in the Missouri delta, set for release next year. Chaney

Memphis wasn’t so big a city in the mid-1950s; many locals knew or encountered Elvis Presley on everyday terms. The kid was a regular figure downtown and on the riverfront since relocating to Memphis with his parents, Vernon and Gladys, in 1948. The family had left behind a hardscrabble existence at Tupelo, Miss., when Elvis was 13. He was the surviving child, after a twin brother was stillborn, and the little family stayed tight-knit while hovering above poverty. As Elvis completed high school, the Presleys dwelled in “The Courts” of north Memphis, an urban complex of subsidized, segregated housing.

Music stardom beckoned Presley at outset of 1955, when he turned 20, already a singing sensation on the Louisiana Hayride circuit. Around Memphis he remained known as a mannered youth enamored with song. As a schoolboy he’d been shy and often solitary, but a good kid, a church-goer, always working a part-time job. Many people called Elvis a mama’s boy, too attached to Gladys, but he was no pushover at physical maturity, standing six-foot tall and solidly built.

Presley hadn’t yet blown apart American pop culture, refitted the model, and for a final period he would live and work in relatively common fashion. The local Elvis character remained personable on the street, liked by others, even if flashy and a bit nervous, according to his profile drawn from numerous accounts.

Presley was fond of extended family like cousins, aunts and uncles, and he surely felt at ease in driving across the bridge from Memphis and keeping north on Highway 61. The river road carried Presley through Arkansas and Missouri, delta countryside and communities familiar to him since a boy on visits to relatives.

During 1955 Presley would travel federal 61 north for gaining work and building audience, popularity. At least nine Elvis shows were scheduled in the delta corridor from West Memphis to Cape Girardeau, a 170-mile belt of flatland through Arkansas and Missouri. His trio, now promoted as the “Blue Moon Boys”—Presley, Scotty Moore and Bill Black—would appear at roadhouses, dance halls, schools, armories and fairgrounds.

Smaller venues largely booked the act that year, among some 280 shows in 14 states. The Blue Moon Boys opened January on a tour of Texas, playing schools and halls for enthusiastic audiences. A local deejay declared excitedly, in mispronunciation, that “a kid named Parsley played to 800 folks at Boston, Texas, and they went plumb crazy.”

In mid-January, northeast Arkansas, school kids from Leachville High burst into a newspaper office. The giddy teens promoted their fundraiser with Elvis Presley on stage, the fabulous rockabilly heard afternoons and nights on radio from Blytheville and Memphis. “He’s great! He’s going to be a star!” the students gushed to editors. The paper published a show notice complete with publicity photo of Presley’s trio: Elvis smiled radiantly at center, darkly handsome in sporty tie and jacket, draping his arms around Moore and Black, who beamed in cowboy shirts. The three had become good friends since summer, however long they’d last under mounting pressure.

Soon America’s hottest new band reached Sikeston, Mo., a bustling agricultural center of 17,000 at intersection of U.S. Highways 61 and 60. For the history of Presley appearances in small-town Missouri, the Sikeston event on Friday, Jan. 21, 1955, left a cache of documented fact and credible recollection. The evidence portrayed a friendly Elvis in Sikeston, mixing freely, endearing locals. Presley charmed and impressed people, winning fans during a night he apparently enjoyed.

The Sikeston area felt homey to the young entertainer, for ancestral ties and a cluster of his relatives. Calhoun Presley, a great uncle and family patriarch, was a local fixture in farming, and cousins of Elvis were becoming established in business. Jesse Presley, Elvis’s grandfather and a brother of Calhoun, once farmed in southeast Missouri as a sharecropper. Additionally in Sikeston, Elvis appreciated meeting recording artist Onie Wheeler, area resident and Nashville performer with Grand Ole Opry. Presley admired the classy Wheeler, a soft-spoken music talent and war veteran who offered positive encouragement and advice. Elvis returned his best compliment, remarking that Wheeler reminded him of mother Gladys.

Newspaper and radio coverage preceded the band in Sikeston yet most folks were clueless about the act, publicized as cowboy guitarists and yodelers. Then the Blue Moon Boys came out on the armory stage and broke into song. Presley, billed as a “country music star,” strutted in his pink suit bought on Beale Street. He’d bust loose in a circle, strumming guitar, swinging hips and knees, dancing on toes in white shoes. At the microphone he wailed familiar lyrics but to beats faster, louder. Moore banged out rock riffs on electric guitar while Black hit bass notes and slapped wood. And now the sidemen dressed snazzy themselves, in black shirts and pants with pink vests, white ties.

Mouths had to hang open in the audience. This wasn’t country music. Armory guardsman Barney Cardwell hardly knew what to think. Later at home, his wife asked about the show. “Well, he was a man named Elvis Presley and I’ve never heard of him, but I’ll say one thing, he’s different,” Cardwell said. “We’re transitioning into something different.”

But others applauded Presley led by Wheeler, who had interviewed the budding showman on radio. After the Sikeston show the Opry performer raved over Presley, Wheeler later recalled, as “absolutely the most talented and different entertainer I had ever seen. And I think I was one of the first to tell him so.” The performance was a qualified success and Elvis stuck around afterward, following people to Wheeler’s show at Lakeview Inn in Sikeston. Presley joined his new friend on stage at the nightspot, even playing drums as Wheeler sang.

The rocker’s departure from town was emblematic of the local Elvis among everyday folk, a persona on short time. Presley had a new car at home but still drove beaters on road trips, logging thousands of miles. He was prone to leave a broken-down heap where it sat—a souvenir Sikeston almost inherited. “He was here in an older car that didn’t run good and he parked it behind the armory,” Caldwell later told The Daily Standard. “When he left, some of the fellows had to push him to get him started, and I remember him turning back and waving to us as he drove out of town.”

Select References

Appear at Leachville. (1955, Jan. 19). Blytheville Courier News AR, p. 14.

Blackwell, B. (2008, Sept. 11). Memories of Elvis’ show in Cape remain strong as Tribute to the King takes grandstand at SEMO District Fair. Southeast Missourian, Cape Girardeau MO [online].

Cp. Onie D. Wheeler. (1944, Oct. 12). Sikeston Herald MO, p. 6.

Elvis Presley Gang Of Western Entertainers To Perform at Armory. (1955, Jan. 20). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, see

Editor’s Note. (1977, Aug. 18). Blytheville Courier News AR, p. 6.

Fans Mourn Elvis. (1977, Aug. 17). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, pp. 1, 16.

Guralnick, P. (1977, Aug. 20). Lonely days in high school left their mark on the man who changed history of rock. Ottawa JournalCanada, p.34.

Guralnick, P. (1977, Aug. 28). A prisoner of rock & roll. Mansfield News-Journal OH, p.2.

Guralnick, P. (1977, Aug. 30). ‘Rocker’ launched skyrocket career. Mansfield News-Journal OH, p.7.

Guralnick, P. (1977, Sept. 1). Saga ends with ‘perfect deline.’ Mansfield News-Journal OH, p.39.

Guralnick, P. (1994). Last train to Memphis: The rise of Elvis Presley. Little, Brown and Company: New York.

Heuring, L. (2005, Jan. 21). Elvis visited Sikeston in 1955. Sikeston Daily Standard MO [online].

Jennings, C.R. (1968, Feb. 18). Elvis Lives! Los Angeles Times, p. M28.

Morrison, C.R. (1984, June). Rockabilly Music and Musicians [MA thesis]. York University: Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Onie Wheeler to appear on Grand Ole Opry. (1954, Jan. 11). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p. 6.

Payne, S.E. (1977, Oct. 5). Country Music Star Remembers King of Rock as ‘Greatest.’ Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p. 1.

Presley’s Record Sales Jump Here. (1977, Aug. 17). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, pp. 1, 16.

“Run ’Em Off” Wheeler Attends Convention. (1954, Nov. 29). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p. 3.

Matt Chaney is a writer, editor and publisher in Missouri, USA. For more information visit Email:

Rockabilly Born of Boomer America

Sixth in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for

Posted Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Anonymous 19-year-old singer Elvis Presley was building confidence, self-esteem by the time he cut That’s All Right Mama for Sun Records. But he retreated into his loner shell when deejay Dewey Phillips debuted the song on Memphis radio. As listener response exploded that night for WHBQ, in July 1954, Presley’s mother fetched him from hiding at a movie theater. “Quick, Elvis,” said Gladys Presley. “They want you over at the radio station. They’ve been playing your record.”

Sun owner Sam Phillips remembered “all hell broke loose” over Presley, speaking later with Rolling Stone. “People were calling that station, and it really actually surprised me, because I knew nobody knew Elvis. Elvis just didn’t have friends, didn’t have a bunch of guys he ran with or anything, you know? Anyway, it was just fantastic. To my knowledge, there weren’t any adverse calls.”

Presley recorded songs for Sun Records through 1955 and the portfolio was soon regarded as pioneer rockabilly, a rock genre of the Fifties variously defined.

Malcolm Yelvington simplified rockabilly as “just a hopped-up version of country,” but rangy characterizations continued for decades. In 1984 music historian Craig Morrison stated: “The definition is based not only on the characteristics of the sound, but in part by the musicians who performed it. A rockabilly performance, for me, is any song in a rock n’ roll or rhythm-and-blues style played by Southern country musicians, reflecting some aspects of the synthesis of black/white styles. I expand on this to include songs by artists who can be perceived as emulating the style of Southern country musicians… and by others who were influenced by these artists.”

Rockabilly resulted of marrying musical strains amid Baby Boomer America. Modern mass media pushed musical integration, particularly television’s influence on pop culture. Morrison noted the factors fostering rockabilly after World War II included audience spikes for country and black music, rise of the disc jockey, urbanization of the working class, marketing toward youths, and durable 45-rpm records, cheaply produced.

“In the early Fifties, country [music] was chic,” Terry Gordon, rockabilly discographer, told Morrison. “Hank Williams songs would be covered by pop singers. You’d have square dancers on TV, etc. By ’54, ’55, rhythm-and-blues was the ‘in’ thing, and that was at the expense of country. There were radio stations that would change format from country to rhythm-and-blues.”

Morrison emphasized rockabilly was spurred by “need for dance music, unfulfilled by the pop music of the day.” The point was echoed by guitarist Carl Perkins and his delta peer of the early 1950s, Paul Burlison. “See, all of us liked certain parts of the blues and certain parts of country,” Burlison said, “so we just tied them together and put a little beat to it, and that was what we called rockabilly. And the people really liked it. Whenever we’d blast ’em with something that had a pretty good beat, they’d get out there on the dance floor and the dust would get to flying.”

Presley corroborated on rockabilly roots, tracing back to his school days in Memphis. Presley, defending himself in 1956 against moralists who alleged “vulgar” music and stage behavior, said, “It’s not bad, it’s just rock and roll, and it has been around for five years now.” Presley described his style as “a little rock and roll and a little hillbilly.”

Burlison, who as a boy used phone wire to electrify a guitar, worked with Presley at Crown Electric in Memphis before the latter made it at Sun. During work breaks the two picked guitars with Burlison offering tips, as moonlighting musician. Burlison felt energized, celebratory, when Presley recorded That’s All Right Mama then Blue Moon of Kentucky for the A and B sides of a 45 disc, which quickly sold 20,000 copies primarily through Southern radio.

“That record opened the door for all of us around here,” Burlison said. “It combined country and blues, which we had been doing in clubs but which no one would play on the radio. Suddenly, we all had momentum.”

And so did the crusaders against heathen “beat” music for young people. “Rock n’ roll probably put more money in the collection boxes of the churches across America than anything the preacher could have said,” Sam Phillips remarked. “Not only them. Disc jockeys broke the hell out of my records. Broke ’em on the air. Slammed them over the damn microphone. Now if I hadn’t affected people like that, I might have been in trouble.”

The producer Phillips had said, before he knew Elvis: “You can’t tell where you’ll strike gold.” And Phillips’ big strikes only began with Presley.

Carl Perkins heard Presley on the radio and met him in person. Then Perkins and his brothers approached Phillips outside the door at Sun Records, pleading to audition. Phillips complied, recalling: “I guess Carl was the best natural country musician that became—mainly through his guitar work—one of the top rockers of all time.”

“This guy, for then, could have been an unbelievable country singer,” Phillips told The Memphis Commercial Appeal. “I was not interested in trying to do country because I thought Nashville was doing fine with it. So we started to play around. Carl could get down on that guitar pretty good. When we started getting a little sassy in the old matchbox [studio]… it showed me that this guy, he wanted to rock like Elvis.”

Another walk-in at Sun hailed from northeast Arkansas, John “J.R.” Cash, who was raw like Elvis to begin, of novice music experience. Cash, 22, had been discharged from the Air Force, arriving at Memphis within days of Presley’s recording That’s All Right Mama. Cash came home with priorities in mind: his fiancé in Texas, Vivian Liberto, and his dream for a musical career. Young Cash got married, relocated to Memphis from rural Dyess, Ark., and took a job in door-to-door sales while attending radio school at night.

Cash met Presley as the breakout singer developed Good Rockin’ Tonight with Moore and Black, and he found Elvis to be engaging. Cash didn’t ask Presley for help in the music business, taking his own path.  Cash wrote songs, played guitar, formed a trio, and purchased radio time.

Cash and his sidemen took an audience where they could find it, including a few family members and friends in January 1955. “The Ray Cash family enjoyed a musical in their home last Sunday afternoon put on by J. R. Cash, [Marshall] Grant, Mr. Tate and Leroy Perkins of Memphis,” reported The Blytheville Courier News, via correspondent from Dyess. “Their wives accompanied their husbands. Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Pickens were also present.”

John Cash gained an audition at Sun, destined to become the label’s best-selling artist. “Elvis was the beacon that brought us all there,” Cash said later. “But we were out there just waitin’ for our chance and opportunity to do it the way we felt it.”

“Elvis opened the door, and Sam let us stay.”

Select References

Allen, M. (2015, Spring). “Just a Half a Mile From the Mississippi Bridge”: The Mississippi River Valley Origins of Rock and Roll. Southern Quarterly 53 (3), pp. 99-120.

Brennan, R. (1956, Dec. 6). Blasé Critics in N.Y. First to Cry ‘Vulgar.’ Daily Boston Globe, p. 17

Crider, B. (1953, Aug. 30). Cellblock Harmony. Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram CA, p. 109.

Crisafulli, C. (2010, Oct. 11). Johnny Cash’s Radio Debut.

Dearmore, T. (1969, Sept. 21). First Angry Man of Country Singers. New York Times, p. SM32.

Ellis, B. (2000, Jan. 9). Phillips on Wolf, B.B., Jerry Lee, Rufus… Memphis Commercial Appeal, p. F5.

Gray, D. (1977, Aug. 17). Legend’s Death Shocks Fans. Lincoln Star NE, p. 6.

Guralnick, P. (1977, Aug. 20). Lonely Days in High School Left Their Mark on the Man Who Changed History of Rock. Ottawa Journal, Ontario, Canada, p. 34.

Guralnick, P. (1994). Last Train To Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley. New York, Boston, London: Little, Brown and Company.

Guralnick, P. (2000) Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll. [Dir. by Morgan Neville]. A&E Networks.

Guralnick, P. (2015). Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll. New York: Little, Brown and Company [book].

Hathaway, B. (1968, Oct. 27). Johnny Cash Did It The Hard Way. San Antonio Express and News TX, p. 139.

Hilburn, R. (1981, April 7). Rockabilly Survivor Looks Back. Los Angeles Times CA, p. G1.

Jacobs, Mrs. J.E. (1954, July 21). Dyess News. Blytheville Courier News AR, p. 2.

Jacobs, Mrs. J.E. (1955, Jan. 19). Dyess News. Blytheville Courier News AR, p. 17.

Kwitny, J. (1975, Sept. 4). Tough Guy on Stage, Johnny Cash Is a Gent as Soon as He’s Off It. Wall Street Journal, p. 1.

Morrison, C.R. (1984, June). Rockabilly Music and Musicians [MA thesis]. York University: Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Palmer, R. (1981, March 4). Recapturing the Magic of the Early Elvis Presley. New York Times, p. C19.

Shearer, L. (1971, April 25). Johnny Cash: The Prisoner’s Pal. San Bernardino County Sun CA, pp. 142, 144.

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

Memphis, Sun Records Integrated Music in Race and Genre

Fifth in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for

Posted Saturday, July 29, 2017

In the early 1950s Sam Phillips enjoyed a measure of success for his upstart recording studio in Memphis, marketing black artists of rhythm-and-blues such as B.B. King, Bobby Bland and Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett. Phillips directed and recorded a pioneering rock song, Rocket 88, by Ike Turner and The Kings of Rhythm, released in 1951 through Chess Records of Chicago. Soon after, Phillips founded his own label in Memphis, Sun Records.

By 1954 Phillips sought a different sound for Sun, and he surely heard the contemporary beat around Memphis. A new music was meshing at bars, halls and fairs since World War Two, although hardly played on radio stations. Essentially, musical tempo was cranked-up on guitar, bass, piano, drum and horn, by players white and black, to fill dance floors like jazz swing of the 1930s.

A music vacuum was drawing distinctly different genres into a broad, driving sound that would revolutionize pop culture and marketing. Forerunner artists of impact in the delta included Turner, Fats Domino, and Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton of R&B; “Sister” Rosetta Tharpe in gospel blues; and Eddy Arnold and Hank Williams of country music.

The Perkins brothers, white “pickers,” developed hot guitar licks in honky-tonks around Jackson, Tenn., north of Memphis. The Perkins band added a drummer, unheard of in country music, to really inject folks with dance fever. “In fact, we called it feel-good music,” Carl Perkins said later. ”We were just taking country music and putting that black rhythm in it, that’s what it was. It was a marriage of the white man’s lyrics and the black man’s soul.”

Phillips envisioned that breakthrough for Sun Records, for America, as a producer in both black and white music. Undeterred by social segregation, Phillips knew white youths increasingly bought “race records,” the R&B of blacks, despite industry fear and ignorance emanating from New York and Nashville.

“Black styles” were sparking “quiet revolution” among young whites, wrote Peter Guralnick, preeminent biographer of Elvis Presley. “Many of the small independent [record] producers were becoming aware of it, and in Memphis, where there had long been a relaxed social, was well as musical, interchange, it was particularly noticeable. White kids were picking up on black styles—of music, dance, speech and dress. ‘Cat clothes’ were coming in; be-bop speech was all the rage; and Elvis Presley—along with Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, and all the other Southern children of the Depression, who would one day develop the rockabilly style—was seeking his models in unlikely places.”

Phillips sensed his chance to harness and harvest a musical convergence of talented and innovative individuals along the Mississippi River. He saw a musician prototype required to lead change. “Enjoying success on the R&B charts, Phillips began searching for a white artist who could move Sun into the more lucrative pop field,” observed Robert Hilburn, music critic and rock historian for The Los Angeles Times, following 12 hours of interview with Phillips in 1981. “Seeing a void in the youth market, he wanted a white singer who could sing convincingly in the upbeat blues style that Phillips enjoyed most.”

Phillips told Hilburn: “I had grown up in the South and 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. They didn’t realize that it was a natural exchange and that the public would eventually accept it.”

“But rhythm-and-blues, from the beginning, was an extremely limited sound,” Hilburn noted. “Alone it could not have reshaped pop music. It needed help. Fortunately, country-western provided that help.”

Malcolm Yelvington was a country player who introduced himself to Phillips at Sun around 1954. “I just asked him for an interview, asked him for an audition,” Yelvington recounted. “And he told me, ‘I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for but I’ll know it when I hear it.’ He said, ‘That’s the reason I listen to everyone that comes in. One of these days somebody’s going to come in here and do something that I’m looking for.’ ”

“And lo and behold, it turned out that Elvis was the one…”


In early 1953, Memphis television presented a young performer named Presley—Toleitha Presley, 9-year-old baton twirler from Sikeston, Mo., appearing on a talent show. Her cousin Elvis Presley, meanwhile, was finishing his senior year at L.C. Humes High School in Memphis. Elvis’s public performances stood limited at that point, to occasions of spot singing since his boyhood at Tupelo, Miss.

After graduating high school, Elvis Presley drove a delivery truck in Memphis for $1.25 an hour. He also started showing up at Sun Records on Union Avenue, often hesitating outside, afraid to enter, according to recollection of Sam Phillips. “I saw that Crown Electric Company truck that he was driving pull up a number of times outside the studio,” Phillips said decades later. “He would sit in it and try to get his courage up.”

Presley was bold enough to come in and pay for cutting two records at Sun, singing four established ballads and strumming his guitar. Phillips assisted Presley on one such vanity production, when the kid was impressive enough. “I could see that he was a highly sensitive person,” Phillips told Hilburn.

“I took him back in the studio and sat him by the microphone. I told him to sing just like he would at home. He was very nervous. He’d sing a couple of words and then look over at me. But we finally got it together. I think we charged people $2 for one tune or $3 for two at the time and Elvis paid for two. They came off good.”

“I wrote his name down, the only time I can recall doing that with a singer,” Phillips said, “and I mentioned the possibility of making a real record if we could find the right song. Well, this just thrilled the hell out of him. He lit up like a Christmas tree with a thousand bulbs on it.”

In spring 1954, Phillips suggested Presley should “woodshed” or jam music with Scotty Moore and Bill Black, country players associated with Sun. A band might result. Presley agreed, even if Phillips still lacked a song for him, along with clear instruction. “I wanted them to get together and get a feel for each other,” Phillips said of the trio. “I also told them to keep an eye out for material. After a while, they came back and we went into the studio a number of times, and it was real rough.”

Presley, Moore and Black finally struck rock music at Sun Records on July 5, 1954, during a demo session in the studio of 11-by-13 feet. They covered familiar songs of pop and country, exploring melody and beat without impressing Phillips, before Presley’s knowledge of discography paid off. Young Elvis “was a big fan of people like Arthur Crudup and Junior Parker,” Phillips said. “He was a great blues and great country music fan.”

The session paused for a soda break but Presley was restless with a Crudup song in mind. “Elvis picked up his guitar and started banging on it and singing That’s All Right Mama. Just jumping around the studio, just acting the fool,” Moore later recalled for author Jerry Hopkins. “And Bill started beating on his bass and I joined in. Just making a bunch of racket, we thought.”

“The door of the control room was open and when we was halfway through the thing, Sam came running out and said, ‘What in the devil are you doing?’ We said, ‘We don’t know.’ He said, ‘Well, find out real quick and don’t lose it. Run through it again and let’s put it on tape.’ ”

Phillips returned to the production board and Presley repeated his Crudup rendition. Moore added electric guitar in stylish solos and bursts: “Rather than just play a few notes, I was trying to fill up space,” he said. Black picked strings and slapped the upright bass, knocking out a beat. Phillips recorded straight takes on one track, without over-dubbing, and quickly declared a wrap.

That’s All Right Mama by Presley wasn’t the first rock-and-roll song but epic nonetheless, historians would proclaim. “At a time when popular music was straining for something new, there was no better catalyst than Presley,” wrote Richard Harrington, music critic for The Washington Post, in 1985. “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.”

While Moore lauded Presley, he didn’t go far in designating That’s All Right Mama as a great moment in American history. “We got through the song and then we listened to it. We all liked it,” Moore said simply in 2004. “I think Elvis would’ve happened anyway. Whether he would have made it and had the popularity he gained, I don’t know. All I know is that he was just eat up with music like we all were.”

Moore praised Phillips for vision and spontaneity, a point echoed by former Sun personnel. “Nobody could duplicate the sound,” said Charlie Feathers, Sun singer-guitarist in the 1950s. “Elvis could make it here with a man like Sam because Memphis was open to anything: cotton-patch blues, country, bluegrass, soul, rockabilly. If there ever was such a thing as the ‘Memphis Sound,’ Sam came closest to it. The music that came outa here was a sorta let’s-try-it-and-see-if-it-works thing.”

Roland Janes, guitarist and sound engineer, said, “What Sam was doing was totally different than anything else that’d ever been on the music scene. And only Sam Phillips would have had the nerve enough to have done it.”

A Phillips trick involved positioning microphones around the little studio, not directly upon singers and instruments. Moore noted that “Sam kept Elvis’s voice close to the music” or set back with the band. “In essence, Elvis’s voice became another instrument.”

Microphone placement was “the most important thing that I had to do,” Phillips said in 2000. “Because I had a very limited board, everything was monaural—there was no such thing as overdubbing. So mikes were placed to complement not only the instruments but especially the voice… I worked sides [of performers]. Very seldom did I work anybody directly. And it wasn’t because I was worried about them huffing. I just had to get what I knew was the best sound, the most natural sound of that person’s voice when he was talking to me a few steps away.”

Phillips mastered slap-back echo, trademark of Sun recordings, “just to make it sound more live,” he said. Producers and disc jockeys tweaked the period’s monophonic equipment, adding sonic textures like electronic echo and reverb. Phillips manipulated a reel-to-reel machine for his echo, setting a recording delay between tape heads, milliseconds apart. The tape gap required skill to gauge precisely, avoid distortion, and Phillips was expert. Feathers said the man pulled “stereo sound” from monaural setups.


On the night Phillips cut That’s All Right Mama with Presley, he shared the tape with radio host Dewey Phillips, a Memphis star for his No. 1 music show on WHBQ. Dewey Phillips, a friend of the Sun owner but of no relation, wanted to air Elvis immediately and requested two acetate record copies.

Next day the Elvis song was cut on acetate discs by needle lathe at Sun Records, and possibly an additional copy went out the door, beyond the pair promised Dewey Phillips. Sun assistant manager Marion Keisker apparently took an initial Elvis record to her second job at WREC radio, the CBS affiliate in Memphis where she co-hosted shows.

Later, longtime WREC voice Fred Cook said he may have been first to broadcast Elvis Presley on radio—briefly. Keisker “came in all excited” with the Elvis record, Cook recalled on his Memphis show in 1991, two years after her death. “She said it was the greatest thing she ever heard.” Cook, however, aired the Presley music only seconds before fading out the volume. “That’s the worst piece of shit I’ve ever heard,” he told Keisker off microphone.

Cook’s opinion of Presley reflected traditional morality of Memphis, but not fresh thought in the river city. Dewey Phillips and listeners proved that on his show at WHBQ, where That’s All Right Mama most assuredly debuted in its entirety, historians agree, and likely on Thursday night, July 8, 1954.

Dewey Phillips was undoubtedly a radio man to cross lines in music, of race and genre, for Sam Phillips and his Presley recording. Dewey’s show “seemed the only place to go,” Hopkins wrote. “A the time, mixing black and white music wasn’t as acceptable as it would be just a few years later.” Hilburn observed that early Elvis style on Sun records “was too country for blues stations, too ‘black’ for country stations, and pop stations weren’t going to touch it.”

Dewey Phillips had already aired R&B songs to the satisfaction of his young white audience, for years, including Rocket 88 by Turner and The Kings of Rhythm. Dewey “challenged all who heard him to step into a new realm, one free of racism and bound only by a good beat,” wrote Bill Ellis, Memphis Commercial Appeal, in retrospect.

Presley’s song was a smash hit that first night on the Daddy-O-Dewey show, with WHBQ besieged by phone calls for replay. Telegrams, postcards and letters piled up. Presley kept his day job a little longer at Crown Electric, where females and phone callers tracked him down. The 19-year-old, living near poverty level thus far, was on way to music stardom and financial security for his family.

Larger progress was forged, public rather than personal, Elvis analysts conclude. “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,” Harrington wrote in 1985. “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 than the sexual one rock ‘n’ roll’s critics fixated upon (though that was real as well).”

“Elvis’ importance in the ’50s was both musical and sociological,” Hilburn wrote in 1987. “Presley—young, white and handsome—was unquestionably in the right place at the right time. Those factors made him far more marketable in the mid-’50s (on radio, television and film) than older rivals (Bill Haley), less handsome ones (Carl Perkins) and, most undeniably, black ones.”

Harrington concurred. “Elvis was so essential at the beginning… 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—shared another trait: They were working-class art forms, the property of the South’s two disenfranchised minorities, poor whites and poor blacks.” Harrington wrote that “Presley never made any bones about his sources.”

Series continues soon at

Select References

Allen, M. (2015, Spring). “Just a Half a Mile From the Mississippi Bridge”: The Mississippi River Valley Origins of Rock and Roll. Southern Quarterly 53 (3), pp. 99-120.

Brennan, R. (1956, Dec. 6). Blasé Critics in N.Y. First to Cry ‘Vulgar.’ Daily Boston Globe, p. 17

Eisenberg, D.D. (1974, July 4). Elvis Presley: Star and Country Boy Still. Burlington Daily Times-News NC, p. 41.

Ellis, B. (1999, Aug. 14). Music’s Kingmaker—Phillips As DJ Debuted Elvis, Bridged Racial Gap. Memphis Commercial Appeal, p. F1.

Ellis, B. (2000, Jan. 9). Phillips on Wolf, B.B., Jerry Lee, Rufus… Memphis Commercial Appeal, p. F5.

Fox, M. (1980, Oct. 26). Elvis—Memphis and Timing Created Legend. San Bernardino County Sun CA, pp. C9, C12.

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

Ghianni, T. (2004, July 4). And They Called It Rock ‘n’ Roll. Nashville Tennessean, p. D10.

Guralnick, P. (1977, Aug. 20). Lonely Days in High School Left Their Mark on the Man Who Changed History of Rock. Ottawa Journal, Ontario, Canada, p. 34.

Halberstam, D. (1993, June 27). The Youth Revolution Begins: Part One of a Five-Part excerpt from “The Fifties” by David Halberstam. Baton Rouge Advocate LA, p. 1A.

Harrington, R. (1985, Jan. 6). Elvis: At Half-Century, The Legend Lives On. Washington Post, p. F1.

Hilburn, R. (1970, Jan. 4). Rock Enters 70s as the Music Champ. Los Angeles Times, p. P1.

Hilburn, R. (1975, Jan. 19). Elvis: Waning Legend in His Own Time? Los Angeles Times, p. O1.

Hilburn, R. (1981, April 19). Sam Phillips: The Man Who Found Elvis and Jerry Lee. Los Angeles Times, p. L1.

Hilburn, R. (1987, July 12). The Tragic Elvis: Despite Grotesqueness of His Final Years, A Lasting Triumph. Los Angeles Times, p. L3.

Hopkins, J. (1977, Aug. 21). ‘Elvis, A Biography’: The Young Years. Baltimore Sun, p. D2.

Lammers, B. (1995, July 9). Memphis Cradles Rock: Blues Gives Birth to a Revolution. Cleveland Plain Dealer, p. 1J.

Lloyd, J. (1977, June 5). Elvis Presley: The Once and Past King. Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram CA, p. 40.

MacDonald, P. (1987, Aug. 14). Pilgrimage to Memphis. Seattle Times, p. C1.

McKenney, M. (1995, June 3). Elvis’ Tape Deck Moves to Cleveland’s Rock Hall of Fame. Kansas City Star, p. E3.

Morrison, C.R. (1984, June). Rockabilly Music and Musicians [master’s thesis]. York University: Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Orr, J. (1997, Aug. 15). Meet The Guitar Player Who Changed The World. Nashville Banner, p. 3.

Payne, S.E. (1977, Oct. 5). Country Music Star Remembers King of Rock as ‘Greatest.’ Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p. 1.

Rea, S. (1986, Jan. 5). The ‘Father’ of Rockabilly Is Once More on a Roll. Philadelphia Inquirer, p. I1.

Roberts, M. (2000, March 2). The Sideman. Dallas Observer TX [online].

Sikeston Talent To Appear on TV Tomorrow. (1953, Feb. 20). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p. 4.

Smallwood, S. (1994, Dec. 15). Rising of Sun Casts Music in New Light. Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, p. E1.

Sun Launched ‘King’s’ Career. (1992, Aug. 10). Kokomo Tribune IN, p. 11.

Walter, T. (1991, Aug. 18). Doubt Cast on ‘First’ DJ to Play Elvis. Memphis Commercial Appeal, p. G5.

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

1955: Elvis Effect Rocked The Missouri Delta

Fourth in A Series

By Matt Chaney,

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 Email:

As Rockabilly Fell, Musicians Adapted in Delta

Third in A Series

By Matt Chaney,

Posted Saturday, June 3, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

Buddy Holly wanted clean clothes. Richie Valens planned a haircut. And J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson felt ill enough for a flu shot.

Foremost, the young musicians sought a break from bus-riding on their hellish winter tour through Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

After 11 days and nights on snowy highways, the players felt like grungy, chilled meat. All had faced hypothermia on a bus, stalled hours in Wisconsin darkness with minus-30 degrees and howling winds. A drummer had to be hospitalized for frostbite, midway through tour dates.

So, following an Iowa show the night of Feb. 2, 1959, the three pop stars—Holly, Richardson and Valens—crammed into a four-seat prop plane at Mason City.

Their pilot was young but gaining experience, and the weather qualified as safe for flight. Local 1 a.m. conditions registered 18 degrees with light snowfall, winds of 35 mph, visibility at six miles. The little plane took off down the runway and rose airborne, northbound for Fargo, North Dakota.

Flight service owner Jerry Dwyer watched the aircraft ascend in the night, reaching about one thousand feet where it banked left, northwesterly. Then, farther distant, the lights seemed to dip toward earth. Dwyer brushed that off as optical illusion, but eight hours later he discovered crash wreckage—and the four dead—in a farm field five miles from the airport.

The Holly tragedy would symbolize downfall of early rock n’ roll, rockabilly, although other factors weighed heavier. Primarily it was Fifth Avenue commercialization, New York City’s influence as pop-music capital, this time for rock, and any pristine sound was snuffed.

Even Holly’s music was softening at his death. The Texan had met his wife in New York and moved to Manhattan, collaborating on song with the likes of crooner Paul Anka and orchestra musicians. “He was moving away from rockabilly…,” historian Craig Robert Morrison later observed of Holly, “had he lived, it is unlikely that he would have added to his rockabilly works.”

In spring 1959, Memphis record producer Sam Phillips declared rockabilly was finished, the music his studio had unleashed. “It’s all over but the mushroom cloud,” Phillips told a reporter.

“The kids just got tired of the ruckus and we are moving into a period of greater variety in taste. More people are going to have big records, but we’ll have fewer fantastic ones,” explained Phillips, whose Sun Records had first released Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore, Bill Black, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, among innovators.

Six decades later, retired musician Al Jordan echoes Phillips. “The rockabilly thing actually only lasted about five years,” Jordan says in the Missouri Bootheel.

“Buddy Holly was kind of like Carl Perkins; he was a stylist. Johnny Cash had a style completely different from everybody, you know, and Elvis had his style. There was a boy from over at Senath, Missouri, Jimmy Edwards, who was a rockabilly artist. He had two chart records then he just kindly fell out of the scene.”

“Because music was changing,” continues Jordan, former drummer in rock and country. “Rockabilly was being changed because of Nashville and New York. In other words, that style of music didn’t go to town anymore.”

“Even country music was changing about then, to more of a pop sound than actual grassroots country.”


Music percolated in southeast Missouri a century ago—jazz, blues, gospel and “hillbilly”—amidst raw landscape.

This was an American frontier, still, with 10 delta counties subject to swamping by the Mississippi at flood stage. During catastrophic events the great river went everywhere, spilling south at a hundred miles wide, sparing only ridges of high sand and jutting limestone.

Southeast Missouri was typically wet with muddy roads, whether in hills or bottoms. But musicians carried on, like jazz leader Raymond F. “Peg” Meyer at Cape Girardeau, where delta flatland met high ground.

“Managing a jazz band in the 1920s was an enlightening experience due to all of the predicaments that could suddenly pop up,” Meyer recalled in his 1989 book, Backwoods Jazz In The Twenties. “If we booked a job five miles from home, and it rained, we never knew if we could get there or not.”

Heading for a wedding dance in the hills, Meyer’s “Melody Kings” sank their Model T in a bog. The four jazzmen got out in tuxedos and pushed, wallowing in mud like hogs. One fell into ditch water, to his neck.

“It is easy to imagine the expression on the faces of the wedding party when we entered the hall,” Meyer noted.

The band trekked to gigs down in the delta, including at Portageville, 70 miles from Cape Girardeau. In rainfall the flats “had no bottom,” Meyer wrote. “Roads through the sandy sections of the area were soft and produced no mud or chuck holes, but were marked by two ruts which the wheels of the car followed as closely as wheels on a railroad track.”

“The only difference was that railroad tracks were straight, and the sand ruts were like a snake’s trail. You could just turn the steering wheel loose, and the car would follow the ruts.”

Returning home one night in the 1921 Ford, from deep in the Missouri Bootheel, the Melody Kings heard talk of a graded section on new federal Highway 61. The stretch remained under construction but did lead due north, a tantalizing prospect for the Cape boys. Police barred traffic at daytime but locals cruised over the grade by night, they heard.

“We started up the new roadbed and it was fine, straight as a ruler,” Meyer wrote. “With nothing in sight we were sailing along at a good clip when all at once I saw a telephone pole lying across the road, obviously to prevent vehicles from entering… Fortunately both front and rear wheels hit the pole at the same angle, and we just took a flying leap and landed on all fours. What elevation we reached I do not know.”

Meyer decided to accompany the Kings’ wunderkind pianist, Jess Stacy, into riverboat entertainment for smoother travel and better pay. They had a blast.

“The wild Twenties brought everyone to life,” Meyer recalled. “Musicians in the Twenties practically became contortionists playing their musical instruments in any unconventional manner, standing on chairs, swaying in unison to the rhythms, wearing crazy hats and clowning in general.”

“Many times I saw Jess Stacy standing on the piano stool, squatting down just enough to reach the piano keys. Much of the popularity of bands in the Twenties came from their actions as much as their musical production.”

In the evolution toward rock music, jazz or “big band” swing is often overlooked as factor.

Jerry Lee Lewis was wearing diapers when Jess Stacy moved up to Benny Goodman’s orchestra in New York City. Stacy, native of Bird’s Point, Missouri, in the delta, contributed memorably to Goodman’s revolutionary “swing” of the latter Depression Era. Stacy was spotlighted during Goodman’s landmark concert of 1938, soloing on the keys to applause in Carnegie Hall.

“Jess Stacy was my first piano player, and he became one of the best jazz pianists in the world,” wrote Meyer.

During the 1940s critics decried swing bands and “jitterbug antics” for supplanting the popularity of symphony orchestra and staid ballroom dance. Rudi Blesh of The New York Herald Tribune ripped “banal music of the large swing bands playing an arranged product.”

“It has been virtually impossible to escape hearing swing, so thoroughly has our atmosphere been saturated with it by a determined effort to sell it,” the reviewer complained.

But an English music historian qualified free movement to beat music as ancient, declaring jitterbugging enthralled humans since the Romans at least. “People want to dance together and have lots of fun in groups,” said Douglas Kenney, London. “They are beginning to tire of just moving around the floor with a member of the opposite sex.”

Few would’ve disagreed around southeast Missouri, where hep jazz music filled roadhouses, dance halls and armories, especially along Highway 61. A 1940 show in Sikeston for Cab Calloway, famed “King of Swing” from Harlem, sold out immediately at a whopping $3 per ticket.

In 1945 Jess Stacy—“America’s famous piano stylist”—returned home to perform at the Colony Club, swank establishment located across the river bridge from Cape Girardeau.

The Colony Club was operated by gamblers in the wild Illinois bottoms. Stacy was among major names to appear on the stage, such as bandleaders Lawrence Welk, Guy Lombardo, Harry James and Woody Herman. Nearby, the Purple Crackle club hosted Count Basie and his orchestra. Louis Armstrong played dates along this strip of Highway 146.

“The Colony Club was a great one,” says Matt Lucas, hit recording artist from southeast Missouri who worked regionally in the latter 1950s and early ’60s. “I played the Colony Club with the Ray Chilton Band, the Bill Bradley Trio and Narvel Felts.”

“I remember how shocked I was to see [jazzman] Al Morgan playing in the lounge. He was big stuff and had a big hit of ‘Jealous Heart.’ I had a drink with him and he said he played there a lot.”

“Those were some great days and nights…,” Lucas recalls, “as the music was changing from the big bands to rockabilly—rock n’ roll.”


Country music headlined in New York City following World War II, and practically everywhere else in America.

“Grand Ole Opry’s current invasion of one of New York’s fancy nightspots is a milestone inevitable for this booming entertainment fad,” reported The Associated Press, June 1952. “Eddie Hill and his troupe of 15 will play folk type music for dancing at the Hotel Astor roof in New York [Times Square] all summer long.”

“Groups of Opry headliners, with all their players, will appear two weeks each. Meanwhile, Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry will go on as before, minus the ones missing in New York.”

In Nashville, reserved seating was sold-out for the summer of Opry performances at Ryman Auditorium. Scrambles ensued over weekly allotments for general admission. “3,600 people pack into the barnlike building for the first hours of the [Saturday] show,” The AP reported. “At 10 p.m. there’s a block-long line outside waiting to grab the 1,400 or so seats vacated at that hour.”

The Opry mainstreamed a distinct music known by various terms. “Some call it folk music,” The AP noted. “Others refer to it as country, hillbilly, mountain or western music.”

It was called pickin’ in the southeast Missouri delta and foothills. This was home region of legendary Opry fiddler Dale Potter and guitarist Onie Wheeler, up-and-comer. The area also claimed a native in Ferlin Husky, star of the Nashville sound in California.

Country music’s mystique was infectious for youngsters like Fred Horrell at Cape Girardeau. “I started playing harmonica at 7 years old… I just loved the sound of that dang stuff,” Horrell says, speaking in a recent interview.

In the 1940s Fred would cock ear to a box radio, concentrating to hear lyrics and notes. He tried to memorize because hearing a song was ephemeral, momentary, since the youngster was without means to record. “Shoot, I’d sit around when I was a boy, and ol’ Hank Williams would come on, moaning them songs, all that stuff. And Roy Rogers, Gene Autry’s singing cowboy.”

Fred idolized his uncle Lawrence Horrell, a champion fiddler who’d joined Eddy Arnold on stage and radio in St. Louis, during the latter’s rise in country music. “I had uncles, fiddlers… and Lawrence, he was excellent.” The boy was bound to play music on stage himself. “That’s what led me,” Fred says.

Fiddle players were a regional hallmark and Dale Potter stood peerless in his time, for anywhere, says Steve Sharp, former drummer and retired judge in Kennett, Missouri. In the 1960s Sharp played on stage with Potter and budding songwriters Jerry Foster and Bill Rice. “We were playing rock n’ roll basically but had the world’s greatest fiddler, Dale Potter, in the band,” Sharp says.

Potter was a native of Puxico, a little community on Crowley’s Ridge at Mingo Swamp. “He grew up listening to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and taught himself to play fiddle listening to them,” Sharp says. “Dale thought there was one fiddle playing, but they were dual fiddles. And he developed a style of playing—called Potter Style of fiddling—where he emulated two fiddles.”

Potter was among country stars and bands appearing at the Sikeston Armory and fairs of southeast Missouri in the ’40s and ’50s. Most were on Opry tours from Nashville.

They included bluegrass maestros Bill Monroe and Art Wooten; Eddy Arnold and The Tennessee Plowboys; Tex Ritter, the “Western Movie Star”; Minnie Pearl, “Comedy Sensation of The Nation”; Ernest Tubb and The Texas Troubadours; “Little Jimmy” Dickens; Lloyd “Cowboy” Copas and wife Kathy Copas; and Ray Price, famed baritone.

Meanwhile, an alternative pickin’ gained popularity in delta honky-tonks and roadhouses, an up-tempo beat of “hillbilly” and rhythm-and-blues that dancers loved. Many musicians would identify this postwar trend as genesis of rockabilly.


As Elvis Presley’s fame rocketed in 1956, he told a Nebraska reporter “rock n’ roll” had really begun about five years earlier. At that time in Memphis, Presley was a schoolboy trying to learn from local musicians like Paul Burlison, maverick guitarist, and his band mates the Burnette brothers, Johnny and Dorsey.

Burlison recalled their trio “combined country and blues” for dance music in bars. Rocky Burnette, Johnny’s son, said the three solidified rockabilly genre in 1953 by “taking Hank Williams tunes, old Joe Turner tunes, and putting a beat to them.”

There were more pioneers, apparently. Mississippi singer Charlie Feathers said he crafted rockabilly early as 1949, declaring the pure sound was limited to vocals, guitar and bass.

Billy Lee Riley, an Arkansas native, believed his delta band made rockabilly. “We’ve never gotten credit for that, but it’s a fact,” Riley said in 1984. “I was doing what Elvis was doing before Elvis did it: mixing blues and hillbilly, putting a laidback, funky beat to hillbilly music.”

The Perkins Brothers Band savored up-tempo picking at Jackson, Tennessee, before Elvis was known. The Perkins boys came up amid the flatland and ridges north of Memphis, influenced by Opry picking but also blues and gospel. As young men they played a sharp beat that melded styles. “It didn’t have a name; we called it feel-good music,” Carl Perkins said later.

Perkins hired a drummer in early 1954, Tony Austin, notes historian Craig Robert Morrison. The addition was unlike country bands, along with other differences. “Carl’s band was popular in Jackson, Tennessee, and was unusual for not having a fiddle or steel guitar,” Morrison observed in 1984, for his interviews with regional musicians.

“Tony [Austin] states that they were playing country music with a black influence, and he feels that Perkins was ‘the original rockabilly.’ This was also expressed by Smoochie Smith, who played piano with Perkins in 1954. Perkins has stated that he realized he had a chance in the music business when he heard Presley’s record [that summer] because: ‘It was exactly what I was doing.’ ”

To the southwest, change was afoot in Texas music by early 1954, when record distributors said the R&B of black musicians was gaining on “hillbilly” and pop tunes. “For the uninitiated, [R&B] can be identified by its strong swaying rhythm and wailing saxophones,” The AP reported.

“But rhythm and blues, from the beginning, was an extremely limited sound,” analyst Robert Hilburn, a delta native, intoned for The Los Angeles Times in 1970. “Alone it could not have reshaped pop music. It needed help. Fortunately, country-western provided that help.”

Enter Scotty Moore, his cutting-edge electric guitar. “As a musician, I consider him one of the co-founders of rock n’ roll because of the guitar licks that he invented,” remarked James L. Dickenson, biographer.

Moore grew up listening to jazz players and Opry pickers on radio at Gadsden in western Tennessee. He learned guitar, modeling greats like Les Paul. After his Navy discharge in 1952, Moore joined bass player Bill Black in a country band at Memphis.

“Around the same time, Scotty began working on the thumb-and-finger style associated with Merle Travis and Chet Atkins, in which the thumb plays the rhythm on the bass strings while the other fingers pick out a melody on the higher strings,” Jay Orr reported for The Nashville Banner in 1997.

“It sounded like two guitar players,” Moore said. “I finally went and bought two or three of Chet’s records, 78s. I was listening and listening and began to get it a little bit. I couldn’t pick out the notes, but I could do it with the rhythm.”

Paul Burlison discussed Moore for Dan Griffin, co-author with Ken Burke of The Blue Moon Boys: Elvis Presley’s Band. “Scotty Moore had such an unusual style,” Burlison said.

“You could walk into a building somewhere and not even know he was there and tell it was him… He played with all his fingers… He’d make those big old crab chords and we’d say, ‘What’s he doing?’ He had the sound that just knocked you out.”

On July 5, 1954, Moore and Black hooked up with unknown Memphis musician Elvis Presley for a recording session at Sun Records. Presley thought himself a country singer and was unimpressive on initial takes, Moore would recall. But around midnight Elvis found his rockabilly voice, swinging into a cover of “That’s All Right” written by bluesman Arthur Crudup.

Moore added his stylish riffs in solos and bursts—“Rather than just play a few notes, I was trying to fill up space,” he recalled—while Black picked strings and tapped on upright bass. Sun producer Sam Phillips recorded single takes on one track, no dubbing, and quickly declared a wrap.

Within days the Elvis Presley record was a smash in his hometown and the surrounding delta. Radio stations were buried in listener requests for “That’s All Right.”

The term rock and roll wasn’t yet applicable to music, but the pioneers at Sun Records grasped it nonetheless, observes Joe Keene, retired producer, songwriter and rockabilly in Kennett, Missouri, north of Memphis.

Keene says, “That moment when Elvis did ‘That’s All Right,’ Sam said, ‘That’s what I’ve been looking for, that raw, energy feeling.’ Now when they did the next record, ‘Good Rocking Tonight,’ they knew who they were.”

Keene recounts: “Have you heard the news, there’s good rockin’… And they said, ‘Okay, that’s us.’ They knew exactly who they were, then and from that point on.”

Rockabilly had arrived certifiably at Memphis, in the delta, and for the planet.

”All I wanted to do in the world was to be able to play and sound like that,” stated Keith Richards, Rolling Stones guitarist, in prologue for Moore’s 1997 biography. “Those early records were incredible. Everyone else wanted to be Elvis. I wanted to be Scotty.”


Meteoric rockabilly plummeted as The Fifties closed, flaming out for multiple reasons. The tragedy of Buddy Holly, Big Bopper and Richie Valens, killed in the Iowa plane crash, only punctuated rockabilly’s downfall.

“Despite its enormous popularity in the mid and late 1950s, rock appeared ready to be counted out in 1960 as a force in pop music,” Hilburn observed. “Those who had long predicted that rock was nothing more than a youthful, passing fad were ready to collect their bets.”

Talent flight from delta studios took a toll, an exodus that had begun early with Elvis Presley. He left Sun Records in late 1955, after some 15 months under contact, going for riches with RCA Victor and Hollywood filmmakers.

Presley made millions but lost his edge under new music masters, singing their tunes like “Teddy Bear” in forgettable movies. Then the military drafted him. “My heart just bled when Elvis was raped with those damn stupid songs and movies and stuff,” Sam Phillips later complained.

“The early stars, for various reasons, had faded from the scene,” Hilburn wrote. “Elvis Presley had been in the Army. Little Richard quit music to study religion. Jerry Lee Lewis’ marriage to his teen-age cousin caused disc jockeys to stop playing his records and Buddy Holly was dead. And on and on.”

Major recording studios “had no intrinsic interest or belief in the new sound,” Hilburn noted. “In fact, they were probably more than a little uncomfortable being associated with what the adult world viewed largely as a primitive, talentless, almost sinful music.”

Fifth Avenue marketers wanted pop rock sung by cute crooners and warblers, faces for television. The breed proliferated around New York and Los Angeles, including former rockabillies.

At Nashville, producers sought hot beat and instruments like saxophone for country music but little else, having always belittled delta rockers. And novelty songs were chart-toppers, such as “Purple People Eater” at No.1 on Billboard, burying rockabilly recordings that persisted.

Genres overlapped and gimmicks flourished, for which Chet Atkins later blamed the Elvis effect. “Ever since he came along, we’ve been losing our musical identities,” said Atkins in Nashville. “There used to be pop and gospel and country and so on.”


No one said music was dead around southeast Missouri in the early 1960s. Ambitious musicians kept hammering at their craft and enjoying multiple styles; they performed, wrote and composed.

Missouri musicians played country, the music of blurring lines around rock, R&B and jazz. They played pristine rockabilly, broader rock n’ roll, and the blues.

Southeast Missouri music venues continued to thrive and draw names including Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Bill Black and Charlie Rich—stars likewise ready with songs from across the spectrum.

“The music from here, and Memphis, everything, it’s like a combination of gospel, blues and country,” Al Jordan says, former drummer for country stars, speaking at his home in Hayti, Missouri.

Steve Sharp, former drummer for Rich, says, “It was very normal to do ‘Whole Lotta Shaking Goin’ On’ followed by ‘Together Again,’ followed by B.B. King’s ‘Sweet Sixteen.’ You didn’t think a thing about it.”

“I mean, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buck Owens, B.B. King—in one set.”

Sharp adds, “Down here, if you were interested in music, you grew up listening simultaneously to WSM [radio] and Grand Ole Opry and XER from Del Rio, Texas, and WLAC, Nashville and Gallatin, Tennessee. You listened to R&B, gospel, country.”

“Jerry Foster wrote and recorded a song about a year ago called ‘Sunrise In Memphis.’ It talks about the delta and the fields, where the music was born.”

Foster was among players of southeast Missouri to emerge in the 1950s and ’60s. Others included Bill Rice, Narvel Felts, Matt Lucas, Leon Barnett, J.W. Grubbs, Charlie Thurman, Fred Horrell, Billy Swan, Dennis Turner, Terry Cobb, Don Hinton, Joe Keene, Terry Ray Bradley, Ken Williams, Jimmy Null and Bill English. All became accomplished professionals with a few recognized as greats, particularly in songwriting.

Sharp and Jordan hailed from Gideon, Missouri, as did Foster and wordsmith Jimmy Payne. The tiny town produced a cluster of music talents.

“The thing about it, there were lots of musicians in this part of the country—fine musicians,” Jordan attests.

Series continues soon at

Select References

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Appearing in Person, Guy Lombardo. (1961, Nov. 24). [Colony Club advertisement.] Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p.6.

Attend The Southeast Missouri District Fair. (1955, Sept. 9). [Advertisement.] Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p.3.

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Birl, J. (April, May, June 2002). Southern Illinois Illegal Clubs: McClure to Cairo. Casino Chip and Token News, pp.79-80.

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Boyle, H. (1952, Sept. 17). Angel Gabriel only rival of Armstrong as trumpeteer. Sedalia Democrat MO, p.2.

Burke, K., & Griffin, D. (2006). The Blue Moon Boys: The story of Elvis Presley’s band. Chicago Review Press: Chicago.

Collison, J. (1959, Feb. 4). Open probe of accident here. Mason City Globe-Gazette IA, p.1.

Cowboy Copas: Star of Grand Ol’ Opry to Be At The Armory Tonite. (1953, Nov. 6). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p.5.

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

Memphis Cast Delta Beacon for Rockabillies

Second in A Series

By Matt Chaney,

Posted Saturday, May 6, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

In 1970 an Ontario writer interviewed musician Ronnie Hawkins at the latter’s backwoods home in his adopted Canada. John Lennon had recently visited—or hidden—at Hawkins’ place, and the famed Beatle topped the writer’s topics. Hawkins also answered questions on his former American band The Hawks, which led to founding of legendary group The Band.

But Hawkins relished discussing Arkansas, his native home south in the states, and Memphis, Tennessee, fading rock n’ roll capital.

“On that circuit you’d play with Carl Perkins and some of those cats,” Hawkins said. “You’d travel one-nighters then, and some of those dates were 400 or 500 miles apart. That’s why I ended up in Canada.”

“A friend of mine, Harold Jenkins, was playing in Hamilton, and he convinced me to come up here because you could play one club for six nights at a stretch. He eventually wrote a song called ‘It’s Only Make Believe,’ changed his name to Conway Twitty and split.”

“There are two choices in Arkansas,” Hawkins continued. “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.”

Eastern Arkansas encompassed thousands of flat square miles in row crop, but a hungry musician could find light across the muddy Mississippi in Memphis, city on the hill. “There were so many of these real good rockabilly acts that came out of Memphis that you’ve never heard of. Maybe they had one hit in the Memphis area and that’s all,” Hawkins said.

“There was Johnny and Dorsey Burnette with their big old slim cousin playing guitar. They were the ones that showed Elvis Presley how to play a little bit. That was when he had pimples, broken teeth and blond hair.”

Paul Burlison was guitarist for the Burnettes, and, following Hawkins, the musician and former deejay took his own look back for journalists.

Burlison recalled the Memphis area in post-World War II, when a special sound was fermenting, growing audible from streets and farms. Burlison said the emerging strain had that name too, rockabilly, long before kid Presley entered a recording studio.

“Back in the early ’50s, you would hear black groups from out in the fields playing the blues over the radio in Memphis,” Burlison said. “I used to play country music over KWEM in West Memphis [Arkansas], and sometimes I’d play blues on the same station behind Howlin’ Wolf. That was around 1951.”

“See, all of us liked certain parts of the blues and certain parts of country, so we just tied them together and put a little beat to it, and that was what we called rockabilly. And the people [in bars] really liked it. Whenever we’d blast ’em with something that had a pretty good beat, they’d get out there on the dance floor and the dust would get to flying.”

Burlison was speaking in 1981, during separate interviews with Robert Palmer and Robert Hilburn, of the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, respectively. The writers were natives of the “delta” valley along the lower Mississippi River.

In 1953 Burlison was older than Presley when they worked together at Crown Electric in Memphis. Elvis had just graduated from Humes High, and on breaks the buddies strummed guitar and harmonized. When Presley cut “That’s All Right” at Sun studios, shaking the music world, Burlison felt energized.

“That record opened the door for all of us around here,” Burlison said. “It combined country and blues, which we had been doing in clubs but which no one would play on the radio. Suddenly, we all had momentum.”


Fred Horrell remembers his Elvis Presley moment in 1954, at Cape Girardeau, Missouri, along the Mississippi River.

Horrell was 16, driving to school when the radio blared Presley’s hit “That’s All Right,” released by Sun Records in Memphis. “It was the darnedest sound that I’d ever heard in my life. Man, it was crazy,” says Horrell, who played football as a schoolboy and worked nights, weekends.

A busy kid already, the passionate Horrell was stoked over rockabilly, and he traded for a guitar. “I bought a book and started learnin’ chords,” he recalls, during a recent interview in Cape Girardeau. “I learned how to get the [fingertip] coordination, how to strum and change. And it just kind of evolved from there.”

“I loved the sound of that guitar.”

Today, Horrell owns a carpet business on Highway 61, historic river road known as the “Rock and Roll Highway.” Downhill from his store, great delta bottoms stretch southward to the Gulf of Mexico. This vast flatland, lightly populated, has yielded waves of musical talent in rock, country, blues, jazz and gospel. Stars of American music hail from the delta, always.

At the breakout of rockabilly, Highway 61 traversed 100 miles from Cape Girardeau south to the Arkansas border. Throughout the corridor, youths grabbed guitars to bang “the beat.” They sang up-tempo and jittered and swung, trying to emulate the “Blue Moon Boys” on stage: Presley, guitarist Scotty Moore, and bass player Bill Black.

Across southeast Missouri, boys dreamed of going to Memphis. They talked of playing guitar and cutting records like Elvis, taking their crack at stardom.

Fred Horrell would be one to do it.


Call it a good problem, but Sam Phillips had one nonetheless at Sun Records in the wake of Elvis Presley. His suddenly famous studio was besieged by youths, begging to cut discs.

“These were the rockabillies, the first punks, the original wild men of rock and roll,” Palmer recalled for The New York Times. “Beginning around 1955, encouraged by the early successes of a young man who called himself the Hillbilly Cat—his real name was Elvis Presley—they came pouring out of the southern backwoods, pounding on record company doors to ask for auditions. For a brief, incandescent moment, it seemed that they were about to take over the western world.”

At independent Sun Records, Phillips and his small production staff would hear practically anyone, at least. “If you walked in with a guitar, they would record you,” recalled Hayden Thompson, a Mississippi musician. “They might not release you, but they’d record you. There must have been 1,000 guys they recorded there and stuck up on the shelf.”

“Every boy in the South with a guitar lined up outside Sam’s door,” Carl Perkins said later. “He just picked the best of them.”

Perkins was rock icon in the making when Phillips signed him in late 1954. Sun Records also latched onto future superstars in J.R. “Johnny” Cash, from Dyess, Arkansas, and Jerry Lee Lewis, the piano revolutionist from Ferriday, Louisiana.

But Phillips and staff missed on legitimate artists, including Burlison and the Burnette brothers. The hot Memphis trio tired of waiting for Phillips’ attention, particularly since they’d help bring up a raw Elvis, and bolted for New York City. Known as Johnny Burnette and the Rock n’ Roll Trio, they won an ABC talent show, signed with Coral Records, and appeared prominently in the movie Rock, Rock, Rock!

Missourian Narvel Felts was overlooked at Sun while Roy Orbison fell disenchanted and returned to Texas. Harold Jenkins languished, of Mississippi, as did Charlie Rich, an immense talent from Forrest City, Arkansas, across river from Memphis. Rich wrote and sang the Top 30 hit “Lonely Weekends” for Phillips, but he left Sun in following Felts, Orbison and Jenkins—Conway Twitty—out the door.  All charted hits on other recording labels.

Major studios plucked away Sun stars as their popularity exploded. In late 1955, for example, Phillips felt forced to sell and relinquish Elvis rights to RCA and “Colonel” Tom Parker, the badgering, conniving agent.

Perkins, Lewis and Cash recorded No. 1 songs for Sun, but they departed too. Sun Records suffered of constant capital shortfall, problems in promotion and booking, and for a distribution network that Phillips had to tend himself, driving thousands of miles. Plastic discs and audio tapes piled up everywhere in the modest building.

“There wasn’t any way for Sam to deal with all that,” says Joe Keene, retired musician and studio owner in Kennett, Missouri, who was friend and associate of Sun personnel. “Sam couldn’t get big enough to be like RCA, or Decca. I think that after Elvis came along, the door was flooded with people.”

“It got to be a little bit overwhelming, and they had to start making choices.”


By his senior year in high school, 1956-57, Bill English fashioned himself a rock n’ roll singer. English was an Ozark kid in little Piedmont, Missouri, secluded in rocky hills, who was a natural showman aspiring for big stage.

Elvis was role model for English, naturally, much to the chagrin of Louis Chaney, athletics coach and math teacher at Piedmont High. “Forget Elvis Presley, he’s a flash in the pan,” Chaney griped. English liked the youthful instructor, respected him, but didn’t buy the dire prediction for Presley and rock music. Mr. Chaney wasn’t much older than the students but square, man.

English continued answering to the nickname “Hound Dog,” proudly, and kept up appearances, greasing his hair in the Elvis do. English wowed kids at the school talent show, looking snazzy on stage in blazer without necktie, moving in his suede shoes. Fluid and handsome, the dark-haired English sang Presley songs, snapping fingers and shaking in time.

Hound Dog English loved rockabilly and Memphis beckoned. The Elvis hometown was barely three hours from Piedmont by car, driving fast enough. For young Bill English, a rockin’ attitude and Memphis visions could get serious.


Singer-guitarist Fred Horrell got his chance to audition at Sun Records in 1958. From southeast Missouri, however, that involved more than merely walking in “down there” with a guitar.

Horrell fronted Mert Mirly and The Rhythm Steppers, hotshot band based in Cape Girardeau, 170 miles north of Memphis on Highway 61. Sun Records typically didn’t schedule appointments by phone or letter. The matter involved being there, per the old saying, to corner Sam Phillips or another producer.

Horrell assumed the task himself. He’d already made the Memphis trek to see Presley’s Graceland mansion and to hunt music contacts. “I was wantin’ to go with this business, and I’d been down there before,” Horrell says.

Horrell, 20, drove to Memphis and strode into the Sun office, where he encountered Leon Barnett and Jerry Tuttle, two top musicians from Missouri. Barnett and Tuttle sat waiting, as members of the Felts band, but Horrell wouldn’t take a seat. “I said, ‘Hell with it. I ain’t got time.’ I went on back to the studio, up to the control room. [Producer-musician] Bill Justis was in there, and I’d never met him before. But I set up an appointment for us to come down there.”

A couple weeks later, Mirly’s Rhythm Steppers traveled to hallowed Sun studios for audition. “We went down there and did it,” Horrell says, smiling. “Course, they didn’t take us. I wouldn’t either, with the songs we had. But Justis did tell me I had a good recording voice.”

Incredibly, dynamite song content was at hand for the Cape band. Horrell heard it one evening after a session, when a teen-aged group member, schoolboy poet, rapped out his own tune right in Horrell’s car. “He got down in the damn floorboard, and he was beatin’ it out on the dash, and singin’ that song. And I knew that was a great song,” Horrell declares yet, excitedly.

Indeed, that kid songwriter was Billy Swan, and his fresh verse was “Lover Please.”

Horrell considered Swan’s lyrics as prime opportunity for the band. Others weren’t so impressed. “We had a practice session, and I learned that song, and I wanted us all to learn,” Horrell says. “I wanted to record that song.”

“I tried to get the guys to practice it, and they were out of the mood for that stuff. They sat around playing ‘Wildwood Flower,’ crap like that. And we had an excellent guitar player, Charlie Thurman.” The Lover Please project sputtered as Horrell left Mirly’s to form his own band, and an eventual cut by Dennis Turner, another Cape phenom, didn’t fly with record buyers.

Finally, for music posterity, pop singer Clyde McPhatter released his cover of Swan’s tune, which rose to No. 7 on the Billboard chart. “McPhatter took the same arrangement, changed the key, put the R&B styling in,” Horrell says.

Horrell did catch a break in 1962, when former Presley bass player Bill Black raided Cape Girardeau for musicians. The Bill Black Combo was charting hits and Black wanted Horrell for touring. Horrell took the job and hit the road, as The Combo headlined big clubs and opened for stars like Orbison.


By August of 1964, Bill English had resigned himself to a career as schoolteacher, not a rock singer. English had given his all to music in college at Arkansas State University. His band had played the Memphis circuit, met music stars and cut songs. But the records didn’t sell and the group broke up.

Now English was working for Louis Chaney, his former teacher and coach at Piedmont. Chaney, an administrator of Potosi Schools in the Missouri Lead Belt, had hired English to teach PE and coach in the junior high. The new school year would begin in three weeks.

Then English got a phone call from Memphis.

Bob Tucker, former band mate and college roomie of English, was playing guitar for the Bill Black Combo and managing the group. The Combo had just signed as opening act for the Beatles tour of North America, and Tucker wanted to hire English as singer. They would leave immediately for San Francisco, first show date for The Beatles.

“I wanted to play rock n’ roll. So bad,” English later recalled. Moreover, Tucker’s offer would almost triple the teaching salary of English, with the Beatles tour and further bookings for the coming year. But English begged time from Tucker, for apprising two mentors of this development.

Hound Dog drove to Piedmont to tell his father, Joe English, school music director, who gave his blessing. Then the young man returned to Potosi to inform Mr. Chaney, the guy who used to trash Elvis and rock music.

But Chaney’s perspective had mellowed; he supported English in joining the Bill Black Combo and Beatles tour. Chaney had to find a new PE teacher, quickly, but he better understood Bill English’s music passion in 1964. Chaney’s three young sons were Beatles fans, after all, including this writer.

“I was proud of him,” Dad wrote in 2006, following the death of Bill, our family friend, to recurring cancer.  “Bill English was making music… something he always wanted to do.”

“We were all happy for him.”

Series continues soon at 

Select References

Assembly Memories. (1957). [Photographs collage.] Bobcat’s Meow, p.22. Piedmont High School: Piedmont MO.

Artist looks for chance at fame. (1993, April 5). Greenwood Index-Journal SC, p.12.

Bate, M. (1973, Aug. 24). Charlie knuckles under to new musical image of sweet blandness. Ottawa Journal, Ontario Canada, p.32.

Burke, K., & Griffin, D. (2006). The Blue Moon Boys: The story of Elvis Presley’s band. Chicago Review Press: Chicago.

Chaney, L. (2006, Feb. 16). Letters to the editor. Wayne County Journal-Banner MO, p.2.

English, B. (1994, Dec. 21). Interview with author, Poplar Bluff MO.

Gormley, M. (1970, Feb. 13). Canadian music legend: The story of an Arkansas rock singer and his band. Ottawa Journal, p.30.

Guralnick, P. (1994). Last train to Memphis: The rise of Elvis Presley. Little, Brown and Company: New York.

Henderson, B. (1954, Feb. 18). Hillbilly record demand continues heavy in Texas. Corsicana Daily Sun TX, p.3.

Hilburn, R. (1969, July 13). Sun discs back in the spotlight. Los Angeles Times, p.M42.

Hilburn, R. (1969, July 14). Clearwater revives its delta heritage. Los Angeles Times, p.B18.

Hilburn, R. (1970, Jan. 4). Rock enters 70s as the music champ. Los Angeles Times, p.P1.

Hilburn, R. (1981, April 7). Rockabilly survivor looks back. Los Angeles Times, p.G1.

Horrell, F. (2017, April 19). Interview with author, Cape Girardeau MO.

Jerry Lee’s got himself another ‘smash’ album. (1973, March 27). Anderson Daily Bulletin SC, p.8.

Johnny Cash Stars in Crown Film. (1969, Nov. 16). Florence Morning News SC, p.26.

Keene, J. (2017, April 20). Interview with author, Kennett MO.

Mox. (1956, Sept. 21). [Display ad for Mox Theater.] Blytheville Courier News AR, p.5.

Narvel Felts Gains Fame After 17 Years. (1974, June 22). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p.7.

Nostalgia Big Point For Felts. (1975, Sept. 24). Danville Bee VA, p.41.

Palmer, R. (1978, April 23). The punks have only rediscovered rockabilly. New York Times, p.D19.

Palmer, R. (1981, March 4). Recapturing the magic of the early Elvis Presley. New York Times, p.C19.

Piazza, T. (1996, Nov. 13). Lost man of R&R rediscovered. Salina Journal KS, p.27.

Rock N’ Roll… It’s Busting Out All Over As Pop Music Enters Boom. (1955, April 12). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.7.

Soberanes, B. (1960, Oct. 6). All about Johnny. Petaluma Argus-Courier CA, p.14.

Tucker, B. (2017, March 10). Interview with author, Marion AR.

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

The Missouri Delta Nurtured Rock ‘n’ Roll

First in A Series

By Matt Chaney,

Posted Thursday, April 27, 2017

Copyright ©2017 by Matthew L. Chaney

In 1958 rock n’ roll claimed the musical soul of young Steve Sharp, amidst prime setting—the raucous, renowned B&B Club in Gobler, Missouri, a crossroads village at the state’s southern tip.

“I was 15,” Sharp recalls. “I had a 16-year-old friend who had a driver’s license, and we went down to the B&B. It was a dirt road—not gravel—I’m talking dirt. And muddy… the mud ruts were two-feet deep. But we went down there.”

Steeped in legend, the B&B showcased rockabilly stars like Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and, a few years before, Elvis Presley. Artists of Sun Records, among players in rock and country music, regularly appeared at the roadhouse situated 80 miles from Memphis in Missouri delta farmland.

Entering the B&B electrified Sharp, experiencing his rockabilly epiphany. Talented teen singer Don Hinton commanded the stage but Sharp focused on the drummer, Clyde Lee Farrow. “I’d never heard the sound before, like the snare drum echoing around inside that joint,” Sharp recalls. “It changed my life, right there.”

American youths were passionate about roots rock music, and many in southeast Missouri strove to be performers themselves. Sharp, of Gideon High School, resolved to play drums and bought a used set, practicing diligently.

Today, Stephen R. Sharp is a retired public servant of the Bootheel, known for his career as a state senator, circuit judge, and decorated Vietnam veteran. But his repute extends to accomplished musician, as a notable who appeared on stage with Fats Domino, Charlie Rich, Dale Potter, Narvel Felts, Jerry Foster and Bill Rice, among talents.

Potter, Felts and Foster were native southeast Missourians, leading a local music wave of the ’50s and ’60s that swept up Sharp. “You’re talking about good musicians,” Sharp says, speaking during a recent interview at Kennett.

“I mean, there were some jack-leg musicians out there, but basically we’re talking about people who were good, playing these places of southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas.”


In 1931 federal highway crews paved the last section of Route 61 from Cape Girardeau to Memphis, completing the “river road.” During the same period, a massive levee and drainage system finally diverted the mighty Mississippi from its natural, wide spillways that had ravaged southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas in high water. Now the great flatland stood dry enough for human habitation and year-round commerce. Agri-business dominated.

A cluster of roadside merchants materialized at the Missouri-Arkansas border, the notorious “state line” area. Vice and violence had thrived here for years and would remain. Following repeal of Prohibition, several bootleggers established legitimate ventures fronting Highway 61—gas stations, diners, taverns—to accompany their rackets of gambling, narcotics and prostitution. Police officers and a postmaster were convicted in the corruption, among criminals.

Alcohol sales to minors continued openly, helping a boom of music venues along 61. Music evolved perpetually in the delta, with this route destined to be known as the “Rock n’ Roll Highway.”  First, however, jazz, blues, gospel and “hillbilly” strains filled the river valley north from Memphis.

A rhythm-and-blues joint gained prominence in Pemiscot County, Missouri, at the state line. The Casablanca Club was located near 61 on north side of a gravel road marking the border. Racial tension and conflict notwithstanding, Casablanca performers drew mixed-race audiences from several states. The Casablanca booked R&B names of the 1940s to become huge, like Chester “Howling Wolf” Barnett and McKinley “Muddy Waters” Morganfield, along with young cats Bobby Bland, Isaac Hayes and B.B. King.

Venues for country musicians and dance orchestras flourished in southeast Missouri of the early 1950s, according to available newspapers, local recollection, further evidence. Underage drinking and backroom gambling carried on commonplace. Nightspots of wild Pemiscot County included the B&B in Gobler and Club Zanza at Highway 61 in Hayti. Elsewhere a music scene burgeoned around Malden town, driving crowds to Smitzer’s and Pop Werner’s, a pair of establishments along Highway 62 in New Madrid County.

Regional radio stations broadcast records and live music from morning until night. Following suit, television stations brought in solo artists and musical groups for studio shows on the fledgling medium.

Cutting-edge rock n’ roll, meanwhile, percolated from Missouri to Louisiana with an impact from Billy Haley’s band in Pennsylvania, whose 1952 record “Rock The Joint” reached the Midwest. “Beat” music reverberated throughout the Mississippi River Valley.

The musical vacuum was drawing distinctly different genres toward a broad, driving sound that would revolutionize pop culture and marketing. Delta artists both black and white accelerated their beats of guitar, piano and vocals. Forerunners included Fats DominoIke Turner and Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton of R&B; “Sister” Rosetta Tharpe in gospel blues; and Eddy Arnold and Tennessee Ernie Ford from Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.

In Jackson, Tennessee, Carl Perkins and his brothers cranked-up tempo on their guitars, savoring a sharp newness above familiar twang picking. “I don’t think none of us even ever quite knew what it was,” Carl later recalled. “It didn’t have a name; we called it feel-good music.”

“A few guys got brave enough to get out and start playing it in the honky-tonks.”

Series continues soon at

Special thanks to Al Jordan, Al Jackson and Joe Keene for their lists of historic nightclubs in southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas

Select References

24 SEMO Persons Arrested In Raids Now Free On Bonds. (1952, July 21). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p.1.

A Tennessee Editor Visits Charleston, Sikeston And Vicinity. (1931, June 12). Sikeston Standard MO, p.3.

Bedell, T. (2017, March 8). Interview with author in Van Buren MO.

Brains Behind The Tigers. (1957, April 3). [Photos with cutline.] Blytheville Courier News AR, p.11.

Builds Station At State Line. (1934, March 13). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.5.

Caruthersville Boy Is Gaining Popularity As Rock And Roll Singer. (1960, June 14). Sikeston Daily Standard MO, p.6.

Constable In Auto Is Shot From Car. (1931, Sept. 29). Sikeston Standard MO, p.1.

Crawford Asks Gas Tax Zones. (1935, Feb. 1). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Edgar Pullen Dies of Wound Inflicted Saturday. (1933, Nov. 3). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

English, B. (1994, Dec. 21). Interview with author in Poplar Bluff MO.

Former Postmaster At Leachville Sentenced. (1934, May 10). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Friday Night. (1950, May 25). [Display ad for Club Zanza.] Blytheville Courier News AR, p.6.

Grand Opening. (1947, June 13). [Display ad for Club Velvet.] Blytheville Courier News AR, p.11.

Harry Bailey Is Coming Home From Uncle Sam’s “Big House.” (1934, June 28). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Highway 61 Officially Opened. (1931, June 23). Sikeston Standard MO, pp.1,5.

Hilburn, R. (1981, April 7). Rockabilly survivor looks back. Los Angeles Times, p.G1.

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

Keene, J. (2017, March 9 & April 20). Interviews with author in Kennett MO.

Kaiser, C. (2013, Jan. 9). Respected judge closes the book on lengthy career. Daily Dunklin Democrat MO [online].

Man Shot, Refuses To Name Assailant. (1935, May 14). Sikeston Standard MO, p.6.

Missouri Man Killed At State Line Joint. (1930, April 7). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Missouri Night Clubs Raided. (1952, July 19). Alton Evening Telegraph IL, p.1.

New Year’s Eve Bill Haley With Haley’s Comets. (1952, Dec. 29). [Display ad for Berky’s Seafood House.] Delaware County Times PA, p.3.

Night Club Operator Held For Murder. (1938, April 21). Sikeston Herald MO, p.12.

Official Raked For Routing Road Along Own Land. (1927, Sept. 13). Sikeston Standard MO, p.1.

Pharmacy Now Serves Missouri Resort Patrons. (1933, Sept. 15). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Piazza, T. (1996, Nov. 13). Lost man of R&R rediscovered. Salina Journal KS, p.27.

Push Pemiscot County Cleanup. (1937, Feb. 20). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.3.

Roadhouse Problems. (1931, July 31). Sikeston Standard MO, p.6.

Russell, R. (1973, March 23). Black blues giants once made state line club a port of call. Blytheville Courier News AR, p.7.

Seize Whisky, Stills and Beer at State Line. (1930, Nov. 21). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Sharp, S. (2017, March 9). Interview with author in Kennett MO.

Shooting Case Defendant Dies. (1931, Jan. 16). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Shootings Mark Pemiscot Election. (1934, Nov. 6). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Shotgun In The Southeast. (1923, March 9). Sikeston Standard MO, p.4.

Sikeston A City Of Opportunity. (1924, May 6). Sikeston Standard MO, p.1.

Southeast Missouri Conquered By Years Of Toil. (1930, June 6). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.3.

Ten Arrested In Raid On Highway 61 Resort. (1934, Sept. 10). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Tentative System Of Main Roadways For State Mapped. (1920, Dec. 19). St. Louis Post-Dispatch, p.3.

The Gasoline Tax. (1936, May 20). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.4.

Tomorrow Night Bill Haley And The Saddle Men. [Display ad for Berky’s Seafood House.] Delaware County Times PA, p.13.
Trial Of Bailey And Companions Is Nearing End. (1932, Feb. 25). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1

Trimble, B. (1973, March 27). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.6.

Tucker, B. (2017, March 10). Interview with author in Marion AR.

U.S. Jury Indicts Pemiscot Sheriff. (1931, April 17). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Whiskey Stills Seized Just Over State Line. (1930, Feb. 19). Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Youth Found Slain Near Night Club. (1936, Oct. 26), Blytheville Courier News AR, p.1.

Matt Chaney is a writer, editor and publisher in Missouri, USA. For more information visit Email: