Category Archives: Missouri Rock n’ Roll History and Legend

American Pop Music’s Bittersweet, Essential Beginning

Fourteenth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for

Posted Friday, November 10, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

As the United States began to divide over the issue of human bondage in the South, a musical bridge rose among whites and blacks—including enslaved players—to impact the country.

Decades before the Civil War, slave performers helped foster popular song and dance, as did free blacks in the North. “The new form of popular song coming to life in the United States after 1820 derived indirectly from the blacks, slave and free, who were becoming more evident in America,” wrote Russell Sanjek, modern musicologist and BMI administrator. Sanjek concluded that black artists, beginning in the slave era, contributed most to American pop music for more than a century, until advent of rock ’n’ roll.

During the 1830s “negro songs” of a romanticized South compelled white players and publishers.  “The South, both as a set of images and as a source of music ideas, exerted a powerful influence on American popular music long before the region developed musicians with national reputations,” remarked modern analyst Bill C. Malone. “As a land of violent contrasts, with picturesque terrain and exotic peoples, the South proved irresistible to poets and songwriters who saw in its lazy rivers, wagon-rutted roads, and old folks at home endless material for art.”

The budding mass media, solely print, addressed the music and dance of slaves. In 1835 a writer for Knickerbocker magazine met slave men in South Carolina, on a flatboat ferry “which they rowed, singing some Jim Crow songs, and chiming most merrily, as they kept time to the stroke of their oars.” A New York Post writer described plantation music: “When the work of the evening was over the negroes adjourned to a spacious kitchen. One of them took his place as musician, whistling and beating time with two sticks on the floor. Several of the men came forward and executed various dances, capering, prancing and drumming with heel and toe upon the floor, with astonishing agility and perseverance.”

Many writers portrayed enslaved blacks as happy, content, preoccupied with song and dance—myth that appealed to many whites of the North and South. But an account from Alabama in 1848 was chilling reality, about slave youths in transport on a steamboat, including “half a dozen girls from 16 to 22 years old,” recently purchased at auctions. “It made me feel absolutely sick,” a witness wrote in a letter reprinted by The New York Tribune. “Some of [the females] were quite pretty, and sang fashionable songs with much taste and feeling; they were all neatly dressed, and had rings and other jewelry. They were evidently petted house servants… They occupied a part of the cabin. Below [deck], and belonging to the same man, were a dozen poor fellows fastened to a long chain by a handcuff. These were common field hands. They had been bought, as well as the girls, in Virginia and Maryland, and were being taken to Louisiana to be sold to the planters.”

Slave musicians operated professionally in southern communities, as income streams for their owners, although in some cases the performers drew pay too. Whites, youths especially, were impressed by blacks who were musically gifted. “In the South, where a professional black musician had to be outstanding indeed, representing as he did a contradiction of the accepted folk myth that blacks were of a lower mental order, there were highly talented slave performers who compelled the admiration of both races,” Sanjek wrote.

A musical group of slave children, the “Lilliputian Band,” wowed southern audiences on a profitable tour for their owner in 1857. The oldest player was 10, reported The Richmond Dispatch. “They are natural musicians and handle their brass instruments with an ease and effect not disparaging to the most learned… It needs only to be seen to be appreciated, and makes one think ‘can such things be.’ ”

Slave bands played theaters, festivals and weddings in the South, like nuptials for a Catholic couple at New Orleans in 1859. The bride was of Spanish descent, the groom was Irish, the guest list glittering, the party in Garden District—but the slave entertainers stood out for a New York Herald correspondent. The scribe saluted the reception host for “employing colored musicians, instead of taking, as the aristocrats do, the Hauffner German band. It was acknowledged by everyone that these negroes played the best and most spirited dance music that they ever heard.”

Northward, free blacks broke barriers to influence music and choreography, led by Francis “Frank” Johnson, bandmaster-composer and horn maestro, and William Henry Lane, regarded as the world’s greatest dancer.

Johnson integrated Philadelphia parades of the 1820s with his marching bands of Afro-Americans, acclaimed by the general public if scorned by many white musicians. “Possibly of mixed blood, Johnson was born in 1792, and his musical education came first through eavesdropping,” Sanjek reported, “but later he was formally trained by musicians of both races who recognized his potential.” Johnson, famed for play on the keyed bugle and French horn, toured England with a brass section and string pickers in 1837-38. Queen Victoria gifted Johnson with a silver Kent bugle after his band’s performance at Windsor Castle.

News and music files suggest Johnson and his sidemen utilized syncopated sound, and improvisation, nearly a century before recognition of the term jazz. “Some of his musicians were extraordinarily expert and could materialize the situation… on their particular instrument,” J.H. Gray reported in 1907 from Philadelphia, adding that Johnson’s compositions held “considerable vogue in their day.”

In New York, early 1840s, the teen-aged Lane—known as “Master Juba” of jig and tap dance—was main attraction at Almack’s tavern, operated by free blacks in the Five Points slum district. The cellar hotspot was located five blocks east of Broadway in lower Manhattan, where Washington journalist N.P. Willis and friends toured one night in escort of a police officer.

Nearing the notorious Five Points intersection, the cop paused at a board fence along Orange Street, “pulled a latch and opened a door, and a flight of steps was disclosed… we followed into the grand subterranean Almack’s,” Willis recounted. “And it really looked very clean and cheerful. It was a spacious room with a low ceiling, excessively whitewashed, nicely sanded, and well lit, and the black proprietor and his [bartenders] were well-dressed and well-mannered people.”

The theaters emptied uptown, infusing Almack’s with females, and the joint jumped “merrily,” wrote Willis. “Several very handsome mulatto women were in the crowd, and a few ‘young men about town,’ mixed up with the blacks, and altogether it was a picture of ‘amalgam’ such as I had never seen before.”

English writer Charles Dickens visited Almack’s in February of 1842. Dickens requested a performance by Master Juba, as part of the author’s research for his upcoming book American Notes. Dickens would recall: “The corpulent black fiddler, and his friend who plays the tambourine, stamp upon the boarding of the small raised orchestra in which they sit, and play a lively measure.  Five or six couples come upon the floor, marshaled by a lively young negro, who is the wit of the assembly, and the greatest dancer known.”

The couples danced stiffly until Juba sprang into action, “the lively hero,” Dickens wrote. “Instantly the fiddler grins, and goes at it tooth and nail; there is new energy in the tambourine; new laughter in the dancers; new smiles in the landlady; new confidence in the landlord; new brightness in the very candles.”

Dickens was amazed, witnessing Lane’s work. “Single shuffle, double shuffle, cut and cross-cut; snapping his fingers, rolling his eyes, turning in his knees, presenting the backs of his legs in front, spinning about on his toes and heels like nothing but the man’s fingers on the tambourine… And in what walk of life, or dance of life, does man ever get such stimulating applause as thunders about him, when, having danced his partner off her feet, and himself too, he finishes by leaping gloriously on the bar counter and calling for something to drink.”

The first Almack’s nightspot was destroyed by fire in 1845, of a stable blaze that engulfed wood buildings and shanties along Orange Street [later renamed Baxter]. In the same period, William Henry Lane joined white performers in blackface minstrelsy, playing major stages of New York before packed houses.

“He was the first colored boy associated with minstrelsy,” Sam Sanford, white star of blackface, remarked of Lane in 1874. “Not to be irreverent, he was the John The Baptist [for Afro-American performers], preceding by a few years the Jubilee Singers, of Tennessee, who are now before the public with the full chorus of songs of which Master Juba’s were the herald. His voice was a promise then that in the future we should hear, as we now do, the organized melody of the Hampton [black] students.”

Lane, whose fame grew internationally through exposure of Dickens’ book and sold-out runs in London theaters, shattered entertainment barriers in America and the United Kingdom. Master Juba busted dance moves that M.C. Hammer covered 150 years later on MTV, concluded cultural analyst W.T. Lhamon, Jr. But Lane’s price to pay was racist minstrelsy, his enduring such content and even perpetuating it, so demeaning to Afro-Americans of his day and future.

Slavery abolitionists objected to blackface shows in the 1840s, and a century after the Civil War, modern critics harshly denounced minstrelsy for overt racism. Many academics wanted to forget these early American performers because of blackface, along with their milestone song-and-dance elements.

“Few subjects have proven more controversial or posed greater challenges to the historian of American culture than blackface minstrelsy…,” Brian Thompson observed in 1999, for Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association. “Even though it dominated popular entertainment for decades in the nineteenth century, 150 years later its meaning continues to create discomfort. Few historians would even touch the subject until recently.”


William C. Peters, top music producer of the West by 1850, grew his business with young musicians and songwriters ignored by conventional publishers in the Northeast. Operating from Louisville and Cincinnati, Peters capitalized much like Sam Phillips would with rockabilly artists in the next century at Memphis, embracing cutting-edge music and talent initially missed by industry establishment.

“Louisville in mid-century—by virtue of its strategic location as a commercial center for both the western and southern territories—was ideally placed as a printer and distributor of popular music,” observed historian Ron Soodalter. “Louisville quickly became one of the busiest purveyors of popular music in the country.”

During the 1830s and ’40s, W.C. Peters, a composer, publisher and ballroom operator, represented music that met “popular taste” of a new nation, rejecting European dogma, according to a commentator named Logan, for The Cincinnati Enquirer. Logan praised composers and marketers like Peters for music “which suits the popular comprehension and feelings” of America. “Away, then, with your Italian operas and German [symphony] thunders. They are to us the tinklings of brass, senseless and unmeaning.”

Peters published some of the country’s first popular songs and stars, led by Oh! Susanna of author-instrumentalist Stephen Foster—later known as Father of American Music—and the classic Ben Bolt composition of multi-talented Nelson Kneass . Sheet music sold by the thousands, and Sam Sanford anointed Foster and Kneass as geniuses of American pop. Foster and Kneass each died prematurely, both needy, and Sanford echoed their families in the belief Peters shorted them on song royalties.

Thomas D. Rice was another historic showman associated with Peters, particularly around 1829, when the duo reportedly arranged a hit song based on slave melody and verse surrounding a figure , “Jim Crow.” Rice wasn’t the first white entertainer to apply burnt-cork makeup for imitating black people, whether accurately, inaccurately or derisively. But his Jump Jim Crow song and dance became an international sensation, positing blackface performance as standard American entertainment throughout the Victorian Era.

T.D. Rice “enjoyed a fame not unlike that of Elvis Presley in the late 1950s,” Sanjek surmised. “However, Rice’s best-known song, Jim Crow, never suffered the vigorous denunciation in the press and from the pulpit and Congress that Presley’s Hound Dog endured. When Rice made his first appearance in Washington, it was before an enthusiastic audience of national leaders.”

After 1832 Rice performed entirely in blackface, as did Sanford’s minstrel group of the ’40s, while artists like Kneass and Foster donned burnt cork for much of their time on stage. The large majority of early minstrels grew up in northern cities, even if audiences demanded they impersonate and pantomime southern “plantation” blacks.

Derogatory “comedy” was staple but also serious art forms, song and dance transcending skin color in appeal, with moves like the Irish jig and African tap, and ballads “plaintive” or bluesy, speaking poignantly for enslaved blacks and more troubled souls. “Minstrel music was an amalgam of all the rural folk styles (Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, German, African) and urban popular forms to which the minstrels were exposed, plus the original creations they were busily producing,” Malone stated.

Publishers like Peters rolled out “negro songs,” producing lithographed sheet music “generally illustrated with vulgar depictions of men and women in blackface and eccentric clothing…,” Sanjek noted, “drawn to satisfy the stereotyped vision of blacks as heavy-lipped, foolishly happy, lazy, shuffling, dancing, and generally gaudily clad.”

Such an illustration appeared on a Cincinnati front page in 1847, of white men in blackface and garb, prompting backlash from abolitionists in free Ohio. “It may be mawkish sensibility which leads us to view with such disgust the puffing of ‘nigger concerts’ by papers, whose editors claim to be par excellence the friends of the colored man…” The Anti-Slavery Bugle editorialized. “We say it may be a mawkish sensibility, or it may be sympathy with the downtrodden people who are caricatured by [white] ‘Sable Harmonists’ and ‘Ethiopian Serenadors’—we are willing the colored man should, himself, decide.”

Blacks did patronize minstrelsy, the entertainment rage of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Washington. In the South, slaves attended blackface shows. Many Afro-Americans supported the entertainment despite negatives, apparently, and a number aspired to perform themselves. “Americans of all ages and all social classes found irresistible the Ethiopian songs and dance steps played for them by an ever-increasing troop of actors in blackface,” Sanjek wrote.

Later in America, 20th century, many scholars were appalled by minstrelsy evidence, content blatantly racist for any era. Some analysts, during societal integration following World War II, outright dismissed antebellum minstrelsy as bunk. Stephen Foster was ripped and condemned by critics, despite his contribution to American music. Minstrelsy’s racist taint perhaps touched the legacy of W.C. Peters, with his name relegated to dusty history regardless.

In 1999 Thompson recorded: “Given its blunt external elements—both musical and visual—the predominant understanding since the 1960s has been that minstrelsy was little more than a representation of the worst of white racism.”

In 2005 The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education editorialized: “Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century the minstrel show delighted white audiences across the United States. White comedians blackened their faces with burnt cork and gallivanted across the stage making fun of black people and always conforming public views that black people were lazy, shiftless, unintelligent, and oversexed. The popularity of the minstrel show was so great that black performers got into the act.”

Many modern critics empathized while also endorsing historic preservation and continued study. They documented old minstrelsy as an art form, an essential greatness of American music, carrying through future generations.

Foremost, minstrel music and dance brought races together in mutual admiration and learning. Before the Civil War, music spurred intermingling of races, particularly poor whites and blacks, from the northern urban centers to the river valleys west and south.

“Blackface minstrelsy, as pioneered in the 1830s and codified in the early 1840s, represents the earliest comparatively accurate description and imitation—specifically by Anglo-Irish observers—of African American performance,” Christopher J. Smith found for his 2011 review “Blacks and Irish on the Riverine Frontiers,” published by Southern Cultures journal. Smith observed: “The rightful condemnation of blackface’s racist caricature sometimes has neglected the enormous innovative impact of the black-white musical exchange which minstrelsy stylized upon the stage.”

Close examination of historic sheet music and other texts reveal ethnic origins varied for America’s early pop songs and dances. The slave models for minstrels prior to the Civil War, for example, often reflected musical elements acquired from whites. “Virtually all early blackface melodies were European in origin, first heard by whites and then altered by blacks,” concluded Russell Sanjek in 1988, historian of lyric and melody, for Volume II of his American Popular Music and Its Business: The First Four Hundred Years. Sanjek listed song titles in point: “Sich A Gittin [upstairs] was a Morris dance melody; Gumbo Chaff used the old British tune Bow Wow Wow… and the song that precipitated an international vogue for black minstrelsy, Jump Jim Crow, was a London royal playhouse melody based on an Irish folk tune.”

The first wave of white pop artists blazed trails for blacks, according to a host of literature. “Commercial black entertainment, for instance, is largely indebted to minstrelsy,” declared Bill C. Malone, 1979, for his seminal Southern Music/American Music. “The Negro’s entrée to professional entertainment began when such all-black troupes as the Georgia Minstrels took their brand of minstrelsy to towns and cities all over the United States. The early black minstrel groups corked their faces, as custom demanded, and generally performed in a self-mocking manner that was degrading to their race.”

“Nevertheless, these pioneer performers created the commercial route that later black entertainers would follow and modify, and the original black minstrels included some of the most gifted song-and-dance men American audiences had yet witnessed, performers such as Sam Lucas, Billy Kersands, and James Bland.”

Blacks to follow included William C. Handy, a music prodigy at Henderson, Ky., in 1896, when he seized opportunity to join minstrelsy business that boasted “the best talent” in entertainment, he later recalled. “The composers, the singers, the musicians, the speakers, the stage performers—the minstrels got them all,” Handy wrote. “For my part, there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation when I received [an offer]. I took it for the break it was. The cards were running my way at last.”

Select References

A Good ’Un. (1839, Feb. 12). New Orleans Times-Picayune, p. 2.

Appiah, K.A., & Gates, H.L., Jr. [Eds.] (1999). Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. Oxford University Press: Oxford, England.

Baynham, Edward Gladstone. (1944). The Early Development of Music in Pittsburgh [PhD thesis]. University of Pittsburgh Graduate School: Pittsburgh PA.

Bert Williams: The African-American Minstrel. (2005, Spring). The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 47, p. 103.

Charles Dickens. (1842, Feb. 14). New York Tribune, p. 2.

Circus! (1841, July 10). [Advertisement.] Boon’s Lick Times, Fayette MO, p. 4.

City Intelligence. (1846, May 14). New York Daily Herald, p. 7.

City Theatre. (1830, Dec. 24). [Advertisement.] Louisville Daily Journal KY, p. 3.

Co-Partnership. (1839, May 4). [Advertisement.] Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. 2.

Cockrell, D. (1997). Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, England, and New York NY.

Colored Music Makers. (1887, Jan. 17). Philadelphia Times PA, p. 4.

Correspondence of the Evening Post, Barnwell District, South Carolina. (1843, April 12). New York Post, p. 2.

Death of a Well-Known Citizen. (1866, April 23). Louisville Daily Journal KY, p. 1.

Dietz, M.M. (1921, May). A History of The Theatre In Louisville [MA thesis]. University of Louisville, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences: Louisville KY.

Dickens, Charles. (1842). American Notes. John W. Lovell Company: New York.

Drake, J.G., & Peters, W.C. (1835). Wound Not Thou the Heart that Loves Thee. George Willig: Philadelphia PA.

Dumont, F. (1896, April 5). The Origin of Minstrelsy. Philadelphia Inquirer, p. 3.

Editorial Correspondence. (1846, Aug. 22). Poughkeepsie Journal NY, p. 2.

Fire. (1845, June 13). New York Evening Post, p. 2.

Five Points House of Industry Slated for Destruction. (1913, Aug. 3). New York Times, p. 34.

For the Benefit of Mr. Wild. (1792, May 28). [Advertisement].

From The Reveille. (1849, May 17). Glasgow Weekly Times MO, p. 4.

Genius in Music. (1897, Aug. 1). Nashville Tennessean, p. 14.

Genuine Southern Music. (1857, March 27). Richmond Enquirer VA, p. 2.

Gerteis, L. (1995, Spring). St. Louis in the Age of the Original Jim Crow. Gateway Heritage, 15 (4), pp. 1-9. Missouri Historical Society: Columbia MO.

Grand Wedding in New Orleans. (1859, Aug. 18). Detroit Free Press, p. 2.

Gray, J.H. (1907, April 11). Frank Johnson, Leader, and His Famous Band. New York Age NY, p. 1.

Handy, W.C. (1941). Father of the Blues. The Macmillan Company: New York NY.

He Is Truly American. (1889, Sept. 1). Why Pianist William M. Sherwood Is Fond of Chicago. Chicago Tribune, p. 7.

Irving, Cooper, Brooks, Willis, Fay. (1837, Oct. 18). Wyoming Republican and Farmer’s Herald, Kingston PA, p. 3.

Kleber, John E. (2015, Jan. 13). The Encyclopedia of Louisville. The University Press of Kentucky: Lexington KY.

Latest Eastern Musical Publications. (1845, May 6). [Advertisement.] Louisville Daily Courier KY, p. 4.

Letter From New York. (1850, Dec. 21). New Orleans Times-Picayune, p. 2.

Lhamon, W.T., Jr. (1998). Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop. Harvard University Press: Cambridge MA and London, England.

Local Affairs. (1844, Feb. 5). Philadelphia Public Ledger PA, p. 2.

Local and Provincial. (1849, Jan. 24). Manchester Guardian, England, p. 5.

Logan. (1841, May 13). Music for the People. Cincinnati Enquirer, p. 2.

Louisville Song Writers. (1900, Dec. 9). Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. 29.

Ludlow, N.M. (1880). Dramatic Life as I Found It. G.I. Jones and Company: St. Louis MO.

Malone, B.C. (1979). Southern Music/American Music. The University Press of Kentucky: Lexington KY.

Musical Prodigies. (1857, Oct. 29). Richmond Dispatch VA, p. 1.

Narine, D. (1995, June 18). African Music’s Journey to Mainstream. Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel FL, p. 1F.

Nashville, Aug. 15, 1844. (1844, Aug. 23). Detroit Free Press, p. 2.

Negro Melodies. (1838, Dec. 11). Columbus Southern Argus MS, p. 1.

Notes At The South. (1848, Jan. 7). New York Tribune, p. 2.

O’Connell, JoAnne. (2016, Sept. 29). The Life and Songs of Stephen Foster. Rowman & Littlefield: Lanham MD.

Old-Time Minstrelsy. (1874, Sept. 11). Washington National Republican DC, p. 1.

One Night Only! (1848, Sept. 9). [Advertisement.] Louisville Daily Courier KY, p. 1.

Our Own Country. (1835, Feb. 21). Nashville Republican TN, p. 2.

Owen, R. (2001, April 20). PBS Celebrates The Life and Songs of Stephen Foster, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, p. 44.

“Patting Juba.” (1915, Jan. 11). Atlanta Constitution, p. 6.

Pollack, M. (2005, April 3). A Subway Poet. New York Times [online].

Sanjek, R. (1988). American Popular Music and Its Business: The First Four Hundred Years: II, From 1790 to 1909. Oxford University Press: New York NY.

Smith, Christopher J. (2011, Spring). Blacks and Irish on the Riverine Frontiers: The Roots of American Popular Music. Southern Cultures, 17 (1), pp. 75-102.

Soodalter, R. (Article accessed 2017, Oct. 21). Part Two: From Minstrel Shows to the Mines.

Strausbaugh, John. (2006). Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture. Penguin: New York NY.

The Ethiopian Serenaders. (1846, Feb. 15). London Observer, England, p. 3.

The Polka. (1844, Aug. 23). Washington Whig DC, p. 2.

The Richings-Bernard Concert. (1875, Feb. 11). Chicago Tribune, p. 7.

Thompson, Brian. (1999, June). Book Reviews: Nineteenth Century: “Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and their World” by Dale Cockrell; “Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop” by W.T. Lhamon Jr. Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association, 55 (4), pp. 919-922.

Two Famous Song Writers. (1883, May 2). St. Louis Post-Dispatch, p. 7.

Vauxhall Gardens. (1848, June 18). London Observer, England, p. 3.

We Have Received From Our Neighbors. (1846, May 13). Louisville Daily Courier KY, p. 2.

What Next? (1847, Dec. 3). Anti-Slavery Bugle, Lisbon OH, p. 3.

William C. Peters, 1805-1866. (Article accessed 2017, Oct. 20). United States Library of Congress: Washington DC.

Willis, N.P. (1843, March 31). The Five Points. Nashville Tennessean, p. 1.

Yeoman. (1853, Sept. 1). The South: Letters on the Productions, Industry, and Resource of the Slave States. New York Times, p. 2.

Young, A.E. (1921, April 10). “My Old Kentucky Home,” the Song and the Story. Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. SM1.

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

River Music, American Music Prior to Civil War

Thirteenth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for

Posted Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

River traffic blew open the West after 1820, driving development and reducing isolation along major valleys. Boats arrived at wharfs and landings round the clock, all types of watercraft bringing people, technology, information, and culture—arts and entertainment. “The tremendous part the river life played in developing the ambitions and intelligence of the western settlers can never be estimated,” Ida M. Tarbell observed for McClure’s monthly in the latter century.

An entertainment core developed along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, including “floating theaters” that landed practically anywhere. “Almost every actor of the time with courage, ingenuity, and a crusading love of [the] art wanted to play the West. The river and boats were ready to provide transportation,” wrote Philip Graham, author of Showboats: History of an American Institution.

The famed Chapman family revolutionized entertainment on water during the 1830s. The talented Chapmans garnered grassroots acclaim from aboard their showboats—a series of flat barges until purchase of a steamer—literally delivering their extraordinary performances in drama, comedy and song. The Chapman Floating Theatre started each trip from Pittsburgh, wending southwest to Cairo then south to New Orleans, and stopped at every shoreline mustering an audience, town or plantation, especially with good fishing.

“Most of the wealth of the region gravitated toward the rivers, and audiences along their banks needed entertainment and were anxious to pay for it,” Graham observed. Modern musicologist Bill C. Malone, author of Southern Music/American Music, noted that early audiences “responded to whatever was available. They could alternate between a melodrama and a Shakespearean tragedy, a minstrel show and a concert by Jenny Lind.”

River entertainers, in turn, learned to expect anything. A Shakespearean troupe worked down the Mississippi on a flatboat in 1835, self-billed as the “Ark Theatre,” staging Hamlet dockside at one village. “Here were music, madness, moonshine—philosophy, poetry and performances—comedy, tragedy and farce, all [on] water,” recounted an actor in attendance.

Lo, a real villain untied the barge, casting it adrift to “our horror and astonishment…,” the actor recorded, “finding ourselves in the mighty current of the Mississippi, floating downstream, without sail or rudder, at the rate of five miles an hour!” The craft was run ashore safely, but far downriver. “I will not tire your gracious patience with the details of our tramp through interminable swamp and across muddy creeks,” sniffed the dramatist. “Suffice it to say, that half the party lost their shoes and all their tempers, and that at about sunrise the next morning, a set of squalid, tired, bespattered and hungry wretches were seen entering the village.”

A theater audience lost control on a summer night at Louisville, indoors under gas chandelier and candlelight. “Louisville was a grand harbor for flatboat men and steamboat men,” explained a Courier-Journal account, decades later, recalling “the free-and-easy style of manners which were sometimes witnessed in the old theaters.”

At Samuel Drake’s theater on the evening of Louisville legend, 1837, audience action eclipsed the stage show after a drunken boatman passed out in tier seating. Had the man slept quietly “the attention of the crowd of spectators would not have been diverted from the stage, where several stars were moving in all their luster,” the paper recounted.

“Alas! The sleeper snored. He emitted long rolls of nasal thunder whose noise threatened to drown out the deep-chested declamation of the actors.” Objections arose immediately at rear of the auditorium, from sweaty river men packed in “the pit,” a sunken area for standing only. “The admission fee there was only a quarter, and the demons of the pit entered their part of the theater through the basement… For such an assembly the sleeper’s notes of defiance were too provoking.”

The snoring continued and catcalls increased until the sleeper woke suddenly, enraged, to curse and threaten his critics. “A knot of men in the pit directly under him especially attracted his attention by their demonstrations… so he quickly leaped over the railing, right in among them and began making his fists play furiously around him.”

“But his courage availed him nothing,” The Courier-Journal continued. “The pit wanted a fight badly… the usual arrangements of the night were completely reversed, the spectators being converted into impassioned actors, while the professional actors, arranged in the spangles, plumes and tinseled finery of the drama, looked in utter amazement on the contest that raged below them.” The offending theatergoer was beaten to the floor, “an unsightly mass of rags, blood and filth,” and carried out. Stage actors resumed their work but warily, lacking the passion of boatmen.

Louisville boomed as gateway to the West and far South, capitalizing on slave trade among businesses. Population spiked, ranking Louisville among leading U.S. cities, and entertainment options grew proportionately. Big circuses were spectacles that stretched urban blocks, such as the G.R. Spaulding and Dan Rice shows, inspiring a holiday atmosphere. Louisville hosted ventriloquists, magicians and occultists, and “human oddities” like Tom Thumb, with his manager P.T. Barnum, of the traveling American Museum and menagerie.

Stars in drama, comedy and music, talents of America and Europe, played regularly in Louisville, typically at Drake’s theater or the Apollo Rooms of William C. Peters and partners.

Drake, as in his management practice since the legendary Green Street Theatre in Albany, employed stock actors at Louisville while allowing amateurs their stage turns. “The Drake family were a magnificent company in themselves,” said E.S. Conner, American actor who tutored under Drake. “Samuel and his sons Sam and Jim were artists, each in their line. His daughter Julia was a transcendent lovely and fine actress. She [became] mother of the renowned Julia Dean.”

W.C. Peters, like the elder Drake, was a charismatic English emigrant, a talented musician and capable entrepreneur. Classically trained, Peters performed, composed and arranged songs prodigiously. He came to Louisville from Pittsburgh, opening a music store and teaching piano and guitar; he founded a music library, circulating sheets of lyric and melody.

Peters branched into song publishing around 1835, right on time for serving America’s first native wave of popular artists. These maverick musicians, primarily whites from the North, needed independent publishers like Peters of the West and South, in the beginning. Their collaboration proved integral for the marketing of purely American music, ballads and spirituals of English and African origins.

This antebellum American music, foreshadowing genre offshoots to come, was forged of interracial sharing, of positive synergy between whites and blacks, yet roiled by racial insensitivity and malice. Interracial greatness entwined with racial conflict would endure for generations in America, and mark the evolving, epic music of the South.

“Ironically, much of the distinctiveness of southern music comes from the region’s long juxtaposition of the white and black races and from its widespread rural poverty and isolation,” wrote Charles P. Roland, historian and editor, in 1979.

“Aesthetically unsophisticated and, by the usual standards, deprived, poor southerners responded by preserving and developing a folk tradition of ballads and spirituals, of blues and jazz, and of hillbilly, country, and gospel music. Finally, strains from all of these types blended to help create rock, the nearest thing there is, perhaps, to an ecumenical art form.”

Select References

Afloat—Chapman’s Floating Theatre. (1837, June 6). New Orleans Times-Picayune, p. 2.

Amusements. (1889, June 2). Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. 13.

An Old Actor’s Memories. (1881, June 5). New York Times, p. 10.

Baynham, Edward Gladstone. (1944). The Early Development of Music in Pittsburgh [PhD thesis]. University of Pittsburgh Graduate School: Pittsburgh PA.

Booth, J.B. (1835, July 17). Theatrical Adventures on the Mississippi. Weekly Mississippian, Jackson MS, p. 1.

Brown, Maria Ward. (1901). The Life of Dan Rice. Author published: Long Branch NJ.

Chapman. (1839, Aug. 15). New Orleans Times-Picayune, p. 2.

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

C.L. (1881, June 5). An Old Actor’s Memories. New York Times, p. 10.

Cockrell, D. (1997). Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, England, and New York NY.

Co-Partnership. (1839, May 4). [Advertisement.] Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. 2.

Death of a Well-Known Citizen. (1866, April 23). Louisville Daily Journal KY, p. 1.

Dietz, M.M. (1921, May). A History of The Theatre In Louisville [MA thesis]. University of Louisville, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences: Louisville KY.

Drake, J.G., & Peters, W.C. (1835). Wound Not Thou the Heart that Loves Thee. George Willig: Philadelphia PA.

Dramatics on a Flatboat. (1884, Jan. 20). Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. 14.

Dumont, F. (1896, April 5). The Origin of Minstrelsy. Philadelphia Inquirer, p. 3.

Extract from a Letter Dated Cairo, Illinois. (1840, Feb. 1). Salt River Journal, Bowling Green MO, p. 3.

First Appearance of Mr. Felix. (1836, June 22). Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. 2.

Gen. Tom Thumb. (1850, Jan. 23). Louisville Daily Courier KY, p. 3.

Gerteis, L. (1995, Spring). St. Louis in the Age of the Original Jim Crow. Gateway Heritage, 15 (4), pp. 1-9. Missouri Historical Society: Columbia MO.

Graham, P. (1951). Showboats: The History of an American Institution. University of Texas Press: Austin TX.

Gudmestad, Robert H. (2011). Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom. Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge.

Handy, W.C. (1941). Father of the Blues. The Macmillan Company: New York NY.

He Is Truly American. (1889, Sept. 1). Why Pianist William M. Sherwood Is Fond of Chicago. Chicago Tribune, p. 7.

Hornblow, A. (1919). A History of the Theatre In America: From Its Beginnings to the Present Time. J.B. Lippincott Company: Philadelphia PA and London, England.

Inge, M.T., & Piacentino, E. [Eds.] (2010). Southern Frontier Humor: An Anthology. University of Missouri Press: Columbia MO.

Kleber, John E. (2015, Jan. 13). The Encyclopedia of Louisville. The University Press of Kentucky: Lexington KY.

Latest Eastern Musical Publications. (1845, May 6). [Advertisement.] Louisville Daily Courier KY, p. 4.

Letter From New York. (1850, Dec. 21). New Orleans Times-Picayune, p. 2.

Lhamon, W.T., Jr. (1998). Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop. Harvard University Press: Cambridge MA and London, England.

Local and Provincial. (1848, Oct. 18). Free-Trade Hall—“Juba” and The Serenadors. London Guardian, England, p. 5.

Local and Provincial. (1849, Jan. 24). Juba and The Serenadors. London Guardian, England, p. 5.

Louisville Song Writers. (1900, Dec. 9). Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. 29.

Ludlow, N.M. (1880). Dramatic Life as I Found It. G.I. Jones and Company: St. Louis MO.

Malone, B.C. (1979). Southern Music/American Music. The University Press of Kentucky: Lexington KY.

Messrs. “Potters and Waters.” (1837, Feb. 22). Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. 2.

Music. (1848, Oct. 2). New Orleans Crescent LA, p. 1.

Music at Home and Abroad. (1866, April 21). Louisville Daily Courier KY, p. 3.

Music of the Future. (1891, May 19). Chillicothe Morning Constitution MO, p. 3.

Musical Notes. (1889, Aug. 25). Chicago Tribune, p. 28.

Narine, D. (1995, June 18). African Music’s Journey to Mainstream. Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel FL, p. 1F.

New and Popular Music. (1849, Jan. 24). Nashville Tennessean, p. 3.

O’Connell, JoAnne. (2016). The Life and Songs of Stephen Foster. Rowman & Littlefield: Lanham MD.

Owen, R. (2001, April 20). King of Pop: PBS Celebrates the Life and Songs of Stephen Foster. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, p. 44.

School For Young Ladies. (1836, Aug. 27). [Advertisement.] Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. 3.

Smith, S. (1868). Theatrical Management in the West and South for Thirty Years. Harper & Brothers: New York NY.

Tarbell, I.M. (1896, July 12). The Mississippi Valley Fleet. Salt Lake Herald UT, p. 10.

The Circus in Earlier Days. (1880, Dec. 9). [Advertisement.] Milan Exchange TN, p. 3.

Theatricals In Louisville. (1881, Dec. 11). Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p.9.

Thompson, R. (1955, March 19). A Saturday Night Historical Notebook. Dixon Evening Telegraph IL, p.4

Two Nights more of the Great Magician. (1836, June 6). Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. 2.

William C. Peters, 1805-1866. (Accessed 2017, Oct. 20). [online]. United States Library of Congress: Washington DC.

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


Entertainers Followed Rivers West and South

Twelfth in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for

Posted Monday, October 16, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

Twenty-year-old Noah Ludlow figured he could sneak away from loved ones without informing them of his adventurous plan, or foolhardiness.

It was July of 1815 in Albany, N.Y., and Ludlow’s widowed mother fretted enough already. Her youngest son had left a business apprenticeship upon his father’s death, only to land at the local theater, of all places, where he pursued “a passion for histrionic fame,” as Ludlow later recalled in memoirs. “My mother was a very religious woman, of the strictest sect, and my father a man who found no particular pleasure in the so-called amusements of the day; therefore my very early youth had been kept free of such ‘delusions’ as theatres.”

Now Ludlow was leaving home to be an actor in the “far, far West,” having joined a theater troupe bound for Kentucky. Eastern actors with paying jobs had rejected the “wild scheme,” so troupe organizer Samuel Drake, Sr., solicited novices like Ludlow. “He told me very candidly that he was going on a voyage of adventure, which possibly might result disastrously,” Ludlow recounted. “I was too glad of an opportunity to embark in what had become now my entire ambition, to hesitate an hour in giving him an answer.”

Ludlow accepted enthusiastically but rued the thought of leaving his mother and young sister, and he told them nothing. Ludlow forwarded baggage to the Albany coach office then, at daybreak of his departure, crept through the family home. “I quietly walked from my bedroom, and as I passed that of my mother, the door standing ajar, I beheld her on her knees in prayer, and heard her utter these words: ‘Oh, Father! Be with him in his journey through life, and keep his soul from sin.’ My heart nearly failed me… I rushed out of the house and saw her no more for 10 years.”

“This was the first regretful act of my life,” Ludlow later confessed. “Reflection soon brought to my mind the anguish of that mother who almost doted on the son that had left her without a parting word, and the thought haunted me like a ghost.” An older brother disavowed Ludlow, calling him a “genteel vagabond” unworthy of family name.

Nonetheless, Ludlow and the rest of Drake’s humble troupers were following a destiny—“pioneer actors of the West,” by a later pronouncement—for a country yet unfolding. Modern historian Louis Gerteis, specializing in entertainment lineage of St. Louis, observed: “In  a  period  of  American  history  that  textbooks  traditionally  associate  with  the ‘politics of the common man,’ an outburst of theatrical entertainment brought an abrupt end  to  a  long-standing  American  bias  against  theatrical  entertainment. The period between 1820 and 1850 marked an unprecedented era of  theatricality.”

In summer 1815, the humble Drake company of 11 actors and actresses were harbingers of a movement, “a stream of theatrical migration westward,” observed Gerteis. The troupe traveled rural New York, working little theaters, presenting productions of tragedy and comedy interspersed with song. Ludlow took the stage at Cooperstown, overdoing his villainous character in “damned bad” fashion, Drake criticized, but novelist James Fenimore Cooper enjoyed the show and encouraged “our pioneer efforts in the cause of the drama,” Ludlow recalled.

At Canandaigua the group outfitted with a pack wagon, small carriage and three horses for the 150-mile trek southwest, to headwaters of the Allegheny River. Able troupers walked the distance, like Ludlow. The wagons and horses were sold at Olean, N.Y., a river access point of few cabins where Drake purchased a flatboat for transport south to Pittsburgh. The American frontier confronted young Ludlow, born and reared in New York City. “The men, especially the young ones, were expected to ‘rough it,’ and rough it we did,” he wrote.

Another traveler joined the Drake party at Olean to complete a dozen for boarding the boat, of adults and teenagers. They were Samuel Drake, Sr., troupe manager, age 46, and his children Samuel, Jr., Alexander, James, Martha, and the youngest, Julia, at 15; Noah M. Ludlow; Frances Ann Denny; Joe Tracy, a stage hand; Mr. and Mrs. J.O. Lewis, with he a carpenter; and the young newcomer, Hull, an army lieutenant during the recent war with England, returning home to the Mississippi Valley.

Drake’s flatboat was a small barge of Kentucky “broadhorn” style, about 25-feet long by 15-feet wide, with sideboards and two compartments for sleeping. A long-stem paddle served as guidance system, mounted at rear, with hardwood poles for emergency maneuvering. The boatload besides people included food provisions, cookware, personal baggage, tools, and stage accessories: a drop curtain, green carpeting, and scenery backdrops, six painted on drapery such as a kitchen setting and a garden.

The party launched for Pittsburgh, 260 miles down the Allegheny, about 10 days by flatboat, and stopped the first night on an island—“for fear of wild beasts, less likely to visit us there than on the mainland,” Ludlow wrote. Coffee and food were prepared over campfire. “I must say, I never enjoyed a meal more in my entire life than that rural supper. After our evening meal, the men smoked, and the ladies sang, and the time passed delightfully.”

But daytime in July on the boat deck proved unbearable. The sun was searing amid drought for mountainous western Pennsylvania; the Allegheny stood at low stage with current at a crawl. Heat was miserable on the flatboat, and females suffered for their dense garments. A small canopy and umbrellas didn’t shield well enough so a scenery panel was unfurled for cover. Rest was finally possible but the rudderless barge drifted into a mill channel, dammed ahead. Men leapt overboard to halt the heavy flatboat, and they towed it back to the river by rope,  walking the bank and tugging against current.

At nightfall wolves yipped and howled along the Allegheny, having frightened the theater group since the overland trails of New York. Wolf packs prowled the river valley, seemingly the only beings after dark for boat travelers of remote Pennsylvania. “The country then was very wild, the buildings small log cabins, and the accommodations very limited,” Ludlow wrote later in memoirs, utilizing a personal diary of the 1815 trip.

On most nights the Drake party landed, mooring at a settlement if possible, where beds and food might be procured. The boat compartments slept the married couple in one, teen girls in the other, while everyone else sought a comfortable way to lie down. A barn with hay or straw suited the men, if available. One night the river-weary troupe landed late at a darkened homestead “indicating cleanliness and plenty,” Ludlow wrote. “It was a substantial Pennsylvania farmhouse, large and well built.”

The owner came out in greeting, an affluent doctor and farmer who rousted his family to meet the “comedians.” A 10 o’clock supper went on in the kitchen while peach brandy was served in the music parlor. Sam Drake, Jr., classically trained in violin, was impressive in “scraping off” a Scottish ballad and English opera melody, accompanied on piano by the doctor’s wife. The army veteran Hull “astonished us all…,” Ludlow attested, “by sitting down to the piano and playing one or two marches and some other pieces in a very creditable manner.” Merriment continued past midnight, and everyone who needed a bed was accommodated on the estate. The gracious hosts also sent a ham, live chickens and vegetables downriver with the travelers.

A few nights later the Drake troupe reached headwaters of the Alleghany River, “Three Rivers,” where the former met the Monongahela to form the Ohio. “About nine o’clock… to our great delight, the glimmerings of a city broke into our view,” Ludlow recalled of arriving at Pittsburgh. The flatboat docked and the young males went downtown in search of lodging and excitement. Even in darkness, the city’s trademark of coal industry was apparent in soot-covered buildings and streets.

The local theater was sooty too, as the thespians discovered. “It was situated on the eastern outskirts of the city [and] had been built, I think, by some amateur in theatricals,” Ludlow wrote. “It contained a pit and one tier of boxes, as they were called… The decorations, if such they might be termed, were of the plainest kind, and every portion bore the Pittsburgh stamp upon it—coal smut.”

Drake’s troupe cleaned the theater to open a Pittsburgh season of productions, which quickly drew 400 spectators nightly, including miners, boatmen, foundry workers, mechanics and livery drivers. Ludlow would remember “beautiful ladies” and a formative period of his career. “The success I met with in my first two weeks in a regular theatre, and in a city of no small consequence even at that early day, gave me great hopes that I might ultimately become an actor of some notoriety. In thought, I saw a realization of my youthful daydreams. [Drake] was obliged, owing to the limited number of his company, to give me characters of importance to play, quite beyond my inexperience to do justice… But my ambition was great, and I labored hard to gratify its cravings.”

The triumphant actors launched from Pittsburgh in a bigger, better flatboat, to float the Ohio southwesterly for 400 miles. Several of the northerners experienced the South for first time, touching down in Virginia then Kentucky, slave-holding states along the great river. At Limestone, Ky., the group unloaded and Drake sold the barge, obtaining more wagons and horses for an overland tour to Lexington, Frankfort and Louisville.

The Limestone port led into Kentucky where Daniel Boone and frontiersmen had battled Shawnee Indians until the 1790s. Now U.S. territory stretched to the Rocky Mountains, Boone and followers were resettled outside St. Louis, and native tribes were removed or contained. The new West and South were open for entertainment of actors and musicians.

The Drakes went on to establish the Louisville City Theatre, an American showcase for drama and music in the Ohio Valley. Historians anointed the Drakes as a first family of popular entertainment in America.

Noah M. Ludlow opened the first showboat in 1817, a hundred-foot barge without steam power at Natchez on the Mississippi River. Later he co-founded theaters in New Orleans, Mobile and St. Louis. Ludlow partnered with Sol Smith, another New York native thespian, as they “dominated the theatrical world in the South and West for nearly two decades and became noted for their fair dealings with performers,” according to a modern analysis.

Arthur Hornblow, author of a 1919 history on American theater, saluted Ludlow and the humble Drake troupe of lore: “The pampered stage favorite of today who gazes idly out of the [train] window, as his private car speeds smoothly across the continent… can have little idea of the hardships and perils the pioneer actors of the West had to face when they set out a hundred years ago to carry the message of Thespis through the American backwoods.”

Select References

Bakeless, J. (1939). Daniel Boone: Master of The Wilderness. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln NE.

C.L. (1881, June 5). An Old Actor’s Memories. New York Times, p. 10.

Dietz, M.M. (1921, May). A History of The Theatre In Louisville [MA thesis]. University of Louisville, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences: Louisville KY.

Gerteis, L. (1995, Spring). St. Louis in the Age of the Original Jim Crow. Gateway Heritage, 15 (4), pp. 1-9. Missouri Historical Society: Columbia MO.

Graham, P. (1951). Showboats: The History of an American Institution. University of Texas Press: Austin TX.

Hornblow, A. (1919). A History of the Theatre In America: From Its Beginnings to the Present Time. J.B. Lippincott Company: Philadelphia PA and London, England.

Inge, M.T., & Piacentino, E. [Eds.] (2010). Southern Frontier Humor: An Anthology. University of Missouri Press: Columbia MO.

Ludlow, N.M. (1880). Dramatic Life as I Found It. G.I. Jones and Company: St. Louis MO.

Smith, S. (1868). Theatrical Management in the West and South for Thirty Years. Harper & Brothers: New York NY.

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

Steamboats Impacted The South Despite Quaky Start

Eleventh in A Series

By Matt Chaney, for

Posted Saturday, September 30, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

America’s early steamboats shocked witnesses along the major rivers, conjuring fear in many, doom in the very naive.

Thurlow Weed was a boy at Catskill, N.Y., in 1807, when he joined chums on an island to watch Robert Fulton’s maiden steam voyage up the Hudson. “We had heard for several days that some sort of vessel was coming up the river against wind and without sails. Such a thing was regarded as utterly impossible,” Weed later recalled, as a prominent newspaperman.

“Finally we saw the monster coming, vomiting fire and smoke and throwing up sparks. The paddlewheels were not covered. We were frightened almost out of our senses, and at first ran out of sight, but presently took courage and cheered the pioneer steamboat with the people that lined the bank of the river.”

A Fulton-backed steamboat launched on the Ohio River from Pittsburgh in late 1811, christened the “New Orleans.” The $38,000 steamer was built “for the navigation of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, to carry goods and passengers between New Orleans and the different towns of those rivers,” eastern newspapers reported.

“We are told she is an excellent well-constructed vessel;  about 140 feet long, will carry 400 tons of goods, has elegant accommodations for passengers, and is every way fitted in great style. It is supposed that she will go 35 miles  a day against the stream… considerably faster with the current.”

The news moved slower downriver from Pittsburgh than the boat, however. The Ohio and Mississippi valleys—encompassing most western states and incorporated U.S. territories—stood hardly informed that a “steam boat” was en route. And epic earthquakes would raise tension as the foreign machine appeared on western waters.

The New Orleans steamed into Louisville, Ky., by moonlight, alarming inhabitants of both shores, Indiana Territory as well. “The novel appearance of the vessel, and the fearful rapidity with which it made its passage over the broad reaches of the river, excited a mixture of terror and surprise among many of the settlers on the banks, whom the rumor of such an invention had never reached,” The Louisville Courier later recounted.

Farther downstream on the Indiana shore, the steamer attracted settlers who expressed “great alarm,” but not because of the boat. Locals attested of hearing “strange noises on the river and in the woods.” They claimed the shoreline shook earlier that day, “insisting that they had repeatedly felt the earth tremble.” Indeed, the earthquakes of 1811-12 had begun from an epicenter in Missouri Territory at New Madrid, along the Mississippi River, some 170 miles southwest of the steamboat’s location.

Small tremors had been undetectable aboard the steamboat on the Ohio, with the loud engine’s rattling everything, but deck occupants felt jarring that night at anchor. The next day, as a crewman would recall, “we heard a rushing sound, violent splash, and finally saw large portions of the shore tearing away from the land and lapsing into the watery abyss. It was a startling scene… the crew spoke but little.”

The steamboat reached the mouth of the Ohio a week before Christmas, at confluence with the Mississippi River, and crewmen moored on the southern tip of Illinois Territory, future site of Cairo settlement. Directly across the Mississippi sprawled a vast alluvial plain—Missouri Territory of swamp and virgin timber, sparsely populated. A few folks met the steamer on the Illinois side, woodcutters drawn to the landing by talk of “a great monster walking upon the water.”

But earthquakes had become everyone’s concern. Massive shocks erupted as the steamboat headed southward on the Mississippi around Dec. 19, 1811. “Trees along the shores of the river were seen waving and nodding… and all this violence seemed only to increase,” the Louisville paper recounted. “The steamer New Orleans had no choice but to pursue its course down the river… a fearful stream, now unusually swollen, turbid and full of trees.”

The boat docked for a time at New Madrid village, seismic ground zero where the “greatest distress and consternation” gripped residents. “Part of the population had fled in terror to the higher grounds; others prayed… as the earth was opening in fissures on every side, and their houses hourly falling around them.” Superstitious types blamed the steamboat, declaring its manifestation in concert with a current comet at night triggered catastrophic earthquakes and likely end of time.

Thirty miles downstream, at Little Prairie village in future Pemiscot County, Missouri, the steamer was “brought to by the cries of some of the people who thought the earth was gradually sinking,” stated a Natchez dispatch. “Some distance below the Little Prairie the bank of the river had caved in to a considerable extent, and two islands had almost disappeared.”

The steamboat chugged on, passing the Chickasaw Bluffs where Memphis would soon rise, to reach Natchez on Dec. 30 and load cotton bales, the ship’s first cargo. The steamer finally docked at namesake city New Orleans on Jan. 10, 1812; Louisiana statehood was pending, three months away.

“The New Orleans entered the American bloodstream at a propitious moment,” observed modern author Robert H. Gudmestad in his Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom. “The Louisiana Purchase had recently doubled the country’s size and Americans were eagerly moving over the Appalachian Mountains.”

By 1860, states of the great Mississippi drainage basin boasted almost half the American population. “The interior South—those slave states west of the Appalachian Mountains—figured prominently in these changes,” Gudmestad noted. “Its population shot from 806,000 to nearly 7 million people… When the New Orleans completed its first voyage, over 17,000 people lived in New Orleans. Fifty years later, 168,675 people dwelled there. Memphis, a city that did not exist in 1812 and owed its existence to riverboats, was the country’s thirty-eighth largest city in 1860.”

“A decade after the first riverboat touched the New Orleans levee, over seventy steamers prowled the western waters. By the time Abraham Lincoln took up residence in the White House, the number surpassed eight hundred.”

Select References

A Talk With Thurlow Weed. (1878, July 1). New York Tribune, p. 2.

Bagnall, N.H. (1996). On Shaky Ground: The New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-1812.  University of Missouri Press: Columbia.

Gudmestad, Robert H. (2011). Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom. Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge.

La Pariere. (1884, Jan. 6). Opening The Ohio: Initial Trip of the New Orleans, Made During the Convulsive Earthquake of 1811. Louisville Courier Journal KY, p. 9.

Latrobe, C. (1856, Feb. 15). First Steamboat in the West. Louisville Courier Journal KY, p. 1.

Natchez, Jan. 2. (1812, Feb. 22). Missouri Gazette and Public Advertiser, St. Louis, p. 2.

Steam Boat. (1811, Oct. 18). Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, p.2.

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

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 Judd Phillips, record producer, in 1979. “I think we need to take into consideration that poor whites and poor blacks came in here looking for jobs… and they were singing their hearts out. It’s not there in Chicago, or New York, or on the West Coast. It came from right here in the melting pot of human suffering.”

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 Chaney’s article ‘The Local Elvis: From Good Kid to Garbo in Rock Legend’

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-feet 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 relative 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.

Small venues largely booked their act that year, among some 280 shows in 14 states. The Blue Moon Boys opened January on a tour of Texas, finding enthusiastic audiences in a string of towns. A local deejay declared excitedly, mispronouncing, 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 burst into a newspaper office. The giddy teens promoted their fundraiser with Elvis Presley on stage at the high school, 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 notice complete with publicity photo of Presley’s trio: Elvis smiles radiantly at center, darkly handsome in sporty tie and jacket, draping his arms around Moore and Black, who beam in cowboy shirts. At that point the three had become good friends, since summer ’54, however long they’d last under mounting showbiz 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 on 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: