Tag Archives: blues

1960: Elvis Presley Drives Highway 61 Southbound

Preview episode of the book River Shows, Blues, Ragtime, Jazz and Country Music: It All Equals Rockabilly, Part One, by Matt Chaney

Copyright ©2023 for historical arrangement and original content by Matt Chaney, Four Walls Publishing

Friday, July 21, 2023, chaneysblog.com

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, where I-55 blazed over knobby foothills, motorists met a stunning sight:

The great delta flatland, stretching into beyond. The interstate’s twin tracks bore straight south, melding together in the distance, with the horizon a flat line.

Southeast Missouri had been ocean coastline in eons past, an ancient embayment subsequently altered through ice ages and meltdowns, concluded geologists. The modern Mississippi River stood relatively young at around 10,000 years of age, scientists calculated in the 20th Century, with the alluvial basin composed of sediments washed from across the continental interior. Core drilling indicated more than 1,000 cubic miles of sediment filled an entrenched rock valley from Cape Girardeau to New Orleans. Geologists determined that the New Madrid Fault, notorious seismic rift, would never resolve for encroachment of boulders far underground.

In the 1900s, delta swamps and spillways were drained, levees were fortified, and farms and communities developed from Missouri to Louisiana. Population influx was led by planters and sharecroppers from the Old South, escaping regions beset by soil depletion and the boll weevil. For “reclaimed” delta land, the basic scenery was row crops, flat expanses of cotton, corn, beans and alfalfa, framed only by fence and tree lines. The sky was enormous above.

On appearances the delta seemed no place for artistic greatness to influence a civilization, yet this became the wellspring for American music. Multiple genres were impacted, including folk, gospel, blues, ragtime, jazz, “hillbilly” or country music, and, ultimately, rock ‘n’ roll. The essential delta factor, according to many, was the rub of class and race in a harsh frontier.

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

“These untrained musicians in the Mid-South, from the delta of Mississippi, the delta of Arkansas, west Tennessee, southeast Missouri, northwest Alabama—you had a combination of country people,” said Sam Phillips, brother of Judd and founder of Sun Records. “I mean really country musicians, amateur musicians, black and white, the likes of which no other section in this land had.”

Delta songsmiths “created a sound out of the way they lived and their backgrounds and their roots,” said Al Bennett, recording magnate reared on a farm in northeast Arkansas. “I don’t think it was designed.”

“There are two choices in Arkansas…,” said singer Ronnie Hawkins, founding member of The Hawks. “You either pick cotton for three or four dollars a day, or you can play music and get out. So there’s an awful lot of people trying to pick guitars in that area.”

Johnny Cash recalled helping his family clear swamp tangle for a meager farm at Dyess, Ark., with floodwater the perennial threat. Cash believed the experience translated later for his music, attracting wide audience. “When you work close to the earth on some poor dirt farm… you learn to understand the basic things about love and hate and what people want from life,” Cash observed.

“I think the Mississippi delta was just as fertile to American culture as the delta was in ancient Egypt,” said author Nick Tousches, biographer of Jerry Lee Lewis, in 1994. “It was where black people heard the white man’s music and made something new out of it. It was where the white man heard the black man’s music. And people say the blues came from Africa; well, I think they really came from the Deep South.”

Author Rose Marie Kinder heard lyricism in everyday language of her native southeast Missouri, where expression “differs from anywhere else in the state or country,” Kinder said. “It’s subtle, perhaps, but you’ll know the true southeast Missouri vernacular when you hear it. It’s not Southern inflection, not just metaphor and certainly not just colloquialisms. It’s wit and pacing and sharp, apt observation.”

“An added pronoun or two can make music if they’re in the right place.”


Elvis Presley appreciated modern aircraft, he just did not like flying. Now the TWA jet he had boarded in Los Angeles struck turbulence at 35,000 feet, bearing east at 600 mph. A storm system draped the country early this Thursday morning, June 30, 1960, with damaging winds having struck St. Louis at midnight.

Presley’s flight charged on through rough skies and then, three hours airborne, the Boeing 707 decelerated noticeably, dropping in elevation. The aircraft nosed downward, immersed in clouds, jumpy through pockets, pitching about. The fuselage quivered and visibility was zero outside.

Young Elvis shook in his seat. He would have been terrified a few years earlier but had learned better of flying on Army transports. This was Presley’s first jet flight. He was tense on descent in the 707 but knew landing was near in St. Louis. He thought good thoughts, like the old saying, of reaching home in Memphis, his Graceland Estate, and of getting there by car, his preferred mode of travel.

The plane’s landing navigation was state of the art, leading pilots and aircraft to earth electronically. Cloud cover separated and Lambert Airport came into view below, its runways grid in a giant outlay. New Interstate 70,  the “Mark Twain Expressway,” ran alongside the busy airport. Morning sunlight burned through from the east, shimmering off the Mississippi River at downtown St. Louis.

Urban sprawl westward represented St. Louis County suburbia and commercial development, including the airport and auto plants, fascinating from above. Cars crawled on superhighways, swirling round cloverleaf interchanges. Lindbergh Boulevard marked the metro’s western belt, and new I-70 was pure freeway, a few miles of pavement opened thus far. Subdivisions clustered along Lindbergh below, in honeycombs of streets and cul-de-sacs, strands of uniform homes, cookie-cutter models of ranch and split level.

The plane came down right over Lindbergh car traffic to land yonder on Runway One at Lambert. Pilots hit the brakes and reversed thrust. Big rubber tires bowed and groaned, and the Boeing cut to taxi speed within 4,800 feet. Elvis Presley—age 25, heartthrob singer-actor, more famous than the president—exhaled after a long night and morning yet. He was wide awake now, no amphetamines required, ready to go home after 10 weeks shooting the movie G.I. Blues in Hollywood.

St. Louis weather was sultry and blustery, rain light, with storms still forecast.

Presley and his cousin Gene Smith disembarked the aircraft, donning sunglasses under dark skies, avoiding recognition. Passing incognito was not their entire goal, for Elvis enjoyed meeting fans and signing autographs, posing for photos. Getting mobbed was his constant fear, capable of happening in seconds, as the superstar experienced worldwide. Nothing of the sort transpired at Lambert, and local media had no clue Elvis was here.

He and Gene loaded a rental Cadillac without interference. Elvis slid into the driver’s seat as usual, turning the ignition key and hitting the gas. The luxury car shot out of the lot, onto a cloverleaf exit for Lindbergh Boulevard, and round the down ramp, tires squealing. Elvis merged quickly into traffic, southbound.

Presley put pedal to the metal, coming up fast on the new Holiday Inn at the Lindbergh intersection with I-70. The Holiday Inns of America Inc. was brainchild of Kemmons Wilson, Memphis businessman, acquaintance of Presley and an investment partner of Sam Phillips, Sun Records. Phillips had produced pioneer rockabilly hits of Elvis with Scotty Moore and Bill Black during 1954-55. Sun sold Presley’s contract to RCA for $40,000 after Wilson, reputed genius of business, advised Phillips to make the deal.

Presley glanced at the first Holiday Inn of St. Louis, its choice location at major highways and the airport. On another morning he might grab a room for sleep, to “crash” after a restless night, but not today. Rainy weather meant no females at the hotel pool, none for Gene to herd toward Elvis in his room. The celebrity was Memphis bound, besides, where plenty “chicks” awaited him.

The Cadillac sped on, weaving around cars and trucks. Lindbergh was a most dangerous roadway labeled “Racetrack of Death” by a coroner. The notorious Dead Man’s Stretch, some three miles of the four-lane, would tally 12 fatalities for the year. White crosses marked the dead at roadside, erected by activists.

Never mind, Presley tore through in the big car, ignoring track hazards. Heck, since ’56 he had driven New York expressways, California freeways and German autobahns. Elvis relished flying low in vehicles on the ground, like hauling ass around Memphis on his motorcycles.

Presley would not stop for food in St. Louis although eateries lined the boulevard. Lindbergh classics were Schneithorst’s Restaurant for breakfast, Dohack’s for barbecue, and The Parkmoor for burgers. Spencer’s Grill in Kirkwood was an institution open 24 hours. New franchises popped along the parkway like Steak ’N Shake, Dairy Queen, Big Boy Burger, and Howard Johnson’s, Ho-Jo’s.

Billboards pasted the roadsides of St. Louis, prompting The Post-Dispatch to complain “our highways are being disfigured.” Billboards for Meramec Caverns and Onondaga Cave were everywhere, a joke among locals and visitors alike. Lindbergh stood littered with cave ads since the road linked to Ozarks routes, particularly Highway 66.

Cave signs had suspect claims or “Ozark truth” in marketing, such as declaring Daniel Boone discovered Onondaga. Billboards blared: “VISIT THE FAMOUS Jesse James CAVERN… MERAMEC CAVERNS… JESSE JAMES HIDEOUT… World’s Only Natural Air-Conditioned Restaurant and Souvenir Stand.”

Elvis always noticed a theater marquee, cataloguing movies in his memory. Big-screen Ronnie’s Drive In was a fixture of suburban St. Louis at Lindbergh and Route 21. A double feature was slated to begin at nightfall with Stop! Look! and Laugh!, starring The Three Stooges, and the opener, My Dog, Buddy, starring a German shepherd. The outdoor theater was also a travel marker for Lindbergh drivers.

Presley’s next turnoff came directly, Lemay Ferry, where he struck the “River Road” south to Memphis—Highway 61.


When Elvis Presley was an Army private at Fort Hood, he went home to Memphis on a furlough widely publicized. Texas folks waited at roadside to see the star’s Lincoln Continental sweep past. Signs were posted on trees and fences: “Elvis Passed Here.”

Later in eastern Missouri, a summer morning in 1960, no one expected to see Presley in a Cadillac headed south on Highway 61. Surely someone recognized the matinee idol below St. Louis, flying by in the Caddy rental—he was driving—which would jibe with sightings elsewhere. Memphians spoke of Presley on motorcycles around the city, toting exotic women at his back, leggy dancers and Natalie Wood among them. Near Graceland, a girl playing catch with friends spied Elvis on a Harley. She turned to look and was hit in the mouth by a baseball, losing her front teeth. She said it was worth it, seeing Elvis.

No reports made Missouri news as Presley and his cousin Gene Smith sped down Highway 61 on Thursday, June 30. Presumably they enjoyed themselves in the hinterland, heading home to Memphis following a Hollywood film shoot and their harried jet ride to St. Louis, through storms.

Highway 61 southbound traversed Missouri of the Mississippi Valley, exquisite scenery below Festus and Crystal City. High hills with deep valleys resembled an American Rhineland. Motorists were stunned for the views and antiquity communities founded by French and German immigrants. Travel writers lauded the trip, “wandering along banks of history in backroads Missouri… rich in legends and lore, time-haunted towns and evocative byways,” as one described.

The road moved through Ste. Genevieve, renowned for French Creole architecture, a western settlement attacked by Osage Indians in the 1700s. Farther south, the counties of Perry and Cape Girardeau boasted the Saxony Lutherans, their historic district of postcard farms and towns, stops like Brewer, Perryville, Longtown, Uniontown, Altenburg, Old Appleton, Pocahontas and Fruitland.

In Cape Girardeau, college town of 23,000, Route 61 became Kingshighway Street. Here a trading post opened at the river around 1733, historians said. “Cape” teemed with lore ranging from explorers, Indians and military leaders to steamboat pilots, musicians, composers, circus performers and baseball players. A rich line of American figures had visited, with many residing.

Cape Girardeau’s entertainment past predated the Civil War with flatboat theaters and steam showboats. American circus industry broke out along interior rivers, and companies toured southeast Missouri for generations. Circuses wintered and trained in the region.

Music greats of the 1920s and ’30s played boat excursions from Cape, including local product Jess Stacy, pianist, and Fate Marable of Paducah, Ky., a bandleader for Streckfus Steamers Inc. Marable recruited New Orleans jazz and blues players such as Louis Armstrong. Cape hosted traveling shows of “hillbilly” musicians and “radio stars.” Hillbilly groups of radio were local favorites through World War Two, led by troupes of the WLS Barn Dance program, from Chicago, and WSM’s Grand Ole Opry from Nashville.

Rockabilly pioneers frequented Cape Girardeau in the Boomer Fifties, representing Sun Records in Memphis, like Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Onie Wheeler, Narvel Felts, and Presley’s Blue Moon Boys—Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black—who played the Arena Building in July of 1955.

A writer described Cape County as “Snortherner,” where foothills leveled off into the Mississippi Valley delta, bridging North and South, if not mending cultural differences. In June 1960, Elvis Presley drove a bypass route around Cape Girardeau, down into the great flatland. Memphis stood 170 miles away on delta highways, and he knew every place in between since a kid.

Elvis was right at home.


Conservation writer Jim Keefe visited southeast Missouri to view riverine topography in 1956. “To cruise southward down Highway 61 from Cape Girardeau, to burst dramatically and unexpectedly into the great flat alluvial plain of the delta, comes as a shock,” he remarked. “For the delta counties—Pemiscot, Dunklin, Mississippi, Scott, New Madrid, Stoddard, Butler—are unique to the beholder the first time he travels into them.”

But Elvis Presley knew exactly where he was going, down into the Missouri delta on June 30, 1960, with his cousin Gene Smith. Elvis had traveled this road since boyhood. Cotton fields appeared along Highway 61 with early blossoms at Morley village in Scott County. White bolls burst forth from leafy plants, and a local paper announced: “Welcome, Queen Cotton Blossom.”

Presley had a good friend in Morley, Onie Wheeler, country rock musician and songwriter. Elvis respected Wheeler, a war veteran, Opry performer and Sun artist. Wheeler was a guitar stylist in mold of Hank Williams. Wheeler was also among the few, anymore, who could show up unannounced at Presley’s gate in Memphis for a visit.

The morning was hot, but Elvis and Gene rolled cool in the Cadillac, air-conditioned luxury. The temperature outside exceeded 80 degrees at 11 o’clock.

Loamy farm fields were damp along Highway 61. The dew point was steamy under sunshine, greenhouse conditions. Crops over a thousand square miles stood in fine shape after two days of “multi-million-dollar rain,” said a county agent.

The wheat harvest was yielding super hauls like 55 bushels an acre on a farm at Morley. Cotton was popping, and soybeans and sorghum pushed upward. Seed corn had height in strong green stalks, topped by gold tasseling and silk.

Laborers dotted the field rows, adults and kids, mostly black, yanking hoe blades to uproot weeds. Elvis and Gene knew that job, “chopping cotton” or beans, and had not forgotten. The work looked sweltering out there; they never wanted to go back.

The road dipped into an ancient river channel which flooded until the 1930s, when drainage ditches and massive levees finally won out in “Swampeast Missouri.” The Cadillac dashed over dry spillway and up again, more than 20 feet in elevation, riding the backbone of Sikeston Ridge, uplift of the alluvial plain. Floods of two centuries had not reached the crest of Sikeston Ridge, not one.

Sikeston Ridge carried south to Arkansas almost unbroken, riding high to support U.S. 61, railroads, communities and farms. Sixty-One followed old King’s Highway, El Camino Real, laid down by the Spanish in Upper Louisiana.

Presley and Smith passed Haywood City, black community founded by sharecroppers, followed by the new Scott County Schools, a reconsolidated, integrated district.

Elvis spied the Delta Drive In, a second outdoor theater within 15 miles. The movie complex was set back in farm fields with the big screen blocked from highway eyes, particularly of passing kids. Movies typically showed “a little skin” at the Delta, and the marquee listed a double feature after dusk, The Lonely Sex and Girls Incorporated.

The Cadillac was burning gasoline since St. Louis, blasting AC, down to a quarter-tank on the gauge. The little store at Grant City had gas pumps, but Presley did not slow for the Shell sign. Elvis could stop in Sikeston ahead, a prominent community with close relatives of his, but likely not.

Back in 1955, Presley played several locations in southeast Missouri along 61. Moving through Sikeston, he saw the Armory Building, where he appeared twice with Scotty and Bill.

At southern edge of town, the Cadillac crossed Highway 60. Eastward lay Cairo, Ill., legendary destination for generations of musicians, including strolling bluesmen seeking gigs and the IC Railroad to Chicago.

Suped-up cars flew by in the opposite direction, Chevys, Fords, Pontiacs and Plymouths, roaring with engines and exhaust. Presley hit the gas, determined no local would pass him—or recognize and give chase.


The gas gauge was on “E,” the stomach was empty, and Elvis Presley knew the spot to pull over in a few miles—Hayti, along Highway 61 in the Missouri delta. Presley and his cousin Gene Smith were damn hungry in the car. They needed food, a restroom and gas refill to get home to Memphis, covering their last hundred miles after a plane flight from Los Angeles to St. Louis.

While the Cadillac rolled on fumes through rural Pemiscot County, the world consumed Elvis gossip in bulk on radio, TV and news pages.

Wire photos from the G.I. Blues film set featured Presley with costar Juliette Prowse and twin babies, shooting a scene. Elvis had grabbed a big bass guitar, clowning between takes, and cameras flashed. Luminaries visited the Hollywood set, pining for photos with Elvis, coming expressly to meet him, like Tennessee Williams and the King and Queen of Thailand.

News reports and features had Presley romancing numerous women. Starlets were linked such as Prowse—Sinatra’s girlfriend—and teen beauty Priscilla Beaulieu, whom Presley met in Germany, daughter of a military officer. Elvis impersonators humored America, along with a pony named Elvis, saved from a barn fire, all headlined in news.

Southern Democrats pushed Elvis to endorse Lyndon Johnson for president, and a racetrack exhibited his  BMW sportscar. Miss Japan discussed Elvis at the Miss Universe Pageant. A gossip columnist, citing unnamed sources, claimed Elvis to be paranoid and controlling on movie sets. Another pundit declared him a paper man, versus real hero Tom Mix. But director Norman Taurog “raved” about Elvis, declaring “he’s the most polite, gentlemanly actor” ever worked with.

Gleeful critics depicted rock ‘n’ roll as a quaint beat of fossilized musicians, ripping Presley in particular. Indeed, grassroots evidence of rockabilly’s demise stood at the musical intersection of highways 61 and 84 in Hayti.

The Zanza Club and Joy Theatre had ceased booking rock acts, after bringing talent for years. Carl Perkins and Carl Mann last appeared at Zanza Club in 1959. Joy Theatre once booked a line of names, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Billy Lee Riley, Warren Smith, Narvel Felts, Hayden Thompson, Charlie Feathers, Travis Wammack, and Eddie Bond. But none since ’57.

Elvis Presley never played Hayti stages, but now the man himself was driving up at Thursday noon, wheeling his rental car into Gwin’s Service Station. Witnesses would later confuse the Cadillac’s color, some calling it pink, others peach. Elvis had stopped here before, but not since road-busting days of the Blue Moon Boys with Scotty and Bill. At that time the trio played a roadhouse on the Pemiscot County line with Dunklin, the B&B Club at Gobler, as did every Sun rockabilly.

A friendly Elvis and Gene exited the car at gas pumps, chatting up wide-eyed attendants. They asked for and followed directions to the Men’s Room. Soon the pair emerged casually without sunglasses, their hair slicked back—Elvis’ dyed black—and strode through front door of the station.

Locals were moving in for the Elvis alert sweeping the town of 3,700. A station attendant asked if there were time to phone his kids. “Call ’em,” Elvis replied. On a wall in Gwin’s Café Room, a tarnished brass plate confirmed “Elvis Presley Dined Here.”

On this visit he drove next door to Bob’s Daisy Queen for burgers and fries. Bob Inmon, owner of the drive in, was on site for a lunch crush over the celebrity’s appearance. 

“In 10 minutes time our place was covered up with teenagers and oldsters as well, wanting to get a look at Elvis,” Inmon said later. Elvis and Gene told Inmon about the 707 flight to St. Louis, along with the Cadillac rental from Lambert Airport. They enjoyed the drive down 61.

Elvis and Gene sat a half-hour in Daisy Queen, with the singer “most liberal in signing autographs.” Then they returned to Gwin’s where he finished with fans.

Leaving, the Caddy pulled back onto 61 in midday heat. Presley and Smith waved goodbye and rolled up the windows for air conditioning. At 3 o’clock they reached Graceland Estate in Memphis, where dinner was black-eyed peas, Elvis’ favorite, joined by Anita Wood, his “Number One” girlfriend.

The next week in Hayti, The Missouri Herald confirmed:



Author Matt Chaney will discuss delta music on Carbondale radio, WDBX FM 91.1, wdbx.org, on Sunday, August 6, with the crew of Louisiana Gumbo Pot. This kickin’ show airs from noon to 2 p.m. every Sunday on WDBX.

Chaney’s new book is on Amazon, with copies shipping soon from his Four Walls Publishing company: River Shows, Blues, Ragtime, Jazz and Country Music: It All Equals Rockabilly, Part One. Chaney is compiling companion books on Southern music of the upper delta, Lower Mississippi River Valley. For more information, including Chaney’s previous books, visit fourwallspublishing.com.com and chaneysblog.com. See the page “Stories from River Music to Rock in the Northern Delta.” Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

Missouri Boasts Its Place in Rock ‘n’ Roll History

By Matt Chaney, ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Thursday, February 16, 2017

Classical piano teacher Louise Mercer was worried in Memphis. Musical forces were afoot in the Mississippi River Valley and progressing, but not for this instructor’s preference. It was 1948, and Mercer saw nothing positive for her concerto affection within the region’s folk music, jazz and blues. And hillbilly music, so-called, appalled her.

Mercer fought back, or brought Bach back to the South, according to The Associated Press, by organizing concert piano competitions for deprived youths. “The nation’s greatest musical talent comes from the South,” she said. “We have the romantic and cultural background, although we haven’t the opportunities for study that are offered in other sections of the country.”

The piano teacher was right on, mostly. Southern musical talent stood boundless along the river, the great “delta” landscape of beauty and struggle, spawning creativity from Cape Girardeau to New Orleans. And Mercer apparently detected musical revolution at hand—it just wouldn’t happen for her classics.

Memphis would mother the uprising, blending music from every direction into what would become known as rock and roll. The components were in place by 1948, including a teenager of destiny, Elvis Presley, having relocated to Memphis with his parents from Mississippi.


The hundred rural counties of Missouri today, as always, generally maintain allegiance to the state’s three cities—St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield—for extended shopping, entertainment, medical services and more. But two counties are unique, Pemiscot and Dunklin, which stand out together on a Missouri map for essentially comprising that Bootheel appendage of the southeast corner.

As far as an adopted city for people of Pemiscot and Dunklin counties, the roads lead to and from Memphis, Tenn., less than two hours away by Interstate 55. And maybe that’s the best explanation why the Pemiscot-Dunklin area—a thousand square miles of flat delta ground, largely farm fields—stands tall in musical heritage, especially the evolution of rock and roll.

Most “rockabilly” stars of the 1950s staged shows around here, and many local musicians made a good living, with some cutting records. I recently visited Pemiscot-Dunklin as a writer in search of history. There were legendary spots to see, with an old sharecropper crossroads topping my list—Gobler. “There ain’t nothing there now,” a friend remarked at Hayti, where I exited the interstate.

What he meant relied on a pretext: There used to be something at Gobler, something quite special, the notorious B&B Club, rockabilly showplace for Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, among players.

The B&B was an old wooden roadhouse serving watery 3.2 beer, reputed for gambling and fighting. A liquor store next door sold bottles for carry-in. The B&B could seat a few hundred patrons, and Gobler population was 116 in the 1950s. But on a big music night a thousand young people might show up, ready to party, driving in from multiple states.

Jimmy Haggett, a radio deejay, musician and promoter, keyed success for the B&B. His Memphis connections included producer Sam Phillips at Sun Records, who stabled rising stars like Elvis, Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Haggett, a minor recording artist for Sun, was often instrumental in booking big names for shows across Pemiscot and Dunklin counties, and elsewhere in southeast Missouri. He promoted events on radio and in newspapers.

“Jimmy Haggett, he had an afternoon radio show, and he would advertise the B&B,” recalls Al Jordan, a Hayti musician who toured with rockabilly and country legends. “Jimmy would say, ‘Weelll, we’re gonna have a big dance Friday night at the B&B Club at Gobler, and we’re gonna feature the blond bombshell from Memphis, Tennessee—Elvis Presley.’ ”

Gobler is some 10 miles across the fields southwest from Hayti, sitting smack on the borderline between Pemiscot and Dunklin counties. True, Gobler doesn’t offer much these days: a trucking company, a tiny post office, a hunting outfitters store near the old B&B site, and a few dozen homes ranging from clapboard to neat brick. There’s no booze for sale, no gas, just canned soda from a machine on someone’s porch.

But there never could’ve been much to see around here, in literal sense. This is flat farm country, where the horizon begins at top of a tree or fence line. Crop fields stretch out of sight beyond the Gobler structures; in summer the corn plants, beans and cotton are seemingly endless.

I considered my own boyhood in the delta decades ago, and occasional despair. In daylight I might spy a jet airliner streaming overhead at 30,000 feet, flying on to exotic locales, carrying exciting people, and I’d feel small, isolated in this world.

But moonlight turned the delta dreamy in blue hue. Barren fields transformed into calm, glowing sea. Scattered farmsteads cast imaginary boat lights. The night sky was enormous but inviting, intimate, stars glistening like diamonds within a child’s reach. Anything seemed possible in those moments.

There’s an inspiration about this region, rather inexplicable, that fosters individual expression. Among youths I’ve seen that manifest typically in sport with tremendous athleticism, but delta mojo also motivates art. Southeast Missouri first stirred my creative soul in the 1960s, long after piano teacher Louise Mercer saw the dynamic among Memphis kids, after World War II.

Passing through Gobler last month, I thought of an observation by writer John Pyle, who reviewed one of my Missouri books. “We live our lives in a place, and sometimes it’s just place that’s important,” Pyle wrote.


During the mid-1950s, Al Jordan’s brother-in-law owned a rockin’ roadhouse in southeast Missouri, Smitzer’s Club east of Malden, down in the bottoms along Highway 62. Al was around 10 years old when his father started toting him along to Smitzer’s on Sundays for live music. The 3.2 beer flowed while little Al enjoyed bottles of soda, plopping himself at the stage to watch history in the making.

“Back then Roy Orbison, Conway Twitty and Narvel Felts all used to play there,” Jordan says of recording artists at their outset. “They’d be up there playing that rockabilly, and I’d drink a Dr Pepper. I’d think, Boy, I’d like to do that someday.”

Jordan was 14 when he visited a friend’s house in Gideon, his hometown where New Madrid County edges down into the Bootheel by latitude. Another youth brought a guitar for a jam session. “I’d never sat down at a set of drums before in my life,” Jordan remembers. “They had a little set of drums, and this guy played guitar. He was doing a song called ‘Walk, Don’t Run,’ a Ventures song. I accidentally ended up sitting down at the drums, and just started keeping the beat. And it just came natural for me, God-given.”

Like most Bootheel boys, Jordan had one option for paying work, picking cotton. The job was back-breaking, knee-tenderizing and finger-slicing, and hot as hell in delta sun and humidity. Meanwhile Jordan kept at the drums, practicing by avocation until a local bandleader hired him for a teen dance at Puxico, Mo.

Jordan received eight dollars for the evening gig, astounding him. In the cotton field he had to bag almost 300 pounds of fluffy bolls to earn eight bucks, more than a day’s work except for a champion picker. “Next morning my mom woke me up. She said it’s time to go to the field. I said, ‘Nope, I ain’t going to the cotton field no more. I’ve found an easier way to make a living.’ ”

It was 1959, and kid Jordan’s drumming paid off. By age 16 he’d played in fifty clubs between Memphis and St. Louis, accompanying luminaries on stage such as role model Twitty and Charlie Rich. “Most of the places were honky-tonks,” Jordan recalls, who saw it all, as the saying goes.

“We’d be in an old place playin’, and everything would be lovely, and then all at once you’d hear beer bottles crashing and tables turning over. I’d just duck down behind my drums and let ’em get with it. But I played for years and never had a problem. Most of the time they never bothered the band guys, you know. And the old stories you hear about the bandstands with chicken wire across the front—I played a couple places like that, to keep us from gettin’ hit by flying beer bottles.

“The music was rockabilly—that was the term. What they did, they took country music and put a jazzed-up beat to it. Actually, Bill Haley and the Comets [in Pennsylvania], he was like the father of rockabilly, and rock n’ roll. But then Elvis came along and they christened him as ‘The King’ of rock n’ roll.”

Elvis energized youths of the delta, where music production spiked. “Elvis kicked everybody off, you might say. He jump-started everybody. They thought, My God, if Elvis Presley can do it, I can too.” Jordan laughed. “But—they failed to realize, Elvis had the looks, Elvis was something new, and Elvis had Colonel Tom Parker to promote him.”

Elvis appeared twice at the B&B in Gobler during 1955, on April 8 and Sept. 28. At the latter date the village was in uproar over a murder at a dice game outside the club. Elvis, his career soaring, had outgrown venues like the B&B. Colonel Parker made sure of that.

Gerald Burke, an owner of the B&B, later told Jordan he paid Elvis $300 after the September show. Soon Elvis signed with RCA Records and released “Heartbreak Hotel,” smash hit. Burke said he checked again on booking Elvis, and the new price was $3,000.

“Needless to say, the B&B didn’t have Elvis anymore,” Jordan says.


Elvis Presley died in 1977 at age 42, reduced to a caricature for crass commercialization and his weight problem. Twenty years later, Pennsylvania writer Cathleen Miller personally reflected on the icon in her piece for The Washington Post:

“When I was in high school, I went to see the fat, bejeweled singer in concert at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, and sat in awe—not of the man, but of the crowd’s reaction. He sang the same old songs I’d listened to a million times on the jukebox in my grandma’s diner—but with the slightest swivel of those infamous hips, the women in the audience would go insane. The Pelvis, it seemed, was taunting them: a little swivel here, then reverse, then stop dead in the middle and wait for the screams.”

Miller was native of Kennett, Mo., the Dunklin County seat. She grew up only a few miles by blacktop road from Gobler, years after its heyday with Elvis. But she heard plenty. Miller recalled “everybody had stories about Elvis—and not the kind of stories that would make you think he was anything special.”

“When my mom and dad were dating in the ’50s they used to go see him play at the B&B Club, a honky-tonk in nearby Gobler that was the rowdiest place around for white people. My uncle best described it by saying, ‘If they didn’t have five fights on a Friday night, they didn’t have a crowd.’ The B&B Club was prestigiously located in the middle of a cotton field… My best friend’s dad said he went there to see Elvis once and after the show handed him $50 to come back out and sing his favorite song. He said the young King took the money but left hurriedly through the back door.”

“So we didn’t think much of Elvis.”

Miller passed through Memphis with her husband in the 1990s, intent on purchasing goofy trinkets for an Elvis theme party in California. Her husband planned his costume as Singing Elvis Lamp. “But while visiting Graceland and the haunts of my childhood, I gradually realized that I had taken for granted Elvis’s contributions to American music,” she wrote. “On this trip, I discovered the ‘real’ Elvis.

“When my husband and I drove into Memphis on a steamy summer afternoon, boarded-up storefronts were much in evidence on the west side of the city, and families sat out on the front stoops of run-down tenements, fanning themselves in the heat. Still, the streets were clean, and the parkways exploded with azaleas. As we headed east toward Overton Park, the sights began to look like the Memphis I remembered: large Southern homes separated from the street by expanses of shady lawns, magnolias, moss-covered oaks and willow trees. The contrast had intensified during 20 years—or maybe 20 years had changed the way I looked at things.”

Gaudiness surely met the couple at Graceland, home of late Elvis, but a 1960 film of the young man captivated Miller. “He was so young and handsome and fresh. Joking with the reporters, smiling that gorgeous smile, wearing no visible jewelry,” she noted. “He hinted that he had met someone special in Germany [during military service], but no, he couldn’t call her his girlfriend.

“In the museum, we learned that Elvis had been awarded more gold and platinum records than anyone on the planet. We watched a film about his life, and when he sang ‘Blue Christmas’ I remembered listening to the same song on the radio as a child, wondering why he sounded so sad when it was Christmas time. The music had reminded me of the songs we sang in Sunday school; most of them were sad also.

“Sadly, I realized that the Elvis I had known all these years was the ‘Old Elvis,’ the King of Kitsch in jeweled jumpsuits. The real Elvis was a simple Southern boy who, through his music, had given a voice to the restless, pent-up youth of the ’50s. He had taken gospel, blues and country and fused them into a unique style—a style that would revolutionize the music industry.”

“And it all happened because of this place. Memphis,” saluted Miller. “Sometimes we have to leave home to see things for what they really are.”

We live in a place, often all that matters. We make do, and big things can happen when we strive, even from a lonely crossroads and cotton fields. Down in the delta, folks understand.

Matt Chaney is a writer, editor and publisher in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.