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, in 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 champion pickers. “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 certainly energized youths of the delta, and their 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 says, chuckling. “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 from Gobler, years after its heyday with Elvis, but hearing 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. In the great American delta, folks understand.
Matt Chaney is a writer, editor and publisher in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.