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:
“ELVIS WAS HERE.”
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.