Excerpt from the coming book It All Equals Rockabilly: River Shows, Jazz, Blues and Country Music
By Matt Chaney, for chaneysblog.com
Posted Saturday, August 20, 2022
©Copyright for historical arrangement and original content by Matthew L. Chaney, FourWallsPublishing
In 1956 conservation writer Jim Keefe visited southeast Missouri for a report on riverine topography. “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 driving, down into the Missouri delta on June 30, 1960, with cousin Gene Smith. Elvis had traveled this road, since boyhood. Cotton fields appeared along U.S. Highway 61 and early blossoms began at Morley village in Scott County. White bolls burst forth from green 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 Onie as a war veteran, an Opry performer, and a Sun recording artist. Wheeler was a guitar stylist in mold of Hank Williams. He was also among few individuals, 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, along Highway 61. The temperature outside exceeded 80 degrees at 11 o’clock. Loamy farm fields were damp with steamy dew point under sunshine, greenhouse conditions. Crops covering a thousand square miles stood in fine shape after two days of “multi-million dollar rain,” said a county agent.
Wheat harvest was yielding super hauls like 55 bushels an acre at Morley, on the Lee Freeman farm. Cotton was popping as soybeans and sorghum pushed upward. Seed corn had strong height in green stalks, topped golden with tasseling and silk. Laborers dotted the field rows, adults and kids, mostly black, yanking hoe blades to uproot weeds. Elvis and Gene had done that before and not forgotten, “chopping beans and cotton.” The job looked sweltering out there.
The road dipped into an ancient river channel which flooded until the 1930s, when dredge 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, climbing the backbone of Sikeston Ridge, an extraordinary uplift of the alluvial plain. This ridge carried south to Arkansas almost unbroken, riding high to support U.S. 61, railroads, communities and farms.
Sixty-One followed the old King’s Highway, El Camino Real, laid down by the Spanish in Upper Louisiana. Floods of two centuries hadn’t reached the crest of Sikeston Ridge, not one.
Presley and Smith passed Haywood City, black community founded by sharecroppers, then the new Scott County Schools, a reconsolidated district that was integrating. They spied the Delta Café and Drive In, a second outdoor theater within 15 miles. The movie complex was set into farm fields with the big screen blocked from highway eyes, particularly 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 cool AC through the hot delta, down to a quarter-tank on the gauge. Gas pumps came up on right, under a yellow Shell sign at Grant City Store, but Presley didn’t slow. Perhaps he’d stop in Sikeston ahead, prominent community along 61 and familiar to him since boyhood. But likely not.
Suped-up cars flew by in opposite direction, Chevys, Fords, Pontiacs and Plymouths, roaring engines and exhaust. Presley stomped the gas pedal, determined no local dudes would pass him—or recognize and give chase.
The gas gauge was on “E,” the stomach empty, and Elvis Presley knew where to stop in a few miles—Hayti, along Highway 61 in the Missouri delta. Presley and cousin Gene Smith were damn hungry in the car. They needed food, a restroom and gas to get home to Memphis, covering their last hundred miles after a plane flight from Los Angeles to St. Louis.
While the Cadillac continued on fumes through rural Pemiscot, the world at-large consumed Elvis news in bulk, as usual. Wire photos from the G.I. Blues film set had Presley with costar Juliette Prowse, with twin babies, shooting a scene, and with a big bass guitar, clowning between takes. Luminaries visited the Hollywood set, pining for photos with Elvis, like Tennessee Williams and the King and Queen of Thailand, who came expressly to meet him.
News reports and features had Presley romancing numerous women, typically. There were starlets such as Prowse—Sinatra’s girlfriend—to teen beauty Priscilla Beaulieu, whom Presley met in Germany, daughter of a military officer. There were Elvis impersonators along with a pony named Elvis, saved from barn fire, in news. Southern Democrats pushed Elvis to endorse Lyndon Johnson for president, and an auto race exhibited his BMW sports car. Miss Japan discussed Elvis at the Miss Universe Pageant. A gossip columnist claimed Elvis to be paranoid and controlling on movie sets, referring to unnamed sources. Another pundit declared him a paper model, versus real hero Tom Mix. But director Norman Taurog “raved” about Elvis, declaring “he’s the most polite, gentlemanly actor” ever worked with.
Wires carried quotes of Presley from a Hollywood interview. “One thing that I have learned is that you can’t please everybody,” he said. “It took me a long time to learn it, but I know it now. When I had my hair long with those sideburns you could tie under your chin, everybody said: ‘Why don’t you cut that hair?’ So I go in the Army and cut my hair. Now the same ones said: ‘Why did you cut your hair?’ ”
“The same with my singing. When I move with the music, they say I cause juvenile delinquency. When I stand still—like I did on the last television show—someone wrote: ‘$125,000 worth of nothing.’ This used to bother me. It doesn’t anymore.”
Gleeful critics depicted rock ’n’ roll as a quaint beat of fossilized musicians, Presley in particular. 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. The Joy once booked a line of names, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Billy Lee Riley, Warren Smith, Narvel Felts, Hayden Thompson, Charlie Feathers, Travis Wammack, 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 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 Moore and Bill Black At that time the trio played a roadhouse on the county line, 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, and took 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 because of the Elvis alert sweeping the town of 3,700. A gas 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 Daisy Queen for burgers and fries. Bob Inmon, owner of the drive in, was on site for a lunch crush with 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 TWA 707 jet airliner, their first plane flight into St. Louis, along with the Cadillac rental from Lambert Airport. They enjoyed the drive down 61. Elvis and Gene stayed more than a half-hour at Daisy Queen, with the singer “most liberal in signing autographs.” Then they moseyed back 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, and joined by Anita Ward, his “Number One” girlfriend.
“Elvis Was Here,” newspapers reported back in Pemiscot County.
Following Elvis Presley’s death at age 42 in 1977, friends and analysts reflected on his life and 23 years in show business.
Roy Orbison came after Presley at Sun Records, arriving in early 1956 among the horde of young musicians influenced by Elvis. “His energy was incredible,” Orbison said. “He was this punk kid. Just a real cat signing like a bird. There was just no reference point in the culture to compare it.”
End of the Fifties was a crux point for Presley, his superstar reemergence amidst entertainment forces, pop culture and social battles. Biographer Peter Guralnick wrote: “I can remember the suspense my friends and I felt when Elvis came out of the Army in 1960. By this time we were growing sideburns of our own, and in some ways his fate, like that of any other icon, seemed inextricably linked with ours. What would he be like? Would he keep the faith? We hadn’t long to wait for the answers.”
“His first release, Stuck On You, Teddy Bear, was innocuous enough rock ’n’ roll. The second release was the monumental bestseller, It’s Now Or Never, still reputedly Elvis’ favorite song and loosely based on the O Sole Mio of Mario Lanza, one of Elvis’ favorite operatic tenors. After that he retreated from the world for nearly a decade to make movies. We forgave him…”
“The spectacle itself of the bad boy made good… I think gratified us most of all. Elvis’ success, flying as it did not only in the face of reason but of good taste as well, seemed in a way a final judgment on the world which had scorned him and which, by sheer magnitude of his talent, he had transformed.”
“We took it as a cosmic joke. We speculated endlessly on the life that Elvis must be leading, and the laughs he must be having, behind the locked gates of Graceland, his Memphis mansion.”
Presley essentially lived as recluse by 1960, both directed by others and self-imposed, associates said. Manager Tom Parker wanted a Garbo mystique for promotion while Presley suffered paranoia as the public figure in America, virtually peerless. Presley resented anyone he perceived as using him for ladder-climbing, from females to musicians. He was sensitive to criticism and recognized meanness in people, after his poor and lonely boyhood.
Johnny Cash understood, coming from a cropper family in the Arkansas delta. “Elvis was such a good guy, and so talented and charismatic—he had it all—that some people couldn’t handle it and reacted with jealousy. It’s just human, I suppose, but it’s sad… I took the hint when he closed his world around him. I didn’t try to invade his privacy. I’m so glad I didn’t because so many of his friends were embarrassed so badly when they were turned away at Graceland.”
Sam Phillips grieved for Presley in death. Phillips rued the opioid abuse and obesity that spurred the star’s heart failure and postmortem disgrace, ridicule. “In the light of how he died at 42, I don’t think he got enough credit for all the unselfish things he did about music. Elvis was just a very special human being. He laid down some great music.”
Presley impacted song genres irreversibly, according to Chet Atkins, Nashville guitarist and record producer. “Ever since he came along, we’ve been losing our musical identities,” Atkins said in 1977. “There used to be pop and gospel and country and so on. Now they’re all fusing together. You can hardly tell the difference between a James Taylor record and a Waylon Jennings record.”
Folk ballads, jazz, blues, country, spiritual and gospel—all were within Elvis Presley, the wonderful music of his childhood awareness; of his family members, heroes, experiences; of his body movement, facial expression, eye contact; of his passion, love, pain, and intellect.
A century of American song and dance preceded and molded Presley, and many like him, to lead the rockabilly breakout of 1954-55. This book is that backstory, made vivid for information harvested through electronic search of historic newspapers. Focus domain is the northern delta of the Mississippi River Valley, multi-state region cut by waterways—southeast Missouri, northeast Arkansas, southern Illinois, western Kentucky, and western Tennessee.
A synergy pushed delta music here, from flatboats onward, sparking styles native and foreign, producing channels of pure American melody.
Matt Chaney is a writer and editor in Missouri, USA, compiling the book It All Equals Rockabilly: River Shows, Jazz, Blues and Country Music, slated for release in 2023. See the page Stories from River Music to Rock in the Northern Delta for six years’ evolution of the project. Chaney and Elliott Shostak co-author the current release on Amazon, SEMO Football Player Stories and Program History. For more information on Chaney’s books and consulting, visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.