Louis Armstrong clutched a gun in his pocket as he left the stage following a set at the Silver Moon, a nightclub in Newport. The world famous jazz musician made his way to a tour bus outside.
It was 1953, and it was dangerous for him to perform late-night in clubs in the south. But, the $500 he made in one performance there was more than he could make at any other nightclub in the region, including ones in Memphis, Little Rock, and St. Louis.
Jackson County has a rich and deep musical history and economic developers hope to take advantage, Newport Director of Economic Development Jon Chadwell told Talk Business & Politics. Local leaders started a non-profit organization, Downtown Revitalization and Improvement Volunteer Effort, or DRIVE. The goal is to raise $2 million to revamp the downtown in the city of just under 8,000 residents. The county has about 18,000 residents.
“People are really excited about this project … the response has been overwhelming,” Chadwell said.
DRIVE has raised about $1 million through private donations, including a $200,000 donation from the Newport Economic Development Commission. The goal is to build a park with a performance stage downtown, an adjacent veterans’ memorial, construct a building for the Rock-n-Roll Highway 67 Museum, renovate a building for a doll museum and renovate a building for the proposed Blue Bridge Center for the Delta Arts.
The stage is 90% complete and should be ready for a series of concerts in 2017 set to begin in April, Chadwell said. Organizers hope to have the veterans’ memorial completed by Memorial Day. Chadwell is a DRIVE co-chairman of the volunteer board of directors.
At the center of this effort is Jackson County’s unique musical history. Prosecutor Henry Boyce, also a DRIVE board member, spends his spare time collecting exhibits for the Rock-n-Roll Highway 67 Museum – his own creation. Armstrong, and many other musicians including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Conway Twitty, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sonny Burgess, and others played at honky tonks, clubs, and other venues along U.S. 67 in the 1950’s, he said.
“Every single one of them played here,” Boyce told Talk Business & Politics.
ELVIS AND JACKSON COUNTY
Many of these artists were particularly drawn to Jackson County. The Silver Moon, the Bloody Bucket, Porky’s Rooftop, Bob King’s and many others offered these musicians much higher paydays than they could get in clubs in larger cities.
Gambling was illegal, but county law enforcement turned a blind eye to the dice, poker, and other games in these clubs, Boyce said. Club owners made enormous profits and used that money to book the best talent, he said. The club trend in Jackson County began in the 1940s as World War II raged. At least 2,000 servicemen were stationed at an airbase in Newport. On Friday nights they got paid and needed something to do, Boyce said. Glen Miller, and other “Big Band” musicians started to play in the clubs.
Those acts brought in patrons, but nothing like when a truck driver from Mississippi cut his first record with Sun Studios in Memphis in 1953. Elvis Presley played in Jackson County four times from 1954-56.
“He (Elvis) could make more money in one show in Jackson County than he could in Memphis,” Boyce said. “Jackson County was wide open back then. Elvis only played in a lot of places once. He played here four times. I think that’s significant.”
Besides the gambling, drinking was prevalent in the clubs. Guests were allowed to bring their own booze into places like the Silver Moon, but had to pay $2 for the cola they wished to mix with their whiskey, vodka, and other spirits, Boyce said. The Silver Moon was the most extravagant club, and it could seat as many as 800 people, he said. One club, the Sunset Inn, had a bear that would drink beer to entertain guests.
A piano recently acquired by the museum once was used inside Porky’s Rooftop. Elvis played at Porky’s, and if he played the piano that night, it’s the same one, Boyce said.
PROSECUTOR ENDS THE ERA
As the musicians of the era became more famous, appearances waned, but Jackson County maintained a vibrant club culture until the mid-1960s when a new prosecutor came to town and vowed to cleanup the illegal activity. The prosecutor even removed the slot machine from the Newport Country Club, which started an uproar, Boyce said.
Rockabilly legend Sonny Burgess became friends with Boyce years ago, and the two decided to chronicle the county’s musical history. Burgess returns each year to perform in the annual Depot Days Festival in Newport, an event that has drawn as many as 5,000 people to the town, Boyce said.
The museum is located on the second floor in a building on Hazel Street in downtown Newport. Boyce has noticed an influx of tourists seeking information about the area’s music history, he said. Recently, visitors from as far away as New Zealand and the Netherlands have taken a tour, he said.
Rock-n-roll is only one component of the overall plan, Chadwell said. The Newport Economic Development Commission has acquired Virginia Arnett’s doll collection. A local, Arnett collected more than 8,000 dolls during her lifetime, and a building to display the treasures has already been selected, Chadwell said.
The Blue Bridge Center for the Delta Arts will allow area artisans to display their wares, and it will allow economic developers to give them advice on how to turn their hobbies into viable businesses. Each year, the city hosts the Delta Visual Arts Show. This year more than 3,000 attended and 175 booths were erected, according to the city.
The Newport Economic Development Commission has an agreement with DRIVE to perform administrative work for the organization, including financial recordkeeping, Chadwell said. The agreement has allowed DRIVE to not hire employees, a significant cost saver, he said.
DRIVE members hope the project will be completed in the next three years. To raise the other $1 million in donations, a group of potential donors has been identified, Boyce said. Some still live in the community, and others have moved away, he said. The response by donors when asked to donate has been overwhelming, Chadwell said.
“A lot of time when you ask a person to donate to a project like this, the response is 50-50,” he said. “I’ll bet 95% of the people we’ve asked to donate have given us something. People in this community really believe in this project.”