Finding that old time rock ’n’ roll in the Delta

by George Jared ([email protected]) 562 views 

Rock 'n' roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis played at numerous clubs across Arkansas in his early career.

Dewey Phillips was lying in his bed one night listening to a radio show. It was 1948 and he was living in Memphis, Tenn. As he listened to the show unfold, he had an epiphany.

“I can play that music and do just as good as he is doing,” he told himself. More than a year later, he started the radio show “Red, Hot, and Blue.”

Little did he know, along with Sun Records founder Sam Phillips — no relation — that they would change music history forever and turn the mid-South into the birthing ground for modern rock ’n’ roll, historian and journalist Mark Randall told Talk Business & Politics.

“What drew aspiring musicians like Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis — all poor white southerners — to leave their rural roots and come to Memphis?” Randall said. “Simply put, circumstances peculiar to Memphis in the 1950s made it the right place to be at that moment in time.”

During this time period, Memphis’ population was about 40% African-American and the city was home to WDIA, the first radio station in the country programmed with African-American musicians. It was also home to Beale Street, the unofficial cultural capital for African-Americans across the country, Randall said.

B.B. King, W.C. Handy, Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington and others started their careers on Beale Street, which to this day is the most popular tourist destination in Tennessee. These performers also spilled out into the surrounding areas playing in clubs and honky tonks throughout the region. In Northeast Arkansas, in places like Jackson County, artists were a big draw as law enforcement turned a blind eye to illegal gambling, which allowed clubs to pay more for the best musical acts.

Henry Boyce, prosecuting attorney for the Third Judicial District and the curator of the Rock N Roll Highway 67 Museum in Newport, has been collecting photos, artifacts, music and memories of this golden era of the Delta for most of his life. The museum, which sits on the second floor of a former downtown bank building in Newport that houses the local chamber of commerce, has a wide collection of the 1950s and 1960s musical heritage.

“I want to preserve and provide access to this music and the lifestyles it created for so many people up and down the Delta,” he said. “Places like the Silver Moon Club were popular hangouts for young adults who fueled the rise of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and so many others.

“If Memphis was the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll, then Jackson County was certainly a nursery,” Boyce added.

Boyce says hundreds of visitors each year come to Newport from “all over the planet.” He especially enjoys when a person who lived during the heyday of early rock ’n’ roll gets taken back to his or her youth through the photos, an instrument or the displays.

“It brings back such passionate memories for them from some of the most easygoing and enjoyable times of their lives,” Boyce said.

Randall, the historian and journalist, said Beale Street’s popularity enabled the eastern flank of Arkansas to flourish with young, future stars.

“Beale Street attracted a mother lode of musicians from up and down the Delta who would drastically alter the face of music,” Randall said. “It was a free-wheeling commercial district where businesses catered to African-Americans and where at night the sound of the blues spilled out from the night clubs.”

Memphis was also the cultural center for the white rural south, that included Northeast Arkansas, western Tennessee, and northern Mississippi. People living in these areas shopped in Memphis, sold crops there and at night listened to radio programs that came from the Bluff City.

Dewey Phillips was originally a salesman that only cared about one thing – making a sale, Randall said. He had white and African-American customers alike, he said. When his “Red, Hot, and Blue” show began Oct. 10, 1949, radio stations were largely segregated just like the general population, but that was about to change.

The radio host’s vibrant, electric persona attracted a large following, Randall said. At his high point, he may have had more than 100,000 listeners throughout the mid-South. Unlike other radio programming at the time, he played African-American songs to his audience. Soon he had a strong mix of white and African-American listeners. At one point, he had more listeners than all the other Memphis radio stations combined, Randall added.

By 1951, Sam Phillips had opened his recording studio — Sun Studio, sharing the same building as Sun Records on Union Avenue in Memphis — and recorded the song “Rocket 88” by Ike Turner and his band. It’s considered by many historians to be the first rock ’n’ roll song.

Sam Phillips grew up in Alabama and had a strong fondness for African-American music and thought that it would do well with white audiences, but the problem was getting it to them. He didn’t know it at the time, but Dewey Phillips was laying the groundwork. Would be musicians such as Presley, Cash, Perkins, and Lewis listened to his show, and were mesmerized by those African-American songs and artists, Randall said.

Presley had recorded an acetone in 1953 in Sun Records hoping its patriarch would take note of his unusual voice. No call came. He returned, guitar in hand to the studio sometime in early 1954. The lead secretary, Marion Keisker, had a few questions for him.

“What kind of a singer are you?” she asked.

“I sing all kinds,” he said.

“Who do you sound like?” she asked?

“I don’t sound like nobody,” he replied.

Presley sang a 1940s song, “My Happiness,” for Sam Phillips. It wasn’t an earth-shattering performance, but he heard something in the young man’s voice, he later said. Weeks and months passed and then he finally decided to bring Presley back in for a session.

During the next week or so, Presley sang several ballad songs with several local musicians, but it wasn’t going well. Then on July 5, it happened. Tired and frustrated, Sam Phillips and the other musicians decided to take a break. Presley, to lighten the mood, started jumping around singing a blues tune called “That’s All Right.”

Sam Phillips was stunned. He didn’t expect him to know the African-American song and the way he sang it was different than anyone he’d ever heard. His youthful exuberance was intoxicating. Phillips had finally found his conduit between the two cultures. He needed a white musician singing African-American themed songs to immerse the two cultures.

Presley reworked “That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and the two songs were released July 19, 1954. Dewey Phillips played Presley’s songs over and over again to his throngs. Requests to hear Presley overwhelmed the station.

“One thing was certain … African-Americans and whites who heard the songs had no idea what race the singer was … they didn’t care about classifying him. They liked what they heard.”

Johnny Cash, the son of a sharecropper that grew up in Dyess during the Great Depression, heard Presley’s songs and wanted to be Sam Phillips’ next star.

In October 1954, Cash auditioned singing gospel songs. Sam Phillips wasn’t impressed with the songs themselves, but noticed that Cash had a unique voice. He told the artist to find a “weeper” of a song that would make others cry.

He came up with the song “Cry, Cry, Cry” and soon his music was all over Memphis. “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line” came soon after, and Cash became a star. During this period, his records outsold Presley’s.

Presley, Cash and the others continued the long tradition of playing at clubs, honky tonks, and other venues in Northeast Arkansas. This rich history has been memorialized in towns such as Newport and Walnut Ridge where festivals are held each year to commemorate the region’s musical history. Thousands of tourists visit the region each year.

How many millions of dollars are generated by this activity is hard to calculate, but there are several businesses, such as The Spider’s Webb, that rely on this tourism.

In April 2017, Penny Sloan opened The Spider’s Webb, a bookstore and coffee shop in downtown Walnut Ridge. The Lawrence County seat is the only city in Arkansas that the Beatles visited as a group. Their plane touched down at the Walnut Ridge Airport late night on Sept. 18, 1964.

Each year, the city holds The Beatles on the Ridge Festival and it has two tributes, the Guitar Walk and the Beatles park that pay homage to the city’s rich musical past. The festival is a boon to local businesses Sloan said, but one thing that surprised her was the number of tourists that visit the two monuments.

“I couldn’t believe how many of our customers are from different parts of the country,” she said.

The Spider’s Webb was her first business and she was shocked by its rapid growth. When a new building came open in the heart of the city’s downtown at the confluence of Abbey Road and Main Street, Sloan seized the opportunity. She bought out a boutique and expanded her offerings to include jewelry, clothes, candles, gourmet foods, and gifts.

Her business has done so well she had to hire five employees, including a longtime educator and counselor who quit her job with the Lawrence County School District to concentrate on The Spider’s Webb full time. Since her move to her new shop, her business has doubled.

“Tourists always tell us how friendly our town is … they come here to see the Beatles and Guitar Walk,” she said. “I love my business and I love being a part of our downtown.”

Ten years ago in the 2009 Arkansas General Assembly, lawmakers passed Act 497 to designate a big portion of State Highway 67 as the “Rock ’n’ Roll Highway 67.” The aim of the legislation was to commemorate the early rock ’n’ roll pioneers who played in small venues up and down the Delta as well as spark tourism and events around the musical heritage of the region.

In the 2019 legislative session, state legislators passed Act 1066, which created tax incentives for art projects along designated music highways in Arkansas. It would apply to the Rock ’n’ Roll Highway 67, the American Music Highway, the Delta Rhythm and Bayous Highway, and four other memorial highways recognizing Arkansas music legends Louis Jordan, Levon Helm, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Johnny Cash.

Also in 2019, Senators and Representatives passed a bill to honor Cash as one of two Arkansas heroes in Congress’ Statuary Hall. Cash and civil rights pioneer Daisy Bates will have statues erected in the nation’s capitol building in Washington, D.C., to commemorate them as examples of Arkansas history and heritage. Cash, who was born in Kingsland and grew up in Dyess, was famous for his genre-spanning career that made him an icon in country, rock ’n’ roll, rockabilly, blues, folk and gospel music.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the May issue of Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. You can view more photos, courtesy of the Rock N Roll Highway 67 Museum in Newport, at this link. Talk Business & Politics Roby Brock contributed to this article.