U.S. 67 Drove History of Rock

BY KENNETH HEARD - January 14, 2008

They didn't know it at the time, but the performers who traveled U. S. 67 in northeast Arkansas 50 years ago, playing the clubs, honky-tonks and roadhouses, were creating a musical mark that set the tone for rock 'n' roll.

It was the mid-1950 s, and Elvis Presley was hitting his stride, playing at the Silver Moon Club in Newport and Bob King's a few miles north in Swifton.

Sonny Burgess strummed his Fender Telecaster guitar on the roof of the Skylark Drive-In concession stand along U. S. 67 in Pocahontas with his group, The Pacers, keeping a wary eye out lest they step over the edge.

Rock legend Billy Lee Riley leapt from his perch atop a piano that began rolling off stage in another venue one night in 1958 and grabbed a rafter, swinging and still singing. And Chuck Comer kept the music alive, spinning the artists' records on KNBY, a Newport AM radio station.

"It was so much fun," said Burgess, who at 78, still plays music. "It was an exciting time. We will never see it again." It was the birth of "rockabilly," a semiderogatory term that defined the convergence of country music and blues, and it was an influence for later groups such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

The music was the result of white performers trying to re-create the lively, swinging sound of the black musicians, historians say.

A group of music fans from Jackson, Lawrence, Randolph and Clay counties wants to preserve that time and music by converting the two-lane concrete road from the edge of Bald Knob to the Missouri state line in Corning into a designated highway.

"U. S. 67 is like a historical timeline," said Gary Gazaway, a Pocahontas musician who is spearheading the drive to call the road the "Arkansas Rockabilly Highway." " This is where rock's birthright came from. People who are music fans would enjoy seeing the history that happened along this pathway. " The highway links Dallas to Chicago; Gazaway wants to highlight northeast Arkansas' role, designating the strip from east of Bald Knob to Corning as a historical byway.

He envisions placing plaques along the road, highlighting the locations of the numerous clubs a half century ago. He also wants to create a museum, preferably in Newport, and place tourist gift shops in each county.

"What I want to do is create something to help economic improvement in the area," said Gazaway, who has played trumpet for Joe Cocker, Phish, Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Memphis Horns. "I see how many tourists travel to Memphis to visit Sun Studios. This could be over here. This could benefit our region." Gazaway first thought of the idea three years ago, but it took a concert in Pocahontas in 2006 to solidify the thought. Riley and songwriter Bill Rice, both born in Pocahontas, played at the town's sesquicentennial event.

"I realized the impact their music had on the cultural history of America," Gazaway said. Musicians played the clubs and dives along the road that sprang up like mushrooms in the 1950 s. The highway is being replaced with a four-lane to the east that bypasses many of the small towns along the way.

"There were so many clubs back then," said Burgess, who was raised in Newport and still lives there. "We could play a lot of places without having to travel very far." They played at the Silver Moon and Porky's Rooftop, a dance stage on the second floor of a drive-in restaurant in Newport. Charley's Place, Bob King's in Swifton, Woody's Club, the Bushwhacker and the Current River beach in Clay County were popular venues.

Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison were frequent visitors to the flat rooftop of the Skylark Drive-in. Linda Oakley Bowlin, a member of the group seeking the highway designation, recalled seeing Orbison play his breakout song, "Ooby Dooby" there in 1955.

"We'd go up and down 67," Burgess said. "We played them all." There were tough spots along the road, he recalled. Musicians usually ended up fighting drunken patrons at the Bushwhacker and the manager of Charley's Place often fired a tear gas gun to control the raucous crowds.

Burgess heard Smiley Lewis' song "One Night of Sin," and began playing it in 1953, he said. Elvis heard him play it at the Silver Moon once and he began singing it. Presley changed the name to "One Night With You," when he recorded it on an album.

"Newport was the hot place to play then," Riley said. "We'd played everywhere you could play." Riley, a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in Burns, Tenn., and who lives in Jonesboro, was once banned at Arkansas College, now called Lyon College, when he stood atop a piano on stage. The piano began rolling and Riley jumped up and grabbed a steel rafter.

"I had the rafter in one hand and the microphone in the other," he said. "I didn't stop singing." The college president forbade Riley to return, saying his act was "vulgar," Riley said. A year later, promoters asked Riley to return to Batesville but requested he change his name so the president wouldn't balk.

"We changed our band name and played there again," he said. "We got banned again." The music then was popular, said J. Michael Luster, the state folklorist for Arkansas. "It was lean and crisp," he said. "When you listened to it, you knew what they were talking about.

"The vital core of rock 'n' roll would be missing today if this didn't happen," he said. "We were just kids," Riley said. "We had no idea then that we were making history. Most of us come out of the cotton fields." Disc jockey Comer, who gained popularity in the 1950 s while playing records on his show The Old General Store on KNBY-AM 1280 in Newport, also played guitar while touring with his band on U.S. 67.

"It was a hard life," he said of the traveling. "We were just trying to earn a living and pick up a nickel." Comer spun records by Presley, Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and other artists, but he also featured the local legends. KNBY featured what Comer called "block programming," playing 30-minute segments of various musical genres ' rock, gospel, country and blues. "We had to satisfy everyone," he said. "We played a little bit of everything and everyone got to hear their styles of music." The highway designation committee, which named Little Rock author Marvin Schwartz as its director, will meet in March.

"This is so important," Gazaway said of the group's efforts. "Rock 'n' roll seems to be America's most important cultural gift to the world. This is the birthright place of that music."

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