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Arkansas Working On R'n'R Highway

May 21, 2009 | Other

Where Elvis Presley walked, adoring fans follow, even more than 30 years after his death — if they just know where to go.

"What you've got to realize is those folks we're trying to get in here will come to see where Elvis played. He's got the magic — the rest of us don't have," rock 'n' roll pioneer Sonny Burgess, who was with Sun Records in the 1950s at the same time as Elvis, said during a recent planning session for development of Jackson County's portion of Rock 'n' Roll Highway 67.

Those fans need to know about the places in Jackson County where Elvis and other musicians who became famous played during their early days, organizers said.

The state Legislature recently gave the name Rock 'n' Roll Highway 67 to the portions of U.S. 67 that run through Jackson, Lawrence, Randolph and Clay counties, to the Missouri border.

State and area leaders hope to develop that corridor much like the Blues Highway that leads from Memphis into Mississippi. Blues music fans religiously drive that highway, stopping at old roadhouse sites where favorites played, at surviving roadhouse structures, historical plaques and cemeteries where famous bluesmen are buried.

Burgess, of Newport, drew a lot of attention himself in those early days when rock 'n' roll was being defined, and still catches enough attention today to perform in Sweden, Australia, the United Kingdom, Spain and Canada several times a year.

Europeans, Australians and the Japanese love the music and culture of the '50s and '60s and spend big bucks at the places they visit, Burgess said. Rock 'n' Roll Highway 67 planners need to make a strong effort to reach those prospective tourists, along with local and national tourists, he said.

Music historians have thoroughly documented the roadhouse-nightclub scene of the '50s and '60s in Jackson County, which nurtured the early careers of such rock 'n' roll legends as Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Conway Twitty, Burgess and another Newport native, Billy Lee Riley, said Newport attorney and prosecutor Henry Boyce, who moderated the meeting.

The modest beginnings of a Rock 'n' Roll Highway 67 Museum have been established on the first floor of the Newport Economic Development Office.

Eventually, as the collection of pictures and memorabilia grows, the group hopes to house it in one of the old roadhouses or another suitable building. The old KNBY radio station was suggested as one possible site.

Boyce said such a museum should also include 1950s cars and vintage street lights to give an additional feel for the era.

"Everyone who has any memorabilia, contact me," Boyce said.

He said several people must have had cameras and taken pictures of the popular singers and musicians in the 1950s and early '60s, and the group wants to see those pictures come out of the attic.

"How many people have pictures from back then?" Boyce asked. "There must have been people taking pictures of Elvis singing or signing autographs at that (Swifton) gym (and in clubs). Somebody's got to have pictures."

The group recently applied for a grant which, if approved, will pay for digital scanning and recording equipment, so people can bring in pictures and tell their stories and then take their pictures home the same day.

For those who want to bring pictures in now, a way will be found to copy them quickly, Boyce said.

"I know a lot of Batesville people came over here (in those days)," he said. "Have your precious artifacts (pictures) copied. We're all in danger of fire and flood, so have them copied, so there'll be a copy."

Those attending reminisced while coming up with a list of roadhouses and other places that should be marked with plaques, or restored as attractions.

"The Silver Moon was rough," said one participant who went there when she was young. "One time someone dressed a goat up as a man's date and took it into the Silver Moon and put it in a chair. Someone came by and said, 'Can't he beat that? That's the ugliest woman I've ever seen.'"

That was the old Silver Moon, and that building is long gone. But some of its tile floor remains, only yards from the new Silver Moon, and is considered a potential tourist attraction.

The current Silver Moon does not serve alcohol or allow smoking inside, and operates as a dance venue for seniors and others, including children, on Saturday nights.

One club was at Possum Grape, where U.S. 67 enters the county from the southwest, but despite a couple of trips there, Boyce and Burgess have yet to pin down which of the three old stone foundations there supported the club, called G.B.'s Place.

"That's something we can investigate and explore," Boyce said.

Jarvis's Bamboo Club in Newport was another popular watering hole and venue. The building is still in use, for the same purpose, about two blocks from the economic development center, although under a different name.

Another possible tourist site is the American Motel, where most out-of-town entertainers stayed.

The Porky's Rooftop building is gone but is a historic site. "The original building was a drive-in restaurant" with dancing on top, Burgess said.

"Woody's Club was where Jackson's Funeral Home is now," he said. "It was actually a rough, tough club. It was one of the first clubs Kern (Kennedy, his band's piano player) and I played."

The Bloody Bucket and Sunset Inn, Burgess said, "used to have a bear out front that drank Cokes or beer, whatever somebody would buy it."

Some of the clubs "had the money, because they were gambling," with card games in progress in other rooms or out back, Burgess said.

Other places musicians played were Danny's Silver Bullet, Hartsill's Liquor Store, the Swift Theatre in Swifton — photos exist of Elvis playing there — Charlie's (where Bushwhacker's is now), the Clover Club, Mike's Place, Bob King's King of Clubs, which has gone by several different names, and the Rainbow or Blue Room.

The King of Clubs building is still in near-original condition and still in use as a club.

Another suggestion was to create a historical district downtown to help draw tourists.

The state Highway and Transportation Department has asked the group to suggest a design for highway markers, Boyce said.

He said volunteers for the overall project are welcome.

"Any folklore students who would like to do research, looking through microfiche" for historical information, such as which musicians played where, and when, would be very helpful, he said.

A dedication for the highway is being planned for some time this summer, Boyce said.

I am Buffalo-Horn! wrote on May 21, 2009
This sounds an interesting idea – great for future generations of fans, as well as us. Let's wish them luck bringing this to fruition. Also photos of Elvis' early days on the road are getting rarer & rarer, so let's hope they get a good response.