Larry Donn's Rockabilly Days - Memories

Rockabilly Days

LARRY DONN writes for Now Dig This

Within this story I had intended to include a short discussion of music of the '40s and early '50s with Martin 'Pig' Coleman, one of my early musical influences. Unfortunately, it has turned into an obituary, as he died a few days ago. He had been ill for the past year, and while hopitalized recently for some sort of intestinal ailment, his heart stopped beating several times over a period of three days or so. It was re-started each time by electric shocks, until the time came when it would beat no more.

The '50s was a comfortable time... a few warfree years when we didn't have a lot to worry about. I don't really know why, but I gave President Eisenhower the credit for that. He seemed to be a gentle man, despite his record as a great military general, and after he was elected, things began to smooth out a bit. It lasted until John Kennedy was elected, and it hasn't been the same since. Of course, at my young age, I wasn't to concerned about the world events, except that I would have to register for the US Army draft in 1959 when I became 18, and I wasn't looking forward to that. I had no objection to serving in the army, but being somewhat of a rebel, I knew I would immediately land in the jailhouse for telling some smart-mouth officer to kiss off, or worse. It's just that I don't take orders too well unless I know the whys and wherefores of the orders and whether they make sense. Not a good military attitude, certainly, but it has served me well though the years. (For more information, listen to 'Trouble' from the Elvis movie 'King Creole'.)

Gasoline cost 25 cents a gallon, hamburgers were 15 cents, a pack of cigarettes cost 20 cents and a Pepsi was 5 cents. Oh, how it hurts to remember! It cost 50 cents per person to get in the Skyvue drive-in theatre, but some nights they only charged a dollar for each car. There were always two or more movies, several advertisements for movies to come, a cartoon or two, and usually some kind of a short piece... a newsreel or a 'Candid Camera' short.

In 1959, when Shelby and I started dating, we could put gas in the car, get five slices of pizza (two for her and three for me because I was bigger) and two medium fountain Cokes at the new pizza drive-in (with car-hops and the whole '50s bit), go to the drive-in theatre, get hamburgers, popcorn, candy and more Cokes (or sometimes root beer, Dr. Pepper and Pepsi), all for five dollars or less. Now, you have to get a bank loan to go to the theatre.

The first hamburger I remember eating was at a small diner called Chuck's Place, on main street in Jonesboro, Arkansas, somewhere around 1945. It was about ten-feet wide and a hundred-feet long. (The diner, not the hamburger.) Chuck had a special "secret-recipe" vegetable mixture, or slaw, for his burgers that was so good it was almost addictive. He wouldn't tell what he put in it, and as far as I know, he never did. He died a few years ago and the place was torn down. A couple of doors down the street was The Liberty Theatre (now a pawn shop) where I saw movies starring John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Monte Hale, Charles Starrett as The Durango Kid, Sunset Carson, Gabby Hayes, Smiley Burnette and many others. My father was a John Wayne fan, so we saw lots of westerns and war movies. I liked Tarzan (of the Apes) a lot, so we saw most of them, too. 'Gone With The Wind' was a bore, but I was too young to really understand the story. I loved 'Song Of The South', with Uncle Remus, Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear, and I can still sing 'Zippededoodah' all the way through.

My grandmother told me in 1955 that I would be a singer someday. I had never discussed that goal with her, or anybody else, for that matter, but I would guess that she saw that I had more than an average interest in music, having heard me sing from about the age of two, and knowing of the many Gillihans before me who were musicians, she figured the odds were pretty good. I remember her saying, "I can just see it... you'll be up on that stage with that red hair just a-flying." (My hair was called "red" when I was a kid, although it was actually more of a reddish-blond, a bit darker that it is now.) She died in 1957, two months before I went on stage for the firt time as a singer.

My uncle, Vernon Pfeifer, was one of the first in Bono to get a television. I think it was in '47 or '48, and it was the first one I'd seen. the screen was round and about six inches in diameter. The whole thing looked like a floor model radio with the TV screen at the top where the radio dial would be, and that's probably what it was... at least the cabinet... an effort by the manufacturer to avoid sinking too much money into the new gadget until he knew if it was going to sell. The first television show I saw was 'The Lone Ranger'. The picture was so small and fuzzy, I was not impressed. As I was used to seeing clear movies on a large theatre screen, television was more a curiosity than anything else. Our first television came along about '50 or '51. Apparently, the manufactueres had made some progress, as ours had a 19-inch screen. I can't remember which programmes were in which years, but some of my favourites were 'Meet Mr. Wizard' (a science show for kids), 'Sky King' (an airplane pilot crimebuster... what else?), 'Howdy Doody' (a puppet show) and 'Science Fiction Theatre'. I also watched 'The Mickey Mouse Club', but only to see Annette.

Sometime in the mid-'50s, many of the students at Bono High School staged a protest demonstration against the school administration's refusal to let us have a prom. We were not allowed to have dances because those in power thought dancing was immoral. Most of the junior and senior students carried signs, chanted "We want to dance!" and refused to attend classes. Finally, school officials said they would leave it up to the parents, and a survey was sent home with each student. As I recall, a majority of the parents were in favour of having school dances, but we still were not allowed to have them. Appaerently, the survey did not turn out the way the officials thought it would, so they decided to ignore it. A show by Sonny Burgess & The Pacers in our gymnasium was advertised as a "sock hop", but when people began to dance, the school principle walked around among the dancers and made them stop, then had Sonny announce that dancing was not permitted.

Then there was the "drug" thing... I think it was 1957. Several students in the senior class began having hysterical laughing and fainting spells, but no-one knew why. The "spells" did not appear to be genuine, but school officials took the matter seriously enough to call in the FBI, and it made front-page headlines in the local newspaper. I questioned one of the "victims", a close freind, and was told the "drug" was a mixture of aspirin, alcohol and Coca Cola. I knew this was not true, as the three ingredients in any combination will produce nothing that would cause the described effets on the human body. The alcohol was not the drinking kind, but isopropyl alcohol, used mainly for rubbing sore muscles etc., which can cause serious gastrointestinal disturbances if swollowed. I suspect that the whole thing was a hoax that may have have been started as a joke and went out of control. In any case, nobody went to jail and it was great fun while it lasted.

In the '50s, cottonfields surrounded Bono. Now, the town has grown, and one of those fields, about 40 acres, is almost in the middle of it. Now that I consider the idea, Bono may be the only town in America with a 40-acre field in the middle of it.

Bono's streets were all gravel ("dirt tracks as Miss Julia calls them), and I knew every rock on every street because I prowled them constantly on my two-tone green bicycle. Occasionally, I'd have to stop by Bill Thorton's gas station and garage to get a flat fixed. He rarely charged any of us kids for repairing old bicycle tires, but if he did, it was about 10 cents. There was a hand water pump just out side his garage which became our "watering hole". His place was only two or three minutes by bicycle from anywhere else in town, hardly long enough to die of thirst, so that's where we all went to get a drink of water if we weren't closer to home.

Bill's garage was a collector's heaven. Besides the old tools and automobile parts, there were presidential campaign posters from the '20s and '30s advertising Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge and Woodrow Wilson (who all made it in the office at one time or another), old advertising signs, gasoline pumps with a gas tank on the top and a hand-operated lever at the side and on his office wall was the original Marilyn Monroe calendar, featureing Marilyn elegantly attired only in her skin.

Martin 'Pig' Coleman lived a few houses north of Bill's place. Almost any night in the summertime, you could walk by Pig's house and hear him playing the guitar. Now, he wasn't your average front porch picker... the guy was a professional from a large family of good musicians who played throughout the south in the '40s and early '50s. When he played, it was like listening to the radio. He'd be the first to tell you that he made a mistake now and then, but for some reason, I always failed to catch them. He was equally adept on the fiddle, and could play about anything that had strings on it. His musical career was sidelined in the early '50s by a brain tumor which was supposed to have been fatal, but although his vision was somewhat impaired, he managed to outlive the predictions of his imminent demise by about 40 years. He played at least one show with Billy Lee Riley in the '50s, but didn't remember much about it. He said Riley was introduced as a Sun Records artist, and jumped about a lot when he sang.

"I didn't know who he was at the time, but later on I heard his record on the radio and then I started hearing more about him", he told me. He didn't remember the location of the show, but said the band he was playing with didn't back Billy Lee, and he didn't remember who did.

Pig and several members of his family played music in the '40s and early '50s in Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee and Mississippi, and I think I heard him mention Texas and Oklahoma as well. They were all very good musicians and were quite popular, and had it been a few years later, they would probably have made several records.

In the mid-'50s, Larry Joe Patton and I would occasionally go to Pig's house with our guitars and attempt to follow along while he played the guitar or fiddle. We were just learning, so we only played accompaniment to his lead. He taught me to play several songs on the guitar, as well as many more musical things that I cannot even begin to list here.

He often told us of his dislike for rock n roll, but he could play most of Scotty Moore's lead solos, as well as things like, 'Matchbox', 'Blue Suede Shoes' and others. When I commented on that, he said, "That ain't rock n roll... at least not what I think rock n roll is". Or course, it was rock n roll to us, but I understood, as most of it had some what of a country flavour; he heard it as country while we heard it as rock n roll.

Pig was an uncle to Jimmie Coleman, who played lead guitar on the early Elvis Songs on the Sonny Burgess / Larry Donn White Label LP, as well as some of my other recordings, a 1958 session at Sun and a 1960 session for Rita Records.

Larry Donn's Delta Musicians Page

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