Larry Donn's Rockabilly Days - A Day at Sun

Rockabilly Days

LARRY DONN writes for Now Dig This

Day At Sun

Rockabilly Days

The Big Adventure
A Day at Sun

"Button your shirt, Gillihan, and turn that collar down!", the high school Principal yelled as I passed him in the hall on my way to the next class. I thought he was joking so I just laughed and walked on. Later that day he said it again, and again I ignored him.

It was 1958 and the first day of my senior year in high school. I had been playing music less than a year, but I had been wearing the top two buttons open and the collar up on my shirts since 1956. Nobody had ever complained before, and as most of the other boys sported the same look, I didn't even consider that the Principal might be serious.

The following day at the start of my first class, the teacher threw a pin down on my desk and said, "If you're not going to button your shirt up, pin it". How she got the idea I would do one and not the other, I can't imagine.

"No, Ma'am", I said.

She immediately left the room and came back with the Superintendent who ordered me to button my shirt up and turn my collar down. At this point I realized they were not joking.

"Is this the new dress code, or what?" I asked.

"We just want you to button your shirt and turn down your collar", he replied.

"Sure, if you'll make everybody else do the same."

"We're not concerned with the others. We want you to do what we tell you to do."

"No, I will not be singled out. What's good for one is good for all. You can't make a rule that applies to no one but me."

He stood and glared at me nastily for a few seconds then turned and left the room. I had a feeling it wasn't finished.

When the class was over I walked out into the auditorium and was stopped by the Principal who was waiting just outside the door. "Gillihan, are you going to button your shirt up?".

"No", I replied, "not until the rule applies to everybody equally."

"Then go home and don't come back!"

As I reached the exit I heard him yell behind me, "I'll see that you never graduate from any school in Arkansas!" I knew he didn't have that much power so the threat didn't bother me. But it told me that this wasn't about buttoning up my shirt, it was about control. They wanted to control me. I don't take orders very well from those I do not respect, or if the orders are unfair or dumb.

In the years before, under the previous Superintendent and Principal, I made excellent grades and even won a couple of medals; one for making the highest grades in the school and a 'citizenship' award given by the teachers for being an all-around stupendous fellow... well, you get the idea. I was also champion speller of the school one year, the Junior Fire Marshall three years and Commander of the Safety Patrol three years.

The new administration took over in the Summer of 1957 with a 'get tough' attitude. They declared they were going to 'clean up this school'. No one knew what they were talking about as it seemed fine to us. Everyone was learning and making reasonably good grades, we were allowed to have music shows in the gymnasium or auditorium as well as other extra-curricular activities, and the school was almost enjoyable. The new guys stopped almost everything. For some unknown reason, they began to pick on me. Several times during that year, they stood at the rear of an auditorium full of studying students and carried on loud conversations about me and a girl I was dating, including some very embarrassing remarks. I asked them twice, very nicely to stop it. Both times I was answered with arrogant laughter and the statement that they would "say anything we want to say about you, anytime or anywhere we want to."

My grades went down dramatically. In six months I was making the lowest grades I had ever made. The tension was tremendous, and I was relieved when it was all over. I wasn't concerned at all about not graduating from school because I was going to be a rock n roll star and it wouldn't matter, anyway. I was a bit concerned about how my mother and father would feel, however, over the phone they began to see my side. To finish this part of the story, I took a correspondence course from a school in Chicago and got my diploma two years later, along with a scholarship to college which I refused, as I had had enough of school. I wanted to rock n roll!

About 9am the following day, while my parents were both at work, I decided to hitchhike to Memphis. I had met Billy Lee Riley a couple of times and my plan was to go to the Sun studio and see if he would help me get a job cleaning up around the place. I wasn't sure he'd remember me, but he knew my cousin quite well, who lived across the street from him for some time, and I was sure I could make him remember.

I got a ride almost as soon as I put out my thumb. It was a black '58 Chevrolet and it took me almost halfway to Memphis. Unfortunately, the next ride was three hours and ten miles in the hot August sun later. It was an old truck loaded with logs bound for West Memphis, on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River. That was my last ride of the day.

I walked seven miles into Memphis (I counted 2,336 steps across the bridge) and as nightfall was about an hour away, I realized I had left one tiny detail out of my plan. Where I would sleep that night. I had three dollars and forty-six cents in my pocket, but I had no idea where to look for a room, or even if I had enough money to get a room. I considered finding a sheltered spot under the bridge but nothing looked inviting, although there was a large cardboard box that could have served the purpose. I'd heard of people sleeping on park benches so I walked down to Tom Lee Park on Riverside Drive and selected a bench under a tree. I was very tired, having walked about twenty miles that day, and it was almost dark so I stretched out on the bench to see what kind of bed it would make. Remember, this was 1958, when you could leave the keys in your car and your house unlocked all night without worry. Even so, I was taking a risk, however small, but I didn't think about that at the time.

There was another nocturnal threat that I also had not thought about, guaranteed to drive even the most courageous indoors. The Mississippi River mosquito. With the coming of darkness they began to bite. Soon, I left the bench, the park and the river and stumbled toward the lights of downtown. I thought I might find an all-night movie and I could sleep in a back-row seat. Three hours later, I was still walking. I found myself on South Second Street holding on to parking meters to keep from falling. I was beginning to slip in and out of consciousness and I knew I would not be on my feet much longer. A bell rang in the back of my mind and I remembered that somewhere during the past three hours I had seen a sign that said, 'Rooms - 50 Cents'. But where? I didn't think I could remember where I'd been, even if I had nowhere else to go, so I turned around and started back. Only a couple of blocks away, I saw a sign at the foot of a very steep and narrow stairway. I pulled myself up the long flight to a middle-aged woman in a small office.

"I need a room."

She looked over my shoulder. "Nobody with you?"

"No. Just me."

She stared at me for a few seconds with a puzzled look then took my money and pointed out the door to a room with a window on the street. The door had only a wire hook to keep it closed and the blanket had a large hole in the middle of it, but the sheets were clean.

The next morning, I washed up a bit in the lavatory down the hall, ate a Snickers bar for breakfast and headed down to Union Avenue which would take me to Sun.

The two ladies in the front office didn't know when Riley would be there but said I could wait for him if I wanted to. About 11:00 a somewhat short, sturdy-built man came in from the studio. He was very friendly and after we had chatted for a while, he mentioned that the floor had a loose tile and I could help him fix it. Somewhere along, the phone rang. I heard one of the ladies say "Bill Justis? Yes, just a minute." He answered the call and that was the first time I knew who he was.

The second time I met him was in 1960. I went to his office (Play Me Records) with Billy Lee Riley. Justis not only remembered me from the day in '58, but remembered my name as well.

No one seemed to mind me hanging around the Sun office, and I expected Riley to show up sooner or later, so I decided to stay as long as they would let me.

About the middle of the afternoon Johnny Cash walked in, wearing the usual black suit and carrying a guitar. He looked around, said "Howdy-doo" to the room and went through the studio door. He was accompanied by two guys who may have been Luther and Marshall but I was too busy looking at him to notice. A half-hour later, Bill turned on a speaker on the back wall of the office and we heard 'Down the Street to 301'. A few minutes later, he turned it on again and 'Forty Shades of Green' was playing. The information I have says '301' was recorded on July 17th, 1958, and I couldn't find anything about the other one (although I know he recorded it for Columbia in 1961). As this was in early August, they were probably listening to playbacks of previous cuts.

About three o'clock I decided Riley wasn't going to show up (I found out later he was out of town) so I told Bill and the ladies goodbye and stepped out onto the sidewalk of Union Avenue with no idea of where to go. I headed toward downtown and by the time I reached the river, I had decided to go home. I walked all the way back to West Memphis where I caught the first of three rides, the third taking me to within a hundred yards of my house, and the Big Adventure was over.

Larry Donn's Delta Musicians Page

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