Times have changed in northeastern Arkansas. It is difficult to believe that there used to be such a thriving music scene. Now efforts are underway to designate a stretch of US Highway 67 from Newport to Walnut Ridge as the Rockabilly Highway. Indeed, things were really jumping there once upon a time. Venues like Silver Moon, Porky’s Rooftop, King’s Capri; these were real hotspots come the weekend.
Highway 63 slices 67 at Walnut Ridge and journeys on toward Memphis, the real mother load of true rockabilly. The music legends from Memphis would travel the few miles up 63 to entertain the local hoypoloy at the two joints at Trumann: the Cotton Club and the C&R. They all played at the Cotton Club in its heyday: Elvis, Carl, Johnny, Jerry Lee. These cats inspired many of the local wannabes to take up the guitar and escape the hot cotton patches.
One wannabe was Bobby Lee Trammell. He was from the nearby community of Hergett, just across the county line. It’s not even on the map any more.
Now even Bobby Lee is gone and no one left to sing his song. But during his salad days, he really did his best to shake things up. His live set was indeed outlandish and something to see. Bobby would literally swing from the rafters as he belted out his tunes. He rode around shirtless on the shoulders of his bass player singing Johnny B. Good. The crowds erupted.
Bobby Lee’s biggest hit record came in 1963. He teamed with Jonesboro’s Joe Lee, a living legend in his own right. For many years Joe had Alley Records and recorded the local talent. Cashing in on the national dance craze, Bobby Lee and Joe went into the Alley studio to cut “Arkansas Twist.” Right away it became a regional hit, but soon went even further. Dick Beonndi worked late-night radio on WLS in Chicago. WLS was directional, and its beam was focused through the midsection of America and on down into Mexico. What a night it was when Beonndi played Bobby Lee’s song on the nation’s number one radio show!
Bobby Lee went on the Top Ten Dance Party on WHBQ-TV in Memphis to do “Arkansas Twist.” Every Saturday evening at six, George Kline (professional Elvis friend) would host the program. It featured regional recording artists and spotlighted a different area high school each week. The artists would lip sync their latest record for the viewers.
A few seconds into “Arkansas Twist,” Bobby Lee gave up all pretence of the lip sync and regressed into his stage act. He started climbing all over the set and riding around on the studio’s cameras. The kids in the studio cheered him on. By the end of the song, the set was thoroughly trashed and cast asunder. George Kline just stood there shaking his head in disbelief while Bobby Lee walked off laughing. Kline never invited him back.
In 1968, Bobby Lee decided to parlay his name recognition into a political career. He had had some recent run-ins with the Craighead County Sheriff, Lonnie Cooper, who was up for reelection. Bobby Lee decided that position would a fine place to start his efforts.
Bobby was definitely up against the county political cartel, headed by Jonesboro lawyer, Tuffy Howard. Bobby was getting nowhere with his campaign and decided to risk it all on a half-hour broadcast on the local TV station, KAIT. It was perhaps his best performance.
His political platform was that law enforcement should stop pulling drivers over just to ask who they were and where they were going. At the dramatic conclusion of his broadcast, Bobby started sobbing. He told his audience: “There are some people that don’t want to see me run for Sheriff. Me and my family have all received death threats if I don’t drop out of the race. I have no rich backers in this. I had to sell my tour bus just to buy this time on TV. (At this revelation, his tears started gushing). They don’t want you to have a choice in this election. Well ain’t that just Tuffy!”
Bobby Lee only got 28 votes, but that did not stop his political aspirations. Years later, he was elected to the Craighead County Quorum Court, and, in 1997, as State Representative of District 88.
When Bobby Lee was elected to state government, his first thought was to purchase a brand new, red pickup for the trips to Little Rock. He was proud of that truck. On his way to the first session in his new job, he parked his truck right in front of the Capitol Building. A few hours later, he exited the Capitol exhausted from his legislative efforts. He looked around for the truck, only to discover it had been stolen from its parking spot. He never saw that truck again.
Bobby Lee’s focus while in the State Legislature was on a terrible problem that haunted his home district of Northeast Arkansas: methamphetamine. He set to work to craft legislation addressing this scourge. His proposed law would give officers the power to shoot on sight anyone who appeared to be cooking meth. Several colleagues pulled him aside to explain that might not be such a good idea.
Now the years have passed the door and things have changed in Poinsett County. The C&R Club is just a storage shed for farm equipment. The Cotton Club is only a lonesome, charred concrete slab out on old Highway 63, miles from the new bypass. Elvis, Johnny, and Carl have all left the building, and a frozen wind blows through empty cotton fields. Bobby Lee is gone too. He passed away earlier this year at his home in Jonesboro at age 74. But his fans still reminisce about the time he demolished the set on Top Ten Dance Party and so chagrinned George Kline all those years ago. Thank you Bobby Lee Trammell, Mr. Arkansas Twist.