By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"Do you know what it was like to follow Elvis on stage in those early days?" Poovey said in 1987. "Well, it was tough. Elvis performed, and the crowd went wild over him. Those were his early days on Sun Records. Then, I went on stage. The 6,200 people weren't interested in anything but Elvis. His performance just stunned them."
While hanging around the Sportatorium, where he was a regular, Poovey hooked up with Jim Shell, who had been recording artists for Starday Records (George Jones' label, and home to Dallas' own Sid King and the Five Strings) and Imperial; they began collaborating, with Shell writing the lyrics and Poovey contributing the music. In 1957, Poovey began recording for the Dixie label, a subsidiary of Starday, and released his first single, the swingin' "Move Around." The track sounds like the typical rockabilly of the era, country music set to a hand-clapping beat, and Poovey's twang defines the song as much as the music; he still has one foot in the honky-tonk.
"He was country, period," says Sid King, who met Poovey in the mid-'50s, when the Five Strings began headlining the Big "D" Jamboree. "He was more country than rockabilly. Of course, we didn't call it rockabilly at the time. Rock and roll hadn't come along, so we didn't call it that either. We called it 'be-bop.' But we all came from country roots. So did Ronnie [Dawson] and Buddy Holly and Elvis."
In 1958, Poovey recorded his finest track, the one that could have, maybe even should have, made him a star: "Ten Little Fingers." Yet it likely didn't succeed for the very reason it was such a dynamite track. Written by Shell and Poovey, "Ten Little Fingers" sounds like a Jerry Lee Lewis throwdown with a Chuck Berry narrative ("Way down in Texas in a little border town is a cat that plays the coolest piano around..."), with pianist C.B. Oliver banging his instrument till the keys bled; Shell was even shameless (or maybe smart) enough to make reference to "Johnny B. Goode." And so the song went nowhere, and so did Poovey, which is perhaps why history has treated him with such disregard.
"He didn't make a wrong turn, but he zigged instead of zagged," Freeze says. "He could have been as equally well known as the big guys. It was the beginning of all the rock and roll and country and rockabilly, and he was there when it was being formed, and I believe to this day he was an integral part of it even though he wasn't as well known. All those guys started with an acoustic guitar and a slap bass--that was the backbone of the music--and Joe didn't invent it, but he sure was one of the first guys doing it."
Poovey recorded several more tracks for Dixie, Azalea, and the Sims labels, and kept playing around town at the Sportatorium and the Majestic Theater. But rockabilly didn't even treat its biggest heroes well--Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent would never record songs as successful as their biggest hits. Its lesser-knowns were forced to return to playing country to pay the rent, and most disappeared altogether. They took day jobs, played random stops to nowhere at night, and tucked their stardom dreams away in old boxes with publicity photos and acetate recordings--where, maybe, guys like David Dennard would one day find them and treat them like newfound treasures.
Poovey did indeed go back to writing and playing country and had some success--which, in his case, meant playing the Grapevine Opry (two tracks from his appearances there in the late 1970s appear on Greatest Grooves, including a rousing rendition of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken"). He also resumed his career as a disc jockey, which he began in 1962. Poovey would end up working for KMAE-AM in McKinney, KJIM-AM in Fort Worth, and KPCN-AM in Grand Prairie, spinning country discs at the beginning of the outlaw movement with Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings and their dope-smoking lot.
"He was a very, very powerful country disc jockey in this market for a number of years," says Roy Stamps, who booked Nelson into a number of clubs around the area and also promoted Nelson's first Fourth of July picnic in Dripping Springs. "That station in Grand Prairie put a heck of a product on the market. One time, when he was at KPCN, he beat Ron Chapman at drive-time, back when Ron was at KLIF. Joe had a good following, an excellent following. One day Joe was doing a remote in Garland, and Willie and I were driving around, and we decided to drop in on him. Willie said 'We'll scare him to death.'"
But like all Texas rockabilly heroes, Poovey did not quite disappear into the shadows. That will never happen as long as the Brits are around to rescue one old single from oblivion. A tiny label in Sussex, but of course, reissued "Ten Little Fingers" and turned Poovey into a bona fide hero overseas in 1980. Same thing happened to the likes of Mac Curtis and Ronnie Dawson, who found acclaim in England when they couldn't even find a gig over here. Poovey started touring in England and even recorded a few tracks there, including a slap-and-tickle version of "You Are My Sunshine."