Good rockin' last night

A new CD resurrects the echoes of the long-gone Big "D" Jamboree, where Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and some forgotten heroes made Saturday nights swing

Those artists on the disc who are still alive -- and many have since died -- can't believe such a thing even exists. After all, it took almost five decades for these performances to surface; that, and the dogged perseverance of a relatively young man who never even set foot in the Big "D" Jamboree.

"I even asked David, 'How old are you? Did you ever come to the Jamboree?'" Couch says. "He said no, and I said, 'Why you fooling with this?' He told me, 'Man, this is history.' He was really wrapped up in it, and that's fantastic. You do so many things through the years and don't think about someone going back 45 years later and finding it, but I'm real tickled that he did. Maybe someone will play this record. It can't hurt, can it?"

Ed Watt (seated in the front seat) booked the Big "D" Jamboree, held at Ed McLemore's Sportatorium, from 1953 until the very end.
Mark Andresen
Ed Watt (seated in the front seat) booked the Big "D" Jamboree, held at Ed McLemore's Sportatorium, from 1953 until the very end.
Thousands of locals filled the Sportatorium (below) on Saturday nights for the Jamboree -- and admission was only 60 or 80 cents.
Mark Graham
Thousands of locals filled the Sportatorium (below) on Saturday nights for the Jamboree -- and admission was only 60 or 80 cents.

It's astonishing to consider how little we know of our own history -- how much of it remains a secret, buried beneath dust and debris. Or, for that matter, how much of it even now remains hidden away in someone's closet, where it just waits to be discovered by the persistent or, simply, the very lucky. One would think that there's nothing left to find, that all the scraps have been gathered and placed in the dustbin of history. But who could have imagined that in the year 2000, we would only begin to hear how a young Johnny Cash sounded on a Dallas stage in 1955?

Perhaps it's not too surprising that the Big "D" Jamboree would be relegated to passing mentions in history books. After all, it didn't really create any stars; it merely borrowed them. It had neither the clout of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville nor the cachet of the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport. Indeed, the latter remains far more famous because it has long been considered the barn dance built by Elvis, Cash, and Hank Williams. In his 1998 book Louisiana Hayride Years, former Big "D" Jamboree announcer Horace Logan even dismisses the Jamboree, claiming it "never measured up to the Louisiana Hayride in quality" and that "it copied the idea of the Hayride." Logan insisted the Jamboree existed for only one reason: "to make money" for its bossman Ed McLemore, who ran the Sportatorium and the Jamboree and controlled pro wrestling in this town for years.

Ed Watt, of course, would dispute Logan's assessment of the Jamboree. He waves away Logan's words, claiming he was just a bitter guy who was jealous "because he wasn't in charge," as he had been at the Hayride. Besides, what does it matter? History has a way of setting right such petty disputes.

The Jamboree wasn't even called that when it first began in 1946; it didn't have a name when Ole Top Rail Club owner Slim McDonald and radio personality Gus Foster began booking acts into Ed McLemore's Sportatorium just after World War II. Back then, country music was only beginning to become a big business. According to historian Bill C. Malone in his indispensable Country Music U.S.A., no fewer than 64 record companies were releasing country albums in 1946. By 1949, at least 650 radio stations were broadcasting live country-music shows.

Such rapid growth led to the creation of dozens of regional "barn dances" that would feature up-and-comers. The Grand Ole Opry's popularity gave rise to the likes of the WSB Barn Dance in Atlanta, Town Hall Party and Hometown Jamboree in Los Angeles, the Louisiana Hayride, and what would eventually become the Big "D" Jamboree. But in 1946, it was known only as the Texas State Barn Dance -- though men who claim to have been there at the beginning also refer to it as the Lone Star Barn Dance.

Watt says McLemore had little interest in music; his loves were money and wrestling, in that order. And Horace Logan was right, to a point: McLemore started the Barn Dance because he wanted to make a little dough. Still, that never diminished its impact -- or his employees' respect for the man, who died in 1968.

"I remember when my younger son got polio -- he was 5 years old -- and the first person to call me was Mr. McLemore," says Montgomery. "He was really good to me all the time I was there. He asked if I needed money. He was always that way." He recalls how McLemore insisted on paying the band $30 for a performance with Elvis over Colonel Tom Parker's objections, since scale was a mere $18. "I never liked Colonel Parker from then on," Montgomery says."

"Mr. McLemore was just a hell of a guy," says Ed Watt. "He always had a nice shirt on, a tie, and he always wore a cashmere jacket. He was a classy guy, and everybody loved him."

At its inception, the Texas State Barn Dance was as hillbilly as a pair of overalls and a straw hat. Among its earliest performers were brothers Bill and Joe Callahan, who looked and sounded as if they had just fallen off a mountain and landed in the big ol' city. Also hanging around the Sportatorium were comedian-singer Bob Shelton, guitarist Buster White, and singer Riley Crabtree. But no one was more important to the show's initial success than Al Turner, a DJ at KLIF-AM who took over booking the show in 1948 and got the show on the radio -- on WFAA-570. The Jamboree would eventually move to KLIF, which also broadcast McLemore's wrestling programs.

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