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

According to Western-swing historian Kevin Coffey, writing in the liner notes to The Big "D" Jamboree Live, the Big "D" Jamboree made its debut on October 16, 1948, thanks to Johnny Hicks, a longtime local disc jockey who had taken over the Jamboree (with Al Turner) and even renamed it. "It was kind of euphonious," Hicks once said of the new name, "and it stuck." Not long after that, the Jamboree took off, booking the likes of Ray Price and Lefty Frizzell -- back when only their mamas knew their names. In 1949, even Hank Williams showed up on the Sportatorium stage: He had been kicked off the Opry for his excessive drinking, and he needed a place to play. It was at the Jamboree, say old-timers, that Williams heard Price and convinced him to go to Nashville, where, soon enough, he'd become a star with "Crazy Arms."

Marvin Montgomery joined the Jamboree in 1949, when his side band had been asked to play as a house band at the Sportatorium. It was never meant to be a full-time gig; he was playing with the Light Crust Doughboys at the time, as he had since the 1930s, around the time Bob Wills and Milton Brown left the Doughboys. But soon enough, the renamed Country Gentlemen (then The Texas Stompers) became one of two house bands at the Jamboree.

"I never expected to stay so long -- oh, no," Montgomery says of his tenure on the Jamboree. "But I was glad I did. I didn't have anything else to do. I was just trying to be a musician. I lived in Fort Worth, and all the work was over here in the 1950s." It became Montgomery's job to assemble the three-and-a-half hour Saturday-night shows -- and he had only two hours to do it, teaching his band every song on the evening's program just minutes before showtime.

Straight from the country: Johnny Cash was still signed to Sun Records when he played the Jamboree.
Straight from the country: Johnny Cash was still signed to Sun Records when he played the Jamboree.
Carl Perkins can be heard on The Big "D" Jamboree Live performing "Blue Suede Shoes" and "That's All Right."
Carl Perkins can be heard on The Big "D" Jamboree Live performing "Blue Suede Shoes" and "That's All Right."

In 1951, Johnny Hicks -- who can be seen on the cover of this issue, standing behind Elvis and Scotty Moore and Bill Black, wearing his cornpone cap -- swung a deal with CBS' radio network that brought the Jamboree to the nation's airwaves every third Saturday night, as part of its Saturday Night Country Style program. (Indeed, Dennard's two-disc set emulates the original broadcasts -- though CBS broadcast only 30 minutes of the show to a nationwide audience.)

Two years after the broadcasts began, the Sportatorium burned to the ground; Watt and Montgomery speculate that a rival wrestling promoter started the blaze. For a while, the Jamboree broadcast out of the Fair Park Livestock Pavilion, until McLemore built a new, four-sided Sportatorium where the old octagonal building used to stand.

Watt met McLemore in 1953 while working for a tile company in Chicago. Watt was related to McLemore -- distantly, by marriage -- and took him up on his offer to book the Big "D" Jamboree, though Watt had little love for country music. He preferred the soothing strains of Guy Lombardo to the "corny" sound of hillbilly music. Nonetheless, it wasn't long before Watt was booking the talent at the Jamboree. His signature is at the bottom of contracts for the likes of Cash, Perkins, Haggard -- all of whom were paid only a few hundred bucks to play the Jamboree and various other Texas venues (Elvis' contract guaranteed the kid a mere $225).

Watt became, in essence, McLemore's right-hand man. Among his duties was to baby-sit McLemore's client, rockabilly star Gene Vincent; book the touring acts; and sober up some of the touring guests, among them the then-pill-popping Cash. "Anything with Gene Vincent was hectic," Watt says. "Gene was a great talent, but he was like all these guys you see nowadays: They make too much money too soon, and it goes to their heads."

If anything, those men who lived at the Sportatorium on Saturday nights during the 1950s do not romanticize that period; it's impossible to mythologize a drafty memory. They recall the thin, tin walls; they remember how they had to place their amps on Coke crates and turn them toward the ceilings so the sound wouldn't bounce off the walls.

"The sound in there was terrible," says Couch. "It was a tin building, and we played on the wrestling arena ring. All they did was take the posts down. But we had big guests. We had a big night when Johnny Cash was there, the last time he came. They had two shows, and he packed both of them out. It was fantastic. The night he was on, it was raining real hard -- it sounded like that tin building was gonna collapse -- and he came out and said, 'How high is the water, Mama?' He had them in the palms of his hands."

Usually, the locals would play only one or two songs a set, unless the applause demanded an encore. The touring guests would play a handful of songs; Perkins offers five on the "Rockabillies" disc. But the old regulars don't talk about how country music gave way to rock and roll in the mid-1950s, because, as Montgomery says now, "Music is music. What did it matter?"

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