Legendary stardust cowboy

Early last week, Arnold Joseph Poovey held in his hands the compact disc that was going to rescue his name from the dustbin of rock-and-roll history. The disc, titled Greatest Grooves, summed up his career, all 40-plus years of it, in one rollicking 55-minute burst. It revealed a rockabilly kid who became a country-music adult who became a Dallas-music legend, if you define legend as someone whom people have only heard of, yet never heard.

He and producer David Dennard--who has extricated so many other lost songs out of the scrap heap, having compiled best-and-rest-ofs by Ronnie Dawson, Johnny Dollar, and Gene Vincent (with his Lost Dallas Tapes)--sat around just a few days ago listening to old songs, sorting through black-and-white photos, imagining the day when Poovey would once again step on a stage. They sat around, sipping on Coke, talking about what might happen once the world got hold of Greatest Grooves.

Two days later, on October 6, "Groovy" Joe Poovey died in his sleep. Joe was discovered by his wife, Peggy, and he was buried last Friday.

He was not at all old, just 57, but in a moment, a man who was so much a part of making history in the 1950s, sharing the Big "D" Jamboree stage at the old Sportatorium with the likes of Elvis Presley and Hank Williams and so many other immortals, had become history. So much for the triumphant comeback. "It's a drag," Dennard says with so much understatement. "It blows my mind...He's the history of Texas music."

"Groovy" Joe Poovey--the name sounds like some cornball leftover from the 1950s, a spectral symbol instead of a flesh-and-blood performer. He would also go by such monikers as "Jumping" Joe Poovey, "Texas" Joe Poovey, even Johnny Dallas when a producer thought Poovey sounded too "corny." But among the rockabilly faithful, perhaps the most fanatical and devoted of all rock and roll fans, Groovy Joe was the real thing--the bastard son of Ernest Tubb and Elvis Presley, a man who stood at the crossroads of hillbilly and rock and roll and decided to boogie forever at the intersection.

In the United States, especially his hometown of Dallas (he was born May 10, 1941, at St. Paul Hospital), Poovey's name is barely known at all. Until Greatest Grooves hits stores, most likely early next year, there exist no CDs featuring his music. Unlike a Ronnie Dawson or even Mac Curtis, homegrown contemporaries of Poovey's during the 1950s and '60s, he had yet to be discovered by the rockabilly purists in the United States. Oh, but they loved him in England, where boys still slick up in greaser duds, roll cigarettes in their sleeves, and spin poodle dolls around the dance floor. In Europe, they adored Poovey, even worshiped him. Old friend and bandmate Bryan Freeze recalls that one time, they stepped off a plane in England and were treated "like you might treat a superstar over here--they carried our stuff and treated us like royalty."

But here, he's just another lost relic from the 1950s, which is a damned shame. Old friend Willie Nelson will tell you that. So will Johnny Paycheck and even George Jones, both of whom recorded Poovey's tracks a very long time ago.

"There were probably maybe eight guys in that Big 'D' circle--men like Gene Summers, Ronnie Dawson, Johnny Carroll, Mac Curtis--and Joe was one of those guys," Freeze says. "And that's a pretty small circle, so I wouldn't say Joe was any better than they were, and they weren't any better than he was. They were all unique in their own way, but headed in the same direction--even if they didn't know what that direction was. They just knew they made music that made the girls scream and made the guys jump around."

Poovey was a country performer when he was just 12, playing the Big "D" Jamboree with his band, the Hillbilly Boys. In 1951, he even recorded two Christmas songs with country performer and family friend Earney Vandagriff: "Santa's Little Helper" and "Christmas Filled with Cheer," both of which appear on Greatest Grooves. "Santa's Little Helper" is a delightful little novelty, full of out-of-key honky-tonk piano, slide-guitar echoes, and the vocals of a little kid singing high, sweet, and deliriously; the fiddle-heavy "Christmas Filled with Cheer" is sort of creepy, though, with Poovey talking directly to Santa Claus about how "my daddy's dead [and] I hide where no one will see my tears." Both tracks were recorded at Jim Beck's studio on Ross Avenue--the same place where Lefty Frizzell recorded "If You've Got the Money (I've Got the Time)."

Poovey would remain a country singer till 1955, when he opened for Elvis at the Big "D" Jamboree and decided he wanted to become a rock-and-roll star--though back then, no one called it rock and roll. And so he traded the white cowboy hat and the frilly Western shirts (with fringes dangling from his chest and sleeves--old pictures reveal him to look like a child playing Roy Rogers) for a jar of hair grease and shiny pegged pants. He looked flashy and played tough, even with the scarf tied around his neck; no one dared call him a dandy.