The Rock 'N Roll Pioneers of Northwest Arkanas

By Bill Wright

While rock and roll across America was giving attention to Elvis, The Beatles and the sounds of Motown, Northwest Arkansas was celebrating its own brand of rock and roll with its own pioneers. Yes, the aforementioned mainstream players also had an influence on rockers in Arkansas, but an additional influence was felt from a regional level.

Some of the key players started reaching their prime in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, but they actually arrived in Northwest Arkansas before then. There was a time in the late ‘50s when the typical choice of live entertainment boiled down to performances led by the McClelland Combo, John Tolleson or Ronnie Hawkins. Shortly afterward came the Cate Brothers – popular in early days as the Delrays and some other entertainment packages including Bill Lafferty and the Jokers and a group known as the Trebles.

The venues were few and far between. According to John Tolleson, in the early days there were no venues on Dickson Street that offered live entertainment other than the U-Ark Bowl (above the bowling alley), and live music didn’t happen there on a regular basis.

Here are some of the early rockers that put Fayetteville on the map as a rock and roll town.

Dayton Stratton
The late Northwest Arkansas rock promoter Dayton Stratton took part in the development of a large majority of the rock and roll acts of the ‘50s and ‘60s with the popular venues that he owned or managed.

Stratton brought the first national names to the area to perform at one of his clubs: the Tee Table (near Drake Field), the Rockwood Club (on the road to Fayetteville Country Club), the Shamrock Club (where Motel 6 now sits across from Fiesta Square) The Rink (on U.S. 62 West, near Farmington) as well as Barnhill Arena. But he got his most enjoyment helping the musicians from this area develop, and he watched many go on to have successful careers playing, writing and recording music.

Stratton was gifted with an ability to spot budding talent, and he recognized the necessity for the younger entertainers to study the successes of their mentors before striking out on their own.
One of Stratton’s favorite sayings preached to young musicians was, ‘You gotta learn to imitate before you can originate.’ Stratton and his wife Lois served as center of gravity for area musicians, and their son Randy Stratton through his successful efforts carries that tradition forward to this day.

Tommy McClelland and The Emcees
Probably one of the first local talents to perform his craft was a young trumpet player and vocalist named Tommy McClelland. He performed first in a band known as the Dixieland Rebels. They started in 1952 when McClelland was 14. By the late ‘50s the group had gone through many changes involving McClelland and his brothers Leon, on piano and Mel on drums. They eventually became know as the McClelland Combo and later as simply the Emcees.

The lineup of the McClelland Combo and Emcees in 1958 was: Leon, Mel and Tommy McClelland, Chalky Dearien, guitar; Troy Brand, sax; and Ken Clark, bass. Dearien, Brand and Clark were part of a somewhat inseparable unit, actually playing together both before and after their stint with the McClelland group.

In 1959 the group recorded and released a single titled ‘Suddenly,’ then later in the year Dearien, Brand and Clark moved on to other interests, and new blood was added to the group. Jerry Yount took over on guitar and Dennis Frederick on bass.

Yount, a second cousin to the McClelland brothers, had been living in Tulsa, but his family returned to Arkansas in time for him to fill the guitar position. Since the group also needed a bass player, Yount tutored friend and former bandmate Frederick enabling Frederick to switch from rhythm guitar to bass. The new lineup was born.

The group drew crowds into Stratton’s Shamrock Club and later his Rockwood Club. Stratton later sold the Shamrock to Harry Mhoon, and it became known as Mhoon’s 71 Club. The band also played at Shadow Lake in Noel, Mo.

In 1960 the group moved their operation to Tulsa. Around that time, they recorded and released another single, “Wine, Wine, Wine” on Cimarron Records. In July of 1960 the band toured Canada. This was the beginning of a business relationship with Hamilton, Ontario talent agent Harold Kudlets. This relationship resulted in bookings in Canada and New York, and later to Hollywood, Las Vegas and Hawaii.

Around 1962 Mel McClelland left the Emcees. He returned to Fayetteville and started his own band, Scottie and The Clansmen. McClelland served as the drummer and leader with Gene Scott on vocals, Fred Stuckey on piano, Eugene Lancaster on bass and Dave Coleman and Bill Wright sharing guitar duty. Coleman had previously performed with Lloyd Marley and Wright came over from a band called the Dukes.

Over the years the Emcees evolved and a number of excellent musicians played in the group including drummers Bill Carter, Dwayne English and Ron Kissick, sax players Fred Lawrence, Gary Bien and Maxie Gundlach, bassists Orville Clift and John D. Levan and keyboardist Daryl Price.

Levan with his singing, songwriting and guitar playing ability later became an area icon, even though he is originally from Tulsa. He still plays around this area today with a handpicked group that includes talented pioneers Dave Coleman on guitar and Lonnie Watson on bass.
In the mid ‘60s, the Emcees returned to Fayetteville and began doing gigs as a house band – first at a venue known as the Red Lion Club, then at the Gaslite Club.

Tommy McClelland later partnered with Dick Pool in a venture that included the Gaslite Club and Library Club. The arrangement worked out that the Gaslite, located in the Mountain Inn hotel, would be McClelland’s and the Library, on Dickson Street, would be Pool’s. The Library, as a result of Pool’s effort became the first regular live entertainment venue on Dickson Street. Following close behind was the Library’s next-door neighbor The Swingin’ Door. Georges occasionally featured some live music during this period.

McClelland ran the Gaslite for several years before selling it and moving out of state to tend to other interests in the hotel, restaurant and nightclub business. He eventually returned to Northwest Arkansas and can still be seen and heard at area venues from time to time performing his unmistakable vocal style.

Connections Involving Northwest Arkansas, the Delta and Canada
There was sort of a “musical love triangle” between musicians of Northwest Arkansas, musicians of the Eastern Arkansas Delta and talent agent Harold Kudlets from the Canadian province of Ontario.  This was a result of ties between a famous rock star that grew up in Helena, Conway Twitty—who began touring Canada using his given name, Harold Jenkins—and other musicians from the Delta as well as musicians from Northwest Arkansas.

Jimmy Ray “Luke” Paulman played guitar for Twitty and later with Ronnie Hawkins. Somehow, possibly due to Kudlets’ observations of the gold mine of musical entertainers from the South, an entertainment pipeline was opened from Arkansas to Canada. It was most likely the entry of John Tolleson and Ronnie Hawkins that brought Fayetteville and Northwest Arkansas into the loop. Hawkins literally became a legend in Canada. In addition to the Emcees, Tolleson and Hawkins, other groups that made it to Canada through this connection included the Trebles, Bill Lafferty and the Jokers and the Delrays.

John Tolleson
In 1954 Fayetteville became home base for an area icon that may be the most distinguished of the rock pioneers of Northwest Arkansas. Almost anybody that does a little bit of research into local rock history will recognize the name of John Tolleson.

Tolleson spoke about his early musical background and the events that led to his stint in the Bob Donathan Orchestra in the fall of 1955 continuing through 1956.

“Greenwood is my hometown,” Tolleson said. “I came to Fayetteville in the fall of 1954 as a 17-year-old freshman at the university. I grew up playing classical music on the piano and played trombone in the band when Greenwood finally started one my senior year.

“I always liked entertaining people. As the popularity of rock and roll grew and that of the dance band music of the previous era seemed to vanish overnight, I sang quite a few rock and roll “novelty” numbers with Donathan all through 1956.

“I started my own group in February 1957. It was a rock and roll band without question and my musician friends thought I had lost my mind. They all were musical snobs and hated rock and roll, even the ones playing in my band! What I liked most about being in a rock and roll band was the fresh, energetic sound and the great fun it brought to the dancing crowd.”

In a humble manner, Tolleson expressed how fortunate he felt to have the opportunity to cover so much ground in his eight years leading a rock and roll band – especially since he didn’t feel like he and his band had much of a recording career. They played primarily college dances and later on played clubs as filler gigs playing in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri, Kansas, New Jersey and Ontario, Canada.

“We went to Canada in the summers of 1958 and 1959,” Tolleson said. “Conway Twitty had arranged it for our group and for Ronnie Hawkins. We followed Conway at The Brass Rail in London, Ontario. Ronnie followed us two or three weeks later. He stayed and went on to become a great musical hero in Canada.”

Tolleson listed his early influences as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino and Carl Perkins. He maintains that he still loves their music today.

Tolleson’s original rock and roll band – simply called John Tolleson and His Bunch—was Tolleson on piano and vocals; Bob Donathan (Tolleson’s former bandleader and boss) on tenor sax; Teddy Souter on lead guitar; Bill Rath on rhythm guitar; and Bud Jones on drums.

“Membership in the band changed quite a bit in 1957, 1958 and early 1959,” Tolleson said. “I’d be hard pressed to name everyone, but we had some excellent players, especially in the groups I took to Canada in the summers of 1958 and 1959.”

Tolleson named quite a who’s who list of musicians who played with his group in its early years including drummers Johnny Sallis, Jack Nance and Tommy Markham. Nance and Markham both played in Twitty’s bands.

Another excellent musician in Tolleson’s band during the summer Canada tours was guitarist Larry Morton, who continued a successful musical career with Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass.

In the fall of 1959, Tolleson returned to further his education at the UA, and continued with his ever-popular band based out of Fayetteville. The lineup at that time included Tolleson, Charles Conine on drums, Chalky Dearien on guitar and Troy Brand on sax and tambourine.

In late 1960 Ken Clark joined the group playing bass guitar.  Once again Dearien, Brand and Clark were together in the same band.

In 1961, Mike Davis replaced Conine on drums, and in late 1963 or early 1964 Richard Gibson joined, playing additional keyboards. The addition of Gibson and his coverage of both the organ parts and bass pedal enabled the rest of the band to switch off on other instruments, with Tolleson and Dearien on trombones and Clark on trumpet. This provided a variety to the overall sound for which Tolleson has fond memories.

Tolleson said that Gibson provided great acoustic guitar and vocal parts and would sometimes team up with Clark and Dearien for an acoustic set of folk music.

Tolleson answered a question about his signature songs.

“Over the eight years, one would have to be ‘Black and Blue,’ the old Fats Waller song we did with a rock flavor. From 1959 on, undoubtedly it was ‘Tennessee Stud,’ a country folk song written by Jimmy Driftwood.”

Tolleson retired from rock and roll when he finished his education at the University of Arkansas and became an executive for Baldwin Piano Corporation.

“Our final performance was in May 1965, at the senior prom for Northwest Classen High School in Oklahoma City,” Tolleson said. “When I gave up the band in 1965 to continue a career in the corporate world, I figured the move to Cincinnati was a good way to avoid the rock and roll “stigma.”

“When I returned to Northwest Arkansas in 1998, I was quite surprised when people expressed fond memories of our group and the time period it represented. The name recognition has been nice and not a stigma to be overcome. By the way, the Cate Brothers were just coming along when we quit. Obviously, they were and are great and have been very influential. I never got to hear them until 1995.”

Ronnie Hawkins, The Hawks, The Band and Levon Helm
One cannot mention music in Northwest Arkansas without giving recognition to Ronnie Hawkins. Simply known as “The Hawk,” his name is a household word in Canada. Every band that had any intention of performing in Northwest Arkansas in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s was expected to include a healthy dose of songs by The Hawk in their repertoire.

Hawkins came to Fayetteville from nearby Huntsville in “Booger” County and finished high school at Fayetteville High School.

Hawkins’ first band included Harold “Pink” Pinkerton on rhythm guitar, Bobby Keene on lead guitar, Claude Chambers on bass and Herman Tuck on drums – can anyone say Herman’s Ribhouse?

Hawkins started hanging out in Memphis and rubbing elbows with the “talented and famous” at Sun Studios. This led to acquaintances with the likes of Conway Twitty and the Helena crowd that included “Luke” Paulman, Levon Helm, Will “Pop” Jones and the eventual formation of the Hawks.

When Hawkins and Helm toured Canada in 1958 they fell in love with Canada at first sight, and in turn Canada fell in love with The Hawks. They stayed, and The Hawks eventually had a lineup that included Hawkins and Helm and at various times Fred Carter Jr., Robbie Robertson, Jimmy Evans, Rebel Payne, Rick Danko, Stan Szelest, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Jerry Penfound.

Of course, Helm, Robertson, Danko, Manuel and Hudson all became pop culture icons as members of The Band. Helm went a step further, adding to his resume an acting career in films such as Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Right Stuff and many others. Today he hosts his popular live show, The Midnight Ramble in Woodstock, N.Y. and has a new album, “Dirt Farmer.” Helm survived a bout with throat cancer and has regained his fantastic vocal ability and continues as drummer extraordinaire.

Next Week: Part Two of Rock Pioneers with stories about the Cate Brothers, Jerry Hayes, The Trebles and The Jokers.

Bill Wright, the author of this story was on the scene as a rock and roll rookie in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. He refers to his own role in rock history in the story.

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