- Associated Press - Sunday, October 2, 2016

NEWPORT, Ark. (AP) - Before he displayed a piano that was once used in a honky-tonk frequented by the likes of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sonny Burgess and other “rockabilly” performers at his Rock ‘n’ Roll Highway 67 Museum, Henry Boyce had to be sure the instrument was authentic.

After all, Boyce is the 3rd Judicial Circuit prosecuting attorney and has prosecuted cases in Jackson, Lawrence and Sharp counties for the past 14 years.

So using his professional skills, he began to investigate. He compared a photograph of the upright piano when it sat in Porky’s Rooftop Club in Newport with the piano he now has in the lobby of the Newport Area Chamber of Commerce building, according to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette (https://bit.ly/2dGrHNK ).

Boyce used a magnifying glass to scrutinize the ornate designs on the piano legs and matched them with the photograph. He noticed the keyboard’s unique covering and the utilitarian bench that came with the instrument.

Then, he found a performer who played at the club in the 1950s and who remembered the piano.

Burgess, who still plays music, signed a sworn affidavit for Boyce confirming that the 1907 Knight-Brinkerhoff piano is the one that was at Porky’s Rooftop when Presley performed there March 2, 1955.

“We don’t know for sure if Elvis used it that night,” said Boyce, who began his rock ‘n’ roll museum in 2009. “But if he did play piano any of his songs then, this is the one he did it on.”

The piano was part of the music scene that began along U.S. 67 in the early 1950s.

Performers such as Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Billy Lee Riley played in joints along the highway from Newport to Pocahontas, plying their trade in a musical style that has been replicated by musicians over decades.

Robert Plant, for example, has said he copied the “rockabilly” style in some of his songs with the band Led Zeppelin, and Bob Dylan credited Riley as an influence for his music.

Most of the joints in those days were rowdy. A piano player in a roadhouse in Trumann was once shot at by a patron who didn’t like the songs the musician played. Fights often broke out at a lot of the clubs, fueled by the raucous music and ready flow of alcohol.

Hershel “Porky” Sellers, who died in 1998, opened a barbecue restaurant along U.S. 67 next to KNBY-AM, a Newport radio station, in the early 1950s. He named it Porky’s Rooftop Club and let musicians play atop the one-story building. Fearing that someone could fall off, he soon installed wooden railings.

Later, Sellers enclosed the area and put a roof on it, creating a second floor and thus protecting performers from inclement weather.

On March 2, 1955, Presley performed there after playing a show earlier that day at the armory at Arkansas State College in Jonesboro.

It was less than a year after Presley had released “That’s All Right (Mama),” which propelled him to the top of the charts and made him a popular performer nationwide. Dozens crowded into Porky’s to hear him sing, Boyce said.

As the show concluded, Sellers gave Presley some sage advice about his onstage gyrations, Boyce said.

“He told Elvis, ‘Son, you’ve got a great voice, but if you want to make it in the music business, you better clean up your act,’” Boyce said.

Eventually, Porky’s, like many of the other clubs along U.S. 67 — the Silver Moon in Newport, the King of Clubs in Swifton and the Skylark Drive-In in Pocahontas — closed. An auto parts store now sits where Porky’s once was.

Porky’s upright Knight-Brinkerhoff piano ended up with a Newport church organist and business owner, said Charlotte Plegge, a member of the Jackson County Historical Society.

For years, Wilma Evans displayed the piano at The Gizmo, a Newport gift shop, before selling it to a physician. Nicole Lawson-Rounds kept the piano in her home with the intention of her daughter learning to play it. But tuning the piano and refurbishing it was costly, and the daughter lost interest, Plegge said.

Lawson-Rounds donated the piano to the historical society about five years ago, Plegge said. It was stored in a building with county records and artifacts until Boyce obtained it for display earlier this month.

“We thought that this was the perfect opportunity to display the piano at the museum and reunite it with its friends from that era,” Plegge said.

The piano display is set up in conjunction with the Depot Days Festival in downtown Newport.

Boyce, who is the chairman of the event, will open his museum. Burgess will dedicate the piano.


Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, https://www.arkansasonline.com

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