Juke Joint Piano Finds New Home

by Marie Mitchell
Delta Digital News Service

NEWPORT, Ark. — An old photo led to a new key to the past during this year’s Depot Days’ celebration.

More than 50 years ago, along an area of road now known as Rock ‘n’ Roll Highway 67 in Jackson County, a juke joint called Porky’s Barbeque attracted performers and audiences alike. At the time, Porky’s was merely a rooftop with an open air stage.

Henry Boyce of Newport said between 1955 and 1962, people came from Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri and even as far as Chicago to hear the music coming from Porky’s rooftop. He said musicians also clamored to perform at Porky’s and other roadside dives along U.S. Highway 67.

Boyce said several factors made the juke joint special during the “rockabilly” days.

“We were a wet county surrounded by dry ones,” he said. “We also had about 2,000 soldiers in the area with nothing to do with their paychecks.”

These influences — along with several area clubs allowing illegal gambling — created the perfect storm for a large fan base and overnight musician sensations.

“Local law enforcement turned a blind eye, which encouraged high rollers to come in for the poker games as well as the music,” Boyce said.

Herschel

Herschel “Porky” Sellers sits on an amplifier during the ’50s surrounded by his house band, The Playboys. The piano can be seen at left.

Porky’s owner Herschel Sellers provided his guest entertainers with a second-hand “house” piano that sat on the honky-tonk’s flat roof.

“Back then musicians didn’t carry around 4,000-pound pianos,” Boyce said.

Porky’s rooftop held around 100 people, Boyce said, adding that it didn’t stop crowds of people from gathering on the stairs and areas below to dance and listen to the music. “Rockabilly” artists who performed included Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Sonny Burgess, Ace Cannon, Billy Lee Riley … and the King.

“Elvis performed in March of 1955,” Boyce said. Elvis Presley had just released his single, “That’s Alright,” about nine months before.

Eventually, Porky’s built a cover over the rooftop and remained a popular hot spot well into the ’60s. Some years later when Porky’s closed, a local church obtained the piano. Wilma Evans, an organist at the church, managed to acquire the piano to display in her gift shop. When she closed her business five years ago, she sold the piano to a local doctor.

Dr. Nicole Lawson knew the piano had historical value and donated it to the Jackson County Historical Society. Boyce said the historical society put the piano in storage until they could figure out the best way to showcase it.

Rock ‘n Roll Highway 67 runs a little more than 100 miles through Jackson, Lawrence, Randolph, Clay and Miller counties. Its name derived from original “rockabilly” artists that performed in establishments along the route has created many venues and commemorations in its honor, including Depot Days at Newport. Held each September since 1997, the festival features two days of entertainment from local, regional and national musicians.

Boyce said over the years, entertainers and visitors to the festival often share stories and history of the past. Boyce and performer Sonny Burgess decided to preserve that history. So they created a map and pinpointed the areas that contained the venues most popular with artists in the 1955 era.

“We drove up and down searching for memorabilia,” Boyce said. 

Ace Cannon, Henry Boyce and Sonny Burgess stand beside Porky’s piano.

Ace Cannon, Henry Boyce and Sonny Burgess stand beside Porky’s piano during the dedication at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Museum in Newport.

Boyce found an original road sign and a few more items he was able to restore. The sign came from a popular establishment known as the King of Clubs. Owner Bob King had thrown away the sign after the building had burned. A few photos were also salvaged from the burned structure.

“We restored what we could, including the sign,” Boyce said.

Around this time, Boyce decided he needed somewhere to display the memorabilia. The Newport Chamber of Commerce gave him a room in their building to display the items. As the visitor’s list grew, donations from the “rockabilly” days began pouring in from performers and others, Boyce said. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Museum, still housed in the chamber building, has grown and expanded to a much larger area since then.

“We have acquired exhibits from all over,” Boyce said. “We recently acquired a drum kit used by a Memphis band.”

The most recent donation created a lot of interest. After finding an old photo that had Porky’s piano in it, Boyce knew the piano had found its home. A dedication ceremony was held during Depot Days as Porky’s piano now sits in Newport’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Museum.

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