Standing on the stage at Shreveport’s legendary Municipal Auditorium, Winston Hall, a musician and tour guide with a passion for the city’s music legacy, pointed to a spot on the floor, right up front in the center. The auditorium was empty this afternoon last February, but the imagination quickly filled the seats as though it was Saturday night of yesteryear as radio station KWKH staged its weekly Louisiana Hayride broadcast.
Last week, I wrote about Ken Burns’ ongoing country music series and Louisiana’s influence on Hank Williams. The documentary also brought to mind my visit to the Shreveport auditorium and an incredible story about how the town and technology reshaped rock and roll.
Standing on stage at the spot where the performers stood, Hall played a soundtrack from Oct. 16, 1954 when the announcer introduced a young man from Mississippi named Elvis Presley. After telling the crowd that he was proud to be there, Presley launched into a song called “That’s Alright Momma.” And then, from there on that spot on the stage, the music world changed. Really.
Because the concert was being broadcast on radio, microphones had been set up throughout the audience section. As Presley began to sing, the sound technician quickly noticed that something different was happening. Teenagers, who had been dragged along by their parents to hear a country music show, suddenly seemed possessed. Turning the sound pods the technician blended the screaming, unlike anything ever heard, into the song. Through the woods and hills of north central Louisiana and into Arkansas and east Texas the airwaves were raucous, as though sending a message that a king was born.
Only two year earlier, also in October, young Hank Williams had stood on that same spot. Nobody reached hearts (whether they were, “Cheating” or “Cold, Cold”) better than him. In Louisiana his hit, “Jambalaya” would become as hot as a crawfish pie. On that October night it was announced that Williams had just been given a contract (thought modest) to regularly appear on the Hayride. It might have been a long and blissful life together except that Williams’ life ended on Jan. 1, 1953.
Presley’s and Williams’ careers never crossed, though both were boosted by Saturday nights standing at that spot on the Louisiana Hayride’s stage. The radio technicians were turning up the sound, and the music would become eternal.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 p.m., REPEATED AT 11:30 p.m..WYES-TV, CH. 12.