In 1956, we continued to play gigs on weekends at our local club The Casa Del and also a few college gigs. The turning point in my life came in 1957 as the The Poe Kats were gaining more and more popularity. A television station in Pittsburg, Kansas asked us to appear on an afternoon show. I asked for the day off, but I was told if I did the TV show I would be fired. Being naive - and with a wife and two young children - I elected to do the show to expose my band, and of course I was fired. But as the old adage says, everything happens for the best.
So much for job security. I learned at age 24 that if you don't own the business, you can be fired at anytime. I swore to my wife, Ora Mae, that I would never work for anyone again. In the past 50 years I have held to that. Here I was broke with no job and a wife and young family. The only income was from weekend gigs with my band. We were so broke that our milkman felt sorry for my kids and gave us milk daily. I sold my last two valuable possessions - a Bulova watch and a cat's eye ring - for a ham and a loaf of bread.
During these early days, my naivety surfaced again when, being desperate for money, I wrote a song for Elvis and sent it to his producer, Chet Atkins (pictured here) of RCA Records in Nashville. Trying to force Mr. Atkins to react quickly, I proceeded to tell him to let me know immediately if he liked my song, as I had other "irons in the fire". My excitement over getting a response faded pretty quickly when Chet replied "take your irons out of the fire and insert your song". I was getting a rude awakening to the ups and downs of show business. Along those lines, my father, Nelson Poe, was a fine Country singer who was often heard on the radio in the Midwest, but never got his big break. He told me as I was starting out - and I quote - "Son, if someone in show business can get up one rung on the ladder by climbing over your back, they will do so." That quote has always stuck with me and over the years I found it to be prophetic.
Just as I was ready to give up the music business and look for another job, the phone rang and it was Jim Halsey (pictured here), who was the Manager, Agent and Promoter of Country Music Hall of Famer Hank Thompson. He asked if I would come to see him. His office was fifteen miles away in Independence, Kansas. I rushed to see him hoping he would sign my band, but he had different ideas. He said he had signed a seventeen year old female singer that he was going to make the Queen of Rockabilly Music and he needed a great Rockabilly Band to back her up. Being broke, I took the job of my band backing the Queen of Rockabilly, Ms. Wanda Jackson. We worked with Ms. Jackson in 1957 and 1958, traveling all over the United States. Jim Halsey later became the Manager of the Oak Ridge Boys, which he has been for over 25 years. Shown here to the right of Jim Halsey is a picture from that time of Wanda and Bobby Poe and The Poe Kats at a gig with Danny and The Juniors.
When I hired African-American singer Big Al Downing, it never entered into my mind about the Jim Crow laws of the time, but I was soon to find out. On September 4th, 1957, Governor Orville Faubus of Arkansas called out The Arkansas National Guard to prevent nine African-American students from attending Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. They became known as "The Little Rock Nine". That night Bobby Poe and The Poe Kats had a gig at The University of Arkansas. Integrated bands were not the norm, to say the least, in 1957. What could have been a recipe for disaster turned into a tribute to the human spirit. We played the gig. The crowd of college kids swarmed around African-American piano player Big Al Downing with extreme excitement when Big Al played the Fats Domino and Little Richard numbers we always performed. The only unpleasant reminder of segregation that evening was that Big Al couldn't leave the stage to go to the bathroom because the toilets were "Whites Only". It would take almost the rest of the month before President Dwight Eisenhower intervened and "The Little Rock Nine" were allowed into the school.
In those days The Poe Kats took a sort of fiendish delight in circumventing the segregation laws of the day. To get Big Al in motels on the road, one band member would distract the desk clerk while Big Al quickly carried some equipment with a blanket over his head towards the room. It's a wonder we weren't lynched at some point.
On the road, me being a pretty boy and having an Black piano player, it was potentially a dangerous situation at every gig we played. Anywhere we traveled in the U.S. either me or Al would always be the target, especially in night clubs of tough drunks. Every once in a while, chairs, bottles and fists would start flying. I had always tried to nip this problem in the bud by approaching the meanest guys in the crowd and buying them a round of drinks, which worked most of the time. I suppose it was similar thinking ten years later that led Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones to use The Hell's Angels as their protectors at concerts in England and the United States...