I pulled in and parked my car outside the convenience store that used to stand in the “Y” that split between U.S. Highway 270 and State Highway 31 in Krebs.
Long before I became a journalist, I planned to make a quick stop, dart inside and pick up a cold beverage before heading toward Hartshorne that night.
As I stepped inside, a few people bustled about, as they often do at convenience stores — almost everyone seemingly intent on grabbing a Coke or a candy bar, paying for a few dollars worth of gas or whatever self-appointed task they were on before climbing in their vehicles and continuing on their respective ways.
I said almost everyone because one big guy — a really big guy — lingered a moment in the back where assorted six packs were kept refrigerated behind a couple of matching glass doors.
Although he wasn’t facing me, something about him looked really familiar. He seemed like someone I knew — but out of context. I thought ‘I know that guy from someplace,’ but couldn’t quite pinpoint where.
He wore a loud Hawaiian shirt and a pair of knee-length Bermuda shorts — something none of my friends would have been wearing (well, maybe the Hawaiian shirt, but not the Bermuda shorts).
Still, I felt reasonably sure I knew him, but he’d been dressed differently the last time I saw him. He was a giant of a man, not the type of guy who’s easily forgotten. He seemed to exude a certain presence, like he’d seen and heard a lot.
As I walked up to get a cold can of pop from behind those glass doors he turned around — and as soon as he spotted me, he said hello. Of course! It was Big Joe Lewis.
That name may not be instantly recognizable to everyone, except a certain type of country music aficionado. I might not have known it myself, but I’d already met him a number of times.
Part of me wanted to stop some of those people scurrying about, taking care of their small purchases, and say “Don’t you know who this is? We have an honored guest in Krebs tonight! This is not just another dude in Bermuda shorts. This is Big Joe Lewis, a longtime member of the Twitty Birds and bass player for none other than Conway Twitty! Show him some respect!’”
But I didn’t say any of that. I just said “Hey, Joe.”
Lewis was more than a bass player for Twitty, who would rack up 40 number one hits in his career — almost all of them on the country charts. Lewis was more of boon companion. He’d started out playing for Twitty — whose real name was Harold Jenkins — way back in the 1950s. He didn’t play bass then either. He played lead. He may have walked softly but he carried a big Gretsch guitar, long before a Liverpool lad named George Harrison would play one with The Beatles.
Joe Lewis had joined Twitty’s band in 1957 and had been a member of the group known as The Rock Housers at the time then-rock ‘n’ roller Twitty scored his first number one hit as an Elvis Presley soundalike on “It’s Only Make Believe.” The 40 country hits — such as “Hello Darlin’ “ and “Linda On My Mind” — would come later when Twitty turned in his rock ‘n’ roll shoes for a pair of cowboy boots.
Still, I knew why something seemed a little off when I saw the Hawaiian shirt-Bermuda shorts version of Lewis inside the convenience store in Krebs that night. The last time I’d seem him he’d been performing in concert, dressed in the dapper stage clothes that all the Twitty Birds wore. If he’d been dressed that way this time, who knows? Others may have recognized him as well.
I asked him what the heck he was doing in Krebs that night, since Conway wasn’t playing anywhere in the area. He told me he was driving between Oklahoma City and Nashville. I don’t remember if he was coming or going, but I guess he’d decided to take the scenic route and was picking up a six pack.
As he pulled it from the shelf, he handed me a cold one. I figured it would be impolite to say “No thanks,” so I just said “Thanks.”
I knew Lewis because my mom and her friend, Margaret, were friends of Conway and the Twitty Birds. I’d seen them play a number of times. My mother, Stella, was a writer for the McAlester Democrat and had been involved as a go-between when Twitty was made an honorary chief of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma during a special ceremony held at Jones Academy, near Hartshorne.
Some people you just hit it off with, and Lewis was an outgoing type of guy, far different from Conway, who was reserved when not onstage.
As I drove home that night, I thought about how strange it is that someone who had played on stages all across the U.S., Canada and Europe, as well as countless television appearances, could stop at a convenience store in Krebs and go unnoticed as just another customer.
While I personally liked Big Joe, I have to confess Conway’s recordings were not my music of choice in those days. I was deeply into the music of The Band at the time (and I still am today). While Conway and the Twitty Birds were racking up the hits on the country charts, I was into The Band’s earthy sounds.
Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson were the creating music that’s credited with being the forerunner of the genre known today as Americana. Ironically, Helm, who was from Arkansas, was the only member of The Band from the United States. Robertson, Danko, Manuel and Hudson were all from Canada.
A few years after the Krebs encounter, we got word that Big Joe Lewis had been killed in a motorcycle accident, supposedly because some heavy equipment had been left parked at night on a road near Nashville. I wished I’d talked him more about his years on the road with Conway.
It wasn’t until years later when I was reading Helm’s autobiography, “This Wheel’s On Fire,” that I learned that The Band might never have existed if it hadn’t been for Conway and Big Joe. Seemed they advised a southern rockabilly singer named Ronnie Hawkins to go to Canada way back then, after rockabilly stayed to fade in the U.S., but was still wildly popular in Canadian environs.
Hawkins took Conway and Big Joe’s advice and he took his band of southern musicians with him to the frozen north. They all got homesick, and one by one, returned home to Arkansas. All except for Hawkins’ drummer, Levon Helm.
Hawkins replaced the departed good ol’ boys with some young Canadians — named Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson.
Thanks Big Joe, not only for that cold beverage, but for helping get The Band together and changing the course of American music.
Contact James Beaty at firstname.lastname@example.org