When Cotton was King: The Cotton Club Re-visited

On a lonesome highway, across from miles of railroad track, in an empty field, mid-way between two rival cities; The Cotton Club came to be.

On any given Saturday night, guitar strings and drum beats led the crowd as boots, heels, sneakers, loafers, and even the occasional bare feet, shuffled across the Texas sized dance floor to a new sound invading the great West Texas Plains.

The sounds of train whistles were lost to the beat. Even the coyotes had a hard time not singing along to the clashing rhythms that formed a cadence new and novel to young people’s ears.

October 15, 1955: Elvis performs at The Cotton Club two months before becoming an international sensation. Photo I.G. Holmes

On a moonless night, October 15, 1955, under bright stars crowds of West Texans came to the Cotton Club to hear the fresh soulful voice of a young man named Elvis Presley.

They listened and watched in amazement shortly before rising and taking to the dance floor to liberate their uncontrolled excitement.

It was difficult not to be in high spirits.

It was difficult not to become overcome with complete elation.

Six months prior to that electrifying night, and six miles south of the Cotton Club, in Slaton, children of the community lined up to take a dip in the new city pool.

City Pool

“Beginning Friday, May 6, the municipal swimming pool in the County Park will be open,” The Slatonite reported in a 1955 article. In that same issue of The Slatonite managers of the pool called for all, “Bathing Beauties,” to take part in a beauty contest to be held later that summer.

“The contest is to be held at the local swimming pool Saturday June 4th at 6:00 pm,” The Slatonite reported. More than fifteen young girls arrived to take part in the, “Bathing Beauty Contest,” and the winner was a young woman named Joan Pember.

High School

As the hot Slaton summer made way to a new school year, The Slatonite reported that when the high school students were to begin class again it would be in a brand new facility.

In September of 1955 students of Slaton High School entered the brand new building that still stands today at 105 North 20th Street.

“There were 275 happy youngsters enrolling in Slaton High School,” The Slatonite reported in September of 1955. “The classrooms, unlike many in older schools, are tastefully painted with colors that both compliment the building and are easy on the eyes.”

Engine 1809

The next month, after school bells rang for the first time in a new building, school was released early so all of the people of Slaton could watch as Engine 1809 made its last trip.

“When the Slaton High School Band strikes up the strains of ‘The Atchison Topeka and The Santa Fe,’ the city of Slaton will be well on the way to becoming the new owners of a steam locomotive,” The Slatonite reported on September 15, 1955.

The engine, which was to be parked in the railroad park that sat next to the Harvey House on the north end of town, was to serve as a historical marker for the city of Slaton according to The Slatonite. On the day the engine was dedicated to the city, thousands watched as city officials spoke of the town that the Santa Fe Railroad Built.

Today, the engine remains a permanent fixture on the Slaton Town Square.

Mysterious Murder

The applause eventually faded and the people of the town went their separate ways and on the night of October 7, 1955, as a twenty-two year old Lubbock man made his way out of a café in Slaton, one single gun shot shattered the night sky, striking the young man in the chest. M.B. Smith’s life ended outside of a café on the south side of town.

To this day, the motives of the crime remain a mystery but a gun was found exactly one week later in a canyon on the north end of town, four miles away from The Cotton Club.

“A pistol was found buried near the canyon,” The Slatonite reported, “according to the Slaton police, they were able to connect the pistol with its owner.”

Slaton resident Albert Artison was charged with the crime.

In that same canyon, in January of 1956, plans began for a new park to be built. The park would be named Buffalo Lake Recreational Park and for many years, and continuing today, it welcomed thousands of visitors and established a thriving community of its own.

However, in the midst of the cotton fields between Slaton and Lubbock, six miles away from either city, people came together to listen to a new type of song influenced by the rhythm and blues sound of African-American music.

Live Music Venue

The Cotton Club, a building believed to be the only live music venue between Los Angeles and Dallas at the time, entertained thousands of people who snuck off into the night for a bit of wicked debauchery and sinful singing from the new and fresh faced talents of Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings, Mac Davis, Elvis Presley and even  Johnny Cash.

A new sound, infusing rock and roll with country western music, formed in The Cotton Club. The locals simply referred to it as rock’abilly and many famous musicians emerged from the clashing genre.

A few months after the October 15, 1955 concert headlining Elvis Presley, Presley became a sensation.

In 1956, alone, Presley had six songs reach the number one spot on the Popular Music Sales Chart which included Heart Break Hotel, Don’t be Cruel, and Hound Dog.

A young man, who was known to the crowd as radio host, Buddy, watched from the crowd in adulation and, in two years, 1957; he too would reach the number one song on the charts with the song That’ll be the Day.

Local legend claims that a variety of artists signed a wall at The Cotton Club. Some of the names rumored to be on the wall are Buddy Holly, Willie Nelson, Little Richard, and even Johnny Cash. According to current building owner, Wayne Koontz, the wall still exists but is hidden from public view.

The building, famous for its rough and tumble, rowdy crowds, sits on the highway connecting Slaton and Lubbock and blends into the lonesome fields. It was that same building that Train Engine 1809 passed when it traveled alongside the highway and made its way into Slaton to become a shrine for the community. The day when students were released from their new school early so they could sing the praises of a town’s past and celebrate its future when the engine was dedicated to the town.

On the outskirts of town history had almost been lost on a few occasions as The Cotton Club owners sometimes contemplated its demise.

However in 1955, The Cotton Club reigned and a musical future emerged from that remote field in that remote building and for the people hypnotized by the sound; stillness was impossible – dancing was essential.

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About slatontx

The ramblings of one of the few remaining small town newspaper reporters left in the world!
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One Response to When Cotton was King: The Cotton Club Re-visited

  1. Jean Edwards says:

    A couple of my unmarried aunts frequented the old Cotton Club. It was a family scandal.

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