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story.lead_photo.caption Mark Risk talks last week about the old Rockwood Club, a rock ’n’ roll venue Fayetteville in the 1950s and early ’60s. Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks played there. - Photo by J.T. Wampler

FAYETTEVILLE -- A real estate broker has bought the old Rockwood Club, a Fayetteville music venue famous in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Mark Risk wants to return the rock building to its rockabilly roots.

He's thinking of a nightclub and music museum.

"I've been collecting rock'n'roll memorabilia for decades," Risk said. "This place is going to look nice."

Risk has a guitar signed by The Rolling Stones and a 1964 concert poster signed by the Beatles. But he hopes the Rockwood Club will showcase Arkansas musicians and other regional rockers.

So he's looking for photos from Rockwood Club shows, particularly from the late 1940s to mid-1960s.

Jerry Lee Lewis, Wanda Jackson and Roy Orbison played at the Rockwood.

So did Carl Perkins, said Ronnie Hawkins, a Huntsville native who owned the Rockwood Club from 1961 to 1964.

Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks were regulars at the Rockwood. Hawkins was almost as famous for his onstage antics as his singing. He would do back-flips and a "camel walk" (starting in 1948) that he said Michael Jackson imitated decades later, calling it the "moonwalk."

"People tell me I had a great time," said Hawkins, 84, who lives near Toronto.

Hawkins and the Hawks had a minor hit with "Mary Lou," which reached No. 26 on Billboard's Top 40 in 1959.

"Rockabilly was two pay grades below a prisoner of war," Hawkins said. "Nobody liked it but younger people."

But Hawkins likes the idea of a music museum going into the old Rockwood building.

"That would be wonderful," he said.

Risk bought the one-story, 7,820-square-foot building at 380 W. 24th St. on Oct. 30 for $305,000 from Robert C. and Mary J. Eoff, according to Washington County real estate records. The sale included the 2-acre site.

When it was built by George Lenox in 1947, the Rockwood was outside the Fayetteville city limits and just out of reach of city laws that banned dancing and alcohol in the same location, said Sandra Cox Birchfield, an amateur music historian who has been researching the Rockwood Club and assisting Risk.

The Rockwood was a roadhouse just off U.S. 71 south of town on Country Club Road. The property has since been annexed into the city.

"West Memphis had its Plantation Inn. Osceola, the Rebel Club. Newport, the Silver Moon. And Hot Springs with The Vapors. For Fayetteville, it was the Rockwood Club," Birchfield wrote in an abbreviated history of the Rockwood Club.

Risk said he was afraid that if someone else bought the building, it could be destroyed to make way for something else. He didn't want to take the risk.

Back in the 1970s, Risk was a bartender in the building, which at the time housed St. Michael's Disco Alley.

After he decided to buy the Rockwood building, Risk starting reading Testimony, the autobiography of Robbie Robertson, who played lead guitar for The Hawks.

Risk said the first page blew him away.

Robertson was 16 and riding a train from Toronto to Fayetteville to try out for Hawkins' band, which was big in Canada.

"Me and that train were headed to the holy land of rock 'n' roll, to the fountainhead, where the music I loved grew right up out of the ground," Robertson wrote. "The Hawks were a powerhouse band with perfect casting: they looked as authentic as they sounded -- sideburns, slicked-back hair, Memphis cool, one part country gentlemen, three parts southern wild men."

The Rockwood Club may be best known as the place where The Hawks honed their craft.

Besides Robertson, The Hawks included Levon Helm of Marvell and three other Canadians: Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel.

"The Hawks were the most exciting bar band I ever heard in my life, and I've heard a lot of 'em," said Paul Berry, 78, of Little Rock, who worked at the Rockwood Club when he was a student at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

Berry said he tended bar, cleaned up and helped break up fights.

"I got a few knots on my head, we all did, quelling small riots," he said. "It was like being carnival workers. If there was a problem somewhere, we all had to rally."

Berry said music of the era helped break down racial barriers. He said The Czars of Rhythm and other bands with black musicians often played the Rockwood.

The Hawks split from Hawkins in 1964, and he sold the Rockwood Club that same year, according to Birchfield.

Under the new name Levon and The Hawks, the band kept playing the Rockwood for a while.

Berry said the club would close at midnight, and he'd go with The Hawks to eat breakfast. At 1:30 a.m., they would return to the Rockwood and rehearse until daybreak.

"People didn't know how hard they worked," Berry said. "They paid their dues."

Bob Dylan hired The Hawks as his backup band, and they eventually changed their name to The Band.

After backing Dylan for a few years, The Band had a solo career, producing enigmatic and enduring songs like "Chest Fever," with Hudson's majestic organ introduction, and "The Weight," which referred to several Arkansas characters.

Meanwhile, things were in flux at the Rockwood.

It went through several incarnations -- The R&S Club, Frank and Edna's Rockwood Club, The Flaming Arrow, then back again to The Rockwood Club -- before becoming St. Michael's Disco Alley in 1977.

St. Michael's soon boogied out.

The Rockwood was briefly used as a day-care facility before serving as office space for a construction company, wrote Birchfield. Real estate records list it as warehouse space.

Risk has been trying to decide how to restore the Rockwood so that it resembles the old haunt.

Earl Cate said that's going to require some work.

"It's a lot different," he said. "It's got a lot of walls that need to be torn down."

Identical twins Earl and Ernie Cate, 75, grew up in Springdale.

Before they were old enough to get in, the Cate brothers would sit outside the Rockwood and listen to musicians through a window fan that ventilated heat and hollers from behind the stage.

In the early 1960s, they formed a band called The Del-Reys. Later, they were known as the Cate Brothers Band. They had a Billboard-charting song called "Union Man" and appeared on the television shows American Bandstand and The Midnight Special.

Kirby Penick, 78, of Fayetteville, worked at the Rockwood Club when he was in college. He likes the idea of a music venue and museum in the old club building.

"It sounds like a beautiful idea, and, of course, I would love to see that happen," Penick said.

Risk said anybody who has old photographs from the Rockwood Club can call him at (479) 442-0762 or email them to TheRockwoodClub@gmail.com.

Photo by Special to the Democrat-Gazette
This photo of the Rockwood Club was taken around 1961, before Ronnie Hawkins owned the club. At the time, it was called Pic and Beulah’s Rockwood Supper Club, according to an advertisement in an Arkansas Razorback yearbook from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

Metro on 12/09/2018

Print Headline: Rockwood Club due a comeback; new owner envisions nod to old joint’s rockabilly roots in Northwest Arkansas

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