American Routes Shortcuts: Narvel Felts

Jun 26, 2020

Narvel Felts
Credit American Routes

Singer and guitarist Narvel Felts had 42 singles on the Country Billboard charts in the 1970s and ‘80s, but his roots are in Rockabilly. As a teenager in the 1950s, he had a radio show in Missouri. Later Narvel navigated the early rock and roll music industry, recording at Sun Records, Mercury, and even at Nashville’s famed RCA Victor Studio B. Born in 1938 near Keiser, Arkansas, Narvel Felts grew up the son of sharecroppers, who later moved to Missouri. Narvel launched his career as a Rockabilly after winning his high school talent show singing Elvis Presley’s “Baby Let’s Play House.”

Narvel Felts: I was sitting home listening to the radio the next day, and they said, “If Narvel Felts is listening please contact KDEX immediately.” And so I ran outside and told Daddy what they had said, and it was still cold, wintertime early in 1956. He had the water drained out of his truck, so he primed the hand pump in the yard and got some water and climbed up under his green ‘46 International truck. He put water in the radiator and drove me the eight miles out the gravel road to Bernie to the nearest phone. I called the station, and they said, “Bring your guitar and come on up!”

Nick Spitzer: What a good dad to help you out, I think he was your first producer.

NF: I guess he was!

NS: What were the clubs like that you played? I mean, were these rough and tumble, respectable? What was the mix that you had in these places?

NF: Well sometimes it was rough and tumble; it wasn’t a surprise to see a fight break out in a club, but those were the places that were available for us to play back then. When we went over to Cairo, Illinois, it was at the end of its era, but at that time it was the show place between Memphis and St. Louis. First of all there would be a man and a woman, her playing organ and him playing cocktail drums, playing dinner music. And then a comedian came on with spotlight on him and he had a tuxedo and bowtie and tap danced out on the dance floor and then told some jokes and then introduced us. And then they brought on the strippers!

NS: Oh my!

NS: Set the scene of getting to Sun Records in Memphis. Who was around in the studio when you were recording?

NF: Roy Orbison was responsible for me getting to come down and record for Sun. We did a package show together at Dexter, Missouri on top of the concession stand at the drive-in theater. I had a manager at the time named Kelvin Richardson, and he told me a day or two later, “Orbison is gonna help me get an appointment for you at Sun.” Sure enough, that happened.

NS: Now I want to point out to people that you live now in Malden, Missouri. You live on Narvel Felts Avenue. That’s kind of amazing to have your own avenue.

NF: They named that after me back in 1976, and then the Missouri House of Representatives and the Missouri Senate and the governor changed the name of Business Highway 25 through Malden to Narvel Felts Highway.

NS: Now that is an American Routes story if I ever heard it. That’s incredible.

NF: It is, and something I certainly never expected, and what an honor it is.

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.