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Gordy carved niche on piano

by Ninfa O. Barnard Special to The Commercial | March 6, 2023 at 4:12 a.m.
John Thomas "Poppa John" Gordy is shown with the keyboard of a vintage upright Challen piano in these undated file photos. (Left, Central Arkansas Library System Encyclopedia of Arkansas courtesy photo; right, AP/Alastair Grant)

Poppa John Gordy was a popular Dixieland jazz leader who recorded with Chet Atkins and even opened for Elvis Presley in Tupelo, Miss.

John Thomas Gordy was born Oct. 20 1904, in Pine Bluff to Thomas Lucian Gordy and Lillian Eleanor Mulvey. Raised in Pine Bluff, Gordy demonstrated an early fascination with the piano, playing ragtime and New Orleans' style jazz.

During his 20s, he followed a traditional jazz band around the country. He befriended many piano players and sometimes even got the chance to play piano with jazz bands. On Feb. 2, 1928, he married Margaret Ruth Poe in Garland, Ark. Their son John Thomas Gordy Jr. would later play professional football for the Detroit Lions from 1957 to 1967.

By the mid 1930s to 1940s, Gordy had developed into an exceptional rhythm player for jazz and country bands. He played at a variety of venues from hotels to high school dances. He even played on a few recordings, though he didn't receive credit for them.

In 1946, Jim Bulleit founded Bullet Records in Nashville, Tenn., and Gordy joined him as a session pianist. As a session pianist he played with artists like the duo Homer and Jethro (Henry D. "Homer" Haynes and Kenneth C. "Jethro" Burns) and Atkins, who would go on to become famous country singers. He also played piano for the Atkins shows.

In the latter half of 1948, Gordy became known as "Poppa" John. His signature Salty Dog Rag style was soon covered by many country artists. Gordy's style bridged the gap between the down-home Nashville style and the more sophisticated near-jazz arrangements of Lou Busch.

In 1954 or 1955, he migrated to RCA Records at the urging of Atkins. On Aug. 1, 1955, he was one of the opening acts at the Mississippi Alabama Fairgrounds in Tupelo, Miss., as Presley returned as a 21-year-old star to establish the reunion concerts at his birthplace.

In 1955, Gordy recorded an LP that integrated songs from his previous recordings. In 1957, he recorded a second LP. On Feb. 5 1961, he died in Nashville, Tenn., at the age of 56. His final record compilation was released after his death in 1961.

This article is among features at, a program of the Pine Bluff Advertising and Promotion Commission. Sources: -- John Gordy; -- John Thomas "Poppa John" Gordy; -- The first Tupelo Elvis show was Aug. 1, 1955.

Ninfa O. Barnard wrote this article for

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