Joseph Dewitt “Sonny” Deckelman (1933–2016)

Joseph Dewitt “Sonny” Deckelman was a musician, songwriter, and record label owner active in the Memphis, Tennessee, and northeastern Arkansas rockabilly scene in the late 1950s and 1960s. While his artistic output was modest, his recordings were well received and have maintained a small but enthusiastic following. He is a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

Sonny Deckelman was born in Harrisburg (Poinsett County) on September 1, 1933. He was the son of Joe V. Deckelman and Nell Ellzey Deckelman, both natives of Arkansas. His father was a farmer and mechanic, and his mother was a housewife. Deckelman came from a poor family; the census of 1940 shows his father earning no income. He was the youngest of four children and the only male child; he also had a much older half brother and a half sister. Deckelman’s parents were musical—his father played juice (or Jew’s) harp and the harmonica, and his mother sang. His second cousin was fellow rockabilly artist Bud Deckelman, who was also from Harrisburg.

On December 11, 1950, at seventeen years old, Deckelman joined the U.S. Air Force. He was so homesick during his first year in service in Virginia that his father traveled to be near him. In France, where he was stationed for three years, he began singing and playing music. He returned to the United States in 1954 and moved to Memphis. Deckelman played the drums and the guitar, performing at well-known venues in northeastern Arkansas such as the King of Clubs, Porky’s Roof Top Club, and the Silver Moon.

He moved to California in 1958 but did not stay there long. He returned to Memphis, where he began playing in a band called the Bop Kings. He also began recording, though he was never signed to a label and his output was limited to various singles. In 1959, he released “I’ve Got Love,” which he recorded at Stan Kessler’s studio in Memphis, backed by his band, the Blue Notes. The song was written by Deckelman and released on his own label, Van Deck.

Other songs by Deckelman included “After You’re Gone” (1959), which he wrote and was released on Reka Records; “Born to Lose” (1959); “It’s a Lonely World” (1961), which Billboard called “dirty with a catchy tempo”; and “Lonely Street” (1964). In the 1970s, Deckelman worked as a producer at Monument Studios in Nashville, Tennessee. He continued recording throughout the 1960s in Memphis and appeared on WHBQ Channel 13’s Dance Party program. He became friends with musician and producer Bill Justis, who had worked at Sun Records with Sam Phillips in the 1950s.

Deckelman and his wife, Madge Aldeana Deckelman, had two sons and two daughters. In 2001, Deckelman was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. He spent his final years living and playing rockabilly music in his hometown, where he was a commander at the Harrisburg Veterans of Foreign Wars post. He died on February 7, 2016, at the Woodbriar Nursing Home in Harrisburg.

For additional information:
Pasmore, Victoria Micklish. Stars of the Rock ‘N’ Roll Highway. Little Rock: Plum Street Publishers.

“Sonny Deckelman.” Rockabilly Hall of Fame. http://www.rockabillyhall.com/SonnyDeckelman.html (accessed September 13, 2019).

Colin Edward Woodward
Hampden-Sydney College

Last Updated: 09/23/2019

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