Walter Garnett “Punky” Caldwell (1929–1978)
Walter Garnett “Punky” Caldwell was a musician who caught the attention of some of the best performers of the rockabilly and early rock and roll era, such as Sonny Burgess and Elvis Presley. Caldwell was known for his accomplishments on saxophone and clarinet. Notably, in the late 1950s, Caldwell played in a racially integrated band. Soon after his career took off, he left Arkansas and toured the United States and Asia.
Punky Caldwell was born on October 31, 1929, in Searcy (White County), the son of Arkansas native Charles Eric Caldwell and Kansas native Thelma L. Alexander Caldwell. Caldwell was large from the start (he was more than 300 pounds as an adult), weighing nearly thirteen pounds as a newborn. As a baby, he had jaundice, which, combined with his weight, made him look like a pumpkin. His family nicknamed him “Pumpkin,” which eventually was shortened to “Punky.” The nickname stuck.
After the death of Caldwell’s mother in 1940, his family lived with his grandfather. Caldwell’s father made a living working with typewriters, both as a salesman and a repairman—at one point tinkering with plane parts in the family’s front yard. Caldwell grew up in Searcy, where he attended junior and senior high school and played in the school band.
Caldwell was active in the emerging rock and roll scene in northeastern Arkansas in the 1950s. He played with a variety of musicians, including Sonny Burgess and the Pacers. Burgess was an admirer of Caldwell’s playing, saying that when it came to his performances Caldwell had the audience “turning flips.” Notable for the time, Caldwell also played with African-American musicians. In one photograph from the period, Caldwell is seen playing with white bass player C. L. Coyle as well as black pianist Bishop Horten (also spelled Horton) and black drummer Coot Brown.
On December 9, 1955, Caldwell and the band he was playing with, the Moonlighters, opened for Elvis Presley at the B&I Club in Swifton (Jackson County). Presley offered him a job on the spot. Caldwell apparently turned Presley down because, at the time, he did not want to travel. Eventually, however, Caldwell decided to leave Arkansas for greater opportunities.
In November 1956, Caldwell married Jo Ann Drollinger (1933–2001), a native of Denver, Colorado. They had two daughters: Thelma Ruth born in Denver in 1958, and Sheri Lynn, born in Bismarck, North Dakota, in 1961.
By 1960, Caldwell’s band, the Punky Caldwell Trio, was based in Yakima, Washington. The trio—featuring Caldwell, a drummer, and an organ player—had some success, touring northern cities and Asia. In 1970, Caldwell issued an album, “Punky” ala Clarinet. The liner notes said, “Tripping these days generally refers to getting high on drugs. But Punky Caldwell, that clarinetist who dwarfs his instrument, herewith gives you a different kind of trip. You might call it ‘10 straight shots of nostalgia without a tracer.’”
In the early 1970s, Caldwell and his band were the house band at The Gay 90s club in Minnesota. In early 1972, the band left Minnesota for the West Coast, where they were booked to play at the Marcus Whitman Hotel in Walla Walla, Washington. Caldwell and his family eventually settled in Yakima. Caldwell, who suffered from diabetes his entire life, died on February 18, 1978, from kidney failure. He is buried in Terrace Heights Memorial Park in Yakima.
For additional information:
Duncan, Barbara S. “Punky Caldwell Reblogged. C. L. Coyle and Other Band Members from Searcy Arkansas.” https://activerain.com/blogsview/1727482/punky-caldwell-reblogged—c-l-coyle-and-other-band-members-from-searcy-arkansas- (accessed June 13, 2019).
Homer, Shree. Catch that Rockabilly Fever: Personal Stories of Life on the Road and in the Studio. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2010.
Schwartz, Marvin. We Wanna Boogie: The Rockabilly Roots of Sonny Burgess and the Pacers. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2014.
Lee Family Digital Archive, Stratford Hall
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