We just received two copies of the book, African American Music Trails of Eastern North Carolina by Sarah Bryan and Beverly Patterson. It is an essential guide-book to one of America’s most important cradles of African-American music, and the city of Wilson has had a large role in its genesis.
The book is divided into five chapters, each highlighting a different musical wellspring of Eastern NC:
1. Schooled in Jazz and Funk: Kinston Area,
2. Our Roots are Here: Goldsboro Area
3. Singing in the Church House, Dancing in the Warehouse: Wilson Area
4. “O Lord, I’m Strivin'”: Rocky Mount, Princeville, Tarboro
5. Hear the Horns Blow: Greenville area
There are some rather famous artists and bands mentioned in the book: Thelonious Monk is from Rocky Mount, Roberta Flack got her start in Wilson singing with the Monitors, blues man- Guitar Shorty was from Elm City, a member of the Platters was from Princeville and several Kinston Musicians played with James Brown. But the area also hosted some of the most important African-American musicians from around the United States and the town of Wilson received many of them with the with the always dynamic Sam Vick (one of the first African-American postmasters in the US) as the main driving force (This blog could almost be called the Sam Vick Memorial Blog he comes up so often). Here is a couple of quotes from Sam Lathan, drummer for the Monitors:
Wilson was the nucleus for all the big bands (that came to the region). The Count Basie Band, the Glenn Mill band, the Duke Ellington band….You had a booking agency here by the name of Sam Vick, and Sam Vick booked all of the travelling big bands that came in the eastern circle here (79).
Sam Vick booked James Brown. So when they came to play, that’s when I auditioned for the band. I auditioned right here in Wilson (82).
But the book also lists Paul Robeson, Ray Charles, Fats Waller and Josephine Baker as performers who toured Wilson. These artists performed in tobacco warehouses, Reid Street Center in East Wilson (which is still in use), Tom’s Place (now run by Bennie) and sometimes churches.
A prominent figure in the Wilson and the Greenville chapters is Bill Meyers (former teacher and assistant superintendent of the Wilson County Schools). He is one of the old guard in the Eastern NC music scene and a founding member of the over 50-year-old R&B band, the Monitors. Bill is also the director and driving force of the Oliver Nestus Freeman Round House African-American Museum, where we have formed a very productive, professional relationship.
Another power house of the Wilson education and music scene in the book is Gloria Burks. Gloria used to sing with the Monitors, sang during Gov. Jim Hunt’s inauguration and also sang for President Carter when he visited the state. Gloria recently came by the library to do some research on her past, while also regaling me with some great stories and funny jibes at my lack of knowledge about her career (I have remedied that).
But outside of the tobacco warehouses and in the churches is another bright spot of the African-American music scene. Gospel music is a powerful force in the African-American community of Eastern NC and many acts such as the Five Blind Boys, the Violinaires and Slim and the Supreme Angels performed at Fleming Stadium (Where Elvis sang), the Reid Street Center or at various churches in East Wilson, churches that have their own home-grown talent. In fact our security guard, a former Wilson County sheriff’s deputy, was looking at a picture in the book of congregants singing, taken at Jackson’s First Missionary Baptist Church, and said, “Hey that’s my daughter!” while pointing at one of the singers.
For further reading, I recommend this article in Our State magazine about the African-American Music Trail.
There was a rumor going around that Elvis Presley played in Wilson before he was famous. And when I first started working here I heard a lecture about the history of baseball in Wilson and it was mentioned that Elvis played at Fleming Stadium. I looked into it but I didn’t find anything (I must not have looked very hard).
Almost two years later, on the way to work today, Elvis popped into my head for some inexplicable reason and I thought about the old rumor and lecture. So I looked into it again and the first thing I came across online was a listing of Elvis tour dates in 1956. And there, bright as the winter sun in my face on my morning commute from Wake County, was a date for Elvis playing in Wilson, NC at Charles L. Coon High School on February 14, 1956. However, my subsequent scanning of the Wilson Daily Times from around that date found nothing. Was Elvis considered too lusty to put in the paper? or just too unknown? From further research I learned that Elvis made his first TV appearance on the Milton Berle Show in April 1956 and after that his fame took off. So he wasn’t yet crazy famous nor yet the bugbear of proper, non-hip shaking folks when he appeared in Wilson. But what about Fleming Stadium? I would have stopped the search there if the the presentation that I heard had not mentioned that he played at the local baseball park. Thus, after another online search I found an earlier tour listing for 1955 and there was a entry for September 14, 1955 at Fleming Stadium. From there the dam burst. The Wilson Daily Times had an ad for the concert in three consecutive issues leading up to the concert. But unfortunately there was no write-up or photos from the concert in the following issues of the newspaper. However, since my original fruitless search there has been an informative website created that charts the career of Scotty Moore, Elvis’ backing guitarist for his early career (Scotty is ranked 29th in Rolling Stone Magazine’s greatest guitarists of all time according to Wikipedia). The site has a page dedicated to the show at Charles L. Coon High School and Fleming Stadium, and it references a blog post of mine about the stadium. The site references two books about Elvis: Did Elvis Sing in your Hometown (1995) by Lee Cotton and Last Train to Memphis (1995) by Peter Guralnik. Cotton’s book has an entry about the show at Fleming Stadium that the website quotes and I will reproduce it here:
Elvis was brought to Wilson by Slim Short (real name Bob Allen), a local deejay on WGTM. Tickets for the show, which were only $1.00 in advance and $1.25 the night of the show, were badly oversold. Some 2,000 fans crowded the stadium. Elvis came on stage last, following Cowboy Copas. When he bounded up the stairs to the stage, he slipped and fell. His composure was rattled, and he told a few jokes while he got his bearings. Following the show, Elvis ate at Cliff’s Drive-ln (defunct, famous local Wilson eatery).
There isn’t much about his two shows at Charles L. Coon High School but at least there is some documentation out there that Elvis graced Wilson with his iconic rockabilly synthesis of Southern white ballads and dance music and African American rhythm and blues.
The North Carolina themed magazine, Our State, is now digitized and can be viewed at Our State Digital Collection. The magazine started in 1933 and is chock full of North Caroliniana. And since it has gone online I have looked up articles as disparate as the 1929 Loray Mill Strike in Gastonia and the reintroduction of elk in the Great Smokey Mountains. There is even a whole issue devoted to Wilson County!
Warning: I started playing with their search engine and I almost missed my lunch break an hour later.
The long awaited Wilson County Cemeteries, Volume V: Rest Haven and Rountree/ Vick Cemetery by Joan Howell is in the final lap and almost ready to be published. Joan has literally worked decades getting this together and now the end is in site. I have been helping to proofread and edit the manuscript this week and it looks like the whole book will be finished this month. Here is and excerpt by Joan Howell on the history of Rountree/ Vick Cemetery
Samuel H. Vick, one of the first black postmasters in North Carolina, deeded the cemetery to the city of Wilson on March 24, 1913. But unfortunately the cemetery was not maintained, which resulted in the breakage and disappearance of tombstones due to vandalism, weather, and encroaching vegetation. In 1983 the Cemetery Commission heard that the Vick Cemetery was city property and set out to clean up the area at a cost of $10,000, which the chairman said did not “make a dent.”
In February 1990, it was confirmed that the 7.45-acre tract belonged to the city of Wilson and plans were made to improve the area, which would be a slow and costly process. The city of Wilson held a public meeting on April 24, 1995 to share plans and receive input from the community about restoring the cemetery. Because many of the stones were missing , broken or moved from their original positions, it was agreed that the stones would be removed and stored (after notation was made of where each was found). The city proposed clearing the land, adding topsoil, and placing on large monument with suitable landscaping around it, those present at the meeting agreed with that proposal.
On Saturday, February 17, 1990, the Wilson Daily Times stated in the article, “City responsible for old cemetery,” that “The city has an obligation to those people buried in Vick Cemetery to restore their final resting place and make it a site of peace and dignity.” Today the 7.45 acres is a large grassy area, well maintained, with a large attractive monument in place.
It is my hope that this book will be a means of supplying some of the information lost over the years of neglect for the Rountree/ Vick Cemetery.
Well 121 years ago last Saturday. The fun and informative NC Department of Cultural Resorces blog, This day in North Carolina History, posted an article on BB&T last Saturday. This Wilson institution that would become Branch Banking and Trust was originally founded in 1872 as the Branch and Hadley bank and didn’t get the name we know of it today until 1912. Read more here.