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.