Like many rural families in the 1920s and 30s (and in later decades), African American families in eastern North Carolina often listened to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. In an era when what was then referred to as “hillbilly music” dominated the high-power broadcasts coming from Nashville, Tennessee, African American harmonica player DeFord Bailey was a star on the Grand Ole Opry. Bailey was one of the Opry’s earliest performers and a popular recording artist, and he toured with such white country music icons as Uncle Dave Macon, Roy Acuff, and Bill Monroe. His legacy was acknowledged by the country music industry in 2005, when he was inducted posthumously into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Bailey influenced young musicians such as the Greenville harmonica player Matthew Junior “Doc” Morris, born in 1917. In an interview with the folklorist Anne Kimzey when he was in his seventies, Morris remembered that DeFord Bailey “was from Nashville, Tennessee, that’s where he was blowing from. And I’d sit up there [by the radio] late . . . listen at it. ‘Oh brother, I’m going to get that!’”
George Higgs and his father also tuned in to hear Bailey:
We had an old battery radio. I think DeFord Bailey used to come on every Saturday night at nine o’clock, and me and my dad would be sitting there. He told me, “DeFord Bailey’s a good harp blower.” My father always blew the harmonica, ever since I remember—songs like “John Henry” and “Goose Chase.” He’d play blues. After a while, Mama’d go to fussing with him every time he’d blow the harp. “Ah, you’re playing that devil’s music!” So he finally quit it.
Among the most legendary gospel singing families in North Carolina—and in America—is the Rocky Mount–based Barnes family. The Barnes family includes the late Bishop Faircloth “F.C.” Barnes, his son Luther Barnes, Luther’s cousin Deborah Barnes, and uncles Haywood, William, and Roy Barnes and William Pope, and other family members throughout the region.
Bishop Barnes developed his music ministry at the Red Budd Holy Church, which he founded in 1959 in a storefront in the Nash county town of Castalia. The congregation now worships at its current location in Rocky Mount. Bishop Barnes, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 82, had a long career in the ministry and as a recording artist.
His fame came with the release of his song Rough Side of the Mountain, which sold half a million copies and topped the gospel charts for a year. Additional recognition came when Bishop Barnes received the North Carolina Heritage Award in 2000, and when he was inducted to the American Gospel Quartet Convention Hall of Fame in 2010.
A jazz composer and band leader, J. Tim Brymn wrote songs that became hits for ragtime and other popular music performers.
Born in Kinston, he studied at the Christian Institute in Franklinton and Shaw University in Raleigh, then left for New York around 1900 to attend the National Conservatory of Music of America—the prestigious institution where Antonín Dvoˇrák had served as director a few years before.
Brymn was an early member of New York’s Clef Club, a professional and fraternal organization of black musicians that helped improve working conditions and showcase talents. He directed the Clef Club orchestra in 1914, two years after its 125 members made jazz history at Carnegie Hall.
Brymn directed the 350th Field Artillery U.S. Army regimental band during World War I, bringing syncopated jazz rhythms to new audiences in France. After the war, Brymn took his Black Devil Orchestra on a successful American tour.
Brymn’s compositions include the Tar Heel Blues Rag (1914), and Cocoanut Grove Jazz (1917), described by the Library of Congress as one of the earliest pieces of published music including the word “jazz” in the title. Brymn wrote the lyrics for Aunt Hagar’s Blues, which has been recorded by Lena Horne and Louis Armstrong, among others, and was sung by Pearl Bailey in the 1958 film St. Louis Blues.
The gospel singer Pearl Grimsley Christian remembers her inspiration:
I walked by a church on Sunday. I was about six or seven, and heard this lady singing. And the windows of the church were open. And I said, “Oh, God, if you will let me sing like that!” I don’t know who she was. She was singing “Go Down Moses.” She had that type of voice, that classical kind of voice. And I never found out who she was, but she inspired me as a child. And from that day, God anointed me to sing.
In the late 1950s, Roberta Flack, the future star of soul music, became the first lead vocalist for the Monitors while living and teaching in Farmville near Greenville. A native of western North Carolina, she graduated from Howard University with a degree in music education at the age of 19 and accepted a position teaching both music and English in Farmville. Even though her stay was brief, former student gospel quartet singer Joe Charles Hopkins has fond memories:
When I was in the eighth grade, Roberta Flack came to our school, and she taught us music and English. She was a phenomenal lady. I really, really had high admiration for her, and still do, even today. I haven’t seen her since, but I love her music. I really do.
John Henry Fortescue, known as “Guitar Shorty,” was a blues guitarist, singer and musical storyteller with an inventive style. Originally from Belhaven – also the hometown of Little Eva of Loco-Motion fame – Guitar Shorty had an assertive style heavy on boogie beats and often used a bottleneck slide.
He lived near Elm City in the early 1970s. Were he living today, he might be identified first as a performance artist, and then a blues musician. He was a small man who played a big guitar spangled with flower decals. Some of his recorded performances were on-the-spot improvisations, elaborate stories supported by his guitar backup in much the same way a soundtrack supports the plot of a movie.
Shorty’s song-stories sometimes incorporated conversations between two and three characters—including himself, his mother, his wife, a determined would-be girlfriend, animals, and FBI agents. He performed all the voices, in addition to singing, whistling, imitating harmonica lines, and producing sound effects.
Greenville native Hubert Walters was the first black student to receive a graduate degree at East Carolina University, the MA in music in 1965. Since childhood, when he heard him perform in Greenville, he has held a deep admiration for the tenor Roland Hayes (1887–1977).
Hayes, the son of former slaves, grew up in Georgia and Tennessee. Hayes attended Fisk University, where he sang tenor for the world-famous Fisk Jubilee Singers. Over the course of his long career, he toured America and Europe, and sang in London for King George V and Queen Mary (a private concert given at their request), and at one time was the world’s highest-paid tenor. Later in life, he taught at Boston University—where Walters himself also taught and directed the Voices of Imani Choir.
Walters recalls, “He came to Greenville to sing at my high school in a gymtorium. But incidentally, when he came to perform, he could not stay in the hotels in Greenville. He lived in the home of the dentist, Dr. Graves, in my hometown, who had a grand piano in his home…And after he did this group of German, French, and Italian lieder, he sang at the end of his program a group of spirituals.“
Arthur Norcott played the pipe organ at Sycamore Hill Baptist Church, and was also a talented pianist.
As described by Hubert Walters, “He was an exceptional musician; and I can say that now, having studied music and gone through graduate work and so forth, that he was really a musician ahead of his time.”
He graduated from the Eastern Tar River Institute run by black churches. Then he studied with a white teacher, Allison Hearn, which was unusual for the time, but she saw his talent. His music was an integral part of the service, as he chose music related to the message of the day.
He mentored young musicians, and exposed them to the Messiah by Handel at East Carolina. College choral groups from Shaw University and North Carolina Central University performed at the church. He selected and taught a quartet from the church called the Vox Angelic quartet. He presented annual recitals, called a “moment musical,” at Eppes High School.
The Tarboro soloist Verdell Robinson sings at area churches and events. “When I hear a song, it’s the words that get into my spirit, and that’s what makes me want to sing.”
Eleanor Suggs is an accomplished gospel pianist. Her home church is Shady Grove Freewill Baptist Church in Wayne County
Bandleader Harold Vick was born in Rocky Mount in 1936. Known as a hard bop and soul tenor sax player, he was first given a clarinet as a young teenager by his uncle Prince — an accomplished Virginia-born jazz clarinetist and tenor saxophonist who had been a member of the legendary hot jazz band McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, and recorded with Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holiday. Within a few years Vick followed his uncle in taking up the tenor sax as well.
Vick attended Howard University and settled in New York. As a band leader, Vick made his first recording in 1963 for the Blue Note label. Many more recordings would follow on several other prominent labels. He recorded both as a leader and as a sideman. In concert and on records he collaborated with a host of other fellow jazz and R&B greats, including the Greenville native Billy Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sarah Vaughan. He appeared in movies: Spike Lee’s School Daze (he also played on the soundtrack of She’s Gotta Have It), Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, and Francis Ford Coppola’s Cotton Club.
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“Papa Root” was the original starter for Kinston drummer Willie Moore’s band. A trumpet player, he brought Melvin and Maceo Parker into his group to play. Melvin Parker says, “We used to listen to Papa Root going to the gig and back, listen to him talk about music, and how music is supposed to be played, and what you’re supposed to do. You know, if you listen, you can learn.”
Papa Root was known as a sharp dresser who just about everybody in Kinston knew. He influenced the Kinston musicians who grew up in the 1940s and 50s.
Sacred music thrives in small churches and large extended families in the county. As late as 1961, students and teachers sang gospel music during assemblies at Greene County Training School, now South Greene High School.
The Reverend Malkarska Williams is an internationally known gospel artist from Greene County. He comes back to Greene County from his travels, proud of his roots here. Educated in the Greene County School System, he wrote his first song at the age of eight. He is a licensed and ordained minister who has been preaching and singing the gospel for over 20 years and has assisted in establishing many ministries. Dr. Williams has professionally recorded eight albums and produced music for many other artists.
“Here in the country, people really want to have music that touches them,” says composer Earl Wooten, who grew up in Maysville. He credits his family and church with encouraging the musical interests that eventually led to a move to Los Angeles, where he writes music for films.
As a piano accompanist for the North Carolina Spiritualaires beginning in the ninth grade, he learned firsthand the passion behind the music. He learned jazz improvisation from a retired musician who had returned to Greene County from New York. He was influenced by these early experiences, realizing that what people care about is the feelings music brings.