By David Menconi
North Carolina is among the most celebrated musical states in America — a place that gave the world Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Nina Simone, Superchunk, the Piedmont blues, beach music, and more. Beyond the obvious headliners, however, the Old North State has also contributed more than its fair share of mysteries and legends to the wider story of popular music. Here are seven such tales.
1: A whole new thing
Charlotte has a long and celebrated history as a recording center, going back to the years when RCA Victor maintained studios in the city in the 1930s. The Monroe Brothers, the Carter Family, and medicine-show legend Uncle Dave Macon were among the many acts recording there. Numerous landmark albums were also tracked at Charlotte’s Reflection Sound Studios, most notably R.E.M.’s first two albums (co-produced by North Carolina Music Hall of Famer Mitch Easter).
But what stands as North Carolina’s single most significant recording session happened in 1965 at the Arthur Smith Studio, 5457 Monroe Road, in southeast Charlotte. Smith was a music-business visionary whose enterprises included writing important songs such as “Guitar Boogie” and presiding over the long-running “Carolina Calling” television variety show.
The first Arthur Smith Studio was in Smith’s garage. It had been at the Monroe Road location about a year when James Brown called, looking for a studio where he’d be able to stretch out and experiment. So, Brown came in to record late one night in February 1965, and left with “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” The song launched Brown into the stratosphere as Soul Brother Number One, the inventor of funk. It came out in June of that year and was the singer’s first top-10 pop hit, also earning him his first Grammy Award.
It made sense that North Carolina was where Brown made his breakthrough recording, given how many of his key collaborators at that time came from the eastern part of the state. Trumpet player Dick Knight, drummer Melvin Parker, saxophonist Maceo Parker, and Brown's bandleader, Nathaniel "Nat" Jones, all hailed from Kinston.
Smith continued running the studio until the mid-1980s, when it was sold and renamed Studio East. It closed in 2018, four years after Smith’s death at the age of 93, and the building is now office space.
2: “On a Carousel”
Raleigh had a lot of rock bands trying to break out nationally in the 1980s, including Nantucket and Doc Holliday. The band from Raleigh that made the Hot 100 of Billboard’s pop singles chart, however, was Glass Moon.
Led by singer/keyboardist Dave Adams, Glass Moon turned the trick in 1982 with “On a Carousel.” Glass Moon’s hit was a cover of a song that had earlier been a hit for the English folk-rock group The Hollies (featuring Graham Nash, later with Crosby, Stills & Nash), who just missed the U.S. top-10 with it in 1967.
Glass Moon’s version didn’t get quite that high, reaching No. 50 in 1982. But that would be Glass Moon’s best-ever Billboard chart showing. And the real find is the accompanying video — a time capsule in its own right. It was shot and directed by Steve Boyle, who filmed many North Carolina acts in the 1970s and 1980s (you can see much of his work online at returntocomboland.com). Principle photography was at Raleigh’s Pullen Park in February 1982, in and around the park’s carousel and playground.
Watch the extras closely and you’ll see a blonde woman named Sara Lynn Moore, who was then 23 years old. A few years later, she became the mother of Evan Rachel Wood, star of movies and shows including “The Wrestler” and “Westworld.” It’s fair to say there’s some family resemblance between mother and daughter.
3: "Senator Sam at Home"
In 1973, Sam Ervin — Democratic U.S. Senator from Morganton — emerged as an unlikely national folk hero. Ervin served as chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee, in which capacity he presided over two weeks of televised public hearings in May of that year.
Ervin’s western North Carolina drawl and plainspoken manner caused a sensation, even before President Richard Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, and the senator was not above making the most of his moment in the sun. He actually recorded an album, “Senator Sam at Home,” which CBS Records released in 1973 to take advantage of Ervin’s suddenly higher public profile.
“Senator Sam at Home” mostly consisted of spoken-word stories, but it also included Ervin taking a crack at Pete Seeger’s folk classic “If I Had a Hammer” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” The latter featured harmonica accompaniment and has to be heard to be believed. In 1991, it would also be enshrined on a novelty-song compilation album titled “Golden Throats.”
4: “Put a Lid On It”
Chapel Hill’s Squirrel Nut Zippers probably hit their peak of exposure on January 25, 1998, during the television broadcast of Super Bowl XXXII between the Denver Broncos and the Green Bay Packers. That’s when a Zippers song appeared as soundtrack music on a commercial for Intel’s Pentium computer chips.
The song was “Put a Lid On It,” from the Zippers’ 1996 million-selling breakthrough album, “Hot.” It’s a sassy and almost playful song, structured as call-and-response by the band’s lead vocalist, Katharine Whalen, and songwriter Tom Maxwell, with a looping horn riff. But it’s a song that actually came out of a tragic set of circumstances.
Maxwell wrote “Put a Lid On It” about one of his bandmates in the Zippers, trumpet player Stacy Guess. Guess was a founding member and played on the Zippers’ 1995 debut, but he had to drop out before “Hell” was recorded because of his heroin addiction. “Lid” is the song Maxwell wrote when he found out about his friend and bandmate’s drug problem, because he didn’t know how to deal with it.
“Put a lid on it and everything’ll be all right.”
In March 1998, a bit more than six weeks after that Super Bowl airing, Guess would die from a drug overdose. He was just 33 years old.
5: “The Dark Side of the Moon”
In 1965, the British musician Syd Barrett was trying to decide on a name for his new psychedelic blues-rock band. And that was when an album by the great Durham bluesman Blind Boy Fuller (who had died 24 years earlier) entered his field of vision, with liner notes that mentioned a roll call of Fuller’s collaborators. The list concluded with the names “Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.”
Anderson was from South Carolina and Council from Chapel Hill, and chances are good that they never knew each other. But they are now and forever linked through the name that Barrett selected for his band, by combining their first names: "Pink Floyd." Barrett would last only a few years in Pink Floyd before withdrawing from the band in 1968 and the public a few years later, a victim of schizophrenia reportedly exacerbated by the heavy use of psychedelic drugs. He died in 2006.
Pink Floyd had most of its commercial success after Barrett’s departure, starting with the 1973 album, "The Dark Side of the Moon." As for Floyd Council, he is remembered primarily as one of Fuller’s best regular sidekicks, appearing with him on a number of 1930s-vintage recordings. Council lived until 1976, when he died at age 64 from a heart attack.
There is no evidence that either he or Pink Anderson had any idea about their inspirational role in Pink Floyd’s name.
6: Going worldwide
Nowadays, pretty much every over-the-air radio station of any size also simulcasts its programming over the internet. But it was not always thus. In fact, online radio is a relatively recent development that goes back only a quarter-century. And the first station in the world to go online was in North Carolina.
On November 7, 1994, the student-run radio station WXYC, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, expanded from its left-of-the-dial low-power frequency at 89.3-FM to broadcasting on the then-embryonic worldwide web. This required a great deal of technical improvisation, including the use of an actual cheap radio as input source. And in those days, when most people’s access to the internet was still slow dial-up connections, the fidelity was not great.
Nevertheless, WXYC was still the first terrestrial radio station that made the jump to online to take its programming to a worldwide audience.
North Carolina has an indirect yet nevertheless inspirational connection to Fleetwood Mac, back before the members of that band became gigantic superstars. One of Fleetwood Mac’s early radio hits was “Hypnotized,” from the 1973 album, “Mystery to Me.” The song still turns up on classic-rock radio with some regularity.
Fleetwood Mac guitarist Bob Welch wrote “Hypnotized,” and one of its verses was inspired by a friend of his from Winston-Salem. That friend told Welch a story about having been part of a group riding dirt bikes through the woods in the back of beyond and finding a clearing with a mysterious water-filled crater with smooth sides like melted glass. Spooked, the group fled.
Welch picked that up and ran with it in a verse of “Hypnotized” that goes like this:
Now it’s not a meaningless question
To ask if they’ve been and gone
I remember a talk about North Carolina
And a strange, strange pond
You see the sides were like glass
In the thick of a forest without a road
And if any man’s hand ever made that land
Then I think it would’ve showed.
About the Author
2019 Piedmont Laureate David Menconi covered music for the (Raleigh) News & Observer for 28 years. David Menconi's book Step It Up and Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music, from Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson to Nina Simone and Superchunk will be published in October by University of North Carolina Press.