Bill Myers’ friends know that “Popeye” Myers, jazz musician and band leader of “The Monitors” for almost sixty years, and William E. Myers, distinguished educator, civic leader and Music Director of St. John A.M.E. Zion Church in Wilson are one and the same.
Bill credits music with bringing his contrasting experiences into a harmonious life story. “Music,” he says, “has that kind of power.”
Bill Myers received a North Carolina Heritage Award in 2014 for his role as both a prolific musician and as an educator. Watch the video commemorating that honor below.
The following essay is from the 2018 North Carolina Heritage Award Program
The Beaufort wine bar patrons roar as Robert “Dick” Knight launches into a rhythm and blues classic that they recognize as a Beach Music anthem. Clapping, whistling and punching the air, they surge to the platform where “The Captain” sits alone with a microphone and an iPad. Dick has recorded a series of tracks that he uses to back himself up during solo gigs like this one, and he riffs to the recordings on a portable keyboard, a saxophone, and his beloved trumpet. He’s compressed some 70 years of musicianship into his digital device.
Dick absorbed the music of his father’s blues guitar and his mother’s organ hymns before he was five. But Dick’s musical passion was inspired by Florida A&M University’s famous marching band, only 60 miles from his hometown of Camilla, Georgia. He got his first trumpet at seven years old. By age 12 he was playing rock and roll gigs with older FAMU bandmembers, and at 16, he was one of five trumpeters out of one hundred who passed the auditions for the university’s marching band. He graduated with a music degree and was ready to teach band himself. The city of Kinston, North Carolina, was hiring music teachers. It was 1963. He was 19 years old.
“When I came to Kinston,” says Knight, “I wanted the band to be just like Florida A&M.” However, lack of resources forced the band to meet in the boys’ shower room. Dick worked hard to improve conditions, tripling the band’s size and upgrading the uniforms. He became friends with another young music teacher, Nat Jones, who within months of Dick’s arrival in Kinston became the music director for emerging rhythm and blues star, James Brown. Nat Jones’ musicianship and genius for writing and arranging music helped to shape Brown’s emerging funk style and send him to the top of the charts.
Jones invited Dick Knight to join the band and Knight toured and recorded with Brown for several years, teaching between gigs and passing on what he learned to his students. “I got all the music Brown was doing at that particular time, and I came back to teach it to the kids.” Most high school jazz band directors drew their repertoire from the big band sounds of the 1930s—1950s. Not Dick Knight. “Since I had the experience of doing this basically all my life, I wanted an R&B band. And so, I taught all those guys in high school how to play R&B.” As a result, the African American music traditions that are the foundation of rhythm and blues became part of band curriculum.
Over the next 50 years, Knight continued to teach school in both North Carolina and Florida, taking time to play with such luminaries as Otis Redding, Gladys Knight, Jackie Wilson and Rufus Thomas. At 75, Knight has finally retired from teaching but still plays with local bands and has begun a solo career.
Knight had no regrets about leaving a touring career to focus on teaching. “What was truly my reward wasn't like money, per se. It’s like it is now; lots of kids say, ‘Oh, that's Mr. Knight. You taught me in high school.’ And I feel so good about it. You know, that's my reward. ‘Oh, I did?’”
By Vergil Demery
Photos by Sierra Turner
Over Memorial Day weekend, I went to my first concert since joining the North Carolina Arts Council as an intern for Come Hear NC. Far from the bright lights of New York’s Summer Jam, or the hype of Coachella, Lenoir County’s 4th Annual African American Heritage Festival was going down in the small town of Kinston, 30 miles southwest of Greenville.
Kinston's not a big town, and at this point is probably more well known for basketball than music, producing NBA players at a rate (per capita) 63 times higher than the national average. Or as the miracle town that was fortunate to avoid being blown to smithereens when a B-52 crashed in a tobacco field carrying a bomb with 250 times the power of the nuke dropped in Hiroshima. Or as the home base for the popular PBS Television show A Chef’s Life. Or maybe you’ve never heard of Kinston. Maybe like me, you were completely unaware of its rich musical history. Maybe like me, you doubted that giants existed in small fields.
On the way to Kinston, our team made a pitstop in Wilson. We toured the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park for a bit. While visual art has never been my cup of tea, I couldn’t help but be in awe of the fact that a man well into retirement had spent his old age climbing 50-foot poles to build and maintain massive sculptures. However, I wasn’t just here to admire Vollis. I kept my eyes open for venues that could be included on the African American Music Trails of Eastern North Carolina, which I’m researching this summer. When we decided to break for lunch, a local pointed us to a sandwich shop, Tig’s Courtyard, that he said we would probably like because they sold “yuppie sandwiches.” I didn’t think much of it. This, however, was probably the biggest problem with my perspective going into the trip. I was a yuppie who assumed that nothing major would come out of such a small town and that the gospel performance we were headed to see wasn’t going to be my thing. Even though I had never been to a formal gospel show, I thought the times I listened at my local church in Raleigh, as well as my grandparents’ churches in D.C and Atlanta were enough. If gospel singers in such major cities couldn’t move me, what chance did someone in a town as small as Kinston have? I went in not expecting much but quickly found out why a blip on the map like Kinston is considered the birthplace of funk music and one of the major stops along the African American Music Trails of Eastern North Carolina.
When I first walked into a sparsely populated Arts Council building in the middle of downtown Kinston my hopes didn’t shoot through the roof. As I looked around I noticed that the main performer had a promotion for his ministry, and I saw mostly older residents with a few young faces sprinkled in. I figured this was going to end up like a church event. As everything started to settle down and the residents found their seats, a small framed man no older than me named Malik Turner walked out and began singing the national anthem. He started out a bit shaky, but he closed the anthem with a Whitney Houston like bellow and then proceeded to give a speech before the full performance. He said that “music can move people in ways that a speech or written words can’t.” My interest was piqued.
This speech might not have resonated with me so much if Turner hadn’t been able to back up his talk, but after giving his short speech, he launched into one of the strongest vocal performances I’ve heard in recent memory. The music moved me in a way I hadn’t been moved before. I felt every word and hung on every verse. I had come to Kinston expecting to write a story on the hometown of Maceo Parker and four other members of the original James Brown Band, but I immediately knew that I had to find out who these people were. Malik Turner’s performance was so good that it floored me.
It would be criminal of me not to mention the acts that came after Malik Turner. Natasha Matthews, who was born in Greenville but has since found herself singing at St. John Free Will Baptist Church in Kinston, had the voice of an angel. And Mal Williams put on a show that you would expect from an Eastern North Carolina gospel legend. Every single performance was nothing short of amazing, and it made me start to question my yuppie ways.
Williams is from Snow Hill, a place that is the definition of small-town America. Snow Hill doesn’t quite have a population of 2,000, yet again, he was one of the best live performers I had seen in a long time.
Williams arrived in a very unassuming manner, he walked in wearing a plain blue suit but before his performance ran to the phone both, put on his cape, and transformed into the internationally renowned performer that he is. After that, his crew started to set up their own instruments before seemingly disappearing to allow the other acts to stand on their own. I found myself thinking, “Malik had just happened to be from Kinston and was young enough that no one had discovered him yet. Yeah, Natasha Matthews is great but she’s a minister so obviously, the Lord and her church work come first — she’s just singing where she preaches.” When Mal Williams stated that his band was comprised of his family members I thought I finally had my gotcha moment. “See I knew the first two were flukes this is more on the lines of what I was expecting.” I foolishly thought, I was clearly wrong.
Mal chooses his family members as bandmates not just because of their strong ties but also because they are the best players he could find. His cousin Darius Shackleford is a man that is a legend in his own right, who was considered good enough to be featured on an album with the likes of Maceo Parker and George Higgs. Even their drummer Clyde Felton Jr. is a published solo artist with multiple albums and singles available on the Apple Store. Mal’s wife was a force to be reckoned with in her own right. She was able to steal the show to a degree that I hadn’t thought possible after the strong performances from the rest of the group. The whole family performed so well that they were reminiscent of the early days of the Jackson 5.
In this tiny town hall, I witnessed two North Carolina musicians perform at the highest level. Williams is a man that has performed on five different continents and gone in front of stadiums of 40,000 people. A man that has an upcoming tour in Israel, and yet here he was in a room of no more than a couple hundred people, in a town that might not have existed if a wrong wire was cut. I was so close that I could see the sweat dripping down his face and had to move my legs when he came my way, so he didn’t trip. It was an experience that many people dream of having, and yet I still saw empty chairs. Foodies have discovered Kinston, I hope that music yuppies will too.
This concert was sponsored by the African American Heritage Commission of Lenoir County.
Vergil Demery, a senior at North Carolina Central University, is studying English. He has been in the Triangle area since the age of three. Vergil, who loves to write, is crafting stories for the Come Hear North Carolina campaign, and he plans to go into journalism after graduating.
Sierra Turner graduated from North Carolina Central University recently, where she earned a B.A. in Mass Communication with a concentration in Broadcast Media. She is also working in the Folklife Program — focusing on diversifying her work as a multimedia storyteller.
From the small town of Kinston, North Carolina to touring the world with James Brown, Parliament-Funkadelic, and Prince, Maceo Parker may have the most impressive resume of any North Carolina musician. In 2016 he was awarded a North Carolina Heritage Award for his contributions to the world of funk, jazz, and pop music. Please enjoy this video made in commemoration of that special moment.
Start off your Saturday with the Brian Horton Trio!
"Easy" - recorded live at La Lanterna in New York City - is the right song to kick-back and enjoy the long weekend to. Read a short biography on Brian Horton from the African American Music Trails of Eastern North Carolina Guidebook below.
Brian Horton is a jazz saxophonist, composer, and educator from Kinston. His sound is rooted in blues and gospel. He began his musical career in Baptist churches around Lenoir County where he embraced the spirit of music and its effects on an audience. He studied under Ira Wiggins at North Carolina Central University and Jimmy Heath and Sir Roland Hanna at the Aaron Copland School of Music. He has composed and arranged for independent documentaries, ESPN, and Spike Lee. Horton currently teaches in the music department at North Carolina Central University, his alma mater in Durham, North Carolina, and performs frequently.
Celebrate the weekend with one of the patriarchs of funk music, Kinston NC's own Maceo Parker!
"To Be or Not To Be" is the perfect song to get your Saturday off to a funky start. Turn up your speakers and read the liner notes of this exceptional track from the African American Music Trails of Eastern North Carolina Guidebook below!
The biography featured on Maceo Parker’s official website touts his name as synonymous with funky music. Given that Parker was an essential figure in James Brown’s band and Parliament-Funkadelic during each group’s prime (the 1960s and 1970s, respectively), who is to argue? Well known as a solo artist and leader of groups such as All the King’s Men and the Macks, Parker also has appeared with Prince regularly since 1999. While in their early teens, Maceo and his brothers Melvin (drums) and Kellis (trombone) formed a band, the Junior Blue Notes, to play between sets for their uncle’s combo, Bobby Butler and the Blue Notes. By their early twenties, Maceo and Melvin had been hired by James Brown, and the two were fixtures in Brown’s renowned ensemble in the late 1960s. Included here is the gloriously funky product of decades of touring and composing. The selection features Maceo on vocals and sax, and Melvin holds down a solid mid-tempo beat, adding a bit of stickiness with his hi-hat work. The funk just drips off this record. For more information visit www.maceoparker.com.
On February 17th, 1982, Thelonious Monk passed away at the Weehawken, New Jersey home of jazz patron Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter after almost a decade of isolation. In the days following, tributes to his impact on the world of music poured out, culminating in a funeral service held at St. Peter’s Church in New York City, attended by hundreds of family members, friends, and loyal fans.
Famously quoted as saying “The piano ain’t got no wrong notes,” Monk pushed the boundaries of jazz, applying dissonance, improvisation, and minimalism in place of heavily arranged big band pieces, helping to usher in a new era – bebop. With nearly 70 original compositions, Monk’s innovation lives on today through his many works that are now standards in jazz repertoires. Below is an excerpt from the African American Music Trails of Eastern North Carolina Guidebook highlighting Monk’s connection to his birthplace.
In 1922, a young family with three children left Rocky Mount to begin a new life in New York. The middle child, Thelonious Monk, was four years old when they moved. One might imagine that because he left North Carolina at such a young age, he would have grown up with very little cultural connection to the state of his birth. However, the Monks were part of the Great Migration of African Americans who left the South and settled by the thousands in the more-industrialized, less-segregated Northern cities. Jazz scholar Sam Stephenson, in the Oxford American Magazine (2007), writes of how, even in the family’s Manhattan apartment, the culture of North Carolina and the South was ever present.
Monk’s mother, Barbara Batts Monk, writes Stephenson, “was a North Carolinian through and through. Her accent, the food she cooked, and, most profoundly for young Thelonious, the churches she attended with the family in New York were steeped in southern culture.” In May of 1970, Thelonious Monk made one of his rare return visits, traveling with his wife Nellie to Raleigh for a series of performances at the Frog & the Nightgown jazz club, Stephenson reports. Leroy Williams, a member of Monk’s band for the Raleigh shows, recounts the night the Frog’s staff presented Monk with a white homecoming cake ornamented with a fez in honor of Monk’s famous passion for odd hats. “It had icing that said, ‘WELCOME HOME TO NORTH CAROLINA,’ and Monk was very enthusiastic about it,” Williams says. “He was smiling, and he said, ‘Thank you. I’m from Rocky Mount. Thank you.’ Monk loved it.”
This 1966 live performance of one of Thelonious Monk’s most famous compositions, “'Round Midnight,” features longtime collaborator Charlie Rouse on tenor saxophone, Larry Gales on bass, and Ben Riley on drums. Monk takes a solo at the 4:04 mark that offers up his signature stylings: understated and masterful, his left hand provides sparse, staccato accompaniment to a sometimes-twinkling-sometimes-stabbing right hand – a lesson in minimalism. To quote acclaimed jazz vocalist Sheila Jordan at Thelonious Monk’s funeral ceremony, ''We thank you for all the music you gave us, dear Thelonious Monk.''
Happy Birthday to Kinston born legend, Maceo Parker! The legendary saxophonist has collaborated with James Brown, George Clinton, and Prince, and maintained a successful solo career. Maceo received a NC Heritage Award in 2016.
"If you wanted to hear funk music before 1960, your best bet might be the Maola Ice Cream talent show in Kinston, North Carolina." - Sarah Bryan for the Oxford American
The Oxford American magazine's 20th annual Southern Music Issue celebrates the musical legacy of North Carolina. The depth and breadth of topics, regions, and genres covered in the issue are impressive, and many of its contributors are deeply embedded in our state's literary community. We were thrilled to learn Sarah Bryan contributed "Really Is Hard to Beat," an essay about Kinston's music scene to the issue. Sarah Bryan co-wrote the African American Music Trails of Eastern North Carolina Guidebook. Find an online version of her essay here.
Born in 1929, Reverend Faircloth C. (F.C.) Barnes was a gospel recording artist from Rocky Mount, N.C. His debut record Rough Side of the Mountain, a collaboration with with Reverend Janice Brown, reached #1 on Billboard’s Gospel Albums chart in January 1984. The North Carolina Arts Council profiled Reverend Barnes, and the hit-song, in the African American Music Trails Guidebook. The following excerpt is from the book.
The Reverend F.C. Barnes and Reverend Janice Brown met at Rocky Mount radio station WSRV, while hosting a gospel show together in the late 1970s. Their recording career started when they made a home reel-to-reel recording of “It’s Me Again Lord” to play on their broadcast. Listener response was so ecstatic that the station manager encouraged them to make a studio single so that he could legally play it on the air. Shortly thereafter with the single in regular rotation at WSRV, the duo was picked up by AIR/Malaco. They went on to release eight albums on the southern soul, blues, and gospel imprint between 1979 and 1988.
Rough Side of the Mountain was penned by Barnes after some car trouble on his way to a revival. After the song’s release in 1984, it occupied the number one spot on the gospel charts for more than a year, went gold, and earned Barnes and Brown a Grammy nomination. Here’s Reverend Barnes had to say about the song:
“Rough Side of the Mountain was a prayer. It was initially a prayer. I was going to Tabor City, North Carolina for a revival, about 175 miles from here. That evening, when I got below Lumberton, North Carolina, on Highway 74, something got wrong with the car. I don’t know what it was, never have known, but it just started slipping and shaking. They had just put the new part [of Highway 74] out there then, and for 20-some miles there were no stores, no nothing out there. And I said, Lord, if this car cut off out here—there was no service stations, no nothing—I don’t know what in the world I’m going to do. So I start praying to the Lord and [told] the Lord how hard it was times coming up, trying to do this and that, little money, car wasn’t doing too well, and still trying to do the work of God. And somehow or another, it struck me in my mind, “It’s rough, it gets rough out here.” Nobody in the car but me. I just was talking, and I started praying, “Lord, having it so hard,” and not only the car thing being in my spirit, but other things I’ve run into before, and this and that—everything.
And I said, “Lord, you just know that I’m trying to do what I know. A lot of people are trying to do the will of God like they were sailing smooth. I’m doing the will of God, but with everything I put my hand on, it’s something else.” And like I was telling, there was two sides: they’re going up on the smooth side. I’m going up on the rough side. And I prayed that prayer. I got stuck in the prayer, and I don’t know when the car stopped skipping. When I come to myself, the car had stopped skipping, was running smooth going down the road. But when I got to the church, the Deacon had already called my house because it was time for service and I wasn’t there. But the words of that song wouldn’t leave me, and that prayer wouldn’t leave me. So I goes back, after service. I go to my room and it wouldn’t go away, so I just started writing. So when I got back to Rocky Mount, I told Janice, a lady that sung with me, that I had a song that we need to learn. So we called the musicians. We started singing the song, learned the song. Wasn’t thinking about no hit or no nothing. This was not the purpose of it. The song was a prayer and it was true, and not just something with words made up. And we put the song on the album.
For white, black, everybody that heard it, [“Rough Side of the Mountain”] seemed to be in their life. And they took it for their life, coming up on the rough side of the mountain, when I got to hold God’s hand, it doesn’t matter. A lot of people quit when it gets rough, but I didn’t quit. And the song had a meaning to it, but I didn’t write it to nobody but myself. I wasn’t thinking about the public.”