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?’”
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.
Glenn and Lula Bolick have carried many traditions of North Carolina's mountains and piedmont into the 21st century through the pottery and music they've made together for over 50 years. The Bolicks received the North Carolina Heritage Award in 2018 in honor of their lifetime commitment to preserving and sharing their family’s craft and music traditions. They performed “Anchored in Love,” a classic Carter Family Song at the award ceremony with their daughter Janet Calhoun.
Since 1989, the State of North Carolina, through the North Carolina Arts Council, has honored dozens of folk artists with the North Carolina Heritage Award. Throughout 2019, we will highlight the eminent musicians honored with the award. Today, we republish the official N.C. Heritage Award profile of the Wilson Brothers, a gospel duo from the western part of the state who received the award in 1998. Jerry Wilson passed away in 2016, and Ray is no longer performing music, but their families continue the tradition of performing to this day, as documented by Jerry’s daughter Tipper Pressley here.
“I know that there’s a gift, a natural gift, that a lot of people have more than others," says Ray Wilson. "But if you don’t work on that to perfection, you don’t ever do much with it.” Ray and his brother Jerry have approached their music with this idea firmly in mind. Influenced by the brother duos that had their heyday in the 1930s, the Wilsons have worked out precise harmonies for the duets that have become the signature of their style. By their own choice, the Wilson brothers have focused their efforts on singing gospel, even when they could have enjoyed greater financial gain and attention by performing other types of music.
Jerry and Ray grew up in a religious family that has its roots in Cherokee and Clay Counties. Their father preached and both parents sang in the choir. However, their first forays into music were instrumental jam sessions with neighbors. Then, asserts Ray, “we got saved and got to going to church, and we started using our talents for the Lord.” They began playing at church revivals and singings, performing songs remembered from their youth and learned from radio and records.
By the late 1960s, the Wilson brothers were performing in churches located in mountain communities throughout southwestern North Carolina, northern Georgia, and eastern Tennessee. Balancing their desire to make music with their need to make a living wasn’t easy. “We’ve always had to work hard for a living,” says Jerry, “and you can cut pine woods like Ray did and work with your hands all the time, why you’re not too apt to have the flexibility you need in your hands.”
Despite such challenges, Jerry and Ray have always held their singing and playing to a high standard. They sing tightly harmonized duets that combine a lead with high-tenor harmony, and they pitch songs in keys that allow for a smooth blending of their voices. While both men are accomplished instrumentalists — Jerry plays an acoustic guitar while Ray plays both guitar and mandolin — they prefer instrumental accompaniment that complements rather than competes with the lyrics. “The gospel, to us, is more important than anything--the message,” says Jerry.
Their desire to spread a gospel message to their audience kept the Wilson Brothers from crossing over to perform other types of music. “Here everybody knows you,” Ray explains. “Say you go on a Friday night and you sing country music and then Sunday morning you’re singing gospel songs in church. It just won’t mix that way. You lose all your influence you might have on people.”
Several of their children and grandchildren sing and play instruments, “So it’s going on down,” muses Jerry. “They’re picking it up.”
“I think that it’s the truest music there is. It has a good melody and it has a good message,” Ray says of their bluegrass influenced gospel music. “We’re sincere in what we do. We do it first for the Lord and then we hope the people enjoy it.”