Asheville's African-American music mecca
by Rob Neufeld
PHOTO CAPTION: The Outcasts, the state’s Battle of the Bands winner in 1979, included: (kneeling l to r) Edward Stout, saxophonist; Darriel Jones, drummer; (seated) Patricia McAfee, vocalist; (standing l to r) Marvin Seabrooks, trombonist; Mike Steele, saxophonist; Mike Miller, lead guitarist; and Jay McDowell, bass. (Photo, Henry Robinson)
Every Christmas in the late 1950s, Jerome “J.C.” Martin, a celebrated bass player, had asked his parents for a guitar that was better than the one he had. At age nine, he’d sit on his porch and, with a plastic instrument and amp, accompany the soul brothers whose sound drifted from the Owls Lounge nearby.
The Owls Lounge had been a landmark nightspot in Southside, an African-American neighborhood cleared away in 1970’s urban renewal. The once vital music scene had included church spirituals, school programs, gospel, soul and jazz.
Martin and friends formed a group called the “M-Tears.”
“We rehearsed for three years and never played a gig,” Martin told Pat McAfee, collector of an archive of this region’s black gospel and secular music, and now the author of a book about the legacy.
“We were barely out of elementary school,” Martin related. “Finally, we did our first gig under a shed on Murray Hill.” It wasn’t for money, but it was a first step.
A decade later, Ruben Mayfield, a 14-year-old trumpet and saxophone player, was working his way from the back room to the front stage at the Owls Lounge.
He joined The Outcasts, winners of a statewide Battle of the Bands competition in 1979. McAfee was lead singer. They were named the number one R&B, Soul & Top 40 Band in North Carolina.
“One time when we were backing up Z.Z. Hill,” Mayfield relates, “he wanted Pat to sing his hit song (‘Love Is So Good When You’re Stealing It’) with him. He wanted Pat to get down on her knees (while he stood), and as hard as he tried to push her down, she wouldn’t go.”
Black Asheville performers had a strong base back home. Their community provided a big stop on the pre-integration black musician circuit.
Mayfield went to an audition at the Kitty Kat Club on Biltmore Avenue for a contract with The Innersouls, a local band that toured widely. He had no case for the tenor sax he was carrying, and police stopped him on suspicion of theft. “My horn was so raggedy, you could hit the neck and it would spin around,” Mayfield recalls.
He proved the instrument was his by actually being able to play it.
After the audition, Innersouls saxophonist Bonnie Clyde asked to see Mayfield’s spinning horn. “He took a look at it,” Mayfield says, “grabbed it like a baseball bat, and slammed it into the brick part of the stage platform … He turned to me and said, ‘Now let’s get you a real horn.’”
Churches provided additional outlets for African-American musicians in Asheville. Even horns were welcome.
“I told the Lord I would start playing for Him,” J.C. Martin confides. “I just love to hear a guitarist bending those strings; I love to hear a bass player poppin’; or even laying back with a slow bass walk.”
A similar spiritual feeling had come to Leonard Karle Mapp, Western North Carolina gospel singer and archivist.
“When I open my mouth to sing, ministering begins inside me and comes out to anyone else who may be listening,” he related to McAfee.
In the 1970s, Mapp had left Asheville and moved to Atlanta, where he’d joined the Gospel Caravans. When he returned home in 1993, he was in the position of having lots of connections and little cash.
In Asheville, he recalled, he and his childhood friends had made cigar box guitars, formed a group called The Citations, and performed in the auditorium.
“We didn’t have a drummer,” Mapp relates, “so I kept time by patting my foot against a mic cord lying on the floor.”
Mapp advanced to professional instruments and played with the Original Soulful Struts at The Owls Lounge and The Cage, another legendary Asheville nightspot. At first, he was shy of crowds. The band’s manager, Jimmy Robinson, had to draw out his talent by secretly opening the curtains on him while he was rehearsing with his back to the audience.
Mapp credits his accomplishments to his family, who’d inspired him to devote his life to gospel, and to local recording stars Charles Pickens of the Pic and Bill duo and the late Willie Mae Harrison of the Tamettes.
Willie Mae had led the way in combining church singing and popular performance, her sister, Betty, recounts.
“All my sisters did was sing,” Betty Harrison told McAfee in a video interview. “They put on talent shows, and Willie Mae was always the star. She grew up singing in church.”
In preparation for her performance on WBMU-FM in Asheville, Willie Mae stayed up all night listening to Gladys Knight’s recording of “Midnight Train to Georgia.”
“When she got old enough to make money at singing,” Betty says, “Willie Mae left Asheville and went to sing with Lattimore Brown (a crimeworld-navigating, best-selling soul singer of the early 1960s). When she came back home, she shared her experience with us, showed us all her new clothes and the money she had earned.”
Gospel and feeling fed Asheville’s African-American community in the 1950s. Nationally, Mihalia Jackson blazed the trail in the popular market; and Western North Carolina nurtured its own celebrities: Roberta Flack of Black Mountain and Nina Simone of Tryon.
Early on, before the big stars, Reverend Paul Miller had established The Golden Trumpets with Brother William Morris.
Miller’s uncle, Dennis Miller, had been a shape note singer; and his Polk County family had driven many miles to hear such groups as The Blind Boys of Alabama and the Heaven Bound Gospel Singers of Charlotte.
“One of the greatest things you can plant into your children is how to praise God,” Miller says. “You praise him through song, you praise him through worship.”
Pat McAfee’s new book, Western North Carolina Musical Legacies: Hidden in the Melodies of Life (Christian Faith Publishing) is available electronically and as a book on demand at bookstores.
PHOTO CAPTION: The YMI Drug Store, located on the corner of Eagle and Market Street in downtown Asheville, served for many years as one of the Block’s drug stores as well as a teen social center. It is pictured here in the 1910s, exhibiting the kind of formality that all merchants brought to their establishments at the time. The photo belongs to the YMI Cultural Center, which now operates the space as a gallery.
After closing up at 4 a.m., the staff of Frazier’s Nightclub in the 1950s had walked over to the Ritz for breakfast. Earline McQueen, the proprietor, always opened for them. Other available places had been Whites-only establishments.
African-American truck drivers also sought her place out when they were anywhere in Western North Carolina.
The Ritz had been open from noon to night on Sundays, for that’s when Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church parishioners came for dinner: baked turkey, roast beef, chicken and dumplings. Breakfasters enjoyed salmon croquettes, sausage, bacon, ham, and grits with homemade gravy.
McQueen’s cooking had been home cooking. Her ingredients were fresh, with produce often coming from farms belonging to friends and relatives in the nearby country. Prices were reasonable, but for those customers whose budgets were strapped, McQueen prepared the staple, pinto beans and rice.
In addition to The Ritz, The Block had included dozens of other black-owned businesses in an area generally defined by Eagle Street, Biltmore Avenue, Hilliard Avenue, and Valley Street.
Billiard rooms, nightclubs, hotels, cab stands, drug stores, beauty shops, barbershops, churches, a culture center, cafes, candy shops, doctors’ offices, jewelry stores, photo shops, a library, a bus stop, and cleaners populated the black business section.
“It was a safe area,” Julia Ray, former owner of Ray’s Cleaners and widow of the late Jesse Ray, funeral director, said. “Everybody knew everybody and nobody was unkind.”
The late John P. Holt, doctor and educational leader, recalled hanging out at the Palace Grill as a young man in the early 1930s. It was a place of which his father, Dr. John W. Holt, had approved.
Young Holt got together with his friends, and occasionally attended plays and concerts at the Young Men’s Institute. Sometimes, coming home at curfew time, 10:30 p.m., he’d indulge in a cigarette out of view of people he knew
When Eleanor Carpenter had been a young teen in the 1920s, her parents allowed her about an hour of leisure time on the Block after attending services with the Epworth League at the Berry Temple United Methodist Church. She’d go where teens went—to the YMI Drug Store on the corner of Eagle and Market Streets.
“If you had a boyfriend and he had a dime, you could sit in a booth,” Carpenter says. “I didn’t have a boyfriend and had to stand and eat an ice cream cone and watch the people courting.” She worried that the nickel she spent on the cone should have gone to the church.
Carpenter’s parents made sure that Eleanor was always accompanied by her younger brother, Will. They looked after each other. Once Eleanor saw her older brother, Harold, eating at Evan’s Sweet Shop. “I thought you couldn’t eat at a café unless you were from out of town,” Carpenter says. She informed her mom about Harold. “I was only eating a bowl of soup,” Harold later explained. “It only cost but five cents.”
The Block’s high life attracted world-class entertainment and many outsiders. Parties left restaurants at 12 midnight and proceeded to friends’ homes. Even during the Depression, the good life continued, and Julia Ray remembers customers coming to her cleaners to have their one or two good suits pressed so that they’d be ready to attend church or music hall.
From the late nineteenth century up through the early 1960s—before integration, urban renewal, and out-migration weakened the fabric of the Block—big bands, touring the South from Chicago and elsewhere, stopped in Asheville. They often played in the tobacco warehouse on Valley Street, otherwise unused from February to October. John Holt remembers going to hear Duke Ellington on one occasion and Louis Armstrong on another.
Paul Robeson’s brothers, Ben and John, married Asheville girls, Holt reports; and one summer when Ben, pastor of the Mother Zion church in New York City came to Asheville to preach at Mount Zion, Paul—the legendary performer, athlete, and scholar—sang in the chorus.
In the early hours of the morning, breakfasters at Earline McQueen’s restaurant could hang on to the era's jazz spirit by dropping a nickel in the piccolo.
“It’s already done. I’m holding fast to the promise…Don’t you know I believe what He said when He said it’s already done.”
These words, sung by the Sycamore Temple Choir as its Church of God in Christ accompanied the building of a new place of worship behind the group’s old one on North Ann Street in 2005.
Black gospel music has its roots in African sacred music, which, when brought to this country, underwent changes to appear safe to slave-owning society. Christian churches became the haven for African-American spiritual yearning, and African-American harmonies, call-and response styles, and rhythms melded with European instruments and traditions.
Gospel music influenced secular music—work songs, ragtime, jazz, and blues—which in turn influenced gospel. Thomas A. Dorsey's song, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” popularized modern gospel after World War II, establishing “gospel” as the term for what had previously been called “anthems,” “spirituals,” and “jubilees.”
Asheville was a few years behind big cities in advancing the new music. In the late 1950s, George Bishop introduced the up-tempo sound at Brown Temple on Phifer Street. But piano lessons had been a staple in African-American homes from Nina Simone's in Tryon to Gladys Kennedy's in Southside.
Kennedy, a long-time teacher at the Livingston Street School, led the Glee Club, taught piano, and played the organ at New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church on South French Broad Avenue. Often, she would have children over to her home. One of them, an eight-year old prodigy, Charles Moore, received his first piano lesson from Kennedy in the 1940s and went on to earn a doctorate in music and establish the world-renowned Sweetwater School of Music in Florida. Moore’s next-door neighbor on Blanton Street was James Ferguson, who subsequently established himself as a leading civil rights and defense attorney, arguing before the Supreme Court.
With the Model Cities program, and with school integration, the Livingston Street School was converted into a recreation center; and children who used to walk to school were bussed. Reverend Wesley Grant, pastor at New Bethel, produced a list of demolished or displaced Southside establishments, which he simply titled, “losses.” It accompanied a letter addressed to city council and concerned citizens, and began, “In the East Riverside Area, we have lost more than eleven hundred homes, six Beauty Parlors, five Barber Shops, five Filling Stations, fourteen Grocery Stores, three Laundry Mats, eight Apartments, seven Churches, three Shoe Shops, two Cabinet Shops, two Auto Body Shops, one Hotel, five Funeral Homes, one Hospital, and three Doctor’s Offices.”
“I was born,” recalls Asheville singing legend Charles Pickens, “in the Southside community—(on) Dirt Asheland, between a nearby creek, nicknamed Nasty Branch, and Asheland Avenue.” In his new book, “God Can Use Anyone…Even Me,” co-written with Patricia McAfee, he tells about his roller-coaster life.
Abandoned by his father at birth, Pickens and his siblings blossomed within the shelter of their mother, Helen Pickens, who played guitar for her children after coming home from two jobs.
The Pickens family lived in one of the two-story, boxy wooden houses that made Southside a large, vibrant, self-sufficient African American community in its pre-urban renewal heyday. Faulty heating and other housing problems may have alarmed authorities, but they did not hamper community.
“The winters were cold,” Pickens admits, “but we had a potbelly stove that used rubber dust and coal to heat the house.”
When Pickens had been a little child in the 1940s, he’d lie in bed summer nights, listening to men outside on the street playing harmonica and singing the blues. He received a harmonica for Christmas that year and played it by the Swannanoa River, where he went fishing.
It was also that year that he’d tried following his older brothers across two busy streets to Paul Cox Grocery and got hit and dragged by a pick-up truck driven by a drunk. Snag Henderson, a black ambulance driver, drove Charles to St. Joseph’s Hospital.
“When we got there,” Pickens relates, “the hospital refused to treat me and told the ambulance driver to take me to the Colored Hospital (on Biltmore Avenue).”
Over the next few years, Pickens found his calling. He sang at school, in contests, and in the Worldwide Missionary Baptist Church junior choir. Rev. Wesley Grant Sr. baptized Charles when he was fourteen—the same year that Charles formed an “a cappella” singing group, The Untils.
The group became a band, and it opened for Fats Domino at the Asheville City Auditorium. At Stephens-Lee High School, Pickens captained the 1957 state champion football team.
“Those days were sweet,” Pickens says. He and fellow musicians performed at the Sky Club, Royal Pines Night Club, James Key Hotel, Kitty Kat Club, the Jade Club, the YMCA on Poplar Street, and The Owls Lounge.
In the post-war years through the 1960s, Southside and Eagle Street were hopping. Asheville was an oasis for travelling African Americans, who, as Pickens confirms, had to avoid running out of gas or needing a bathroom in between black communities.
“I loved swinging at the Lounge,” Pickens says of the converted bowling alley in Southside. It was owned by George Hemphill, father of the late Shirley Hemphill, star of the TV sitcom, “What’s Happening.”
“The building capacity was about 65 people,” Pickens relates, “but Mr. Hemphill could always pack in about 200. People would show up in shifts. Many would wait outside until others came out.
“The back door was right behind the bandstand, and when the door was opened, the music could be heard all the way down in the hollow off Wallack Street.”
Through marriages, career successes, screw-ups, prison terms, and religious moments of truth, music enveloped Pickens’ life. You can hear some of it on a CD that comes along with the book.
The first track, “Just a Tear,” had been Pickens’ first national R&B hit, when he’d formed the duo, Pic and Bill, with another Asheville legend, Bill Mills.
“Just a tear,” Pic sings, “will let me know that you care for me, oh baby, oh baby.” Just a tear, just a sweet word, just a smile, just a kiss—“Now, listen baby,” Pic maintains, “I’ve got to have these things just to live on.”
“God Can Use Anyone…Even Me: The Charles Pickens Story” by Charles E. Pickens and Patricia A. McAfee (Grateful Steps hardcover, with CD, 111 pages, $13.00, www.gratefulsteps.com).