African-American musicians flourished in Asheville neighborhoods
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 improved on the one he’d gotten the year before. At age nine, he’d sit on his porch and, with a plastic instrument and amp, accompany the soul brothers whose sound emanated from the Owls Lounge nearby.
The Owls Lounge had been a landmark nightspot in Southside, an African-American neighborhood cleared away in Asheville’s urban renewal program in the 1970s. Such changes weakened a music scene in which performers were nurtured by church spirituals, school programs, and a lively marketplace of gospel, soul, and jazz.
Kids aspired to emulate their elders. Martin joined friends to form 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.
“We were barely out of elementary school,” Martin continued. “But 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 trumpet and saxophone player, was experiencing the same sensations. At age 14, he got a job at the Owls Lounge. Subsequently, he joined The Outcasts, winners of a statewide Battle of the Bands competition in 1979 that named them the number one R&B, Soul & Top 40 Band in North Carolina. Pat McAfee was the lead singer.
“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.”
Asheville performers negotiated the big time.
Mayfield went to an audition at the Kitty Kat Club on Biltmore Avenue for a spot 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’d proved his ownership by playing it.
After the audition, Bonnie Clyde, one of the Innersouls members, asked to see Mayfield’s 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.’”
As society changed, some of the region’s best African-American musicians devoted their talent to churches, many more of which became receptive to horns and drums in their services. “I told the Lord I would start playing for Him,” Martin confides. Still, he says, “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.”
Asheville produces a disproportionately high amount of great music for a small city. It’s due, in good measure, to Black gospel music and the way that singing has bound community life, spiritual life, and career hopes in the African-American community.
“When I open my mouth to sing, ministering begins inside me and comes out to anyone else who may be listening,” Leonard Karle Mapp told Pat McAfee, collector of a unique archive of gospel music in western North Carolina. Mapp, who moved to Atlanta and joined the Gospel Caravans in the 1970s before returning to Asheville in 1993, started out with a dearth of resources and a wealth of influences.
While attending the Hill Street School, Mapp and two friends made cigar box guitars, formed a group called The Citations, and performed in the auditorium. “We didn’t have a drummer,” Mapp recalls, “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 Cage and Owls Lounge, legendary Asheville nightspots. 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 local recording stars Charles Pickens of the Pic and Bill duo and the late Willie Mae Harrison of the Tamettes and, as well as his family, with inspiring him to devote his life to music and gospel. Harrison’s sister, Betty, recounts Willie Mae’s passionate involvement in both church singing and popular performance.
“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 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 music brought together a variety of secular and religious traditions, as spiritual feeling fed every aspect of life—from work to street corner gatherings—in 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.
Yet, the musical tradition here predates the commercial spotlight. Reverend Paul Miller, who in 1953 established The Golden Trumpets with Brother William Morris, notes that his uncle Dennis Miller, had been a shape note singer; and that his Polk County family drove many miles to hear such groups as The Blind Boys of Alabama and the Heaven Bound Gospel Singers of Charlotte.
Miller is one of many passing on a belief that “one of the greatest things you can plant into your children is how to praise God. You praise him through song, you praise him through worship.”
Charles Pickens, singing legend from Southside
“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, utilities, and insulation may have alarmed housing 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 on fishing jaunts.
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 between stops in 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.”
ABOUT THE BOOK: “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).
Gospel music in Asheville
“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.”
No print article can fully convey the spirit of these words, sung by the Sycamore Temple Choir as its Church of God in Christ church prepares to build a new place of worship behind its present one on North Ann Street. The Church of God in Christ has been a fountainhead of modern gospel music in the country, and Sycamore Temple is the current manifestation of the oldest such church in Asheville, Sycamore Temple on Sycamore Hill, off Eagle Street.
When the Sycamore Temple choir’s director, Leonard Smith, had been fifteen years old (in 1970), he stepped into the Garden of Prayer Church of God in Christ (then at South French Broad and Hilliard, now on Forsythe Street) to see his brother, Elder Theodore Smith, lead the choir. It was a revelation, for the music added the jazziness and instrumentation that made the old spirituals and hymns feel more expressive.
“The music was more lively and had a drawing effect,” Leonard Smith says. “It had drums and tambourines and the singers’ voices were full throttle. You could feel they really believed in what they were singing.”
Black gospel music has its roots in African sacred music, which, when brought to this country, had to undergo some changes in order to pass the oversight of 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. It was Thomas A. Dorsey, and his song, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” that 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. By the time that Leonard Smith had been fully initiated into the local tradition, he was able to go to Saints Junior College, the Church of God in Christ’s institution for learning in Lexington, Mississippi.
At Saints, Smith connected with major figures in gospel music. His first choir director was Steve Hawkins, cousin of Edwin Hawkins, whose group recorded “Oh, Happy Day,” a black gospel million-seller. Smith later assumed Hawkins’ role at the college, taking The Crusaders, the choir’s traveling performers, throughout the South.
Smith’s roots are local. He lives (at the time of this writing,in 2005) in the house in which he’d been raised. And his network is vast. Other gospel leaders call him all the time with early notice of bright new recordings. “Have you heard Hezekiah Walker and the Love Fellowship Choir singing ‘Lift Me Up’?” one caller asked recently. It became part of the week’s service at Sycamore Temple.