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Issue 103, Winter 2018

Really Is Hard to Beat

Around the close of the 1950s, if you wanted to hear the beginnings of the funk music that James Brown would soon introduce to the world, you wouldn’t find much of it on his records. Brown’s late- ’50s recordings with the Famous Flames, like his plaintive “Try Me” and the shatteringly sweet “I Want You So Bad,” are indisputably cool, and they spill over with the vocal histrionics that would characterize his performance style for decades to come. But the overall aesthetic of his music from that era is still redolent of doo-wop and ducktails. He’d only just begun to take some sandpaper to the smooth sheen of ’50s pop music. 

No, if you wanted to hear funk music before 1960, your best bet might be the Maola Ice Cream talent show in Kinston, North Carolina. 

Maola (pronounced May-ola) Ice Cream sponsored the talent contest at Kinston’s African-American State Theatre, and the show’s house band was five local schoolboys who called themselves the Junior Blue Notes. At the heart of the band were the Parker brothers: Melvin (drums), Maceo (saxophone), and Kellis (trombone), who grew up in a family that—like many other African-American families in Kinston—regarded music as a key element of their children’s education. By the time they were in junior high the brothers were supplementing the income their family made in the dry cleaning business by playing around town, having formed a band and named it for their uncle’s combo, Bobby Butler and the Blue Notes. 

More than fifty years later, Melvin Parker sang for me the theme song that got the Junior Blue Notes their Maola gig. Clapping a polyrhythm, he sang: 

Maola Ice Cream 
Maola Ice Cream is a treat 
It really is hard to beat. 

Remembering their composition, Parker erupted with laughter. It was a simple jingle written by kids, but it was funk. A stark, syncopated three-note melody in four-four time, the Maola song lays heavily on the first beat—“on the one,” as James Brown would famously instruct his bands. 

Several years later, both Melvin and Maceo Parker would be touring and recording with James Brown’s band. (Kellis Parker went on to become the first black full-time law professor at Columbia University; he died in 2000.) 

In all, five men from Kinston played with Brown. A young saxophonist named Nathaniel Jones led the way. He was the early music director responsible for co-creating much of the most familiar music that bridged Brown’s Famous Flames style and the funk that would change music around the world. Jones and the Parker brothers were joined by two fellow Kinstonians, horn player Robert “Dick” Knight and trombonist Levi Rasbury. 

With so many of James Brown’s band members from one hometown, according to Knight, “It was almost like a Kinston band.” And for every Kinstonian who had an international touring career, there were many other top-notch African-American artists who stayed close to home, playing regionally, working day jobs, and teaching and guiding rising musical generations. It’s been that way for more than a century. 

Kinston, which currently has about twenty-one thousand residents, is one of those towns where, walking past vacant storefronts, you can almost feel the jostle of the crowds who used to fill the sidewalks. As a former tobacco and textile center, Kinston has seen some prosperous times. Over the last generation, as those two industries have collapsed, the town has undergone a rough economic decline, but the remnants of its former prosperity are startlingly apparent in the eclectic and sometimes eccentric architecture that radiates from Queen Street, Kinston’s main artery. Alongside the kinds of buildings one would expect in a Southern town of its type—millhouses and shotguns that housed warehouse and factory workers in years past, and ostentatious Queen Anne Revivals built by their bosses—there’s a World War I–era Romanesque Revival church with flanking octagonal towers; an eleven-story hotel built in the 1920s with endearingly incongruous Moorish details; and a stark 1939 courthouse, locally designed, that almost prefigures brutalism. Kinston has never been short on style. 

In 2007, while I was conducting interviews for the North Carolina Arts Council’s African American Music Trails of Eastern North Carolina guidebook, a Kinston jazz singer named Wilbert Croom told me, of his hometown, “We couldn’t compete with the big towns like Raleigh and Durham in athletics that much, but we could always beat them in baseball and music.” Kinston’s influence on the course of modern music history, always vastly out of proportion to the town’s size, had its start with the career of composer James Tim Brymn. 

Born in Kinston in 1881, when it was a town of only about twelve hundred residents, Brymn went north as a young man and attended New York’s National Conservatory. He spent the first decade of the twentieth century in the world of black musicals in Manhattan, as a performer, director, and composer. During World War I he led the 350th Field Artillery Regiment band, credited with giving many European listeners their first taste of African-American popular music. After the war, Brymn led his orchestra in recordings for Okeh Records and collaborated with W. C. Handy. Titles of his compositions included some of the earliest mass-market references to blues and jazz, and in 1924 the musical Dinah, for which he had written the lyrics, brought the Black Bottom dance out of the obscurity of regional fad and onto dance floors around the world. Tim Brymn is a fitting patriarch of Kinston musical history: brilliant, black, and way out in front of his musical contemporaries. 

Kinstonians’ penchant for music did not go unnoticed by the early record industry; a contemporary radio program claimed that in 1933, at the height of the Depression, Kinstonians purchased forty-five thousand records—more than four discs for every man, woman, and child. It was, according to the source, “surely a new high in music-minded communities.” 

In the early 1930s, a businessman named J. B. Long was living in Kinston. Like H. C. Speir in Mississippi, who helped launch the recording careers of Delta blues greats, Long was a white shopkeeper who sold records and became a self-appointed local chargé d’affaires for the record industry. Long was responsible for guiding both black and white Carolina musicians to the New York studios of ARC (the American Record Corporation), including Fulton “Blind Boy Fuller” Allen and Reverend Gary Davis, who would become arguably the two most influential Piedmont blues guitarists. 

In the summer of 1934, looking for local talent, Long organized a pair of contests in Kinston—the first, for white musicians, at the courthouse, and the second, for black gospel quartets and blues players, a couple of blocks away at the Old Central tobacco warehouse. The winner of the quartet contest was a group called the New Four. Soon, as Mitchell’s Christian Singers, and with a slightly altered lineup, the quartet went to New York to make the first of what would eventually be dozens of records. The music they recorded was an energetic blend of the quartet style then reigning in nearby Tidewater Virginia, with influence from the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ elegant arrangements of sacred songs. The apogee of Mitchell’s Christian Singers’ career, though, was surely their appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1938’s From Spirituals to Swing concert. 

The idea of From Spirituals to Swing was so progressive that organizer John Hammond had to turn to the American Communist Party’s journal, The New Masses, for sponsorship. The concert—performed to a sold-out, integrated house—was intended as an overview of black vernacular music in America. Mitchell’s Christian Singers appeared on the bill with, among others, the Count Basie Orchestra (whose band that night included Kinston saxophonist Tab Smith), Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and the Golden Gate Quartet. One New York Times reviewer was so taken by Mitchell’s Christian Singers and the blues-playing fellow North Carolinian Sonny Terry that he wrote, “If there had been nothing else on the program, these men would have been worth a long trip to Carnegie Hall.” 

The average Kinstonian didn’t have to make a trip to New York to hear the likes of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, or Cab Calloway. Kinston at mid-century was, according to Dick Knight, “almost like a little New York, because every Friday or Saturday night you had five or six different bands playing different places.” A regular stop on the chitlin’ circuit, the town, with its tobacco warehouses, provided huge venues and the audience to fill them. 

Meanwhile, a booming local music scene kept the clubs around town packed. The elder jazz musicians of the day made a vivid impression on younger artists. Drummer Willie Moore had his own local TV show, an inspiration to drummer Clemmie Lee “Fig” Jones, who remembered, “Every Wednesday night when he’d come on TV, I would . . . look like I could just eat that man, because that’s how good [it] looked, playing drums.” There was a pantheon of local jazz musicians in the mid-twentieth century, most of whom never made a recording, but whose names are frequently intoned by their former mentees. Trumpet player Louis “Papa Root” Wiggins left the most vivid impression. 

“Papa Root was an original,” Melvin Parker told me. “Papa Root was sharp,” wearing zoot suits with elaborately matching accessories. “Before the Superfly era,” said Parker, “he was wearing greens and oranges.” Saxophonist Justice “Sonny” Bannerman, who led jazz and r&b bands in Kinston for decades, said, “I guarantee a third of the people didn’t know his name, because everybody called him Papa Root. Even the little kids around here [would say], ‘Hey Mr. Papa Root!’” By day he was a housepainter and a carpenter, trades that were apparently self-taught. As if he hadn’t already secured local legend status, Papa Root—like Jim Dandy in the song LaVern Baker recorded around the same time—had a submarine. And one-upping even Jim Dandy, he built it himself. “He said he did,” averred Bannerman. “And he took it down to the river, and it submerged—but it wouldn’t come back up! So Papa Root had to get out and swim.” 

Kinston brass musicians and percussionists who came of age between the ’40s and the ’60s sort themselves into chronological crews, each of which retains a strong identity—sometimes of almost spiritual intensity—acquired at Kinston’s Adkin High School: alums whose band director was Miss Perry; those taught by her successor, James Banks; and those young enough to have learned from Nathaniel Jones when he ascended to the chair of those esteemed elders. Geneva Perry, a Washington, D.C., native, became the band director at Adkin following touring stints with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an “all-girl” big band. The band’s membership was not so much “international” as multiethnic: the majority of musicians were African American, but they were joined by white, Latina, and Asian American bandmates. (White band members sometimes wore dark makeup, hoping to simplify the band’s negotiation of segregated spaces.) 

Miss Perry, though she taught in Kinston for only a few years, remains a figure of reverence for her students, a hometown hero in a town that was her home only briefly. Sonny Bannerman told me, “She’s the one that’s responsible for me knowing what I know. . . . Oh, she played a sweet alto sax.” Thornton Canady, who followed in her footsteps as a school band director, said, “She was a wonderful person. And she could play that saxophone, ooh, like heaven.” 

“She was a great, dedicated musician,” Canady said, “and she loved her profession to the point that she wanted to put what she had inside of her into her students . . . and she would even come to your home and listen to music, talk to you. Teachers don’t usually do that.” 

When Nathaniel Jones, James Brown’s future bandleader and arranger, was fifteen years old, Perry made a special visit to his house to ask his parents to let him play in the Adkin High School band. They agreed. 

Though Jones’s musical talent was readily evident, he also excelled throughout his academic career. (His brother Ed Jones remembers that although Nathaniel was class valedictorian and named Best All-Around in his year’s senior superlatives, he was not voted Most Musical—which says more about Kinston’s freakishly talented populace than it does about any shortcoming on his part.) He majored in music at North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University), where he graduated with honors. He eventually returned to Kinston, stepping into Perry’s former role as the band director at Adkin High. 

Jones—who went by Nat professionally, being a fan of Nat King Cole—led two bands in his spare time, even employing an agent, and enlisted his brother Ed to drive for him. The big break came, as Ed remembers it, when James Brown was playing a show in Durham and was short a pair of speakers. The person he asked for help happened to ask Nat if he could borrow a set. Jones drove to Durham with the speakers, and, not wanting to let such a serendipitous connection go to waste, asked Brown if he could audition for him. Brown agreed to hear him play, and then hired him on the spot, instructing him to join up with the band at a gig in a few days’ time. 

Nat Jones would play with James Brown from 1964 to 1967, serving as his bandleader and arranger during the pivotal period that saw the release of iconic singles including “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good),” and marked the transition from Famous Flames to funk. 

Jones also hired Kinstonians Levi Rasbury and Dick Knight. He tried to recruit Sonny Bannerman as well, but Bannerman, then newly married, decided that life on the road with James Brown wasn’t for him. But had Nat Jones had his way, there would have been a half dozen Kinston men playing with Brown. 

Knight, a Georgia native, was teaching band in the county schools when Jones called him. “He said, ‘Hey Dick, do you want a job playing first trumpet with James Brown?’ I said, ‘Sure, man.’ This was like a Wednesday. He said, ‘Well, meet me at the Apollo Theater Friday evening at four o’clock.’” Knight had a quick word with the superintendent, and hit the road. 

Melvin and Maceo Parker were students at North Carolina A&T when they first encountered James Brown. Melvin’s band had a gig at Greensboro’s El Rocco Club, and in the audience were James Brown, Ben E. King (of “Stand by Me” fame), and soul singer Garnet Mimms, who had played a triple-bill show nearby. The three sat together, discussing how they might each hire members of the band. That night Brown made an offer to Melvin. At his father’s insistence, Melvin turned down the job in order to stay in school, but a few months later, Brown played at the Greensboro Coliseum, and the Parker brothers tracked him down in the parking lot. 

Melvin Parker remembers asking Brown, “‘Remember you offered the job to me?’ He said, ‘Why, of course! The job is yours.’ That’s it. I said, ‘Great!’ And I introduced Maceo. I said, ‘This is my brother, Maceo. He’s a saxophone player who is a music major at A&T. . . . He’s very talented, and he’d like to have a job too.’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t need a saxophone player.’ 

“And then I gave him that look. That look indicated, ‘Well, if you don’t have a job for Maceo, then you certainly do not have a job for me!’ He said, ‘Well, wait a minute! Wait a minute! My baritone player quit the other night.’” The nineteen- and twenty-year-old brothers were hired together and told to join up with the band in Norfolk on Sunday, barely twenty-four hours later. “How about that?” Melvin recalled Brown saying to himself, probably picturing a Monopoly board. “I just hired the Parker Brothers.” 

Maceo Parker was a key collaborator and soloist for the better part of twenty years. Having a sonorous first name also helped spread his fame, as Brown incorporated shout-outs to Parker—“I just want you to blow, Maceo”—into some of his best-known music. 

Many landmark recordings in James Brown’s discography point to the impact of the Kinstonians. “Out of Sight,” from 1964, features Nat Jones, Dick Knight, and both Parker brothers. The cover of the 1964 LP Grits & Soul shows Brown at the piano, with Nat Jones and Maceo Parker playing saxophones behind him. Brown recorded his signature song, “I Got You (I Feel Good),” with no fewer than four Kinstonians—Jones, Rasbury, and the Parkers all play on the 1965 recording. Jones wrote and cowrote the whole 1970 album Hey America, and received cowriting credit on most of Brown’s albums from the mid-’60s, including Grits & Soul, Soul Brother No. 1, Handful of Soul, and It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that much of James Brown’s music can equally be considered Kinston’s music. 

Kinston’s growth peaked in the 1990s and since then, the decline of tobacco and the collapse of North Carolina’s textile industry have taken their toll. But there are pockets of resurgence, blocks where new businesses are making a go of it. Chef Vivian Howard, a Lenoir County native, opened her restaurant Chef & the Farmer in 2006. It has since become a sensation in the Southern food world, and the focus of the TV series A Chef’s Life. Around the block, a new museum houses the massive hull of the Confederate ironclad the CSS Neuse

Kinston’s music history is also key to revitalization efforts. More than a decade ago, Thornton Canady, Miss Perry’s protégé, pointed out at a community meeting that the heritage of black music in eastern North Carolina is at least as important as that of the state’s famed mountain music, and deserves equal recognition. The North Carolina Arts Council and a coalition of regional arts councils agreed, and have since developed the African American Music Trails, a cultural tourism initiative, including a guidebook and website, concerts, and a downtown Kinston park. Most recently, empty storefronts along Queen Street have been decorated with dozens of oversize photographs of Kinston musicians past and present—Tim Brymn in his World War I uniform, Sonny Bannerman with his saxophone, Fig Jones with his drum kit in a collard patch, the 1945 Adkin High marching band. 

James Brown’s Kinston collaborators—for that’s what they were, rather than simply musicians in his employ—came and went, but they remained a powerful bloc in the band. Melvin Parker served in the military during Vietnam. He returned a few years later, but when the band imploded in 1970, both Parkers and some of their colleagues departed to form the streamlined funk outfit Maceo & All the King’s Men. Maceo returned to Brown, left again in 1975 to join Parliament-Funkadelic, and rejoined Brown in the 1980s. Melvin Parker, like so many Kinston musicians, went on to a career in education, and spent years as an official in the Prince Georges County, Maryland, school system. 

Dick Knight left Brown to go with Otis Redding and was playing with him at the end. Knight was traveling separately on the night in December 1967 when Redding and four of the Bar-Kays died, their plane crashing into Wisconsin’s Lake Monona. Knight, too, would return to Brown’s band. In the 1960s, when Knight was due for recertification of his North Carolina teaching license, local school officials waived the testing requirements because, they told him, playing with James Brown was all the credentialing he needed. Now retired, he lives in Kinston and gigs at nearby beach towns and on charter cruises. In 2018 he became the second Kinston funk artist, following Maceo Parker, to receive the North Carolina Heritage Award, the state’s top recognition for master tradition-bearers. 

Nat Jones, after an illness of many years, died in 2014. Levi Rasbury still lives in eastern North Carolina. 

Maceo Parker, now seventy-five years old, continues to tour hundreds of days each year. After more than half a century of performing and recording, including more than a decade of collaborations with Prince, Parker headlines jazz festivals from Monterey to Montreux. He still makes his home in Kinston. 

Though Kinstonians made their mark in much of twentieth-century American music history, and the city continues to produce excellent musicians in many genres, it’s inevitable that what receives the most attention is the town’s connection to James Brown—a force of nature who changed the course of the world’s popular music. But if Brown transformed the lives of the five Kinstonians who played with him, they in turn, along with the musical community of Kinston, shaped his music and his legacy. Without Kinston, funk as we know it might never have existed. 

Maceo Parker told me, “Sometimes somebody asks me, ‘What do you think would have happened if you had never met James Brown?’ I say, ‘Well, you know what? I took what I had to James Brown.’” 

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Sarah Bryan

Sarah Bryan is a folklorist from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. She directs the North Carolina Folklife Institute and edits the Old-Time Herald, a magazine about traditional string band music. The recipient of a 2020 literature fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council, she is currently working on a collection of essays. She last wrote for the magazine about the music history of Kinston, North Carolina.