The State of Things
11:04 am
Fri December 13, 2013

5 Great Musicians You Might Not Know Are From Eastern North Carolina

Black and White Portrait of Billy Taylor sitting at piano, New York, N.Y., ca. 1947
Portrait of Billy Taylor, New York, N.Y., ca. 1947
Credit Library of Congress via Flickr

Eastern North Carolina has yielded a rich crop of nationally recognized African American musicians. People like jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk.

But many musicians hailing from this part of the state have gone unnoticed. A new book, African American Music Trails of Eastern North Carolina, takes readers on a musical journey through this overlooked region.

Here are five musicians whose roots run deep in Eastern Carolina:

1. Maceo and Melvin Parker 

Kinston, NC

Maceo Parker, on African American musicians and segregation: They had [Ray Charles] perform in a tobacco warehouse which used to be plentiful here in eastern North Carolina. And some promoter would make a deal with whoever owned the warehouse, and they'd make the tobacco and move it over a little bit, or out in the next warehouse bay...and build some kind of little stage. But they would have a rope, a big, thick, like maybe from a ship or something, and have it in the center of the stage, and [all the way] down the aisle. They'd have black people on one side, white people on the other side.

2. Billy Taylor

Greenville, NC

Johnny Wooten, former band director in Greenville public schools, on the late jazz pianist, Billy Taylor: Billy Taylor. He was from Greeneville. As a matter of fact, he was born on Evans Street. His father was a dentist. He's one of the renowned musicians. And he used to come to Greenville for East Carolina [University] and do concerts and workshops. And then on Saturday night we'd bring him on this side [of town] and we'd show him, "Hey man, you know where you are?" He said, "No." I said, "look man, this is where you were born, fellow!"

3. The Monitors 

Wilson County, NC

Bill Myers, founder of The Monitors: If you remember in 1957, things were segmented, even on the news events. you had the news on one show, you had the sports on another show, and the weather on another show...And then later in the 60s they put them together. You had a consolidated news program. And the one that I remember most was called The Monitor. Our band is going to be that versatile so whatever it is that you want we're going to be able to play it for you. We're old enough to know of those old songs from World War II, and yet we want to be up on things that are happening right now...[like] with the hip hop nation.

4. Milton Bullock of The Platters

Princeville, NC

Milton Bullock on appearing on The Johnny Carson Show: "My high school classmate...was looking at The Johnny Carson Show. and she called all her sisters and said, "Milton Bullock is on 'The Johnny Carson Show'!"...She said " I was so proud to hear him say that he was from Princeville. And nobody know where it was..." "What about Tarboro?" Nobody knew where Tarboro was. "What about Rocky Mount?" I said, "Raleigh." And they said, "yea we know Raleigh." And I said, "We're about 60 miles north [east] of Raleigh."

5. The Speight Sisters  

Greene County, NC

Annie Speight: My daughter took my place in the group. I kind of think I passed it on. Growing up singing, we always was sitting around the fire or the stove, the barn or wherever, because we lived on a farm. We would start a song and the others would always pitch in, and my dad would tell us about the parts. And when we'd get in the fields, we would just strike up on a tune and we would try to go for what he had taught us...And so it just began to come together. 

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