Friday, March 19, 2010

The North Carolina Music Hall of Fame

Doing this blog is always fun. I enjoy it. Sometimes, more than others. Today was one of those. At the suggestion of my wife, Sue , I went to see the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in Kannapolis at 109 West A Street. It is located in a small red brick building that at one time was the town jail.

In these days of corporate ownership, it is a real pleasure to see an independent and growing operation like the Music Hall of Fame. North Carolina has been the stomping grounds of many illustrious music legends. And this spunky little museum plans to highlight them all.

Walking in I was greeted by Eddie Ray, the oft described "African American Music Industry Pioneer". It took me a few minutes to realize who he was, such is his humility. He then proceeded to take me around the place as we discussed music in general, as well as the articles on display. Immediately to the right as you enter are some plagues and photos from James Taylor. He wrote "I'm Going to Carolina In My Mind", which is our State Song.

This snappy little outfit was worn by Nina Simone. Her earthy and insistent rendition of "Do I Move You" still sends shivers down my back. It's almost as if she's daring you to say no. And her scathing indictment of segregation in "Backlash Blues" still ranks among the greatest of the 60's social protest songs. It's right up there with "Bitter Fruit" by Billie Holliday, or "I'm Black and I'm Blue" by Louis Armstrong. Powerful stuff.

Most people think of North Carolina in connection with bluegrass and gospel music, and we do have our share of that. Charlie Daniels, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson all immediately spring to mind. But we have such a wide variety of music in our history. From the beach sounds of groups like The Chairmen of the Board to George Clintons' Funkadelics, it's all on display here, with plans for adding more. The second floor is not open yet and will be welcome added space.

This gown belonged to Victoria Livengood, the noted opera star. She is still performing today. The exhibit runs the entire gamut of music. From Andy Griffiths' early comedy records and his later gospel recordings, to the likes of The Shirelles, Ben E. King and Roberta Flack. And there is more on the way. Mr. Ray is hoping to get some of the stuff from "American Idol" to represent Carrie Underwood, Clay Aiken and Bo Brice to highlight North Caroilna's connection to the show. This will keep the Museum current and relevant.

No exhibit on North Carolina and music would be complete without an outfit worn by Randy Travis of Monroe. His run of country hits in the late 1980's and his subsequent return to gospel music is a wonderful story all by itself. And the same holds true for all of the artists represented here. Each exhibit has a story to tell. Each of these artists has a sound unique to themselves.

To accommodate the need for some variety there are plans to use part of the first floor for a revolving type exhibit. This will enable the Museum to remain current and involved in the music scene as it relates to North Carolina.

But the real star of the whole show, at least for me, was Mr. Ray himself. I knew that he was half of the partnership that opened this museum. And I had some knowledge of his background in the music industry from my reading. But I had no idea that he would be on hand, so it was a pleasant surprise to learn, as we walked, just who he was.

In 1954, the year I was born, Mr. Ray was already established in the music industry, on the distribution end, and also promoting artists such as The Drifters, John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry, B.B.King, Clyde McPhatter, and Joe Turner, just to name a few!

It was also the year he released his first independent recording of "Hearts of Stone" by The Jewels. It was a crossover hit and also covered by many of the leading R & B groups of the era.

In the mid to late 50's he was handling Ricky Nelson, Fats Domino, Slim Whitman and Johnny Rivers while employed at Imperial records. In the 1960's he joined Capitol records as Director of A & R for the Tower label. It was there that he acquired Pink Floyd. It was also around this time that he became the first African American V.P. of a major recording company. So you can see how surprised I was that this man was there and taking me on a one to one tour!

Mr. Ray, along with his old friend, Mike Curb from Tower Records, have put this museum together to honor and showcase the artists that have made North Carolina a great place for music. But I have to say, that although all of the exhibits are wonderful, for me it will always be Mr. Ray that gave this visit it's own "Heart and Soul." Thanks, Mr. Ray!

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