Every week or so, a large manila envelope arrives in the mail, postmarked Wilson, N.C. Inside, a sheaf of xeroxed newspaper clippings from late 19th and early 20th century editions of the Wilson Daily Times. Bobby Boykin is the benefactor, and I thank him mightily, especially when gems like this appear:
Wilson Daily Times, 25 January 1921.
Just a few months past the earth-shattering release of “Crazy Blues,” the first blues recording by a Black artist for a Black audience, Mamie Smith and Jazz Hounds would have been a hot ticket anywhere, much less Wilson. The band played three shows in a single day at the Globe Theatre, Samuel H. Vick‘s vaudeville hall/movie theatre on the second floor of the Odd Fellows Lodge on East Nash Street. Darcy Yancey and Isaac Shade were selling tickets at their respective drugstores.
(If I could time-travel, I’d want not only to see Smith perform at the Globe, but see who saw her perform at the Globe.)
Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds, including Willie “The Lion” Smith on piano, 1920. Donaldson Collection/Getty Images.
In 2018, North Carolina welcomed home a native son, renowned jazz drummer Billy Kaye. Born Willie King Seaberry in Wilson in 1932, Kaye performed with Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk and other luminaries, but had never played in Wilson. Not long after his June performance at Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park, Sandra Davidson interviewed Kaye for North Carolina Arts Council’s “50 for 50: Artists Celebrate North Carolina.”
Below, an excerpt from the interview.
S.D.: Tell me what you remember about growing up in Wilson.
Kaye: I was born in ‘32 a couple blocks from the train station near the Cherry Hotel, one of the top hotels in Wilson. My grandparents’ home was 517 Church Street which was something like a two-block walk to the train station. It was a block off Nash Street. Most of the employment was done there. Nash Street had [a] drug store, dentist, doctor. There was a Ritz Theater on Nash Street. There were three churches in that area. That was basically it. I grew up running around the yard playing the Lone Ranger with a broomstick between my legs. I used to enjoy coming home in the summers when I was a youngster to play in the dirt, climb the trees, play under the house. That kind of stuff.
S.D.: … What is it like to for you to play your first hometown show?
Kaye: It’s hard to explain. It’s the biggest thing that ever happened. Playing at home was something I wasn’t even about when I left here. I had no history. I was just a guy that moved up [North]. I played in Greensboro some years back. It was okay. It was North Carolina, but it wasn’t Wilson. Goldsboro—that was great, but it still wasn’t Wilson. Home is where I was born. So, this thing here, it’s hard to explain. I’m playing at home. I’m seeing things that I didn’t see and appreciating things. I see these trees, the most magnificent things. There’s nothing there but trees. Man, they are the greatest trees I’ve ever seen. It’s like home.
Billy Kaye performs at Whirligig Park. (Photo: Astrid Rieckien for the Washington Post.)
For the full transcript of Kaye’s interview and to watch videos of his performance in Wilson’s Whirligig Park, see here.
“my grandparents” — Kaye’s mother was Helen King. On 8 March 1929, Henrietta King, 50, whom I believe to be Helen King’s mother, married W.J. Howell, 58, in Wilson. Rev. B.F. Jordan performed the ceremony in the presence of George W. Coppedge, Eva M. Hines, and Willie Faulkland. William J. Howell died 8 November 1939 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was 67 years old; was born in Cumberland County, N.C., to Rachel Barnes; was married to Henrietta Howell; lived at 517 Church Street; worked as a laborer; and was buried in Rountree Cemetery. In the 1941 Hill’s Wilson, N.C., city directory: Howell Henrietta (c; cook) h 517 Church. Henrietta King Howell died 28 December 1948 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
“From 1932 to 1964, Mrs. Bethel was employed in the Wilson city schools system where she furthered the use of her musical talents. For many years, she was the musical assistant for the Darden School Choir.
“In addition she has taught private classes in piano and organizing for a number of students in the Wilson community, while at the same time serving as organist for the St. Mark’s Mission. Mrs. Bethel’s contribution to music at St. Mark’s Mission will be recognized during the concert by the St. Augustine’s choir, which is said to be a tribute to all the makers of music to the greater glory of God.”
In this Historymakers.org interview, educator/musician/poet Carl W. Hines Jr. spoke of his early musical influences in Wilson: “I discovered rhythm and blues early in my youth and in my hometown, there was one station that played Black music for an hour or two during the day. CPS [Sepia] Serenade was the name of the program, and us teenagers would listen to [Sepia] Serenade during that time, and then we would listen to Nashville, Tennessee, Randy’s Record Mart [WLAC], I don’t know if you know about that, but, this was the days before rock and roll, so, we would listen to Randy’s Record Mart late at night, and we would hear rhythm and blues, the Black music of the day.”
Sepia Serenade was one of two radio shows hosted by Theodore “Ted” Hooker, first on WVOT, then WGTM by the early 1950s. Hooker was Wilson’s first African-American on-air personality, and his one-hour programs were first to showcase “race music.”
“Billy Rowe’s Note Book” was a regular music column published in the Pittsburgh Courier. In late summer 1943, Edgar T. Rouseau filled in for the vacationing Rowe. Rouseau, with the American Allied Forces “somewhere in the Mediterranean,” shined a spotlight on “sepia bands” whose members were soldiers, including that of the famous Singing Engineers of the all-black 41st Engineer Regiment.
Pittsburgh Courier, 11 September 1943.
“William Coleman, of Wilson, N.C., plays the alto sax. He is an experienced player who was formerly with Snookum Russell’s Min[illegible], the Frank H. Young Shows and the Carolina Stompers.”
The “four blind colored children born in Wilson” who toured North Carolina in 1880 may be a set of the Williamson children who performed in Atlanta to great acclaim in 1885. I have been unable to identify their birth family.