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.”
“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.”
Now that he is safely dead,
Let us praise him.
Build monuments to his glory.
Sing Hosannas to his name.
Dead men make such convenient heroes.
For they cannot rise to challenge the images
That we might fashion from their lives.
It is easier to build monuments
Than to build a better world.
So now that he is safely dead,
We, with eased consciences will
Teach our children that he was a great man,
Knowing that the cause for which he
Lived is still a cause
And the dream for which he died is still a dream.
A dead man’s dream.
Carl W. Hines Jr. penned this devastating poem in 1965 on the occasion of the assassination of Malcolm X, but it is often, and perhaps more appropriately, associated with the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. Hines was born in Wilson in 1940, son of Carl W. Hines and Ruth Johnson Hines and grandson of Walter Scott Hines and Sarah Dortch Hines.
The Voice: An International Review of the Speaking and Singing Voice, vol. 7 (1885).
MUSICAL BLIND CHILDREN.
For several days past there has been a remarkable family of negroes in Atlanta. Their name is Williamson, and they came from Wilson county, North Carolina. There are three brothers and four sisters, all of whom have been totally blind from birth. They are the children of black parents who were slaves and ordinary field hands. Unto them were born fourteen children, seven of whom had sight, while seven were blind. The blind children were not only hardier and healthier, but their mental endowments are superior to those of their brothers and sisters who could see. They went to Raleigh to the state blind asylum and were there well educated. Every one of them developed a remarkable talent for music, and on leaving the asylum they organized themselves into a concert company and began to travel through the South. The oldest brother married a smart negro woman, who acts as guide and business manager of the party. They have been all over the South giving entertainments, which have paid them handsomely. They sing and play on various instruments with remarkable skill. All of them have good voices, which have been well trained.
Their most remarkable performances are the exhibitions of their powers of mimicry. They imitate a brass band so perfectly, that a person outside the hall in which they are humming would almost invariably be deceived. Their imitation of the organ is equally perfect. Each of the singers makes a peculiar noise and carries his or her own part of the performance, and the combined result is a deep music very like to the pealing of a grand organ. These are two of their many tricks. They are constantly adding to their repertoire, and perfecting themselves more and more in their curious arts. They have educated the sense of touch to a remarkable degree. By feeling of a person’s face and head, they can give an accurate description of his or her appearance; and one of the sisters claims that she can tell the color of the hair by touching it. The seven will stand with joined hands and any object can be placed in the hands of the oldest brother at the end of the line; while he holds it, he claims that the magnetic current which passes through the entire line will enable any one of his brothers and sisters to tell what he has in his hand. At any rate, some remarkable guesses of this kind are made.
The blind negroes have given a series of entertainments in various negro churches in the city, and have created a great sensation among the colored population. It is said they take great care of their aged parents, who still reside on the old homestead in North Carolina, in the same cabin where they lived as slaves, and where their fourteen children were born.The blind singers have bought the place and presented it to their parents. The brothers and the wife of the eldest manage the financial affairs of the combination so successfully that they accumulated a snug property. The oldest brother is about twenty-eight and the youngest sister about sixteen years old. Various efforts have been made by professional managers to secure the control of this remarkable family, but they prefer to take care of their own affairs. They are all intelligent and remarkably well posted on matters in general. — Atlanta Constitution.