The studio went silent.
"That assassination changed everything."
The storyteller's warm Alabama drawl softened to a whisper, even though no one was in the room with us.
"We thought it was over," he said. "We really felt like we were done."
He'd been talking about all the great soul singers he played music with in the '60s, when all of a sudden he remembered that dark day, back in April 1968, when news traveled down from nearby Memphis, Tennessee, that the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down outside his room at the Lorraine Motel.
"As soon as that happened, whites were immediately shut out of black music," the storyteller said. "And rightfully so, to a certain extent. I mean, I backed them a hundred percent. They needed to take control of their music. But it was a sad time. And we were scared."
The storyteller paused and looked down at his hands, which were clasped together in his lap as if he were about to pray. Then he looked up again, furrowed his brow, and stared into my eyes, as if I might be able to help him in some small way.
"We gave our hearts and souls to those singers," he said.
It was nine o'clock at night and for several hours the storyteller had been taking me on a listening tour of his proudest moments as a recording studio session guitarist. There was that slinky shuffle he played on Wilson Pickett's "Mustang Sally," his funky rhythm part on Etta James's "Tell Mama," and his subtle embellishments scattered throughout Aretha Franklin's 1967 masterpiece, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. Each time he cued up a different track, the storyteller would stamp his feet to the music and flail his arms about him like a spastic drummer, then bend forward in his chair, curl his fingers, and play air guitar to the scratchy riffs.
"Listen, listen!" he barked during an instrumental break in Franklin's "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" as a blanket of churchlike organ quivered beneath the singer's voice, followed by the sound of piano keys pattering down around us like rain. The storyteller sat up in his chair and pointed his index fingers skyward, as if he were preaching the gospel. "A woman's only human," Aretha sang through a pair of speakers on the shelf behind his head. "You should understand: She's not just a plaything. She's flesh and blood, just like her man."
The storyteller leaned back in his chair again and smiled feverishly, his eyes tightly shut and fists clenched. He looked like a man in the grips of Pentecostal bliss. He was right there, in the moment -- even though that moment had come and gone more than thirty years before.
Jimmy Johnson was telling ghost stories he's told a million times before -- real-life yarns about the spirits that passed through this tiny section of northwestern Alabama long ago, leaving an indelible mark on its landscape. An original member of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, Johnson helped put this river community, which serves as the headquarters of the Tennessee Valley Authority's Environmental Research Center, on the map. His funky guitar licks appear on so many '60s and '70s rock and soul classics that you can't turn on an oldies radio station without hearing them at least once an hour. By the early '70s, Johnson and his fellow studio musicians had made Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the recording mecca of American popular music.
As it turned out, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. did not presage the end for Johnson and his colleagues. Within three years, a peculiar thing happened. Young white rock stars whose lives had been transformed by the sound of black American music -- Boz Scaggs, Paul Simon, even the Rolling Stones -- descended on Muscle Shoals, hoping to be inspired by the region's rich musical history.
"Man, I remember when Rod Stewart came over here from England to record with us," Johnson said. "He wanted us to make his music sound like all those great soul records. Well, when he got here and saw us -- a bunch of white guys with guitars -- he said, 'What the hell is this? Where's the band?'
"We said, 'We are the band.'
"He said, 'No, I mean the black guys that played on all those great Aretha records, Pickett and all that?'
"We said, 'Well, that's us, but we're not black.'"
Johnson slapped both hands down on his knees and cackled. He was sitting at a sprawling soundboard inside his Swamper Studio, a ranch-style home he's converted into his current recording business. Johnson still works with the occasional big-name musician, but his profile today is much lower than it was in the '60s and '70s. Back then, the nation was in flux, and Jimmy Johnson's Alabama was right smack at the epicenter of change.
It only made sense that Johnson's talk of the golden years of southern soul would trigger thoughts of the King assassination. And when those thoughts came, they stopped him dead in his tracks. He had hit the volume controls on the tape machine, and for whatever reason, he felt it necessary to whisper. Maybe the spirits would hear him.
"During those civil rights years, music changed," he said. "We lived through those changes. We were part of the change. And we felt it."
As Johnson spoke, I checked to make sure the reels on my tape recorder were still rolling. I didn't want to miss this, because what he was talking about was the very genesis of southern rock, the music that, by the 1970s, had given a new identity to my friends and me back in North Carolina. In the early '70s, rock bands such as the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd articulated the confusion that we felt as twelve-year-olds growing up in a world in which black and white, old and young, wealthy and working class, hippie and redneck were becoming increasingly polarized. The South had changed dramatically in the '60s, and those of us who were too young to have experienced those changes with an adult consciousness were forced to find our place amid the fallout of cultural chaos. We were alone. Our parents couldn't help us. They didn't understand.
The white musicians who had worked alongside the South's most famous black singers during the civil rights years did understand. Their music, and the music of those who followed them, would serve as a road map out of the chaos. It wouldn't be an easy journey, but it was a beginning.
That it took the assassination of America's greatest black leader to open the doors for those white southern musicians to step out from the shadows of the soul singers they had worked with, idolized, and emulated was a cruel twist of fate. King's death effectively provided a window of opportunity for young whites to begin expressing, through a new musical language, their own feelings of despair, gratitude, confusion, elation, guilt, and rage. This was not Elvis Presley's rock & roll -- it was a mix and jumble of Elvis and Otis Redding, of Jimmie Rodgers and Robert Johnson, of Johnny Cash and Mississippi John Hurt, of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and Leadbelly, of the Beatles, the Stones, Little Richard, and Carl Perkins.
For Jimmy Johnson and the other white musicians who had backed black stars at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, 1968 was a year of soul searching. Rick Hall, the white producer and owner of Fame, looked back on that period in the 1995 PBS series Rock & Roll. "The mood of black music changed from that point on," he said. Suddenly, black singers stopped booking studio time at Fame. The goal of having their music cross over to the white pop charts was no longer important; in fact, it was a liability.
"The black musicians at that time were under a lot of pressure not to record with white people," said David Hood, Johnson's bass-playing partner in the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.
Hood and the other Alabama session players understood the reasoning behind that pressure, but they felt rejected by it nonetheless. After all, if black singers were now looking to record only with black musicians at black-run studios, the white musicians who had been playing with them throughout the '60s (and their youth) would have to find new outlets for their creativity -- and new ways to make the rent.
"Here we were, cutting hit records for them," said Hood, over a plate of fried chicken at a soul food restaurant in nearby Florence, just down the road from the birthplace of blues legend W. C. Handy. "We loved working with them. I learned so much about music from Otis Redding and all the other artists I worked with. They taught me how to play. But it was different after the assassination. That was the turning point -- that was when we started working with more white artists."
Jimmy Johnson decided to expand from being a musician to taking on the role of producer and artist representative. Three months after the assassination, he headed out to Los Angeles to try and land a record deal for a young black rhythm & blues singer from Canada. "I went up to Capitol Records and said, 'I got this record by this artist and I want to see if you'd be interested in releasing it,' " Johnson said. "Well, the guy at Capitol says to me, 'You're wasting your time.'
"I said, 'What are you talking about?'
"He said, 'You're the wrong color.'"
The following year, Johnson and Hood left Fame to open their own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound, where they worked predominantly with white rock bands.
At the hit-making Stax Records, in Memphis, the integrated Booker T. and the MG's, another group of studio players who backed a number of southern soul singers, consisted of two black musicians and two whites. The MG's were perhaps the first truly egalitarian rhythm section in rock & roll. In their heyday, they played on a string of hit records, from Rufus Thomas's "Walkin' the Dog" to Otis Redding's "(Sittin' on the) Dock of the Bay." But by the late '60s, the morale among the Stax studio brass, musicians, and other employees had reached an all-time low. In December 1967, Otis Redding died in a plane crash. When King was assassinated four months later, it only exacerbated the deepening rift at Stax.
"That was the turning point, the turning point for relations between the races in the South," Booker T. told Peter Guralnick in the book Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom. "And it happened in Memphis."
White musicians continued to work with blacks, but to a much lesser degree, and the casual atmosphere of musical integration and experimentation had become tense, the relationships strained. Black stars became wary of any publicity linking them to their white colleagues. By late 1968, Booker T. and the MG's released a song fittingly titled "Soul Limbo."
With the rise of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, blacks in the South and across the nation had already begun to take more control of their lives. To the southern-based Martin Luther King Jr., control meant effecting change through steady, nonviolent confrontation; northeastern-based Malcolm X took a more do-it-yourself approach to activism, and his slogan advocating change "by any means necessary" was taken literally by some of his more militant followers. Those ostensibly conflicting outlooks from the two most eminent black leaders in America created tensions both within and between the races, and led, temporarily, to divisions that ran along racial, political, religious, and philosophical lines. During the civil rights years, things had to get worse before they could get better.
By the mid-1960s, a growing number of young African-Americans had begun to express their rage in ways that frightened whites. Any act or pose from an African-American male speaking out on issues of racism was perceived by Middle American whites as threatening; the image of the black man standing up to his captors had been branded into America's subconscious since the days of slavery, and it played straight into the white man's guilt. Consequently, violence broke out on both sides. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, appointed by President Lyndon Johnson, reported more than 150 riots between 1965 and 1968. In 1967, the year before the King assassination, 83 people were killed, 1,800 were injured, and more than $100 million in property was destroyed.
By the latter part of the decade, the civil rights movement itself had splintered into factions: on one side were those who continued to follow King's nonviolent route, on another were the more militant urban Black Nationalists who advocated direct confrontation. When King was assassinated, the floodgates opened for the more uncompromising activism, and the music business was caught in the undertow. Nowhere did this conflict manifest itself more than in the South. Within the music community, which for years had been one of the few shelters of interracial interaction, the divisions were devastating.
"It was a hard time," said Phil Walden, who in the early '60s managed a number of black artists in his hometown of Macon, Georgia, including Otis Redding. Walden went on to establish the preeminent southern rock record label of the '70s, Capricorn, and manage the Allman Brothers Band.
"It was through music that I had actually gotten to know black people," said Walden, sitting in the library of his home, which sits atop a hill in the swanky Buckhead section of Atlanta, overlooking a winding, tree-lined road dotted with similarly huge southern mansions. "When you get to know a black person and become privy to their culture, their life, their lifestyle, it's like you suddenly realize that this person is a fucking human being. He can read just like me, he feels just like me, he's just got different-colored skin. So why in the hell have we been doing all this to these people for so long?"
It was the spring of 2002, and Walden was looking frailer than I'd ever seen him. He was completely bald, the result of treatments he'd undergone over the previous few months for cancer. Only a year earlier, I'd seen the veteran rock manager in a club in downtown New York City, dressed immaculately, his head full of wavy hair. If you took a photograph of Walden during his '70s heyday and placed it next to a young Bill Clinton, you'd think they were brothers. And when he smiled, Walden had the toothy sparkle of Jimmy Carter. Though Walden was looking in poor health on this breezy afternoon, he spoke with stiff-lipped determination and a passion for music that hasn't waned one iota. As delicate as his body was, Walden's booming Georgia drawl still resonated like that of an old-time southern politician.
Like most whites in the South, Walden was brought up to feel superior to blacks. "My father was a pretty avowed racist, because that's how he was raised," he said. "They were all raised that way -- forever. I remember asking my mother why colored people were treated like that. She said it's not really right, it's just the way things are in the South."
Walden didn't buy it. When he listened to the music of black artists, he experienced feelings he'd never had. As a kid in the '50s, he would sneak off to performances by Macon's flamboyant rock & roller Little Richard. But it was Otis Redding who changed Walden's life. "I was real fortunate to discover a new way of seeing things through my relationship with Otis," he said. "He kind of walked me through his culture, and I kind of walked him through my side of it, and we were able to absorb and learn from each other. At some point I just became a total neoliberal and I thought -- seeing the South, which I love very much, and the stupid stances people were taking, and the millions of dollars that were spent on antiquated laws -- something is wrong here. You actually couldn't marry a black person back then. It was against the law."
Whites and blacks could discuss music together in the '50s and early '60s, but only in management offices and back-alley clubs in progressive college towns or hidden behind the walls of a recording studio. Paul Hornsby, a former member of the band Hourglass, which also included Florida brothers Gregg and Duane Allman, remembered an incident in the early '60s when he and a college friend took a road trip. They were driving from the university town of Tuscaloosa, in northern Alabama, back to the southern part of the state where Hornsby's parents lived. Somewhere along the way, they spotted a VFW club with cars parked outside and music blaring. The two eighteen-year-old students stopped to see what was going on.
Inside, a black band was cranking out some heavy rhythm & blues. Hornsby, who was raised in a tiny Alabama backwater with bluegrass-picking kinfolk, was young and naïve. But he loved music and had begun to jam with black R&B bands at college frat parties.
"That band was just cookin'," Hornsby remembered. "I mean, they were good. So I thought, Hey, I sit in with bands all the time up in Tuscaloosa, I'd like to play with these guys. Well, I went up to the band when they took a break and we started braggin' on their music and everything. I said, 'Hey, if you don't mind, I'd like to sit in?'
"They looked kind of nervous, you know, and I couldn't understand why. And one of 'em, the leader, he says, 'You better ask the boss man.' Well, the manager of the club, he was a white guy, I said to him, 'Hey, do you mind if I sit in with that band? It's all right with them if it's all right with you.' And the man just looks at me and says, 'Probably better not do that.'"
Today, Hornsby runs a small recording studio in Macon, Georgia, where he's lived since he played with the Allmans in Hourglass. When that band broke up, Hornsby went to work for Phil Walden at Capricorn Records, where he produced hit records for the Charlie Daniels Band and Wet Willie. But to this day, that rural club owner's response still boggles his mind.
Unlike Walden, Hornsby grew up in the country, where he rarely came into contact with blacks, and his family never talked about race. He had no particular feelings one way or the other about racial issues; he just liked playing music. By the time he got to college, talk of civil rights was on the rise, but it all seemed academic to the young guitar player. Until that moment at the VFW club.
"I said to the club owner, 'Well, why not? Why can't we play with them?' And the guy just looked at me like he was surprised I even asked the question. He said, 'We just don't do that around here.' And I thought, Damn, ain't that weird? It's just music. I mean, I'm not trying to date their daughter or anything. We're breathing the same air, why can't we play music together? And all he could say was, 'We just don't do that around here.'"
It was a short, sharp education for the farm boy. "I guess we were just ignorant. You know, I always thought music transcended race. I thought race had no part among musicians. I knew there were problems back then, but until that night, I'd never seen it in a musical setting."
Neither had Mac Rebennack, better known by his stage name Dr. John, who had been recording and performing with blacks in New Orleans since 1954. "Back before integration, when the miscegenation laws was still in effect in New Orleans, the black and white thing was separated, but there was a lot of clubs where it was wide-open jam sessions all the time," said Rebennack, in his deep, bayou growl. "The gangsters owned the clubs anyway, so the police wasn't going to bother them."
Paradoxically, that changed when the civil rights movement gained momentum -- and civil rights hit New Orleans relatively early on. The police, who had looked the other way in the pre-integration days, suddenly began bullying clubs where blacks and whites appeared onstage together. "They started coming in and stopping bands from having black-and-white jam sessions," said Rebennack. "Integration brought segregation to the clubs."
One of Malcolm John Rebennack Jr.'s earliest memories is of sitting on a front porch and hearing his grandfather sing, "I been hoodooed, I been hoodooed, I been hoodooed -- somebody done put the jinx on me." It was an omen for the future Dr. John, who formed his first band, the Dominoes, when he was still attending New Orleans's Jesuit High School, the alma mater of Louis Prima. But Rebennack, whose father owned an appliance store and knew a local recording studio operator named Cosimo Matassa, wound up spending more of his teenage years hanging out with musicians and reading comic books than he did at school. Two of his biggest influences were Walter "Papoose" Nelson and Roy Montrell, both of whom played guitar with Fats Domino and taught the young Rebennack some of their tricks. Rebennack mimicked their styles and eventually began playing on recording sessions for such legends as piano bluesman Professor Longhair and R&B singer Frankie Ford.
"Hell, I was fifteen years old when I started working in them studios," Rebennack said. By age seventeen, he had cowritten his first rock & roll song, "Lights Out," which became a regional hit for the white singer Jerry Byrne, on the Specialty Records label, in 1957.
By then, Rebennack had begun working as a producer for Ace Records, in nearby Jackson, Mississippi. From time to time, the small independent record company would put together package shows of its biggest acts and send them out on tour. Rebennack went along as a performer.
"When the civil rights movement heated up, it became more dangerous to travel as part of these package shows," said Rebennack. "Before then, we used to travel all over the South with no problem -- me, Earl King, Guitar Slim, Chuck Berry, people like that -- but then suddenly, we started getting hassled."
On one tour, the group was traveling a long stretch of Alabama highway when they saw a flashing light behind their car. "It was the Alabama State Police," said Rebennack. "They stopped us and came walking over to the car. And I mean, this was right around that time that all the bad shit, the lynchings and shit was going on. Well, the cop comes over and he says, 'I smell weed in this car.' And James Booker [the 'Piano Prince of New Orleans'], he says, 'Yes sir, I saw your lights and I threw the bag out the window. It's all over the highway back there.'" Rebennack let out a wheezy laugh, then continued: "You could say shit like that back then, because they didn't have a clue. Anyway, the cop, he says, 'Get the hell out of here, you crazy nigger.' But it's lucky he didn't see my ass sittin' back there in the car with them crazy sombitches, because that would have been worse than the weed. I mean, the police could have busted us for being in the car together."
Another frightening incident occurred when Rebennack was part of a tour headed for Harrisburg, Mississippi. "They'd just had this big famous lynching somewhere on the road between New Orleans and Harrisburg," he said. "So we heard about all this shit and here we are, a mixed group of guys on the road together in the deep South. It was scary. We was prime targets."
Even in the more tolerant New Orleans, Rebennack found himself in some outrageous situations. "I remember a show with Bo Diddley at the Municipal Auditorium, which was a real segregated house," he said. "Bo's band didn't make it to the gig. Well, they wouldn't let us back him up. I mean, he was headlining this event and his band had got stuck somewhere else, and they made him go out and play that gig by himself because they wouldn't let a mixed band back him up. Here we were, a big seventeen-piece band, and we had to sit there and watch Bo Diddley play the gig all by himself."
Music was supposed to be the duty-free zone of racial interaction. In the parlance of today's kindergarten teachers, it was supposed to be the "time-out" corner. Even singer and fiddler Charlie Daniels, who wrote and sang the jaw-jutting southern rock anthem of the mid-'70s, "The South's Gonna Do It," and says he grew up with intensely racist views, would listen without judgment to African-American spirituals on the radio. "The one thing the South has always done is respect black music," said Daniels. "Whether you respected black people or not, you respected the music."
Daniels grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina, in the '40s and '50s, during a time when, as he says, "it was us against them." He graduated high school in 1955, a year after the first rumblings of civil rights legislation. "I never went to school with a black person one day in my life," he said. "My mind was conditioned in such a way that I felt they were an inferior race. That was just the way things were. And the thing about it is, when you're raised that way, when you're indoctrinated that way, it's not even a conscious thing to you. It was a cultural thing. No, it went deeper than a cultural thing: it was almost a fervent sort of belief that this was the way things were supposed to be."
Since there was no television in the '40s, Daniels listened to radio broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry every Saturday night. In between the Opry and the local bluegrass stations on the dial, he would run across a black gospel station here and there. "A lot of black gospel music, a lot of blues, I was exposed to a lot of that kind of thing," he said. "You're not raised in the South at the time I came around without hearing black music. And I loved music, so I listened to all kinds of it."
That didn't immediately change his segregationist views. "For me, it was like this: they had their music and we had our music. And everybody knew that black music was the pacesetter. Ever since it started getting any exposure at all, it's been the pacesetter. And, of course, that was the big change in music and culture -- when black music began to get played on white radio stations and listened to by white kids, it just got bigger and bigger and bigger, and then, well, you know, rock & roll."
Daniels began his music career playing in a bluegrass band. In the late '50s, his tastes moved toward the burgeoning rock & roll of Elvis and Chuck Berry, and he formed an outfit called the Jaguars, which played cover versions as well as a few original tunes. It wasn't until Daniels left the South, though, that he began to understand the big lie he'd grown up with: that blacks were intellectually inferior. He was living in Washington, DC, and playing his music in clubs. There, he fell in love with jazz and began interacting with black musicians on a more intimate level.
"One of the hardest things about giving up any kind of prejudice is being honest with yourself," said Daniels. "It's not an easy thing to do. It's not easy to say, 'For nineteen years I've been living and believing a certain way and I'm beginning to wonder if what I believed is right.' Then you go a little further and start admitting, 'No, I know what I believed is not right. I have no right to feel that way.' And then you have to start working on your attitude. Because your mind has been so preconditioned to the them-versus-us mentality. It takes a while for things to kind of smooth out."
In the late '50s and early '60s, Daniels had begun to hear a lot about Martin Luther King Jr. and the nonviolent civil disobedience he was encouraging in the South. At first, Daniels's old ideas blinded him. "I just had him figured as a troublemaker," Daniels said. "I'd hear about them going down there and doing all this stuff and everything...I mean, the very audacity of them trying to become equal with white people was just beyond my comprehension. I couldn't imagine it."
By the time King graduated from small-town boycotts to national marches, though, Daniels was able to receive the message. "I had changed a lot by then. I'd already started having a tremendous respect for him. I mean, for years the guy just kept on and on and on. He never hurt anybody, never led violent marches, never burned anything down. He just kept coming and he kept coming and then, all of a sudden, there he is on TV. And he does this speech. He says he has a dream. And it just knocked my socks off. I mean, he put it right exactly where it's supposed to be. He put it right in the middle. He was speaking the truth, and I heard it."
That was 1963. Five years later, King was dead. "I think he had a pretty good idea he wasn't going to make it through this thing," said Daniels. "When you listen to that last speech -- the 'been to the mountaintop' speech -- you get the idea he knew he was going to die. It would have been awfully easy for him to have pulled back much earlier and said, 'Okay, boys, I got you this far -- I'm going back to Georgia, I'm going to preach in my little church, and I'm going to leave the rest of this civil rights stuff up to y'all.' But he didn't do that."
Daniels stared into my eyes with the cocky righteousness that fuels his biggest hit song, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." He's a sermonizer by nature and by profession, and when he gets on a roll, his voice rises and his face reddens. "Right in the very face of death," he continued, "that man kept going. He walked into the valley of the shadow of death and then right into it. I mean, that man was a..." He trailed off, and his voice softened. "That man said he wasn't afraid of anything. He said, 'I fear no man.' Now, how can you not be affected by that? That, brother, is real faith."
Four days after the King assassination, more than one hundred blacks gathered at St. Luke's Methodist Church in my hometown of Asheboro, North Carolina, to march up Fayetteville Street, the town's main drag. It was a comparatively small demonstration, for sure, but Asheboro had never seen such a direct show of unity from its tiny black population. Onlookers, mostly white, gawked from the sidewalks as the demonstrators slowly rounded the corner onto Sunset Avenue. One of the marchers, a young black man, carried a hastily scrawled sign that read, WE WILL STILL LIVE!!! Another marcher, the Reverend Don Jackson, an elderly white man with sheet-white hair, held a Bible close to his chest.
Only four other whites participated in the march alongside the Reverend Jackson: W. R. (Sandy) Grey, the local chairman of the human relations committee, Grey's wife, and two other area ministers. To Grey, the march was a show of solidarity. "I never really thought about it being a protest march," said Grey in 2002 while sitting on the patio at the side of his home in an upscale enclave of town. "I was just thinking it was to honor King and to show our disapproval of this way of handling racial matters."
At the time of the march, Grey was shocked that more whites didn't share his decision to march alongside Asheboro's black demonstrators. "I remember my wife and I feeling very alone out there," he said. "I swear, I never even thought about it being dangerous. I never thought that somebody might have taken a shot at us or anything like that. Until I got uptown. We were on Fayetteville Street turning onto Sunset, and I looked over and saw these white guys looking pretty hostile and making various comments. Somehow it hit me at that point that this was a little bit risky."
At the time, Grey was a thirty-year-old textile mill owner who'd been sheltered from the fear, resentment, and hostility of racial unrest. Though Grey owned a mill and was surrounded by punch-clock laborers, he was, by his own account, naïve to the ways of the working-class white South. The day after the march, Grey walked into a diner near his mill and sat down for some lunch.
"I guess it was a Monday," he recalled. "Our plant was down, and for lunch I used to walk to this diner to get my exercise. So I walked in and sat down, and there was this group of guys -- various tradespeople I knew -- sitting around a table and talking about the march. One of them said, 'Did you know there was a white woman marching with that bunch of niggers?' I thought, I wonder if I should tell them that that white woman was my wife?" His eyes wandered for a moment before he finished his thought: "I decided I would not."
The day after the march, the editorial page of the local newspaper made a desperate plea for a politically moderate solution to the tensions rising in Asheboro and across the South. The editorial suggested that citizens of Asheboro should steer clear of militant activists at both extremes of the racial divide, but the writer named only militant black activists who lived three thousand miles away from our small town. It didn't mention the Ku Klux Klan, which had chapters in our own backyard.
"If the reasoning men of both races fail to reaffirm a bond in the wake of the cowardly violence that snuffed out Dr. King's life," the paper declared, "then the Stokely Carmichaels and the Rap Browns of the future will be the Negro spokesmen, and the gun and police power will be the white man's." Later in the editorial, the newspaper showed its true southern colors: "We don't harbor any such notions that the two races can live in placid harmony under the best of circumstances....But with the assassination of the prime advocate of nonviolence, perhaps now the explicit lawlessness of 'black power' will appear more distinct, as a threat to permanent racial harmony. With violence as the alternative to Dr. King's way, perhaps more will view his passing as a dangerous sacrifice in the civil rights cause."
In another editorial, the paper praised the white citizens of the town for treating the marchers with respect. "If there was a single ugly word said, or a single epithet thrown all during the march, nobody heard it...." the editorialist wrote. "Asheboro should be proud."
The day after the editorial ran, local Ku Klux Klansmen filed for permits in nearby Liberty and Siler City, to march through those towns later in the month. Citing a conflict with a local church event, Liberty's mayor gingerly rejected the Klan. "I would not want this board to encourage any extra activities that day by other groups."
Another editorial appeared later that week regarding the involvement of Grey and the other whites who joined Asheboro's black marchers. "Those white faces that braved criticism perhaps struck a chord of tolerance which we hope exists in abundance somewhere deep in the city's essence."
My parents don't remember the march. They'll tell you precisely where they were and what they were doing on November 22, 1963, when John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Texas, but Mom and Dad are fuzzy on the details of the King assassination. Dr. King was killed six days before my eighth birthday. My mom furrowed her brow when I asked her about that time. "I'm not sure what we were doing," she said. "We were probably helping you plan a birthday party."
The week of the march, Sly and the Family Stone were telling listeners of Top 40 radio in my hometown to "Dance to the Music"; Otis Redding was in the Top 10 with his posthumous "(Sittin' on the) Dock of the Bay"; and the Temptations were crooning their sad hit "I Wish It Would Rain." The Beatles were telling us to "take a sad song and make it better," and the rock band Blue Cheer was in the Top 40 with their bone-crushing, proto-heavy metal cover of Eddie Cochran's '50s rockabilly hit "Summertime Blues."
I remember hearing all of those songs blaring from a radio at the local public swimming pool. But not long after the assassination, the mood of popular music would change. Aretha Franklin wrote and recorded her hard-driving funk hit "Think," which admonished America to "think about what you're trying to do to me." This sassy demand of a lover to her partner barely veiled the message Franklin was telling the South, specifically, and the nation at large: think about what you're doing to your country. It was one of the first protest songs to insinuate itself into my young psyche. Subconsciously, I must have picked up on the fact that I, too, was being told to think.
Franklin's hit song mingled with the music coming from other places in my hometown. In 1968, country music was king in the diners and factory parking lots around Asheboro. The town's country radio deejay, Perry Hunt, would spin the latest hits: Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man," Sonny James's "Heaven Says Hello," and my favorite at the time, Jeannie C. Riley's sassy "Harper Valley P.T.A." In between those working-class anthems, though, another country singer, the little-known Henson Cargill, sneaked in a socially conscious song called "Skip a Rope," wherein he warns of hating your neighbor "for the shade of his skin." Things were changing, even on country radio in my hometown, and those of us who were listening to music could not escape its messages -- even if we were too young to understand the significance of marching down Fayetteville Street.
Phil Walden looked out the back window of his home at the beautiful gardens that glistened in the spring breeze. He's proud of his home, those gardens, and the good life he has today as a result of his association with Otis Redding and all the other African-American artists with whom he came of age in Macon, Georgia.
"It was through my affiliation with musicians -- with young black musicians, with Otis Redding, in particular -- that I learned about life," said Walden. "Otis was my teacher, he was my preacher, he was my rabbi."
When the civil rights movement that Walden supported so vigorously forced him out of black music in the late '60s, he moved into the world of white rock & roll. This was ironic, considering Walden never really cared much for white music. But black singers no longer needed a white Phil Walden to manage their careers. Walden, like the studio musicians who'd backed black stars in Muscle Shoals and Memphis, had to find a new place for himself in a rapidly changing world.
The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. transformed Walden's life in ways he wouldn't have chosen. It transformed the lives of the musicians who worked with black stars. It transformed all of our lives. Like Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King Jr. died for our sins. He died so we could learn to live differently.
Walden put it this way: "Civil rights freed the white southerner, particularly the young white southerner. It gave us grace, it gave us an opportunity to escape the racism and politics of the Old South. We forget what a blessing Martin Luther King Jr. was to the South."
Copyright © 2004 by Mark Kemp
It was a weekend ritual. Sixteen-year-old Phil Walden and his buddies would amble over to the local YMCA in Macon, Georgia, to hang out with each other, play ball, and talk to girls. One weekend in 1956, Walden had another plan. Like always, he told his parents that he and the guys were going to the Y, but this time Walden made a beeline into the majestic, gold-domed Macon City Auditorium next door. "I had heard on the local R&B radio station that Little Richard was going to be playing," he remembered. That detour would change Phil Walden's life and chart the course for southern rock.
In 1956, Walden, who would later become the manager of soul legend Otis Redding and then of the Allman Brothers Band, was already crazy about music, specifically the black music he heard on his radio. Four years earlier, Walden had discovered the raw passion of rhythm & blues. "I was about eleven or twelve years old and my older brother had graduated from college, in Bloomington, Indiana, and come back home with a batch of 78s -- Hank Ballad, Joe Turner, the '5' Royales," said Walden. "I would sit there all day and play these things over and over." Walden's mother was nonplussed. "She said, 'What is it about this music?' I said, 'I don't know.' I couldn't explain it in words. There was just something real about it. I felt like those guys were singing to me."
Phil Walden wasn't the only young white southerner awed by African-American rhythm & blues in the mid-1950s. In 1954, during his first recording sessions for Sun Records, in Memphis, Tennessee, a teenaged Elvis Presley blended the blues of his Mississippi roots with the hillbilly sounds of bluegrass king Bill Monroe. In May of that same year, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren delivered a unanimous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that ended state-sanctioned segregation of the public schools. By August, Elvis's first regional hit, "That's All Right," was blaring out of radios all across the South, and the swivel-hipped singer embarked on a tour of the southern states. Parents of white teenagers were outraged by this white singer who danced and sang like a black man. Within two years, RCA had signed Elvis and released his first national No. 1 pop single, "Heartbreak Hotel." It was 1956, and Bill Haley and the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" was the smash theme song to a youth-culture movie of the same name. Rock & roll had established itself as a contender in American mainstream pop consciousness. The days of the romantic, silky-voiced crooners were over.
Before the mid-'50s, popular music in America was a wholly different beast from what it's been since. The white male stars that began making their mark during the waning years of World War II and into the postwar era -- from Bing Crosby to Perry Como to Frank Sinatra -- were mostly nonsouthern by birth, but they sometimes, to one degree or another, assimilated southern black or hillbilly styles into their music. Aside from Sinatra, though, these singers rarely let the grittier aspects of those styles clash with their own more polished sensibilities. Even popular black stars of the period, such as Nat King Cole, would soften the edges of jazz and blues to appeal to mainstream white audiences. Rock & roll let the styles clash, and many people were frightened by its dissonance, both musically and culturally. Prior to the '50s, about the only place you'd find real southern jazz, blues, or hillbilly music would be on regional independent or specialized record labels.
Jerry Wexler, cofounder of Atlantic Records, recalled the mood of the late '40s: "We were making black records, with black musicians and black singers for black buyers. It never occurred to us in the beginning that there were crossover possibilities."
For many young, adventurous southern whites, that crossover already had begun. In the late '40s, around the time Hank Williams was shaking up the country music establishment in Nashville, two radio stations -- WDIA, in Memphis, and WOOK, in Washington, D.C. -- were among the first to program black music exclusively. Other stations followed, and by the early '50s, white teenagers across the South were tuning in to black-music radio stations. Niki Sullivan, a cousin of rock & roll pioneer Buddy Holly, recalled listening to black stations from as far away as Shreveport, Louisiana, more than five hundred miles from his hometown of Lubbock, Texas. "I started listening to rhythm & blues in high school," he said. "I can remember in my junior year, the Midnighters were very popular -- where I ate lunch they had those records on the jukebox."
Rock & roll's roots in the South go further back than the '40s and '50s. Even though the region was known for its oppressive racial segregation, there were two places where poor blacks and poor whites could meet on common ground: work and church -- two places where singing kept folks sane. And so it was here that music first began circulating from white hands to black hands and back again. Legend has it that in Western Kentucky in the 1920s, a black blues guitarist by the name of Arnold Schultz would get together with the young white mandolin picker Bill Monroe, and they would jam on Monroe's hillbilly music and Schultz's blues. What came out of those jam sessions was bluegrass, a lightning-speed blend of old-timey Irish and Scottish folk music particular to southern mountaineers, and pure, raw Kentucky blues.
This kind of musical miscegenation among the poorest African- and European-descended southerners goes even further back. For example, the banjo, one of the lead instruments in bluegrass and mountain music, is actually an African instrument, created by stretching a drumhead over a gourd and adding strings and tuning keys. The drumhead is what gives the instrument its distinctive twang. And then there's the guitar, the predominant instrument of the blues. The earliest evidence of guitar music is found in Spain, where the instrument's gently strummed strings give Spanish music its sweet, romantic melodicism. The point is that neither black blues nor white country would exist without this very important exchange, beginning in the early part of the twentieth century among the musicians and instruments of the two races that were not allowed to mingle in the United States when those musical genres were first born. And this happened primarily in the South.
There's a never-ending stereotype about southern race relations that keeps information about this important sharing of music one-sided and has led to the myth that white musicians habitually steal from black musicians. I've found that much of this one-sidedness has come not so much from righteously angry blacks as from self-righteous white pop critics and political activists. I'm generalizing, of course, but this trend plays an important role in the development and evolution of southern rock and the mixed emotions the music validated during a traumatic period of our nation's history. While white critics generally praise the music of poor black southern musicians, many of those critics freely mock the music and character of working-class white southern artists.
Southern rock's heyday lasted from about 1969, when the Allman Brothers Band's first album was released, to about 1977, when Lynyrd Skynyrd's plane went down. It's ironic that the genesis of southern rock goes back to the British Invasion of the mid-1960s, when acts such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, the Animals, Cream, and Led Zeppelin took southern American musical traditions such as the blues, country, and early rock & roll, and transformed them into a new sound. It was an exciting new style of rock & roll that reintroduced southern musical traditions to a new generation of Americans, including young southerners, who were hungry for a sound of their own, a sound that was distinct from the music of their parents yet culturally familiar.
By 1964, when the Beatles arrived in the United States, young Americans were ready for this new style of music. Since 1959, when a plane crash killed Buddy Holly, rock & roll had been on a downward spiral. Around that same time, Elvis Presley joined the army, the careers of Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis had been stalled by sex-related scandals, and Little Richard turned to God. The record industry backed away from the gritty rock & roll of those musical giants and instead fed young America a steady diet of lightweight pop-rock by teen idols such as Pat Boone, Fabian, and Frankie Avalon. The rumble of urban folk music provided depth for young people who'd grown concerned about race relations in the South and the escalating war in Vietnam, but that music didn't have the force of electric guitars and drums. So when the Beatles' music hit the airwaves, it shook America like an earthquake, creating aftershocks from New York to California.
On their first U.S. tours, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were stunned to find that Americans -- particularly southern Americans -- were ignorant of their own musical traditions. After all, since the late '50s, when the songs of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly hit the U.K., young British musicians had been painstakingly schooling themselves on southern American music. Guitarists George Harrison, Keith Richards, and Eric Clapton, and singers Mick Jagger, Eric Burdon, and Paul McCartney studied every guitar lick and vocal hiccup of artists ranging from blues guitarist Robert Johnson to rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins to Presley and Holly.
In a 2002 television interview, original Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman talked about how surprised the group was during its first U.S. tour. "The white kids in America didn't really know much about the blues," he said. "The bizarre thing was that they used to say, 'Where can we hear this music?' We used to say, 'Well, it's right on your doorstep. Just go across the river and go to the clubs.' But of course, it was difficult in those days. There were a lot of problems, racially, in the early sixties, so they couldn't really just go."
Oblivious to the potential dangers, the Stones would spend their time off in the States during those early tours combing record stores on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks in towns across the South. "It was like treasure hunting," said Wyman. "I'll never forget those moments, because they were wonderful. And the guy [in the record stores] would be shocked when we came in the shop. But we found things that we would have never heard before. It was always really nice to come to these towns and just get the feeling of where it all began."
The Stones and the Beatles made the music of the South cool again, and future southern rock stars, including Duane and Gregg Allman, and Lynyrd Skynyrd founders Ronnie Van Zant and Gary Rossington, were taking notes. By the time they picked up instruments themselves and began writing songs based on growing up in the South, these musicians had been well schooled in the new southern-influenced rock music coming over from England. The Allman Brothers Band took the more traditional blues route of Britain's Cream; Skynyrd mimicked the grit and swagger of the Stones. After southern rock's initial attack, a string of other southern-based acts -- from Charlie Daniels to Black Oak Arkansas, Wet Willie, and the Marshall Tucker Band -- began filling in the stylistic gaps.
Since its heyday in the mid-1970s, southern rock has continued to influence new generations of musicians and touch new fans. The boogie-till-you-puke nature of the music's early days has evolved from arty to aggressive to sublime, but through it all -- from R.E.M. to the B-52's, Jason and the Scorchers, Southern Culture on the Skids, the Black Crowes, the Screamin' Cheetah Wheelies, Gov't Mule, and Drive-By Truckers -- southern rock has maintained its sense of time and place and its cultural impact.
Southern rock's history, beginning as it did just after most public schools in the South had been desegregated, tells a story. It is a story of shame, of pain, of solitude, of anger, of acceptance, and, finally, of emotional and spiritual healing. In short, it is a story of change. Until now, southern rock has rarely been taken seriously as a pop-music movement, and I believe this is because many of the music journalists of the southern rock era looked down on the musicians as a bunch of wild-eyed, hell-raisin', redneck boogie boys. Luckily, life is not that simple, and neither is music.
This is not a story of black southern music (that story has been told many times, and rightly so); it is a story of white southern music. It's the story of a music that helped young white people heal at a time when we had no white role models who spoke as eloquently as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X. Instead, we had racist politicians such as Alabama Governor George Wallace and Georgia Governor Lester Maddox. If we were to learn tolerance, we had to look elsewhere, and many of us looked to rock stars like Gregg Allman and Ronnie Van Zant. Some of us came away with new feelings about our history; some of us did learn tolerance. Sadly, the sound and swagger of southern rock actually strengthened other peoples' deep-seated racism. Whatever the case, the music of southern rock bands defined my generation in the South and changed my culture. And in doing so, it changed America
Copyright © 2004 by Mark Kemp
Growing up in North Carolina in the 1970s, Kemp experienced pain, confusion, and shame as a result of the South's residual civil rights battles. His elementary school was integrated in 1968, the year Kemp reached third grade; his aunts, uncles, and grandparents held outdated racist views that were typical of the time; his parents, however, believed blacks should be extended the same treatment as whites, but also counseled their children to respect their elder relatives. "I loved the land that surrounded me but hated the history that haunted that land," Kemp writes. When rock music, specifically southern rock, entered his life, he began to see a new way to identify himself, beyond the legacy of racism and stereotypes of southern small-mindedness that had marked his early childhood. Well into adulthood Kemp struggled with the self-loathing familiar to many white southerners. But the seeds of forgiveness were planted in adolescence when he first heard Duane Allman and Ronnie Van Zant pour their feelings into their songs.
In the tradition of music historians such as Nick Tosches and Peter Guralnick, Kemp masterfully blends into his narrative the stories of southern rock bands --from heavy hitters such as the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and R.E.M. to influential but less-known groups such as Drive-By Truckers -- as well as the personal experiences of their fans. In dozens of interviews, he charts the course of southern rock & roll. Before civil rights, the popular music of the South was a small, often racially integrated world, but after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, black musicians struck out on their own. Their white counterparts were left to their own devices, and thus southern rock was born: a mix of popular southern styles that arose when predominantly white rockers combined rural folk, country, and rockabilly with the blues and jazz of African-American culture. This down-home, flannel-wearing, ass-kicking brand of rock took the nation by storm in the 1970s. The music gave southern kids who emulated these musicians a newfound voice. Kemp and his peers now had something they could be proud of: southern rock united them and gave them a new identity that went beyond outside perceptions of the South as one big racist backwater.
Kemp offers a lyrical, thought-provoking, searingly intimate, and utterly original journey through the South of the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s, viewed through the prism of rock & roll. With brilliant insight, he reveals the curative and unifying impact of rock on southerners who came of age under its influence in the chaotic years following desegregation. Dixie Lullaby fairly resonates with redemption.