Chuck Stewart’s photography provided by Fireball Entertainment Group, courtesy of Chuck Stewart Photographs of John Coltrane, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution
A Points South essay from the North Carolina Music Issue.
Around the close of the 1950s, if you wanted to hear the beginnings of the funk music that James Brown would soon introduce to the world, you wouldn’t find much of it on his records. Brown’s late- ’50s recordings with the Famous Flames, like his plaintive “Try Me” and the shatteringly sweet “I Want You So Bad,” are indisputably cool, and they spill over with the vocal histrionics that would characterize his performance style for decades to come. But the overall aesthetic of his music from that era is still redolent of doo-wop and ducktails. He’d only just begun to take some sandpaper to the smooth sheen of ’50s pop music.
No, if you wanted to hear funk music before 1960, your best bet might be the Maola Ice Cream talent show in Kinston, North Carolina.
Augusta, I discovered, has shades of what cultural critic Greil Marcus calls the Old, Weird America. Sure, the city is ringed with mansions and country-club culture, but when you’re downtown, you can’t go a block without running into a character who looks as though he might be a hustler, a folk artist, a street preacher, or all three.
Everybody I met in Augusta had a James Brown story: the Godfather of Soul roaming around town in his baby-blue Rolls-Royce, showing up unbidden at parties and concerts, hanging around like he was anyone while making sure everyone remembered exactly who he was. Many people also had a Sharon Jones story.
Blues really was the transformation of my life. When I was fifteen or sixteen, a friend and I just kind of stumbled onto the music. It was the beginning of the folk revival—1959 or 1960—and somehow in the midst of all that wholesomeness, we fell into the blues.