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Kay Kyser:“C’mon Chillun! Le’s Dance!”

On July 23, 1985James “Kay” Kyser, popular radio personality and bandleader, died in Chapel Hill.

Born in Rocky Mount in 1905, Kyser attended UNC where he was an exuberant head cheerleader and the class president. Also known as the “Ol’ Professor of Swing,” Kyser became one of the wildest and most grandiose bandleaders of the swing era.

In the 1930s, Kyser toured with his band, Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge, through much of the Midwest. Over the next two decades, they garnered national attention and had 11 number-one hits. Although he never learned to play an instrument, Kyser was a top-notch entertainer and went on to star in over a dozen movies, co-starring with greats of the time like Lucille Ball and John Barrymore.

In 1941, Kyser was the first person to perform live at camp shows for U.S. military personnel, predating performers such as Bob Hope. He retired suddenly in 1950, withdrawing to Chapel Hill where he remained until his death.

In 1999, he was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame.

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For more about North Carolina’s history, arts and culture, visit Cultural Resources online. To receive these updates automatically each day, make sure you subscribe by email using the box on the right, and follow us on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest.

For more about North Carolina’s history, arts and culture, visit Cultural Resources online. To receive these updates automatically each day, subscribe by email using the box on the right and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

Country Music’s International Ambassador, George Hamilton IV

George Hamilton IV

George Hamilton IV. Image from
the The Tennessean.

On July 19, 1937, country music star George Hamilton IV was born in Winston-Salem. While a student at UNC, the young Hamilton recorded “A Rose and a Baby Ruth” at the independent Chapel Hill label, Colonial Records.  The song eventually became a gold record.

Hamilton left Chapel Hill for Nashville to pursue a career in country music and was invited to join the Grand Old Opry in 1960. Later that year he signed a record contract with RCA.

His fame quickly rose, and in 1963, he topped the Billboard Country chart with “Abilene.” After his popularity declined in America in the 1970s, he began travelling internationally, and had events in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. The activities earned Hamilton the nickname of “The International Ambassador of Country Music.”

In 2010, Hamilton was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. He died in 2014.

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Root Boy Slim and Blues Based Mayhem

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Image from MTV.

On July 9, 1945, Foster McKenzie III, known to punk music fans as Root Boy Slim, was born to a fishmonger in Asheville.

The family moved to Washington D.C. while McKenzie was still a boy. He was in and out of private academies, including the Sidwell Friends School, throughout his youth before being accepted at Yale University. While studying in New Haven, McKenzie formed his first band, Prince La La and the Midnight Creepers.

As a budding musician McKenzie idolized outsiders like Captain Beefheart and placed a premium on shocking his audiences, performing in ermine capes and silver hot pants. He boasted that his band was never asked to make a return engagement. At Yale, McKenzie pledged Delta Kappa Epsilon. George W. Bush, one year younger and then president of the chapter, reportedly banned the musicians from playing the fraternity house.

A new lineup, Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band, signed with Warner Brothers and released their best-known recording, “Boogie ‘Til You Puke” in 1978. Their brand of blues maintained a hardcore cult following, especially in the D.C. area.

McKenzie died in Orlando, Florida, in 1993 and is buried at Calvary Episcopal Church in Fletcher.

Visit: Experience the best North Carolina arts and music along our cultural trails, produced by the N.C. Arts Council.

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For more about North Carolina’s history, arts and culture, visit Cultural Resources online. To receive these updates automatically each day, make sure you subscribe by email using the box on the right, and follow us on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest.

Auspicious Start for North Carolina Awards

Author and poet Maya Angelou receives the North Carolina Award in 1987 from Gov. Jim Martin. Image from the State Archives.

On June 22, 1961, the General Assembly established the North Carolina Award to honor outstanding achievements by North Carolinians.

The award was proposed by State Senator Robert Lee Humber of Pitt County, who hoped that the award would inspire others to excel in their fields for the betterment of North Carolina. He would go on to win the award for public service in 1968.

Since the North Carolina Award’s creation, medals have been given to more than 250 recipients for contributions to literature, fine arts, science and public service.  The first class of winners, recognized in 1964, included microbiologist John Couch for science; novelist Inglis Fletcher for literature; painter Francis Speight for fine art; and editor of The Progressive Farmer Clarence Poe and chemist, businessman, philanthropist and ambassador John Motley Morehead III, both for public service.

The award is administered by the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources and new recipients are honored each fall with presentation of the medal at a banquet.

Some of the more famous North Carolina Award recipients include cultural figures Etta Baker, Doc Watson, James Taylor, and Maya Angelou; media and public service figures David Brinkley and Charles Kuralt; and scientists Gertrude Elion and Joseph M. DeSimone.

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Lesley Riddle, Collaborator with the Carter Family

On June 13, 1905, old-time musician Lesley Riddle was born in the Silvers Gap community north of Burnsville. Riddle learned to play blues and gospel songs on the guitar after losing most of a leg in an accident at a cement plant. He had to adjust his picking techniques to use only his thumb, index finger and little finger after losing two fingers in a shotgun accident.

A.P. Carter, patriarch of the famous Carter family, first heard Riddle play and sing in Kingsport, Tennessee, in 1927, and quicky recruited him to help advance the Carter family’s fame. Carter and Riddle visited African American communities and churches throughout Appalachian Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina to find new songs for the Carter Family band. Riddle would memorize the tunes and words before returning to teach the songs to Sara and Maybelle Carter.

“Mother Maybelle” learned her trademark guitar techniques from Riddle, including using a pocketknife for slide guitar work.

Riddle never made a living at music, working as a shine boy, presser and school crossing guard. In the 1960s, he accompanied Mike Seeger and the New Lost City Ramblers on the folk festival circuit.

Riddle is celebrated by an annual festival, Riddlefest.

Visit: This year’s Riddlefest will be held July 3 at the Parkway Playhouse in Burnsville and will feature David Holt accompanied by Josh Gofoth.

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For more about North Carolina’s history, arts and culture, visit Cultural Resources online. To receive these updates automatically each day, make sure you subscribe by email using the box on the right, and follow us on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest.

Twist of Fate for O. Henry

Image from the State Archives

On June 5, 1910, writer William Sidney Porter, known to the world by the pseudonym O. Henry, died.

Born in 1862 in Greensboro, Porter was raised by an aunt who educated him until he turned 15, when he began work in his uncle’s pharmacy. In 1882, Porter left Greensboro for Texas, where worked as a rancher, an experience that would later manifest itself in his writing.

Over the next 14 years, Porter worked various jobs in Austin, Texas, including stints as a bookkeeper, draftsman and bank teller, all the while writing short stories, sketches and humorous pieces for several newspapers.

In 1896, Porter moved to Houston for a newspaper job. Once there, he was indicted by an Austin court on charges of embezzlement stemming from his tenure as a bank teller. He fled to Honduras but was subsequently arrested, convicted and ordered to serve five years in prison. While incarcerated, Porter had time to engage in serious writing and by the time he was released for good behavior in 1901, he had several works published.

In 1902, Porter moved to New York, where he wrote more than 100 stories in less than two years. He moved to Asheville in 1907 where he lived until his death.

Other related resources:

For more about North Carolina’s history, arts and culture, visit Cultural Resources online. To receive these updates automatically each day, make sure you subscribe by email using the box on the right, and follow us on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest.

Master of an Art Form, Potter Ben Owen

Ben Owen at his wheel in 1928. Image from the N.C. Museum of History.

Ben Owen at his wheel in 1928. Image from
the N.C. Museum of History.

On June 4, 1904, potter Ben Owen was born in Moore County.

Owen learned to turn clay from his father, potter and farmer Rufus Owen, and by age 16, he was a proficient potter who produced lead-glazed utilitarian earthenware for his father and for neighboring shops.

In 1923, Owen was hired as the second known potter to work at the newly built Jugtown Pottery. Under the guidance of Jugtown founders Jacques and Juliana Busbee, Owen developed a classic pottery style that blended old and new forms, incorporating the principles of restraint and simplicity inherent in both native folk and Oriental traditions.

Owen was the sole potter at Jugtown from the early 1930s until 1959, when he left to found the Old Plank Road Pottery. He produced the same forms and glazes until his retirement in 1972. His son and grandson revived his work, opening Ben Owen Pottery to produce pottery based closely on his unique style.

Owen’s work has been widely exhibited across the state, nation and world. His pieces can be found in the permanent collections of the Mint Museum of Art, North Carolina Museum of Art, Smithsonian Institution Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre among many others.

Other related resources:

For more about North Carolina’s history, arts and culture, visit Cultural Resources online. To receive these updates automatically each day, make sure you subscribe by email using the box on the right, and follow us on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest.

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