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Moms Mabley, Boundary-Breaking Comedian from Brevard

On May 23, 1975, the comedian known to the world as “Moms” Mabley died in a White Plains, New York hospital.

Born in Loretta Mary Aiken in Brevard around 1897, Mabley was the granddaughter of a former slave. She left home as a teenager and joined a minstrel show based in Pittsburgh, beginning a 60-year career that included work in everything from African American vaudeville to Broadway to television and the movies. Mabley also released of more than 20 comedy albums during her lifetime.

Throughout her career, Mabley performed in many of the nation’s top venues, including Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, and broke gender and racial barriers by becoming the first female comedian to perform at New York’s Apollo Theater in 1940. Her television performances included appearances on the Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson, Flip Wilson, Mike Douglas and Smothers Brothers shows.

Mabley is best remembered for her brilliant stand-up comic persona, a grumpy lady dressed in bright and crumpled housedresses, who delivered sly double-entendres tackling topics such as race and sex with expert timing and ad-libbing.

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Tour’s Country Stars Overshadowed by Elvis Presley

Elvis-Poster

A poster for the tour Elvis was on when he came to Raleigh. Image from ElvisBlog.

On May 19, 1955, Hank Snow’s All Star Jamboree tour, featuring a new young talent named Elvis Presley, ended at Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh.

The concert marked the beginning of the end of the touring relationship between the headliner, Faron Young, and featured new player Presley. Young later recounted that each night of the tour Elvis attracted bigger and wilder crowds. Before intermission, each show included a new talent portion in which Presley took the stage, with the headliners performing after intermission.

As the tour progressed, fans began to shout for more Elvis during the other performances, and he was called back for encore after encore. In the early days of the tour, Colonel Tom Parker, as booking agent, actually paid teenagers $5 apiece to scream for Presley. He used the publicity photographs to send to the newspapers in the next cities on the tour.

Other performers on the tour recalled how much they discounted Presley and his odd onstage behavior. Most country singers thought that he was a fad and would quickly fade, but Presley soon found himself the headliner, and few established stars would agree to perform with him on a tour.

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.

Inaugural Concert for the North Carolina Symphony, 1932

The N.C. Symphony plays an education concert in the mid-1970s.
Image from the N.C. Symphony.

On May 14, 1932, the North Carolina Symphony played its first concert at Hill Hall on the campus of UNC. The concert included music by Wagner, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and others, and featured 48 musicians from around the state under the direction of conductor Lamar Stringfield.

The symphony had its origins earlier that year as a work relief project of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and became the first symphony orchestra to receive state aid with the passage of what became known as the “Horn Tootin’ Bill” in 1943.

Today, the North Carolina Symphony is a first-class, professional orchestra with 65 members led by Music Director Grant Llewellyn, based at Meymandi Concert Hall in downtown Raleigh. In addition to classical series in Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Fayetteville, New Bern, Southern Pines and Wilmington, their schedule also features a Pops Series, Young People’s Concerts and the annual Summerfest outdoor concert series at Cary’s Booth Amphitheatre.

Always the “people’s orchestra,” the symphony has an especially strong legacy of music education, with more than 3 million schoolchildren reached since it began its children’s concerts series in 1945. Each year the symphony puts on more than 50 educational programs in nearly as many communities across the state.

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Reverend Gary Davis, Durham Blues Legend

On May 5, 1972, legendary bluesman Reverend Gary Davis died. Renowned as a finger-style ragtime guitar player, he influenced generations of players.

Davis got his start as a popular street musician in Durham in the 1930s, where he was known as “Blind Gary Davis.” Ordained as a minister of the Free Baptist Connection Church in Washington, North Carolina in 1913, he began to tour as a singing gospel preacher.

Davis recorded with Blind Boy Fuller in New York in 1935.  His “Piedmont style” of the blues was akin to the music performed later by Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry who popular around the same time. As his popularity grew, Davis toured the folk and blues revival circuits, playing jumbo Gibson acoustic guitars. His students included David Bromberg, the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir and the Jefferson Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen. His finger-picking guitar style influenced many other musicians, including Jerry Garcia, Ry Cooder, Dave Van Ronk, Taj Mahal and Bob Dylan.

In addition to being a performer and teacher, Davis was a prolific composer of both religious and secular music. He incorporated John Phillips Sousa marches, spirituals and square dance music into intricate guitar instrumentals. Songs associated with Davis include “Baby, Can I Follow You Down,” “Candy Man,” “Cocaine Blues” and “Samson and Delilah.”

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Link Wray of Dunn, Guitar Innovator, Renowned for “Rumble”

On May 2, 1929, Fred Lincoln Wray, Jr., better known as Link Wray, was born in Dunn.

Wray developed an interest in music at a young age, and during the 1940s, started playing in a western swing band.

After launching a solo career, Wray became popular in the late 1950s. “Rumble” from 1958 was one of his first big hits. He is still widely remembered for it today, since it was one of the first songs to feature the guitar effect of distortion. It was said that “Rumble” was banned from radio airplay because it was feared that the instrumental would initiate youth violence. The song proved popular though, and spent 10 weeks on Billboard’s Top 40 list, rising as high as number 16.

Wray continued putting out new music into the late 1980s, and he spent the last years of his life in Denmark. He died in 2005 in Copenhagen.

Wray’s unique style of playing paved the way for heavy metal, punk and grunge. He is on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of “100 Greatest Guitarists,” and is credited with influencing a number of guitar players such as Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and Pete Townsend.

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Asheville Launching Pad for the “Singing Brakeman,” Jimmie Rodgers

Rodgers-and-Carters

Jimmie Rodgers with the Carter family of country music fame.
Image from the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

On April 18, 1927, Jimmie Rodgers – one of country music’s first superstars – got his big break on Asheville radio station WWNC.

Born in 1897 near Meridian, Mississippi, James Charles Rodgers liked to yodel and won an amateur talent contest at age 13. That same year he became a railroad water boy. In March 1927, Rodgers moved to Asheville, working as a railway brakeman and doing other jobs until he and friend Otis Kuykendall began performing live weekly on WWNC. The duo soon added other musicians and billed themselves as the Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers.

In August 1927, Victor Records recorded Rodgers doing two songs. One, “The Soldier’s Sweetheart,” became an instant hit. Another hit, “Blue Yodel,” quickly followed. By 1929, Rodgers was a star. He appeared in a short film, “The Singing Brakeman”; toured the Midwest with humorist Will Rogers; and recorded with a young trumpeter, Louis Armstrong.

By the time he returned to Asheville in December 1929, the “Father of Country Music” had been living with tuberculosis for five years. He died in 1933. In 1961, Rodgers became the first performer inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. A state highway historical marker in downtown Asheville also honors him.

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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 subscribe by email using the box on the right and follow us on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest.

Poor Naomi Wise, “Sacrificed to the Beast in Man”

On April 8, 1808, Jonathan Lewis was arrested for the murder of Naomi Wise. Wise, an orphan, cook and an occasional field hand noted for her beauty and her innocence, lived in the household of William Adams in Randolph County. Lewis was a frequent visitor to the Adams house.

Courting Naomi while promising marriage to another woman, Lewis led the pregnant Wise to the Deep River and pushed her off a bluff, drowning her. Jailed in Asheboro, he escaped and made his way to Ohio. He was eventually tracked down by a bounty hunter and returned North Carolina, where he was acquitted of murdering Wise for lack of evidence. Legend has it that he confessed to the crime on his deathbed.

Much of what we know of the murder comes from an account by Braxton Craven, president of nearby Trinity College, who researched the story. Craven based his 1851 retelling of crime on the memories of local residents. Lewis, by Craven’s account, was a “merciless wretch, a hyena.”

The site of Wise’s death came to be known as Naomi Falls. The story was brought to people nationwide largely through the folk ballad, “Naomi Wise,” which was a favorite of Doc Watson’s.  Like “Tom Dooley” and “Frankie and Johnny,” the song relates the story of a North Carolina murder with drama and pathos.

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 FacebookTwitter and Pinterest.

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