NC Museum of History hosts pioneers of funk

On Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015, the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, NC, will host musicians Bill Myers and Dick Knight, performers who joined the late, great James Brown back in 1964 and went on to help him establish the foundations of funk music. The two, now members of The Monitors, a popular jazz band, will perform some of the songs they recorded with Brown and discuss their experiences with other artists of the time including Roberta Flack, Ray Charles. Major Lance, Millie Jackson, and Otis Redding.

In the mid-1960s, funk was a new genre just emerging onto the music scene. South Carolina native James Brown led the way, joined in 1964 by a cadre of African American artists from eastern North Carolina, including the songwriter and arranger Nathaniel “Nat” Jones (alto sax, organ), Dick Knight (trumpet), Levi Rasbury (trombone) and the brothers Melvin (drums) and Maceo Parker (sax), all from Kinston, NC, and Sam Lathan (drums) and Bill Myers (sax, keys) from Wilson, NC. It was during these years that Brown and his musicians developed the distinctive funk groove, and Brown gained international fame for his distinctive dancing style, becoming known as the Godfather of Funk Music, a decade before he became the Godfather of Soul.

The North Carolina musicians played on some of Brown’s most seminal recordings. Nat Jones became Brown’s bandleader and played alto sax and organ on 1965’s "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," the first breakout hit by Brown to reach the Billboard Hot 100 Top Ten, and the song that won the singer his first Grammy in the Best Rhythm and Blues Recording category. Nat Jones, along with Brown and Maceo Parker, is featured on the cover of the 1964 album, Grits and Soul, and played the saxophone solo in the song, “I Got You (I Feel Good)” during Brown’s appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1966. Jones and many of the NC musicians were also on stage for the filming of The T.A.M.I. Show in 1965, which solidified Brown’s international reputation. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones would later say that appearing after Brown’s dynamic performance was one of the biggest mistakes of the Stones’ career.

Bill Myers of Wilson co-founded his jazz band The Monitors in 1957, with a young Roberta Flack as the band’s first lead vocalist. The Monitors, with a lineup that now includes James Brown veterans Sam Lathan, Gerald Hunter and Dick Knight (also a veteran of the Otis Redding band), still are active on the jazz music scene. In 2014, Myers and his group received a North Carolina Heritage Award honoring their more than 50 years of playing outstanding music.

Myers and Knight along with the Parker brothers, Sam Lathan, Levi Rasbury and Nat Jones are featured in “Hey America!: Eastern North Carolina and the Birth of Funk” an exhibit on view through Feb. 28, 2016 in the NC Museum of History lobby. The exhibit includes items associated with Brown and some of the Tar Heel musicians who worked with him, including a jump suit and Pierre Cardin shoes worn by during performances by Brown in the late 1960s, saxophones played by Jones and Maceo Parker, and Melvin Parker’s drum kit.

The exhibit explores the role of funk music in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, when the simple groove of the music, based on “the One” and the B-flat seventh chord developed by Nat Jones, brought people of all races together to dance. At the exhibit, visitors can play selections from the Grits and Soul album, released in 1964, an event marked by James Brown’s refusal to play segregated venues from that day on.

The exhibit is inspired by the guidebook and website, African American Music Trails of Eastern North Carolina, produced by the N.C. Arts Council. Much more information on the lives and influence of NC musicians can be found there, along with places to hear them play and suggested play lists.

The “Let’s Have a Funky Good Time!” program with Myers and Knight takes place 3 to 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 15, at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh. Admission and weekend parking are free. Admission to the museum’s exhibits is free at all times. For more information, visit the Museum’s website.