On the Arts

Bill Myers, NC Heritage Award winner, is a star who stayed

dmenconi@newsobserver.comMay 17, 2014 

  • Details

    What: N.C. Heritage Award program with performances by the Monitors, Bobby Hicks and Arnold Richardson

    When: 8 p.m. Tuesday

    Where: A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater, 2 E. South St., Raleigh

    Cost: $22

    Info: 919-996-8700 or pinecone.org

  • About the awards

    The N.C. Heritage Awards are a program of the state Arts Council, which has picked the winners and presented them since 1989. The awards honor the state’s folk artists and deepen awareness of the art, stories and music comprising North Carolina’s cultural traditions. Awardees each receive an $8,000 award.

— As the Monitors swung into the graceful opening strains of Etta James’ classic R&B love song “At Last,” the guest of honor moved around the dance floor with his wife. William “Bill” Myers basked in the applause of the 100 people gathered to honor him, a crowd of friends, relatives and area dignitaries. One of them was U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield (a relative by marriage), who said he passed on seeing President Barack Obama at the White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington, D.C., to attend.

Most nights, Myers would be onstage with the Monitors, a band he’s led for nearly 60 years. He couldn’t help reminding his bandmates of that from the floor.

“Yeah, I was teasing them,” he said afterward. “ ‘Sounds like y’all missing something up there.’ I also told ’em, ‘If you’re getting paid, I’m gonna play.’ But I’m not gonna play tonight.”

The night off was well-deserved. Except for a few years at Virginia State University followed by a military hitch, Myers has lived in Eastern North Carolina for all of his 81 years. He spent four decades in public schools as a music teacher, principal and assistant superintendent before retiring in 1994.

But Myers has spent even more years leading the Monitors, a wide-ranging R&B band he formed in 1957. Over the years, the Monitors have drawn members from the bands of soul giants like James Brown, Otis Redding and Gladys Knight. Singer Roberta Flack was an early member before going on to a Grammy-winning solo career. And Myers is still the leader, a legacy that has won him a prestigious N.C. Heritage Award to be presented Tuesday. He’s one of five artists receiving the honor this year, which comes with an $8,000 prize.

“I can’t think of anyone who combines such great musical artistry with such a strong sense of service, which is very unique and important,” said Wayne Martin, executive director of the N.C. Arts Council, which presents the awards. “When he was a young man, he was ready to go out and conquer the world and find his place as an acclaimed musician. Partly to appease his parents, he agreed to do a year of teaching, and that changed his life. That is service, deferring your own goals to help others.”

Challenging start

Myers grew up in humble circumstances, born in Depression-era Greenville the year Franklin D. Roosevelt was first elected president (1932). Myers was so sickly and malnourished that the delivery nurse gave him no chance of living. But he did, although he was almost 4 years old before he began walking. In his first attempts, he had to hang onto the family dog.

Around that same time, Myers’ grandmother noticed that instead of just banging randomly on the piano, he’d try to play it. She got him some lessons, and he later played drums before making the saxophone his main instrument.

After high school, Myers went off to Virginia State University to study music. But the family was so poor that he didn’t have a horn of his own to take along.

“They thought that was strange for a music major,” Myers said. “So I had to pantomime my audition. You know, ‘Show three ways to do the B-flat fingering on the sax – if you had one.’ 

Myers passed the audition and was given a very unpleasant on-campus job, tasked with keeping the football team’s locker room clean. After his father finally bought him a sax of his own, Myers played enough shows to earn decent money as well as the title “Gigmaster” (a nickname he still uses as part of his email address).

Myers graduated, did his time in the military in Korea and came home all set to hit the road as a traveling musician. But at his parents’ urging, he agreed to teach for a year first. He got a job at a school in Elm City, near Wilson. And like a real-life George Bailey from the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Myers could never bring himself to leave.

“Staying here was not my plan,” he said. “I never planned to stay more than a year. “But … I’d never seen a situation like that. The kids had never been to Raleigh, seen a movie or even seen the ocean. So I looked around and said to myself, ‘Looks like God sent me here.’ 

Putting down deep roots

Myers started out by organizing field trips for his students, trying to give them the same experiences as their peers elsewhere. He took them to see the opera and an Ice Capades show, which he called “eye-opening for the kids.”

The experience was transformative for Myers, too. Before he knew it, years had gone by and Myers was still at the school. He put down roots, too, marrying his wife Diana, raising a family – and starting the Monitors. The band grew out of the “turnouts” (memorial parades similar to New Orleans funeral marches) and minstrel shows that Myers played as a young man.

“We didn’t have a TV, so recreation was listening to the radio,” he said. “Then three or four times a year, something like the Winstead Mighty Minstrels would come to town. They’d hire local guys to play – no music, you had to have the ability and sense of harmony to follow along and play what they needed.”

When he formed his own band, Myers applied a similarly eclectic mindset. He took the name from a radio program called “The Monitor,” which had the then-novel approach of combining news, weather and sports all into one show.

“We were the same thing, giving you everything musically,” Myers said. “Jazz, blues, R&B, country, rock ’n’ roll, we’d do it all. If somebody wanted a Pennsylvania polka or cha-cha or waltz, we’ve got that for you, too. We were one of the few bands that could do it all, so we’d get hired a lot.”

Over the years, the Monitors became as renowned for their tightness as for the breadth of their repertoire. They became a fixture throughout Eastern North Carolina and beyond – in 2011, they played the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C.

Along the way, Myers has also found time to serve as music director at his church, St. John AME Zion Church in Wilson. And he serves on seemingly every committee in the region, including one developing the Wilson Whirligig Park to showcase the late folk artist Vollis Simpson’s work.

“I’m almost too busy, like I need to go back to work to get some rest,” Myers said. “I’d always said I wouldn’t be one of those guys on every board and committee. But then I thought back to when integration first came, and people did some things because somebody from my race needed to. After restaurants were integrated, a guy went to this one seafood place every night. ‘I don’t even like fish,’ he said, ‘but somebody’s gotta keep ’em honest.’ Somebody’s got to step up, so I have. It takes a village to raise a child. I’m a product of that, and I’ve tried to impart it to kids, too.”

Watch the accompanying video.

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or www.newsobserver.com/OnTheBeat

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