Durham News: Opinion

History: Durham’s soul scene spins again

The Modulations’ “I’m Hopelessly in Love with You/What Good Am I” was a hit in 1973. See a “Soul Train” clip at bit.ly/1nw45UP
The Modulations’ “I’m Hopelessly in Love with You/What Good Am I” was a hit in 1973. See a “Soul Train” clip at bit.ly/1nw45UP

The best-known chapter of Durham’s musical history is undoubtedly the Piedmont Blues, made famous by artists such as Blind Boy Fuller and Reverend Gary Davis. “Tobacco Road,” written and first recorded by Durham native John Loudermilk, is another local classic. The Bull City’s vibrant funk, R&B, and soul music scene of the 1960s and ’70s, however, seems to have faded from local memory.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Durham was home to more than 40 local soul and funk groups that recorded at least 35 singles and three full-length albums. Local independent labels such as Microtronics Sound, Saxony, and Ju Ju released records by Durham soul artists. Performers such as the Shamrocks, John Snells, Nick Allen Sr., Johnny White and the Mighty Crusaders, the Black Experience Band, Blue Steam, the Communicators, Duracha, the Modulations, N.C.C.U., Brodie, The Jammers, the Leon Pendarvis Orchestra, and Risse were among the Bull City’s most beloved musicians.

Durham’s soul scene was truly impressive, especially considering the city had just over 100,000 residents and was far from the soul music capitals of New York, Los Angeles, Detroit and Philadelphia.

The history of the Bull City’s soul scene has survived, but just barely. Until now, Durham’s soul music has lived on in private memories and individual collections, its stories traded between rare record hunters, local veteran musicians, and a few scattered journalists.

A museum exhibit and a new website aim to preserve and make public Durham’s rich soul heritage. “Soul Souvenirs: Durham’s Musical Memories of the 1960s and ’70s” is currently on display at the Museum of Durham History until the end of 2014. BullCitySoul.org, the exhibit’s companion website sponsored by the Durham County Library, will premiere on Monday, August 11.

This exhibit and website, created by myself, CarolinaSoul.org founder Jason Perlmutter, and designer Lincoln Hancock, will for the first time make the hidden history of Durham’s soul music widely and freely available to the public. Our hope is that this website will give long-time residents, recent arrivals, and people from around the globe a new level of access to the city’s soul music history. We also hope to inspire record collectors, historians, and designers in other cities and states to create online projects that bring local soul music histories to public audiences.

Bull City Soul is not just a story about music but touches on a wide range of social and cultural issues that shaped the city in the 1960s and 1970s. Most important, this exhibit and website tell the story of Durham’s African-American community in these decades of tremendous change.

Public schools such as the historic Hillside High School gave young black Durhamites access to first-rate music teachers such as Joe Mitchell and Clarke Egerton, Jr. African-American churches and their gospel choirs provided crucial training grounds for young musicians to hone their talents.

The civil rights and Black Power movements helped shape Durham’s soul music, too. Larry Scurlock, leader of groups such as the U.S. Welfare Band, was one of several students to desegregate Durham High School in 1959. Karen Rux created the Your Own Thing Theater to showcase the local Black Arts movement. The non-profit WAFR radio station played a heady mix of jazz, soul, and Black Power politics over the air.

To hear more of this powerful history and music, please join us at the Durham History Hub from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 15, as we celebrate the exhibit and website with a free concert by Johnny White and the Elite Band and a panel discussion on Durham’s soul music history.

Joshua Clark Davis is a Thompson Writing Fellow at Duke University and co-director of the Media And the Movement Project.