In his 72 years, Bill Deaton haunted Raleigh record stores as a garishly dressed gadfly, gathering a music collection so vast it swelled to 10,000 vinyl albums and just as many compact discs – the soundtrack to his curious life.
For years, he made a Sunday afternoon pilgrimage to Schoolkids Records and took up his perch at the counter, holding court on his favorite bands, which spanned five decades and ranged from Shep and the Limelites to the Dog Faced Hermans.
He wore a tie-dyed Grateful Dead shirt one day and a baggy hip-hop ensemble the next – a grizzled and beloved fixture looking for friends who heard music as deeply as he did, who would join him in a spontaneous Mick Jagger-John Travolta dance. If you walked in the store, he would follow behind you in a rolling chair, complimenting you on the James Brown record you’d chosen, maybe inviting you to join him for a night at the Foxy Lady, where he was a VIP customer.
“He was an absolute character in every sense,” said Stephen Judge, Schoolkids’ owner. “We have some colorful people who come in here, and it’s just part of the community of record stores. But Deaton was in the Hall of Fame.”
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Deaton died last week, breaking every heart in Raleigh’s small circle of eccentrics.
He never married. He lived in his parents’ house. He’d served in Vietnam with the Coast Guard and worked in the mailroom for a medical supplier. But he lived, emphatically, for music. All of it: the doo-wop bands he heard as a teenager, the soul bands that filled radio waves in his ’60s youth, the punk bands he inevitably soaked up in the company of so many record store rats. Few men of retirement age will wear a T-shirt featuring The Cramps. Deaton did.
He collected stories with his albums: the time Jimi Hendrix autographed his program and called him a “turkey,” the time he saw Led Zeppelin play when they were still called The New Yardbirds, the first records he bought in 1958. Arriving at Schoolkids, or at John Swain’s legendary Record Hole in the years before that, he always made a grand entrance, a royal figure addressing his minions.
“He walked in slow motion,” said longtime friend Bill Daly, who now owns Crooked Beat Records in Washington, D.C. “He would come in and say your name three times. He would come in and pretend he was a sportscaster: ‘Playing tight end for the New York Jets, No. 61, Bill Daleeeeeeeeeeey.’ ”
He embraced the contrasting qualities of a Southern gentleman and rowdy pleasure-seeker. At the Foxy Lady, he earned the nickname “Wild Bill,” and he was known to throw party poppers at the feet of the dancers. He insisted that he frequented a burlesque establishment – not a strip joint.
He often listened to his favorite song, “Daddy’s Home” by Shep and the Limelites, imagining himself walking down the marital aisle, grinning with a beauty on each arm.
“I think a lot of people were either very drawn to him or repulsed by him,” said Corey Raines, who met Deaton working at various record stores. “He did get loud on occasion. But he thought a lot about people. It’s unfortunate that he never married or had kids or anything. I think that made him cherish his friends even more.”
Deaton, his friends believed, felt more than a little bit lonely, and likely behaved as he did in hopes of gaining attention. When life felt cold, he found companionship inside thousands of album sleeves, felt sustained by dropping a needle into a groove.
“There was music going on all the time with him,” Daly said. “Every day. He used to say, ‘You know, I’m out there. I’m a little different from other people. Are there people like me in D.C.? I don’t find them in Raleigh.’ In a way, he was a loner. Music was, like he said, food for the soul.”
When he finally sold his albums to Daly – for far less than they were worth – he methodically picked through each one, remembering the time and place he’d bought them, and maybe what a pretty girl in the store was wearing that day. In that way, he died in the arms of tens of thousands of friends, each one with a melody burned on his wild man’s heart.