Cotton Topped, Soul Brother
In 1978, when I was nine years old, James Brown called me “the blackest little white boy I ever did see.”
I grew up in a single-wide trailer on Donna Drive in the Denny Terrace area of Columbia. Denny Terrace had been a predominately white neighborhood but was becoming a mix of older white families that hadn’t moved out and the influx of poorer blacks. At Denny Terrace Elementary I was the only white boy in my grade. There was one white girl, Julie. I was rail skinny with blue eyes and white blonde hair. Folks called me cotton top. Mrs. Green, my first-grade teacher, called me her “Blue-eyed sailor-boy.” My daddy called me Eddie-boy.
My daddy was a commercial painter and my mama was a secretary at a Baptist church on Olympic Avenue. My grandfather worked for the City of Columbia as a mechanic in the garage, later becoming the manager for the city’s garage. Not bad for a poverty ward who never finished high school. My grandmother was a nurse at the Baptist hospital where I was born and she delivered me. I was born on July Fourth and my mother ate Piggly Park BBQ in the hospital while the tv showed the race in Daytona.
When my mother went into labor, my uncle David, her younger and only brother, was so excited he put his jeans on inside-out. As a kid my uncle David was a great friend and I think he saw me as the little brother he never had. My mother had three sisters and David was the only boy. David inherited brown curly hair from my grand-daddy Pee Wee. Everyone in my mama’s family played at least one instrument and most played several. David played guitar, piano, bass and drums when he wasn’t getting into trouble.
One time when he was fourteen he caught the rug on fire and nearly burned down the house on Monticello Road. My grand-daddy sent him to Carlisle Military Academy in Bamburg for the rest of the school year. One time my mama and grandmother took him out to lunch when he was at Carlisle. They checked David out of the school and got in the car. My grandmother asked David where he wanted to go for lunch. He replied, “6509 Monticello Road,” they’re home address. My grandmother didn’t think his answer was funny. Driving into Bamburg they saw a dead dog that had been hit by a car, it’s insides spread all over the road. It was a disgusting thing to see. From the driver’s seat my grandmother blithely said, “bet he won’t have the guts to cross that road again.” No one laughed but it relieved the tension in the car. They went to a diner in Bamburg. He was better behaved after seven months of military school. Not to say he still didn’t find trouble from time to time.
In South Carolina you could get your license at fourteen. David wrecked several cars before my grand-daddy took his driving privileges and his license. Then David wrecked another car. He wasn’t a mean kid and he didn’t do drugs or steal, trouble just found him.
At sixteen David got engaged. My grandparents couldn’t believe it and wanted to kill him. How could he be so stupid. What girl would want to marry a hoodlum like him? After a long conversation with his parents, my uncle returned the ring to the Brendle's and swapped it for a new stereo. “You just never knew what you were going to get with him,” my mother said.
As an adult David sported a cheesy mustache that most folks now would call a “porn ‘stach”. He drove a Honda motorcycle which he could do sitting backwards. He’d let me ride with him sometimes, driving with no hands when we were out of site from my parents. He also taught me how to shift a manual transmission when I was four. I couldn’t see over the dash but he’d tell me when to shift and I would use both hands to navigate the shift gate.
My uncle David was in a band with two black dudes. David played a Fender Jazz bass and sang most of the songs. Leroy Brown played guitar, either a Fender Telecaster and an old Gibson acoustic J-45 and sang occasionally. Leon played drums.
As much as my mother would allow, I would accompany the band as they played gigs in the area. I think my mother assumed they were playing at white honky-tonks. For a while David and I would ride to the gig on his motorcycle, me on the back with the Fender bass slung over my shoulder and across by back, using my left arm to hold tight around my uncle’s waist and my right hand holding a Fender amp. One time my uncle took a curve a little too fast and the centrifugal force swung that amp wide right and we almost wrecked.
One of the regular bars the band played was Tubby’s Night Club on Monticello Road in Eau Claire. Tubby’s was a purple concrete block building featuring a mural on the front of cartoon characters out of something like The Whiz - Afros, bell bottoms and butterfly collar button-down shirts in crazy prints - walking over a rainbow into the front door.
Mama Jewel Morrison worked the register and payed the bands that played. After I’d been to the bar a few times with my uncle, she started keeping Moon Pies behind the counter for me. While my uncle’s band played she would keep me supplied with RC Colas and Moon Pies. Bills larger than $10 she kept in her bra. The place had been robbed a few times. Once she recognized the boy with the revolver and almost beat him stupid before the cops showed up. He didn’t mind the beating, it was that Mama Jewell called the boy’s mama that really upset him. Mama Jewell didn’t press charges. The beating she administered and for months the constant verbal brow-beating the boy’s mama gave him and the fact that everyone in the neighborhood knew what he did was punishment enough. He’s now a sergeant in the Columbia police department.
David introduced the next song with, “I believe Jim Croce wrote this next one about our guitar player,” and then joined Leroy’s guitar run with a baseline grove for “Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown.” He’s substitute “Jewell” for “Doris” in the song and wink at Mama Jewell. I loved that song as a kid and I’m pretty sure they played the song just for me.
Sometimes Leroy would play a few songs by himself between sets, often a blues tune that Jimi Hendrix played like “Hear My Train A’comin’” or “Wind Cries Mary.”
One night I was tapping a tambourine on the edge of the stage, just keeping time for myself and grooving to the music. The band started playing “I’m black and I’m proud” with Leroy singing vocals and I really started playing that tambourine. A woman at one of the front tables bumped me over to the center of the stage and the crowd roared with supportive laughter at this white kid jamming to James Brown. I really got into the moment and before the song was over I was sweat drenched and had peeled off my Evil Knievel t-shirt and was barefoot, beating that tambourine on stage in that black juke joint with my clinched right fist held high overhead as I belted out the lyrics with Leroy.
Mama Jewel greeted me, smiling wide and offering an RC and Moon Pie as my reward. Several women and men came back to the bar to compliment me, making comments like “that boy’s got the boogie woogie in him and gots to let it out”. After that I regularly joined the band on stage for a couple songs during their two sets.
After the near-wreck my uncle drove an green Ford F-100 pick-up truck with a few rusty spots. A juke joint in Gilbert had booked the band. Gilbert’s a small town of a few hundred people at the intersection of Two-Notch Road and Highway 1. Each July Fourth Gilbert hosts the Peach Festival. My uncles band had played the Peach Festival the year before and a black bar had booked the band for a few gigs. The engine revved and then fell dormant as we pulled into the gravel parking lot that night and the band was already a few minutes late so they had to get inside and get set-up for the gig. During the gig I sat in the back with the owner and a few other folks. As usual my uncle and I were the only two white people in the place. After the show the band returned to the parking lot about 2 AM and lifted the hood. A long handled, silver flashlight showed that the fan belt had not just slipped off but was busted. Leon said he could use some panty hose to make a make-shift belt that would probably get us home. I slipped back into the bar and talked a female patron out of her panty hose and flashed back out to the gravel lot presenting my prize. Leon shook his head, “Boy, I don’t even want to know” and installed the ersatz fan belt. It got us home and to the Napa parts store the next day.
Ninth birthday. My mom had bought a used chopper bike with a banana seat. We stripped it down to the frame, sanded it, and repainted it black. My party was at my grandparents’ house in Ballentine. We had watermelon, cake and ice cream. My father and grandfather had reassembled the black chopper and my big birthday gift was a set of plastic panels to mount on the bike with number stickers to put on the white plastic panels. It even had a red, white, and blue ‘flag’ Number One. As things settled down and people talked, my uncle David came to me and told me to be ready at ten o’clock that night, he had a special present for me.
I spent that night with my grandparents who went to bed about 9:00. Right at ten my uncle David crept into the bedroom I was in and took me through the kitchen and out the back door. We walked to the church next door and got into his truck and headed towards Eau Claire and Tubby’s club. Mama Jewell smiled bigger than usual as we entered. We sat down at the bar, another local band was playing on stage. After a few songs they asked me to come on stage and join them in John Lee Hooker’s “Boom, Boom, Boom”, me beating a tambourine in time with the music. Towards the end of the song the crowd became energized as a group of dudes came through the front door, the crowd parting as the last member of the group made his way towards the stage, Mama Jewell wiping off the front table, placing a cloth table cloth on the small round table, and lighting a small red glass candle. No table in the place had ever had a table cloth, much less a cloth one. And a candle. Too many drunks and partying to have fire. The four guys sat down and I realized that the man who attracted all the attention was James Brown. He had played a concert at the Township Auditorium in Columbia earlier that night and he had come to Tubby’s for an after party. My uncle David knew one of the guys that worked the stage crew at the auditorium and it was the crew member that suggested Tubby’s when Brown asked about a juke joint they could go to after the show.
“I almost feel like I’m at home”. Brown was born down the road in Barnwell. A few folks approached the table seeking autographs as the band continued to play. Mama Jewell went up front after few minutes to shoo away the fans. She said something into Mr. Brown’s ear and he laughed out loud above the volume of the band and pointed at me. He stood up and waved me over. I looked around sure it wasn’t me he was motioning to. The bar stools were empty around me so I got down and started towards the front, Brown watching me approach.
“Eddie-boy, I hear you got SOOUULL”.
“I love music. I like your music, Mr. Brown.” I couldn’t believe James Brown was talking to me.
“Call me James, little man.”
“Yes, sir,” I replied.
“Me and the boys gonna play a few shortly. I want you to join me on stage for a song or two. I hear you play the hell out of a tambourine.”
I just smiled.
“See you in a few minutes.”
I nodded and returned to the bar stool wondering what just happened.
At the end of the set the band that had been playing stepped off stage for a break. James Brown and his band walked onto the stage and picked up the instruments, tuning them as they arranged chords and acknowledged the crowd’s yells and whistles. They opened with “Hot Pants” before moving to “Get Up (I Feel Like A) Sex Machine”. By this point the joint was jiving, people dancing between the tables. James Brown motioned me forward while he announced, “I want to welcome to the stage a little man I just met who knows how to get down. A cotton topped, soul brother.” The crowd realized they were talking about me and parted so I could get through the crowd. Mama Jewell handed me a tambourine and the band started into “I’m Black, and I’m Proud”. I started slapping that tambourine on my leg and dancing next to James Brown. Everyone that had been seated got up and joined the others dancing. Brown started shuffling his feet in time to the music as he watched me beating that tambourine. The hot lights and stage fright got me sweating quickly. Brown was already drenched. The band moved into “The Payback”. Brown performed more signature dance moves as he pushed the microphone stand away from him before grabbing the mic cable and pulling the mic back to him. I sat down exhausted and still not believing I had been on stage with James Brown finished the song and saw me sitting on the side of the stage. He motioned me back over as the band broke into “Make It Funky”, Brown dropping down and popping up into split after split before moving into “Super Bad.” I looked over and saw my uncle on bass and Leroy on guitar. Mama Jewell was in front of James Brown putting on a dance show just for him, Brown singing the words, “Super Bad” amongst the “God Gawd, ya’ll” and “I want to kiss myself.”
Eventually he slowed things down with “Papa Don’t Take No Mess”, me still rattling the tambourine and shuffling and sliding my feet as Brown had done. It was during this song that Brown announced, “this boy is the blackest little white boy I ever did see.” The crowd went nuts. I lost my mind. I remember a man giving me something cold to drink as I sat at the bar in a sweat-drenched afterglow of flashing fame.
I don’t remember much after that. I remember riding back to my grandparent’s house in Ballentine, the truck windows down and the cool night air blowing on me. David parked in the church parking lot next to the house and he carried me, half-asleep, through the thin wood line, around the fence, and back into my grandparents’ house.
I woke up my grandparents about four in the morning screaming “Lord, help me. I’m gonna die,” as I threw up Schlitz malt liquor. I have flash backs to this day of the seemingly non-stop stream of Schlitz vomit in the bathroom hall. I can still see the linoleum floor pattern and remember the cold porcelain. Several hours later the previous night’s events unfolded in my grandmother’s kitchen. Once again David was in the dog house.
That was the last of my nights in black juke joints, at least for a while. It was also the most fun I’d had since taking my lion to school for “bring your pet to school day”, but that’s a story for another time.
For my Uncle David who, no lie, let me shift gears when I was four.