“North Carolina is in the House!”  (aka the Carolina Soul-DC Connection)

That’s what Larry Joines, the bass guitarist of the Washington, DC-based Just Us Band, exclaimed to the crowd at Jo Jo Restaurant and Bar on U Street in the District a few nights ago, doing his best to appeal to the loyalties of several Tar Heels in the house, including our party of four. Just Us would deliver two sets of memorable hits of the ‘60s and ‘70s like Kool and the Gang’s “Get Down on It,” Rick James’ “Mary Jane,” and a 15-minute James Brown medley, in which inimitable frontman “Lil’”Robert Joines, aka “King Snake,” faked us out at one point by making us think he was about to drop into a JB-worthy split. It’s been a minute since we’d seen so much energy from a band playing grown-folks music (maybe since Family Sircle, who’ll figure into this narrative below), so if you’re in DC on a weekend, check the Jo Jo schedule and see if you might be lucky enough to catch Just Us. And if you can’t make it and can pardon a little distortion, here’s a short video from the JB medley:

In between those two sets, several in our party introduced themselves to Robert, curious about his life story. As it turned out, this energetic showman originally hails from the Charlotte, North Carolina area, counts the Monroe, NC natives “K-Ci” and “JoJo” Hailey of Jodeci as nephews, and is even kin to Fantasia Barrino of High Point, NC. It wasn’t really that surprising to learn that Robert had ties to the Carolinas. We’ve casually been noting for some time the number of Carolina musicians who either made their careers in the District, came south to work the “chitlin’ circuit,” or did a little of both.

Indeed, almost as a footnote to obituaries for the recently passed Chuck Brown, the Godfather of Go-Go himself—the man who arguably defined the sound of the District more than anyone else—was the little-known fact that even Brown spent his first eight years in North Carolina (Gaston County to be exact).

Let’s run through a few other examples that have recently sprung to mind. For starters, two groups who worked with DC-based vocalist Clifton Dyson had connections to the Carolinas. In the mid-‘70s, saxophonist Ricco Richardson, with whom Dyson ran Dy-Rich Records, relocated his band the Educators to South Carolina, where they remain active to this day. (We’ve chronicled a bit of that history elsewhere in the pages of Carolina Soul.) Earlier that decade, Dyson recruited three Durham, NC vocalists including Jerome Saunders (now of Family Sircle) to form the Differences with him. Their beautiful 1971 Mon’ca release has been known to turn up in collections of denizens of both Durham and the District, and rumor has it that some of the singers went on to form Special Delivery, a DC-based recording act that worked with Terry Huff.

Two artists that figured heavily in the Durham, NC scene—which we recently studied for the Bull City Soul Revival project—N.C.C.U. and “Big” John Snells—maintained interesting ties to the District. N.C.C.U. were a disco-funk band who achieved their big break under the tutelage of North Carolina Central University visiting professor and trumpet star, Donald Byrd, who worked otherwise as a professor of jazz at Washington’s Howard University. Before helping to launch N.C.C.U.’s recording career, Byrd molded a group of Howard jazz students into the Blackbyrds of “Rock Creek Park” fame. Snells, a gender-bending performer—known locally as “The He, The She, The It” and the most popular live performer out of 1970s Durham not to release his soul act on vinyl—was said to have made extended visits to DC.  The District’s more tolerant and sexually open atmosphere gave Snells the freedom to explore his identity and exposed him to stores that supplied his infamous cross-dressing stage outfits.

Taking a step back from music and looking at broader trends, let’s talk about Isabel Wilkerson’s recent book The Warmth of Other Suns, which explores the story of the Great Migration, i.e. the flow of African Americans from the South to parts north in the twentieth century. Focusing on the stories of nine individuals who made this journey, Wilkerson explains how several distinct geographic patterns predominated among the many thousands who migrated during this period of time. Mississipians, for example, often made it to Chicago, with many Texans finding their way to Los Angeles.

Thousands of Carolinians left their homes for Philadelphia and New York—but DC held a particularly strong appeal for Carolinians. Especially in the eyes of African Americans living in the Piedmont or eastern parts of North Carolina, DC was larger than Charlotte and closer than Atlanta. It was the closest truly big city for much of the state. Even though it was known to some as a “sleepy Southern town,” DC was also where Jim Crow segregation began to break down, where a handful of public places, like the Washington Senators’ Griffith Stadium or the city’s public library, admitted both blacks and whites. For many black Carolinians, DC was the first step out of the old Confederacy. By 1960, a constant influx of black Southerners had made Washington the country’s first major city with a black majority.  In the 1970s, local radio announcers christened DC the Chocolate City, and George Clinton and Parliament followed suit with a song and album of the same name. Wilkerson tells how even today, older blacks who came to DC from the Carolinas “still wear sequins and bow ties to the annual Charleston Ball in Washington.”

Suffice it to say, whether we’re talking about Chuck Brown, N.C.C.U. or the Just Us Band, soul music in DC and soul music in the Carolinas wouldn’t be the same without each other.

For more on soul out of our nation’s capital, check out Kevin Coombe’s site DC Soul Recordings.

Editor’s note: Joshua Clark Davis is the newest contributor to Carolina Soul. He has researched, spoken and written extensively on the history of the soul-music business. In 2012, he co-curated the exhibit “Soul Souvenirs: Durham’s Musical Memories from the 1960s and 1970s.” His article “For the Records: How African American Consumers and Music Retailers Created Commercial Public Space in the 1960s and 1970s South” (which we profiled here) examines record stores like Snoopy’s in Durham and appeared in the journal Southern Cultures in winter 2011.

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