FOUR WORLD-FAMOUS SINGERS WHO WERE FIRST HEARD IN LOCAL HISTORIC BLACK CHURCHES
“O come, let us sing unto the Lord: let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation. Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms.”
— Psalms 95:1-2, King James Version
- JESSYE NORMAN, MOUNT CAVALRY BAPTIST, 1260 WRIGHTSBORO ROAD, AUGUSTA.
- ARTHUR LEE SIMPKINS, THANKFUL BAPTIST, 302 WALKER STREET AT THIRD, AUGUSTA
- SHARON JONES, NORTH AUGUSTA BAPTIST, 508 WEST JACKSON AVENUE, NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C.
- MICKEY MURRAY, OLD STORM BRANCH BAPTIST, 163 STORM BRANCH ROAD, BEECH ISLAND, S.C.
There is probably no single person from the Augusta area who has been mentioned more times in publications before achieving major fame than the legendary opera star Jessye Norman.
Even before she graduated from Lucy Laney High School in 1963, Norman was mentioned more than 45 times in The Augusta Chronicle according to the electronic search site augustaarchives.com.
And she certainly was mentioned about the same number of times or more in the afternoon Augusta Herald daily newspaper. City Editor John Barnes often recalled that Norman herself brought printed notices about her appearances and accomplishments to the second floor newsroom on Broad Street.
Other newspapers in the area also wrote about Norman’s steady growth as a popular local vocalist with most of those references being connected to at the old Mt. Calvary Baptist Church on Wrightsboro Road across from the United House of Prayer For All People.
Her insurance-selling father, Silas Norman Sr., was superintendent of Mt. Calvary’s Sunday School for 29 years, and her family was very active in the church; living within a short walking distance on Forrest Avenue.
Norman sang at many special occasions at the church including weddings, and she was director of the youth chorus.
So it seemed fitting that prior to her public funeral in Bell Auditorium in October of 2019 that her body lay in state at the newer Mt. Calvary building next door to the church where she first was applauded.
“The first talent contest I ever won was in church when I was about 7 or 8,” she recalled to this writer during a visit home for the funeral of her father.
“I sang the hymn ‘God Will Take Care of You.’” She related. “At the service for my father the other day, the choir sang that song. It was one of the few moments of that day I could smile because it reminded me of that contest.
“I couldn’t remember the words of the last verse, and I only won third prize in the contest. My father came up to me and said, ‘Girl, I’m sure if you knew that last verse you would have won first prize.’”
Future Grammy Awards-winning Norman added with a smile, “I’ve worked more diligently on learning the text of my songs since then.”
Norman performed many gospel songs during her career with two of her most popular albums being “Amazing Grace” (1991) and “Spirituals” with Dalton Baldwin and the Ambrosian Singers (1979).
The last mentioned three-records package offered such classics as “Gospel Train,” “Steal Away To Jesus,” “Let Us Break Bread Together,” “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,” “Every Time I Feel The Spirit” and “My Lord What A Morning.”
Undoubtedly, at its release, it was her father who smiling from Heaven at his daughter honoring her Augusta church upbringing.
ARTHUR LEE SIMPKINS
One of the greatest tenor voices of all time was that of Arthur Lee Simpkins, who was born 1909 in Hamburg, South Carolina.
His parents, Alec and Emma Simpkins, moved the family to Augusta where their son began singing publicly in Thankful Baptist Church on the corner of Third and Walker streets.
Like Jessye Norman, Simpkins’ early life pretty much revolved around Thankful Baptist where he met and married another great singer in the church, Aurora Thomas.
They appeared on many church programs together but singing separate hymns. Simpkins took piano and voice lessons from his wife’s sister, Ruby Thomas Robinson, who was director of music at Paine College.
By the late 1920s, Simkins was singing throughout the area with “The Famous Thankful Quartette,” widely known for their African-American spirituals, and was gaining a reputation as “the black Caruso.”
That led to forming his Night Hawks band which became THE group that wealthy white families hired for their wedding receptions and other high society gatherings.
He still made solo appearances with Night Hawks keyboard player Waldo Pinckney being his accompanist. They were featured in a large Chronicle advertisement on May 8, 1932, for the grand opening of W.H. Mays Funeral Home.
When WRDW radio station went on the air in 1930, Simpkins and Pinckney became two of its most popular live broadcast performers.
To support his family, Simpkins also worked as a porter at the Georgia Railroad Bank, Seventh at Broad streets in Augusta.
Earl Pinkerton, the manager of the Lenox Theater on Ninth Street, started featuring Simpkins and his band in shows at the Lenox. And that’s where white Augusta musician Charlie Fulcher introduced Simpkins to world famous black bandleader Earl “Fatha” Hines on February 20, 1934, when Hines made a tour stop in Augusta.
Hines was so impressed that he hired Simpkins as a vocalist. Simpkins joined the band a couple of months later in Chicago and became an instantaneous superstar with Chicago music fans.
His fame kept growing to where he was singing at the nation’s leading nightclubs including Ciro’s in Hollywood and in the 1950s making $2,500 per week. He was so famous in Las Vegas that pianist Liberace and comedian Joey Bishop opened for him!
Simpkins became popular as a recording artist with one of his top sellers being his lyrical version of Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees.”
Another of his popular love songs was “Aurora;” apparently inspired by his wife, Aurora Thomas, whom he had met at Thankful Baptist. The lyrics were by Andy Razaf who wrote hit songs like “Ain’t Misbehavin’” “(My) Honeysuckle Rose” and “That’s What I Like ‘Bout The South.”
In 1952, Simpkins was a guest soloist at the Democratic National Convention and was said to have soothed a very upset gathering with his rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer.” He also was the United States’ representative during Coronation Week in London for Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.
When pop and blues singer Sam Cooke was shot to death by a motel clerk in 1964, it was Simpkins who sang at his Los Angeles funeral along with Lou Rawls, Bobby Blue Bland and Ray Charles.
In spite of his enormous fame, Simpkins returned to Augusta often to sing in nightclubs and churches. He performed in Bell Auditorium in 1954 to raise money for uniforms for the Lucy C. Laney High School marching band.
Simpkins died January 6, 1972, in Los Angeles, not long after undergoing a bladder operation. He was planning future concerts. His wife, Aurora, as reported in the national “Jet” magazine, remarried in 1974 to a prominent businessman. She died two years later.
It took a while for the rest of the world to realize what a big deal Sharon Lafaye Jones was with her big voice eventually heard at sold out shows in such places as New York City’s Carnegie Hall, Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center and Sydney, Australia’s Opera House.
In fact, she was in her 40s when she started having her first major recordings with a band called The Dap-Kings who had their own label called Dap Tone Records.
But the members of the small North Augusta Baptist Church on Jackson Avenue just down from the Sno-Cap Drive-in many years earlier knew that a superstar was in the making.
Maxwell George, deputy editor of Oxford American magazine and New York City resident, wrote in a profile of Jones in 2015, “North Augusta Baptist Church is a humble house of God, steepleless and cast in brick, with a pair of squat towers flanking the stained-glass black Messiah on its façade.
“In the mid-1960s, soul singer Sharon Jones gave her first public performance here, as a singing angel in the Christmas pageant when she was in the third grade.”
Her public career would be way too brief with Jones dying at 60 of pancreatic cancer on November 18, 2016, at Bassett Medical Center in Cooperstown, New York.
Just two months earlier she had performed what would be her final show opening for the rock superstar duo Hall & Oates at the M-G-M Grand Hotel’s Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
Two public “Celebration of Life” services were held for Jones with the first being at Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York, and the other being at Augusta’s Imperial Theater where the stage would be named in her honor.
Mark Ronson, the hit records producer who borrowed Jones’ band to play backup to Amy Winehouse’s classic “Back To Black” album, remarked, “Sharon Jones had one of the most magnificent, gut-wrenching voices of anyone in recent time.”
Grammy winner John Legend, who had performed Marvin Gaye/Tami Terrell tribute concerts with Jones at the Kennedy Center and the Hollywood Bowl, said, “So sad to hear about the passing of my friend and the soulful, dynamic singer. I loved performing with, Sharon Jones.”
Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg, mourned, “The fabulous Sharon Jones has passed tonight. She and her band The Dap Kings made great music together, and she sang her butt off. Condolences RIP.”
At this writing there is a major, big screen movie in development in Los Angeles with an Oscar, Tony and Emmy winning actress planning to portray Jones. Details have not been announced but top officials of the film company have confirmed that the production is in the works.
Meantime, many music-related individuals on both sides of the Savannah River are hoping that North Augusta will follow Augusta’s lead in naming a riverfront amphitheater after a famous female international singing star.
North Augusta Mayor Bob Pettit has said that he would be in favor of naming his city’s $3 million amphitheater ─ now being constructed ─ after Jones who spent her last five years living on Jackson Avenue a few blocks away.
Pettit said, however, he still has to convince the city’s council members that such a move could result in international media attention and visits from her worldwide fans.
Near the end of her life, Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple followed Jones and the Dap-Kings while Sharon fought cancer and returned to performing.
One scene for the movie “Miss Sharon Jones!” was filmed at the same North Augusta church where she sang as a child and which she visited on trips back home.
Jones told Diana Nollen of The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that music was a natural career path for her from an early age singing in that church.
“Sure, I really knew when I was younger, like at my church, when I did my first Nativity play and I played an angel,” she says. “I got to sing ‘Silent Night.’ I was a little girl, but I knew I was going to grow up to sing.”
Matt Rogers, a New York City music writer and filmmaker who attended Jones’ memorial service in the Imperial, recalled that shortly after buying her yellow brick ranch-style home in early 2011, Jones showed it off to her Dap-Kings band members and backup vocalists with their tour bus parked out front.
Jones proudly led an impromptu tour of the large group walking them from her home, down a dip in Jackson Avenue to past the small pond where she fished and swam as a child, then to the church where she first sang publicly and finally back to her house.
It was reminiscent of the powerful scene in the movie “The Color Purple” where jazz/gospel singer Shug Avery leads a large group of nightclub customers walking toward the small rural church where her estranged father is preaching while Avery sings “God Is Trying To Tell You Something.”
Rogers added, “That’s exactly what Sharon said: ‘This is my Color Purple moment.’”
By the late 1960s, Mickey Murray had become one of the nation’s best known soul music singers with his 1967 recording of “Shout Bamalama” selling a million copies.
Never mind that Otis Redding earlier had composed and recorded the song, or that it went nowhere until Murray put out his own version. That led to Redding’s original version being re-released and becoming a hit on top of Murray’s.
The powerful King and Federal soul labels released Murray’s recordings. He opened shows for Aretha Franklin at Harlem’s famed Apollo theater and toured with such hot rhythm and blues acts as Wilson Pickett, The Staple Singers and The Isley Brothers.
And it all began with Murray and his brothers, Clarence, and Earnest (or “Bubba), growing up in Old Storm Branch Baptist Church in North Augusta just a short distance off Jefferson Davis Highway.
Clarence would become a lead vocalist with the legendary Swanee Quintet based in Augusta and also sang with The Glorious Kings and The Dixie Jubilaires.
Murray would sing with the wide touring Dixie Jubilaires, a favorite on WJBF’s “Parade of Quartets” show.
Raymond Dean, Murray’s band teacher at Jefferson High School in Bath, S.C., hooked him up with Augusta show promoter Sam Gantt, manager of a popular band called The Zippers.
That led Murray to touring extensively with The Zippers performing in places on Broadway in New York City and after-game parties at major colleges throughout the South including Emory, Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia.
It was Murray’s manager, Gantt, who took him to meet with Blanche Carter, who lived on Bluebird Road near Lake Olmstead. She had gained international fame writing “Devil Or Angel,” a Top 10 hit by The Clovers in 1955 and Bobby Vee in 1960.
One thing led to another and Murray found himself in a studio in Jacksonville, Fla., recording “Shout Bamalama.”
Murray didn’t like the song and didn’t want to record it, but his manager convinced him that it would be a good move.
“They wrote the words out for me on this big blackboard in large letters,” Murray said. “We recorded it on a four-track machine and had to do it 20 times because if someone made a mistake on a four-track, you had to do the whole thing over.
“It didn’t get much promotion from the record label, but it took on a life of its own. It just would grab you when you heard it.”
For about three years, Murray performed with an Augusta-based band called Leroy Lloyd and The Swinging Dukes.
“One of the last tours I did was with that band about 1971 or 1972,” Murray said. “We went out with Betty Swann to Denver, Colorado Springs, Oklahoma City and a month of one-nighters across Texas.”
Disco was killing rock and soul music sales in the 1970s, and Murray gave up show business for quieter times living in North Augusta and working regularly across the Savannah River.
Just a few years ago he found renewed national fame when some young record company owners in Minneapolis, Minn., came across his 1970 “People Are Together” vinyl album and re-issued it on their Secret Stash Records label.
Other soul music fans around the world still praise Murray’s recordings including “Sir Shambling’s Deep Soul Heaven,” a fan music site in England found at sirshambling.com.
Clarence Murray died at 69 on January 31, 2011, and was buried in the cemetery of Old Storm Branch Baptist Church.
But you can find his brother, Mickey, still singing in the church choir at the newer built Storm Branch Baptist Church just down the road.
By Don Rhodes, contributor for Augusta Magazine.