Geneva Perry: From the International Sweethearts of Rhythm to Adkin High
In eastern North Carolina, public school band directors have often played a crucial role in inspiring and instructing rising generations of musicians. One of the most influential band directors of earlier generations was Geneva Perry, who taught music at Adkin High School in Kinston. Perry was a Washington, D.C., native and had played saxophone in the International Sweethearts of Rhythm before she came to North Carolina. The Sweethearts—all women musicians—were a multiracial, majority African American big band.
The band’s origins were at the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi, which sponsored a touring student band in the 1920s and 30s. During the 1940s, while on tour, several band members struck out on their own, and set up housekeeping together in Arlington, Virginia. The Sweethearts were wildly popular throughout the World War II years, touring with the United Service Organization, challenging all-male orchestras in battles of the bands, and starring in a movie titled International Sweethearts of Rhythm.
Pitch A Boogie Woogie
A homegrown musical with an African American cast, Pitch a Boogie Woogie was filmed in 1947 with players recruited from the Piedmont and Eastern North Carolina.
John Warner, a white businessman from Washington, North Carolina, and his brother William Lord, raised the funds and assembled the equipment, cast, and crew. Musicians included the Rhythm Vets, a band from North Carolina A & T in Greensboro; Den Dunning’s Orchestra, associated with the Fayetteville-based Winstead Mighty Minstrels; and various individual instrumentalists and singers.
Among the Greenville citizens were Beatrice Atkinson (who years later worked at the ECU library), the singer Joe Little (who became a Holiness minister in New Jersey), Tom Foreman (for whom a local park is named), and a group called the Melodiers, comprising Joe Little, James and Mary Clark, and Herman Walters.
Pitch a Boogie Woogie played a limited run at the theater Warner owned and elsewhere in the Carolinas, before fading into obscurity. The long-lost film reels were rediscovered by the musician Bill “Shep” Shepherd, who shared them with Alex Albright, an English professor at ECU and the owner of Fountain General Store. To celebrate the occasion many of the original musicians reunited and gave a special performance; Governor James Martin proclaimed the week of the event, February 4–8, 1986, an official, statewide Pitch a Boogie Woogie Week.
After extensive restoration and research, the movie was once again shown in Greenville—this time to an integrated audience—in 1987.
A century ago, formal dances called Germans were held in many tobacco towns across the state, where warehouses could accommodate large crowds. (The German was a special kind of ballroom dance that required a leader and for which couples were divided into two groups known as first and second halves.) Initially these dances were organized in conjunction with county fairs and the opening of tobacco markets.
The first Rocky Mount dance was held in 1870 and became known as the June German in 1903. As early as 1918 a June German dance was held for the area’s black residents on the Monday following the white dance. Blacks gathered in the same warehouse and celebrated throughout the night with their own musicians, using the decorations and stage setups from the white dance. By the 1930s, the black event was drawing upwards of 8,000 dance fans to Rocky Mount.
In the 1940s big bands including Louis Armstrong and Count Basie played Rocky Mount for the “Colored June German.”
Wilson musician Bill Myers recalls, “People from all over eastern North Carolina used to dress up and go to the June German…One band would play and then, once they would stop, another band would take over. It would be an all-night dance-a-thon.”
For more than 45 years, through years of segregation and after, Tom’s Place attracted top-name musicians and audiences eager for good music, good food and a good time.
It was just a rambling, eclectic building at the end of a quarter-mile gravel drive on the old family farm. It had started out as a residence and had become a tobacco pack house before Vernon Lee ‘Tom’ Woodard began converting it into a nightclub after he left the Army in 1947.
Before his death in February 1994, Woodard turned the old pack house into an entertainment center that attracted the likes of James Brown, Little Richard, Al Green and dozens more.
Hal Tarleton, reporting for the Wilson Daily Times, February 24, 1998
Now operated by Tom’s brother Bennie and wife Ethel Woodard, Woodard’s Multi-Purpose Center is still a favorite gathering spot in Wilson for receptions and other community gatherings.