Tracie Fellers: My local roots mixtape

July 12, 2013 

Tracie Fellers


Somebody, somewhere has made sure there’s a month for just about anything and everything. For instance, July is both National Anti-Boredom Month and National Hot Dog Month. And, just so you know, it’s also National Cell Phone Courtesy Month and National Horseradish Month.

The list goes on ... and on. So, given the excess of monthly observances – some worth paying attention to, some definitely not – you might have missed the memo that June was Black Music Month. Or call it African-American Music Appreciation Month, as updated in a White House proclamation from President Obama in 2009.

First designated by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, the month was, not surprisingly, endorsed as a marketing tool by musicians like Kenny Gamble. Fans of ’70s soul, like me, will remember that Gamble, an iconic producer, songwriter and co-founder of Philadelphia International Records, collaborated with Leon Huff on a host of Philly Sound hits.

Among them: “Love Train” by the O’Jays and “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” first recorded by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, with the incomparable Teddy Pendergrass singing lead.

In a recent interview with, Gamble said Black Music Month is still important culturally, describing it as “a time to remember the great African-American artists and the contributions that we’ve made to American music.”

In that spirit, I have a pitch of my own. I’m proposing we celebrate tunes with local roots (in my case, Durham) in one way or another, across genres, for the rest of the summer. I’m thinking about songs that speak to our cultural heritage, some sung or spawned by its native sons and daughters. And I’m hereby inviting you to add to my list.

So, here are my starting ten, from newest to oldest:

1. First, a toss-up between two contemporary gospel songs by Durham native John P. Kee: “Life and Favor” (2012) and “Stand” (1996).

“Life and Favor” showcases Kee’s New Life choir and some of gospel’s latest stars, including James Fortune and LeJeune Thompson. The resulting sound successfully blends testimonies of praise with pop, R&B and hip-hop influences, for a song that speaks to churchgoing audiences and has proven its staying power on the charts.

With its interplay between a strong V.I.P. Mass Choir and Kee’s fervent lead tenor, “Stand” recalls the gospel quartet sound that has deep roots in Durham and the Piedmont. And both songs show why Kee, now a Charlotte-based pastor, is a superstar in his own right, already inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.

2. Bon Iver, “Minnesota, WI” (2011). Despite its two Midwestern place names, we can call this track’s inclusion a nod to the Triangle, since Justin Vernon, the musician behind Bon Iver, once lived in Raleigh. Oh, and the two 2012 Grammys don’t hurt: Best Alternative Album and Best New Artist.

3. Arcade Fire, “Rococo “ (2010). This song from the Montreal indie rock group’s biggest album, “The Suburbs,” cleverly mocks “modern kids,” but not without wistfulness. And the album, released by Durham’s Merge Records, was a surprise winner of one of the most coveted Grammys of all: Album of the Year.

4. “Just Bob Your Head” by Stanley Baird (2007). Baird, a talented saxophonist, N.C. Central University alum and longtime Durham resident, has made a name for himself locally and beyond with his brand of smooth jazz. This original song from his album “Traffic Jam” percolates with an up-tempo groove.

5. “Little Sparrow,” Dolly Parton (2001). This haunting ballad from Parton’s critically acclaimed album of the same title recalls her bluegrass and mountain music roots. It connects her with Durham through Sugar Hill Records, launched in Durham as an independent label in 1978 and now based in Nashville.

6. “Angel Eyes,” Nnenna Freelon (1992). Freelon has called Durham home since 1979, and I could put just about anything from her wonderfully eclectic catalog of the last 20 years on this list. But her bluesy reading of this jazz standard, from her self-titled debut CD, makes it one of my personal favorites.

7. “Freaky Dancin’,” Cameo (1981). Cameo defined funk in the late ’70s through the late ’80s, and it doesn’t get much funkier than this get-on-the-floor cut from the group’s “Knights of the Sound Table” album. That’s partly thanks to bass guitarist Aaron Mills, an Asheville native who honed his musical gifts as a student at NCCU and now lives in Durham.

8. “No Charge,” Shirley Caesar (1975). This song poignantly tells the story of a mother’s love and sacrifice, prompted by her young son’s request to be paid for a list of chores he’s performed – and it became an instant classic for Durham’s reigning queen of gospel, now known as pastor Shirley Caesar.

9. “Surely (Someone Needs Love),” Johnny White and the Mighty Crusaders (1975). An online admirer of this song by local legend White, aptly called it a deep soul ballad, with its bluesy horns and blue lights-in-the-basement flavor. White, who started his career as a singer and bandleader in the ’60s, still performs across the country with the Elite Band, his group since the 1980s.

10. “White Christmas,” Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters (1954). Durham native McPhatter and the Drifters were at top of their doo-wop game when they recorded this version of a holiday favorite. Their take is so irresistible that I dare you not to sing along, even in July.

Tracie Fellers lives in Durham. Contact her at Do you have a Durham or Orange County “roots” song to add to the list? Send it to us at and you could win a free DVD copy of “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-75: A Film by Goran Hugo Olsson.”

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