William E. “Bill” Myers: Musician
by Beverly Patterson
Bill Myers remembers growing up in Greenville in the 1930s and 40s, and hearing his grandmother say, “This boy evidently will play something after a while.” There is no need for him to state the obvious: that his musical accomplishments have far exceeded her prediction. As a jazz and rhythm and blues saxophonist and keyboard player, and as co-founder of the Monitors, a nationally recognized band that he has directed for well over 50 years, Bill Myers has become a powerful artist and interpreter of African American music traditions in his community and region.
He has done that while rising through the ranks of Wilson County Schools, starting as a teacher and band director, becoming principal, and finally retiring as assistant superintendent. A tireless advocate for the arts and a former member of the North Carolina Arts Council’s board of directors, Bill Myers became a key consultant for the African American Music Heritage Trails project that the North Carolina Arts Council initiated.
Like other African American children who showed interests in music at an early age, Bill Myers found encouragement in his family, church, school, and community. He developed keen ears and eyes for absorbing his own music heritage, and he continues to maintain a high level of artistry in the community. He talked about some of the experiences that shaped him as a musician in an interview conducted by folklorist Susan Hester at the Oliver Nestus Freeman Museum in Wilson, North Carolina, on October 16, 2007. This citation draws on Myers’ words from that interview.
“As we looked back into the history of our family, it was my dad’s daddy who was the only one who I knew about who had any kind of musical ability,” he said. “Louis Armstrong was like the musician of note, so we would get other little boys out on the street and try to mimic Louis Armstrong. I had an uncle who couldn’t read music, but he could pick out things very simply [on the piano]. We would hear Duke Ellington on the radio. And Duke Ellington’s theme song was ‘Mood Indigo.’ Well, my uncle showed me how to play ‘Mood Indigo’ on the piano. Now, mind you, I didn’t know how to read a note, but he showed me where to put my fingers.”
Taking piano lessons that his grandmother arranged, Myers learned to read notes, and “pretty soon the people at the Sunday school at my church in Greenville wanted me to start playing for the children at Sunday school. This made me learn a different hymn every Sunday from the hymnbook. So that increased my reading ability.”
When he reached Epps High School in Greenville, the principal sent Bill to the band director. Myers said, “I think maybe [the principal] had heard that I was beginning to play the piano a bit. So he just said, ‘Tell the man I said to put you in the band.’ Well, I went to the band director, who was white, who had come to the black school to teach one period a day to try to get a band started. He said, ‘Well, what do you play?’ And I said, ‘I don’t play anything.’ And he said, ‘Well, what do you want to play?’ So I looked around, and I said, ‘How about the drums?’ So he handed me two sticks. He said go back there and beat on the drums. He never showed me how to hold the sticks; he never showed me how to put on the strap. He never showed me anything. Lucky for me, there was another guy there who had been playing a little bit. So I watched. He said, ‘This little symbol right here is a rest. When you see that, don’t play. But when you see the little dot here, that means you hit the drum.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Yep. Hold the sticks like this. Go left and go right.’ So by watching [him] and looking at these notes, I learned to beat the drum, and that’s what I was doing, literally beating the drum. I said, ‘There’s got to be a little more to this.’ So on my own, I started to improvise a little bit because I would hear things on records. I’m still listening to Duke Ellington and Satchmo on the radio.
“My Sunday school teacher took me to New York City as part of the Sunday school convention. I had never been to New York City, but that was an eye-opening experience. She took me to Radio City Music Hall. I got a chance to see the Rockettes. I had never seen anything like that. I got a chance to hear this guy play a magnificent organ. I never heard the thing like that. I got a chance to go to the Apollo Theater and this guy named Willis ‘Gator Tail’ Jackson was playing saxophone, and his style was what we call the honking style—take one note and just play it like [a car horn]. But at the same time he did a lot of physical gyrations. He’d jump up on the table. Jump off the stage. Run to the back of the auditorium, and the people were going crazy because Willis ‘Gator Tail’ Jackson was doing this.
“So I came back home and I wanted to play the saxophone, but [my] folks could not afford a saxophone. So [my] grandmother knew a guy who played saxophone. He was like the village troubadour. Every Christmas he would walk the city of Greenville playing Christmas carols. His name was James Thomas Edmiston. He would go down every block, playing ‘Silent Night,’ ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing,’ ‘Come All Ye Faithful,’ and people looked for this every Christmas.
“[James Thomas Edmiston] was in a band called the Elks Band. The Elks Band was taken from what they were doing in New Orleans. The practice was if there were a funeral, there would be what you call a turnout session. There would be a wake first, what they call sitting-up. You would go to the house of the deceased and you would sit up with the family all night long. They would serve food and drinks, and you would have to stay up the whole night. Then the next day would be the parade. You would go to the funeral, a very sad, dirge-type march, playing something like ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ very slow. But coming out of the church, it would be really lively, with, ‘When the Saints Go Marching In,’ that kind of thing. And I loved that! I would follow that band wherever they went. And I would walk along, and I’d hear trombones. I just loved that. I said, ‘Boy, this is what I want to do.’ I knew then that I wanted to be a musician.
“There was another guy who played blues guitar: Mo Griffith. He used to chew tobacco and sing the blues, and I would follow him everywhere he went. I would sit right down on the ground and watch him play the blues because that’s what he did. I was fascinated by this music.
“My family can’t afford a saxophone, so my grandmother asked James Thomas to show me how to play the saxophone. He says, ‘Well, I’ll just leave the saxophone at your house. I don’t have time to teach.’ He just left it there. He never showed me how to put it together, how to put the reed on. He just said, ‘Take it.’ So one night he got really, really drunk and he came to the house and he completely took it apart, took all the springs off, everything. And there were a hundred pieces, and I said, ‘How are you going to put that back together?’ He said, ‘I can’t do it when I’m sober, I’ve got to do it when I’m drinking.’ And he put it back together, and I was so taken in by him taking that horn apart and putting it back together. I had never seen anything like that before. I was determined then; I really want to learn the saxophone.
“So, the next year, the most phenomenal thing that ever happened to me happened in my life. This white band director left and a new band director was hired. His name was Bob Lewis. Bob Lewis went to school at Virginia State in Petersburg, Virginia. I had never met a man like Bob Lewis. He was a sharp dresser, a very debonair guy. I just admired everything this guy did. His shoes were shined every day. And he played the saxophone. I wanted to be just like Bob Lewis. He was my idol. I worshiped this man. I’m still in the school band. But I don’t want to play the drums anymore; I want to play what Bob Lewis plays. But now I have a saxophone at the house, too. And Bob Lewis played the saxophone, too, so I said, ‘Please show me how to play this horn.’ He started to teach me, and he moved me from the drums to the saxophone, so I watched everything he was doing, I watched his fingers, watched his mouth, everything he did. I just had to copy everything he did.
“I had no money, but I wanted to go to Virginia State. I started to get better at playing my horn because I started doing what I saw Gator Tail Jackson doing in the Apollo, taking the one-note and hopping it. And people started to think that I was very good, because I was more show than ability. That was the style of playing during that time. And my nickname in Greenville was Popeye. Everybody called me Popeye. And they would say, ‘Have you heard Popeye play?’ Everybody would come, and people would start to hire me and pay me. When you made five dollars, that was big-time money. You played a nickel-gig is what you’d say. And if you ever got paid a dime-gig, or ten dollars, that was big-time. So my name and reputation began to spread around in Greenville. People would come to hear me play, and I would get up on the table and jump off the table and run to the back. People were making lines behind me. One night I ran out of the building and ran around the building and came back in, and the people right behind me, clapping hands, and saying, ‘Blow, Popeye, blow!’
“Even back at this time, there were minstrel shows that would come to town. One of the famous ones was the Silas Green Minstrel Show. Another was the Winstead Mighty Minstrels. I started playing with the Winstead Mighty Minstrel Show in Wilson. We would get on the back of the truck and go around to try to excite people who were coming to the big tent shows that night, go out in front to play to get the people to come in, and then we would play inside before the show. And I even did a little tour with them, but I couldn’t take that; that was too much for me. There were no places for us to stay as black folks. You had to eat any place you could, and any place you go you would have to go to somebody’s house to ask them for a pail of water so that you might bathe. I said, ‘I can’t do this.’
“I’m still a young teenager, trying to do these kinds of things, but saying, ‘This is not my life.’ I would not do that. But I joined some bands in Greenville. We would play the clubs in Greenville—the Tropicana Club, the Blue Moon Club, the Red Rose Club—and I was playing in all those clubs as a high school person. I even played for my own high school prom. I didn’t go to the prom; I played for the prom with these bands. During this time with the band, my reputation is out there as somebody who is pretty good at playing the horn.”
Bill Myers realized his dream of going to college at Virginia State in Petersburg, Virginia. When he graduated, he set aside plans to be a professional musician in order to teach public school for one year in Elm City, NC. That year stretched into many years of service in schools and churches teaching the music that matters to him: “I want to learn about the intricacies of music and what makes it happen. Until the last breath goes out of me, I’m going to keep teaching that. If I’m choir director, I can’t let you get away from the anthems, the hymns, and where this all came from. I’m here to say that it’s not new. [Rap, for example] is new to the kids because they haven’t heard it, but it started way, way back.”
He continues to perform with the Monitors, as he has since the late 1950s when he and Cleveland Flowe co-founded the group. The Monitors were featured on the Rhythm and Blues stage at the 2011 Smithsonian Festival in Washington, D.C. When Bill acknowledges being the only original member, he reminds us that the band has been performing for many years: “We were before the Embers; we were before the Band of Oz, the other bands who were very popular. We were before that, and yet, we’re still doing it right now. Members had to leave us for various reasons, either they got sick or something
happened that they had to stop playing, but the band is still going on.”
Beverly Patterson, author of Sound of the Dove: Singing in Appalachian Primitive Baptist Churches, recently retired as director of the North Carolina Folklife Institute where her work included supervising field research with African American musicians in the state. She is co-author of a new guidebook, African American Music Trails of Eastern North Carolina.
Patterson, Beverly. “William E. ‘Bill’ Myers: Musician.” North Carolina Folklore Journal 59.2 (2012): 10-15.