- By day, Ken Friedman directs a molecular genetics program; by night, he compiles N.C.'s lost musical gems
Officially, Ken Friedman is the Director of Molecular Genetics for Laboratory Corporation of America, a Burlington, N.C.-based network of international medical labs with 28,000 employees. But in his words, he's just "a music geek."
In the early '80s, Friedman—at that time, the man behind Anarchy in the PM, a popular radio show on University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's student station, WXYC—waved his geek flag from on high when he decided to have a go at releasing a compilation of obscure North Carolina music. Armed with an ever-growing collection of 45s, the Yellow Pages and an atlas, he assembled Tobacco A-Go-Go Volume 1 and released the LP on his Blue Mold Records in 1983. A second volume, sporting a photo of the Confederate general statue in the Roxboro city square draped in '60s wear, followed in 1985.
The gems unearthed for the two comps include cuts from the Corsairs and Sacred Irony, the former featuring James and Alex Taylor and the latter led by a midteen Mitch Easter, as well as Arrogance's first 45, "Black Death." You'll also find a cover of the Five American's "I See the Light" from the Durham-based Bondsman, whose drummer was a guy named Philip Pearson—better known to fans of roots rock and long-haul trucking as Phil Lee. That's about as famous as the contributors get.
Almost a quarter-century down Tobacco Road, Friedman, 55, has put together a third volume of the series, calling it "a mixtape for friends that got out of the bag." Tobacco A-Go-Go Volume 3 is not available commercially, but you can download its 22 songs at www.ncmusichistory.com, an archaeological wonder overseen by musician/ music fanatic Michael Slawter. (The first two volumes were never released on CD—well, except illegally by some schmuck in New York who bootlegged them on disc.) Among the highlights this time: Two songs from the 18th Edition rescued from a cassette. "Really good kind of 'Penny Lane'-ish pysch," says Friedman. "But instead of coming from Liverpool, it came from Statesville."
Spoken like a true music geek.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: What's the series' thesis statement, and what inspired you to have a go at it?
KEN FRIEDMAN: Let's not forget that there was great music coming out of the state back in the '60s. The whole point of the series when I was creating it back in the '80s was—of course, at that point Nuggets had come out and Pebbles and all these other compilations—was that no one had done anything that was specifically regional yet. Here I am, a transplanted Missourian, got my green card for North Carolina. I'm very big into the music scene. I'd been at WXYC for about three or four years, and I got into collecting old 45s. And just like the New Wave show that I was doing at XYC, it was very DIY. All these bands [were] just, "Do it yourself and go out and make a record." The same thing was going on in the '60s: People had their own little independent labels, making records in their garages, literally and sonically. And I just came up with the idea that no one's ever thinking about the South when it comes to the '60s. There's got to be good '60s music from the South. And that's what I ended up locating and releasing. Here was undiscovered territory.
A significant amount of sleuthing goes into a project like this. I'm sure you have stories related to tracking down songs and bands?
Thousands. Keep in mind, the idea came to me in '82. Think about the technology at that time. I didn't have a computer. There was no LimeWire, Kazaa or Napster. There was no sharing. And there weren't that many comps at that point in time. So everything was done two ways—the telephone and road trips. I actually made a legitimate business out of it for a while so I could write off my gas to Wilson if I heard about a cool band from the town. The first lead I had was a young group of teens from Durham called the Dukes who did "It's Got the Whole World Shakin'." That's a Sam Cooke song that was reissued on Volume 1. I found the parents of one of the guys in the band. They had kept a scrapbook that was about four inches thick, and they were a compendium of great information. But I'd have to do this town after town after town.
What led to Volume 3 after so much time had passed?
I had gotten back into making compilations, mostly just for trading with friends. I have a whole second series of comps now—with the entire decade and the entire globe the scope—looking for songs that really should have been hits, the idea being to create a Top 40 jukebox from an alternative universe. You can't go back and ever hear "Hard Day's Night" for the first time, but wouldn't it be great if there really were hundreds of other songs that good that you could then portray as a newly discovered '60s world? So I created a comp series called All Heart But No Chart, and over the last three years I've produced eight volumes. Somewhere in the middle of working on those, I said "Hey, all the tools I've now been able to use on the Internet are now available to me if I want to hunker back down on the Carolina stuff."
These are fairly varied collections of music. What are some of the extremes of styles to you?
The most atypical stuff is actually on Tobacco 1 because I was going for the regional market, not just the garage market. There was a group that recorded for the Romat label—Romat was short for Roy Matthews, who had a studio in
Robersonville—and they were called the Soul Twisters. I never found them. It was an African-American combo with sort of good cheesy Hammond organ. [Sings.] "Swingin' on a grapevine." [Laughs.] It wasn't a hit record by any stretch, but it was fun.
How about a favorite band story?
There was a Winston-Salem group called the Teenbeets. They had two independent singles. They were apparently quite the hell-raisers—dyed their hair red, got into a fair amount of trouble. At one point in my research, I happened upon the drummer. Many years had passed, and this guy had gone to Vietnam, and he'd gotten religion on the battlefield. He was a Moravian minister when I talked with him in the '80s. This was a very stalwart, admirable man I was talking to, and I was having a hard time really digging into the past because he didn't want to talk about his errant youth. Finally, I said that I fully recognize your current beliefs, and all I'm really trying to do is get to the heart of the music and what your group and other groups contributed to North Carolina. Could you tell me a little bit more? He lets out this incredibly deep sigh and says, "Well, we were the best."
Ken Friedman will be a guest on WXDU's garage rock show Who's Got the Cuckoo? at 9 p.m. Sunday, April 12. Listen at 88.7 FM or wxdu.org. Friedman's band, Amps Do Furnish a Room, plays the MarVell Event Center April 29. Listen for the Tamrons' "Wild Man," featured on Tobacco A-Go-Go Volume 3.