‘Let the Music Keep Our Spirits High’
Diane Stephenson inadvertently scheduled this year’s benefit concert for the Brain Tumor Center at Duke University to conflict with the Sunday of MerleFest. But when I think about it, coincide would be the better verb. Although the two events that I never, ever miss happen to fall concurrently, it is actually perfectly appropriate that it works out that way. Both honor musicologists who went to that Great Boogie in the Sky far too early, both raise funds for worthy causes and both bring together tried and true friends for a renewal of spirit that only these types of gatherings can produce. Yes, the scale is different, but the vibe’s the same.
Many of you would know Merle Watson, son of Doc, who died in a tractor accident in 1985. Fewer of you would know John Stephenson, husband of Diane, who died of a brain tumor in 1999. Doc, at the urging of several folks, agreed to help facilitate MerleFest in 1988. Diane, at the urging of her heart and soul, began holding the Benefit & Party in 2001. Since you likely know a bit about Merle, let me tell you about John.
Back when cutting a record meant something more than the cost of doing business, the band which I was graced to be a part of, Newground, put out a record. John and his two partners, Dave and Big Mike, who owned School Kids Records, thought it was significant enough to hold a release party for us at the store, then located at the corner of Spring Garden and Mendenhall. John even went to the trouble of building a frame outside the store and pouring concrete in it, giving us the star treatment by having us put our handprints in it while it was wet.
Thus was born a friendship that not only grew but multiplied exponentially over the years by pulling in kindred spirits who knew a good tune when they heard one. In every sense that a family loves, nurtures and protects one another, so became the School Kids family, drawing converts into its orbit and spreading the gospel that it is music that unites us, soothes us, impels us to reach for our higher selves.
Not long after John bought out his partners and moved the store to the corner of Aycock and Spring Garden, our mentor Jackson Browne released Late for the Sky, which included the single “Before The Deluge.” Contained therein was the lyric that would become the School Kids motto, emblazoned on its bumper stickers, T-shirts and print ads: “Let the music keep our spirits high.”
And it did.
Along the way, John met and married Diane in ’82, and pal and fellow musicologist Tom Cooper went to work for John. Not long thereafter, my brother Greg followed suit, where he remained for the next 16 years, until the bittersweet end. I, meanwhile, took early retirement from the music business and found I was much better suited writing about it rather than playing it, co-founding, with music promoter and club owner Bill Kennedy, ESP Magazine. The record store business ebbed and flowed, and as CDs began supplanting vinyl and the big box stores started moving in and undercutting the mom-and-pops, John moved the store yet again, a couple of blocks down Spring Garden.
He never worked a day at that location. During the moving process he started having severe headaches and knew something was wrong. But it was worse than he or anyone anticipated – an aggressive and malignant tumor that was only going to get worse. It took him out in a matter of months.
But not before Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen, whom John and Diane had befriended years before, gave John a personal concert for one at Ziggy’s. At his funeral local singer/songwriter Jim Ritchey, whose tune “Tennessee Bottle” was recorded by Kenny Rogers, played “Paint the Town Beige” by Robert Earl Keen.
Greg and Diane tried valiantly to keep the store open but the handwriting was on the wall. Among the couple of hundred family members there on the last day was Jeri Rowe of the News & Record, by then one of the SK brethren, who did a cover story for Triad Style. An era had ended.
Yet, even though the love of her life had departed, Diane refused to let his memory die. After letting the healing hands of time weave their mystical magic, she channeled her energy toward funding research that may one day find a cure for brain and other types of tumors. In seven years she has become one of Duke’s bright lights, raising over $66,000.
In that span, Tom Cooper and Newground soundman Roger Beeson have joined John on the other side. But most of the rest of us still get together for the annual Old Folks Boogie, for the first six years at the Blind Tiger and now at Green’s Supper Club.
There has, in addition to the undying love and affection we all have for the music and for one another, been one constant throughout. The same band, Slider, has performed at the benefit all eight years.
Thirty-three years ago, three members of that band were putting their handprints in a slab of wet cement outside School Kids Records.
The Benefit & Party is Sunday, April 27, at Green’s Supper Club. Doors open and 3 p.m., music starts at 4 p.m. Donations will be accepted at the door, and numerous raffles will be held and door prizes given away. For more info or to contribute go online to hoepuccky.org.
Ogi may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, heard Tuesdays at 9:30 a.m. on “The Dusty Dunn Show” on WGOS 1070 AM, and seen on “Triad Today” hosted by Jim Longworth on ABC 45 at 6:30 a.m. Fridays and on WMYV 48 at 10 p.m. Sundays.