Old folks to paint Green’s beige Sunday
You know that you’re over the hill
when your mind makes a promise your body can’t fill.
“Old Folks Boogie”
The above lyric is not the one John Stephenson used as a guiding precept for his life and his business, but it is one he would no doubt approve of to describe the annual celebration of his time on earth. There are plenty of others, as John was one of those people who thought in song lyrics, and most conversations would eventually include a relevant line, but “Old Folks Boogie” works just fine for this occasion. And if not, “Paint the Town Beige” by his friend Robert Earl Keen (and sung at his funeral by local singer-songwriter Jim Ritchey) would fit the bill.
Hard to believe it’s been seven years since John headed over to that Great Vinyl Emporium in the Sky. As many local music lovers will remember, John was the co-founder and longtime owner of School Kids Records in Greensboro. Shortly after moving the store a few blocks down Spring Garden Street from its corner spot on Aycock, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Less than a year later he was gone.
John was, among many other things, a modern-day Will Rogers. He truly never met a man he didn’t like, and folks gravitated into his orbit like vinyl grooves revolving around a record needle. School Kids in general, and John in particular, was the needle and several hundred of us were the grooves. He was the magnet, the fulcrum, the sun in our solar system. School Kids was not merely a place to buy records; it was the place where people went to discuss live and recorded music, trends, artists, labels, history and lore. It was more about musicology than hey-have-you-got-the-new-so-and-so-album? Not only would they have it but they’d know who played on it, who wrote the music and lyrics, where it was recorded, how it stacked up against the artist’s earlier works, what the critics were saying and how it was selling. In short, School Kids was a place where music mattered.
(And, just as John has passed, so has the era of the hometown, independent music store, but that’s a subject for another day.)
John’s widow, Diane, and my brother, Greg, who worked at School Kids for more than 16 years, most of those as the manager, tried valiantly to keep the store in business for a couple of years but were finally forced to give in to the changing business climate. When the sad, inevitable day came and they closed up shop for good, our pal Jeri Rowe did a cover story for Go Triad that pictured Greg and Diane locking the door for the final time.
Diane, meanwhile, allowed the grieving process to work by raising funds for the institution that tried mightily to prolong John’s life, the Brain Tumor Center at Duke University. One of her vehicles is an annual benefit concert featuring the best band you never heard of, Slider. Not only is something involving music the perfect vehicle, but Slider is the perfect band to drive the vehicle.
You see, Slider has a history with John and School Kids that goes back to the original location at the corner of Spring Garden and Mendenhall, across from College Hill Sundries (AKA Angel’s, and that too is a whole ‘nother story). Circa 1975, when cutting a record was still a big deal, four members of Slider played in a band called Newground that cut a record. John and his partners at the time, Big Mike and Dave, hosted a record release party at the store for Newground. They even poured a 4-by-4 slab of concrete outside the store and had the band members put their handprints in the wet concrete for posterity. Thus a friendship – no, a brotherhood was born that grew to include hundreds of kindred spirits. And when you reduce it down to primary causes, it all revolved around John.
That brotherhood (and sisterhood) still exists to this day, even though several of us have joined John on the other side. Notable among them are Tom Cooper, who worked at School Kids forever and was my brother’s best friend and housemate; and Roger Beeson, Newground’s soundman and the guy who coined the name for the band.
Whenever I get depressed thinking about John and Tom and Rog and all the loved ones who’ve departed, I automatically hearken back to the words I obliquely referred to at the top. On most of his company letterhead, John used the phrase, “Let the music keep our spirits high,” from Jackson Browne’s “Before the Deluge.”
And most of the time it does, if I let it. I actually talk to my old pals occasionally and tell them the rest of us will be along directly.
I guess we’re just a little Late for the Sky.
This year’s Benefit & Party for the Brain Tumor Center of Duke University featuring Slider will be held Sunday, April 15 at 4 p.m. at Green’s Supper Club and Oyster Bar, 4735 Hwy 29 North, Greensboro. Donations will be accepted at the door. For more info or to donate online go to angelsamongus.org. Please request that your donation be credited to “team hoepucky.”