Willie’s Heritage and Legacy
“Willie has led a dual musical life (with, of course, much overlap) as both a Southern musician and an Indian musician”
- Michael C. Taylor, folklorist and musician (2010)
Beginnings of Willie’s Life
Willie French Lowery’s career as a legendary musician was rooted in humble beginnings in Robeson County, the largest county in North Carolina known for its unique racial and ethnic diversity. Born in 1944 to a poor farming family, Willie faced obstacles throughout his early childhood including the death of his mother Margie Revels Lowery and discrimination based on his low socioeconomic status. As a Lumbee Indian growing up in rural Robeson County, Willie experienced first-hand the palpable racial tension between African-Americans, whites and Indians. He even encountered prejudice from Indians at school who ridiculed him for missing classes to pick cotton during harvest time. Despite its volatility in race relations, Robeson County represented the ultimate confluence of Southern musical diversity, eclectic in genre and symbolic of the area’s tri-racial influences. Most of the music emerging during the 1940’s-60’s in the American South was gospel, rhythm and blues, and pop, all of which were later combined in the genre of “soul.” At a very young age, Willie felt a natural connection to music; even before Willie had seen a guitar, he recalled hearing music in his head while he was “plowing the ole mule” with his father. In his mind, he heard the smooth vocals of Sam Cooke, the “king of soul” from Mississippi who blended the fervor of gospel with the romance of pop, and the soulful voice of Lou Rawls. Cooke and Rawls’ song “Bring It On Home To Me” (1962) is reminiscent of Willie’s upbeat, soul crooning vocals that characterized his band’s style in the late 60’s and 70’s.
Willie also participated in gospel performances at his church, a critical marker and maker of Lumbee identity. He enjoyed putting his own twist on spiritual classics like “Amazing Grace” by augmenting chords and adding a “blues” feel. In an interview with Michael Taylor, Willie described the consequences of his musical creativity:
“I never could feel [“Amazing Grace”] unless it had the chord change. D major seven was unheard of back then in gospel music. You were playing a ‘real’ song when you were playing a gospel song. When you added that major seventh in there it threw them off a little bit. I got discouraged about that, so I quit and started playing what I wanted to play, which was Sam Cooke and all that stuff.”
Willie’s uninhibited desire to bring unconventional rhythm and blues music from inside his head into the outside world was catalyzed after Willie’s sister married a guitar wielding man named Wilbert. With the help of Wilbert, Willie’s repertoire started to grow as he learned riffs and blues standards such as rag-time guitar legend Blind Boy Fuller’s “Step It Up and Go.” Acquiring skills like Blind Boy Fuller’s guitar picking incited Willie’s musical passion and laid the foundation for developing his own unique style of guitar playing, which would evolve into a distinct blues style. After Willie became more comfortable with the guitar, he began playing for other people, first at his father’s barbershop and then at school. In both of these arenas, Willie received positive reviews that inspired him to keep on playing.
Another influence on Willie’s style was the soulful music of The Contours, an African-American band with energized R&B music that put Motown on the map. According to a story that Willie told his wife Malinda Maynor Lowery, he was once driving down Union Chapel Road in Pembroke, NC in 1962 and had to pull the car over when “Do You Love Me” by The Contours came on the radio. Willie, only eighteen years old at the time, was so mesmerized by the layers of sound in the song that he felt compelled to stop everything in order to fully engage in and connect with that musical experience. This awe and wonder for the art behind music seem to have continually shaped and inspired his musical curiosities and creations throughout his life.
During the early 1960’s, Willie began his first professional job of playing guitar in a traveling carnival. In his late teens, he formed a close-harmony vocal trio with friends called the Three Hearts. This trio embarked on a regional tour with the Tarheel Rockers shortly after Willie befriended the band’s lead singer Clyde Jones; however, Willie’s life took a dramatic turn when he moved to Baltimore to join the Tarheel Rockers in order to replace Clyde, who had recently quit. Willie’s decision to leave his father was one that would hurt him long into his life as his father died shortly after his departure. This experience haunted by guilt and regret would serve as the impetus behind much of his songwriting and actions during the rest of his career. In Baltimore, the Tarheel Rockers, who changed their name to The Sparks and then The Sharks, played covers of James Brown by emulating his “funky” blues and gospel-based style. In addition, they played songs from the Everly Brothers, a group whose harmonies and early rock and roll beats dominated the late 1950’s and heavily influenced The Beatles. Willie fought against his own inferiority complex while living in Baltimore, which was ironically reinforced by Indians around him. He realized that these “urban” Indians could not escape from discrimination and marginalization they had previously endured and were struggling with the same feelings of inadequacy as he was. After 3 years of performing three-part harmonies with his band at clubs in Baltimore, Willie joined R&B singer Clyde McPhatter on a brief tour in England and Germany and rubbed shoulders with celebrities like Jose Feliciano, the English pop-rock group Dave Clark Five and The Beatles. Then he headed back to North Carolina, his “refuge” and “place of comfort,” and formed a new group called Corporate Image. However, the group decided to relocate to Times Square in New York City in order to record jingles for commercials for products like Ban deodorant.
Willie’s psychedelic rock era
Plant and See
After leaving Corporate Image, Willie started his own group named Plant and See, who in 1969 signed to the New York label White Whale. Shortly after the signing, the band left for California to record and market an album. However after finishing half of the record, the producer Joe Wizart abandoned the project when his contract with White Whale ran out. This left the band no choice but to move on to Philadelphia where they recruited a new bassist and changed their name to Lumbee.
Even though Willie’s time with Plant and See was abbreviated, the music from their one album gives an insight into Willie’s artistic vision at the time. The album was part of the wider psychedelic rock and southern rock movements with deep-rooted influences in gospel, the blues, and 1950’s rock n’ roll. Along with this more ancient heritage, nods to popular groups of the time can clearly be heard. The dirty guitar tone in “Put Out My Fire” and the spoken lyrics in “Flat On My Face” both bring to mind tracks such as “Purple Haze” as played by The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
However, The Beatles probably represent the biggest source of inspiration for the album. The Beatles’ heavy influence on Willie is clear due to the fact that when he first met Paul McCartney, he embarrassingly could only manage to say, “I’m one of your fans.” The track “Seekin’ Advice” demonstrates how Willie experimented with the rock form in much of the same vein as The Beatles. The song begins with a verse that is reminiscent of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” with a waltz feel and “sighing” harmonies. Like in the famous song from The Beatles, Willie’s verse eventually leads into a rock groove. However, Willie pushes this technique a step further through his expansion of the waltz verse into a section that could stand as a song of its own.
Willie’s time with Plant and See displays him during the blossoming of his creative talent. Like other artists who took part in the rock movement of the 1960’s, Willie took influences from artists of the long and recent past while at the same time developing techniques that were completely his own.
Willie’s time with Lumbee shows him moving more directly into the realm of psychedelic rock, while at the same time keeping true to his roots in genres such as gospel. After moving to Philadelphia, Lumbee began to play with acts such as The Allman Brothers Band (then known as The Allman Joys). They recorded their album “Overdose” in 1970, and the band continued to play with various line-ups for 12 years. Lumbee carried on the tradition that Plant and See had begun with lush vocal harmonies and creative song structures. However, “Overdose” has a number of tracks where the band members exhibit their fluency on their instruments. Songs such as “Tone Deaf Jam” include entire sections dedicated to virtuosic drum and guitar solos.
Two defining tracks of the album, “Streets of Gold” and “Whole World Is Sunny Upside Down,” demonstrate Willie turning back to one of his earliest influences in gospel music. In “Streets of Gold,” the lyrics of the chorus go as follows: “I’ve been told that the streets of gold are in heaven/ The angels sing when you’re restin’ there in heaven.” These lyrics are not only spiritual but also are sung in a harmony that strongly reflects the gospel tradition. “Whole World Is Upside Down” begins with a verse that comes out of the rock tradition yet moves into a section with clapping and call & response singing. This section of the song places the listener among a choir of gospel singers who are closely following Willie’s lead as he sings “Be My Friend.”
Willie’s work on “Overdose” displays him progressing further into his personal style of songwriting. This progression is accomplished through Willie pushing forward as well as reaching back to his roots in gospel music.
Willie’s Later Life and Playing Locally
After “Overdose,” Willie entered a phase of his career when he, in his own words, “got involved with the community” and did his music “on a low level.” During this time Willie began to play locally with a three-piece version of Lumbee, as well as with other musicians, at schools and clubs. Willie began to make a good living when his income from playing gigs was coupled with his new position as the Director of Creative Arts at Pembroke.
In 1976, Willie recorded the children’s folk album Proud To Be A Lumbee, which includes lyrics that are largely about Lumbee-specific issues. In the title track for the album, Willie provides inspiration for the Lumbee people, and all people, when he and a group of children proudly proclaim: “I can be anything I want to be… I am proud to be a Lumbee Indian.” The album not only reflects current Lumbee culture but also explains important moments in the history of the Lumbee people. In “Henry Berry Lowery Is My Hero,” Willie tells the story of the cultural hero Henry Berry Lowery who stood up against external oppression during the Civil War era. Willie saw Henry Berry as “the king of the kings,” and he was proud of the fact that he helped to pass his story along.
Willie’s next significant project Strike At the Wind! also helped to pass on the legacy of the Lumbee hero. The outdoor drama tells the story of the life of Henry Berry Lowery, and Willie was assigned to create the music for the project. Willie did this by using previously written songs of his own, as well as traditional songs, including an arrangement of the famous Appalachian tune “In the Pines.”
Both of these projects continue to be significant pieces of Lumbee art. While “Proud To Be a Lumbee” has become “an anthem of the Lumbee community,” Strike At the Wind! has been produced numerous times. When asked about this period, Willie answered, “probably the greatest time in my life was spent in Pembroke doing music for my own people.”
Willie’s passing in May 2012 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease did not mark the beginning of his legacy. Rather, Willie’s impact on the world resonated in his everyday interactions, relationships, and musical brilliance that inspired countless people within the Lumbee community and beyond. This legacy reverberates in all of the communities that he influenced as a Lumbee artist, a Southern musician, a community activist, a husband and a father. When talking to people who knew Willie well, it becomes clear that one of Willie’s most memorable characteristics was his unique personality and almost surreal musical talents. Because of the value of anecdotes from individuals who knew Willie personally, we have included below two soundclips of an interview with Willie’s most recent wife, Malinda Maynor Lowery, and the artist Pura Fe. Both recordings were taken on April 29, 2013 at UNC Chapel Hill and add an important dimension to understanding the many facets of the incredible man that was, and forever will be, Willie French Lowery.
“[Some Lumbee music may not conform to popular notions of Indian culture.] Well, Indian music [to me is, simply], if it’s played by Indians and it’s music.”
- Willie Lowery
Michael C. Taylor, “Hello America: The Life and Work of Willie French Lowery,” Southern Cultures (Fall 2010): 79-101.