Coveted vinyls and the latest issue of Oxford American rest in the backseat of Jon Kirby’s pine-colored 2002 Subaru Outback as we sail past downtown Winston-Salem on Highway 52, en route to a southside recording studio on a brisk November afternoon. Carl Johnson rides shotgun and Kirby’s voice cracks when he attempts to sing falsetto along to a Teentones track Johnson wrote more than five decades earlier.
Kirby, a Winston-Salem-born freelance writer and music historian, penned an article for the Southern digest’s North Carolina music issue centering Wesley Johnson, a little-known musician who left Winston-Salem to become an Italian pop mega-star. Johnson got his start playing alongside his best friend Carl Johnson, the piece’s main interviewee.
Kirby, who became fixated with regional soul music while studying journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill, has long shown his ardor for uplifting obscure and underrated artists as a former editor at Wax Poetics and a producer with the Chicago-based re-issue label the Numero Group. He’s the kind of guy who earns Grammy nods for painstakingly detailed liner notes and who takes his hands off the wheel when the music is too damned good. Recently, Kirby moved home to Winston-Salem to be near family, and to extend his search for sidelined North Carolina artists and their yet-to-be uncovered recordings.
“When you hear this Teentones record, these are the accents and sounds that were happening here in the sixties,” Kirby says. “You get the real Winston extract when you find these local records that were made in a local studio, with a local engineer, with a band really just playing what was in their head and in their heart.”
Kirby spends his days chasing down the doo-wop, soul and rock & roll records that would have resonated through East Winston in the early sixties in unfamiliar garages, record and thrift stores, Cook’s Flea Market and a word-of-mouth network of vinyl connoisseurs. When he’s not on the hunt, he’s sitting down with aging musicians and recording for posterity the many narratives of Winston-Salem soul.
“My awakening in this local music economy was this  record by the Eliminators called Loving Explosion,” Kirby says. “I turned the jacket over and was reading it in a thrift store and it said, ‘These 14 talented gentlemen from Winston-Salem have come a long way since…’ blah blah blah. We don’t celebrate the underdogs of our history. You only learn about the top-tier folks. The Eliminators were a group that had a record on Brunswick Records, a major American record label. And I thought, How am I just now hearing about this, at age 26 in 2006?”
Kirby recognized his former Paisley Middle School band teacher as the saxophonist on the back of the jacket; degrees of separation trend low in cities like Winston.
“Lo’ and behold,” he says. “That was the first thread of the sweater I began pulling on. It’s amazing how the history provides a path for you if you pay attention and you really invest yourself in it; the stones are just waiting to be turned over. That’s why I think this work I’m doing is so important because when these guys are gone, there’s no one else I can go to. Your Rolodex shrinks every year.”
Joe Robinson, a jazz trumpet player who continues to book gigs around town well into his seventies, is one of the coolest Twin City musicians in Kirby’s contacts and he’s offered up an unreleased session recording from the mid-sixties when he and Johnson played in an ensemble called the Staccatos before moving on to make bigger waves with the Eliminators. The trick is to locate it amongst hours of Robinson’s practice recordings on a reel-to-reel.
Local musician and producer Ryan Pritts, whose studio and practice space are nestled in a converted house next to his own Sunnyside home, is Kirby’s go-to in these cases. Pritts performs test after methodical test on the delicate reel recording in his cozy studio, steeped in earthy oranges and browns, to find the right content and transfer the material to a computer file that can later be burned onto CDs. Everyone knows the fast-forwarded cacophony of Robinson practicing trumpet over Grover Washington tracks is worth the payoff of finding the Staccatos session and Pritts’ ear catches just the moment. A tight rendition of “The Girl’s Alright with Me” by the Temptations suddenly bleeds forth from the disharmony.
The handful of tracks that follow are all originals including “God Created Love,” the first song Johnson wrote as a ninth-grader at Atkins High.
“You see, I was sayin’ I’m gonna be like Smokey Robinson, I’m gonna write a hit,” Johnson jests, bubbling with recovered memories. “I can see it in my mind right now, we went over to his house in the wintertime.”
“What would’ve happened if you never came by? If you never called me?”
It’s been more than five decades since the recording and more than four since he’s last heard these unreleased tracks.
“Don’t you feel like you’re goin’ into the pyramids right now, hearing something that’s never been heard? It’s like you can hear the room almost,” Kirby says. “It’s such an intimate, unpretentious, raw way to experience human creativity. And what better company?”
Johnson’s eyebrows relax as the lyrics he penned more than a half-century ago resurface. He remembers a riff he adapted from a Marlboro commercial and croons along to the sweet melodies pouring into Pritts’ studio.
Kirby feels doubly blessed. This is exactly the process that brought he and Johnson together nearly a decade ago, when the Teentones material surfaced and paved the way for the Oxford American article they’ll both thumb through tonight, in awe that none of it was a dream.
“That moment, it really is like the pay off, the kif, the icing… finding a tape like that, listening to it with the artist and enjoying the moment. There’s nothing better.”
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