Soul music at Greensboro’s cultural crossroads

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Doug Klesch is a Greensboro documentarian.
Doug Klesch is a Greensboro documentarian.

by Jordan Green

“Bee Hive,” a song by Roy Roberts, crackles with irrepressible energy and romantic betrayal, a nearly perfectly time capsule of late-’60s Greensboro soul.

Odds are that you’ve never heard of “Bee Hive,” which is a travesty because from roughly 1961 through 1979 Greensboro boasted a vibrant soul scene replete with working club and session bands, record labels, radio stations and producers hustling to break songs on the national market. It’s also likely that you’ve never heard of Roy Roberts — again a shame because he continues to write and record songs, and stage European tours from his home in northeast Greensboro.

Doug Klesch hopes to rectify both of those oversights with Gate City Soul, a documentary film that follows the music and the scene around about three record labels in Greensboro during the ’60s and ’70s.

A professional photographer, videographer and web designer living in Greensboro, Klesch was looking for something new to do while his 99 Americans documentary photo project was on hiatus when he noticed repeated references to Greensboro in books about James Brown and the chitlin’ circuit.

Greensboro, then as now, was situated at a transportation hub for the East Coast, between Washington DC and Atlanta, and was home to a large, historically black college. It was natural that major R&B acts like James Brown, Jerry Butler, Otis Redding and Solomon Burke would pass through, and a local scene would emerge as a corollary.

“Roy would go to the record store and buy the record — whatever happened to be hot at that particular time — so he could be prepared just in case,” Klesch said. “Solomon Burke was playing. Roy wasn’t supposed to play, but his buddy was in the house band. His buddy asked him how to play the song, and Roy showed him. Solomon said, ‘Oh man, you know all these songs.’ He was ready, ready for anything.”

Perhaps the most successful output from Greensboro’s soul-music cottage industry was “It’s the Real Thing” by the Electric Express, which sold about 750,000 copies in the early ’70s, according to Klesch.

The musicianship and talent in Greensboro were on par with the pace-setting soul records coming out of Memphis and Muscle Shoals, in Klesch’s estimation, but the quality of the recordings wasn’t as good. Unlike Greensboro, Muscle Shoals and, to a lesser extent, Memphis were “off the beaten path.” It seems counterintuitive, but for that very reason they might have been more ideal for nurturing talent.

Klesch said that, for the most part, soul music from Greensboro was more a reflection than a beacon.

“There’s an obvious attempt by producers to emulate whatever sound was current at the time,” Klesch said. “Mind you, it’s original music, not covers. It sounds like James Brown when James Brown was popular. Then it sounds like Funkadelic. Roy Roberts has a song during his disco period that sounds like Isaac Hayes.”

The film is a long way from completion. Klesch has completed a handful of interviews, but is seeking archival images and footage to piece together the narrative. And he said he would like to send a film crew to Europe with a veteran performer like Roberts to demonstrate the impact and staying power of the music. A major hurdle will be securing licensing to use the music, which in many cases has been purchased by companies whose revenue model seems to be based on settlements from copyright actions. The filmmaker foresees paying minimal royalties for limited release at festivals, and then raising funds to cover more expensive fees for full theatrical release once a demand for the film has been established.

In the meantime, he’s working contacts to try to uncover photos of street scenes in and around el Rocco Club, the Carlotta Club and the Magnolia Hotel, where many black touring musicians stayed. It’s been surprisingly difficult.

“I’ve been asking everybody I can think of: Who’s got photographs, newspaper clippings,” Klesch said, “or God forbid, a home movie?”