Story by Sandra Davidson
Dick Knight says there's something about Kinston.
"It’s hard to leave Kinston. They say if you drink some of the Kinston water you won’t go nowhere," says Knight. "It seems like a quiet town but there’s so much happening. At one time Kinston was like a little New York. Five or six different bands on the weekend [that] you’d go out there to see and play. It was great."
Knight is a professional musician, retired school teacher, and 2018 North Carolina Heritage Award recipient. He's is one of several excellent soul, R&B and funk musicians with deep ties to eastern North Carolina, but his Kinston story is an unlikely one. In this episode of Arts Across NC, we get the scoop on how Kinston led this music-loving Georgia native to James Brown, and a fulfilling career as an arts educator.
The episode features original music from The Monitors and a clip from James Brown's Grits & Soul album.
Dick Knight was born and raised in Camilla, Georgia. Music was a part of his life from the very beginning. His mother played organ at church and his father played the blues. He was 6-years-old when he got his first trumpet and not too much older when a band teacher at school changed his life.
"He had gone to A&M and he was playing so well, and I said I just want to be like this man. I want to do this. I wanted to be like everybody that was good," says Knight, who saw Florida A&M's legendary marching band when he was in middle school. "When I saw that band I think I was in 8th grade at that time. I knew then that was it. I wanted to be a professional trumpet player and a band teacher. There wasn’t a question about it."
Florida A&M was home to the crown jewel of college marching bands, and Knight set his mind to being a part of it. He was only 16 when he graduated from high school and traveled to Tallahassee to audition for the legendary program.
"When I went there they had 30 members in the trumpet section. About 100 freshman trying to get into that school…about 100 trumpet players. We had to go two weeks before the school was open and they had 5 slots available. They selected five out of the 100. I was in the five," says Knight.
Knight sped through college and graduated in three years. His department’s job placement program identified two positions for new graduates in North Carolina: one in Kinston and one in Farmville. Knight and a friend flipped a coin to see where they each would go and as luck would have it he ended up in Kinston.
"Never in my life had I ever heard of it," says Knight. "Never head of Kinston."
He took a job as a band teacher at Savannah High School in Grifton. He was only 19-years-old when he showed up for work, and he had no idea what he was walking into.
"When I came to Kinston I wanted the band at Savannah where I taught to be just like Florida A&M. At the time I came up here the band room was upstairs in the gym in the shower room. My principal was a man by the name of Mr. Rufus Flanagan. He said: I’m going to send for the band members. The band members came over – there were about 17 or 18 - and they played for me. When I heard that sound I said, 'Oh is this really it? Do I have to live with this now?' I didn’t have a bicycle, a car, or nothing. If I had a car I think I would’ve gone back to Florida at that time," remembers Knight.
"But I sat down with him and explained and he said ‘You’re in the real world now. You wanted a job, you got it. And we expect you to build a band program.’ So that’s what I did."
As luck would have it, Knight quickly fell into a community of ambitious, active musicians like himself. He became friends with Melvin and Maceo Parker - the brothers who later became influential members of the James Brown band - and Nat Jones, a fellow band teacher at a neighboring school, who left Kinston a few months after Knight arrived.
"Next time I hear of Nat, he was in New York. He was the band leader for James Brown," says Knight.
"So he called me on a Wednesday. He said, 'Dick Knight, do you want to be the first trumpet player for James Brown?' I said, 'Yeah, but I don't have any money [and] I don't know if my principal and my superintendent will release me.' And he said, 'Well find out, and I'll call you back tomorrow. I want you to be at the Apollo Theater 4:00 on Friday evening. The job is yours if you want it.' So, I talked to the principal and I told him what I wanted to do and the next morning he carried me to the superintendent and they released me. That Friday evening I was knocking on the back door of the Apollo."
Knight joined the James Brown band and performed on several of his records. He even toured with Otis Redding. But life on the road wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and he never stopped dreaming of being a band teacher.
"You know you think it’s so great, but when those lights up there go out, that bus is outside getting ready to go. And you better be on it or you going to get left. All the admiration and all the stuff people thought was going on…the lights go out then you’re back to reality. It’s all dead," says Knight.
"It was a great experience to do that, but it means a lot to come home and get in your bed every night and work with children. My reward wasn’t money. It’s just like now – a lot of kids say, 'Oh that’s Mr. Knight! You taught me in high school. You did this you did that!' And I feel so good about it. That’s my reward."
Knight taught music for 47 years, many of them in Miami. He moved back to Kinston in 1998 and taught music in elementary and middle schools until 2007. Today he performers with The Monitors, and as a solo act called The Captain. He’s thrilled about winning the North Carolina Heritage Award.
"I made pretty good money out on the road, but this award means more to me than money," says Knight. "To win it…I almost fainted! I said what! Ain’t nowhere else left to go."
You can see Dick Knight performing at the 2018 NC Heritage Award Ceremony and Concert on May 23 in downtown Raleigh. You can get your tickets here.