If you’re a fan of Denton history like we are, then you already know there’s no shortage of fascinating people and stories that have their red dirt roots in our groovy little city. Since it is Black History Month, we dug out a few tales of legendary locals that are part of our internationally infamous musical heritage that maybe don’t get brought up in conversation often enough. We’ve already talked plenty about our Quakertown story and its lasting legacy in fact and fiction, the importance of Juneteenth Jubilee, our amazing Civil Rights mavens of 1960s integration, and indeed the Legend of Pops Carter in our local music pantheon. Denton digs its tunes, and that’s been true since way back in the day.
Sylvester Stewart was born in Denton TX in 1943, living for a few brief years on East Prairie Street before his family moved to the San Francisco Bay area of California. Nicknamed “Sly” by schoolmates, he was a musical prodigy by age 11 as he became proficient on the piano, guitar, bass, and drums. Sly played in a number of bands during high school, already recording singles during the 1950s, but became star of a stand-out Funk group when his band merged with his brother Fred and Sister Rosie to form Sly and the Family Stone. With flashy-dressing Sly as charismatic frontman and songwriter, the one-of-a-kind Funk band was already scoring several modest hits when they achieved superstardom during their electrifying Sunday set at 1969’s Woodstock Music festival. Notably the first integrated multiracial and mixed-gender group in popular music, The Family Stone’s psychedelic soul-infused flower-power Funk would also influence a generation of musicians like George Clinton, Miles Davis, Bobby Womack, Herbie Hancock, Billy Preston, and Questlove.
If the Woodstock-era was a transformational music revolution, then Sly and the Family Stone hits like “Dance to the Music” and “Everyday People” were part of that American soundtrack. Tragically, Sly’s drug-fueled descent was equally spectacular, despite the band’s 1993 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and lengthy legal battles over royalties. Yet the lasting impact of their unique far-out funkadelic sound is beyond dispute, and their recently released live album can still rock a party. Heck, Sly even jammed with Richard Pryor on TV, and “Hot Fun in the Summertime” is on President Obama’s Spotify playlist for the White House.
Try NOT tapping your feet with “Dance To The Music” live on Soul Train!
As the spectacular 2014 Grammy wins of local darlings Snarky Puppy proves, Denton has also played a part in honing a ton of jazz talent, and our friend Chuck with the Denton Public Library reminded us of one oft-neglected local musician. The legendary Count Basie Orchestra was a household name during the 1930s, featuring two very talented tenor saxophonists, Lester Young and Herschel Evans. “Books, movies and thousands of words have, rightfully, been dedicated to the former,” Chuck notes over at Miss Emily’s Juke Joint, but “only a true jazz geek knows of the latter.” Herschel Evans was born here in Denton on March 9, 1909 and has been called “one of the finest tenor saxes of all time.” Sadly, Herschel Evans died of a heart attack in 1939 at the much-too-young age of 29, yet is considered the originator of a Texas tenor sax sound lineage that continues into today. Evans’ most famous solo was on Blue and Sentimental, recorded with Basie in 1938, but he was also noted for his incredible compositions on Doggin’ Around and Texas Shuffle. Of the latter, one enamored critic praised it’s final half chorus as “a minor miracle of musical-culinary artistry.” In other words, that guy could really lay the gas to that swingin’ axe!
It’s also a maybe little-known-fact that Denton’s beloved African-American educator Fred Moore spent a good deal of his youth as a musician. As Denton historian Mike Cochran reminds us, before Fred turned to education as a vocation at the late age of 35, he was a barber by day and a bandleader by night in the early 1900s. The young Fred Moore had “organized a 14-piece band that played for events all over the county and he organized a string band that played for white people's dances. His bands became popular and he became known as The Professor. He met his wife, Sadie, when he took his band to Lewisville to play for a Juneteenth picnic and celebration. Fred and Sadie were married in 1902.” I reckon maybe this just illustrates that old Denton witticism that everyone in Denton is either already in a band or thinking of starting one.
For more of Denton’s African-American history, be sure to visit the amazing Quakertown House African-American History Museum at our Historic Park, and check out the Courthouse On The Square Museum’s latest exhibit “Behold The People: R.C. Hickman’s Photographs of Black Dallas” through the end of the month!
Shaun Treat is a former professor at the University of North Texas and founder of the Denton Haunts historical ghost tour. Doc has written about numerous local places and personalities at his Denton Haunts blog, and is forever indebted to the great work of our local keepers of history like Mike Cochran and Laura Douglas at the Emily Fowler Library for their tireless work in helping preserve Denton’s intriguing past. Be sure to check out our local museums curated by the fine folks at the Denton County Office of History & Culture, and follow @Dentonaut on Twitter for local happenings.