Working at Music Maker invites death and mortality into your life. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, sad yes. But death is a condition that no living person can escape. That’s life. When you get older your body wears out, your teeth fall out, your memory isn’t any good and you can’t move as quickly as you once did. Joan, John Dee Holeman’s long-time girlfriend and caretaker, when talking about John Dee slowing down jokes, “I call him Christmas, because it feels like I’m always waiting for him.” They both laugh at this. Jerry “Boogie” McCain put it best with his quip, “when you get old, your stove gets cold and you can’t cook shit to save your soul.” I equate that kind of humor with bravery. We all know that at 85, the majority of one’s years are in the rear view and the signs are everywhere. This knowledge could be crippling. But I have seen our artists go on living and savoring each moment. Laughing at death. It is truly a privilege to be party to that spirit.
Denise shared a story with me about Mr Frank Edward’s last recording session which took place in March of 2002. This story exemplifies the spirit of the many artists I have enjoyed working with here at Music Maker.
Mr. Frank had been working on an album with Tim for a couple of years, recording a few tracks at our studio in NC and a few in Atlanta when Tim would come down to visit. They needed a few more tunes to finish the project and Mr. Frank called Tim up one day and said he had the songs ready and he thought they should get together and finish the recording. Long time friends and Music Maker volunteers Larry Garret and Lamar Jones offered to drive Mr. Frank up to Carolina from Atlanta for the session.
Mr. Frank had just celebrated his 93rd birthday and that is about as seasoned as a pro can be, so he made pretty short work of laying down the tracks in the studio and the session drew to a close in the early evening. Figuring the fellas would be hungry after a long day of driving and recording, Denise had prepared a dinner of meatloaf, mashed potatoes and greens, a menu that didn’t require much in the way of teeth.
As they were packing up the recording gear Mr. Frank asked Tim “where’s the club at” and what was going on is Hillsborough that evening. Tim replied that seeing how it was Tuesday, probably not much at all and that he had planned on everyone having a nice dinner together and calling it a night. Mr. Frank muttered something about not hanging around that and told his drivers it was time to head back to Atlanta. With a longing look back at the laden supper table, Larry and Lamar piled in the car and headed out into the descending twilight with Mr. Frank.
A few hours down the highway, just outside of Greenville, SC, Mr. Frank started feeling a bit peckish and they stopped for a burger. As they finished their dinners in the parking lot, Mr. Frank announced he wasn’t feeling so good. Larry, a retired fireman, took one look at Frank and dialed 911. The ambulance arrived soon thereafter, but by the time it arrived at the hospital Mr. Frank had gone on to the other side.
Upon hearing this story, I felt glad for Mr Frank. He was 93, he had just finished recording and had eaten a cheeseburger on his way home to Atlanta and whatever suffering he endured was short lived. No extended hospital stays, no poking and prodding. Not a bad way to die.
Since joining Music Maker, I have had the opportunity to form strong relationships with several artists and some of them have already gone on, like Precious Bryant, Whistlin’ Britches, Jerry “Boogie” McCain, and most recently George Higgs. That’s not even a complete list. It is hard to elucidate the profound impact each of them has had on me and even harder to process their deaths.
Whistlin’s refusal of surgery after his diagnosis of advanced throat cancer at the time baffled me. He told Tim and I that he had made peace with his Lord and was ready. Precious’ mischievous gaze as she ordered another glass of wine the last night I saw her play. We both knew she shouldn’t be drinking it. But she drank it down fast, looked at me and said, “Now I’m feeling good!” Then she got up and made the whole crowd swoon. I feel blessed to spend my days here working to have a positive impact on the lives of such inspiring and often complicated individuals. As I grapple with the losses of the many great people I have been privileged to know, I am given solace knowing that we worked to make their last days more comfortable and to ensure that their spirit lives on.