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Interview with R. Powell Majors

Majors, R. Powell
Causby, Anna
Date of Interview: 
Charlotte Boys Choir; Charlotte Rotary Club; Ovens Auditorium; Charlotte Coliseum;
Mr. Majors gives the history of the Charlotte Boys Choir beginning with how the group was formed in 1946. The group started off with a few boys in the first year and grew to seventy-five in the next. In that second year, the choir went to New York to perform at the International Rotary Convention and their performance was broadcast on NBC radio. The Choir made many other trips in the two Carolinas to perform for the benefit of various fundraising organizations. As the Choir grew it expanded by adding specialty acts like clog dancing and comedy routines. Mr. Majors describes some of the more memorable experiences he had with the Choir.
Interview Setting: 
Interviewed as part of the WSOC-TV Oral History Project. Interviews conducted at either the downtown public library or the Midtown Shopping Mall.
WSOC-TV Oral History Project
Collection Description: 
The WSOC-TV Oral History Project of 1979, headed by Dr. Edward Perzel, was an effort to gather and preserve spoken recollections. Interviews were conducted with older citizens, primarily over the age of 65, who were encouraged to share their memories and stories.
Interview Audio: 
AC (Anna Causby): May 23rd 1979 interviewing R. Powell Majors. OK, what do you want to talk about?
RM (R. Powell Majors): I had expected to talk basically about the Charlotte Boys' Choir.
RM: Which was sponsored by the Charlotte Rotary Club.
RM: The Charlotte Boys' Choir was conceived by Pat Gilchrist. C. W. Gilchrist who is a, was a member of the Charlotte Rotary Club and is still a resident of Charlotte. In 1946, we persuaded James P. McMillan who was the executive head of Southern Radio Corporation to head up the activity. McMillan later headed the committee that built the Ovens Auditorium and the Charlotte Coliseum. The idea was, in the beginning, to get two or three boys from the ages nine to twelve before their voices had changed from each of the public schools in Charlotte to meet at old Central on Saturday morning. And we paid them a quarter a piece that was to cover their bus fare theoretically or street car fare I guess it was back in those days, to come to rehearsal. The feeling was that the quarter would, would get them to come. Because singing was considered sort of a sissy business. Well it didn't take long in the mechanics of, of giving out quarters to seventy-five boys got to be a nuisance. So it didn't take long before we, we discontinued that and the idea of boys singing began to catch on. Our first performance was at the rotary ladies night in the sum--,in the spring I guess of 19, no it was the Christmas program of 1946 where they performed. We had robes for them of all things. That was later deemed to be a mistake because robes were hard to handle. Hard to move around, and the kids didn't like to wear robes anyway so we ended up with white shirts and blue trousers, and at a later date, we even bought jackets for them. Our first out-of-town trip was to take them to Concord to perform for a group up there. And we had them dressing in a small room putting on these robes at that time. And these boys, two of them got into a fist fight, and one of the victims of the fist fight was Donny Harris, who's father W. T. Harris was the county commissioner here, and who is now in the clothing business. Donny was our soloist. Three minutes before we were to go out and start performing, here was this boy in tears, but we got him squared away. And we did put on the performance. The next year we took the full seventy-five boys with about a dozen eagle scouts to New York City on the train. Left here on the Crescent on the seven or eight o'clock in the evening and rode all night and got them to New York the next, next morning, where we housed them at the Sloan House YMCA. First thing in happened one of the kids broke out with measles, and we had a doctor with us Dr. Hugh E Verner, who is practicing in Charlotte as this is being recorded. And Dr. Verner checked with the physician at the Sloan House YMCA or the one they had on call because we were afraid that the whole group of boys would be quarantined. But the New York physician said if you get this boy separated, well, no problems. And he was the only boy who's parents were visiting in Jersey City, New Jersey, so we called his parents they came and got him and we proceeded to, to go on.
RM: The purpose of our trip to New York was to sing for the Rotary Convention there. Rotary International Convention was going on and also to appear on NBC radio and to do a television program. More about the television program in a minute. We did sing before about 18,000 people at Madison Square Garden. Again with our robes on and what have you. We also appeared on NBC television, I mean NBC radio, and in moving seventy-five boys around New York City, it gets to be expensive unless you walk. So we walked a whole lot. The morning we were to appear at NBC radio, we left the YMCA after breakfast and walked down to the Empire State Building to have a look at it up, up high. When we got down off of Empire State Building we had a count down, and we were missing one boy. So I go back up on top of the Empire State Building, couldn't find the boy, waited for all the elevators to clear. We had a deadline to meet at NBC, which was at radio center, and we decided to go on without the boy. There wasn't a thing we could do. We didn't know where he was. When we got to NBC studios where we were to broadcast, there was the kid sitting there. We had left him at the YMCA to start off with. Our eagle scouts had let us down. And the people at the YMCA had taken the boy by subway over to radio center, and he was the only kid that got to ride on the subway the entire trip. Alright, after the NBC television studios, which was, this was in 1947 and television wasn't even shown in Charlotte in those days. We appeared on the Bob Ripley "Believe It or Not" show. Ripley himself had died the week before we were there, but his show went on. And there was a kinescope made of that show which was shown the first day that channel three was on the air in, in Charlotte. We brought the boys back to Washington where we spent the night and Frank Sherrill of S and W Cafeteria gave us a free meal at the S and W in, in a Washington for all seventy-five kids. We took them to a big league baseball game. The Griffith's at that time were owning, owned the ball club and Charlotte and the Washington Senators, and we were guests of Mr. Griffith that night in, in Washington. The next morning we were supposed to have breakfast on a diner. We had arranged that through local Southern Railway officials. They were to open the diner at an earlier hour so we could feed our whole crowd and then let the rest of the customers be in. They did not open the diner on time, our boys had been promised a meal on the diner so when it did open, we took it. We stormed it almost. That upset the steward and instead of having a fixed menu, which I had ordered for the kids, they went hog wild and ordered everything. That was the end of the New York trip, and from that point on, we began to make trips around the Carolinas for the benefit of fund raising organizations. Whether it be a PTA group a girl scout group, boy scout group, just almost anything. We would appear and split the profits half-and-half. The high point of the year was always a trip to Florida after school closed. We'd take them to Florida and try to sing a few times, and I remember one little boy seeing the Atlantic Ocean for the first time at Daytona Beach, his eyes got as big as saucers he had never seen a pond quite that big. [laughter]
RM: Lots of interesting things happened, we took them to Sarasota, to the winter quarters of the Ringling Brothers Circus. And Mr. McMillan himself who was the director of the, the producer for, for the choir was a circus fan and knew some of the circus people. And we got to get background in the background for some of the circus activities at one time or another. As the choir developed, instead of having just soloist, we began to develop specialty acts. Little boys eight and ten years old would put on girls clothes for instance, and we'd developed a few that would a, in addition to sing solos, do clog dances, one or two minor comedy routines. And one of our solo-- tap dancers went on and was on the Paul Whitman show, which was an early television show. A boy named Timmy Everett. He was a real good tap dancer. He was a good tap dancer before he came to us, but we offered him the, the vehicle to, to develop his, his talents. Boys would have to be phased out of the choir every year because their voices would change, and we would take new ones in. That got to be quite a time when, when it was necessary for a boy to be, to be phased out. Most musicians are, like the musical aspect of their, their profession, and Mr. McMillan was a showman in addition to being a musician of, of low, standing almost, but he was a good showman. That resulted in a conflict between our directors, who were musicians, and Mr. McMillan, and we ran through a lot of directors in, in the course of the history of the choir, which ended in the late 50's or, or early 60's when Mr. McMillan just had to give up because of, of poor health. And he subsequently died in 1970. Our directors, the first one was John Haldane, who was out at Queens College. Warren Wilson was the second one. Bob Smith, who was in the public school system of Charlotte, was the third one. Ray Brietz, who was a member of the Rotary Club, directed it for a while. Bill Elliot, Charlie Starns, Leroy Medearis, Spencer Mims, Bill Thomas and Jim Fole were all directors. We also had quite a few accompany us during that same time. Betty Jean Nalley, who was a student at Queens College or a teacher I believe she was at Queens College, was the director. June Falk was an accompanist. Lanier Bishop a member of the Rotary Club was an accompanist at one time. Dr. Bill Davis, who was a physician out at UNCC until his death just a couple of years ago, was an accompanist. Let's see Williams was an accompanist, John McCorkol. Mickey Byerly, Betty Mackey, Jack Burney, who was an official at the Chamber of Commerce, was an accompanist, and Evelyn Wainscot was another accompanist.
AC: OK excuse me for just a minute let me turn this over so I don't run out---
RM: Alright.
AC: R. Powell Majors continued.
RM: As the boys choir got started, it was necessary for the Charlotte Rotary Club to allocate money to pay for the salary of director and for music supplies and for the salary of the accompanist. As the choir became better known or better-qualified with better performers, we began to make money. And for a while, we didn't ask the Rotary Club for any money, and we were just about breaking even. And later on, we began to make money, and we didn't know what to do with it. And in 1955, 6 and 7 we sponsored a foreign student at, at Davidson. That was before the advent of UNCC. For four years we had a student, for two years, we had a boy from Finland>, Peter Kartinian. Pete was graduated from Davidson went on to a University of Denver I believe it was and got his masters degree and entered the Finnish Foreign Service. I still hear from Pete just occasionally. He's now married and has a couple of children, I chided him on my Christmas card last year because I hadn't heard from him in eight or nine months. And he replied fairly quick that he had been in Beirut and things hadn't been very satisfactory over there as far as having time to write. He was dodging bullets and other things. I heard from Pete one time in, from New Zealand, Australia somewhere, and at that time, he said the ambassador from Finland to Australia or New Zealand was away, and the first secretary was away, and said I'm in charge down here. And he said if I should tell these folks I'm going to declare war on them, they'd have to listen to me. Pretty, pretty sharp, pretty sharp boy.
AC: Uh-hum.
RM: The choir also generated enough money to buy it's own truck and P.A. system and bleachers, which we hauled around with us and set up. The choir actually ran for seventeen seasons and closed at the end of 1963 when, when Jim McMillan's arthritis had, begin to take its toll. Another contributing factor to the closing of the choir was television. We undertook to appear live on Channel 3 once a week, and there were a couple of disadvantages to that. One was that we really didn't have the capability of producing a good fifteen minute live program in a week. It just took our boys longer that. And the second thing was that the signal for Channel 3, runs into the area we are accustomed to going. We were going into within a hundred miles of, of Charlotte and that channel, that signal got within that range so people had already seen the Charlotte Boys Choir. When we were travelling around in, in the earlier days, our little boys were heroes. We protected, produced a program, and the little girls the ten, eleven, twelve year old girls would want our kids to sign their program, get their autographs and, and things of that nature. So it was natural that we had served our, our purpose and it was time to, to fold up. Because nobody could take McMillan's place in the promotion angle of, of the thing, in addition to putting in goodness knows how much of his own personal money into it in various sundry facts. Money brings up an interesting facet. When we would go on trips, the little boys that age would loose their money right regularly and couldn't take care of it. And so after the first year, I who handled the money for the, for the choir agreed to be bankers for the boys. Each one of them could give me even numbers of dollars, and I'd put it in a little book that I had, and he could withdraw even numbers of dollars. So after the first or second year the parents would give me the money. Here's ten dollars for Johnny. And I'd put Johnny's name and ten dollars and a little mark on it. And one year I tried to keep that money separate from my own, I was short a dollar and would you know one of the boys came up to me and said, "In so and so I asked you for two dollars, you gave me three,' and he gave it back to me. Another facet that was rather interesting while we were in New York at the Sloan House, we'd put two boys a room because that was the standard YMCA procedure. And we asked the boys to lower their windows from the top because they didn't have any screens in them, and we were putting eight, ten-year-old boys in, in rooms six or seven floors high so they all agreed to do that. The doors had snap locks on them so when you walked out, the door automatically locked. One of the little boys, locked his key in his room. Instead of going downstairs to get another key to get back in, he went to the kid's room next door, got out on the ledge and walked six stories up to his room and climbed in the window. I didn't hear about that until three months after it happened, and even then, it made my hair stand end when I thought about what might have happened. That little boy that did it was Gordon Christian Jr., who did live in Charlotte for, for some little time. That about concludes most of my recollections about the, the Charlotte Boys' Choir except let me close with this. It's embarrassing to me from time to time now to be accosted in a shopping center somewhere by a six-foot-three guy leading two kids and a wife and have the question, you don't remember me do you. Well lots of them I don't remember, but lots of them I can remember. See they've changed so much, and hopefully, I haven't changed as much as they have. [laughter] It was a great experience, it was a great service to the Charlotte community. The music made a lot of these boys are singing in church choir none of them so far as I know ever made a musical career out of the start. That's about it.
AC: OK. Thank you very much.
RM: Alright.