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Guitars and Gratitude

October 2, 2021

During the difficult days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Clare and I have considered what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one of these agencies. This week, please volunteer, or donate, as you are able, to Spartanburg Interfaith Hospitality Network, 899 S Pine St, Spartanburg, SC 29302 – (864) 597-0699.

When I was in the ninth grade, my left knee became my Achilles heel. I tore the cartilage playing junior varsity basketball.  My aspirations to play college basketball were shattered, adding insult to injury.

In those days, arthroscopic surgery was not an option. I spent weeks walking on crutches and having my knee drained. Now, instead of staying after school for basketball practice, I had to go home to sit around doing schoolwork. I was miserable.

About a week into my convalescence, my dad did a remarkable thing. He brought home a secondhand Stella guitar. Handing it to me, he said, “As long as you are so unhappy, you might as well learn to play the blues.”

The guitar was an unexpected but welcome gift.

With my knee propped up on a pillow, ice bag strapped on with an Ace bandage. I started trying to learn to play a few chords.

The steel strings on the guitar cut deep into my fingertips.  I developed blisters, and they eventually became calluses. 

A few days later, Dad brought another gift. It was a record album featuring Chet Atkins. I had heard of him from the Grand Ole Opry. Dad gave me a proper introduction.

“This is fellow from East Tennessee who traded a handgun for his first guitar. He taught himself to play in the restroom at school. He said the acoustics were better there.”

I became a fan of Chet Atkins and began collecting his albums. His style of picking was unique, and the sound was smooth and clear. Since that time, I have expanded my enjoyment of good guitar music. Tommy Emmanuel, James Taylor, Jerry Garcia, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, and Buddy Guy are all on my playlist. So, too, are several very talented women like Bonnie Raitt, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Joan Baez, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Elizabeth Cotton, and Joni Mitchell.

I spent hours strumming that old Stella, long since gone. I moved on to a Fender and a Martin and beyond. I am not an accomplished guitar player. I have arthritis and can no longer play as I once did. But I enjoy playing and singing with our children and our grandchildren.  We sing fun songs like “The Marvelous Toy” and “The Barn Dance.” We enjoy classic country tunes like “Almost Heaven, West Virginia” and “Sixteen Tons.” We join in railroad songs like “The City of New Orleans” and “John Henry.” I enjoy teaching them hymns and spirituals like “Precious Lord, Take my Hand” and “Peace in the Valley.”

I will be forever grateful to my dad for that first guitar.

The guitar is one of a long line of stringed instruments dating back over 4000 years. The plucked stringed musical instrument probably originated in Spain early in the 16th century, deriving from the guitarra Latina, a late-medieval instrument with a nipped-in waisted body and four strings.

After a few months, when it became clear that my interest was more than passing, my dad wondered if I needed lessons. My teacher was Jerome Fowler, a resident of Clifton Mill #2, near Spartanburg. Mr. Fowler was one of the most unique people I have ever known.  He had been the Minister of Music at a Methodist Church. He not only worked in the mill, but he also served as the band director at the mill. His language was salty. His teeth were usually in a glass on top of the piano. He smoked cigars.

An accident left Mr. Fowler with a broken arm that healed improperly. He could not hold a guitar. But he understood the instrument as if he had invented it. He could hold a mandolin, which he played while I played the guitar. He often stopped to press my fingers into the right places on the fretboard. He used the Gibson Guitar Course, teaching scales and runs, bar chords, and harmonics.

Again, the guitar inspires a sense of gratitude. I am thankful for Mr. Fowler.

Joe Bennett and three buddies started a band, The Sparkletones, in 1956 at Cowpens High School. Joe Bennett, originally from Glendale, had also taken guitar lessons from Jerome Fowler.

In January 1957, Bob Cox, a talent scout for The Columbia Broadcasting System, held auditions at the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium. The Sparkletones took first prize at the event. Convinced they would be a success, Cox quit CBS to manage the group and flew them out to New York City to sign with Paramount.

At their first recording session, they sang “Black Slacks.” Released as a single soon after, “Black Slacks” became a hit and built up national recognition. The Sparkletones toured the nation doing numerous concerts and performing on “The Nat King Cole Show,” “American Bandstand,” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.”  “Black Slacks” remained on the record charts for over four months, peaking at number 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 late in 1957.

Before his illness and death, Joe and I got together occasionally. I took a few lessons from him to renew some of my guitar skills. We sometimes ate breakfast together at Dolline’s in Clifton. We talked about what life had been like for both of us. We were two old codgers sharing memories.

Joe served in the Air Force in Vietnam. He was an air traffic controller. Maybe his most important job was to play his guitar at the Non-Commissioned Officers Club. The commander was trying to keep the soldiers on base instead of having them go into Saigon, where they could get into trouble.

Joe said, “Every day, somebody there got a Dear John letter. I played every broken-hearted song there is to play. I bet I played ‘Your Cheating Heart’ five hundred times.”

Joe shared a remarkable story. Years ago, the Sparkletones were playing a concert in Hartford, Connecticut. They were opening for Bo Diddley and Jerry Lee Lewis. The place was packed out.

Just before the show, two kids from Brooklyn, Tom and Jerry, were to make their first appearance ever. The promoter had asked them to sing one song. Joe explained that the two young men were scared to death.

Joe said, “You guys need to know that this is probably your best chance. You have a great audience here. They have come to hear good music. The promoter thinks you have the talent to do this. Just go out there and give it your best shot.”

The two singers, Tom and Jerry, were a knockout! People loved them. A few years later, they changed their names to Simon and Garfunkel.

Several years ago, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel did a reunion concert in Central Park before thousands of people. About halfway through that concert, Paul Simon said to Art Garfunkel, “Why don’t we play ‘Black Slacks’?” They broke into the old song, and Joe said, “We have gotten more royalties off of their recording of that song than we ever made off of our recordings.”

What were Simon and Garfunkel doing? They were using the guitar to express their gratitude.

When I hear Chet Atkins, Tommy Emmanuel, or Joe Bennett play the guitar, I could feel envious, but I know that the best medicine for envy is gratitude.

I listen, and I am thankful.

Isaiah, the Hebrew prophet of old, wrote,” We will sing our songs to the Lord with stringed instruments.” That is our highest expression of gratitude.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.

He can be reached at       

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