Music Box Meets the Toccoa Band: The Godfather of Soul in Appalachia

By Hay, Fred J. | Black Music Research Journal, Spring-Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Music Box Meets the Toccoa Band: The Godfather of Soul in Appalachia


Hay, Fred J., Black Music Research Journal


"You ought to be in Toccoa this time of year, the mountains. That's air so fresh, the honeysuckle.... That's another place up there."

--James Brown (1990, xxviii)

It was a warm June afternoon in Toccoa, Georgia, in 1973, and I was standing at the entrance of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church on Whitman Street. My friend Teddy Brown, a fine singer and dancer, had died in a car wreck in New York state and his body had been returned home for burial. (1) A line of limousines pulled up in front of the church, and additional mourners filed out and into the already-packed church. Guitarist Nafloyd Scott was also there, and he introduced me to people in the music business, including singer Bobby Byrd. The last of these mourners was soul and funk legend James Brown, who passed us on his way into his eldest son's funeral. Thirty years later, I had begun conducting interviews for the purpose of writing an article on James Brown's musically formative years in northeast Georgia.

Toccoa and Stephens County

Stephens County, Georgia, was formed from parts of Habersham and Franklin counties in 1905. Bordered by the Tugaloo River (much of it now is Hartwell Lake) and Oconee County, South Carolina, on the northeast and Habersham, Banks, and Franklin counties on the north, west, and south, Stephens County covers approximately 179 square miles and was named for the vice president of the Confederate States, Alexander Stephens. Along with Martin and Avalon, Toccoa (originally Dry Pond) is one of the county's three incorporated towns and is its county seat. Stephens County has a mixed industrial-agricultural economic base, including furniture and textile manufacturing, poultry processing, and tourism. Elevations in the county range between approximately 650 and 1,747 feet (the peak of Currahee Mountain) above sea level. Stephens County is included in most definitions of Appalachia, including those of John C. Campbell (1921, 327), who described the Appalachian boundary in this area as the "mountain region of Georgia [that] lies northwest of a line drawn from the Georgia-South Carolina boundary, through Toccoa in Stephens County" (337) and Wilma Dunaway's (2003, 7) more recent description of the region "in terms of terrain and geological formation."

Toccoa grew more rapidly than most of the neighboring towns due to its location on the Southern Railway route connecting New Orleans, Birmingham, and Atlanta with points north. In 1950, Stephens County had a total population of 16,647, of which 2,166, or 13 percent was African American. Toccoa in 1950 had 6,781 residents, of whom 1,465 or 21.5 percent were African American. In 1970, Stephens County was 11.8 percent black, giving it the largest African-American population of any northeast Georgia county included in the pre-1960s definitions of the Appalachian region (compare with Habersham at 5.7 percent, Banks at 5.5 percent, Rabun at 0.08 percent, and even Hall, which includes the city of Gainesville, at 10.1 percent) (Georgia Mountains Area Planning and Development Commission 1978). (2)

Interviews with black and white Toccoans who grew up in the late 1940s and the early 1950s (including all surviving members of the Famous Flames, with the exception of James Brown) indicate that race relations in Toccoa and Stephens County, although far from perfect, were historically more amicable and much better than those in the Lower South. According to former Flame and Atlanta native Johnny Terry (2003), "People were nice, they was different, we got along with the white people," and race relations in Toccoa were "definitely better" than in Atlanta or Augusta. (3) High black voter registration in Toccoa (439 registered "Colored" voters in 1952 ["Registrars" 1952])--more than a third of the town's total African-American population, including members of the immediate family of each of the Toccoa Flames ("List of Registered" 1952)--is another indication of the state of race relations in Toccoa. …

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