The Unexpected Homecoming of Sam Waymon

Published 11:33 am Friday, October 27, 2023

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Tryon is not the town he and his sister, Nina Simone, left decades ago

By Robert Lange, Nina Simone Project

The summer days were hot in Tryon, and in the 1950s there were two wonderful old-fashioned pharmacies with soda fountains. Town teenagers would gather to quench their thirst and listen to the juke box; unless they were colored. Owens Pharmacy was the most common hangout for the younger set and a favorite for sodas and shakes. While the white kids would freely enter and enjoy the beloved gathering spot, Samuel Waymon and his friends would have to wait outside until all the whites had left for the opportunity to purchase a shake. Only when there were no whites in the building would they be escorted in, allowed to order something, then escorted out.

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No means an isolated example of daily discrimination in Tryon in those days, it was this kind of second-class treatment over decades that shaped many of the town’s colored citizens’ feelings not only about their hometown but civil rights in general. Many current Tryon residents have heard countless stories from old timers such as James Payne and Jim Jackson before their passing, but little would anyone in the town at the time have expected just how powerful an influence two of those young colored children would someday have on the national civil rights movement.

Samuel Waymon was born in Tryon in 1944 and grew up in what is now known as the Eastside of Tryon to two Methodist ministers. While the entire family was endowed with musical talent, Samuel and his older sister Eunice, were ‘gifted’ and taken under the tutelage of the legendary Tryon piano instructor, Mrs. Mazzenovich. After successfully guiding Eunice, nine years Samuel’s senior, on a path to eventual international stardom, “Miss Mazzy” was so impressed with Samuel’s talent that she offered to teach him at no charge.

While going separate paths in their late teens, Samuel and Eunice, independently began taking part in civil rights marches. “I marched, and was arrested, with Martin Luther King in Philadelphia,” Samuel said.

In the early 1960s, the siblings teamed up to use their talents to influence the movement with their music. By this time, Eunice had changed her name to Nina Simone to help hide from her mother that she was performing “the devil’s music” and had become internationally known.

“Nina and I had a special kinship growing up because of our passion and love of music,” Samuel reflects. “I was the only person Nina trusted completely and she brought me into her musical activities.”

A photo of Waymon and his legendary sister, Nina Simone.

In a business where performers were routinely cheated, not only by promoters and the industry as a whole but often by their managers as well, Samuel was the only person Nina would rely on with her affairs. Over the years Samuel became her road manager, confidant, gatekeeper, producer and closest friend. “If anyone wanted to get to Nina, they had to go through me.  Whenever I called her ‘Eunice’, she knew it was time to snap into shape!”  

Meanwhile, Tryon became more and more distant to both of them. However, the injustices they endured here had already shaped their lives in many dimensions. “It wasn’t so much having to be regulated to the balcony at the Tryon Theatre, but the indignation of being segregated.”

These experiences were not always subtle, as the Klu Klux Klan was well-represented in the area. “One evening I encountered three men I knew to be Klan members preparing to rape a young black girl on the railroad tracks, after breaking the scene up they turned their attention to me, pinned me down, and pulled out a knife exclaiming they were going to castrate me. Had it not been for an iron pipe I was able to grab and disable one of them to enable my escape, they probably would have been successful.” Next time you pass the tracks near where Side Street Pizza now sits, remember that.

Growing up in Tryon helped Sam and Nina shape many of the lyrics which have become iconic civil rights songs. These songs helped give a voice to colored people throughout the country to bring recognition to the struggle and injustices people of color were subjected to. Samuel’s recently released single, “Hell No, Jim Crow,” is a reflection of a lifetime of struggles with race that continue to this day. “Jim Crow is the tear in the fabric of this country. Jim Crow is an invisible disease and an attitude with the only antidote being knowledge, communication, and understanding. It is not a class disease, but a human disease. It was created solely for the purpose of creating fear in people of color.”

Although they toured together for over 30 years and he produced at least one of her albums, Samuel’s professional activities were in no way limited to his sister. Samuel is an award-winning composer, responsible for several soundtracks, including “Philadelphia,” starring Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks, “Weeds” with Nick Nolte, and others. He also has acting credits in many of the movies he helped score. His teaching talent led him to teach piano, voice, and breathing, both individually and at the college level. During her career, Areatha Franklin even engaged Samuel as a voice coach.  

Perhaps closest to his heart was the soundtrack to the Cannes Film Festival award-winning “Ganja & Hess” and the subsequent musical contributions to “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” Spike Lee’s remake of “Ganja & Hess.”

Samuel had not returned to Tryon until early 2022 for a Nina Simone tribute at Rogers Park. As a guest of my inn, The Wilcox on Melrose, I met him for the first time. He had never known anything but discrimination from his hometown and his anxiety and trepidation were obvious. Sitting on my front porch, he shared with me many stories of his youth here and was not sure how the weekend would go. In true “Friendliest Town in the South” fashion, it took less than a day for Samuel’s angst to be replaced with the magic of the town and the warmth of its citizens.  

Scott Lane arranged for a special visit to the theater and the nervousness of setting foot back in the building which resurfaced so many sad memories was quickly replaced with a sense of belonging and relief. We sat in the balcony nibbling on complementary popcorn (thank you Scott!) as he shared tales of some of the indignities blacks suffered at the theater and you could see all the anxiety of his memories of the past just dissipate from his being. 

We then strolled down Trade Street during the Friday evening festivities. Everyone we encountered welcomed him with a kindness and excitement which he never would have expected. As we made our way past The Bottle down as far as Karen Killian’s studio near the end of Trade Street, he wanted to stop in every business and enjoyed fascinating discussions with countless Tryonites. That was it, Samuel came to quickly admire the town which had in many ways tortured his soul over the years.  

While the entire visit was a very emotional experience for him, I didn’t actually see any tears until I recently showed him Andy Millard’s interviews with James Payne and Jim Jackson where they articulated their experiences with race growing up in Tryon during the same period. Samuel concurs with their description of the difference in the treatment of colored people between the white children and the white adults. “There was never any discrimination by the white kids, only the adults.”

Today, Samuel has been a long-time resident of Nyack, NY, where he is receiving a lifetime achievement award next month. His new appreciation of his hometown prompted him to return to Tryon this last summer to finish his production of “Hell No, Jim Crow.”  His visit has endeared him further to the town and he appreciates the changes since his youth. His visit has given me a deeper appreciation of the challenges his race faced before he and his sister helped the world change.

Sam recently performed with several Asheville musicians in a tribute to his sister at the Tryon Fine Arts Center and his new single has just been released and is available for listening and downloading on all online music sources.