Listen (23:36) Big Gene
n the seventies, in rural Maryland just outside Washington, DC, The Black Mountain Boys, an all white band, had a regular gig at this all-white truck stop and hired Big Gene—a black piano player–who had an eleven-inch thumb-to-pinky stretch that whacked out tenths like octaves. Big Gene played boogie like Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons and could walk down into infinity of R&B with a left hand transplanted from Professor Longhair and James Booker. Sid, the fiddle player and band manager, saw Big Gene as a savior for the diminishing popularity of his country repetoire. "Play the book," he said to Gene, "but make it sound like they’ll want to shake their bootie." On Big Gene’s first night, the truck stop owner approach Sid as they were setting up.
“Who the fuck is that?” the owner said to Sid.
Big Gene did not look up.
“Piano player,” Sid said.
“We don’t hire no coloreds.”
“You hired us. He plays the piano.”
“He ain’t playing my piano.”
“I didn’t know you played piano.”
“Don’t smart ass me.”
“He’s got his own. One of them electric things.”
“Never heard of a black guy could play Country.”
“He was born in a horse barn after his mama finished a cattle drive,” Sid said, trying to suppress a smile.
The owner crossed his arms and watched them for a few seconds. “Any trouble and you’re out of here,” he finally said and walked away. “All of you.”
They faced the piano to the wall and Gene played his keyboard. When he sat on his fortified piano bench, he anchored more than a few gazes at 6’2” and 374 pounds.
Big Gene had no love for country music. For him it was like chopping firewood. And he didn’t like playing for angry whites. He liked the white guys in the band who cared more about work and family than race, but they were different from the clientele who seemed deprived of everything and angry at all they’d been denied.
At the first break the drummer came over to Gene. "Shit man, you can really play that thing," he said nodding at the keyboard.
"Folks seemed to like it," Big Gene said.
"You been in town long?" the drummer asked.
"About a year. Not much work though."
"Tell me about it, man," the drummer said, "I’ve been looking for a better gig. Jump ship in heartbeat."
"Sid seems solid," Gene said.
"The best. I hope this crossover works for him. I don’t think I can live through another ‘Stand By My Man’" the drummer said. "The way we play it, I could take a piss between the ones."
Gene felt relief getting away after the first night. The place was hell … never closing … and at any time of day or night there’d be twenty to forty rigs pulled in on diagonals on the three plus acres of dirt parking, diesels running on the refrigerated loads, some guys sleeping in the cabs, others running a rag over a radiator chrome strip on a Peterbilt. The air was eerie thick–impending doom … like a war zone. And without exception, inside every rig some serious weapon hid within easy reach.
Big Gene got home after one AM. Cloretta waited up, sitting in front of a TV that hadn’t been turned on.
“We got to talk, Eugene,” Cloretta said. “It’s after twelve. You got children.”
“It’s a steady job, Clorrie.”
Big Gene lowered himself into an overstuffed armchair.
“It’s disgraceful,” she said, her voice quivering. “That’s what everyone at church thinks.”
Big Gene stayed quiet.
“White trash,” she blurted out. “And it’s no reputation for a man of God to be chasing after.”
“It’s just music. Making people happy,” he said.
He loved his Cloretta. Exhausted, he glanced away.
“If you’ve got to play piano, play gospel.” Her voice had turned angry.
“I can’t make a living in the church.”
“Well, I can’t teach school forever. It takes too much out of me.”
Big Gene took his wife’s hand, and pulled her to standing.
“I’ve been thinking. I’m going to sell tapes. I got a guy who’ll do it for a percentage of sales.”
“You’re dreaming,” she said.
He hugged her so there wasn’t much of her showing.
“There’s a lot people making big money in my music now.”
"They ain’t making it at no all-white truck stop."
"We’ll be looking for sales in the music stores too."
She pulled back so he could see her face. “Just don’t be selling your soul. I can’t tolerate that, Eugene.”
The truck stop was the only nightlife with live music for fifty miles, and it was the only place a lot of locals went to get out of the house in the evenings. Most customers were guys … a few brought wives or sweethearts, but not many. Most of the unescorted girls were walking the line out of a trailer park about a mile away. Once you finished your business, you could clean up too. Behind the gas station and weakly-lit fuel pumps, management had erected a prefab shed where you could shower, for half a buck, with a dry towel–you got your driver’s license back when you handed the towel back to the attendant– and a one-inch cut from a bar of soap.
The restaurant was a concrete block building that had been built as a warehouse. It had grill counter-service on one side, and a kitchen specializing in spareribs barbecued, half a chicken fried, and meatloaf with pan gravy and potatoes. White waitresses in short skirts carried four or five plates of food without spilling to bare Formica-topped tables. In the back was a long bar, a tiled dance floor, and the raised platform for the band.
After a few weeks, Gene began to play solid boogie solo piano during the breaks. Soon regulars timed their thirsts to hear Big Gene, and the manager booked the Black Mountain Boys for another three months and called Big Gene Sid’s pot of gold.
A tall white guy with sun-baked leather skin and a Braves baseball cap came regular on Thursdays to sit on an end barstool. He was close enough for Big Gene to hear when he laid out for Sid’s solos. One night the leathery tall guy said to the guy next to him. “That nigger’s good. He plays like Jerry Lee Lewis.”
Big Gene overcame his urge to look. Then the guy yelled to Big Gene. "Hey, man. You know ‘Great Balls of Fire’?”
Big Gene grinned. “You know I love it,” he said. But he played "The Fat Man."
Big Gene came off the stand and approached. The man looked puzzled.
“I mean it, boy. You great,” the man said with an edgy smile.
“Thank you, sir,” Big Gene said.
“You ought to learn ‘Great Balls of Fire.’ I was telling the man here. You flat ass sound like Jerry Lee Lewis.”
Big Gene waited; the leathery man stared. “Mr. Lewis learned from us coloreds,” Big Gene said.
“You’re shitting me.” The man looked genuinely surprised.
“Yes sir. Mr. Lewis learned from some of the greats, like we all do.”
“Yes, sir. It’s the God’s truth,” Big Gene said smiling.
As Big Gene climbed back on stage to start the next set, Sid whispered to him, “What was that all about?”
“That redneck thought I took my playing from Jerry Lee Lewis. I was correcting his misperceptions.”
“I’m surprised he didn’t shoot you.”
“I was a little shocked too,” Big Gene said, grinning.
A few weeks later, during a break, Big Gene rolled out his version of “Great Balls of Fire.” He played it on the house piano. The leathery guy stood up and yelled, “I mean, that was flat out next to best I ever heard.” He waved a power fist in the air to Big Gene.
“What you drink?” the leathery guy asked Gene from his barstool.
“He only drink cranberry juice,” said the bartender. Big Gene started playing.
The leathery guy put two bucks on the counter. “On me,” he said. He walked to the piano. The bar tender carried a water glass half full of cranberry juice and put it down at the side of Big Gene without comment. Big Gene played on and when he finished the leathery man stepped up to him.
“How you drink cranberry juice and still play like that? It’s like you’re high as the moon.” The leathery guy sipped beer from a bottle.
Big Gene drank his juice still sitting on the piano stool as the owner–always dressed in a grey silk suit with a no-tie, shiny black shirt buttoned at the neck–came up to Big Gene and took the glass of cranberry juice from him and placed it on the floor behind the piano.
The leathery guy stiffened. “Hey, Howard, you got a problem?”
“The help can’t drink with customers.”
“It’s cranberry juice. Besides, he’s the piano player. He ain’t just help.”
The owner hesitated as he weighed what was offending a good customer, and how it could hurt business to have some guy drinking with the coloreds.
“We got rules, Parker.”
“You got no rules about cranberry juice.”
“Don’t make it regular. You hear me?” the owner said. He shook his head and walked off.
Big Gene stood.
The leathery guy picked up Big Gene’s glass again and handed it to him. He was eye level with Big Gene now. “Names Parker Smith. I’m a carpenter. I do custom cabinets mostly … finishing stuff … but with hard times I been doing on-site construction a lot this last year. I tell you man, I don’t like it. But I do it to keep food on the table, know what I’m saying?”
“I hear you,” Big Gene said.
“You got children?” Parker asked, leaning his elbow on the top of the piano.
“Boy eleven and a girl eight.”
“I got seven kids. Same wife.”
The click of hard-heeled boots pounding the floor tiles came toward them-sounding weird like trouble–and Big Gene looked to Parker who held his gaze for a few seconds. It was a guy past his best years, his jeans low on his belly and held together with a tooled leather belt and a brass buckle cast in the shape of a big-rig cab coming at you.
“Hey Parker. You taking up with colored?”
“No man," Parker said. "This is Jerry Lee Lewis. He ain’t no colored.”
“He look colored.”
“He’s the fucking piano player.”
The belt buckle guy never once looked at Big Gene.
“Don’t be looking good, Parker. You got your responsibilities. You gotta be careful what people thinking these days.” He walked away.
Parker had his head down. He didn’t speak for many seconds. “Don’t pay no attention to him," he said to Big Gene. "He’s Klan.”
Big Gene felt a muscle twitch in his face.
“He thinks ‘cause I’m Klan, he’s got rights,” Parker said.
Big Gene couldn’t speak at first. “Really, you a wizard?” Gene finally asked hesitantly.
“Shit no. Don’t get bent wrong.”
Big Gene was tight as a high-end piano wire.
“Don’t ride your clutch, my man," Parker said, "We ain’t against all coloreds.”
“That isn’t the rumor,” Big Gene said.
Parker looked straight at Gene, then looked away. “That ain’t you, man. You regular.”
“Thank you,” Gene said, but the words didn’t come easy.
Cloretta heard from a woman at church that Gene was talking to a Klansman at the truck stop.
“It isn’t right,” she said to Gene one night when they were in bed, neither able to sleep.
“It can make a difference,” Gene said.
“You aren’t Dr. King,” she said. “It’s arrogant to be thinking that way.”
Big Gene had thought out what he wanted to tell her. “He’s afraid Clorrie, deep down. Like I’m a moccasin or something. But now he begins to see me like a garden snake that has no teeth and no poison, and that I’m working–snaking around–just like him to stay alive. There isn’t much fear left in you after you pick up your first garden snake who doesn’t care about hurting you, probably doesn’t see much difference between you and a tree stump. Might even appreciate you’re not stepping on him.”
“Crazy talk,” she said and turned her back to him. He stared at the ceiling. He believed Dr. King would take these opportunities and peace would come one man at a time–not by going to war.
The next evening Cloretta greeted him when she got home after school.
“I’m sorry about last night, Eugene.”
“It’s okay, Clorrie.”
Cloretta said, “It’s just that I don’t see why you’re making up to him.”
Big Gene didn’t say anything for a while. “He loves his wife,” he said to her. She had started washing dishes at the kitchen sink. “And I love you.”
“You are too smooth for your own good,” she said over her shoulder.
Big Gene didn’t see Parker much in the summer. Parker had a plot of land he leased to plant soy, and with tending his crop and his making cabinets, he was pretty tired a night. But on a late summer night after harvest he came by the truck stop after twelve. He parked.
The band had finished locking up their stuff, and Big Gene walked out of the building alone and saw three black guys beating up on a guy behind a red pickup. Big Gene squinted. It was Parker. A skinny kid with a razor ripped Parker’s shirt and sliced his chest and now was starting on his thighs. Behind him there was a taller kid holding a shiv like he was waiting to jam it through Parker’s ribs into his heart.
Big Gene got to the shiv kid just as he began to move, grabbed him by his shiv arm with his right hand and squeezed until the shiv fell–then Big Gene grabbed the kid’s crotch with his left hand and he picked the shiv kid off the ground and held him so his feet didn’t touch earth.
“What the fuck …” the razor kid said, backing off.
Big Gene shook the shiv kid and threw him to the ground.
“He Klan, bro …” the razor kid said.
“No killing …” Big Gene said. Big Gene took the razor from the kid and picked up the shiv from where it had fallen.
“He’d hang you from a fucking tree,” said the kid holding Parker. The kid let Parker go, and Parker slumped down; he’d lost a bucket of blood.
“Cutting a man is not he way to overcome.”
“You one weird motherfucker,” the kid said as the three backed away, turned, and ran.
Big Gene picked Parker up and carried him toward the restaurant. “You’re going to make it,” he said to Parker who was barely conscious. A photo flash went off and blinded Big Gene as he came close to the door.
The manager had brought out with a folding chair and Big Gene set Parker down. A few minutes later, when the emergency van turned into the parking lot with lights flashing to pick up Parker, Big Gene slipped into the darkness to get to his car.
Next day Big Gene saw a photo of Parker Smith being carried from an assault for treatment–like it was something no one would expect a Negro to do–that was on the front page of the local paper.
Parker’s chest carried scars, but his legs healed better. He rarely came to hear Big Gene play any more until one Thursday night in the spring.
Big Gene came off the bandstand after the first set to say hello.
Parker had never mentioned anything about his assault to Gene, and he didn’t say anything about it that night either. He said his son, Harry, was in juvenile. It was a big worry for him.
The Black Mountain Boys began to straggle back in from break; Big Gene turned to go back on stage.
“I was wondering,” Parker said, “if you’d play the reception at my daughter’s wedding in June.”
“I can ask Sid.”
“No, man. Just you.”
Big Gene stared at Parker whose lips were tight, his brow creased with apprehension.
“Sure,” Big Gene said.
“And bring your wife. I’d be proud to have her,” Parker said.
“I’ll ask, but I don’t think she’ll come.”
“Women like weddings.”
“Her mother died waiting for treatment at the hospital. She’s bitter. Thinks her mother would be alive if she were white.”
“Sweet talk her, man.”
Big Gene put on his tuxedo for the wedding gig. Cloretta sat on the bed in her robe and watched as he dressed.
“You ‘re asking for trouble,” she said.
“At a wedding?”
“There’ll be hate there, Eugene. That man’s friends have killed the likes of us.”
“I’m sorry you’re not going. I’d like you to meet him.”
“When hell freezes,” she said.
Big Gene sat near the back of the church. The bride had a scrubbed-glow to her skin, her eyes avoiding the crowd. At the reception, Parker introduced Big Gene to friends.
“This is the man that saved my ass,” Parker said to a man in a light blue suit and his wife who wore blue shoes–trying to match his suit–with four-inch heels and a white-satin, short dress.
“Pleased to meet you,” Big Gene said. The man barely reached his shoulder.
The man reached out his hand, and Big Gene took it. “Any friend of Parker’s is a friend of mine.”
The wedding photographer snapped pictures.
The organist for the ceremony played the piano for the bride and groom’s first dance. But after that, Gene played out the time–and the people danced.
Two days later in the morning before Cloretta went to school, she held up the Sunday paper to show the black and white picture of Big Gene shaking hands with the man in the blue suit. She read the caption: "Klan Reaches Out."
“It’s not right,” Cloretta said.
“He doesn’t look dangerous,” Big Gene said, and smiled.
Cloretta frowned. “They called you ‘A civil rights activist’. You shouldn’t be shaking his hand. You shoulda whooped his butt.”
The next afternoon a man from the National Urban League came to the house to arrange a live interview in Washington a week later. Cloretta was waiting when Gene got home from the TV station.
“What did you think?” he asked.
“That man didn’t let you talk enough.”
“Weren’t you just a little bit impressed?”
“You’re too full of yourself.” She said.
He held her tightly … until she relaxed a little. She was always tense these days.
More than a year passed. Big Gene was selling his own tapes at gigs and at a music store in DC. Cloretta had changed schools for a higher paying job in administration. Daughter Sharyll was beginning to look at colleges and had visited the University of Maryland. Son Hal was on the basketball team at school and hoped to be a starter.
On a Tuesday night, a thirty-foot cross burned on a knoll behind Cloretta’s and Big Gene’s AME church. It toppled onto the church school, which burned to the ground.
In the middle of the night, Cloretta wept. Big Gene turned the night-light on, and got up. He brought iced tea to her from the kitchen.
“At least the sanctuary wasn’t damaged,” he said.
“The school is important!”
He put the iced tea on the floor next to the bed.
“I don’t want that,” she said.
He picked up the iced tea glass and put it on the dresser.
“What’s up, baby?”
“Don’t you ‘baby’ me.”
He got back in bed but didn’t touch her.
She stopped her crying, wiping her eyes with the edge of the sheet. “I can’t stand it anymore.”
“The church has insurance.”
“And we’ll rebuild. And be burned. And someone will die. And we’ll rebuild again. And no one will be punished.”
“There’s an outrage …” Big Gene began.
“There will never be a white man jailed or hung for crimes against us.”
“It’s takes time, Clorrie. I think we’re making progress.”
“In the name of God, Eugene,” Cloretta said, “Where’s the fight in you. You’re not the man I married.”
There had been a time when he had used his size to assault men. He wouldn’t do that anymore.
“It’s your friend,” she said. "He did it."
“That’s not fair, Clorrie. I don’t think he’d do this.”
“You don’t think he was involved? At least knew about it!”
Gene didn’t know Parker’s activities with the Klan really.
“You’re blind, Eugene. They’re running over you.”
Big Gene paused. “We’ll win, Clorrie, but not with hate and anger. That defeats us.”
She didn’t respond. The depth of her silence hurt him when he said, “I love you” and she turned away.
Months later, new construction had been started on the church school. Big Gene was home from work with Cloretta on the porch. A cardboard box had been dropped off at the front door.
“Did they say what it was?” Big Gene said.
“I didn’t see who delivered.”
Big Gene picked it up. It wasn’t heavy. He listened. There was no sound.
“Throw it out,” Cloretta said fearing it was a bomb.
Gene stripped off the tape and opened the flaps. White satin gleamed. He pulled out a full-length robe unadorned except for a patch with a white cross and a red background. From the bottom he pulled out a pointed hood, with two eye slits.
“It’s a threat,” Cloretta said. “They’re going to hurt us.”
“He’s left the Klan, Clorrie.”
She stuffed the robe back into the box. “Don’t let any one see it.”
Gene picked up the box and took it back into the guest room. Cloretta followed. He took a hanger from the closet.
“Don’t,” she said.
“It means a lot to me, Clorrie.” On the hanger the robe was so long it gathered on the floor.
“In the name of God, Gene. I don’t want that in the closet.”
“It’s a symbol of hope.”
“That’s crazy talk. I can’t stand it.”
Big Gene reached into the closet. “I’ll store it in the shed.”
“Dear Jesus,” she said. “Leave it in the closet. It’s you I don’t want. Not the robe.”
By the middle of the decade, Big Gene had finished playing music professionally. He owned a real estate business. Parker Smith died on the job, broke his neck when he fell backward off a second floor balcony at a home site under construction. Big Gene still lived in the same house. In his guest room closet he had seven Klan robes from former members he’d gotten to know through Parker, robes he showed to visitors, most of whom acted as if Big Gene’s mind had shrunk from too many years of loud music. Cloretta never forgave him and after the divorce she took the kids and moved in with her sister in Minnesota. Later, Big Gene married a secretary whom he had met at church. She had marched with Dr. King, a Miss Melanie Harper.
In 1978, by popular demand, Big Gene ran for congress.
Illustrations by Peter Healy
When I watched Blackklansman, the movie, this year, I was greatly impressed by the way the themes, which happen to be the same as in Big Gene, were propagated.
I am particularly intrigued by the perpetual conflict between radicalism and a seemingly, potentially irritating, laid-back approach in the quest for a much needed change.
Thank you, for an insightful story. It is amazing how matters of such compelling importance can be compressed to half-hour reads.