Branch's Latest Trio

After completing his civil-rights trilogy, the author Taylor Branch reunites with two college bandmates to record a rock-'n'-roll CD

January 09, 2007|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,Sun Reporter

Taylor Branch rested the folk guitar in his lap and ran his fingers across its strings as sunbeams streaked through a dining-room window in his Mount Washington home, bathing his creviced face and white hair.

Earlier, Branch had displayed the range of his singing voice, a silky baritone as captivating as the favorite soloist in the church choir. The Baltimore resident admitted his guitar playing wasn't as polished. Still, his gentle strokes sounded like a smooth introduction to a classic folk song.

Yes, this is the same Taylor Branch who chronicled the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil-rights era in an award-winning trilogy.

Years before he became a renowned author and historian known as an authority on civil rights, he was known for his singing: his baritone, his choral falsetto, his rendition of tunes from the Beatles, Roy Orbison, the Bee Gees.

Lately, Branch has been dabbling in his musical roots, which reach back to his youth and flourished when he sang for a college band in the 1960s.

He and two former members of that band, who were his roommates and Chi Psi fraternity brothers at the University of North Carolina, recently reunited to make a 12-track CD of Beatles' music and other songs they played back when they were known as the Zookeepers and later Gross National Product.

Branch, 59, real estate developer John Yelverton, 60, and attorney Bill Guy, 59, follow a long list of professionals outside the music world - some obscure, others quite famous - whose joy of making music never dies. They now call themselves Off Our Rocker.

Some of their acquaintances, upon hearing of their recent venture, have described them the same way.

Why, they say, would the trio spend $6,000, including $1,500 to purchase recording rights for the songs, not to mention countless hours in a studio to make a recording that won't likely net a huge return?

"Music is pure emotion, it's a language of emotion," said Branch, who last year completed the civil rights-era trilogy that he'd begun 24 years ago and whose first installment received a Pulitzer Prize for history in 1989.

"It's that channeling back to your youth, and it makes you feel younger. In the midst of very hard times and hard knocks and in doing very serious other works, such as on race and democracy and violence, it has a meaning that you can't get anywhere else. It gives you that Peter Pan joy."

That's why you can hear the three laughing in the background throughout their CD titled OverTime.

It takes them back to when they were a popular college band in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, playing the music of the Beatles, Rascals and Rolling Stones at a time when many college bands were immersed in Motown.

As a trio, their harmony is Beatlesque, high in fidelity but melodic, particularly on such tracks as "No Reply" and "Nowhere Man," both Beatles' songs. They inject a bit of Beatles' sound into the Bee Gees' tune "To Love Somebody."

The CD's lone solo track is Branch singing Roy Orbison's "Running Scared." With acoustic guitar strumming in the background, Branch sings in a low baritone similar to that of a young Elvis on ballads.

Branch, Yelverton and Guy were among the original members of a band that formed in 1965 during their sophomore years at UNC. The Zookeepers always consisted of five members and played at venues as far north as Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., and as far south as Branch's father's skating rink in Atlanta.

Yet for Branch, the musical roots extend as far back as singing soprano in the Atlanta Boys Choir as a youngster. After his voice cracked during a song, he was ousted from the choir on the eve of its tour to Vienna to perform with the Vienna Boys Choir.

"It hurt a lot," Branch said. "My family had already bought tickets to Vienna. But in the Atlanta Boys Choir, if your voice cracked once, you were gone."

Branch ultimately took up folk music, learned to play a folk guitar and then formed the Zookeepers, so named because the members thought it stood out, to help pay for college. Branch, Guy and Yelverton ended up going their separate ways but remained in touch over the years. Guy tried his hand in other bands for a few years after college, then ventured into legal work while recording religious music on the side.

The three men reunited to play at college reunions five years ago. Then, in April 2006, they got together at the home studio Guy built in a guest bedroom, where he records religious music.

Their impromptu recording session that night began at 9. It ended the next morning at 9:30.

"It was really a joyful occasion," Guy said. "We had not spent a whole lot of time together over the last 40 years. The three of us were the only ones who were in the band from start to finish. It was great getting back together to sing everything we could think of, and we had a lot of fun doing it."

After Guy mixed the songs, the trio was impressed with the quality of the sound and the group's rekindled chemistry.

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