TV One has this incredible series called Unsung about old school music groups and artists whose careers experienced premature endings. It’s pretty good stuff, but not too revelatory to The Smaaawt One (a pet name given me by one of my oldest buddies). It just so happens that most of the acts have always been counted among my favorites – except one.
I never really knew a whole lot about The Clark Sisters. I was a child of hippies in the 70’s who wasn’t really raised in church in the 80’s. To be honest, the first time I ever remember actually going into an Atlanta church for a service with my mother voluntarily was when she got cancer and started bargaining with The Father to spare her a premature smite. She might have been a hippie, but she wasn’t no fool and knew exactly where to appeal when times got tough. I had more than a few friends, though, who were all up in the sanctuary singing at every opportunity they could find back in the day. Choir rehearsal to some in Atlanta was like working out – they sweat through it daily, for long periods of time, diligently. So, other than listening to them on WCLK’s Sunday gospel show and listening to those friends try to approximate those lush harmonies, I never knew anything about that family, that group, until that show. What I did know was that Xscape did a rousing rendition of one of their most popular songs on their first album that still stands as one of my favorite remakes of all time.
When you’re a teen (as a few of them were when they made that album) you tend to think that everyone will live forever. Even if yo silly behind is playing chicken back on a still-undeveloped Kimberly Mill Rd. in ’80-nunnayobusiness with no street or headlights on (like I was a few years before they made that album), you somehow think that if you wrap the car around a tree, you’ll be able to walk away scot free, grow up, have kids, get smite of consumption in old age and go to glory ‘cause you went to the water and said your prayers before you went to bed at night. That’s what kids do. They play games. You start to grow up, though, when you realize that even some of the winners end up losing (and vice versa) way too early in life.
I used to play a game with myself back then and try to figure out who would be what……..well, now. Twenty years later, who would be the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker? Who would be the housewife and who would be the ho? Who would be the deadbeat and who would be the doting dad? While I think I’m a satisfactory judge of character, I can honestly say that I only called about 50% of those folk correctly. I count myself in the half I got wrong. There were a couple, though, who I knew I had pegged but never made it far enough for me or anyone else to find out.
Back then, the place to work as a teen was Six Flags Over Georgia. It wasn’t just a job; it was a party. They would have Employee Nights and after the park closed, they paid overtime to folk to stay and run the rides so we workers could have our own fun. Kind of like the crunked-out version of the movie Adventureland, we formed our own little quirky peer groups, personalities and reputations. There was the guy who worked games and was able to (purportedly) crib enough quarters that summer to buy a Ford Mustang. I can’t forget the girl who would run The Mine Train rollercoaster around twice if she was in a good mood and no supervisors were present even though I never knew her name. Somehow, that summer, I ended up in this little ragtag crew that seemingly had nothing at all in common except that a few of them lived in those hinterland neighborhoods right outside of the Southwest city limits. In looking back, though, we were actually pretty par for the ATL course (iconic even) and everybody played a necessary role.
We had a great time getting off work at midnight but getting home at 3am (I had to work late, Ma). The guys mooned folk out of their cars’ “moon roofs” (pun…….too easy). The girls chased New Edition around the little dance club that used to be by The Mindbender roller coaster. A couple of undercover hookups and overcover hangups ensued. When we talked in the stock room about college plans, I revealed that I was thinking Fisk to a friend whose dad was an alum. He eventually went Ivy League and wrote me a few letters that I still own; I went Bubba (League, that is) and write OSAM’s about it all now. For the most part, all we really had was that summer and went our separate ways in the year or two that followed. We Bubba Leaguers did a lot of driving on southern highways to get back and forth between the colleges we chose. Not everybody always made it back to where they “rilly stayed at” though.
Back in the day in my A, our boys didn’t usually die of gunshot wounds and gang crap.
It was déclassé to openly be involved in drug dealing and plain old fool mess. Folk did it, they just didn’t brag about it and they sure weren’t putting it on no song. It was the conservative Reagan era in the Pristine & Clean South. The City Too Busy To Hate had youth social organizations, clubs that wore little sweaters with felt logos sewed on the side. Let’s see…….There were The Playas, The Playboys, The Omega Gents, The Fellas, The Boudevar????……..Somebody help me with that one. I never really knew what that group was called or why. It was more fraternal and less a Bloods and Crips kind of thing. How I miss those days, lament the fact that our kids will never know seemingly carefree times like these. On dark and quiet evenings, I also think about some of those carefree boys who didn’t make it to become men.
“Neighborhoods are now hoods where nobody’s neighbors,” to quote another of my favorite songs. A more recent Atlanta traffic tragedy kinda drove that home for a lot of us in these last few weeks. But every neighborhood, hood and hood-adjacent crew still has their icons. Ya’ll done seen the movies a million times by now. Put them folk, them characters all together and you have what used to be known as a community. These days, instead of those, we have Twitter and Facebook.
Among the ATL characters can generally be found: The Great Equalizer, The Artiste, The Bad Boi/Bwoy or Gul Huslah, You Trippin!, Big Mama, Big Brother, Baby Sister, The Queen, They Folk Grand, The Ho, The Quiet One, The I Thought They Was Quiet One, The Kids and their requisite opposite-sexed Hangers On, The That Ni**a’s Crazy!, The Smaaawt One, The What Da Hey-yell!, That White Child, The Who?, The Homeslice and The Nice One. Now, I ain’t judgin’ none of ‘em, not throwing stereotypes or pejoratives, and while most play a number of those roles in their lifetime (sometimes simultaneously) rarely are they up in Big Mama’s house together. We’ll talk a little about all of them in the weeks to come, but there is one who seems to be a constant. There is always a The Nice One in every dynamic. They are that genuinely jovial and congenial person, not a saint, but the one who is just enough of everything positive to be deemed indisputable by the whole crew.
He was cute (Ok, foyne!) and marginally talented, could play a sport or two. That naturally bright smile and demeanor made up for his few shortcomings. He’s the one I envisioned marrying the beautiful, Corporate America wife. He’d own his own firm (insurance?) after some such minor ball career. There would be 2.45 kids suitable for framing, no prequels and none on the side. The first trimester loss of the .45 would be their only family tragedy and stain. They’d be too nice to have any other bad things happen in their lives. The wrought iron fence back off Fairburn Rd. would encase the dog that would get a proper burial after having experienced infancy to empty nest and many years of loyal companionship in between. He was The Nice One and that’s what I thought as a naïve teenager life always gave to The Nice One.
I was enrolled in Bubba League Institution #2 when I got stopped in the middle of the street and asked why I wasn’t dressed for the funeral. What funeral? As I watched her mouth move and the words come out, it didn’t register. I can still be kind of dim like that. Talk crazy to me, say stuff that makes no sense in my world and it takes a minute to process and respond. I almost got run over because in the middle of that street, my world stopped but the cars didn’t. Neither had his. He’d died in a wreck (from what I understand) coming back from his own Bubba League school.
It’s been nearly two decades and I never really asked a lot of questions about what happened. Still don’t want to know the facts. At best, we were casual buddies one hazy Atlanta summer. I didn’t go to that funeral, but I never forgot him and I never forgot the lesson his premature homegoing taught me. Sometimes, The Nice One doesn’t win the game of life. Or do they?
I know I’m not the only one who remembers him and that smile (and that foyne behind dippin’ in and out of a car top!). And every time I hear Xscape wail the heartfelt question as to whether or not anyone’s living is in vain, a question we all ask ourselves from time to time, I take comfort in the fact that all of their years of choir rehearsal enabled them to eternally bring that message home, representing him, The A and all them lil’ ol’ guls at choir rehearsal right now here today, actual and factual.
The truth is, no matter how much of a fool you act, what iconic shoes you fill for one person, someone else will remember you fondly when you’re gone. Someone will forever be touched by your life, no matter how short or seemingly insignificant it is to those who never knew or understood your full impact on theirs. Someone will have eternal gain because you will always be remembered as their The Nice One. That’s A Real Homeslice of Atlanta.
And that’s who he is and was to me………………..Back In The Day In The A.
R.I.P. Carter Family
**O.S.A.M. is a weekly feature on StraightFromTheA.com. We will be turning back the clock each Friday to reminisce about Old School ATL. Are you an ATLien? You wanna share your crazy A-Town Stories? Hit us up at [email protected] with your favorite Old School Atlanta Memory. **