Kannapolis museum honors N.C. music greats

Scores of music fans have been rolling into Kannapolis to see a new shrine to the state's greatest musicians.

The nonprofit N.C. Music Hall of Fame honors legends from all genres, such as John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Roberta Flack, Earl Scruggs, Kate Smith, Randy Travis and James Taylor.

And chances are, the tour guide on your visit will be one of the famous names on its walls.

Eddie Ray is the hall of fame's operations director and vice chairman. He often leads people through the museum, where admission is free.

Who knew he headed record-label marketing and sales for such acts as Fats Domino, Ricky Nelson and Slim Whitman? Or that he signed the English rock band Pink Floyd?

Now 83, Ray is a Franklin native who rose from stock boy to vice president of Capitol Records. He was the first African-American to hold the post.

He and his wife live in Alexandria, Va., but spend much of their time in a refurbished apartment across the street from the museum on West A Street, in the Cannon Village retail area.

"This is a labor of love for me," Ray said during a tour of the museum last week.

Displays include outfits worn by such musicians as Charlie Daniels, Randy Travis and Billy Scott and instruments some of them played. Signed pictures, posters and albums also grace the walls. Most of the memorabilia was donated by Hall of Fame members or surviving family members.

There's even an Andy Griffith display. Known largely for his lead role on "The Andy Griffith Show" from 1960 to 1968, Griffith also had a stellar gospel singing career.

Other exhibits honor jazz, blues and soul singer Nina Simone, soul and R&B performer Ben E. King and opera singer Victoria Livengood. Hall of Fame members were either born in North Carolina or spent a significant amount of their lives here.

Why Kannapolis for the hall of fame?

The hall started in the 1990s in Thomasville but became inactive over the years, Ray said.

It moved to Kannapolis thanks largely to another famous figure in music, Ray's friend Mike Curb.

Curb, 65, founded and still owns Nashville-based Curb Records, one of the most successful independent labels in the history of the music business.

Curb launched the Osmond family's recording career and produced "Candy Man" by the late Sammy Davis Jr. He also was lieutenant governor of California and joined the Reagan administration as chairman of the Republican Finance Committee.

Ray said Curb asked him in late 2007 why North Carolina didn't have a museum honoring its famous musicians, as many other states do.

Curb's N.C. ties started with his involvement in NASCAR in 1980, when he owned the No. 2 car driven by the late Dale Earnhardt, whose statue stands just outside the music hall of fame.

Curb, who's still involved in NASCAR through his ownership of the Baker-Curb team, talked with Dole Food owner David Murdock about having the hall of fame in one of the Kannapolis buildings Murdock owns. Murdock founded the nearby North Carolina Research Campus in the former Cannon Mills complex he bought in 1982.

Dole steered Curb to the present hall of fame site, the city's former jail building. Curb and Ray checked it over and decided to house it there, although it took a year's worth of renovations, Ray said. The hall moved in with a five-year, rent-free lease, Ray said. Curb's Nashville-based Mike Curb Family Foundation has provided most of the hall's operating capital, he said.

The hall of fame attracted about 250 visitors a week after it opened on June 1, 2009, and now draws about 400 a week, Ray said.

Ray, however, is never one to rest.

Next up is starting a digital archive on the museum's second floor that would also be available on the museum's website.

He wants eventually to add a glass elevator once the hall of fame receives government permits to add displays on its second floor. People could view Earnhardt's statue as they rode up and down the elevator, he said.

There's also the next hall of fame induction, set for October, and more artists to bring into the museum's fold, including Fantasia, Clay Aiken and other N.C.-born-and-bred "American Idol" competitors, Ray said.

"There are so many artists here that needed to be honored," Ray said. "We need to preserve that history."