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Greenville, SC and The Legend of Esquerita

Posted: Jun 14, 2009

The city I live in, Greenville, South Carolina, has produced some major music movers and shakers over the years. Gram Parsons formed one of his first bands here. Capricorn Records co-founder Phil Walden was born here. And then there was Esquerita, the single most rocking cat ever to bust out of the Upstate during the 1950’s.

Eskew Reeder, Jr., aka: “Esquerita,” aka: “The Voola,”  lived across the street from toddler Jesse Jackson in the Greasy Corner community of Greenville, South Carolina. He went to Sterling High School and played piano in E.W. Watson’s Tabernacle Baptist Church. He was 6’ 2” tall, and openly gay - during the Eisenhower 1950’s  - and wore a monster of a huge pompadour.

Reeder cut his high school education short, and moved from playing locally with band teacher Bill Dover to performing as piano player for The Heavenly Echos, a gospel outfit based  in New York. Following the break up of that group, Eskew joined Little Sister Rosa, a faith healer who’s specialty was selling “blessed” bread, in carrying her message throughout the south.

Then, fate intervened. The scene was Macon, Georgia. The year was 1954. Richard Penniman was sitting in a bus station at 3 a.m., looking for a good time,  when he saw the strangest sight of his young life. Little Sister Rosa stepped off of the bus, and behind her came the 6’2” Eskew, topped off with another six inches of hair. That prophetic meeting would change the face of rock and roll forever. Penniman, aka: Little Richard took the bulk of his image from Eskew. Eskew taught him piano tricks and deeply influenced the sound that the country would soon adore.

Little Richard, in his biography by Charles White, recounts his meeting with “S.Q. Reeder” at the Greyhound station, and goes on to credit Eskew with teaching him to play the piano. Apparently, Richard was more than a little taken aback by the big rock and roll man.

By 1955, Eskew was a regular at The Owl Club on Washington Street in Greenville, appearing as Professor Eskew Reeder. In another first, he actually cut the first record by a black artist in Greenville at the old WESC radio studios, which netted him a contract with Capitol Records, who in turn changed his name to Esquerita. It was thanks to Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps member Paul Peek that Eskew was asked to cut those original demos at WESC. Music journalist (and seventise rock star with Brownsville Station) Cub Koda described the Capitol recordings as "some of the most untamed and unabashed sides ever issued by a major label."

Esquerita’s  biggest hit was 1958’s “Rockin’ the Joint,” not exactly a top-ten hit, but a definite monster. During the early 60’s, Esquerita went through a number of name changes, including S.K. Reeder and The Magnificent Molochi, a persona which called for him to dye his giant pompadour flaming red.

“Dew Drop In” was recorded by Reeder in 1969, but fizzled. Little Richard recorded the song a year later, and Eskew depressingly watched it climb the charts.

Eskew later returned to New York city, where he worked days as a parking attendent while playing piano at night. In October, 1986, Eskew died in a Harlem hospital in New York from complications arising from AIDS. His body was unclaimed, and he was buried in a pauper’s grave.

Keep it Real. Keep it Southern.


Note: Much of the above story appeared in my 1997 book, Carolina Dreams: The Musical Legacy of Upstate South Carolina (Marshall Tucker Entertainment Publishing)

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gravyboat says...

Thank you Michael. I am an OLD fan of Little Richard and had read about Esquerita in Richards bio. Now I need some of his records.

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