It must have been more than 15 years ago that I first saw Lee Brice perform at a community talent show. My friends, co-workers, and I watched and listened in awe, and we all agreed, “That kid is going places.” Many people make the same well-meant comment when they see an exceptional young performer in action, but Brice exceeded all expectations with the mark he is leaving on the country music scene.
After attending Clemson University, Brice moved to Nashville and by 2007 was earning a reputation as a gifted songwriter, penning hits for Sister Hazel, Tim McGraw, Blake Shelton, Garth Brooks, and other superstars. His debut album was released in 2009, with the song “Love Like Crazy” being listed as Billboard magazine’s Top Country Single of 2010. And at age 32, Brice is just getting started.
A Carolina town like Sumter, located several hours from any major metropolis, may seem an unlikely place to produce a breakout star. But it has happened more than once…
Many of our citizens can rattle off quite a few of the more obvious names: military heroes General Thomas Sumter, General George L. Mabry, General Mike Moseley, and Tuskegee Airmen Leroy Bowman and the late Philip Rembert. Add to those renowned educators Mary McLeod Bethune and Charlotta Bass. Don’t forget Shawn Weatherly Harris, Miss Universe 1980. We have produced enough sports stars to make up our own Hall of Fame, including the legendary second baseman Bobby Richardson of the New York Yankees, NBA and pro football players, even standouts in NASCAR and boxing. We are also proud to claim groundbreaking artist Jasper Johns, an Edmunds High School graduate with family connections in the area, and others who have made their name in the visual arts. The list could go on, encompassing arts, politics, aeronautics, medicine, business and religion. That is pretty impressive for a mostly rural county with a total population of about 108,000.
But one area that is frequently overlooked is our community’s many contributions to the performing arts. Aside from Lee Brice, Sumter is home to more than one personality whom you may have seen moving across a movie or television screen, or heard coming from the stereo on a road trip. These include:
- Bill Pinkney of the Drifters, the voice of “White Christmas” and one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1988);
- Another Rock Roll Hall of Famer (1997), Stingray Davis, founding member of the hugely influential Parliament-Funkadelic collective, who also briefly replaced Melvin “Blue” Franklin in the Temptations;
- Actress Virginia Capers, who played the grandmother in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and appeared in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off;
- Renaissance man O’Neal Compton, who has appeared in Nixon, Nell, Primary Colors, “Seinfeld,” and many other movies and television shows. He has also worked as an award-winning writer and producer, world-class photographer, and blogger;
- Emmy Award-winning Nancy O’Dell, author, actress, and host of “Entertainment Tonight”;
- Ryan Buell, founder of the Paranormal Research Society at Penn State University, producer and star of A&E’s “Paranormal State” (2007-11); and
- Actor Jay Ellis of the award-winning comedy series on BET, “The Game.”
Now, we have another big talent on the edge of a potential breakthrough. Singer Najah Blassingame, granddaughter of well-known local pastor the Reverend Dr. James Blassingame (and daughter of my co-worker, Anita), will perform at New York’s legendary Apollo Theatre on September 21, 2013 as part of the “Apollo Kids” audition. The petite high school sophomore with the deceptively tiny speaking voice blew away the audience at the City of Sumter’s “Songs for the Heart” talent competition in February of this year (and took first place, too) with her full, mature contralto in a show-stopping version of Etta James’ classic “At Last.” If you are interested in hearing Miss Blassingame, she will be performing during a “Send-Off Celebration” at the Mt. Zion Baptist Church Enrichment Center, 325 Fulton Street, on Saturday, September 14 at 3 p.m. The public is invited.
For more info, please call the Swan Lake Visitors Center at (803) 436-2640.
It’s time for the next generation of Sumter’s stars to shine!
by Colette Daniels