Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

I hadn’t heard from Essie McDaniel, former teacher and counselor at Salisbury High School, who’s now Essie McDaniel Morris and a nationally known country singer, until the phone rang about a couple of weeks ago.
“Rose!” she said, “My husband and I are coming to Salisbury for the Livingstone College graduation, and I will be one of 30 former students who will be honored as members of the Society of Golden Graduates because I graduated 50 years ago!”
Could they stay with me?
We’d been close friends in the long ago, worked together on integration when white Boyden and black Price High schools became Salisbury High, and she was always on the sidelines watching my sons, Sammy and Jonny, play tennis.
But we’d lost touch and hadn’t written or talked to each other since those days, so when her call came my answer was immediate. Of course she and her husband would have to stay with me.
And she was so busy while she was here for her Livingstone reunion and getting inducted into into the Society of Golden Graduates who got their diplomas 50 years ago ó and golden robes and a special pin this year ó that happy days flew by.
Not only did she get to see old friends but her children drove long distances “to see me receive my golden robe.”
And she was proud that people here remembered her son, Xavier Maurice McDaniel, an outstanding basketball player at Catawba who was drafted to play professionally with the Denver Nuggets, and her daughter, Staff Sgt. Alveta McDaniel Jackson, who drove from Fort Eustes, Va., where she’s in the Army preparing to be sent to Iraq.
“Those,” she says, “were the high moments. And coming back to Salisbury was a major highlight of my life that I’ll never forget. I’ve been gone since 1974.”
But she found time to see her children and introduce her old friends to her second husband and remember her old life and tell people about her new life.
Back in the ’50s, she was that tall girl who played basketball at Livingstone College.
She was undefeated the whole four years she was at Livingstone because, she thinks, “Mrs. Florence Mitchell, the coach, was outstanding.”
And in the ’60s and ’70s Essie McDaniel was that tall wife of the minister at Soldiers Memorial AME Zion Church and that tall counselor at Knox Junior and Salisbury High Schools and also that tall counselor facilitator at Livingstone and Catawba College.
What’s more, she was interviewed to be a model for Saks Fifth Avenue, the biggest fashion store in New York at the time, and both Life and Look magazines took pictures and stories of the models, including Essie.
She’s still 6 feet tall, but she’s Essie Morris now, and she and her second husband, Al, have made a national name for themselves
Al and Essie Morris have been known as “Mr. and Mrs. Country Soul” since 1984 when they were awarded the title by the Academy of Country Music.
Originally known as “The Texas Cotton Pickers,” they have maintained a deep appreciation for the common roots of country, blues and soul music and have entertained country and blues lovers all over America and Canada.
They performed the music of Gene Autry, Hank Williams, and many more, and were often promoted as a husband-wife duo who couldn’t help but make heads turn when they stepped out on the stage.
After they married, they hit the road toward California and a new life as the Cotton Pickers ó even though her early training had been in the cotton fields and church choirs. Al, on the other hand, had extensive training.
They called their style “country soul” and the response was overwhelming, largely by white audiences.
They’ve performed at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, Natchez Under the Hill, Key Largo Lounge in Key Largo and so many other places ó and made money. And they loved it all.
Essie knows they’re getting older now, and Al isn’t as healthy as he used to be, but she’s been happier since she married him than she ever was before.
“Honey,” she said once years ago, “the rabbit’s in the briar patch now! The academy of country music gave me and my husband credit for establishing a new sound in the world of music ó country soul.
“And he said one day, ‘Let’s start a band.’ He had played more than 10,000 performances across the country. He had played with the Temptations, Diana Ross and the Supremes before he met me.”
Their web site on the Internet, entitled “Country Soul Music,” is popular, and their memories are wonderful, including last week’s visit to Salisbury.
“And we’re still getting calls and messages from people who said they didn’t know anything about the Golden Graduates at Livingstone, but they want to know” ó and more than that they want to touch base with their old friends ó that still six foot tall Essie and her Al.
Contact Rose Post at 704-797-4251 or