About twenty minutes later, Vance, Lonnie, and I walked onto the stage. We received applause immediately. Maybe they expected me to sing another Elvis tune, perhaps one of his recent ones – “Good Rockin’ Tonight” or “You’re a Heartbreaker.”
It’s hard to explain what happened next, as it felt more like a dream than a real-life experience. About thirty seconds after we began playing the song, people in the audience started talking. There were some teachers sitting in the front row, and they too began to talk among themselves. I was confused about what was going on until a man, somebody’s father I supposed, called out, “That’s negro devil music!”
I saw my father and uncle stand up and glare at the guy.
A classmate sitting somewhat close to my family added, “Hey Eddie, you a Negro lover?”
Frankie called out, “Shut your trap, Gary!”
I nodded to the guys to continue playing; we just had to get through another minute. Then Gary answered his own question, “Yep, I’d say you are!”
Uncle Vernie got up from his chair again. My mother pulled on his shirt to keep him down, but it didn’t make a difference. “You little twerp! How ‘bout a knuckle sandwich?”
The audience’s chatter grew louder. More boys called out similar remarks, and then there were just boos. I didn’t hear Vance on the drums anymore, but Lonnie continued playing with confidence.
I don’t know where Principal Aldean was during this whole time, but he rushed to the side of the stage, glared at me, and signaled cut with a quick motion of his index finger across his throat.
I nodded and finished abruptly. The audience was shrouded in silence at that point. Out of the corner of my eye, I heard Vance get up from his stool and rush to the back. I stared out to some of the faces that had cheered me on minutes before, and received looks of disappointment in return. I couldn’t make eye contact with my parents, but I did see Uncle Vernie walk out. I guessed he didn’t want to get in trouble with Gary’s dad for threatening his son with a knuckle sandwich.
Lonnie waited for me and walked behind me, both of us carrying our guitars. The group of acrobats that was to perform next looked away as we walked by. Lonnie patted me on the back and said, “Sorry, Eddie.”
We were supposed to go back to our seats if we weren’t going to perform again, but I couldn’t face my schoolmates. We remained backstage, which was just a hallway leading to two small offices. We sat on the floor at the far end.
I considered Vance a close friend, and yet, Lonnie was the one who came through for me. I didn’t say anything though, because I was still in shock. And since Vance only played the drums to help me, I couldn’t blame him for not sticking it out.
“Sorry I chickened out before. I just got scared or something,” he finally said.
“It’s fine. It was stupid of me to think we could do something original.”
“We did a great job and they just can’t appreciate anything other than hillbilly music. Plus, they think they’ll go to hell if they actually like race music,” Lonnie said.
Mr. Shelby soon announced the end of the performances and said the prizes would be awarded in about five minutes. He came backstage and found us. He had a concerned look on his face.