The Wendell Octet was a group of eight Wendell citizens who came together in the early 1950’s to form a singing group to entertain at a convention. They were very successful in their inaugural performance. They honed their skills and became a very popular group in eastern North Carolina. Here is their story.
The group had its beginning in 1950 or 1951 when the Young Adult Class of the Wendell Christian Church wanted to raise money for their new church on Mattox Street Extension.
The group decided to hold a minstrel show at Wendell School Auditorium. They would have local Wendell residents to show off their talents. During the first show several people performed, and some of them became a part of the future Wendell Octet. Peggy Brantley was a soloist. Judy Todd, Lorraine White, and Mary Charlotte Roberts formed a trio that copied the style of the popular McGuire Sisters. Marsh Knott, Donald Wayne Thomas, Dick Brantley, and Curtis Todd were a quartet at the minstrel show. After the show the men’s group acquired the nickname “The Funeral Quartet” since they were called upon so often to sing at funerals. All eight of these people would go on to form the Wendell Octet.
The Wendell Minstrel shows were very popular; however, they decided to rename the talent show “Say It With Music.” Later, this would become the signature song of the octet. The town of Smithfield asked if these entertainers would come to their town to perform. Soon, the Independent Insurance Agents of North Carolina were looking for entertainment for one of their conventions. They asked Dick Brantley, the executive director of the group, if he knew someone who could do it. Dick said he did, and asked his quartet, the girl trio, and his wife it they would combine and sing at the Women’s Convention of the Independent Insurance Agents in Greensboro. The only person in the group with professional experience was Judy Todd. From 1936-1938 Judy was the lead singer of the Auburn Cavaliers, a group of musicians that traveled all over the Southeast. She sang under the name of Judy Murphy.
At one time Donald Wayne Thomas worked at Stephenson’s Music Company in Raleigh. While there he met Paul Montgomery who had left the music company and had become a television personality at WRAL TV. Paul is best known for his television show where he played the beloved “Uncle Paul.” Paul Montgomery was also an accomplished musician. When he agreed to accompany them on the piano at the convention, the Wendell Octet was born. This new group practiced with Paul Montgomery at the home of Curtis and Judy Todd. Paul Montgomery did the arrangements on most of the songs, and Judy Todd helped with tips on performing in public. Nervously, the newly formed group went to the Woman’s Insurance Agent’s Convention. All the practicing and rehearsing paid off: they were an instant success. From here, their reputation spread.
Their next big show was the annual convention of the North and South Carolina Insurance Agents in Pinehurst. This was a huge convention of insurance agents from all over both states. Dick Brantley arranged for the North Carolina association to pay for four light blue evening dresses for the four ladies in the octet. With the men in white dinner jackets and the ladies in light blue evening dresses, they would at least look like professionals. To the surprise of its members, The Wendell Octet was a sensation at this convention! They would perform for this group several more times. For the next several years the Wendell Octet performed with Paul Montgomery all over eastern North Carolina. Mary Charlotte Roberts says she knew one of the reasons that the group was so popular—they performed for free!
The group sang old standards that everyone enjoyed. They sang songs like, “I’ll Never Smile Again;” “These Weary Blues;” “When You and I Were Young Maggie;” “Apple Blossom Time;” Bye, Bye Blackbird;” and many more. This reporter loved the songs where Judy Todd and Donald Wayne Thomas would “banter” back and forth in a song. He also loved their rendition of “Lida Rose” which was sung by Peggy Brantley and the four male singers of the group. Judy Todd remembers that the group received great support from their spouses. She remembers Margie Knott being very nervous during the group’s performances. Margaret Thomas, on the other hand, was a calming influence on the group. Bill Roberts and P.L. White sat back and just enjoyed the festivities. The vocal parts were Judy Todd, soprano and lead; Lorraine White, second alto; Mary Charlotte Roberts, first alto; Peggy Brantley, soprano; Curtis Todd, baritone; Marsh Knott, tenor; Dick Brantley; bass; and Donald Wayne Thomas, Lead and melody. These voices combined for some sweet harmonies.
As with all good things, this group’s performances came to and end. Their last performance was for the Wendell Chamber of Commerce Banquet on February 9, 1984 at Dean’s Restaurant in Wendell. For those of you who were fortunate enough to hear them, you know how wonderful they sounded. They truly, “said it with music.”
Information for this article came from an interview with Judy Todd on June 24, 2010; an interview with Mary Charlotte Roberts on June 12, 2010; and fortunately, the privilege of hearing them perform.
by Ray Hinnant – June 29, 2010