GREENSBORO — The harmony of The Hamiltones broke through the quiet of a Saturday morning in August in center city.
As a crew from 7 Cinematics filmed and a few passersby watched, the R&B/soul trio from North Carolina sang five songs from their three albums and more.
The recorded set will become part of the virtual N.C. Folk Festival from Sept. 11 to 13.
This gig was particularly profound for trio member Corey Williams II, known to family, friends and fans as 2E.
He sang with J. Veto and Tony Lelo outside one of his hometown's most iconic spots, the downtown International Civil Rights Center and Museum.
Williams has spent most of his 38 years living in the city.
Although he joined the group that became The Hamiltones 10 years ago, he still lives here.
"It's a great feeling to be that close to a historical landmark," Williams said later about the former Woolworth store where lunch counter sit-ins began in 1960.
"There's a feeling you get when you look at that and know things that took place inside of that building."
The Hamiltones got its name from singing background around the world with Grammy Award-winning Anthony Hamilton. But for the past two years, the trio from Greensboro and Charlotte has been out on its own.
The trio will be among 10 acts whose recorded performances will be part of this year's annual N.C. Folk Festival.
The Grammy-nominated trio has sung in Carnegie Hall and other famous venues. With Anthony Hamilton, the group toured Africa and Europe and appeared on national television programs including "Good Morning America."
"You have a lot of artists, they get big, they go away, you never hear from them again," he said. "I always tell myself, 'Don't forget about your home.'"
The multicultural festival spun out of the National Folk Festival’s three-year residency in the city from 2015-2017.
This year's festival will take a new approach.
Instead of offering live entertainment, it will stream locally pre-recorded live performances online.
It will join forces this year with the 34th annual Carolina Blues Festival. The Piedmont Blues Preservation Society will present acoustic artist Veronika Jackson as part of the collaboration.
Planners of both annual festivals concluded that they could not create the usual face-to-face events downtown safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has canceled events worldwide and prompted statewide restrictions on large crowds.
So they arranged for filming by 7 Cinematics, the Emmy Award-winning video music and streaming production company based in the city.
That filming will produce about six hours of pre-recorded live acts, most from North Carolina.
It will be streamed online and shown on the city's Greensboro Television Network two hours daily from Sept. 11-13 — all for free.
The 10 acts — including The Hamiltones, Chatham County Line, Mandolin Orange and two other Greensboro artists: Justin Harrington — aka Demeanor — and Charlie Hunter have filmed in nine iconic locations.
"I was excited that they were still going to make something happen," said Dave Wilson of Chatham County Line, before filming at the Old Mill of Guilford in Oak Ridge. "I really wanted the North Carolina Folk Festival to take root in Greensboro ever since I heard about it."
Folk festival staff selected performers with advice from its program committee, said Amy Grossmann, festival president and chief executive officer.
"We made the determination to go 'virtual' in July, and we had to move quickly to coordinate the performances and logistics of the video production," Grossmann said.
The Hamiltones had been on the festival's radar for years. A scheduling conflict prevented the festival from booking them earlier, Grossmann said.
The Hamiltones just dropped its third album last week, titled "1964." Its theme connects well to the civil rights museum.
"The whole album is pretty much talking about the social injustices that minorities have to deal with, especially in the current climate," Williams said. "We call it our soundtrack for the current movement."
Their folk festival set includes one of its tracks, "Message to America."
"It’s a message to America, which is basically saying we just wanted to be treated fairly as Black people in general," Williams said. "All we ask is to be treated equally and be given the same opportunities and access that others have."
Their set also will include one of their early hits, "Gotta Be Lovin' Me," from their first album.
The son of Corey and Colette Williams actually was born in Asheville. The family lived in New York, but his mother went into labor while visiting Asheville.
His father didn't want people calling his son "Junior." So he nicknamed him "2E," pronounced two-ee.
By age 4, Williams recalls, he was living in the Southmont/Spring Valley area of Greensboro. He spent most of his young years at Frazier Elementary and Lincoln Middle schools.
Thanks to his father — now minister of music, arts and drama at Mount Zion Baptist Church — music long has been a part of his life, Williams said.
He remembers his father getting a record player, which Williams now owns. He liked the music that his father collected — Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Andre Crouch and Earth, Wind and Fire.
His father moved the family to Maryland to become a church music minister there.
"In high school, I had a group of friends who were musicians and trying to be rappers," Williams recalled. "So I got in with those guys and started singing on different hooks and things. That's where my juices really got going."
He returned to Greensboro and graduated from Dudley High School. He tried Morgan State University in Baltimore. But he had a crush on a girl in Greensboro, and came back.
Although the relationship didn't work out, "I guess it did work, because look at where I am today," Williams said. "It led me back to Greensboro. That's where the fun began."
Local gospel performer LeJuene Thompson asked Williams to go on the road to sing with her.
"I had never done anything of that stature," Williams said. "I tell her every time I see her that she was the first person who really believed in me enough to take me outside of Greensboro."
From there, he performed with a group formed by local music producer Gavin Williams, known as Gav Beats.
He picked up other background gigs. They led to singing background for five years with Fantasia Barrino, the High Point native who won the third season of Fox’s “American Idol” in 2004.
In 2010, Williams' performing path led to Hamilton.
Hamilton's background singers had been J. Vito, who grew up in Anson County, BJ the Chicago Kid and Jack “JK” King.
BJ's career had started to grow. When he departed the trio, Williams came on board. When JK left to sing for Justin Timberlake, Tony Lelo from Morrisville joined, according to Charlotte website clture.org.
"I was back working with people who I had worked with in the past in other situations," Williams said. "I looked at it as more and more work, good work with a credible artist. I thought it was another dope opportunity to get out and do what I love to do."
Hamilton's saxophone player named the background singers The Hamiltones. It stuck.
Out on their own since about 2018, they are still The Hamiltones. They maintain a good relationship with Hamilton and still do music projects with him, Williams said.
Williams calls The Hamiltones "my brothers."
"Through all these years, we have really created a true bond and a brotherhood," Williams said.
"Outside of being around my brothers, it’s cool to be able to the thing that you really love to do," he said. "That’s the biggest and best benefit. My job is to do what I love to do."
Contact Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane at 336-373-5204 and follow @dawndkaneNR on Twitter.
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