LUMBERTON — Willie French Lowery, a community leader and Lumbee musician who penned the music for “Strike at the Wind!”, died Thursday at Southeastern Regional Medical Center at age 68.
During a musical career that spanned more than four decades, Lowery wrote more than 500 songs in genres ranging from gospel and blues to country and children’s music. His 1970 song “Streets of Gold” reached No. 1 on the pop charts in the Carolinas, Virginia, Philadelphia and New York. According to an article in the journal Southern Cultures, during the late ’60s and early ’70s, Lowery frequently shared the stage with white Southern rockers such as the Allman Brothers.
He had owned and managed Willie French Lowery Publishing since 1977. Between 1994 and 2003, Lowery owned and operated Soundstation Recording Studio in Lumberton, where he produced and recorded gospel, rock, folk, and traditional American Indian artists.
Lowery composed the musical score for the outdoor drama “Strike at the Wind!”, which once was a summer tradition in Pembroke and told the story of Lumbee Indian hero Henry Berry Lowrie.
Lowery’s 1979 album “Proud to Be a Lumbee” inspired pride for thousands of Lumbee Indians and, according to Kim Pevia, helped them develop self esteem.
Pevia, president of the Pembroke Chamber of Commerce, said she first met Lowery at the Miss Lumbee Pageant in 1974 and knew him as “a distant hero.” He later married her friend, Malinda Maynor Lowery.
“I knew him as a great entertainer in childhood, then got to know him as a great human being as an adult,” Pevia said. “He became a Native American idol… . That’s when he was a local guy, before he became someone that we shared with the world.”
Lowery was honored last year with a Lifetime Achievement Award during the River People Music Festival in Pembroke.
Pevia said his contributions to the Lumbee community even surpassed hiss achievements in the music industry.
“It was a really good, larger than our usual stage for a role model to be reflecting back to us that it’s OK to be who you are,” she said. “That’s one of the biggest impacts that he had, more than his musical career.”
Vinita Cookie Clark, the last general manager for “Strike at the Wind!,” called Lowery “a modern-day Mozart.”
“He did songs that gave American Indian children a brighter tomorrow,” she said. “He taught them that they could reach for the stars and get them.”
Clark said that she first met Lowery when she was 19 years old and wanted to get a part of the outdoor drama. The year was 1976.
“I was shy and had stage fright,” she said. “But when Willie got in your face, you were not shy any more … . I had a speech defect at the time. With Willie’s help I found out that I could sing better than I could speak.”
The ourdoor drama has not been performed since 2008 because of financial issues, according to Pevia.
She said a celebration of Lowery’s life will be held at 7 p.m. Saturday at Berea Baptist Church in Pembroke. A second celebration will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday at Shannon Assembly of God.
Funeral arrangements are being handled by Revels Funeral Home in Pembroke. The Robesonian expects to publish a full obituary on Saturday.