In the shadow of the towering, gilded dome of West Virginia's state capitol building, the knotty-pine walls of the Empty Glass bar were ready to burst. Crammed shoulder to shoulder, several patrons had abandoned their seats and were standing on tables. Just two songs into the set, the small dance floor was a sea of waving, outstretched arms.
Hidden among the throng was Darryl Frierson. Dressed in a Nike jump suit, with hair bleached Dennis Rodman orange, Frierson danced furiously – despite the fact that, at 3-foot-6, his view was limited to belt buckles and bellybuttons. Clutching the microphone with both hands, he called, “Can I get a witness?”
A few feet away, Darryl's brother Donnie was onstage, serving as a diminutive conductor, guiding and propelling band members through the peaks and valleys of the band's funky anthem, “Whatcha Gonna Do”:
Whatcha gonna do when you get to heaven?
I'm gonna put on my little bitty robe.
Whatcha gonna do when you get to heaven?
I'm gonna look for my little bitty brother.
While the band vamped, Darryl hopped onstage and grabbed one of the singers by the arm. Steve Lewis, a reserved, hulking man in his mid-40s, is in charge of merchandise (selling everything from Joy Boys CDs to Snickers candy bars and Car Wash videos) and background vocals.
“Do you want me to make him move for you?” Darryl shouted. The crowd roared its assent.
Instantly, Lewis exploded. Like Fat Albert with rubber limbs, he rocked effortlessly, hunching and convulsing around the stage and the dance floor. A few minutes later, his gray dress shirt drenched in sweat, he returned to the stage.
It's safe to say that Donnie and Darryl Frierson front one of the most unusual musical groups you're ever likely to see. While most artists struggle to find a memorable gimmick, Donnie and Darryl were born with a calling card that makes them stand out in a crowd: Both are around 42 inches tall.
“People always ask us how tall we are,” says Darryl. “I've read the Bible from Genesis to Revelations, and there's nowhere that it says you've got to be 6 feet tall to serve the Lord.”
The Friersons' stature is inevitably the first thing people notice. Donnie, 35, acknowledges that they've “heard it all” – ignorant questions and well-meaning but thoughtless remarks. Earlier in the evening, one curious fan introduced himself and immediately asked Donnie if he had seen the Werner Herzog film Even Dwarfs Started Small.
“You gotta see it,” he told Donnie earnestly. “It's a riot.”
“We've got thick skins,” Donnie said later. “Usually we just let it roll off, but sometimes, if I've had a bad day, it does get to me.”
Let's face it, dating back to early history, midgets (who retain normal body pro-portions) and dwarfs (who don't) have been a source of fascination. In 16th-century European courts, midgets and dwarfs were quite fashionable. More recently, side-show acts like Tom Thumb, Harry Doll and the Doll Family, and the singing Hungarian midget Paul Horompo have achieved notoriety. Movies such as The Terror of Tiny Town (a Western with an all-midget cast), The Wizard of Oz and Under the Rainbow all featured “little people,” as did Katherine Dunn's 1983 novel Geek Love.
“At gospel festivals, people just love to have their pictures taken with Donnie and Darryl,” says Steve Mann, a gospel producer who also photographs gospel festivals throughout the South. “There's something about them that people are drawn to, and it doesn't seem to bother Donnie and Darryl. Before and after they perform, they'll sit and sign autographs and take pictures.”
The question of correctness and exploitation is a tricky one. Donnie says they prefer to be billed as the Joy Boys of Nashville, albeit with the added label “The Smallest Men in Gospel” or “The Small Men With Big Voices.” But when it serves their purpose, the brothers have played the midget card with considerable success. Sometimes the tag “Gospel Midgets” is just simpler, not to mention self-explanatory.
“We really don't like it, but the name has kind of stuck,” Donnie says. “It's not socially correct, and it's not something I'm in favor of, but it's worked for us. I realize that sometimes you have to do what you have to do to advertise.”
With a cue from crossover gospel star Kirk Franklin, Donnie and Darryl have taken their love for traditional quartets like the Canton Spirituals and the Gos-pel Keynotes and thrown in a heaping portion of classic '60s and '70s funk. The result is a combination of deep, hard-hitting grooves, a touch of guitar psychedelia and a spiritual message delivered in four-part harmony.
“I think we've really got something special,” says Donnie. “And we really want to break down some barriers with this. I'd like to work out things like having us come down from the ceiling, or come out of the floor on a riser.”
There were no magical entrances or special effects on this particular night. In fact, without as much as a dressing room, Donnie and Darryl forwent their matching kelly-green suits. However, the evening did mark the first time the group had played a bar – and not some yuppie gos-pel brunch, but a funky, blue-collar rock & roll bar.
“We'll play anywhere we can get the message out,” says Donnie. “When the message is in the music, we can turn it over and get young people to come and accept what we're doing. Bring 'em down to the front of the stage and let's go with it. When it all comes together and it's all in sync, oh man, it's like a rush.”
As if to exorcise any misconceptions the crowd might have had about gospel music, the Joy Boys kicked off the show with a version of Parliament's “Swing Down, Sweet Chariot.” A devotee of P-funk progenitor George Clinton, Donnie sees a clear distinction between the gritty funk of Clinton, James Brown or Sly Stone and the current variety of slick R&B.
“I'm not a fan of 'contemporary' gos-pel,” he says. “I like music that's real and down-to-earth. We're fixing to incorporate some P-funk in some of our music. I've listened to a lot of Clinton's music. All of his guys say they come from the church, and I can hear it in their music and their singing.”
Born and raised in Nashville, Donnie and Darryl are the youngest of eight children. Their parents each stand at around 4-foot-10, but Donnie and Darryl are the “only small-statured ones” in the family. Donnie says that didn't create problems growing up.
“Actually, we never knew we were different,” he says. “You had your fat kids, your skinny kids, your tall kids, your short kids.”
Having sung together for as long as they can remember, Donnie and Darryl began rehearsing as the Joy Boys in 1982. Raised on “Sunday-morning choir” music, they began emulating groups like the Gos-pel Keynotes and the Mighty Clouds of Joy.
“I've always admired quartets,” says Donnie. “I always wanted to be performing onstage, and I knew we had the talent to do it.” In the past 16 years, the group has shared stages with some of the biggest names in gospel, including the Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Canton Spirituals and the Jackson Southernaires. But it was an early-1990s show with the Keynotes that changed the group's fortunes. The Keynotes' drummer introduced the Friersons to a representative of Baltimore Records, who put out the Joy Boys' first album.
Since that time, the band has crisscrossed the Eastern U.S., gaining a reputation as a fiery live act in churches, high schools and festivals. “We never dreamed we'd get this big,” Donnie says. “We still have a lot of growing to do, but we've made great strides.”
Over the years, the Joy Boys have gone through numerous personnel changes, something Donnie attributes to the brothers' reputation as tough band leaders.
“We try to stick to what we believe,” he says. “We have rules, and the rules apply to everybody, from us on up. We have to stick to our morals, and there are certain things we won't deal with or can't accept: No drinking, no drugs, and you have to have a strong conviction and belief in what you're doing.”
Donnie's outlook on music and life is both realistic and holistic. While he refuses to “kiss butt” (“I'd rather sit buck naked under a bridge”) and is determined not to “get raped” on the band's next release, he truly believes that everyone was put on this Earth to get along.
“If I'm thirsty and you've got a glass of water, pass it to me,” he says. “I don't believe in pretending I'm someone I'm not, and I don't like people who do that.
“When you play music on this level, you're doing it for real,” he adds. “No one is making a lot of money. We've been blessed, and we want to share the message.”