Like every mill town, Cliffside had its share of home-grown musicians. In the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, the most prominent and perhaps the most talented of them all was Dewey McDaniel. He came from a musical family, and it’s said by his admirers—and there are many—that Dewey could play any instrument. He was an accomplished pianist, accordionist and fiddler—a great natural musician. Wherever he was, at home on Reservoir Street or in the spinning room where he worked, he was always humming, whistling, singing or beating out a rhythm.
Of course, he and his musical friends all worked in the mill. At night and on weekends they played at each other’s homes or at whatever event that might require a little musical entertainment. Sometimes for pay, sometimes not.
The members of the group might change from one appearance to another, as might the style of music. On December 5, 1935, the Courier reported, “The Cliffside string band walked away from the Hollis school building Thursday [Thanksgiving] night with the first prize given at the fiddlers convention. The band consists of Mr. Dewey McDaniel, Taft Cobb, Eugene Wilson, Raleigh Pritchard and Marshall Cobb.” The prize was $25. Dewey’s son, Marvin, remembers that his father also won the individual artist’s prize of $10 for his rendition of “Dinah” on the piano.
Usually they played, not hillbilly music, as one might expect, but popular music of the day. Dewey’s daughter, Edith, recalls that he often played his favorite song, “Sweet Georgia Brown,” on his piano at home. He could play for hours and not repeat a tune. And he only had to hear a song once to memorize it. “At the dinner table,” she says, “He would tap on the dishes with his spoon” to create a rhythm. He once strung up a row of soda-pop bottles in the kitchen, filled them with various amounts of water, and played them like a xylophone. She remembers Dewey teaching Solon Smart to play the banjo.
On many a New Year’s Eve Dewey’s group could be found performing for revelers at the Carroll Hotel in Gaffney. They made appearances on Grady Cole’s Crazy Water Crystals program on WBT in Charlotte, and at other radio stations.
Neither Marvin nor Edith could remember that the band ever had a name. The faces would change but Dewey was always the leader, pulling together the best of the current crop of Cliffside musicians.
Dewey McDaniel (who had no middle name) was born in 1900 in Colfax Township. He went to work in the mill as a sweeper at age 10. When he was just 12 he learned to play the organ at the Baptist Church.
He worked in the mill for 51 years, for many of them as a doffer, then as a section hand in the spinning room. In 1961 a heart ailment caused him to retire “early” (before he was 65).
As the town was being closed down around them and houses were being torn down, Dewey and Minnie bought a plot of land over on Ferry road, then paid $500 for one of the boarded-up houses on River Street, and had it moved to their new homesite. They lived there together for over a decade. The demand for his public performances had dwindled long ago, and Dewey spent his last years repairing and refurbishing pianos, and playing at home for his own enjoyment.
On September 11, 1980, Dewey returned from a short walk. As usual, he was whistling as he walked through the house. He sat down on the back porch and quietly passed away.