Taylor Branch rested the folk guitar in his lap and ran his fingers across its strings as sunbeams streaked through a dining-room window in his Mount Washington home, bathing his creviced face and white hair.
Earlier, Branch had displayed the range of his singing voice, a silky baritone as captivating as the favorite soloist in the church choir. The Baltimore resident admitted his guitar playing wasn't as polished. Still, his gentle strokes sounded like a smooth introduction to a classic folk song.
Yes, this is the same Taylor Branch who chronicled the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil-rights era in an award-winning trilogy.
Years before he became a renowned author and historian known as an authority on civil rights, he was known for his singing: his baritone, his choral falsetto, his rendition of tunes from the Beatles, Roy Orbison, the Bee Gees.
Lately, Branch has been dabbling in his musical roots, which reach back to his youth and flourished when he sang for a college band in the 1960s.
He and two former members of that band, who were his roommates and Chi Psi fraternity brothers at the University of North Carolina, recently reunited to make a 12-track CD of Beatles' music and other songs they played back when they were known as the Zookeepers and later Gross National Product.
Branch, 59, real estate developer John Yelverton, 60, and attorney Bill Guy, 59, follow a long list of professionals outside the music world - some obscure, others quite famous - whose joy of making music never dies. They now call themselves Off Our Rocker.
Some of their acquaintances, upon hearing of their recent venture, have described them the same way.
Why, they say, would the trio spend $6,000, including $1,500 to purchase recording rights for the songs, not to mention countless hours in a studio to make a recording that won't likely net a huge return?
"Music is pure emotion, it's a language of emotion," said Branch, who last year completed the civil rights-era trilogy that he'd begun 24 years ago and whose first installment received a Pulitzer Prize for history in 1989.
"It's that channeling back to your youth, and it makes you feel younger. In the midst of very hard times and hard knocks and in doing very serious other works, such as on race and democracy and violence, it has a meaning that you can't get anywhere else. It gives you that Peter Pan joy."
That's why you can hear the three laughing in the background throughout their CD titled OverTime.
It takes them back to when they were a popular college band in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, playing the music of the Beatles, Rascals and Rolling Stones at a time when many college bands were immersed in Motown.
As a trio, their harmony is Beatlesque, high in fidelity but melodic, particularly on such tracks as "No Reply" and "Nowhere Man," both Beatles' songs. They inject a bit of Beatles' sound into the Bee Gees' tune "To Love Somebody."
The CD's lone solo track is Branch singing Roy Orbison's "Running Scared." With acoustic guitar strumming in the background, Branch sings in a low baritone similar to that of a young Elvis on ballads.
Branch, Yelverton and Guy were among the original members of a band that formed in 1965 during their sophomore years at UNC. The Zookeepers always consisted of five members and played at venues as far north as Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., and as far south as Branch's father's skating rink in Atlanta.
Yet for Branch, the musical roots extend as far back as singing soprano in the Atlanta Boys Choir as a youngster. After his voice cracked during a song, he was ousted from the choir on the eve of its tour to Vienna to perform with the Vienna Boys Choir.
"It hurt a lot," Branch said. "My family had already bought tickets to Vienna. But in the Atlanta Boys Choir, if your voice cracked once, you were gone."
Branch ultimately took up folk music, learned to play a folk guitar and then formed the Zookeepers, so named because the members thought it stood out, to help pay for college. Branch, Guy and Yelverton ended up going their separate ways but remained in touch over the years. Guy tried his hand in other bands for a few years after college, then ventured into legal work while recording religious music on the side.
The three men reunited to play at college reunions five years ago. Then, in April 2006, they got together at the home studio Guy built in a guest bedroom, where he records religious music.
Their impromptu recording session that night began at 9. It ended the next morning at 9:30.
"It was really a joyful occasion," Guy said. "We had not spent a whole lot of time together over the last 40 years. The three of us were the only ones who were in the band from start to finish. It was great getting back together to sing everything we could think of, and we had a lot of fun doing it."
After Guy mixed the songs, the trio was impressed with the quality of the sound and the group's rekindled chemistry.
"I'm one of those guys who likes to sing in the car," Yelverton said. "I hadn't played at all since we performed a couple of times for our fraternity house. When we heard the first cut, we said, 'That doesn't sound bad.'"
So, they figured, why not sell a few?
Branch found a New Jersey company that manufactures CDs for independent musicians.
They were advised that they should seek to purchase limited rights to record the songs since they were others' works. Branch located Harry Fox in New York, a licensing agency for the music industry that represents more than 27,000 music publishers.
"They could sell me all the rights except 37 1/2 percent of the Roy Orbison song, 'Running Scared,' which is my solo," Branch added. Orbison's widow retained that share. He had to track down her licensing representative in Nashville.
What began as an evening of old friends getting together to make music became a CD that Branch began distributing in local stores such as the Ivy Bookshop in Mount Washington and the Children's Bookstore in Roland Park. They launched a Web site and an online account for purchases.
After Branch delivered copies to Ivy Bookshop the week before Christmas, owner Darielle Linehan put on the CD immediately.
"It's really entertaining," Linehan said. "We usually play classical music, and someone said, 'What is that?' We told them, and since then we've sold quite a few. We just put in an order for more."
Yelverton said he has sold about 50 copies through business contacts but has not distributed any copies to stores. Guy said he has merely given a few to friends and family. The trio now hopes that sales of OverTime over time will earn enough money to allow them to record a second album.
Their passion for making music as a diversion to more lucrative or famed pursuits is not so uncommon. Authors Stephen King, Scott Turow and Amy Tan and Simpsons creator Matt Groening have all played in a band called Rock Bottom Remainders. Other prominent people who have dabbled in music include actor Eddie Murphy, Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan and former major-league pitcher Jack McDowell. Branch's friend, former President Bill Clinton, is remembered for his saxophone playing.
"It's such a joy to go from nonviolence and race relations to 'Bye Bye Love' by the Everly Brothers," Branch said. "I wouldn't give anything for the work I've done in literature, but now I'm very glad that I retained ... the love and the friendships through music."
Some colleagues in publishing frowned on his dabbling in music, however, he said.
"My publisher gave me a hard time," he said. "They want me to reassure them that I'm not going to do something crazy, like decide I want to be a rock and roll star."
To listen to Off Our Rocker, go to offourrocker.biz.
Off Our Rocker
Last year, Baltimore author Taylor Branch reunited with two of his college bandmates to form the trio Off Our Rocker. The group includes:
Taylor Branch, vocalist, Baltimore
Author of trilogy that chronicled the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the history of America's civil rights movement. Its first volume, Parting the Waters, won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1989.
John Yelverton, vocalist, Bluffton, S.C.
Real estate developer for 30 years. He has developed properties in California, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina. His latest project, Palmetto Bluff, involves a 20,000-acre tract between Hilton Head, S.C., and Savannah, Ga.
Bill Guy, vocalist, plays acoustic guitar and synthesizer, Wendell, N.C.
An attorney for the state of North Carolina. He toured with a band called Town Hall for a couple of years after college and still sings and records original music. He has released three Christian CDs since 2005.