- Associated Press - Sunday, March 5, 2017

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) - There was that time the crack dealer stooped to the vehicle’s window and a penniless Duncan Butler, in the driver’s seat, reached out and grabbed the boy’s drugs and money - and then floored the accelerator of his grandmother’s car.

A barrage of bullets followed as he sped off.

Butler escaped, unscathed.

There was also that time, crack cocaine still lingering in his system from a recent hit of the pipe, when childhood friend Rick Dorsett pointed to the baby growing in his wife’s belly and asked Butler to be the child’s godfather.

“Mind you, I’m so skinny, with burns on my fingers,” Butler said.

Everybody in the neighborhood knew that Butler was on the pipe. Family. Friends. Neighbors.

And the Dorsetts knew, although when they asked him to be a godfather, they were making an offer to the man he was before and they hoped could be again.

The burning crack pipe had a hold on Butler - the gifted musician so talented he sometimes suited up for N.C. A&T;’s band while a student at Page High.

Back then, his reputation as a performer was growing. In his early 20s, Butler had won a number of high-profile competitions beyond the city’s borders, including the Budweiser Showcase, which drew acts from across the Southeast.

Then came crack.

It made the good-natured kid steal even from his mama. Made him pawn every piece of musical equipment. Made him snatch an elderly woman’s purse.

Made him become someone else.

But there was that moment of grace in the Dorsetts’ living room, and when it came, Butler tried holding on tight.

“That moment of someone still trusting me, looking beyond me,” he said.

It wouldn’t be enough to break the drug’s hold. At least not right away.

But here he is now, on a recent afternoon at the Greensboro Cultural Center with Jada Capers, a first-year student in one of his group piano classes.

“It’s not as big as it looks,” he can be heard reassuring Capers during a moment of hesitation. “Just one piece at a time and soon you are playing the whole thing.”

Butler, 54, doesn’t shy away from the details of what he calls “the lowest point in my life.”

“All that mattered from sunup to sundown was getting high,” Butler recalled of a disease that took away his early 30s, his marriage and years from his dream of achieving fame.

Only now, he wants his story to be a lesson for others.

It is a story of addiction, recovery and redemption that is not unheard of as substance abusers regain their way. His, however, is told through the lyrics of a new CD, “Peace Love and Happiness,” which is being released Thursday to coincide with a concert at Community Theatre of Greensboro.

“I’m proud of the way he’s able to tell people what he’s been through,” said his sister, Gloria Graves, a physical education teacher.

Butler grew up singing at East White Oak Baptist Church in the northeast part of town, where his mother was the music director and had every child on their street in the choir. Everybody knew the singing Butlers.

Music is in the family’s genes. Graves is the director of music at East White Oak. Butler’s brother, Tyrone, nicknamed Tiger, is a well-known local musician with the Rubber Band. His oldest brother, Charles, also known as Lee-Bo, was the longtime band director at Smith High School when he died in 2012.

Butler was just 10 when his father, a gifted singer who traveled the East Coast with a band, died of cirrhosis of the liver.

In elementary school, he found out he was different from the other children. He had a learning disability which caused him to fall behind his classmates.

His mother got tutors.

He was embarrassed to be in special-education classes.

“I would sit behind the door,” Butler said, “so my friends couldn’t see me when they walked down the hall.”

As he grew older, he became a disruption, a “class clown,” to avoid having to go to the chalkboard or answer questions. His affable personality endeared him to teachers and he did well enough to pass to the next grade level.

Music was a comfort; singers Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, his idols.

“I sang every song they sang, the very way they sang it,” Butler said. “My mentality was: One day I’m going to be famous, I won’t need math.”

Lee-Bo and Gloria, then at A&T;, were part of the school’s marching band. Butler hung around so much that the band director gave him odd jobs, like carrying uniforms or equipment. Soon, he was letting Butler march with the cymbals and double-bass drums. He was just a high school junior.

“I think I went to Page one day with my Aggie suit on,” he recalled.

Butler learned to play the piano watching his mom and was soon playing for services at his church. He could pick up a tune just by listening to it.

Offers followed to play at other churches. And that was money in his pockets.

Butler later was accepted into A&T;, where he struggled academically.

It was in college, where he did earn a degree in music education, that he tried marijuana.

“It was occasional at first,” Butler said.

He had no problem paying for it. By then, he was playing local night clubs and at weddings.

At the same time, those musical gifts were putting him in the presence of powerful people through campaign and community events at which he was invited to perform. He would meet governors, poet Maya Angelou and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, among others. Butler, who was running an after-school music program at Erwin Montessori, also won a local contest to perform at the legendary “Showtime at the Apollo” in New York City, where he was a finalist.

But in a circle of people, he couldn’t join in the conversation about what was going on in the world.

“I realized what I had to do to get beyond my learning disabilities,” Butler said.

He binged on CNN and newspapers.

His appetite for marijuana, however, was also competing for his time.

“It became more and more of a necessity,” Butler said.

He was 30 when he tried crack cocaine. It’s a drug so powerfully addictive - more so than powder cocaine and heroin - that it takes a bigger dose each time to achieve the same high.

“Somebody said, ‘You’ve got to try this.’ “

So Butler did.

It was the early 1990s.

“Before then, if you had looked me up, you would have seen a few traffic tickets or ‘choir boy’ by my name,” Butler said.

Crack, he said, was a “monster.”

“It had a grip on me,” he said of his first hit, which he smoked in a pipe.

His money didn’t last past payday.

He lost 60 pounds.

The three bullet holes in his grandmother’s car didn’t deter him.

Things started disappearing from the home he had made with his wife.

People were calling his mother, telling her they had seen him going into a drug den.

“He had called me one night and said he was in another city and he needed my help, that he had gotten arrested for having marijuana,” remembered Graves, the sister. “I called one of my friends who was a lawyer to help us. He was the one to let me know it wasn’t marijuana.”

Butler would later even pawn his truck to a crack dealer.

“You think, ‘I’m going to pawn this and get it back next week,’ ” Butler said. “I wouldn’t have wished this on my worst enemy.”

The drug had a hold on Butler that he couldn’t break. He did a couple of stints in a rehab facility only to pick up the pipe again. The cravings drove him to the point of suicide. He tried, but was never successful.

Still, Dorsett, who had grown up next door to Butler, asked him to be his child’s godfather.

At first, Butler didn’t accept the offer.

Dorsett was undeterred. He’d been the one who would come looking for him in crack houses.

“We knew the real Duncan would be back,” Dorsett said. “I knew he could turn it around.”

It was after snatching that purse and later getting arrested for felonies involving stolen property that Butler was sentenced in 1996 to a year in prison, mostly spent in Wautaga County.

“It was the best thing that could have happened to me,” he said.

Clarity returned as the drug worked its way out of his system.

Inmates who watched him read his Bible were asking him to pray about things going on in their lives.

Soon, he was conducting the prison choir.

Once, he thought he heard God speaking to him. “He said, ‘This is how I can use you,’ ” Butler recalled.

Still, his past had a way of hanging on.

One day, another prisoner told him of a new arrival from Greensboro.

When Butler saw the man across the yard, he instantly knew who it was: the crack dealer he had robbed.

Butler went to the prison barbershop and asked the barber to cut off all his hair. It was the only thing he could think of to change his appearance.

The guy ended up there, too - and was fixated on how he knew him.

“He kept saying, ‘I know I know you from somewhere,’ ” Duncan recalled.

After his release in January 1997, Butler was scared to have money in his pocket. He avoided certain streets where he knew drugs were sold.

“It wasn’t a craving, but it was the knowledge of knowing how easy it was for me to go back,” Duncan said. “I wasn’t craving crack, but I was scared of it.”

His family had long ago forgiven him.

In his ear was the prison’s chaplain, who became his “spiritual father” and continued to keep him accountable after his release.

It seemed everybody was praying for him.

He has been clean ever since.

Despite having a felony on his records, he got out of prison on a Monday and was working by Wednesday. He was able to get a job as a cook at a restaurant where his brother was a supervisor.

Still, he said he knew he would have to regain the public’s trust, especially around children.

“People remembered reading in the newspaper that Duncan Butler had been arrested for stealing,” Butler said.

He started taking his electronic keyboard into the atrium of Moses Cone Hospital to get back into performing. While there, he established a vibrant musical program which became a national trend.

Butler also took classes to become a minister at Greensboro Urban Ministry, the city’s largest homeless shelter, which put him in a position to provide care to people who are hurting.

“It’s amazing to me how God uses who he chooses to use,” Butler said.

Mount Pleasant Christian Church took a chance on him, hiring him as minister of music.

“I went into prison as a musician, and I came out a minister of music,” Butler said of the change that had taken place spiritually. “There’s a difference.”

Once again, he was back to juggling singing engagements.

He recorded a debut CD, “The Answer To My Prayer,” in 1998. He had written the song while in a crack house many years earlier as he struggled with addiction.

“Music was my therapy,” Butler said.

The since-remarried Butler then had two children of his own. But he knew his felony would make it hard to get back to teaching music to other people’s children. It had been his passion before drugs clouded his brain.

So he started advertising classes in his living room.

“I knew parents - probably in the back of their minds - would question me having time alone with their children,” Butler said. “It took a degree of trust. I did feel as though I had to be very open. I hid nothing. It became my testimony, not my downfall.”

Eventually, he was getting referrals from people whose children he had previously taught and from those who had seen him perform.

And as he regained his reputation, his classes grew.

But there would be new struggles.

He lost his kidney function about 15 years go because of a rare disorder separate from the drug use. At the time, he was in the bathroom up to 10 times an hour, taking 14 pills a day to stave off failure.

But perhaps as a testament to his work in the community, supporters raised $25,000 to help with the cost of a kidney transplant.

He is no longer the Duncan Butler who spent days in crack houses.

He helps others walk away from substance abuse.

This Duncan Butler would go on to win the 1999 Great American Gospel Fest in Myrtle Beach. In 2000, he was the featured artist on the national radio program, “Inspiration Across America.” He’s had songs on gospel and R&B; radio stations.

“If you ask people about him right now, they will have good things to say,” said Graves, his sister.

Butler now leads two music ministries at local churches and teaches music at Guilford Preparatory Academy, a local charter school located at Presbyterian Church of the Cross, which is two blocks from his childhood home.

Also housed there is his B Natural Academy of Music and Arts.

And then there are the piano lessons he offers on the bottom floor of the Greensboro Cultural Center.

That’s where he is this day, working with Jada on her song.

While she is learning the notes with her right hand, he plays the notes she should also be playing with her left, so she can hear how it will start to sound when she begins using both hands at once.

He later stops class to announce that another student, Jaslyn Sims, who they call Jazzy, is going to be in a talent show in a few days. Then, as they all gather around her on the piano, he asks Jazzy to play the song she will perform.

“If she messes up, y’all boo her,” he adds, referencing the tough Apollo crowd, as they all break into laughter, including Jazzy, who goes on to give a flawless performance.

“That’s my student!” Butler shouts proudly over the applause that follows.

Butler’s teaching style uses a lot of humor, which he ties to today’s culture. Within the fun are always deeply-rooted lessons.

“He comes up with acronyms and goofy ways to remember things and interacts with you,” said Carmen Walker, who has studied with Butler for the last eight years and is now a helper in his class. “And it works.”

In group classes, students wear headsets connected to electronic keyboards, which allows him to have multiple lessons with individual pieces going on at the same time. Parents point out that even without him hearing the music as he walks around, he can tell by the keystrokes whether they are following the right notes. He listens. And critiques.

Butler’s students also learn to play the piano underneath a cloth that covers the keys.

“It actually builds up a great trust between the brain and the fingers,” explained Butler, who reminds students that piano greats Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder couldn’t see.

Butler’s latest DC is called “Peace, Love and Happiness.” He wrote and composed all the songs, including “To Save my Soul,” which includes the lyrics:

‘He lost his sense, didn’t care he could repent. He didn’t know which way to go.’

The first single, “Let Freedom Ring,” sampling the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., is now in rotation on local stations. The project also includes inspirational music, love songs and has an overall theme of overcoming life’s difficulties.

He still causes people to pause when he rests his hands on piano keys.

“I may not ever be famous,” Butler said. “That doesn’t even matter.”


Information from: News & Record, https://www.news-record.com

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