Remembering Beverly Norris: The 'princess' of Columbus art

August 17, 2019 9:59:07 PM

Isabelle Altman - [email protected]


Dale Robertson said Beverly Norris has been encouraging him as a musician since he was a teenager.


The singer/songwriter and guitar player was an "uncoordinated goofball," he said, performing at his father's club where Norris would come to watch performances and recruit musicians for other venues. He said Norris was like an older sister at the time.


"She was really inspiring you to just be thankful for your gifts and to really be strong at using them," Robertson said. "And to never be listening to negative criticism."



According to other area musicians, Norris had that same encouraging spirit her entire life, from recruiting musicians for Market Street Festival to organizing plays and art galleries for Columbus Arts Council.


Norris died in her sleep at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle Friday, after being ill for several weeks. She was 62.


The lifelong Columbus resident was the mother of two, a fan of the Eagles band and, for the last eight years, the program coordinator at the Columbus Arts Council, where she'd been volunteering for many years before that.


Artists from the Golden Triangle, and beyond, who knew her described Norris as calm, caring and personable. Everyone with a creative bent could count on receiving the same encouragement from her that Robertson received when he was a teenager.


"She treated us as special as any Grammy Award-winning songwriter that might have come through," said Paul Brady, an area musician who ran sound for the performances Norris helped organize at CAC.


Tina Sweeten, who was director of the arts council from 2011 until 2017, said Norris' "sole purpose" in life was to expose children and adults in Columbus to the arts.


"Beverly was not only my right hand during my tenure at the Columbus Arts Council," Sweeten said in an email to The Dispatch, "but since the day we met in 2011, Beverly was my mentor, my 'ride or die,' my encyclopedia of music and musicians, ... my 'call me when you get home so I know you didn't die' protector and, most importantly, my friend."



Bringing the arts to Columbus


A few years ago, Robertson emailed Norris pitching the idea of getting an Eagles tribute band together to cover the "Hotel California" album from start to finish, with some songs from earlier albums thrown in for good measure.


It turned out Norris had also been thinking of having the arts council host a concert of Eagles cover songs, and the two ran with the idea.


"When she went to the board with it, I guess since it was local guys, they weren't very impressed with the idea," he said. "We originally were going to play in the smaller part of the theater and they sold out in 30 minutes once tickets started. She asked us to move into the larger area and we said, 'Let's just try adding maybe 50 seats.'"


Those sold out within another 30 minutes, he said.


"Before it was over we basically were completely packed out and had sold out within half a day," he said. "It wasn't us. It was her faith in us.


"For me and guys like us she was a fighter for us," he added.


Thanks to Norris, Columbus played host to Vienna Boys Choir, the nonprofit African Children's Choir and Smithsonian traveling exhibitions, with musicians who trained at Juilliard or performed on Beale Street in between. Norris helped arrange for authors like Richard Grant and bestselling author Katy Simpson Smith to have talks at the Rosenzweig Arts Center and Mississippi University for Women.


During her tenure at the CAC, Norris implemented programs such as the annual Partial to Home music series, which celebrated local musicians; the Possum Town Tales Storytelling Festival; the Blues for Willie Festival in honor of Norris' friend and blues musician Willie King; the Mississippi Characters program in which area middle and high school students wrote and performed a monologue as a Mississippi artist; and countless individual concerts, plays and art galleries.


"Beverly was an inspiration," said Chelsea Petty, who teaches theater at Columbus Middle School and worked with Norris on Mississippi Characters and other CAC theater programs for children. "No one cared about the arts getting to our community like she did."


Brady said Norris wasn't just a booking agent -- she formed personal connections with the acts she brought in.


"Invariable anybody that played in that theater wanted to come back," he said.



A 'guardian' of local artists


Norris' talents didn't just lie with bringing in acts from out of town. Her friends described her as a fierce defender of local artists, one who loved every opportunity to showcase their talents at the CAC or elsewhere in Columbus.


Petty said Norris was a huge proponent of getting children involved in the arts and attended all the plays put on by CMS students -- who were often outfitted with props she had provided from CAC's shop.


"Even when she could barely get around and drive herself, she was still there," Petty said.


"I don't know what we're going to do without her," she later added.


Robertson and Brady both described her support for local performers as almost maternal.


"Your mom always thinks that you're the greatest of anybody everywhere, and that's the way Beverly treated me," Brady said. "She made me feel like she thought I was the greatest musician ever. I know that ain't true, but she was like your mom in the amount of support and encouragement."


That didn't just go for him, he added. All performers in the area felt that way.


"To me Beverly was pretty much the princess of all musicians in the area," he said. "We all knew her, we all loved her and she promoted us."