First time I met Erykah Badu was in February '96, at the old Grinders on Lowest Greenville, where she'd poured coffee just a few months earlier. It was a full year before her debut Baduizm was released; those Grammys were still in the distant horizon. It was her first interview, her first chance to tell her life's story -- the transition from Booker T. to Brooklyn, from a would-be with a demo to a singer with a recording contract. And one of the first things she said that afternoon was: She became a singer in large part because of a man best known as Mr. Peppermint.
The 40-year-old Badu was, like all of us who grew up watching Jerry Haynes on television, profoundly saddened by the death of Jerry Haynes yesterday at the age of 84. She told me Monday evening that Haynes was, in some ways, "like a parent" to all those with whom he came in contact. She said, "He talked to a lot of kids and encouraged them. He provided me an example of how I wanted to be as an adult with kids as far as encouraging them, giving them some hope."
She was still known as Erica Wright when she met Haynes in the early 1980s. She was a little kid, a performer in annual musicals staged at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center near Fair Park, near her home. Each year, the troupe from the MLK rec center would perform in an annual competition at the Dallas Theater Center. And each year, Haynes, himself a noted actor with credits including Places in the Heart and RoboCop, would serve as judge.
"And we were always excited to see him and always tried to put our best foot toward," she recalled yesterday. "Mr. Peppermint was a judge! This was important, to see someone on TV take the time and come out and be with us and encourage us." Erica especially.
"In order to get to the Theater Center, you'd have to win at finals, and our rec center won every year," she said. "We would compete against other rec centers all over Dallas. We had competitions in drama and competitions of musicals. I was always in one of the musicals, and Mr. Peppermint would be a judge every year. One year, when I was about 10, I was Dorothy in The Wiz, and he came up to me and said, 'You are really good, and if you hone in on it, you have something. It's gonna take a lot of work and a lot of dedication, but you're on your way.'
"It was the third year I had participated that he came up to me. He had seen me a couple of years in a row and knew how serious I was about acting and art. And what he said always stayed with me. At that time I didn't even imagine being a singer. I was an actor. I wanted to act. When I went to Arts Magnet, as a matter of fact, I auditioned for all of the clusters to make sure I got in, and I made the theater department. That's the one I had an application for. The rest I took a number for, hoping to get in."
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So happens that when she got to Arts, Erica met another Haynes -- Jerry's son Andy, with whom she would also become close.
"He was a little older than me," she said. "He had long hair, like this hippie guy. When I found out he was Mr. Peppermint's son, I got in his face all the time." She laughed. "I would go, 'Where's Muffin today? Have you seen Muffin? How's Muffin?' I thought it was so funny. And he was like, 'Please, how would I know where Muffin is?' He was a really sweet guy.
"[Jerry] was the same way. He was very nice, very soft-spoken, easy-going. I remember that even as a child. Just really cool. And the son was the same exact way -- smiling all the time, so friendly."
Incidentally, Erykah does the world's greatest Muffin impression. Mr. Peppermint would be proud.