As a kid Rebecca Newton loved performing for her family. Around the piano, she discovered her skill for harmonizing and found that showcasing her musical talents was a way to keep the peace in a tumultuous and sometimes violent household.
These early performances were the foundation for her future musical career. For 30 years, Newton led the Durham swing band Rebecca & the Hi-Tones. This year, she stepped out on her own for the first time with her first solo Americana folk-rock album “Blue Shirt.”
Newton speaks with host Frank Stasio about her challenging upbringing, her work in the tech world — including her job at the then-burgeoning AOL — and her dedication to making the internet a safer space for kids. Today, Newton is the president and CEO of The Carolina Theatre, a nearly-100-year-old arts space in downtown Durham.
On receiving her first record as a child:
My grandmother bought me a Sophie Tucker record when I was 4 or 5, and it was a 78 [rpm]. And it was a live recording of her at some nightclub or something. And I knew all those songs. And I still have that record. And I can't play it any place … [But] to me that was sort of the pinnacle of success.
On organizing an impromptu production of “The Wizard of Oz” in her neighborhood:
It was probably like a page and a half, and I probably thought it was brilliant. And I went around the neighborhood, and I solicited like, parents and kids and everybody … We had a little cul de sac in the circle, and they met there, and it all happened, and it all fell apart in about an hour. But I just remember thinking: Oh, this is awesome. Like, just get a whole bunch of people together and do a show. Just like Judy and Mickey Rooney.
On her early research into online child safety at AOL:
I saw that the sociology of the offline world was mirrored in the online world, which I still believe is true. And so where there's people, there's a commodity, right, and currency. And then where there's currency and commodities, there's crime. Where there's crime, you need law enforcement, or something like that. And there was no such thing as [online] law enforcement back in those days. So, I think it's safe for me to say that I'm one of maybe two or three people in the world who were the earliest pioneers of online child safety.
On finding the inspiration to write her solo album:
I had a muse land on a friend a couple of years ago. And it was just like every minute I wanted to do nothing but write music and just be in a room and write music. And so it was timely because I was doing this first solo album, which started out as one thing and ended up completely different. And so now I feel like I can keep writing, and I'm always, sort of paying attention to who's coming [into] my life. I have somebody now who's really special to me who's in my life that I'm starting to write with, and it's very different from any kind of writing I've ever done.
On the importance of preserving The Carolina Theatre of Durham:
I always talked about the DNA of the building. So it's about 100 years old. It'll be 100 in 2026. When you stand on that stage and look out, you can sort of feel the history of all the performances there since 1926. I mean, everybody was there. Katharine Hepburn and, you know, just all kinds of people. And so that is a beautiful, beautiful sight to stand on that stage and look out into that beautiful hall. And so there's so much love and affection for the hall.