june 2012

myrtle beach postcard

Beach Music: A Multicultural Gathering in the Heart of Dixie

The East Coast counterpart to surf music actually predated surf, was rawer, bluesier and blacker, never migrated east to west, and wasn’t even a defined genre. But its music--drawn from Stax, Motown, Atlantic, and countless indie labels, featuring nationally known and obscure artists alike--was simply great and timeless, the lynchpin of a life affirming, joyous scene. Which may account for that scene remaining vibrant today, however much below the national radar it may be. Herewith a basic guide to Beach Music essentials.

By David McGee

Surf music started in California and migrated east across the continent, gaining popularity as it did even in landlocked regions in the Midwest and south. At the same time, another musical subculture, predating surf music but also hitting its heyday in the ‘60s, arose on the east coast--in the Carolinas in general, and specifically in Myrtle Beach, SC--but never migrated east to west as a defined genre. Many of the songs endemic to this style were national hits, but none referenced surfing, and few even mentioned or were centered on the ocean, surfing, woodies, baggies, or lonely surfer girls. Thus Beach Music. It had its own signature dance, The Shag (derived from the jitterbug and Lindy hop of the ‘20s, and also known as the Carolina Shag, this iteration is distinct from the early 1930s Shag and another style known as Speed Shag--see www.shagdancecorner.com for further explication of the distinctions between the Shags), and was given impetus by the R&B powerhouse radio station WLAC, beaming its signal out of Nashville.

Rawer, bluesier, and blacker than any surf music, which was the exclusive province of white musicians (which is not to say those players were not R&B influenced themselves--see Dick Dale, for instance), and embraced by a young, white crowd in the Carolinas that was ravenous for R&B, Beach Music roared from the stages and the jukeboxes in bars and clubs on the Carolina beaches, where the kids gathered to Shag themselves into oblivion to the tunes of The Drifters (in all configurations, starting with founder Clyde McPhatter’s original ensemble), Stick McGhee, Barbara Lewis, The Tams (a major force in Beach Music annals), Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs (Williams was something of a godfather to the scene, along with Bobby Moore & The Rhythm Aces), the great sax man Earl Bostic, Johnny Rivers, John Fred, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, and on and on--you get the drift. Motown, Stax, Atlantic, big labels, small labels, big songs, obscure B sides. A Beach Music playlist was a multicultural gathering in the heart of Dixie at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, lending it a socio-political context completely alien to surf music. When the scene waned at the end of the ‘60s, Beach Music virtually dropped off the map until the 1980s, when renewed interest was spurred by the release of retrospective anthologies and the formation of an organization called The Society of Stranders (SOS). In short order Beach Music had its own fanzine (It Will Stand) and Beach Music Awards show. The big event now in Beach Music circles is the Carolina Beach Music Awards (CBMA), which will be held this year on November 7-11 in N. Myrtle Beach at the historic clubs on Ocean Drive and at the Alabama Theatre in Barefoot Landing. The CBMA website summarizes its purpose thusly:

Those honored are performers, songwriters, radio personalities, mobile DJ's, dancers, producers, engineers, promoters and others who have been integrally involved with the music's success. The further overall purpose is to keep this music alive by getting young people involved in this fun yet clean cut music, to give the music its deserved recognition, respect and credibility, and to bring diverse people together in an upbeat harmonious manner.

The Swingin’ Medallions scorch ‘Double Shot of My Baby’s Love’ in an amazing live clip from Ducks Beach Club in North Myrtle Beach, SC. A sizzling moment caught on film at Ground Zero of the Beach Music scene.

In 1967 and 1968 Atlantic issued two amazing collections of Beach Music, Beach Beat Vol. 1 and Beach Beat Vol. 2, 12 cuts on each LP drawn primarily from the Atlantic vaults, save for a couple licensed from Chess and from Marshall Seehorn’s New Orleans-based Deesus Records. A sampling of the fare offered on these albums: The Clovers, “One Mint Julep”; Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters, “Money Honey”; Willie Tee, “Walking Up A One-Way Street”; Barbara Lewis, “Think A Little Sugar”; The Drifters, “There Goes My Baby”; Doris Troy, “Just One Look”; Stick McGhee, “Drinkin’ Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee”; Bobby Moore & The Rhythm Aces, “Searching For My Love”; Billy Stewart, “Fat Boy”; Maurice Williams & The Zodiacs, “May I”; Lenny O’Henry, “Across The Street”; The Coasters, “Idol With The Golden Head”; Tony Clarke, “The Entertainer”; Ben E. King, “I (Who Have Nothing).” You can listen to these records all day and all night, year in and year out, and never tire of them.

Betty Everett, ‘The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss),’ 1964

These Atlantic albums have not surfaced in the CD reissue era, but Amazon offers several worthy anthologies containing some of these songs and many others that qualified as Beach Music essentials. The Chairmen of the Board, best known for the 1970 hit (#3 pop, #8 R&B) “Give Me Just A Little More Time,” have an entire double-CD overview titled Beach Music Anthology and the music of the Chairmen’s fellow Beach Music titans The Tams is available on several CDs, the most complete being the import-only Hey Girl, Don’t Bother Me: The Best of the Tams.

25 beach musicIn essence the concept of the Atlantic Beach Beat albums has been expanded onto two CDs, the first titled 25 Beach Music Classics. the other Beach Music Sound: Sand In My Shoes: 25 More Classic Hits, both on Varese Sarabande. The great Barbara Lewis is on these discs, as are The Tams, Bill Deal & The Rondells, The Platters (“With This Ring”), The Swingin’ Medallions (“Double Shot [Of My Baby’s Love]),” Betty Everett (“Shoop Shoop Song [It’s In His Kiss],” The Drifters (“I’ve Got Sand In My Shoes”), Lenny O’Henry, The Showmen (“It Will Stand”), Jackie Wilson (“I Get The Sweetest Feeling”), James & Bobby Purify (“I’m Your Puppet”), and many other stalwarts of the day. These, like the Atlantic originals, can be enjoyed all day and all night, without respite. For the truly hard-core Beach Music, Emn Records offers multiple CD collections titled Original Carolina Beach Music with various subtitles on each disc, e.g., Live It Up, Lovers Holiday, Dance the Night Away. Always Be My Girl, and the irresistible and timeless philosophy of Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy Again. Slight at only 10 cuts per disc, these discs feature the artists most critical to the Carolina Beach Music scene, and mostly little known outside it--Breeze, Breeze; Entertainers; Band of Oz; JD Cash; The Catalinas; Bill Deal & The Rondells; The Fabulous Kays with Archie Bell; Steve Jarrell & The Sons of the Beach. Beach Music aficionados in or near Raleigh, NC, have fond memories of the Embers club, a favorite gathering place back in the day, and Amazon lists an Embers 25th Anniversary CD among its offerings. It appears to be, based on audio samples, a group of faceless studio musicians singing some of the popular songs of the scene, but a few are standard issue ‘70s disco, and others not much more than elevator music. Still, customer comments indicate many buyers pleased with this disc and commenting on all the great memories it brings back. Maybe you had to be there.

shag the movieThe Beach Party movies may have portrayed a fantasy universe apart from the real world of surfing, sun and girls on the beach, but in July 1989 the Beach Music scene got its own film, Shag, directed by Zelda Barron and starring Phoebe Cates, Scott Coffey, Bridget Fonda, Annabeth Gish, Tyrone Power Jr. and others. It centers on a summer weekend in 1963 when Carson (Phoebe Cates) is being treated to a final bachelorette fling before her wedding day, by her friends Melaina (Bridget Fonda), Pudge (Annabeth Gish) and Luanne (Page Hannah). Hardly a great movie and in many ways as simplistic as any Beach Party film (thus its obscurity), Shag does get the Beach Music atmosphere right and is a good video instructional guide to doing the Shag dance. The movie bombed, though, and Beach Music returned to its cultural outpost in the Carolinas to live on under the mainstream cultural radar, but alive and beloved by several generations of converts and musicians who carry the Beach Music banner forward. Available for only $8.94 at Amazon (as of this writing), the Shag movie would be a steal for the Beach Music crowd, if only all of the original Beach Music heard in the theatrical and VHS releases were still on the soundtrack. Presumably licensing problems kept songs such as Sam Cooke’s “Another Saturday Night” off the DVD, replaced by--are you kidding?--a k.d. lang number. Still, there’s plenty of the real thing here, at least in terms of music, if you can get by clangers like lang.

Trailer for Shag: The Movie, 1989

beach music guideAnd if you really want to know the full, complete history of anyone, anything and any place that was even fleetingly important to the Beach Music scene, visit The Beach Music Journal website to order the two-volume, 1000-pages total Beach Music Guide, 1945-2006, by Fessa John Hook. This little article you’re reading now barely scratches the surface of the Beach Music phenomenon; Hook lays it all out thoroughly, leaving no conch shell unturned.

For those with a burning desire to master Shag dancing, Ricky Ward and Christina Woodruff will step you through the basics and more on three volumes of Learn To Dance Carolina Shag, available at Amazon. Directed by Joe Baker, an authority on Shag dancing, the DVD contains, according to Baker, “twice the content of most competitive offerings and…all of the classic and essential shag dance figures. As a bonus, we show you how to avoid the most common mistakes.”

The music is alive, friends and neighbors, beckoning to diverse people to get together in an upbeat, harmonious manner. So get with it. And while you’re at it, cuddle up and take Barbara Lewis’s advice from 1963 and stop wasting a lot of valuable time: Think a Little Sugar.

Barbara Lewis, ‘Think A Little Sugar’ a Beach Music classic, the B-side of her hit ‘Hello Stranger’

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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