In the spirit of our summer road trip, South Writ Large asked Danny Johnson to recount his memories of the Carolina beach music clubs of the ’50s and ’60s.
An invasion occurred from the late fifties through the sixties in the southern states of North and South Carolina. Hordes of kids stormed the beaches, not with guns or cannon, but with Weejun loafers hand caressed until they fit like leather gloves, madras or button-down Oxford shirts with monograms on the pockets or collars, khaki pants, no socks, and attitude. The girls came in Villager dresses, matching belts, and Pappagallo flats. The battleground was any place with cold beer, a loud sound system, and music with a beat derived from R&B rhythms typical of New Orleans and juke joints of the Deep South. They converted the Jitterbug to a slower, sexier version that allowed guys to invent special steps as they competed on the floors of clubs from inland cities to the beaches of the Carolinas. The origination of the Fast Dance, which would much later be called the Shag, is generally thought to have occurred in South Carolina during the 1940s, then referred to as the Bop. The gathering storm built to a hurricane as it swept up the coast of the Carolinas, picking up kids who began adapting its magic steps to funky beats. Guys were the main show, the girls the beat keepers, and all movement was from the waist down. A girl doing her own intricate steps while the guy kept the beat was a no-no.
White teenagers demanded the music of such folks as Big Mamma Thornton, Maurice Williams, the Showmen, and the Swingin’ Medallions, African American groups that were previously taboo. Legendary dancers like Chicken Hicks and Billy Jeffers showed what amazing steps could be performed, and every teenager wore out their feet holding onto doorknobs, trying to perfect them. The music and the Fast Dance born of those beginnings continue to the present day, with professional championships, amateur contests, and the SOS (Society of Stranders) where older folks still show off their stuff to the kids.
As they circled Dairy Marts, Blue Lights, or any of the hundreds of burger and fries joints with window speakers and girls on roller skates delivering orders, their metal monsters, outfitted with Hemi engines and thundering headers, were always tuned to the radio, listening to radio shows like Hot Foot Club on WELS in Spartanburg, or Daddy-O on the Patio at WAAA in Winston-Salem, Jimmy Capps’ My Best to You on WPTF in Raleigh, Tiger Radio in Myrtle Beach, and WKIX in Raleigh. There were many others, all playing to a generation of kids who knew what they wanted, and it was called Beach Music. They spent their money on 45 rpm records and cold beer, while helping bring to prominence great beach bands like Billy Scott and the Georgia Prophets, the Embers featuring Jackie Gore, and an outlet for folks like Bo Diddley, Jackie Wilson, the Coasters, the Clovers, and the Tams. Other parts of the country had versions of the Fast Dance, on the West Coast they called it beachin’, and the kids on American Bandstand developed a similar swing-type dance after a group of kids from Durham went to Philadelphia and appeared on the show, amazing Dick Clark with the smooth array of dance steps they brought with them. Only in the South, however, was the heart and soul of the dance displayed as the ultimate original interpretation of the music.
Clubs featuring beach music sprang up everywhere, The Castaway in Greensboro; the Baylon Lounge in Chapel Hill; the Driftwood and the King’s Arms in Durham; the Scrambled Dog and Embers in Raleigh; Williams Lake in Faison; the Pad, the Barrel, the Bowery, the Pavilion, and the Beach Club in Myrtle Beach; Coachman & Four Club in Bennettsville; the Cellar in Charlotte; the Polo Club in Winston-Salem; and, probably the best of them all, the Ocean Plaza in Carolina Beach. Guys at the clubs had slim builds and comfortably erect postures that immediately identified them as dancers. The girls came with British-look hairdos, jaw length, crown teased, and sprayed stiff, sometimes curled behind the ears. They had limitless imaginations for coming up with routines for the Fast Dance, Slow Dance, and even the Cha-Cha. The Fast Dance was their mating ritual, guys showing off their routines and girls keeping the beat. If you could dance, there would always be romance.
The Ocean Plaza at Carolina Beach was a place that attracted the best of the best from all over North Carolina. It was a fairly typical club, but special in that it had the feel, smell, and the challenge of mano a mano battle on the floor. The Ocean Plaza was located among three small blocks of boardwalk buildings—most run-down and unpainted, with sun-bleached wood, built sometime in the 1940s. The Plaza was a two-story white stucco building, reminiscent of fifties-style art deco in Miami, that sat between a bar called the Mousetrap and a greasy spoon diner. The only entrance was a single doorway on the street side, usually pasted with colorful posters of upcoming music events. Once inside, it was a long climb up a set of stairs leading to the interior. It was open on Friday and Saturday nights until midnight and on Sundays from two to six. The entry fee was three dollars for girls and four dollars for guys, for which you received a hand stamp and a once-over from a brutish-looking ABC officer.
At the top of the stairs and to the right were men and women’s bathrooms covered in worn linoleum and frosted glass windows. To the left was a five-foot-high wooden bandstand where the Embers played often and Percy Sledge played once. His song “When a Man Loves a Woman” was hot at the time. Percy wore a pompadour hairstyle, a bright royal blue suit, and was on the heavy side, but he could sing, and the kids loved him. Along the left wall were two screened sliding glass doors that stayed open when it was hot, and cigarette smoke bellowed out so heavy it looked like the place was on fire. The two-beer minimum was never an issue.
The floor was polished wood, catering to the improvisational dance routines, perfect for Weejuns and Pappagallo flats and young legs. As the evening wore on, cigarette butts and the occasional beer spill littered the floor. There was never a thought about what would happen if a fire broke out, but it would have been ugly. The waiters wore long-sleeved white cotton jackets and served 3.2 beers by the dozen. The bar servers watched the wait staff intently, waiting for eye contact and a signal to open and sideline requested beers long before the server could get back to the bar. They had unique hand signals: number of beers shown on fingers held up, and the location of the hand indicated the brand, above shoulder was Bud, above the head was Pabst, and in front of the round tray held flat to the chest was Miller. Not a lot of options in those days. Very few in the crowd sat; they came to dance, not to stand. It was a social event, but also a competition as they showed off their original steps for others to see. There was never a fistfight, which cannot be said about some of the other clubs where slinging feet inside often led to slinging fists outside. The eighteen-to-twenty-two-year olds came from all over, local military bases, nearby small towns, and cities in the Piedmont, which was a four-hour drive made religiously each weekend by some. Watching a couple’s dance steps could identify their residence; every town had routines particular to them.
The Ocean Plaza crowd was a mixture, Marines from Camp LeJeune dressed in tee shirts, shorts, sandals, and black socks, not hard to identify because no southern man would be caught dead in black socks and sandals. They mostly stood and drank enormous amounts of beer but never danced. Fort Fisher Air Force guys mixed in with the main crowd easily because they dressed and danced like the regulars. There were always the lifeguards, who were excellent dancers, then the kids from inland cities, and the farm kids from small towns. They respected each other and all came to be a part of the show.
There may be some disagreement over which was the best club during those days of the sixties, but there is no doubt the Ocean Plaza was absolutely one of the best. The Vietnam War came along and took away many of the guys. When they returned with physical or emotional scars, keeping the beat was no longer the ultimate goal in life.
Some of the ones who made it back can still be persuaded to get out on the dance floor at the clubs that remain, mostly confined to areas around Myrtle Beach, and some of the die-hards from the old days are teaching the Shag to a new generation of beach music fans.
Note: The author would like to thank Judy Harrell for her tremendous help in writing this article; her eye for detail and memories of the Ocean Plaza are amazing.
Here is an example of Shag dancing: