Beach Music: History and Myth
The twentieth-century cultural dynamic of the American South was dominated by the isolation, mutual discovery, and gradual interplay of black and white creativity. That pattern in Southern musical development can be observed in the relatively localized genre termed “Beach Music.” In the story of North and South Carolina’s Beach Music are told the many permutations from the “big band” music of Post-World War II America to its current iteration today. In 2007, folklorists Brendan Greaves and M. C. Taylor explored the North Carolina coast to learn about the origins of Beach Music. Along the way, they talked with a handful of Beach Music aficionados and practitioners whose insights and impressions helped inform this article.
Despite the fact that the myriad musical and social strands that ultimately coincided to give rise to the Beach and Shag Music phenomena are hydra-headed, murky, and ambiguous, the oft-told legend holds that Beach Music was born at Jim Hanna’s Tijuana Inn at Carolina Beach, North Carolina, in the spring of 1948. It was here that Hanna, a former merchant marine, first placed African American jump blues on his piccolo, or jukebox, at the behest of his friend Chicken Hicks, creating a space where white listeners and dancers could engage the largely taboo black music in a space easily entered and exited, both literally and figuratively.
According to legend, Hicks was a Durham-raised ruffian with an affinity for black music and white liquor. On his nigh weekly moonshine-purchasing trips from Carolina Beach to the neighboring African American community of Seabreeze, Hicks regularly heard contemporary popular songs by black artists such as Joe Liggins and the Honeydrippers, Louis Jordan and His Tympani Five, Lionel Hampton, and Wynonie Harris, all progenitors of the nascent jump blues style that was emerging out of the swing and big band traditions. After no small amount of prodding, he convinced Hanna to have the jukebox servicing company install some of this music on the Tijuana Inn’s piccolo. In a matter of days, Hanna explains, “You couldn’t get in the place. People just loved the music.”
Following Hanna’s loading of the Tijuana Inn’s piccolo with African American music, other ambitious entrepreneurs opened their own “jump joints” up and down the Carolina Beach strand within weeks. These venues were bare-bones affairs, often consisting of a tin roof, a dance floor, and, most importantly, a jukebox that, for a nickel, would play the popular African American music of the day. These jukeboxes were frequently chained to the floor to prevent patrons from stealing the money or, more significantly, the records. While Hanna’s Tijuana Inn first provided drinking-age crowds with access to black jump blues, these anonymous beach establishments provided underage kids with a way to participate with the African American music and dance that was at once taboo and coveted.
The income from the newly thriving Tijuana Inn, in combination with his enterprising nature, provided Hanna with the resources to convert a former bowling alley across the street from the Tijuana Inn into a dance hall, which he christened Bop City. The new establishment served as ground zero for further Caucasian exploration of African American artists such as Paul Williams and Sticks McGhee, white artists playing black music such as Jimmy Cavallo and The Houserockers, and the burgeoning dance movement called the Shag. Shag is a couples-based dance with relatives in other swing dances such as the Lindy Hop and the Big Apple, and strong emphasis on smooth, gliding technique. As CAMMY (the Beach Music equivalent of the Grammy; the acronym stands for “Carolina Magic Music Years”) award-winning Beach Music DJ and historian ‘Fessa John Hook explains, “In the old stories, the great shaggers on the Grand Stand would wear a cashmere sweater on July 4th and dance out on the deck at the Myrtle Beach Pavilion with their sleeves rolled up, and never break a sweat. [Some dancers] could put an open beer on top of their head and do a drop spin and never spill a drop.”
Over the course of the next three years, white establishments in coastal towns such as Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, and Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach, Folly Beach, and the Isle of Palms, all in South Carolina, began to play black R&B, which was quickly emerging out of the jump blues genre, on their piccolos. According to Hook, white North Carolinian audience members at this time vocally associated the emergent black R&B sounds with vacation destinations such as Carolina and Myrtle Beach because establishments in these beach environs first made the music available for white consumption in a guilt-free environment.
By 1965 participants and observers began to call it “Beach Music,” a term that simultaneously referred to popular black music of the day and was applied retroactively to the taboo R&B that Jim Hanna was importing to the predominantly Caucasian establishments on the strand as early as 1948. Hook makes an absolutely crucial distinction between openly seeking taboo African American music on one’s home turf, potentially inviting judgment and even requital, and stumbling upon it in the neon-lit beach town pleasure palaces.
Beach Music historians such as Hook, CAMMY award-winning DJ Mike Lewis, and Ripete Records label head Marion Carter tend to mark the first golden era of Beach Music as lasting from roughly 1960 to 1969, and it was during this time that devotees codified the laws of Beach Music. As Carter explains, “It’s an aura or sound, a cultural kind of thing, based on ‘sweet soul’—a style of music [typified by] groups like The Temptations, The Radiants, The Four Tops. It’s a style of singing where you would never get anything like a scream or a howl like Wilson Pickett would pull off. It’s all controlled, nuanced singing. This is the root of Carolina Beach Music.” As African American sounds continued to develop through the 1960s, fans, disc jockeys, and other listeners took on curatorial roles, ascribing the Beach Music label to songs and artists from all over the country and establishing standards with which to develop this canon.
During this era, Beach Music enthusiasts had an abundance of black R&B and newly developing soul music to incorporate into the canon. Popularity, availability, and widespread acceptance of material coming out of Detroit, Memphis, Chicago, and Philadelphia via record labels such as Motown, Stax, Vee-Jay, Chess, and Philly Groove meant that Beach Music devotees, often referred to as “diggers,” could cherry pick tunes that conformed to their own emergent Beach Music standards. Curation, always an important aspect of the Beach phenomenon, arguably came to the fore as one of its defining characteristics during this period—with African American R&B and soul plentiful, popular, and more acceptable to white audiences than ever, Beach Music became the filter through which devotees passed black music. Beach Music listeners, as opposed to the artists, puzzled out what was acceptable and what was not within the world of black song.
By the late 1960s, however, Beach Music was in decline. As Hook explains,
“You had two things happening in the late 1960s. This country was going into a deep depression, psychologically. We were getting our ass kicked in Viet Nam. We were losing our young men; they were getting killed. The hippies and the yippies and the zippies were causing so damn much trouble, this country was getting ripped apart. And then, on top of that, you had an enormous number of the new generation that was really dedicated to the idea of marijuana, LSD, and these other mind-expanding drugs. And then of course there was all of the counter-culture . . . we had every kind of expression of counter-culture going on in this country. And the music started getting heavy.”
Black and white performers alike were under pressure to conform to new standards of musical expression, and the sweet, easy, unproblematic qualities so valued in Beach Music suddenly seemed outmoded. Aside from a few shag clubs dotting the Carolina landscape, Beach Music seemed dead.
In the late 1970s, however, the genre experienced a rebirth. Although there is obviously no single explanation for the re-embrace of Beach Music among college students and middle-aged Carolinians, it is intriguing to briefly address the various social and musical landscapes that potentially spurred this re-emergence. Beginning in roughly 1975, the genre of disco music enjoyed widespread mainstream popularity in the United States. Running concurrently to this trend was the true crystallization of the “oldies” genre, a backwards-looking nostalgia movement driven, at least in part, by the staggering success of the Beach Boys’ Endless Summer compilation, a collection of the band’s early surf/hot rod/beach bunny material released in 1974. Endless Summer spent three years on the charts, and the fact that the Beach Boys were not technically a Beach Music band (in the East Coast sense of the term) notwithstanding, served as an acceptable alternative to the disco fare on offer. The familiar, nostalgia-evoking music of oldies acts such as the Beach Boys, Fats Domino, and Chuck Berry arguably made it permissible to once again engage the easygoing, unproblematic sentiments of Beach Music.
The rebirth of Beach Music in the late 1970s and early 1980s was clearly marked by the systematization of Beach and Shag events, contests, organizations, and dance instruction. Hook remarks that since the first widely attended Shag contest in 1978, Beach Music in the Carolinas,
“has become institutionalized, and institutionalized, and institutionalized. The dance has become more institutionalized. Many aspects of Beach Music have become more institutionalized because there are awards shows where musicians, disc jockeys, songwriters, producers, they all get acknowledgment . . . the Society of Stranders thing was a big institutionalization . . . this also included the institutionalization of dance instruction.”
As the institutionalization of Beach Music and Shag continued, DJs emerged as the qualified purveyors of what was accepted into the Beach Music canon. As DJs replaced live bands at many events, this second golden era of Beach Music saw the decline of Beach Music groups. Contemporary DJs, led in large part by musically omnivorous jocks such as John Hook and Mike Lewis, broadened Beach Music playlists at a rapid pace. A watershed moment, as far as the legend is concerned, occurred in 1980 during the first S.O.S. (Society of Stranders) event at the fabled Fat Harold’s Beach Club on Main Street in North Myrtle Beach. It was during this event that Lewis, noticing that attendees seemed to be tired of dancing to the same old tunes, played cuts by three artists previously unheard in the Beach Music world: Delbert McClinton, Rockin’ Louie and the Mamma Jammas, and Ray Sharpe. All three were clearly inspired by the boogie and jump blues genres, and all three were white. As Hook recalls, “We heard about that immediately. [It] opened the floodgates to the possibilities of genres that had never been tapped.”
Curation and control of the Beach Music genre continues to reside largely with DJs and white audiences; with advances in disc jockey technology, such as pitch and speed control on CD players and the invention of music editing software such as Cool Edit Pro, which allows for tempo manipulation, virtually any song, including hip-hop, can be transformed and recontextualized as Beach Music. Lewis recollects,
“A couple of years ago, a couple of DJs were having a small meeting, and I said, ‘I can take practically anything, and make it into a hit Shag song by playing it and by telling people it’s good. If your reputation is like that, people will often follow you blindly. And they said ‘No!’ So we made a bet. I said I’m going to take something off the radio and make it into a Shag song, so there was a song on the radio I’d just heard called “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley, it’s a hip-hop record. And I said, ‘I’m gonna take that record and make it a Shag hit,’ . . . and they said, ‘You’re crazy; we hate that music; it’s terrible. Shaggers hate hip-hop music.’ It’s been a top Shag record for a year and a half.”
He continues, “I manipulate practically every song I play. If shag dancers respect the DJ, they’ll dance to the music the way he or she plays it, because there’s the belief that ‘Mike Lewis knows more than I do.’ ”
While not specifically addressing the complex racial issues involved in Beach Music today, Ken Knox and General Norman Johnson of the Chairmen of the Board logically explain the contest between DJs and bands in capitalistic terms:
“There are more DJs [at S.O.S.] than artists. ‘Are we gonna be lovin’ bands, if I can make four or five hundred bucks playing my records or CDs or whatever?’ But the bands fall into that trap. When it all boils down, everything boils down to what? M-O-N-E-Y. And it’s a shame, but you know, it may come back around that the bands realize what’s happening to them.”
As complicated and convoluted as Beach Music may be, it is important to realize that these same issues—appropriation of African American musical and dance forms and the celebration of these forms as a reaffirmation of racial stereotypes, cultural tourism and gate-keeping, curation, and the disempowerment of musical performers by DJs—are similarly present in contemporary hip-hop, R&B, and soul. Beach Music, however, offers us a glimpse of a particularly popular regional phenomenon with implications that resound far beyond the bounds of the coastal towns from whence it came.
Thanks to our consultants:
Jimmy Cavallo: Syracuse-born sax man, singer, star of Alan Freed’s Rock Rock Rock, the first white artist ever to play the Apollo, and all-around hero and elder statesman of American music. Likely the man who invented (white) rock and roll (and accidentally, Beach Music) in 1947 while breezing through North Carolina in pursuit of a girl, long before Bill Haley, Sun Records, and that Elvis character. Now that you’ve heard of him, buy his records.
Marion Carter: Owner of Ripete Records, renowned Beach Music label based in Columbia, South Carolina. Ripete’s releases feature great tunes, and their kitschy album art epitomizes that breezy Beach Music aesthetic.
John Hook: Leading Beach Music and shag historian, theorist, author, DJ, and sage. Self-proclaimed inventor of “cowboy shag” and “gospel shag.” This project would have been impossible without his expert guidance.
General Norman Johnson, Ken Knox, and Danny Woods: Johnson was the Grammy-winning lead singer and songwriter of the Showmen and the Chairmen of the Board, both Beach Music legends. He wrote for Clarence Carter, recorded with Joey Ramone, and was responsible for some of the most enduring Beach Music classics, including “39-21-40-Shape,” “It Will Stand,” “Give Me Just a Little More Time,” and “Carolina Girls.” Johnson died October 13, 2010. Knox and Woods are the surviving Chairmen, gentlemen both.
Mike Lewis: Perhaps the premier Beach Music and shag DJ of the 1980s and ’90s. Credited with playing that Delbert McClinton cut (“A Mess of Blues”) in 1980 and changing everything.
Charles and Lil’ Redd Pope: Members of the Beach Music stalwarts and Hall of Famers the Tams. Charles is the brother of deceased Tams lead singer Joe Pope, and Lil’ Redd is Charles’ son. Atlanta natives and residents, they recorded their first single, “Untie Me,” at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals in 1962 and haven’t stopped since.
Robert Lee Smith: Original bass voice of the Tams; today he performs as R.L. Smith and His Original Tams, after a court decision split the group in two. An absolute dynamo live, and a nice guy too. That’s him on “What Kind of Fool (Do You Think I Am?).”
Bobby Tomlinson: Original bandleader and drummer of Raleigh’s the Embers, one of the best known and most beloved white Beach Music acts. He’s full of stories about the hundreds of artists the Embers have backed up over the years. Once he ate Dennis’ birthday cake with the Beach Boys and drove around Raleigh with Carl listening to 45s on a portable record player.