Sunday, January 19, 2014

Beach Music and the Shag

A few years ago I drove down from New York to Myrtle Beach in South Carolina (a long drive I recall) to catch some early spring sunshine and also to see if I could find some beach music and shagging (the dance, that is). It turned out to be cold and disappointing music-wise, although if I had been interested in playing golf I would have been spoilt for choice as there are dozens of golf courses in the area.
My memory of the trip was jogged by a book that I have just read called It's Better To Cry by British northern soul fan E. Mark Windle, which he describes as 'a 1960s rare soul collector's perspective of beach bands, garage bands and black vocal groups from the south eastern states'. The book features interviews with members of many of the groups that operated in the Carolinas and Georgia in the sixties, most of which are obscure, to say the least, but whose records have been favourites at one time or another in some of the northern soul clubs. Best known of the featured groups are Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, who had a big hit with Stay in 1960, the Embers and the Tempests, while others, such as Bob Collins and the Fabulous Five, The Greater Experience and Ron Moody and the Centaurs, were previously unknown to me.
Beach music, along with the shag dance craze, is very much a local affair, with links into 1950s R and B, Memphis and Detroit soul and white blue eyed soul and garage music. Its best known exponents were the Tams, General Johnson and the Chairmen Of The Board and Clifford Curry, while other acts from the greater Carolina region included the Swingin' Medallions and the O'Kaysions. The 100 most popular beach music songs list gives an idea of the variety of records played around the area over the years.
Much of the music is really excellent and under-rated or little known, but here are a few of the better known beach music 45s.
First the Tams and a highly collectable demo of their 1964 record Hey Girl Don't Bother Me which became a big hit when reissued in the UK in 1971. Although well known as a beach music group they originally came from Atlanta, Georgia.
Maurice Williams and Zodiacs were previously known as the Charms and Gladiolas and had the original hit of Little Darlin' in 1957 (covered by The Diamonds) before changing their name and having a US number one with Stay in 1960, the shortest 45 ever to top the US charts. This is the follow up.  
The O'Kaysions were a blue eyed soul band from North Carolina, whose record Girl Watcher was a US hit in 1968.
The Tams made a comeback in the late 80s when the film Shag was released and featured this 1987 record, which was banned by the BBC because of the word's rather different meaning in the UK!


At 4:11 pm , Blogger Nick said...

Robin Tomlin, a Brit who now lives in the area and who I met in New Orleans recently, commented on Facebook: Having had first hand experience working in this 'scene', I can tell you most of this stuff is a terrible and pale version of the R&B we love!

At 9:42 pm , Blogger Nick said...

Some more comments on Facebook:
Robin: It's the 'scene' that really offends Nick, pasty nondescript white folk, badly dressed, stupid dances, aura of desperation for the good old days when black folk were 'the entertainment'. And the music, ugh, so bleached out that any grit and groove....removed. DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR!! I do enjoy asking UK Northern Soul fans what the difference is though, they really hate that!
John Marriott: Shocked though not surprised by Robins attack above. I’ve always had a bit of an affection for the beach music scene but only experienced a couple of beach clubs in this relevant area, one once to see Billy Scott and the Prophets (who amazingly didn’t do I got the Fever – but that’s another story). The records played on both nights were great – stuff you would hear on the Northern scene (more on that later) – Willie Tee , Invitations etc plus great 50’s R&B interspersed by earnest attempts at soul by local well meaning college type groups. People there really loved their music and danced in a style all their own. Easy to sneer at that but whats the point. As for the clothes most of the guys there were wearing Hawaiian style bowling style rather like the pasty faced bloke in Robins avatar is wearing unless Robin is the other guy who bears a remarkable resemblance to James Brown. I’m presuming Robin will read this and might remember we have chatted about his thoughts on the Northern scene before. It was a good few years since I was in the Carolinas and the scene might have changed (I know most artists have passed on). But why should people hate with the comparison between Northern and beach scenes – both love dancing, listening to soul music and having a good time with friends on Sat night.
Me: Glad to see I've started a healthy debate! Judging by the top 100 list I linked to the blog there were some people with good taste on the beach music scene, pasty or not!
John Marriott: I think its a great list. Just done a count up -have 78 of them on 45 and a lot of remainder in other formats - one notable exception is Hot chocolate !!!

At 8:55 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

As the writer of It's Better to Cry, its hard to resist the debate, but I thought easiest to just post a link up to my blog which contains the text of a much of my book. This particular link is relevant to what is being discussed here:

At 8:57 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry meant to cut and paste a bit:

"The northern soul scene is often pre-occupied with its black roots, yet of course a huge number of classic northern soul tracks were blue eyed soul. Well loved examples over the course of the history of the scene stretch from Scepter's Ronnie Milsap to the more recent discovery of Athens Rogues and the like. Critics of this genre may pass the pseudo-philosophical comment that “white folks can’t sing soul”, often on the basis of a tame pop approach to melody or vocal and musical structure. A completely redundant argument perhaps when, for example, you consider group sounds like The Magnificent Men on “Keep on Climbing”, and the Righteous Brothers “Its Up to You” (who can deny this track as soul, and they got their name after a comment made by a black audience!), or gritty solo vocals such as Turley Richards with “I Feel Alright” and Barbara Dane on the R&B and civil rights flavoured “I’m on My Way”. Dean Parrish (a.k.a. Phil Anastasi), surely one of the most well known of northern soul artists, is a white American-Italian. Admittedly, the pop approach can be found to some extent in purpose made beach sounds of the 1970s, where the intention was, unashamedly for them, to manufacture the ‘feel good’ factor of a previous decade. However those willing to undertake more than a cursory delve into the soul of the south in the 1960s will soon reveal the true diversity offered: a combination of mid and up tempo records, gritty vocals, sweet group harmonies and records with true soul appeal, irrespective of racial mix. It should also be remembered that whilst many local 1960s beach and soul bands were typically characterised by a white line up - at the end of the day, this was the nature of the scene’s development - this was not a pre-requisite. Some were integrated bands, some with black lead vocals, or in the case of The Delacardos or The Appreciations, had an all black vocal group. Colour, at least in this musical context, was and is irrelevant."


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