Saturday, 28 September 2013

Development of the beach music scene through to the 1960s

Beach music technically encompasses a range of musical genres, not exclusively soul music. The term itself was a retrospective one, coined in the late sixties and early seventies. However the beach ‘scene’ can actually be traced back at least a couple of decades from here and ultimately to the development of the official dance of the Carolinas: the Shag. The beach music scene would not have existed without the Shag, indeed it started with it. 

By the 1950s kids (black and white) were listening and dancing to national bands who played blues orientated race music and doo-wop. Artists  like The Clovers and Clyde McPhatter were popular. Arthur ‘Guitar Boogie’ Smith was a household name in the Carolinas. He was a talented country composer, guitar player, fiddler and radio presenter (and the original writer of the “Duelling Banjos” instrumental which was re-recorded and used on the 1972 film Deliverance). Arthur became successful after the Second World War with his Calling Carolina radio show and the Arthur Smith Show on the Charlotte NC WBTV channel. In the mid to late 1950s through his talent hunt search, he discovered doo-wop acts such as The Embers, Harry Deal & the Galaxies and Maurice Williams who would later go on to become big beach names of the sixties and beyond. Other TV shows also followed suit, particularly around NC, as a showcase for teenage music and dance talent. 

Motown, soul and R&B had arrived by the 1960s and could be heard all over the south east from radio stations with geographically wide broadcasting capabilities, both inland and along the coastal areas. These fresh sounds were an immediate hit with local high school and college students as well as vacationing teenagers and many local bands picked up on this. Of all the phases of the beach music scene, this period is undoubtedly the most prominent on the scene. Indeed, soul and R&B has remained the primary influence for beach bands that have followed in subsequent decades. 

Students played a major political role in the civil rights movement as discussed earlier, but also had a role in developing and supporting the 1960s beach music scene. Southern college and university fraternities by the 1960s had become social living communities notorious for drinking, sex and partying hard. The emerging sound of soul appealed to black and white students alike. Local bands, usually made up of high school or college students, were frequently hired to play at frat parties and high school proms and made their bread and butter in this way. It is not surprising then that many groups, including those discussed here, were a ‘live act’ or revue first and foremost, and vinyl recordings were sparse. 

Bob McNair, a (white) North Carolina resident, has been a fan and collector of beach, soul and R&B music for pretty much all of his adult life. Brought up in Sanford and now residing in Winston-Salem NC, he recounts his earliest memories of his record buying days. “I distinctly remember my very first 45 record purchase" says Bob.  "In 1961, my best friend at the time, Billy Neal and I combined our funds (50 cents each) to buy “Blue Moon” by the Marcels at Buchanan’s TV-Appliances-Music store in Sanford, NC.  Buchanan's had a fully stocked record shop inside of the appliance store.  The shop was sound proofed with thick double paned glass so that you could crank up the volume on the high end stereo system with a manual turntable.  The little shop was loaded with all the current 45s and LPs of the day including pop, rock, soul, country and black gospel. Mr. Buchanan had a private airplane and he would fly with his wife weekly to Charlotte, NC to stock up on all the latest releases and hot sellers.  I worked in the shop sometimes on the weekends. Often for free, or for a couple of records. They had many black customers who would buy the latest R&B, soul and black gospel, like the Blind Boys of Alabama.  I loved this music and got exposure to songs I may never have heard otherwise. Screw Pat Boone, the Beach Boys and the Beatles. We wanted James Brown, Joe Tex, Booker T. & the M.G.s, The Temptations, The Tams, Wilson Pickett, The Showmen, Gene Chandler, The C.O.D.s and many more. That was only the beginning of a lifetime of  loving soul music."

Racial tolerance and intolerance among artists and fans

“We were all what you might call middle-class white - our neighbourhoods looked like Beaver Cleaver’s of the 1960s” says Nat Speir, founder member of Bob Meyer and the Rivieras. “But we were always very aware of the race issue and the sensitivity of our black acquaintances. We talked a good bit to Curtis and The Impressions about this when worked with them - but things were usually so rushed there was little time for that in most situations. Some of my friends’ parents became heroes to me by inviting four young black men from the Bedford-Stuyvesant project in New York to come and spend a summer with us in our homes, sponsored by an ecumenical group. They were singers too - fancying themselves as younger Little Anthony and the Imperials or The Manhattans. We gigged together for about four months and we all learned a great deal. Yes there were many tricky situations with these guys and with some of the national acts. But booking agents protected the groups somewhat. They wanted to make money. Also Charlotte was never like Mississippi. It was usually cool in Charlotte, or Greensboro, or Columbia - not everywhere was though in the early to mid 60s. The larger cities and towns were segregated in many ways of course. But the "the deal" with the south east was that there were many ways we did interact. Middle class whites wanted black music. Some find this hard to understand. Why would the Charlotte Country Club Deb Ball want Hank Ballard instead of The Beach Boys for their entertainment? But I was right there every chance I got. I heard and got to know many soul and R&B acts in those places. On my turf of course. I doubt I would have been welcome on their’s. And that's fair.”

Despite the racial tolerance in at least some areas of the Carolinas, The Rivieras did experience tensions when out on the road with coloured artists in the south east:

“The Barbara Mason gig in South Carolina, 1966 was one of those things that reminds you of how small and powerless you are." says Nat. "The Rivieras were playing at a small college for women in the Darlington area. Barbara Mason along with our band and singers provided the entertainment. It was a good gig. Nice audience. No trouble. At the end of the gig we were packing up our gear and looking at the girls file out of the auditorium when some of us noticed that talmost everyone she was appointed to find out if we could help. After a few minutes she reported back that Barbara was tired and upset because she couldn't find a place to stay - the motels on the nearby highway were white only. Georgia insisted that we do something. We would go get her a room, pay for it ourselves, and get her moved in so she could get some sleep, seemed like the perfect answer. Of course it wasn't. Ms. Mason politely declined saying that it wouldn't work and we'd be found out. We slowly got the message that pride and dignity might be involved too. Georgia couldn't let it go - but we had to. Ms. Mason said that she and her guitar player would just point the car North and drive all night if need be. It was a good gig but we were all quiet as we hit the highway in our van. I know it turned out ok. This kind of situation was probably played out over and over in the early days. Within a couple of years all the motels and hotels were integrated.”

Defining the musical terminology

When one delves deep, the definition of beach music is blurred. The beach music scene has encompassed a range of styles such as jazz, rock and roll and even country, similar in the way the European popcorn scene has embraced soul, R&B, jazz and standards from across the decades, and the northern soul scene with early R&B and latin boogaloo alongside rare soul. However, whilst the Shag dance scene was already synonymous with a ‘beach scene’ long before the development of R&B and soul in the early 1960s, by this point soul became much more than a mere compatible musical style which fitted the 4/4 requirements of the dance. To this day beach music pretty much is soul music, not exclusively so, but predominently. 

When further refining the term in the context of the 1960s, a reasonable approach may be to reserve beach music for local and national acts (black and white) that particularly had a whole or partial R&B / soul repertoire along the coastal areas of the Carolinas at the time, or were big hits on the beach then. But even this is an over-simplistic view. As Greg Haynes’ work demonstrates, a myriad of teenage garage bands existed well outside of the Carolinas, who were aware of the emerging appeal and accessibility of the ‘new’ black sound of R&B and soul to a white audience, particularly on the beach resorts. Some tapped into this, even though their own individual musical approach may previously have been more mainstream pop orientated. A few bands briefly explored soul, some stuck with it, and others started with the specific intention of providing this music. 

Many bands and vocal groups were actually based inland. With the exception of the Wilmington NC-based group The Generation, or Ron Moody’s outfit from Richmond VA, all the acts described in this book were from areas which lie anywhere between 150 to 500 miles from the coast. Key R&B radio stations broadcast throughout the whole of the south east, ensuring access for teenagers even in remote locations. Inland pools and lake pavilions with jukeboxes were dotted throughout the Carolinas, which offered a ‘substitute beach’ environment where teenagers could swim and listen to music. Take as an example the Williams Lake rural resort near Fayetteville NC, which was originally built during the Second World War and continued to be a popular venue throughout the 1960s. Bob Collins and the Fabulous Five played there in Easter ’65. Other bands included The Monzas, The Aqua Lads, Gene Barbour and the Cavaliers, Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, and national acts like Jackie Wilson, Barbara Lewis, Eddie Floyd and Mary Wells. That said, many inland bands also regularly travelled hundreds of miles (despite the dangers outlined by Nat Speir earlier) to play gigs at the coastal resorts. Long running groups like The Embers, Harry Deal and the Galaxies and Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs travelled extensively to both coastal and inland venues. 

Vinyl recordings from the lesser known 1960s party based beach bands and soul-orientated garage bands were often few and far between. Home grown beach releases may have received reasonable airplay and became sizeable hits locally in the south east at least for a brief time, but then failed to break out further afield, and hence may be relatively unknown in other parts of the USA, let alone other countries. Many records completely failed to get off the starting block because of poor promotion or sheer competition. Payola also played its part to a greater or lesser degree in some records gaining radio airtime. In her autobiography, Hattie Leeper, DJ and manager of The Appreciations, reports she was offered bribes as a local Charlotte DJ. She admits that she was offered oriental rugs, chandeliers, airline tickets, luggage, china, silverware, watches, cameras, electronics, big cash, meals, a poodle, fresh fruit boxes and flowers, as well as recording sessions to cut her own mentored groups.

Some local bands occasionally met with national recording success – The Embers had Atlantic releases and The Tams with ABC. Local studios however were very industrious themselves. Yet another major achievement of Arthur Smith was the long running Arthur Smiths’ Studios in Charlotte where many country and soul artists sessioned. James Brown recorded “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” here. These studios were also a popular choice for beach bands. 

Acceptance of beach and garage bands by the northern soul scene.

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. 

Copyright E. Mark Windle 2013.


Bob McNair. Personal coms. July 2012. Permission obtained to use scans of his booking communications with Hit Attractions.
Clay Smith Arthur Smith - Composer, Musician, Entertainer and Business Entrepreneur. Available at: 
John Hook. Personal coms. June 2012. Permission to use information from Myths and Near Myths. Available at:
Nat Speir. Personal coms. July 2012.
Unknown author (Untitled Harry Driver Story). Shagger Magazine (1995) volume 2, number 2. Southern Shaggers Ltd., Laurens , SC. 
Southern Garage Bands website. Available  

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