There's Trouble On The The Carolina Coast!
Jul 27, 2020
This article appeared in the widely-read Burlington (NC) Times-News in February 2020.
If you’re looking for a timeless beach music anthem, it’s hard to top “I Love Beach Music.”
The lyrics of the gently swinging ’70s-era tune from longtime North and South Carolina act The Embers, delivered in the laid-back croon of the band’s original vocalist, Jackie Gore, sum up what many think about the genre: “I love beach music/ I always have, and I always will.”
That spirit was clearly in evidence Wednesday evening at St. James Plantation’s SeaSide Club in Southport, where more than 100 people showed up to see the current-day version of The Embers, led by the estimable entertainer Craig Woolard, who segued seamlessly from vocals to saxophone to flute and back.
Woolard, who’s been with The Embers off and on since the 1970s, played to the mostly 60-something crowd. “Tonight we’re going to do things like we used to do!” Woolard exhorted. “Somebody might try to go home with somebody else’s significant other. We might even have a fight.”
Looking on as a handful of couples shag danced in the sand in front of the bandstand, which was set up next to the sand volleyball court, it was kind of hard to imagine that happening.
Even so, the seven-man Embers band sharply delivered a mix of soul classics (Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me”), ’70s soft rock anthems (The Looking Glass’ “Brandy”) and contemporary party rockers (Pink’s “Get the Party Started”). The crowd might not have been doing things exactly like they used to do them, but the soundtrack was largely the same.
Certainly, many at the SeaSide Club on Wednesday have fond memories connected to beach music. It’s part of the region’s fabric.
But with The Embers — or at least the original members of the band, which formed more than 50 years ago — flickering with age alongside many beach music fans nearing or long past retirement age, it’s a fair question: Where will the genre, which some say helps define Southeastern North Carolina and the Carolina Coast beyond, find itself 10 years or even a generation from now?
Will it continue to cement itself into our collective musical consciousness? Or will the nostalgic genre gradually fade into the sands of time?
A Carolina thing
Beach music festivals A look at a few of the beach music festivals in the Southeastern U.S.
Grey Reynolds has been around beach music most of his life. The longtime North Carolina beach music act Band of Oz, which formed more than five decades ago, “played my wife’s high school prom,” Reynolds said.
Now the president of the Pleasure Island Chamber of Commerce, Reynolds, 65, helps put on the annual Carolina Beach Music Festival, which celebrated its 34th anniversary in June and bills itself as “the longest-running beach music festival in the United States still on the beach.” Bands play on the Carolina Beach Boardwalk to crowds located on the actual beach strand.
“It’s definitely a Southeastern North Carolina thing,” Reynolds said of the genre that’s sometimes called Carolina beach music. “I mean, the West Coast, their idea of beach music is The Beach Boys.“
Reynolds has seen the popularity of the Carolina Beach Music Festival ebb and flow, and admitted “five or six years ago, I was worried that it might be fading out.” Over the last couple of years, however, he’s seen a resurgence: “It’s been pretty steady — around 3,000 people, which is about what that part of the beach will hold.”
That’s down from a high of 40,000 people who turned out for the festival circa 1990 — they didn’t charge admission back then — but also more in line with the family friendly vibe Carolina Beach is courting these days as opposed to the “drunk fest,” Reynolds said, that marked the festival’s early years.
More heartening to him is that “we are noticing a younger crowd. The original shaggers” — beach music fans who perform the partner dance the genre helped inspire — “are starting to age out.” Still, Reynolds can’t help but wonder, “Are (the younger folks) there for the music? Or are they there for the happening?”
A brief history
The sound now known as beach music evolved from ’50s and ’60s pop, soul and R&B. Many songs carry the gritty, Detroit-born style of the Motown label, and the hits that became staples of the genre were widely popularized after such African-American acts as The Drifters (“Under the Boardwalk,” a definitive beach music tune), The Tams (“Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy” could be beach music’s motto), The Temptations (“My Girl”) and The Four Tops (“I Can’t Help Myself,” aka “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch”) caught on with white audiences.
Something about the sound — carefree and romantic, without a trace of cynicism or negativity — dovetailed with the feeling of what’s it like to spend time on beach, while conjuring nostalgia for the happy memories of its fans’ more youthful days.
“It’s like a mental jukebox,” said Jim Quick of the Wilmington band Coastline, which plays what Quick terms “swamp soul,” a mix of beach music classics alongside beachy, Southern-fried originals and a few heavier rockers.
“They didn’t even call it beach music till the 1970s,” Quick noted.
Woolard calls the 1980s “the Golden Age for beach music” as bands like The Embers, General Johnson and The Chairmen of the Board (“Carolina Girls”), The Catalinas (“Summertime’s Calling Me”) and the Band of Oz — some of them with major label backing — put their own horn-infused spins on the Motown sound. They become regional powerhouses, playing regularly from their home bases in Charlotte and the Triangle down to the Wilmington area and Myrtle Beach and up into Virginia. “Carolina Girls” became such a well-known regional hit that it was refashioned into a commercial for Carolina Dodge.
Today, a dozen or more beach music festivals are strung between Virginia and South Carolina throughout the year.
“You have a huge following for beach music in Charlotte. That’s one of the biggest markets,” said Mike Worley, who’s based in Carolina Beach and runs Edge Entertainment, which puts on the North Ocean Drive Music Festival in North Myrtle Beach. “They’re rolling into North Myrtle Beach.”
With two of the last remaining beach music clubs, a beach music radio station and a huge annual beach music festival, North Myrtle is the genre’s current epicenter.
As for who gets to claim the Carolina beach music sound, “they’ll argue till the cows come home if it started in North Carolina or South Carolina, and I don’t care,” Worley said. “I just know it started in the Carolinas.”
Characterized by a steady-bobbing, danceable, mid-tempo beat, beach music inspired and evolved alongside a dance that came to be known as “the shag.” A more laid-back version of the jitterbug or the East Coast swing, some historians trace the shag’s origins back to Carolina Beach and the African-American Seabreeze community of the 1940s and ’50s, where such dancers as Malcolm “Chicken” Hicks learned steps and brought them into the white community.
“Shagging and beach music, it’s all connected,” said Gary Lowder of the band Gary Lowder and Smokin’ Hot, a regular on the beach music and party band circuit. (“I call my band R&B party soul,” Lower said. “Kind of covers it all.”)
He’s played everywhere from the Dominican Republic and Key West to Cancun and Minneapolis, all places where “they like the music but they don’t call it beach music,” Lowder said. “It’s very localized. People in other parts of the world, they don’t know what shag dancing is. People from out of town see (shagging) and say, ‘It looks like something they did in the ’40s and ‘50s.’ Well, it is.”
Shagging can range from a highly competitive dance floor obsession, with judges, to a completely casual, no-shoes beach affair. These days, however, crowds that show up for many beach music shows are as apt to line dance as they are to shag.
″‘The Cupid Shuffle?’” Lowder asked, referencing the 2007 pop hit that’s become a line dancing favorite. “Is that beach music? I don’t know, but if you don’t play it, people are disappointed.”
Reynolds said that groups like the Cape Fear Shag Club “help keep beach music alive,” but Lowder worries that unless more dancers take it up, shagging is “gonna be like clogging,” a relic from the past that is performed by very few people.
A diversifying sound
Bands that play only Carolina beach music are “a dying breed,” Lowder said. “It’s really hard to entertain an outdoor crowd unless you have a real good variety of songs.
“Beach music is really a confusing genre for a lot of people. You can take an artist like CeeLo Green, who’s about as far from beach music as you can get, but if the beat is there, the shaggers will dance to it and they call it beach music.”
These days, self-styled beach music bands might mix in everything from funk and blues to Southern rock and contemporary pop hits like Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite,” the turn toward variety perhaps spurred by multi-band beach bills — “all those bands, they all play the same songs,” Lowder said.
Dale Edwards, trombone player, manager and founder of the BlackWater Rhythm and Blues Band, agrees that “right now, variety seems to be what works” for bands playing what some call the beach music circuit, which includes many of the free outdoor concert series that have sprung up in many North Carolina towns.
“We play a lot of stuff the beach music people dance to that’s not beach music,” Edwards said. Then again, he added, “We go places where they want us to play all beach.”
With members who range in age from 24 to 60, BlackWater is one of the younger bands to play beach music, though Edwards jokes that “we act younger than we really are.”
Reynolds, of the Carolina Beach Music Festival, said that bands like BlackWater are popular with the beach music crowd.
“It’s a slow shift,” he said. “Their sound has got that beach music beat to it, but it goes into some different places.”
When Spare Change, a band out of La Grange, played the Beach Music Festival a few years ago, “some complained they were not beach music. Others wanted them to headline the next festival,” Reynolds said. “We’re always scared to break the mold. We don’t want to upset the purists, but we don’t want to get stagnant, either.”
Beach music clubs, with wooden floors conducive to shag dancing, were the norm up and down the coast. Acts like Band of Oz or The Embers would do two-week stints at the beach clubs. While The Spanish Galleon and Fat Harold’s in North Myrtle Beach remain beach music hot spots, the genre has now largely moved outside.
To Worley, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“Now, you don’t have to really go to a club to see a band,” Worley said. “Most every city has some kind of ‘live after 5’ thing now.” In North and South Carolina, many of those bands are beach music bands.
“Sometimes, that’s their introduction,” Worley added.
However, some outdoor concert series, like Wilmington’s Downtown Sundown and Carolina Beach’s Boardwalk Blast, forgo most or all beach music. All music changes and evolves, and most people interviewed for this story agreed that the key to beach music’s survival is getting younger fans involved.
“The age of the people coming to festivals, a lot of them are very young. I ask them and they say, ‘My mom and dad listened to it,’” Worley said. “In order for the industry to survive, you’ve got to have new music. Original music. The classics were once brand-new songs.”
Worley cites Sylvia Ritchie as an area songwriter cranking out new beach music songs, and Quick has written a number of contemporary beach music tunes for Coastline, including “New Old Songs,” which references some of the old-school songs that influenced it.
That said, if there are songs poised to become 21st century versions of “Carolina Girls” or “I Love Beach Music,” it’s not readily apparent what those songs are.
Beach music lifestyle
Ironically, the key to beach music’s future might not be the music at all.
“The whole beach music industry is a lifestyle,” said Worley, who, while being interviewed, was driving to yet another of the many beach music event he holds. He also DJs for SURF 94.9 FM out of North Myrtle Beach, the rare radio station that plays beach music 24-7.
“Most stations don’t see the value in playing oldies,” said Worley. Then again, SURF just celebrated its 24th anniversary.
He is bullish on beach music’s future, noting not only his full-time gig but also the dozens of musicians who make a living in the beach music world.
Jim Quick of Coastline agrees: “Personally, I feel like there’s a rebirth.” Fans of the music are connecting on the internet, with The Beach Music Cafe group on Facebook boasting upwards of 15,000 members.
“They want to keep it alive, so they’re finding each other,” Quick said.
No doubt some music fans, both younger and older, prefer something edgier and more hip than what beach music offers. And yet the lifestyle associated with the music — laid-back, positive, fun-loving — is an appealing one, Worley said.
“When you go to a festival of 5,000 people, listen to some great music, dance and drink beer, I mean, that’s cool,” Worley said. “People want to be part of that. With our area being such a hot destination, one thing that’s going to help is the number of people moving to our area.”
Once people see what it’s all about, the beach music lifestyle is not a hard sell.
And if anyone’s touting the imminent demise of beach music, well, they’re most likely
“If it survived disco,” Quick quipped, “it can survive anything.”