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Beach music lives forever

by Ogi Overman

By 7:30 the line outside Thirsty’s 2 had already started queuing up and by the time the doors were opened at 8:07 numbered around 50. At least that many more were waiting in their cars, given that Friday evening’s temperatures were hovering in the mid-20s, and dashed to the door once they saw the line dwindling. By the time the featured attraction hit the stage at 9:15 the room was SRO, hence the necessity of braving the January chill to get a table.

The long-running beach music club is accustomed to large crowds, as aficionados of the narrow genre border on the fanatical, but since this marked this particular act’s first appearance in Greensboro, owner Thurston Reeder was not sure how well they would draw. Whatever trepidation he may have had, however, was quickly erased, and by the time the band ended their first set with the beach music anthem “I Love Beach Music,” he and everyone else in the room were all smiles.

Legends of Beach had lived up to their press clippings.

Not that anyone else doubted they would. After all, when you have a combined two centuries-plus worth of stage experience, pre-gig jitters are not apt to be a problem, even in a virgin venue. Still, when you put the word “legends” in your band’s name, you’d better be prepared to back it up. Anything less than a memorable performance will be viewed as empty bravado, a clunker here and there as merely going through the motions. So if their rationale for calling themselves legends was a form of self-induced pressure, a way of ensuring peak performance night after night, then it worked. If there happened to be a doubting Thomas among this room full of true believers, by show’s end they had likely been converted.

But there may be another reason.

In a musical form that evolved from late-’40s-early-’50s R&B, grew into ’60s soul, and ultimately became an idiom unto itself by the early-’70s, beach music is not really old enough to have more than a handful of so-called legends. It has progenitors and influences and heroes – almost all of them black and most of them dead – but very few who can legitimately be called legends. And among those still touring and recording, the list is even shorter.

The case can be made that the reason beach music evolved from merely expropriated R&B into a genre all its own is that the white kids coming of age in the ’60s picked up on it. Of the hundreds of “blue-eyed soul” bands kicking around the Carolinas in the pre-Beatles era, one stood out from the rest. By the time the baby boomers were entering college, the frat boys and booking agents alike knew there was one band at the top of the heap, one combo that delivered the goods consistently and professionally. That group was the Embers.

Therefore, it can be argued that the Raleigh-based group’s rise to prominence did not coincide with the rise of beach music but that it actually drove its promulgation. It is no stretch to say that were it not for the Embers, beach music as it is known today would not exist.

And to take the argument one step further, the Embers would not have become the preeminent beach band if not for their lead singer, Jackie Gore. Gore and drummer Bobby Tomlinson started the band while still in high school and stayed together until Gore left to pursue a solo career in 1995. Bassist Gerald Davis joined in 1976, logging 31 years before leaving last year. Keyboardist Johnny Barker, who penned the classic “Summertime’s Calling Me,” sandwiched a 15-year career with the Embers around stints with the Catalinas and Entertainers. Sax man and singer Mark Black and guitarist Jeff Grimes were Embers for over two decades, and when Grimes departed shortly after Davis, the seeds of a reunion were planted.

“I’d already talked to Jackie about it as soon as I left,” said Davis before the show Friday, “and we talked to Johnny and Mark, but when Jeff left and committed to us we knew we had a band.”

The five added drummer Tony Davis, horn men Steve Davis and Jason Moore, and longtime Embers sound tech Steve Davis, began working up some of their classic hits as well as some newer material, and then hit the studio. They released an eponymous CD last fall, which not only has several singles on the beach-music charts simultaneously, but gave them product to peddle at their live shows.

Gore, who wrote the all-time anthem “I Love Beach Music” in 1979, remarked, “I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to play with these guys. And being here tonight, it’s like we never left. It’s like being young again.”

That’s what happens when you’re a legend.

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