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Somewhere over the rainbow… A brief history of beach music and the shag

by Ogi Overman

‘“Chicken’” Hicks, by all accounts a likeable lad, had both an adventurous and an inquisitive streak which, coupled with his easy-going nature, served him well and enabled him to get away with things his peers only fantasized about. He went places, literally and metaphorically, where others dared not tread. It was nothing for him to hop in his hot rod, probably a ’40 Ford Coupe, head into the sunset and keep on going until Route 66 dead-ended into the ocean.

Only problem, it was the wrong ocean.

No, Chicken’s ocean was the Atlantic, specifically Carolina Beach. His preferred haunt was a nondescript diner/juke joint called the Tijuana Inn, owned by his buddy Jim Hannah, who’d chosen the name after one of Chicken’s road trips had taken him south of the border to that infamous pueblecito.

While Chicken’s cross-country jaunts were the source of many a tale told over a bowl of chili and a tall Pabst Blue Ribbon with the jukebox belting out the big band, swing and crooners of the postwar era, the trips that would produce the more lasting significance were of a much shorter distance. Two miles, to be exact.

Just north of Carolina Beach lay a stretch of coastline called Seabreeze that is all but forgotten by everyone except the locals. In that era of strictly enforced segregation, the accepted term for it was the ‘“colored’” beach, but another term was more widely used.

Somewhere between Carolina Beach and Seabreeze there existed an invisible line, a barrier that was not to be breached, that if it had physical presence would have said, ‘“Whites on this side, coloreds over there.’” And everyone accepted those terms unquestioningly, if for no other reason than ‘“that’s just the way it was.’”

Everyone, that is, except Chicken Hicks. The lanky, good-looking guy would comb his blond ducktail, unbutton his shirt to mid-chest, hop in his wheel and head across that great divide a couple of miles down the road that may as well have been on the far side of the rainbow. Once there he found something magical, something enchanting, something that took him to a place that truly was over the rainbow.

Yet, as mystical as it was, it was also something forbidden. White kids didn’t go to Seabreeze in 1945; white kids didn’t listen to that ‘“race’” music in 1945; and white kids for damn sure didn’t mingle with the folks of a darker complexion who frequented those dins of sin. By God, those darkies were making music that was nothing more than thinly veiled references to the sex act, and white kids had no business consorting with those folks or listening to that ‘“devil music.’”

But Chicken Hicks made it his business. After enough trips to the illicit land and tastes of the forbidden fruit, those lyrics were still ringing in his ears and that music pulsing through his body, long after going back across the unseen wall. He would sing them as best he could to his buddy Jim Hannah, imploring him to do something to bring that music to the uninformed masses. So Hannah called the amusement company in Wilmington that stocked the jukebox in his establishment and had them bring over some of that music they regularly took to the joints down the road.

Soon the box that sat just to the right of the entrance to the long and narrow club was blaring tunes unheard of in postwar white America. ‘“Sixty Minute Man’” by the Dominos, ‘“Nip Sip’” by the Clovers, ‘“I Want A Bowlegged Woman’” by Bullmoose Jackson, ‘“King Size Papa’” by Julia Lee, ‘“Fine Brown Frame’” by Nellie Lutcher, ‘“Good Rockin’ Tonight’” by Wynonie Harris and ‘“Flip, Flop & Fly’” by Big Joe Turner were grabbing as many nickels as Kay Kyser, Jo Stafford, Benny Goodman, Tony Bennett, Vaughn Monroe, Perry Como and the Andrews Sisters. Suddenly white America and black America had learned to coexist, if only at the jukebox at the Tijuana Inn.

Some six decades hence, those who research such things ‘— most notably Dr. John Hook, aka ‘“the ‘Fessa’” ‘— make the case that those youngsters and that jukebox at that venue at that time provided the genesis of what would become known some 20 years later as ‘“beach music.’” While Hook and others point to that as the jumping-off point, the seed that was being planted at the ‘“TJ’” was replicating itself at clubs and pavilions all over the North and South Carolina coast. It soon spread inland to nightspots, armories, teenage dance clubs, lake retreats and canteens throughout the Carolinas, Georgia and southern Virginia. And taken as a whole, this white beach music craze that had been inspired by black R&B represented nothing short of a genuine cultural revolution.

But there was more to the story. Music was only part of the equation; dance was the other component. It can be convincingly argued that the music would not have taken root had it not been for the dance that was in vogue during those days. It had numerous precursors, was known by dozens of monikers and employed many variations, but the name that eventually stuck was ‘“the shag.’”

In his book due for release June 17, Shagging in the Carolinas, ‘Fessa Hook traces the origin of the term ‘“shag’” all the way back to 1927, to one Lewis Philip Hall, and its introduction into the Carolinas to the second annual Feast of Pirates, held in Wilmington in August 1928. Not surprisingly, it evolved over the years, as it does even today, yet the smooth one-two-three-kick steps and 120-beats-per-minute pace are essentially the same today as they were then. It was cool then and it’s cool now.

Oh, by the way, Chicken Hicks was a dancer, one of the coolest of his or any other time. As proof, he is forevermore enshrined in the Shaggers Hall of Fame at Ocean Drive Resort in North Myrtle Beach, SC.

With the benefit of hindsight, it becomes obvious that there are five elements that enabled this narrow niche of music and dance to morph into a lifestyle that still flourishes today. In addition to the musicians and the dancers, the phenomenon needed radio support, dance clubs and those who chronicle the cycles of entertainment for it to survive. Profiled below are five such individuals, each at the head of the class in their respective fields, who serve as a metaphor for this genre of music and this form of dance that are indigenous to this region. And, in a very real sense, they are a large part of the reason that beach music and the shag still exist.

The DJ

Ask any baby boomer from North Carolina where they got their daily dose of rock and roll in the ’60s and the answer invariably will be either WCOG in Greensboro, WAYS in Charlotte or WKIX in Raleigh. One of the stalwarts of that latter station was Charlie Brown (aka Ed Weiss) who, by virtue of KIX’s powerful AM signal, may well have best the best-known wax-spinner in the state.

Although Charlie Brown is credited with helping bring the term ‘“beach music’” into the lexicon (more on that momentarily), his first exposure to the phrase came not through radio but instead through the Record Bar, a retail record store that started in Durham and became one of the largest chains in the Southeast.

‘“I was staying with the Bergman family in ’64 or ’65,’” recalls Charlie, ‘“and they had just opened their second store. Barry [the younger Bergman] said people were coming in asking if they carried any ‘beach music’ and he asked me what it was. We certainly weren’t playing it on KIX, but we finally figured out what they were referring to. I’m not saying that’s where it was coined, but what is undisputed, I think, is that the only place they could hear the music they referred to as ‘beach music’ was at the beach. They didn’t hear it on the radio or in the clubs.’”

Gradually, with the rise of Motown and the enormous talent pool of black performers that could no longer be pushed aside, KIX and the rest of the rock ‘n’ roll stations began playing soul and R&B, much of which later became expropriated into the beach music idiom. But a breakthrough that brought beach music closer to the limelight came in late-1965, through Charlie’s old friend Maurice Williams.

‘“Beach music at that time was old R&B, that’s all is was,’” Charlie correctly claims. ‘“When Maurice and the Zodiacs put out ‘May I’ it was the first song that was created, marketed and produced expressly for what had become the beach music market. All other songs up until then were old, already-released songs that the beach music people had adopted, as opposed to Maurice, who said, ‘we’re going to market it to that crowd.””

Charlie was directly involved in two other pivotal developments in the progression of beach music as a genre. In January, 1967, he produced a concert in the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium billed as the ‘“Charlie Brown Third Anniversary Show.’” It featured the Tams, the Embers, Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs and the Showmen and was such a hit they had to stop selling tickets.

‘“That was one of the first beach music shows,’” says Charlie. ‘“It was the first time they’d all been put together in a package. I can’t say it hadn’t happened in Charlotte or other places, but all of a sudden it started exploding.’”

Meanwhile, he had become friends with Atlantic Records honchos Jerry Wexler and Jerry Greenberg, and later that same year produced an album for the label titled Beach Beat that featured tunes like ‘“Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee’” (Stick McGhee) and ‘“One Mint Julep’” (the Clovers).

‘“That was the first time the word ‘beach’ was associated with that type of music,’” he notes. ‘“It got reviewed nationally and sold quite well, so we did a Volume II with some artists not with Atlantic like Billy Stewart and Bobby Moore & the Rhythm Aces, and it did well too.’”

Charlie also points to two other milestones, even though he had no direct connection with either: the formation of Ripete Records in 1979 and Surfside Records in 1980.

‘“Mary Carter and Pete Smolin, who was a buyer for the Record Bar, saw a market for reissues, packaging old music that hadn’t been available before,’” he comments. ‘“Then General Johnson moved to Charlotte and he and Mike Branch started the Surfside label. Those two events finally put the record business in the beach music business. Now they could do reissues as well as new music on 45s.’”

Like most career radio dogs, Charlie shuffled from station to station and format to format over the years, much of the time as either a sales manager or general manager rather than on-air personality. After a brief semi-retirement in which he and wife Sue traveled the world, he resurfaced in Burlington in the summer of 2001 at WPCM, 920 on your AM dial. WPCM is the only fulltime beach music station in central North Carolina, and Charlie hosts middays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., sandwiched between Byron Tucker in the morning and Pete Davis in the afternoon. Moreover, he hosts a three-hour syndicated show, ‘“Charlie Brown’s On The Beach,’” which is carried by 30 stations around the Southeast, including WMQX Oldies 93 in Greensboro, Sunday evenings from 7’–10 p.m.

‘“I’m a survivor,’” he says with a wry grin.

More like a legend.

The club owner

Before venturing into the netherworld of nightclub ownership, that place where livelihoods are dependent upon the fickleness of groupthink and vagaries of taste, Thurston Reeder had the good sense to consult someone who should know, Bill Griffin. In his heyday Griffin had the Midas touch, turning empty buildings and vacant storefronts into hot spots and gold mines. Of the dozens of clubs he had owned over a 30-year span in and around Greensboro, some ‘— the Castaways, the Boondocks, the Bushes ‘— are still spoken of in reverential tones. Plus, at some point he had booked virtually every marquee act on the soul, R&B and beach music circuit and was still on personal terms with most of them, particularly Bill Pinkney of the Drifters and General Johnson of the Chairmen of the Board.

So Thurston approached his friend of a quarter century, who by then was in the twilight of his career, and said, ‘“Griffin, Buzz Sawyer and some of us are thinking about opening a club, but you need to tell me ‘— if you’re going to open another one we’re not; but if you’re not we are.’”

Griffin’s reply was unprintable, but the gist of it was that he’d had enough of the beach music business, and he gave Thurston his blessings and promised his support.

Thus, in 1990 Thirsty’s was born, a brick and mortar paean to the music he’d loved since childhood, a labor of love tucked away on a side street in the shadow of Four Seasons Town Centre. Attached to the live music venue was Greensboro’s only record store specializing in beach and oldies, operated by his lovely wife Linda and Carolyn Lingo, who shared Thurston’s passion for the sounds of the surf.

‘“This business is not so much about making money,’” says Thurston. ‘“We were okay [financially] from day one and we’re still okay, but nobody’s getting rich on beach music.’” He then grins and adds, ‘“But we’re still having a helluva lot of fun with it.’”

And staying busy with it. Four years ago the Reeders sold the record store inventory and moved the club to some land they own on Chimney Rock Road, dubbing it Thirsty’s II. They celebrated their fourth anniversary at the venue two weekends ago and ‘Fessa John Hook will sign copies of his new book there this Saturday, June 17. The Shakers will appear Sunday, June 25 along with Lia and the Wave and a slew of special guests there to help them celebrate their 30th anniversary. It will also be a benefit for the Sunset Wish Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Karen Harrison that fulfills wishes for adults facing terminal illness.

Not only does the club offer live music and DJs on weekends, it also sponsors shag lessons on Thursdays, hosts shag competitions and fundraisers, and frequent cookouts and pig pickin’s. In January it will co-sponsor (along with 2001 and Razzie’s Beach Club) the Beach Music Cruise aboard the Royal Caribbean Sovereign of the Seas.

All of this puts the 59-year-old Greensboro native in a position to both reminisce about the history of the music (and the dance that accompanies it) as well as gauge its health and prospects for future growth.

‘“Overall, I’d have to say that the health of this kind of music is OK,’” he muses. ‘“On the one hand you only have a handful of clubs and radio stations that play it. But then I see the young folks in their twenties who have taken shagging to a new level and the young musicians who are playing alongside the old guys in these good, established bands, and I realize it’s going to be just fine. Plus, I can tell you that since we’ve been here we’ve had around 4,400 members join. To give you an idea of how strong that is, in 15 years at the Bushes, Griffin had right at 2,000 members. So, beach music won’t die off with us baby boomers. It might always be a niche music but it will always be around.’”

The dancer

Growing up in the tiny hamlet of Princeton, NC, situated between Goldsboro and Smithfield, Carol Oakley remembers venturing to a huge warehouse in the equally tiny town of Faison where the Bluenotes played frequently. Plus, Morehead and Atlantic Beach were not that far over the horizon, and it seemed only natural that she learn to dance. And in those days, dancing and shagging were basically synonymous. Much to her delight, when she moved to Burlington in 1964, she found that the shag was the accepted dance there too.

Yet Carol seemed just a bit more proficient than most of her peers and decided to take it up a notch and start entering contests, first as an amateur and later as a professional. Then came marriage and two children, which took precedence over competitive dancing, particularly with all the travel involved, but she never lost that love for the dance.

‘“I started going up to Thirsty’s in Greensboro for the mixed doubles contests,’” she says, ‘“and people started asking, ‘Why don’t you teach?’ So about fifteen years ago I decided to go ahead and start some classes and have been doing it ever since.’”

Susie Beaver was teaching then at Thirsty’s, but when a beach club, 3Thirty3, opened up in Burlington around five years ago it seemed tailor-made for her. So she immediately pitched the idea to owner Johnny Michaels and it became a match made in shagging heaven.

‘“I teach on Tuesdays,’” she discloses. ‘“The classes start on the first Tuesday of every month and last four weeks.’”

So, what is the state of the dance these days?

‘“The shag had always been up a hill and then down a hill,’” she replies, ‘“but for the last several years it seems to a have hit a sustained level. If anything, I think the bar has been raised because more people have gotten involved. There’s more press about it, more people come to SOS [Myrtle Beach’s Society of Shaggers biannual get-togethers], and my classes always stay full.’”

Carol is also encouraged because of the influx of young people wanting to learn to shag.

‘“Mentally, these younger folks are more flexible and more physical,’” she observes. ‘“They’ve taken it to a new level. Some of them are absolutely amazing to watch. Plus, we’re getting more and more young married couples wanting to learn, and that’s a good sign.’”

She also sees as a good sign the fact that many of the musicians are also excellent shaggers.

‘“The Holiday Band took lessons from me,’” she says, ‘“and we kind of partner with a lot of the musicians from Burlington, like Lia and the Wave, Alan Brantley [who co-hosts a show on WPCM with Mikey called ‘Behind the Music’] and Big John Thompson. They tell folks about me and I tell folks about them. We all just keep pushing for the music and the dance.’”

Of course, the dance has evolved over the years, but Carol sees nothing negative in that.

‘“It’s gotten more technical, but that’s OK,’” she notes. ‘“Technique is a good thing; I teach a lot of it myself. The young people have changed some things, but I’m just glad it’s still alive. You just gotta keep their feet moving and the music coming and everything will be alright.’”

The musician

Someday some enterprising journalist may take it upon himself to research the reason such a disproportionate number of musicians came out of the small town of Burlington, NC and why so many of them gravitated toward the relatively obscure genre of beach music. While it is difficult to pinpoint first causes, in much the same way as John Hook narrowed down Chicken Hicks and Jim Hannah as the most likely progenitors of what later became beach music, said journalist might well isolate one prime mover as the source: Big John Thompson.

Big John (like Elvis, the last name really isn’t necessary) was among the first Burlingtonian baby boomers to have any musical success and was able to parlay that teenage faux fame into a career that has taken him to the top of the heap. In fact, a mere recitation of the bands with which he labored is a thumbnail chronicle of beach music itself.

Before he could drive he was playing guitar with the Weejuns, a group fronted by Don Miller, who’s known today as owner of the successful Don’s Music City mini-chain. By high school Miller switched to bass and joined the Monzas, who had a regional hit, ‘“Hey I Know You,’” that is still in regular rotation on beach music stations today.

‘“Gosh we were still babies then,’” smiles John, ‘“but even then I started looking to see who was going to stay in the music business and who wasn’t. We were going to ‘retool’ the Monzas, and that was around the time Bobby Tomlinson of the Embers started calling. I started comparing track records of the Monzas and the Embers and I thought, ‘You know, Audrey Thompson didn’t raise no fool,’ so I went with the Embers. They started me out at $300 a week guaranteed and $100 a night for every night over that. This was the sixties and that was a lot of money back then.’”

Though the money was good and would get even better, the brass ring at the time seemed to be in Nashville, so Big John left the Embers to tour with Donna Fargo and later Stella Parton, Dolly’s younger sister. But the glamour of Music City quickly gave way to the realities of endless bus trips and the anonymity of being in a backup band, so Big John came back to North Carolina.

Again, his timing was good, as an actual beach music scene had started to coalesce and one of the bands that had formed to capitalize on it was the Band of Oz.

‘“Billy Bazemore and Keith Houston had written this song called ‘The Shag’ and I went to talk to them,’” recalls Big John, ‘“and ended up staying with them seventeen or eighteen years.’”

Then came a major turning point and the now-legendary Big John Thompson decided to walk away from it all.

‘“My little girl was born October 25, 1995, and I played my last show two months later on New Year’s Eve,’” he reminisces. ‘“It was the hardest thing I ever had to do, but, see, she was my sixth child and I’d never got to watch any of them much. I just wanted to watch her and I wouldn’t trade that time for nothing.’”

Of course, daddy’s little girl understood that her father was meant to sing and play and was delighted when he decided to put together another band five years ago.

‘“Basically I started it because my son wanted to play,’” he comments. ‘“We’re called the Rhythm Brothers even though I’ve got one the best keyboard players anywhere, Debby Mac, who happens to be a woman. And when I’m done, Little John will keep it going. He’s an entertainer through and through.’”

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, eh?

Little John figures in one of the seminal songs in the history of beach music, and when his dad tells the story behind it, this big bear of a man who’s won every award there is to win in the field of beach music turns into a teddy bear.

‘“He was five years old and came running up to me and said, ‘Daddy, I learned all the words to this song, let me sing it to you.’ I was getting ready to go to a show and said it’ll have to wait until tomorrow, and it about broke his heart. I said heck with the Band of Oz and pulled the car back in the driveway and sat him up on the steering wheel and he sang it for me. That song was ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ and I sat there and cried like a little girl. I said, ‘Daddy’s going to record that song for you and you’ll have it forever and ever.””

And not only will Little John have it but so will the rest of the beach music universe.

The Musicologist

There is only one thing preventing Dr. John Hook’s long-awaited book, Shagging in the Carolinas, from becoming a masterpiece ‘— his next book, to be titled Dancing on the Edge and due out by Christmas, 2007, will be his masterpiece. No, Shagging in the Carolinas will simply have to go down in history as the most painstakingly complete and lovingly created photo-journalistic work detailing the etymology of the shag and beach music that has ever been undertaken. For anyone who has ever attempted the belly roll or the Burlington kick or any other shag maneuver, this is a book to be curled up with and cherished, pored over as both resource and treasure. In one’s reverie, merely to gaze upon the hundreds of black and white images and peruse the accompanying text is to be swept back to a time and place of one’s choosing. To anyone who’s ever been there, near there, or wondered where ‘“there’” is, this is required reading.

Clearly the ‘Fessa has been there, and once he got there he stayed there. Though his circuitous route took him from his native Missouri to Vietnam, where he was a gunner’s mate in the Mekong Delta; to the Philippines, where he began researching the origins of rock and roll; to LA, where he memorized every Top 40 chart from 1949 to ’72, once he got to Charlotte he knew he’d found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

He found it in the form of Chris Beachley, who owned the Wax Museum and over a million records, and in the forms of Big WAVES DJs Jay Thomas and Sandy Beach, who mentored him in this peculiar Carolina beach music. But above all, he found it in the legendary lounge called Groucho’s in the very large form of a woman and the very skinny form of a man.

‘“Beachley and I were sitting down at the end of the bar and this odd-looking couple was dancing and I could not take my eyes off them,’” he relates. ‘“My God, I’d never seen white people dance like that, and I asked Beachley what they were doing, and he said they were shagging. Then they did the belly roll and I said I gotta have some of that. This was 1975 and I think I did my first successful belly roll around ’87.

‘“I loved the music but it was the dance that nailed me. It gave the music a meaning unlike any other music ever had.’”

That chance encounter would launch the DJ/musicologist on a journey to trace the origins of both the music and the dance, yet wound up being an odyssey that attempts to explain the sociological and cultural implications of a puritanical society bumping up against 400 years of oppression ‘— not only oppression of blacks but of its own white self.

‘“That’s what I talk about in the next book,’” reveals the ‘Fessa, ‘“but it’s being driven by something much bigger than whether it’s the dance or the music. It’s the whole culture; it’s the taboo that existed of not being able to listen to and enjoy other people’s music and culture. It was bound to generate an explosion, and beach and shag was an enormous part of that explosion.’”

In that historical context, it becomes easy to understand why John began his research in 1980 and is just now getting the first of his two books published. ‘“I was going to clear this thing up in six months,’” he laughs.

One myth he does seem to have cleared up concerns the origin of the term ‘“beach music,’” and contrary to popular belief, he thinks it can be traced to a singular source.

‘“The popular folklore is that kids went to the beach and heard this music and came back home and started calling it beach music,’” claims John, ‘“but that’s only half right. Chris [Beachley] and I had been batting this thing around for 30 years when he asked me if I’d ever talked to Judy at Judy’s House of Oldies [in Myrtle Beach]. I asked her, ‘Why did your daddy name his first record store what he did and when did he do it?’ She said he opened it in September of 1963 and called it the Beach Music Center. She said from the first moment it opened kids would come in asking if he had stuff like ‘Sixty Minute Man’ and ‘One Mint Julep.’ Soon it became obvious to them that it was not the Beach Music Center, meaning the location, but the Beach Music Center, meaning what they were calling the music itself. It was like a light went off in my head!’”

While it might appear that Hook’s research would be all consuming, his career as a DJ has exploded just like the cultural revolution he has been documenting. Not only does he have three syndicated radio shows each week, owns 105 FM radio station in Myrtle Beach (where he now resides), and DJs at clubs and cruises (he’ll be on the cruise sponsored by his friend Thirsty in January), he also does a 24/7 webcast at beachshag.com. The two-year-old internet broadcast now has the third highest-ranked audience in the United States. And if that weren’t enough, as of last Monday his Endless Summer Network has gone global.

‘“We’ve got a show in Europe called ‘John Hook’s America’s Beach’ that’s been on the European internet for about four months,’” he discloses. ‘“And it’s just now on the Murdoch satellite and Sky Digital, which gives us a total of 22 million listeners.’”

Based on those eye-popping numbers, Dr. Hook agrees with most aficionados that the future of the idiom seems secure.

‘“Absolutely,’” he says firmly. ‘“Some of the most mature and satisfying music I’ve ever heard and seen is happening right now. Beach music was still trying to discover itself 25 years ago, so it’s only now coming into its own. From a creative standpoint, the music and the dance have never been better.’”

Postscript

Malcolm Ray ‘“Chicken’” Hicks passed away July 4, 2004 at the age of 78. Independence Day fell on a Sunday that year. He is currently shagging somewhere south of Seabreeze and somewhere over the rainbow.

Ogi can be reached at ogiman100@yahoo.com.

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