Beach music, also known as Carolina beach music, and to a lesser extent, Beach pop, is a regional genre which developed from various rock/R&B/pop music of the 1950s and 1960s. Beach music is most closely associated with the style of swing dance known as the shag, or the Carolina shag, which is also the official state dance of both North Carolina and South Carolina. Recordings with a 4/4 "blues shuffle" rhythmic structure and moderate-to-fast tempo are the most popular music for the shag, and the vast majority of the music in this genre fits that description.
Historical accounts of beach music as it relates to the development of this dance are often conflicting, but most agree that the Ocean Drive section of North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina is where the beach/shag phenomenon had its greatest impact among vacationing teenagers and college students. The early development started around 1946.
In the period from roughly the end of WWII through the mid-1950s, a great many white youth in the still-segregated South could not always hear the compelling music of primarily black popular recording artists in their home towns. At the time, much of these recordings were characterized as "race music", a term later replaced by "R&B." In some communities, this remained in effect even after racial integration was implemented in the region. However, young people flocked to the bars and pavilions of the Carolina beaches where the shag was gaining popularity, R&B along with jazz instrumentals by artists such as Earl Bostic ruled the jukeboxes, and the "beach clubs" where R&B artists performed live also thrived. Even though toward the end of the 1960s more and more such clubs with similar jukebox selections and live band performances opened in other locations than the beach resorts, the term "Beach Music" which began to emerge in the mid-1960s, keyed off of the memorable experiences of dancing the shag to this music at venues by the sea.
A major contributing influence upon this musical affinity beginning in the late 1940s was radio station WLAC in Nashville, TN, which blanketed the Southeast with everything from R&B to blues and more. Stations with similar playlists began to emerge in the Carolinas and surrounding states throughout the late 1950s and the 1960s, increasing the popularity of the music across racial lines and contributing to the increasing popularity of the emerging new gospel-infused R&B sound, soul music.
Artists and groups that were important to the formative years of this genre include: Clifford Curry, Billy Scott and the Georgia Prophets, Artie Shaw, Wynonie Harris, Ruth Brown, Little Willie John, Earl Bostic, The Drifters, Jimmy Cavallo, Wilbert Harrison, Clyde McPhatter, Billy Ward and His Dominoes, Hank Ballard, James & Bobby Purify, Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, The Tams, Bob and Earl, The Tymes, The 5 Royales, The Coasters, Fats Domino, Jimmy McCracklin, Brenton Wood, Solomon Burke, Sam Cooke, Jimmy James and the Vagabonds, The Platters, The Four Tops, Louis Prima, Bob Kuban and the In-Men, Gene Chandler, Arthur Alexander, Stick McGhee, Jackie Brenston, Wilbert Harrison, Bobby Moore & the Rhythm Aces, Tyrone Davis, Big Joe Turner, Bruce Channel, Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter, Dinah Washington, Billy Stewart, The Temptations, The Impressions, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, The O'Jays, The Spinners, The Jarmels, Eddie Floyd, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Jackie Wilson, Etta James, The Checkers, The Clovers, Barbara Lewis, Don Covay, Mary Wells, Garnet Mimms and The Enchanters, Ben E. King, Major Lance, Willie Tee and Ernie K-Doe.
While some of the "beach hits" by these artists appeared on the R&B and rock and roll charts nationally, a great many of them were "b-sides"—or even more obscure recordings that never charted at all. With this penchant for obscure R&B, especially from the 1960s, beach music has much in common with the northern soul phenomenon in the UK, and perhaps even more with the popcorn sound in Belgium.
Transition and renewal
The beach bands
Another wave of artists, known today as the "beach bands" came into prominence in the mid-1960s to early 1970s, heavily influenced by the sound of Motown and the other prominent R&B labels of the day such as Atlantic Records, Stax, etc. These included The Tassels, Harry Deal and the Galaxies, The Tams, General Johnson and the Chairman of the Board, The Catalinas, The Embers, The Poor Souls and the nationally-charting groups The Swinging Medallions, The Okaysions and Bill Deal and the Rhondells. Many of these bands got their start backing the famous R&B/soul artists who played at The Myrtle Beach Pavilion, the Spanish Galleon, the AFterdeck, Fat Harold's and The Beach Club in Myrtle Beach, The Coachman and Four in Bennettsville, The Cellar in Charlotte, NC, The Embers Club in Raleigh and Atlantic Beach, The Galaxy Club in Wilson, Rogues Gallery and Peppermint Beach Club in Virginia Beach and other such venues.
This wave of primarily white R&B artists was part of a strong but nationally short-lived musical trend known as "blue-eyed soul" which also produced The Rascals, The Box Tops, John Fred, Rare Earth, Leon Russell, Johnny Rivers, Bonnie Bramlett, Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels, and The Righteous Brothers.
The revival years
In the 1980s, beach music enjoyed a major revival in the Carolinas, thanks largely to the formation of a loose-knit organization known as The Society of Stranders (SOS). Originally intended as a relatively small social gathering of shag enthusiasts, "beach diggers" and former lifeguards meeting yearly in the Ocean Drive section of North Myrtle Beach, S.O.S. quickly grew to become a major Spring event.
At around the same time, a fanzine called It Will Stand (from the song of that name by The Showmen) began to delve into the history of beach music. Concurrent with the new enthusiasm for the shag, and an increased emphasis on the roots of the music came a period of revival for many of the beach bands that had come to prominence in the 1960s. In addition to these groups, younger artists began to emerge, either as members of established groups, or with groups of their own. Dedicated beach music charts began to appear, tracking the musical tastes of shaggers and other aficionados of the genre. The number of regional radio stations playing beach music began to increase substantially.
In 1981, Virginia entrepreneur John Aragona sponsored the first Beach Music Awards show at the Convention Center in Myrtle Beach. He would sponsor and produce two more TV Specials over the next several years. In the late 1980s interest in Beach Music was revived and expanded. On November 19, 1988, live from Reynolds Coliseum, on the campus of North Carolina State University, "The Third Annual Beach Music Awards" was videotaped by Creative Center, a Los Angeles based TV production company. The Awards show featured 20 of Beach music's stars and groups, ten Los Angeles based dancers, 20 professional shag dancers, and a twenty-piece back-up band, performing 50 of beach music hits.
The 3rd Annual Beach Music Awards TV Special was produced by Ron Dunn and Susan B. Donovan. Ron Dunn, DGA, served as director and writer, along with Susan B. Donovan (choreographer), and the show's executive producer, John X. Aragona. One of the key factors was a new song by O.C. Smith, "Brenda", written and produced by Charles Wallert. "Brenda" was on the national Billboard charts for three months and became the number one beach music song for two years. "Brenda" was nominated for six Awards and won five at the Third Annual Beach Music Awards. The telecasts of the Beach Music Awards in the 1990s (the footage appears in TV shows currently being broadcast) brought new awareness to the wide appeal of this music. New songs that were also national hits became popular in the beach music markets. Aragona spent more than 30 years promoting beach music.
These shows set the stage for the CAMMY Awards show, first held at Salisbury, North Carolina in 1995. The shows soon moved to Charlotte and then to North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where they are still an annual event under their new name, The Carolina Beach Music Awards (CBMA). The CAMMY (CBMA) show has turned into a five-day long showcase and party for the fans and the bands, with shows all along the strip in NMB. It culminates in a show at the Alabama Theatre. Chuck Jackson and William Bell were the national stars featured in 2009, backed by the Craig Woolard Band and the Band of Oz respectively.
The best of beach music from the early decades, from both national and regional artists, is known today as "classic beach". However, there is more to beach music than just the oldies. New recordings in this style are being produced regularly as part of the regional music industry in the Southeastern United States. While the terms "beach music" and "Carolina beach music" are still used, the increasing popularity of the shag has led to it sometimes being identified as "shag music". Many websites have lately begun to refer to this music as "beach & shag".
The current regional beach and shag scene
Artists of note
Current regional artists and groups who appear on the Beach and Shag music charts include:
- The Tams
- Clifford Curry
- Band of Oz
- Bill Pinkney's Drifters
- General Johnson's Chairmen of the Board
- The Craig Woolard Band
- The Fantastic Shakers
- The Part-Time Party-Time Band
- The Band of Oz
- The Entertainers
Also charting regionally are such US and international artists such as Van Morrison, Ray Charles, Adele, Cee Lo Green, Robin Thicke, Justin Timberlake, John Mayer, Kid Rock, Michael Bublé, Rod Stewart, Grayson Hugh, Huey Lewis, T. Graham Brown, Simply Red, Wilson Pickett, Hall & Oates, Al Green, James Hunter, Seal, R. Kelly, Duffy, Kelly Clarkson, and Delbert McClinton. In recent years, national artists of note - such as O.C. Smith, Alabama, Jimmy Buffett, and the Carolinas' own Nappy Brown and Roy Roberts - have recorded music specifically aimed at this market.
Though primarily confined to a small regional fan base, in its early days what is now known as Carolina beach music was instrumental in bringing about wider acceptance of R&B music among the white population nationwide. Thus is was a contributory factor in both the birth of rock and roll and the later development of soul music as a sub-genre of R&B.
In the years since its beginning, while the older styles of R&B have faded from popularity nationally, the Carolina shag has gained wide popularity in swing dance circles around the US. This has not generally led to increased appreciation for the music of the beach bands, however. Many of these new shag dance aficionados prefer the "R&B oldies" and/or shagging to currently popular tunes that happen to have the required beat. As more networking is being done on the Internet among shag deejays and beach music fans nationwide, however, there is a growing acceptance of the regional bands by the "new shaggers".
In a related trend, since the year 2000 there has been a steady increase in the popularity of Southern Soul, led by such R&B labels as Ecko and Malaco. These labels feature both original and new artists of "the old school", and sometimes turn out recordings aimed specifically at the beach/shag market. An example of this is "I'm In A Beach Music Mood" by Rick Lawson. In addition, at least one dedicated Beach act, General Johnson and the Chairmen of the Board, charted both nationally and internationally with their brand of Southern Soul - sometimes with songs that were not aimed specifically at the beach and shag market, such as "Three Women". In 1994. General Johnson released a beach music version of The Ramones' punk anthem "Rockaway Beach" as a duet with Joey Ramone as part of the collection "Godchildren of Soul." In its October 15, 2010 edition, the New York Times obituary for General Johnson referred to "beach music" as an "upbeat brand of rhythm and blues".
Jimmy Buffett cites beach music as a major influence. His CD Beach House On The Moon was intended as an homage to the genre. Though it featured The Tams, and for a while they toured with him as vocalists, the CD did not yield any tunes that were big hits with beach music fans. However, it may have been influential in popular country music. Since that release, there have been others by artists associated with Buffett that have had that "perfect shag beat" and a beach music feel to them. Some have become hits with shaggers, including "Drift Away" and "Follow Me" by Uncle Kracker, "Need You Now" by Lady Antebellum, "Why Don't We Just Dance" by Josh Turner, "Some Beach" by Blake Shelton and "When The Sun Goes Down" by Kenny Chesney. Just as was the case with "Dancing, Shagging On The Boulevard" by Alabama in the 1990s, these country-flavored songs went over well on the dance floor regionally but did not please the more R&B oriented beach music fans. They did, however, impact the growing national shag dance scene to some degree.
In addition to these country and pop connections for the music, the pure R&B aspects of it have led to a kind of cultural cross-fertilization of beach and shag music with the northern soul scene in the UK and elsewhere. This has been due in large part to communication between DJs of the respective genres on the Internet. 'Fessa John Hook's Endless Summer Network, streamed on the Internet, has a weekly program featuring noted northern soul deejay Kev Roberts, and there are plans for its programming to also be carried on satellite radio in Europe.
Carolina beach music was featured on the sound track of Shag, a 1989 film starring Bridget Fonda and Phoebe Cates, filmed in part at the Myrtle Beach Pavilion and other Grand Strand locations. Though not a wholly accurate portrayal, with the actresses' uneven attempts at Upstate Carolina accents especially notable, many viewers consider it an agreeable and entertaining "coming of age" movie, with a good soundtrack and some excellent shagging. Not widely popular in its initial release, Shag has gone on to become something of a cult film. No doubt it has helped to foster and maintain some interest beyond the Carolinas for beach and shag music.
In what is undoubtedly the most internationally famous example of its influence, Beach Music by South Carolina author Pat Conroy takes its title from this regional genre of music. The novel's protagonist, Jack McCall, seeks to get his daughter more in touch with her Southern roots. He does this by introducing her to the shag and to classic beach music. He describes The Drifters' immortal song, "Save the Last Dance For Me" in this way:
"This is your Mama's and my favorite song. We fell in love dancing to it."
Then: "Carolina beach music," her uncle Dupree tells her, "is the holiest sound on earth."
Beach Music Air Force, An updated listing of all local radio station reporting the play of Beach Music in a regular rotation.
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- Keepnews, Peter (October 15, 2010). "General Johnson, Singer and Writer of Hit R&B Songs, Dies at 69". Nytimes.com. Archived from the original on 21 October 2010. Retrieved October 23, 2010.
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