Originally created 08/30/96

Is beach music washed up? Web-posted August 29, 1996



There's a passage in Pat Conroy's novel Beach Music in which the main character, Jack McCall, introduces his daughter to the Drifters' Save the Last Dance for Me.

"This is your Mama's and my favorite song," he tells young Leah, who has spent most of her life in Europe. "We fell in love dancing to it."

The short scene plays an important role in the story. Jack is not only explaining to her one of the most important chapters of his life, he is also using the music to help his daughter become a Southerner.

"Carolina beach music," her uncle Dupree tells her, "the holiest sound on earth."

From the Virginia coast to Georgia, beach music has been an original sound of the South for four decades.

But many people see signs that, like an aging lifeguard, beach music has passed its prime.

"A beach music band nowadays is almost obsolete," said Willis Blume, of Orangeburg, S.C., a promoter of beach music for almost a quarter of a century.

Although many people find beach music difficult to describe, most of its followers agree that it arose from the gospel and rhythm and blues acts from the 1950s an '60s and evolved into its own distinctive sound featuring carefree themes of cold beer and golden tans.

"It's a Southern sound," said Maurice Williams, who grew up in Lancaster and helped define the sound in the late '50s with his band the Zodiacs through such songs as Stay and Little Darlin' (which was recorded by the Diamonds).

He lists Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Johnny Mathis and Hank Williams as his biggest influences.

For most of the bands still performing, the show is more important than the music, Mr. Blume said. Such notable bands as the Swingin' Medallions have even started adding country and other genres to their acts.

"What the beach music band is really best known for is their showmanship and their good variety of material," Mr. Blume said.

In Augusta and Aiken, many of the local clubs that once played beach music prominently have either gone out of business or switched to other dance formats.

"It hasn't been really big now for about six years," said Jimmy Maples, who started playing bass guitar in beach music bands in the mid-'60s and is now a promoter and DJ. "There are some places where if you played beach music they wouldn't know what to do with it."

Beach music was once the dominant sound on what was called "the Pine Cone Circuit," the frat houses and pavilions that dotted the South from Florida to Alabama and as far north as southern Virginia.

Once considered its capital, Myrtle Beach is no longer the hotbed it once was, Mr. Blume said. Ocean Drive was once filled with the distinctive Carolina sounds of such classic tunes as the Tymes' Ms. Grace and Chairmen of the Board's Give Me Just a Little More Time.

Now Myrtle Beach is home to some of the largest country music halls in the South, reducing beach music to a mere opening act for many music fans.

"It's a great change," Mr. Williams said. "Country music is wonderful for Myrtle Beach because it's family, and I'm very strong on that. But on the other hand, it takes away from the cats that started beach music. There's hardly anywhere to work down there anymore."

The music is now found most often at regional events such as the Jekyll Island Beach Music Festival.

But even festival fans are hearing less beach music. In Augusta, for example, beach music is no longer the theme for the annual Red Cross fund-raising event.

In past years, the event brought in popular acts such as the Swingin' Medallions and the Tams. But this year, organizers switched to a "Hot Country Night" theme after a survey found more interest in country acts.

"There was a clear message to change the format," said Carolyn Maund, executive director of the Augusta Red Cross, herself a staunch beach music fan.

"You've got to move with the trends," she said. "Beach music is not as hot as it used to be. We felt it had run its course."

Even shagging, the casual shuffling that became intertwined with the rhythm of beach music, is switching partners. Dancers have found that other genres, including country, are suitable for shagging.

"If you're talking to the baby boomers, they think beach music is just as popular as it ever was," said Jennifer Navarre, a dance instructor at Augusta Ballroom Dance Studio on Washington Road. Younger people, she said, are more willing to shag to other forms of music as long as it has a simple beat.

"Most of the younger crowd is game for anything," she said.

For many people who grew up in the South, beach music's grasp is still tight despite the years.

That's the case for Mike Seepe, who first heard the Tams as a high school student in Chattanooga and was captured by the music's spirit of youthful innocence.

"I can relate it back to an era that was fun for me," he said.

Like the fictional Jack McCall, Mr. Seepe is passing along his love of beach music to his daughter, 16-year-old Bethany. They enrolled in shag class together at Augusta Ballroom Dance Studio.

Beach music lost one of its legends in March with the death of Joe Pope. As the soulful lead singer of the Tams, Mr. Pope neatly summed up the beach music attitude with Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy.

The Tams continue to perform without Mr. Pope, who had announced plans to retire at the end of 1996. Little Red, a performer with the band for over a decade, has moved into the lead singer spot, Mr. Blume said.

Mr. Pope's death highlighted one of beach music's biggest problems. Many of beach music's most famous acts - such as the Drifters - started recording in the '50s and are nearing retirement.

With the exception of such notable groups as the Coastline Band, there are few young bands to continue the tradition.

"I think a lot of bands found it awfully tough to make money out of it," Mr. Blume said. "They don't move a lot of records."

Still, many fans who have seen beach music's popularity rise and ebb over 30 years believe it will make yet another comeback.

"It will come back," Mr. Maples said. "Things go in circles."

There's still new beach music to be made. Mr. Williams and the Zodiacs have a new album due out in October, Let This Night Last, which has two new versions of Stay.

Mr. Williams believes young people will continue to listen to beach music because of its simple, positive message.

"I think there's a beautiful future for it," he said. "They will come for the lyrics that tell a story. I think that will always last. It's hard to take a rap song and say 10 years later `Honey, that's our song playing."'