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The First Wave of Beach Music

Sample poster advertising Beach Music

Entertainment Business History

Many thanks to Stewart Tick, who is our guest blogger today. Stewart has been a DJ for several stations on the East Cost, including one in Virginia, where he did a weekly Beach Music Show. Herewith, his article:

“Beach Music: The First Wave, 1945-65”

Those who are not residents of the Southeast may have wondered about the terms “beach music” and “beach records” in reference to certain well-known golden oldies. The following is an attempt to provide some geographical and historical background regarding Southeastern beach music (not to be confused with the 60s “surf music” of Southern California).

It all started, of course, at the beach, specifically the coastal resort towns of the Carolinas. Until the end of World War II, vacationers at the Carolina shore heard only the Big Band dance music of the period and did the Lindy Hop or Jitterbug, the jumpy, athletic dance featured in 40s movie musicals. But somehow, those rapid, sometimes jerky movements never really seemed to fit in with the laid-back, relaxed mood of summer vacations at the shore. Then, in the late 40s, a new music came along to change the style of popular dancing. That music was rhythm-and-blues – then often called “jump blues” – a blend of small-group jazz instrumental backgrounds and blues lyrics, originally popularized by Louis Jordan more than anyone else. The new R&B music had a slower tempo, causing the dancers to adopt a slower, more flowing style of movement, one that actually seemed to fit in with the time and place. Upper-body motion was held to minimum, while footwork became increasingly elaborate, and the turns and spins were slowed to an appropriate pace. This was a new dance, one that was born in Myrtle Beach and vicinity, and it took on a new name – the Shag. Eventually, the Shag became the official state dance of both Carolinas.

For its first few years, the music that the Shag was done to was simply the R&B records of the day. It must be emphasized, though, that for many white high-school and college students, the beach was the only place that they ever heard R&B music. It was regarded as strictly “Negro music” at the time, and R&B records were sold only in areas frequented by African-American shoppers. And white teenagers could only find it on the jukeboxes at the beach resorts. R&B was seldom heard then on the big network radio stations of the Southeast, either. (The one big exception was WLAC in Nashville – a CBS affiliate – which featured nightly R&B shows.)

Here’s how Jerry Wexler of New York’s Atlantic Records explained it: “At some point (circa 1950), we became aware that Southern white, white kids in high school and college were buying our (R&B) records. The Southern market (for R&B records) opened with kids at the University of Virginia, and young people all through the Carolinas along the coastline. Every year in May or June, we came out with what was known as a ‘beach record,’ and it would be a hit in the pavilions – the bathing places – all through the Carolinas.” Still, there was really no such thing as music with the so-called “beach feel” until 1951. The Number One R&B record that year was “Sixty Minute Man” by Billy Ward and the Dominoes, a song that epitomized the early beach-music sound. It was a perfect example of the light, breezy R&B with a prominent mid-tempo backbeat rhythm that was ideal for doing the Shag. It quickly became the anthem of the Shaggers at the beach.

Please click here to listen to “Sixty Minute Man” and watch the video, which features this style of dancing.

Beginning in 1954, R&B records began crossing over regularly to the mainstream pop charts, inaugurating the new era of rock ‘n’ roll. And many of the songs that were considered “beach records” in the Southeast became national pop hits. Examples include “Sh-Boom” by The Chords, “Searchin’” by The Coasters, “There Goes My Baby” by The Drifters, “Stay” by South Carolina’s own Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, “What Kind Of Fool” by Atlanta’s Tams, and “So Much In Love” by The Tymes. Some of these songs were covered by pop artists, but the original R&B versions were invariably the hits at the beach. (For example, Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle & Roll” was perfect for doing the Shag, but Bill Haley’s version was too fast.)

The popularity of beach music continued throughout the 60s, with Motown and Stax-label artists becoming favorites at the shore. People flocked to the beach to do the Shag to Mary Wells, The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Spinners, and Otis Redding (“Sittin’ On the dock Of the Bay”, remember?). “Hot Fun In the Summertime” by Sly & the Family Stone certainly had the “beach feel” and the right “Shag-tempo” beat, too. Later, in the 80s, the popularity of beach music spread throughout Virginia, the Carolinas, and eastern Georgia. Back then, I had a Friday-afternoon beach-music show on an FM station in Virginia. Whenever I asked my listeners for vote for their favorite “beach tunes,” the winner was invariably “Under the Boardwalk.” And so, we had The Drifters come and play at our municipal “Summerfest” concert one year!

Please click here to read more about “Under the Boardwalk” by The Drifters.

Beach music is still around, too, and still popular in the Southeast. Records are still being made with the “beach feel,” and many regional bands specialize in the style. In recent years, Shaggers have been practicing their steps to Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” “Don’t Rush” by Kelly Clarkson, and “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. Even country artists have gotten into the act, with Blake Shelton recording “Some Beach” and the Zac Brown Band adding horns, bluesy guitar fills, and R&B-flavored background harmonies to their regional favorite “Overnight.”

Stewart Tick’s article  “The Second Wave of Beach Music” is available on The Daily Doo Wop‘s sister site Pass the Paisley

If you would like to read more about beach music, please consider this: Shagging in the Carolinas (SC) (Images of America)

 

5 Comments

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