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The Carolinas: Of Piedmont Blues, Beach Music and Teenage Radio

E. Mark Windle 29 November 2020

Of course, history books are full of how African American racial and cultural identity was suppressed in the southern states of the US. Even North Carolina, often perceived as one of the more ‘progressive’ states of the South, was not entirely exempt from a reputation of hostility toward black communities. In the 1960s, this was particularly demonstrated by the presence of the Klan’s largest chapter based in Salisbury, NC, who exploited and groomed poorer white communities from rural areas, where some generations were still reeling from the repercussions of the Great Depression decades earlier. In more urban areas, the door wasn’t always open either, even after the landmark Civil Rights bill was passed in 1964.

That said, a deeper dig reveals that, even well before the Civil Rights Act, in some other sections of Carolinian society there was a simultaneous embracement of elements of black culture – in particular, music. Somebody once said “if you’re from North Carolina you may as well be a Yankee”. An implied reference to tolerance and liberalism perhaps, the essence of which may well now be blurred due to social and political division in recent years. But go back sixty years ago; when black music became widely accessible to a young white audience, largely for the first time. Granted, this was partly a simple reflection of the national post-rock ‘n’ roll revolution, and of increasing social and cultural awareness. But in the south eastern states, there was also a direct influence from the rich African American musical heritage which immediately surrounded them.

“We were all what you would call middle-class white – our neighbourhoods really looked like Beaver Cleaver’s from the 1960s TV show” says Nat Speir, founder member of the Charlotte-based group The Rivieras. “But in we were always conscious of the race issue and the sensitivity of our black acquaintances and friends (we talked about this a lot with Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions when we worked with them in Charlotte). Some of my friends’ parents invited four young black men from the Bedford-Stuyvesant project in New York to come and spend a summer with us in our homes, sponsored by an ecumenical group. They were singers too – fancying themselves as younger Little Anthony and the Imperials, or The Manhattans. We gigged together for about four months and we learned a great deal from each other. Yes, there were lots of tricky situations with these guys and with some of the national acts on the road. But booking agents protected the groups somewhat. They wanted to make money. Also Charlotte wasn’t like Mississippi. It was usually cool in Charlotte, or Greensboro, or Columbia – not everywhere was though in the early to mid 60s. The larger cities and towns were segregated in many ways. But there were many ways we did interact. Middle class whites wanted black music. Some folk find this hard to understand. Why would the Charlotte Country Club Deb Ball want Hank Ballard instead of The Beach Boys for their entertainment? But I was right there every chance I got. I heard and got to know many R&B and soul acts in those places. On my turf of course. I doubt I would have been welcome on their’s. And that’s fair.”

The Rivieras, with Georgia Hand, at Tanglewood Country Club, North Carolina 1967 (image courtesy of Nat Speir).

To fully appreciate how R&B and soul music took hold in the Carolinas, it is impossible to avoid a short history lesson; an exploration of how black music arrived in south east, its development in accordance with wider national trends in popular music, and cultural channels (live performance, dance and radio) which facilitated exposure to the masses – not only to black communities, but in many cases for the first time, to a white, predominantly teenage audience.

In times before and during the Civil War, enslaved people would be a higher prized asset for internal trade if they had specific skills. Many would be taught to play guitars, fiddles and banjos to entertain the white masters in their households and at society functions. Life of course remained very far from perfect following ‘official’ emancipation from slavery, but one effect of freedom was lateral migration and formation of close knit communities in the south east. Convergence of talent was inevitable; musical skills developed by the elders in their former period of enslavement would be passed onto the next generations. Local influences outside the immediate community would also be absorbed into the mix. New styles such as the string plucking and rhythmic bass patterns of the Piedmont blues would emerge.

Meanwhile, ongoing racism, social oppression, poverty, and the advent of two World Wars were major drivers for mass migration of blacks up the east coast. Munition and clothing orders for armed forces provided some opportunities for work in New York. With many musicians settling in Harlem, a fusion of further styles occurred. Over two million members of the black communities in North Carolina travelled north between 1900 and the 1940s. Many never returned south; others brought new musical approaches back to their old communities. Southern states could almost be identified by musical genre at this point: North Carolina of hip jazz and gospel, and South Carolina with more rural roots of country, bluegrass, blues and spirituals, in line with Kentucky and parts of Georgia.

The rock ‘n’ roll era of the 1950s would mark the first major interface of inter-racial musical appreciation among teenage America. Historians usually focus on delta blues, the fusion of musical styles from different cultures in New Orleans, and musicians – black and white – from along the Mississippi River up to Memphis and beyond. Where generations of parental conservatism and cultural and musical naivety existed within many white households, this was being progressively eroded. Parents and children of all ages could not ignore the rapid pace of social, political and musical change around them. Many teenagers were tuning into the likes of Chuck Berry – and their white heroes too – playing the Devil’s Music. The scene was set for the next decade of teenage rebellion, social conscience, student lunch counter sit-ins and MLK marches.

By the 1950s kids (black and white) in the Carolinas were tuned into to national blues and doo-wop acts. Artists like The Clovers, The Five Royales and Clyde McPhatter were particularly popular. Arthur ‘Guitar Boogie’ Smith was a household name in the Carolinas. Smith was a talented country music composer, guitar player, fiddler and radio presenter (incidentally, also the original writer of “Duelling Banjos”, used in the 1972 film Deliverance). His own career rocketed after the Second World War with his Calling Carolina radio show and the Arthur Smith Show on the Charlotte NC WBTV. The genre associated with Smith as a musician may have been a million miles away from race music, or race-influenced music, but through his talent hunts, he discovered doo-wop acts in the 1950s such as The Embers, Harry Deal & the Galaxies and Maurice Williams who would go on to become big beach music names of the next decade and beyond. Other TV shows also followed suit, particularly around NC, as a showcase for teenage music and dance talent. Arthur Smith Studios in Charlotte, would be a point of convergence for singers and groups wanting to record R&B and soul, and pop music through the 1960s.

Letter courtesy of Bob McNair.

Bob McNair, a white North Carolina resident, has been a music fan for pretty much all of his adult life. Brought up in Sanford and now residing in Winston-Salem NC, he recounts his earliest memories of his record buying days. “I distinctly remember my very first 45 record purchase” says Bob.  “In 1961, my friend Billy Neal and I combined funds (50 cents each) to buy “Blue Moon” by The Marcels at Buchanan’s TV-Appliances-Music store in Sanford, NC.  Buchanan’s had a fully stocked record shop inside of the appliance store.  The place was sound proofed with thick double paned glass so that you could crank up the volume on the high end stereo system with a manual turntable.  The little shop was loaded with all the current 45s and LPs of the day including pop, rock, soul, country and black gospel. Mr. Buchanan had a private airplane and he would fly with his wife weekly to Charlotte to stock up on the latest releases and hot sellers.  I worked in the shop sometimes on the weekends. Often for free, or for a couple of records. Black kids would come in to buy the latest R&B, soul and black gospel, like the Blind Boys of Alabama.  I really dug this music and was exposed to songs I might never have heard otherwise. Screw Pat Boone, the Beach Boys and the Beatles! We wanted James Brown, Joe Tex, Booker T. & the M.G.s, The Temptations, The Tams, Wilson Pickett, The Showmen, Gene Chandler, The C.O.D.s and many more. That was the beginning of a lifetime of  loving soul music.”

Only a couple of dozen stations existed in North Carolina until after World War II when FM was introduced. An increase in approved licence applications commenced in the 1950s, with radio stations bringing rock ‘n’ roll, doo-wop and eventually soul to a whole new younger listening audience, attracted to late night R&B programming. Certain radio stations in the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia were essential in exposing black and white teenagers to race music during the late 1950s and 1960s. WGIV (We are GI Veterans; a patriotic nod to the end of World War II) was a culturally integrated station serving the metropolitan area of Charlotte. In the late 1940s Francis Marion Fitzgerald, founder of the station and owner of the Publix Broadcasting Service of Charlotte Inc., had arrived at the then unique concept of a station focused on or inclusive of the African-American community. The idea was effectively a response to an untapped commercial opportunity, much in the same way as WLAC operated in Nashville. WGIV adopted an integrated approach both in its employee profile, business affairs and music programming, a unity symbolised by the station’s logo of a white hand shaking a black hand. Whilst later in the decade the inter-racial ideology of the station would be marred by rising in-equalities at work and national race issues, for most of the 1960s WGIV was well placed to play emerging R&B recordings and were actively involved in auditioning, promoting and managing local acts.

WAYS radio station, located at 400 Radio Road, had also been around since the 1940s and broadcast at 610 AM. Prior to Stan and Sis Kaplan from Boston buying the place and licence for $550,000, the little white building was physically deteriorating, and its programming held little interest for young people in the area. In their eagerness to appeal to teenagers, the Kaplans renamed the station Big WAYS and in spring of 1965 opened with a top 40 chart format featuring pop and R&B. No expense was spared in obtaining top personalities, charismatic D.J.s and attractive competitions to engage a new audience. The $1000 treasure hunts presented by D.J. Jack Gale went down well, though perhaps more with the listeners than the local police force who had to contend with individuals digging up fields, gardens and plots around the city. WAYS would also support local concerts and became the local leader for young radio listeners. The station was sold some thirty years later, along with its FM counterpart, for over $13 million.

Other stations played their part, such as WBAG where D.J. Jim Conklin reputedly broke The Showmen’s 39-21-46 on air, now considered a beach music classic. However, local stations were also receiving heavy competition from Nashville’s WLAC, which was continually pumping out blues, soul and R&B. A never-ending supply of material would be played by white D.J. John ‘R’ Richbourg via the symbiotic relationship with sponsors Ernie Young and Randy Wood, both owners of vinyl record mail order companies and record label involvement. WLAC initially ran a community orientated news schedule but changed its policy when another competitor WSM was gaining popularity in playing country music. WLAC had a 50,000-wattage broadcasting capability, enabling twenty-eight states to receive a signal; even reaching parts of Canada and the tip of Southern Florida. The whole of the eastern seaboard was easily covered. The initial intention of WLAC’s new programming was to serve the relatively untapped black community market across the major cities and the deep south. As race music became labelled R&B, John Richbourg and colleague Bill Allen would run their respective slots promoting recordings by Nashville and national black artists. These shows would be broadcast at night time when the signal was strongest and coverage by WLAC had, in a literal sense, far-reaching effects.

The Showmen, performing at the Torch, North Carolina in 1967, toward the end of their recording period with Swan (photo courtesy of Bob McNair).

The national dance of South Carolina, the Shag, has also played a part in sustaining the interest in R&B through the decades in the region. Enthusiasts and academics have long argued over the origins of the Shag and the changing musical scenes which surrounded it. There does however appear to be consensus that several seemingly unrelated factors came together to form the post-war Shag phenomenon, including the presence of the military, radio, and Big Bands. One legend states that jump blues was the first trigger, played by returning merchant seamen to a largely white audience at Jim Hanna’s Tijuana Inn at Carolina Beach in the late forties. Another story, from the same era, goes that a young man named Harry Driver was captivated by the race music of Buddy Johnson Orchestra whilst attending the Wilmington Armory Dances. In awe of the improvised Jitterbug and Lindy Hopping he witnessed by local youths and servicemen on shore leave, Harry was reportedly one of the first to add in additional ‘whip’ steps and the dance and scene blossomed from there. Other neighbouring centres quickly became synonymous with the Shag, most notably the popular summer seaside resort of Myrtle Beach, and vacationing teenagers. Over subsequent decades, the Shag scene evolved and encompassed a range of new musical styles, though its major association remains with early R&B of the late 1950s and then soul music of the 1960s.

The domino effect following the delivery of soul via the air-waves in the early to mid-1960s was inevitable. Along the east coast a new enthusiasm was born for emerging R&B recordings, much as had happened for rock ‘n’ roll some five years earlier. Vacationing teenagers were now being treated to exciting soul-orientated Show and Dance nights in the beach pavilions. Away from the coast, clubs throughout the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia featured similar live acts. Booking agents, perhaps most notably Ted Hall and his Hit Attractions company were kept busy, booking Motown artists and other national acts for venues around Charlotte, Myrtle Beach, Greensboro, Williams Lake, Winston-Salem and others. College students and high school classmates also wanted in on the action, forming their own bands so they could emulate the sounds they loved and create their own brand of soul. Talent agents quickly sought these out to add to their list for hire at high school sock hops, country clubs and frat parties. Bands which would also prove invaluable for opening sets or as backing bands for visiting solo artists and vocal groups.

On the face of it the underground rare soul scene of the UK, Europe and beyond seems geographically and chronologically disconnected to the Carolinas’ musical quirk of history, yet it has been part of it’s preservation. Releases by The Embers, The Tempests, The Spontanes, Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, The Prophets and others from the eastern seaboard have been popular on the soul scene for decades now. Recordings have been ‘re-discovered’ and given a second lease of life; others unearthed for the first time. Record collectors, indie record labels, dancers, and writers have all been inspired explore the sounds and stories of these recording artists; providing wider global exposure for what in truth was largely a regional entity. But that’s another story.

Copyright 2020. Modified excerpt from the book It’s Better To Cry by E. Mark Windle.

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