Beach music, the Shag and the view from the stage
Ask any musician. No, wait. Let me rephrase: Ask any musician you trust why he or she first got into the music business. The truthful answer will be “to meet girls” (or guys, as it may be). So it was with me. I wanted to meet girls.
It started when I was just a skinny, junior-high schoolboy with an unreliable complexion and girls were (and still are) a mystery. I mean, they traveled in packs, all laughed at the same time, were supremely self-confident and knew how to dress — and all of them could dance.
My buddies and I, well, we were a bit rough around the edges. Typically, we got to see girls in a social setting once a week, viz, every Friday evening at the Teenage Canteen, which was located in the back of the Parks and Recreation Department Building on Salem Street. Eighth and Ninth Graders like my buddies and I were allowed to go to the Canteen for dances (7 p.m. to 10 p.m.) and it was there that I first saw a cute little Scots-Irish girl in a white go-go dress. Let’s call her Kate. Anyone could see that she was different. She could boogooloo, do the stomp and slow dance.
But, most important, Kate could shag. I could not.
I say this was “most important” because if there was one thing that united almost all young Americans, it was a dance called the Shag. The hottest music style back then was rhythm and blues and there’d always been a lockstep connection between rhythm and blues (a.k.a. R ‘n B) and the Shag. The music might come from nearly anywhere — the Motown Sound up in Detroit, Wilson Pickett from Prattville down in ‘Bama, Carla Thomas and her daddy courtesy of StaxVolt Records in Memphis, James and Bobby Purify who recorded in Muscle Shoals, James Brown in Augusta Ga., or The Sound of Philadelphia. In those days, R‘n‘B music could have come from just about anywhere, except maybe Seattle or Concord, Massachusetts.
Like I said, unfortunately everybody could Shag but The Kid. I learned that my only hope was to actually join a rhythm and blues band and play rhythm and blues, rather than try to dance that mess around. Thus, the Tempests were conceived. We were an eight-piece, all-white horn group based in the mighty, mighty Gamecock City. Our band, The Tempests, often played at the Teenage Canteen on Fridays. They even put it in the paper.
Now, back to the girls. Even better, I didn’t need to learn how to shag because I was on stage with the band where we did dance routines like James Brown’s “Camel Walk” and Junior Walker’s “Shotgun” (“shoot him ‘fore he run now”). Thus, my buddies and I in The Tempests got to meet pretty girl dancers by playing rhythm and blues to them. Not too shabby. We didn’t even have to talk to them … and it was a high-profile job. Sometimes, we were on a stage with Christmas tree lights or Fresnel lights shining on our faces.
How beach music is written and played
Beach music is just rhythm and blues music. It’s usually played four beats to a measure in 4/4 time or in a 3/4-time shuffle. On the other hand, James Brown prided himself on accenting the first (“one”) and third (“three”) beats.
As for instrumentation, got-ta, got-ta have a guitar and bass guitar in there, for starters.
It’s best to have a horn section too. I have a theory about musical groups: You can put a hot horn section in front of any band, even an inept, punk-rock band and have it coming out sounding nearly as tight as the Tower of Power. And so with three horns, our group sounded pretty good. The tricky parts are the vocals and making sure that the drummer plays that heavy backbeat on the one and three, or two and four, beats.
It’s also good to have a Farfisa organ (e.g., organ sound on “Double Shot of My Baby’s Love”) or Hammond organ in there somewhere too.
Whatever your instrumentation, it helps to know how to shag, though. Once, before recording a tune with the Chairmen of the Board from Detroit, General Johnson, its creative force and I tried to check out a song’s “shagability” by dancing to it in the studio. It was a pitiful attempt and completely unsuccessful, as neither of us could shag.
The view from the stage
As a trumpeter for the Tempests, I did eventually get Kate’s attention as she shagged to and fro about the Canteen. However, I have to admit it, but I’ve played with a whole lot of rhythm and blues groups over the past 50 or so years … and I’m still a terrible shagger.
Take that from a musician you can trust. Or so it seemed to me.