by Amy Gold
Beach songs have been floating in the airwaves around the Southeast coast for decades, filling the air with their distinctive R&B tinged sound. The music known as “beach” or “shag” is actually a compilation of various sounds that came to popularity along the beaches of North Carolina and South Carolina and continues to have a devoted following to this day.
What is now known as Carolina beach music was born in the late 1940s and early 1950s, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 came into being. At that time, the Deep South remained widely segregated and there was limited air time for what was then called “race music.” The sound of R&B and jump blues was unlike anything white Southern teenagers had ever heard and it piqued their interest despite its forbidden nature.
Not only did these beach songs have a unique sound, their shuffling, steady 4/4 rhythm made them ideally suited for the shag, a dance which was quite popular in the South. In fact, the shag became so prominent that it was made the official state dance of both North and South Carolina, all of which simply added to the already growing popularity of beach music in the Carolinas.
Unable to gain access to music from black artists, white youngsters began flocking to the bars and clubs along the Carolina coastline where R&B was dominant and shagging was the latest craze. Here, they began listening to what they called beach music by influential artists such as Sam Cooke, the Drifters, the Temptations and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.
As the influence of R&B continued to be felt, radio stations across the South began giving the music more play and eventually, with the advent of the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s, some of these artists began making inroads on the national rock and roll charts. But it was the lesser known and grittier, down-to-earth “B” sides of their popular releases that caught on and became the basis of Carolina beach music, propelling its popularity even further.
With the dawning of the 1960s came a whole new wave of beach music artists, influenced by the R&B sound that came before them and adding their own distinct flavor to it. Groups such as the Tassels, the Embers, and General Johnson and the Chairmen of the Board, though mostly white performers, owed a great deal of their sound to their R&B predecessors and gave birth to a new form known as “blue-eyed soul.”
Beach songs began to disappear from the airways in the mid to late 1970s but they experienced a renaissance in the 1980s when a group of loyalists calling themselves “The Society of Stranders” (SOS) brought the sound back. They orchestrated a series of small annual get-togethers in the beach clubs of the Carolinas that eventually blossomed into major, formally organized events.
Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, many popular artists continued to feel the influence of the originators of the beach sound and have produced their own variation of beach music. But it is the classic artists of the 1960s who remain the standard and have kept this small but powerful regional scene shagging till the sun goes down for generations, and they’re showing no sign of slowing down!