If you're of a certain age or non-Southern origin, you might be confused about the term "beach music." Maybe you've been baffled by the omnipresence of the song "Carolina Girls" at your office's summer cookout, or perhaps you've giggled at a decal on a car window that declares that the driver loves to shag. But like an ice cold Cheerwine or a burger covered with chili, mustard, and coleslaw, beach music is another regional specialty that shines best during the summer.
Beach music, as it's known in North and South Carolina, has a loose but vital history. Those who know the music best generally agree that its roots stem from doo-wop, soul, and rhythm and blues of the fifties and sixties. White teens and young adults, who often didn't have access to what was considered "race" music in their conservative Southern hometowns, fell in love with it at parties and on vacations at Myrtle Beach. A different kind of niche began to develop through bands that played at house parties to these crowds. Local acts, sensing a way to further endear themselves to new fans, began to tailor their songs to have a more specific, regional appeal.
"You had groups like The Tams and stuff that did great up-tempo songs. It was such a high-energy group," recalls Chris Beachley, a lifetime beach music fan who runs The Wax Museum record shop in Charlotte. He got his start collecting records by chasing coveted beach music singles.
"Whether it be the beach groups or even a frat band like Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts, they were monsters for the high school and college kids," he adds.
One of the biggest beach music boosters over the past half-century is Ed Weiss, who lives in Hillsborough and has worked as a d.j. for nearly fifty-five years. He's better known over the airwaves as Charlie Brown, a handle that dates back to his earliest days as a d.j. in Norfolk, Virginia. Since 2003, he's worked with Beachley on his syndicated program, On the Beach with Charlie Brown—Weiss sets up the music and records his talk sets, and Beachley gets it radio-ready before it broadcasts on stations in the South and a few others in Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, and even Rhode Island. Though Weiss is an expert on a subject, he recognizes that navigating the finer points of beach music can be tricky to a newcomer.
"What I do when I try to explain it to somebody is to talk about stuff they are familiar with, like Motown. Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Sam and Dave—that's beach music," he says. "And then there are local bands that have been around for forty or fifty years, like The Embers and The Band of Oz. You put that all together, and that's what it is."
The most important characteristic of beach music, Weiss says, isn't necessarily the artist or any particular instrumentation. The feeling—laid back and happy—is what matters most.
"Beach music is a lifestyle more than it is a definition of some kind of music," he says, adding that some more catholic beach music believers consider Justin Timberlake's "Can't Stop the Feeling!" an appropriate contemporary cut.
Beach music boomed in the fifties and sixties, and though it slowed down in the seventies and eighties, it never entirely dissipated. In fact, some of the best-known beach music tunes came from those later years. General Johnson & the Chairmen of the Board released the now-inescapable "Carolina Girls" in 1980. The Embers released their on-the-nose "I Love Beach Music" in 1979, and the song features plenty of nods to earlier beach hits, like Billy Ward and the Dominoes' "Sixty Minute Man," The Tymes' "Ms. Grace," and several others.
Despite some of its hazy definitions, Carolina beach music is distinct from the broader category of what non-Carolinians might consider beach music, like the feet-in-the-sand, margarita-in-hand songs of Jimmy Buffett. But, as Bruce Wagoner explains, there's a big difference between Buffett's work and Carolina beach music.
Wagoner grew up in North Carolina listening to beach music and is a graduate of East Carolina University. More recently, he directed Parrot Heads, a documentary about Buffett devotees around the country that's streaming on Netflix. Buffett's strain of beach-inspired music is actually "trop rock," he says, short for tropical rock.
"Beach music is contingent on moving your feet. The beats really have to drive what's happening there, because it's meant for people to dance," he says. "Jimmy's style of music is storytelling and shared experiences."
Subject matter and sense of place vary between the genres, too. Buffett and the legion of trop rock bands that developed in his wake tend to write escapist songs, where the beach is the idyllic place to get away from it all. But with Carolina beach music, the beach is where it all happens. Take The Drifters' "Under the Boardwalk," for example: though the band hailed from New York, the song succinctly captures the feel-good core central to beach music.
"It's primarily music about love, and not even that much about love that went bad, like a lot of other songs are," Beachley says.
Because it sprang up out of parties, beach music is inherently social. Thus, another important part of the world of beach music is a specific kind of dance: shagging (and no, not like Austin Powers). The dance is formally called the Carolina Shag, and in 2005, it became the official state popular dance of North Carolina. (South Carolina beat its northern sibling to the punch in 1984.) You can even get a vanity plate bearing a pair of loafers—the preferred shagging footwear—surrounded by the phrase, "I'd Rather Be SHAGGIN'."
There's a competitive circuit where dancers show off their moves at breakneck speeds to fast music, but beginners need not be intimidated. The pacing of most beach music is moderate, with steps done to counts of six (one-and-two, three-and-four, five-six). Easygoing shag dancers will also find it easy to keep a drink in one hand while stepping and spinning with their partners with the other.
Though its overall popularity may have waned over the decades, beach music isn't hard to find on stages or over the airwaves. North Hills in Raleigh features a free, weekly beach music concert series that concludes with The Embers on August 17. Sirius-XM satellite radio is running a temporary beach music station, called Carolina Shag, on channel 13 through the summer. Weiss's On the Beach with Charlie Brown airs every Saturday from 5–8 p.m. on 850 AM, 93.3 FM, and 104.7 FM. Weiss has another weekly radio appearance, the more eclectic Charlie Brown Show, on Hillsborough's WHUP every Tuesday from 1–3 p.m. Those sets are also available to stream online, too.
So next time you're lamenting a work-week grind or chilly weather, just look to the likes of The Embers, The Catalinas, and The Fantastic Shakers to pick you back up. The beach is never too far away.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Wanna Shag?"