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The Peanut Man Goes Home

Doug Clark, the Chapel Hill music icon who died last month, turned a little risqu material and a lot of hard work into a legendary career


A true legend: Doug Clark - PHOTO BY YORK WILSON

Doug Clark passed away last month. For 47 years, he led his infamous band, Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts. Like Bro. Dave Gardner, The Tams and Fireball Roberts, The Hot Nuts were true Southern icons--mention their name to anyone from East Lansing or Palo Alto, and you'll get a blank stare. But talk to any middle-aged guy from Gastonia or Valdosta, and the chances are they have seen the Hot Nuts at least once, probably have one of their old records (or eight tracks) laying around somewhere, and with a few beers in them, can recite at least a couple of verses of "Two Old Maids."

Although they have played all over the country, from Indiana, to New Hampshire to Colorado, it is here in the Carolinas, that they became legends. Back in 1954 a young drummer named Doug Clark realized there was money to be made on the fraternity circuit around his hometown of Chapel Hill. His group, The Tops, did well enough performing hits by the Dominoes, the Platters, and others, but their most requested song was "Hot Nuts," an old Hokum blues number, the ultimate late-night drunken sing-along, with a chorus that went: "Nuts, hot nuts, get 'em from the peanut man."

Barely R-rated by today's standards, in the South in the '50s it was musical hellbait, and real profitable. So profitable, in fact, that Doug recruited his brother, John, added more risqué material, and in 1955 changed the name of the group to Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts.

Over the next few years they would record a total of nine albums on Gross records, a division of an obscure label named Jubilee that went out of business in 1970. And they would play every college town south of the Mason-Dixon line. Their records were totally unfit for air play, so they relied on reputation and word of mouth.

Their reputation often far exceeded their reality; there were all kinds of rumors about what they did at their shows, the most famous one being that they appeared on stage wearing nothing but gold lamé jockstraps. Jockstraps or not, any band singing tunes like "Baby Let Me Bang Your Box," was going to provoke the occasional bluenose crusade. Back in the early '60s the city of Richmond, Va., banned them outright. No problem. The gig was "secretly" moved to the county fairground and sold out almost instantly. The same situations occurred even north of the Mason-Dixon line.

According to Jacque LeBlanc, a reviewer on Amazon, "I first heard these guys at SUNY Brockport in 1966. We booked them, but at the last minute, the uptight college administration said we couldn't have them on campus. We hired out the old roller-rink, and packed in at least 700 people. The Hot Nuts arrived in a big old shocking pink tour bus, and literally rocked the joint ..."

Once they had developed the act, it remained virtually unchanged for four and a half decades. At any Hot Nuts gig there was a warm-up set or two of beach music, disco and R&B standards. Then, after a short intermission, it was time for :the infamous "Hot Nuts Show."

For the next hour, the crowd would be treated to such favorites as "Hot Nuts," "Roly Poly," "Two Old Maids," and one-liners going back to an era that predated Richard Pryor by 20 years and Def Jam by an entire lifetime. At the end of the night, they would sell their albums, T-shirts, beanies, and other souvenirs, and then it was on to the next gig, to do it all over again in 24 hours, week after week, month after month, for 47 years.

According to the band's Web site, as of this year, there were three original members left: Doug, his older brother John, and Tommy Goldston. There is a fourth member, front man Prince Taylor who has been with the band off and on several times over the years. The site goes on to add, "Over the years, Doug has hired over 75 Nuts, four of them white."

When the Hot Nuts started in '54, double entendre songs had been around for a long time, especially in the blues and R&B fields. Such songs as "Sixty Minute Man," "Big Ten Inch (Record Of The Blues)," and "It Ain't The Meat, It's the Motion," were underground hits that sold millions of copies, even though they received no radio play. The Hot Nuts however, were the first band to make an entire act out of such material, and no one before or since has been as successful at combining the risqué material with the solid musical backing as Doug Clark and Co.

The Hot Nuts are also part of a musical phenomenon that seems to exist in few places outside the Carolinas. That phenomenon is the ability to find a niche, develop it, and have a long and successful career, completely independent of major national radio or television exposure. In the gospel field such groups as Slim and the Supreme Angels, and in beach music the Embers, The Shakers, The Chairmen Of The Board and a half dozen others, have all, like the Hot Nuts, been playing for multiple decades in a three to four state area, sold thousands of records, and continued to work steadily at a time when many other music markets have died up, or are in a severe recession.

Even with Doug's passing, the Hot Nuts will keep rolling.

John Clark, Doug's brother, says that one of Doug's last requests was to keep the band going, and John plans to. This week they are playing a private party for some longtime fans at a posh hotel in St. Augustine, Fla., and then Saturday night, it's back to Chapel Hill for a frat gig. John says he plans to keep the band working their current schedule of approximately 150 shows a year as long as he can.

These days the band still plays the fraternity circuit, but much of their work also comes from reunion parties, playing for longtime fans now, nearing retirement age, who wish to forget about Enron, prostate screenings, and The Anna Nicole Show for a couple of hours. They want to go back to a more innocent time, and sing along with "Barnacle Bill the Sailor."

Doug died of leukemia on Sept. 16, 2002. He was 66.

Services were held at the Chapel Hill Bible Church. A crowd of nearly 1,500 people came to say goodbye. There were family members, friends, cops, lawyers, judges, and a lot of folks that just came to pay their respects to a legend, a real gentleman, and one hell of a funny guy who lasted 47 years in the business--and never once wore a gold jockstrap, or used the "F" word.

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