“Carolina beach music…is the holiest sound on earth.”
Pat Conroy, from the novel Beach Music.
For most of the United States, the words Beach Music conjures up images of the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, Jimmy Buffett, and other similar sounding groups dressed in Hawaiian Shirts and surrounded by surfboard stage props.
But along the North and South Carolina Beaches, in places like Myrtle Beach, Ocean Isle, Oak Island, and Atlantic Beach, Beach Music means something entirely different from the Beach Boy sound. Growing out of a fusion of 50’s and 60’s rock, and rhythm and blues, it produced a sound they came to be called ‘blue-eyed soul’. Called ‘Beach Music’ because of its easy danceability in the sand or boardwalk dance venues, and almost always with it’s accompanying dance the Carolina Shag, the sound struck an instant chord with college kids across both Carolina’s.
Although the music is regional, some Beach Music songs are familiar nationwide. Songs like The Platters: With This Ring, The Drifters: Under the Boardwalk, The Temptations: My Girl, Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs: Stay, The Tymes: Ms. Grace, and The Catalinas: Summertime’s Calling Me were all strong on the charts and still receive lots of airplay.
The Carolina Shag is the State Dance of both North and South Carolina, and goes hand in hand with the Beach Music sound. Long before Mike Myers and his movie character Austin Powers made ‘shagging’ a semi-dirty word, generations of Carolina college students, dressed in khakis, button-down shirts, and topsider shoes had learned The Shag as a college rite of passage. Origins of the Shag vary, but the best description I’ve heard is that the Shag was simply the Jitterbug slowed down a tad by dancing in the sand, and holding a beer in one hand.
But of all the Beach Music songs, perhaps my personal favorite is this song by General Johnson and the Chairmen of the Board: Carolina Girls. Released in 1980, although it was never a chart topper, it has persisted to become part of the Carolina coast culture, and a favorite of Beach Music fans.
And yes, in the interest of full disclosure, I was one of those Carolina college kids, swaying and shagging to the Drifters and the Embers at many a party and bonfire on the beach, and shaking the sand out of my topsiders.
Here are General Johnson and the Chairmen of the Board, and their song Carolina Girls: