There’s no wrong way to love beach music. You can be a snob who only likes doo-wop. You can know just that one Embers song, “I Love Beach Music,” and then only the chorus. Maybe you shag; maybe you play beach music for the beat — the same way people who waltz keep Schubert around for practice, but listen to Twisted Sister in the car. Probably the only wrong way to love beach music is if you’re thinking of The Beach Boys or Jan and Dean, in which case you’re not wrong, but ill-informed.
Recently, when I mentioned I loved beach music, a friend gave me a look that said, “You do?” I was about to explain what I meant — except I didn’t know what I meant. I could start with the songs. I could talk about how Barbara Lewis singing “Baby, I’m Yours” moves me, literally slows me down to 30 beats per minute. Or how many layers there are to a Temptations song. I might explain why “Build Me Up Buttercup,” by The Foundations, is one of the greatest pop songs to shed light on the entanglement of joy and pain, summing up everything that’s incredible and excruciating about being a teenager in love for one brief, life-changing week of summer vacation (You never call, baby, when you say you will, but I love you still).
If you didn’t grow up in North Carolina, South Carolina, coastal Georgia, Virginia Beach, or northeastern Florida — if you weren’t required to take shag lessons in sixth grade and cling to a girl two levels above your height and weight class — the term “beach music” may be confusing.
Steve Hardy, a member of the Beach Music Hall of Fame, has a name that’s become synonymous with the genre. His radio show, “Steve Hardy’s Original Beach Party,” based out of Greenville, has been on the air since 1974.
“I call it falling-in-love music,” Hardy says. “A lot of the lyrics have to do with girls and boys falling in love.” Then Hardy trails off. And he starts singing to me, from “So Much in Love” by The Tymes: “‘As we strolled along together, holding hands, walking all alone, so in love, are we two, so in love.’ — Now listen, man, can’t you feel that yourself? Come on!”
I could feel it; I’m not often serenaded. But there is something about beach music that provokes spontaneous eruption. My wife goes straight into “Carolina Girls” if someone in the room even mentions beach music. The nostalgia, the invocation has pull.
Hardy grew up in Greene County. The first time he heard the sounds that would become his life’s calling was during a basketball game. He and his friends sat outside of black music clubs, and rhythm and blues blared from inside the clubs. “I didn’t know what I was hearing, but I liked it a lot,” Hardy says.
That experience, of not quite knowing what you’re listening to, goes directly to the genre’s origins. In Carolina Beach Music, author Rick Simmons explains that the label “beach music” evolved after the fact — a phenomenon of culture, not marketing. The original hits that became the canon of beach music, songs by artists like Little Richard and Fats Domino, were billed nationally as “race music” and kept off the radio. Only in and around the Carolinas did they become beach music — because that’s where the songs were played most and remembered best.
Kip Lornell, author and professor at George Washington University, is an authority on regional American music, particularly gospel, blues and go-go — African-American music with wide appeal. Beach music began as black rhythm and blues that white teenagers in North Carolina and South Carolina in the 1950s shagged to when they went to the beach in the summer, he says.
“You’ve got to talk about race if you’re talking about beach music,” he tells me. Lornell compared the effects of beach music to Motown Records’s success in desegregating the radio dial. “What Motown accomplished in the whole country, beach music did in a two-state area.”
‘All in love’
It all comes back to the music. The beat. Hot songs, slow songs, songs imprinted on memories. Artists like The Zodiacs, The Clovers, The Prophets. Billy Scott, front man of The Party Prophets — formerly known as The Prophets — performs regularly at 69, and still dresses and dances well enough that women he does not know personally send him emails that begin, “Hey, Billy Smooth Shoes.” I ask about his single “I Got the Fever” and what made such a resilient hit. “It’s because of the hook,” he says — and then, I swear I saw it coming, he began to serenade me: “‘I love you, I love you, I love you, yes I do.’” Scott pauses. “Listen, that’s a great hook. Because, as youngsters, everybody could relate to it — they were all in love with somebody.”
Beach music thrives in the Carolinas. Dozens of radio stations program it. Online streaming proliferates. Shag clubs find members, and even kids listen to beach music, if only in the car on the drive to the coast.
I won’t remember the majority of new songs I hear this year, but “Baby, I’m Yours” will still affect me when I’m 90. The meaning of Beach Music can be as deep and complicated as the genre’s history, as distinctive as a hit song’s chorus. But when you say, and when I say, “I love beach music,” we’re saying something that is unique to each of us, and to everybody else.
Rosecrans Baldwin lives in Chapel Hill and is the author of the new book Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down. His first novel, You Lost Me There, was named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2010 and a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice.