«Charlie’s Place How the Ku Klux Klan Tried to Stop the Rise of Rhythm & Blues by Frank Beacham ISBN: 978-1-4524-6399-5 Second Edition Copyright © ...»
How the Ku Klux Klan Tried to Stop the Rise of Rhythm & Blues
Copyright © 2002, 2007, 2011 Frank Beacham
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Chapter 1 — Shaggin' the Night Away Her stare was as cold as the draught beer she held in her hand. "Why," she angrily demanded, "do you have to bring the blacks into this?" A few feet away, on the dance floor at Fat Harold's Beach Club, middle-aged white couples danced the "shag" to vintage rhythm and blues records. My interrogator at the bar was also white, in her late forties and a diehard shagger—part of the biannual migration to Ocean Drive to celebrate South Carolina's official state dance.
Her question surprised me. "Why would I not bring the blacks into the story?" I shot back. "This music and dance was invented by black people!" The woman huffed, puffed and brusquely disappeared into the crowd, convinced I was some kind of troublemaker.
As I've found with so many cultural matters in my native South Carolina, it's much easier to skip along the surface and accept what one's told at face value. The most casual curiosity is often unwelcome. Asking too many questions can quickly turn disruptive, even with subjects as seemingly innocent as the state's native dance.
My unexpected adventure with what's known in the South as Carolina "beach music" began at a New Year's Eve celebration in 1993 at a hotel in Greenville. Though I had devoured this regional strain of R&B in the 1960s at the University of South Carolina, my interest had faded in the years after I left the South.
On this festive night, however, the old memories came rushing back. Though the setting was a sterile hotel ballroom designed to host sedate corporate events in this booming Piedmont city, booze was flowing and inhibitions common to white Southerners were in temporary remission.
I watched meticulously dressed, middle-aged women from the upper crust of Greenville's white society cluster around the stage, gradually rising to a state of ecstasy through the hypnotic performance of a group of black musicians. Nearby, tuxedo-clad husbands watched with mild discomfort at the transformation of their spouses.
The music, a staple of the region for half a century, was loud and distorted—a sanitized R&B hybrid with simplistic lyrics celebrating youthful romance, alcohol highs and a carefree life at the Carolina beaches. The performance, by a popular group of Southern singers called the Tams, touched a deep chord with many of these women.
As the drink kicked in and male spouses were dragged into action, high heel shoes shot into the air and sweaty bodies gyrated across the dance floor. The Southern reserve that normally dominates this hardcore Bible belt community had taken a holiday. The evening quickly got down and dirty.
Though I had seen this spectacle many times before in my college days, the distance of time and detachment of place now made it more fascinating. The deeper meaning of this Southern ritual started to weigh on my mind.
As I watched the increasingly rowdy antics on the dance floor, it was clear that these black performers were piercing the carefully nurtured bubble of propriety so characteristic of upscale whites in South Carolina. Such passionate communal behavior is usually reserved for and tolerated at Southern sporting events. But as I listened to this familiar music from my youth, I was astonished to see these well-worn songs now generating a sexual tension in aging white adults.
The whole affair seemed so out of character for the place. Despite the seismic industrialization of the Carolina Piedmont in recent years, most of upstate South Carolina remained intensely conservative. The region has a history of right wing politics dating back to its Tory leanings during the American Revolution, and it was one of the first areas in the state to take to Republicanism after World War II.
The city of Greenville, in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, is home to Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian school that has long banned student dancing, drinking, smoking, kissing and hand-holding. Women wear ankle-length dresses on campus. Students caught attending a movie in town can be expelled. In March, 2000, only after being targeted with intense criticism during the state's presidential primary, did the school end a ban on interracial dating among its five thousand plus students.
Of Greenville County's 380,000 residents, more than seventy-seven percent are white, according the U.S. Census of 2000. This hub of conservatism is a place where the Civil War remains a hot-button topic and the ethics of slavery is still debated. It's also a place where mistrust between the races actively bubbles just beneath the surface of daily life.
Yet, it was clear from what I experienced in this Greenville ballroom that any racial divide ended on the dance floor. For a few hours, music and dance united people who would have little or no connection the next day or the day after.
Questions began to explode into my mind. How did the "shag" originate? How did it become a popular dance embraced by white Southerners? Surely the dance and beach music—a derivative of R&B—must have roots in some kind of local black-white collaboration from another era. How could that interracial collaboration have occurred in the segregated South? How did blacks and whites get together to learn from each other?
Was it done openly or was there some sort of secret alliance? Questions, questions, and more questions.
Thus began a personal exploration, one that led me to a little known story that began in the Carolinas during the waning days of World War II. My journey took me through some uncharted territory, from popular white beach music hangouts like Fat Harold's and Ducks in the Ocean Drive section of North Myrtle Beach to a quiet black neighborhood a few miles south in Myrtle Beach. It was here that I discovered an extraordinary musical legacy that's been all but forgotten in the modern South.
The old saying goes that when Billie Holiday sang at Charlie's Place, the pine trees above—fanned by a gentle ocean breeze—whispered along with the music. To this day, that patch of trees on Carver Street is called Whispering Pines.
Whispering Pines is on "the Hill," a black neighborhood only a stone's throw from the noisy, neon-lit oceanfront pavilion and amusement park that once dominated the tourist district in Myrtle Beach.
Yet, as I drive down this modest street, with its scattered homes and businesses, there's little to reveal an illustrious past when hundreds of music lovers came to hear the likes of Louis Jordan, Billy Eckstein, Count Basie, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Fats Domino, Lena Horne, and virtually every significant "race music" artist of the 1940s and ‘50s.
Charlie's Place at Whispering Pines was run by Charlie Fitzgerald, a stylish black entrepreneur from New York who, from the late 1930s until his death in 1955, operated nightclubs, a motel, a cab company, and—according to some—the beach resort's most notorious brothel. Charlie's legal name was Lucius Drucker. His past and the reason for the name change remained a mystery even to those who called him a friend.
I had been gradually introduced to the Fitzgerald legend in a series of informal interviews I'd done with dancers credited with inventing the shag. All were on the Carolina beaches in the years following World War II. I wanted them to tell me how the dance was created.
As Leon Williams, George Lineberry, Harry Driver, Clarice Reavis, Betty Kirkpatrick, Chick Hedrick, Billy Jeffers, and others independently told their stories, the name Charlie Fitzgerald repeatedly came up.
One by one the dancers cited Fitzgerald as a significant cultural influence in the post World War II years. His name was always spoken with reverence, mystery, and a sense of awe. It was as if Charlie's old nightclub had been some kind of secret hideout that held the keys to a forbidden world. And each of these dancers, through good fortune, had gained admission.
There's no mention of Charlie Fitzgerald's name in South Carolina's modern history books. His contribution to his state's music and dance have been ignored, and today he's essentially a forgotten figure. To learn his story, an outsider needs to ask a fast-dwindling group of friends who still live and work in the old neighborhood, and a handful of music lovers—both black and white—who visited his club as teenagers.
One of those is Dino Thompson, a beach music lover and lifelong restaurateur who had hung out at Charlie's Place as a kid. I found him at Cagney's Old Place, his restaurant on the Highway 17 tourist strip in Myrtle Beach.
"Charlie was one slick dude. He had an aura about him. He could have been the doorman at the Cotton Club," Thompson told me as he warmed to old memories. He had visited Charlie's Place as a youngster to hear musicians he could find nowhere else. "In 1952, Little Richard came to the Hill. He wasn't allowed to sing in the white clubs here. I begged my father to let the cook and two dishwashers in our restaurant take me. They sat me right up on the stage and I saw Little Richard in his blue suede shoes."
Dino Thompson wasn't the only Southern white kid who pined to hear black performers.
In segregated South Carolina, where a prominent local radio station proudly advertised that it played "no jungle music," the provocative and sometimes raunchy mix of black gospel, jazz and blues was taboo. Labeled "race music," it was forbidden fruit that was rarely heard on mainstream Southern radio stations or sold in local record stores.
By 1950, however, the genie was beginning to come out of the bottle. A young Billboard magazine writer, Jerry Wexler (later to become a partner in Atlantic Records), published an article arguing that race music was more aptly called "rhythm and blues." The name stuck.
When WLAC, a 50,000 watt AM radio station in Nashville, switched to a black R&B format each night, it started reaching many white teenagers throughout the South. Disc jockeys Gene Nobles and John R became the first major links connecting black music to a white Southern audience. John R, a white South Carolinian and former actor, used his deep voice and a hepcat banter to convince many in the listening audience that he was a black man. (One of WLAC's savvy sponsors, Randy's Record Shop of Gallatin, Tennessee, sold the hard-to-find black music via mail order, delivering the recordings to white customers in discreet, unmarked packages.) Randy's modern day equivalent is Marion Carter, a white fan of black music who grew up to become one of South Carolina's top R&B record promoters. I spent half a day driving through the remote countryside to his Repete Records operation in the tiny South Carolina town of Elliott. From a barn-like structure that seemed more likely to house a small farming operation, Carter's employees ship hundreds of R&B recordings to music lovers and record stores each day.
"This was the devil's music—you just didn't listen to it in the average white Southern home," Carter told me. "White teenagers like myself were relegated to sneaking around to hear the music. We'd listen to WLAC at night out in the car or hide a portable radio under our pillow. What I have found as I've grown up and talked to people is there were tens of thousands of us all doing the very same thing in order to hear this music."
At the Myrtle Beach Pavilion, less than half a mile from Charlie's Place, white nightlife—as it was in other towns throughout America—was centered around the jitterbug, a strenuous, acrobatic dance usually performed to quick-tempo swing or jazz.
The dance supported a subculture of fashionable young creative dancers known as "jitterbugs."
The top male dancers were instantly recognized by their long blonde peroxided hair, draped peg pants, T-shirts, penny loafers, and swirling gold chains. Not available in stores, the custom-tailored pants often cost the equivalent of hundreds of today's dollars.
The favored design called for 14-inch bottoms and 22-inch knees, which created a drape look. Half-inch welt seams ran along the sides, and pocket flaps were sewn upside down.
Men wore cashmere wool sweaters, regardless of how warm the temperature on the dance floor.
Women dancers—favoring a far simpler, less flamboyant look—wore pedal pushers, angora sweaters, and flowing scarves. Shorts and other standard beach garb of today were the sure sign of an unsophisticated tourist. Fashionable clothing was essential to the dance floor elites who ruled beach society in the years following World War II.
By eight o'clock on most summer nights, hundreds of tourists gathered around the balconies and dance floor at the Pavilion. The star jitterbugs—known to the crowd by such nicknames as Rubber Legs, Chicken, Bunk, the Roach, and Little Robin—appeared one by one to show off their latest moves. Just as the streets in the Old West cleared when a known gunslinger appeared, the dance floor emptied for the kings and queens of the night.
One of the undisputed greats was Leon Williams, who was nicknamed "Rubber Legs" after he perfected a technique where he crossed his legs while standing and then began rocking from side to side, eventually sliding into a squat. "He was like a snake on the dance floor," an admirer proudly told me. "Nobody did it but Leon."