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The Grand Strand's Musical Legacy

“The Grand Strand” is a term coined in 1949 to cover the stretch of beaches from Georgetown to Little River on the South Carolina-North Carolina border. From then until Hurricane Hazel hit in October 1954, the area enjoyed a Big Band or East Coast swing sound in clubs and upscale venues like the Ocean Forest Hotel. 

As the area began to rebuild and rebound after Hazel, more acts and new sounds began to move in. During this time rhythm and blues, a sound that actually originated in the 1940s, was making some noise in clubs up and down the Strand as entertainers like Otis Redding, the Drifters, James Brown, Count Basie and Ray Charles brought excitement and entertainment to an area already growing in popularity as a vacation destination

Jim Crow laws and the custom of segregation in public accommodations were still active in the South until 1965, so many of the black entertainers were not welcome to stay in the hotels where they played their music before white audiences.

Atlantic Beach was a small town that flourished during this time because “the Black Pearl” (the area’s nickname) was a place where African-Americans could find lodging and places to perform in front of black audiences. One such venue was Sketers’ Place, a family owned restaurant and hotel that provided home-cooked meals and rooms to performers. If Sketers’ Place was full, Wood’s Guest House was just across the street. John Sketers, whose father owned the restaurant and motel, says he remembers entertainers would often end up playing until the sun came up, on the open-air deck of Punk’s Patio.

“The Grand Strand” is a term coined in 1949 to cover the stretch of beaches from Georgetown to Little River on the South Carolina-North Carolina border. From then until Hurricane Hazel hit in October 1954, the area enjoyed a Big Band or East Coast swing sound in clubs and upscale venues like the Ocean Forest Hotel.

As the area began to rebuild and rebound after Hazel, more acts and new sounds began to move in. During this time rhythm and blues, a sound that actually originated in the 1940s, was making some noise in clubs up and down the Strand as entertainers like Otis Redding, the Drifters, James Brown, Count Basie and Ray Charles brought excitement and entertainment to an area already growing in popularity as a vacation destination.

Jim Crow laws and the custom of segregation in public accommodations were still active in the South until 1965, so many of the black entertainers were not welcome to stay in the hotels where they played their music before white audiences.

Atlantic Beach was a small town that flourished during this time because “the Black Pearl” (the area’s nickname) was a place where African-Americans could find lodging and places to perform in front of black audiences. One such venue was Sketers’ Place, a family owned restaurant and hotel that provided home-cooked meals and rooms to performers. If Sketers’ Place was full, Wood’s Guest House was just across the street. John Sketers, whose father owned the restaurant and motel, says he remembers entertainers would often end up playing until the sun came up, on the open-air deck of Punk’s Patio.

“This era, and the wonderful people and sounds it brought, added life and livelihood to Atlantic Beach,” says John Sketers.

As the 1960s marched on, a new sound was catching on that would change not only the Grand Strand but also the state and region. Carolina beach music, a sound that most agree is a mix of rhythm and blues, some East Coast swing and a little jive, began to catch on up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

The sound evokes a feeling of warm ocean breezes and laid-back living, and it brings to mind the feeling of sand in your shoes as you master your Shag steps on the sandladen dance floors. A classic beach music tune is 1964’s “Under the Boardwalk” by the Drifters. A national hit, it reached No. 4 on Billboard magazine’s “Hot 100” list.

“The Shag” is a coastal dance that grew in popularity due to the new beach music sound, recorded and performed by black artists, but enthusiastically embraced by all listeners on vinyl 45 rpm records (singles) or full-length albums (LPs).

Shag dance steps range from intricate, fast footwork, to slow and easy steps and are mastered by the young and old alike. The dance, now the official state dance for both North and South Carolina, started a movement that is alive and well today and nurtured through multiple shag societies such as the Society of Stranders (SOS). There is also a Beach Shaggers Hall of Fame and numerous championship title holders.

While both Carolinas will eternally claim they are the birthplace of the Shag, Ocean Drive (often referred to as “OD” and a section of North Myrtle Beach) has long been home to a fall, mid-winter and spring migration of shaggers.

This brings big business to the Grand Strand as shaggers flock to beach clubs like The Spanish Galleon, Fat Harold’s and Ducks.

It is a culture born from a desire for the sound of ocean waves and a place to showcase dance moves. On the South Strand, as it’s called today, the Pawleys Pavilion has a special place in the hearts of many shaggers. Now long gone, the location is remembered with an annual reunion of Shag enthusiasts who gather at Pawleys Island to remember their favorite Shag spot that saw its heyday in the 1960s.

Today, many serious shaggers often favor special shoes, apparel, jewelry and even artwork. Shops sell Shag specific items to connoisseurs of the fancy footwork, as well as those vacationing who want to have a bit of sand in their shoes to take back home.

Judy Collins has owned and operated Judy’s House of Oldies on Main Street, in North Myrtle Beach, for more than 25 years. She knows more than the retail side of beach music, as she has also been a beach music radio disc jockey for Sunny 106.5. Collins has won Shag dancing contests, helped organize SOS events and is a member of both the South Carolina DJ Hall of Fame and the Shagger’s Hall of Fame.

“I’ve seen beach music provide a livelihood for club owners, musicians and business owners since the late ’60s,” says Collins “And it is still alive and well today as thousands come here to enjoy the sounds of the Fantastic Shakers, the Embers, Coastline Band and many others.”

The music plays on in North Myrtle Beach and keeps us dancing on, under and all around the boardwalk.

Carolina Beach music bands will continue to leave their mark on the Grand Strand but as the 1970s and ’80s rolled through, groups found themselves competing with something quite different from a jukebox: the disc jockey.

Dance fever hit with the sounds of disco and country in the late 1970s and early ’80s, spurred on by music from blockbuster soundtracks like “Saturday Night Fever” and “Urban Cowboy.” Clubs like Tramps, Cowboys, Afterdeck, 2001 and The Beachwagon, just to name a few, popped up from Little River to Georgetown. Most clubs offered raised dance floors, special lighting and everything from an opportunity to Hustle to the Bee Gees under a mirror ball, to the chance to boot scoot your boots off in a line dance as the DJ played your favorite song.

This nonstop music and a seemingly endless dance floor drew large crowds from 18 to 80, providing a boom in the nightlife economy. Many of the clubs have changed hands or styles and now tend to offer a variety of sounds rather than a specific genre. This seems to keep the crowds happy and coming back for more.

The move to DJs in many clubs was not the death of bands by any means. Jimmy Buffet, just getting famous in the mid-1970s, played the Electric Circus and in a surprise appearance, the Rolling Stones played the Myrtle Beach Convention Center in the summer of 1975. But the Grand Strand’s live music scene at its core was essentially about the summer vacation crowds. Smaller venues like Mother Fletchers and The Magic Attic, located right on the beach near The Pavilion on Ocean Boulevard, still had house bands and drew locals and tourists alike to enjoy live music.

In fact, around 1973, four young men in a group known as Wild Country were the house band playing for tips at a legendary club in downtown Myrtle Beach called The Bowery. The band changed its name to Alabama and developed a huge regional following. They played to beach crowds for seven years before they hit the big time.

Alabama reeled off 21 straight No. 1 hits, and the group says the years they played music just steps away from the Grand Strand’s white sand beaches helped hone their sound: a little bit beach, a little bit Southern rock and a whole lot country.

As Alabama was making a name for themselves in country music, another trend was about to make a lasting impact in the area. Calvin Gilmore knows a thing or two about the music entertainment industry. As a songwriter, recording artist, entrepreneur and more, he has decades of experience knowing just what appeals to an audience.

In 1986, he started the first variety show on the Grand Strand and called it The Carolina Opry. With that one big idea, Gilmore opened a door that many tried to walk through. After seeing Gilmore’s success, theaters with names such as Alabama, Ronny Milsap, the Gatlin Brothers and Dolly Parton began popping up all over the Grand Strand.

The idea of a main stage, with a musical revue-type presentation where patrons can comfortably sit and be entertained by musicians, vocalists, dancers, comedians and all types of performers, was untapped potential in the area until Gilmore brought it to life. This particular type of venue helped spur the economy during the off-peak tourism season and that helped the entire area.

Today these variety theaters offer a regular season show, a Christmas show and specialty shows, as well as occasional live performances by visiting musicians. Gilmore’s approach has remained successful for 30 years.

“We never give up on getting better, and we listen to our fans and deliver,” says Gilmore, indeed a pioneer. His impact on the Grand Strand over the last 30 years is immeasurable.

Murrells Inlet has long been famous for its seafood. But when the 21st century rolled around, it began to earn a new identity – one that involved music. As busloads of fans were visiting the local musical and dinner theaters up the coast, sounds of guitars strumming and bands singing echoed across the waters. Most Inlet restaurants located along U.S. Highway 17 offer some type of live music.

Dino Fair is a guy who knows a lot about music and the Inlet. He lives there and began playing music at the ripe old age of 3. Currently a member of the band Sea Cruz, he plays each week at Creek Ratz located on the MarshWalk. Fair is a member of the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame, inducted as a member of the Fantastic Shakers. He was also a performer in Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede. Although he has officially retired twice, he says the music just will not leave him alone.

“It’s like an itch I have to scratch,” says Fair. The live music, along with salt air breezes and fine to casual dining of the Inlet, seems to scratch an itch for locals and tourists alike. Generations come and go, and the Grand Strand has changed and adapted along with the music. Today, the beach seems to have every option you can imagine. Indoor concert venues include the House of Blues, which opened its doors in 2008. Outdoor concerts like the Carolina Country Music Fest, entering its second year, will again bring big name country music stars to the beach in June.

You can still dance to the sounds played by a DJ, the jukebox or award-winning bands in beach clubs up and down the Strand. You can sit in the comfort of your seat and take in a variety show or you can enjoy a little music with your dinner along the MarshWalk.

“Our local music entertainment industry has played a very formative role in the evolution of the Grand Strand and its tourism industry,” says Brad Dean, president and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. “Today, it offers millions of visitors a family friendly, entertaining reason to make their next vacation a Grand Strand getaway.”

Music is an ever-changing universal language that has had a positive impact on the Grand Strand, providing good times, good music and good memories for many decades and without a doubt, for decades to come.