It was always sitting there on an out-of-the-way corner of the kitchen counter, patiently waiting to be discovered. The old Zenith was made sometime in the forties. It was a beautifully styled art deco AM/Short wave table radio with an off white bakelite case and a gold toned dial. There were 3 black knobs: an on/off/volume control, a tone control, and a tuning knob. Above the dial were several push-buttons, one for AM, one for Short Wave and a couple more that could be preset to favorite stations. Until the summer of 1961 I never gave it a second look.
Every summer since first grade, I had taken swimming and diving lessons at Albemarle’s City owned pool at Rock Creek Park. Rock Creek was built in the thirties by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The pool’s depth varied from three feet on one end to ten feet on the other. Two blue and white diving boards with stainless steel ladders hovered over the deepest end. Its wide pool deck was the summer place to be for teenagers. Beach towels of all colors concealed the deck like a patchwork quilt on an old bed. The low, slate topped walls seemed to shout the names and initials scrawled there. A tall lifeguard chair stood like a sentinel on one side near the deepest end. Aloft was the ever present, tanned guard sporting a pair of RayBan Aviators and twirling a whistle chain around his index finger. High school boys and girls handled the lifeguard duties, taught swimming lessons, and ran the bathhouse and concession stand. To us kids their swagger and self confidence elevated them to rock star status. If they called you by name, the other kids noticed.
My Mother and Aunt took turns taking my cousin and me to the pool every other day or so. They would sit in the covered bleacher area for a couple hours while we took lessons and swam. This summer vacation was going to be different. I was turning eleven. After talking to Jeff, one of the lifeguards, Mom had agreed I was old enough to be dropped off at the pool and stay there unsupervised until she came to pick me up late in the afternoon. She knew all the lifeguards and they knew me. It was a different time then; today a parent would be drawn and quartered for even considering such a thing.
Of all the great memories of that summer at Rock Creek Park, there was one thing that continues to influence my life to this day. It was the music. The jukebox was attached to large horn speakers mounted on tall poles at both ends of the pool. Songs by The Platters, Maurice Williams, Sam Cooke, Jerry Butler, and many more never stopped. Catchy tunes like “Little Egypt” by the Coasters seemed somewhat sinful to this eleven year old. I couldn’t get enough of it. When I wasn’t there I was singing those hits to myself. Sometimes late in the afternoons I helped Jeff clean up and get ready to close. He told me about his family vacationing in Ocean Drive. According to him, in OD the music I loved never stopped. For several years high school and college students from all over NC, SC, and GA had turned Ocean Drive Beach into ground zero for what is now called Beach Music. Over the years music white Southern kids listened to carved out a R&B niche that was unique to this SC getaway.
One night after coming home from the pool when I had to have more, I went into the kitchen and picked up that old Zenith and took it to my room. As the tubes warmed up and that radio came to life, I hoped I could hear just one or two of those songs. I began slowly turning the tuning knob, starting at the The Zenith by Dennis Hamann low end of the AM range and gradually moving up the dial. I found stations like WABC 770 in New York City, WLS 890 in Chicago, WCFL 1000 from Detroit, and WBT 1110 in Charlotte. There were plenty of popular songs by white artists but none of them played the kind of music I wanted to hear. The songs by the black artists that were on the jukebox were few and far between on the radio. I was almost at the upper end of the dial when I heard what I thought was a black man’s voice. That booming baritone voice belonged to John R. I had found what I was looking for! WLAC 1510, Nashville Tennessee was a clear channel station that’s nighttime signal could be heard over half the country. All the music I loved and so much more was there. John R, Gene Nobles, Herman Grizzard, and Hoss Allen were men I’d never met but they, and the music they played, changed my life. Not only did I hear the mainstream R&B music, but I heard James Brown, Hank Ballard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Little Richard. Artists like Otis Redding seemed to touch my soul. Randy’s Record Rack and Ernie’s Record Mart, two of WLAC’s advertisers, seemed like exotic, distant, taboo destinations to an eleven year old growing up in the South. From that night on, the glow from the old Zenith’s dial and the mellow sounds from its speaker filled my bedroom.
In the years that followed, trends in music changed. The British invasion began and the seeds of metal and rock were planted. As I listened, this new music seemed all too familiar. It was obvious from interviews with these British artists that there was a common thread that ran through their music. They too had been influenced by the artists I loved so much. Their music idols were the same as mine. During the next few years R&B/Soul music gained mainstream popularity. Little did I know there were kids like me all over the country, especially the Southeast, who were listening and enjoying it.
The summer of 1965, I was determined to make my pilgrimage to this “Mecca of Beach Music” Ocean Drive Beach. My parents and I took a vacation trip to Myrtle Beach every summer but that seemed like a million miles away from OD. That summer had to be different. As luck would have it, a neighborhood friend told me his mother had been offered the use of a beach house in Crescent Beach for a long weekend. She accepted and decided to take a couple of his friends. This was it! This was my chance. I would walk from Crescent Beach to OD if I had to. On a sunny Thursday morning we left. After we arrived, and settled in, we walked across 17th Avenue to the amusement park. On Friday night my friend’s mother dropped us off in OD. We walked around awhile and finally sat down on the low wall in front of the Pavilion across from “The Pad”. While sitting there watching the partiers come and go, suddenly I felt someone touch my shoulder while hearing a familiar voice, “Hey kid, what are you doing here?” It was Jeff, my lifeguard hero from the pool. He had graduated from high school 3 years before and was in college. We talked for a minute, then he gave me a friendly slap on the shoulder. As he walked away he turned and said, “I told you you’d love this place.” Something happened to me that night at the corner of Main Street and Ocean Boulevard. I knew I had found something there in Ocean Drive. I would never be satisfied going to Myrtle Beach again. Ocean Drive was where I wanted to be.