It’s not an easy task, attempting to explain to visitors from far off what the shag dance is all about and what the musical term “beach music” really means to Carolina folks. It can be tricky.
Oftentimes, when those unfamiliar with the S.C. state dance hear its name, they blush at the British meaning of the term (they lovingly use “shag” interchangeably with “fuck,” hence the embarrassment). The term “beach music” usually gets confused with surf rock — the twangy, California-based, rock ‘n’ roll dance music that became popular in the late ’50s and early ’60s with hits by The Ventures, The Surfaris, and Dick Dale & The Del Tones. To a lesser extent, some confuse Southeastern-style beach music with the harmony-laden pop-rock of the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean, or even calypso or Caribbean dance music.
Shag dancing is still wildly popular across the Carolinas, especially in the Charlotte area and along the Grand Strand. Here in the Charleston area, several shag social clubs hold annual dance nights and special events. Longtime local gathering spot J.B. Pivots has been a major hotspot for shaggers and beach music lovers for nearly 25 years. Pivots is also a main sponsor for the Charleston Beach Music & Shag Festival, set for Aug. 26-30 (see Pick on p. 39).
Decades after improvisational shag dancing became a phenomenon and beach music established itself as a genre, any shag dancer worth his or her loafers and madras knows the real deal: beach music and the shag usually go hand-in-hand, although not all shag tunes necessarily fall neatly into the beach music genre. Good shaggers can twist and step to any song with the right beat, no matter whether it’s a bluesy number, a mid-tempo rockabilly gem, or a country tune.
The strongest shag songs follow a specific meter, rhythm, and lyrical theme associated with the culture of the Carolina coast.
“Beach music became conscious of itself when Jackie Gore wrote a song called ‘I Love Beach Music’ [recorded and released by The Embers in 1979],” says Myrtle Beach-based deejay and writer “Fessa” John Hook, author of Shagging in the Carolinas (Arcadia). “Prior to that, there was never ever any beach music song that observed the culture. It was all teenager themes: sun, sand, beer, and watching the girls go by.”
So if the right swingin’ mid-tempo, smooth-groovin’ dance beat needs a joyful lyrical theme to qualify as a proper shag tune, there’s one vintage R&B tune that should always remain on the top of every beach music DJ’s playlist: the 1951 recording “Sixty Minute Man” by Billy Ward & The Dominoes (an influential vocal group that at times included Clyde McPhatter of the Drifters and “Mr. Entertainment” Jackie Wilson in the lineup). With a lazy swing beat, a walking bass line, a cool guitar riff, and deep-low singing from bass singer Bill Brown, the tune was an R&B and pop smash back in the day, despite the naughty double entendre in such lyrics as, “There’ll be 15 minutes of kissin’/Then you’ll holler ‘Please don’t stop!’ (Don’t stop!)/There’ll be 15 minutes of teasin’, 15 minutes of squeezin’ … and 15 minutes of blowin’ my top.”
Hopefully, more than a few bands and DJs will provide renditions of this ribald number over the course of the Charleston Beach Music & Shag Festival this week. If I hear it, I might even grab someone and start leading and pivoting some improvised steps of my own.
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