True enough, in the 1960s several recording acts from the eastern seaboard embraced soul music. For some perhaps it was initially as a happy accident. Travelling African-American R&B singers on the circuit arrived in town without a backing band and needed some local talented musicians to support them. Later, musical repertoire would occur more by design.
The uniqueness of The Tempests lay in the fact that this homegrown North Carolina outfit known for soulful lead vocals, an unusually large and loud horn section, tight rhythm and heavy bass lines, could claim some commercial success and much critical acclaim. It seemed that these boys were in the right place at the right time. Racially integrated before the 1963 Civil Rights Act, the band started their recording career on a major label, and continued it on a subsidiary of another. Like so many bands, creative talent and the struggle to make their way in the industry came at a cost. There were multiple personnel changes, heavy touring schedules, financial arguments and internal warring at times. Their popularity and musical talent, particularly during the Smash Records years, was undeniable, and culminated in several recordings including what is considered among certain soul music record collecting circles an iconic R&B LP recording. The story doesn’t stop there however. Individual surviving members may now be well into their sixties and seventies, but many are still making music, producing and even influencing others.
The Tempests (courtesy of Van Coble).
To fully appreciate where these talented musicians fitted into the industry landscape of the time, and the legacy they left, one has to go way back to the beginning.
A deep dig reveals more than a degree of racial crossover in the south eastern states. Black cultural and musical identity may have been suppressed at one time in predominantly white working class and middleclass communities, but regional pockets of ‘tolerance’ existed. Someone once said “….if you’re from North Carolina you may as well be a Yankee”. The accuracy of such a reference to tolerance and liberalism may be blurred across social and racial divides these days, and North Carolina was also certainly not without an attitude of subtle superiority - and overt hostility – towards the African-American race. In the 1960s this was particularly noticeable among poorer rural sections of white society who were still feeling the repercussions of a devastating depression era from decades before. Yet the basis of racial acceptance within North Carolina would originate partly from the rich musical heritage of the black community which surrounded them.
In times before and during the Civil War, slaves would be a higher prized asset for internal trade if they had specific skills. Many would be taught to play guitars, fiddles and banjos to entertain their white slave masters in their households and at society functions. Life of course remained very far from perfect following ‘official’ emancipation from slavery. However one effect of freedom was the lateral migration and formation of clusters of close knit communities in the south eastern states. Convergence of talent was inevitable. Musical skills developed by the elders in their former period of enslavement would be passed onto the next generations. Local influences outside the immediate community would also be absorbed into the mix. New styles such as the string plucking and rhythmic bass patterns of the Piedmont blues would emerge.
Meanwhile, ongoing racism, social oppression, poverty, and the advent of two World Wars were major drivers for mass migration of blacks up the east coast. Munition and clothing orders for armed forces provided some opportunities for work in New York. With many musicians settling in Harlem, a fusion of further styles occurred. Over two million members of the black communities in North Carolina travelled north between 1900 and the 1940s. Many never returned south; others brought new musical approaches back to their old communities. Southern states could almost be identified by musical genre at this point: North Carolina of hip jazz and gospel, and South Carolina with more rural roots of country, bluegrass, blues and spirituals, in line with Kentucky and parts of Georgia.
The rock ‘n’ roll era of the 1950s would mark the first major interface of inter-racial musical appreciation among teenage America. Historians usually focus on delta blues, the fusion of musical styles from different cultures in New Orleans, and musicians - black and white - from along the Mississippi River and up to Memphis, Tennessee. Where generations of parental conservatism and cultural and musical naivety existed within white households, this was being progressively eroded. Parents and children of all ages could not ignore the rapid pace of social, political and musical change around them. Many of the protagonists within these pages may still have been in their tender years (some under ten) but even then, were tuning into the likes of Chuck Berry and their white heroes too, playing the ‘Devil’s Music’. The scene was now set for the next decade: teenage rebellion, social conscience, student lunch counter sit-ins and MLK marches.
Hazel Martin (courtesy of Van Coble / Martin family).
Then, of course, there was soul music. The migration of black communities further north to industrial Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and New York was instrumental in spreading the word and truly turning the form into a widespread commercial entity. Musicians, singers, producers, entrepreneurs and major labels would come together, often leading to distinct regional styles which have been comprehensively documented elsewhere. By the mid-1960s, soul music was pretty much an established global phenomenon.
When considering how soul music was popularised in the Carolinas specifically, and therefore ultimately what influenced bands like The Tempests, the importance of local and national radio cannot be overstated. Only a couple of dozen stations existed in North Carolina until after World War II when FM was introduced. An increase in approved licence applications commenced in the 1950s, with radio stations bringing rock ‘n’ roll, doo-wop and eventually soul to a whole new younger listening audience, attracted to late night R&B programming.
Certain radio stations in the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia were essential in exposing white teenage audiences to race music during the late 1950s and 1960s. WGIV (We are GI Veterans; a patriotic nod to the end of World War II) was a culturally integrated station serving the metropolitan area of Charlotte. In the late 1940s Francis Marion Fitzgerald, founder of the station and owner of the Publix Broadcasting Service of Charlotte Inc., had arrived at the then unique concept of a station focused on or inclusive of the African-American community. The idea was effectively a response to an untapped commercial opportunity, much in the same way as WLAC operated in Nashville. WGIV adopted an integrated approach both in its employee profile, business affairs and music programming, a unity symbolised by the station’s logo of a white hand shaking a black hand. Whilst later in the decade the inter-racial ideology of the station would be marred by rising in-equalities at work and national race issues, for most of the 1960s WGIV was well placed to play emerging R&B recordings and were actively involved in auditioning, promoting and managing local acts.
WAYS radio station, located at 400 Radio Road, had also been around since the 1940s and broadcast at 610 AM. Prior to Stan and Sis Kaplan from Boston buying the place and licence for $550,000, the little white building was physically deteriorating, and its programming held little interest for young people in the area. In their eagerness to appeal to teenagers, the Kaplans renamed the station Big WAYS and in spring of 1965 opened with a top 40 chart format featuring pop and R&B. No expense was spared in obtaining top personalities, charismatic D.J.s and attractive competitions to engage a new audience. The $1000 treasure hunts presented by D.J. Jack Gale went down well, though perhaps more with the listeners than the local police force who had to contend with individuals digging up fields, gardens and plots around the city. WAYS would also support local concerts and became the local leader for young radio listeners. The station was sold some thirty years later, along with its FM counterpart, for over $13 million.
Other stations played their part, such as WBAG where D.J. Jim Conklin reputedly broke The Showmen’s 39-21-46 on air (now considered a beach music classic). However, local stations were also receiving heavy competition from Nashville’s WLAC, which was continually pumping out blues, soul and R&B. A never-ending supply of material would be played by white D.J. John ‘R’ Richbourg via a symbiotic relationship with sponsors Ernie Young and Randy Wood, both owners of vinyl record mail order companies and record label involvement. WLAC initially ran a community orientated news schedule but changed its policy when another competitor WSM was gaining popularity in playing country music. WLAC had a 50,000-wattage broadcasting capability, enabling twenty-eight states to receive a signal; even reaching parts of Canada and the tip of Southern Florida. The whole of the eastern seaboard was easily covered. The initial intention of WLAC’s new programming was to serve the relatively untapped black community market across the major cities and the deep south. As race music became labelled R&B, John Richbourg and colleague Bill Allen would run their respective slots promoting recordings by Nashville and national black artists. These shows would be broadcast at night time when the signal was strongest and coverage by WLAC had, in a literal sense, far-reaching effect.
The Showmen (courtesy of Bob McNair).
The Tropics’ guitarist Ken Adkins who gave the beach music and northern soul scenes Hey You Little Girl, remembers: “This is how I got my music education. A great signal, and music accessible nowhere else. From the age of ten until college, WLAC came on at 10pm and stayed on until 3am. I had a big Zenith floor model radio with a twelve-inch speaker in my room, away from other family members. I stayed up and listened …and listened ...and listened....”
The national dance of South Carolina, the Shag, has also played a part in sustaining the interest in R&B through the decades in the region. Enthusiasts and academics have long argued over the origins of the Shag and the changing musical scenes which surrounded it. There does however appear to be consensus that several seemingly unrelated factors came together to form the post-war Shag phenomenon, including the presence of the military, radio, and Big Bands. One legend states that jump blues was the first trigger, played by returning merchant seamen to a largely white audience at Jim Hanna’s Tijuana Inn at Carolina Beach in the late forties. Another story, from the same era, goes that a young man named Harry Driver was captivated by the race music of Buddy Johnson Orchestra whilst attending the Wilmington Armory Dances. He was in awe of the improvised Jitterbug and Lindy Hopping he saw performed at the venue by local youths and servicemen on shore leave. Harry was reportedly one of the first to add in additional ‘whip’ steps and the dance and scene blossomed from there. Other neighbouring centres quickly became synonymous with the Shag, most notably the popular summer seaside resort of Myrtle Beach, and vacationing teenagers. Over subsequent decades, the Shag scene has evolved and encompassed a range of musical styles, though its major association remains with early R&B of the late 1950s and then soul music of the 1960s.
Dutch format of The Tempests LP (Jon Downs collection),
The domino effect following the delivery of soul via the air-waves in the early to mid-1960s was inevitable. Along the east coast a new enthusiasm was born for emerging R&B recordings, much as had happened for rock ‘n’ roll some five years earlier. Vacationing teenagers were now being treated to exciting soul-orientated Show and Dance nights in the beach pavilions. Away from the coast, clubs throughout the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia featured similar live acts. Booking agents, perhaps most notably Ted Hall and his Hit Attractions company were kept busy, booking Motown artists and other national acts for venues around Charlotte, Myrtle Beach, Greensboro, Williams Lake, Winston-Salem and others. College students and high school classmates also wanted in on the action, forming their own bands so they could emulate the sounds they loved and create their own brand of soul. Talent agents quickly sought these out to add to their list for hire at high school sock hops, country clubs and frat parties. These bands would also prove invaluable when opening sets were required or as backing bands for visiting solo artists and vocal groups.
The Tempests would be part of that story.
Copyright (2019) E. Mark Windle. Excerpt from The Tempests: A Carolina Soul Story. Publication date Summer 2019. Available exclusively from A Nickel And A Nail.