I’m not much of a dancer, so I’ve always felt a little out of place in the whole Carolina beach music culture, even though I’ve loved the music for a long time, and spent a couple of years living at North Myrtle Beach.
(Before I go any further, it’s probably necessary to explain to any readers who aren’t from the Carolinas or Virginia that “beach music” does not refer to the 1960s’ West Coast surfing songs of the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, etc. Carolina beach music is descended from the rhythm and blues songs that were popular on Myrtle Beach juke boxes starting in the late 1940s through about the 1960s — think the Clovers and the Drifters through classic Motown.)
Anyway, I was saddened to hear that General Norman Johnson died today at the age of 67. Not a military figure, but a “beach music icon,” as he’s being called in tributes, who fronted one of the most popular beach groups ever, the Chairmen of the Board.
The group has been around in one incarnation or another since they were formed in Detroit in the mid-1960s, and they enjoyed a brief run of hits on the pop charts in 1969 and 1970. If you’re of a certain age, you’ve probably heard “Give Me Just a Little More Time,” “Pay to the Piper,” “Everything’s Tuesday” and “Dangling on a String” — all now beach music classics.
All featured Johnson’s unusual quavering, hiccup-punctuated vocals and a backing band with a bottomless groove — if, unlike me, you can dance, those tunes will keep you out on the floor all night. Many of the songs were also written by Johnson, who earned R&B songwriting fame for “Patches,” a popular late Sixties tale of adversity which was made a hit by Clarence Carter‘s over-the-top vocal.
The Top 40 hits went away, but Johnson, like many R&B artists of the Sixties and Seventies, got new life with the resurgence of beach music in the Eighties. The band moved its base of operations to Charlotte, and became a fixture on the Grand Strand and at live shows throughout the Carolinas.
One of my favorite all-time brushes with celebrity was a chance encounter with him at a Dunkin Donuts in Greenville, S.C., in late 1979 after attending a show which the Chairmen headlined at the old Memorial Auditorium. He was a very gracious, approachable man.
And those years brought some new “niche” classics like “Carolina Girls” — best in the world, he said — “On the Beach,” and “Gone Fishin’,” like much of the “new” beach music evoking the laid back, not-a-care-in-the-world vibe of the coast.
But he never let the music become a cliche. One of my favorite songs on my iPod is an obscurity from a CD from the late Eighties pairing “old and new” recording artists. Johnson and Joey Ramone collaborated on The Ramones’ “Rockaway Beach,” turning the punk group’s high-speed rave-up into a swinging mid-tempo tune just right for shagging. (Again, for those who need explanation I don’t mean that in the English sense.) Great fun.
As I thought about what to write about this timeless beach music craftsman, I thought his best epitaph might be some of the closing lines from a song he wrote in the early Sixties, when he was with a band called The Showmen. The song was called “It Will Stand,” and that title was used for a number of years by the publishers of a fine newsletter about beach music that I don’t think is published any longer.
Talking about rock and roll music, Johnson wrote:
Don’t you nickname it
You might as well claim it
It’ll be here forever and ever
Ain’t gonna fade, never no never
The same claim can probably be made for Johnson’s great recordings, which will be played in the Carolinas as long as somebody’s there to walk down a beach with sand in their shoes and an ice cold beer in their hand.
UPDATE: I somehow totally missed this, but a contemporary of General Norman Johnson, soul/R&B singer Solomon Burke, also died this week, aged 70, on Sunday. While not strictly a beach music artist, his songs like “Cry to Me,” and “Just Out of Reach of My Two Empty Arms” will be familiar to fans. (Or you might remember the song of his that closed “The Blues Brothers” movie, “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.” John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd did OK by it.)
He had made a comeback with some country-tinged CDs in recent years. Rolling Stone Magazine noted, a little politically incorrectly, of “Nashville,” a wonderful CD which included collaborations with Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Patty Loveless, ” the best country album of 2006 was made by a 66-year-old black man in a wheelchair.” I’m partial to his last effort, “Like a Fire” (2008). Here’s the title track.
In addition to his musical legacy, he leaves 21 children and 90 grandchildren, according to this Washington Post obituary.