Written by John Garrity
Paul Grimshaw’s “book” is a sight to behold. As deep as a dresser drawer and made up of wrinkled, dog-eared, beer-stained pages, it threatens to topple off his music stand. “It’s my big book of songs,” he says with a wry smile. But if the book is a bit of a mess—as is Grimshaw, who typically performs in a T-shirt and jeans—it is a proper symbol for the Grand Strand music scene. “There are more cover bands in Myrtle Beach than any place I’ve ever been,” he says. “I’m a garage band guy, but there’s as much musical talent here as anywhere I’ve been.”
Grimshaw should know. For 21 years, as a guitarist and lead singer for the Paul Grimshaw Band, he has performed instantly recognizable tunes for Myrtle Beach audiences of all ages. “There used to be more of an original-music scene,” he says, “but now, because of tourism, we mostly attract musicians who want to entertain big crowds and perform for people who like to dance.”
“Cover band” doesn’t do justice to Vegas-style revues like Calvin Gilmore’s Carolina Opry, Alabama Theater’s ONE The Show or Legends in Concert. Gilmore’s Time Warp revue, for example, features a house band of virtuoso instrumentalists, vocalists with impressive star-mimicry talents, a Broadway influenced dance troupe and All That, a five-man clogging group more energetic than a Riverdance cast on a sugar high. Nevertheless, the stagecraft is dedicated to worshipful reproductions of 20th-century chart-toppers. Vocal director Gary Brown performs a wistful version of James Taylor’s “Carolina on My Mind.” Tangena Church sizzles as Tina Turner on “River Deep, Mountain High.” And if you’re still bummed about missing Woodstock, emcee and guitarist Gary Baker recreates Jimi Hendrix’s feedback-fueled “Star-Spangled Banner” guitar solo. Then you have Drew Voivedich, better known as Kid Drew, whose electric guitar solo on Prince’s “Purple Rain” is a showstopper. “Drew’s a prodigy,” says Grimshaw, who started following Voivedich when he was an actual kid. “He could play every riff, chord, scale and mode when he was 12 years old, and now he’s one of the finest guitar players in the business.”
At the other end of the venue scale, you have an array of Grand Strand bars and clubs that offer familiar music. Check out the MarshWalk, a picturesque boardwalk in the village of Murrells Inlet, where soloists and cover bands perform at water-front restaurants like Bubba’s, Wahoo’s, Creek Ratz, Drunken Jack’s and The Wicked Tuna. A four-man version of the Paul Grimshaw Band has a regular Wednesday night gig at the Dead Dog Saloon, performing practically any requested song, from Glen Campbell to Canned Heat—although doesn’t hide his affection for a certain fab foursome.
“The Beatles, the Beatles, the Beatles,” he says, sitting on a barstool with a view of the salt marsh. “I’m a big fan of the British Invasion—Genesis, David Bowie, that sort of thing.” Nicknamed Cliffy, after the “it’s-a-little-known-fact” character from Cheers, Grimshaw is a fount of arcane knowledge accumulated in parallel careers as a journalist, novelist and Civil War reenactor. “I’ve written an awful lot of fluff,” he says of his role as a leisure and travel writer, “but I’ve interviewed a few bank robbers, and I’m probably the area’s busiest music writer.”
Myrtle Beach’s live-music tradition, Grimshaw the journalist will tell you, predates his beloved era of radio playlists and platinum-record artists. The original “big venue” was the neoclassical Ocean Forest Hotel, billed as “the finest hotel between New York and Miami.” Opened in 1930, the Ocean Forest occupied 13 acres of beachfront property and provided a ballroom and an outdoor band shell for Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, Nancy Sinatra and other touring artists. (Don’t look for it. Lacking air conditioning, the Ocean Forest fell out of favor and was demolished in 1974.) The ’40s and ’50s also saw the flourishing of beach music and a North Myrtle Beach innovation called the shag—an R&B-based dance that shares the verticality of Irish step dancing, the footwork of the tango and the exuberance of jitterbugging. To this day, Carolina shag clubs stage weekend dances and host national competitions attracting thousands. “The shag is the South Carolina state dance,” says Grimshaw, “and you still have big beach-music bands like The Embers, The Tams and the Craig Woolard Band.” The Tams, it should be noted, recorded and toured with Jimmy Buffett and notched several U.S. and U.K. chart hits, including “There Ain’t Nothin’ Like Shaggin” from the 1989 film Shag.
Other big-name bands have local roots. The supergroup Alabama, performing in the ’70s as Wild Country, used to be the house band at the Bowery, a compulsory stop if you love rowdy crowds, iced beer and Southern rock. (“The Bowery gave us a great place to write and create,” singer Randy Owen has said.) The Marshall Tucker Band, meanwhile, roared out of Spartanburg, S.C., with one platinum album, five gold albums and more than four decades of high-decibel touring. (Lead singer Doug Gray, a Myrtle Beach resident, maintains an active interest in the live-music scene.) Then you have Hootie & the Blowfish, which—pertinently—began in the ’80s as a college cover band at the University of South Carolina. Hootie developed its Myrtle Beach fan base at The Purple Gator, The Afterdeck and the House of Blues before breaking out in 1994 with a debut LP, Cracked Rear View, that sold more than 10 million copies. Lead singer Darius Rucker is now a Grammy-winning country artist, but he and Hootie reunite every spring for the Monday After the Masters Celebrity Pro-Am, a golf tournament benefitting Grand Strand charities since 1995.
Those very original musicians aside, Myrtle Beach retains its reputation for crowd-pleasing musical emulation. For that, credit goes to the aforementioned Calvin Gilmore, whose Carolina Opry, founded in 1986, changed the arc of local music. “Calvin was the pioneer, and everybody followed his lead,” says Ed Warneck, a Myrtle Beach tour and events promoter. “He set the tone for everything that followed.”
Gilmore, who lives with his business partner and wife, Janis, in a Pawleys Island plantation house surrounded by moss-draped oaks, describes his musical revues as “a cross between Branson, Vegas and New York.” A country singer/songwriter in his own right, he stars in his perennial Opry and Christmas spectaculars while keeping a watchful eye on Time Warp and other revues, which are directed by his son Jeff and marketed by his daughter Jordan.
“I discovered Myrtle Beach when I was in college,” Gilmore says, seated on his veranda on a sunny afternoon. “I sold Biblical reference books door-to-door, and at the end of the summer I came here to celebrate with a carload of guys. We ended up sleeping on a golf green at The Dunes Club, right across the road from my theater.” He smiles. “I couldn’t have dreamed of that.”
Gilmore’s voice and songwriting took him to Nashville, where, he admits, he was merely another “hat act.” “It’s not just a matter of talent,” he says of his first run at stardom. “It’s being in the right place at the right time with the right song, and for every one who makes it, there’s a thousand who don’t. If you get past a certain age, you don’t want to be playing in clubs at 3 a.m. You want a steady job with benefits and regular hours.” That explains how he wound up in Kansas City as a graphic artist for Hallmark Cards, and later as a real estate agent, while performing country gigs at night.
“Finally,” he says, “I started looking for a place to build my own theater”—which led him to a bankrupt thousand-seat nightclub in Surfside, S.C. He bought the place with no money down and no margin for error. Three decades and two theaters later, his 2,000-seat Carolina Opry auditorium hosts national acts and attracts A-list sidemen weary of life on the road.
“Performers want to work with us because of the artists that are already here,” Gilmore says. “They want to work with Gary Baker, Kid Drew and Gary Brown.” And here Gilmore makes a key point about the Myrtle Beach music scene. “Some of my guys finish a show, and then they go out and play the restaurants and bars ’til one in the morning.”
Really? His A-listers slip into jeans to play a set or two with the bar-band guys?
He nods. “It doesn’t bother me. It’s a different audience, and you can’t have good musicians unless you allow them to do that.”
It’s clearly a case of Gilmore meets Grimshaw. And that, the impresario’s expression says, about covers it.
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