For generations, high school musicians have formed bands to play the sounds of their times, from swing to rock to heavy metal and rap.
Just as the bands get good, graduation arrives. To the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance,” members depart and never make music again together.
The Catalinas are different.
Since late 1957, when a group of mostly Charlotte Myers Park High School students organized the band, the Catalinas have endured. They’ve played everywhere from country clubs to catfish festivals. Decades ago, the band played regularly at the Castaways, a Greensboro shag club.
The band returns to perform from 6-8:30 tonight in downtown’s Center City Park, the fifth group to play in a series of six Beach Music in the Park concerts on Thursdays.
The Catalinas not only survived graduation and developed a large following in the 1960s, but also the group refused to die in the 1970s when it appeared rock ’n’ roll would succumb to funky sounds captivating American youth.
“That was a tough time for the band, but they persevered,” says Jack Stallings Jr., a Charlotte financial planner who was a member from 1961-71, when the band performed in coats and ties.
As best can be determined, the only band in the Carolinas older is Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, which started in Lancaster, S.C., in the mid-1950s as the Royal Charms, renaming themselves the Gladiolas before becoming the Zodiacs in 1959. Their 1960 song “Stay” has proved it has staying power. It’s a favorite on the golden-oldie stations.
The Embers, who played the park earlier this month, originated in 1958 in Raleigh. About that time came the Rivieras, another Myers Park High group, and Harry Deal and the Galaxies of Taylorsville.
None of the original Catalinas remains with the band, including founder Buddy Emmerke and keyboardist Judy Westmoreland. She was a rarity for her time — most rock bands were all male.
“I guess we play the right kind of music,” current Catalinas leader Gary Barker says of the band’s longevity. A Statesville resident, Barker joined the group in 1965.
Although beach music and rock ’n’ roll remain the band’s main offering, Barker says the Catalinas occasionally mix in contemporary and country songs.
Stallings, who has stayed close to the band through the years, believes the Catalinas have stayed fresh and popular because they stress chemistry and teamwork. When prima donnas emerged, they didn’t last. He says the band used to spend hours rehearsing to achieve harmony and to perfect choreography.
He says the Catalinas also studied — and borrowed from — the black rock groups of the ’50s and ’60s: Maurice Williams, the Platters, the Clovers, the Five Satins and others.
Barker says the old music he plays never gets old to him, only the traveling. In the past week, the Catalinas performed as far south as Charleston, S.C., and as far north as Culpeper, Va.
With an age range of 34 to Barker’s 62, some Catalinas have reached the autumn of their lives. But it’s always summer at concerts, even in the dead of winter.
The band’s best-known recording, “Summertime’s Calling Me,” was composed in 1975 by Barker’s brother, Johnny, during a snow storm and on the proverbial restaurant napkin.
“The band was coming across Black Mountain after playing in Asheville,” Stallings says. “They were saying how great it would be to be at the beach. They stopped at a fast-food place where Johnny wrote the song on a napkin or a wrapper.’’
“Summertime Calling” and the Ember’s “I Love Beach Music” are considered among the greatest beach music songs. Beach, a blend of soul and R&B, evolved after World War II along South Carolina’s Grand Strand, where youth of the Carolinas congregated to bronze and boogie.
“The Shag” emerged as the dance of beach music. Dancers twirled, embraced and made precision movements. When the best shaggers glided onto dance floors in Myrtle Beach and Ocean Drive Beach (now North Myrtle Beach) crowds watched and learned.
They still do. Most of the 2,000 plus at the park concerts sit or stand on the crowded portable floor to watch the shaggers. Many embraced beach music decades ago and have aged along with it. Still, a fair number of young folk show up each Thursday to share space on the floor with the gray hairs.
Barker doesn’t like to talk about his age, but he may feel younger Sept. 26 at Charlotte’s Freedom Park. He and the band will perform at a reunion with former Catalinas who are even older. More than 60 former Catalinas, including founder Emmerke and original keyboardist Westmoreland, will take turns playing during a four-hour concert.
Contact Jim Schlosser
at 373-7081 or jschlosser@ news-record.com