David Lauderdale

‘The heat, the beat — it was everything’: Lowcountry’s Melody Makers era comes to life

Nobody could imagine that those salty hot Lowcountry nights at Oak Grove would one day be called history.

Teenagers who would be forever young flocked there to dance to the rhythm and blues of Beaufort’s hottest band, the Melody Makers.

They were more worried about making curfew than the historic significance of a special moment in time that we now know can never be repeated.

Oak Grove was magical music club in the 1960s, a cinder block building off in the woods by the dark, two-lane S.C. 170 in Okatie. The building is still there, now quietly facing a divided highway roaring with traffic.

But then it was the high church of good times for teenagers from Beaufort, Jasper and Hampton counties, and even from Bamberg and Orangeburg and the big city of Savannah.

They first gathered in a club hugging the Okatie River, called Baileys, before there was Oak Grove.

Sometimes they went against their daddy’s will.

But even if they knew he was checking the mileage on the car, the chance for a kiss or a slow dance was a risk worth taking for kids in a slow-moving Lowcountry.

That scene, locked away inside many aging hearts, will get one more dance this week when a Melody Makers exhibit opens at the Beaufort History Museum in time for the Water Festival.

“The heat, the beat — it was everything,” said Mary Lou Brewton, a museum board member.

“It’s how we grew up here.”

‘American Idol’

The Melody Makers grew up in Beaufort.

The recording band formed in 1961, when Fred Gauch joined Larry Rogers and Ron Nobles.

The band matured with the addition of O’Neal Clamp and Gerald Polk, who were high school band directors in Hampton and Allendale.

In 1964, Ted Ledford joined as keyboard player. Other early members were Donny Murdaugh and Charlie Parker.

It would grow to six and eight players, adding the big sound of horns and becoming one of the South’s most popular dance bands.

“The sound kept getting bigger and bigger, and our popularity got bigger and bigger,” Gauch said.

They had hot-selling 45 rpm records, the most popular being “I Who Have Nothing,” “Everlasting Love” and “Walking Up a One Way Street.”

That torch was passed with little notice when Candice Glover of St. Helena Island sang the same song, “I Who Have Nothing,” 45 years later in the finale to win the 2013 “American Idol.”

The Melody Makers were part of the “beach music,” rhythm and blues, old-time rock ‘n roll, and shag dance craze that was headquartered in Ocean Drive north of Myrtle Beach, and is still kicking today.

“We played all the pavilions, from Myrtle Beach, Pawleys Island, Folly Beach, Tybee Island and Jacksonville Beach,” said Gauch, who still leads the band.

They played fraternity parties, weddings and college dances.

But the Melody Makers were the house band at Oak Grove, where kids juiced on 3.2 Pabst Blue Ribbon especially liked “The Oreo Song.”

“Oak Grove, I mean to tell you, on Saturday night, that place would be rocking and rolling,” said Martin Sauls III of Ridgeland, now 75 and the longtime Jasper County coroner.

Sauls, then and now a saxophonist, remembers the broomsticks holding up the wooden slats at Baileys to let a river breeze pass through, or the sounds of a musician he knew only as “Rice” escape over the marsh.

They had other places they could go for dancing, like the Varnville Pool. They could go to Lonnie’s Limbo Room at the corner of Calhoun and Lawrence streets in Bluffton, until revelers rolling around in the flower bed of the mayor’s house next door led to a call to Sam Padgett, the town police officer, and the end of the Limbo Room.

They could hear big-timers like Little Richard and Fats Domino at The Bamboo Ranch across the Savannah River in Garden City, before Billy Joe Royal got his start at the legendary place of the “Southeast’s Largest Dance Floor.”

And even at Oak Grove, Sauls remembers hearing James Brown and the Mighty Sensations of Savannah.

“Some of the people I went to Oak Grove with, I’m still friends with 60 years later,” Sauls said.

“It was a big time. A big time.”

The Arsenal

Everything’s different today.

Gauch, the bassist, says it’s unlikely you’ll find a place to last as long as Baileys and Oak Grove did — running from about the mid-50s to the mid-70s.

“You can’t lock in a quality audience like we did back then,” he said. “We knew almost everybody. That was the phenomenon about it. That place was a magnet, such a magnet. It could draw from one big group of people, and they would all come. The band was the big attraction.”

Now, he said, the audience is splintered.

“Around 1974, it died,” he said. “Disco came out and it split the crowd.”

The Lowcountry also has changed.

“It went from a small-town feel, to now everybody, when they get in it, wants it to be the biggest thing in the world,” Gauch said.

The band broke up for a time, but Gauch remembers fondly the time they got back together in the mid-1980s for a fundraising gig in a tomato-packing shed that drew 1,000 fans.

The band produced a CD called “We ARE Goodtime Music” in 2009. They played at the 2012 Beaufort Water Festival.

Its legacy is recorded in the book, “The Heeey Baby Days of Beach Music” by Greg Haynes.

And now the Melody Makers band is a museum exhibit, which will run through August upstairs at The Arsenal, 713 Craven St. in Beaufort.

A reception with refreshments will be held Thursday, July 11, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the museum. Gauch and other past band members will be there to reminisce with friends and guests. Admission is free, and the public is invited.

Mary Lou Brewton said it’s hard to believe those hot nights are still salty.

“We are history,” she said. “History is every day.”

Senior editor David Lauderdale has been a Lowcountry journalist for more than 40 years. He oversees the editorial page, writes opinion, and tells the stories of our community. His columns have twice won McClatchy’s President’s Award. He grew up in Atlanta, but Hilton Head Island is home.
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