Music matters in the Lowcountry.
It was only a matter of time that musicians would follow the rising tide of Hilton Head Island becoming a national vacation gem and getaway for the rich and famous.
Just over 55 years ago, a migration began that built the foundations of the thriving music scene we enjoy here today.
Our sleepy coordinates became a gold rush for musicians, as money flowed and opportunities became plentiful to flex their melodic and symphonic muscles.
“A lot of folks saw this as a reset, a chance to redefine their careers and reset their futures. It was a laboratory here, a steady flow of opportunities that gave us some creative geniuses and some very quick flameouts,” said musical elder Mike Kavanaugh, the architect behind both some of the region’s favorite bands and the careers of many of our most enduring and endearing standout talents.
The front man of JoJo Squirrel and the Home Pickles has logged more than 6,500 personal performances and is the booker behind another 40,000 performers since arriving in 1984 from western New York. Even he will admit that he feels lucky to have gotten past the first 25 shows filled with trial and plenty of error, and a myriad of off-stage temptations and detours.
“It was the Wild West, it was hedonistic and lawless, it was Snow Island. It was a lot,” Kavanaugh said. “I got some early breaks and just kept working on my craft, elevated from awful to all right, playing through the kinks with champions like David Truly and Tommy Beaumont believing in me. My whole family worked at the Marriott in Shipyard, so I had plenty of help staying on a clean path. … I had plenty of devils battling my better angels. You can’t sugarcoat just how wild it was here.”
Larry Perigo planted the seeds of our current-day lifestyle cliché. He often said he came for a month in 1977 and stayed for two decades. Perigo was the catalyst behind a bat-out-of-hell era of resort show bands when he landed his own Headliners at Club Indigo at the Hyatt (now the Omni).
The Headliners launched a themed variety show full of costume changes and scripted comedy bits in between musical sets.
Bobby Ryder was the next star to fall into our black hole. He came here for what was meant to be a week-long warmup for an extensive series of Hawaiian showroom sellouts. Instead, he began what became a 14-year residency at The Mariner’s Inn’s Scarlett’s Lounge. Promoters lured touring bands here with $5,000 paychecks, complimentary suites and bonus shows at golf and corporate events. And when the tourists left in the fall, acts like The Headliners hit the road for equally impressive touring paydays in the off months.
It wasn’t just kitsch and cash though. A jazz scene was born parallel to the rock revolution underway at Coligny Plaza joints like Earle of Sandwich and the original Wild Wing.
The jazz jump was fueled by talents like crooner and musician Earl Williams, bassist Delbert Felix, jazz pianist Bill Barnwell and horn maestro Bob Masteller and venues like the Grog & Galley, Crows Nest atop the Hilton Head Inn, the Mockingbird Lounge at the Marriott (today’s Sonesta) and a Beach City Road speakeasy named The Golden Rose, a place that Masteller described as “Harlem Nights” meets “Green Book,” a spot where you needed connections to get in the door. Masteller once recalled to me being in awe of frequent celebrity drop-ins, like the night that Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Hank Aaron were mesmerized by the jam sessions that played straight through to the morning.
Freddie Cole, the brother of Nat King Cole, added further cache with his spring residencies at the Plantation Club at Sea Pines. Big names bankrolled some big creative bets (and eventual flops), led by aging teen idol Frankie Avalon’s Scandals, which opened in 1980 with Bob Hope and the Las Vegas Follies headlining the quickly shuttered club. Avalon tried to establish Scandals as a stop for aging retread acts, but the spot outside Shipyard changed hands often, ultimately transforming into a strip club before evolving into the present-day Central Church.
It was a writer, Dick Mariotte, who became the connective tissue of the scene with his “Talk of the Town” column in the Hilton Head News – a starmaker publicity platform that helped build the legend of Atlanta import David Wingo, the OG rock star of Hilton Head – and his Sunday cookouts where musicians bonded and socialized.
Wingo was a creative force ahead of his time that was the prototype for the multi-track musician, a genius who was as adept at selling cover tunes to tourists as he was at crafting original songs and compositions.
“He was the guy that challenged us all with his content to push ourselves beyond building our cover catalogs and finding a unique angle,” Kavanaugh said of Wingo.
We all color our life story as we get older, but it was hard to exaggerate the 1980s anarchy behind the music. Private clubs full of debauchery like somehow-legal poker and blackjack machines (like tennis pro Evonne Goolagong’s key-access-only venue and The Ribbet Room) gave way to trailblazer Roy Prescott’s Remy’s, which opened in 1984.
The now-shuttered Remy’s became the all-night epicenter of music for F&B workers and entertainers, spawning legends like the Chilly Willy Band and the Lawn Jockeys. Equally the root of much of our music ancestry, the Old Post Office Emporium became a regional kingmaker venue, thanks to the sweat and tears of the aforementioned Truly and island icon Mark Ruplinger.
It became home to the Truly Dangerous Swamp Band and The Mundahs, a progressive rock pioneering band that played only originals and landed themselves on the regional and national map thanks to their fanatical island following.
The Old P.O. became a must-play stop for celebrated headliners like Alice Cooper and Bonnie Raitt and for up-and-comers like Hootie and the Blowfish.
As fun as it is to remember when the Beach Boys played at Hilton Head High School, it’s the tireless energy and entrepreneurial hustle of island-based artists that truly built the scene and showed that as alluring as touring was, it was truly possible to make a comfortable living playing island gigs full-time.
Mike and Marilyn Daly and their contemporary rock creation, The Techniques, are revered as the original proof of concept of the full-time dream – thanks to their you-had-to-hear-it talents and hustle (not to mention the literal DNA behind present-day dynamos Jevon and Gavan Daly).
That full-time reality was also bolstered by the risk takers like Wingo who started a trend of artists opening their own venues when he launched Wingo’s at Park Plaza, the “in” place of the late ’80s and early ’90s that provided the inspiration and road map right through to the recent opening of Kind of Blue, a jazz club fronted by melodic magician Sterlin Colvin.
Few had the longevity of Wingo’s and Masteller’s Jazz Corner that folks like the Colvins aspire to achieve.
Legends have begotten legends for five-plus decades. Wingo’s gave way to Monkey Business, The Mundahs led to The Simpson Brothers. Edwin McCain cut his teeth here, plowing the way for touring breakthrough acts like Angie Aparo and Zach Deputy. Martin Lesch and Reggie Deas showed you could achieve national acclaim and still be a dominant force for community good.
The scene has pivoted and evolved just as the tourism industry has ebbed and flowed through timeshare troubles to AirBNB prosperity. Rockers kept making names, from Trophy Wife to White Liquor (Rick Saba does Jagger better than Jagger does Jagger) to Silicone Sister.
There are so many rabbit holes to go down, like The Shoreline Ballroom (Martin Sexton forever, man) and Daufuskie Island’s contributions through visionaries like Wick Scurry and Beth Shipman. Memory makers like Craig Coyne that sparked the 2000s vibe with Spare Parts and Shakey Bones that brought together talents like Lesch, Jack Friel, Jos Vicars and Daly.
And we can end for now where we began with Kavanaugh and JoJo Squirrel that blesses us with all-star ensemble efforts from the likes of Daly, John Wilkins, Todd Cowart, Gary Pratt, John Bruner and Chip Larkby. The O’Grady Brothers’ Big Bamboo and The Beagles that set standards for creating year-after-year memories for returning tourists. Daly launched Unicorn Meat, Daly Planet and Lowcountry Boil and set similar bars of excellence.
We tip the cap in memoriam to venues like Rider’s, The Broken Spoke, Bluffton Ale House and The Electric Piano that selflessly sealed music memories in a time capsule and dared musicians to unearth new riffs like unlocking new levels in your favorite video game.
We left out names, but this is just the scene setter that will let us drill down for future in-depth articles.
The likes of Greg Critchley, John Cranford, Kyle Wareham, Nick Poulin and Connor Hollifield and venues like Cool Cats, The Roasting Room and Fishcamp are the current torch bearers and proof that there is more room than ever for both audience-awing cover acts and innovating singer songwriters and producers.
Likewise, they deserve the publicity spotlight more than ever. This should be fun.
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.