When I first heard about Charlie’s Place, I was blown away by the richness of the story – a plot so thick that it was hard to believe that few people had ever heard the story. The Fitzgerald Motel and Charlie’s Super Club, an area known as ‘Whispering Pines” – music by some of the best, whites and blacks brought together because of the music and their love of dance – all overshadowed by racial politics in South Carolina in the 1950s.
“The old saying goes that when Billie Holiday sang at Charlie’s Place, the pine trees above—fanned by a gentle ocean breeze—whispered along with the music. To this day, that patch of trees on Carver Street is called Whispering Pines.“
The City of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina has recently purchased what remains of Charlie’s Place – the club is gone, but the motel is still standing. Thankfully a group is working towards preserving this historic spot – although they still need a lot of support. After I read about the preservation efforts, I contacted Frank Beacham by email and he graciously agreed to talk with me and do this interview. After speaking with him, I’m even more blown away by the remarkableness of this story – it’s a story that needs to be told and that needs to be heard. The preservation of Charlie’s Place in Myrtle Beach is one way to honor the legacy of Charlie Fitzgerald and all of the musicians and dancers that braved those tumultuous times.
Thank you Frank for sharing this story will us.
US 17: First, share a bit about yourself – especially about your ties to South Carolina, and how you got involved in telling the story of Charlie’s Place in Myrtle Beach.
Frank Beacham: I grew up in Honea Path, South Carolina in the 1950s and early 60s. I worked at a radio station nearby and learned in high school that I wanted to work in media. I won a scholarship to the first radio-television program in the Journalism School at the University of South Carolina.
I’ve had a long career as a reporter for UPI, Post-Newsweek Television, Gannett and the Miami Herald, plus I worked in network television news and then went Los Angeles, where I ended up working as a producer for Orson Welles. After Welles died, I moved to New York City, where I have lived for nearly 25 years.
I was introduced to the Charlie’s Place story in 1993 when I came home for a visit to South Carolina and went to Greenville to see The Tams, a group I had not seen since college. I spoke with them, we hit it off and I ended up going to Atlanta to visit with them and spend the day.
One of the things that interested me at the Tams concert was all the passion the white dancers had for their music. The Tams performance was in Greenville, a very conservative place. But the white women there got down and dirty doing the Shag to the music of an all-black group. I couldn’t help but believe the Shag began as a collaboration between whites and blacks. But nobody knew anything about it and none of the black musicians or white dancers would acknowledge it.
I heard there was to be a reunion of the first generation Shaggers Hall of Fame in Myrtle Beach in the summer of 1994. I got the names of the acknowledged inventors of the Shag and started calling them on the phone.
Out of this, I got their stories about how the white dancers ended up at Charlie’s Place at the invitation of Charlie Fitzgerald. Before these calls, I had never heard of Charlie’s Place. I also learned how the Ku Klux Klan had attacked the club over the white dancers visiting there. At that instant, I knew I had a great story. And interestingly, the dancers all wanted badly to tell it. It seems no one had ever asked them before.
US 17: When I think about the story of Charlie’s Place, I find myself thinking about four story lines: the venue, the music, race and politics in South Carolina in the 1950s, and the shag. Each story line resonates alone, but together reflects a complicated story and rich history. At the center is Charlie Fitzgerald – who was he, and what was he like?
Frank Beacham: Charlie Fitzgerald, which is an alias — his real name was Charlie Rucker — was a New York City entrepreneur who had moved South. He knew a lot of people in the music business and started his successful club by booking the best performers on the Chitlin’ Circuit during the day.
He was a no nonsense, tough guy (he carried guns), but a kind guy who loved to dance. He welcomed the white kids to his club and protected them. Myrtle Beach was very corrupt in those days, and Charlie paid everyone off in cash. He became very wealthy, which annoyed the Klan. He also loaned money to whites in the community. He walked into white restaurants and was served. He defied what black men were generally about in the late 1940s. He became a target of the Ku Klux Klan.
US 17: The once-segregated neighborhood in Myrtle Beach, “The Hill,” included the Fitzgerald Motel and the Charlie’s Place Super Club which resided on Carver Street. It was one of a group of venues on the “Chitlin Circuit” – venues that were safe for blacks to perform during segregation. The Fitzgerald Motel was also listed in the “Green Book” as a safe place for blacks to spend the night. How did Charlie’s Place get its start?
Frank Beacham: By having connections to the musicians, Charlie was able to draw major names, like Billie Holiday, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Ruth Brown and many others. Ruth Brown told me she remembered Charlie because he was one of the few club owners who always paid the performers. She had a very good memory. Once Charlie’s Place was open, you had to go there to hear the best black music, or as it was called at the time, “race music.” It was the best club in Myrtle Beach for this kind of music.
US 17: The first time I heard about Charlie’s Place, it was in reference to the music – the names Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Little Richard, Ruth Brown, Muddy Waters, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye and the Clovers were tossed around as if they were regulars. It sounds like music heaven to me. How did Charlie’s Place become such a big spot for music?
Frank Beacham: All these great musicians were regulars there. Charlie knew all the musicians, booked them, paid them and built a motel for them to stay at. This kind of tender love and care for musicians was rare at the time. Little Richard lived at the motel for three months. Fats Domino stayed there a good while too. Charlie made life comfortable for musicians who had a tough time on the road in the racially segregated 1940s. There was no where else blacks could stay in Myrtle Beach.
US 17: When I read Chapter 5 in your e-book “Charlie’s Place,” titled “The Ku Klux Klan Attacks,” I felt both offended and saddened by the events you described. I’ve also lived in South Carolina for just over 20 years, and never heard this story until a few months ago. Can you tell us the short version? I think this is a story that needs to be told.
Frank Beacham: The reason you have not heard this is because South Carolina’s history covers up this kind of story. The history of South Carolina is written by paid flaks who do not seek truth, rather they perpetrate a version of the South that never existed. As a result, generations of students know nothing of the state’s real history. A state legislator, who got the state to make the Shag the state dance and beach music the state music, told me if this story had been known, the legislative action would have never happened. That says a lot about the racism in South Carolina.
Even when I writing the story, I was sitting in the bar at Fat Harold’s Beach Club in North Myrtle Beach when a white woman comes up to me and asked why I had to bring black people into this story. I told her it was because the music and dance was created as a collaboration of blacks and whites. She was, in fact, dancing to black music on the jukebox just before she approached me.
She huffed off, saying “you are just a trouble maker.” That’s the mendacity of many in South Carolina when hearing the truth about race.
The 1950 U.S. Senate campaign between Strom Thurmond and Olin D. Johnston was one of the most racist in the state’s history. What was said in that campaign is shocking today. It inflamed the KKK, who began attacking people it did not like throughout the state. Unmarried couples were dragged out of their homes and given “church whippings.” Crosses were burned. There were motorcades throughout the state to terrorize blacks.
The attack at Charlie’s Place, which occurred on Saturday night, August 26, 1950, began when the Klan staged a 30-mile motorcade through the streets of Myrtle Beach. Scores of nightriders, outfitted in white KKK regalia, cruised the hushed streets in more than two dozen open top convertibles.
Mounted on its left fender, the lead car had a fiery cross made of up of glowing red electric light bulbs. Local police, friendly to the Klan, provided traffic control. Eventually, the parade, containing about 60 Klansmen, pulled in front of Charlie’s Place, now packed with a capacity weekend crowd.
Charlie quietly waited by the front door. Balding, six-three, 190 pounds with a thin mustache, he griped pearl-handled .38 caliber pistols in each hand. Before he could react, Charlie was overwhelmed by a sea of white-sheeted humanity.
Struck in the face and disarmed in a furious rush, he was thrown violently into the trunk of a Klansman’s car. There, locked in darkness, he helplessly listened to screams of horror as windows were smashed, tables and chairs overturned and a volley of 500 rounds of ammunition was sprayed into the wooden building that held his friends and customers.
Riddled by a hail of bullets, the club’s jukebox — the source of the music that united the black and white dancers — skipped, sputtered and went silent.
The music hushed and the club wrecked, Klan members – with Charlie still locked in the trunk of a car – quickly left the scene. Behind, on the ground, was a Klansman in a blood-soaked sheet. When the sheet was lifted, it was revealed that he was a uniformed policeman – shot in the back by his own men.
On a deserted roadside, Klan members viciously whipped and beat Charlie. In a final act to leave a mark of fear, one used his knife to slice a piece of each of Charlie’s ears. Bleeding and nearly senseless, Charlie slumped on the roadside, left to die, as the Klansmen moved toward their cars.
Still tough and defiant, Charlie staggered slowly away from the ensuing fight to a nearby highway. There he was picked up by a motorist and taken back to the club, where he was arrested by the awaiting sheriff – a white man to whom he has made routine cash payoffs over the years.
In the aftermath, Charlie spent most of the remaining five years of his life in and out of prison – though he was never charged with a crime and no records of his imprisonment even exist. He died of cancer in 1955.
US 17: Although I hadn’t heard about Charlie Fitzgerald or Charlie’s Place until recently, I have heard since my first days living in South Carolina about “The Shag.” It became the official state dance of South Carolina in 1984. To say that shagging is a big deal in South Carolina would be an understatement – and folks (and mostly white folks) love ‘beach music.’ But the roots of this music are rhythm and blues, the music that was playing at Charlie’s Place.
Frank Beacham: Rhythm and Blues was originally called “race music.” Jerry Wexler, who would later go on to Atlantic Records, was a reporter at Billboard in 1950 when he proposed changing the name of race music to rhythm and blues. His suggestion was taken and the change was made.
Bill Pinkney, a founding member of the Drifters from South Carolina, told me beach music is quite simply R&B. The Drifters, he said, played the same music everywhere in the world. Beach music was simply R&B songs one could dance to.
US 17: I first read about Charlie’s Place and the Fitzgerald Motel in a MyrtleBeachOnline piece where they mentioned that several Myrtle Beach residents were asking the Myrtle Beach City Council to purchase the Fitzgerald Motel on Carver Street to turn it into a museum to honor the musicians that performed there. I was happy to hear recently that the city had purchased the property – and that members of the community, including musician Herbert Riley, were given a 45-day period to come up with a plan for the property.
Frank Beacham: Yes, the city bought the land but the future of Charlie’s Place is still in play. There are members of the city council who want to tear it all down and forget the history. There are others who want to preserve it. I don’t know how it will turn out. But obviously I would like to see it saved. It would be a shame to throw away the remains of this historic place, both from its musical and its civil rights legacies.
A group of citizens in Myrtle Beach, led by musician Herb Riley, is lobbying the city to put a memorial to Charlie’s Place on the site. It would include a museum and a performance space. The group has gotten a lot of press and hopefully will make a difference in preserving the historical site.
US 17: Where can interested folks learn more about the story of Charlie’s Place? Also, if they’d like to get involved in preserving its history – how might they help?
Frank Beacham: I’m not trying to blow my own horn, but my book is the only place the story is written today. All of the original dancers have died and my e-book, Charlie’s Place, has the whole story, plus audio and video of the key players. It’s available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Apple.
I did a successful Kickstarter campaign and contributed the money for an exhibit, which is now being built at the Myrtle Beach Colored School Museum and Education Center at 900 Dunbar Street in Myrtle Beach. They are building a replica of the original bar at Charlie’s Place. Jack Thompson, a longtime Myrtle Beach photographer who photographed the club, has agreed to donate some of his images to the exhibit. It will be the first real exhibition of the Charlie’s Place story ever in Myrtle Beach.
If people want to help, they can call their city councilman and express support for the Charlie’s Place restoration project.
US 17: Now I have to ask – how much of Highway 17 have you traveled down? Do you have a stretch of Highway 17 that is your favorite… and why?
Frank Beacham: I have not traveled every inch of it by any means, but a favorite stopping point for me is Calabash, North Carolina. I love the seafood there, and go there every time I’m in the Myrtle Beach area. I’m always trying out different restaurants in that amazing small town.