Thursday, December 4, 2008

Billy Stewart at the Beach Club, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

December 1968 The Beach Club Myrtle Beach, South Carolina photos of Billy Stewart and band including Charles Stafford on guitar and Benny Deer on drums (Benny not visible in any of the photos)Benny Deer now resides in Tuscaloosa where he plays drums for an outstanding band called The Crowd Pleasers. Charles Stafford lives in Lexington, S.C. where he runs a talent agency, Atlantic Entertainment.

Throughout “The Heeey Baby Days of Beach Music” we reference the great Billy Stewart. The Fat Boy owns a special place in Beach Music. Prior to the publication of the book, we had an opportunity to have a three way telephone conversation with two members of Billy Stewart’s band that was with Billy prior to Billy’s tragic death. Guitarist Charles Stafford and drummer Benny Deer provided great detail some of which is published in the book. Here follows a few additional excerpts from the interview that were not published because of space constraints

GREG: Charles, when did you hook up with Billy Stewart as his guitarist?

CHARLES: It was in July, 1968 and the Footnotes were finishing up a week at what we know as the Beach Club and I think we finished up on Sunday and Cecil Corbett called us in and he told us Billy Stewart was supposed to follow us, coming the night we were leaving, and he said that they had an accident in North Carolina. He said, “The band members have been killed or hurt, and Billy is going to come but he needs a back-up band. I know ya’ll know a lot of his stuff, do you think ya’ll could stay and back him up.” And of course, we jumped at the chance and said “Yes”, cause we did “Sitting In The Park”, “I Do Love You”, “Summertime” and “Fat Boy” so we stayed and arranged to be able to stay the entire week and that’s how we lined it up and how we first met them and how it ended up being the core of band. Benny was the drummer and Benny had been in the wreck. So Benny was there and a trumpeter and our band the Foot Notes. So much of Billy’s music would be keyed off his drummer, so it real easy to work with Benny because he had all the arrangements and so we backed him up that whole week and stayed. He was trying to get a band together and he would use some other pick up bands in other parts of the country and then at some point and time we backed him up in Columbia at one of these Woody (Windham Shows) with the Goodies Hop-A-Roonies, and that is when his road manager named Sims asked me to go on the road with him. I was graduating USC at the end of summer school, so I could not leave to go fulltime until then, but I would meet him at different jobs in the Southeast until I graduated, then I left for D.C.

GREG: Now what was the Woody Windham shows called?

CHARLES: It was called the Woodie with the Goodies Hop-a-roonie. He was the #1 DJ in Columbia and would bring in acts like the Platters and Billy Stewart.

GREG: How did you first hook up with Billy?

CHARLES: The Footnotes were backing Billy Stewart in Columbia and the manager said, “can you go on the road with us and be his guitar player and musical director until we can get the whole band together? ”

GREG: So you were the musical director, too?

CHARLES: Yeah, well it wasn’t too impressive but whenever we went to play dates in North and South Carolina we really wouldn’t have a band; we’d have a pick-up band and we had a few little charts but most of it we would just do head arrangements. So I’d get with the bands and we’d go to these places and I’d sit down in advance if I got there early enough and say here’s the songs we are going to do in these keys. Sometime it kind of succeeded and sometimes it was a struggle. That’s how we got started together.
GREG: I was trying to see if we could get Benny on?

CHARLES: He would have the lengthiest stories and I am glad we hooked up with Benny; he called me out of the blue that time. I don’t know when he started with Billy and of course he was with him until he died.

GREG: Yeah, I knew that. Hold on a second let’s see if we can grab him.

BENNY: Hello, hey what’s happening?

GREG: Hey Benny, I got Charles Stafford on the phone.

BENNY: Okay then

CHARLES: What’s happening man?

BENNY: I am just hanging in there.

CHARLES: Same here.

GREG: I want to talk to you guys about Billy Stewart so we can memorialize him in this book and Benny I want to start with you. I’ve gotten a lot of information from Charles on things but I want to go back when you first got with Billy and I wanted to stay in that 60’s period when he was putting out one hit after another through Chess. How did you hook up with him?

BENNY: I was playing with a group out of New York in Harrisburg, PA at a place called the Lawson Hotel. The night I met Billy and them, they came in and were looking for a drummer. The bass player and I had worked together previously. He was Billy’s best bass player named James Ragland.

GREG: Is James the one that was killed in the wreck?

BENNY: Yeah, he was the one that was killed; he was the one that was sitting next to me.
GREG: And the reason…you tell me something about you were lucky for some reason, you were in the right place.

BENNY: No, something just told me to get out the car. I kicked out the back window, James made sure I was alright, he said “Man you alright?” and I said, “Yeah” and I kicked out the back window and I was worried about -- --------- my front feet so I thought he was coming behind us, so when I immediately kicked out the back window I slipped down because there was dew on the ground and I slipped down an embankment and when I slipped down the car exploded and trapped them in the car.

GREG: How many people were killed?

BENNY: Three that time.

GREG: Were they all band members.

BENNY: There were all band members; there was the bass player (Ruffy), the guitar player and baritone player, boy named Penn out of Boston.

CHARLES: Who was the guitar player?

BENNY: Rufus Nance who is Calvin Hill’s uncle. Calvin Hill the football player.

BENNY: William Penn

GREG: So he was the baritone/saxophone player. That wiped out a big part of the band.

BENNY: Cuba, the trumpet player got burned really badly.

CHARLES: Who was that?

BENNY: That’s the one I had seen, he was on fire and I put him out.

CHARLES: And what was his name?

BENNY: His name was Ronrico Sanchez.

CHARLES: And they called him Cuba.

BENNY: Right, Cuba.

GREG: You put him out of fire and what did he play?

BENNY: He played trumpet.

GREG: So who was left? You and the trumpet player ?

BENNY: That’s all .

CHARLES: So you were the only one to get out of the car without any real serious injuries

BENNY: Right, but my side was kind of swollen and when they took me to the hospital in Richmond. They thought I had blood in my urine that I had punctured my kidneys but it wasn’t. After that you know they shut down the band and everything so I was lucky. We lost everything, all the equipment, clothes, everything and you know I was lucky too because some of the guys had weapons in the car, bullets were going off

GREG: What about the date? … This was about May/June 1968?

BENNY: The exact date was July 24, 1968.

CHARLES: It was that late in the summer?

BENNY: Yes, we had just left the Apollo Theater and then that Sunday we played in Newark and all the three of us in the rhythm section left something at this club so I got there shoes and things that were left. So we left and that happened on a Wednesday or Thursday but I know it was the 24th of July 1968 at 5:45 am in the morning.

CHARLES: Ya’ll were on your way to Myrtle Beach, SC.

BENNY: No, we had to go to NC. We had to do a show with Steve Wonder first before we came to Myrtle Beach. Steve Wonder had just had an accident too and was waiting on us to get there. He was doing a show for to raise money for Shaw University cause he was on the Board of Trustees.

GREG: How did ya’ll manage with the band that first night?

BENNY: I don’t know that’s when Charlie and them took over. (Charles Stafford & The Footnotes) I stayed behind to attend to all the funeral arrangements.

CHARLIE: Well, who played the Steve Wonder show?

BENNY Well, that didn’t materialize, I don’t think. Steve went on and did it by himself.

CHARLIE: Billy came down to the Beach Club the Sunday after the accident. We had played the previous week and Billy came down and another trumpet player that was not traveling with ya’ll showed up and I thought you had come in the first night but you did not come in?

BENNY: No, I came in after the funeral. I made the James Ragland and Rufus Nance’s funerals.

GREG: Where was everybody living? Where were all of you based in Washington?

BENNY: Yeah, Washington was the base but Rufus would commute from Baltimore, MD and when we had a long time off, Penn would go back to Boston.

GREG: Benny, were you on any of Billy’s recordings?

BENNY: Oh yes, my first thing was “Cross My Heart” when I came into the band.

GREG: Okay and this was Chess Studio?

BENNY: All of it was Chess and then we did “A Sweet Love” or something and then I did another tune I did one with Charlie and them in 69 – what’s the name of the song? A couple of songs we did with Earth, Wind, Fire producer, Charles Stepney. He was producing this and he fell in love with my playing. They wanted to keep me at Chess, Leonard Chess said we want to keep the drummer and Billy said no “I got to have him.”

GREG: Where you on the recording sessions of most of the big ones, like “I Do Love You and “Sitting in the Park”?

BENNY: Oh no, that was way before my time.

CHARLES: Yeah, that was before “Cross My Heart”

GREG: What did Billy do before…did he have a band early on?

BENNY: What Billy told me – how he got with Chess cause him and Marvin Gaye had a group. He taught Marvin Gaye how to sing.

GREG: That’s what I understand

BENNY: Him and Marvin started traveling with Bo Diddley. When Diddley did a recording at Chess and Billy went into a room and did his thing and they heard this cat, and they said “Wow” and forgot about Bo Diddley and that’s how Billy got found. Marvin left them and went with the Moon Glows cause they were singers and that’s how it was started.

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