Oral History – Fessa’ John Hook – ‘Jim Hannah, One of the Two Original Beach Music Pioneers’

[Extracted from Fessa’ John Hook’s oral history, “Jim Hannah, One of the Two Original Beach Music Pioneers, 1920-2010.” Published in “Dancing on the Edge Journal,” Vol. 1, Issue 1. February 8, 2010. Available from amazon.com or beachshag.com ]

The Birth of Shag

Jim Hannah was born on October 7, 1920 and grew up on a farm in Mecklenburg County. He played Class D baseball in Mooresville in 1938 (“same as Class A today”). Although it was only a farm team, Jim had the opportunity to play two games against Ted Williams at the time. That same year he moved to Norfolk to work in the shipyards. When his superiors learned he was not only sharp in reading blueprints and that he could lay a ship down from the keel all the way up to the shakedown cruise he was sent to the Wilmington Shipyard.

Birth of Shag - Ocean PlazaJim mustered out in 1943 and hung around Carolina Beach for a few years. In 1945 he opened the Tijuana Inn (ground floor of the Ocean Plaza Building) on the Boardwalk. “The Tijuana Inn was one of the two first “Beach Music” clubs in the Carolinas, i.e. clubs that offered Black music on jukeboxes in establishments serving a white clientele.”

Jim’s bar and grill offered boardwalk cuisine and beer without a name over the door. A few weeks later his friend Chicken Hicks returned from a vacation that started in 1943 with his friend Chuck Green. They hitchhiked to the West Coast – Phoenix, Los Angeles, then down to Mexico. When Chicken returned in spring of 1945, he suggested Jim call the place the “Tijuana Inn.” He put its new name over the door in May 1945.

Birth of Shag - MallardsTo say that Chicken and Jim were “Beach Music” pioneers is a gross understatement. In fact, in 1945 there were no white establishments anywhere which carried black music on their jukeboxes. More accurately, white kids weren’t allow to listen to black music anywhere.

But next door to the Hannah homestead in North Mecklenburg County was an African-American Church named Torrance Chapel where Jim heard a powerful maelstrom of melancholic spirituals and uplifting, foot-stomping gospel. Chicken grew up on the “wrong side of the tracks” in Durham where he was likely to be running the streets with black as well as white playmates. Both Chicken and Jim came from working class backgrounds and they were both compelled to leave home by one kind of wanderlust or another. These two ingredients sometimes combined into the kind of rare fearlessness they exhibited in 1945.

Birth of Shag - SeabreezeSeabreeze was the black resort just up the coast across the Intracostal Waterway at Snow’s Cut. Originally called Freeman’s Beach from the 1920’s to the 1950’s, locals made a living serving black tourists with sandwiches, beer, and plenty of room for family picnics in the day and adult entertainment at night. Chicken Hicks found his way to Seabreeze in the early 40’s, returning often for white hot Carolina moonshine, and even hotter music on the piccolos (jukeboxes) at places like the Ponco, The Big Apple, the Daley Breezey Pavilion, Bruce’s, Ponco #2, the Monte Carlo, and as Jim recalled, “a place called Big Mama’s.” After returning from Mexico, Chicken suggested they add some of the music he’d heard over at Seabreeze.

Birth of Shag - 7The Bostic Music Company in Wilmington owned and serviced the piccolos for Seabreeze and all the other jukeboxes on the beach. Chicken and Jim talked to Parker and Clyde who serviced the boxes for Bostic Music each week. Chicken sometimes rode with them over to Seabreeze to hear the new tunes they were adding. The ones he liked they added to the Tijuana Inn jukebox.

Jim remembered with pride, and probably a little wistfulness, “Our music changed, our customers increased till they filled the place, and some had to dance outside on the Beach. “ The Tijuana Inn was a multicultural threshold on what was then the busiest working class beach between Wilmington and Folly Beach in Charleston.

The Tijuana Inn’s jukebox was the first wave. In 1947 Jim took over “The Roof” (a bowling alley across from the Ocean Plaza) renovated it as a nightclub and changed its name to Bop City. Naturally he changed the music on the jukebox as well. “It was the baddest place on the Boardwalk.” Jim exclaimed, “We only played R&B music on the jukes. We served only cold soft drinks and ice, it was BYOB (bring your own booze).

Birth of Shag - 9“I was looking for a good band to play our type of music. I was told there was a group of Army brats in Fayetteville that played R&B. I got in touch with them and they came to Carolina Beach to see if we could work out a deal.” After talking with them on Monday, Jim wasn’t sure they’d really show up to audition.

“Friday evening, my future wife, Frances Carter, came up and said some boys were downstairs looking for me. I went down to the street where their spokesman told me who he was and I said, ‘uh hun’ – they were in an old open top Army surplus jeep, with an old wooden trailer behind – they really looked more like Beach Bums.” “I asked whether they had a name, he said, ‘Jimmy Cavallo and the House Rockers.’ I told them to unload, go park the jeep, set up, and ‘show me what you got.’”

“Well, well, well, this Italian boy Cavallo blew as bad an alto horn as I had ever heard. They played Drinkin’ Wine Spo Dee O De and Good Rockn’ Tonight. That was enough. I signed them as house band for a month, starting them out in the Ocean Plaza ballroom which I also leased beginning in ’46. They were so hot I moved them next door to Bop City and they stayed all summer.”

Birth of Shag - 8Bop City’s live and jukebox musical fare was a heady mix which cast a spell on tourists and the local hotdog dancers as well.

Casey Jones, a well-known Carolina Beach dancer had already converted three or four cement bowling alleys along the boardwalk into “jump joints.” The conversion wasn’t too difficult, he’d put three or four benches around a chained-down jukebox and the tourists and locals had a jump joint.

[Editor’s Note: Remember that oral history is about preserving the memories of our community elders – as they remember them. Good oral history reflects the language and “way things were” in the words of the person being recorded. Oral history is NOT meant to be documented history. Any two people may remember the same incident very differently.]

Carolina Beach in the 40’s – by Chicken Hicks  –  The State, July 1994