By: Bill Thames
Every new event and each person that we meet in our life is filtered through our own unique set of experiences. Like a computer, we compare new people and places to the ones neatly catalogued in our minds, make our assessments and comparisons, and then we neatly file the experience away for future use. Only on those extraordinary occasions, when we experience an event, or meet individuals so utterly unique and innovative that it changes our perspective and our lives forever, then and only then, do we actually evolve. I experienced just such a life-bending event in the fall of 1964 at Peabody Auditorium, in Daytona Beach, FL.
My evolution began shortly after moving to Florida, in 1962, at the age of twelve. After living on military bases my entire life, moving to Florida was like giving sight to the blind. Finally, I lived in a setting where chain link fences made good neighbors, warm breezes blew in off the ocean, and barbed wire was non-existent. Trading MP’s for the smiling neighborhood postman, I had settled in heaven on the Atlantic.
Daytona Beach…race cars…Speed Weeks…palm trees…tropical flowers…the beach, just two blocks away…the ocean, just two blocks away…unlimited fishing, just two blocks away…surfing, just two blocks away…bikinis, just two blocks away…more bikinis, just down the beach…even more bikinis, just a little further down the beach…and rumors, on the beach, of topless swimsuits on their way from Paris—I had touched down in adolescent Heaven!
Like a tornado spinning, out of control, picking up strength and growing with every new experience, I wanted to do it all…see it all…hear it all…and try it all. I could not seem to get enough of everything. So, naturally, early in the summer of 1963, when the friend from down the street asked me if I would like to try surfing, I borrowed his board and fell in love at once.
I spent that summer, the fall, and the following spring, doing anything that I could think of, to scrape up enough money for my own board; cutting lawns, painting houses, installing sprinkler systems, clearing lots, helping builders, and just about anything else. The work was backbreaking and the money was minuscule. It was the hottest, hardest, dirtiest year of my life, but the reward was a hand shaped, 9’8” Gordon-Smith surfboard, with wide red rails and a clear center, showing off the balsawood stringer, and the redwood skeg. Nothing in my entire world meant as much to me as that surfboard, after what I had gone through to earn it.
Along with the sport of surfing came all the trappings…surf shops, surf movies, and the music that inspired thousands of surfers and became the soundtrack for a generation…Surf Music! The soundtrack for a generation, however, did not come cheap. For me, work also continued in order to support my growing music habit.
The Beachboys with their tight harmonies were hot, The Ventures never sang a word, but their guitars did the singing for them. Dick Dale and the Daletones along with Jan and Dean, living “dead man’s curve,” put music into our feet at parties. The Sandels were another fantastic instrumental group that recorded the soundtrack for Bruce Brown’s epic surfing movie, “The Endless Summer.” All of these groups, and more, predated the Beatles and were, for the most part, “wiped out” later, by the “British Invasion.”
In the days when the Bruce Browns’ of the world, were breaking their backs shooting surf movies; the photographer, director, soundman, equipment man, driver, gofer, cook, promoter, beer runner, and projectionists, were all the same person. Early, primitive surf movies were shown, standing up, in crowded surf shops, teeming with the smell of surf wax and resin, or in recreation centers, sitting like soldiers, on metal folding chairs, or in sock-hop gymnasiums, school auditoriums, or on a rare occasion, in a large setting like Peabody Auditorium.
The excitement before, and during, these primitive movies was like the crackling, plastic comb static that stands your hair on end. A surf shop or auditorium full of adolescent boys anticipating a surfing movie was 100% pure, testosterone on steroids.
Anticipation and expectation filled the house when Bruce Brown brought “The Endless Summer” to Daytona Beach’s Peabody Auditorium in the late summer of 1964. Just like the image of stepping up to the edge of the Grand Canyon at the age of seven, today I can close my eyes, and I’m there in an instant. I remember the sounds and smells that day; the clamor of the crowd, the laughter, and the reverberation of good-natured pushing and shoving, the echo of an occasional hoot, the rat-a-tat-tat of a new class ring on the metal bottom of a seat, the clatter and scuffle of shoes on the wood floor, the sound of huarache sandals slapping bare feet, and hands slapping sunburned backs covered with T-shirts, sticky with sweat. The smells that day, were the smells of summer…Noxzema, Brute, Bay Rum, Coppertone, and English Leather, all muddled up with salt and sand and sweat. The sounds, smells, and the anticipation of the crowd that day, are all just a blink away, and with that blink, my heart beat years younger.
Showing up early enough to get seats in the fourth row, that Saturday afternoon, my buddies and I were ready to be entertained. Too young to legally drive, but still, we were about to witness two significant historical events.
Bruce Brown, who was, at that time, surfings’ equivalent to John F. Kennedy, sat between two tables that were set-up near the middle of the auditorium. One table held a large portable movie projector and several film canisters. The other table held a simple reel-to-reel tape recorder that was connected to the house public address system. Lying next to the tape player was a single hand-held microphone. Before the commercial success of “The Endless Summer” had put the film into major theaters all over the United Stated, Bruce Brown would roll the movie, play the music, kick back, barefooted, with a cold beer, and narrate the film, in person.
Before Bruce worked his magic, however, we were going be treated to some homegrown surf music by a local band called “The Escorts.” The band was set-up to the right of the projection screen. Their equipment consisted of three gray, Sears Silvertone amplifiers which were the cheapest that money could buy. Two of the amps were set up on the right of the drums and the third amplifier was set up just to the left of the set of red sparkle Slingerland drums. Three microphones stood a few feet in front of the amplifiers, like chrome scarecrows.
Peabody was full of keyed up, animated, surfers and the old auditorium buzzed chaotically. Hoots and hollers punctuated air that was eager with anticipation. Hundreds of Timex watches on hundreds of wrists, agonizingly ticked the minutes away. It was impossible to imagine the crowd sitting still for much music. They had come to see a surfing movie, but what they were about to hear was history.
“The Escorts” walked out on stage, two boys with brown hair and two with longish blond hair. All four boys were about sixteen or seventeen. Their hair was long for 1964, after all, the Beatles were still in England and we were still in the South. Almost touching their eyebrows, they actually had bangs long enough to comb down, across their foreheads, and back up on the other side, surfer style. They wore dark “Beatle” style suits without collars, white shirts with skinny ties, and black pointed, zip-up leather boots that the surfers called “Puerto Rican fence-climbers,” they later became known as “Beatle Boots.”
“The Escorts” didn’t take the stage because they owned the stage. The four walked from behind ruffling curtains without a word, showing confidence and poise, far beyond their age. The drummer took his seat and quietly picked-up his sticks without a word. The other three walked to their amplifiers, flipped them on, plugged in their guitars, stepped up to the microphones, adjusted their guitar cords, cleared their throats, and paused for what seemed like an eternity. Finally after an eerie static, hush fell over the entire room, one of the blond boys, almost unnoticed, counted off the first song and music exploded from the stage. Music, charisma, and magic filled every corner of Peabody Auditorium that incredible afternoon. Something extraordinary also occurred when the music began. I could see something unfamiliar in the eyes of the audience, and I could hear something different in the silence between songs. I knew, just from the vibe that day, that we were watching a very special musical group. The faces in the band were sixteen but their music was ageless.
All at once surfing, surfboards, surf wax, baggies, bikinis, and everything else about the sport, that I thought I would love forever, drained out of me and I knew that I wanted to do what they were doing. I wanted to be as inspiring as those four guys on the stage. I wanted to make other people feel what I was feeling; right then, watching them play. I wanted to make people envious, just like I was, right then. I wanted to look out into the eyes of the crowd and see the same look that they were seeing, right then, in my eyes. I wanted to stand on top of the mountain and not just be another face in the crowd. I wanted to do what they were doing…I had to do what they were doing.
In the time that it took for “The Escorts” to play two songs, the entire focus of my life had changed, though I am not sure that I fully understood what was happening at the time. What I did know was that I had to be a musician, and somehow, I knew that it would happen.
The unsmiling drummer’s name was Maynard Portwood; his sullen look was owed to the fact that he was missing a couple of front teeth. The bass guitar player was Van Harrison, a good-natured surfer, whose father was a doctor and whose sister, Kane, was a close friend all through high school. Later, I would make excuses to visit Kane when I knew that her brother’s band was at the house rehearsing.
The last two, the two blond boys, were brothers, though they looked nothing alike. There seemed to be something different about these two; something more professional about the way they carried themselves. They both played guitar…one played rhythm and sang, though he seemed somewhat shy and subdued. The other brother was neither shy nor subdued. He played searing lead guitar, and deftly blended the ghost of Robert Johnson with the simple surfing songs that they played. It was obvious by everything about these two blond, guitar players that they were living in an entirely different world than the rest of us. The brother’s names were Gregg and Duane Allman.
When the movie was over and Bruce Brown was busy rewinding his film, and his music, “The Escorts” came out and played a few more songs. This time, though, they played slower, more soulful, sweeter music, not the breakneck, lightning guitar runs that were so popular in surf music. This time the Escorts played rhythm and blues and the younger Allman, Gregg, sang with an amazing rich voice full of pain and desperation, so alien sounding to a blond haired surfer boy of sixteen, or so it would seem.
Slowly coming out of a music-induced trance, I noticed, looking around, that most of the crowd had left the auditorium. The majority of my friends were headed for the sand, yelping and screaming, searching for Bruce Brown’s perfect wave. In a flash, my cool surfing friends seemed so un-cool.
I stayed and listened to the music. I moved closer and stayed until the last note. I stayed and intently watched while they carefully put their guitars away in their red velvet cases, and rolled up their cords. I watched Maynard lovingly, break down the drum set, and pack it away, all the time; I inched closer to the stage. I watched as they helped each other lug every last piece of equipment out to the alley, where a car was waiting. All this time, they laughed, and giggled, and cackled, and joked. By the look of shear joy on their faces it was obvious that they were having the time of their lives and they weren’t cutting lawns in the hot sun.
That was the instant that my evolution began. I watched as a happy-go-lucky Duane Allman left his band mates, jumped down from the stage, and sauntered over to Bruce Brown. Duane and Bruce shook hands, laughed some more, and complemented each other on a fine performance. Then Duane held his hand out and collected, what looked to me, like a mountain of green. The laughter became unbearable.
Not long after that Saturday in 1964, I carried my surfboard to a friend’s house that lived directly on the beach. I left my board in the corner of his parents’ garage, so that I could use it without dragging it back and forth to my house.
I never saw my surfboard again after that day. I traded the surf for a stage, and I never looked back.