The (mostly) true story of Hilton Head Island’s music scene.
As told to Barry Kaufman
As long as there has been a Hilton Head Island, at least in the modern sense of the term, there has been music. This is a resort island, after all, and a resort island demands an appropriately toe-tapping soundtrack. And just as the island itself has evolved from a secluded hideaway for retired captains of industry to a fully functional hometown with a vibrant and varied community, so too has its music scene.
In trying to relate the history of Hilton Head Island’s music scene, we felt it more appropriate to hear it from the musicians themselves. Right away, we realized this might be a difficult undertaking for two reasons. The first being that musicians, as skilled as they are in ushering forth the melody of the human soul and mastering the complexities of an instrument, don’t always have the clearest of memories when it comes to their time on stage.
That’s not an indictment of musicians, that’s just a hazard of the job.
The second difficulty we came across was that the purpose of live music is to give people a good time. Good times breed great stories, but often those stories are not the ones you share with the world. Almost universally, we were told, “I don’t know if I can tell that story without incriminating someone.”
So bear with us, readers, as we may have taken a few liberties with the truth in favor of protecting the innocent (or presumed innocent). These are the (mostly) true stories of Hilton Head Island’s music scene.
The early years
From the early resort days through the ’80s, the predominant music on the island was jazz, and we had talent to spare. Crucial to the early jazz years on Hilton Head Island was Freddy Cole, brother of Nat King Cole. It was through Freddy that so many of the island’s earliest acts came to play.
Bobby Ryder was one of them, taking over Cole’s spot at the Mariner’s Inn. “I think Freddy was more interested in playing golf than playing music at that point,” said Ryder.
Back then, with the island still catering more to the privileged, you never knew who was in the crowd. Ryder found this out the hard way. “I may have been a little cocky,” he admitted. “I had this heckler out in the crowd, and I went right up to him. We were going to get into it. I gave him all kinds of (grief). Come to find out, he was the CEO of a company who was spending $150,000 on a convention there. I got in big trouble for that.”
St. Helena-born Delbert Felix was another early name on the scene, riding to gigs at places like Fratello’s and Dos Burrachos in Bill Barnwell’s boat. “One time we decided to take the ICW from St. Helena over to Hilton Head Island, and we ended up getting stuck in the sand.”
Felix looks back on those days with fondness, recalling the tight-knit support system these jazz musicians shared. “Those were good days because the island was smaller, the community and camaraderie was there, and everyone played with everyone else.”
An island on fire
As the island grew, so too did its demand for live music. By the ’80s, families and young professionals had made their way onto the island, helping Hilton Head shed its image as a retirement community.
Mike Daly and his wife, Marilyn, were two of the early players of that era, expanding the Hilton Head Island songbook to include the sounds of The Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt and helping usher in an era where live music became entrenched in island life.
“We were playing upstairs at Amadeus, and we had people lined up and down the stairs, with the fire marshal at the door,” he said. “It was a genuine spectacle.”
The Daly family in general would play a key role in the island’s musical evolution, with The Daly Planet bringing in sons Jevon, Gavan and Kieran for a Partridge-esque ensemble that leaned heavily on the Grateful Dead. “I don’t know many people who don’t like the Grateful Dead,” said Mike.
The expansion of the island also served to drive the music forward. We were still obscure enough, however, that you could count on the odd celebrity enjoying a low-profile visit to the coast.
“My first night on the island I met Sylvester Stallone,” recalled Sterlin Colvin. It was during one of John Brackett’s legendary Monday night jams at Big Rocco’s that Colvin got to hang out with Rambo. “He had a bodyguard with him and wouldn’t let anyone come up. But he enjoyed my music so we hung out the rest of the night. During the old days of Hilton Head, this was a hideaway for the stars.”
“During the ’80s and ‘90s,” he said, “this place was on fire.”
Colvin recalls several of his celebrity encounters, including Chris Farley (“He had a little crush on my wife.”), Hootie and the Blowfish (“I thought they were awful. Tells you what I know.”), Edwin McCain (“That was one of the hottest bands I had seen at the time.”) and Michael Jordan (“One night we left the Old Post Office, and there were 30 people following Michael Jordan into Wexford for a party at his house until 3 or 4 a.m.”).
Hair Metal and Roots Rock
As the local music scene gelled over the next decade, it would traverse new territory unheard of for a town our size. Nearly every venue you can name now had a rolling lineup of live music, promising you were never too far from an acoustic cover of a Tom Petty song. And among these cover bands, acts would emerge that took covers in new and exciting directions. Big B and the Stingers gleefully blended songs together, tap dancing across the genres.
And Silicone Sister melted faces across the Lowcountry, using the majestic excesses of hair metal as a tinderbox. Chip Larkby, aka Jani St. James, first came up with the glam rock cover band while playing open mic nights and taking guitar lessons from the man who would become his “music husband,” Jevon Daly. Along with Gary Pratt and Andy Pitts, they would serve as the island’s premiere party band for nearly 16 years during a time that saw Blue Nite become Riders, and original sounds emerge on the island.
Original sounds begat original music, as the island experienced a wave of acts that were looking to establish their own legacies. The nucleus of this original music movement has been Swampfire Records, founded by John Cranford. Along with recording original music from local bands, Swampfire’s annual showcase served as a love letter to the island’s music scene.
In addition to Swampfire, Cranford’s band, Cranford Hollow, had an indelible impact on local music, not only providing a soundtrack to the party scene but also adding original music to the island’s dynamic.
“At the end of the day, regardless of the venue or locale, we’re pretty lucky to live in this community that has historically supported music for 40 years,” he said. “I would put Hilton Head Island’s music scene against any major city.”
On the scene
No matter the genre, the Lowcountry music scene has you covered. Here are a few suggestions, next time you find yourself hankering for a great live performance.
A Cappella: The Shore Notes
Alternative: Ember City
Beach: The Simpson Brothers
The Beatles: The Beagles
Big Band: The Headliners
Bluegrass: Lowcountry Boil
Blues: Earl Williams
Children’s: Gregg Russell
Choir: Hilton Head Choral Society
Classical: Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra
Classic Rock: The Chiggers
DJ: Stu Makes Beats
Easy Listening: Dave Kemmerly
Eighties Rock: Chilly Willy Band
Eclectic: Cameron Tate
Entertaining: Target the Band
Emo: Pat & Kat
Family Friendly: CornBreD
Folk: Taylor Kent
Funk: La Bodega
Gospel: Voices of El Shaddai
Great American: Debbie McDaniel Band
Grateful Dead: Shakey Bones
Grunge: Souls Harbor
Gullah: The Hallelujah Singers
Hair Metal: Silicone Sister
Hard Rock: Heavy Honey
Hip Hop: Spiritual Gangsters
Indie: Pretty Darn
Island: Shannon Tanner & Oyster Reefers
Jam Band: Funx Capacitor
Jazz: Lavon Stevens & Louise Spencer
Latin: Rockola Band
Neo Soul: Gwen Yvette and TC Soul
Orchestra: The Fabulous Equinox Orchestra
Party Rock: Groove Town Assault
Piano: Martin Lesch
Pop: Trevor Harden
Reggae: Ben Lewis
R&B: Stee and the Ear Candy Band
Rock: Port O’ Johns
The Rolling Stones: White Liquor
Singer/songwriter: Candace Woodson
Solo: Bobby Magyarosi
Soul: The Whitley Deputy Band
Southern Rock: Cranford Hollow
Swing: Bobby Ryder
Today’s Hits: The Nice Guys
Techno: Jacob & the Good People
Underground: The State Birds
Wedding: Johnny Breeze