It was always sitting there in an out-of-the-way corner of the kitchen counter, patiently waiting to be discovered. The old Zenith was made sometime in the forties. It was a beautifully styled art deco AM/Short wave table radio with an off-white bakelite case and a gold-toned dial. There were 3 black knobs, an on/off volume control, a tone control, and a tuning knob that was all located under the dial. Above the dial were several pushbuttons, one for AM, one for Short Wave, and a couple more that could be preset to favorite stations. Until the summer of 1960, I never gave it a second look.
Every summer since the first grade I had taken swimming and diving lessons at Albemarle’s City-owned pool at Rock Creek Park. Rock Creek was built in the thirties by the Civilian Conservation Corps. In the park, there are several ball fields, tennis courts, walking trails, picnic tables, and a large swimming pool. Unlike most pools built these days, that pool was built on top of the ground. High walls surround the wide pool deck. Liberal amounts of blue slate quarried at nearby Morrow Mountain were used to cap the walls and construct the wide steps leading to the bath house which is divided into two sections split by a counter down the middle. Behind the counter, there were racks of numbered baskets. When you went in and paid, you were given a numbered basket with a corresponding numbered pin that resembled an old-fashioned diaper pin. The boys went to the left and the girls went to the right. Once inside the dressing room, you changed clothes and placed them into your basket, and pinned the numbered pin to your suit. As you walked back by the counter on the way to the pool deck, you gave the basket to the attendant. It was then put on the numbered rack. When you were ready to leave, you just turned in your numbered pin and they would get you the corresponding basket with your clothes.
The pool’s depth varied from 3 feet on one end to 10 feet on the other. 2 blue and white diving boards with stainless steel ladders hovered over the deepest end. Its wide pool deck was the summer place to be for teenagers. Beach towels of all colors concealed the deck like a patchwork quilt on an old bed. The low slate-topped walls seemed to shout the names and initials scrawled there. A tall lifeguard chair stands like a sentinel on the side near the deepest end. Aloft is the ever-present, tanned guard sporting a pair of RayBan Aviators and twirling a whistle chain around his index finger. High school boys and girls handled the lifeguard duties, taught swimming lessons, and ran the bathhouse, and the concession stand. To us kids, their swagger and self-confidence elevated them to rock star status. If they called you by name the other kids noticed.
My Mother and Aunt took turns taking my cousin and me to the pool every other day or so. They would sit in the covered bleacher area for a couple hours while we took lessons and swam. This summer vacation was going to be different. I was turning ten. Mom had agreed I was old enough to be dropped off at the pool and stay there unsupervised until she came to pick me up late in the afternoon. She knew all the lifeguards and they knew me. It was a different time then. Today a parent would be drawn and quartered for even considering such a thing.
Of all the great memories of that summer at Rock Creek Park, there was one thing that continues to influence my life to this day. It was the music. The jukebox was attached to large horn speakers mounted on tall poles at both ends of the pool. Songs by The Platters, The Coasters, Maurice Williams, Sam Cooke, Jerry Butler, and many more never stopped. I couldn’t get enough of it. When I wasn’t there I was singing these hits to myself.
One night, after a day at the pool, I decided I had to have more, I went into the kitchen and picked up that old Zenith, and took it to my room. As the tubes warmed up and that old radio came to life, I hoped I could hear just one or two of those songs. Slowly turning the tuning knob, starting at the low end of the AM range and gradually moving up the dial. I found stations like WABC 770 in New York City, WLS 890 in Chicago, WCFL 1000 from Detroit, and WBT 1110 in Charlotte. There were plenty of popular songs by white artists but none of them played the kind of music I wanted to hear. The songs by the black artists that were on the jukebox were few and far between on the radio. I was almost at the upper end of the dial when I heard what I thought was a black man’s voice. That booming baritone voice belonged to John R. I had found what I was looking for! WLAC 1510 Nashville TN was a clear channel station that’s nighttime signal could be heard over half the country. All the music I loved and so much more were there. John R, Gene Nobles, Herman Grizzard, and Hoss Allen were men I never met but they, and the music they played, changed my life. Not only did I hear mainstream R&B music, but I heard James Brown, Hank Ballard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Little Richard. Artists like Otis Redding seemed to touch my soul. Randy’s Record Rack and Ernie’s Record Mart, two of WLAC’s advertisers, seemed like exotic, distant, taboo destinations to a 10-year-old growing up in the South. From that night on, the glow from the old Zenith’s dial and the mellow sounds from its speaker filled my bedroom.
In the years that followed, trends in music changed. The British invasion began and the seeds of metal and rock were planted. As I listened, this new music seemed all too familiar. It was obvious from interviews with these British artists there was a common thread that ran through their music. They too had been influenced by the artists I loved so much. Their music idols were the same as mine. During the next few years, R&B/Soul music gained mainstream popularity. Little did I know there were kids like me all over the country, especially in the Southeast, who were listening and enjoying it. The local radio stations were playing more and more of that great music. Beach Music shows were popping up on stations like WADE in Wadesboro. In the music world, times were changing. In the South in the sixties you could love “their” music but you better not love “them”. The civil rights movement was in its infancy, creating a social conundrum that exists today.
For several years college and high school students from all over NC, SC, and GA had turned Ocean Drive Beach into ground zero for what is now called Beach Music. Artists like Willie Tee, Jerry Butler, and Otis Redding along with groups like The Tams, Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, and The Temptations seemed to carve out an R&B niche that was unique to this SC getaway.
In the summer of 1965, I was determined to make my pilgrimage to this “Mecca of Beach Music” Ocean Drive Beach. My parents and I took a vacation trip to Myrtle Beach every summer but that seemed like a million miles away from OD. That summer had to be different. As luck would have it, a neighborhood friend told me his mother had been offered the use of a beach house in Crescent Beach for a long weekend. She accepted and decided to take a couple of his friends. This was it! This was my chance. I could walk from Crescent Beach to OD if I had to. On a sunny Thursday morning, we left. After we arrived and settled in, we went to the amusement park across the street. On Friday night my friend’s mother dropped us off in OD. We walked around awhile and finally sat down on the low wall in front of the Pavilion across from “The Pad”. While watching the partiers come and go and listening to the music that I loved so much, I knew I would never go to Myrtle Beach again.
One thought on “The Zenith”
Awesome Dennis, a perfect summation of growing up in Albemarle and the shared experiences of our youth. Please keep writing, you have such a gift!!