Killer Whales, Blue Dogs, and Blowfish: Tracing Charleston’s Musical Lineage


You can loosely trace the evolution of Charleston’s club music scene by the quality of its pissers.

“Captain Harry’s used to be crazy,” reads the online post of a Widespread Panic fan, reminiscing about seeing his favorite band in one of Charleston’s bygone watering holes. “I was in there one time for Halloween and the girls’ bathroom line was so bad that chicks were popping a squat at the urinals.”

The Music Farm can attest—when the lauded venue (overlapping with Captain Harry’s in the ‘90s and ‘00s) revamped in 2022, the most talked-about update was the men’s room.

Today, we can comfortably take a leak almost anywhere we go to see a show. There’s likely to be air conditioning. Outside of a few niche dives, even college kids aren’t thrashing around in mosh pits. And nobody is driving home at sunrise after a 5 a.m. last call and a night of slugging “Grand Ma, two-three-ways” (two mini bottles of Grand Marnier, split between three shots).

Charleston has changed, yet we may just now be reaching our musical golden age. In April, Shovels & Rope hosted their sixth High Water Festival, a national draw on the indie rock scene. Twenty-somethings in Oregon are singing along to SUSTO songs in their Subarus. Doom Flamingo gets placement near the top of festival lineups, and Darius Rucker has had moments as country’s biggest star. Aspiring musicians no longer dream about relocating to New York or Nashville to pursue their dreams. Instead, members of groups like Band of Horses, Umphrey’s McGee, moe., and The Stews have come from all over to make Charleston their base.

Of course, anyone who came up in the ‘90s will argue that Hootie, the Blue Dogs, and Uncle Mingo reign supreme. ‘80s babies make the case for the Killer Whales, who paralleled the Police and the Talking Heads as they toured and flirted with stardom. Or go further back to when the Folly Beach Pier was the hottest venue on the Southeast coast, or even to Charleston’s role in shaping jazz.

Far from comprehensive, this timeline overlooks countless venues and bands that soundtracked the best moments of many young Charlestonians' lives. But it hits a lot of them. Cue up this Spotify playlist and follow along.

Early 20th Century: Doing the Charleston

You can’t stream tracks from the most famous band ever to emerge from Charleston (although there are a few century-old videos on YouTube to leave you speechless).

The Jenkins Orphanage Band, made up of abandoned and orphaned Black children, first formed in 1892. By 1909, they led the procession for President Taft’s inauguration through Washington, D.C. Their offbeat ragtime sound, fronted by children dancing in the Gullah-Geechee style (called hambone or the Juba, originating in the Congo), intrigued white audiences. Dancers mimicking their style dubbed the moves “The Charleston.” White musicians emulating the sound evolved into the Big Band era of the ‘30s and ‘40s.

Even “Summertime” and the rest of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess score is a direct product of the music emanating from Charleston. Musicians in or associated with the orphanage—including drummer Rufus Jones, saxophonist Willie Smith, trumpeter Peanuts Holland, and guitarist Freddie Green—went on to define mid-century jazz as they played with Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

Mid-20th Century: Beach Music and Soul

By the late ‘50s, the action was on the Folly Beach Pier or (this being the segregation era) in Black-owned clubs like White’s Paradise at Remley’s Point on the Cooper River. Basie, Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and even James Brown performed at what was then known as Riverside Beach.

On Folly, performers like Basie and Fats Domino played the original pier until it burned in 1957. The pavilion that replaced it hosted everyone from Bo Diddley to Jerry Lee Lewis to Otis Redding himself. Beach music swept the nation, with Folly as a hotbed, hosting Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, The Tams, The Drifters, and the Swinging Medallions.

Bunky Odom, who went on to work with the Allman Brothers Band in Macon and later managed Uncle Mingo, was booking beach music bands in the Carolinas during these days.

“The music scene in Charleston was the Folly Beach Pier,” says Bunky Odom. “The Billy Stewarts of the world, The Tams—it’s where all of the bands worked.”

This was also the rise of Motown, and the foundation of nearly every song out of Detroit was the bass lines of James Jamerson, an Edisto Island native raised on jazz and Gullah-Geechee spirituals. “For Once in My Life,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “My Girl,” and even “What’s Going On”—it’s all Jamerson.

On King Street, Charleston’s County Hall served as downtown’s primary venue. Elvis performed there twice in 1956, and George Jones in 1964. And in North Charleston, the Flying Dutchman fostered the city’s rock scene, hosting the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Ike and Tina Turner (plus go-go dancers in suspended cages and an endless wall-to-wall urinal in the men’s room).

Odom says that in the ‘70s, Charleston was a reliable “Sunday night town” on tour schedules. “You couldn’t drink in every city, but you could in Charleston.”

The ‘80s: Killer Whales on Market Street

By the 1970s, Charleston’s influence on America’s music scene had dwindled. National acts occasionally came through—Ella Fitzgerald played the College of Charleston Cistern in 1978, and Bruce Springsteen played the Gaillard Auditorium the same year—but we weren’t shaping the sound like we did with jazz or Jamerson. County Hall’s main attraction had shifted to professional wrestling. (Andre the Giant competed there, making his Lowcountry debut long before Charleston-born artist Shepard Fairey borrowed his likeness for his signature Obey Giant image).

Then came The Killer Whales. The trio harnessed a loose Van Morrison, Elvis Costello vibe on songs like “Marlene” and almost made it big with the driving, Police-like “Who Controls the Video Screen.” Their rise coincided with a boom in Charleston’s club scene, mostly focused around Market and King Streets.

“That was a time when you could walk from club to club and hear different bands, from us to the Dixie Dregs,” Killer Whales guitarist and singer David Bethany recalls. “There was Myskyns, Café 99, Captain Harry’s, Mama’s Money, and even Scarlett O’Hara’s, on a barge moored at the Cooper River. In the early ‘70s, there was very little music going on, but by the ‘80s, it was possible to have huge crowds and make some money.”

Myskyns Tavern’s legacy remains the strongest. It hosted shows throughout the week, including bragging-right shows by Widespread Panic and Phish. Guitarist Eric Johnson also made an annual appearance.

Photo: Myskyns Tavern at 5 Faber Street. Courtesy: Randy Ison

Charleston harbored a healthy punk scene, centered around Club Dog Alley, atop the original AC’s location at 338 King Street.

“AC’s and Club Dog Alley were the heartbeat of the music scene,” says Larry Queen, the original music editor of the Charleston City Paper. “AC’s was a dingy dive shotgun sort of place, but it’s where everyone hung out.”

On the Isle of Palms, Bobby Ross (still there!) began booking bands in 1982. Two early favorites were new wave group the Swimming Pool Q’s and Drivin N Cryin, who make a near-annual appearance 40 years later. The Groovy Cools (featuring Keith Bradshaw, still a scene stalwart) and The Jumper Cables, a cover band led by guitarist Johnny Mac, packed the house on weekends.

The ‘90s: Charleston Gets Back on Top

Hurricane Hugo pushed the real estate reset button in Charleston, and the repercussions affected everything. As the ‘80s petered out, “there were bands trying really hard, but Charleston was a backwater,” says Queen. “It was largely cover bands rehashing ‘Margaritaville’ over and over again.”

During Hugo, the Gaillard was damaged, opening up the King Street Palace as the new downtown venue for touring acts—Jimmy Buffett, Bob Dylan, and the Allman Brothers Band all visited.

Metal band Children’s Choir built a following, and Muthafist led the heavy rock wave. The Belltower planted the seeds of the shoegaze sound. Their local frontman, Jody Porter, went on to lead Fountains of Wayne.

In 1991, the original Music Farm opened on East Bay Street (replacing Tremors nightclub, where Soundgarden once performed), adding to the synergy with Myskyns (soon to become Acme Bar in 1994, after hosting The Ramones in 1993), where the still-only-locally-famous Hootie & the Blowfish packed the house.

This was the era to see Warren Zevon and The Band on Market Street and then walk outside to see a three-piece Jump, Little Children busking on the sidewalk with drums, guitar, and cello. Cumberland’s joined the mix and became the home for exploratory jam acts like Col. Bruce Hampton and Garaj Mahal, surviving into the late ‘00s with a move into the Granny’s Goodies spot on King Street (now the Apple Store…meh).

Jump Little Children. Courtesy: Alison Kendrick

96Wave served as the music scene’s mid-‘90s pulse, and WaveFest brought the country’s hottest FM bands like Stone Temple Pilots, 311, Wilco, and CAKE to the peninsula. And out on IOP, the Jammer served as home base for the acoustic rock scene emerging around the Hootie sound, with Edwin McCain riding their coattails and the Blue Dogs and Uncle Mingo holding court on sweaty summer nights. The songs we sang along to, born on our shores—“Hold My Hand,” “Solitude” (McCain), “Bottle of Moonlight” (Mingo)—were on radios coast to coast.

Photo: Edwin McCain

Turn of the Century: The Last Rowdy Days

In the early ‘00s, bars could stay open all night. Even after Charleston issued a 2 a.m. closing law in 2003, you could still head to Folly Beach for a couple more years to hear music until at least 4 a.m. The rock-all-night culture contributed to an explosion of new venues, from the Village Tavern on Highway 17 in Mount Pleasant to the original Pour House on the other end of 17 in West Ashley.

Bert’s Bar was Sullivan’s Island’s last salty bastion. Momma’s Blues Palace felt like a juke joint just off Marion Square, and Salty Mike’s filled to capacity every Wednesday and Friday for bands like the Biscuit Boys. After a big weekend, we’d file into “The Mezz” on Sunday nights to hear chill jazz from groups led by Quentin Baxter or Lee Barbour, like Gradual Lean (several members went on to form the Grammy-winning Gullah-spiritual revival group, Ranky Tanky).

The construction of the tennis stadium on Daniel Island—and the former Charleston Battery soccer stadium—opened up an alternative to the North Charleston Coliseum for major touring acts. Suddenly, Charleston wasn’t an afterthought on touring schedules. Zac Brown hosted his Southern Ground Festival on Daniel Island, and ChazzFest brought Al Green, Branford Marsalis, and Kool & the Gang to the suburban utopia.

The Last Decade-sh: Consolidation and Primo Exports

We’ve lost more music venues than we’ve gained in recent years, but the ones that survive are institutions. For 20 years, the Pour House has brought every promising Americana, funk, soul, and jam group to Charleston, providing two stages for local bands to build their audiences. The Windjammer is over half-a-century-old, and you can still go see bands that cut their teeth there.

Photos courtesy of the Windjammer

Awendaw Green, an open-air stage at the Sewee Outpost, hosts at least four bands every Wednesday, fostering a Pour House-like community on the city’s other end. And historic rooms like the Riviera Theater and even the Charleston Music Hall have experienced a resurgence under capable young management.

Sometimes, the best venues come and go in a few years, like West Ashley’s Map Room, or Barrier Island Surf Shop on the way to Folly in the mid-‘00s, or the Barrel just a few years ago. What’s growing more consistent is the quality of the bands emerging from Charleston. In 2012, singer Elise Testone made her American Idol run, kicking off a series of wins for hometown music. Shovels & Rope released “Birmingham” in 2013, elevating long-time local darlings Cary Ann Hearst & Michael Trent to national acclaim. SUSTO’s single, “Get Down,” garnered 16 million streams in 2021. Ranky Tanky won Grammys in 2020 and 2023. Shelby Means, a Folly Beach-based bassist with bluegrass artist Molly Tuttle, won a Grammy this year.

Photo: Phish at Credit One Stadium, 2023

It's boom times for music in Charleston. Yes, it’s more difficult to find the energy of a sweaty, drunken room blasting out our eardrums at 3 a.m. in an alley off King Street. But reader, you’re 2,000 words into a screed about the Charleston music scene that opened with 300 words on century-old jazz. Your taste is varied and refined. Come hang with me at Chico Feo, or at the Sunset Jamz at Sol Legare on Tuesdays, or at a Barn Jam, or on the Pour House deck, or at the Southern, or at the Commodore, or Mr. B’s, or at the Frontier Lounge on a Sunday evening for Gritty Flyright’s Sawdust Supper Club.

There’s so much good music happening tonight in this town that I’m overwhelmed. This is the golden age.

P.S. Wait, this dumb writer didn’t even mention the Plex! Or the Oasis! Or the Warehouse or the Horse and Cart (gasp!!) or the wildly Art Deco mid-century joint, The Cavallero (which is still there out on Savannah Highway, now filled with Volvos slung by the Hendricks). Relax. They all live on. I’m saving a few for this story’s Deluxe reissue.

Title photo: Hootie and the Blowfish soundcheck at the Windjammer, mid-'90s. Courtesy: The Windjammer.

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