CCU alumnus left his heart in South Carolinaby Russell Alston
Of the five books Rick Simmons has published, two cover a subject familiar to many at Coastal Carolina University — Carolina beach music.
Simmons, the George K. Anding Endowed Professor of English at Louisiana Tech University, fell in love with the music as a kid growing up in Florence and during summer vacations to Myrtle Beach. Those positive associations with beach music never waned for Simmons.
“I love classic beach music, and I knew that not much had been published on the subject,” he says. “I thought it would be interesting to write about the stories behind some of the most popular beach music songs.”
But Simmons focused on a different type of history at first. As a kid, he would hear adults talking about the rumors of Nazi U-Boats roaming the Intracoastal Waterway during World War II. At CCU, professors such as Charles Joyner nurtured his interest in the past of Horry County. In a history class taught by Joyner, Simmons wrote an assignment titled “Did German U-Boats Patrol the Grand Strand During World War II?” A few years later, he rewrote the paper and saw it published in Alternatives magazine in 1987, thus beginning his career as an author. “That was my first publication,” he says.
One tiny detail would stall his burgeoning career as an author.
Entering his final semester in the spring of 1983, Simmons needed just a few classes to graduate but was having some difficulties. “I was working full time and finding it hard to finish my degree while working,” he says. With the help of the late Professor Tom Trout, Simmons completed a couple of independent study courses, fulfilling his graduation requirements. He didn’t attend the ceremony, however, due to work.
“I remember thinking I needed to pick up my diploma at some point but never did. I was young and because I thought I had a degree, I wasn’t as worried about it,” he says.
That was until the early 1990s when he decided to pursue a master’s degree and a Ph.D. at the University of South Carolina.
“I applied to USC and listed what I thought was my date of graduation from Coastal. They got back to me and said Coastal noted I hadn’t completed the process,” he says. “Well, I went out to Coastal, got with professor Trout, and we got it straightened out, so I really graduated in 1992. I hadn’t been in a classroom for almost a decade at that point. Today it is really embarrassing that I let it go like that.”
It’s safe to say that Simmons made up for the lost time. In 2007 he published his first book, “Factory Lives: Four 19th Century Working Class Autobiographies,” which originated from his Ph.D. studies in British literature. Simmons says he still had some things about the Grand Strand to get out of his system, however. “It didn’t matter to me that I was an English professor writing about history, folklore or music – I wrote about what I felt compelled to write about.”
His first book about the Grand Strand, “Defending South Carolina’s Coast: The Civil War from Georgetown to Little River,” was published in 2009. The book explores military events such as skirmishes at Fort Randall in Little River and naval assaults by Union soldiers on Murrells Inlet.
A year later, Simmons reworked articles written for various magazines and and published “Hidden History of the Grand Strand.” That book addressed some of the local legends, such as the lost villages of La Grange and Lafayette, the U-Boat legends, and the illegal casino in the Ocean Forest Hotel. Having by then used “the old materials as much as I cared to,” Simmons decided to switch it up and return to his first love — beach music.
He took a leap of faith and contacted some of the genre’s stars for interviews. “I emailed Brenton Wood, Charles Pope of the Tams and Sonny Turner of the Platters, hoping maybe one of them would write back,” he says. All three would eventually reply, but it was Turner who provided Simmons with the blueprint on how to really gather information.
“Sonny asked me to call,” he says, “so I did and recorded our conversations. I realized that was the way to go. After that, I arranged as many personal interviews as possible, and those sessions resulted in the publication of ‘Carolina Beach Music: The Classic Years’ in 2011.”
Simmons’ second book on beach music, “Carolina Beach Music from the 60’s to the 80’s: The New Wave,” was published this past spring. “I realized there were a lot more beach music songs to write about, and the artists weren’t getting any younger,” he says.
Recently, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill asked Simmons to donate his interviews to its Southern Folklore Collection. “I told them I was honored and would think about it, but I have yet to make a final decision. I did make copies of all of the interviews, so I don’t need to hold onto the originals really. I’d rather see people use them for research. I mean, if you wanted to know what Freda Payne really thought about ‘Band of Gold,’ or just how much Meadowlark Lemon actually sang on ‘Rainy Day Bells,’ or why Jay Proctor of Jay and the Techniques didn’t like ‘Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie,’ isn’t it better to actually hear these people talk about it than look up second-hand information on the Internet?”
Simmons is currently considering his next projects, such as a look into the history of North Island at Winyah Bay. Also, he would like to complete his beach music trilogy. “I want my final work in the series to be an encyclopedia/reference guide covering 500 songs.”
A permanent move back to the Grand Strand would certainly help in achieving these goals, and it’s something he considers daily.
“That would be a dream come true,” he says. “My wife and I are homesick every day of our lives. If the opportunity ever presented itself, I would love to come back to CCU and work there for a day – or forever.”