When local music fans think of the Embers, Christmas music probably isn’t going to be the first thing that pops into their head.
The legendary North Carolina band is much more likely to have their music played at the beach than an ice skating rink, but on Thursday, the North Carolina Music Hall of Famers will perform a Christmas show at Seby B. Jones Performing Arts Center at Louisburg College.
Bobby Tomlinson, the longtime leader and founding member of the band, says the Embers are a perennial summer band that also can tour during the fall and winter months.
“We’ve been around since 1958, and we have been playing 250-300 dates a year since we first hit the road,” Tomlinson said. “We used to play 10 to 15 Christmas parties in December for these large corporations in RTP, and then about 15 to 20 years ago, venues began having problems with liability laws; the companies just quit having the parties.”
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But company gigs aren’t the only game in town for bands like the Embers.
“All of the clubs in Myrtle Beach, like the Alabama Theatre, have been doing Christmas shows for years,” Tomlinson said. “So we started performing one about eight years ago. It doesn’t have anything to do with beach music; it’s 100% Christmas music. ‘Christmas with the Embers,’ or whatever you want to call it. We have all varieties of Christmas music and a snow machine. It’s exactly what you would expect at one of the Myrtle Beach venues, but we take ours out on the road.”
Always an Ember
If anyone knows about the road, it’s Tomlinson. The band leader has been with the group since the beginning.
“I was there Day One,” he said. “I’ve probably played 14,000 shows, and only missed three.”
Tomlinson said being a musician is all he ever wanted to do.
“When I graduated high school, my father wanted me to go to college, but I wanted to see what I could do with music,” he said. “So I got a day job while making music at night. I was burning the candle at both ends, staying sick all of the time, so my doctor told me that I had to choose one or the other; I chose music. That’s all I’ve done for the past 53 years.”
What is beach music?
But even with all of that time spent on stage entertaining thousands of shaggers, there is still one thing Tomlinson hasn’t figured out: Exactly what is “beach music”?
“All of the music we played in the beginning, we were familiar with, but you have to remember that back then, black artists’ music wasn’t played on the radio,” Tomlinson explained. “Little Richard and all of those guys. I’ve heard many times that folks would play these songs they couldn’t hear anywhere else on jukeboxes at the beach clubs, and they just started relating that music to the beach.”
Still, Tomlinson finds the concept of “beach music” hard to explain.
“A lot of people get it mixed up with the Beach Boys and bands from the West Coast,” he said. “But I don’t think they even call it beach music out there. And then to some people, it is just the songs you hear on the Golden Oldies radio station. Motown is beach music to some folks, you know?”
Tomlinson is clear that when the Embers play a Christmas show, the crowd will hear holiday standards, not the beach songs they play during the warmer months. The band enjoys switching up its musical choices during these shows, bringing the joy of the season to a new group of fans – just as it did when they were invited to entertain the troops a few years back.
“I got an email from the office of a general who was a big Embers fan, who had been transferred from Fayetteville to South Korea,” Tomlinson said. “His cultural attaché asked if it would be possible for us to perform for the troops the following Christmas; I asked, ‘What’s wrong with this year?’ We put it together real quick and flew over there, and we actually did it two years in a row.”
Making new fans
But the band doesn’t have to fly around the world to find new fans. Whether they’re singing “I Love Beach Music” or “Frosty the Snowman,” Tomlinson notices the differences in the Raleigh of his youth and the city it is today.
He’s thankful he can put a little bounce into the step of any listener.
“When we grew up around Raleigh in the ’50s, there were only about 75,000 people living there,” he said. “Now, it’s a mixing pot of folks from everywhere, from all over the world. Our music is happy music, so the lyrics are something that anyone can relate to, regardless of where they are originally from.
“We make new fans every day. It’s still amazing.”