Why Carolina Shag Fans Still Can't Get Enough of the Tams
“I’m from North Carolina, and I shag,” says Dianne Pope. “I think The Tams, Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, The Drifters, The Embers, and the Catalinas were the most popular shag groups in the South back then. But The Tams were number one.” Pope may be a bit biased when it comes to The Tams—she was married to band member Charles Pope for close to 50 years—but she’s not wrong.
If you were to head to the Williams Lake Dance Club up in Dunn, North Carolina, or one of the open-air beach clubs on the Carolina coast in the 1960s for a night of carefree shag dancing, there was a very good chance you would have hit the dance floor to one of The Tams’ tunes. Their songs were practically created for shagging, including tunes like “Laugh it Off” which was the perfect accompaniment to the smooth turns and six-count, eight-step footwork that became known as the Carolina shag.
The band started with two brothers—Joseph and Charles Pope—who began singing with their friends Robert Lee Smith and Horace Kay while they were all students at Atlanta’s David T. Howard High School. They started performing in Atlanta clubs as the Four Dots, but when Floyd Ashton joined the group in the early 1960s, they changed their name to The Tams, which was inspired by the tam o’shanter hats they wore on stage.
The Tams really got things started around 1961. As they played shows around the South, they caught the attention of a producer, who ushered them into Muscle Shoals, Alabama’s famed studios, where they recorded their first hit song, “Untie Me”. The song was released in 1962 and hit the Billboard charts, and helped set the standard for beach music.
They followed that success with “What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am”, which went to the top 10 for R & B songs on the Billboard charts. Those hit songs helped catapult The Tams into the mainstream, and they were booked to play at clubs all over the South, and up and down the coast, and especially around Myrtle Beach. That’s where Pope comes into the story. “I met [my husband] in ’65 at Park Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Tams, Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, and Bo Diddly were playing,” says Pope. Her boyfriend at the time brought her to see his favorite band play, and soon learned to regret his taste in music. She fell in love with The Tams’ sound— and eventually with Charles Pope, the velvet-voiced singer, meeting up with him as The Tams played around the area.
They married in Atlanta in 1967, when Loving v. Virginia made it finally legal for interracial couples to do so, and had two children—Albert, (better known as Little Redd) and Tameka.
Both children have carried on their father’s musical legacy—little Redd with The Tams and Tameka, who is better known in some circles as the Grammy winning artist Tiny Harris, with her band Xscape and work on TLC’s hit “No Scrubs”. Her touching relationship with her father was well documented on the reality show Family Hustle that she starred in alongside her husband, the rapper T.I.
While Pope partially fell in love with Charles through his music, it wasn’t always easy being married to a musician. “Out of 365 days a year, they worked at least 300 of them,” says Pope. “My husband was gone all the time.”
The Tams were busy, keeping the crowds shagging to the beach tunes for years, putting out hits. “I loved ‘What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am’, but we were shagging more to ‘Laugh it Off’,” says Pope, who taught herself how to shag holding onto a door at her childhood home in China Grove, North Carolina. “I’d hold onto a door, play the music, and dance. I thought it was pretty good back in the day.”
Songs like “My Baby Sure Can Shag” and "Hey Girl Don't Bother Me" were hits, as was "Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy". “That song is like an anthem to the South—be young, be foolish, be happy,” says Pope. The Tams also topped the Billboard charts after their song “There Ain’t Nothing Like Shagging” hit it big overseas. However, according to Pope, the success was short-lived when the song was yanked from rotation, because “shagging” means something quite different in the UK. Luckily, they soon had a new claim to fame when Shag the movie, featured their song “What Kind Of Fool Do You Think I Am” on their soundtrack in 1989. The Tams were inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1992.
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While music changed with rock music taking over the charts, The Tams continued to tour. In the 1984, South Carolina officially recognized the shag as a state symbol and North Carolina followed suit in 2005—and the Tams were there for it all, providing the soundtrack for shag contests and dance parties all over the South. Their music carries on today, too, even though both Joe and Charles Pope have passed away. The band still plays their songs up and down the Carolinas, now with Charles’s son at the helm. “Our son, Little Redd, who started with The Tams when he was six years old, is still playing with the band and he’s 48 years old,” says Pope. “They still record songs that they shag to. My son has had at least four or five hits in the shag community.”
“The Tams are still playing and still performing, some 50 years on,” says Pope, proudly.