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As mentioned in the song “Ol’ Man River,” the Raleigh-based band The Embers “just keeps on rolling along,” and that makes the group’s many fans happy.
The band has been performing consecutively for more than 61 years, which translates into some 15,000 live shows.
The Embers will bring their beach music to Wilson’s Edna Boykin Cultural Center for a Christmas show at 7:30 p.m. Friday. Next week, they will perform at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Rudy Theater in Selma.
For those unfamiliar with the term “beach music,” the genre might best be described as a mix of rock ’n’ roll, soul, rhythm and blues, and disco, like what was heard on radios, jukeboxes and in live shows at East Coast beaches in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Regardless of how it’s defined, beach music remains popular, and The Embers featuring Craig Woolard is one group helping to maintain interest in the genre. While the band’s lineup has changed over the years, its popularity and music have not.
According to group leader Bobby Tomlinson, more than 30 musicians have performed with The Embers since the group’s founding in the late 1950s, though the band once went 27 straight years without a change in its lineup.
The Embers still perform about five shows per week to enthusiastic audiences, mostly across the South. And over the years, the band has appeared in concert with many national artists, including The Rolling Stones, the Dave Clark Five, the Four Tops, Temptations, Beach Boys, Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight and The Pips, Jackie Wilson, Jerry Butler, Lou Rawls, Alabama, Clovers, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Fats Domino, the Drifters and the Impressions.
The Embers’ history goes back to 1958 when Tomlinson, Jackie Gore, Blair Ellis and Doug Harrison, seniors at Needham Broughton High School in Raleigh, formed a dance band called The Satellites, which would eventually become The Embers.
The bandmates played for local parties and dances, and as their popularity grew, so did their incomes, meaning the group’s members had decisions to make.
Tomlinson, 79, decided that playing with The Embers was how he wanted to earn his living, so he quit a full-time job he took after high school, picked up his drumsticks and hit the road. He remains the only founding member still with the band, and other than missing three performances because of illness, Tomlinson has been the group’s only drummer since the beginning.
As its leader, Tomlinson continues to travel with the band, though he has turned most of the drum-playing duties over to Wayne Free. Retirement is apparently not in Tomlinson’s plans.
“I am planning to continue doing this until I can’t,” he said during a recent Embers appearance at the Black Creek Heritage Day.
“I have been blessed and have done things I would not have been able to do without music,” Tomlinson added. “My mother and father never told me not to play the drums.”
Other current members of The Embers include lead vocalist and saxophonist Craig Woolard, the heart and soul of the group, who hails from Washington and has been with The Embers since 1976.
“This is all I have ever wanted to do,” said Woolard, who also plays the trumpet, trombone and flugelhorn. “Whenever it stops being fun, I will probably give it up. I met my wife singing.”
Gerald Davis, originally from Fremont, plays bass guitar and helps with the vocals.
Davis, who is 74 years old, joined the group in 1976, on the same day Woolard came aboard. He attributed the band’s success and longevity to “a bunch of good guys and musicians that came together at just the right time.”
Jeff Grimes, originally from Wayne County’s Nahunta community, handles guitar and vocals, while Andy Swindell, originally from Durham, play the keyboard and sings lead vocals. Stephen Pachuta plays the trumpet, and Bobby Nantz of Mooresville handles lead vocals, backing vocals, trumpet, trombone and flugelhorn.
“If it were not for this, I’d probably be sitting on the porch and waving at cars,” Nantz said.
“We are looking forward to seeing our Wilson friends for the Christmas show at the Boykin Center on Feb. 13,” Tomlinson added.