Leader is gone; Music plays on


The leader is gone. We can only hope the band plays on.

John McElrath, the founder, muse, and keyboard player extraordinaire of the Swingin Medallions died in his beloved Greenwood recently. He was 77 years old and I did not know him personally. But he and his Party Band of the South pounded out rhythm and blues, beach songs and enough shag records to keep several generations of Southerners gyrating deep into the warm summer night.

I never have been much of a smiler. In most of our family photographs, I have tried to smile. But it usually comes out as a grimace implying, falsely I might add, that I had rather be somewhere else. All my grandchildren make that grimace a little more smile-like and I can manage a grin when reminiscing with my mother and sisters about some long-ago family mishap.

But one event does bring a lop-sided grin to my weathered features. An original recording of the 1966 “Double Shot” by the Swingin Medallions of Greenwood, South Carolina will brighten the bleakest of days and the darkest of nights.

The words don’t make a lot of sense, but the driving horns and McElrath’s distinctive opening key board play remind those of my age of cold beer, hot sand and those fleeting summer romances of so long ago when the world was young.

I was a rising junior at the old Laurens High School when Double Shot blasted its way into my generation’s brain in 1966. At that awkward time my life, I was small-framed, big-earned and wore glasses the depth of a bullet-proof window.  I had been on a few dates, but a November birthday meant I was younger than most of my classmates.

You had to be 16 to be able to drive, at night, without an adult in the car. My few dives into the dating pool in those days usually ended up with my date and me in the backseat and my beloved but loquacious father driving. At that time, our family car was a 1950’s model blue Plymouth station wagon with a push-button transmission. 

Utilitarian no doubt but hardly the means to a memorable date night. After a couple of these experiences, I discovered that my dates actually found my father more entertaining  and charming than his only son who tended to stutter when presented with a challenge.

Trying to dance at that time was more of a challenge than a joy. To this day, I marvel at men and women my age who could shag before they could walk. My wife is a very good dancer and we will occasionally try one late in the evening, when most are too taken with drink or too bored to care. Up one two, back one two. I have managed to turn the state dance into a one-man, close order military drill.

My dancing is so bad that I had to practice before my first dance with our daughter Brooks at her wedding several years ago. I thought about a fox trot or a scintillating samba but I was overruled by the women in my wife. Brooks and I danced to “My Girl,” the old Temptations classic with the great David Ruffin providing the vocals. Brooks, I think, was delighted as her old man performed flawlessly. My drill sergeant in basic training would have been thrilled as well.

For those of us who grew up in Laurens County, the City of Greenwood had a certain allure in those days. It was a larger town and it actually offered some entertainment venues.

The Medallions had a club for a very short time and the Moose Club on Montague Avenue also offered dancing and adult beverages to those of age. The hottest place in town, at least for Laurens teens, was Starnes Club Forest. Starnes was housed in a shell of an old hotel on Highway 221/72. A life-time membership was only five dollars and you had to ring a door bell to gain entrance, the Upstate’s version of a speakeasy.

I celebrated my eighteenth birthday in Starnes but that night will forever remain a secret in Laurens lore. I have avoided state prison so far and I am too old to think about it now.

A cheer for John McElrath!! I saw his band perform many times over the years and he was, without question, the leader. To provide such joy for so many people for so many years ain’t a bad thing.


(Ernie Segars is retired as Laurens County Adminstrator and lives in Laurens.)


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