Gary James' Interview With Joe Morris of
The Swingin' Medallions
They are known as The Party Band Of The South. The Swingin' Medallions made quite a name for themselves in the mid-1960s. Their song "Double Shot Of My Baby's Love" became a million seller in 1966 for this Greenwood, South Carolina band. They followed that song with two more hits - "She Drives Me Out Of My Mind" and "Hey, Hey, Baby". The Swingin' Medallions have quite a story to tell and who better to tell it than original drummer, Joe Morris.
Q - Joe, what kind of a place was Greenwood, South Carolina in the early 1960s?
A - Oh, probably a nice little community of 10,000 people, Primarily a textile community.
Q - And today you live where?
A - In a nice, little beach side community called Polly's Island, which is about twenty miles south of Myrtle Beach. I've traveled around the country quite a bit during my working career and been in Orlando, Florida, a short while in Pennsylvania and around the Carolinas several different places. Finally when I semi-retired, I came down to the beach here and been down here for several years now.
Q - Who put The Swingin' Medallions together and when?
A - That would be John McElrath and myself. We put the original group together. John was the music to the band and all that stuff. He'd play keyboards and sing. I was the drummer and handled all the business. All the big bookings and all that good stuff. But John was the music core to the group.
Q - And you put the group together in Greenwood?
A - In Greenwood, right around 1962.
Q - It would appear with the line-up of musicians you had, you were ahead of your time. The world wouldn't see bands like Blood, Sweat And Tears and Chicago until much later in the 1960s, early '70s.
A - Oh, yes. In the beginning of the group we had five horns. Two saxes, trombone and a lot of our guys played different horns at different times. We had a pretty versatile group.
Q - For a group to have horns in 1962, that was unique.
A - That's because we were playing rhythm and blues, rock 'n' roll, James Brown type rock 'n' roll. Ray Charles type stuff. If you go back, all those groups had horns in 'em. In pretty much all of those records back in those days, even if it was not a big horn section, they usually had a saxophone. Even Bill Haley And His Comets' "Rock Around The Clock". The Swingin' Medallions have always had a horn section. Big horn section.
Q - Were you guys primarily touring the South? Did you ever make it to the Northeast?
A - We got to the Northwest when "Double Shot" was a hit in 1966. We literally traveled all over the U.S. We played New York, New Jersey, Boston, Maine, New Hampshire, all over Pennsylvania. We played Clear Lake, Iowa in the place where Buddy Holly played before he had the fatal plane crash. We played all over Oregon, State of Washington, California, Arizona, Texas, you name it, we were on tour. (laughs) We did Fort Wayne, Indiana, Ohio. That was '66-'67. We were actually offered a contract by the William Morris Agency. Several of their folks told us we were the greatest live act that they'd ever seen. But we could not do a contract because some of our guys were still in school, in college. We made the decision to be a regional weekend band and stay in school. I think that was probably a pretty wise decision.
Q - Wouldn't William Morris have waited 'til you got out of school?
A - You know, that question never came up. Our manager at the time was a guy named Lenny Stoegel, out of New York. Lenny later died in a plane crash. That was years later after he managed us. It was a conscious decision. It was a hard
decision on our part, but we thought it was best. You know, you live with your decisions. Today I look back and I think we're all happy with that one. (laughs)
Q - What kind of a degree do you have?
A - I have a degree in History and a minor in English.
Q - So you became a teacher?
A - No. I've been a businessman all my life, after the band. I've been in the plastic packaging business. Have you ever seen a plastic tennis ball can? I invented the plastic tennis ball can. I've been pretty much in corporate business. I recently retired. Out of boredom, you can only play so much golf, I am now working with a company called Waste Zero. It's an environmental company. Our objective is to reduce the amount of solid waste that folks throw away and we're quite successful. We're located in South Carolina. www.wastezero.com. This has probably been the second most fun job that I've ever had after the band. How about that? (laughs)
Q - That's terrific. With the way bands break up, you were smart in getting your degree.
A - Yeah. That's true. At some point in time you have to stop things and get a real job. But it was a wonderful experience. We all learned a lot. It was just one of those things. When it's over, it's over.
Q - Well, The Stones kept it going all these years.
A - They're a special category. As a matter of fact, The Swingin' Medallions are still very much alive today with the second and third generation.
Q - When you were touring back in the early days, were you headlining? And where were you playing, clubs?
A - When we played a club, we were usually the only group there. We toured with a lot of people. We toured with Sam The Sham, Paul Revere And The Raiders, The Dave Clark Five, Mitch Ryder, James Brown. All the R&B folks; Sam And Dave, Wilson Pickett, Rufus Thomas. In the Southeast in those days, it was pretty heavy rhythm and blues music. Junior Walker And The All Stars. If you gave me a half hour, I could probably come up with forty of 'em. We backed Dionne Warwick. We used to play a lot with a guy named Lou Christie. And of course here in the South, the big group The Tams. Joe South, Billy Joe Royal. When we toured out West, we did the Dick Clark show Where The Action Is and several of the other shows out of Los Angeles. That was so long ago. We were on the way to Buffalo for a show and the booking agency out of New York had booked us into Albion, New York. We pulled into Albion and said, my goodness this place is small. We were supposed to play in a bowling alley of all places and we thought, a bowling alley in Albion, New York? What's this gonna be like? When we came to play that night, of course the road crew had set everything up, there must've been 5,000 people! It was like you fill up the bowling alley and everybody else hangs around outside. It was a huge crowd. We were pleasantly surprised. As we learned, that was about it for entertainment for young folks in those days. The local bowling alley would have a band and everybody would go. It was quite a treat. We thoroughly enjoyed it. I think those were some of the ones we enjoyed the most. It was not a huge arena and you got to interact with the people. The real thrill for all the guys in the band was when we did our song "Double Shot", everybody was singing along with us. They knew the words. We thought; Wow! Isn't that great! (laughs)
Q - You didn't play bars when you would open for The Dave Clark Five, did you? You must've been playing theatres.
A - Oh, yeah. Those were huge venues. I remember the first show we did was with The Dave Clark Five and Mitch Ryder at the Mosque Auditorium in Richmond, Virginia. A beautiful, huge auditorium in downtown Richmond. We opened the show and forty-five minutes later, the show was about over 'cause we did nothing but heavy, fast stuff and we wore the crowd out. So, the next night was in Baltimore. They made us go on last. (laughs)
Q - I take it you were touring by station wagon back then. I don't believe tour buses were being used.
A - Back then we had a couple of station wagons and of course we had an equipment truck with a road crew that went ahead. When we did the tour with Sam The Sham, we had a tour bus. The promoters had rented a tour bus and we all traveled together.
Q - "Double Shot" was an original song?
A - That song was originally done as a slow, bluesy ballad. A trio that played in South Carolina called Dick Holler And The Holidays. A guy named Cero Vetter and Gene Smith had written the song. They played with them. I think they played with Dick Holler. We picked it up and re-arranged it, sped it up and made all the changes in it. Those guys had a demo on it, but it was never circulated. But, we never heard the original song. It was taught to us by one of our old friends who had heard them play it. He taught it to us as a slow, bluesy thing. We just took it and changed it quite a bit. But any how, that's the story on "Double Shot". We started playin' "Double Shot" in '65 and the college kids loved it. Another group heard us do it and tried to go into the studio and do it, but it never did make it. We first were under contract to a company in Atlanta, a recording company. We were in the studio and had about six or eight versions of it and we didn't like 'em. So, we had a parting of the ways with the recording company. We went on our own to a studio in North Carolina and recorded it. To record "Double Shot" and the back side took an hour and a half. And that was the version we went with. They tried to make us sort of polish it up, but we said the beauty of the song is that it's not polished. It's a party song. And so that's the version that made it.
Q - What label did that song come out on?
A - When we recorded the song we put it out ourselves on our label 4 Sale, because that's why we recorded it, to try and get it picked up by a major label. Then Smash, a division of Mercury, picked it up.
Q - In 1966, it sold a million copies. That was a 45 or was it part of an album?
A - That was a 45. You know how difficult it is to get an accounting of sales, but the last we heard, and don't hold me to this, I'm not certain, it was like 1.4 million. One of the good things about it is, it broke in different areas of the country at different times. It was on the charts for like seventeen weeks because it would break in the Northwest and a month and a half later it would break on the West coast. It just jumped around. Had we had some nationwide promotion from the beginning, we might have even sold more, but who knows? We were happy with what we had.
Q - You followed "Double Shot" up with "Hey, Hey Baby" and "She Drives Me Out Of My Mind".
A - "She Drives" was the follow-up. "Hey, Hey Baby" came afterwards.
Q - And those two songs went into the Top 40?
A - I think they did. Once again, I'm not certain. It's so long ago. One thing we're real proud of is we have a version of "Double Shot" with Bruce Springsteen doing it live at a concert in Notre Dame, where he says "It's the greatest fraternity Rock song of all time."
Q - What a compliment!
A - He had it on his play list for awhile. About six or eight months ago he was playing in Charleston, South Carolina and he opened his show with "Double Shot". So that made us feel pretty good.
Q - After the follow-ups to "Double Shot", you did more touring?
A - Yes. We toured for a couple of years. Touring is not all it's cracked up to be. (laughs) We were doing one-nighters five hundred miles apart. In those days, that's pretty tough. You're looking at a ten to twelve hour drive for each and every one of 'em. So, it was pretty tough.
Q - Where does the group perform today?
A - They restricted themselves to the Southeast. They do an awful lot of festivals. They try to stay within a three to four hundred mile radius of the home base, Greenwood. They have no illusions. They're not out there trying to get another hit record. They're just out there trying to enjoy life. All the guys love to play. There's a base core band of some of the finest musicians you'll ever find. They always keep three or four young guys out front playing horns and doing all the show part of it. People go to see and hear The Swingin' Medallions perform.
Q - You say "they". You don't say "we". Does that mean you're no longer part of the band?
A - Only on special occasions, when they need one of the old guys to show up. (laughs) But, as we say, that's a young man's game.