Greenwood’s “Songbird” has gone silent.
John Grady McElrath, founder of the Swingin’ Medallions, succumbed to his long battle with Parkinson’s disease. He died at home Saturday at age 77.
McElrath was more than the founder of the Party Band of the South. He was the glue that kept the band together through its many iterations for more than 50 years since that day a handful of kids listened to and began to emulate rhythm and blues they heard while sitting in McElrath’s yard in the early 1960s.
Drummer and original Medallion member Joe Morris recalls fondly just how integral his friend was to the Swingin’ Medallions, from the band’s birth to its current lineup, which includes McElrath’s sons, Shawn and Shane.
“We used to sit out in John’s front yard and listen to rhythm and blues music, coming from the back door of a local, little club there in Ninety Six,” he said Monday during a phone interview.
“That’s where we sorta got our love for rhythm and blues music. That formed the type music we did. Over the years there’s been quite a few guys come and go through the band. ... I left the group after college, around ’68. The amazing thing is that John kept it going for all those years.
“I remember when I left the group, he said, ‘Man, I wish you wouldn’t leave. We can do this the rest of our life.’ It’s always stuck with me,” Morris said while holding back tears.
But Morris, like any member of the band through the years, never really left. He and others have continued to play with the Medallions through the years at reunion concerts and remain friends to this day, a testament to what McElrath liked to say: “Once a Swingin’ Medallion, always a Swingin’ Medallion.” Or, as “The Heeey Baby Days of Beach Music” author Greg Haynes put it on his tribute to McElrath on the band’s Facebook page, “Wear the scripted tee-shirt on stage once, ‘Swingin’ MEDALLIONS,’ wear it for life.”
Original member and trumpet player Carroll Bledsoe, who now lives in Hendersonville, North Carolina, performed with the band on Sunday night in Sandy Springs, Georgia, in an outdoor venue, as a tribute to his bandmate.
“If it hadn’t been for him, there wouldn’t have been any Swingin’ Medallions,” Bledsoe said during a phone call Monday.
Bledsoe has nearly wrapped up a book he had hoped to have out while his friend and bandmate was still alive. “The History of The Swingin’ Medallions — an Insider’s Viewpoint,” is expected to be out sometime in July.
Brent Fortson, an original member who played saxophone and still joins the band from time to time when not working (still) in his Greenville law practice, recalled fond memories of the early days when the band got its big start in Panama City, Florida.
When he joined, Fortson was not of legal age to be playing in clubs and other places where alcohol might be served. He said his parents only let him join because of McElrath.
“My parents would only let me live with John. He was like my warden. He was my mentor. He was my biggest influence as a calming figure,” Fortson said Monday. “Gentle rhythms, I call it.”
Fortson recalled a time in the band’s early days when traveling to Birmingham, Alabama. Musicians and equipment were loaded in pickup trucks. They were stopped by law enforcement officers, who searched the trucks and found beer.
“We’re taking this to the party. Why don’t you come with us,” Fortson said the officers were told. And they did. No one got arrested, no one got in trouble.
“We were truly like brothers,” Fortson said. While young and far from perfect, he said they “kept that clean image, didn’t get into any serious trouble.
“I’m sad beyond belief,” Fortson said of McElrath’s death. We were so fortunate to have him lead the way. He was a trailblazer. I can think of no other member of the group who could have done that.”
Morris and Fortson both talked about when the Medallions headed west to Los Angeles where Ole Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra, took them under his wing.
They were to perform for Sinatra’s daughter, Tina’s, 16th birthday.
Morris said the band was setting up in the club when members of the famous Rat Pack — Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop — came in. McElrath discovered an amp was not working. Next thing the band knew, a music store delivered two state-of-the-art amps. The party was on.
As then, as the band packed up for the night, they asked someone with Sinatra’s entourage what they should do with the amps. Keep them, they were told. They’re a gift from Sinatra.
It’s business too
Fun times? Absolutely. But it was not only fun; it was business.
Before he took up a full-time acting career, Greenwood native Grainger “Brother” Hines was also a member of the Swingin’ Medallions from 1968-71.
“John had a great heart. Not that he wasn’t tough, but you had to be,” Hines wrote Monday from New York.
“A lot of people think entertainment is all fun and games but it is a business. John knew this and the longevity of the Swingin' Medallions, which extends over fifty years, is a true tribute to John McElrath. I loved being in the band. I never was much of a musician, but I worked hard at it and John gave me a chance and encouraged me. I have known his boys since they were born and being in that band is being in a family that endures and continues to grow over time.
“There were a few people in Greenwood that touched me in a way that changed my life — Coach Babb was one, Bryan Dorn another and John McElrath.”
Saxophone player Dibble Cooper played alongside McElrath in such groups as the Swamp Fox Band, but as an office manager and sound engineer, Cooper said everything he learned about management and the music business came from McElrath.
“I wouldn’t be playing the saxophone if it wasn’t for John,” he said. “Everything I know about running a band and entertaining, I learned from emulating him.”
It was strange, seeing McElrath go from idol to personal friend, Cooper said. After all, McElrath was the reason most people in the Lakelands during Cooper’s generation decided to become musicians.
“The Beatles had just hit, and about a year later you’ve got a bunch of local boys on the radio,” Cooper said. “It made people of my generation pick up an instrument.”
Cooper saw as musician after musician came to learn at McElrath’s feet, some getting better just by being in his sphere of influence. He could take someone who had never so much as touched an instrument and make a musician out of them, Cooper said.
“He was as great a teacher as he was an entertainer,” Cooper said, “and his heart was as big as his talent.”
Bass player Ronnie Goldman, a staple among Greenwood’s musicians, reflected on McElrath’s influence.
When McElrath came back to Uptown in 2016 to hear many of his fellow original bandmates and his two sons take the stage playing classic Swingin’ Medallions hits, Goldman was keeping time on the bass. Goldman was 10 when he met McElrath — the musical legend coached Goldman’s little league team.
“That’s when Ninety Six couldn’t be beat,” Goldman said with a laugh. “Later on I started playing keyboards when I was about 14.”
McElrath was always a part of his life, Goldman said, and whenever he caught the young Goldman playing with one of his many fledgling bands at the time, he was always quick to offer advice and guidance. Goldman, like many who knew McElrath growing up, said he quickly went from mentor to buddy.
Even in death, Goldman said he knows McElrath time to time.
Greenwood musician and former Medallion Ashby Stokes said the McElrath family moved into his childhood neighborhood when he was 12. Looking back, Stokes said that was the start of many musical firsts for him.
“John’s sons, Shawn and Shane, became really good friends with my brother, Taylor, and I,” said Stokes, 53. By that point, Stokes said he had a guitar, but he was just learning to play, and his brother, Taylor, was just starting playing drums.
“One day, my brother and I were playing in the neighborhood and heard this booming noise, coming from the top of the neighborhood,” Stokes said. “We went to see what it was and it was the Swingin’ Medallions rehearsing.”
Shawn and Shane McElrath invited the Stokes brothers to watch the rehearsal.
“That was the first time I had seen a live band and to say we were mesmerized would be an understatement,” Stokes said. “I looked at Taylor and Shawn and Shane and said, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
Stokes recalls that he, Taylor and Shawn and Shane once sneaked into the studio at the McElrath home and pretended to be a band.
“Shawn and I basically knew one note and played it over and over again,” Stokes said. “I was on guitar and Shawn was on bass. John came down and said we were going to have to learn a couple more notes.”
Not long after, a high school band formed, Stokes said, and they got to practice in the Medallions’ studio.
“John offered for us to go on the road with the Medallions as the road crew, for a gig in Ridgeland,” Stokes said. “We had no idea that John had planned to bring us on stage to play. We were 14 or 15 years old and John calls us on stage to play ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’ It was the most terrifying and exciting experience of my teenage life.”
Later, that same high school band got to play for a Swingin’ Medallions party, for the band’s annual oyster roast, and Stokes got to have his first studio recording with the band in the Medallions’ studio.
“John McElrath and Eddie Wayne Bailey were so encouraging to young musicians,” Stokes said. “They gave us some really, really good experiences early on and we all still play music to this day.”
Later, when Stokes was invited to join the Medallions, he said John, Shawn and Shane told him, “The Swingin’ Medallions are clean-cut, Southern gentlemen who can entertain an audience from age 8 to 80.” Stokes was a member of the Medallions for nearly 10 years, playing guitar and singing.
“In the dressing room, John would say to us, ‘Hey guys, these people want to have a good time, if we can just stay out of their way.’ What he meant by that was that we were not there to play music for ourselves, but for our audience. I cannot say there has been a more important musical mentor in my life than John.”
That, Stokes said, is John McElrath’s successful formula for party band that is still going strong after more than 50 years.
A music major in college at Lander, Swingin’ Medallion Richard Loper, 53, said at least one of his music professors initially wasn’t overly keen on the idea of music students moonlighting in a party band. But, Loper said he’s played off and on with the band since 1986, and wouldn’t trade the experience.
“I have been all over the world with these guys – Bermuda, Bahamas, Hawaii, Mexico, Canada and most of the states in this country,” Loper said. “We’ve also played with famous people – The Four Tops, The Temptations, The Tams, The Drifters, The Beach Boys…I wish I had taken more pictures and gotten more autographs. Had I not met Shawn McElrath in college, that might be different.”
Shawn and Richard were in Lander’s jazz band together.
“Shawn approached me about sitting in on a rehearsal for his dad’s band,” Loper said. “At that point, we were the Double Shot Gang, an opening band for the Swingin’ Medallions. “We were the road crew who set up and tore down and we would play a set before they would.
“Playing R and B and beach music is not playing notes on paper,” Loper said. “You’ve got to learn that feel and rhythm. It’s not music theory. John helped us with that and he treated us all like sons.”
Additionally, Loper noted many who’ve come through the Medallions ranks have gone on to enjoy solid success in Nashville’s music industry and beyond.
The Medallions, Loper said, are well known and liked by music legends such as Bruce Springsteen, who first saw them play as a youngster.
“We played in Sandy Springs, Georgia Sunday and audiences were kind of shocked that we played,” Loper said. “But, John would have wanted it that way.”
McElrath influenced a love of music and a thriving small-town music scene that put Greenwood on the map.
“I was probably 6 or 7 years old, backstage at a Medallions reunion show at Piedmont Tech,” Greenwood musician Jake Bartley said. “The sound man had left a saxophone microphone plugged in backstage. I snuck back there and was singing all the words to the songs and doing all the dance moves behind the stage. John was the one who noticed. I was auditioning for the band at a young age.”
Bartley, 35, did eventually become a Medallion and was with the band for about seven years. Now, he is the front man for his own successful band that bears his name. And, his late father, Hack Bartley, was a Medallion during the band’s early years, who played with them off and on for years.
“Dad was playing a little saxophone by the time he joined the Medallions, but were it not for John giving him a shot at 18 years old, Dad might not have played beyond high school,” Bartley said. “It propelled Dad to a new level, playing with a band that had a million seller hit record. My dad said his first gig with the Medallions was for a sold-out crowd at the pier at Daytona, where they also met the Allman Joys.”
That early band was fronted by Duane and Gregg Allman of what would later become the Allman Brothers.
“Without a doubt, I owe my love for music and my musical career, both directly and indirectly, to John McElrath,” Bartley said. “Dad got me started and after a while, I joined the Swingin’ Medallions. I’m certain my dad got the music bug really fast by being that age and thrown into something that big and successful. He had his own bands through the years, but he would come back and join the Medallions, from the ‘60s on. Even when I joined the Medallions, Dad was still on the road with them.”
Bartley laughed when asked if his father ever shared stories from early days with the Medallions.
“It’s the stuff you don’t talk about in front of your mama,” Bartley said. “One of Joe Morris’ favorite stories from when my dad first joined the band was about dad’s brand new GTO. He took it on the road once. After the show, Joe and one of the other guys got dad to give them his keys, since he was the low man on the totem pole. They showed back up around three or four in the morning. Joe said when they got back to the hotel, my dad was barefoot, in shorts, sitting on the curb, with his head in his hands.”
Bartley said the years he and his dad were in the Medallions at the same time were “hilarious.”
“It was like watching Dad turn back into a teenager,” Bartley said. “There was this burst of energy and he just got to be an entertainer. It was like a bunch of fraternity brothers getting back together. They had a million stories and it was fun to watch them recap.”
The Medallions have always taken time to talk with their fans and audiences, Bartley said, noting he tries to emulate that with his own band.
“They are fun, but they are approachable and they make fans for life,” Bartley said, noting he’s met people who first saw the Medallions play at their high school prom, back in the day. Greenwood has a music reputation and it goes back to the Medallions and John.”
Glue still holds
In a tribute on the band’s Facebook page, member drummer-turned-manager Robby Cox wrote “I started playing with the Medallions in 1986, when I was 17 and continued into my adulthood. I always had a great admiration for John and his accomplishments. He loved the Medallions and poured every ounce of his heart and soul into it. …RIP John and know that the Medallion tradition will be carried on for many years to come.”
And likely that’s because of John McElrath’s endearing and enduring persona.
“I don’t know I’ve ever met anybody that didn’t like John McElrath,” Morris said. “That pretty much says it all. If you can go through life and do what you want to do, and come out the other end with everybody liking you, then you probably had a pretty good life.”
Staff writers St. Claire Donaghy and Damian Dominguez contributed to this story.