It was an early Sunday morning, as in one or two in the morning. I had just returned to my dorm room from a date with a young woman who was successfully auditioning to become ex-wife number one. Sitting at my desk listening to the radio I was shocked to hear that Billy Stewart, the singer, had died in an automobile accident near the North Carolina coast. It was January 18, 1970; he had died just hours before. Saddened by the news of his tragedy, for the next hour I sat and listened to Billy Stewart’s greatest hits while reminiscing about seeing him live the previous summer. “Summertime,” “Sitting in the Park,” “I Do Love You,” “Secret Love,” – I heard them all and more that morning on WKDK. I had been there to watch him sing all those songs live at The Cellar in Charlotte in 1969.
To this day, I enjoy “hole-in-the-wall” kinds of places and The Cellar was certainly that. A little dark, it was mostly lit by neon beer signs and had an ambience that was special only to me. A door next to a large oak tree had a simple wooden sign above that welcomed you to “The Cellar.” That tree with roots that had pushed their way above ground level was an obstacle to getting into the club. I think it had become a type of “drunkenness” test administered by the bouncers taking up the cover at the door. I once had a friend get kicked out for being drunk after he had tripped over one of those roots. The problem was we hadn’t made it in to The Cellar to be kicked out of The Cellar. Don’t you have to be in before you are thrown out?
The Cellar was aptly named being located in the basement of an office building. Once you navigated the tree roots, paid your dollar cover and walked through the door, you would be assaulted with the sound of a live band playing “soul” or “beach” music or the greatest “beach” music jukebox in the world doing the same. A bar, located to the right, ran the length of the foyer for lack of a better descriptor. Double archways separated the bar from the young people “strutting their stuff,” dancing a dance known as the “Carolina Shag,” a descendent and a much slower version of the Jitterbug. The dance itself and the music that went with it was born on the shores of the Carolina Grand Strand and continues to be so popular today that it has been named the state dance of South Carolina. A small bandstand was located against the left hand wall in front of a hardwood dance floor. The rest of the flooring was unfinished concrete. Near the right hand wall was a small seating area. In addition to the music that made normal conversation impossible you would be seduced by the smell of stale cigarettes and spilled beer. Oh how I loved it!
The Cellar had everything a college boy might desire. It was such a ratty place that people our age could do as we pleased and there was no way we could mess it up any more than it was. We certainly did not have to be rich to go there as it had a cheap cover charge, live bands, fifteen-cent drafts and college girls…if you had a good line to meet them. I did sing the Sam Cooke lyrics from “Another Saturday Night” on occasion, “If I could meet ‘em, I could get ‘em, as yet I haven’t met ‘em, that’s why I’m in the shape I’m in.” I wonder if a simple “Would you like to dance?” would have worked? I was not shutout every night but the night I heard Billy sing live I invited Sally McGinn to join me to insure that I didn’t want for female companionship. It was a good thing. There were so many people jammed in to such a small space, movement or meeting anyone was nigh on to impossible. I remember being packed in so tightly Sally and I could not have been any closer unless it had been our wedding night. No, tightly packed doesn’t quite describe it. When we left, the floor was so sticky with spilled beer, momentarily I was cemented to the concrete. I miss that.
Billy was not the only live act to grace the small stage at The Cellar. Every weekend there were different groups performing. Archie Bell and the Drells “Tightened Up,” The Georgia Prophets gave me a “Fever” and the Catalinas reminded me that “Summertime’s Calling Me,” as is The Cellar…which, like so many places of my youth, no longer exists. There is a restaurant in its place now. Much of my time during the summers of ‘68 and ’69 was spent pursuing coeds at The Cellar. High school friends, Al Stevenson and John Nesbitt, along with myself, became the Three Musketeers those summers pursuing “man’s favorite sport,” but like “car chasing” dogs, rarely did we catch our quarry. Maybe we were the Three Stooges instead. We worked during the summer and I remember many nights getting home just in time to change clothes and head back to work in Charlotte. Working for Crowder Construction Company on Interstate Seventy-Seven, I attempt to avoid bridges that I know I worked on during those summers. I fear they could fall in at any minute.
Trips to The Cellar were not limited to summers. There were many sixty-mile road trips from Newberry to Rock Hill in Sid Crumpton’s VW or Tom Hocker’s little foreign car with the caved-in trunk. We would pick up dates at Winthrop before making the short jaunt into Charlotte. Yes, there were several late nighters that saw us back at Newberry just in time to make our morning classes. Dr. Wilson, a history professor, once remarked, “Miller, if your eyes are hurting you as bad as they are hurting me, you need to bandage them.” I WAS looking through a pink haze.
My last trip to The Cellar would occur in the summer of 1970. I brought Dianne, the woman who would become ex-wife number one, home to meet the family and later took her out for an evening of shagging at The Cellar. It was a standout night that figures prominently in my memories. Dianne was a statuesque redhead who rocked a red-patterned halter suit that she filled out quite nicely and more than adequately. We ran into Al and with his drooling Saint Bernard impersonation I would say he was impressed, too.
I’m not really sure why I never went back. I know I never intended not to. School, life and marriage along with divorce got into the way. I think in some ways it was a sign of the times or maybe I just grew up…Nah! Al decided to hitch hike to California. He didn’t make it out of Charlotte and ended up living on a local commune trying to find himself. I understand he was successful. John followed the same track as I, teaching before getting into school administration before he died. Shamefully, to my knowledge I never saw them again.
While the music didn’t die it changed along with the times. It went from easy rhythms about love to harsh Protest music. Shagging to that was impossible and the mood was wrong. In 1977 Saturday Night Fever put a spotlight on dancing suits and Disco. It was something so different I never even tried to get the hang of. As disco fought its death throws, Urban Cowboy was released, making Country, the Texas Two-step and line dancing the craze. Somewhere in the Seventies and Eighties I got lost and our ratty club became a ritzy restaurant and…sadly, like Al and John, a memory of something that once was.