Whatever the definition—beach music, frat rock, party band—the songs of the Swingin’ Medallions hold an exalted place in America’s musical memory. Their influence stretches through almost 60 years, thousands of miles, and endless memories.
The Medallions (they added Swingin’ in 1965) have played in some form almost nonstop since 1962, earning a die-hard fan base and the nickname “The Party Band of the South.” Fans come for the spirited atmosphere, the horn section and, of course, their mega-hit, “Double Shot (of My Baby’s Love).”
While the Medallions have a lot of big-name fans, their most lasting legacy may be the vibrant music scene in Greenwood. Never was that community spirit more evident than when the COVID-19 pandemic closed down live shows. Facebook Live performances and creative community efforts such as the “Until Further Notice” project kept musicians afloat. Now live music is back, with festivals and events like the upcoming Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Uptown Crawl, set for September 25.
They started out as a group of Lander College guys hanging out in John McElrath’s yard in Ninety Six, listening to R & B music coming through the windows of a nearby bar. Their fascination with the music of Jimmy Reed, Little Milton and Otis Redding turned into an ambition.
They became a band doing party gigs to make a little extra money, but they grew into a cultural touchstone.
In their early years, McElrath and friends remembered the song “Double Shot (of My Baby’s Love),” a regional hit for Dick Holler and the Holidays, and thought it might be a good addition to the set list.
It was a fairly tame song in the hands of the Holidays, but the Medallions knew how to inject a double shot of fun into the song. According to original member Carroll Bledsoe, McElrath worked out an interesting intro on his Farfisa organ, and the song became a staple.
Their horn players, two trumpets and three saxophones, formed a wall of brass that set them apart from other bands at a time when most groups—including the British invasion bands—were all guitars and drums. The Medallions’ regular gig at the Round Table in Greenwood led to countless fraternity bookings at the University of Georgia and the University of South Carolina.
Sax player Steve Caldwell, who was still in high school, came up with their next big break. His father, Earl, offered them a job playing all summer at his nightclub in Panama City, Florida. They rehearsed on the beachfront patio in the afternoons to attract interest, delivered hand-made posters to motels and walked the beach handing out flyers and raffle tickets. They played six nights a week and, soon, crowds were so large they had to add afternoon shows on weekends.
In 1964, Dave “Rockin’” Roddy, a Birmingham DJ, drove to Florida to see this hot new band first hand. Impressed, he worked out a deal. They played every Sunday night until 2 a.m., then drove six hours to Birmingham for “Medallion Mondays” on their day off. As their popularity grew, they caught the attention of legendary Atlanta producer Bill Lowery.
The band was frustrated with the Lowery group’s “Double Shot” arrangements. “We knew we had a good song. We wanted to play it live like we did at shows, so we just took off and went to Arthur Smith Studios in Charlotte,” McElrath told Dr. Rick Simmons for Rebeat. “We actually pulled in people off the street and had a big crowd in the studio to make background noise, and that party atmosphere gave us the sound we were looking for.”
Convinced that they knew their audience, they printed 500 copies of their rowdier arrangement and delivered them to radio stations. Lowery soon agreed and sold the song to Smash Records.
Although the song was already a hit all over the South, Smash still wanted changes to lyrics that they deemed too racy for mainstream radio. Oddly, the company released the record in regional increments ahead of the band’s tour dates instead of a national release. “Double Shot” hit number one in every market at various times, but the strategy caused fluctuations that prevented it from ever hitting Number One nationally.
“Double Shot” moved quickly up both the Cashbox and Billboard charts to #17 nationally, staying on the charts for 23 consecutive weeks and becoming a million-seller. Follow-up singles charted at #71 and at #107.
With the lightning in a bottle that was “Double Shot,” the band soon began moving in rarefied circles. In California, they played at a birthday party for Frank Sinatra’s daughter Tina. Sinatra gifted them with two brand-new amps to keep the party going when one of theirs failed.
When they opened for a crowd of 28,000 people at the Atlanta Braves’ Fulton County Stadium, James Brown and his band watched their opening performance from the Braves dugout. Brown told members of his band to watch the Medallions’ horn section and take notes on how they moved. They later learned that it was Brown who recommended the Medallions to Smash Records, his own label at the time.
Their influence on modern culture appears on stages great and small. The late, beloved writer and humorist Lewis Grizzard wrote, “Even today, when I hear the Swingin’ Medallions sing “Double Shot of My Baby’s Love,” it makes me want to stand outside in the hot sun with a milkshake cup full of beer in one hand and a slightly-drenched nineteen-year-old coed in the other.” Chicago Tribune columnist and best-selling author Bob Greene described hearing “Double Shot” playing over the sound system (and records for sale) in the Smithsonian. They’ve even performed with one of their biggest fans, Bruce Springsteen.
In 2008, McElrath received the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina’s highest civilian honor. The band has been inducted into the Carolina Beach Music Hall of Fame and the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.
The Medallions are a living testament to the bottomless well of musical talent in Greenwood County. Through the years, band members came and went, finding new careers, sometimes returning to play, and sometimes handing the mantle to their children.
Original drummer Joe Morris left the band in the ‘60s but still sometimes travels with them. He was replaced by Michael Huey, a legendary drummer for Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh, Etta James and Lindsey Buckingham, among others. Former drummer Robby Cox still manages the band, along with other high-profile acts through his Nashville management company. Carroll Bledsoe has written a memoir, An Insider’s History of the Swingin’ Medallions.
Jake Bartley, who fronts the all-star Jake Bartley Band, has played with the Medallions, as did his father, Hack Bartley. Ashby Stokes, a foundational member of Greenwood’s music scene, was inspired to a career in music after watching Medallions’ rehearsals in his neighborhood. Stokes went on to a successful career as a recording artist in New York before returning to Greenwood.
John McElrath, the glue that held the Medallions together for decades, became a youth director for the YMCA but continued to play, teach and encourage young musicians. He passed away in 2018, but his sons Shawn and Shane carry on the legacy, along with their cousin John Smith Buchan. Other members include Chris Crowe, Josh Snelling, Paul Perkins, Ronnie Goldman, Joe Morris and Richard Loper.
The band was serious about music, and about business, but seemed to know instinctively that performing was all about fun. A chance for people to let go, come together, sing out loud—those were the reasons people came to the shows. And the band was the mechanism for making it all happen, then, now and tomorrow.