The uninitiated might call then obscure, but they’d be wrong. Three Southern artists stand out from the 1960s. Billy Joe Royal who found fame in Savannah’s legendary Bamboo Ranch and rocketed to fame with “Down In The Boondocks.” The Georgia boy who produced Royal’s hit had two hits of his own, “Games People Play” and “Walk A Mile In My Shoes.” That Georgia boy was Atlanta’s Joe South.
And then a group of guys in Greenwood, South Carolina, released “Double Shot,” an instant classic. If they could achieve fame in the midst of the British Invasion, I thought, well, anything is possible.
I saw the Swingin’ Medallions at the National Guard Armory in Washington, Georgia, in 1966. Bleeding Madras pants and Gant shirts with loops on the back were in vogue. (Girls would pull the loops off shirts of guys they liked. Others did it out of meanness.) Cheryl, an alluring girl with Cherokee blood and stylish short dark hair, went with me. We gravitated toward the back, watching the band through bobbing heads as people danced to a song that’s as good today as it was then. The crowd treated the band like stars.
How did a bunch of Greenwood boys do this? How did regular boys from the South achieve stardom?
Some 45 years later I know. Foster McKinney once played with the band. He and I became friends through my work writing Bury My Heart At Ocean Drive, the story of how the blues evolved into beach music and the shag. Foster, who played bass guitar for the Medallions, has written a good account of the band’s early days. He gave me permission to excerpt his article.
Consider this column to be “straight from the horse’s mouth.” I’ve run into so-called Medallion experts before who were full of it. One night I was talking to an attorney from Greenwood. His roots and profession gave his words an air of legitimacy. “Before going to college, he worked in the mills over that way,” he said. With a tone of sincerity he told me a co-worker shoved a tattered napkin into his hands one night at the mill.
“The guy told me he wrote this last night,” he said. On a cocktail napkin he’d scribbled the words “woke up this morning, my head was so bad, the worst hangover that I ever had.” Well it sounded like a good story. Now I know it was just that, something made up by my friend who had a penchant for wild tales. “Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see.”
With thanks in part to Foster, here’s the story of how “Double Shot” came to be. As well, it tells how “Double Shot” shares an improbable connection with “Abraham, Martin, and John.”
What would become the Medallions started in high school around 1962 as a garage band in Ninety Six, South Carolina. Known first as “The Medallions,” the group graduated in the mid 1960s to “The Swingin’ Medallions,” a popular party band on the college frat-house circuit.
The Swingin’ Medallions, based out of the Greenwood, South Carolina area since the early 1960s, have musical roots that came from listening to the early rhythm and blues acts. The music most often associated with the band is beach music, frat rock, R&B, or shaggin’ music.
The Swinging Medallions were an eight-man band comprised of five horn players and a rhythm section, a formidable wall of sound back then. The band’s founder and leader was one of its keyboardist and a vocalist who pulled triple duty by playing walking base lines on his Farfisa organ, a clean-cut, tall, handsome, charismatic young man named John McElrath. Eclipsing McElrath’s good looks and charm was his musical talent. He was the unequivocal “Mr. Swingin’ Medallion, ”well liked by band members and adored by fans.
They were unassuming, preppy college kids holding onto traditional values that were reflective of the time. They just happened to be inspired by James Brown & the Famous Flames, Otis Redding, and Sam & Dave. Weejuns, Gant shirts, and madras pants were in vogue and quickly became their trademark dress.
Their first stab at recording had led to a single entitled “I Wanna Be Your Guy,” which didn’t chart. But their second attempt resulted in a simple but catchy little tune entitled “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love),” which by the summer of 1966 served notice that the Swingin’ Medallions had arrived.
First under contract with an Atlanta recording company, The Swingin’ Medallions had tried multiple, off-the-rack versions of the song the company’s studio bosses pushed. Deciding none fit their style, they parted ways with the recording company but held on to leftover bits and pieces later concocted into an outlandish, party sing-along ditty.
John McElrath took the group to Arthur Smith’s Studio in Charlotte to record “Double Shot (of My Baby’s Love).” In an hour and a half, the group cut a crude and unpolished version. The vibrato button on an old Farfisa organ, state-of-the-art equipment in the mid-1960s, set the tone that gave the song spunk.
Background chatter and catchy lyrics sung in unison made listeners feel they were in the middle of a “frat” party.” That sound was crudely captured and cut to a thousand 45-RPM wax singles under the artist’s self-owned, virtually unknown “4 Sale” label. They intended to offer it as a promotional record during performances, but the tail began wagging the dog when it got jumpstarted with significant playing time by Dave “Rockin” Roddy of WSGN Radio. This Birmingham, Alabama, deejay had become a huge fan of the Medallions after seeing them perform in Panama City, Florida.
Within weeks “Double Shot” spun into a big hit across the South, opening the ears of SMASH Records who lassoed the band into a recording contract. Millions heard it thanks to the deep-pocketed and highly popular SMASH record label. To attract playing time on Northern radio, SMASH re-dubbed the song replacing words many Northerners then viewed as vulgar, “hangover” and “loved,” with more receptive wording, “morning after” and “kissed.”
“Double Shot” began receiving extensive playing time in the North and continued its popularity throughout the South. By the time it peaked up North it had started bottoming out down South. It nonetheless rocketed up the charts to number 17 on the U.S. Billboard’s Top 100. Had it peaked simultaneously, it might have soared into the top 10, perhaps reaching number one. “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love)” catapulted The Swingin’ Medallions into the national limelight. Overnight, the Greenwood boys went from students to stars. Despite sudden stardom, members of the group remained students. This was pre-Richard Nixon, all-volunteer army days and the draft loomed heavily over every young man registered with the Selective Service, especially during the Vietnam War era. As long as they remained enrolled college students and made passable grades, Uncle Sam would leave them alone.
The song became a million seller in 1966 and has been a party classic for college students for decades. “She Drives Me Out Of My Mind” and “Hey, Hey, Baby” scored top 40 hits in 1966 and 1967, but “Double Shot” remains the Medallion’s signature song.
While many Medallions graduated from Greenwood’s Lander University, the University of Georgia has been home to some band members as well. Lewis Grizzard wrote in 1993; “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.”
Bruce Springsteen sang “Double Shot.” The Boss saw a Medallion’s show in Pittsburgh when he was young. “I guess he figured if we could do it, anybody could do it,” said McElrath. In a concert at Notre Dame, Springsteen dubbed “Double Shot” the “greatest fraternity party song of all time.”
Members of The Swingin’ Medallions joined “The Boss” onstage at a 2009 Springsteen concert in Greenville, South Carolina, to perform “Double Shot” with his renowned E Street Band. Even a slightly spruced-up version cooked up live onstage by The Boss couldn’t win a bake-off over the original recipe. It’s not the same song without the vibrato sound of that old Farfisa coupled with every little hoot and holler.
Don Smith and Cyril Vetter wrote “Double Shot.” A Louisiana trio that eventually worked out of Columbia, South Carolina, Dick Holler and the Holidays, originally recorded it in 1964. Their original was a slightly bluesy version unspectacularly (un-Cajun-like) played on a piano. It lacked the character and energy later added by The Swingin’ Medallions’ version and never really grew beyond demo stage.
Dick Holler would later write the highly popular “Abraham, Martin, and John,” a folk standard first recorded by Deon and later covered by other well-known artists including Ray Charles, Kenny Rogers, Emmy Lou Harris, Andy Williams, and Marvin Gaye.
You can’t think of the Swingin’ Medallions without thinking of Greenwood, South Carolina. Not only did teenagers and college kids around Greenwood revere this clean-cut group of eight, so did their parents. In a September 2008 interview with Greenwood’s The Index-Journal, John McElrath spelled out his philosophy for the band’s success, saying, “If the band is having a good time, the audience is usually having fun. We want the people to have a great time. If we’re having a good time, it just falls off us out into the audience and they’re having a good time.”
The Swingin’ Medallion’s success led them to many open pastures—a series of tours throughout the United States with such notables as Sam The Sham and the Pharos, Paul Revere And The Raiders, The Dave Clark Five, Mitch Ryder, James Brown, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, and Rufus Thomas. They did a stint of gigs in Hawaii, performed on numerous television shows such as Dick Clark’s “Where The Action Is,” and put on a memorable performance for the wedding reception of Frank Sinatra’s daughter, Tina.
They were introduced in upscale venues in idyllic American neighborhoods dotted with plush country clubs that catered to the affluent, lined with giant elm trees that towered over both sides of the street, and enclosed by white picket fences that separated the “haves” from the “have-nots.” To a group of guys who banded together as an enjoyable means to help pay their way through college, it was in stark contrast to their blue-collar upbringings. They adapted well but kept close to their roots. They were at home wherever they went.
As decades came and went, so did the band’s personnel. The original eight that recorded “Double Shot” consisted of John McElrath, Charlie Webber, Steve Caldwell, Jimmy Perkins, Carroll Bledsoe, Jim Doares, Brent Fortson, and Joe Morris. Before the end of 1967, Steve Caldwell and Brent Fortson left to form the “Pieces of Eight.” Hack Bartley and Johnny Cox replaced them. Grainger “Brother” Hines and Michael Huey were added to the band later that year.
If you were a decent musician living in Greenwood, sooner or later you gigged with The Medallions, and there were plenty of good musicians to go around. The mill villages, especially, were breeding grounds for musicians of all types. Kids plucked, beat, blew, and even squeezed musical instruments at early ages.
The Swingin’ Medallions have withstood change and entertained people for almost five decades. The band’s lineup changed over the years. The band is now a second-generation family affair. John McElrath has been slowed by Parkinson Disease and no longer regularly performs, but his two multi-talented sons, Shawn and Shane, have carried on the tradition for many years now.
Also, currently in the band’s lineup is Jake Bartley, former member and front man for “Young Guns,” and the multi-talented son of former Swingin’ Medallion, Hack Bartley. Grey Hines, son of former Swingin’ Medallion and film actor, Granger Hines, also recently performed with the band. If the band continues to stick with John McElrath’s basic philosophy, The Swingin’ Medallions could conceivably be cranking up “Double Shot” well into the next century.
“Leave it to fate,” wrote Foster, “I was fortunate enough to became one of those mill village (Matthews) kids who later went on to perform with The Swingin’ Medallions, aka ‘Double Shot Gang,’ during 1974 and 1975. It was an experience I will always cherish.
“During my tenure with the band, John McElrath tickled the ivories of a full-blown Hammond B3 church organ, housed in a beautiful wooden cabinet amplified through a Leslie tone cabinet—a combination that produced a signature percussion sound like you hear on Procol Harum’s ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale.’ It usually took four semi-strong men to load and unload it. But he never went on stage without the original ‘Double Shot’ Farfisa unobtrusively cornered-in directly beside the massive Hammond B3, to be primarily played on one song, ‘Double Shot (of My Baby’s Love).’
“Just like John, the old Farfisa is now retired. It stood in front of or beside him through thick and thin and never let him down. To an old Matthews ‘mud cat’ like me, ‘Double Shot’ just ain’t quite the same song without this tandem.”