Band of Oz: How a homegrown NC high school band made music history
Posted September 24, 2020 1:34 a.m. EDT
Updated September 24, 2020 10:50 p.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — Many high school musicians dream of taking their bands on tour, stepping into a full-time music career – but very few achieve that level of success, especially before even graduating.
But if you lived in North Carolina in the 1970s, you may remember a little high school band called 'The Avengers' that evolved into a nationally-known beach music band – homegrown in the soil of Greenville – known today as the Band of Oz, which won the 2019 WRAL Voters' Choice Award for best local music artist.
Keith Houston, who started the band, has been a professional, paid musician ever since he was in middle school. Playing in his band is the only career he's ever known.
Today, the band he created in high school is in the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame.
Playing a role in North Carolina music history
"I started the band in 1967," said Houston. "You know, I got a guitar for Christmas one year and just started playing."
According to Houston, a bunch of other kids in his area had guitars, and there were a few drummers, too. He organized a band called 'The Avengers' and started getting gigs – even while they were all still attending J.H. Rose High School in Greenville.
"We started playing the sock hops at school, and it became pretty lucrative. We were playing every weekend," he said.
The group of high school students became professional musicians by the early 1970s, originating with Keith Houston on guitar, Buddy Johnson on vocals, Chuck French on trumpet, Gary Warren on saxophone, Randy Hignite on keyboard, Jim Heidenreich on drums and Johnnie Byrd on bass, according to the lineup listed on their entry in the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame.
In 1971 Johnson was replaced by Billy Bazemore.
"We went full-time at the end of 1976," said Houston. "I worked on a farm with a friend of mine one year, but I realized, 'Hey, I can go play music and not work nearly this hard and make just as much money.' And that’s when we went full-time."
By the late 70s, they'd released their first single, called "Shaggin."
They asked beach music icon General Johnson to work with them on an album.
"General Johnson produced the first album we ever put out. It had Ocean Boulevard, Shaggin', Southern Belles – and it set us on our path of playing this circuit around the Carolinas."
The Village Subway and the Longbranch
Like any major North Carolina band in the 1970s and 80s, Band of Oz played popular venues like the Village Subway and the Longbranch – alongside other contemporary regional or national musicians like Arrogance, The Fabulous Knobs, PKM, Glass Moon or Nantucket.
"We used to play Elliot’s Nest in the Underground," said Houston. "A lot of times we’d be playing there, and we’d walk across to The Pier to hear whoever was playing that night."
Music venues in the Subway allowed visitors to hear two or three different genres of music all in one night, all playing right next door to each other.
"There was always a good crowd there. You’d walk past The Pier, and Elliot’s Nest was the last one on the line," he said.
The Longbranch was also a popular music venue and nightlife spot.
"We used to play there. It had the two rooms – the smaller front room is where we played. When we were off for a night, I’d go out there myself to see other bands," he said.
He remembers playing with soul bands like the Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose, or shag groups like The Tams. Other popular beach music groups like The Embers, The Fantastic Shakers and The Catalinas were also growing in popularity during the era – and have also found their place in the hall of fame for North Carolina music.
A musical foothold in two generations
One of the most special things about having a local music career that spans decades: Houston gets to watch some of his original fans introduce his music to their children.
"We've always played a lot of weddings," said Houston. "Now, somebody will call us and say, 'You played for my mom and dad's wedding. Now we want you to play ours.' That's pretty incredible."
In recent years, the Band of Oz finds themselves playing an eclectic mix of songs – from classic oldies to Bruno Mars and Domino all in one set.
"I guess one of the big things is we’ve really catered to our audience as the times have changed," said Houston. "We add new music that keeps the younger audience entertained, too."
In Raleigh, Band of Oz plays the popular North Hills summer music series. They also spend a lot of time playing in Myrtle Beach.
"Hopefully we’re building another generation who likes the music," he said.
Music, after all, is something that spans generations.
Upcoming virtual concert
Band of Oz has a virtual concert planned for Oct. 9.
Tickets to watch the stream are $10.
Houston suggests, "Friday night, have a party. One person can pay $10 to stream it to your TV and family or friends can gather or a viewing party concert."
Band of Oz's music is available on Amazon and iTunes.