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When the Midtown Beach Music Series kicks off its ninth season on April 21, The Embers drummer and band leader Bobby Tomlinson will feel right at home helping his audience make memories that will last a lifetime. That’s because he’s lived in Raleigh since 1955 and helped to start the band that’s now a beach music legend. Now, all these years later, The Embers featuring Craig Woolard is still going strong, and Bobby has no plans of slowing down anytime soon. We had a chance to ask him about his more than 50 years with the group he helped to start and why he considers North Hills one of his favorite places to play.
When was the first time you heard your music called beach music?
Bobby Tomlinson: It was in the late ‘60s when I first heard the term beach music. We opened the Embers Club in downtown Raleigh in 1965, and then in 1968, we opened The Embers Beach Club in Atlantic Beach. That was about the time I started hearing the term beach music.
You all have played in a variety of settings and at a wide range of events over the years, and you have been there since the beginning. What is your favorite setting to play in?
BT: I really don’t have one. I really enjoy playing North Hills because it’s in Raleigh and it’s a big affair. It’s all sorts of people that I’ve known for years and years who show up to hear us.
I’ve played everywhere. As a matter of fact, three weeks ago we were on a cruise and we got back from the cruise in Port Canaveral on a Saturday morning, and we drove down to West Palm Beach and played Saturday night for a golf tournament. We finished that and left there at 11:00 p.m. and drove back to Georgia, and spent the night just inside Georgia. The next day we played at St Simon’s Island, Georgia, and spent the night and then drove up to Kiawah Island and played on Monday, then came home.
We’ve played all over. We were in Canada, all over New Orleans and Dallas. We were doing lounges, and large clubs, and hotels, and doing nightclub acts. Years ago, we played at the American Embassy in Canada for July 4, and in 2007 and 2008, we played at army bases in South Korea. We’ve also played three days in the Bahamas. We had to be flown from our hotel every day on a seaplane to a private island and back again each night.
At one point, we were labeled as North Carolina’s Musical Ambassadors, and in the 80s, we did national commercials and traveled all over the country for Budweiser. We’ve really gotten to do it all.
Do you ever get tired of performing or being on the road so much?
BT: No, not really. I mean I’ve been doing this since we formed the group in 1958 in high school. When we graduated, my father asked if I was planning to go to college, and I said, “No I think I want to try my hand at music.” It’s what I really love. I got what we used to call a day job right out of high school, and I worked there for three years. The Embers kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. I finally had to give up my day job, and music is all I’ve done since about 1962. The only time I would trade places with anyone is when I’m driving in from Florida at five o’clock in the morning.
Did you ever think when you helped start the band that it would still be going strong at this point?
BT: No, I never did. I remember after we’d been playing maybe 10 or 12 years, one of my partners and I were driving to a job and we were discussing how long we thought we might be able to do this. I said, “We’ll be lucky if we do another 15 years.” It’s been over 50, so I was wrong.
Your family moved to Raleigh in 1955, so you remember the old North Hills Mall. How would you compare the new North Hills with the old mall and surrounding area?
BT: They call that section of Raleigh Midtown. It reminds me of some of those big shopping centers in Atlanta. It’s really first class. It’s a nice place. It’s much, much, much better than what it was.
What does it mean to be able to play in front of your home crowd at events such as The Midtown Beach Music Series?
BT: Some of the people have been watching us since the very beginning, and that’s one thing about doing this. We’ve played for these people all these years. We’ve helped raise their children, and now we’re working on their grandchildren.
What are some of your favorite groups you’ve played with over the years?
BT: We opened for the Rolling Stones in Reynolds Coliseum, and Dave Clark Five, and we opened for the Beach Boys at Dorton Arena. We worked with them many times. We’ve done real well. We’ve accomplished a lot of things, and I’m not finished. Somebody asked me when I was going to retire, and I said, “Well I enjoy it too much to do that. When I get to the point that I can’t play, then I’ll quit, or if I’m a hindrance to rest of the guys I’ll quit.”
What is your favorite part of performing after all these years?
BT: We were down at Emerald Isle this past week, and it was packed. Somebody said, “Bobby, you all get better every time I see you, you get better.” I said, “Well it’s not hard to do with people like this.” You can just see all the people smiling, and dancing, and moving around, and standing in front of you, and you just thrive off of their energy. I mean it’s easy. Sometimes you get sick, but you’ve got to go up and play. In all those years, I’ve probably played, just guesstimating, probably over 15,000 times. I’ve never missed but three jobs. That was in the first probably two or three years. I haven’t missed a job in over fifty years.