Myrtle Beach Jazz Festival Celebrates the Iconic, Almost-Lost Charlie’s Place

Charlie’s Place was an iconic Jim Crow-era supper club on Carver Street in Myrtle Beach that’s said to be the birthplace of the Shag, South Carolina’s official state dance. Over the years, owner Charlie Fitzgerald played host to a series of African-American music legends – including Dizzy Gillespie, Little Richard, Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Count Basie, Muddy Waters, Ray Charles and others, according to the City of Myrtle Beach.

“Charlie Fitzgerald created a place of harmony, where music lovers could mingle and dance together, long before the barriers of segregation fell,” the city added in an official news release.

In time, however, this Grand Strand gem fell into disrepair. The Myrtle Beach Jazz Festival was originally founded as a cornerstone in the effort to raise awareness about Charlie’s Place, which the residents of the Booker T. Washington area hoped to bring back to life as a museum, performance venue and community center.

Festival president Mickey James worked closely with the late community activist Herbert Riley Jr., founder of the Carver Street Renaissance Group, in the event’s earliest days. The jazz festival was established on the grounds adjacent to the remaining Charlie’s Place structures, forever linking the two. “Herbert envisioned Charlie’s Place as a historical landmark,” James remembered, “and his contributions to the festival were invaluable.”

Both projects have grown by leaps and bounds over the past four years.

The first Myrtle Beach Jazz Festival, originally billed as a “neighborhood jam,” ended up drawing hundreds of people from all over the region in 2016. Meanwhile, South Carolina ETV began work on a 30-minute film focusing on Charlie’s Place, sparked by a conversation between Riley and producer Betsy Newman. By then, the City of Myrtle Beach had purchased the Charlie’s Place property, and was at work on grants to begin restoring this almost-lost piece of South Carolina history.

By the time the Myrtle Beach Jazz Festival returned in 2018, thousands of music fans were now descending on Carver Street each fall. Not long after the third annual event was held, a new state historic marker rose in front of Charlie Place.

Here is the full text of the historical marker at Charlie’s Place:

“Charlie and Sarah Fitzgerald opened Charlie’s Place as a supper club in 1937. It was a stop on the ‘Chitlin’ Circuit,’ nightclubs where black entertainers such as Billie Holiday, the Mills Brothers, Little Richard, Ruth Brown, Otis Redding, and the Drifters performed during the era of racial segregation. While the club is gone, the Fitzgerald Motel, built in 1948, remains. The motel served black entertainers who could not stay in whites-only hotels. Oral tradition holds that “the Shag,” a form of southern swing dancing, originated here. Both white and black customers gathered here to listen to music and dance. In 1950, the Ku Klux Klan led a parade through ‘The Hill,’ the African-American neighborhood where Charlie’s Place was located. The Klan returned later and shots were fired into the club, injuring many. Charlie was severely beaten but survived. Some Klansmen were charged, but no one was prosecuted.”

The Horry County Board of Architectural Review and Historic Preservation played a key role in getting the marker placed. Phase 1 of the restoration, which included remodeling and reconstruction of Charlie Fitzgerald’s house, has now been completed.

Just a few months before his 2019 death, Riley took part in a news conference where it was revealed that the South Carolina ETV documentary on Charlie’s Place had been named best historical/cultural program at the 45th annual Southeast Emmy Awards. “Carver Street was jumping,” Riley said during the news conference. “That was the hippest street in town back in the ’40s. It was jumping from one end to the other, even when I was a kid in the ’50s.”

And it will again, as the fourth annual Myrtle Beach Jazz Festival returns Oct. 4-6, 2019 on historic Carver Street in Myrtle Beach, S.C. As always, admission is free. Click here for a complete schedule.