Herbert Riley Jr., a key early supporter of the Myrtle Beach Jazz Festival, leaves behind an incredible legacy of community leadership, festival president Mickey James says.
Riley, who died at his home last week, founded the the Carver Street Renaissance Group in an effort to revive Myrtle Beach’s historic Booker T. Washington neighborhood. One of their specific focuses was bringing Charlie’s Place back to life as a museum, performance venue and community center. The festival was originally founded as a cornerstone in those efforts.
“The Myrtle Beach Jazz Festival honors the life and legacy of Herbert Riley Jr.,” James says, “for his dedication, contributions and determination to make Myrtle Beach a more diverse and successful community. Herbert envisioned Charlie’s Place as a historical landmark, and his contributions to the festival were invaluable.”
Riley also served as the first black chairman of the Horry County Planning Commission, as a founding member of the Carolina African American History Foundation and as a member of the Horry County Affordable and Workforce Housing Commission.
A graduate of Appalachian State University with a degree in music, Riley was a long-time collaborator with Tamir Mubarak in the group Jazz Etc.. He regularly performed at the House of Blues in North Myrtle Beach, and was a featured performer at the first annual Myrtle Beach Jazz Festival. (The House of Blues paid tribute to Riley with a message that read: “We will miss you dearly, and the sweet sounds of your 88’s.”) He’d earlier appeared in his native Wilkesboro, N.C., area as a member of the Downbeats soul band in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and also served as pianist at Denny Grove AME Zion Church.
Always quick with a anecdote, Riley’s passion for history helped drive projects like the Charlie’s Place restoration, which earned a state marker not long after the third annual Myrtle Beach Jazz Festival took place on the adjacent grounds. Phase 1 of the restoration, which includes remodeling and reconstruction of Charlie Fitzgerald’s house, is complete and will open the space up for use later as a community center and event venue.
“One of the things I loved about him was every time you saw him he would just share wonderful stories,” Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune told Janet Morgan of My Horry News last week. “People lose sight of the fact that we have so much black history here in Myrtle Beach and Herbert was responsible for preserving so much of it.”
Charlie’s Place was an iconic 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.
Riley announced last month that a South Carolina ETV documentary on Charlie’s Place had been named best historical/cultural program at the 45th annual Southeast Emmy Awards. He served as a key resource for the program.
“Carver Street was jumping,” Riley said during a news conference announcing the award. “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.”
He promised, once again, that those days would return – and, through Herbert Riley Jr.’s tireless efforts, they are.