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New book explores Tampa Bay popular music’s rich history

Bill DeYoung

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The Tropics: Buddy Pendergrass, left, Mel Dryer, Charlie Souza, Bobby Shea and Eric Turner.

A new book about bay area history might make a nice addition to your ever-expanding social distancing reading list.

From Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America” series comes Tampa Bay Music Roots, a brief, breezy compendium of photos and facts about the music and musicians who’ve lived and worked in the area, starting in the 1940s and going right up through today.

“I’ve made a lot of friends in the area, and I just wanted them to feel honored,” says Charlie Souza, the book’s co-author (with Keith Wilkins). “And I found a lot of stuff while I was doing the research. I was very impressed with everybody around here.”

Souza has been a fixture in Tampa Bay rock ‘n’ roll since the 1960s. He was the bass player in the Tropics, arguably the most popular band of that fertile era. The Tropics’ early, Phil Gernhard-produced singles “I Want More” and “You Better Move” are garage rock classics; on tour, they shared the bill with the Who, the (Young) Rascals and Herman’s Hermits.

“I had struggled in my childhood, so I had made music a part of the healing,” says Souza. “Being with your friends, that’s what really helps you make great music – loving your friends that you’re making music with.”

The Tropics (Buddy Pendergrass, Mel Dryer, Bobby Shea, Charlie Souza and Eric Turner) came as close as any other mid ‘60s Tampa Bay band to “making it” on a national level.

“We look back, and it was the best times of our lives,” says Souza, who’s still performing today. “Our manager, Margie Sexton, got us a Battle of the Bands spot up in Chicago, and at that point there were actually people chasing our limo in the streets! I felt like a Beatle. Just for a minute.”

Souza

The Tropics won the 1966 Battle of the Bands – beating out, among others, the Big Thing (later to become Chicago Transit Authority, then just Chicago) and Tommy James and the Shondells. They cut  a single, “Time,” on Columbia Records. It was a Charlie Souza composition.

The single was produced by Columbia house producer Ted Macero, who also brought Dave Brubeck’s Time Out and Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain and Bitches Brew into the world.

For Charlie Souza and his teenaged Tampa bandmates, this was heady stuff. “It was wonderful, I don’t know how else to say it,” he explains. “Then I started expecting to be on top. And then of course the ‘70s kicked in, and it was a whole ‘nother era.”

Arcadia approached Souza because of his involvement in the ongoing Tampa Bay Music Hall of Fame project. Souza brought in Wilkins – another local music historian – to complete the 127-page softbound book (“They only used about half of what I submitted”).

Tampa Bay Music Roots (Amazon link) is understandably heavy on the always-shifting 1960s and early ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll era (Tropics founder Buddy Pendergrass later formed the “heavy” Southern Rock outfit White Witch, for example), and soon-to-be-famous acts (the Outlaws, Lobo, Bertie Higgins) get their due.

The book is filled, however, with tidbits and trivia, from more than a half century of cultural history.

“It was a humbling experience just making note of all the other musicians, performers and entertainers that have been here in the area,” says Souza. “I’m just a little grain of sand on the beach now. It took away all my ego.

“I mean, Ray Charles wrote one of his first songs about his girlfriend in St. Petersburg.”

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