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Surviving in St. Partysburg: The story of the Mad Beach Band

Bill DeYoung

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The Mad Beach Band today, from left: Austin, Merrigan, Williamson, Kennedy, Seplesky and Carr. Photo provided.

In 1979, Pete Merrigan was King of the Beaches. As the people-pleasing main man in the immensely popular Mad Beach Band, he worked the nightclubs and the beer joints weekend after weekend, singing and swinging and delivering a live-wire gumbo of country, rock, blues and party music for delirious fans. Drinks were downed and good times had. They were wild nights.

The fun never stopped. Until it did.

“All those years ago, I couldn’t even think 40 years ahead,” Merrigan says today. “I couldn’t think four years ahead. I was pretty convinced I was gonna die young, like many of us were who were living the way we were back then.”

This Saturday night, we’re gonna party like it’s 1979, as the Mad Beach Band – including most of the original guys – performs at the Palladium Theater’s Side Door.

There has, of course, been a lot of water under the Johns Pass Bridge, but Merrigan, who regularly plays around town as a solo act, is rubbing-his-hands-together excited about getting the band back together.

“It’s taken me a long time to give myself credit for what I do, that I’m a pretty good frontman and a pretty good songwriter,” he admits. “I don’t pretend to be the greatest at anything. And as I look around the band, I’m in awe of the other players, that I get to play with the likes of Lenny Austin and T.C. Carr, and a songwriter as good as Dave Williamson.”

Austin and Williamson are guitarists, while Tom “T.C.” Carr’s blues harmonica and vocals are the stuff of legend. Longtime Mad Beach bassist Vinnie Seplesky is in, as is drummer Tom Kennedy. Across the board, this is a collection of revered bay area musicians.

“For me, it’s a real treat to play with all these guys, who I consider to be at least a couple of notches more talented than I am,” says Merrigan.

Everybody of a certain age wanted to live by the beach. It wasn’t all condos then, in the ‘70s, and if you could find a small house in Madeira, or T.I. or on Sunset, you could walk to the shore, and – most importantly, if you were so inclined – walk to the nearest bar.

Long before he became a lifestyle trademark, Jimmy Buffett was extolling the virtues of beach-town life in song, one clever lyric after another. Sun, sand, beer, sweet women and salty, non-conformist humor. It was a siren song for young musicians who had no interest whatsoever in the 9-to-5 grind.

Pete Merrigan heard the call. In 1974 he arrived in Madeira Beach, an ex-pat from New Hampshire, with a good-time group he’d put together called Captain Sam’s Travelin’ Band. They played for tips at the Keg & Cork Pub, a boozy hole in the wall on Johns Pass.

Merrigan, unwilling to face another snowy winter back home, stayed in Florida after the group splintered. Lacking the confidence – yet – to play gigs as a solo, he convinced his New Hampshire pal Pete Shackett to investigate the sunnier climes.

Back home, Merrigan and Shackett had played in a successful road band called Gunnison Brook; they frequently shared billing with Aerosmith, a Boston-area group they were friendly with.

Their two-man harmonizing ‘n’ humor act was an instant hit in beach-town bars.

“We had the duo, Shackett & Merrigan, and more and more T.C. started sitting in with us, till it was nearly an every-gig occurrence,” Merrigan recalls. “And then Harry Dailey moved in across the street from me on Madeira Beach.”

In the day: Merrigan, left, Carr, Dailey and Shackett.

This was to be the first of many game-changers. Dailey, a full-time professional musician who was then the bassist in Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band, rented a beach house during his off-road stretches.

He began sitting in with Shackett, Merrigan and Carr. “That’s when we started calling it the Mad Beach Band,” Merrigan says. “I remember when Harry walked in and said ‘Hey, I got us a gig.’ We said ‘Oh, so it’s us now, huh?’

“But thing was, we couldn’t keep calling it Shackett & Merrigan if it was Shackett & Merrigan & T.C. & Dailey.’”

And so they were the Mad Beach Band. Their cache rose in 1977, when Buffett himself – invited by his moonlighting bass player – played a few songs with the band at the tiny Keg & Cork.

Treasure Island, 1977: Jimmy Buffett sits in with the early Mad Beach Band at the Keg ‘n’ Cork Pub. At far left, Pete Merrigan and T.C. Carr. At far right, Pete Shackett and Harry Dailey. Photo: Tom Zeeson.

“We already had a good, large following,” Merrigan reflects. “After the night Buffett sat in with us, our brand really rose in value. Of course, back then we weren’t calling it a brand. But any time Buffett was anywhere near, we could not quell the rumors that he was going to come in and sit in again.

“We all knew he wasn’t, because we’d ask Harry, and Harry would say ‘Nah, he’s not gonna do that.’ But more and more, people would just show up knowing the Buffett connection.”

Seplesky joined to take the bass chair when Dailey was out of town.

Shackett wrote “Beer Drinking, Foot Stomping Good-Time Music,” and it became the band’s anthem. Dailey coined the term “St. Partysburg.” Merrigan wrote the irreverent “Willie Nelson For President” during the 1980 election season, and the band released it as a single, followed by his song “Champagne Ladies.”

In time, they got booked in theaters, as the opener for the likes of Pure Prairie League and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

It was a great run – the band made the rounds of Clancy’s, Nick’s, the Oyster Shucker, the Blue Room, Skip’s Beach Bar and a dozen others, again and again. “Even when downtown wasn’t a place most people wanted to go, it was really hard to get our beach fans to go to a club downtown,” Merrigan remembers. “It was definitely a beach crowd.”

For Merrigan, the bottom fell out in ’82.

“The club scene started changing a lot, and we ran into a lot of canceled bookings, and bounced checks,” he says. “And my drinking was out of control, I will admit. And I wasn’t the only one. With a couple of notable exceptions, it was a pretty drunk band.

“I had tried to quit drinking, but the fans wouldn’t have it. I’d have people in my face – almost literally, but certainly figuratively – shoving shots down my face. And I got to the point where I’d take a shot, and ‘one, two, three!’ with somebody, and throw it over my shoulder instead of drinking it.

“I figured at that point, I’d better bail out and dry myself out. And not die.”

Late ’80s reunion: Front row, from left: Dave Williamson, Lenny Austin, T.C. Carr, Harry Dailey. Back row: Norman Duzen, Pete Merrigan, Bobby Miller, Vinnie Seplesky.

The Mad Beach Band broke up (Shackett, for reasons of his own, had already left). Merrigan, Williamson and the now Buffett-less Dailey started a trio they called Spare Parts, and in 1987 – the year Merrigan took his last drink, his last anything – the band began to book the occasional reunion show.

And then … “We all decided that we really loved each other, but we didn’t want to be a full-time band. So we just left it that we’d play together whenever the money and the venue and the event was right. And that’s kind of where we are now.”

The water, of course, keeps flowing under the proverbial bridge. Harry Dailey is dead, as is “Stormin’” Norman Duzen, the Mad Beach Band’s longtime piano player. Drummers – 11 of them – have come and gone over the decades. “As in Spinal Tap,” Merrigan laughs, “some of them just spontaneously combusted onstage.” When Tom Kennedy arrived, he immediately became a key member of the gang.

Everyone’s got their own gig – Merrigan plays solo, Carr has his Bolts of Blue Band, the others play in all kinds of different configurations – but the Mad Beach Band, even in 2019, remains the mothership.

Their infrequent shows together, as a rule, play to packed houses.

“I think there’s two things going on,” says Merrigan. “One is that we’ve all gone our separate musical ways; I’ve developed a new, solo fan base, and the other guys have developed their own fan base. So we’re bringing those people in – they’re new to the Mad Beach Band experience.

“And in addition to them, it’s the old-timers who, for them, a Mad Beach Band show is like a family reunion. It always has been. It’s like Christmas and New Years and Thanksgiving all rolled together when we get together – even if it’s in the summer! And we see people in T-shirts from the ‘70s and ‘80s.”

For info and tickets to the Saturday, Nov. 16 Palladium show, click here.

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