Doug Clark passed away six weeks back.
For 47 years, he led the infamous band -- and true Southern icons -- Doug Clark & the Hot Nuts. Mention the name to anyone from East Lansing or Palo Alto, and you'll get a blank stare. But talk to any middle-aged guy from Gastonia or Valdosta, and chances are they've seen the Hot Nuts at least once, probably have one of their old records (or eight tracks) laying around somewhere and, with a few beers in them, can recite at least a couple of verses of the Hot Nuts' bawdy favorite, "Two Old Maids."
Though they played all over the country, from Indiana to New Hampshire to Colorado, it's here in the South where they became legends.
As a young drummer back in 1954, Doug Clark realized there was money to be made on the fraternity circuit around his hometown of Chapel Hill, N.C. His group, The Tops, did well enough performing hits by the Dominoes, the Platters and others. But their most requested song was "Hot Nuts," an old hokum blues number -- the ultimate late-night drunken sing-along, with a chorus that goes: "Nuts, hot nuts, get 'em from the peanut man."
It was barely R-rated by today's standards. But in the South, in the '50s, it was musical hellbait, and real profitable. So profitable in fact, that Doug recruited his brother John, added more risque material and, in 1955, changed the name of the group to Doug Clark & the Hot Nuts.
Over the next few years, they would play every college town south of the Mason-Dixon Line and record a total of nine albums on Gross Records, a division of the obscure Jubilee label that went out of business in 1970. The records were totally unfit for airplay, so they relied on reputation and word of mouth.
The Hot Nuts' reputation often far exceeded their reality -- all kinds of rumors have circulated about what they did at their shows. The most famous one involved them appearing on stage wearing nothing but gold lame jockstraps. Jock straps or not, any band singing tunes like "Baby Let Me Bang Your Box" was going to provoke the occasional bluenose crusade. Back in the early '60s, the city of Richmond, Va., banned them outright. No problem -- the gig was "secretly" moved to the county fairground and sold out almost instantly. Similar situations greeted the group elsewhere, even in northern cities.
Amazon.com has just one Hot Nuts record listed in its gigantic inventory: a used copies of 1998's self-released A Greatest Hits Collection, available only as a "pre-order" -- which means they'll sell it to you if they ever come across a copy. Jacque LeBlanc, a New York-based costumer/reviewer on Amazon, writes, "I first heard these guys at SUNY-Brockport in 1966. We booked them, but at the last minute, the uptight college administration said we couldn't have them on campus. We hired out the old roller-rink, and packed in at least 700 people. The Hot Nuts arrived in a big, old shocking-pink tour bus, and literally rocked the joint."
Once the Hot Nuts had developed the act, it remained virtually unchanged for four-and-a-half decades. Any gig featured a warm-up set or two consisting of beach music, disco and R&B standards. And then after a short intermission, it was time for the main attraction: the world famous, hot "Hot Nuts Show."
For the next hour, the crowd was treated to favorites like "Hot Nuts," "Roly Poly," "Two Old Maids" and one-liners that predated Richard Pryor by 20 years -- Def Jam by an entire lifetime. At the end of the night, they'd sell their albums, T-shirts, beanies and other souvenirs. And then it was on to the next gig, to do it all over again the next day, week after week, month after month, for 47 years.
According to the band's website (www.ibiblio.org/hotnuts), as of this year there were three original members left. Doug, his older brother John, and Tommy Goldston. A fourth member, frontman Prince Taylor, has been with the band off and on, several times over the years. The site adds, "Over the years Doug has hired over 75 Nuts, four of them white."
When the Hot Nuts started in '54, double-entendre songs already had a long history, especially in blues and R&B. Such songs as "Sixty Minute Man," "Big Ten Inch (Record of the Blues)" and "It Ain't the Meat It's the Motion" were underground hits that sold millions of copies, even with no radio play. The Hot Nuts, however, were the first band to make an entire act out of such material, and no one before or since has been as successful at combining the off-color material with the solid musical backing.
The Hot Nuts are also part of a musical phenomenon that seems to exist in few places outside the Southeast: the ability to find a niche and enjoy a long, successful career completely independent of radio or television exposure. Like the Hots Nuts, gospel groups such as Slim and the Supreme Angels and beach music acts like the Embers, the Shakers, the Chairmen of the Board and a half-dozen others have lasted decades, playing a three- or four-state area, selling thousands of records and working steadily, even as other areas of oldies music have dried up or suffer through ups and downs in interest.
Even with Doug's passing, the Hot Nuts will keep rolling. Doug's brother John says that one of Doug's last requests was to keep the band going, and John plans to follow through. Recent shows have included a private party for some longtime fans at a posh hotel in St. Augustine, Fla., and another frat gig in Chapel Hill. John says he plans to keep the band working at their current pace, about 150 shows a year, as long as he can.
The website indicates the Hots Nuts are available for "weddings, boat rides, pool parties, bar mitzvahs and proms," among other celebrations. But much of their work comes from reunion parties, where old fans now nearing retirement age -- and wishing to escape news of the stock market, prostate screenings and "The Anna Nicole Show" for a couple of hours -- go back to a more innocent time and sing along with "Barnacle Bill the Sailor" once again.
Doug died of Leukemia Sept. 16. He was 66. At his memorial service, held at the Chapel Hill Bible Church, a crowd of nearly 1,500 people came to say goodbye. Family members, friends, cops, lawyers and judges were in attendance. So were lots of folks who just came to pay their respects to a legend, a real gentleman and one hell of a funny guy who lasted 47 years in the business without once wearing a gold jockstrap or using the F-word.
The Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is a Florida-based pianist who has recorded seven albums of roots-rock, R&B and blues-flavored comedy/novelties for Hightone Records.