N.C. Music Hall of Fame to induct the Catalinas

For a state without a Nashville, NYC, L.A., New Orleans or even Austin or Chicago, North Carolina has a striking number of famous professional musicians that once called the area home (or still do).

Hence the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame, which quietly began inducting musical game-changers such as John Coltrane, George Clinton, Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson in 1999. It’s since honored the Chairmen of the Board, Charlie Daniels, the Shirelles, Maceo Parker and Nantucket, as well as contemporary artists Jodeci and Ben Folds.

This year’s induction ceremony, which takes place Thursday at the historic Gem Theatre in Kannapolis, will include the Hall’s first regional stars: the Catalinas, who were hugely popular in the Carolinas in the ’60s and ’70s. The group continues to perform under the leadership of Statesville-based guitarist Gary Barker, with more than 60 different members passing through its ranks.

“For the first time we considered a regional group,” says Hall board Chairman Bill Kopald. “I felt that the Catalinas should be the first because the original recording Catalinas who we’re inducting precede virtually every other group. And there’s a long line (of members) that went on to have careers of their own.”

During its peak, the Catalinas sold out the Park Center (now Grady Cole Center) and opened for the Four Tops, the Temptations and the Monkees, doubling as many a headliner’s backing band. Members of the 1965-era group – including Barker, his brother John, Johnny Edwards, Jack Stallings, Rob Thorne, Tom Plyer and Sidney Smith – will be inducted Thursday.

Other honorees include radio’s Rick Dees, gospel’s John P. Kee, legendary bassist Willie Weeks (Eric Clapton), Johnny Carson-era “Tonight Show” drummer Grady Tate, Alicia Bridges (“I Love the Nightlife”), country music producer Tony Brown and country singer Del Reeves, who died in 2007.

The Catalinas formed at Myers Park High School in 1957. The vocal group blossomed into a nine-piece band and immediately began booking paying gigs. It became one of the hottest things to ever hit Myrtle Beach’s Pavilion. Drummer Rob Thorne, now 69, began gigging with the group while still in high school in 1960. He was the eighth drummer.

The trio of Thorne, Edwards and Stallings tease and joke, telling stories about the Shirelles’ immodesty when they shared a dressing room and the Temptations’ fondness for backstage karate, while sitting around a table at Nova’s in Plaza Midwood. It’s like little time has passed.

“We were a band of brothers kind of like in the Army,” Stallings says.

The group recorded commercials at Arthur Smith’s studio, had a side folk band, appeared and provided the soundtrack to exploitation film director Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 1964 B-movie bomb “Moonshine Mountain,” which elicits more groans than laughs.

The run came to a grounding halt when the group’s blue-eyed soul lead singer Tom Black was killed while piloting a charter plane.

“The day he was killed, his wife found out she was pregnant,” Stallings says. Black’s son, 45, will attend the ceremony.

Edwards, Stallings and Thorne left the band after Black’s death. They all volunteered for the Vietnam War, which took them away from the group for large chunks of time. But music was changing. While Thorne was hungry for British Invasion-influenced rock ‘n’ roll, the others weren’t happy with the direction popular music was going.

“I didn’t care for the music and the drugs at the places we’d play,” says Stallings, who left to go back to college in 1971. “The passion had left me because of the music scene.”

Adds Edwards: “Woodstock was the culmination of all the music I hated. We loved R&B.”