Aiken Musicians: The Rhythm of the Town

Aiken, South Carolina, has been (and still is) home to an eclectic group of musicians.

Bubber Miley: Made His Mark on Jazz

James Wesley Miley was born in Aiken in 1903. Nicknamed "Bubber,” he moved with his family to New York City in 1909. He was a street performer in Harlem and by age 14 developed a talent for playing the cornet and trombone.

In 1920, he joined a jazz group known as the Carolina Five and performed in small clubs around New York City. The not yet 20-year-old Bubber then had a life-changing experience. He heard King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. Joe "King" Oliver was a jazz cornet player, bandleader and the mentor of Louis Armstrong. He was one of the first horn players to use muting items such as a plumber’s plunger and a derby hat over the bell of his horn, resulting in the “wah-wah” sound popular in early jazz.

Soon Bubber’s style incorporated all kinds of mutes and by 1923, Duke Ellington had replaced his regular trumpeter with Bubber Miley. Hits made popular by Ellington, including Creole Love Call and Black and Tan Fantasy, feature Bubber’s incredible trumpet solos. Although he died of tuberculosis at the young age of 29 in 1932, Bubber had the chance to play with almost all the great jazz artists of his time.

Josef Casimir Hofmann: Piano Legend

The internationally known pianist Josef Casimir Hofmann spent many years living in Aiken, where in 1919 he and his wife helped found the school their daughter attended, the Fermata School for Girls. Music preservationist Ward Marston heralded Hofmann as the twentieth century's greatest pianist, saying, “His memory was infallible, his repertoire was almost limitless and his technique was flawless. Hofmann is a legend.”

Born in Poland in 1876, Hofmann was a child prodigy who performed his first public recital in Warsaw at the age of five. By 1888, piano celebrity Anton Rubinstein, who took young Josef as his only student that year, compared the 12-year-old to legends like Mozart and Mendelssohn. Over the following 50 years, Hofmann became one of the most celebrated pianists of all time, composing more than 100 original pieces.

After he retired from music in 1948, Hofmann focused his genius on inventing. He held more than 70 patents for inventions ranging from a house that revolved with the sun to pneumatic shock absorbers for cars and airplanes. The Josef Hofmann Piano Competition was established in 1994 by the University of South Carolina Aiken to honor his lifetime of musical achievements.

Etta JonesEtta Jones: Grammy Hall of Famer

Etta Jones, a talented jazz singer born in Aiken in1928, was often confused with the more commercially popular singer of the same era, Etta James. However, industry experts call Jones "a jazz musician's jazz singer" because of her unique vocal inflections and masterful interpretations of timeless favorites from famous blues singers. Don't Go to Strangers, her debut album and greatest commercial success, selling more than one million copies, was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Etta Jones’ final recording was a tribute to Billie Holiday released on October 16, 2001—the same day that Etta died of cancer. A 1999 film, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, portrays Jones’ significant contributions to blues.

Minnie Pearl: So a Gal Walks Into a Hat Shop …

Sarah Ophelia Colley, better known by her fans as Minnie Pearl, was a comedienne and a crowd favorite at the Grand Ole Opry for more than 50 years. She also was a regular on the television show Hee Haw.

Colley first performed as her alter-ego, the hillbilly jokester Minnie Pearl, at an Aiken venue in 1939. Mrs. Ola Hitt, who worked at Surasky’s Women’s Store, remembers the day when Minnie walked in and bought a flowered hat destined for fame. Mrs. Hitt, now 99, recalls that Minnie wore the hat right out of the store with the price tag for $1.98, still dangling. This hat is now on permanent display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Intruders

The Intruders: Beach Music Kings

During the Carolina Beach Music era of the mid- to late-1960s, three young men formed a group called The Intruders that made its way from the Friday night sock hops at Aiken’s Teen Town to opening for some of the most famous bands of the era.
Mike StewartMike Stewart, Stuart Harris and Archie Jordan combined the styles of forties, fifties and sixties music with the regional music of African-American rhythm and blues.

Using horns and drums, along with acoustic and electric guitars, The Intruders entertained audiences at the Myrtle Beach Pavilion in the heyday of the genre. The swing dance known as the shag, or the Carolina shag, is the official state dance of both North Carolina and South Carolina and developed alongside the Beach Music played by the Aiken locals.

All three men eventually wrote and recorded songs with musical stars ranging from Ronnie Milsap to The Pointer Sisters to B.J. Thomas, winning multiple Grammys and Gold Records along their way.

Other musicians who have found Aiken an excellent place to make music include Andy Williams, Niles Borop, Brenda Lee and Jesse Colin Young.

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The swing dance known as the shag, or the Carolina shag, is the official state dance of both North Carolina and South Carolina and developed alongside the Beach Music played by the Aiken locals.

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