Band of Oz are one of the longest-running bands on the East Coast beach music scene, with four decades under their belt and counting in the late 2000s. One of the secrets to their longevity is the constant influx of new members who have kept their sound fresh across the decades -- and the presence of members whose writing abilities have allowed Band of Oz to significantly augment the covers that fill much of the repertoire of beach music. The group was formed as the Avengers in Grifton, NC, in 1967 by a bunch of friends in elementary and junior high school. With Johnny Byrd (bass), Buddy Johnson (vocals), and Keith Houston (guitar) at its core, the group was oriented toward R&B and proved popular among local school-age audiences. They got the occasional club date as well, and did well enough to add Freddy Tripp -- later of the Embers -- and Jimmy Smith on horns, greatly extending their range and repertoire. By 1970, they'd dropped the Avengers name in favor of Band of Oz, around the same time that Chuck French joined on trumpet.
By then, beach music was starting to get noticed nationally -- one rival band, Bill Deal & the Rhondells, had even managed to chart a brace of singles -- and Band of Oz, working the Southeast from the Carolinas to Florida, were part of that same wave. They were still a semi-professional outfit, working part-time, but in 1976 the band -- by this time including Billy Bazemore (vocals), Chuck French (trumpet, vocals), Tripp, Bob Lynch (sax), Ronnie Forbes (keyboards), Shep Fields (bass), Houston, and David Hicks (drums) -- turned into a full-time professional band. Their first single, "Shaggin'," written by Bazemore and Houston, was released in 1978, and got them extensive local airplay. French wrote their second single, "Star of My Life," the following year.
Bassist/vocalist John Thompson and sax player Butch Barnes joined in 1980. Two years later, the group's fourth single, "Ocean Boulevard" -- co-written and produced by no less a figure than General Johnson (of the Chairmen of the Board) -- got them new exposure on the beach music scene, and led to the recording of the group's first album. Keep Keepin' It Up (Surfside). More personnel shifts followed, with David Franks coming in on keyboards. Barnes and Bazemore departed in the mid-'80s, before the band cut its second album, One More Step, but Barnes was back in 1991. A third album, Let It Roll, containing the song "Shama Lama Ding Dong," came out in 1995 -- that single became the People's Choice Song of the Year at the Cammy Awards.
In the years that followed, John Thompson ceased playing with the group in concert and was replaced, initially by Jerry West (who later switched to guitar) and then Rick Strickland, who lasted long enough to contribute to a new album, Dancing in the Streets. David Franks returned on keyboards, and another album, Over the Rainbow, followed in 2003. That same year, Band of Oz put together their first compilation, Early Years, featuring 13 songs dating from their late-'70s and early-'80s history, remastered and remixed. Barnes' exit in 2005 precipitated more changes, with Scott Fine (trombone, vocals), Tim Morris (trumpet, vocals), and Daniel Morris (saxophone, vocals) joining. Co-founder Houston and longtime drummer Hicks were still leading the band, which was still working over 200 days a year as of 2009. ~ Bruce Eder