The Embers will perform to benefit needy kids
By Dennis Hill
Published in News on December 9, 2009 1:46 PM
Bobby Tomlinson is seen in his usual seat during an Embers performance. The group will be in Goldsboro Dec. 21.
When Bobby Tomlinson was a fifth-grader in the Goldsboro school system, he heard an announcement come over the school address system inviting students to show up at the gymnasium the next day to try out for the band.
Growing up on Spruce Street, Tomlinson had always been intrigued by the sound of marching bands, either at Goldsboro High or at the annual Christmas parade downtown.
So that afternoon he went to a local music shop and bought a pair of drumsticks.
The next day, he tried out for the band, only to learn from band leader John B. Thompson that the group already had a full complement of drummers.
"He told me he was sorry, but that he already had 14 drummers," Tomlinson recalled, "and asked me what else I wanted to play. I told him that if I couldn't play the drums then I didn't want to play anything."
Thompson then asked the boy to tap out a tune on a desktop. After listening for a minute, he told him, "OK. I'm going to make an exception this time. We'll have 15 drummers."
That was the beginning for Tomlinson, who went on to start the legendary band known as The Embers, which has entertained millions of people over the past half century with its smooth rhythm-and- blues sound, known more informally across the Southeast as "beach music."
And on Dec. 21, Tomlinson will bring his band to the Paramount Theatre in a Christmas concert that will not only be a homecoming for him but will help raise money for a local charity -- the Empty Stocking Fund.
Tomlinson, now 69, moved to Raleigh while he was still in junior high and has called it home ever since.
"But Goldsboro is my second home," he said this week, "and I want to extend a personal invitation to all the people I went to school with to come out and hear us, especially the (Goldsboro High) Class of '59."
Anyone with any knowledge of American music has heard of The Embers, whose classics "Faraway Places" and "I Love Beach Music" have become staples in the repertoires of almost any beach music band that ever tuned up. For decades, the band has entertained at live venues from coast to coast and beyond. They have even opened for the Rolling Stones and played at the Olympics and the White House.
But it all started that day in the school gym on William Street, Tomlinson said, when teacher Thompson took a chance on a 10-year-old boy who already had the knack of tapping drumsticks.
"He was my mentor," Tomlinson said. "And he became a good friend. If it hadn't been for him, I wouldn't be doing what I do now."
In Raleigh, Tomlinson started hanging out with other boys who wanted to play music. They would gather around a piano and a set of drums, and before long they had started a band. Today, Tomlinson is the sole remaining member of the original Embers, which has had 35 different members over the years. But although the lineup has changed, the sound has not. To hear The Embers now is to hear the same sound that captivated audiences and set feet to shagging in the 1960s and '70s.
The group decided a few years ago to try something different during the holidays -- to quit the corporate party gigs that had paid well but had become just another night on-stage and come up with a Christmas show, much like those in the big clubs in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Branson, Mo.
"Only we wanted to take it on the road," Tomlinson said, "to bring it to you."
This is the fourth year of the band's Christmas tour, with a new album out, called "I Love Christmas Music," in which the band applies its signature sound to a number of holiday classics.
"I've been wanting to do it in Goldsboro for a long time," Tomlinson said. After talking with local guitarist and singer Jeff Grimes, the format was set. The band will play at the Paramount on Dec. 21, with half of the proceeds going to charity.
Tomlinson, now 69, said he was playing music before the rest of the current lineup was born. He said he is looking forward with great anticipation to seeking old friends and making new ones when the band returns. After all these years, he still has the enthusiasm of that fifth- grader who would not be deterred.
"I am fortunate," he said. "A lot of musicians, to earn a living, have to play music that isn't their favorite. I just happen to like what the people we play for like."
For more information about The Embers, which is made up of Tomlinson, trombonist and lead singer Wayne Free, trumpeter Stephen Pachuta, guitarist David Dixon, bass player John Ray, saxophonist Matt Kosma and pianist Rick Sanders, visit www.theembersband.net.