Before “mullet” became popular vernacular to describe a not-so-stylish men’s hairdo (business up front and party in the back), a Grand Strand rock ‘n’ roll institution of the same name had already been performing for a decade. Before that, long before that, a mullet was (and still is) a baitfish, one that’s easily seen schooling just off our shore. Those are the basics. Fish, band, haircut, in that order.
Valentine’s Day, which is Friday, will mark exactly 30 years of performances from one of the most-recognized and beloved acts playing rock ‘n’ roll on the Grand Strand; the aforementioned Mullets. Not only do the Mullets (and from here forward we’re referring to the band only) reach the 40-plus crowds with deft musicianship, and the act’s classic rock-laden set list, the Mullets also entertain 20-somethings who are hip enough to recognize the band’s skill and who enjoy its selection of Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers, Rolling Stones and other danceable, jam-worthy artists in a typical Mullets’ set.
The band will perform Friday night at the Dead Dog Saloon in Murrells Inlet in a show billed as: “30 Years and Still Beating: The Mullets 30th Anniversary Jamabration.” In honor of this milestone we wondered; how does a band survive 30 years together with minimal personnel changes and without imploding, and is the end of its long run anywhere in sight?
A Lesson In Longevity
When we met with the Mullets last week, the band members were happy to discuss their endurance within a notoriously short-lived enterprise; a rock ‘n’ roll band. Over a couple of beers they reminisced, cut up, shared inside jokes and reflected on some very simple and plainly evident truths; drink beer, have fun, respect each other, and share some Mullet-love.
So how did this band of weekend warriors - this enterprise has always been a sideline - first come together?
When a local TV station put out the offer out for songwriters to perform live on television during a fundraising telethon on Feb. 14, 1984, the foundation of the Mullets came together with singer/songwriter Phyllis Tannerfrye at the helm. A group of local musicians, some who had performed together, and some newcomers, shook hands, tuned their guitars and found themselves in a new band. Terry Amaker (lead guitar), Russ Flack (drums), Dave “The Rave” Gifford (bass), and Bob “Noodle” O’Connor (guitar/vocals), joined Tannerfrye, becoming the Genesis of a band without a name.
Just days before the televised debut, at a rehearsal, Mike Frye, Tannerfrye’s husband, helped the band kick around a few ideas. He referenced a semi-obscure punk band with the repugnant name Millions of Dead Cops, and joked: “How about you name the band Millions of Dead Mullets?” It stuck, briefly, but eventually the band became simply, the Mullets.
The Mullets continue to this day with only a few personnel changes that came early in the band’s career. Myrtle Beach High School guidance counselor Jack Willits has run sound and sung a few songs each night with the band almost since its inception, and while not on stage as often as his band mates, he is considered a full time Mullet. O’Connor’s special needs son, Casey O’Connor, sits in with the band “whenever he feels like it,” according to O’Connor, “and when he’s not singing Karaoke with his girlfriend.”
Current Mullets’ bassist and vocalist, Tom Smith, replaced Gifford around 1994. “I’m the new guy,” says Smith. “I’ve only been in the band 20 years.”
Originals vs. Covers
Performing Tannerfrye’s original compositions would keep the band moving forward into late 1984, but Tannerfrye says she sensed her band mates were pining to play covers from their favorite artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s, even before they were considered “classic rock.” Tannerfrye set the Mullets free, and relinquished her part in the band while still remaining the best of friends. She still performs occasionally with the band as schedules permit.
“Back then, just like now, I was always working on my originals,” said Tannerfrye, “and barely had [the songs] together myself, so it was challenging to expect the band to be able to play songs I was still working on, and they were just bursting to play what they loved. They were so into it. It was a big decision, but one I had to make.” Tannerfrye, of Murrells Inlet, went on to forge her own folk-singing legacy traveling the coffeehouse circuit of the mid-Atlantic and Southeast. She hopes her third full-length album “Fly to Love” will be released later this year.
“These guys are best friends,” observed Tannerfrye. “I couldn’t imagine life without their community and their music. Because the Mullets stayed together so long, their influence and inspiration has spread to so many people – 22 years in a row of [attending] MerleFest in North Carolina, new generations of musicians coming up, South by Southeast (Music Feast), it’s just incredible.”
Sound engineer Jay Hodge remembers the Mullets from its earliest days and still works with the band 30 years later in his role as fulltime sound engineer at the Dead Dog Saloon. “They always have done a great job,” said Hodge, “and were fun to watch. We used to go see them at K’s and Chairman’s Corner back in the day. They’ve played - I don’t know how many - New Year’s Eve shows for us here at the Dead Dog. The crowd loves them.”
Beyond the Dead Dog Saloon, the Mullets regularly perform at Hot Fish Club and occasionally at Wahoo’s Raw Bar & Marina, both in Murrells Inlet, as well as the Pawleys Island Tavern, and the Pine Lakes Tavern in Myrtle Beach.
“We’re always so excited when we know the Mullets are coming,” said Natalie Carner, entertainment booker for Hot Fish Club. “We love their import-drinking crowd, their music, and we know we’re in for a nice, easy-going evening.”
The “import-drinking crowd” that follows the Mullets are, as you might guess, sometimes referred to as “Mulletheads,” a direct descendent of Deadheads, who are, of course, followers of the Grateful Dead.
Scott Mann, radio host of Scott Mann’s Headshop on Myrtle Beach classic rock station WAVE 104.1, knows a thing or two about Deadheads, and one of his favorite local bands, the Mullets.
“The Mullets were the first band I was told I had to go see when I first moved to Myrtle Beach in 1999,” said Mann. “I heard they were playing a July 4 event in Socastee at the high school and my wife and I arrived just in time to see them perform their last song, (The Grateful Dead’s) “U.S. Blues.” The next time I got to see them was their 20th anniversary at Chairman’s Corner’ [now Knuckleheads Bar & Grill]. The guys deserve every single kind word any one has ever spoken about them. They’re a great band, they’re great musicians, they play great music; what more could you want?”
In Their Own Words
Who better to tell the Mullets’ story than the Mullets? The following is an excerpt of a conversation between Weekly Surge and four of the fulltime Mullets. Attending the gathering were: Amaker , O’Connor , Flack and Smith.
QUESTION | Thanks for meeting tonight to talk about 30 years together as the Mullets. That’s pretty amazing. What comes to mind when you think back on 30 years together?
AMAKER | Well, Tom smashed his hand pretty badly during load-out one night, and he passed out, hit the floor, but came right back up, and sat there for a minute, blood was pouring out on the floor. Tom said, ‘Man, could you get me some ice?’ He wanted it for his hand, to stop the bleeding. But I slammed a bag full of ice on the back of his neck, and bam, he fell over backwards, fainted again, back out cold.
SMITH | Come on now, it was a hot, hot summer night.
AMAKER | We called 911. (group laughs)
SMITH | Thank God I didn’t wake up to find you were giving me mouth-to-mouth.
QUESTION | You must have accumulated plenty of stories over three decades?
SMITH | Nope. That was pretty much it. (group laughs).
QUESTION | You were the Mullets before the haircut became popular.
O’CONNOR | A lot of people think we named ourselves after the haircut, but we pre-date that by a long time. We were Millions of Dead Mullets when we first got together.
FLACK | Phyllis’ brother, Tommy Tanner, played with us and Tom [Smith] and Terry [Amaker] in Skudder. We were kind of a country rock band. We had one really big summer in Pawleys Island, I think that was in 1980. But we had jammed together as far back as 1979.
O’CONNOR | But Phyllis put our first Mullets gig together. I was playing with Dave “The Rave” Gifford, our first bass player, in a trio. I was friends with Phyllis, who saw this thing about the Heart Telethon and live music at the convention center, and she kept saying ‘We gotta do this,’ and we said ‘No way,’ but Phyllis said ‘We’ll get some other guys together for this one gig and we’ll have a rock ‘n’ roll band,’ and we agreed, and that’s how we met.
QUESTION | And the gig went well?
O’CONNOR | We all hit it off, drank some beer. We played a few of Phyllis’ originals.
FLACK | I didn’t know these guys well, and I got to rehearsal and Bob had this bag, and he said ‘Do you want a beer?’ and I said, ‘Sure,’ and he pulls out a quart of Budweiser and hands it to me. I thought, “I guess these guys drink a lot of beer.” (laughs)
O’CONNOR | I remember that first gig. There was something unusual about the song we were opening with, I can’t remember, but we had an exit strategy, a plan B, that if we lost it, we go back to Russ’ drum part, and sure enough, first song, on live TV, we screwed it up and had to use [Plan B], but we got through it.
QUESTION | This was all before Tom joined the band?
FLACK | Yes. So in 1994, when Dave moved on, it was natural to call Tom, we’d played with him before.
O’CONNOR | Jack Willits runs our sound, and sings four or five Rolling Stones and Dylan tunes with us each night. He’s been doing that for probably 25 years. Jack played on the Chairman’s Corner softball team, and late one night, everybody was hammered, Jack started doing his Mick Jagger impression, dancing on the bar. It’s funny, he’s really kind of a quiet guy, but give him a microphone, he’ll strut like Jagger.
QUESTION | You guys play a lot of Stones and cover a wide variety of acts, but you’re often thought of as a kind of Grateful Dead band.
AMAKER | We went through a period where we played a lot more Dead songs, three or four in each set. I remember we played at a bar and this guy says, “Oh, you’re the Mullets. You’re that Grateful Dead cover band.” And I thought “Oh no!”
O’CONNOR | A lot of people think of us as a Dead band, but we really only know about 12 or 13 Dead songs.
FLACK | In the earliest days we were just a party band, rockin’ the house.
QUESTION | What songs were in your set list from 30 years ago?
SMITH | The same ones that are in it now. (group laughs)
O’CONNOR | It has changed a lot, but we still have some of the classics; we’re playing some of the same Allman Brothers tunes, B.B. King tunes. We don’t really drop tunes, but I forget to call them, and over the years we just forget them.
QUESTION | Originals?
O’CONNOR | One or two per night
SMITH | Bob called “Sultans of Swing” the other night, and we hadn’t played it in years.
AMAKER | Some nights are like Pop Quiz Night. I won’t even know what key the tune is in.
FLACK | It’s amazing. We don’t get tired of playing them
O’CONNOR | I used to make set lists, spend hours thinking about it and writing them out, and then we never used them.
AMAKER | We practice once every three years. We’ll add three or four tunes once a year. We play one for the first time and Russ will say. “That will sound good in six months.”
QUESTION | Is this part-time or full-time work for you guys? Are you, or were you ever, playing full time? Like three or four nights a week?
O’CONNOR | We never played four nights a week. But we tried to play twice a week.
AMAKER | Eventually, we decided even that was more than we really wanted to play.
QUESTION | Day jobs?
O’CONNOR | For many years I was Mr. Mom taking care of Casey. He’s now 26. I also teach guitar.
AMAKER | I work for Santee Cooper.
FLACK | I’m a building inspector for Georgetown County.
SMITH | I do landscaping, and I play with The Winchesters.
QUESTION | How have you managed to continue on for 30 years? Many bands don’t last 30 days.
AMAKER | If we didn’t have fun and didn’t really enjoy doing it, we wouldn’t do it. It’s not like we’re making a ton of money doing it, so it has to be fun. But we’re good friends. We hang out together even when we’re not playing.
QUESTION | Have you played any really big shows?
FLACK | We played the Crawfish Festival in Litchfield, and it was probably our biggest show, we opened for Delbert McClinton. Back when they did [the festival] they had a couple of big years, several thousand people would show up.
SMITH | We’ve only had a few gigs where we outnumbered the audience, though. There’s a video on YouTube, where the camera angle shows one drunk guy dancing, and that’s it. We’ve played ‘em all, large and small.
O’CONNOR | We played one gig in North Myrtle Beach way back, at a hotel lounge, and the place was packed. So they wanted us back, and this time I asked for more money, rooms, food, the whole deal. A month later we went back, had these great oceanfront rooms and ended up playing for the kitchen help. No one was there. But I will say one thing about this band, at times like that, out of our own stubbornness, we play harder for the handful of people, and we don’t quit early.
QUESTION | What else is important for people to know about the Mullets? Any other memorable gigs or stories?
O’CONNOR | Earth Day 1995, at the Pipe, the Sandpiper (Murrells Inlet), a bunch of girls got naked. How can you forget that?
QUESTION | You can’t, obviously. Who’s going out to see the Mullets these days?
O’CONNOR | A lot of our friends that are our age are in bed by 9 p.m., but we are seeing their kids at our shows.
QUESTION | Second generation Mulletheads. You’ll have the third generation if you keep at it. Thanks for meeting today. Anything else?
O’CONNOR | John Belushi and I went to school together in Wheaton, Ill. He was my campaign manager when I ran for Class Vice President in the seventh grade. We won, too.
QUESTION | The John Belushi?
O’CONNOR | Yep.
QUESTION | Was it more fun to do a gig 20 years ago, than it is today?
SMITH | Physically? Yes. (group laughs)
AMAKER | I have about as much fun, I guess.
O’CONNOR | What we’re tired of are gross bathrooms, and playing to an empty house. It doesn’t happen a lot, but when it does, you’re just thinking, man, I could be home on the sofa.
FLACK | I kind of compare what we do in a strange way to being in a bowling league. (group laughs) No, seriously, you get together with some friends every Friday night. You drink beer, you have some fun, and you try to do better than you did last Friday night. I can remember being in my 20s in one band or another, and some guy in his mid-30s would come up and say, ‘Well, I used to play,’ I always hated that, always hated to hear that someone “used to play.”
AMAKER | It’s an opportunity to get out of the house, play music, socialize, and come home with money in your pocket.
QUESTION | Will the band continue on?
SMITH | I saw this British Invasion thing on TV, and Mick Jagger was interviewed in the mid-60s and was asked. ‘How long do you think you’ll continue? and Jagger said, ‘I think we can go another year,’ and that was almost 50 years ago. I think the Mullets will continue until somebody dies. That will scare the shit out of the [survivors], and that will probably be the end.
O’CONNOR | Well, we’d definitely have a band meeting.