James “Mike” Tronco shared a stage with James Brown, Gladys Knight and The Drifters while leading The Sensational Epics, a band at the heart of Columbia’s robust 1960s music scene.
He was a “carefree guy”, described by a friend as a Frank Sinatra from South Carolina. Her voice has led hits such as “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy” and “You warp my mind, girl”.
Tronco died on Wednesday. He was 75 years old.
Tronco was not originally meant to be the lead singer of The Sensational Epics, recalled Gene Lee, a former member of the band. But when the alleged singer’s father sent him to a military academy, Tronco auditioned to replace him.
It was the start of what would become a 50-year musical career with “The Epics,” spanning the early 1960s through 2017.
During this time the band will play with some of the biggest names and press several records with producers including Warner Brothers Records.
But before they got big, they were known as a party band for high school dances and frat parties. They were “kind of a party start,” Lee said. They had nine members with skills ranging from saxophone to trumpet to keyboard.
They played ‘beach music’, warm and upbeat rock n’ roll. Think “Under the Boardwalk” by The Drifters or “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” by Marvin Gaye.
Beach music existed for or because of a fast, wobbly-legged dance called the shag, explained Rick Wrigley, a longtime Columbia radio DJ whose station has featured numerous shows where Tronco’s band were on. present. (The shag is South Carolina’s state dance.)
The typical attire of a “shagger” as Wrigley described them, was Bass Weejuns’ moccasins, glove pants, and madras shirts.
At the time, these kinds of groups were all over the Southeast. If you wanted to succeed, you had to find a way to stand out.
Tronco was a natural candidate for such a task.
He would often join the crowd in the middle of a set and shag dance or invite fans to sing into the microphone.
“Mike, he liked the ladies,” Lee said with a laugh. “He often went down there and let them sing with him or fuck with them.”
Fans enjoyed being part of the show, Lee said. “If you let them sing a little, give them the thrill, it made people more like him.”
As they gained recognition and began releasing their own music, The Sensational Epics would be invited to play Grand Strands and radio station festivals. They were a mainstay of the Columbia festival, Woody with the Goodies Hoparoonies, hosted by Columbia WCOS station manager Woody Windham.
And they knew how to put on a good show, said Wrigley, who was a DJ at WCOS.
“It was very energetic,” Wrigley said. “Their step routine was very, very athletic. They would dance on stage, they would jump on each other, they would build pyramids.
But the choreography was never practiced. This is what came naturally to the exuberant troupe.
“We kind of made it up as we went along, whatever felt good, worked good, we would do it next time,” Lee said.
During one particularly drunk gig, saxophonist Fred Perry impulsively jumped on another member.
“We thought about adding that to the group. He got to where we were stacking them three high, and he was jumping over it,” Lee said.
Tronco himself was a comedian. He liked the attention and would usually tell a joke or talk about something, Lee said.
The 1960s were a whirlwind for the band. During their touring years, the band played in the Southeast on the Chitlin Circuit, a series of venues known as safe places for black musicians to perform during Jim Crow.
But by the end of the decade, the music was changing.
“In the 70s, everything was psychedelic. I just decided that I couldn’t play this music. I think most guys felt the same way. said Lee. “Mike was the first to say, ‘I can’t do this.'”
Men have separated from professional paths. They played with other bands, got jobs, had kids. But decades later, in 1999, the band reunited to play a Dreher High School reunion.
After a few practices, Tronco was thrilled to reunite the group.
“He felt like we really didn’t miss a beat,” Lee said. The others accepted. The group played together for another 20 years, performing at the Blythewood Beach Bash and the Newberry Opera House, among others.
Wrigley couldn’t remember a time in recent history when the band didn’t sell out a show.
In 2014, The Sensational Epics were inducted into the Carolina Beach Music Awards Hall of Fame.
Five of the band’s original members, including Tronco, have died. They include Ken Campbell, Bill deLoach, Jim Anderson and Jim Brazelle.
Lee described the group as more of a brotherhood, helping each other through difficulties and uplifting each other in success.
“What can you say, you have a really good friend, and then all of a sudden he’s gone,” Lee said. “It’s just a void in your life.”
Tronco has an online guestbook at https://dignitymemorial.com, through Dunbar Funeral Home, where friends can share memories. The music of The Sensational Epics is available on Youtube. Lee maintains a Facebook page called Music Therapy of a Generation, where he posts photos and clips of the band in its heyday.