It's amazing that a four-chord doo-wop ditty that barely makes it past a minute and a half in length could shape and sustain a 50-year career. For songwriter, singer, and bandleader Maurice Williams, 72, the staying power of his melodic hit "Stay" has been the foundation of a fun run.
Released in 1960 shortly after Williams formed The Zodiacs, "Stay" became a mega-hit in its time and has remained a popular favorite for five decades.
"Voice is something that, if you use it often, you can really stay on top of it," says Williams, speaking last week from his home in Charlotte. "I still sing 'Stay' and 'Little Darling' [an R&B hit in 1957 from Williams' previous group, The Gladiolas] in their original keys, and I can sing tenor, baritone, and bass better now. I still don't have a good falsetto. I have been blessed with a good voice, though."
On the original recording of "Stay," Henry "Shane" Gatson sang the still-recognizable falsetto verse, "Oh, won't you stay just a little bit longer." These days, vocalist Leon Weaver handles the role.
"It's like, 'Y'all can mess up on anything, but you can't mess up on 'Stay,' 'May I,' or 'Little Darling,'" laughs Williams. "That is it."
A native of the upstate S.C. town of Lancaster, Williams has remained active as a performer and recording artist, gigging under various band names over the last 40 years on the East Coast's beach music circuit. He's a proud inductee of the S.C. Music & Entertainment Hall of Fame as well as the Beach Music Hall of Fame.
"I'm really a doo-wop and rhythm and blues artist," Williams says. "But I love it all. I learned through the years that people will shag to a song they really like. When I first did 'Little Darling,' it wasn't a shag song. It had a calypso beat to it. When I brought it home, they liked it so much, they actually shagged to it. It was the weirdest thing."
Williams & The Zodiacs officially celebrate a 50th anniversary this summer. They headline Boone Hall Plantation's summer concert series kick-off on Saturday. Featured acts on the bill include The Mighty Tams, The Fantastic Shakers, The SugarBees, and Mystic Vibration.
The Zodiacs currently use a three-piece rhythm section, two horn players, and four back-up singers. On stage, Williams sticks with his lead singer duties, occasionally playing a little piano here and there. "There's a bunch of us," laughs Williams. "Some of us have been playing together for quite a while. I go back over 50 years, though ... some of these guys in the band aren't even that old."
Williams' latest studio albums, Back to Basics and 50 Years, feature new performances of "Stay," "Little Darlin'," and another early '60s hit titled "May I."
"We did a really new version of 'May I' and made it even more shaggable," says Williams. "You could already shag to it, but we did it with more straight-drive blues base.
"Back to Basics was an idea I had with my producer, Ron Oates," he adds. "I wanted to go back to some of the songs I grew up with. 50 Years was a similar thing. I wanted to do some of the songs by artists I really liked. We've got Ben E. King's 'Spanish Harlem.' We did some new versions of my hits, too."
The local beach music fans will surely try to shag to every tune in the Zodiacs setlist on Saturday — and that's a Carolina phenomenon Williams always looks forward to.
"I love performing," he says. "Singing on stage is the good part. And the good thing for me is that most of my audience grew up with the same music ... and some are almost as old as me [laughs]."