By Rickey Godfrey
Observations About an Old Pro, Donny Trexler, at Captain Poo’s
When I walked into Captain Poo’s about a quarter till nine on Tuesday night, I already knew I was gonna be entertained by a real pro, Donny Trexler. The atmosphere was festive, but not too rowdy; you could tell right away that most of the crowd were folks who came here every Tuesday night to hear this one man band do his stuff. As I sat down to order some wings and tacos, and of course, a margarita,
I became immediately riveted by Donny Trexler’s soulful voice. It didn’t take me long to realize that Donny’s priority was doing a great interpretation of every song that he sang. His sequenced backing tracks that he used were a little subdued for my taste, but emphasized even more Donny’s desire for his audience to clearly understand the words to every song he did. On occasion he would encourage the crowd to sing along with him. Well, that’s normally nothing new for any entertainer, but in this case, I was listening to a first-rate singer do these songs. Donny’s vocals were very soulful, as good as it gets in my opinion, and his guitar playing was flawless, nothing flashy, but still supporting his vocals. I suppose you could say he knew how to lay down the rhythm grooves to help bring to life his backing tracks.
I got the impression that Donny was partial to the southern soul music of the 60′s. He did songs like “These Arms of Mine” by Otis Redding; “Midnight Hour” by Wilson Pickett; but then Donny shifted gears, and showed off his versatility by doing something slow – “Christmas in Dixie” originally performed by Alabama. He also did southern rock and blues tunes, too, like “Stormy Monday” by the Allman Brothers. When he played that song, he didn’t use a guitar pick, and then commented, “If y’all noticed, I didn’t use my pick on that song, cause Rickey Godfrey is here tonight, and he doesn’t use a pick, so I thought I would try playing without one.”
Calabash Flash got up and sang “Johnny Be Good” and I sang “Giving It Up For Your Love” by Delbert. While all this is going on, about every couple of minutes someone would come by and drop a dollar or two, and sometimes larger bills (grin) in Donny’s tip jar.
I was amazed to find out that Donny has been playing at Captain Poo’s every Tuesday night from 6 to 10, for many years, and he rarely ever takes a break. In his words, “I just don’t want anybody to leave, and I’m afraid they might, if I take a break.” Donny’s philosophy seemed to be “the customer comes first, whatever a person wants to hear I’ll do it if I know it.” On one song he said, “Give me just a moment to find the words, I haven’t done that song in a while.” He really tries to honor any musical request, meanwhile, the stack of money in the tip jar keeps growing looking like a pile of autumn leaves laying in there. Between songs, Donny tells me, “I work seven nights a week, if I can, and I make a little bit of money on each gig which helps me to survive.” Well, he was being modest, as folks continued their regular slow and steady parade to the tip jar.
At one point Donny plays guitar by himself with no backing tracks and does “39, 21, 40 shape”, and “Hey Baby” two beach music classics, encouraging the girls to sing along with him first, and then the guys. Here was an old pro at work who knew every entertainment trick in the book, and everybody was united in their approval of what he was doing.
One thing that really impressed me was Donny’s use of his digitech vocal harmonizer. When he turned on the machine it would electronically produce vocal harmonies on the vocal lines Donny would use it on. Donny told me, again between songs that he had this particular machine for 18 years, and had two more of them as back-up units, an important tool to enhance his vocals. Most of the time when you hear an entertainer like Donny, it’s an average singer, but as I said earlier, Donny is truly one of the best blue-eyed soul singers on the coast, what a great combination of skillful entertainer, guitarist and great singer. Donny has a huge following, many who regularly come out every Tuesday night to hear this gifted musician. Keep up the good work, Donny!!
If you’ve ever heard Donny’s Stratacaster wailing on Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” or witnessed Donny up on the bar at Captain Poo’s gettin’ down with Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher,” well, you know what I’m talking about. He’s 65, going on 19.
Listening to him work one of his 20 or so Gibsons, Fenders and other guitars – which I do most Tuesday nights – it’s easy to imagine Donny trading licks with national rockers like the Allman Brothers and the Doobie Brothers. In 1970, before Duane Allman died, Donny was with the Okaysions when they opened for the Allman Brothers. Donny was with Swing a few years later when the band opened for the Doobies.
His peers in Beach Music have taken notice of his talents, evidenced by his 2007 CBMA nomination for Instrumentalist of the Year. He also received a Cammy lifetime achievement in 2000 and was inducted into the South Carolina Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame in 2001. Also in 2001, he received the Palmetto Award from then South Carolina Governor Hodges. However, many in the industry feel his talents go largely unappreciated.
Nashville blues guitarist Rickey Godfrey, who has earned CBMA awards for Blues album, Blues song and Group of the Year, among others, said, “I think Donny is an old pro and entertaining audiences comes naturally to him. Donny’s got real talent as a guitarist and a singer, and I admire his versatility. He’s a singer who sings with real soul, so he can do R & B well, but his voice is versatile enough so that he’s also a good smoothies singer. Sadly, Donny hasn’t gotten the recognition in the beach community that he deserves.”
DJ and author John Hook agrees, saying ” I think that the most unsung thing about Donny is his songwriting ability. And the first time I heard him play harmonica, it took me awhile to realize he wasn’t running a tape. Another talent is building midi tracks. The man is multi-, multi-, multi-talented. I don’t think his praises have been sung even 50% of what they should be.”
Donny began performing as a youngster. “I sang in church, and at eight years old, I sang with Joe Stone and the Dixie Mountain Boys, a blue grass group. Joe Stone said to my daddy, ‘Hey, how about if I bring little Donny with me to sing at the radio station?’
“And that’s how it began. After a few years, I began with rock ‘n’ roll. One day, some time in 1958, I picked up Joe Stone’s Martin D28 and taught myself guitar … even the lead.
“In high school, I had a band called Donny & the Blue Jets (the name of the football team). It was a five-piece group – two guitars, one sax, one bass, frummer. We played ‘Peggy Sue,’ that sort of stuff.”
Still in high school, Donny would play and sing lead with a couple other groups including the Six-Teens (there were six of them, and they were all 16). During the summer of 1960, Bob Collins was playing on the road, and to make a long story short, the groups traded drummers, so now Bob Collins was part of the group. When one of the players left the following year, the name changed to Chuck Tilley and the Fab Five. The band fired Tilley and the group became Bob Collins and the Fab Five.
During this time, the group recorded the well-crafted “Jukebox,” (“If I Only Had a Dime”) which was a Russell-Medley tune and not written by Donny Trexler, as many believe. The group had discovered The Furys’ version of “Jukebox” in 1964, on the flip side of “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” They would record it twice, first at the Arthur Smith Studio and again at Copeland, which would be the version released.
A stint with Ted Caroll & the Music Era followed during 1968. Bill Griffin broke up that group, sending Donny to the Okaysions, where he would remain until 1972, first as the group’s guitar player and later stepping in as lead singer when Donnie Weaver left the group. He appeared with the group on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.
By 1972, Donny had met Susan and the two formed Swing, a four-piece Top 40 act that toured all over the East Coast until 1988. At that time, Donny and Susan, now married formed Swing Too. The pair still performs together, although not as Swing, Too. Susan says, “Donny is a remarkably talented entertainer and musician and taught me everything I know about the industry. What a blessing to have him in my world!”
Charles Willis, who played drums for Swing when he wasn’t touring with B.J. Thomas had this to say: “Donny is the bomb in his method of keeping time with his music. Most performers and vocal artists will maybe tap their foot or pat their leg to keep time. Donny puts his whole body into his time keeping. Swaying from left to right with every beat of the music, this has become his trademark move for the 40 or so years I have had the honor of knowing and working with him.”
According to Jim Quick, irascible leader of the very popular Coastline Band, “A true living legend, Donny is one of the greatest songwriters of our time and a building block in the foundation of beach music. It’s amazing how humble a man can be with such conviction and dedication and make such an impact on an entire generation.”
From Craig Woolard, former lead singer of The Embers, now heading his own Craig Woolard Band, comes, “Donny Trexler was already a beach music institution when I started playing music. From ‘If I Didn’t Have a Dime’ to the Okaysions to the best damn four-piece show band I have ever seen – Swing – Donny has entertained thousands of people, and I am proud to call him my friend.”
Every Tuesday night at Captain Poo’s in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Donny plays to a packed demographic of retirees, working stiffs, teenagers, gen-Xers, tourists, locals, shaggers, cloggers, line dancers, classic rockers, bikers and the occasional third grader. His skill, experience and repertoire is such that he plays to all of them.
Singer-songwriter Calabash Flash, who often sits in with Donny at Poo’s, says, When I think about Donny Trexler I see the ultimate performer that will work just as hard to entertain ten people as he would for a thousand. If there is a style of music that he can’t do, I don’t know what it is. I have heard him do it all without blinking.”
Internet DJ and Beach Music promoter Willie C, who is also a regular at Poo’s, said, “Donny Trexler is like the ‘Naked City’ – a man with eight million stories.” And he tells a new one every week!
Congratulations to Donny Trexler on his recent birthday and on his many musical talents. Donny, I hope you live as long as you want to … and want to as long as you live. Now, where have I heard that before?
A similar version of this blog is running in the July 3, 2008 edition of Coast Magazine and Alternatives NewsMagazine, the two independent papers in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, both of which go to press every other Thursday.