Charleston's most accomplished and original "new wave" band, The Killer Whales, stood out from the local beach music group, blues bands, and rock contemporaries of their time — if not for their hip, thin-necktie charm, certainly for the charisma of singer/guitarist and main songwriter David Bethany, the serious-faced magnetism of bassist Jim Blakeslee, and the musical audacity of drummer Murphy Pitts (replete with Roto-Toms tuned to just the right high frequencies). And what about the tunes? "Don't Stop Now?" "What Can I Do?" "When the Shooting Starts?" It's classic Lowcountry rock music.
Bethany, Blakeslee, and Pitts first started gigging as bar musicians in Charleston in the late-'70s. In their early years (as a trio), they played with a classic, blues 'n' boogie-influenced, Clapton-esque, Fender Strat rock sound. The veteran musicians, fans, and longtime locals still in the scene surely remember the rock trio during their fruitful existence in the 1980s, playing such haunts as Captain Harry's Blue Marlin Bar, Myskyn's Tavern, and the Windjammer.
Eventually, they absorbed much of the punk-inspired power-pop style coming out of the UK — the melodic, syncopated, high-energy sounds of The Police, Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Graham Parker, the Joe Jackson Band, etc. They took a few cues from Cheap Trick as well as vintage rock acts like Bo Diddley, Marvin Gaye, and Buddy Holly.
As drummer Pitts puts it, "The Whales' sound was a haphazardly tossed salad of fresh melodies, insistent guitar hooks, soaring bass, and bombastic drums."
The Killer Whales soon became one of Charleston's busiest bands, touring up and down the East Coast to N.Y.C. and back. They opened for many of the hot-shot national bands on the rock charts at the time (including Joan Jett, Men at Work, George Thorogood, R.E.M., Jefferson Starship, Culture Club, and Huey Lewis & The News). They recorded and released three records — a self-titled EP, the magnificent Emotional Geography, and the hard-to-find Big Bang. They even won a round on TV's "Star Search" in 1986.
They split amicably in 1989 and went in various career directions. Currently, Blakeslee works as a technician and show producer with SCETV in Columbia. Bethany splits his time working at his office in Mt. Pleasant and St. Francis Hospital as a family therapist and mental health counselor and occasionally performing solo (mostly at the beach taverns on Isle of Palms and Sullivan's Island). Pitts is in the restaurant business in Greenville and manages a spot called The Bohemian Café.
In recent years, the trio has reunited for a series of semiannual shows around the state at Doc's Gumbo Grill in Columbia, at the Handlebar in Greenville, and at the Windjammer and Bert's on the islands. The melodically unpredictable rock trio reunite this weekend for two shows at Bert's on Sullivan's Island (their first local gig since their weekend stint at the same venue last July).
"In the last few years, we have tried to just relax and enjoy what we do best: rock the house," says Pitts. "Our goal is to get as many bodies gyrating as is humanly possible. We normally rehearse before a show. It's usually jerky and harsh in the beginning, but after an hour or so, we're back in the groove. We're always amazed at how easy it is to slide back into that sweet spot."