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Entertainment: No beach in Nashville, so musical duo moved

By Carrie Humphreys
For the Observer

Tom and Michelle Becker, the married musical duo called Latitude, were about to begin a four hour gig for a dinner dance at Pawleys Plantation. Were they nervous before their performance? Hardly.

The Beckers, married 16 years, have been performing much of their lives. And as Latitude, with Michelle on keyboard and Tom on guitar, they play and sing about 200 shows a year throughout the country. They are immensely popular along the Grand Strand.

The couple live in Pawleys Island, moving here 17 years ago because they were burned out from the Nashville scene, they said.

“We were sitting on the beach during a visit to Myrtle Beach and Tom asked me if I missed Nashville and I said no. So we stayed,” said Michelle, a vivacious beauty, who admits that she looks considerably younger than she is.

“There’s no beach in Nashville,” Tom said. At 57, the sandy-haired artist also radiates a more youthful image.

The twosome’s first local gig was at the Myrtle Beach Resort. “We really hadn’t performed much together at that time,” Michelle said. “They said we had to have a name beside Tom and Michelle and we didn’t have much time to come up with something, so we brainstormed and thought of the variety of music we play, the wide latitude of it.”

With diverse musical backgrounds, the Beckers said they play to their audience; from 50th anniversary gatherings to back yard bashes to large-scale concerts and festivals. Their versatility keeps them working. Their style ranges from pop to rock to country to classics. They have no set list.

“No two nights are the same. We just go with the flow,” Tom said of their 500-song repertoire.

Tom and Michelle have a connection, often finishing one another’s sentences.

They also jive writing music together and are among the musicians establishing the Trop Rock genre. At the recent Trop Rock Association annual artist recognition in Key West, Fla., Michelle received the best female vocalist award. Tom is a past winner also.

Trop Rock is the combination of country, rock and roll and Carribean wrapped into one laid-back, island flavored musical menage, a particular favorite among baby-boomers. Jimmy Buffett is often referred to as the “Pop of Trop Rock.” Other major label artists include Kenny Chesney, Zac Brown Band and Bertie Higgin. The Beckers compose Trop Rock songs, among other ditties.

Talented they are. Yet, humble. You’ll find no inflated egos from this pair. Their only desire is to please their audiences, they said. “Our lives are pretty boring. We just look forward to getting out there and playing. And when our songs make people happy then our purpose has been served.”

Claiming to be painfully shy, the songsters agreed it is the “people” who are their priority. They relish the friends they have made traversing the country and delight in getting to know their audiences. They often organize cruises with their fans and prefer intimate bookings over big stage productions.

“We like small shows when you can share with the audience,” Michelle said. “Tell them about the songs you write and have some give and take.”

One exception is their newly-conceived “Tribute to John Denver” with full band. Denver’s music had a tremendous creative impact on Tom. The Denver tribute is always a sellout.

Pawleys Island is a far cry from Bedford, Mass., where Michelle grew up learning piano, violin, singing and dancing. Her first job out of college was with the Grand Ol’ Opry in Nashville to work as singer, dancer and songwriter. She appeared with many music legends including The Coasters, The Drifters, The Platters, Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn, Louise Mandrell, Lee Greenwood, Jim Ed Brown, Larry Gatlin and comedian Bill Cosby.

Tom, who hails from New Jersey, grew up in the Midwest and never looked back when, in 1979, he joined the New Christy Minstrels, the group that launched the careers of John Denver and Kenny Rogers. After leaving the Minstrels, the self-taught guitarist went to Nashville and launched a solo career, opening for such artists as Jerry Jeff Walker, Gregg Allman, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis. In between gigs in Nashville, where he met Michelle, he divided his talent between Vail and Hilton Head.

Highlights since teaming together in 1997 include opening for American Idols Reuben Studdard and Ace Young, Alternative Rockers Third Eye Blind, Country Band Exile and Rock ’n’ Roll legends Frankie “Sea Cruise” Ford and Clarence “Frogman” Henry. Tom’s composition “Sailor” was performed at the dedication of the Navy memorial in Washington, D.C., for which he’s particularly proud.

The Beckers have brought their sunshine and sandy beach music to 30 states, Europe and the Caribbean, and have the distinction of being the first Beach Music/Trop Rock band to perform in Switzerland.

So why settle in Pawleys Island?

“When people ask where we live and we tell them Pawleys Island, they ask us why we live there,” Michelle said. “I tell them that once you visit, you return and eventually stay.

It’s not just the beach, it’s the people you meet. You may come here for beauty, but once you meet the beautiful people who made the decision to live here. That’s what makes you want to stay: the people.”

The cleverly crafted lyrics on the Beckers’ CD’s - titled Permanent Vacation, Island Attitude, The Good Life and Just Add Water - reflect their enchantment with the Pawleys Island lifestyle.

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