A Wilkes County native known as a community leader in the Myrtle Beach area on the South Carolina coast, as well as an accomplished musician, died Wednesday.
Herbert Riley also is remembered among many in his generation of Wilkes Countians as a member of the Downbeats, a soul band that often performed at high school dances, the Wilkes YMCA and elsewhere in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He also was the pianist at Denny Grove AME Zion Church in Wilkesboro.
Later, Riley made a name for himself performing jazz and blues in the Myrtle Beach area. He was the keyboardist for Glory, a band that performed 45-minute sets at the North Myrtle Beach House of Blues’ Sunday Gospel Brunch each Sunday since 1998. Riley also helped start the Myrtle Beach Jazz Festival.
He chaired the Horry County Planning Board (county in which Myrtle Beach is located), was on the Horry County Affordable and Workforce Housing Commission, was a founding member of the Carolina African American History Foundation and served in other public capacities.
As CEO of the Carver Street Economic Renaissance Corp., Riley was instrumental in preserving Charlie’s Place and converting the former night club into a museum, performance venue and community center in Myrtle Beach’s Booker T. Washington neighborhood. Music legends like Otis Redding, Little Richard and Billie Holiday performed at Charlie’s Place in the 1940s and 1950s.
A film recounting the history and rebirth of Charlie’s Place won a Southeast Emmy Award and bronze Telly award.
In an interview with the Myrtle Beach Sun News late this week, Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune said Riley worked with businesses, city leaders and youths for the betterment of the coastal city, especially the Booker T. Washington neighborhood. Bethune cited his work to preserve the black history of Myrtle Beach.
Riley was the son of Herbert and Ella Alexander Riley of Wilkesboro and grew up on Ridge Street in the area just west of Cherry Street in Wilkesboro. He attended first through eighth grades at all-black Lincoln Heights School in Wilkesboro and started at Wilkes Central High School when integration occurred. He graduated from Wilkes Central in the late 1960s.
Eric Gilreath of Wilkesboro, who lived next door to Riley and went to high school with him, remembered Riley for his musical and scholastic ability but also his humility. “If he heard a song, he could play it back,” said Gilreath.
Bill Harris of Wilkesboro was in high school with Riley and was a member of the Downbeats. Other members of the band at various times included Bucky Harris, Myles Watkins, Eddie Sturdivant, Fredrick Barber, Gene Tashiro, Larry Vannoy, Gene Gilreath and Elon “Bud” Horton. Most of these people, like Riley and Bill Harris, were in the Wilkes Central Marching Band.
“Herbert played keyboard and saxophone in the group, but he could play about anything,” said Harris. One of the proudest accomplishments of the Downbeats was winning the “Battle of the Bands” competition at the YMCA.
Harris recalled the summer he, Riley and other members of the Downbeats spent a summer in Myrtle Beach performing at various small venues. He said this was accomplished with the help of Riley’s father, who worked in the hotel industry in Myrtle Beach.
Harris described Riley as “a down to earth, good guy who could make friends with anybody…. and he was born with the gift of music.”
Riley moved to Myrtle Beach, where his parents had moved, while he was a student at Appalachian State University. He graduated from Appalachian with a degree in music.
Details on funeral arrangements weren’t available by press time.