When “Fat” Ammon Tharp died last September, he left behind a huge vacancy in beach music. Even those who never knew Tharp’s name instantly recognize his distinct vocal style and steadfast drumming that made everyone’s feet move.
Tharp started playing drums in the first grade, while living in East Ocean View. A student at Princess Anne High in Virginia Beach in 1959, he met Bill Deal from Portsmouth’s Woodrow Wilson High at Admiralty Hotel in Norfolk, where Deal was playing with The Blazers. The two instantly recognized a common love for Motown soul and Memphis R&B being broadcast on WRAP 850 AM by Jack “Big Daddy” Holmes.
A year later the Rhondels formed with other leading area musicians. The band quickly became the region’s most in-demand live act. Their first gigs were at Knight’s Club Community House on 18th Street and Arctic Avenue at the Oceanfront. Later they moved to larger, more sophisticated resort clubs such as The Top Hat, Peppermint Beach Club, The Mecca, The Golden Garter, Peabody’s and Rogues.
As white guys playing soul music, the band was distinguishable from all other local acts. Tharp and Deal were in the right place at the right time.
In 1969, the band exploded internationally. “May I,” “I’ve Been Hurt” and “What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am” reached the highest chart levels worldwide. “I’ve Been Hurt” was named “song of the year” in Mexico. “May I” spent 13 weeks on the U.S. national singles chart.
The Rhondels played major venues, including headlining sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden with opening acts Neil Young and Deep Purple, now Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees.
After retiring from the road in 1975, Tharp performed regularly, with his love of soul music always guiding him. He played with the Rhondels for years and then formed Fat Ammon’s Band in 1978, which continued well into the 90s. A more recent group, Ammon Tharp and His All-Stars, always were crowd favorites. The Mystic Soul Bubbas, a highly praised band that Tharp formed with Steve Bassett, recorded and played gigs throughout the region.
In addition to Tharp’s superlative artistic ability, his knowledge of music was almost encyclopedic. Mention a record single, and Tharp could usually tell you who the artist was, the record label, the year released and highest chart position. He was the voice and the beat of a genre loved for decades by millions of fans.
This year’s Beach Music Cruise-In (May 18–20) is a tribute to Ammon Tharp. During the three-day celebration, free concerts held at 30th Street will honor Tharp’s deep contributions to beach music and the musical community of Coastal Virginia.