Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Herb "Bubba Mac" Birch RIP

Herb "Bubba Mac" Birch - RIP

Herb "Bubba Mac" and Carmen Marotta
Two Jersey Shore Music Heavyweights

By William Kelly

It was at the Tony Marts All-Stars concert on the Somers Point beach last summer (2016) when I was approached by a hesitant young kid who asked me if I was Bubba Mac.

"No," I said to the clearly disappointed kid, "but if you follow me I'll introduce you to The Man himself," and his face lit up and he followed me to the stage where Bubba was standing with Carmen Marotta, son of the legendary Tony Mart and primary promoter of the Point beach concert series, now in its 25th season.

While I somewhat resemble Herb Birch with now white hair and beard and we are about the same height, he was older, wiser and richer than me by a long shot.

We shook hands and he gave me a big biker hug and I said hello to Carmen and Herb's son Mac, and then introduced him to the kid who wanted to meet Bubba Mac.

Herb didn't look too good, as he was on oxygen, but played his guitar and sang in his distinctive voice and put on a great show with the other Tony Marts All Stars.

So it was with much dismay that I learned of his recent death.

In retrospect - I recall when he first came to town in the late 1990s, buying a house in Ocean City and frequenting the Point, looking to put a band together.

Having sold his Maryland medical services company for millions, he had deep pockets and money to spend.

First he put a band together - one with a blues bent that consisted of him and his good friend Ritchie Baker on guitars, and brought in the best local talent money could buy - including guitarist Danny Eyer, Lew  London on fiddle, Chris Sooy on piano, and rounded it out with Charlie Winters on harp and vocalist Terri Showers.

Then he needed a place to play, and sat down with Randy Scarborough, whose bar/restaurant was up for lease. Randy's father had pretty much built Cherry Hill as a suburb of Camden, and Randy, being a racing sailor, bought the bayside land at the north end of Bay Avenue, erecting upscale townhouses that came with boat slips. He also built a large restaurant, got a liquor license and leased it out to the son of the president of an Atlantic City casino they called Markers - as in ship markers.

It was an upscale carpet joint in a shot and beer drinking town with a fishing problem, and it served the people with money - no riff raff. But after five years, someone new tried something different - a Friday's type place that didn't work for long. But Bubba had his own ideas and Randy handed the keys over to him in 2000and Herb opened the Bubba Mac Shack - a mid-scale barbecue and beer joint with live music - featuring The Bubba Mac Blues Band. And the Riff Raff were welcome.

Somers Point hadn't seen such a big place since Bay Shores and Tony Marts bit the dust in the late 1980s. With two stages - the first up front in the main bar, and he built a new large wood stage out back that had a dance floor and balcony, the Shack had four bars - one outside overlooking the bayside boat slips - and you could arrive by boat as transient slips led right to the bar.

Besides his own really terrific band - CDs are still available, Herb hooked up with Carmen Marotta and Jerry Blavat - the Geater with the Heater - the Boss with the Hot Sauce, who spun the oldies but goodies on dance night. Carmen introduced Herb to a lot of great talent that played the Shack's main stage over the years - blues harp man the late great James Cotton, Hubert Simkin - Howlin' Wolf's legendary guitarist, drummer Levon Helm from The Band and Bill Haley's Original Comets, who made a Labor Day weekend performance a regular gig for years.

Sunday afternoons were particularly popular as Herb gave the main stage to local talent Jackie Major, whose band was solid and visiting guests really jammed.

Herb "Bubba Mac" Birch brought a rush of fresh air to the Point and brought back the great music the  town was know for in its heyday glory years, something no one believed would happen.

Now I don't know what happened, but from what I understand, it was the neighbor's complaints that did the Shack in, as some of the people who lived nearby didn't appreciate the music or noise that came out of the Shack until two in the morning - something the Point was known for. You don't buy a house next to an airport and complain about the planes.

So Randy, shortly before he died, let Herb finish out his lease and then sold off the liquor license and tore the building down - a parting shot if ever there was one.

But Herb kept the band together, opened another Bubba Mac Shack on the Ocean City boardwalk, and kept plugging the blues - sponsoring a fantastic two day Blues Fest at the big baseball field - Bernie Robbins Stadium in Atlantic City - the last time I saw Woody and the late Carol Stone - founders of the Cape May Jazz Festival.

And now Herb - Bubba Mac Birch is gone too, leaving us with his big smile and a lot of great memories of the music he brought to town - the Music Man.

Bubba Mac and Jerry Blavat - TGWTH-TBWTHS

Levon Helm on drums and Bubba at the Mic at the Old Shack

Bruce Aydelotte's photos of Levon at the Shack - Circa 2001

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