If you think about it, Hilton Head Island became to be as we know it -- a family-oriented vacation destination -- because Sea Pines Resort hired a guy to strum a guitar under a huge oak tree.
That guy was Gregg Russell, a Birmingham, Ala., native who was trying to earn a graduate degree in business by singing for the summer at Disney World.
“I was the front guy for a trio and an agent asked if we wanted to go to Hilton Head for a couple weeks.” His bandmates weren’t interested, but Russell was.
“I came here alone for a twoweek job in 1976 and I’ve been here ever since. At the end of two weeks, I went to pick up my paycheck, and they asked to stay another two weeks.”
The job extensions from Sea Pines Resort Company have yet to end.
“They’ve taken very good care of me,” Russell said as he prepares for his 38th season under the Liberty Oak in Harbour Town.
“Gregg is everything to the Sea Pines Resort. He has entertained families and kids for generations. He is Sea Pines in so many ways,” said Rob Bender, Sea Pines Resort’s director of recreation and marine operations.
“Sea Pines is a family resort. His show involves the entire family. It has a nostalgic feel to it. There are no electronics, no gadgets. If anything, his appeal has increased, based on attendance and comments. You don’t play that long unless you know what you’re doing.”
During the summer season, Russell works six days a week, starting with the morning Bubble Gum Cruise/dolphin watch and concluding with the nightly concerts.
“It has been a good marriage,” Russell said. “I didn’t know they were looking for what I offered. It became very clear early on they were looking for the family market: grandparents and parents and children. I like to call my show a family show, not a kids’ show. If it was just a kiddie show it never would have survived.”
Bender said Russell perfectly compliments the resort’s aura.
“You’re in one of the most beautiful destinations on the East Coast with The Liberty Oak, the yachts, the lighthouse, and then you have this gentleman who is world class. He has the right formula. He’s a genius.”
Russell’s path to Hilton Head started with a childhood friendship with the son of a wealthy Birmingham, Ala., family. Russell became part of the family and when it was time for his friend to go to boarding school in Florida, the friend’s parents send Russell there, too.
But for college, Russell put himself through.
“I was struggling. I had to earn my way through school, so I auditioned at Disney.”
After that fateful two-week stint on Hilton Head, Sea Pines consumed his summers. He spent the rest of the year singing at ski resorts in Colorado, at festivals, and on cruise ships all over the world. “I was on more than 1,000 cruises,” he said.
He eventually married and had two children. “I did Christmas and New Year’s cruises and we went as a family. It was part of my compensation.”
But for the most part, Russell traveled alone.
“I had a family and it was tough to move them around during the school year. I was on the road 200 days a year for 25 years.”
It wasn’t until about a dozen years after Russell started that Greenwood Resorts, founder of Palmetto Dunes and Shelter Cove, found their perfect formula, Shannon Tanner.
“I don’t think he’s a competitor, in the best sense,” Russell said. “He used to come watch me as a youngster. I consider him my friend. I think there is always going to be room for family entertainment.”
Tanner, now 49, recalls watching Russell’s show as a teenager, primarily as a place to meet female teenagers. “I would stop and listen to Gregg. Things are unconsciously in our minds.”
It wasn‘t until Tanner left Hilton Head for Colorado and then returned in his mid-20s that he landed the gig at Shelter Cove.
“I had a son and I was writing kids‘ music. There was a guy doing something similar, but it wasn’t what they were looking for. My show and Gregg’s show are unique. Those shows are nonexistent any more.”
Now getting ready for his 26th year, Tanner said how he approaches his show evolves. “You have to walk that fine line that it’s not boring for adults, but you have to entertain everyone. You can’t sing down to the kids. They know if they’re being sung to.”
Tanner has broadened his audience with new shows, including his new winter show at La Quinta, Calif.
“There are so many facets to what I do now.”
He does a pirate cruise two days a week and is launching a Thursday evening “Parrotpalozza,” with a Jimmy Buffett theme.
What’s next for family entertainment?
Despite the shows’ longevity and constant popularity, there doesn‘t appear to be a new act waiting in the wings.
“I wouldn’t want to be starting my career right now,” Russell said. “When I look at kids’ song lists, I don’t recognize any of it. We are throwbacks.
“I’ve never thought of competitors. You do what you do. If I was trying to slug it out in the bar or pub scene, that would be different, but this is fairly unique. I don’t see another generation coming up, doing the same.”
Russell sees that the entertainment world has moved away from guys with guitars.
“Disney World used to have live performers all over the park,” he said. “They distracted people. Today, you’re hard pressed to find live performers. It’s either stage shows or the big parades. The kind of thing we did down there has gone by the wayside.” The only exception he found recently was in the Magic Kingdom at “Beauty and the Beast.”
“Belle comes out and they pick eight to 10 people. It’s totally interactive and personal. It shocked me. It’s a throwback.”
Tanner also said he doesn‘t see a possible successor.
“I don’t presume that I’m irreplaceable, but there is no one that does what we do. I don’t want to say it’s a dying art, but,” he said trailing off. “You can’t replace tenure. You have to buckle up and ride the years out. You’re signing a kid’s hat and his mom has her hat on that’s been signed 50 times.”
Russell said a significant change is the lack musicians writing their own music.
“I’m not sure that’s the trend. You can’t reproduce today’s music with a singer and a guitar. Most of my act is original music. I’ve released 15 CDs over the years. Writing keeps me fresh.”
Russell doesn’t regret veering away from a career in business, like his friend from Birmingham. “He was a financier and retired very young. But I don’t envy that. No, not at all.”
He’s been in a movie, “Come Away Home,” wrote one, “Camp Tanglefoot,” and he and his wife, Lindy, launched Hilton Head Heroes. It arranges for families with ill children a free week’s vacation at Hilton Head, away from hospitals and doctors.
“We’ve helped 800 or 900 families,” Russell said. “That’s one of the most important things I’ve ever done. Do people know all that about me? Probably not. It doesn’t really matter.”
Russell, who admits only to being old enough to be a member of AARP, has no plans to quit his evenings under the oak tree. “People ask me when I’m going to retire. I think “from what?’ I can’t imagine walking away from that. I’ll know when it’s time.”
Bender said Sea Pines doesn’t know what comes after Russell, whenever that might be. “There is no ‘next.” That’s not something we think about,” he said.
As Tanner said, “Something will take our place. It will evolve.”