By John Harper / Correspondent
November 6, 2020
Mention the Sound Side Folk and Ale House to people of a certain age on the Outer Banks and you’re likely to hear a sigh.
From 1976 to 1985, the venue was a communal space for locals and visitors, both of its time and slightly ahead of the curve.
It offered healthful food, a 1960s-ish coffeehouse atmosphere and a lineup of superb, mostly acoustic musicians (more on that later).
The Sound Side, as most people called it, had a stunning location on Kitty Hawk Bay where West Avalon and Bay drives meet in Kill Devil Hills.
A onetime marina, it was a half-mile off the U.S. 158 Bypass and was the only commercial property in the neighborhood.
“You had to know where it was to get there,” says Richard Brown, 75, who worked at the venue as a bartender in the early ‘80s. “It was all word-of-mouth back in those days.”
Probably the venue’s most attractive feature was the deck over the Bay, which merges with the Albemarle Sound.
A daily ritual, which involved mostly locals, was the toasting the sunset to celebrate another day of living on the Outer Banks.
Jazz and folk music played on speakers, providing a soundtrack for the laid-back crowd.
“You met some interesting people,” remembers musician Shelli Gates, 59, of Nags Head, who spent summers on the beach in the early ‘80s. “It felt like a mini-Key West party.”
The beginnings of the Sound Side resemble a plot for a TV reality show.
In 1976, New Jersey-based musicians Dave Menaker and his then-wife Denise were traveling along the East Coast on bicycles with trailers for their gear, picking up work on their way to Florida. The duo – Denise on flute and vocals and Dave on guitar and vocals – stopped in Kill Devil Hills, where they landed a five-night gig at The Jolly Roger Restaurant.
And then they were off, stopping first in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. A series of unfortunate incidents there, including both Denise and Dave getting hit by a car, gave the couple pause.
After acquiring a Volkswagen bus, the acoustic duo, who played originals and cover tunes, headed back to the Outer Banks.
The Menakers and some partners bought the Holiday Marina. With the help of hometown friends Butch and Lucy LaFountaine, it was transformed into the Sound Side Folk and Ale House. The married couple served as co-managers for the club’s entire run.
Barn timbers from Jersey were used to build out the A-frame structure.
“It was recycling before it was cool,” says Lucy LaFountaine, 63, of Kitty Hawk. “We even had a tree stump as a table.”
The new club was christened with a “soft” opening in March 1976. After that, it operated from April 1 to Halloween every year, when the tourist season was much shorter than today (the freewheeling, closing costume parties became legendary).
“We came in like a fool,” says Dave Menaker, 73, who now works as a contractor in Raleigh, North Carolina. “And went out like a monster.”
In the early days, overhead fans and open screened windows kept the place cool. A heating and air-conditioning unit was installed in the ‘80s.
Beer, mostly draft served in pitchers, and wine were the staples, as were progressive food items, for the era. Choices included a daily quiche, a shrimp club on pumpernickel, a Mozzarella Melt and the Turkey Alladin, which was hot turkey on wheat bread with mushrooms, avocado, melted cheese, a tomato and sprouts.
Teetotalers sipped on iced mint tea or water.
Lunch and dinner, as well as late-night appetizers, were served.
The cooks (Chris Campbell, Speight Lilley and Nancy Aycock) were like mad scientists in the lab, working out of a tiny kitchen.
“It reflected the lifestyle,” says Lilley, 66, of Nags Head, of the menu. “And it evolved over the years.”
“People used to say, ‘You’re a bunch of hippies,'” adds LaFountaine. “We’d go up the beach to tell tourists about the place.”
But quality, eclectic acoustic music was the Sound Side’s calling card.
“We wanted to do something different,” says Menaker of the club’s direction. “Rock ‘n’ roll was pretty well-covered then (in 1976).”
Genres ranged from bluegrass to jazz to folk to blues and reggae, with a little rock and pop mixed in. Venue capacity was between 75 and 100 people.
“The stuff we offered was golden,” says Menaker. “Our club took on a life of its own.”
Sound Side operated seven days a week. It was part of a circuit that included the Cellar Door and Blues Alley in Washington. D.C., and The Jewish Mother in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
A crisp sound system, good acoustics, appreciative audiences and a comfortable stage didn’t hurt when it came to booking top-tier talent.
And the Menakers, fine musicians themselves, were discriminating.
For the most part, the Sound Side was a “listening room.” Club-hoppers, mostly locals, breathed the varied sounds.
“We just took it all in,” says Beth Storie, 63, of Manteo. “I can’t even remember all the great bands I heard.”
The list of high-quality musicians who played the Little Club That Could is staggering.
Over the years, folks boogied, grooved and listened to, among hundreds of others, Grammy-winning bluegrass-folk guitarists Merle and Doc Watson; jazz master guitarist Charlie Byrd; jazz pianist Mose Allison; legendary Richmond-based singer-songwriter Robbin Thompson; singer-songwriter Mike Cross; jazz guitarist Herb Ellis and singer-songwriter Jonathan Edwards, known for his 1971 hit “Sunshine.”
“I didn’t play the Carolinas much,” says Edwards, 74, who lives and records in Portland, Maine. “But I remember the crowd there was enthusiastic, very warm and gracious.” He’s released a dozen-or-so fine albums since performing at the Sound Side in the late ’70s.
Nashville-based singer-songwriter-autoharpist Gove Scrivenor was a regular. Other favorites included the Winged Heart Band, Blue Sparks from Hell, Counter Clockwise, Mike’s Towing Band and the Bill Blue Band.
It wasn’t unusual for other musicians to join the featured performers on stage.
“I kept harmonicas in my waitress apron,” says local player MaryAnn Toboz, 63, of Nags Head. “We just waited for our chance to jump up and jam, maybe add harmonies.”
On Thursdays at 10 p.m. in the late ‘70s, the Sound Side Players took the stage and proved to be a big hit.
Four men, including host Rick Ostlund, a local tennis pro and musician, performed a series of “Saturday Night Live”-type comedy skits.
“People waited in line to see us,” says Ostlund, 71, of Southern Shores. “Sound Side was just a one-of-a-kind place.”
There were also jam-audition nights, and people could play games, including backgammon, chess and checkers.
“We just wanted to be a hang-out,” says Butch LaFountaine, 65, of Kitty Hawk. “And be a little different.”
That mission was accomplished for nine years.
But in 1985, Dave Menaker, citing burnout, called it a day. The Outer Banks venue that could bring sunshine on a cloudy day shut down on Halloween.
On reflection 35 years later, Menaker has no regrets.
“It was the age of innocence, maybe,” he says. “It was real; it was honest.”
“We knew all along it was magical.”
For those who want more information on the venue, check out Remember the Sound Side on Facebook.