The Soul of Tandem

What do soul singers and tandem surfers have in common?

Off the top of my head, I can't think of a single Golden Age R&B heavyweight who didn't get their start in the church. Little Richard, James Brown, Sam Cook, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Isaac Hayes—all raised their sweet young unchanged voices to God, most went on to gospel groups, and then they took up the Devil's music to earn secular fortune and fame. Okay, not all of it was devilish. "Pride and Joy," "You Send Me"—deacons and elders, like everybody else, smiled and nodded time to those tracks. But a lot of songs were just straight-up invitations to bump and grind. Little Richard, during that first mid-'50s rush of hits, when Beelzebub was his wingman and the mascara ran down his cheeks in rivulets during live performances, could sing "Tennessee Waltz" and make you think of sweaty sheets, Macon County 'shine, and a quick splash of water on the undercarriage before the second go-round.

Aretha Franklin brings the XX chromosome heat to "Rock Steady," but for my money, the female-voiced sexual masterpiece of the age is the Staple Singers' "Let's Do It Again." Mavis Staples adores her bedmate's "sweet face" and looks forward to the "good sleep come morning time," but this is an ode what she calls the "hammer on the block" stuff. "I'm not a girl to linger, but I feel like a Butterfinger." I don't know what this means, exactly, technically, but damn! Linger rhymed with Butterfinger? Little Richard shrieks his approval.

Only a few years ago did it finally occur to me that soft-voiced male singer in "Let's Do It Again" who takes the third verse ("I'm just a man, now don't you fear / I can love you now I brought you here") is band leader Pop Staples—Mavis' father. Or rather, I always knew it was Pops Staples, but it finally dawned just how weird it is that a father and daughter team would join up for a full-frontal ode to sex. I understand artistic license. I get that singers are role players. But when dignified old Pops comes into the picture here, it put me off the groove a bit. (Found out this morning that Pops wasn't comfortable with the song either, which is a relief.)

I'd get the same feeling when I saw film or photos of Pete Peterson and Barrie Algaw tandem surfing. Peterson and Algaw were unbeatable in 1966—Makaha International, the U.S. Championships, the World Titles, one, two, three, they won everything. Nobody could touch them. Any tandem event that year, just engrave their names on the 1st place trophy beforehand and save time. I'm neutral on tandem surfing, can take it or leave it (mostly leave it, if I'm being honest), but only with Peterson-Algaw do I cringe a little.

Pete was a leathery, thick-chested 54-year-old Depression era surf-survivor, who kept to himself. Barrie was a tiny Santa Monica High sophomore (I mean tiny! 5'0", 89 pounds), fizzy and sparkling and gregarious, who not only couldn't surf, but couldn't swim. She and a couple of male bodybuilders were doing acrobatic stunts for the tourists one summer afternoon at Muscle Beach when Peterson saw her. Barrie flew through the air, stood high on the shoulders of her partners, fearless as she was agile. Pete politely asked if she'd like to try tandem surfing. Six months later, they were on the winner's podium at Makaha—Barrie still didn't know how to swim.

Peterson and Algaw were tandem partners, nothing more. Strictly business. Peterson hurt his neck after the Worlds and retired on top. Algaw found a new surf partner in Steve Boehne, who was friends with Pete. So—nothing strange at all. The Peterson-Algaw story is all fierce determination, practice, and swift, massive achievement.

Let me try to tie this all together. While assembling Barrie Boehne's long-overdue Encyclopedia page, I found an old home movie of her and Steve tandem skateboarding (the two got married and over 30 years won roughly a million tandem events), and recut the footage to "Let's Do It Again." By doing so, I let go of my little weirdnesses about Mavis and Pops, Barrie and Pete. The song and the footage combined worked a small bit of magic. I flinch no longer.

Take that third verse, Pops, it's yours.

Pete Peterson, champion and gentleman, I am sorry I never got a chance to meet you.

Barrie and Steve are together to this day, and theirs is a surfing love story for the ages.

We sing and we ride waves. Either one, done right, is beautiful unto the sublime.