Friends of a prominent Myrtle Beach civic and community leader described him as a lover of music and an influential advocate in preserving the area’s history.
“This is such a huge loss for our entire community,” Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune said of Herbert Riley. “He will be greatly missed and forever remembered for his many contributions.”
Riley, 68, died Wednesday morning. Family and friends posted on social media, sharing their condolences, love and memories of Riley, who was suffering from heart issues for some time, according to his brother Bruce Jones.
“He was a kind person who was always cheering for the community with a deep love of history and Myrtle Beach,” Jones told The Sun News.
Riley, a former chairman of the Horry County Planning Commission, was the CEO of the Carver Street Economic Renaissance Corp, which saved and renovated Charlie’s Place, a historical landmark that is now a museum and community center, and reinvigorated the Booker T. Washington neighborhood.
“He worked with businesses, city leaders and youth,” Bethune added. “Herbert was instrumental in saving Charlie’s Place as well as preserving the black history of our Booker T. Washington neighborhood.”
Charlie’s Place, located on Carver Street just off 21st Avenue North, was a popular music venue owned by Charlie and Sarah Fitzgerald in the 1940s and 50s that saw music legends like Little Richard, Billie Holiday and Otis Redding perform.
The diverse venue also survived an attack by the Ku Klux Klan in 1950, resulting in Klansman beating patrons, shooting off 400 rounds inside the club and kidnapping Charlie Fitzgerald. While the club closed in 1965, it remained a prominent symbol of racial diversity.
However, when the land was threatened by redevelopment in 2017, Riley was an outspoken proponent of preserving a part of the city’s rich history.
“You can’t find what we got. And when it’s gone, it’s gone,” Riley told The Sun News in 2017. “Some of your relatives were in there. That’s your history.”
The history and evolution of the nightclub was documented in the film “Charlie’s Place,” which won a Southeast Emmy Award and bronze Telly award.
Longtime Myrtle Beach resident, photographer and historian Jack Thompson, who knew Riley growing up, noted how Riley followed in his father’s footsteps, striving to evolve the African-American community in Myrtle Beach. Riley’s father was very involved in his community, Thompson said.
“His father had impeccable credentials,” Thompson said. “Herbert tried his best to follow in his father’s footsteps.”
Thompson described Riley’s lifelong love of music, recalling moments where he played at social gatherings throughout the Grand Strand. Thompson, who documented Riley’s musical ventures, said they remained “buddies” throughout his whole life.
“Myrtle Beach has lost one of its leading citizens and musicians,” city spokesperson Mark Kruea said. “Mr. Riley’s voice, music and presence will be greatly missed by all who knew him.”
Riley’s three-piece band Glory has played the North Myrtle Beach House of Blues’ Sunday Gospel Brunch every Sunday since 1998, performing four 45-minute sets each week.
Riley was the band’s keyboardist and administrative leader, joining singer Bill Nelson and instrumentalist Tamir Mubarak. The band added three female singers called Special Blend many years ago that have joined Glory every other Sunday.
House of Blues general manager Robert Simeone said the Barefoot Landing location’s brunch is by far the most successful in the House of Blues chain.
The accomplished jazz musician also played several special events for the House of Blues and for regular bus tour groups. A digital tribute to Riley was created Wednesday for the large House of Blues Highway 17 sign.
“He’s been an integral part of our family for 21 years,” said Simeone, who said he saw Riley on Saturday night. “Our relationship has been great, amazing. I don’t know how we’ll go forward.”
A viewing for Riley will be held from noon to 1 p.m. at Latimer Funeral Home at 816 Wright Boulevard in Conway. A burial is 2 p.m. at the Myrtle Beach City Cemetery on 21st Ave. North, followed by a 4 p.m. memorial service at Mt. Olive AME Church at 1008 Carver Street.