Lancaster native Maurice Williams’ famous song has staying power, 55 years later

My first photo published in a newspaper was of Maurice Williams.

It was the summer of 1980. I was 13. My father took me to a beach music festival at the Caldwell County Fairgrounds in my hometown of Lenoir. My dad, who was editor of the local paper, had bought me a 35mm camera for Christmas and suggested I bring it along.

I grabbed my Vivitar, a few rolls of black and white film and my “Urban Cowboy” hat and headed off to a day of watching The Tams, The Drifters and Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs play.

I didn’t know who Williams was at first, but when the band launched into “Stay,” I recognized the song instantly. The first word brought the fans to their feet. People began an odd, gyrating dance, which I later learned was called “shagging.” It was the first and last time I saw my father dancing. Yikes!

I went backstage and met Williams and the Zodiacs, who let me hang out and take photographs. Williams was wearing a red satin shirt with an open collar, exposing the gold cross hanging around his neck. He was the coolest person I had ever met.

My photo of the singer was used on the front page of the Monday afternoon edition of the Lenoir News-Topic. Publisher Lindsay Mount wrote me a check for $20.

Thirty-five years later, this story pays tribute to Maurice Williams on the 55th anniversary of his song, “Stay.”

Thank you, Maurice Williams, for jump-starting my career and my love of beach music.

Maurice Williams was 15 and singing in his church choir Sunday mornings and wooing his girlfriend Saturday nights in his hometown of Lancaster, S.C., about 40 miles south of Charlotte.

Her curfew was 10 p.m., but he wanted her to stay just a little bit longer. He tried his best to convince her that her parents wouldn’t mind.

She went home anyway. The next morning, Williams set his teenage blues to rhythm. He called the song “Stay.”

“Stay, just a little bit longer.

Please, please, please, please, please tell me that you’re going to.

Now your daddy don’t mind and your mommy don’t mind,

if we have another dance just one more time.”

He recorded the song a few years later in 1960 with his group, The Zodiacs. He was their lead singer. It entered the Hot 100 on the Billboard charts in October and on Nov. 21, 1960, it hit No. 1. The doo-wop ditty kicked Ray Charles’ Grammy-winning “Georgia on My Mind” out of the top spot. A week later, it was knocked off by Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”

“I thought the top 10 was big, but when we hit number one, oh man, we were superstars,” Williams said during a recent interview at his home in northwest Charlotte.

​A few weeks later, the group traveled to Philadelphia to perform their hit on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.”

At 97 seconds, “Stay” is the shortest recording to ever reach the top of the Billboard charts. Williams says: “It was Al Silver of Herald Records who told me to make it short to get more airplay.” It worked.

An iTunes review deftly sums up its appeal: “Stay by Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs is as essential and urgent as great doo wop gets, sounding both dreamy and insistently sexy as Williams begs for one more dance, and it’s admirably efficient: at one-minute-and-thirty-seven seconds, it doesn’t give itself a chance to wear out its welcome.”

Though Williams sang the lead vocal, it was Charlotte resident Henry “Shane” Gaston who stole the show with his memorable falsetto.

“There wouldn’t have been a ‘Stay’ without Shane,” Williams told me. “The high part made the song – Lord knows that.”

Gaston remained with the Zodiacs many years before working as a truck driver for The Charlotte Observer. He died in August.

Fifty-five years after its release, “Stay” has sold more than 10 million copies. The song has been covered by The Hollies, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Cyndi Lauper and Jackson Browne. Browne recorded the song for his 1977 multi-platinum album, “Running on Empty.”

​T​here is a disco version, a reggae version and a recording by ​a ​Serbian rockabilly artist named Komandant Adam.

“We had so many covers of ‘Stay,’ it’s hard to keep up with. My favorite was The Four Seasons,” Williams said. “I was big fan of the Four Seasons. When Frankie did ‘Stay,’ I said, ‘Wow!’ That blew my mind.”

Williams still receives royalty checks on a regular basis. Of his financial situation, he says, “I’ve been blessed, truly blessed.” He and wife Emily ​have live​d​ comfortably since 1966 ​in their turquoise, split-level home off Beatties Ford Road.

Williams credits record executive Ernie Young of Excello Records for encouraging the young singer to hold on to the rights to his songs. “He was a Christian-hearted man, and he started teaching me publishing, holding on to your songs. The more people record it, the more money you make.”

When the song was featured in the 1987 movie “​Dirty Dancing,​” Williams said that brought “Stay” to a new, younger audience.

“A rebirth,” he called it. The movie soundtrack has sold more than 11 million copies.

​Fans around the world have posted their own video versions on YouTube: jazz, country, a capella and beach music renditions, just to name a few. At 75, Williams considers himself “sort of” semi-retired. “I still have my band and we do a lot of doo-wop shows. I like to perform, cause I like people.”

He’s the last member of the original Zodiacs. With the current line-up of singers,​ “Peewee​”​ Smith, Ron Henderson and Leon Weaver, the band performs covers of ’50s and ’60s songs in addition to Williams’ songs.

This summer, Williams returned to the studio to record “Stay” just one more time. He needed someone to sing falsetto, so he brought along a fellow member of the choir at New Emmanuel Congregational Church, 10-year-old Luke Balbosa.

I joined them during a recording session at Legendary StudioEast on Monroe Road. Luke said he wasn’t aware that so many famous people had also recorded “Stay.” He told me, “I feel really touched that God made me one of the people to be in this group of people that sang this song.”

​The duo even made a video. Williams sat behind the keyboard as Luke tapped on a tambourine.​

Maurice calls the new version “Stay ​(2015​)​.” It was released on iTunes on Oct. 23. ​​The song that America can’t get out of its head is going to keep on staying.

And whatever happened to the girl that got away? Williams won’t reveal her identity.

But his wife of ​54 years, Emily, joked, “I’m glad she didn’t stay.”