Tears replaced toe-tapping yesterday as word quickly got around Ocean City, South Jersey and the music world about the passing of Herb “Bubba” Birch, 73.
Birch was much better known as “Bubba,” the founder of the iconic Bubba Mac Blues Band and proprietor of the former Bubba Mac’s Blues Shack in Somers Point. But anyone who knew him or knew of him would tell you Bubba was more than that. He was a human feel-good machine.
Ocean City locals and visitors knew Birch for his cheerful presence around town. He could be spotted riding his bike on the boardwalk with his trademark long hair and beard flying in the wind, or driving his convertible around town. People would greet him and Bubba always had a grin and a smile or a quip in return. His windblown beard was even portrayed in a caricature of the guitar-playing Bubba as the band’s logo.
The band, which appeared at countless gigs and venues in the area for more than 15 years, last played publicly at the Ocean City Block Party earlier this month, and they were at peak performance despite Bubba’s use of an oxygen tank and breathing apparatus.
Health issues forced Birch in and out of the hospital in recent months, but friends and fans alike marveled at his ability to cope and present his trademark brand of “happy blues.”
“It was impossible to hear him play or for that matter to see him without smiling,” said longtime fan , Craig Mowers of Tuckahoe. “He was one of those rare people who had the gift to bring joy to others. I was crushed when his club closed years ago.”
Born into a musical family, Birch learned the banjo as a child and performed improvised shows with his brother and father.
For 20 years, he enjoyed a successful career in the health care industry as founder and co-chair of Birch and Davis Health Care Management, a firm that designed and ran health care programs for clients in 30 states. Following his retirement from health care, Birch devoted most of his time to his musical pursuits. He received a lifetime achievement award from the City of Ocean City, when he performed at the Mr. Mature Pageant on the Music Pier.
On warm summer weekends, Birch was known for holding band rehearsals outdoors behind his house. Neighbors in the Gardens section of Ocean City would bring beach chairs and beverages and settle in for the free show. Birch would make off the cuff comments in between songs and treat the rehearsal almost like a regular gig.
Bandmate Jeff Schwachter, a writer for SNJ Today and former Atlantic City Weekly editor wrote in a published tribute, “a dance floor, an electric guitar, a crack band and his bulging binder of songs…(was) all it took for Birch to get the party started, which he did gig after gig, and season after season…”
From 2000 through 2004, the Bubba Mac Blues Shack was a big part of the legendary nightlife scene along Bay Avenue in Somers Point at that time. Birch booked some of the big names in blues and rock to appear at the establishment, since razed and replaced by a condominium project. Following its closing, Birch opened and operated a Bubba Mac Shack for a time on the Ocean City Boardwalk.
In 2007, he organized the Atlantic Music/Blues Festival at the Sandcastle Stadium in Atlantic City, a two-day event that brought many legendary blues acts to the region, according to Schwachter’s article.
A Bubba Mac Blues Band show included covers of songs by well-known artists and many of his own original tunes. “Flip-Flops” was representative of the latter, showcasing his smooth and easy take on the blues and lyrics evoking his love of the Jersey Shore.
“The music scene around here won’t be the same,” Mowers said, “but Bubba will always be remembered by anyone who loves great music and good times.”