Northwest Music History: 1960s

Red Kelly

In an obituary after Red Kelly’s death on June 9, 2004  Mike Lewis of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote

“Red Kelly was “known as a comedian with a jazz problem”

It’s a line Red would probably have used as a self-deprecating joke; but the truth is that Red Kelly was an accomplished jazz bassist first, and secondly known to use comedy onstage and throughout his career as a host in his clubs.  It’s one of the things that brought patrons into his jazz venues both in Tumwater WA and in Tacoma WA.  But a “jazz problem”?  Not in the least!  Red Kelly had spent nearly three decades performing with with jazz and Swing luminaries including  Woody Herman, Red Norvo, Buddy Rich Harry James, Maynard Ferguson, Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett, Charlie Barnet, Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Stan Kenton and a host of others.  His career spanned the Big Band era to Bebop and on to the “Cool Jazz” of the early ‘60s  In all, Red Kelly took part in the recording of over 100 albums, all of them with top-notch, bona fide jazz greats.  He’d even played with and developed a friendship with jazz icon Charle “The Bird” Parker. In 2003 Red recounted some of his favorite tales of an adventurous life in jazz to the Tacoma’ News Tribune.

They included a story about Charlie Parker stealing a policeman’s horse and riding it into a club in New York City. The audience (and presumably the policeman) were so amused that Parker wasn’t charged for his theft of the horse.  Red spoke about his friendship with Betty Grable, who, he said “liked the dirtiest jokes” and claimed that Count Basie had died owing him $3 on a 1959 World Series bet.

Another of his favorite stories was about  the time local Tacoma mobsters tried to make one of their rival’s death look like an accident.  They had put their already-dead victim behind the wheel of his car and pushed it into Commencement Bay…but unfortunately had  left his car keys in his pocket.

Two of the bandleaders Kelly worked for, Woody Herman and Stan Kenton were notorious musical foes.  According to Kelly “Woody didn’t trust anything that didn’t swing. Stan didn’t trust anything that did,”  Red was full of tales about the people he’d worked with over the decades, a few imaginary ones, sometimes corny jokes, but more often than not extremely quick with unexpected punchlines..  He punctuated his comedic stories between (and during) the music he led after opening his own jazz clubs. His fans loved him for it.

Thomas Raymond Kelly was born August 29, 1927 in Shelby, Montana to a family too poor to raise him. He was shuffled between orphanages from the time he was a toddler until age 16, There’s not much documentation of his early childhood but we know at two years old Red was stricken by polio. Up to the end of his life Red would rely on a cane due to Post-polio syndrome.  This would also make it difficult when he later decided to take lessons to play the drums-his first instrumental choice.  He and his tutors found out he wasn’t able to play adequately because his polio had made it difficult to use his feet well enough to work the hi-hat pedal. But we also know he became a member of a fife-and-drum corps organized by the St. Thomas Orphanage in Great Falls Montana-a town very near Red’s birthplace in Shelby.  The drum was most probably a snare.

“My childhood was like a Dickens situation,” Kelly once said, referring to being raised in orphanages in Missoula and Great Falls Montana.  “It was rough being a Depression baby,” Various chroniclers point out that Red grew up in Montana orphanages, and was reunited with his family at age 16.  Others claim that at age 16 he dropped out of school, ran away (either from an orphanage or his family) to become a professional bass player.  No matter what the case was, there was a silver lining at the end of his struggles.  One day when Red was a freshman at Seattle Prep high school he came across an old discarded, stand-up double-bass stored away in a closet.  Red took it home and worked hard to become proficient on the instrument.  One of his mentors was Johnny Wittwer, the bandleader at Tacoma’s China Pheasant in Tacoma. Wittwer told him;

“You got a great tone kid, but you don’t know what you’re doing. Follow the pinky on my left hand and you got a job.”

Not long after he mastered that, drummer and bandleader Tiny Hill (born Harry Lawrence Hill and weighing over 365 pounds) was coming through Seattle looking for a bassist. The next night Red was onstage, beginning a touring career that would last three decades.

“I picked the brains of the best players” Red later said. “Ted Fio Rito, Curt Sykes, Randy Brooks, Sam Donahue, Chubby Jackson,Herbie Fields, Charlie Barnet, Red Norvo Stan Kenton,and Les Brown.  “We both hated each otherKelly said of Brown.  Red would eventually work with Woody Herman’s band for 14 years.

In 1949 Red began playing bass in “Chubby” Jackson’s Big Band.  “Chubby’” real name was Greig Stewart Jackson and weighed over 365 pounds when Red met him.  It was through Chubby’s band that Red entered the rarified company of national stars.

Chubby’s band was unique in that it included three bassists, Red Kelly, Curly Russell and Chubby Jackson himself, who fronted the band, sang and provided wild antics and enthusiasm.  The band did a short  stint at one of  New York City’s finest clubs The Royal Roost. The Royal Roost had originally opened as a restaurant called Topsy’s Chicken Shack.  When the failing restaurant became available, jazz entrepreneur Ralph Watkins and his partner, Morris Levy bought the place from a “Boston businessman”  Watkins had strong ties within the jazz community having presented and produced jazz concerts during the 40’s. Levy had the kind of mob connections that could make a lot of unreported  money through the club’s coat check and photography franchises. The restaurant-turned club was renamed The Royal Chicken Roost (eventually the “Chicken” part of the name was dropped).  The venue was not successful at first, but at the urging of jazz disc jockey Sid Torin ( aka D.J. Symphony Sid) co-owners Watkins and Levy agreed to present a Bebop show at the club.

According to Levy “Such a crowd showed up that we had to call the cops. It turned the spot into a progressive jazz joint.  There was a line up the block. We had Dexter Gordon or Charlie Parker or Miles Davis. They did two nights a week, and then it grew to three nights a week, then six and seven nights a week…. It was really fabulous. We became the first Bebop club in the city.”

After that success The Royal Roost began to present the latest jazz performers like, Max Roach, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Tadd Dameron and many more of the pioneers of the new style of jazz. Booking so many Bebop artists led to the Royal Roost becoming known as “The Birthplace of Bop” and “The Metropolitan Bopera House,”  a pun referring to the Royal Room’s proximity to New York’s Old Metropolitan Opera House, then at 1411 Broadway.  By 1948 the club was the place to be for the jazz  cognoscenti and began a decades-long, innovative place for jazz musicians to stretch their chops. It was these players that Red would find himself with.

Although “Chubby’s” band would not last long, he continued to work as  a well-respected side man and even ended up hosting some local (NYC) children’s show on television;  Chubby Jackson’s Little Rascals from 1959 until March 1961, The Chubby Jackson Show during the summer of 1961 (both on WABC TV) and Space Station Nine in 1962 and finally a short stint as host of the  Looney Tunes Show. (the latter two on WOR TV).  Chubby’s son, Duffy Jackson, has gone on to have his own distinguished jazz career.  He worked with Count Basie and Lionel Hampton, as both a swing drummer and a bassist.  He’s often delighted audiences by combining his drum solos with bass interludes.

During the early ‘50s Red toured with Herbie Fields, Charlie Barnet, Red Norvo, and Claude Thornhill. During his first outing with Norvo he took on the nickname Kelly and “Red” Mitchell (both bass players) were living in the same apartment in New York City.  Another “Red”-Red Norvo called Red Mitchell to invite him to tour but it was actually Kelly who Norvo was talking to. No matter, though; both Kelly and Mitchell would go on to have successful careers.  Both Red Kelly and Red Mitchell eventually worked with Norvo, and Kelly and Mitchell would find several future chances to play together.

By 1954 Red Kelly found himself touring Europe with Woody Herman’s band.  He recorded and toured with Herman throughout the 50’s, but also took on studio projects with Dick Collins among others. He then returned briefly to Seattle and then on to Los Angeles where he worked with Stan Kenton, Med Flory, Maynard Ferguson and Lennie Niehaus as well as a valued session man for other jazz artists. Red Kelly had spent much of his life as an in-demand Bebop player, but by the late 50’s he began experimenting with “cool jazz”  Today we think of “cool jazz” as a popular, lighter, more melodic and listener-friendly form of jazz.  Hundreds of artists have made and maintained their success by playing this genre over the past few decades.

The truth is that the term “cool jazz” was originally meant as a derisive term describing what many older jazz players thought was an aberration, and the total opposite of “hot jazz” which included experimental, traditional and the prevailing genre of the day- Bebop.  Cool jazz depended on arrangements rather than improvised solos.  The tempo was more relaxed and the palette much softer. It would take several years for the term to lose it’s spike, but the work of many jazz greats like The Modern Jazz Quartet, Gerry Mulligan,Chet Baker,.Stan Getz and most importantly Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool helped the genre become more in vogue.

Although Red Kelly never abandoned Bebop, his involvement in The Modest Jazz Trio saw him move away from the harsher tones and frantic sounds of his earlier work with players like Red Norvo, Dizzy Gillespie and Maynard Ferguson.  The Modest Jazz Trio included Red Kelly on bass, renowned guitarist Jim Hall and Kelly’s old friend and fellow bassist Red Mitchell.  However Mitchell would forego bass with The Modest Trio and provide piano instead.  The trio recorded one great album, “Good Friday Blues”

Down Beat magazine’s gave the album five stars, and critic Ira Gitler wrote:

“In this day of trends and fads, where the jazz we hear is contrived in many instances, this is a revelation. Perhaps it is all the more warming because it is accomplished within the context of a trio. Here, the music just flows out a stream of genuine emotion from three artists who obviously enjoy playing for the sake of playing. This surrounds the album with a feeling that defies rating by stars. It exemplifies the best kind of honest jazz expression.”

There have been several re-issues of the album, most notably in 1979 (which includes a 12 page booklet) and 2011 when 101 distribution re-issued  “Good  Friday Blues” under the artist name “Jim Hall and his Modest Trio”.  It included three bonus tracks featuring Chico Hamilton on drums and George Divivier on bass (recorded February 8, 1956)
Another five of the bonus tracks were recorded on January 10 & 24,1957.  These tracks include Jim Hall on guitar, Red Kelly on bass and Carl Perkins on piano (NOT the Rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins that first comes to mind)

Ironically Perkins had also been stricken with polio as a child. He was unable to play piano without his left hand being parallel to the keyboard and used his elbow to hit the deeper bass keys.  This earned him the nickname “the crab” Perkins had found fame working with the Curtis Counce Quintet, alongside Harold Land, Jack Sheldon and drummer Frank Butler. He also performed with Big Jay McNeely, Tiny Bradshaw, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Dexter Gordon among dozens of others.   After time in the US Army Perkins recorded with The Oscar Moore Trio, the Clifford Brown–Max Roach Group and with Frank Morgan.

Eventually Perkins founded his own trio along with bassist Leroy Vinnegar and Lawrence Marable on drums.  Perkins is practically forgotten these days but during his short life he was considered one of Bebop’s greatest players and writers. Perkins died from a drug overdose on March 17, 1958; he was only 29 years old. He’d only  recorded one album under his own name (“Introducing Carl Perkins”) but he also left the song “Groove Yard” first made famous by The Montgomery Brothers (Wes Montgomery on guitar,and his brothers  Buddy on piano & vibraphone and Monk on bass).  Groove Yard” remains one of the most covered songs from 1950’s jazz.

Red Kelly worked with Harry James for most of the 1960s,  It was during his time with James that Red struck what would be a life-long friendship with drummer Buddy Rich.  The two collaborated on several projects during the late-60’s but by the early 1970s Red’s career was slowing down as he became more reluctant to constantly tour and had quit the double-bass for the much lighter and easier to handle electric bass guitar.  All those years of toting around a double-bass in it’s case had taken a toll on Red-who had Post-polio syndrome almost his entire life.  

Harvey Siders in “Jazz Times” wrote of Red:  

“If ever a musician was made for the road, Red Kelly was the living template: a hard-swinging, hard-drinking, easy-going, what-town-are-we-in-now guy”.

In 1973 Red married Donna Griswold and they settled down near the Washington State Capitol in Olympia. In 1974 they opened their own jazz club in adjacent Tumwater Washington.  The Tumwater Conservatory, as they called it, was just around the corner from the old Olympia Brewery, and barely a stone’s throw from the state Capitol building.  Naturally the club attracted political types as well as local jazz lovers, state workers reporters the occasional oddball looking for a place fit in;.  Red regaled his audience with both his music and his humor six nights a week along with his trio of himself on bass (and comedy), Don Ober on Guitar and Jack Percival on drums.

Another NW jazz great, Ernestine Anderson recalled Red as “one of the funniest people I’ve ever known. He was so witty and so quick. To be around Red you were laughing all of the time.”

Anderson also credits Kelly in reviving her career. In the 60’s jazz had fallen out of favor as more and more rock and roll hit popular culture.  In 1964 Ernestine fled to Europe .where it was easier for American jazz musicians and singers to make a living.

“I don’t think jazz ever died” She said. “It suffered a setback during the sixties. I had to move to London in order to work because a jazz person couldn’t work in the United States when rock ‘n’ roll became the music. I didn’t think it would last  long, and I don’t think the rock ‘n’ roll people thought it would last  long…”

Shortly after her returning to the US in the late 60’s Ernestine decided to retire, and she spent several years doing menial labor; but her friends and family that she re-establish her jazz career  By the time Red and his wife Donna opened The Tumwater Conservatory, Anderson says she began sitting in on weekends,

“I worked there for about a year every weekend to get my chops back” she told Mike Lewis of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “ Kelly was phenomenal,  He used to call me his daughter”.

By 1976 The Tumwater Conservatory had become a favorite watering hole for state legislators and all sorts of politicos. One night (after closing time) Red and some of his buddies from the state capitol sat around talking and drinking.  Someone brought up the subject of Kelly running for a state office in the upcoming election.  It was nothing but idle, back-slapping humor, but John White, State Capitol correspondent for The Associated Press happened to be in the after-hours crowd.  By morning he’d sent a piece to the wire service proclaiming that Red Kelly, prominent jazz musician would be running for Washington State Governor.  Within hours print and television media were on his doorstep wanting to know more about his candidacy and under which party he planned to run, all of them not understanding it had been a joke.  At the time Washington law only required 100 signatures backing a candidate, and a nominating convention. Red was game as long as it wasn’t serious. The 100 signatures were no problem at all and the convention was held Tumwater Conservatory.  Red famously said:

”I went to bed a drunken musician and woke up a drunken gubernatorial candidate.”

Red wasn’t about to let his campaign be anything less than absurd.  He and his wife decided to create the OWL Party under which to run.  The acronym was meant to stand for “Out With Logic” or “On With Lunacy”.  In their view, either of them worked. The OWL  party slogan was “We don’t give a hoot” and “Unemployment isn’t working.” Their platform supported being “for everything and against everything else.” It also promised to “call in all the state’s negotiable assets and convert them to cash just to see what all that money looks like.”

In Washington State’s Official Voters Pamphlet Kelly wrote;

“The importance of this election to the citizens of our fair state cannot be underestimated. These issues are broad, high, wide and handsome is as handsome does. I have found, however, that the issues are not the issues for once an issue is made of the issues and the issues are responded to, they no longer are issues but become answers.

“Because of the above mentioned dialectical problem I am responding to some of the more pressing non-issues facing this state.

“1) It has become apparent that unemployment isn’t working but…

“2) Inflation is. I feel we have done a good job of getting inflation off of dead center and back on the move again.

“3) We must get the girls out of those sweaty saunas and back on the streets again. This is gradually being done and I can see the red light at the end of the tunnel on this program.

“4) Because of the energy crisis and potential oil spill non-issues, we have been asked to think tanker. What I propose is the importation of Irish tinkers to fix leaking tankers. In this way, instead of thinking tankers we can think tinkers, thereby solving two problems with the single stroke of a ball-peen hammer: (a) we reduce oil spills and (b) we help wind down the war in Ireland. It is imperative that the other candidates grasp the bull by the tail and face the situation squarely on this issue.

“It will always be my contention that the buck starts here, so remember, a vote for Red Kelly is like taking two giant steps backward so if you believe in my programs say “Mother-may-I” and throw the rascals out.”

1976 was hard economic times for the country and Washington State in particular because of layoffs by the state’s biggest employer, Boeing.  This was the era of stagflation, the gasoline shortage and the state nearly bankrupt.  People were ready for a little fun at the expense of the two major political parties.  In those days conventional wisdom was that both the Democrats and the Republicans were pretty much the same, and the public didn’t think highly of either of them.  Red Kelly took advantage of this and peppered his entire campaign with humor.

With Red in the race for governor it was decided that the OWL party should also field other candidates in several races.  The candidates took on nicknames to make the entire OWL platform even funnier.  Kelly’s running mates included Jack “The Ripoff” Lemon for Lieutenant Governor, “Fast” Lucie Griswold (Donna’s mother) for Secretary of State, Ruthie “Boom Boom” McInnis for State Auditor, “Bunco” Bob Kelly for Attorney General, Archie “Whiplash” Breslin for Insurance Commissioner, and Bob “Earthquake” Ober for Commissioner of Public Lands who  pledged to “go forth and gently commission the land.”  “Fast Lucie” Griswold (Red’s mother-in-law).wrote in the official voters’ pamphlet that:

“It has come to my attention while campaigning across the width and breadth of Tumwater that no Secretary of State has been able to take shorthand or do typing. It is my intention, therefore, when elected to take a correspondence course in typing and shorthand hereby giving this state something it has never had or wanted. Furthermore, I am taking unequivocal stands against the following: (1) The heartbreak of psoriasis; (2) Bed wetting; (3) The big ‘O’; (4) Post nasal drip”

After the election Red later pointed out that “Everyone we ran came in third” The OWL party had won about 250,000 votes statewide.  They still hold the record for the most successful third party run in Washington state history. In fact, the OWL party received approximately 8% of the total state’s votes.  They’d had fun and so had many Washingtonians. The exercise may have found it’s beginnings among politicos at the Tumwater Conservatory, but the legislature in general was not amused.  According to William Bryk, who had followed and reported on the OWL party

The OWL Party on the campaign trail 1976

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The ease with which this frivolous party gained a place on the ballot and polled fairly well apparently embarrassed the professional politicians”

According to the King County (WA) Bar Association:

”The Legislature responded in 1977 by passing a law that made it more difficult for minor parties to place candidates on the ballot. Ten years after the heyday of the OWL party, the law was declared constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in Munro v. Socialist Worker’s Party.”  The new law required  each third party obtain one percent of the vote at the primary before going on to the general election. The number of signatures required was increased to 1000. Minor parties described as more serious than the OWL Party, such as the Socialist Workers Party, unsuccessfully challenged the new law, and lost. None of this should be particularly surprising.  Career politicians don’t like their hold on power threatened or to be made fun of.

And so, Red returned to his focus onstage, playing jazz with his trio and spending about half the evening making wisecracks and telling jokes.  Back in the kitchen Donna continued making large vats of her popular Red Beans and Rice-she said Louis Armstrong had given her his secret recipe.

In 1978 Kelly closed the Tumwater Conservatory and did a bit of local gigging as well as a tour with Jimmy Dorsey’s “ghost band” led by Lee Castle. (“Ghost Bands” are those legacy bands that continue after their leader and prime artists have died. They play the original music of the bands and seem to be more common in jazz). At the time Red signed on quite a few of the original members were part of the band, but as years go on most players aren’t alumni of the original bands.  Most of the players  weren’t even born, or maybe were toddlers, when Jimmy Dorsey died.  Jimmy Dorsey’s “ghost band” continues to tour even to this day.

Eventually Red was bitten by the jazz club idea again. Red and Donna scouted for a new location, and found one in Tacoma. The Roberts-Parker Building, built in 1887 was a three-story edifice directly across from the Tacoma and Thurston County’s City/County Building.  It’s said the top floor was once a brothel…not improbable at all.  The club was built and the couple christened the first floor “Kelly’s” Red and his trio began entertaining once again with the same schtick; part music, part comedy…and the comedy was nearly always “bawdy”.  Donna continued to serve up her famous Red Beans and Rice and the jazz crowd made their pathway to Kelly’s.  Some of Red’s old pals showed up occasionally and joined him onstage.  Tony Bennett would ramble in on several times and the entire Count Basie Orchestra graced the stage-twice.  Local jazz celebrities including Tacoma-native Diane Schuur visited and did impromptu performances.  Touring musicians that were playing the nearby (re-modeled) Pantages Theatre wandered in.  If there was a place to be in Tacoma it was Kelly’s.  Eventually Red cut his performances to weekends only, but the commotion and jazz filled the club almost every night. Saxophonist and bandleader Bill Ramsay called it his second home.

Red Sider in Jazz Times recalls a usual weekend night at Kelly’s

“The music and the chatter continue until the typical Saturday night comes to another typical ending: a tiny, dainty, 97-year-old “chanteuse” named Lucie Griswold (former candidate for the OWL party) gingerly approaches the stage on Red’s cue to “close” her son-in-law’s smoke-filled jazz emporium with the anthem she lives for, “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” She attacks it with such gusto, you’d swear she’s still waiting for someone to book her on American Idol. Bless her soul, “Fast Lucie”, as everyone calls her, has certainly never heard of American Idol. Actually, she doesn’t hear much: she’s not merely stone deaf; she’s tone deaf. Peggy (the pianist) is the only one who can accompany Fast Lucie because Peggy has solved the mysteries of comping in quarter tones by playing in the cracks’.

At the time Kelly’s opened Tacoma was still largely untouched-in fact it was still dilapidated, but there was optimism in the air.  It seemed Tacoma was about to make a turnaround from the gritty, crime-ridden town it had been known for for decades.  More people were moving in.  More of the grand old houses were being renovated.  The downtown core was slowly becoming more tolerable (slowly being the operative word).  Union Station had been renovated and the idea of Tacoma’s Museum of Glass was in its infancy. A Farmers Market opened in 1990 as part of the revitalization of downtown.  Restoration of the magnificent Pantages had already taken places and the Rialto Theater andThe Broadway Performing Arts Center were being eyed for renovation. Things were beginning to make Tacoma a more livable and more cultural city; and there’s no doubt that Red Kelly was early on the bandwagon, and he got to see many of those efforts come to fruition.  In 1989 he threw his hat in the political ring for a second go at it.  This time he was running for Mayor of Tacoma.  In his only public speech he advocated for the return of cable cars and riverboat gambling. He came in fourth place.

Unfortunately Donna Kelly died in 1999. Red took it very hard. They had been practically joined at the hip since they married in 1973. According to Red:

“Donna was irreplaceable. When they made her, they threw away the shovel.”

In 2003 Don Siders also wrote;

“Kelly lost interest in the business at a time when Tacoma lost interest in jazz. In September 2003, Kelly donated his vast collection of priceless photographs of the good old days to the Tacoma Public Library and closed his storehouse of memories. Tacoma’s Official Living Legend/Raconteur still makes guest appearances, still shocks audiences and still waits for American Idol to discover him.

Of course the “American Idol discovering him” part was something Red would have said in jest..  It’s clear he’d had a long and distinguished career as a sideman, a performer in his own right.  He was one of the great bassists of Swing and the Bebop eras who was able to transition to Cool Jazz. He kept generations of jazz fans amused.  He’d lived life on his own terms, had created a political party that unfortunately sealed the fate for other third parties to take part in democracy and ran two well respected hang-outs for jazz enthusiasts…in fact maybe the most respected jazz hangouts between San Francisco and Vancouver BC.

Red died on Wednesday June 9, 2004.  

His New York Times obituary included the line:
The cause was complications of cancer and other ailments, friends and relatives said”

Red’s friend, trumpeter Lance Buller was a bit more forthcoming;

“He burned the candles at every possible end and had a good time. He had a sparkle in his eye. He was very supportive. He lived life to its fullest. It almost seemed like he had nine lives.”

According to writer William Bryk

“He had composed a song, “You and I and George,” which he performed with the Stan Kenton Orchestra in 1959. There’s an LP, Kenton at the Tropicana. Kelly speaks in a doleful voice at the mike: the song had been written by somebody else as it was so lousy. Kelly described the song as the product of a hung-over songwriter who’d finally realized that people didn’t care about lyrics. It was just one sad verse: a trio walks along a brook, George falls in and drowns himself, and the girl ends up with the singer, who’s obviously her second-best choice”.

“David Bowie loved it and performed it during his “Sound and Vision Tour.” He sang it while playing at the Tacoma Dome in 1990. Probably only a few persons in the audience at the time knew that he was paying homage to a local hero”

Hopefully more people today recognize Red Kelly as a local hero, a Northwest jazz pioneer, a somewhat bizarre politician a cut-up and an icon….and that mayoral promise to make riverboat gambling legal in Tacoma?  It came true eventually, didn’t it?

 

-Dennis R. White.  Sources:  “Obituaries, Red Kelly Jazz Bassist” (The Independent, Thursday June 10, 2004);Jason Andkeny “Red Kelly Biography” (AllMusic.com, retrieved March 22, 2018); Washington State Voting Pamphlet, 1976, retrieved March 22, 2018); Various Contributors “R.I.P. Red Kelly” (TalkBass.com, retrieved March 26, 2018); John Goldsby “The Jazz Bass Book; Technique and Traditon” (BackBeatBooks, 2002); Jason Ankeny “Red Kelly” (allmusic.com, retrieved March 24, 2018): Harvey Siders “Old-School Jazzman” (Jazz Times, April 1,2004) Washington State Official Voters Pamphlet, 1976)

 

 

 

Northwest Songwriters: A Straw Poll

James Marshall Hendrix, Paratrooper, 101st Airborne Division 1960-1961

Recently I took a straw poll of friends asking:

Who do you think is the most important songwriter to come out of the Northwest? This is not a quiz and there are no wrong answers.

Some of the responses were obvious, many were downright baffling and others were very close to what my personal belief of what a songwriter truly is.  I left my question open-ended as an experiment to find out what others might give their explanation of what and whom constitutes an important songwriter.  I made sure to tell those I polled  there were no wrong answers, allowing them to offer up names without spending too much time or offering up suggestions simply because they thought the person they chose was based on others’ (especially critics’) dubbing that artist as “most important”  Several people went on to ask what I defined as “important”.  My reply was that I did not want to define the term.  Everyone uses different criteria of what is “important”; besides I was more interested in others’ opinions, than my own.  I asked people to decide what was important to them because this was also an exercise was for me to understand what other people considered worthy.  I wanted to learn about how others saw things and challenge myself a bit in what I personally feel is important in a songwriting. I saw this as just as much a lesson for me.  It was by no means a popularity contest.

So here I’ll take my natural tendency to digress.

I am a fan of good songwriting.  I cannot put my finger on what it is exactly but I have certain criteria.  I think when a song’s lyric is written in a way that it may be interpreted universally by listeners is a good start. This is probably why so many songs deal in lyrics about the many states of love; from it’s stirrings, it’s longings, it’s attainment and it’s loss. I believe original, creative lyrics are important, but I know they are not always crucial to good songwriting.  They don’t need to be about love…but they usually speak to the human condition.  Beyond the universality of lyrics, the actual music is just as important.  I think sometimes people put more emphasis on lyrics rather than their combination with melody or arrangement. In my opinion all good songs are founded in the music.  I suppose most people at least subconsciously know that, despite the overemphasis of  lyrics alone.  But there’s no doubt a lyric can as easily set the mood as a melody.

Anyone who’s listened to the work of Frank Zappa might  point to “Peaches En Regalia”  (among others) as an example of brilliant songwriting  without the use of lyrics.  None of us can say what the song is actually about (except peaches dressed in the signs of their royal or noble status?) but there’s no doubt this song-among many other instrumentals-has been crafted, and composed in a way that each and every note seems to belongs exactly where it lies. It seems unlikely that anyone else would compose this particular song other than Frank Zappa. It contains a mix of elaborate musicianship, purposely-cheesy sounding orchestration and themes and a distinct left-of-center pop sensibility, although it’s highly influenced by jazz. For all it’s grandiosity of Peaches en Regalia uses an economy of tones and instrumentation.  It relies more on the unusual juxtaposition of sounds and an exceptional thematic device. More precisely; it’s fun to listen to.

On the other hand sometimes lyrics carry the day…a witty, unusual, or unexpected lyric might save an otherwise mediocre melody, but good songwriting rarely relies on the melody alone  The truth, to me, is that good songwriting is the result of craftspeople who devote their lives to songwriting, with little regard to who records their material….even  themselves.  This is what makes Leiber and Stoller, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Lennon and McCartney (together or separately) soar above the rest.  Songwriting is a craft unto itself to these writers  It goes beyond the performance of others, though there certainly are a large number of songwriters that are best suited to record their own material.  All of this congealed during the mid-19th century “Tin Pan Alley” an actual place in Manhattan on West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues,  “Tin Pan Alley” later became a collective term for the musicians, songwritersand publishers who dominated New Yorks’ popular music up until the mid-20th century.   If you ever visit New York City you will find a  comerrative plaque on the sidewalk on 28th Street between Sixth St. and Broadway.  Later, as songwriters drifted into the early days of rock and pop The Brill Building (1619 Broadway)  was considered their spiritual home.  The building had previously been a hotbed of activity for songwriting and publishing of music for the “big bands” like those of Benny Goodman or  The Dorsey brothers.  In the 1950s and the early 1960s  songwriters like Neil Diamond, Ellie Greenwich, Johnny Mercer, Billy Rose, Bobby Darin and Neil Sedaka Goffin and King, Leiber and Stoller emerged from The Brill building.  It proved to be a very successful time for songwriters pumping out well-crafted songs for teen idols, budding pop-stars and “girl groups”.  During the mid-60s “Tin Pan Alley” and The Brill Building became somewhat outdated.  By this time bands, individuals and those who would become singer/songwriters emerged, as well as the pop music charts becoming extremely influenced by “The British Invasion” The British had styled their s roots in the American blues rather than American popular music in general.  Soon the center of the music world shifted to the west coast even though many New York City-based songwriters were still able to create a hit or two.

 

In many cases the craftsmanship of songwriting is enhanced by the writers’ own renditions of their work..  This is the case with the aforementioned Elvis Costello or the collective work of a band like XTC.  Although I’d say there have been successful interpretations of Elvis Costello songs, it’s Elvis that usually supplies the definitive version.  In the case of XTC, it’s hard to imagine anyone else properly interpreting their work.

Other times we can actually hear and imagine the songwriter’s “voice” when a particular song is covered.  A case in point is The Monkee’s version of Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer”…really, who else could have written this song besides Neil?  Even though Diamond released his own version of it (about a year after The Monkee’s hit version) The song attributed to The Monkees is the one that counts and it should be!  The performance was actually recorded by guitarists Al Gorgoni and Sal Ditroia, Buddy Saltzman on drums, Carol Kaye on bass,  Artie Butler on the Vox Continental organ and the song’s producer, Jeff Barry, adding piano and tambourine.

It is Micky Dolenz’ vocals that add the typical Monkees sound, but the craftsmanship of Neil Diamond is the real star, no matter who played on the recording.  Aside from being a huge hit for The Monkees, Diamond once again shows his prowess as a songwriter because the song has also successfully interpreted by other artists-from The Four Tops to Robert Wyatt (his first recording after the June 1973 accident that left him a paraplegic).  It’s also famously been recorded by Smash Mouth for the film Shrek in 2001 but not quite as inventive or successful as other versions.

Another case may be made for the song “Theme from The Valley of The Dolls” as interpreted by Dionne Warwick.  The song itself was written by André and Dory Previn, instead of Dionne’s usual writers throughout her career, Hal David and Burt Bacharach.  Despite the mighty trio of Warwick, David and Bacharach, The Theme From The Valley of The Dolls remains as powerful an interpretation as anything else she has sung.  Of course it is Dionne’s incredible reading of the song that makes it so heart-tugging and melancholy as well as hopeful.  Another example of an interpretation of brilliant songwriting by another artist is Elvis Costello’s rendition of  “(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace Love and Understanding?”  I know I’m treading on thin ice here, but I’d say Costello’s rendition of an excellent song written by the gifted Nick Lowe is the definitive version of the song.  I believe this not only a sign of a great interpreter of another’s song, but also the sign of Lowe’s ability to write a near-perfect, unforgettable anthem.

My point (and I know I’ve been exhaustive about it) is that there is an animal called “the songwriter” whose first duty is to write solid, universal themes that combine well thought out lyrics and original, innovative  musical themes. This is a craft that takes hard work….much harder than merely performing the song, although a good song always deserves a good interpreter..  A good songwriter sculpts the song like Michelangelo, who claimed the end product was already within the stone.  It was his job to chip away enough to reveal what was already there.

Getting back to my straw poll, none of the writers’ work included writers included in the “Great American Songbook”. Although Spokane’s Al and Charles Rinker are considered among the talents of the era,  The more famous can be said to emerge out of the Northwest from that era is not someone we’d think or as a songwriter; it is the singer; Bing Crosby. In the late 1920s Bing  joined his Spokane friend Al Rinker  and pianist/singer Harry Barris to form The Rhythm Boys, who were featured as part of Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra. They had phenomenal success with both Rinker and Harris’s compositions as well as others’ writing.  The song below was written by Bing Crosby and Harry Barris. The song isn’t the most memorable of their output, but I’ve included it as an example of Bing Crosby’s early crack as a writer.

Al Rinker’s  brother Charles  wrote twenty-seven songs with Gene de Paul (who’d also written with Johnny Mercer) including “Your Name is Love”, which has been recorded by George Shearing and Nancy Wilson as well as other songs written by himself that have been recorded  by Frankie Lane, Red McKenzie, Shearing, Nancy Wilson, and Alan Dawson. Although both Al and Charles Rinker were capable songwriters who  crafted their music it’s hard to think of them as “important” since they are all but forgotten today.

I admit (once again) that I believe one of the hallmarks of an important songwriter is their ability to affect interpretations and long-term influence.  This can be somewhat confounding, because a composer’s work may be forgotten today, but at some time in the future re-discovered and influence unborn generations.  For my purposes I will only reflect on writers that we consider estimable from any time in the past up to the current era.  We cannot look into the future, nor can we anticipate a great songwriter’s work ever coming to light.

So let’s return to the original question:

Who do you think is the most important songwriter to come out of the Northwest?  

This was the question I asked in my straw poll, but I also invite YOU to ponder this messy question.  After all, the Northwest has a history of producing “important” songwriters, keeping in mind that the question in itself is based not only opinion, but personal taste and perhaps even a history of songwriting on your own part; and as I pointed out, there are no wrong answers

It shouldn’t come as a prize that the most often songwriter mentioned (according to my unscientific poll). was Kurt Cobain.  There’s absolutely no doubt he could write an excellent pop song, and partially wrap it up as something that could be defined loosely as “punk”.  I will refrain from the title “grunge” because I find it a useless and intellectually lazy…Any group of artists who’s output includes songs as diverse as Pearl Jam’s “Even Flow”, Seven Year Bitch’s M.I.A. or Nirvana’s cover of  David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” does not define a genre.  It might mark a period of successful Northwest bands, but the term itself denies the individuality of the bands who fall under this nonsensical term.  We can’t even compare it to the thread that ran through the 1960’s “San Francisco Sound” which largely relied on one similar electric guitar sound.

So, we know the place Kurt Cobain many people attribute to him. I believe most of Kurt’s talent was in listening intently to what had come before him, whether it was The Beatles or one of his particular favorites, Sonic Youth. He was able to distill everything from metal to punk to Americana and pop in crafting his songs.  The only question we can ask is, had he lived longer would his output have been as high-quality as what he left us?  We’ll never know.

The second most mentioned songwriter was Jimi Hendrix.  This seemed perplexing to me since I have always considered him an innovator and a performer rather than a songwriter; but looking a bit closer I can see brilliance in his writing, even though his output is far less than I’d have liked to see. I’d always seen his real strength as innovating the sound of the electric guitar and his incredible showmanship.   It was possible for him to “ramble” along a riff, playing guitar, with no discernable song structure, and still overwhelm and amaze his listeners.  I will admit I thought  that the core of his guitar pyrotechnics was strong, but were birthed by somewhat derivative standard blues riffs. Looking back this was a common practice among his contemporaries, especially among the British where he spent a lot of his later years.

His strong suit was exploding and expanding from his riff.  Even though I am a huge fan of his playing and performance I consider a handful of his songs contain signs of great songwriting in them.  For instance“The Wind Cries Mary”, “If Six Were Nine” and my personal favorite “Angel”. It’s fairly well-known that “Amgel” was written about a dream Jimi had of his mother coming to him after her death.  The song is considered by many (myself included) as the best song Jimi Hendrix ever wrote.  Again, I understand I may be walking on thin ice here; but the theme, it’s lyrics and it’s lovely melody is so universal that it can mean something special, for many reasons to its listeners.  It’s also telling that Hendrix spent about two years perfecting the song and how he wanted to record it. One other aspect we might consider is near the time of his death, Jimi was contemplating an entirely different approach to his music.

Some folk writers were mentioned, but to be fair I think some of the best folk writers near the Pacific Northwest happen to be Canadian. If Ian Tyson (of “Ian and Sylvia” and “The Great Speckled Bird”) had been born 20 miles south of his hometown of Victoria B.C. he’d  be one of my top candidates for important Norhtwest songwriters.  However, due to the constraints placed on my own choice of covering only the history of NW music of the U.S. I thought it unfair to include anything outside Washington, Oregon and Idaho.  Ian Tyson has written an incredible song book including “Someday Soon” and “Four Strong Winds” His songs have been covered by Neil Young,  Moe Bandy, Johnny Cash, Hank Snow, Bob Dylan,The Kingston Trio  Marianne Faithfull, John Denver, Trini Lopez, Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez, Glen Yarborough, Bobby Bare, Harry Belafonte, Tanya Tucker, Suzy Bogguss, Lynn Anderson and countless others.  Although Canadians could reasonably disagree, perhaps the most popular (and most definitive version outside of Tyson’s) is “Someday Soon”sung by the Seattle-born Judy Collins. But Tyson is a near-mythic figure in Canada, and will always be considered as one of the most important songwriters in Canadian history no matter if we include British Columbia as part of the Pacific Northwest or not.  He is identified and rightly claimed as a purely Canadian artist.

Loretta Lynn was mentioned; an excellent choice.  But Loretta will always be “A Coal Miner’s Daughter” and though she lived in Washington, and her career was kickstarted here with the help of Buck Owens, Kentucky has always been her real home in her heart, and it’s there and Nashville that she’s written the bulk of her output.

Local heroes like Scott MacCaughey, Rusty Willoughby. Alice Stewart, Gary Minkler, Pete Pendras, Jon Auer, Ken Stringfellow, Eric Apoe and Ben Gibbard were were all mentioned as “important” songwriters..  There’s no doubt these artists deserve respect for their work…I’d only add that Gary Minkler, over the past five decades,  is also one of the most dynamic performers the Northwest has ever produced.

Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart got lots of recognition.  Although Heart put out some spectacular music, not all of it was written by the Wilson sisters collectively or apart.  Very early on the two of them brought in the very talented songwriter abnd collaborator, Sue Ennis, to work with them.  Sue would eventually go on to be one of the members of the Wilson’s post-Heart projects; The Love Mongers. We can’t dismiss the Wilson sisters’ work, but Sue Ennis may be the least-known of great Northwest songwriters.  Her work  with the Wilsons helped mere rock songs and ballads become great songs and ballads.

Quincy Jones is another good example of a writer whose output will always be considered genius even though his writing seems secondary to other facets of his career. He isn’t particularly known for his songwriting simply because it is overshadowed by his career as an excellent jazz performer, and later as one of the world’s most renowned producers and arrangers.

Ray Charles was mentioned several times for his R&B contributions.  Although there’s no doubt he was a dedicated and talented performer, he’s often assumed to have written many songs he did not actually write.  The best examples of this are the songs “Georgia On My Mind”, his definitive version of a song written by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell in 1930. Another of Ray Charles’ signature tunes is “Hit The Road Jack”. The song was written by a friend of Ray Charles, Percy Mayfield. Mayfield initially recorded a demo of the song for Art Rupe, a producer and one of the most influential figures in the US music industry at the time.  Rupe was running  Specialty Records, and “Hit The Road Jack” found it’s way to Ray Charles rather than be fully recorded by Percy Mayfield.  This may be evidence that Charles himself was not as important a songwriter as others, but there’s little doubt he is one of the most influential artists in American music. No legitmate list of the most imortant American artists would be complete without him.

Mia Zapata was also mentioned by many people; a songwriter that left us too early to provide the much larger body of work she otherwise might have given us; still  she certainly inspired one of the most powerful, angry and cathartic songs of 90s Seattle music- M.I.A – a song by Seven Year Bitch that I’ve already mentioned.

It had to be pointed out more than once that there were actual women songwriters who need to be mentioned.  Perhaps it is the male domination of rock fans that prevents more talented women their due.  Aside from the aforementioned Wilson sisters, Mia Zapata and Alice Stewart there is a plethora of women writers that deserve to be mentioned: Carrie Acre, Amy Denio Kathleen Hanna, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, Jean Grey, Kimya Dawson, Neko Case all deserve recognition, and I’m certain there are far more that I’m failing to mention.  What’s more, these women should not be consigned to a ghetto of being “women” or “girls”  Their output is just as important-sometimes more important-than their male counterparts and a good songwriter does not rely on sex

Surprisingly it also had to be pointed out that Portland and the rest of Oregon are part of the Northwest too.  The prolific Chris Newman, Fred Cole, Greg Sage among others got mention.  Eastern Washington seemed to be under-represented too.  Folk singer and songwriter Danny O’Keefe (Wenatchee) got a single mention.  The late jazz great Larry Coryell, who learned his guitar chops in Richland, Washington before moving to Seattle and then on to jazz fusion history around the world only got a single mention.  Jazz players and writers did not make much impact on the list…surprisingly Chehalis, Washington born Ralph Towner (of both the bands Oregon and The Paul Winter Consort) wasn’t  mentioned at all.  Nor was

I had promised not to mention names but I’m going to make an exception.  Penelope Houston (who is a Northwesterner despite being mostly associated with San Francisco). Replied to my question with  a simple “phew”; I assume because it’s so hard to begin listing the “important” songwriters that have come out of the Northwest.  Of course she was too modest to name herself among those important songwriters. Houston’s writing in general deserves mention since her importance can never be overestimated.  But it would be important based simply as a co-author of what may be the single greatest American punk anthem of all time: “The American In Me”  The rest of her output stands above most others during the first wave of west coast punk as well.

As I’ve said there were a few artists named that baffled me. Perhaps it’s because I’m not familiar with their work or that they are in fact not from the Northwest.  One of the artists named in this category was Bruce Hornsby.  I agree that Hornsby is a terriffic songwriter but his bio states he was born in Williamsburg Virginia, and I could find no Northwest ties.  If he does have ties in the Northwest, please contact me with the information.  Another mention was of the Canadian musician and social justice activist Bill Bourne. Bill was closely associated with Scottish traditionalists The Tannahill Weavers during the 1980s.  They were originally based in Paisley Scotland, but considered a world-renowned ensemble. Bill has also worked with various other world-roots and traditionalist artists including ex-Tannahill Weaver Alan MacLeodm, Shannon Johnson, Lester Quitzau,, Aysha Wills, Eivør Pálsdóttir, Wyckham Porteous, Madagascar Slim and Jasmine Ohlhauser. Bill was born in Red Deer Alberta, and grew up in   Besides Alberta, Bill also spent time on the road worldwide, and for a short time in TorontoBill Bourne is certainly worthy of mention, as he’s won the Canadian Juno award several times.  But I know of no Northwest connection outside of  recording with vocalist Hans Stamer and Vancouver, B.C. guitarist Andreas Schuld on the album No Special Rider, released in 1997.  Once again, if you know of ties to the Northwest, please leave them in the comments section.

A less baffling recommendation was  saxophone great Skerik.  I personally am not familiar with Skerik’s output as a songwriter, but definitely familiar with his (often improvised) brilliant performances. Perhaps I am underestimating his output, but I am certainly not underestimating his importance as a player or as an innovator.  Please set the record straight as far as Skerik as a songwriter.  He’s consistently been one of my favorite Northwest artists.

I suspect others were mentioned because they are important figures that deserves all of our respect.  The most notable of these songwriters is Richard Peterson, who is practically a living treasure of Seattle. I was happy to see Anthony Ray (Sir-Mix-a-Lot) mentioned.  The submitter rightly pointed out that Mix-a-Lot has undoubtedly influenced and outsold many of the indie and/or famous Seattle bands of the 1990s.  So often people of color are left out of anything to do with “rock” no matter how much pull they have. Besides Mix-a-Lot, Ishmael Butler and Thee Satisfaction were mentioned because they are probably better known nationally and world-wide than many of the others on this list.

Finally we reach what I consider the pinnacle of “songwriters’ songwriters”  These are the best of the best in my opinion.  I know I have overlooked many great NW songwriters; but I consider these craftsmen to represent the high-water mark (so far) of not only Northwest writers, but among the entirety of ALL American songwriters.  This  list includes Ellensburg, Washington-born Mark Lanegan, Ellliott Smith (who was born in Texas but grew up and first found fame in Portland Oregon), Eugene Oregon native Tim Hardin, and a guy from Shreveport Louisiana who moved to Bremerton, Washington at an early age, the late Ron Davies.  It was satisfying to see each ot these get multiple mentions.

I recognize that everyone has their favorite songwriter, and usually that person writes within at least one of the individual’s musical tastes.  Keep in mind  I said there are no wrong answers in this unscientific quiz or its overview. In fact I hate the Rolling Stone type lists of “bests”.  Many of us know they are B.S. and some publications concoct these kinds of lists to drive circulation and advertising sales.  If that’s not the case they’re often put together by elitist critics and celebrities.  I believe everyone has a right to their personal favorites.  I admit at one time I too was a snotty elitist who looked down on other people’s choices…but for many years now I have looked at music in a far more ecumenical way, and my musical horizons have expanded because of it.

If you have a favorite Northwest artist that you believe deserves recognition as an important songwriter post it in the comments section below. Your opinion is always valid no matter what others think and any additions to this list may well open whole new musical worlds to other people.  I’ve also made a list of every songwriter submitted, since I have left so many talented people out of this story..  You may or may not agree if they’re worthy-but someone else does.

In the sidebar is a list of everyone voted for that I left out in the above article. It’s in no particular order of importance:  Feel free to add your choice in the comments section below.

 

-Dennis R. White

Jimmie Rodgers: Corrupt Cops, The Mob and Not Knowing How To Quit

 It sounds like the plot of a 1950’s film noir movie.  It’s December 1st, 1967.  A man leaves a party.  As he drives down the San Diego Freeway in the San Fernando Valley he sees a bright light in his rear view mirror.  The light gets brighter so he pulls over on a side road.  He thinks maybe it’s a friend who’s also left the same party.  The  man in the car following him walks toward the driver’s car and the driver  rolls down his  window.  As soon as he does, the man in the following car begins to beat him with something hard-probably a tire iron. He is left unconscious with a broken arm and a severely fractured skull.  But the story isn’t the plot of a movie. The man who was beaten was Jimmie Rodgers, a fading star from the early days of rock and roll. A man that was one of the pioneers of early pop, rockabilly and electric folk music.

A few days later the attacker comes forward.  He’is an off-duty policeman named Michael Duffy.  Later Duffy would claim he pulled Rodgers over for “erratic driving”.  Rodgers remembers the light was “real bright. Like a train light. I pulled over to stop. I thought it was Eddie Samuels who was my conductor. He was staying at my house at the time. Rodgers says that once he rolled down the window he was struck by a tire iron.  “He hit me in the side of the head so hard, the left side of the skull, that it split the skull on the right side”.

The off-duty policeman says once Rodgers pulled over he got out of the car and during his arrest, Rodgers fell over (backward) resulting in a fractured skull and a badly broken arm and knocking him out.   Duffy says he then drove to the nearest telephone and called two of his LAPD friends that were on duty, Raymond Whisman and Ronald Wagner.

Duffy says they all converged on Rodgers’ car and his unconscious body laying on the side of the road rather than inside. They decide to pull Rodgers’ body back into his Cadillac,and take off.  No calls for medical assistance.  No report of the incident.  No mention  in any of their daily log reports. No test for intoxication. No record of Duffy attempting to book Rodgers for a crime.

It was Eddie Samuels who was staying with Jimmie at the time found Rodgers bleeding in his car that night.  When Rodgers didn’t arrive home as expected, Samuels went looking for him, retracing the route he knew Jimmie would have taken.

“He’d driven to my home says Rodgers. “I didn’t show up. He knew the road that I always came home on. He found me in the car. Just as he was pulling up, he saw a police car pull away. He also saw a white Volkswagen pull away behind the police car. Then he found me lying face down in the front seat of the car. He was the one that saw the police car. The guy in the Volkswagen was an off duty policeman who had stopped me, for whatever reason”.

Whisman and Wagner were charged with failing to make an arrest on arriving at the scene, and falsifying police logs. Whisman claimed that Rodgers had been gone by the time he and his partner arrived.  Wagner made the same false statement in his daily field activities report. Nonetheless, Los Angeles Police Chief Thomas Reddin claimed that “investigators had been unable to establish any criminal act by the off-duty policeman (Duffy) or that he had any personal involvement with the supposed assault on Rodgers or the fractures Rodgers had sustained. Reddin added “these officers  had failed to follow through with proper procedures.  They know that they did wrong and admitted it”

He suspended Duffy, Whisman and Wagner for 15 days  Rodgers was never formally charged for driving while intoxicated because, as Reddin said “it would not serve the causes of justice to so charge him now”.  Oddly enough this incident caused the third suspension of Officer Duffy within only three years of being hired by the LAPD.  He had been suspended for “ unnecessary use of force” when he’d used a blackjack on a juvenile suspect.  His third was  a “driving while intoxicated” conviction.

It’s clear the LAPD wanted to cover up this story and allow it fall out of the public’s consciousness as soon as possible; but it wasn’t going away so easily.  Rodgers spent the next year in the hospital, went through three brain surgeries, lost his ability to talk and walk and was incapable of caring for himself, even after he was released. His convalescence took decades.  While Rodgers lie in a hospital bed his lawyer filed an $11 million lawsuit against the LAPD and the City of Los Angeles for his beating by officers of the LAPD. Doctors treating Rodgers had at first concluded that his injuries were the result of a beating, but by late December had changed their opinion and that Rodger’s fractured skull to be the result of a fall…just as the three policemen (who’d falsified documents) had claimed. Clearly someone or something aside from medicine had changed their minds.

Amazingly the three officers involved in the incident and the LA Fire and Police Protective League filed a $13 million slander suit against Rodgers for his public statements accusing the three policeman  of brutality.  This suit never came to court, but Rodger’s case was settled with an out of court settlement years later (in 1973) for $200,000.  Los Angeles County and the LAPD knew that to continue to fight Rodger’s charge would end up costing millions and Rodgers graciously accepted the meager amount of money, because he too had already spent so much pursuing  his case and would probably go broke in a battle with the city of Los Angeles.

“In those days you could not sue the police department and be successful. No attorney would take the case. They just would not take a police case like that”  In this case it may have been even more difficult, since the assault could have been a message from mobsters by way of the LAPD.

The entire incident-the beating and the ensuing court battles had taken a tragic toll on Rodgers physically and emotionally.   Although he started to work again after two years of recuperation, it actually took about 20 years for him to completely heal. “I was lost. I was taken away from the business because I couldn’t sing anymore.  It took me years to relearn to walk and talk”.  At one point Jimmie’s weight had gone down to 118 pounds.

Jimmie has said that for years it was hard for him to explain what had happened to him, but eventually became able to talk about it.  He mentions his faith and the determination he’d inherited from his father as crucial to his recovery.  He also mentions that his Chrisianity allows him to forgive what was done to him even though he is mystified why he was attacked so brutally.

Others are not so forgiving, and not so mystified why an attempt on Rodger’s life happened.  In his 2011 autobiography .Me, the Mob, and the Music Tommy James (of Crimson and Clover fame) confidently states that the attack was a mob hit choreographed by Morris Levy, the president of Roulette Records It also included corrupt officials in the LAPD and The Medical Examiner’s Office.  Jimmie Rodgers had recorded with Roulette  between 1957 and 1960.  James also recorded for Roulette and claims that Rodgers had been seeking to recoup royalties from the millions of records he’d sold-and never been paid for.  It’s said by the time Rodgers left Roulette he was owed about $1.5 million.  That would be $12.405 million in today’s money.  At the time of Rodger’s leaving Roulette, their books claimed they had spent $26,000 on him and paid him $20,000….leaving Rodgers owing Roulette $6000.  This was the kind of outrageous way Levy ran Roulette Records.  It was almost wholly a criminal enterprise. This was the mileu Jimmie Rodgers had unknowingly gotten himself into..

James Frederick Rodgers  was born on September 18, 1933 in Camas Washington, a small town just north of Portland Oregon on the Washington side of the Columbia River.  Both of James’ parents worked for the Georgia-Pacific pulp mill that at the time dominated the working-class community.  James too would work there in order to pay for his time in college. Jimmie has said that he had never taken a music lesson in his life, but if that’s so, his mother would have been a very strong influence on his abilities.  Aside from work at the pulp mill Jimmie’s mother was an accomplished guitarist and piano player who did ocasional tutoring.  She also had played organ and piano to accompany silent movies as a young woman.  His mother was a devout Christian, a faith she instilled in her children.  It was this faith that Jimme later said pulled him through the darkest days after his 1967 beating.

James was brought up in a typical mid-century household that seems to have been fairly happy, but one thing he lovingly remembers his father, saying;

“My dad was a tough guy, They called him “Tuffy”…he was a little Irish guy.  He would never let my brothers or I complain about anything. If we went fishing and we said we were cold he wouldn’t take us fishing anymore. One time I had a big decision to go on a television show or something.  My dad never gave me any instruction at all.  When I asked my father about what I should do in that situation, him being a fighter said keep your right hand high and your ass off the floor”. He laughs. “That’s the only thing my father ever told me to do”

It’s been speculated that Jimmie’s name became spelled with an “ie” rather than the more common “y” by his mother. Their last name was spelled as the lesser-used “Rodgers”….like Jimmie Rodgers the father of country music.  Jimmie’s mother was a fan of the “Yodelling Brakeman, who had died the same year her son was born. Rather than calling him the more formal “James” the family used the more easy-going “Jimmy”  It’s also thought that she chose the spelling “Jimmie”-after Jimmie Rodgers.

In 1951 Jimmie graduated from Camas High School and went on to spend a year studying engineering at Clark College in nearby Vancouver Washington. In 1952  Jimmie put college aside  and joined the United States Air Force.  Since he had been taught how to use a rifle growing up, and was fairly proficient he ended up training other recruits in shooting.

In a 2015 interview with Dr. Roman Franklin (a/k/a Doctor Doo-Wop) Jimmie talked about his time in Korea.

“I was in Korea teaching weapons just off the front line so it was pretty rough. Back in the Quonset hut at night we’d sing and drink beer because there was nothing else to do. There was a couple of kids that could sing pretty good and they’d and sing from the behind me and they really had that black rhythm feel. I wrote a song “The Woman From Liberia” from the Bible-the story about the woman at the well, but I didn’t want to name it after a story in the Bible.  I wrote the song and I started playing it sitting on the foot locker, playing it alone with an open chord strum on my guitar and playing it at that tempo, and they’d back me.that could sing pretty good and they’ sing behind me and they really had that black rhythm feel. I started playing it sitting on the foot locker, playing it alone with an open chord strum on my guitar and playing it at that tempo, and that’s tough-every time you change keys it’s really tough.  By the time you hit that high note at the end your tired.

“So these kids would sit with me  and sing.  I didn’t have a recorder or anything and when I finally got back to America I lost track of them.  I didn’t even know their real names-just their first names, but later I recorded that song because I felt like doing it.  It’s a cool song.  It’s really fun to listen to.

As an aside; Jimmie refers to his black co-airmen as “kids” not out of disrespect, since he always referred himself and his fans as “kids”  He still uses the term  occasionally as a term of inclusion rather than as a veiled epithet.

Jimmie may not have ever seen his singing buddies from Korea again, but there was at least one incident of meeting a fellow black servicemen when he got back stateside. He was assigned to Sewart Air Force base at Smyrna Tennessee, Rodgers had a chance meeting with one of his black wartime buddies in the mess hall. They hugged, laughed and pounded each others backs.  A Staff Sergeant snarled aloud at seeing this white airman “hugging a nigger,” Rodgers pounced on him, beating  the larger man into submission.  Several other  soldiers pulled him off the Staff Sergeant Airman 2nd Class Rodgers pulled extra duty for a month “I never did learn how to handle prejudice,” he admitted to biographer Will Ruha.

Skin-based hatred made no sense to him. Ruha explains; “Such stupidity was anathema and intolerable, even if defending a friend meant month-long military reprisal. Even among the staunchest of southern racists, Rodgers signaled a message of moral courage and egalitarian defiance: beneath the skin we all bleed red. The kid with the guitar had guts”.

Rodgers’ reaction to discrimination fell squarely within the lessons he’d learned from his mother and the church.  It also fell squarely into the ideals of the folk music he loved so much.  Folk music was blind to color or ethnicity.  It’s roots lie in traditions from all cultures, all around the world.

While stationed at Sewart AFB he began singing in  Nashville.  In 2015 he said;
“I was working in bars-playing and singing in Nashville Tennessee. I was working in a little place in Printers Alley called “Club Unique”. I’d work about six hours a night…ten dollars a night and free drinks.  Then I’d play guitar and sing.  When I was working there the people that owned the place (Bob and Bobbi Green)  said ‘there’s a song we’d like you to hear’  They had it at home so I went over there and  I listened to it.  It  had been recorded by Georgie Shaw in 1954 and they taught me how to play it. I sat on the floor and learned it right there, and then in that little nightclub I’d play it every Friday or Saturday night during prime time…probably a dozen times and people liked it”

Although Georgie Shaw’s version of “Honeycomb”, the song the Greens had recommended, was largely ignored when it was released it had a good pedigree.  It was written by George Merrill.  Merrill wrote songs as diverse as “How Much is That Doggie in The Window” for Patti Page to “People” for.Barbra Streisand.  Merrill went on to write and produce some of the most popular musicals and songs of the 1960s and ‘70s and garnered eight Tony Award nominations.

After being discharged from the Air Force in 1956  Jimmie returned home to Camas Washington.  He found work  in small clubs around his hometown, in Portland and throughout the Northwest. For awhile he was living out his 1948 Buick.  Then he began to seek work up and down the west coast and eventually ended up in Los Angeles where he auditioned and appeared on CBS’s Art Linkletter’s House Party show in 1956. Once back home he began playing at The Fort Café in Vancouver Washington  One night Chuck Miller-who’d had a big hit with Mercury Records called “The House Of Blue Lights” walked into the club. He listened to Jimmie and encouraged him to set up an audition with Roulette Records in New York City.  At the time Roulette was an affiliate of Mercury. Much to Jimmie’s surprise, Miller was actually able to put in a good word for him.

“When I got out of the service me and my wife drove my old car to New York thinking ‘I’m gonna make it big’ and of course no one in any night club would listen to me. So I went to Roulette Records, which was then a little place on 10th Avenue.  I was trying to get enough money to get out of the hotel I was in, I didn’t have the money to pay them” he laughs” I played that song (Honeycomb) and the Roulette guy says to me ‘where did you get that song?’ I told him

They had already taken notice of Jimmie, both from Chuck Miller, but also from an appearance as a contestant on The Arthur Godfrey Show in a talent contest on the radio. Jimmie won $700 by performing “The Fox and the Go

They signed him on the spot.

“I went into a studio a couple of days later called Bell Sound”   In those days Bell Sound was a small two track-four track studio, which at the time was state-of-the-art and used by many successful singers.

“I did that song in an hour and they had three or four people I didn’t know.  I had no manager there.  My wife was sort of sick back at the hotel and she couldn’t come over.  After I finished I went outside to smoke a cigarette and they closed the closed the door and I couldn’t get back in.  So I was knocking on the door out there and the red light was on.  They thought I had gone home because I was so shy. I didn’t have any money because I’d taken a cab over there, so I had to walk several miles back to the hotel at night with my guitar and little amplifier.  I wanna tell you” he adds “ I didn’t know what I had done, but when I got to the hotel I told my wife “I did something pretty good”.

“So to make a long story short we had the money to go home really soon because I’d made some money in New York. We drove my old Buick all the way back to Washington State.  One day I’m outside washing the car and they played “Honeycomb” on the radio”. Jimmie recalls.

It became the first of a run of hits Jimmie Rodger’s cut for Roulette between 1957 and 1960. His debut single would become his biggest hit, charting at number one for seven weeks on the Billboard Top 100 in 1957. “Honeycomb” also reached number one on the R&B Best Sellers chart and number seven on the Country & Western chart. It was followed by a succession of hits. Those included “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”, “Bimbombey” and “Are You Really Mine?” Jimmies’ career eventually included more than 450 songs-40 of them being top ten hits.  He made hundreds of television appearances, had his own TV show and sang the theme song for 1958’s “The Long Hot Summer” starring Joanne Woodward, Orson Welles and Paul Newman. Angela Lansbury and Lee Remick were also featured.  The film was a huge success and garnered Paul Newman a Best Actor Oscar.  Jimmie played his song from the film at that year’s Academy Awards.  He admits he “was scared to death”

Jimmie Rodgers with The Crystals at Mascot Airport, Sydney Australia during their 1964 tour Down Under.

Jimmie’s screen debut as an actor came in 1961 with “The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come’  His next role was in 1964 in “Back Door To Hell” co-starring  a young Jack Nicholson. Neither did very well at the box office, but today “Back Door To Hell” is considered a classic of it’s genre-the WWII action drama.

He was also part of several Allen Freed’s and Dick Clark’s all-star touring shows with The Everly Brothers, LaVern Baker, Chuck Berry, Bobby Darin, Buddy Holly and others.  He became good friends with Buddy Holly since they usually roomed together while on tour.  Jimmie was not used to live performance and the audience reaction of screaming above his voice irritated him. He told Buddy how unhappy he was with the tours and had decided to quit.  Holly told him how important it was to continue, He was persuaded by Holly to remain.  After his good friend died, Jimmie committed himself to performing live in Buddy’s honor.

Despite his success with fans across the world, he had to work hard selling himself to promoters.

“I was never recognized as a “pop” singer….I was a folk singer…But they (the promoters) didn’t want that. I worked with Johnny Cash and people like that, but I wasn’t country. It wasn’t really pop so much.  Dick Clark didn’t know what to do with me because I really wasn’t rock and roll.  He really didn’t like it that much”

When Jimmie signed with Roulette Records the label gave their artists a great deal of creative control.  The downside was that the label hardly ever paid them.  The company was run by Morris Levy who had known ties to organized crime and Roulette was a money-laundering front for the Genovese family; one of the five mobs that ran of New York’s crime syndicates..  Despite the “downsides” Jimmie speaks fondly about his time in the studio while at Roulette

“Roulette Records was very smart. They had good producers (Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore) and knew how to work in the studio.  They let me just sing. I’d have a small glass of black brandy to clear my throat. I never warmed up my throat.  I didn’t do hours of warm-up.  I never had to”

“The technology then wasn’t like it is now.  We used to mix a little on the edge of the recording so it stayed on the edge of the vinyl.  When you do that the sound comes out a little more on the top edge instead of the bass.  Of course that vinyl would wear out more quickly, but now that you digitize it It’ll come back with that sound.  I would listen to the mix as much as I could and I would sit-in on the mix as much as I could”.  

“I would take a little tiny four-inch speaker and maybe a six inch speaker and set it on each side while we were working and bring the level down and put it right against your chest, right off the board so it would hit you right in the chest like your driving a car. I would mix on little car speakers and nowadays they mix on these huge speakers and I think it’s wrong because you get the normal sound’

Listening to mixes on crummy speakers is a trick that’s been used by producers, engineers and artists for a few decades.  During the golden age of Top-10 Radio it was presumed most hits would be heard on car radios or poor quality consumer audio (hi-fi) players.  It seems that Jimmie and his producers Hugo and Luigi had caught onto this technique earlier than most. These were singles created for fans, not audiophiles.

As for Morris Levy; Steve Kurutz of allmusic.com reports a contemporaneous record executive calling Morris “a notorious crook who swindled artists out of their owed royalties.” Levy’s birth name was Moishe and members of the record business called him that name.  In a  jazz-themed issue of Playboy it was written that “He is called Moishe by friends – and other one-syllable names by enemies.“. Levy was both respected for his business acumen and feared because it was no secret his success was the result of working with mobsters.

Levy had been born in The Bronx but moved to Brooklyn shortly after his father Simon died of pneumonia. He quit  school at the age of 13 after assaulting a teacher over what he considered an unjust order to re-do a math test that most of the class had failed-Morris himself had passed the test, but was also expected to take it again.  He later said:

“She looks at me and says ‘Levy, you’re a troublemaker.  I’m gonna get you out of this classroom if I have to take your family off home relief’  And I got up-I was a big kid-and took her wig off her head, pouted and inkwell on her bald head and put her wig back on her fucking head. Walked out of school and said ‘Fuck school.’  Never really went back to school after that.  I was sentenced to eight years to  reform school by the children’s court…The bitch had no fucking humanity” .

Levy says that after the incident he ran away to Florida to avoid a sentence in Juvenile detention. He ended up working in mob-owned clubs first as a hatcheck boy  and later as an assistant, developing photos for professional photographers who took pictures of customers in the clubs, developed them and sold them back to the customers before they left.  Both were lucrative jobs that could be done while skimming undocumented cash off the top.

After spending five months in the Navy Morris received an honorable  discharge based on his mother’s failing health.  He returned to Miami and  became more involved in the hatcheck rig which was a favorite of crime families to enter their ranks.  Skimming the proceeds from jukeboxes was also popular.

Levy convinced some of his “bosses” to buy a jazz club in New York City called “Topsy’s Chicken Roost”’ at 1580 Broadway.  It was a prime location for what he had in mind.  Levy would manage the club for a “finders fee” which included a piece of the club itself as well as a cut of the lucrative hatcheck proceeds.  He  partnered  up with a man named  Ralph Watkins. Watkins had been a jazz promoter since the 1930s and had ties to a myriad of jazz artists and their managers. So Levy and Watkins changed the name to “The Royal Chicken Roost” and later dropped the “chicken” altogether.  Levy took care of “business” and Watkins did the booking and promotion.

Soon the club was hosting be-bop greats such as Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker.  The Royal Roost became so closely associated with bop that it became known as “The Metropolitan Bopera House” and “The House that Bop Built.“.

In his 2016 essay “The Royal Room; The Birthplace of Bop”. Richard Carlin writes;

Things were going very well at the Royal Roost by 1949:  so well that Levy and Watkin’s apparently started to look for a larger space. According to Levy, Watkins failed to cut him into the new deal which involved opening a lavish new restaurant/night club on the second floor of The Brill Building at 48th and Broadway, to be called Bop City. Although significantly larger and more expensive to operate (rent alone was quoted as being $35,000 a year), Bop City mirrored the unusual admission policies and seating arrangements of the original club”.

This left Morris Levy to manage the Royal Roost, but he had bigger ambitions.  In 1949 he found a small space on Broadway named The Clique.  Levy rebranded it  “Birdland” in honor of Charlie Parker whose nickname was “The Yardbird”.  Eventually Parker became known simply as “The Bird”.  Although the club only held about 400 patrons, it went on to become the most important jazz venues of all time. Birdland was known for astonishing performances by the word;s best jazz players. This did not mean Birdland was above open mob violence.  In 1958, a man was gored to death with a piece of broken glass in the Birdland doorway. The crime went unsolved. Two weeks later Morris’s older brother, Irving, was killed at Birdland while Morris was off-duty.. The murder was said to be prompted by Morris Levy’s “business” connections. According to news reports, the suspects were described as a balding former convict and his wife, who has been convicted of prostitution.. The two were held without bail Saturday in the slaying of an assistant manager at Broadway’s Birdland. They were charged with the knife death of Zacariah (Irving) Levy, 36, at the Birdland club last Monday night.”

Kliph Nesteroff, wrote an essay on the WFMU blog called “Mobsters, Scoundrels, Comedians and Rat Finks”  In it he reports

“A few years later during a heated argument with a client, Morris intimidated his opponent, lecturing, ‘Do you know what I did to the bum who killed my brother? I fucking took a knife and stuck it in his fucking stomach – and I twisted it. I stuck it in his fucking stomach until his guts fell out.”

Author Steve Kurutz wrote about Levy being approached by a representative of ASCAP and told he must pay the publishing company a monthly stipend for the privilege of booking live music.’

Levy himself said
“A guy comes in from ASCAP and said he wanted money every month. I thought it was a racket guy trying to shake me down. I wanted to throw him out. And then he came back again and said he’s going to sue. I said, ‘Get the fuck outta here.’ I went to my lawyer and I says, ‘What is this guy? He keeps coming down, he wants money.’ My lawyer says, ‘He’s entitled to it. By act of Congress, you have to pay to play music.’ I said, ‘Everybody in the world’s gotta pay? That’s a hell of a business. I’m gonna open up a publishing company”.

Levy may not have known about publishing at the time, but he saw it as a way to increase his profit, so soon he’d set up his own publishing business. Patricia Publishing, with a view to acquire as many copyrights as possible. It wasn’t long before Levy learned how to manipulate the business to his own favor. Nesteroff adds that Levy demanded the rights to “all songs first performed in Birdland, including the venue’s soon-to-be-famous Lullaby of Birdland.  Morris amassed his royalty money and received a substantial loan from Thomas Eboli of the Genovese crime family. He had used the money to open Birdland.  Always the confidence man, Levy’s publishing company had a propensity for ludicrous claims. When Roulette artist Jimmie Rodgers recorded an album of Christmas songs, Morris Levy was listed as the composer of Silent Night.”

Levy was also engaged in adding his name (or a pseudonym) as a writer’s credit in order to collect some of the royalties for himself.  He hung onto his false songwriting royalties while refusing to hand out what was rightly due writers and artists, and often bragged how successful he’d become because of the practice.

Since the music business was essentially run by the mob, and Roulette having direct ties it’s not surprising that the label was a success out of the box.  One of its first signings was Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, in 1956. In 1955, The Teenagers (at that time calling themselves The Premiers) auditioned “Why do Birds Sing So Gay?” for  producer and owner of Gee Records, George Goldner. The group’s tenor, Herman Santiago, had written the song. He’d come across a letter that featured the words “Why do birds sing so gay?,” which fit in with the lyrics he’d been writing.  It became the working title of the song.

The harmonies were tweaked to take advantage of Frankie Lymon’s high tenor/soprano voice. During the audition for Goldner, Frankie’s voice stood out, so Goldner advised the band to give Frankie all lead vocals. Frankie did some of his own tweaking of the melody of Why do Birds Sing So Gay?” to match his voice and delivery.. According to Jimmy Merchant, “what happened at the recording session was a combination of Frankie’s singing ability coupled with George Goldner’s special ability to bring out the best in Frankie”.

Although “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” original release on Gee Records credited Frankie Lymon, Herman Santiago, and George Goldner as co-writers  later releases and cover versions were attributed only to Lymon and Goldner. Morris Levy dropped Golder’s credit and added his own name as a co-writer when he bought out Gee Records and re-released The Teenagers song on Roulette Records. It  reached Number one on the R&B chart, Number six on Billboard’s Pop Singles chart, and number one on the UK Singles Chart..  Levy made sure he controlled the publishing and himself as one of the songs writers.

Later, in 1981, after  Diana Ross had a top ten hit with “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” a major controversy concerning Lymon’s estate ensued. Zola Taylor, Elizabeth Waters and Emira Eagle each approached Levy as being the wife of Lymon, although Taylor had not divorced her previous husband before marrying Lymon. Lymon then married  Waters, but neglected to divorce her before marrying Eagle.  The saddest part of course was that Lymon had famously been found dead on the floor of his grandmother’s bathroom after a heroin overdose in 1968.. He was only 25 at the time.

A lengthy court battle ensued and  songwriting credits were awarded to Teenagers members Herman Santiago and Jimmy Merchant in December 1992. In 1996, the  ruling was overturned by the Court of Appeals  because the and authorship had run out due to the Statute of Limitations.  Santiago and Merchant had not brought the case to court earlier This decision gave the song rights back to Lymon (who had famously died in in 1968 of a heroin overdose) and Morris Levy  Since Lymon left no legal  heirs 100% of the copyright reverted to Levy.

Jimmie Rodgers would also find that the royalties illegally withheld from him for his years at Roulette would also fall outside the Statute of Limitations when he sought to recover them…  even though it was charged that Levy had engaged in fraud, and had even gone so far as to re-release and license Rodgers’ music even after Rodgers had left the label.

After Jimmie Rodger’s beating his career seemed to have ended. He went from one of the most visible people in the US to obscurity.  He’d had several modest hits since leaving Roulette-most of them were for Dot Records, where he also wore the hat of producer, head of A&R and director of Folk Music Dept. He remained at Dot until the mid to late 60’s.  Shortly before his assault he’d signed with A&M Records and seemed to be headed toward a come-back with the release of “Child of Clay” which became his last charting hit, peaking at number 31 on Billboard’s Top 100.

He’d also written the song “It’s Over” in 1966.  It would prove to be his most covered song, with renditions by Glen Campbell, Dusty Springfield (both in 1967),  Elvis Presley (1973), The Sweet Inspirations (2006) as well as a multitude of other notable stars.  In fact many of his compositions have become standards that have been recorded by many artists in many diverse genres.  One presumes that he receives his songwriters’ royalties from these recordings.

Eventually it was fans that would come to him rather than the other way around.  He began to show up on television, do live performances. The audiences weren’t as large as the 84,000 he’d played for at Chicago’s Soldier Field in April of 1958. They had not forgotten all of his hits, his appearances on Dick Clark’s Bandstand, The Ed Sullivan Show (three times), Perry Como, His poignant version of “Waltzing Matilda” used in the classic film “On the Beach” his playing the theme from “Long Hot Summer” at the 1958 Academy Awards,  the all-star tours and his personal appearances.  So Jimmie began touring again.  Because of the change in tasts of music by the mid-60s Jimmie Rodgers became less of a “pioneer of rock and roll” and thought more of an “adult-contemporary” artist-nearly a death sentence for most artists-but he continued and eventually was able to put together world-wide tours in sold-out venues.  Even though he tried to avoid the “oldies circuit” claiming he didn’t want audiences to think he hadn’t done anything after 1960, he finally relented. It was during this period that Jimmie would face the second greatest blow to his career.Spasmodic Dysphonia, a vocal ailment that affects the nerves and muscles that control the larynx.

During a tour of Australia and New Zealand he started having difficulties with his voice. The day of his opening night in Aukland he told his wife Mary that he was having problems wheezing and coughing.  He went on stage anyway.  Jimmie recalls he tried to sing “Honeycomb”

“At first air would come out and then the voice would catch.  I worked for an hour with that voice and I struggled all the way through.  When I came off I said “I don’t know what’s wrong”.  I got up the next day and it started again. I finished the tour but it was very difficult and by the time I got home I couldn’t even talk”

Though he’d  completely lost his voice, but he sought an answer and went through several voice instructors.  Eventually he was diagnosed, even though it was unclear what had caused it.  At one time doctors and researchers thought it may have been caused by a virus.  Some think it’s the result of an injury.  It’s hard to wonder if his beating was the cause of his Spasmodic Dysphonia, but the truth is, it could have been caused by a number of things.  Medicine has never found it’s cause nor it’s cure. Over the course of years of practice, determination and faith his voice partially returned.  It ended his career as a singer, but not as a performer. In 2010 he said:

“Before I talk on the phone I have to clear my voice. If I go to talk to somebody in a crowd they can’t hear me. I can’t do it. I can’t go to dinner and sit and carry on a conversation.  I’ve had it ( Spasmodic Dysphonia) now for 40 years and there’s no cure for it.  There’s a lot of people working on it now, but nobody really knows what it is or what causes it so I’ve had to live with that.  Like I said for awhile nobody would book me.  They think this guy can’t sing anymore but he can perform.Well that’s not true.  I’m doing a great show and there’s people out here who want to hear Jimmie Rodgers, and people who want to book Jimmie Rodgers.  I want to work and this is the time in my life that I think I sing better than I ever have”

Now in his later years (he’s 85) he still performs from time to time.  He uses a twist on a  technique that’s become all too common in today’s music business.  He does a great performance but uses tapes of his voice and sings over them.  The difference is that Jimmie is open about it with his audience.  He tells him what he’s doing, about his ailment and invites them to join in.

In many ways Jimmie Rodgers is a Renaissance Man.  In his Dr. Doo-Wop interview he said

“I’m writing every day.  I get up 6:30 every day and I’m writing to noon at at least to noon.  I’ve written three animated features.  I’m also writing screenplays.  I read a lot..I’m really kind of a hermit.  I’ve been married 35 years.  My wife is a retired  ballerina and dance instructor, and I teach golf.  I’m a certified golf teacher on the side”. He says in his 70s he was running 10 kilometers a day.  Now he only does it every other day. Jimmie has also written his autobiography, ‘Dancing On The Moon’ and a screenplay for its motion picture adaptation.  It’s been described as

“ a highly charged emotional autobiography, detailing the savagery of the recording business, his brutal beating by an off-duty Los Angeles policemen and many other answers to “What Ever Happened To Jimmie Rodgers?

Jimmie’s bio calls ‘Dancing On The Moon “’A true story that is uplifting and yet tragic as it describes his journey through the Mafia power of some of the music business to the high road of success that can changes lives”.

For the time being Jimmie and his wife Mary stay busy around their Palm Springs home, and make regular trips back to Camas as well as Seattle where he maintains his management. In 2013 he made one of his trips to his hometown to have a street named after him. On September 13th NW 10th Avenue became Jimmie Rodgers Avenue.  His hometown paper, The Columbian reported that as a kid Jimmie would take his soapbox racer to the top of the hill and zoom down it like hell on four wheels. Even as a youngster, Rodgers knew there’d be one of two outcomes on that street.

“I’d either get killed on this street,” Rodgers said with a chuckle, “or I’d have my name on it.”

Morris Levy’s life did not end on such a high note.  After a 3 ½ year investigation by the FBI a case was levelled against Levy for the extortion of John LaMonte, a record wholesaler from Darby, Pennsylvania. LaMonte had agreed to purchase records valued at $1.25 million in a 1984 deal.   He subsequently refused to pay the full price, claiming that the best titles had been removed from a 60-truck delivery. It was claimed that Levy extorted the money from him and LaMonte received a fractured eye socket along with the deal.  Levy had sold Roulette Records and his publishing rights for $55 million during the investigation.  The FBI knew Levy had long used Roulette Records as a front for Vincent Gigante and the Genovese family.  Now they were able to prove it through covertly recorded conversations and wiretaps of Levy and of Gaetano Vastola,  part owner of Roulette.

During its investigation, the FBI determined  that Levy had used the Roulette as a front for the mob.  Much of the trial evidence came from covertly recorded conversations taken from wiretaps and listening devices planted in the phones and business offices of Levy and Gaetano Vastola. After Gaetano’s conviction for his part in the extortion of John LaMonte he became a cellmate of another notorious criminal, John Gotti.  Gotti was convinced that Gaetano would turn state’s witness in the case and he would be caught up in it. When Gotti was released, he pressured New Jersey’s DeCavalcante family boss John Riggi to murder Gaetano. The FBI were able to catch wind of the plot.. In the end Gotti and the DeCavalcante leadership, including Riggi and Stefano Vitabile (another mobster) were  tried and convicted of conspiracy to murder Vastola.

Morris Levy was convicted in December 1988 by a Federal jury of two counts of conspiring to extort the money from LaMonte. Others were convicted, along with Roulette’s controller Howard Fisher and Dominick Canterino who was part of the Genovese crime family.  The FBI also testified that Levy had also been a major supplier of heroin for a Philadelphia drug dealer, Roland Bartlett. Levy was sentenced to ten years in prison in 1988 and fined $200,000.  Levy appealed his conviction. Canterino was sentenced to 12 years in prison, and Lamonte did indeed testify for the state.  He then entered the federal witness protection program.

While he was awaiting his appeal Morris Levy was free on bail, obviously through money he’d stolen from many of the Roulette artists. In October of 1989 Levy’s conviction was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. In January 1990, Levy’s lawyers petitioned to have his sentence eliminated because of his failing health. It was rejected, but he was granted a 90-day stay.  He was scheduled to report to prison on July 16, 1990 but died on May 20, 1990 after a long, painful battle with cancer.


For all the ups and downs in Jimmie Rodger’s life there has been  poetic justice.  He’s lived through corrupt cops, dishonest business dealings, beatings, mobsters, lean times and ill health yet it could not stop him. Instead he has lived a long life, found success, lost it, then regained it.  He has worked despite the Spasmodic Dysphonia that took his voice from him. He loves his wife dearly and enjoys his life far more than he could ever have imagined as a kid in Camas Washington.   It’s hard to look at his life without considering the advice his father had given him years earlier:  

“Keep your right hand high and your ass off the floor” his father Tuffy told him. “I don’t quit”says Jimmie.  “I don’t know how to quit. Nobody ever told me how to quit”

 

 

-Dennis R. White; Sources-Gary James “Interview with Jimmie Rodgers (www.classicbands.com, retrieved January 6, 2018); Dr. Doo-Wop “Jimmie Rodgers Interview” (June 4, 2014); Troy Lennon “The Mystery of Jimmie Rodgers’ Bashing” (The Daily Telegraph

The Black And White Affair

Ask a Seattle music fan what were the great periods of Seattle music. Most would quickly name “Grunge” and The Seattle Sound of the late 80s until the mid-90s.  (Pearl Jam, TAD, Soundgarden, etc.)  Some would recall the first successful era I Seattle music-the days of the 50/60s teen-dances that spawned The Northwest Sound; The Wailers, The KIngsmen, Don and The Good Times, The Sonics, among others.  To many there’s not much worthwhile in between The Northwest Sound and The Seattle Sound except for a smattering of arena acts like Heart, a handful of great psychedelic outfits, a few rock festivals or the inventive punk and post punk of bands like the U-Men, The Blackouts or Student Nurse.

Then ask the same fan to name the great black and African American artists the Northwest has produced. Inevitably the first name that will come up is Jimi Hendrix.  Then maybe silence…a few folks might mention Ray Charles or Quincy Jones; but to be honest, Ray Charles was a Florida import biding his time in the Jackson Street clubs before chasing real fame elsewhere.  Charles had been born in Albany Georgia, but spent most of his formative years in St. Augustine, Orlando, Jacksonville and Tampa…not Seattle.

Quincy Jones is an (almost) native son, having been born in Chicago, then moving to Bremerton at age 10, and finally to Seattle. Jones left Seattle at a fairly early age after time at Seattle’s famous Garfield High.  It was here that Quincy Jones and Ray Charles first met. Neither would have imagined the mark they’d leave on American music.  Jones reminisced in a 2005 PBS American Masters episode focusing on his career: “When I was 14 years old and Ray Charles was 16, our average night went like this: We played from seven to 10 at a real pristine Seattle tennis club, the white coats and ties, [playing] ‘A Roomful of Roses’ . . . From 10 to about one o’clock, we’d go play the black clubs: The Black and Tan, The Rocking Chair, and The Washington Educational and Social Club-which is a funny name, funkiest club in the world. We’d play for strippers and comedians and play all the Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and Roy Milton stuff, all that R&B. It was a vocal group. Then, at about 1:30 or 2 a.m., everybody got rid of their gigs and we went to the Elks Club to play hardcore bebop all night long . . .” Jones attended one semester at Seattle University, then onto The Berklee School of Music in Boston.  By 1952 he was touring Europe playing trumpet with Lionel Hampton.  He became a jazz composer, arranger, writer and player.  This was years before his enormous recognition as one of the world’s premier record producers and well-respected music executive and philanthropist.

As for Jimi Hendrix, aside from being born in Seattle he also left quite young. The truth about Hendrix is that he does not really belong to Seattle.  His success is rooted in his teen years in Seattle and his success in New York City and London, but he belongs to the world, (maybe even more) and continues to be a world-wide icon of the guitar and rock stardom.  When he died there were as many tears shed in London, Paris or Rome as in his hometown.

Who does this leave? One could argue Sir-Mix-a-Lot, who, after all is said and done, had only one huge hit…but it’s a hit that has done well for himself and even today is part of the cultural consciousness. that went into more detail of the musicians and landscape of Seattle’s black community in the 60s and 70s.

The fact is that (mostly white, rock-oriented) writers and critics completely ignore the incredible history of Funk and Soul music that came out of Seattle from the mid-60s up ‘til the mid 70’s. This era stands up as well as any other musical movement Seattle has ever created..but few people will admit this.  Even today “best of” lists mostly ignore black artists-or artists of any ethnicity other than white. Read any journalists’ or magazines top roster of Seattle bands.  It’s unlikely to find any band that isn’t white…or at least maybe having a mixed-ethnicity member.  Black music seems to be relegated to separate jazz, hip-hop or other genres not accepted as “mainstream”.  It’s nice to see that this attitude has evolved for the betterover the past few decades., but there is still a dearth of coverage of Seattle’s ethnic music scene

That passing-over was partly rectified in 2004 when Light In The Attic Records released “Wheedle’s Groove: Seattle’s Finest In Funk & Soul 1965-75”. The album was a compilation of Northwest underground and long-forgotten singles written and performed by a group of sensational talent.  When the album was released critics around the world took note and the album was almost universally acclaimed as a collection of long-lost masterpieces.  It’s fair to say that the Seattle’s recorded funk and soul sounds only scratch the surface and is a genuine musical movement that should be looked at as a third great Seattle flourishing of creativity in spite of that. The discovery of Seattle’ thriving funk and soul era seems to have been spurred on by DJ Supreme La Rock.(real name Danny Clasevilla) an obsessive collector of esoteric and hard-to-find records.

Closevilla says “I met with the owner of the Light in the Attic label (Matt Sullivan) for lunch one day and he asked me if I could re-release anything what would it be? I said all these Seattle funk 45s I have”.  DJ Supreme had come across several Seattle singles in used-record bins by bands he’d never heard of.  It was the beginning of a love-affair between him and the Seattle funk of the 60s and 70S.  Clasevilla went on to curate the album “Wheedle’s Groove: Seattle’s Finest In Funk & Soul 1965-75” which was the first commercial release to highlight a mostly forgotten era of Seattle’s rich music history.  The album caused such a great amount of interest that by 2009 a documentary film (by Jennifer Maas) explaining and re-visiting the rise and fall of Seattle funk.  Members of the bands Cold, Bold & Together as  well as The Black and White Affair are featured prominently.   Former radio station  KYAC owner and  DJ Robert Nesbitt noted in the liner notes to the album;

“There was a minimum of twenty live-music clubs specializing in funk and soul, and all those joints jammed. There must have been twenty-five hard-giggin’, Superfly-like, wide-leg-polyester-pant-and-platform-shoes-wearing, wide-brim-hat-and-maxi-coat-sportin’, big-ass, highly-“sheened”-afro-stylin’, Kool & the Gang song-covering live bands playing four sets a night from 8 p.m. ‘til O-dark-thirty in the morning. And of course, the ladies were not to be outdone with their Pam Grier-Foxy Brown hoop earrings, mini-skirts and the ever- popular Afro Puffs. Each night, some band, somewhere, was kickin’ it. You could find Manuel Stanton of ‘Black and White Affair’ doing flips while playing bass on a Monday at the Gallery. Meanwhile, you might catch Robbie Hill, flashing like a Christmas tree in a red rhinestone-studded jumpsuit, matching red Big Apple cap and the huge hair, keeping the beat for his band Family Affair at the District Tavern. The Dave Lewis Trio, the highly stylized Overton Berry and the ultra-funky Johnny Lewis Quartet regularly played the Trojan Horse, while Cold, Bold & Together was house band at the legendary Golden Crown Up. Cookin’ Bag, with their heavy horn vibe was a major draw from Perls’ Ballroom in Bremerton to Soul Street”.

The album includes tracks by Patrinell Staten (aka Pastor Pat Wright), Ron Buford, Cookin’ Bag, Overton Berry and Cold, Bold and Together (featuring a very young man named Kenny Gorelick-now known as Kenny G.) All of these bands should have their names in the funk and soul firmament, but the world isn’t fair; especially in the case of the finest stand-out bands on the compilation; The Black and White Affair.  All the artists-or the ones still remaining are also subjects of the film-each giving their account of their musical endeavors.

Three songs by The Black and White Affair are included “Wheedle’s Groove: Seattle’s Finest In Funk & Soul 1965-75”. which at the time were three of the four known surviving tapes.  The songs themselves include the early funk single “Sweet Soul Lady”, and later “Bold Soul Sister, Bold Soul Brother”. Both singles brought them brief attention-but more importantly kept them working for years.

Sweet Soul Lady” (backed with “Until The Real Thing Comes Along”) was engineered and recorded by the iconic Kearney Barton at his Audio Recording Inc. studio near downtown Seattle2227 Fifth Avenue2227 Fifth Avenue.  The single was released on Topaz Records, a label founded in 1950s by John Hill and Rick Wheeldon. In 1961 Barton took possession of the label because of a debt owed him by Hill and Wheeldon. Barton began using the label as a cheap, efficient outlet for local bands to record and release small runs of 45’s. Practically no one with the fees to record was turned away.  The one downside of Topaz Records was that since everything was done on the cheap there were no music promoters to “work” the singles to radio stations across the country. Consequently a single might do well in the Seattle regional market, but get absolutely no airplay in any other part of the country.  Seattle had a tremendous amount of talent but as many writers and historians have pointed out, the weak link was there were no successful labels catering to the African American audience. No Stax (Memphis), no Motown (Detroit), no Chess Records (Chicago) to grab them up and give them first-class promotion and distribution. Most Funk and Soul artists  from this era recorded and release very small runs of 7’ singles that very local record shops could stock, but most seem to have been sold out of the trunks of band members at their gigs.  This is a DIY strategy that was common in the 1960s with all sorts of bands, and is still common among bands looking for wider audiences and to make back the cost of their records.

Quincey Jones’s brother, Lloyd, worked as an engineer at local radio station KYAC. KYAC was known as one of the few west coast radio stations that exclusively targeted the African American community during the mid- 60s.  The station was practically the soul of Seattle’s black community, picking up interest from people of all ethnicities who enjoyed deep soul and funk as well as a way to keep up with local funk bands that KYAC always included in their playlists.  It’s said that one day a DJ didn’t show up and the stations’ manager told Lloyd to fill-in for the missing disc jockey.  Lloyd was out of his depth, but continued to progress as a DJ radio personality.  It didn’t hurt his reputation that he was the younger brother of Quincy.  It’s said he had sent his older brother a copy of “Sweet Soul Lady” after it became the station’s number one hit.

Although in 2009 Quincy Jones claimed he didn’t remember The Black and White Affair, they were, in fact, offered a contract by Jones’s label. Calvin Law, the de facto leader of The Black and White Affair, later joked that the band was so eager about the contract that they got to Los Angeles before the signed contracts arrived at the labell.  Soon The Black and White Affair were playing Los Angeles clubs as prestigious such as The Factory, The Whisky, Gazzari’s, The Coconut Grove, The Daisy Chain, The Greek Theater, and Club Arthur. Their foray into the Hollywood music scene didn’t last long.  They would find themselves back in Seattle because of “some conflicts”

Kearney Barton remembers  their “conflicts” a bit differently than the band. “The Black on White Affair’s “Sweet Soul Lady,” was recorded and issued on Barton’s Topaz label..  When the song went #1 on KYAC, Barton contacted Scepter/Wand Records, about getting wider distribution.  They showed interest. Barton told the band members the good news, but, they informed him they had already made a deal with Quincy Jones. Barton got suspicious when they asked him to call Jones, to seal the deal.

“I’d been friends with Quincy, done some work for him,” recalls Barton. “So I called and told him I had this record that was #1, and he said, ‘Hey, that sounds great. Send me a copy!'” But the minute Barton mentioned the artist, Jones’ disposition changed. “He said, ‘I don’t want to hear their name.'” Barton was stunned: “They told me they had a deal with you.”

“They did have a deal, until they started telling me how to run my label,” said Jones.

Barton tried again to get Scepter to pick up the band, but it was too late.  The Black and White Affair would go on to record several more tracks with Barton and issue one more single in 1970 (“Bold Soul Sister. Bold Soul Brother” b/w “A Bunch of Changes”. Both are super-funky masterpieces – but once again the band was saddled by not having a label deal and ended up releasing them on Topaz and selling them locally.  In a 2009 interview with Barton, he seems apologetic, but the fact is he was an engineer and a producer-not a front-line man for a major label.  He had far too much work recording than to make calls on radio DJs and organizing marketing strategies. The Black and White Affair missed their boat.  Eventually Sausage Records (France) would re-release the single, but since it’s an import it’s still hard to locate.  Although the band had lost their chance at a national label they continued to be extremely popular with African-American audiences.  In 2005 Pitchfork Magazine wrote of their recording  “Bold Soul Sister Bold Soul Brother” (which is the opening track of the album “Wheedle’s Groove: Seattle’s Finest In Funk & Soul 1965-75”) and the documentary film based on it.

“One constant was Hammond C3 player and vocalist Calvin Law who you hear all over this track and who’s energy, powerful vocals, and his leading the band often with live impromtu arranging of the songs were a big part of the band’s electrifying sound. One can’t help but think of Ike and Tina’s different but similarly titled, more well-known… “Bold Soul Sister”. ( haven’t actually nailed down an exact date for BOWA’s track [1968]) and I gotta say from this track’s first opening machine gun snare hits, crunching drums, screeching organ and super tight and funky syncopated cymbal to the laid back swagger of the main guitar tag line and balls out soulful vocals”.

DJ Supreme also observed;

“The drums were crazy, and as the opening credits roll, we hear what he means: After a few ragged organ stabs, “Bold Soul Sister” goes into a clanging drums-only breakdown, hip-hop ore requiring only basic looping to become an instant rap song or b-boy soundtrack.

After their return to Seattle, The Black and White Affair continued to be a popular live act.  In 2004, Tony Gable, a former member of Cold, Bold and Together told writer Kurt B. Reighley that the scene back then was more about enjoying the live performances, and showing off elaborate 60s and 70s soul outfits rather than anything getting out of hand.

“Violence wasn’t a problem, but racism was”says Tony Gable, a former member of Bold, Cold & Together, and a professional musician in the years since. “No matter how popular they became, African-American acts were unwelcome in particular venues. “There was a distinguishable degree of prejudice in the scene in the ’70s,” he recalls. “There were certain agencies that would not book you, certain clubs we could not play. One time, we went to play a club–I think it was an Elks Lodge, in the North End–and they thought we were just moving the equipment, and asked where the band was. And I said, ‘We are the band.’ And they wouldn’t let us perform.” Gable recalls how almost everyone in town was positive the Pacific Northwest would be the next hot spot. Not only were bands coming out of New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, but even Dayton, Ohio spawned big groups (Ohio Players, Zapp).

“A lot of us were expecting somebody to come discover us,” admits Gable. “For Quincy Jones to be sitting in the audience one night. That was one of the major mistakes we made. You pretty much had to leave, like Jimi Hendrix did, and go someplace else to get famous.” Although the bands didn’t “make it” Kearney Barton and other engineers had saved recorded tapes. The Black and White Affair’s two singles were found along with a surprisingly soulful version of “Auld Lang Syne” and a long-lost track called “Funky Manuel” celebrating Manuel Stanton’s accomplished, funky bass playing.  The Black and White Affair spent years changing both drummers and names.  The names ranged from The Black and White Affair to The Black on White Affair, and The Black on Black Affair.  The last iteration of the band was “The Family Affair” which included Robbie Hill, the only remaining member of the band’s stream of drummer. “The Family Affair” also cut some great records, and had success as a touring band.  The band’s name was appropriate since most of the members were actually related to Robbie Hill.  All the other Black and White Affairs members had left the group because of money pressures, boredom, the simple desire to move on or alcohol.

So in the end what killed the Seattle funk scene and great bands like The Black and White Affair? The lack of radio play? Hard times? Not enough venues? To almost a single one of the musicians interviewed for the film “Wheedle’s Groove” the answer is one word: Disco.

Disco brought less trouble for owners, managers and bookers of clubs. It was cheaper to play recorded music. No hard to deal with band managers or drunk and high artists.  To be sure audio, video and lighting equipment for disco have become wildly expensive. Especially for EDM shows; but back in those days patrons were often used to more mediocre sound systems and it wasn’t long before audio engineers upped their games.  Then there’s the fact tha audiences not glued to the performance were more liable to spend more money at the bar.

The truth is that disco was a hard hit for many regional artists, while at the same time serving-up a thriving business for club owners. The best we can hope for-and what seems to have been delivered-is a love for the now-obscure artists, like The Black and White Affair, and a love of being incredibly overjoyed to hear the beats of something unknown from the past.   There are plenty of undiscovered singles and bands out there.  This is the lesson the great Seattle funk and soul bands have left us.  It’s also the invaluable lesson DJ Supreme La Rock has given to the entire world.  One person endlessly looking for rare records might end up unearthing an essential part of music history. Tenacity pays off whether it’s by an individual, a musician or a person with a dream.

 

– Dennis R. White. Sources; “Wheedle’s Groove; The AD Interview” (Aquarium Drunken, aquariumdrunkard.com/2011/05/16/wheedles-groove-the-ad-interview/retrieved Dec. 25, 2017); “Wheedles Groove” (Documentary film, directed by Jennifer Maas 2009); “Programming Aids” (Billboard Magazine, May 4, 1968); Russel Simins, Judah Bauer “Tracks From Van #9, The (The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Facebook, May 29, 2014); Andrew Matson ‘Thoughts on ‘Wheedle’s Groove,’ old-school Seattle soul/funk documentary at Seattle International Film Festival” (Seattle Times, May 18, 2010); Paul DeBarros “Funk and Soul History” (Seattle Times,2004, reprinted “Jackson Place; Heart of Seattle” retrieved December 25, 2017) “The Black On White Affair; Bold Soul Sister, Bold Soul Brother” (discogs.com, retrieved December 25, 2017); DJ Supreme la Rock “Rare Unreleased Black On White Affair” (True Player For Real, December, 21, 2008); Robert Nebitt “Wheedle’s Groove: Seattle’s Finest In Funk & Soul 1965-75” (Light In The Attic, lightintheattic.net, retrieved December 25, 2017); Andrew Gilstrap “Wheedle’s Groove: Seattle’s Forgotten Soul of the 1960’s and ’70s” (PopMatters, MY 10, 2011); Lily Mao “Slow And Steady: Engineer Kearney Barton Stays the Course 50 Years On With Wheedle’s Groove” (Electronic Musician, Oct 31, 2009; Kurt B. Reighley “The Big Payback; Seattle’s Old-School Funk & Soul Scene Finally Gets Its Due” (The Stranger, August 19, 2004); Dave Segal “Wheedle’s Groove Spotlights Seattle’s Rich Soul/Funk History” (The  Stranger, May 26, 2010); Greg Barnes “Black & White Affair, Seattle Washington, 1967-1974” (Pacific Northwest Bands, August 2002); “Wheedle’s Groove” (NW Film Forum Calendar, retrieved December 25, 2017); Case Bloom “Interview With DJ Mr Supreme aka Supreme La Rock” (Tucker and Bloom, September 3, 2014);  Quintard Taylor “The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle’s Central District From 1870 Through The Civil Rights Era” (University of Washington Press, 1994);  Joe Tangari “Wheedle’s Groove; Seattle’s Finest Soul and Funk 1965-1975” (Pitchfork Magazine, April 12, 2005); Still photo of The Black and White Affair taken from the film “Wheedle’s Groove” Photographer unknown.

Gail Harris, The Fabulous Wailers and Spanish Castle Magic

Gail Harris was a seasoned pro by the time she first appeared with Tacoma’s Fabulous Wailers at the age of 13.  By 1959 Tacoma’s Fabulous Wailers had made it as a regional powerhouse as well as made their national mark.  Their first single, the instrumental “Tall Cool One” b/w Roadrunner (released in June of 1959) had made the Billboard charts at number 36. Shortly after “Long Cool One” fell off the charts the band released a second single, Mau-Mau b/w Dirty Robber. (August 1959). They’d made an appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and on The Allen Freed Show, and done a tour of the East Coast.

In December of 1959 Golden Crest  released an album to capitalize on their success.  The album was simply named ‘The Fabulous Wailers”. Golden Crest was eager to have the band relocate to New York City, but the band declined (probably under orders of their parents) and returned to the Northwest.  Golden Crest soon lost interest in promoting them even though they were still under contract with the label. Golden Crest would eventually drop them but their contract would, for the immediate future create some problems.

Shortly after returning to the Northwest the band took on a new singer and frontman,”Rockin’ RobinRoberts (Lawrence Fewell Roberts II). Roberts had previously worked with another Tacoma band, ‘Little Bill and The Bluenotes”. Along with Rockin’ Robin” Roberts came dissension. Roberts had pushed for a souped-up version of a song written in 1956 by  Richard Berry. The song  Roberts was pushing  for, Louie Louie  was originally inspired by the song “El Loco Cha Cha” written by Cuban-American René Touzet.  It had been a popular song performed live in the 1950s by Ricky Rillera and the Rhythm Rockers in Southern California while Berry was sitting in with The Rhythm Rockers for some time before he created Louie Louie around the “El Loco’s” lead riff.  Berry later said;

“I took some Latin, some calypso, some pop, threw it all in and came up with ‘Louie Louie’.

It was decided in order to get by The Wailers’ contract with the now disinterested Golden Crest, Louie Louie would be released under the artist name “Rockin’ Robin” Roberts even though the recording would actually be recorded by The Wailers.  Buck Ormsby has claimed that Gail Harris also took part of The Wailers final arrangement of Louie Louie.  The band rightly assumed that listeners and DJ’s would know the song was actually The Wailers despite whoever the label said the artist was. However this didn’t set well with guitarist John Greek and he was promptly dismissed by The Wailers and replaced by John “Buck” Ormsby, another recent member of The Bluenotes.  Buck Ormsby has also credited Gail Harris in helping arrange Louie Louie

The band had a plan for how they should move forward, but without a record label no one believed they could succeed, and would probably fall into oblivion. During a meeting in late summer of 1960 the band came up with a solution. The band would form their own label and self-release their records.  Although thousands of small labels were  thriving throughout the US, not many actually belonged to the bands themselves.  Not every one of The Wailers could afford to take part in the scheme so Ormsby, Roberts and  Morrill financed this very risky project in an equal partnership. They chose the name Etiquette.

The Wailers had begun as an instrumental band (like many of the original NW Sound artists) but with the addition of Rockin’ Robin Roberts they set out to imitate the R&B “revues” that were popular at the time…one band backing several featured singers.  Obviously the main attraction was “Rockin’ Robin” but soon the band added a “girl singer” from Puyallup, Gail Harris.  Harris had appeared on The Bar-Kay Jamboree, a weeky show hosted by Buck Owens  and aired simultaneously on radio KAYE and KTNT TV.  Buck’s regular band (The Bar-K Gang) included Don Rich who would become Owen’s best friend and one of the architects of the Bakersfield Sound, Dusty Rhodes and a young guitarist named Nokie Edwards.  Gail Harris was a regular guest. Some of the Bar-K’s other guests included Don Wilson and Bob Bogle (then known as The Versatones) Nancy Claire, who would become the most sought-after guest singer in the Northwest, and Loretta Lynn in her first television appearances.  Later Nokie Edwards would leave Buck’s band and join Don Wilson and Bob Bogle to form The Ventures.  Zero Records would find Lynn through Buck’s show and release Loretta’s first hit, “Whispering Sea” b/w“I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” in March of 1960. “Whispering Sea” didn’t get much traction, but the b-side “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl” hit number 14 in the country charts, and as they say,  Loretta became an overnight success after years of hard work in postage stamp sized venues, and travelling and sleeping in the car with her husband , Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn.  They tried to hit every radio station and every interview they could find.  Much of her eventual success came down to selling her record out of the back of their car.

Buck Owens wanted Gail Harris to become a regular member of his “gang” but Harris’s first love was R&B and she was already pursuing her dreams diligently practicing her favorite R&B artists and honing her stage presence at home.  From the beginning of her 2-3 year stint with The Wailers she must have blown the bobby socks and tenny-runners off every largely teen-aged audiences.   Gail could be compared to both Little Brenda Lee with the clarity of her voice and occassional growl, and the growl of Tina Turner and her occassional clarity.  Gail’s love of R&B made the Ike and Turner 1960 hit “I Idolize You” one of her signature songs, and blew the house down every time she performed it-or just about any other soul/R&B song she sang.

It didn’t hurt that Gail Harris also looked well beyond her actual age and could be just as demure as her ravaging onstage singing.  Her version of “I Idolize You” would show up later of The Wailers groundbreaking live album, “The Fabulous Wailers at The Castle” The live album is one of the NW Sound/garage rock’s most important albums and set high standards that other bands would try to emulate-but not quite get to. The album also included her interpretation of the Jimmy Davis penned  “All I Could Do Was Cry” that had been made famous by Etta James.  The performance was rounded out with four numbers sung by “Rockin Robin” Roberts and two by Kent Morrill.  The album (recorded by Joe Boles and produced by Ormsby, Morrill and promoter/DJ/entreprenuer Pat O’Day) was an immediate  regional hit when it was released.

“The Castle” in the title of the album referred to is the long-gone Spanish Castle (demolished in 1968)  It’s also the inspiration of Jimi Hendrix’s “Spanish Castle Magic”. The Spanish Castle had been built as a gaudy, illuminated, faux-crenelated roadhouse and dance hall built in 1931.  It had seen many swing and jazz bands in it’s earlier years-especially at the height of it’s popularity in the 1940s; but by the late 50’s it had also been a home for teen dances. One might even wonder if Hendrix was there the night the Wailers recording was made.  It’s been reported by many that The Wailers was, at the time, Jimi’s favorite local band and Rich Dangle was his favorite guitarist.   In fact a young Hendrix had even played several times on the Castle’s stage.  According to Northwest music historian Peter Blecha, in the mid-80s Pat O’Day told him;

… Jimmy would come out to the Spanish Castle and would bring his Gibson amplifier with him. And, people were always blowing amplifiers [back] then. And bands would only carry one or two amplifiers. So one night, I forget who was playing — I think it was the Checkmates who blew their amp — and Jimmy’s deal was: It was his amp: He got to play on stage. So, he’s on the side of the stage and he played his axe”

Other acts that were booked into the Spanish Castle were Gene Vincent ,Johnny Burnette, Roy Orbison, and Jan and Dean, Jerry Lee Lewis, as well as dozens of other local and national bands making their way up the ladder.

One other act to record a classic live recording at The Spanish Castle was Ernest Tubb and The Texas Troubadors. The performance was caught on tape one night in September 1965 by former Texas Troubador, Jan Kurtis Skugstad. Tubb had given the engineer/producer permission to record the show even though Tubb was then under contract with Decca Records. Tubb asked Skugstad to be “discreetwith the tapes. Skugstad had founded his own label, Camelot Records in 1964, but did not release the tapes.  In fact, Skugstad held onto the tapes until long after Tubb’s death in 1984 and they finally saw the light of day in 1998.  They are a remarkable artifact of country music and northwest  history.

But it’s here that we return to the story of Gail Harris.  Because of her popularity she eventually became a “permanent” member of The Wailers-inasmuch as the ever-changing line-up could have any “permanent members” outside the core players. A trio of backup singers (Marilyn Lodge, Penny Anderson and Kay Rogers) were hired to back Gail up. The trio were known as “The Marshans.” According to one of the trio, Marylyn Lodge

Pat O’Day actually named us. He thought we needed a name that would be remembered and that would be great to introduce: ‘and here they are, the fabulous MarSHANS!’ But I can’t tell you how many times it was pronounced MARshans (as in Martians)!

However their name was pronounced (or mispronounced) they became a popular addition to The Wailers “revue”. The Mar SHANS had originally been inspired by Ike and Tina Turner’s Ikettes, but the world of teen dances would never allow the sexuality (or state of undress) of The Ikettes. The Marshans were far more sedate.

Gail also recorded a single of her own in 1961. It was Etiquette’s third single “Be My Baby” b/w “So Much”. The A-side was written by Fabulous Wailer Kent Morrill, and not a cover of the song later popularized by The Ronettes-which, by the way, wasn’t even released until 1964.

Finally in late 1962 Gail left the Wailers in pursuit of a solo career. She changed her name’s spelling to “Gayle” and in 1963 she cut a single for Carlton Records (“”).   It didn’t create sparks, but Billboard magazine gave “Hurt” four stars.  Another single for Carlton was “released in September (“They Never Taught That At School” b/w “Don’t Make The Angels Cry”  did well regionally and Billboard said;

“Here’s one of the best sides from the label in a good spell. It’s a good rocking teen groover with much of the Detroit sound about it and the lyric packs a wallop. Action already indicated in the West, and it could take off everywhere…”

Despite Billboard’s hopeful prediction “Here Comes The Hurt” didn’t pick up elsewhere, although in the last couple of decades the song has re-emerged and been included in several 60s, and “girl group” compilations. Gayle found her way to a San Francisco and came to the attention of arranger/producer Don Costa.  Costa had an impressive C.V. Starting as a side-musician in New York City, Costa eventually worked up to the position of arranger for Steve Lawrence and his wife, Eydie Gormé.  Soon he found himself as head of A&R and house arranger at ABC  Records.  His first big launch was a young Canadian singer by the name of Paul Anka. In 1959 Costa and Steve and Eydie moved over to United Artists Records where he continued to arrange for the couple, but was also carving out his own place as a recording act. Apart from his arranging skills, Costa was a guitarist. In 1956 and ‘57 he released two 45s on ABC-Paramount using the alias “Muvva “Guitar” Hubbard. His first release was “Ponytail” was an R&B instrumental. b/w “Congo Mombo”His second release was a cover of “Raunchy” originally recorded by Bill Justis. The b-side was appropriately named “The Other Side”. Apart from his arranging skills, His 1960 version of the Manos Hatzidakis penned “Never On A Sunday” (originally known as “Ta paidia tou Peiraia” in Greek) sold over one million copies.  The Melina Mercouri version may be better known to the public, but it was Costa’s version that outsold all others.

In 1961 Frank Sinatra asked Costa to arrange his album “Sinatra and Strings”. (released in 1962). The album was filled with standards like Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” andAll or Nothing at All” by Jack Lawrence and Arthur Altman. The album became hugely popular among Sinatra fans as well as the public in general. Eventually Sinatra would hire Costa away from Steve and Eydie as an arranger and took Costa on as his producer as well.  Don Costa then formed his own company (Don Costa Productions) and started working with artists as diverse as Trini Lopez, and Little Anthony and The Imperials.  Don Costa also continued  to work with Sinatra. Don would go on to conduct Sinatra’s orchestra until he had a heart attack during one of Sinatra’s Las Vegas performances.  Costa recuperated, but did not return to the draining job of conducting for Sinatra…but he was not ready to quit. Costa would go on to produce and arrange for Mike Curb Productions.  His later successes included production for The Osmonds, Sammy Davis Jr. and Petula Clark, Sinatra, Paul Anka. In fact Costa ended up producing 553 albums and arranging or writing 953 songs.

Somewhere along the way Costa also found  time to become a father.  His daughter, Nikka Costa would go on to be a performer in her own right.  Father and daughter would work on several projects, that included a duet with Don Ho,when she was only five years old and Nikka singing along with her father on the album “Don Costa Plays the Beatles”. She sang at The Whitehouse with Sinatra, but Nikka’s most famous childhood hit was 1981’s “Out Here By Myself” (from the film Fame) at age 10. The single sold over three million copies. Shortly after her biggest hit, her father, Don Costa died from a second heart attack.  Fortunately, Nikka Costa managed to parlay her child stardom into adult success by crossing over to funk and R&B.

Don Costa “discovered” Gayle Harris one night when she was booked into the Galaxy Club in San Francisco.  He signed her to his production company almost immediately and  started handling her career.  With it came more “adult” bookings rather than the teen-dances Gail had been used to.   One of her most prestigious dates came at The Playboy Club in Los Angeles where she did a stint opening for African-American singer Adam Wade. Wade was popular throughout the 1960s for his smooth, jazz-tinged voice.  In 1959 he had his first success with a song called “Ruby” b/w “Too Far”, the a-side being a cover of the hit movie song from 1953. In 1960 three of Wade’s singles managed to make it into the Billboard top 10; Take Good Care of Her” b/w “Sleepy Time Gal” reached number 7, and “As If I Didn’t Know” b/w “Playin’ Around” peaked at number 10 and “The Writing on the Wall” b/w “Point of No Return” made it to number 5.

Whatever one may think of Hugh Hefner and his magazine one thing is very clear; Hefner was a dedicated supporter of civil rights throughout his adult life. In 1959, he helped organize the Playboy Jazz Festival, which included performances from black and white  musicians like Dizzie Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson and Jack Teagarden. The  profits went in part to the NAACP. Later festivals would proudly continue to feature black and white musicians sharing the stage. The first interview published in Playboy was with jazz great Miles Davis and was written by an up-and-coming  black journalist called Alex Haley. The magazine also published interviews with prominent black figures such as Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Hefner was not afraid to have African-Americans and Latino entertainers play his clubs. He hired a bevy of Black women to work as “bunnies” and his clubs-even his television show “Playboy Penthouse”-were integrated.  It wasn’t unusual to see mixed race “party guests” on his television show. So Gayle Harris was thrown into this milleu.  It was probably an atmosphere she appreciated because back in the Northwest the teen dance scene was largely segregated.  Gail had deep admiration for the Black women singers and belters of the late 50s and early 1960s-as did many participating in the Northwest Sound.  After all, the basis of most Northwest Sound artists had been admiration of R&B since the beginning. In 1965

Don Costa had Gayle cut a promo single (“Ain’t Gonna Let Me Down” b/w “Here I Go Again”) for his label DCP International.  Once more.  The sides were great, but Costa chose not to release the single.

In the mid 60’s Gayle was introduced to Arlin Harmon, then woking with a dynamic outfit called The Big Beats. The introduction probably involved Don Costa, since The Big Beats had originally played as “Trini Lopez and His Big Beats”, though Lopez would leave to pursue a solo career after only one album, Costa continued to producer..  Harmon had been the featured vocalist on one of the Big Beats singles (“Out of The Picture” b/w “The Work Song” ) and as a member of The Big Beats on another seminal live album “The Big Beats LIVE! At The Off-Broadway” recorded in San Francisco in 1965 where they’d  found a large audience. The Big Beats were also known as one of the best bands of the 60s and 70s in Las Vegas. The two married in 1967 and worked together, travelling the country with Arlin’s bands.  They later returned to the Northwest to work as “Gail and Arlin…Gail had reverted to the original spelling of her name.  Harmon would later join James King & The Southsiders. While Gail pursued a career in music. Gail and Arlin had more in common than music.  They also shared a love of Harley-Davidsons.  They spent plenty of time on their bikes and even occassionally showed up on their Hogs and in their leathers. While Gayle was spending  time in San Francisco during the 60s she had trained with the vocal coach Judy Davis at her Oakland studio.  Davis was often referred to as “The Vocal Coach To The Stars” for having clients as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand. Grace Slick and Country Joe McDonald. Davis was an expert in the physiology of sound projection.  She was well-known for her method of teaching vocalists to breathe properly and to strengthen their vocal cords so they may project and control their sound. Davis had conjured up a method of vocal training that is still used around the world.

Actually, I’m just a vocal plumber,”Ms. Davis told The San Francisco Chronicle in 1995, when she received a Lifetime Achievement award at the Bammies-awards given by BAM magazine (now the California Music Award). I fix pipes.”she added.

This training was not only useful in Gayle’s vocation, it also brought opportunities to work with musical artists such as Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, and Frank Sinatra Jr. among others.  For many years Gayle has been a vocal coach based out of Tacoma and still incorporates lessons she learned from Judy Davis. Gail Harris has taken part in the occasional Wailers get-togethers, most notably in the 1980s.  But with the passing of Buck Ormsby (on his 75th birthday in 2016) while in Mexico, none of the original members remain.  Ron Gardner died in 1992. Richard Dangel died of an aneurysm in 2002. John Greek died in 2006, Mark Marush in 2007, and Kent Morrill died of cancer on 15 April 2011. Perhaps the most tragic death of any one of the Wailers was that of “Rockin’ Robin” Roberts who  died at the age of 27. Roberts was killed in a head-on collision after leaving a night club celebration on December 22, 1967. He was a passenger in a car traveling the wrong way on the Interstate , just south of San Francisco.  He was killed on impact. Gail Harris remains one of the brightest stars of the early Northwest Sound.  She went on to work in music the rest of her life (up until now) had a wonderful and exciting marriage to Arlin Harmon who died in 2014. She is deeply loved by her fans and friends throughout the world.

Any additions or corrections are welcomed.

 

 

-Dennis R. White. Sources; “Don Costa Biography”,”Space Age Musicmaker”. Retrieved December 12. 2017); Singles Reviews (Billboard Magazine, September 21, 1963); Shannon McCarthy “Nikka Costa Biography” (musicianguide.com, retrieved December 10. 2017); Buck Ormsby “Etiquette Records-The Short Story” (etiquette.com, retrieved December 10, 2017); Peter Blecha “Etiquette Rules! The Northwest’s Reigning ’60s Garage-Rock Record Company” ( April 10. 2009, HistoryLink.org. Essay 8947); Eileen Sisk “Buck Owens: The Biography” (Chicago Review Press, 2010); Gail Harris (Learning Musician.com, retrieved December 12, 2017); Jesse Hamlin “Judy Davis of Oakland-Vocal Coach To Stars” (The San Francisco Chronical, January 31, 2001);”I Don’t Jump Rattlesnakes No More” (afflictor.com, November 13, 2017); Tim Sendra “One Kiss Can Lead To Another: Girl Group Sounds, Lost and Found” (AllMusic.com, retrieved December 10.2017); Buck Ormsby “The Marshans” (etiquette .com, retrieved December 10, 2017); Peter Blecha “Music In Washington: Seattle and Beyond” (Arcadia Press, November 7, 2007); “Don Costa” (Space Age Music Maker. Spaceageop.com, retrieved December 10. 2017); “The Fabulous Wailers” (bands.fogcity1.com/THEFABULOUSWAILERS/index.php/home, retrieved December 10, 2017); Arlin Harmon 1945-2014: Musical Memorial (https://www.facebook.com/JazzbonesTacoma/ retrieved December 12, 2017): “The Wailers” (PNW Bands, pnwbands.com/wailers.html, retrieved December 8. 2017); Cub Coda “The Fabulous Wailers at The Castle” (AllMusic.com, retrieved December 8, 2017); Russell Webster “The Fabulous Wailers at The Castle” (Gaslight Records, gaslightrecords.com/reviews/albums/the-wailers-the-fabulous-wailers-at-the-castle, retrieved December 8, 2017;  PNW Bands “The Spanish Castle” pnwbands.com/spanishcastle , retrieved December 8, 2017); Jan Kurtis Skugstad “Ernest Tubb Live 1965” (Camelot Media, www.camelotmedia.com/ernest.html, retrieved December 8, 2017); John Broven “The Wailers” (Golden Crest www.johnbroven.com/goldencrest/wailers.html retrieved  December 8, 2017)

Billy Tipton

When Billy Tipton died on January 21st 1989 he was penniless, living in a mobile home, and his ability to play piano or saxophone had been destroyed by years of  ravaging arthritis.  He led a very private life with only a small circle of friends in his adopted home-town, Spokane Washington.  He and his jazz trio had disbanded years earlier.  During their time they had played small joints, Fraternal Hall dances and cocktail lounges for little pay throughout the mid-west and west coast.  Billy had only two recordings to show for his almost 50 years in music.  Both albums had been released in 1957.  Essentially his passing would have gone unnoticed by anyone except his loved ones and a handful of professional friends.  The rest of us would never know a thing about him.

But as Billy lay on the floor of his kitchen dying of a hemorrhaged peptic ulcer a  paramedic called by Billy’s son William (against Billy’s wishes)  loosened Billy’s pajamas in order to try resuscitate him looked up at William and asked;

”Did your father ever have a sex change?”

That single question would make Billy Tipton one of the most talked-about jazz performers for the next few decades.  It would also lead to public debates, books, research papers  and magazine articles on gender, personal identity, transexualism, deception and an individual’s right to live as they wish.

Billy Tipton was pronounced dead when his body arrived at Valley General Hospital in Spokane Washington.  Later the Medical Examiner told Billy’s family what the paramedic seems to have confirmed-that Billy had been born a female. In an attempt to keep this from the public Billy’s estranged wife  Kitty arranged for his body to be cremated,  But before the cremation occurred the local press had discovered the story.  After financial offers from the media poured in Kitty and one of their sons went public with the story. The first newspaper article was published the day after Tipton’s funeral and it was quickly picked up by wire services.  The story went around the world immediately

Billy Tipton had presented as a man for over 50 years, had been “married” five times (all of them were “common law” marriages) travelled non-stop with his trio and adopted three boys with his final wife.  All of them, including Billy’s associates and friends swore they had no idea that Billy had been born female…not even his wives.  Now the truth was out and the obscure pianist and bandleader became a “celebrity” after his death.  It all made great fodder for the tabloids, talk radio and the bottom feeders in the media.  But it also attracted attention from the “legitimate” media who pretended to seriously analyze and find answers to the question “Why would a woman live as a man for over 50 years, without telling anyone?”  Even more misguided questions were presented and the statement that Billy Tipton had lived a “double life” were discussed.  The first question seems a bit naïve but understandable in an age that didn’t fully understand transexualism.  But claiming Billy Tipton had been leading a double-life was patently untrue.  Billy had spent his adult life presenting himself as a man, had loving relationships with heterosexual women and had been a good father to his sons. He dressed every day as a man, and as far as anyone is able to tell, he believed he was a man.  It’s ironic that Dave Sobol, a longtime friend and Billy’s agent had once called him “A perfect gentleman”.  After Tipton’s death Sobol fretted “I couldn’t sleep for two days. For 40 years I knew Billy as a man, and now he’s a woman”.  Such is the power the perception of gender-identity can have on individuals and on society in general.

Today most of us would accept this as leading the life of a transsexual, but almost 30 years since his death, there are people who believe being transsexual is a mental illness, a delusion, or simply being gay but not willing to admit it…presuming that people are willing to go through painful hormonal treatment, expensive surgery, marathon psychiatric examination and public demonization just so they might not be called “gay”.  Even with that knowledge there are people who still believe that a transsexual could not be a transsexual while keeping the genitalia one is born with.  Of course during Titpton’s lifetime most therapeutic  options for transsexuals either did not exist, or were so expensive that they were out  of reach of most people wishing for treatment.  Even Christine Jorenson-the most well-know transgendered person up until Tipton-who was treated in Denmark had to obtain special permission from the Danish Minister of Justice to undergo a series of hormone treatments and surgical operations in that country; and even though she’d gone through surgery and hormonal therapy in Denmark it would take even more surgeries to complete her transformation to the gender she felt she belonged to.  It actually wasn’t much different than it is today, although candidates for sexual reassignment are subjected to long-term psychiatric evaluation and government permission is no longer needed in Denmark-or in the USA.

William Lee Tipton was born Dorothy Lucille Tipton in Oklahoma City on December 29, 1914.  He was assigned the gender female at the time of birth.  The Tipton family soon moved to Kansas City Missouri, and despite his parents being somewhat estranged, the family was well-off and Billy had intermittent contact with his father, an airline pilot..  Tipton’s mother was far less gregarious than his father and when Billy was 14, his parents divorced, so he and his younger  brother (ironically, named William) were sent off to live with their aunt.  This would provide the only link with those who knew Billy’s  story…or as much as anyone outside Billy could tell.  His two cousins, Eilene and Madeline had known him as a girl growing up, and when Billy began dressing as a man it was they that helped him prepare.  Throughout their lives they kept in contact with Billy, but never let on anything except what he wished to be known.

By the time Billy was 7 years old he was playing violin for home-recitations (dressed as a girl, of course).  By the time he was in  High School his love of jazz and the burgeoning sound of swing made it evident that he intended to make a career as a jazz player. It was about this time that Billy (as”Dorothy”) began calling himself “Tippy”...a name that conveyed the spirit of the jazz age. Later he began to study music at The Horner Conservatory of Music in Kansas City and then moved back to Oklahoma City to finish studies at Oklahoma Jr. A&M College.  It was in 1933 that Billy began to seek work as a jazz musician.  There are divergent stories about the reason Billy began dressing as a man.  Some have postulated that jazz clubs and jazz ensembles would not hire a woman.  But we know that Billy had previously played in jazz ensembles, and that many of the venues that featured jazz were considered either “seedy”, or smoky dens of “anything goes”  None of this would preclude women playing jazz.  Some have insisted that jazz is inherently misogynistic.  This might come as news to the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Ethel Waters, Hazel Scott or Mary Osborne…all of whom found fame in the 1920s and 1930s in small jazz clubs.

Musician Red Kelly-who played for years with Woody Herman and is a legend in his own right-dismissed the theory that a woman could not get a job in the world of jazz.

“There weren’t a lot of women” he says“but there were plenty that were good, and highly respected”

Don Eagle, a Spokane musician and friend of Billy’s told reporters
“Everybody wants to leap on this idea that he was a girl who played piano and wanted to make it on the big scene.  It’s kind of a cop out, isn’t it?  I say this was actually a gender change.”

The claim that Billy Tipton’s decision to “become a man” to get jobs is questionable on it’s face.  The jazz world had always been populated by women.  Many would find fame precisely because they were women.

When musician’s jobs became sparse Billy in Oklahoma City, Billy went to Muskogee to crash on the floor of her aunt’s one-room apartment with two teenage cousins and a baby.  These were the same cousins (Eilene and Madeline) who’d always known Billy’s story and helped him conceal his assigned gender in favor of him presenting as a male.  Shortly after their help Billy returned to Oklahoma City.

Norma Teagarden, the sister of bandleader Jack Teagarden, also knew Billy as her mother Helen had run a boarding house in Oklahoma City that Billy stayed in.  Norma and Billy-and Norma’s brother Jack-had become friends.  Norma herself was a featured pianist and violinist with some of the biggest names in jazz; Ben Pollack, Matty Matlock, and Ray Bauduc.  She was also a member of her brother’s big band. After Billy’s death Norma said that Billy’s
“decision to change gender actually was motivated as much by personal as career success“.
Norma  went on to say;
“He wanted to “play in the front line” and he “just wanted to (wear) men’s clothes”.  These are not the trademarks of living a “double life”since Billy maintained his persona as a man, and did not go back and forth between male and female depending on the circumstances.  The term “double life” connotes willfull deception and manipulation.  Even when Billy was involved in early lesbian relationships she did not hide it.

During the 1930s Billy was playing in bands and did not conceal the fact that he was engaged in an affair with a lesbian named “Non Earl” Harnell.  It’s said that “Non Earl” had gotten her odd name because she was once married to a man named “Earl Harnell”.  Non Earl was a “horse“on the dance marathon circuit, and an eccentric herself.  Billy was wearing men’s clothing in his day-to- day life with her, but it’s been noted that when not onstage Billy took no care to bind his breasts or deny his assigned gender. Billy’s only biographer to date-Diane Ann Middlebrook-points out in her misleadingly named book “Suit’s Me; The Double Life of Bily Tipton” that Non Earl may have been the only “wife” of Tipton’s who knew Billy was physically born a woman, though later in his life one of Billy’s later estranged wives (Maryann) is thought to have  found a birth certificate in the name of Dorothy Lucille Tipton after their parting.  It’s said she confronted Billy asking him if he was actually a woman.  Billy just looked on and did not answer.

Though Non Earl eventually returned to her ex-husband, for several years Non Earl and Billy passed themselves off as man and wife. Like Tipton, Non Earl was a show person, having made a name for herself as a “horse” on the sadistic dance-marathon circuit of the 1930s. Unlike Tipton’s future partners, Non Earl knew Billy was a woman. Cross-dressing wouldn’t have fazed the inveterate rule breaker Non Earl.  She not only broke ground as a club dancer but she also passed off her much-younger girlfriend as her husband. She and a cross-dressing female radio station owner who gave Billy an early break are aptly used to suggest Tipton’s unconventional life was not entirely without precedent…especially in Oklahoma City, which is thought at the time to have had a large lesbian population.  Later Billy and Non Earl moved to Joplin MO. where it’s thought that Billy dropped the “Dorothy” character altogether and began his nearly 50 years of living as man.

In 1936, Tipton was the leader of a band playing on Oklahoma City’s KFXR radio station. In 1938, Tipton joined Louvenie’s Western Swingbillies, a band that played on radio station KTOK (also Oklahoma City).  Billy was also a regular entertainer at a hangout called Brown’s Tavern. By 1940 Billy was touring the Midwest playing at dances with Scott Cameron’s band. In 1941 he began a two and a half-year run performing at Joplin Missouri’s Cotton Club with George Meyer’s band, toured for a time with Ross Carlyle, then played for two years in Texas.  It’s claimed that Billy toured with Billy Eckstein and Jack Teagarden, but Teagarden’s sister Norma says Billy never played in Teagarden’s band.

George Meyer’s band-along with Billy-began performing with bigger acts, including The Delta Rhythm Boys, The Ink Spots and the aforementioned Billy Eckstein at the Boulevard Club in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.  By 1938 he was working with bass player, Wayne Benson. All the while Billy continued to develop his male persona; he became a  gentleman, and a heterosexual male, living as a typical 1940’s man would.  But by the early 1940s Non Earl began to get bored “playing house” and left the relationship in 1941.  After splitting with Non Earl Billy began creating his own history about an unhealed rib, an accident that had affected his genitals, and a vague, unspecified reason to explain why he wasn’t in the war and why he wore tight chest bindings.

According to author Francesca Susannah;

“After Non Earl, Billy cultivated a definite taste in women; young, beautiful, glamorous – the sort of women straight men drooled over. He got them too”. In 1943, she continues ,Billy “married” a woman known as “June”, who was 17 when they first met; Billy was 28. They lived together and traveled to Billy’s various gigs together for two or three years before they split up. June began to tell tales on Billy, that he was a hermaphrodite with a very small penis. At that time, hermaphrodite was often used as a euphemism for lesbian, but it’s impossible to guess if she meant that she knew he was a woman or if he explained away his vagina by claiming to be a hermaphrodite”.

By the time June left, Billy was already involved with an 18 year old woman named Betty.  She was smitten with Billy, calling him “cute as a bug”.  They “married” in 1943.  Although the couple were sexually active Billy was able to hide the fact that he was born female.  Their time together ended after about a decade and after Billy died Betty claimed she never had any idea that Billy was different from any other man.

Francesca Susannah goes on to write;

That marriage (with Betty) broke up in 1954, and almost immediately there was another woman in his life, Maryann, a classy call girl. She was a little older, thirty-three, but beautiful and glamorous. She did not guess that he (Billy) was a woman during their marriage, although they had sex and she was already experienced. When she was interviewed for a book about Billy, she said, ‘Honey, I can hardly wait to read your book. I thought it was a penis.’ Billy had unbreachable habits to avoid discovery. He locked the bathroom door when he bathed and dressed, he made love in the dark, and he was always the dominant partner. “You didn’t touch Billy,” Maryann explained”

While all these romantic ups and downs were happening Billy kept steady work as both a pianist and a saxophonist. George Meyer’s band-along with Billy-began performing with bigger acts, including The Delta Rhythm Boys, The Ink Spots and the aforementioned Billy Eckstein at the Boulevard Club in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.  Finally, Billy decided to go solo.  In 1951 he was playing at the Elks Club in Longview Washington.  Shortly after this he formed The Billy Tipton Trio with Tipton on piano and occasionally on sax.  Dick O’Neil was on drums and Kenny Richards on bass.  Richards would later be replaced by Ron Kilde.

During a performance at King’s Supper Club in Santa Barbara, California, a talent scout from the small independent Tops Records heard Billy’s trio and offered them a contract. Reports vary about whether he scout was in the audience or saw a television recording of that night.  This contract would lead to The Billy Tipton Trio recording two albums for Tops: “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Billy Tipton Plays Hi-Fi on Piano”, both of them released in 1957. The albums contained adequate but unoriginal covers of jazz and pop standards.  They are the only real documentation of Billy’s skill-aside from a couple of acetates that had hurridly been recorded for radio in 1949. Listening to the albums makes it clear that the superlatives used in the media following Billy’s death were pure hyperbole.  Billy was not the”well-known” innovative” or “influential talent” that that many in the media had proclaimed simply to embellish his story.  The truth is both albums are “pleasant” but not much off the beaten track as far as originality.  During 1957 Billy’s albums sold 17,678 copies- a”respectable” sum for a small independent label like Tops

After the albums’ modest reception The Billy Tipton Trio were invited to become the  house band at the new Holiday Hotel opening in Reno, Nevada including an engagement backing Liberace.  Tops Records also offered a contract that would allow the trio to record four more albums.  Tipton turned both offers down. His bandmates were thoroughly discouraged at passing this chance up.

Instead of taking advantage of these offers Billy chose to move to Spokane, Washington along with his “wife” Maryann and the trio.  Billy planned to work  as a talent broker for his old friend Dave Sobol, who had hired him to play his hotel in Coeur d’Alene hotel several years before.  Billy’s trio became the house band at Allen’s Tin Pan Alley in Spokane, performing weekly. The trio played swing standards rather than jazz, and their performances included skits and Billy’s impersonations of showmen like Liberace and Elvis Presley.

After moving to Spokane Billy and Marryann’s relationship fell apart and she left him in 1960; but true to Billy’s past behavior there was already someone waiting in the wings.  His next partner was Katherine “Kitty” Kelly, a twice divorced dancer and west coast stripper who exuded glamor and sexuality. Her stage name was “The Irish Venus” taking advantage of her luxurious red hair.  Kitty had had a tough life, and even ’til the end the pain continued.  She was born to a 15-year-old mother in Middletown, Ohio.  She never knew her father. She was raped and impregnated as a teenager and by 28, twice-divorced and stripping in nightclubs in Seattle and Spokane when she met the 47-year old Billy Tipton and “married” him.  She took on the task of being a middle-class role model  living along Spokane’s tree-lined Manito Bouleva

Billy and Kitty  adopted three sons, John, Scott, and William.  As parents they were involved with their local PTA and with the Boy Scouts. After Tipton’s death, Kitty gave several interviews about Billy and their relationship. In one she lamented on women breaking into the 1920s and 1930s music industry;

“He gave up everything… There were certain rules and regulations in those days if you were going to be a musician.”

Marian McPartland, the late jazz authority and NPR host of “Piano Jazz” commented on Kitty’s claim by musing;

“I can only say that if it’s true, this person must have been somebody with a great commitment to the music. Or maybe this was someone who just felt more comfortable as a man.

“Competing as a female jazz instrumentalist in the ’30s was difficult”, said McPartland, “but it was done, she said, noting that performers she admired such as Hazel Scott and Cleo Brown had overcome the adversities.

What McPartland failed to comment on-even though most of her listeners already knew-she herself had been a jazz performer both in the US and Europe during the 1930’s.  Perhaps she was being modest, and didn’t want to stray from Billy’s own experiences

According to all three sons Billy was a generous, loving and exceptional father. In interviews after Billy’s death Kitty had nothing but good things to say about Billy even though they had been separated for ten years.  Kitty would later re-marry and  divorce. She then went by the name “Kitty” Oakes.  Her estate and sons later became involved in a bitter family dispute involving the written vs. purported will of Billy Tiptonn and the house Kitty owned at her death (worth $300,000) as well as the rights to Billy’s story.  Kitty was plagued by dementia during  her last years and the state appointed her a guardian to oversee her finances.  She died at age 73 in 2007 after her mind and body faltered and she was involuntarily committed to Eastern State Hospital.

We can never be certain of Billy’s inner motivations, except to say that he desperately wanted to be a jazz musician.  It’s easy to pick apart and analyze why he lived as he did; but sometimes we should take each other at face value.  Billy chose to live as a man.  He chose to have long affairs and “marriages” with heterosexual women.  He enjoyed being a father.  Billy left no letter or other clue as to why he chose to live as he did; but who are we to question it?  Back in his prime the public were not aware of transexualism.  Maybe Billy didn’t even know about it exactly.  Instead of the initial shock the media and the public feigned maybe the simple truth was and is that Billy Tipton was a very brave individual.  That he didn’t lead a “double life”…he led HIS life.  It’s as possible as not that Billy didn’t live a sad closeted life that caused him to hide his real self…maybe he was quite happy with who he was and should provide inspiration for all of us.  Maybe he was exactly who he appeared to be.

Since Billy’s death he’s been memorialized with

-The 1991 song “Tipton” by folk singer Phranc is a tribute to Billy Tipton.

-Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” is a 1995 short film based on the life and career of Billy Tipton

-In 1998, Diane Middlebrook wrote a biography of Tipton which she titled Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton” published by the Houghton Mifflin Company.

-“Stevie Wants to Play the Blues” was a play based on Tipton’s life written by Eduardo Machado and performed in Los Angeles, directed by Simon Callow and starring Amy Madigan.

-The Slow Drag was a play based on Tipton’s life by Carson Kreitzer performed in New York City and London.

-An opera based on Tipton’s life, Billy, was staged in Olympia, Washington.

-“Trumpet” is a novel by Jackie Kay inspired by Tipton’s life.

-The Opposite Sex Is Neither, a theatrical revue by noted trans woman Kate Bornstein features the character of Billy Tipton

-“Billy’s Thing” is an unreleased track by Jill Sobule.

-“The Legend of Billy Tipton” by the punk band The Video Dead, is about the story of Billy Tipton.

-“Kill Me, Por Favor” is a short story with a section about Billy Tipton in Ry Cooder’s book “Los Angeles Stories” (City Lights Books, 2011)

– Jorge Orfão wrote “Female Masculinities: The Tipton/Moody Transgender Case“an MA Dissertation in Feminist Studies presented at the Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Coimbra, coordinated by Professor Doctor Adriana Bebiano November 8, 2012.

-The singer-songwriter and cabaret artist Nellie McKay occasionally performs an original biographical show about Tipton, “A Girl Named Bill: The Life and Times of Billy Tipton“. The first performances were given at the New York nightclub 54 Below on August 5–9, 2014. The show uses music from various genres and periods.

Soita minulle Billy [Call me Billy], a Finnish play with Joanna Haartti playing Tipton, presented at Theatre Jurka in 2011[ and again at the 2012 Helsinki Festival.

 

 

-Dennis R. White.  Sources; Kathryn Robinson “The Double Life of Billy Tipton” (The Inlander, June 17, 1998); Queer Music History (2003, queermusicheritage.com/feb2003bt.html); Diane Wood Middlebrook “Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton (Mariner Books, June 16, 1999); Dinitia Smith “One False Note in a Musicians Life, Billy Tipton is Remembered With Love, Even By Those Who Were Deceived” The New York Times, June 2, 1998); Karen Dorn Steele “Billy, Kitty’s Strange Story Not Over Yet” (The Spokesman-Review [Spokane WA] Jun 8, 2008);  Chris Park “Billy Lee Tipton (1914-89) – Jazz Musician”  (The LGBT History Project, 16 February 2012); Hannah Judge “Navigating Gender: Billy Tipton and the Jazz Culture of Masculinity” (University of Pennsylvania Scholarly Commons, May 2015) Laura Mills “Billy Tipton and The Question of Gender (Making Queer History, September 9. 2017); “Diane Wood Middlebrook, author of Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton” interview (Jerry Jazz Musician, August 29, 2000); Amy Denio (correspondence with the author, December 3, 2017); Wikipedia entry “Billy Tipton”

 

 

 

Sky River Rock Festival & Lighter Than Air Fair Poster

We recently purchased an almost complete collection of Helix Magazines from the generous Jerry Jermann. One issue came with this fantastic wrap-around “Sky River Festival And Lighter Than Air Fair” poster cover. The iconic Walt Crowley is credited with it’s design.  At the time Walt was the art director of  The Helix, who’s staff and friends were mostly responsible for the festival.  Notice the clever way the wrap-around took advantage of the “ split fountain” effect-one that uses two separate colored inks at either end meeting in the middle as a third.  This example is probably the result of pouring four horizontal bands of ink (top to bottom blue/red/yellow/blue).  No matter how it was done, this is one of the best uses of the process we’ve ever seen, and it’s clear Crawley’s drawing was specifically designed with the intention to be printed exactly as it appears.
The festival itself was held Labor Day Weekend, 1968  near Sultan WA in a 40-acre pasture owned by Betty Nelson.  Although we prefer to believe the “Sky River” referred to is some unknown visionary, LSD-fueled floating waterfall  that’s inferred in the illustration, “Sky River” is actually a clever reference to the adjacent Skykomish River.  The “Lighter Than Air Fair” refers to a tethered  helium balloon on site for attendees to rise above the crowd.  In fact, the first balloon flew off by itself before the festival even began.  It took quite a bit of scouting to find a replacement, but one was found in Spokane and hastily made it’s way across the state just in time.  One of Sky River’s organizers,Paul Dorpat, later reflected on the impetus for the festival- The “Piano Drop” that had taken place earlier in 1968: ““We thought if we could do a Piano Drop and get 3,000 people to come into a narrow road near Duvall, we could probably do a festival.”

According to many who attended, the line-up shown in this Helix wrap-around came closest to the actual bill, although ultimately there were plenty of additions and no-shows.  There’s still some inconsistent memories of the performers that actually took part, but we know the Grateful Dead took part (The Grateful Dead’s full set was filmed) and we’ve been told this poster is the closest thing to the final  line-up.  Other acts are certain to have played. Country Joe and the Fish (who had taken part in an earlier event that inspired the festival-more on that later) an unexpected, unscheduled Jam between Big Mama Thornton, James Cotton (who’d supposedly flown up with The Dead) and Billy Roberts-the writer of “Hey Joe”.  The proceeds of the Festival were to be donated to Native American organizations, as well as to the black community. Unfortunately the Festival failed to make a profit and came up short  $5000.  A modest amount, to be sure…but it certainly would have made a profit if all the attendees had paid admission instead of sneaking in.

The weekend was almost completely rain-drenched even though the showers were intermittent.  It’s said that an underground spring began to flow because of the activity.  Before the final act played the crowd is reported to have chanted “no rain-no rain-no rain”  According to the reports of many festival goers the sun finally came out as the festival ended, appropriately with a performance by “It’s a Beautiful Day” It’s believed that this version of the Sky River festival  (there were three in all) was the first organized rock festival held in an open air venue in a rural area.  The much more famous Woodstock Festival would not happen until almost a year later; August 15–18, 1969.  Click here to see it in all its psychedelic glory. More Helix related posts to come.

 

The Daily Flash

The Daily Flash are often referred to as either the first alternative rock band in Seattle or the first psychedelic band in Seattle. Although the former argument is up to debate, there’s no doubt The Daily Flash were one of the most successful and widely acclaimed bands to come out of Seattle in the 1960s.  The Daily Flash found it’s footing in the underground west coast folk circuit rather than the garage /R&B roots that had become so popular in the Northwest.

In fact, the term Psychedelic-at least in the beginning- may even be a bit misleading.  The Daily Flash were more interested in interpreting classic Americana and folk music as totally different takes on their originals.  This often resulted in a mix of the blues, the electrification of traditional acoustic folkie sounds and drawing from a somewhat obscure well of music written by obscure musicians…some from past folk masters, and some from writers that would soon be famous.  The biggest thing that may have set them apart from the Seattle Sound at the time is that they sought a bluesier, more electric sound than the free-wheeling style of R&B the Northwest had become known for.  The Daily Flash had more to do with the nascent sound that was about to come out of San Francisco and Los Angeles.  They drew form jazz, electric blues, folk and rejected much of what had made up the northwest teen-dance circuit.

The band rarely wrote their own material but this by no means pegs them as a “cover band” in the traditional sense.  In fact most Northwest bands working the dance circuit had always drawn from familiar covers. It’s simply that in the early days The Daily Flash took unknown or relatively unknown traditional and folk music and put their own stamp on it.  Often times the stamp was so original  as to make the material absolutely their own, and unrecognizable from the original.  In that way The Daily Flash were much like all the Northwest bands who had preceeded them…it’s only that they only had a more obscure background in folk and the hootenannies of the early 60s rather than the R&B of the late 50s.

The beginnings  of The Daily Flash go back to 1964 when multi-instrumentalist and singer Don MacAllister met another folk affecianado, Steve Lalor, in Seattle.  At the time MacAllister was playing in a local bluegrass outfit called The Willow Creek Ramblers along with Paul Gillingham, and Phil Poth.  Lalor had dropped out of college in Ohio in 1963 and headed to San Francisco where briefly hung out with musicians who would later become members of  Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Grateful Dead and a few others who would go on to create the San Francisco sound.  Lalor spent a short time in San Francisco, but decided to check out the scene in Vancouver B.C. because, he’d found  San Francisco to be a city with a “hard, cold attitude”.   He was on his way up the West Coast, until he stalled in Seattle.   Lalor became aware that the Seattle Center was auditioning for an acoustic folk show that would be broadcast from the center’s Horiuchi Mural Amphitheater.  He auditioned and made the grade as one of the performers. The show was a success and later  turned into a weekly program  “The Seattle Center Hootenanny” a weekly broadcast that ran for a year and a half on KING TV.  Lalor appeared on every show.  It was during this period that Lalor and MacAllister became aware of each other and took to practicing folk tunes and popular duets on their guitars and as vocalists.

Lalor and MacAllister began working together informally, learning songs by The Everly Brothers and The Beatles.  Lalor soon paired-up with Alice Stuart and Mike Hall and Jim Manolides (via the Seattle Center Hootenanies) and the founded “The Upper University District Folk Music Mandolin Society and Glee Club”. In 1964 Jerden Records released their only single under the (thankfully) truncated name, “The Upper U Singers”. There’s some question if the recordings had been done in 1963, because by 1964 Alice Stuart was in Los Angeles.”The A side (Green Satin) was written by Frank Lewis and the B side (Sing Halelluah“) was written by Mike Settle who would go on to work with Kenny Rogers, Glenn Yarbrough and as a respected singer/songwriter in his own right.  The single went nowhere, but.  today “Green Satin b/w  Sing Halellujahis one of the rarest, most sought after singles from any era of Northwest music.

By the end of the “The Seattle Center Hootenany” show’s run Lalor had once again decided to try San Francisco.  This time he was able to co-found the popular trio there. The Driftwood Singers included Lalor, Lyn Shepard and (originally) Courtney Branch.  Soon after the trio formed, Branch left and was replaced by Billy Roberts. The Driftwood Singers became the house band at San Francisco’s “hungry i” club, then in the basement of the International Hotel in North Beach.  North Beach at the time was the spiritual home of West Coast beatnik culture with “the hungry i” and a handful of other tiny clubs at it’s comedic and folk music heart. Alice Stuart had also left Seattle for Los Angeles and by chance encounter had met Frank Zappa. The Mothers of Invention were a blues band when they started out, so Zappa invited Stuart to join the band.  He was interested in incorporating his electric guitar with Alice’s accoustic delta-blues style.  During 65/66 Stuart played with the original Mothers of Invention, but left shortly before the beginning of the Mothers’ recordings of their debut “Freak Out”.  After her short,  improbable stint with Zappa, Alice returned to her roots and became a folk icon in her own right.

As for Billy Roberts, he was finding a name as the writer of “Hey Joe”.  He’d originally written it in 1962, and it had been covered in concert by both folk and folk-rock artists (well before Jimi Hendrix popularized it).  Eventually Roberts also left The Driftwood Singer and returned to his former solo career, that saw him performing across the country, finding himself on bills with Steve Miller, Santana and as a Bay Area favorite.  Roberts went on to play the first Sky River Rock Festival-that year in Sultan WA where he jammed with James Cotton, Big Mama Thornton and members of The Grateful Dead. Roberts had also written an early folk standard “The Girl From North Alberta”  The Daily Flash would work both “Hey Joe” and “The Girl From North Alberta” into their sets, and there is a demo of “The Girl From North Alberta” that has found it’s way to both legitimate and bootleg Daily Flash albums.  Unfortunately Roberts was involved in an automobile accident near Sonoma CA in the early 90’s and moved to Atlanta, Georgia to retire from live gigs.  His performing days were over, but in 2017, at the age of 81 he still continues to write music. He owns the copyrights of over 100 songs.

The Driftwood Singers had made a name for themselves and ended up working regularly in other Bay Area coffee houses as well as doing several tours up and down the West coast.   But Lalor was once again ready to leave San Francisco behind.  His old friend Don MacAllister had come to San Francisco to entice Lalor back to Seattle to form a band with himself, Lalor and a brilliant drummer that MacAllister had “discovered” named Don Stevenson. Unfortunately for Lalor and MacCallister, Stevenson had been snapped up by The Frantics by the time they returned to Seattle.  The consolation was Lalor and MacAllister ended up with Jon Keliehor, the former Frantics drummer who’d been replaced by Stevenson after Keliehor had been involved in a near-fatal accident near Eugene OR. Don had been driving alone on his way to a series of Frantics gigs in California.  Keliehor was unable to play the gigs and was replaced by Stevenson, who became The Frantics regular drummer.  Keliehor had recuperated and joined The Daily Flash,  while Stevenson and The Frantics guitarist Jerry Miller went through several transformations in the Bay Area, and eventually went on to co-found Moby Grape.  Ironically Moby Grape and The Daily Flash held an abundance of talent that would never be properly utilized by the music industry.

At the time MacAllister had met up with Lalor it was still presumed that Stevenson would be drummer, and Stevenson had been talked-up so dramatically that it was a great disappointment to find Keliehor in his place when Lalor returned to Seattle.  Lalor would go on to tell Seattle rock Neil Skok ;

“(hiring) Keliehor was the right thing to do. He was the secret magic ingredient that makes groups happen.  Lalor also added that Kehielor ( a classically trained musician) “knew music better than the rest of us and was game to try anything”.

The next task was to find a guitarist that would be a good fit and capable of playing the blend of electric blues, traditional folk music and the newly-minted psychedelic sound.  It was Doug Hastings, a young player (still in college) that occasionally sat-in with The Dynamics that was drafted into The Daily Flash.  So now, in 1965, the classic line-up of The Daily Flash was born.  Success came almost immediately.

Jon Kehiehor  credits their popularity for breaking the mold of typical ‘Northwest Sound’ bands like The Wailers and The Sonics.

“We were the first alternative music voice for the hippie movement in the area and set a new pattern that influenced so many musicians at the time.  We broke from the teen movement and started playing outside high school venues, creating new alternative audiences and venues.  Our music was a unique fusion of folk, pop and jazz, and Steve and Don’s vocal combination was imitated by many who followed.”

It’s clear an entire new paradigm was taking hold of youth culture. music, dress-and yes…drugs  If anyone was going to break up the old one The Daily Flash were more primed than any other local choice.   They were the mosttalked about and most popular band in Seattle…and all based on the few performances they’d done, and as many posters for shows that weren’t even meant to take place.  But when the did perform The Daily Flash brought great, innovative musicianship, tight harmonies and 12 string guitars into the mix of re-interpreting folk music and jazz as rock.

One of The Daily Flash’s first gigs took place at a club called The BFD.  During the heyday of psychedelic rock in Seattle it was the place to be.  In 2009 musician Tom Dietz (formerly of The Nomads) recalled taking music lessons at Ford’s Music in Eastgate.  One of the steel guitar instructors was Blaise Lewark (of The Evergreen Drifters and later The Canterbury Tales).

“One day we were visiting between his lessons  (Lewark) told me of his vision of opening a nightclub within an abandoned church building and asked me what I thought of the name of the club – BFD.  Sounded good to me, so true to form…Blaise took possession of the building and bought a whole bunch of flat black paint.  Several weeks later the teen rock club was open for business.  Live local rock acts upstairs and live folk music in the coffee house inspired basement”

“The smartest thing Blaise did” says Dietz “was to have the joint open on Sunday nights.  If you lived in Seattle during the mid-60 the BFD was the only rock club open on Sundays.  What a stroke of genius.  Every musician in town hung out at th BFD on Sunday nights.  Most sat in with the band and we all jammed our Sunday nights away”.

One of the attractions that brought crowds to The Daily Flash’s shows was the care they took in presenting their sound.  Steve Lalor remembers:

“The harmonies were coming over like a wall of sound.  Seattle hadn’t heard anything like it before

Blaise Lewark also opened a second BFD club in West Seattle, and along with the more-often shows of national acts at the Eagles Auditorium and plenty of underground clubs Seattle now had a thriving alternative scene.  One other club that was around at the time , “The Door” (at 1818 7th Avenue-now gone) was still hosting folk music as well as some of the newer artists that were spinning out of the Seattle scene.  It was there in 1965 that Ron Saul, a local record distributor, met the band and agreed to shop the group around.  It wasn’t long before he’d gotten them a deal with Parrot Records- the American subsidy of London Records.

The first single was envisioned to be a cover of Dylan’s ‘Queen Jane Approximately” backed with Dino Valenti’s “Birdses” a song that Lalor admired since his days hanging out with Quicksilver Messenger Service.  Valenti had also written the massive hit “Get Together” for The Youngbloods and was held in high regard within the hippie music scene, not only for his writing and as singer for Quicksilver Messenger Service, but also with music executives who saw his ability to write commercially viable songs.  After recording the single Saul considered “Birdses” to be too light, so the band went back into the studio to record what some would call a classic of psychedelic blues,  their version of the traditional “Jack of Diamonds”  Unfortunately the single went nowhere except to make a small dent in the Seattle radio market.  Both sides have gained much more appreciation over the years, but it is “Jack of Diamonds” that is the stand-out.  In 2012 David Marsh of The Guardian wrote:

“Today, the shambolic brilliance of ‘The Daily Flash’s’ Jack of Diamonds is more listenable and less dated than much of what their more celebrated peers produced. The opening wall of noise during which the drummer seems to be warming up; the bass playing the same insistent riff throughout; the urgent harmonica and jagged guitar; the production that suggests it really was recorded in someone’s garage – all contribute to a great record. It finishes as it begins and you have heard the definitive garage punk single”.

Even though their debut single had failed, The Daily Flash were becoming well-known up and down the West Coast on the strength of their live performances.  Soon they caught the attention of Charlie Greene and Brian Stone, the managers of Sonny and Cher as well as up-and-comers like Iron Butterfly and Buffalo Springfield.  Greene and Stone invited The Daily Flash to re-record their single in Los Angeles while they took on management duties.  But the re-recorded single also failed to draw attention outside the Northwest and Southern California.  The management team was helpful in getting the band gigs on both the East and West coast opening for acts like Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messanger Service, The Grateful Dead, The Grass Roots, Country Joe and The Fish and The Sons of Champlin, but it was their live performances, not singles or albums that would draw them fame.

On their way south to re-record “Queen Jane Approximately”for Greene and Stone they had a stopover in San Francisco where they played two shows at The Avalon Ballroom.

According to Lalor”

“The promoter, Bill Graham, billed the group as headliners.  It was two nights, a Friday and a Saturday in April and both nights featured ‘The Daily Flash’ and ‘The Rising Sons’.  Plus on Friday night there was ‘Big Brother & The Holding Company’-without Janis-and on Saturday night it was ‘The Charlatans”

(Lalor’s memory of the shows may be off a bit.  At the time Chet Helms was running the Avalon Ballroom, but it’s possible his former partner, Bill Graham had actually booked the show).

No matter, The Daily Flash were gaining more and more popularity in San Francisco and Los Angeles-as well as Seattle where they were seen as conquering heroes. As more and more gigs piled up Jon Keliehor remembers a hard-to-forget incident in 1966.  The band were to play at Vancouver Canada’s first “Trips Festival” held on the weekend of 29-31 July.

“Steve, Doug and I arrived at the festival in the morning. We weren’t due to perform until 7 or 8pm. Quite suddenly a car arrived announcing that we were to be escorted to the seaside to spend the afternoon with various members of ‘The Grateful Dead’. I remember that The Dead’s chief chemist Owlsey Stanley drove the car that picked us up. Before any of us quite realised it, we had fallen not only under his spell, but also under the spell of his magic tablets. Soon afterwards we met other members of ‘The Grateful Dead’ and the afternoon passed amiably”.

Soon afterward The Daily Flash were firmly rooted in Los Angeles, where they became the “house band” for the local television show “Boss City”.  They were also offered a cameo in the spoof/spin-off TV show “The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. starring Stephanie Powers. ( episode 19, “The Drublegratz Affair” which was first aired January 31, 1967)  The band played an improbably ridiculous song titled “My Bulgarian Baby”.  The result was pure kitsch.

In 1967 the band went into the studio again.  This time they recorded a single for UNI Records.  UNI had been formed under MCA in 1966 and was still finding it’s way.  The label had taken over management of MCA’s newly acquired Kapp Records.  UNI’s artist roster was impressive. The Strawberry Alarm Clock, Hugh Masekela, Brian Hyland, Desmond Dekker, Bill Cosby, Elton John, Neil Diamond, Dave and Ansil Collins Olivia Newton-John, and Betty Everett were some of their biggest acts.  UNI had also taken over management Revue Records,  a soul music subsidiary, from about 1966 to 1970.  Despite their roster and distribution network (or because of it’s overextension) UNI was a mess.

The band chose to do a cover or Ian Tyson’s and Sylvia Fricker’s (Ian and Sylvia) beautiful ballad “The French Girl” along with “Green Rocky Road” as the B-side.  “The French Girl” had been originally released by Ian and Sylvia and would be covered by Gene Clark, The Grateful Dead, and others, but it is The Daily Flash’s version that best captures the melancholic romance of the song.  It’s been reported that Bob Dylan occasionally used the song as a warm-up to some of his shows, but never recorded it.  In actuality he’d recorded it with The Grateful Dead and another version of it can be found on “The Bootleg Series, Vol. 11:  The Basement Tapes Complete (2014)” But these versions, like all other attempts to cover the song have never been able to capture the magic of The Daily Flash’s version.

Perhaps The Daily Flash’s release of “The French Girl” was a case of too much, too soon for UNI.  Consequently it failed to chart nationally.  It’s probably the most viable of all of The Daily Flash’s recordings but a lack of promotion or poor distribution caused the single to fail.  Looking back now it’s clear The Daily Flash version is the best of all that has been done before and since. It even makes Ian and Sylvia’s version sound a bit brutal. The Daily Flash version is a lost 1960’s masterpiece.  Fortunately it got traction in Southern Calfornia and the Northwest, so listeners of retro-radio may find the song familiar but not quite to be able to pinpoint how they know it.

With so much work without much payback, The Daily Flash began to disintegrate later that year.  Doug Hastings had taken the place of Buffalo Springfield’s Neil Young when Young had walked out. Hastings’ association with the band was brief, since The Buffalo Springfield was also near collapse.  In spite of that, Hastings had a chance to play with the band at The Monterrey Pop Festival. Hastings was replaced in The Daily Flash by Craig Tarwater formerly of “Sons of Adam” At nearly the same time Jon Keliehor was fired from the band because he’d chosen to attend a spiritual event rather than show up at an important gig.  According to Kehielor;

“I was dismissed from the band because I wanted to take a weekend to learn transcendental meditation in Los Angeles, which happened to clash with a semi-important, last minute scheduled performance in Las Vegas. I opted for the meditation instruction and was given immediate notice by the others. The result of my dismissal meant that I was no longer subsidised by our managers. I had to give up my house on Amour Road at the top of Laurel Canyon and was taken in by my friend and former Kingsmen bass player Kerry Magness”.

Keliehor was replaced by Tony Dey on drums and Dey continued to play into 1968 when he was replaced by Ron Woods just before The Daily Flash finally disbanded.  Given the direction and spirituality he’d find in the future Jon Keliehor had probably made the right decision in attending the spiritual retreat.  He moved to England in 1970 to work with The London Contemporary Dance Company, and formed Luminous Music, an organization to experiement in new and world music and movement.  His mission and work had taken on a spiritual quality.  He made a sojourn back to Seattle in the 1980s and became a composer and performer with Gamelan Pacifica, taught at The Cornish School of Art and became involved with The Seattle Symphony.  In 1996 he returned to the U.K. (this time to Glasgow Scotland) to continue his exploration of music and dance. He remains there and has become a vital contributor to the contemporary arts scene in Britain.

Before his departure from Los Angeles Keliehor was still in demand though.  He’d been brought into a new project called “Gentle Soul“.  The band’s ostensible producer was Terry Melcher, but Melcher’s intention was to record an album with upcoming singer/songwriter Pam Pollard as a duo.  He brought Pam’s collaborator on board, as well as Kerry Magness (who’d been working as a studio sideman for The Doors) and former Iron Butterfly guitarist, Danny Weis.  The proposed band would back Terry and Pam’s material.  Gentle Soul” only made one demo before going their separate ways.  Shortly afterward  Keliehor and Magness were invited to audition for The Doors producer Paul Rothchild.  Rothchild was putting together a new project he was to call “Rhinoceros”.  Doug Hastings, who had spent a brief time in Buffalo Springfied was also asked to audition, as was a host of other Los Angeles musicians  Hastings had been dropped by Buffalo Springfield the minute Neil Young had shown an interest in re-joining the group. Rhinoceros was not congealing as Rothchild had anticipated so he put the project on hold. He’d later revived the project as the first “Supergroup”, but the result was bloated and overblown.  Rhinoceros came and went after one album. To this day the album has detractors as rabid as it’s fans.
Hastings spent his time doing pick-up gigs.  Keliehor sat in on the recording of The Doors’ second album, “Strange Days” He also became friends with The Byrds (particularly David Crosby).  He gained several opening spots for the band and was considered as a substitute for Micheal Clarke when he temporarily left the band; but Michael Clarke soon returned to The Byrds. Unfortunately Keliehor’s being drafted full-time with The Byrds wasn’t meant to be.

The Daily Flash soldiered on and ended up supporting The Grateful Dead during a tour of the Northwest. Afterward they returned to Los Angeles to play a few gigs and then back to Seattle to do some very well-received shows.
“Everyone who came to see us was expecting to see a great group“, Lalor later claimed, “and because of that we played like a great group.”

In the wake of these dates the band was off to support Van Morrison for a handful of dates but it was clear there was serious division in the band. Part of it was personal, but much of it was based in the fact the band wrote very little of their own material.   MacAllister, Tarwater and drummer Ron Wood collaborated with future Mother’s of Invention bassist Jeff Simmons.  Darryl De Loach, late of Iron Butterfly and former Soul Survivors/Poco guitarist John Day joined them.  The new band worked under the name “Nirvana” They soon changed their name to “Two Guitars, Bass, Drums and Darryl”  They cut a single for Atlantic Records without Simmons (“He’s My Best Friend” b/w “Spaceman Blues”).  Both songs were penned by Don MacAllister.  After the single’s poor reception the band parted ways.  MacAllister and Craigwater the took part in the recording of Jackie De Shannon’s “Laurel Canyon”  During the sessions they became aquainted with Mac Rebennack (Dr. John). By this time MacCallister shared more than musicianship with Dr. John.  Both were heroin addicts.  Later MacCallister would tour with Dr. John (along with Hastings)  but was dismissed by the Doctor’s management for “encouraging the good Doctor’s bad habits”

In fact, MacAllister had been a junkie for quite some time and was sinking futher and further into his addiction, despite a series of studio gigs and a short tour playing mandolin for Bob Dylan.  Soon he was picking up gigs for second and third line artists in Los Angeles so MacCallister was making plans to return to Seattle to see his old friend, Paul Gillingham.  Remember that MacAllister had worked with Gillingham in The Willow Creek Ramblers.  Unfortunately MacAllister overdosed and died a few days before his planned trip.  Later Hastings recounted that  “MacAllister’s family strongly disapproved of his life and his friends and they retrieved the body (from Los Angeles) and returned to bury him in Seattle, leaving no invitations for his friends.”

Steve Lalor had played on a couple of tracks on Dr. John’s “Remedies” and played various sessions in Los Angeles before re-connecting with Danny O’Keefe, a former member of the Seattle group “Caliope”.  Lalor auditioned to tour with O’Keefe after the success of “Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues” which became an international hit from O’Keefe’s solo album.

By June 1970 Doug Hastings left music behind and gone back to college, where he completed his original studies of Petroleum Geology.  As of 2016 Hastings was Senior Geologic Science Advisor for Brooks Range Petroleum.  Although he’s left music behind he occasionally sits in with the newly re-formed Daily Flash.  They’ve continued to play regularly around the Northwest since 2002.

Various members that floated in and out of the band have taken part in tours or studio recordings by artists as diverse as Buddy Miles, The Turtles, James Brown, The Byrds and too many more projects to mention.

In 1984 music critic Peter Blecha and record producer Bob Jenniker put together a comprehensive overview of The Daily Flash called “I Flash Daily”  The compilation includes the only two singles The Daily Flash ever released (“Queen Jane Approximately” b/w “Jack of Diamonds” and “The French Girl” b/w
Green Rocky Road”) as well as several demo’s, live performances and unreleased material.  The album was released by Psycho Records in the UK but has never been released domestically in the U.S.  It’s a shame since the band had gone so far on the strength of two 7″ singles, one imperfect 7″ compilation and a history of some of the earliest and most well-received performances of the psychedelic era.  There is also a soundtrack for the film “Pit Stop” credited to The Daily Flash, but in fact composed and played by Two Guitars, Piano, Drum & Darryl.  Musical radio clips of The Daily Flash are found in the 1968 Peter Bogdanovich film “Targets” starring Boris  Karloff.

 

Nowadays The Daily Flash consist of Steve Lalor, Barry Curtis (one of the original Kingsmen) and  Steve Peterson (a member of The Kingsmen since 1988) and Don Wlhelm who has worked alongside Heart founders Roger Fisher and Steve Fossen.  Wilhelm has also had the honor of working with The Frantics-turned Moby Grape drummer Don Stevenson.  The Daily Flash members also consider their sound engineer, Craig Bystrom, an essential part of the band.  On their homepage they claim “…he brings his wealth of talent and experience to The Flash and enables the band to sound its best at all times”  After their re-uniting in 2002 the band have played consistently.  In 2012 The Daily Flash released the album “Nightly”.  The album includes original material as well as the re-interpretations of traditional folk and jazz. Reviews were roundly positive (to say the least) upon it’s release.

 

-Dennis R. White.  Sources. Neal Skok “The Daily Flash” ( Ptolemaic Terrascope #12, July 1992); Steven Selinkoff ” Don MacAllister & Jon Keliehor”, (Name Dropping, 13 December 2015); Brian T. Marchese “The French Girl-The Tale of The Tune” (Where’s That Music Coming From? February 1. 2012);  Tom Deitz,”The BFD’ (PNWBands.com);  “Alice Stuart Interview” (Guitarhoo! May 14.2004);  Gordon Skene “3 By The Daily Flash-1966-Past Daily Weekend Soundbooth” (Past Daily, August 18, 2014); Vernon Joynson “Fuzz Acid and Flowers Revisited: A Comprehensive Guide to American Garage Psychedelic and Hippie Rock [1964-1975] (Borderline Productions, 2004); “Daily Flash Recordings” (Copyright LamaSivaDoz, 2003); Stewart Hendrickson “Hootenannies in Seattle” (Pacific Northwest Folklore Society); Phil Williams “</Early Bluegrass in Western Washington and the Pacific Northwest” (Voyager Recordings and Publications); David Marsh “Old Music: The Daily Flash-Jack of Diamonds (The Guardian, 13 March, 2012); Nick Warburton “The Daily Flash” (Rhinocerus. www.rhinoceros-group.com August 2001); The Daily Flash: Subverting The Dominant Paradigm Since 1965, www.thedailyflash.com) The Daily Flash “Nightly’ Liner Notes” (CDBaby.com); Jon Keliehor “I Flash Daily”  (Luminous Music, www.jonkeliehor.com/Daily_Flash_profile.htm); Richie Unterberger “The Daily Flash-I Flash Daily” www.allmusic.com); Peter Blecha “The Daily Flash: Seattle’s ’60s Folk-Rock Heroes 1965-1967”  Northwest Music Archives, 2014); Ritchie Unterberger “Jingle Jangle Morning: Folk Rock in the 1960s”  (Book Baby, Feb 20, 2014);

 


 

 

 

 

 

Stan Boreson


“Zero dacus, mucho cracus hallaballu-za bub That’s the secret password that we use down at the club Zero-dacus, mucho-cracus hallaballu-za fan Means now you are a member of: KING’s TV club with Stan.”

Every baby-boomer who grew up within the broadcast signal of Seattle’s KING-TV knows the song.  From 1954 until 1967, it was the theme for “King’s TV Club With Stan Boreson” and later simply “The Stan Boreson Show“.  Boreson was only one of many kid-show hosts in the early days of Northwest. television.  Others included the Ivar Haglund inspired “Captain Puget” (Don McCune), the railwayman “Brakeman Bill”( Bill McLain), Wunda Wunda-a sort-of Pixie Harlequin played by Ruth Prins and of course the most beloved of all; J.P. Patches played by the incredibly resourceful and hilarious Chris Wedes.

Although all local kids show hosts played a character, and focused on their kiddie audience in 1998  Boreson told April Chandler of the Kitsap Sun;

“We used to joke that the reason we’re not on (television) anymore is we were entertaining the parents instead of the kids,” he said. “I never talked down to the kids; we were just carrying on a normal conversation.”

The statement about the adults is probably true.  Even though Boreson ran a cartoon or two during his daily broadcast,the bulk of his unscripted routine was a series of subtle “Scandahoovian” jokes and characters that were sure to go over the heads of most kids-especially the majority of his audience who had no first or second generation familiarity with the Scandinavian experience back home, or in the immigrant community. Not only that, Boreson was the master of cornball parodies of popular songs, sung in an addled English-Scandinavian dialect.  The dialect itself was a large part of the joke, and even the parody must have seemed a bit too dense for small children.

This was the early days of television and cheap broadcasts of local artists allowed broadcasters across the country to fill time. In fact, it’s probable that not a single broadcaster across the nation didn’t have a kiddie show to fill in an afternoon  time slot, or at least a comedy show that could please both the stay-at-home mom and her rowdy kids just home from school. Unlike most kiddie program hosts who had come from radio as announcers, weatherpeople or disc jockeys, Boreson had a leg up on all of them.  He’d started his career as an entertainer and by the time he was hired he’d already performed his corny take on Scandanavian life and his accordian playing in front of  thousands upon thousands of audience members.  The start of his career goes back to his early days in Everett WA.

Boreson was born into a second generation family. His grandfather-a carpenter- had jumped ship from a Norwegian lumber hauler near Utsalady on Camano Island.  After hiding out for several days the angry captian and crew of the gave up looking for him, he made his way out of the forest and eventually filed a land claim on Camano Island.  Next he sent word to his wife to join him.  By 1925, when Stan was born, his mother and father had settled in Everett WA, where a large Scandanavian population had congregated. It’s unclear if his grandparents remained on Camano Island, although later it would be a welcome destination for Stan and his wife to re-charge their batteries.

Stan grew up around first and second generation Norwegian immigrants who were stuck somewhere between stubbornly holding onto the ways of “the old country” and being bemused and a bit confused by the new American culture they’d found themselves in.  In fact Boreson would use a running joke throughout his life that “this is a song my uncle Torvald taught me” before launching into one of his thick-accented parodies.  It was both humorous to Scandinavian audience, but it also showed a sign of Stan’s well-meaning, genial attitude toward his audience and their backgrounds.  Scandinavians who had immigrated were no less frowned-upon and subject to bias than any other ethnic group that has come to America in large numbers.

In the 2010 documentary “”Off The Air But Still In Our Hearts” Boreson recounted a story that’s become familiar with almost every one of his fans.  He remembered that at age 12 his mother had decided it was time for Stan to start music lessons.  The instrument originally assigned to him was the guitar.  She sent him to a tutor, Mel Odegard who worked out of Buell’s Music on Hewitt Avenue in Everett. Odegard told him Stan “I’ll teach you some chords on the guitar and then you can sing the melody.’  Stan was too shy to sing at the time and objected.  ” I was very bashful, so I sez ‘No way am I going to sing.’ So he said: ‘Well, then why don’t you trade-in the guitar on an accordion? — you play the melody on one side and chord on the other.  That’s how I became an accordian player” Stan recalls.

He also recalls the accordion being so heavy that he hauled it from home to Beull’s and back in his wagon. Of course Stan often repeated this story and each time he was sure to insert the names and addresses-including his home address in Everett at the time.  Even though he repeated the story often each time it sounded like the first time he’d told it. Apparently Stan was fighting his reluctance to sing when a cousin, Myrtle Lee, dared him to take part in a skit at one of Everett High School’s pep rallies.  Stan would play accordion and sing the lyrics to the song “Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh”, an old, somewhat hackneyed standard written by Abe Olman and Ed Rose in 1917.  The idea was for Stan to play and sing the song’s lyrics as written in English and Myrtle would “translate” the lyrics in an over-the-top, Norwegian display of comedic melodrama.  The performance was a hit, and Boreson-and presumably his cousin Myrtle-would never be stage-shy again.  In fact, Boreson clearly reveled in his ability to perform and entertain audiences.  This revelry would continue throughout his entire life.

When US involvement in the Pacific and Europe broke out into war h tried to enlist in the Army but was rejected because of an arm injury that had kept him hospitalized for a year as a child.  So having been turned down by the Army he chose to do his service by joining the USO.  His USO deployment led him to Italy, where he sang on makeshift stages with musical greats The Andrews Sisters, Arthur Tracy, Allan Jones and more. This experience would lead Boreson to gain even more confidence performing in front of audiences. After the war ended Boreson returned to Everett and enrolled as a student Everett Community College…in those days “community” colleges were known as “junior colleges”, so Stan spent two years at Everett “Junior” College, before transferring to the University of Washington.  His studies included  accounting and personnel management.  But study seemed to come second to his aspirations of becoming a comedian and porodist.   It was at the University of Washington that his true ambitions as a performer blossomed.  Boreson started out with amateur student comedy troupes, mostly among the  University’s  student entertainment groups.   It was here that he honed his “Scandahoovian” persona.

In 1948 Dorothy Bullit purchased  KRSC-TV , which had been the first television station to broadcast in the Northwest.  The station was re-branded to KING TV shortly afterward to match the call letters of it’s sister station KING Radio.  Bullit who was President of KING at the time hired Lee Schulman-a former NBC program director-to  look for talent to fill the airwaves of KING TV.  One of the targets of Schulman’s search for talent was the University of Washington.  It was there that Schulman first saw Boreson and soon afterward he offered Stan a role co-starring with fellow U of W student Art Barduhn.  The  show debuted as a 15 minute slot each Thursday called “Campus Capers”   Later, when the show found a sponsor-Clipper Oil-and the name of the program was changed to “Clipper Capers”.The show included music, comedy skits and occasional interviews. Still later Boreson and Burduhn were offered a half-hour show called “Two B’s at the Keys” (Boreson and Barduhn being the two “B’s. the keys being Stan’s accordion and Burrdun’s piano.)  The show, like the previous “Clipper Capers” included comedy sletches, but Stan went even further into Scandanavian parodies of popular songs.  It is on “Two B’s at the Keys” that Boreson debuted what would become one of his most beloved parodies “Valkin’ In My Vinter Undervear” set to the tune “Walking In a Winter Wonderland”.   The show was a hit with the audiences as well as the sponsors. Boreson and Barduhn did their television show as well as work as featured and opening acts around the Puget Sound region.

Boreson also had a personal connection to band leader Lawrence Welk, another immigrant who’s accent was shaped by the adults he grew up around. Although Welk was born in Strasburg, North Dakota.  His family were of German Catholic descent who’d fled Odessa, a city in what was at the time The Russian Empire. (Odessa is now  in Ukraine)..  Although they did not share a Scandinavian background it’s clear that Boreson had a special place in his heart for Welk and his orchestra throughout his life.  Another tie was that Welk’s family had stubbornly held onto their traditions and accents during Welk’s early life.  Welk’s accent became as much a part of his persona as the “Champagne Music” he conducted.

“When my cousin and I ran the 7 Cedars Dance Hall in Mount Vernon, we were able to hire him, his whole 16-piece band, and even the Champagne Lady for $750. And his wife sent us baked cookies. He wasn’t famous then, but I knew of him because he’d made some polka records. Later, when he got famous, he had me on his show (in 1957) in Los Angeles. I could never hire him again, though. His price had gone up to $30,000. Same band!”

During the early 1950’s Stan also became aware of comedian/singer/parodist  from Tacoma, Harry Edward Skarbo (aka by his adopted name, Harry Stewart) and his alter-ego Yogi Yorgesson. Boreson had been doing his Scandinavian schtick for years, but Skarbo/Stewart/Yogi was far more successful.  Boreson’s musical act emphasized comic Scandinavian dialect parodies.  Skarbo/Stewart had created a somewhat dim-witted character (Yogi Yorgesson) portraying a naïve Swedish “Hindu yogi” who handed out absurd advice and divination in a thick Swedish accent.  Aside form a successful nightclub act, Skarbo/Stewart (as Yogi Yorgesson) had charmed audiences across the country with his own parodies of the ever-confused Scandanavian immigrant and his somewhat backward ways.  His first recording  “My Clam Digger Sweetheart”b/w”I Don’t Give a Hoot had proved popular enough to land him a contract with Columbia Records.  According to his bio Skarbo/Stewart/Yorgesson’s second recording (the first that debuted on Capitol)  “I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas” backed by The Johnny Duffy Trio) was promoted as a special  Christmas release.  Advance orders came from all around the country, and sales soared.

Capitol realized they had a bona fide hit . The song debuted on the Billboard charts at number 24 on December 10th, 1949 , and by the next week, both “I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas, and it’s B-side “Yingle Bells” were both in the Top Twenty.  By Christmas that year both were top ten hits. The song “I Yust Go Nuts” proved it’s legs at Christmas” and even reached number five even after the holiday. The single became one of Capitol’s permanent hits—being reissued virtually every year in one form or another since it’s debut in 1949.. Right after Christmas, “I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas” reached number five, and the single became one of Capitol’s permanent hits—being reissued or covered by other artists since it’s debut. It remains a seasonal hit on the Dr. Dememto show. As the 1950’s continued along Skarbo/Yorgesson  continued to perform  under his stage name, but largely abandoned his “Hindu mystic” character in favor of his act as a Swedish-American parodist and comedian taking advantage of an exaggerated accent.  Sadly Skarbo died in an automobile accident in 1956 near Tonapah NV, on his way from a gig in Ely Nevada to his home in Los Angeles.

Between 1956 and 1979 Stan and his musical collaborator Doug Setterberg would record and release 18 songs that had been written by Skarbo/Stewart.  In 1980 Stan recorded another 11 of his songs on the tribute album “Yust ‘Tinkin’ of Yogi” .  Before. during and after Stan’s television career Boreson had worked closely with his collaborator Doug Setterberg writing and performing  parodies together.  They appeared onstage as a duo and recorded albums under the name and “Stan and Doug”, although it’s clear that it was Stan who held the spotlight.  In all. Boreson (either as a solo artist or alongside Setterberg) recorded 16 albums during his career.  Setterberg also collaborated on Boreson’s television show as characters “Foghorn Peterson”, “Phineus The Frog” and various sketch characters.  Aside from Setterberg regulars included the voice of Mike Rhodes as the heard but never seen “Old Timer”, Boreson as “Grandma Torvald (his drag persona) a 1962 World’s Fair visitor from outer space, Space-Nick, played by Jerry Sando.  The menagerie of animals (real and imagined) scattered the set that included Victor Rola, Pepita the Flea, Phineas the Frog , and  “The Swedish Answerman” but none so predominant as the perpertually inert Basset Hound, No-Mo-shun, often shortened to simply “No-Mo”  The name stems from a contest to name the mascot of Boreson’s  show.  The name is a pun on speed record holder (at the time) of“ Slo-Mo-Shun” a local favorite in hydroplane-mad Seattle.  Later No-Mo-Shun would be paired with the equally immovable Basset Hound, Talulah Blankhead. I n 1967 Stan Boreson’s show became victim of changes in children’s afternoon programing and an emphasis of afternoon news, talk shows, syndicated sit-coms and soap operas.  In fact Boreson’s show was replaced by the gothic themed “Dark Shadows”  Sadly, Stan’s sidekick and  collaborator, Doug Setterberg died shortly after the show’s cancellation. Still this didn’t keep Boreson from travelling the country or appearing locally to his fans and admirers who had dubbed him “The King of Scandanavian Humor”.  His fame was so widespread among pockets of Scandinavians across the country, in Canada, and in Scandinavia itself that his albums, especially his Christmas albums, are regularly pulled out and listened to at large gatherings of Scandinavian friends and family.  As corny as they are, they still bring a laugh, and maybe a cringe at their corniness.

Stan continued to record and tour during the 1960s and 1970s and continued to appear on television in the form of “The Stan Boreson Christmas Reunion” that ran every Christmas from 1991 to 2003.  He also continued to work live all over the country as well as in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark.  In 2006 Rick Anderson of the Seattle Weekly wrote:

“Boreson has been on an accordion world tour since, from the Norsk Hostfest in Minot, N.D., to the Little Norway Festival in Petersburg, Alaska, and every lutefisk fight in between. He appears regularly at local events; he’s also done six gigs on A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor. Wherever he goes, they ache to hear the Klubhouse theme song, “Zero Dacus” (“mucho cracus, hullaballoozabub “

While Stan kept performing the honors and accolades started to pile up.  He was summoned by King Olav V of Norway to perform for him and hundreds of guests.  In 2005 Olav V’s successor King Harald V awarded Boreson  the St. Olav Medal of Honor, an award Boreson shares with only eight others.  The Ballard Chamber of Commerce began giving out annual Stan Boreson Awards to various esteemed members of the community, and in 2007, Boreson was honored with two of the first Distinguished Alumni awards ever offered by Everett Community College. He also was dubbed the “Prime Minister of Sea-Fair” Seattle’s annual festival of concerts, parades and special events culminating in the anuual hydroplane races.  The largest honor, of course, is the place in the hearts of his fans.  Although his TV shows are long gone he’ll always be remembered for his genial mood and gentle humor.  It’s important to remember that Stan spent more than 20 on television (12 of them as the host of “KING’s Klubhouse” and “The Stan Boreson Show)  But the bulk of his nearly 70 year career was as a live performer, a recording artist and comic. was as a recording artist and live entertainer.  Videos from the early days of television broadcasts video was re-used, so  very little footage of the Stan Boreson Show, KING Klubhouse, Campus Capers amd Clipper Capers are left, but most folks outaside the Northwest know Stan through his revcordings and live routines.  Consequently, there is a great deal of recorded music available.

In 2007 Boreson and his wife formed “Stan Boreson and Barbara Tours”.  They took tourists across the US, Canada and Europe for several years by bus; Barbara was the gracious host and Stan, always with his accordian on hand, worked as the commentor, tour guide, and musical  entertainment.  Always self-deprecated and kind though extremely funny in his trademarked cornball  banter.  It was clear Stan had no desire to continue being the cut-up he’d been for decades. Stan and Barbara’s tour business lasted 25 years, and each tour provided an captive (but willing) audience for Stan to charm.

Stan’s final foray into recorded music came in 2007 with a cover of Sheb Wooley’s “I Just Don’t Look Good Naked Anymore” A self-deprecating, corny video of the song is available on you tube.

On January 27th 2017 Stan Boreson suffered a massive stroke in the presence of Barbara, his wife of over six decades.  His obituary in the Seattle Times wrapped up his career and status as a Northwest icon.  The obituary then goes on to say:

“In true Stan Boreson style, he would have wanted to end with a joke…so here goes”.

Lena calls the newspaper and asked to speak to the obituaries.
“This is the obituaries, what can I do for you?”
“I would like to put an ad in your obituaries.”
“What would you like to say?” ”
I’d like to say, “Ole died.”
“Just two words… “Ole died?”
“Yeah, well he did.”

“We have a special this week…five words for a dollar. For the same amount you can have three more words. Is there anything else you’d like to say?”
“In that case,” Lena said, “I would like to say, “Ole died boat for sale.”

Years ago Barbara Boreson said that she and Stan had made a pact that when one of them died the other would go on with life and promised to remarry. Sadly Barbara Boreson never got the change. She died August 20, 2017 just six days short of her 86th birthday.  Although both Stan and Barbara and Doug Setterberg are no longer with us, it’s certain that Stan’s corny “Scandahoovian” comedy will last for generations.


 

-Dennis R; White.  Sources; Peter Blecha “Borsen, Stan (1925-2017)”  (HistoryLink.org Essay 8553); Barbara Boreson “Stan Boreson. The King of Scandinavian Humor” (http://www.stanboreson.com/index.htm); By Kaitlin Manry “Stan Boreson Can’t Stop Singing” (Everett Herald, December 23 2007); Rick Anderson “Most Resistant to Makeovers” (Seattle Weekly, October 9, 2006); Roger George “My Memoir of Growing Up in Seattle With Television” (Images of Television, September 3, 2014); “Stan Boreson 1925-2017” (Seattle Times Obituaries, January 27, 2017); “78’s fRom HeLL – – Listening in on Phone Chatter: Janette Davis – Hold The Phone, (and on line two) Stan Boreson & Doug Setterberg – The Telephone” (I’m Learning To Share, May 26, 2007); April Chandler “Stan Boreson: Fans Still Going Nuts Over Funny Norwegian” (The Kitsap Sun, January 7, 1998); Dawn Broughton “Remembering Stan Boreson of KING’s Klubhouse” (King TV, February 1, 2017); “How Was He Different?” Seattle Television History); Sherry Strickling “Yust the two of us: Stan and Barbara Boreson Have Kept Each Other Laughing For Nearly 50 Years” (The Seattle Times, July 15, 2001); Kari Bray “Stan Boreson, ‘King of Scandinavian Humor Dies at 91 (The Everett Herald, February 1, 2017); Melinda Bargreen “The Klubhouse Is Open Again” (The Seattle Times, December 15, 1991); “Barbara Jean Boreson” (Obituary, The Seattle Times, August 20, 2017); John Louis Anderson “Scandinavian Humor and Other Myths” Nordbook, 1986); Will Jones “Yorgesson? Yust A Phoney” (‘After The Last Night’ The Minneapolis Tribune, April 18, 1950); Will Jones “Smart Swede Fails To Click” (‘After Last Night’,  The Minneapolis Tribune, June 22, 1950); ” ‘Yogi Yorgesson Killed In Car Crash” (The Minneapolis Star, May 21, 1956); Susan Paynter “Boreson’s Living Proof That Silliness is Good For Your Health” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 5, 2005

 

The Bards

Looking back on  heyday of 50s and 60s teen-dance music in the Northwest we tend to forget there was also a very healthy  scene in eastern Washington, Northern Idaho and to a lesser degree in eastern Oregon.  Teen dances were just as popular on the east side of the Cascades as they were on the west, but we often overlook it.  Perhaps the crowd sizes were smaller, but it’s important to remember the distances between the small towns of the Inland Empire.  Bands did much of the bookings themselves in Grange Halls, all-ages clubs, teen fairs in the larger towns and relentlessly trying to get the attention of small, local radio stations that were largely forgotten by labels and distributors.  One of the many bands that would follow in the tradition of eastern Washington bands was The Continentals (later The Fabulous Contitnentals).  The band was formed was formed at Moses Lake High School in 1961/1962.  Originally the Continentals was loose-knit affair with personnel coming and going.  During the early years Ron Covey was added on electric guitar, and singer John Draney got on board. According to bassist Chuck Wallace;

John (Draney) could do a pretty good Roy Orbison and ‘Pretty Woman’ was an early addition to our repertoire. Ken McDonald was the leader of the group and named it the Continentals. His father owned the local Lincoln, Mercury car dealership but at the time I’m not sure we were sharp enough to make a connection”.

Ken suggested the band play a “real” gig and they ended up with a 1962 booking for a New Year’s dance at a local Elks Club.  The band played “Five Foot Two” and the mostly-adult crowd loved them.  Chuck says “I was playing the upright bass, Bob Hull was on piano and I don’t really recall the exact make up of that first combo.” 

After graduating from High School in 1963 Ken went off to college, and the band went through drummers Stan Gibson and Nick Varney.  But it was Bob Galloway that finally became a permanent member of the band.  Bob Hull had also gone off to college and was replaced by keyboardist Mike Balzotti, and guitarist Mardi Sheridan joined the group around the same time.  It was at this point that the band re-christened themselves as The Fabulous Continentals and added Marsha Mae, sister of Ron Covey, on vocals. Chuck Warren says:

“We were traveling the state and enjoying some success on the dance circiout but the size of the group made traveling and dividing up the paycheck at the end of the gig was a challenge”.  Early on we rented our own halls and probably hit every Grange and Armory, and City Hall in Eastern Washington. As our popularity grew we began being hired by promoters who ran dances in roller rinks and larger venues”

It’s clear the core members of the Fabulous Continentals had aspirations and were willing to work as much as possible to make things happen. Keyboardist Mike Balzotti, guitarist Mardi Sheridan, drummer Bob Galloway, and bass player Chuck Warren were at the core of the band and made a decision to scale down the band to it’s basics.  Marsha Mae was told “to stay home. Her brother Ron quit in solidarity with his sister-or possibly on the orders of his mother and father.  At this point the Covey parents asked the remaining members to “leave the basement” where they’d practiced and “never return!” The parents even went so far as to run a local newspaper ad proclaiming that Ron and Marsha Mae Covey were no longer associated with The Fabulous Continentals “Lucky for us” Warren slyly adds “Bob Galloway had a garage!”

The move didn’t seem to deter Marsha Mae’s rise to local fame and her notoriety was probably more to her parents’ liking. In 1968  she would  be crowned “Miss Moses Lake” and the year after she was crowned “Miss Washington”.  Ron Covey became involved in Moses Lake politics and spent years on the city council as well as serving as Mayor.  Later he headed ‘The Moses Lake Irrigation and Rehabilitation District Board’ but resigned (without explanation) in 2014 after a contentious four years with the MLRDB.

Once Balzotti, Sheridan, Galloway and Warren had pared down the group to a quartet they started looking for a new name.  The musical world had been turned up by the British Invasion, with The Beatles at the forefront.  Contemporary musical tastes were changing at a dramatic pace, and bands across the US were in the process of finding more British sounding names.  Peter Blecha has pointed out a few Eastern Washington bands that followed the trend to Anglicize their band name;

“Spokane’s Runabouts retooled themselves as the London Taxi, Ellensburg’s Avengers reformed as the Scotsmen and recorded “Sorry Charlie” replete with Brit accents, and a Moses Lake band, the Bards — who had originally formed as the Fabulous Continentals back in 1961 — began restyling themselves after the Beatles…Another popular Moses Lake-area band, the Page Boys, got signed by Seattle’s Camelot label, which released their single “Our Love” The members of the Fabulous Continentals were changing (like many of their contemporaries) from a primarily instrumental band playing raucous R&B-tinged garage rock to a more lyrical outfit that would be known by a name that implied a more “British” sound.   The band started looking through a Roget’s Thesaurus to find a name that would describe the new path they’d chosen…to make use of classical  lyrics and content set to modern music…and of course to “sound” British.   After a search, they decided on the name The Bards.

The band kept up a hectic schedule playing as many venues across Washington, Oregon and Idaho as possible. After years as a dance band, and the hard work as The Bards things started paying off.  Although they were writing new music all along, they made sure to keep their audiences satisfied with playing plenty of their old standards from the Fabulous Continentals days, thus keeping fans old and new happy.  After years of constant playing they were becoming the most popular band in the Northwest…on both sides of the mountains; so it wasn’t a stretch that they’d eventually come to the attention of Seattle-based Jerden Records head Jerry Dennon.

Dennnon offered the band a chance to record a few songs at Kearney Barton’s Audio Recording Inc. studio, then on Fifth Avenue.  Barton’s Audio Recording Inc. was built inside space he’d made into one of the most sophisticated studios in the Northwest, complete with two echo chambers and a three track tape recorder. The Bards initially recorded four sides with Barton. “The Owl and The Pussycat” based on the poem by Edward Lear,  “The Jabberwocky” inspired by the Lewis Carroll poem, an original composition “The Light of Love” and a cover of The Who’s “My Generation”. The sessions were engineered by Barton and produced by Gil Bateman who also produced the Sonic’s  “Psycho” and “The Bears” by Springfield Rifle among other great Northwest sides.

Even though The Bards had originated about the same time as The Wailers, The Frantics and dozens of other NW Sound bands  The Bards tried to distance themselves from what was popular west of the Cascades.

“We purposely tried not to be too “Seattle” as we felt that many of the groups over there sounded a lot alike”.

Their first recordings show they were serious about that claim. After completing their first recordings  Dennon shopped them around Hollywood and New York City, but couldn’t find a major label willing to release them.  He had proposed “The Owl and The Pussycat” b/w “The Light of Love” as a single but label execs found the lyrics of “The Owl and the Pussycat” too…suggestive… even though the lyrics were mostly an unadulterated reading of Edward Lear’s original poem.

Instead of continuing to pursue a major label, Dennon decided to release The Bards’ first single on his Piccadilly Records imprint. Picaddilly was the regionally distributed label that Jerden Records  used to float a trial balloon for local  talent they were considering signing, or as a respected regional label that might attract the majors.  The release got a bit of Puget Sound and Eastern Washington attention, but really went nowhere.  “The Owl and The Pussycat” was rooted in what we might think of as “The Northwest Sound” but it definitely wasn’t garage rock in the manner of the Wailers, The Frantics or The Sonics. There was far more folk-rock influence, and it’s clear the band were interested in a more “pop” sound-albeit one based in serious songwriting rather than playing to the masses. The prominent organ was not played in the standard local R&B and vocal harmonies were more pronounced.  Over all it’s a great tune.  Ironically it was later re-issued by Capitol Records as well as a slower version that is pure early psychedelia. Unfortunately the later Capitol release didn’t do well either, although it’s worth a listen, and some collectors even covet it over the original recordings.  They’re  great examples of early  psychedelic pop.

The Bards second release (also on Picaddilly) didn’t fare any better outside the Northwest.  Their cover of “My Generation” was solid but not particularly innovative.  The “B’ side of the single is “The Jabberwocky” which would be used again later as a B-side (as was their song “The Light of Love”). “The Jabberwocky” is set to fine instrumentation, but the lyrics of the Lewis Carroll poem seem out of place here.  A bit too forced.  This might be because the poem was far less referenced in 1967 than it has been in the ensuing decades.  At a time that most songs on radio were love songs, or all-out rockers it gets marks for innovation.

Finally on their third try The Bards hit pay dirt.  The band had heard the song “Never Too Much Love” on the B-side of Curtis Mayfield and The Impression’s 1964 hit “Talking About My Baby” The Bards were smitten.  They rushed back over the mountains to Kearney Barton’s studio to cut their own version almost immediately.  Mayfield had originally written the song and performed it in the classic R&B/Soul style that he pioneered.  The Bard’s version didn’t veer too far off vocally, aside from being less smooth than the incomparable Impressions.   The smooth instrumental harmonies and a gentle horn section were missing on The Bards version.  They did what most rock bands do when faced with ballads-they relied more on electric guitar.  The result was a truly new reading of Mayfield’s song.  Instead of cool soul it took on a more folk-rock/psychedelic  air.  It was also infectious and rose to number one status on many Northwest and British Columbian regional radio station’s playlists.  More importantly, it drew the attention of the major labels who had earlier turned The Bards down. The Bards were left to choose several offers that were coming in fast but chose Capitol Records, since it was the American home of their revered Beatles.

The result was taking their regional hit “Never Too Much Love” to a nationwide distribution deal, and would become a minor hit around the US.  It still ends up on compilations of both Northwest and psychedelic bands. In the aftermath of their “hit” The Bards remained on the road even more than they had in the early 60s.  They found themselves as openers for bands like The Young Rascals, The Turtles, The Dave Clark Five and as pick-up band for Tommy Roe.   Although they admit they found Roe to be a top-knotch performer, they weren’t as thrilled by his music.  The Bards also opened for other top national and international acts around the region.

Between opening gigs they continued headlining the kind of venues that had always provided their bread and butter; teen dance halls, roller rinks, grange halls, county fairs and whatever other spaces that hosted teen dances.  According to Chuck they were working 20-25 nights a month and in 1967, 1968 and 1969 they had put over 100,000 miles a year on the Bardsmobile, a car that towed a small trailer carrying their equipment with The Bards logo prominently displayed on each side.

“Virtually all of those miles were in the Northwestern Part of the United States. Washington, Oregon, and Idaho were Bard states. Parts of Montana, British Columbia and Northern California were part of the circuit also”

The schedule got incredibly demanding after “Never Too Much Love” and the band was afraid of becoming stale.  They cancelled a month’s worth of gigs and rented an old theater in Moses Lake (The Ritz) to write, practice and record.  It was these recordings that showed an even more original and innovative sound.  The band recorded on a reel-to-reel  and a song or two at a time was sent to Kearney Barton’s studio for mastering.  At the core of what they were writing was a sort of mini rock opera they called “Creation”. The Bards were so pleased with the results they decided to drive to Los Angeles with demos in hand to find a label interested in releasing the totality of “Creation” which would include a few other remarkable compositions that would fill out an album.

Before their move to find a label in LA The Bards recorded one more song at Kearney Barton’s studio.  This time the band chose Jeff Afdem of the bands The Dynamics and Springfield Rifle to arrange and produce.  The A-side of the single was “Tunesmith” by Jimmy Webb.  Webb was at the height of his career at the time, writing classic songs such as “Galveston”, Witchita Lineman” and “MacArthur Park”. The B-Side of “Tunesmith” was written by an unknown singer/songwriter born in Spokane and commuting between his home in Yakima and his gig with the Seattle based band Caliope. The song chosen was “Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues”, and of course the singer/songwriter was Danny O’Keefe. O’Keefe had recorded a demo of “Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues” about a year before The Bards release. O’Keefe’s version had remained unreleased since it was, in fact, a demo that O’Keefe had used to find a label.  O’Keefe had also caught the eye of Jerry Dennon very early on, and O’Keefe had become friends with Jerry, and signed with his Jerden label, as well as Dennon’s Burdette Publishing. It’s likely that this was the connection that brought the song to The Bards attention

The single was released on Parrot Records (a U.S. subsidiary of London Records) who would go on to license two other Bards  re-issues.  Danny O’Keefe would have an international hit with his song a few years later, and since then his song has been covered literally by dozens of well-known artists.  Although Jimmy Webb was considered one of America’s best songwriters at the time, Keyboardist Mike Balzotti says:

“Had it been up to The Bards, ‘Goodtime Charlie’s Got The Blues’ would have been the “A” side”.
He goes on to say:
““As it turns out, a year later Danny O’Keefe made a big hit out of a similar rendition of the song!”
(The song would actually become a hit for O’Keefe in 1971, three years after The Bards).

Despite Webb’s fame and popularity The Bards were on the right track.  “Good Time Charlie” has become the longer lasting song, that still remains a staple of oldies radio, and the many other covers of it remain favorites of the fans of other artists.

. Once in Hollywood, by pure coincidence The Bards ran into singer/songwriter/producer Curt Boettcher in an elevator after they’d visited the offices of Mike Curb, one of the most successful producer/executives of all time.  Boetthcher was taken by the band right away  so he drove them to his business partner Gary Usher’s house to listen to the tapes they were shopping.  Both Boettcher and Usher were impressed.  Later the band were introduced to Usher and Boettcher’s third partner, Keith Olsen.  Boettcher, Usher and Olsen were then in the process of putting together a label called Together Records.  On paper the trio seemed like a team that couldn’t be beat.  All had been successful producers and/or engineers on a plethora of hit records.

Boettcher had produced The Association’s debut album which resulted in the hits “Along Comes Mary”  which reached number seven on the Billboard Charts and “Cherish” which reached number one. Boettcher is remembered as one of the earliest proponents of “Sunshine Pop”-a slightly more serious version of “Bubblegum Music” and although he only lived to be 41 he would go on to produce The Grateful Dead, the mixdown engineer for Emmit Rhode’s “Farewell to Paradise” and in the mid-1970s, he sang backing vocals for artists as diverse as Elton John, Eric Carmen and Tanya Tucker among a host of others.  He’d also managed to perform and record as a solo act.

Gary Usher had strong ties with the Beach Boys, had produced a few of their early singles and co-written several  songs with Brian Wilson, including “409” and “In My Room”. He’d also produced The Byrds, The Surfari’s and Dick Dale, as well as “discovering” The Firesign Theater and being instrumental in getting them a major label deal. Usher would go on to have his own successful career in the 1970’s.

At the time Keith Olsen was a respected engineer, but his incredible track record of production credits was a bit ahead in his future.  During the 1970’s Olsen produced dozens of hit artists and several number one albums.  In all he would produce more than 39 Gold records, 24 Platinum records, and 14 Multi-Platinum albums. So under contract to “Together Records” The Bards set out to record what would be an album with “Creation” at it’s core.  Their new label seemed bound to be a huge success with all of the talent on hand and with distribution through Curb. One hitch was that The Bards were still under contract with Jerry Dennon of Jerden Records, and also to Capitol Records.  They needed a new name to release any new recordings.

Curt Boettcher, as producer had been fascinated by the name of The Bards’ hometown, Moses Lake.  He suggested the band their name should be changed to “Moses Lake” The band liked the idea, so the recordings proceeded with the assumption the band name had changed.  While the erstwhile Bards were recording , Usher, Boettcher and Olsen were in the process of finding financing and distribution for their new label.  The three had been in talks with Motown in the beginning, but no deal could be reached.  The trio then returned to Mike Curb (in who’s office elevator the band had met Boettcher) and were able to secure the finances they needed to get off the ground, and a distribution deal through Curb’s organization.

Mike Curb was and is a legendary figure in the music and film business.  He had worked with artists such as the young Linda RonstadtThe Electric Flag (featuring Mike Bloomfield and Buddy Miles) as well as writing songs for and producing The Osmonds, Roy Orbison, and Liza Minnelli among many of the acts that would later become best sellers.  Curb would also sign artists such as Richie Havens, Gloria Gaynor, Eric Burdon, Johnny Bristol and War.  In 1969 Curb merged his successful Curb Records with MGM and became President of MGM Records and Verve Records.

Shortly after becoming President of MGM  Curb became embroiled in a crusade to rid the music business of drugs by dropping 18 acts that in the words of Billboard Magazine

“had, promoted and exploited hard drugs through music.”

Billboard added that Curb was motivated by the drug-related deaths of Janis Joplin Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix. Oddly enough one of the acts Curb had dropped was Frank Zappa.  Even in the 1960s Zappa had been well-known as a critic of drug use.  Apparently Curb had not gotten the memo.  He also hadn’t got the memo that Zappa had already fulfilled his contract and was in the process of establishing his own labels, Bizarre and Straight Records.

Sadly Together Records failed to live up to it’s promise.  It’s said that their only release that came near being a “hit” was used for paying staff.  The compilation  “Preflyte” by The Byrds is a collection of demos and non-released material that predated their being signed to Columbia.  The album also contains a great deal of early material recorded under The Byrds original name, The Jet Set.  The album stalled at number 84 on the Billboard charts, and other Together releases by The Hillmen, Sandy Salisbury and Charlie Musselwhite, and Curt Boettcher himself didn’t even chart.  The label was out of money, and their distribution deal was dropped.  Mike Curb was not interested in putting more money and more energy into a label that looked like it would continue to be disastrous.  No one else would touch it.  The result would also be disastrous to The Bards/Moses Lake. They’d mostly finished their album after working many months on it, but were now without a label to release it.

Producer Curt Boettcher suggested the band return to Moses Lake with him coming along as the band’s lead singer. This suggestion did not go over well with all members of the band, and going through an ordeal like the one with Together Records again was too much.  Apparently Mardi Sheridan and Mike Balzotti  had already seen the writing on the wall and left the band.  Chuck Taylor decided he’d spent too many years and too many miles on the road and wanted to return to Moses Lake to spend time with his family. Drummer Bob Galloway chose to keep the band going with a series of players until 1972.  Bob was the only original member, but “new” Bards found gigs in the Northwest, although never found the kind of success or popularity of the classic 1965-1968 line-up.  Despite their disparate reasons for dissolving The Bards/Moses Lake,  the band agrees the split was amicable.  This was reinforced when the band re-united one more time to celebrate Mike Balzotti’s 40th birthday in 1987.

The Bards work for Together Records was not a complete failure, though. The label had released a single from their “Moses Lake” sessions.  The single, “ Oobleck” b/w “Moses” was finally released under the band name, Moses Lake in 1971.  The A-side, “Oobleck “ was inspired by Dr. Seuss’s 1949 book Bartholomew and the Oobleck” with music by Mike Balzotti.   Although it has an intro that seems to go nowhere at first, and sounds appropriately Seussian, it becomes the kind of unexpected song that rings “genius” and leaves a person wanting more. Even though it’s launch was completely ruined by the concurrent collapse of their label there are a few copies to be found on the collectors market.

One other unexpected results was that without a label the band no longer had a contract with Together Records.  Their contract had not been bought-up by another label-they were, in fact, free agents. The tapes of the “Moses Lake” sessions would remain in their hands and under their control.  But life has a way of keeping us from reliving unfortunate and discouraging  past events.  Better to concentrate on the present and future than to revisit the past…so the “Moses Lake Recordings” stayed with Balzotti, without public exposure, for three decades.

Mike Balzotti was surfing the web one day and came across the site for Gear Fab Records out of Orlando Florida. Gear Fab releases what they term “Legitimate and Authorized re-issues of Psych, Garage and Rock Sounds, 1965-1972” Since the band had already come across an unauthorized bootleg of their early Piccadilly recordings along with a few later Bob Galloway-era songs, Gear Fab seemed like a natural, ethical  label to release their only album  on.  If not for this re-issue The Bards would probably be near-forgotten today.  With help from Gear Fab head Roger Maglio, the record was re-mastered for CD and released in 2002.

The album is still in print and is a great reminder of how psychedelia, pop, good songwriting , lyrics (even borrowing from the masters) and great musicianship combine to make a total much more than the sum of it’s parts. Despite the material on the album being stellar, the title is a bit cumbersome.  Officially it is “The Bards resurrect ‘The Moses Lake Recordings’ Produced by Curt Boettcher and Keith Olsen featuring ‘The Creation’. But no matter, it’s not that difficult to simply search for “The Moses Lake Recordings” Even though it sounds as if the recordings were done in Moses Lake they were not.  The title is meant to point to the band’s re-naming.  Over three decades since it was first recorded this album seems revolutionary in it’s mix of pop, garage, psychedelia, bubble-gum and prog-rock.  It’s final release is truly the end of an amazing story.

One last note;  Near the end of the documentary “I Am What I Play” Pat O’Day, the dean of west coast AM-Top 40 DJs was asked was asked what NW group deserved greater national recognition. His answer? “The Bards

 

-Dennis R. White.  Sources:  Don Rogers “Dance Halls, Armories and Teen Fairs” (Music Archives Press,1988); The Bards (http://mikebalzotti.com/BardsHomePage.htm); Richard Flynn (“Woodstock Rock RTR-FM 92.1,Perth Australia”); Stanton Swihart (The Bards Artist Biography. allmusic.com); Chuck Warren “The Bards Interview” (http://home.uni-one.nl/kesteloo/bards.html); “The Bards” (discogs.com);  Mike Dugo “The Bards” (The Lance Monthly, Volume 4, No. 3, May 2002); Peter Blecha “Inland Empire Rock: The Sound of Eastern Washington” ( HistoryLink.org Essay 7490); “Resurrect The Moses Lake Recordings by The Bards” [album20909] (rateyourmusic.com); Stanlynn Daugherty “Rock ‘n Roll Group Draws Anxious Crowd” (The Lantern, [Pendleton Oregon], Friday November 1, 1968); Beverly Paterson, Review of The Moses Lake Recordings  (September 23, 2002. The Lance Monthly); Mike Flynn “Once-obsure political race in Moses Lake takes on new import for areas’s economy. (Flynn’s Harp [Columbia Basin]  November 16, 2011)

 

Don Rich

Who would have thought that a kid from Olympia WA would become one of the architects of country music’s Bakersfield Sound? Don Eugene Ulrich was born in Washington’s state Capitol on August 15, 1941, and grew up in the  adjacent town, Tumwater WA. He was the adopted son of Bill and Anne Ulrich and went by that name as a youth but later would later shorten his last name to Rich.  Don’s parents encouraged him to play music, going so far as to giving him a home-made violin to play at the tender age of three. Ulrich was a musical child prodigy and learned the fiddle in short order and soon after picked up a guitar, also becoming proficient at the instrument in a short time.   Don’s parents were confident enough of his skill that they entered him in a series of local talent and variety shows.

By the age of 16 Rich had opened for a matinee performance by Elvis Presley (September 1, 1957) at Tacoma’s Lincoln Bowl. Lincoln Bowl was an amphitheater adjacent to Lincoln High School overlooking Puget Sound.  Since Presley’s performance took place next to Lincoln High School the show saw the amphitheater full of screaming teens.

During his last year of High School Don Rich had started playing  his fiddle around the south Puget Sound region as well as forming a rock and roll band called the Blue Comets with drummer Greg Hawkins and pianist Steve Anderson.  But Don’s love was closer to country and folk than rock and roll so he continued playing gigs as a fiddler. One of those gigs was at Tacoma’s Steve’s Gay ‘90s, where he would catch his first break-one that would change his life forever.  At the time former Bakerfield CA musician Buck Owens was doing a stint at Tacoma radio station KAYE.  Rich was at Steve’s Gay ‘90s when Buck Owens walked in one night in 1958.  Owens, a fiddler in his own right, had already seen Rich onstage, and was taken by Rich’s talent almost immediately.  After their first meeting they soon became great friends and collaborators. Don would join Owen’s band that played around Tacoma and Seattle.  Owens had been a radio personality, so when Rich joined-up with Owen’s he found himself doing a weekly spot on KTNT-TV 11’s BAR-K Jamboree.  The show also had the distinction of introducing Loretta Lynn to television with her first performance on television.

During Buck Owen’s time in Tacoma he’d become a local personality, but he’d earlier been involved as a session player in Hollywood.  He’d played lead guitar on what is usually regarded as the first Bakersfield Sound recording, Louisiana Swing by Bud Hobbs.  Although it wasn’t a huge hit it set the groundwork for a sound that Buck Owens along with Merle Haggard and The Strangers would largely be responsible for beginning in the late 50s and throughout the 1960s.  The “Bakersfield Sound” had slowly developed since the Days of Bob Willis, but it had never caught on aside from Willis’s novel idea of conflating Swing with Country and Western.

In 1959 Buck got a big response to his first “hit” “Second Fiddle” which hit No. 24 on the Billboard country chart.   It was soon followed by “Under Your Spell Again” that peaked at number 4 in the charts.  It wasn’t long before Owens was packed-up and ready to return to Bakersfield and it’s proximity to Columbia Records who would release most of the Buck Owens and The Buckaroos recordings.  Buck had urged Don Rich to follow him as part of his band, but Rich chose to remain in Washington and study to become a music teacher and tutor in Centralia WA where he continued to play fiddle at local bars.

After a year Don Rich had a change of heart and left for Bakersfield to play fiddle in Owen’s band. Buck Owens had an even bigger hit with “Above and Beyond,” which peaked at No. 3 in 1960.  This was the first track Rich had played fiddle  on. From then on Don and Buck became practically equal collaborators, driving near and far to play gigs up and down the west coast with pick-up musicians-or as a duo- and building  a reputation for the basic, honky-tonk inspired and stripped down sound of their live performances.

The Bakersville Sound was not quite developed until 1963 when Owens and his band released the single Act Naturally, a song that’s been covered by everyone from the Beatles to Mrs. Miller (!) to Loretta Lynn and Dwight Yoakam.  Ringo Starr, who had sung the Beatles version of the song joined with Buck Owens for a duet in 1989.  Act Naturally was the first recording Don would play lead guitar on. By the time Owens recorded the song he and Rich were backed by The Buckaroos, which included  Kenny Pierce on bass, Jay McDonald on steel guitar and Willie Cantu on drums.  The band was filled-out during recordings with various session members.  The name of the band is said to have been thought up by Merle Haggard who was also building  an estimable career out of Bakersfield.

So what, exactly is the “Bakersfield Sound“?  A lot of it is based on the idea of being an “outsider“.  This may come in part from the fact that a good portion of Bakersfield were transplants from Oklahoma, Kansas and Northern Texas…so-called “Okies” trying to escape the dustbowl of the 1930s.  Many had found work in California’s San Joaquin Valley, and especially around it’s southern portion where Bakersfield  was a center of agriculture, cattle and the oil drilling…all occupations the “Okies” would already be familiar with.

Okies” had brought their traditional music along with them, and the instruments they played them on…fiddle, guitar, any kind of percussion that was prominent and a deep respect for “Hillbilly Music” and what we’ve come to know as “Americana”.  A few early  practitioners of this stripped-down sound (Wynn Stewart and The Maddox Brothers and Sister Rose for instance) were playing what would become the “Bakersfield Sound” in and around the city during the mid-50s. but none of them found wide commercial success.  At first this was a “regional” sound, but within a decade it would become a huge influence on Country Music outside it’s traditional home, Nashville TN.

The Bakersfield Sound was a direct response to what was happening in Nashville.  Country artists’ songs there were being produced with lavish string arrangements and prominent, soothing background choruses.  Piano was included but always as an accompaniment and NEVER in the honkey-tonk style.  The Hawaiian or Steel guitar were barely featured-if they were used in the first place.

The music of Nashville had become closer to the pop music of the day than what we think of as Country and Western.  Even Patsy Cline, who is almost universally considered the greatest country vocalist of all time was subjected to this kind of over-produced approach.  Take a listen to “Crazy”, “Sweet Dreams” or “She’s Got You”.  All are classics and can’t detract from Cline’s genius.  But if we listen without the pre-conceived notion these are meant to be Country songs the only conclusion we can come to is that they represent the sound of the pop music of the 50’s.  The songs wouldn’t be as wonderful, but it’s not too far a stretch to  envision the production more fitting Gayle Storm or Patti Page.  The Bakersfield Sound stripped away the adornment, the huge productions, the orchestration and brought in the electric guitar, pushed percussion forward and added a backbeat. What they had in effect done is created a hybrid of rock and roll.

Don Rich had found himself in the midst of this progression while playing fiddle with Buck Owens in the Northwest, but fairly soon took the guitar up in Buck’s band once he landed in Bakerfield.  It was his smooth, restrained and precise playing on his Telecaster that contributed to the overall sound of The Buckaroos, and in turn with the way Country and Western Music would move toward in the 60s.

In 1963, Buckaroos bassist Kenny Pierce quit the band during a tour. Rich called in an acquaintance named Doyle Holly to replace him About a year later steel player Jay McDonald quit and was replaced by Tom Brumley.  This is the classic line-up thought of as The Buckaroos.  Following  incarnations of the band would include many talented musicians but it was Buck’s voice, Don’s guitar that was always at the center of the band.

What followed was an incredible string of hits in the 60s and 70s that made Buck Owens and The Buckaroos not only country music favorites, but true crossover hitmen. The ‘60s saw hits like “Together Again”, “I’ve Got A Tiger by The Tail”,“My Heart (Skips A Beat)”, “Waitin’ In Your Welfare Line” and “Before You Go” which spent an incredible 17 weeks at the top of the country charts.  Hit after hit seemed to flow from the band one after the other.  The band was so popular that they managed to put out eight full albums in the short time between 1967 and 1971.  They also played at The White House and Carnegie Hall. The Carnegie Hall recording  is considered one of the best-if not the best live country album of all time.

It was the harmonies of Don and Buck, and the expert playing of Rich himself that was the cornerstone of their popularity. Don stepped out occasionally to sing, and later he went on to record two solo albums with The Buckaroos as side-projects.  Don’s guitar work was becoming an inspiration not only to fans of The Bakersfield Sound, but also influenced the nascent country-rock movement that began mostly out of Los Angeles in the late 1960s.  It’s early adherents were Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, and The Flying Burrito Brothers and later practioners like Linda Ronstadt and The Eagles picked up on the sound.In fact in 1968 Buck’s band was enough of an underground music influence to play a sold-out concert at San Francisco’s Fillmore West.  Today’s most prominent player of the sound is probably Dwight Yoakam.

In 1968 Buck Owens signed on as a co-host of an amiable, corn-ball summer replacement for the popular Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.  Don Rich was made musical director of the show Hee Haw, and although the show was only planned for the summer it became such a hit that the show was continued on CBS for two more seasons and afterward went into first run syndication for another 20 years.  During it’s run Don Rich appeared as a member of The Buckaroos as well as a lead performer with The Buckaroos backing him.  This gave viewers a front-row seat in watching and listening  to Don’s guitar picking. The Buckaroos, featuring Don’s outstanding playing continued to be a top crowd draw as well as the reigning stars of country music.

In 1969 The Buckaroos released “Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass.” Don had complimented his usual picking style with a more dense fuzz-tone. Traditional country music fans were shocked, and some even became angry at Buck for “defacing country music” with such a blatant rock and roll techniques.   Don, Buck and the band didn’t pay much attention..they didn’t have to because “Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass?” became another big hit.  It reached number one on the country charts for two weeks.

The early 1970s would continue to see hits for The Buckaroos even though eventually the only original members remaining were Buck and Don.  As the power of the Bakersfield Sound was popularized and then diluted Don and Buck had their last number one hit in 1972 with the song “Made In Japan”.  The two continued their personal and professional relationship.  They wrote and recorded music just as they had in the early days, and in their salad days.

On July 17, 1974 Don Rich finished a few recording chores at he and Buck’s Bakersfield studio.  He then set off, by motorcycle to meet his family up the coast in Morro Bay where they had been vacationing.  Somewhere between his night ride from Bakersfield to Morro Bay Don’s motorcycle crashed into a lane divider and he was thrown from his bike.  Don Rich suffered extensive damage and was transported to a local hospital where he was pronounced Dead On Arrival.  He was only 32 years old. The cause of his accident is still a bit of a mystery, since there were no witnesses, but police at the time noted there were no skid marks before the crash, so it was likely Don accidently drove directly into the divider at a high rate of speed.

Buck Owens was devastated by the loss of his friend, his collaborator and one of the most renowned guitarists in country music history.  Buck later said:

“He was like a brother, a son, and a best friend. Something I never said before, maybe I couldn’t, but I think my music life ended when he died. I carried on and existed, but the real joy and love, the real lightening and thunder is gone forever.”

Don Rich’s life may have ended that day, but his musicianship and reputation as an all-around gentleman lives on.  Country musicians still try to copy his lean but precise and complicated guitar licks.  He’s become a near-legendary figure among the old and newly introduced country music fans and musicians. His reach has grasped all the way into the 21st century. In a way Don Rich has achieved what he wanted to before his studies in Centralia. He is still considered the gold standard of the Bakerfield Sound guitar. History has made Don Rich the music teacher and tutor he had once set out to be.

-Dennis R. White.  Sources; Don Duncan (The Tacoma News Tribune – September 2, 1957); Scott Bomar & Randy Poe, Bakersfield Sound Judgement: Pair Pick top 50 songs (Bakersfield.com, December 31, 2015); Buck Owens Brunch: The Tragic Story of Don Rich (thebigfootdiaries.blogspot.com, 2/09/2014); Rich Kienzle-“Buck Owens and The Buckaroos-A Bunch of Twangy Guitars” (Vintage Guitar Magazine, May 2007)

 

Crome Syrcus

By the mid-60’s Seattle’s once thriving R&B teen dance bands were on the wane.  Members of outfits like the Dynamics, The Viceroys and the Frantics were eagerly tapping into the first stirrings of the underground psychedelic movement.  Most of the bands making the transformation were not doing it for purely mercenary reasons.  Many players had simply aged and evolved, while remaining true to their R&B and garage-like beginnings.  Many of the psychedelic bands coming out of Seattle still held onto an insular, regional sound that favored hippie-ballads and gentle horns, reeds and the organ that had become a staple of Northwest rock since Dave Lewis.  They favored a more tie-dyed approach rather than the aggressive guitars and overtly political or socially conscious lyrics of bands like The Jefferson Airplane, The Doors or Quicksilver Messenger Service.

They also lacked the lush production  of bands coming out of New York City.  If there is a word that describes the Northwest psychedelic sound it could very well be “comfortable”…not in the passive sense, but in the sense that gentler, more flower-powered sounds were being made.  Perhaps the exception to this rule was The Frantics who’s remaining members moved to San Francisco, renamed themselves the hippiesque Luminous Marsh Gas, eventually to become one of the mightiest bands of the psychedelic era-Moby Grape.

Crome Syrcus was no different than many other NW bands.  The had arisen from the ashes of a teen R&B, jazz influenced outfit called The Mystics.  The Mystics had an enthusiastic fan base and were able to tour regionally, but ultimately had a relatively short career.  By 1962 drummer Jim Plano had joined the military.  Dick Powell, the band’s vocalist and guitarist John Gaborit remained stateside, and eventually  brought on bassist Lee Graham and keyboard player Ted Shreffler.  Jim Plano’s position as drummer was filled by Rod Pilloud.  Once assembled, the new band christened themselves Crome Syrcus.

Soon the band was finding regular gigs on the nascent psychedelic circuit in Seattle. Their distinctive sound often relied on two keyboards played by both Powell and Shreffler.  John Chambless, the coordinator of the Berkeley Folk Festival had seen Crome Syrcus at The Eagles Auditorium (it’s unclear who the headliner was that night).  He quickly booked them to his Folk Festival and on July 2nd 1968 Crome Syrcus played their first Bay Area gig.  In fact Crome Syrcus would eventually base themselves in San Francisco, but they were to spend just as much time in New York City for the next couple of years.

Soon after their stint at the Berkeley Folk Festival they came in contact with Robert Joffrey, founder, director and primary choreographer of the Joffrey Ballet based in New York City.  Joffrey himself was a native Seattleite and was taken aback by the band’s musicianship and professionalism.  Before long, Joffrey had commissioned the band to adapt music for Teo Macero’s  ballet “Opus 65″ to be perfomed with the dance.  The ballet was presented at Seattle’s Eagle’s Auditorium, but Joffrey had bigger things for the band. He lured them around the country, and eventually to New York City to work on several projects with his ballet company.

According to troupe member Trinette Singleton:

“We would do residencies at the Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington in the summers and that’s where a lot of times new works were created and so that was where we really got into working on this piece. One day, he (Joffrey) brought in a musician, Hub Miller, that he knew from Seattle. He probably had been meeting and talking to Hub weeks and weeks before Max and I ever knew it, about writing a commissioned score for this particular piece. Hub wanted Mr. Joffrey to listen to a couple of rock bands that were sort of making a scene in Seattle at that time. So we go to this night club place and there’s a band playing, it’s the Crome Syrcus and suddenly they’re going to be doing the commissioned score for it, and Hub’s going to head it up. So, okay, there’s going to be a rock band in the pit. That was part two of the equation I guess you could say.”

Joffrey had a vision of creating a ballet that took advantage of multi-media, unusual scenarios, and the daring of many of the be-ins that had been popping up around the country.  Joffrey’s ballet was to be somewhat akin to the acid tests of the mid 60s, but the experience was meant to be a multi-media drenched journey rather, and presumably without the acid, though who’s to say how many audience members took part in the event stoned?

Joffrey insisted his ballet be scored by rock musicians, but instead of the focus on band as entertainment he wanted to create a stilted, avant garde version of what ballet, modern music the new technological imagery could be.  The title of Joffrey’s proposed ballet was “Astarte”, named after a late-bronze age goddess that represented birth, renewal and war.  The name Astarte itself was the greek name of a goddess found throughout many cultures in the ancient world-from Mesopotamia, and The Middle East. The goddess was also worshipped by the Caananites, Egyptians and  the Phonecians.  In fact the goddess is found in the Jewish Bible as an icon to be avoided. According to the Jewish Women’s Archive, Astartes’ worship is repeatedly condemned in the Hebrew Bible. In the book of  Judges, the Israelites are punished for straying after the god Baal and “the Astartes” (Judg 2:13–14; 10:6–7); the people are similarly castigated for Astarte in 1 Samuel (7:3–4; 12:10); Jeremiah castigates the people for making offerings to the queen of heaven, a goddess who most probably represents a syncretism of Canaanite Astarte… Nevertheless, the very fact of these multiple condemnations is evidence that, for at least some ancient Israelites, the cult of Astarte held great appeal”.

This complicated exploration of disobedience, the vicissitudes of the world, sexuality and revolt that was at the core of Robert Joffrey’s ballet.  If the ancients had persisted in worshipping a god that represented sex and and revolt, why shouldn’t contemporaries?  Especially in the free-wheeling 1960s.

Months were spent writing the score, (mainly the work of Crome Syrcus’s Lee Graham and Ted Schreffler) while Joffrey and his dancers filmed many of their parts to be projected simultaneously with their live performance.  The filming by Gardner Compton also included seemingly everyday  (but fascinating) images, to East Village go-go dancers.  Etheral scenery and various multi-exposure effects were also shot in order to be directed at the stage from several projectors in the balconies.  Lights glimmered and flashed giving off an almost disco-like affects.  Principal dancer Maximiliano Zomosa emerged anonymously from the audience, walked onstage and removed his clothing excepting briefs.  Not everyone in the audience understood this was part of the ballet, and on occasion tried to prevent him from disrobing.

The bulk of the dance consisted of Zomosa’s character being the sexual object of the goddess Astarte.  All the while the psychedelic music and imagery filled the theater.  It concluded by Zomosa  finally walking out onto 56th street (near-naked) through the theaters actual huge backstage doors.   The idea may seem almost cliché today, given the revamping of this kind of conceptualism throughout the media over the years…but there’s no doubt that this ballet was an original stab at a new type of mixed-media.  It was truly revolutionary.

During the ballet, Crome Syrcus played their instruments live, as an orchestra would have done from the pit. The band and their music was just as central to the ballet as any of the dancers or effects. Although there are only a few known snippets of the work caught on film or audio we know from reviews that the ballet Astarte was well-received and lauded as a completely new direction in music and dance. Its world premiere on September 20, 1967 at New York’s City Center Theater also cemented Joffrey’s troupe as one of the preeminent ballet companies in the United States. The excitement of the collaboration between Joffry and Crome Syrcus, while using interactive media was so successful that the ballet made the cover of Time Magazine on March 15th 1968.

For the months it was performed it seemed nothing less than visionary…but of course all visions rely on a good deal of work. Much later, in 2012 dancer Dermot Burke told the Washington Post’s Sarah Kauffman

“Those of us who were in it were just tired, sore and hungry. We didn’t realize we were living through a revolution in American dance.”

Unfortunately we have no publicly documented comments by members of Crome Syrcus concerning their part in Joffrey’s masterpiece, but it’s clear they gained a high national profile from it, and 1968-1969 would prove to be the band at it’s zenith.  Aside from touring and spending time between San Francisco, Seattle and New York the band released a series of singles in 1968. “Lord in Black” b/w “Long Hard Road” (Piccadilly Records-an offshoot of Jerden Records), “Take It Like a Man” b/w “Cover Up” (Command Records), “Take It Like a Man” b/w the alternative “Crystals” (Command Records) and in 1969 a re-release of “Lord in Black b/w Long Hard Road”  on the Jerden label.

In 1968 Crome Syrcus recorded their only LP, Love Cycle.  The title song was a 17:11 minute pastiche of psychedelic, folk, pastoral and symphonic sounds.  The concept of varied styles was not foreign to Crome Syrcus since-unlike many bands, then and now-all members had seriously studied music…some at the University of Washington.  The rest of the album (side two) contains five examples of Northwest meets San Francisco psychedelic hippie-pop.  The arrangements are fairly delicate and lower key than the best of the Bay Area bands of the day, but still effective and definitely part of a sub-genre that was wildly popular at the time.

For the recording and release of Love Cycle the band had been signed to Command Records by Peter Kamin, son of long-time Seattle Symphony director/conductor, Milt Kamin.  Originally Command (or Command Performance as it was originally named) had been an audiophile imprint that released the very best in classical and jazz recordings, as well as a few pop artists thrown in.  Cover art was designed by top of the line artists and records were presented in gatefold sleeves which were uncommon in the 1950s and early 60s.

The label was formed and run by the famous violinist/bandleader- turned audio engineer Enoch Light. Command musicians were recorded magnetically onto 35mm film rather than tape.  The entire width of the 35mm film was coated with iron oxide, leaving the width of the entire tape available for multi-track recordings far beyond the 3-4 track tapes that were commonly used into the late 1960s.  This technique also allowed for very wide, dynamic instrumentation to remain on single tracks rather than the “stacking” of tracks that was relied on up until the time of digital recording. In 1959 Command was acquired by ABC-Paramount although Light remained at the helm.

In 1966 Enoch Light left Command Records to establish Project 3, and standards of recording and presentation at Command started to deteriorate almost immediately.  At the same time Command began to rely on repackaging and re-releasing former titles in the label’s catalog.  The initial idea of recording Love Cycle as envisioned by the band and Peter Kamin was to return to the quality that the label demanded before Enoch Light’s leaving.  Whether the release of Crome Syrcus’s Love Cycle met that criteria is up to discussion. The standards may have been higher, and the recordings were bright and clear but most fans of psychedelic and pop music did not rely on the nuances of jazz or percussion aficionados. They were more interested in songs, lyrics and volume.  By all accounts Love Cycle more than met these standards.

Although the album became somewhat of a must-have for psychedelic pop fans,  Love Cycle  became unavailable for many years.  Although bootlegs existed even they were hard to find prizes for collectors.  Since about 1990 the album has seen several authorized pressings and digitalizations.  A revisionist glance back at the psychedelic era had caused a more sympathetic audience and many young musicians were interested in updating  the genre. Later pressings and CDs of Love Cycle are  relatively easy to come by these days.  Anyone interested in psychedelia, and especially Northwest psychedelia should have a listen.  Even though Crome Syrcus found it’s greatest success in New York and San Francisco, it still retains an essential basis in Seattle music history.

Crome Syrcus spent 1969 through 1973 as both a headliner and as an opening act for greats like The Doors, Moby Grape, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and shared bills with dozens of other 60s stars, but their recorded output had come to a standstill.  Even so they still were a big draw, and were featured on the bill of Boyd Grafmyre’s remarkable Seattle Pop Festival held at Gold Creek Park in Woodinville WA during July of 1969.  Other top-drawer performers included The Doors, Chicago Transit Authority, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Ike and Tina Turner, Charles Lloyd, Led Zeppelin, Santana, Ten Years After, Spirit, The Byrds and many other big names, as well as a very early version of Alice Cooper.

Crome Syrcus were also part of the line-up for the Second Sky River Rock Festival held in Tenino WA, just south of the Washington State capitol, Olympia.   Artists taking part in the festival, which took place August 30 and September 1, 1969, included James Cotton, Buddy Guy, Steve Miller, The Youngbloods, Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, Guitar Shorty, Country Joe and The Fish, Pacific Gas and Electric and Sons of Champlin among others.

Crome Syrcus continued until 1973.  The genre they had worked in fell out of favor, and without any recorded output continuing  would be somewhat futile.  Each went their separate ways-all remaining as musicians at least during the imeadiate aftermath of the band’s demise.  They had proven to be one of the Northwest’s leading psychedelic lights, toured with some of the most famous bands of the day and had taken part in one of the most important and innovative breakthroughs in the history of dance.  They also left one of the best (underrated) albums of the psychedelic pop era.

 

-Dennis R. White. Sources, Walt Crowley “Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the 60’s in Seattle (University of Washington Press, 1995); Vernon Joynson “The Acid Trip – A Complete Guide to Psychedelic Music”(Babylon Books, 1984) Alan J. Stein “Sky River Rock Festival, the second, held on August 30, 1969” (HistoryLink.org, Essay 1271 06/06/1999); Unknown Author “Enoch Light” (SpaceAgePop.com); Author Unknown “The Crome Syrcus (ProgArchives.com); James Bush “The Encyclopedia of Northwest Music” (Sasquatch Books, 1999);  Susan Ackerman “Astarte:Bible” (Jewish Women’s Archive, date unknown); Sarah Kaufman ”Joffrey Ballet documentary honors the revolution that was choreographed” (Washington Post, January 26, 2012);  Shari Candler,“The making of Joffrey’s ‘Astarte’ (American Masters, PBS, first aired December 28, 2012); Sasha Anawalt “The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of An American Dance Company. (Simon & Schuster, 1996); Photo: Tom Matthieson.