It’s difficult to tell the story of much of alternative West Coast art, performance, painting and punk rock without recognizing the genius of Tomata du Plenty. His troupe, Ze Whiz Kidz are also an important element in the evolution of the Seattle alternative social and arts scene…but they deserve to have their complete story told, so we will leave their history for another post.
Tomata du Plenty (David Xavier Harrigan) was born, depending on who you choose to believe, in New York State, in Queens NYC, in Brooklyn near Coney Island or in Coney Island”). The facts seem to point to Queens, but I prefer to think he was born in Coney Island simply because it conjures up delightful, weird entertainments, a certain amount of artiface and slightly tattered around the edges. It reminds me of the jumbled construction that improbably holds up the famous Cyclone Roller Coaster and zillions of uncovered treasures that are, in fact, nothing more than metaphoric “glad-rags”. These were all the wonderful characteristics I associate with the singer/performance artist/painter Tomata du Plenty.
Wherever he was actually born he was brought up in Montebello, California where his Irish-American parents moved when young David was nine years old. Tomata claims he ran away to Hollywood at age 15-not as daring as it may seem since Montebello is adjacent to Los Angeles and only about 15 miles to Hollywood and Vine. It’s unclear if he kept in contact during that period with his parents, but there’s nothing that points to him being thrown out of his parents’ home because he was gay. If his parents were welcoming it would have made a convenient escape from the streets of Hollywood.
In 1968 he hitchhiked to San Francisco and wound up in the Haight-Ashbury. The twenty-year-old David Harrigan met George Harris and became a member of the psychedelic gender-fuck troupe, The Cockettes.The Cockettes were founded by the transplanted New Yorker Harris (1949-1982) and were influential in helping to usher in not just the modern Gay Liberation movement, but Glam Rock as well. When Harris moved to San Francisco he’d undergone a metamorphosis. He changed his name to Hibiscus and fell in with a vanguard circle of flamboyant, LSD dropping, hippie drag queens that performed gender-bending free theater on the streets. Hibiscus would eventually organize the entourage into The Cockettes. The Cockettes would later make silent films, produce their own plays and open for film screenings-including the San Francisco premier of John Waters’ Pink Flamingos starring the gay underground’s superstar Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead) or as People magazine dubbed him ” Drag Queen of the Century”. That would be the 20th century since Divine died in 1988 at age 42.Divine himself would later become a member of The Cockettes after they’d become a theater troupe, taking part in Les Etoile Du Minuit, the final version of Pearls Over Shanghai, Journey to the Center of Uranus and their final show, Hot Greeks. In Journey to the Center of Uranus Divine sang the song “A Crab On Your Anus Means You’re Loved” while dressed as a lobster. He was on his way! Sadly Hibiscus (George Harris) would become one of the first of the many gay men that would be struck down by AIDS. He died in 1982 at the age of 33. The New York Times headline referred to the disease that struck him down as the “homosexual disorder” then known as GRID (Gay Related Immuno-deficiency).
By this time David Harrigan, who was now Tomata du Plenty had long since left. His principle work with The Cockettes had been as “Hazel The Maid” in their film production of “Tricia’s Wedding” (1971); a take on then-President Nixon’s daughter’s wedding. In the film, characters as diverse as Phyllis Diller, Jackie Onassis and the Pope are in attendance at the wedding as well as some of the most well-known or notorious politicians and celebrities of the day. All were played by various members of The Cockettes. IMDb’s mini-review of the film says:
“The ever-outrageous Cockettes reenact Tricia Nixon’s 1971 wedding to Edward Cox. Hurtme O. Hurtme, television correspondent, covers the wedding and interviews faux celebrities in attendance. Once Eartha Kitt spikes the punch with LSD, events unravel quickly”.
Another, recent reviewer at letterboxd.com remarked
“If you like flaming creatures this is its educated technicolor grandbaby. Brilliant camping of political figures I have vague frame of reference for. Thoroughly enjoyed”
Tricia’s Wedding is a gay cult classic, but is hardly seen these days. Unfortunately the short was not packaged with 2002’s popular documentary “The Cockettes” when it became available on DVD. “Tricia’s Wedding”was released on VHS several years ago-before the Cockettes documentary, but it seems to be unavailable now. Luckily the film can be found among several online libraries. It takes a bit of looking, but thoroughly worth the time if you want to get a glimpse. The film is not only a document of the times, it’s also the first work of someone who would go on to be a towering figure in film. “Tricia’s Wedding” was produced by Mark Lester, who later went on to become one of Hollywood’s most bankable directors, with über-hits like Stephen King’s thriller Firestarter (1984) and Commando (1985) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Many of du Plenty’s biographers and casual observers have posited that it was his time with The Cockettes was responsible for his understanding of production and direction. These skills were useful, but it was Tomata’s natural talent, his charisma and his native understanding of society and satire that were probably more important traits he’d already acquired…after all, his major influence was as an agent provocateur (although a very nice one) and his ability to engage in on-the-spot guerilla theater whether in the streets, in the theater or onstage with one of his bands
After leaving The Cockettes, (before the release of Tricia’s Wedding)Tomata headed north to Seattle. in 1970 he began to put together his own gender-bending, street performance art troupe-cum-hippie drag community, Ze Whiz Kidz. This was at a time that street art and off-the-cuff public performances were burgeoning in Seattle. One notable performance artist working at the time was Seattle native Johanna Went, who would eventually land in L.A. and become one of the most provocative, most extreme performance artists of this or any other era. It’s said that Tomata du Plenty was a recipient of Seattle’s “one-percent-for-art” program when he arrived in Seattle. It’s true that Seattle was one of the first U.S. cities to adopt funding the arts in public spaces, but the “one-percent-for-art ordinance” was not enacted until 1973. Perhaps du Plenty was partially funded by some other program in the early days, or past biographers have simply misidentified the period that he was funded. In any event he quickly went about forming the core of his troupe that included Gorilla Rose (Michael Farris), Satin Sheets (Dennis Weikel, later known as J. Satz Beret of The Lewd), Melba Toast (who would become Tommy Gear when he and du Plenty formed the band The Screamers), Rhina Stone, Palm Springs, Co Co Ritz, Rio de Janeiro (David Gulbransen), Daily Flo, Benny Whiplash, Michael Hautepants (costume designer Michael Murphy), Leah Vigeah, Louise Lovely (Di Linge), Valerie Allthetime (DePonty), and Cha Cha Samoa (Cha Davis).
Roger Downey authored an overview of a 2006 celebratory exhibition of Ze Whiz Kidz at Seattle’s annual arts and music festival, Bumbershoot called “Between Garage & Grunge: Glitter, Glam and Proto-Punk in Seattle’s Subversive ’70s“ He took time to speak with Larry Reid, Seattle’s doyen of alternative arts and music, who was a co-curator of the exhibition. Downey reports;
“No one would write about these shows, recalls Larry Reid, then a young man in the early ’70s. The Times and P-I (daily newpapers) couldn’t have cared less about one-night cabaret performances and non-theatrical happenings that featured queer content, improv, drag comedy, loud music, and calculatedly poor taste. The Weekly—launched in 1976—was too snooty, and The Rocket (Seattle’s authoritative magazine concerning local and national music and culture) didn’t yet exist”. And the scene that Reid and Martin Imbach document in ‘Between Garage & Grunge: Glitter, Glam and Proto-Punk in Seattle’s Subversive ’70s’ would no longer exist by the ’80s. It morphed away from pansexual stage performance to traditional music categories—punk, New Wave, and (much later) grunge—and was mostly forgotten.
Downey goes on;
“What were the shows like? Loud, campy, joyous, with the audience sometimes joining the Kidz onstage. “We would call it performance art today,” says Reid. “There was no template to it”—more an amalgam of rock, glam, drag performance, and lingering hippie culture. ‘There’s a very direct connection. Seattle had a long hangover from the ’60s.’ For those who weren’t there, the spirit would later be codified somewhat by ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ and in John Waters movies.
In 1973 Tomata du Plenty would bow out from Ze Whiz Kidz and return to his hometown, New York City. He and one of The Cockettes, Fayette Hauser joined him to create ‘guerrilla comedy’ at various East Village clubs, including CBGB. The two opened for bands then-unknown outside NYC like the Ramones and Blondie. “I used to do Pat Suzuki between their sets” said du Plenty, in reference to the Japanese-American Broadway performer known for her song ‘I Enjoy Being A Girl’ in ‘Flower Drum Song’. Other former Cockettes and Whiz Kidz showed up in New York City; Gorilla Rose, John Flowers, and Sweet Pam Tent. In 1973 Tomata and his cohorts produced two Palm Casino Revues at the Bouwerie Lane Theater, an off Broadway theater that had been transformed from a late 19th century bank. Tomata du Plenty and Fayette Hauser opened a vintage store on Mott Street that remained unnamed during it’s life. They also wrote a gossip column called “Hollywood Spit“for an adult journal called Naked News. Eventually ‘Hollywood Spit’ would be taped and shown on public access TV. Clearly, there was always a project to work on as well as planning one for just around the corner.
That next project around the corner would be Tomata’s return to Seattle in 1974. The times and cultural zeitgeist had changed. The geurilla theater that had been so useful earlier in the decade was making way for newer, more provocative tactics and attitudes. As time moved on he set his sites on creating a band called The Tupperwares. The band included other seminal figures on the Seattle scene….and beyond. The Tupperwares included ex-Whiz Kidz Tomata du Plenty, Tommy Gear (who was still using his drag name “Melba Toast”) and Rio de Janeiro (David Gulbransen) who’s mother Laurie had been the decades-long owner and manager of beloved Dog House restaurant-where “friends meet friends” and featured on it’s menu “Rib Eye Steak (Tenderness not guaranteed)”. After Laurie Gulbransen’s death, her son David would take her place until the restaurant was closed in 1994 ).
Back-up vocals were provided by Pam Lillig and Ben Witz (Ben Rabinowitz,later of The Girls) and Bill Rieflin on drums who would go on to play for The Blackouts, Ministry, Pigface, Revolting Cocks, R.E.M. and most recently the newly the re-formed King Crimson. The band also included a very young Eldon Hoke who later became the notorious “El Duce” of The Mentors.
According to synthpop.com
“The first Tupperwares show was a short concert at the Moore Theater in Seattle. The event was the premiere of the John Waters movie, “Pink Flamingos,” and the theater wanted to have some sort of musical event to open the night. The Tupperwares, Tomata du Plenty, Rio de Janeiro and Melba Toast, each on vocals, were backed by The Telepaths. Each Tupperware sang one song on lead, with Tomata doing “I’m Going Steady With Twiggy” and Rio doing “Eva Braun.”(cowritten by Erich Werner and Bill Rieflin of the Telepaths). A third song, “Instamatic Fanatic,” with Melba on lead, was pulled at the last minute”.
A second show had been planned for April 18, 1976 at Seattle’s Polish Hall. The show was to be called ‘The T-T-Oh! Show’ since the line up was The Tupperwares, The Telepaths and Oh! Henry. Unfortunately the show was cancelled
On May 1st 1976 The Tupperwares joined The Meyce and The Telepaths to perform for the “TMT Show” at Seattle’s Oddfellows Hall (915 East Pine St.); a show that is one of the touchstones of Seattle music history. It is regarded by many in the musical community as the first departure from the local popularity of big arena bands and top 40 radio to a wider, more experimental and all-encompassing D.I.Y. culture. In short it is considered the beginning of punk rock in Seattle. TMT was the acronym for the Tupperwares, Meyce and The Telepaths.
In a May 1981 issue of Rescue Magazine (Seattle) Neil Hubbard recounts that for The TMT Show The Tupperwares played the songs ‘I’m Going Steady With Twiggy’, ‘Eva Braun’, ‘Instamatic Fanatic’ and ‘possibly other songs’
Neil went on to say “Admission to the TMT Show was one dollar (yes, $1), about a hundred people showed up, the groups paid for the room and made their nut. This show (please correct me if I’m wrong) was the first self-promoted show in town. The bands rented the hall, got a P.A. and DID IT. It was as much fun or more than many of the shows now.” At the time Hubbard believed a tape existed.
Meyce consisted of Jim Basnight on guitar and vocals, Paul Hood on Bass and vocals, Pam Lillig on guitar, Lee Lumsden on drums and Jennie Skirvin doing vocals) Basnight would go on to form the power-pop group The Moberlys, Paul Hood who went on to play with The Toiling Midgets, The Enemy and Student Nurse among other bands. Pam Lillig would later join The Girls on guitar. Lee Lumsden became the chronicler of all things first-wave punk in Seattle (and beyond) with Chatterbox, a fanzine he co-created with future promoter and later head of Engram Records, Neil Hubbard. Lee later recorded with James Husted under the name The Celestial Pymies, and co-founded The Guardians. In his 2011 book The Strangest Tribe author Stephen Tow asks;
“Don’t know Lee? You should, if you have any interest in Seattle music. Along with a handful of folks like Jim Basnight, Neil Hubbard, and Rob Morgan, Lee essentially created the Seattle music scene out of thin air in the mid-’70s”. Jennie Skirvin (now Jennie Brott) was a regular on the Seattle punk rock social scene during the 1970’s and ’80s, but gave up performing. She now keeps up with all her old friends and makes her way to the odd concert here and there. She has many many friends who adore her.
The third band included in the TMT Show was The Telepaths. Between the years 1975 and 1978 The Telepaths included (in various line-ups) Geoff Cade, Mike Davidson and Allen McNabe/Michaels on Bass, Dean Hegleson and Bill Rieflin on drums. Dave Demetre played saxophone at one point, and Homer Spence, Erich Werner and Reid Vance played guitars in the bands’ many incarnations. Over the course of the band both Gregor Gayden and Curt Werner were vocalists. The band transformed itself as The Blackouts over the years, with Mike Davidson, Bill Rieflin and Erich Werner at the band’s center.They were joined by Roland Barker, first on synthesizer and later on saxophone. In 1981 Davidson left the band and was replaced by Roland’s brother Paul Barker. The Blackouts are arguably the most innovative and fearless band to come out of Seattle. They became incredibly popular but eventually moved to greener pastures. After failed attempts at gaining wider recognition in Boston and L.A. bassist Paul Barker and drummer Bill Rieflin eventually hooked up with Chicago’s Al Jourgenson and became crucial members of the industrial/metal band Ministry.
Both Gregor Gayden and Homer Spence have passed on. Spence suffered a fatal heart attack in 1991. Aside from The Telepaths Homer Spence had been involved with several projects, including Engram Records, The Blackouts, Pink Section, The Macs and The Fastbacks; but he will probably be most well known as the smartest, most affable and interesting Economics Professor turned Cab Driver turned bartender to ever sling a beer in Seattle. For years he worked behind the bar of First Avenue’s Virginia Inn. He could often be found extending his working hours to include hours on the other side of the bar holding forth, dispensing his vast experiences, politics, talking philosophy and baseball.Gregor Gayden went on to form his own band The Look and was another regular on the punk rock and alt rock circuit. He died on January 30, 2008 of organ failure. His obituary, in the Seattle Times of January 30, 2008 reported quite correctly that: “Gregory touched so many with his great, big spirit; his sensibilities, as a performer in Seattle’s early punk era,political, historical, cinematic; his verbiage deft (“oops, did I say orientate? Sorry, that was an occident!”). He was amazed and amused by wildlife, Alaska fishing crew, spectacular food, sartorial splendor. He loved life. His heart failed. Our hearts broke.” In a 2017 essay, Seattle cultural and musical historian Jeff Stevens revealed his upcoming book ‘City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle’ included a summation of the TMT era by Erich Warner;
“Our whole attitude as a gang was a perpetual state of anger about our environment. We opposed just about everything we felt Seattle stood for. We hated suburbia; we were completely opposed to complacent happiness, and we felt the world at large wouldn’t tolerate us. People constantly called us names because of how we looked, so we had a strong identity, a them-and-us polarity.”
So it was with this attitude that Tomata du Plenty, Tommy Gear (who’d dropped his drag name “Melba Toast”) and Rio de Janeiro (David Gulbransen) decided to leave Seattle to find success in Los Angeles. Seattle lore clams that in late 1976, after legal threats from Tupperware Brands, the owners of the name, the band renamed themselves Gianni Bugatti, then settled on The Screamers. The final name would be a good change since it carried with it a very punk rock image…one that would represent the sound they created better than The Tupperwares….better than just about anything.
This article has been cobbled together from multiple sources. Some of them are living people. Some are simply quotes from books (which are noted). In some cases the sources are in conflict. Many of Tomata du Plenty’s friends and colleagues are still with us. If you have a correction, suggestion or omission please leave a message in the comments section.
-Dennis R. White. Sources: Mark Vallen; “Who was Tomata du Plenty?” (Art For a Change [blog], May 4, 2014); Brian Miller “Bumbershoot: Remembering Ze Whiz Kidz and Their Glam-Punk Descendants” (Seattle Weekly, Sep 1 2015); Jeff Stevens “October 31, 1970: Ze Whiz Kidz” (Countercultural Seattle Remembers, October 31, 2015); Brenden Mullen “Goodbye Tomata du Plenty” (L.A. Weekly, August 23, 2000); Mark Deming “The Screamers: The Great Lost Band of the First Wave of L.A. Punk” (Nightflight, September 14, 2015) “Population: 1” (IMDb http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0091781/, Retrieved January 31, 2018); Dave Lang “The Screamers” (Perfect Sound Forever, March 2000); “Screamers” Various reviews (fusetron, www.fusetronsound.com/label.php?whomart=SCREAMERS , Retrieved January 30, 2018); “The Life and Times of Tomata du Plenty” (kickstarter, https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2147432630/the-life-and-times-of-tomata-du-plenty/description); Mark Deming “The Screamers Biography” (allmusic.com retrieved February 1, 2018); Mark Spitz & Brenden Mullen “We Got The Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk” (Three Rivers Press-New York, 2001); “The Tupperwares” (Synthpunk, www.synthpunk.org/screamers/history75.html , retrieved January 1, 2018); Roger Downey “Glitter and Be Gay: The inspirational extravagance of Seattle’s Whiz Kidz. (The Seattle Weekly, Oct 9 2006); Stephen Tow “The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge” (Sasquatch Books, 2001); Paul Hood “Meyce” (pnwbands.com September 2002. Retrieved January 28. 2018); Jacob McMurray “Taking Punk to the Masses: From Nowhere to Nevermind” (Fantagraphics Books, 2011); Art Chantry “Tomata du Plenty, Primal Screamers” (Madame Pickwick Art Blog, madamepickwickartblog.com/2011/08/tomata-du-plenty-primal-screamers . Retrieved January 2, 2018); “Tricia’s Wedding” (IMDb.com, Retrieved January 31,2018); Lee Lumsden “You Don’t Know Anyone Until You Know The Screamers” (Chatterbox issue 6, Summer/Fall, 1977); “Population: 1” (IMDb.com, Retrieved February 3. 2018) Leslie Meyers (Contribution, February 4, 2018
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 owingRoulette $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 goodand 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 “TheMetropolitan 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
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 ) 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.
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.
-And last but not least The Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet (now known as The Tiptons Sax Quartet) based in Seattle WA formed by the multi-talented Amy Denio. (Alto Sax and vocals), Jessica Lurie – (Alto saxophone, Tenor saxophone, Vocals), Tina Richerson (Baritone saxophone, Vocals), Sue Orfield (Tenor saxophone, Vocals), Chris Stromquist (Drums) as well as a host of former members and guests.
According to Amy;
“We began in November 1988 (election day) with a rehearsal in my house, reading through a few charts. My suggestion of the name ‘Phlegm Fatale’ stuck (as opposed to les Femmes Fatales). When we discovered the story of Billy Tipton, a musician who followed their path, we renamed the group ‘The Billy Tipton Memorial Sax Quartet’, got signed to the Knitting Factory and started touring. Eleven CDs later, we will tour in Europe in March, 2018, 30 years after our inception.
-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”
“Zero dacus, mucho cracushallaballu-za bubThat’s the secret password that we use down at the clubZero-dacus, mucho-cracushallaballu-za fanMeans 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
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)
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’sLove 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.
Tacoma’s Ventures. They’ve lasted almost 60 years in one form or another. They’ve released over 250 albums. They’ve sold over 120 million records….more than any other instrumental band in history. Those records are unlikely to ever be topped by an instrumental band of any genre. During their career they’ve covered just about every kind of music there is. Most of their albums are largely covers of popular songs, but surprisingly they write about one third of their music. They helped develop the “surf sound” although they point out they didn’t invent it, and don’t consider themselves a “surf band” at all. In a 2015 interview with Forbes magazine co-founder Don Wilson told interviewer Jim Clash;
“One of our biggest sellers was a surfing album. I guess we got tagged with that – Pipeline and Wipe Out we are associated with – so suddenly we are a surf rock band! I see that written a lot. But I don’t care. I’m used to it. We’re not just surf”.
Band members have always denied their music being founded in the surf sound, but it’s certain The Ventures had a profound affect on it. It could be they’ve always refused to be labeled surf just as much out of deference to the artists who truly are surf bands as much as the facts. It’s also true that The Ventures went far beyond any one genre-expect being instrumental. They’ve also maintained keeping current with putting their sound to current music. Aside from their top-knotch playing it is these two other factors that have kept them in the world’ public eye for decades.
The story of The Ventures goes back to the day that Bob Bogle first met Don Wilson in 1958. Bogle was looking to buy a used car from a dealership in Seattle. The car lot was owned by Wilson’s father. Don was the salesman. During their conversation, they found out they both had an interest in music. They became fast friends, and soon Wilson began working with Bogle in the masonry field. Obviously carrying mortar and bricks was more lucrative than hawking used cars for small commissions. In 2009 Bob Bogle told The Seattle Times:
“And then we found out that we each knew a few chords on the guitar, you know, and we had a lot of free time on our hands. But neither of us owned a guitar.”
So off they went to a Tacoma pawnshop where both of them bought very cheap guitars. They say the guitars were less than $10 each. Over the next few months the two practiced every moment they had between jobs…and they were frequently out of work. Soon the two were making the rounds of local bars, house parties and any other gig they could find.
Meanwhile bassist Nokie Edwards had begun playing around Tacoma with Buck Owens’s band The Bar-K Gang. Owens also hosted the KTNT “Bar-K Ranch” TV show that gave Owens (and Nokie) even more local exposure. Sometime in 1960 Wilson and Bogle saw Edwards playing in a Tacoma club (possibly Steve’s Gay 90s where Owens’s band had a residency). After about a year Nokie left Buck’s band behind to join Wilson and Bogle This move had unknowingly helped spawn two superstar bands. Owens soon switched fiddler Don Rich to guitar in his newly formed band, The Buckaroos, while Nokie helped fill out The Ventures– a band that would later be dubbed as “The Band That Launched A Thousand Bands”, The Ventures.”
By the time Nokie had joined Owens band he was already a known as a regional virtuoso guitar player. He’d played professionally since he was 17 and managed to make a very good living with many gigs paying up the $350 a week. By the time Bob Bogle and Don Wilson lured him into with them he was certainly taking a big financial hit.
Originally Bogle and Wilson had chosen the name The Versatones, but as Don Wilson put it;
“We started out calling ourselves ‘The Versatones’. When we went to register the name, we found out that it was already taken. We were disappointed then, and my mom said, ‘You are venturing into something new, so why don’t you call yourselves The Ventures’?” I thought it sounded pretty corny, but anyway it stuck!’
This wouldn’t be Wilson’s mothers’ only contribution to the band. After The Ventures had shopped around for a recording contract (and failed) Josie Williams founded Blue Horizon Records, and arranged studio time at Joe Boles legendary West Seattle studio Custom Recorders. The Ventures recorded their first single “The Real McCoy b/w Cookies and Coke” with Boles. Josie wrote the lyrics to Cookies and Coke and produced both sides. The single was a flop, but it wasn’t long before Josie booked more time at Custom Recorders and Walk-Don’t Run” was recorded. Bogle played lead guitar with Wilson on rhythm, Edwards on bass, and Skip Moore on drums . The tiny label pressed up only 300 copies, and distributed them locally. Unfortunately for Moore, he had decided to leave the band and work for his father’s gas station. He agreed to be paid $25 for his work on the recording instead of a royalty sharing deal…a mistake that would deprive him of royalties even after a lawsuit a few years later. Moore was replaced by drummer George T. Babbitt, Jr., but at 16 he was too young to play bars and taverns The Ventures were often hired to perform in. Finally the band hired Howie Johnson in order to go out on tour in support of their major hit and new-found popularity. In the fall of 1961 he was involved in a car crash, causing him irreversible spinal damage. Johnson managed to play drums while wearing a neck brace. Beside touring he drummed on the first four Ventures albums and half of the tracks on the fifth LP. He ended up quitting in order to spend more time with his family and occasionally played locally throughout the rest of his life.
Josie Wilson pushed Walk-Don’t Run day and night to anyone who would listen. Out of the blue local entrepreneur, DJ and radio station owner Pat O’Day started using a portion of Walk-Don’t Run as a “kicker” (intro) to his newscasts on his wildly popular radio station KJR. Listeners wanted to hear more, so KJR put the entire song into rotation. Soon legendary Seattle label Dolton Records were beating a path to Josie’s door to pick up The Ventures’ contract. The irony was not lost on Josie and the band that they had previously auditioned for Dolton, but had been turned down. Though Dolton heads being a bit embarrased theywent on to re-release Walk-Don’t Run on their label. At the time Liberty Records was their distributor so Dolton licensed the rights to the much bigger and more powerful national label.
It’s well known that the band had been introduced to Walk-Don’t Run through Chet Atkin’s 1956 version of the song included on one of Bob’s favorite albums; “Hi-Fi In Focus”. Yet the song had originally been written and recorded by jazz-great Johnny Smith in 1954. The Atkins version is more syncopated than the very jazzy Smith version. Both are fine renditions, but The Ventures would put their own Imprint on it- as they did on other recordings-creating yet a third dynamic version of the song. Both Chet’s and Johnny Smiths are worth a listen. Both are as individual and inspiring as The Ventures’ forward-looking interpretation. In 2011 Don admitted
“He (Chet Atkins) played it in a classical jazzy style and we couldn’t play it like that. We weren’t good enough. So we decided to make our own arrangement of it and simplify it and that’s how that happened.
Having found a local label with national distribution propelled “Walk, Don’t Run” to number two on the Billboard pop chart and sold over a million copies. When the Ventures relocated from Seattle to Los Angeles in 1963, Josie Wilson remained the band’s co-producer in tandem with Dolton owner Bob Reisdorf. Years later she was also instrumental in getting fans to demand The Ventures be inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. During her life she became a savvy business person, a respected producer and one of the first to kick down the doors of the music industry to women. Surprisingly it was another woman-Bonnie Guitar-who grew up just a few miles north of Tacoma-who would also be instrumental in gaining respect for women in music circles. Josie Wilson remained a trusted insider of The Ventures until her death at the age of 91 in 2007.
Their second release was a re-working for a 1940 Xavier Cugat hit called Perfidia. It only reached number 15 in the charts, and was followed by a steady flow of singles that stalled in the nether end of the charts; but album sales were always a more important money-maker than singles. The band would never see such spectacular single’s success aside from their 1964 re-make of Walk-Don’t Run (it reached number 15 in the US charts) and 1969’s “Theme From Hawaii 5-0” which reached number 8 in the charts. Oddly enough the theme for “Hawaii 5-0” had been written by director Morton Stevens as a short opener for the show. It wasn’t until The Ventures full recording of the song that it became a fully-formed song. The addition of horns to the song may have seemed an odd move for the band, but they utilized brass sections on and off during their career…and fans love “Hawaii 5-0″. It also didn’t hurt that they’d get a short listen to it once a week on television.
Although The Ventures would have few hit singles, they made up that by releasing hit after hit albums. They may be the world’s first band that relied on album sales rather than singles. This was unusual for the 1960s and would only become more common in the 1970s with the advent of FM radio. When Dolton Records re-located their main offices to Los Angeles in 1963 it was to the detriment of Northwest artists, but an incredibly valuable move for The Ventures. It meant better studio facilities and closer contact with Liberty Records and their distribution executives.
The Ventures set the stage for a guitar line-up that has now become the typical formula; Lead, rhythm and bass guitars backed by a great drummer. The formula was not unheard of before but the band did a lot to popularize it. They’d also created “the big guitar sound” and although instrumentals were at the core of the late-50s/early 60s Northwest Sound, The Ventures were introducing a new approach that did not heavily rely on R&B and the ever-present organ. They were interested in technical advancements as well as new sounds. Over the years they would be pioneers in distortion, reversing tapes, bringing the Theramin to rock and heavy use of vibrato as well as a myriad of other effects.
Soon after Bob Bogle’s death in 2009, fellow guitarist Don Wilson told The Los Angeles Times;
“Any guitar player would tell you, Bob is the most unique-sounding guitar player ever. The way he used to do the whammy bar — that vibrato bar. He kept his little finger on it while he played it all the time. He’d make it sound, like at the end of a chord, Wow-wow.
Soon after the success of Walk-Don’t Run drummer Howie Johnson (a guitarist in his own right) suggested that Bob Bogle and Nokie Edwards trade places resulting in Bogle as bassist Edwards as lead guitarist. The formula worked, and the transition was amicable. It made the band more of an overall talented unit.
Howie Johnson left the band in 1962 he was replaced by Mel Taylor who had been a house drummer at the well-known Los Angeles club The Palamino. Taylor had already made his mark as a drummer for Herb Alpert and as a member of Bobby (Boris) Pickett’s band who had recorded the seasonally perennial hit “The Monster Mash”. On a side note, Mel’s younger brother, Larry, became the bassist for Canned Heat and before that had been a session bass player for Jerry Lee Lewis and The Monkees among others.
One of the reasons The Ventures deserve the moniker “The Band That Launched a Thousand Bands” was their release of several volumes of the “Learn To Play The Ventures” series. The learning process came to be known as “guitar phonics“. This was a completely new approach to learning guitar and bass. There had been written “how to…” books before The Ventures. There were also a few recorded tutorials. But there had never been a series of lessons by the bands players themselves to teach kids (and adults) to play specific parts of their own songs. There’s many a modern artist that proudly admit to having learned to play with The Ventures’ series. The first volume of the “Learn to Play….even showed up on the popular music charts.
The Ventures were also one of the first bands to take advantage of fuzztone. Ventures afficianado’s can’t seem to agree how the fuzz was first created. Some claim it was the Mosrite guitars’ pickups they were using at the time, the Mosrite Fuzz-Rite or The Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone. No matter the source, it would become one of The Ventures signature sounds. Musicians and fans have cited their 1962 single “2,000 Pound Bee” as the first use of the fuzz guitar, but it’s clear it had been used by Ike Truner as early as 1951, on the Memphis recordings of Howlin’ Wolf (1951-52), Johnny Burnette’s “Train Kept a-Rollin” (1956) and Link Wray’s “Rumble” (1958).
In 1963 the band had entered into a deal Mosrite to play live with a series of Mosrite guitars that were specially designed for The Ventures. Before the Mosrite period all three guitarists had played production models of the Jazzmaster, the Stratocaster and a Precision Bass. Mosrite founder, Semie Moseley had built a guitar that he lent to Nokie Edwards for some recording sessions. Soon Edwards had bought his own Mosrite and within a year The Ventures had an endorsement and co-distribution deal that made Mosrite a common name among guitarists. The deal lasted until 1968, and aside from the use of Mosrite guitars, there are some archival photos of the band using the Mosrite Award solid-state amps from the Ventures’ Mosrite Distributing Company. Despite their popularity with musicians this particular model would never go into mass production.
It was probably Nokie Edwards who had been the most instrumental in popularizing the well-crafted series. Along with the endorsement and use of the Mosrites the guitar manufacturer sold the series to consumers with a label “The Ventures” on the headstock. It began a mini-craze for the model that remains to this day. Guitarists from Jimi Hendrix to Arthur Lee to Kurt Cobain have all played Mosrite’s. Bands like the MC5 and The Ramones have used them. According to Mosrite’s promotional material, the company claims“Jimi Hendrix had two Mosrites. Jimi would commonly smash and burn his easily replaceable Fenders but the Mosrite’s were treasured and well taken care of. The doubleneck used on Spanish Castle Magic is today on display at the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame” They go on to say ” Virtually everyone who is anyone has owned a Mosrite at some time in their life”. This is probably closer to truth than hyperbole. Despite the quality of the instruments once the endorsement deal ended all three guitarists returned to the use of Fenders Years later, n 1996 Fender released a limited edition Ventures Signature Series of guitars consisting of their original Jazzmaster, Stratocaster, and a Fender Jazz Bass. This time the band had a hand in their design and specifications. When Nokie Edwards left the band in 1968 he reverted to his Mosrite During this hiatus Edwards was replaced by Gerry McGee and Edwards reverted to his Mosrite guitar for solo projects during this period. When he returned to The Ventures in 1973 he again played a Fender, though occasionally pulled out his Mosrite.
The Ventures had also made a very savvy move in licensing their music to Japanese labels that would include Toshiba/EMI. Japan is the world’s second largest market for recorded music-The Ventures popular appeal in Japan came just as electric guitars were first being marketed in Japan- Soon The Ventures and their use of the electric guitar were in such popular demand that they began to tour extensively in Japan. Throughout their career they have been a huge draw in Japan. The move to satisfy the Japanese market would provide a boon when The Ventures became less popular in the US during the 1970s. They also recorded and released about 50 albums specifically for the Japanese market, while continuing to tour Japan on a regular basis.After the 60’s their US output did modest sales and a dedicated fan base did not diminish in Japan. The very fact that the band had never been dropped by a major label until late in their career allowed them to record and release the vast number of albums they’re known for. . They also licensed their recording to labels all around the world. The Ventures were consistent sellers no matter what label was issuing or distributing. Even poor promotion would not detract from their strong fan base. But great deals with the Japanese and European markets brought in good royalties and a savvy approach to contracts and their huge audience outside the US (even to this day) was a large part of The Ventures success even as music fans at home were turning their backs on what was becoming considered dated artists.
At the advent of the 80s the Surf Sound, along with Rockabilly began to pique the interest of musicians and fans on the outer fringes of popular music. At first the interest was largely a novelty (who can forget the silly “poodle skirt” era of the 80s?) The Ventures became associated with post-modernism-a slightly jaded form of kitsch that was meant to be shared by folks supposedly “in-the-know” But as the popularity of bands like The Cramps and The Stray Cats became more serious, musicians and fans followed suit. An entire genre of “surf punk” music arose with bands like Agent Orange, The Forgotten Rebels, and of course The Surf Punks at the forefront. Many other bands would pepper their output with a surf or rockabilly song or two.Later film directorsused surf music in their film soundtracks. Quentin Tarantino was instrumental in this by including classic surf tracks in his movie 1994 film Pulp Fiction. Although their profile had been rising during the 80’s The Ventures were once again on top.
A new generation had found The Ventures…and took them seriously as masters of American pop culture. Sales of their old (and new) albums picked up. More and more live dates in the US and in Europe were being booked…at first in smaller clubs, but they were finding the venues were getting bigger. By the time the huge corporate-sponsored era of festivals became fashionable the band was playing in front of crowds in the tens of thousands…or even hundreds of thousands.
Finally in 2008 one of the band’s dreams would come true. It was also the dream of Josie Wilson, who had died a year earlier. The Ventures finally were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Artists become eligible only after the first 25 years of their careers. The Ventures had passed that mark by 22 more years. The night of their induction by John Fogarty (Creedence Clearwater Revival) two of the “classic era” members of The Ventures were on hand; Nokie Edwards and Don Wilson. Bob Bogle and Gerry McGee were unable to attend. Being ignored by the Hall of Fame so long had been a bitter pill for Don Wilson, but when asked “Why so long?” Wilson simply said “All we did was quietly sell millions of records.” In 2010 The members of The Ventures were also awarded The Order of the Rising Sun by the Emperor of Japan.The medal originated in 1875 and symbolizes “energy as powerful as the rising sun.” The ceremony took place at the Queen Anne consulate. During the ceremony Japan Consul General Kiyokazu Ota said”
“The Ventures’ unique ‘teke-teke sound’ … grabbed the heart of many Japanese young men and women. These young fans in turn formed groups of their own, thus creating a huge boom of electric-guitar sales in Japan.”
So what of the players that have been part of The Ventures?
In 1972 drummer Mel Taylor left the band to pursue a career because he felt The Ventures had become a “nostalgia act“in and was replaced by drummer Joe Barile. Taylor returned in 1979 and remained with The Ventures until his death in 1996 of cancer and heart failure. After his death his son, Leon Taylor took over his duties as drummer.
Gerry McGee also left the band only to return. He walked away in 1978 to work as a solo artist as well as recording and touring with Dwight Yoakum, John Mayall, Kris Kristofferson and others. He returned to The Ventures in 1985 and is the only active remaining member left from any of the 1960’s line-ups. During a subsequent tour of Japan McGee suffered a heart attack, but recovered and continues to play with the band.
Bob Bogle had belonged to the recording and touring outfit until his health began to deteriorate. He retired from touring in December 2004 and was replaced by Bob Spalding. He had lived in Vancouver, Washington, for years and died there on June 14, 2009, at 75 of non-Hodgkin lymphoma;
Howie Johnson, the neck-braced drummer that stayed with The Ventures for their first few tours and albums passed away in January of 1988.
Skip Moore who had been the actual drummer that had played on Walk Don’t Run had died in 1988. Some musicologists have argued that it was Johnson who played on Walk-Don’t Run using the pseudonym “Skip Moore”, but the evidence points a different direction.
Nokie Edwards left the band a second time in 1984 to work in Nashville with Country and Western artists including lead guitar on Lefty Frizell’s final album. Edwards re-upped with The Ventures for a short time in the late 80’s but soon returned to Nashville and began a very successful career with producer and fellow musician Art Greenshaw. The critically acclaimed collaboration of Edwards and artist-producer Greenhaw has resulted in Edwards being nominated for “Grammy Award for Best Southern, Country or Bluegrass Gospel Album of the Year” with 2005’s “20th Century Gospel” andSouthern Meets Soul”in 2006.
Bob Spalding has remained part of The Ventures while pursuing his own solo projects. In 2016 Bob’s son, Ian Spalding’ became The Venture’s bass guitarist. Bob now lives in San Bernardino CA.
In 2015 Don Wilson retired from touring and recording with The Ventures. Since then he continues to keep the memory of the original outfit in public view. He now lives in Sammamish WA.
And what of the young George T. Babbit Jr., who, at 16, was too young to play with The Ventures? Soon after his departure from the band he went to college and joined the ROTC. He then enlisted in the US Air Force and rose to the commission of 4-Star General. Between 1997 to 2000 he served as Commander of the Air Force Materiel Command (COMAFMC). On March 1, 1998, (while on active duty as 4-star general), he joined The Ventures onstage in uniform on drums. He is now living in retirement in Bremerton WA.
The current touring line-up of the Ventures is:
Gerry McGee – Lead Guitar (joined in 1968)
Bob Spalding – Lead & Rhythm Guitar (joined in 1981)
Leon Taylor – Drums (joined in 1996)
Ian Spalding – Bass (joined in 2016)
-Dennis R. White. Sources: Del Hartleman”Walk Don’t Run-The History of The Ventures ( Del Hartlman, 2011);Jame Bush. “Encyclopedia of Northwest Music” (Sasquatch Books, 1999); Jim Clash “The Ventures’ Don Wilson On His Big Hit Single Hawaii Five-O, More” (Forbes Magazine,
By the time the mid-60s had come around The Northwest Sound has pretty much wound down. Many former teen-dance bands were moving closer to rock and the new psychedelic sounds coming out of L.A. and San Francisco. In some ways many local artists had begun to see Seattle as a northern outpost of San Francisco.
One of the bands that emerged in the mid-60s was Blues Interchange. David Lanz (future star of “new age” music) had been one of the band’s first members. The band began making the rounds of Seattle venues and became very popular with the tripped-out psychedelic crowd. Due to some of the members being drafted local boy Jeff Simmons signed on as bassist in 1967. Simmons was already an accomplished player with a gregarious, often comedic air about him Other members included Al Malosky on drums and guitarists Peter Larson (later replaced by Burke Wallace), and Danny Hoefer. Danny Hoefer would later go on to play in Tower of Power. After the change of personnel, Blues Interchange found even more favor with Northwest audiences. One result of the changes was re-naming the band to Easy Chair. The transformation caught the eye of Seattle’s emerging rock scene as well as other pockets of psychedelic blues around the country
In 2014 the website Clear Spot would look back on Easy Chair, writing;
“Their epic West Coast blues features the unique chemistry of psychedelic guitar leads, fluid lines and hypnotic chording”.
Around this time the band was emerging they met up with notorious San Francisco manager Matthew Katz. Katz had been the first manager of Jefferson Airplane and had ben fired even before the release of their first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off. Seattle native Signe Anderson (September 15, 1941-January 28, 2016) did vocals, but soon left the band, handing over the task to Grace Slick. The firing of Katz would result in ongoing litigation over the release of original or licensed material by Jefferson Airplane. The litigation between Katz and Jefferson Airplane was not settled until 1987.
Katz was also involved in a dispute with Moby Grape beginning in 1968. Katz had sold the group members’ rights to their songs as well as their own name were signed away in 1973 to manager/producer David Rubinson without the band members knowing it. He retained rights to the name Moby Grape and a large part of their songs. Katz continued to send out various personnel under the name “Moby Grape” until 2005, the original members won back the rights to their name and started performing again as “Moby Grape” Even as late as 2007 Moby Grape (who’d won back the rights to their name) Katz threatened to file a lawsuit against Sundazed Records (licensed by SONY) claiming ownership of the album artwork and songwriting for the first three albums. The label was forced to withdraw the albums Moby Grape, Wow and Grape Jam. The albums have since been re-released.
Hooking up with Katz could have resulted in disaster but he remained a savvy (though untrustworthy) entrepreneur. In 1967 he opened the club “The San Francisco Sound” on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. The club was popular, but it lasted for less than a year. Katz’s real interest was to establish a venue for bands he managed.. The meeting between Blues Interchange and Katz gave the band more high-profile gigs opening for San Francisco bands he’d booked in his club including It’s A Beautiful Day, Tripsacord Music Box, West Coast Natural Gas and Black Swan. Katz also convinced Blues Interchange to change their name to Indian’ Puddin’ and Pipe. In yet another case of Katz’s dissembling, another band called Indian Puddin’ and Pipe already existed. Katz owned the names of several bands and could bestow them on any line-up he desired. Simmons’s Indian Puddin’ and Pipe dropped the name after severing ties with Katz in 1968. Fortunately neither the band nor it’s members walked away beholden to Katz except for the name he’d given them-not a very good one in the first place. Obtaining a new manager was painless. Glen Harmon was chosen to take on Katz’s job and endlessly worked to book and promote Easy Chair. Hammon had been a big fan who worked at Boeing, but from the start of his association with Easy Chair he proved to be a natural for the jobs of promotion and management.
Meanwhile Harmon andthe band sought to get a record deal Eventually they were forced to finance their own recording at Vancouver WA’s Ripcord Studio. The songs recorded there were produced by Rick Keefer-who would go on to found Sea-West Studio in Seattle. The result of their sessions was a single-sided 12′ EP that included only three songs, Slender Woman, My Own Life and Easy Chair. Both Slender Woman and Easy Chair were written by Jeff Simmons. My Own Life was written by Peter Larson. With a release of only 1000 copies, it did well in the Northwest. The songs show a slight reliance on the San Francisco Sound, but also retains a bit of the jazz-inspired R&B that successful NW bands of the 50s and early 60s had always imbued into their music. The recordings are sparse, but have an honest, almost innocent quality. The band would later go on to be much heavier, but their initial (and only) release is probably the most sought-after, and most valuable record by any Seattle band in the collectors market. In the past few years the EP has been re-released on CD by several foreign and domestic labels.
With some powerful gigs behind them and a popular regional hit, Easy Chair were on their way. An opening slot for Cream at Seattle’s Eagles Auditorium may have been their high point. They also opened for The Chambers Brothers who were then at the height of their success. These concerts, along with opening for Blue Cheer the early Led Zeppelin enhanced their reputation. They were offered a contract with Tetragrammaton Records but turned it down. The label which was co-owned by Bill Cosby, a fact Easy Chair did not know at the time they were approached by the label Soon Tetragrammaton released a worldwide hit with Deep Purple ( “Hush”) In 1968 the label also licensed the release ofJohn Lennon’s and Yoko Ono’s “Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins”in the United States. The album’s cover featured nude photos of John and Yoko on the front and back jacket cover. The Beatles and Lennon’s US label, Capitol Records, refused to release or distribute it, citing negative responses from retailers, and American audiences objection to nuditiy, so Tetragrammaton stepped in to distribute the album in the US.
Easy Chair under the name Ethiopia was slated to open for Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention at the Seattle Center Arena on August 24, 1968. During sound check, Frank Zappa and his business partner Herb Cohen listened to the band and were impressed enough to fly them to Los Angeles for an audition and possible contract with one of two new labels Zappa had created (Straight and Bizarre Records).The Zappa gig took place a week before the band (billed as Easy Chair) performed at the first Sky River Rock Festival. Easy Chair/Ethiopia played their booked obligations in the Northwest and were then on the way to L.A. Soon Ethiopia was signed to Bizarre Records and the band waited to record….and waited. Although they were signed as Ethiopia, the band once again reverted to Easy Chair for a handful of gigs with Zappa.
Their finest moment during their stay in Los Angeles was taking part in Bizarre Record’s legendary “Gala Pre-Xmas Bash” at Santa Monica’s Shrine Exhibition Hall on December 6th & 7th 1968. Easy Chair played the shows alongside The Mothers of Invention,Wild Man Fischer, Alice Cooper, and the GTOs. Ostensibly a pre-Christmas gig, it was actually Zappa’s debut of the roster of Bizarre acts that he, for the most part, had personally signed. This gig was definitely one of the most important shows of it’s day and possibly one of the most important gigs The Mothers of Invention ever played.
After months of living in hotels, recording negotiations and long periods of inactivity Easy Chair members became discouraged. It was clear the studio sessions were never going to happen. They decided to return to Seattle. Jeff Simmons and drummer Al Malosky stayed in LA. In 1969 Jeff Simmons (as a solo artist) was signed to Frank Zappa’s Straight Records to record two solo albums. Malosky went along for the ride as a sideman on the first album. Jeff’s assignment was to create the soundtrack for Naked Angels a biker/sexploitation film . Although it’s not meant to be high art, the film itself is fairly decent within it’s genre. Jeff”s soundtrack stands out as well executed psychedelia and is really the highlight of the film. The film featured Penelope Spheeris (who would later direct both Decline of Western Civilization documentaries) and Corey Fischer (one of Robert Altman’s stable of actors, and who appeared in both the film and the TV series M.A.S.H. The film got very little attention outside it’s intended audience but Simmon’s soundtrack album has long been a favorite among his fans.
Later in 1969 Jeff released what is universally considered his best solo work. The album Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up leans more toward the accessible music Frank Zappa had released. In fact Zappa contributed heavily to the album as a guitarist, wrote the title track and co-produced with engineer Chris Huston. Zappa wrote the title track and also co-wrote “Wonderful Wino” with Simmons. Zappa credited his work on the album under the pseudonym Lamarr Bruister. Later Zappa would work Lucille into an entirely different version for Joe’s Garage and “Wonderful Wino” later shows up on Zappa’s Zoot Allures. Zappa rarely co-wrote his music, so it’s apparent that he had high regard for Simmons during this period. On “Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up” a variety of players who are often heard in Mothers and Zappa’s bands show up. Simmons is featured on lead vocals, keyboards, bass guitar, and accordion. Craig Tarwater-former member of the legendary L.A. garage band Sons Of Adam plays guitar, Ron Woods (of Pacific Gas and Electric) on drums, Ian Underwood on Sax and fellow Seattle native John Kehlior, (who’d played with The Frantics and The Daily Flash) on drums for two tracks (“Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up” & “Raye“). The reception of Lucille was positive, but like all Zappa-related albums up ’til then, did not sell to the masses.
Instead of offering another contract with Straight Records, Zappa went a step further. He asked Jeff to join The Mothers of Invention. He had already played a one-off concert of the the album Hot Rats.
Around this time Jeff reminisced about his hometown to the U.K. Music journal Melody Maker, saying:
“There’s a lot of music in Seattle, a lot of clubs and musically it’s influenced by San Francisco and even more, Chicago. For instance when I started playing, the first people I heard were the Spoonful and The New Vaudeville Band. But it wasn’t long before I forgot them and got into Little Milton and Magic Sam”.
In 1970 Simmons appeared on Chunga’s Revenge, which was Frank’s third “solo” album…even though Zappa included his floating roster of musicians with himself as the main character. The album was largely a transitional one, retaining some of the satire and humor of earlier albums, though heading more toward the avant-jazz of future projects. It was also the first time Flo & Eddie (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, formerly of The Turtles) made a studio appearance with Zappa. Jeff Simmons had also stepped up his game with Chunga’s Revenge by playing alongside Ian Underwood again, as well as drummer Aunsley Dunbar, and keyboardist George Duke. Others who took part in Chunga’s Revenge was John Guerin, Max Bennett and Don “Sugarcane” Harris.
In 1971 Frank Zappa began to film his ambitious art film 200 Motels. It’s commonly held that Jeff Simmons had quit the band shortly before the shoot began, but it’s not entirely clear what happened. Simmons is seen in the documentary The True Story of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels-though not credited. The actual film has large segments based on Jeff. There is a cartoon segment in which “Jeff”, tired of playing what he refers to as “Zappa’s comedy music”is convinced by his good conscience (played by Donovan) to “quit the group” There’s an ongoing (inside joke?) of characters saying “Jeff quit the group” throughout the film. “Dental Hygiene Dilemma” sees Jeff smoking a marijuana cigarette which had been dipped in Don Preston’s “foamy liquids” and Jeff’s imagining Donovan appearing to him on a wall-mounted television as his “good conscience”. “His good conscience” asks Jeff not to steal the towels. Studebaker Hoch appears to him as his evil conscience in the form of Jim Pons, tells Jeff to steal ashtrays and convinces Jeff to quit the Mothers of Invention, to “et your own group together. Heavy! Like Grand Funk or Black Sabbath.
Although it’s likely he was on set at least occasionally it’s claimed that had read the script of 200 Motels before the shooting and discovered it included things Simmons and others had actually said when they thought Frank was out of earshot. It’s claimed these negative comments were based on secret hotel-room recordings. Another version is that Zappa fired Simmons for smoking too much marijuana. This version would be in keeping with Zappa’s firm rule of not working with musicians using drugs…at least not if it affected their professionalism. But the former version would back up Zappa’s habit of taping discussions among band members (recorded with or without their knowing it). They were “anthropological field recordings” as Zappa liked to call them. It would be a more interesting story if Simmons had actually quit because he was angry about the secret recordings. But it’s just as probable that he was fired for his objection to the script. Many years later full songs, out-takes and interviews were included on Playground Psychotics. The album includes a track called “Jeff Quits” and further complicates the question of whether Simmons quit or was fired. Jeff probably was smoking too much pot and he may have well wanted to move on from Zappa. In 1972 Frank Zappa told Jip Golsteijn of the Dutch magazine OOR:
“Jeff Simmons is a great bassist, which will become obvious to everyone during the European tour, but I thought he had another talent. He was a comedian and I wanted to exploit it, especially because we use quite visual elements in our shows. I let (Jeff) play Rudolph the Reindeer which has always been a huge success. Initially, he had no objection, but I was told after a while that he considered himself a heavy bass player not a clown. I knew which way the wind was blowing since Jeff’s wife had recently said something like that to me. His wife, of course, complained that he should not be misused by me and should leave the group. Jeff told me in honesty that he was seriously considering starting his own band. I then said ‘can’t we play that conflict in 200 Motels that he wanted to quit’? Then at Pinewood Studios ( London), where we recorded the film, I thought we could show Jeff brooding in a hotel room and is torn by doubt. His good conscience tells him to stay in the group, but his bad conscience tells him that he will be made a fool by Zappa and that he has become the real heavy bass player he really is. When Jeff heard what this meant, he turned quite pale, because he took it as a dig, although he knew exactly what was intended. Shortly afterwards he quit the group anyway…precisely at a time when we could not afford to lose him, right in the middle of recordings. Eventually we decided to change Jeff’s portion of the film. Another part was created for Martin Liquort (Ringo Starr’s driver) that is reminiscent of Jeff. In the scenes where ‘Jeff’ is playing, it’s Martin in the background with a guitar in his hand. Martin can not really play.” (Zappa’s words here have been translated to English from Jip Golsteijn interview, originally written in Dutch)
Athough Jeff doesn’t appear in the film there’s an ongoing line of “Jeff has quit the group” sprinkled throughout the dialogue as an inside joke. One long animated sequence called “Dental Hygiene Dilemna” finds a very high Jeff struggling with his good conscience (who he believes to be Donovan on a wall mounted TV screen) and his bad conscience. Among advice Jeff’s good conscience gives him is”don’t rip off the towels, Jeff“. His bad conscience soon appears and says “Jeff, I’d like to have a word with you . . . about your soul. Why are you wasting your life, night after night playing this comedy music?” Jeff replies “I get so tense“. “Of course you do my boy” says his bad conscience. That’s why it would be best to leave his stern employ….You’ll make it big!” “That’s right” says Jeff. “And then I won’t be SMALL!” “This is the real you!” Jeff’s bad conscience tells him “Rip off a few more ashtrays. Get rid of some of that inner tension. Quit the comedy group! Get your own group together. Heavy! Like GRAND FUNK! or BLACK SABBATH “.”Like COVEN!” shouts Jeff.
Apparently it would take animation, in the absence of Simmons, to complete Frank’s vision.
Whatever the reason for Simmon’s leaving, by 1972 he was back in the fold of musicians Frank Zappa employed to record Waka/Jawaka • Hot Rats. He also continued to tour with Zappa’s band, and took part in the 1974’s Roxy and Elsewhere. The album includes a live performance at The RoxyTheater in Los Angeles (with some overdubs) recorded the 8th, 9th and 10th of December, 1973. The Elsewhere” tracks (“Son of Orange County” and “More Trouble Every Day”) were recorded on May 8th, 1974, at the Edinboro State College in Edinboro, PA. Sections of “Son of Orange County” were also recorded on May 11, 1974, at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago but does not contain overdubbed material. Jeff Simmons plays rhythm guitar on all tracks and adds occasional vocals. After Roxy and Elsewhere, Jeff played live with some of Zappa’s succeeding live performances. He’s also heard playing on some of the “official” live albums that were released after Frank’s death. Recordings Zappa probably wouldn’t have allowed to be released because of their poor audio quality.
Jeff Simmon’s recorded legacy with Zappa had included him providing bass, guitar, and/or vocal for Chunga’s Revenge, Waka/Jawaka, Roxy & Elsewhere, You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 1, You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 6, and Playground Psychotics; He’s also featured on the Beat The Boots series of bootlegs that were later released by Rhino Records. Disc’s he’s included on include Freaks & Motherfuckers, Unmitigated Audacity, Piquantique, Disconnected Synapses, Tengo Na Minchia Tanta, and At The Circus
Although Jeff’s history after saying goodbye to Frank is a bit sketchy, by 1980 he found his way back to Seattle. In the 80’s, Simmons was busy performing with such bands as The Backtrackers, The Shimmering Guitars, and Cocktails For Ladies and as his alter-ego l’il Bobby Sumpner and his band The Stump Blasters. He claimed in the 1990’s, he was writing a book (“I Joined The Mothers Of Invention… For The F.B.I.”) which is now in unpublished manuscript form. Given Jeff’s sense of humor it’s hard to know if the manuscript actually exists. It would be hard for a publisher or editor to pass up a book based on Jeff’s time with the Mothers…even the title is intriguing!
In 1982 Frank Zappa appeared as a guest DJ on BBC radio (UK). He played some of his favorite songs including “I’m in The Music Business” by Jeff.
In 1988 Jeff was featured in the psychotronic “grunge” inspired local film Rock and Roll Mobster Girls, directed by Rick Werner. Aside from being barrels of fun the film also includes more Seattle rock luminaries as well as local fans.
Over the years Simmons had worked on material for a potential new CD. He says it is the culmination of 20 years work. Finally, in 2004 he was able to release “Blue Universe” which got rave reviews.
In the webzine Jet City Blues Mark Dalton wrote:
“Jeff Simmons, a man with his heart in the blues no matter what he’s doing, has a hilarious persona as a performer that draws from this same well. Simmons has written a whole cycle of great tunes about “Treatment,” for example – with a couple such tunes residing on this CD. Simmons’ ne’er-do-well musician character is always one step ahead of those pesky treatment program guys – whether he’s “Breakin’ Out of Treatment,”or kicking back and enjoying the life of a “Treatmon’ Center Playboy” while he’s there, as he does on this CD.
In November 2010, Jeff Simmons took part in a Q&A session at the “Frank Zappa At The Roundhouse” celebration of Frank Zappa’s music in London. Jeff played with the Dweezil Zappa Played Zappa band at the same festival with special guests Ian Underwood & Scott Thunes as well. The celebration also included the UK premiere of “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary” an avant-symphonic work that is one of Zappa’s most epic and most popular classical pieces. Besides The Adventures of Greggery Peccary, the London Sinfonietta played Zappa’s “Revised Music for a Low Budget Orchestra”. The performance included a solo set by Jeff as a multi-instrumentalist and a long-time member of Zappa’s circle.
Archival footage of Jeff Simmons was included in Thorsten Schütte’s 2016 documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words
IMDb credits Jeff Simmons for sound editor of several TV series during the 90s but I can’t confirm this is the same Jeff Simmons. Any information would be welcome. Also feel free to offer corrections or comments below.
-Dennis R. White. Sources; “Jeff Simmons” (Zappa Wikijawaka); Lemonde Kid “Its too late for them to get their due but Katz needs to get HIS!” (Love: The Message Board for Love Fans, October 12, 2011); Mark Dalton, (“Blue Universe CD Review” Jet City Blues, November 19, 2005); “Jeff Simmons” (spotify.com); “Jeff Simmons” (World in Sound, worldinsound.com); “Jeff Simmons – ‘Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up” ( The Day After Sabbath, Jan 23, 2015) “Jeff Simmons” (Melody Maker, December 5th 1970); Dean R. Hegerty,”A Guide To Straight Label Records & Compact Discs” (United Mutations, 2002); “Jeff Simmons” (lastfm.com) “Eagles Auditorium” (A Seattle Lexicon)callihan.com/seattle/pophist.htm); Jeff Simmons-Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up (allmusic.com); Alan J. Stein “Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair opens a three-day run near Sultan on August 30, 1968” (HistoryLink.org, Essay 5425. March 15, 2003); “Easy Chair” (Clearspot, www.clear-spot.nl/item/410251/easy_chair_easy_chair.htm); “FZ and Secret Recordings” zappateers.com, July 20, 2010); Jip Golsteijn “De industrie wilde het Fillmore album ontzettend geil aanprijzen”(OOR Magazine, Issue 15. 1971); “Frank Zappa at The Roundhouse”(The 405, September 17, 2010); James Bush, “Easy Chair” (Encyclopedia of Northwest Music. Sasquatch Books, 1999); “Naked Angels” (IMDb.com); 200 Motels. film “Dental Hygiene Dilemna” sequence (directors Frank Zappa & Tony Palmer, 1971); “The True Story of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels” film. (written and directed by Frank Zappa, 1988); “Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words” film. ( directed by Thorsten Schütte, 2016) Scott Hill “From Straight to Bizarre Explores Frank Zappa’s Freak Indies” (Wired Magazine, January 19, 2012); “Jeff Simmons” (IMDb.com)
Not surprisingly the bands of the 1950s and 60s that would define The Northwest Sound was mostly a boys game. There had been women who’d made it in their own right –Bonnie Guitar comes to mind- but even she was closer to country than the newer sounds. Bea Smith had made her name in rockabilly but The NorthwestSound relied on a hybrid of R&B and jazz. In fact most of the successful women performing were either coming out of rockabilly, hillbilly music or singing blues and early R&B among the many black venues surrounding Jackson St. Of course many of these clubs were avoided by whites, and those teenagers wanting to hear the real deal dare not venture into many of the mostly-black bottle clubs and dens of gambling and prostitution that some rightly were known as. Police raids were common along Jackson Street and door men were careful not to give entry to the kids that may be cause for even more raids. The musicians who had come to play R&B were the exception to the rule. Their fans may have been frightened off by what was collectively known as the (primarily black) Jackson St. Scene. The Birdland, The Ubangi Club, The House of Entertainment and especially The Black and Tan (which was largely integrated by the late 50s) were all clubs that attracted the young white practitioners of teen-dance R&B.
Very few of the early Northwest Sound bands ventured into vocals or women in general. This wasn’t a purposeful lock-out of women. It was out of popular demand. Audiences didn’t mind instrumentals, they simply wanted to dance. Girl Groups from across the nation were seen as a novelty acts. Very few bands had fully-fledged female members of their bands. There were exceptions, but this was mostly the face of the Northwest Sound during the mid-late 1950s. Enter The Fleetwoods.
Artist, label owner and producer Bonnie Guitar and her business partner Bob Reisdorff of Dolphin Records (soon to be re-christened as Dolton Records had taken note of the Olympia trio (Gary Troxel, Gretchen Christopher, and Barbara Ellis). The band did not fit into the girl group mold, nor was it the kind of rollicking R&B Northwest fans were used to… but Bonnie and Bob’s belief in The Fleetwoods and their signing them paid off in droves. The first two releases by The Fleetwoods rose to the number one position on the US Billboards charts in 1959. Their music did as spectacularly well in Britain, Canada and the rest of the world. “Come Softly to Me” by The Fleetwoods was Dolphin/Dolton’s very first commercial release. The label had pulled-off something incredible, even today…an independent, regional label releasing a bona fide, massive hit on their first outing. Fortunately the label was widely available due to distribution from Liberty Records in the US and with London Records almost everywhere else in the world. The second release by The Fleetwoods, Graduation’s Here, did well but it wasn’t until their third release that the band and label landed another number one single and worldwide hit. Mr. Blue was also released in 1959 and helped make The Fleetwoods one of the best selling trios in the late 1950s
Aside from Barbara Ellis and Gretchen Christopher-along with Gary Troxel-becoming stars arising from the Northwest, there were a few great female singers waiting on the sidelines until regional bands realized that featuring a female singer in one of two songs was a bright move. Among those waiting in the wings were Merrilee Gunst (later Merilee Rush) a very young and incredibly talented Gail Harris in Tacoma who had appeared on Buck Owens’ radio show and would later sing with Tacoma’s Fabulous Wailers. But a young woman from Kent, Nancy Claire, was the most sought-after female vocalist in the Northwest. She would end up singing and recording with the cream of the crop of NW music, notably as a featured vocalist for The Dynamics, The Exotics, and maybe the most popular Seattle white R&B band of the early 60s, The Frantics. The floodgates for featuring girl singers on a couple of songs at live gigs had opened. In 2009 Seattle Music historian Peter Blecha wrote:
“…scores of Northwest combos joined in the fun and some cool records were one result. In Seattle, Ronnie D. and the Valiants featured Pam Kelley on their “Cherry Darlin'” 45; the Duettes (with Bonnie and Ann Sloan) sang their teen-dream ode, “Donny,” and Barbara McBride and the Nomads cut “The Only Reason”; Walla Walla’s Frets featured Janie Hanlon on “Do You Wanna Dance”; Moses Lake’s Fabulous Continentals cut “I’m Not Too Young” with Marsha Maye Covey; Tacoma’s Cindy Kennedy cut “Skateboard” and Patty Q recorded “Help Me Baby”; Olympia’s Stingrays featured Cheri Robin on “The Dance”; and Wenatchee’s Linda Jo and the Nomads recorded “Stop Your Cryin’.”
And plenty of other Northwest bands with girl singers never issued records, including Tacoma’s Sonics (with “Miss” Marilyn Lodge), Solitudes (with Dani Gendreau), Regents (with Sandy Faye), Galaxies (with Andy Haverly), and Statesmen (with ‘Fabulous’ Juliette); Seattle’s Neptunes (with Melody and Merilyn Landon), the Dynamics (with Randi Green), and the Pulsations (with Darlene Judy); Bremerton’s Raymarks (with future country star Gail Davies); Aberdeen’s Beachcombers (with Jocelle Russell and/or Shirley Owens); Olympia’s Triumphs (with Janet Weaver); Tenino’s Hangmen (with Sandy Smith); Sequim’s Eccentrics (with Pam Clark and/or Nancy Warman); Winthrop’s Danny and the Winthrops (with “Miss” Tessie Thomas); and Spokane’s Runabouts (with Mickey Davis).
But it was Nancy Claire who was in most-demand. After playing dozens of gigs with an almost unbelievable amount of well-know Seattle bands, the owner of Rona Records, Nacio Brown Jr. took notice and flew Nancy down to LA in 1961 to cut a few songs for his label. Nancy was whisked off to Hollywood to pursue a solo recording career. Her initial route to wide exposure was propelled by the release of “Danny” b/w ” Y-E-S!”. She toured on the strength of that single and Warner Bros. took advantage of her popularity by licensing the single from Rona…Unfortunately her second release on Rona (Cheatin On Me b/w Little Baby) released in 1962 failed to catch fire among national radio stations, so Nancy returned to Seattle and continued to sing and hang out with dozens of then-important Northwest Sound musicians. After her return from California she expressed ambivalence about her time in Hollywood. She had done sessions with excellent musicians, producers and arrangers but the mold record execs tried to put her into didn’t comport with her natural instincts for R&B and Rock & Roll. It was, she said “not my bag”.
Nancy was approached to record in Hollywood again in 1963. It was also to record again with Nacio Brown Jr. but this time the label would be the highly regarded World Pacific Records. Nancy was put in the studio with a full orchestra and the sessions produced two more singles. (“I’m Burnin’ My Diary” b/w “The Baby Blues” and “Last Night” b/w “Charlie My Boy” In retrospect both are fairly interesting singles, but top 40 radio at the time all but ignored them, and Nancy headed back to Seattle where she was truly appreciated
Once back in place as the Northwest’s most sought after vocalist Nancy joined up with The Viceroys. In 1964 legendary radio personality and promoter Pat O’Day took notice. He put them in the studio to record two cover-songs (Death of An Angel and Earth Angel) and arranged to have the single released on the prestigious Imperial Records label. The Viceroys (with Nancy Claire) single went nowhere, and it would be the last attempt by Nancy to release a national recording.
Although Nancy used the name “Claire” she was actually born in 1943 as Nancy Claire Penninger. She used Nancy Claire as her stage name-and who could blame her? The name seemed so much more fitting for the petite, beautiful girl onstage. Years later Nancy would officially change her surname to “Claire” but most of her fans would never see her as Nancy Penninger in the first place. The name she chose to work under seemed so fitting.
Nancy’s earliest exposure to music wasn’t jazz, R&B or Rock and Roll. It was Country & Western, mostly influenced by KVI DJ, Buck Ritchey and her exposure to his radio program. Buck Owens also played a role. Buck did a show on a station he co-owned (KAYE) in Puyallup WA. As a young girl Nancy had played as an amateur with several C&W outfits, but it wasn’t until Nancy was invited to appear on a talent show televised by Tacoma’s KTNT that she got her break. A local Tacoma band The Versatones also appeared on the same show. The Versatones had been founded by Don Wilson and Bob Bogle two masonry workers. Their band would face adversity and challenges before emerging a couple of years later as The Ventures…the most successful instrumental band in rock history.
Del Halterman’s recounts in his book “Walk-Don’t Run: The History of The Ventures” that Nancy “strummed a guitar and sang cowboy songs under the watchful eye of her mother. When the TV show ended, the mother introduced herself to [the Versatones] as Nancy’s manager and described a problem that she hoped they could help solve. …[Clair’s] limited ability on guitar restricted the number of songs she was able to sing. Impressed with the Versatones, [she] proposed that they back Nancy on her show. There would be no pay, but [she] would bill the act as ‘Nancy Claire and the Versatones.’ Radio exposure being valuable and not easily obtainable, they accepted and proceeded to perform with her on KAYE each week for about two months”. (sited by Peter Blecha)
In fact Nancy occasionally reverted to her C&W roots as an adult and in 1965 she toured the west coast with some of the biggest country stars of her day-The Carter Family, Skeeter Davis, Marty Robbins, and Merle Travis.
As the 60s progressed and The Northwest Sound made way for more rock, folk-oriented and psychedelic music. Nancy spent more and more time raising a family, even though she drifted in and out of the music scene and kept up with old friends even though she was no longer in the public eye. She wasn’t exactly forgotten, but she was certainly seen as a figure from a different era-even if that era had only been 5 or 6 years earlier. As the 1960s wound down, Claire began singing with a hippie flower-power group, Paleface. The band found modest success around the Tacoma and South Seattle. She also sang with the bluesy band Easy Money, and later with a Top 40 band, The Royals.
Although Nancy appeared onstage less frequently she occasionally sat-in with some of her old pals, and from 1970 thru 1972 she made regular appearances with Jr. Cadillac, a loose aggregation of players of former 50s and 60s regional bands. The line-up often consisted of the late Buck Ormsby (The Wailers), Bob Hosko and Jim Manolides (The Frantics), Jeff Afdem (The Dynamics and Springfield Rifle) and Harry Wilson (The Casuals and The Dynamics), drummer Steve Moshier (The Turnabouts) Les Clinkingbeard and Ned Neltner (Kidd Afrika/Issac Scott/Mark 5), Tom Katica, who passed away in 2010, and a host of others. The band has played continuously since 1970 and plenty of well-known NorthwestSound artists have sat-in over those 47 years.
Nancy has also sat in alongside Merrilee Rush, Kathi Hart, Kathi MacDonald, Patti Allen as the Seattle Women in Rhythm and Blues, She continued to make occasional sightings during the 70’s and in 1980 she took part in “The Great Northwest Rock and Roll Show” put together by Jr. Cadillac gathering featuring Anthony “Tiny Tony” Smith, Little Bill Englehart and The Wailers with Gail Harris. Nancy also took part in Jr. Cadillac’s 12th Anniversary party at Parkers Ballroom on Aurora Avenue-one of the premier venues that hosted teen-dances in the late 50s and 60s.
Today Nancy sings with “Blues On Tap” featuring Steve Peterson, a 2013 nominee by the Washington Blues Society for Best Male Blues Singer; Bruce Ransom who’s shared bills with Taj Mahal, Elvin Bishop, Roy Gaines, Kenny Neal, Billy Branch, Jimmy Burns, Mitch Woods, Deanna Bogart, and Eden Brent; Ray Hartman who’s credits include a long stint with the Dick Powell Band who’ve opened for B.B. King and TheJames Cotton Band; and Jim Plano former drummer of the psychedelic-era Crome Syrcus among other gigs.
Over the past few years Nancy Claire continues to show up now and again, even though her audience has aged along with her. . Her singles, although ranging from modest hits to flops are worth a listen and various you tube vids of the music is online. As the one-time First-Lady of Seattle R&B she certainly deserves attention from a younger audience that can take a snapshot of Seattle’s original burst onto the national scene.
Nancy Claire is also a two time winner of The Northwest Music Associations Hall of Fame Award. Both awards are well-deserved.
-Dennis R. White. Sources; Peter Blecha, “The Great Northwest Rock and Roll Show reunion gig of local rockers kicks of on July 20, 1980″ (NWHistoryLink.org, Essay 10375, April 14, 2013); Steve Flynn,”The Music” (stevenflynnmusic.com, 2017); Peter Blecha “Nancy Claire (b. 1943)” (HistoryLink.org, Essay 10374, May 8, 2023): Del Halterman, “Walk-Don’t Run; The History of The Ventures” (LuLu Books, May 11, 2009); Peter Blecha, “Women of Northwest Rock: The First 50 Years (1957-2007)” (Essay 8935,HistoryLink.org); “Blues On Tap”, (bluesontap.net/bios.php); Photo courtesy of Nancy Claire.
Since it’s formation in 1973 the Total Experience Gospel Choir has travelled the nation and across the globe, from the Far East to Europe to Russia and a lot of places in between. Under the tutelage of Pastor Pat Wright, the Total Experience Gospel Choir has journeyed to Japan where they not only presented their ministry through song, but also delivered supplies to victims of the Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami who had taken refuge in Ishinomaki, Japan. In 2006 the Total Experience Gospel Choir also travelled to Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi to help victims of Hurricane Katrina and to rebuild and refurbish homes for hurricane victims in Gulfport, Mississippi.
Pat Wright was honored for her and the choir’s efforts by ABC News World News Tonight. In May of 2007 she was named one of that month’s Person of the Week, and later in a broadcast on December 27 2007, Pat was declared one of 2007’s “Persons of the Year”. It’s clear that the choir is not only one of the Northwest’s greatest musical assets, they spread their ministry through music, and actual, on-the-ground help.
Aside from performing for President Bill Clinton and President Obama, the Total Experience Gospel Choir have been featured at prestigious venues from the Sydney Opera House to The Mormon Tabernacle. Even though they’ve been ambassadors around the world, and won many prestigious awards, it’s clear the Pastor Wright’s greatest mission is to the uplifting of her own community, here in Seattle.
Pat Wright was born Patrinell Staten in Odessa Texas as one of eight children. Her father was a Baptist preacher and her mother taught school. Both parents urged her to pursue a career in gospel music. Having started to sing at an early age, Pat performed her first solo at the age of 3 and by the time she was 14 Pat had taught herself to play piano and was directing two choirs in her father’s church. Her parents saw to it Pat grew up in the church, but education also played an important part in her upbringing. Pat graduated as valedictorian of her high school class (Turner High School, 1961) and later attended Prairie View A&M College just north of Houston TX.
Pat first arrived in Seattle in October of 1964 to help her sister, who was then going through a divorce. Her intention was to be of assistance to her sister, and then move back home. She later explained her plan to return to Carthage, but then discovered she could make $7 a week in Seattle compared to $3 back home. She chose to throw her lot in and remain.
At the time Pat moved to Seattle, the nation was embroiled in the Civil Rights struggle. Pat had felt the sting of segregation and discrimination back in Texas, and on her bus trip from Carthage to Seattle. In 2014 Pat told local Seattle (and PBS) TV presenter Enrique Cerna:
“The bus ride took about four days. Being the only African American and the only female on the bus for the last 2500 miles was quite an experience. When she finally got to Seattle, after having survived just about every abuse on that long ride, she wanted to get back on the bus and go home. “But I’ve always had a bulldog tendency,” she admitted. “I decided to stay. The lessons I needed to survive…gave me a backbone that won’t quit.”, they’ve always told me that. And I decided that I was going to stay. But it was a very hard time for me because it was at the height of the civil rights movement, and I had participated in the civil rights movement personally, because I was in college at the time. A small college, A&M, now university…”
Having decided to stay in Seattle, Pat naturally gravitated toward the church and to gospel music in general. Her sister lived in Renton, but regularly visited a church in Seattle. On one of their trips into Seattle to attend church one Sunday Pat says she heard music coming from a church across the street. The church she was sitting in must have bored her and she was drawn to the other church. She walked across the street and entered the church. “I remember stumbling over somebody’s feet trying to get a seat because the place was pretty packed. And that somebody happened to end up being my husband” Benny Wright who became a preacher in his own right, has always been critical in Pat’s Total Experience Gospel Choir and her other endeavors. Benny also became teacher and football coach at Seattle’s Franklin High School and also served as head chaplain for the King County Youth Detention Facility in Seattle. Both his and Pat’s ministry have always revolved around helping at-risk youth.
Pat says she always knew the ministry was her calling, but for a brief period she walked away in order to pursue a more secular side of her life. She says she briefly gave up gospel back in the late ‘60s. “Actually decided I was tired of gospel, so I was going to try my hand at soul music.”
As music historian and author Peter Blecha wrote in 2013:
“In 1969 Wright was discovered singing in church by a recent Louisiana transplant, LaVera Clark, who took Wright under her wing, telling the songbird, as Wright recalled years later, “A voice like yours — the world needs to hear it and they’re not gonna hear it in church. They are not going to church to hear it! … Especially in Seattle”
The two began composing songs together and then making test recordings in Clark’s little home studio (2407 E Boston Avenue). Clark then matched the singer with a previously existing group, the Blenders, and they re-emerged as Patrinell and the Casanovas. Clark, who wanted to promote rhythm and blues music locally, then formed her own Sepia Records company to do so. After a trip to Vancouver, B.C., to record a few songs, Sepia released a single — “I Let a Good Man Go”b/w”Little Love Affair” (Sepia Records No. 8201). By September, Seattle’s soul station, KYAC, began pumping it up to hit status locally”.
The pressing on Sepia Records was small, but that didn’t stop it from being a regional R&B hit…but the story of Pat’s foray into R&B and soul goes much deeper. We’ll leave that story to a seprate, future post.
By 1970 Pat had been hired by the Seattle School district to lead a class in gospel music at Roosevelt High in the north end of the city. Pat initially led what was known as The Franklin High School Gospel Choir. It was later known as The Black Experience Gospel Choir The Seattle School District hired Wright to teach and conduct gospel music. She also began work at radio station KYAC as a DJ playing a gospel music program that lasted 13 years. She had begun her own gospel group, Patrinell Wright’s Inspirational Seven. The Inspirational Seven were guests of churches around town as well as taking part in organized events in support of the still simmering racial divide in the US and as a way to support self-determination among the black community at large, drives to fight sickle-cell anemia and to help raise funds for KYAC among other causes.
After two years teaching gospel choir at Roosevelt High, funds for her program dried up and Pat was left without a day job. But this set-back proved to be the birth of Pat’s Total Experience Gospel Choir. She began taking the lessons she’d learned in her gospel background, her secular experience and her ministry to young people through music. In the process she created one of Seattle’s longest-running musical outfits, based on Pastor Wright’s determination to help kids in her community. She wanted to offer a safe, positive environment at-risk youth could escape to, and allow them to take part in the world outside their own neighborhoods.
Soon after forming the Total Exerience Gospel Choir it swelled to over 100 students that she’d brought along from Roosevelt High and the Mount Zion Baptist Church. Soon Pat opened the choir to non-students and people of all ethnic background and race, even though the thrust of her work remained her ministering to black youth as well as other communities of color.
One of the most remarkable aspects of The Total Experience Gospel Choir is that there are no auditions in order to be a member. From the beginning Pat seemed to take the position “if you can’t sing, come on down-we’ll teach you”. Despite causing the Choir to become chaotic and unfocused, the opposite occurred-Pat’s Choir began to win awards and honors both in the Northwest and around the nation-and beyond. The Total Experience Gospel Choir would become one of America’s most famous and most beloved Choirs in the country. With more recognition the Total Experience Gospel Choir were able to raise the money it takes to take a large-scale choir on the road-both within the US and outside. The Choir has won numerous awards and traveled to 38 states and performed on five continents in 28 countries at last tally. They have been welcomed with open arms everywhere they’ve gone.
Pat worked ceaselessly and seemed capable of juggling the tasks to run the choir, to continue in her own ministry, plan tours, raise money, become a soloist in her own right, and finally to open and run her own store-front church. Granted, Pat relied on volunteers, but even the co-ordination of volunteers took a great deal of energy.
Eventually disaster-or divine intervention-came into Pat’s life. On March 18, 2001 Pastor Pat Wright was struck by a heart attack. Pat believes she died that day, but God sent her back to continue her work and her ministry. Pat had been born with a hole in her heart, but her family had no money for doctors growing up, and the condition went unknown until a medical examination when Pat was 23 years old.
Once healed from her brush with death, Pat went back to her hectic schedule-and also became an ambassador for the American Heart Association. In 2006 she told Seattle Times reporter Nicole Brodeur that sometimes her colleagues feel uncomfortable when she speaks of divine intervention and the gates of heaven.
“They don’t think faith should be a part of it,” she said of her survival story. “But how could it not be?”
As the Choir began to become more well-respected Pat recognized the need to bring of all ethnicities into the choir.This particularly hit home because, as she says, she grew up in the South where mixed marriage-at least during her youth-was very uncommon. As Seattle became more enlightened she noticed more and more children of mixed-ethnicity were becoming members of the Choir. She realized that they (and others) deserved to learn about their heritage no matter how Caucasian they might look. Besides, both Caucasian and kids-of-color were facing the same temptations and dangers.
Pat had also opened more opportunities for adults to take part. A good deal of them were white and they still remain an important part of the Total Experience Gospel Choir-both those who are married to people of color, and those who have married within their own ethnicity. But the goal she’s always worked toward is improving the lot in life of at-risk kids…who are more often found in the African-American community This is an attitude Caucasian and mixed ethnicity adults in the Choir also share.
The 1990’s and early 2000s saw the Total Experience Gospel Choir attract more and more attention and these years may possibly be the most successful of the choirs mission to date. Although Pat remained dedicated to her gospel roots she would make a very unusual move in during the early 2000s.. Seattle-based Light In The Attic records released the album Wheedle’s Groove: Seattle’s Finest In Funk & Soul 1965-75 in 2004. The album included artists who had been involved in the early Seattle Sound that developed in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. Pat Wright’s only soul single (I let a Good Man Go b/w Little Love Affair) was included in the boxed set of newly pressed 7″ singles. A reunion show and the release of the album was so well-received that almost immediately a follow-up album was planned. This newer release would include artists that had previously worked with one of the Northwest’s most important studio engineers, Kearney Barton. Barton had been instrumental in developing the Northwest Sound by recording The Wailers, The Ventures, The Sonics, The Fleetwoods, The Frantics, Quincy Jones, Dave Lewis, The Kingsmen and other artists that were responsible for establishing a regional sound that was every bit as important as the “grunge” coming out of Seattle in the 1990s. Paricipants in the new recordings did both originals and covers of current music. The tracks were recorded at Barton’s original studio, Audio Sounds, and fittingly as analog recordings.
Pat Wright and the Total Experience Gospel Choir chose the most audacious song of the collection on what would be released under the title Wheedle’s Groove: Kearney Barton. Their choice was a cover of Soundgarden’s Jesus Christ Pose. Despite the title, Jesus Christ Pose was a secular piece of rock music that was critical of celebrities, private and public figures that used religion in a false show self-aggrandizement. In short, it was critical of those who used religion as a hammer. In an incredible turnabout Pat and the Choir turned the tables on the meaning of the song. The point Pat was making was equally critical, but it was aimed at Christians believing themselves better than others, rather than the pretention of celebrities trying to criticize religion itself. Pat and the Total Experience Gospel Choir managed to turn what might be thought of as a cynical and non-religious song into a warning against intolerance and self-importance. Reports at the time indicated that the members of Soundgarden liked Pat’s rendition. It’s such a powerful version that it’s hard not to like! It clearly impressed music fans that had not given gospel music much of a listen. The performance was roundly praised by critics as the finest song in the fine collection found on the album.
Shortly after it’s release in 2009 Pat Wright told Dave Segal of The Stranger:
“I was asked to put my own personality on it. I thought that the music was great. Soundgarden is a very powerful group. I was already working with the gentleman [Matt Cameron] who played drums for them… on another project. So I felt very comfortable doing it. And besides, the words of the song epitomize what I try to say in my sermons and the way I live my life. [Light In the Attic Records] said, ‘You can put a little gospel twist on it.’ Well, I’m a gospel singer and a minister and a pastor, so therefore I put my little twist on it.”
For the last few years Pat Wright has continued to work with the Total Experience Gospel Choir, taking their ministry of song around the country, and lending a practical hand where they see they’re needed. Pastor Benny Wright has retired…a few years ago he had knee surgery. Pat continues to be the whirlwind she’s always been, but has had to slow down a bit. As of this writing (September 2017) she is working on a new album and continues to solo with the choir. Aside from their usual appearances the Choir has backed up artists as diverse as Barry Manilow and Dave Matthews. The majority of the current members of the Total Experience Gospel Choir are adults that have grown up in the Choir, or joined within the past decade or two. Sadly, gospel music has fallen out of fashion among younger people these days, and the black community’s roots in the church have become less important. But gospel music lives on despite it’s adversities….another total experience in the history of blacks in America. It is certain to make a renewal, the more that people understand it’s importance in itself, and to pop music.
Many music fans today ignore gospel music, probably because of it’s roots in Christianity. But the fact is that most of the great R&B and Soul artists of the past and present have deep roots in gospel and in the church. It was the secularization of the lyrics, not the music of gospel that gave rise to artists like Aretha Franklin, The Winans, James Brown, Ben E. King, Otis Redding, George Clinton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and a host of other widely vaying artists. Even the Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson has an important place in the development of popular music. It was Mahalia, more than anyone that brought gospel music into American homes through TV and radio. If you’re one of those who feel turned-off by religious music, have a listen to any good gospel choir. Let the sound and the passion roll over you. You will soon find yourself tapping to the music and experiencing the communal joy that gospel brings. At the very least Pat Wright and The Total Experience Gospel Choir deserve a listen. You might just see them for what they are; an important, but too-often overlooked part of Northwest music history.
For upcoming live performances of the Total Experience Gospel Choir see the schedule at http://www.totalexperiencegospelchoir.org/calendar
-Dennis R. White. Sources: Nicole Brodeur “Heartening Glimpse of Heaven” (The Seattle Times, February 23, 2006); Unknown Author “Pat Wright: Seattle’s First Lady of Gospel” (Northwest Prime Time, November 29, 2014); Peter Blecha “Wright, Pat b.1944” (HistoryLink.org Essay 10392, June 16, 2013); Interview with Enrique Cerna (KCTS, January 30. 2012); Misha Berson “Pat Wright’s Total Experience-Seattle’s Mistress of Music Lives The Gospel She Sings” (The Seattle Times, December 10, 1998) Terry Morgan (interview with the author, September 22, 2017); Dave Segal (Barton Funk in the Soundgarden of Eden: How Wheedle’s Groove Revived Old-School Seattle Soul, September 3, 2009); Jason Ankeny (Patrinell Staten Biography, allmusic.com); Total Experience Gospel Choir home page ( http://www.totalexperiencegospelchoir.org/ ); Photo: Christopher Nelson.
On March 25, 1923 Bonnie Buckingham was born in Seattle WA. As a youn child she was raised in Redondo Beach, a small community about 30 miles south of Seattle. Her family were farmers who were able to weather the depression, unlike many of those in the Midwest who’s crops had been decimated by dustbowl storms and drought. It was a bit later that the Buckingham family moved a short distance to Auburn WA and continued farming. Growing up Bonnie had a fascination with the family guitar, and took every chance she could to take it from it’s hiding place to practice when her parents were away. Her mother had told her that “guitars were for boys”. But Bonnie persisted learning what she could. She recalls regularly climbing trees and pretending they were broadcast towers and she was sending out signals of her miusic to the entire world.
Apparently her parent’s disapproval of girl’s playing guitars did not last long. By the age of 13 she had inherited her two older brothers’ flat top guitar and was appearing at talent shows throughout the Puget Sound region while gaining wider reception. During this period she took on her first stage name-Bonnie Lane. She also began tutoring by local musicians. At the age 16 she was allowed to tour the NW with a country revue and for the next several years she developed her skill at the guitar as well as finding her voice.
Eventually she began travelling to Seattle to be tutored by some of the best players in the city, including Paul Tutmarc. Not only did Bonnie receive lessons, she began to make recordings with Tutmarc in his primitive studio on Pine Street. Tutmarc was 27 years older than Bonnie, but their work had brought them close together. In 1943 Tutmarc divorced his first wife and married Bonnie the following year. They juggled their married and professional lives, along with caring for their daughter Paula (born in 1950) for the next few years, doing Seattle gigs as a duo and finally joining a well-known NW country outfit called the K-6 Wranglers as with a local country outfit called but the couple divorced in 1955, before Bonnie’s wider success.
Around this time Bonnie took on the name she would always be known as- Bonnie Guitar. Bonnie recalls that one day a songwriter approached her with a few songs he wanted her to do demo’s of in order to shop them to labels in southern California. The songs themselves never went anywhere, but an independent producer, Fabor Robison heard Bonnie’s voice and her by now exceptional playing. He immediately called her and convinced her to come to LA and work with his team. Robison was well-connected in the growing country music scene. He’d been involved in the early careers of Jim Reeves, Johnny Horton, the Browns, Mitchell Torok, Floyd Cramer along with Johnny and Dorsey Burnette. His original label, Abbott Records had been a success starting in 1951 Robison established Abbott Records with the financial backing of pharmacist Sid Abbott and the major goal was to record Johnny Horton who Robison had discovered in Texas. In fact all ten of Abbott Records first releases featured Johnny Horton. However, distribution problems led Robison to sell Horton’s contract to Mercury in mid-1952. Even so, Fabor Robison’s Abbott and Fabor labels would find a good deal of success with later artists.
By early 1957 Robison had been trying to produce a new composition written by another of his studio players, Ned Miller. Despite take after take with Dorsey Burnette he was dissatisfied with the outcome. In his book Seattle Before Rock: A City and It’s Music author Kurt Armbruster recounts Bonnies tale:
I had been working in Seattle, and a woman asked me to demo seven or eight songs she’d written. I recorded them, and she sent the disc to Fabor Robison, a producer in L.A. Fabor called ‘How soon can you get down here?’ I flew down and he hired me as a staff musician in his studio in Malibu Canyon. I played on and helped produce every hit record he had. One day Fabor said ‘I have a new song that I’m recording with Dorsey Burnette (brother of Johnny Burnette). I want you to hear it’. Dorsey had had a big hit and was on his way up the charts. Well, Fabor played me this song, Dark Moon and I was knocked out. I had to have it! I’ll forego all my royalties to record this song. It’s going to be a smash! So I recorded it and sure enough it hit big. But what I didn’t know was that Fabor had already recorded the song with Dorsey and didn’t like the result. He didn’t bother telling me that”.
Bonnie, was so taken by the song she convinced Fabor to allow her to record it, and hopefully release it as a single. In exchange she told Fabor she was willing to forego all of the royalties that would be due her just to have a chance at the opportunity. This was not a smart business deal, but it taught Bonnie lessons she would later be grateful for, and most of all it provided Bonnie with her first huge hit in 1957. The song would become her signature song, and in it’s has been covered by everyone form Elvis Presely to Chet Atkins & Hank Snow to Chris Issacs and beyond.
Bonnie had done what she calls “hundred of takes” on the song, accompanied by a backing band and larger production than the final version. It is this spare, haunting, ethereal and shimmering. Bonnie told the story in a later interview
‘Fabor recorded me on Dark Moon with as many as twelve musicians; we must have done it a hundred times, with different combinations, and still he wasn’t satisfied. Then one night Fabor and Ned Miller and I went into the studio to record it as a quartet. I asked Ned to play just a straight rhythm on acoustic guitar, I played lead, and we had a bass. That simple version was the one we ended up releasing’.
At the time Bonnie recorded “Dark Moon” Fabor was in search of a larger label to sell his company to, and found a taker in Dot Records who had the muscle and distribution to make Dark Moon a crossover hit on billboard magazne’s charts reaching # 14 on the country charts, and an amazing #6 on the popular chart.
At the height to Bonnie’s position in the charts another Dot artist
, Gale Storm (of My Little Margie fame) also recorded a version of Dark Moon. Storm’s version also raced up the charts and caused some confusion among the public. But there’s no doubt that Bonnie’s rendition was far superior. It was haunting and Bonnie’s crystal voice wasn’t muddied by the highly arranged and over-produced Gale Storm version. Although this would be the last hit record for Gale her producer Randy Wood chose to present a version that was akin to what Pat Boone had done with early rock and roll hits.
Even though Gale Storms’ version charted slightly higher than Bonnie’s, at #4 in the charts, it is Bonnie Guitar’s version that is clealy the definitive recording. Unfortunately Bonnie’s follow-up single Mr. Fire Eyes did well on the country charts but failed to make much of a dent on the pop charts. The single only reached the #71 spot on Billboard’s pop chart. Subsequently she was dropped from Dot Records. In the future Bonnie Guitar would continue to record albums, release singles, play as a session musician and produce even though she chose to move back to the Seattle area. She had a clear and dedicated base that weren’t interested in letting her go, despite her treatment by Dot Records. In fact, Bonnie would later be picked up by several major labels into the 1980. But for the time being Bonnie turned her eye to found her own record label and produce other’s records. In 1958 she paired up with former Seattle refrigerator salesman Bob Reisdorff to form Dolphin Records. Soon after the labels founding Bonnie and Bob discovered there was already a label and record store using the Dolphin name. The label (and store) was owned by John Dolphin a prominent black producer who had had great success in what were then called “race records”- R&B. Jazz and early Rock and Roll primarily aimed at black fans and among white teens and DJs that were more progressive. Bonnie and Bob changed the name of their label to Dolton Records but before they made the change Bonnie came across a vocal group from Olympia WA The group consisted of Gary Troxel, Gretchen Christopher, and Barbara Ellis .With Bonnie as producer and Reisdorff mainly in charge of finances the label had a hit straight out of the box with three vocalists from who went by the name The Fleetwoods . Come Softly With Me was a song the trio had written and it became an international sensation that was soon covered-and remains covered-by a multitude of American and British artists. The attention of the first Dolphin/Dolton single led to a distribution deal with Liberty Records which lasted until Dolton merged with Liberty Records in 1966. The Fleetwoods second hit (their third outing) with the newly-christened Dolton label was Mr. Blue. It quickly topped Billboard’s pop charts. Later artists that found success with Dolton were Vic Dana who was a solo artist that had also taken on vocals for live gigs when Gary Troxell was drafted into the military. Other groups that would get their first taste of success at Dolton were Seattle’s The Frantics, and a little combo from Tacoma WA named The Ventures. The Ventures were dubbed “The Band that Launched a Thousand Bands” and ended up releasing 12 projects with Dolton. Today The Ventures are considered seminal founders of what is considered modern Rock&Roll.
Bonnie herself released a few projects of her own on Dolton, the most intriguing being a song called Candy Apple Red, a self-penned song that she used to show off the virtues of her favorite car that she’d bought in 1956; a candy apple red Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner hardtop convertible. It was a first production model with a retractable top. Bonnie bought it in 1956 and had it personalized with red guitars stitched into its white leather seats and musical notes that were fashioned into its hubcaps by hotrod hotshot Dee Wescott. She still owns it.
Although Bonnie had been a co-founder of Dolton Records, there had been friction between herself and co-owner Bob Reisdorff, so in 1960 she left Dolton with another ex-employee, Jerry Denon to found Seattle-based Jerden Records. Unfortunately Jerden only lasted for about a year, and both Bonnie and Dennon returned to Los Angeles. Bonnie became a recording artist for Columbia and RCA records, and later returned to Dot Records, who had unceremoniously fired her only a few years before. Eventually Bonnie ended up being a vice-president at Dot.
Dennon worked in promotions until he was drafted into the army. Upon leaving the army Dennon revived the Jerden label as sole owner and re-released the entire Jerden catalogue-which featured several of Bonnie’s own recordings and others she had produced. This second iteration of Jerden Records was far more successful than the first. In 1963 Jerden released the single Louie Louie by The Kingsmen– a song which has become a high water mark in rock and roll history…and for better or worse on January 24th, 1986 Louie Louie was named the official song of Washington State.
Bonnie churned out recording after recording during the 1960s and although most were only minor pop hits she continued to have a strong country music fan base and gained more and more respect from both the pop and the country music establishment. By 1968 she had become one of the all-time biggest country solo artists in history. Later Bonnie released the successful country music hit I’m Living in Two Worlds which became Guitar’s first Top 10 Country hit and she released an even bigger country hit in 1967 with A Woman in Love which peaked at #4 on the Billboard charts. That same year, Bonnie won the Academy of Country Music’s “Top Female Vocalist” award. In 1968, she recorded another Top 10 Country hit I Believe in Love. And finally she teamed up with Buddy Killen in 1969 to put out A Truer Love You’ll Never Find (Than Mine). By that time Bonnie’s recording career had pretty much run it’s course, though she continued producing and became more and more involved with the business side of music, working as a talent scout, producer and an A&R representative…all positions she had previously involved herself in and was known for being very sharp at.
In 1969 Bonnie married Mario DiPiano and moved back to Washington State-Orting WA to be precise. She and her husband spent their time raising quarter horses, but the pull of Hollywood and Nashville was too great. She continued recording throughout the 1970s. After DiPiano died in 1983 Bonnie went into seclusion. A couple of years after Di Piano’s death -the man she called the love of my life-Bonnie received an invitation to perform one show at the Businessmen’s Club of the Notaras Lodge in the desert town of Soap Lake WA. That single performance led to a residency that lasted until 1996! Today Bonnie lives in Soap Lake and still tries to do a gig here and there. She is somewhat active on face book and is happy to share memories and update daily occurances as health permits.
It’s hard to say if Bonnie Guitar was the first female session musician, but she’s the earliest we know of. She’s certainly the first female artist to crossover from the Country charts to the Pop charts, and it’s near-certain that she was the first woman allowed to take on the task of music studio production. Again, we simply don’t know of any woman that had previously done that job. The world owes a great debt of gratitude to Bonnie Guitar, even though her accomplishments may seem over-shadowed today. But she is surely one of the all-time greats in American recorded music and in the business of creating hits.
On March 23rd 2917 Bonnie Guitar turned 94 years old. Her latest face book post (July 17, 2017) says:
It has been a little while but I have been working on getting stronger and ready to play some music for you all ! With kindest regards. BG
-Dennis R. White. Sources: The Herstory of Women in Rock N’ Roll, Vol 1. By Tia (Vashtia.com, March 15, 2017; Guitar, Bonnie (b. 1923) The Northwest’s Trail-Blazing Pop Pioneer, by Peter Blecha, (Posted 6/19/2008 HistoryLink.org Essay 8656); Womans Work-Bonnie Guitar, by Linda Ray, (No Depression, December 31, 2006); At Age 93, Northwest Music Legend ‘Bonnie Guitar’ Still Gigs Every Weekend by Gabriel Spitzer (KXPX.org, Nov 26, 2011); Before Seattle Rocked: A City and Its Music, by Kurt E Armbruster (University of Washington Press 2011)
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