Northwest Music History: 1970s

Billy Tipton

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

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

”Did your father ever have a sex change?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to author Francesca Susannah;

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

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

Francesca Susannah goes on to write;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Since Billy’s death he’s been memorialized with

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

Stan Boreson


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

 

Don Rich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Crome Syrcus

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

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

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

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

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

According to troupe member Trinette Singleton:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

The Ventures

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 drummerThe 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 directors used 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 yearsThe 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,

 

 

Jeff Simmons: From The Blues to Easy Chair to Ethiopia to Zappa and Back

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 and the 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 of  John Lennon’s and Yoko Ono’sUnfinished 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 FischerAlice 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 happenedSimmons 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 Roxy Theater 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)

 


 

 


 

Nancy Claire

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)


I
n 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 Northwest Sound 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 The James 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.

 

Pat Wright and The Total Experience Gospel Choir

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.

Bonnie Guitar

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)

Ballin’ Jack

Ballin’ Jack was formed in Seattle by former childhood friends Luther Rabb and Ronnie Hammon. Both of them had gone to school with and been friends with Jimi Hendrix at the city’s Garfield High School.  In the early 60s Luther Rabb played around the NW with several moderately successful outfits on the teen and R&B circuits.   He had even played saxophonist alongside Jimi Hendrix’s in The Velvetones, the first band Hendrix had been involved in.  Ronnie Hammon was a drummer who’d also backed a few Seattle bands-none of them particularly notable.  In 1967 Rabb and Hammon decided to form their own band.  Rabb, a multi-accomplished musician would leave the saxophone behind and switch to bass guitar.  Hammon continued drumming, thus forming a strong rhythm section.  Almost immeadiately they added Jim Coile on flute and Tim McFarland on trombone. A bit later Jim Walters would come onboard as their saxophonist and Glen Thomas providing the lead guitar.  The name Ballin’ Jack has obscure origins.  It could be based on “Ballin’ the Jack” a 1913 song written by Jim Burris and  Chris Smith.  It could refer to the and the ensuing dance that became popularized by the song.  The expression “Ballin’ the Jack” also has ties to railroad workers who used the expression “to go full speed”.  But the band’s use of the shortened expression probably was chosen for one of two other reasons.  Sometimes the term “ballin’ the jack” implied having a great time.  There’s certainly enough examples of the expression being used in film, on Broadway and popular music….but sometime the meaning was (literally) deep, full-on sex.  Blues great Big Bill Broonzy sang in “Feel So Good”

My baby’s coming home
I hope that she won’t fail because I feel so good, I feel so good.
You know I feel so good, feel like balling the jack

As Bessie Smith sang in “Baby Doll” in 1926,

He can be ugly, he can be black
So long as he can eagle rock and ball the jack

There’s several ways to interpret the term, but “ballin the jack” was an expression often used in jazz and blues circles to mean deep, full and fast sex.  It may be this veiled, slang reference is the meaning the band intended their name to represent.

Ballin’ Jack found themselves moving to Los Angeles, living in a large house cum-home studio near the Sunset Strip.  Although all of the members had put plenty of time paying dues, their signing to Columbia Records and tour success came almost immediately, partly due to the encouragement of their old friend Jimi Hendrix.  One key to their success is that Ballin’ Jack had been formed not only as a soulful funk unit, but also as one of the “horn bands” that were popular on the fringe of pop music in the late 60s and early 70s.  They found themselves treading the waters of both James Brown and Sylvester Stone along with bands like WAR, Pacific Gas and Electric, Cold Blood, Tower of Power and other rock bands featuring horns that were arising from on the West Coast.  Obviously the most successful of these bands was the more commercial Chicago Transit Authority-later shortened to Chicago-from the Windy City

Many of these bands had begun creating a new hybrid of soul, jazz, funk with strong horn sections. They also followed the current (at the time) move to integrate multi-ethinic players into their line-up. Ballin’ Jack could be counted among this new genre, and their rise had been quick, but Ballin’ Jack they only found modest success outside the Northwest and Bay Area of being an incredibly tight and incredibly well-loved live act.  They played the college circuit, auditoriums  like the Fillmore West and the Fillmore East and a myriad of rock festivals.  In 1970 Billboard Magazine proclaimed

“Ballin Jack’s’ reputation was that live their shows were so good that fans were known to have left afterwards, and that some headliners had actually refused to have them again as an opening act”.

Unfortunatly none of this translated into the kind of album sales and radio play they deserved. The band only lasted five years, but not before becoming a reliable touring draw and Jimi Hendrix insisting they be included as openers for several of his 1970 Cry of Love tour. After .Hendrix’s death that year they would continue to share bills with the likes of B.B. King, Spirit, Elton John, Sly and The Family Stone, The Kinks, and more of the most famous artists of their day.  They even found themselves playing two of America’s most venerated small clubs, The Bottom Line in New York City, and The Troubador in Los Angeles.  The band also played two separate sold-out dates in their hometown, at Seattle’s Paramount Theater in 1973 and 1974 respectively.  In 1973 Ballin’ Jack were featured on Burt Sugarman’s prestigious late-night show The Midnight Special.  One thing that distinguished the show was that bands played live in the TV studio.  No lip-synching.  No backing tracks.  Of course, Ballin’ Jack tore the place up.

In 1974 Ballin’ Jack called it quits due to poor album and single sales, and the band’s running it’s natural course. Co-founder Luther Rabb went on to tour as vocalist with Santana in 1976.  He then began working with Lola Falana and in 1977 released his own solo album Street Angel. Throughout the early to mid 1980’s Rabb was the bass player for

In 1986 Rabb was involved in a serious automobile accident that left him with nerve damage-consequently ending his career as a bassist.  At that point Rabb moved on to management and production until, sadly, he was left paralyzed by a stroke in 2002.  Eventually Rabb died in 2006, but he’s still recognized for his incredible talents in Ballin’ Jack,  Santana, and WAR.  He had kept close contacts with friends and musicians in the Seattle area, where his passing also had a great effect.

Although Ballin’ Jack never found the audience they should have in the 70s it’s ironic that since the band’s demise their music has been used in TV and Radio ads for the ESPN X Games and Found A Child was re-recorded in 2005, by Kon & Amir” and released as 12″ vinyl for sale to hip-hoppin’ live DJ’s.    The Beastie Boys also sampled Ballin’ Jack’s  “Never Let ‘Em Say” on their album Paul’s Boutique.  Their music has also been sampled by Ozamatli, Gang Starr and DoubleXX Posse Cheetah Girls .  Their most famous and most heavily sampled Found A Child was used liberally on Young MC’s international hit, Bust A Move.

 

-Dennis R. White.  Sources: “Luther James Rabb”  “Jump Up: “Crusin’ The Super Highway…”From Hendrix To Hip Hop”)  (DancingMonica.com); Ballinjack.com:  PNW Bands;  Harry Blair, The Louie Report, the blog for all things LOUIE LOUIE; Harry Blair ” RIP Luther Rabb, Seattle musician with Jimi Hendrix”,Feb 16, 2006.

 

 

 

Red Dress

Any live-music lover who’s lived in Seattle long enough has seen Red Dress. In fact, it’s likely their parents-or grandparents have seen the band play. Red Dress might be the longest-running show in the Northwest. Throughout their career they’ve attracted punk rockers, hippies, drunks, blues aficionados, art-rockers, probably a few metal heads and everyone in between. Despite their long-running history, the band are still one of the most creative and relevant bands working the clubs, bars and festivals in and around Seattle. They do what they do better than anyone else; they always have. Red Dress infuse absurdity with the pure joy of funk, jazz and R&B. The result is far from what one would expect from looking at it on paper. This isn’t a retread of the typical whitebread tribute to a style long out of date. This isn’t a goofy pastiche of kitsch and nostalgia. This is as real and original as things get. Producer Conrad Uno Producer Conrad Uno (Love Battery, Young Fresh Fellows, The Presidents of the United States of America, etc.) hit the nail on the head when he described Red Dress as “Captain Beefheart meets James Brown.”  Minkler himself confirms that when he heard Captain Beefheart’s seminal Trout Mask Replica everything changed

Red Dress has always been a band of solid, professional musicians. Orignally formed with Minkler’s high school friend Rich Riggins in 1976. The duo explored jazz, contemporary classical music, and of course the blossoming punk rock scene.  Eventually Riggins left the band-taking with him the poet/singer/performance artist Cynthia Genser.  Minkler would man the more and more funky and soulful Red Dress, while Riggins and Genser went on to found Chinas Comidas, a band that also found an important place within the city’s alternative music  community.  In fact, it wasn’t unusual to find Red Dress and Chinas Comidas on the same bills in the late 1970s and early 80s.  The stylistic, musical and lyrical content of those on the punk/alternative scene meant little in those days.  Seattle had a very tight-knit community that was too interested in innovation to face off in differing camps.

Over the years more than a few have wandered in and out of the band. But the songwriting has been consistently impeccable and the players pitch-perfect. But there’s no getting around it. This is a band dominated by the talent and presence of vocalist Gary Minkler, and the rest of the band are smart enough to know it. None of them are expendable. Any of them could play in a myriad of talented and successful bands, but there’s real camaraderie at work here.

Minkler is a force to be reckoned with. A huge voice full of character and surprise come out of this guy that producer Conrad Uno referred to as “the wild little red-faced singer’. Uno described Minkler perfectly in very few words, but listeners know there should be equal emphasis on the word ‘wild’ as ‘singer’. Minkler wanders, dances and shuffles his way across the stage and directly into the audiences’ hearts. He has an almost unheard of combination of sheer talent onstage and kind humility offstage. His performance is full of self-deprecation and supreme self-assurance. And above all else he knows how toentertain. Red Dress have never exactly been underappreciated…at least by anyone whose seen them perform.  But the focus on the immensely white, suburban and angsty sound popularized in 1990s Seattle locked the band out of major label attention at their height. It’s not certain by watching the band live that they really care about record deals and stardom.  They seem happiest when they are in front of a live audience and entertaining anyone watching…or dancing.  By the time a career-spanning album was released in 1994 Red Dress was not quite together as a band and not quite broken up. Fortunately, in the past few years the band has reconstituted and re-committed itself to bringing audiences their “strange and wonderful musical vantage point” (that’s Conrad Uno again). Nowadays Red Dress gigs are frequent in Seattle, but they’ve moved offstage and into people’s living rooms where they do acoustic sets.  The audience members may be limited but it proves how enjoyable it is to see live music from your recliner.  Red Dress also has the distinction of recording the final song at Conrad Uno’s Egg Studios.  The song will be released in 2017

-Dennis R. White. Sources: Stephen Tow, “The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge” (Sasquatch Books, 2011), “Pacific Northwest Bands” June 2013, Gary Minkler.  Artwork by Art Chantry.
 

The Refuzors

During the early to mid 1980s The Refuzors were A-list Seattle punk rockers. They were one of the best live bands around. Uncompromising, edgy and raw.  They could have been lumped in with alot of hardcore bands from that era but for one thing. The songwriting, mostly by guitarist and vocalist Mike Refuzor set them far ahead of other great hardcore Seattle bands.  And they were always unexpectedly fun.  The Refuzors started out as a trio, and it’s probably their original line-up or Mike Refuzor (Mike Lambert) Bass and Vocals, Danny Refuzor (Danny Barton) on guitar and Roach Refuzor Dan Bradshaw) on drums that is most memorable. Other incarnations included Ward Refuzor (Ward Nelson) on guitar, Al Dams, Mike Purdon on bass  and Renee Refuzor (Renee Vazquez) doing some of the vocals.

The Refuzors were good at creating controversy-but some of it was also the cause of the press.  In a revew of the band local rock critic (at the time) printed her views of The Refuzors (and Mike specifically) of being neo-Nazi, white supremecists and fascists.  The comments were made in the widely read but now defunct Seattle Post-Intelligencer.  Her pronouncement wasn’t based on the lyrics or outward signs of Nazism.  The Refuzors never associated themselves with the neo-Nazi or white supremacist movements.  Hackett based her opinon on their dress; the all black, all leather uniform that many punks adhered to in the early 1980s.  The result of the public accusation led Mike to write one of his best songs, “White Power”.  And of course, once more the media went wild.  How could any major band write such a song?
The fact is the song’s lyrics make clear that they did NOT support white supremacy.  The lyrics start:

People may say things about me.
Some of them things are true, some are lies
With the power of the press you labeled me a Nazi
I bet you can’t even look me in the eyes

Later in the chorus Mike sings;

I never said White Power
I never said White Power to you
White Power
I’m sayin’ it now
You put those words in my mouth…

A studio version of the song was included on the near-legendary “Seattle Syndrome” compilation, but it seems as of this writing there are only very poorly recorded live versions of the song available on the internet.  Aside from the inclusion on The Seattle Syndrome The Refuzors released a cassette-only project in 1987 titled “Q. Why Do It, You’ll Never Get Rich A. Cuz I’m A Refuser” as well as Idol Records’ i987 release of a compilation called “Flashback”.

Other controversies were totally staged by The Refuzors themselves. For instance swinging a dead cat into the audience while playing their song “Splat Goes The Cat” to an all-ages audience. The mainstream press was not amused.  Rock critic Regina Hackett took another stab at denouncing the band.  She publicly accused Mike Refuzor of not having morals, while Mike countered “The cat was already dead anyway”.  No matter.  The fans loved it and it has become local Seattle lore-and one of the most memorable antics in the city’s rock history.

The Refuzors never made it out of the confines of the Seattle/Portland alt vortex. They probably never made a penny, but they Refuzors were the real deal. Totally without guile or bullshit, their lives and music were undistinguishable. They were hombres, outside the lines, with fiercely loyal fans. By the late 80s, though, the band slowly unraveled from drugs, alcohol and limited recognition outside the Northwest. They called it quits in 1989.  It’s a typical story, but it’s without a typical ending. Read on.

In the early to mid-90s Mike had met the proto-punk, psychedelic “creator of Flower Power” Sky Saxon formerly of “The Seeds” (Pushin’ Too Hard, Can’t Seem to Make You Mine)  Sky was currently living in Seattle after going broke near the height of his career, ending up on the streets, and later joining a “The Source Family” in Hawaii and re-naming himself “Sunshine”. Mike palled around with Sky, did a few shows together as The Wolf Pack and took part in the kind of over-the-top-escapist drug use that both were known for

In 1993 Mike put The Refuzors back together, although with a completely different line-up that included several members of Seattle’s “The Accused”.  The reconstituted  band recorded two sides for the now defunct Seattle label ‘Bag of Hammers’. The songs had been long been in The Refuzors repertoire and results were spectacular. The single Think I Lost My Faith b/w Jim Jones’ might just be the true missing link between the brilliant NW underground punk scene of the 1980’s and the equally brilliant, but over-hyped ‘grunge’ of the 90’s. Unfortunately ‘Bag of Hammers’ released only 800 copies of the single and without any promotion it went nowhere.   An additional 200 of the singles were pressed on clear vinyl, making it a true rarity.

Meanwhile Mike sank lower and lower, eventually ending up on the street and in the 2000’s he suffered a mild stroke and lost some of his sight. Without support from his old friends and fans he ended up nearly forgotten by music fans who thought “grunge”

Both ‘Think I Lost My Faith’ and ‘Jim Jones’ along with the 1981 release “White Power” have upfront drums & bass that was typical punk of rhythm section.  But The Refuzors weren’t above a heavy guitar sound and the occasional solo. Mike’s vocals were torn, ragged and raw, but not like every other cookie-cutter hardcore vocalist. This was real pain. It’s not fake suburban angst. There was a beautiful, passionate cruelty at work here. These songs are a brilliant mix of writing and delivery.  Stuff that makes people want to howl and cry and bang my head at the same time. It proves the theory that the greatest bands in the world will probably never be heard, or at least only heard by a few. Most will never make it outside their garage door.  Luckily The Refuzors were able to be an important, influential part of the 80s Seattle music scene.

The Refuzors may never end up onstage again. Mike is somewhat disabled, and living the life of a hermit, although he’s spotted around town now and again, and has even appeared onstage with The Fags, and with his good friend Charlie Thunders of the band “Thankless Dogs. Sadly, Roach Refuzor (Dan Bradshaw) passed away in early 2015.  I don’t know if The Refuzors were some of the ‘Shoulders of Giants’ grunge bands stood on, or if they were just garage-bound guys that got stepped on and tossed aside when the music biz smelled cash. It doesn’t matter. They were brilliant, beautiful, caustic and heart-wrenching in their honesty.  Maybe one day they’ll receive the belated respect that’s been overdue for many years.

-Dennis R. White. Sources: Stephen Tow, “The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge” (Sasquatch Books, 2011)  Garage Punk Hideout Forum, June 25-27, 2009, Discogs.com, Charlie Thunders, Mike Refuzor.