Northwest Music History: 1970s

LeRoy Bell

LeRoy Bell made his first appearance on Fox network’s talent show The X Factor in September 2011  He appeared on the show for five consecutive weeks eventually ended up being chosen for the final 16 and went on to the live X-Factor shows. He was eliminated after the fifth live show finishing 8th overall in the inaugural season of the American version of the show. bottom three Although he did not win LeRoy’s profile was sent into the stratosphere (by the way…whatever happened to season one’s winner Melanie Ann Amaro?).

Although LeRoy had captured the imagination of many viewers via The X-Factor, and the show had kick-started his career rather than launched it, Bell had already had a brush with fame.  In fact he’d had several…first with the 70’s chart topping duo Bell and James and their hit “Livin’ It Up (Friday Night)” The song ended up at number 15 in the Billboard Charts. He was also  a co-author of Elton John’s hit “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” (a world-wide hit which became a top-ten hit in the US) Three Way Love Affair” and “Are You Ready For Love”  He’d also co-written songs for The O’Jays, Rita Marley, The Temptations, The Spinners, Freda Payne The Three Degrees, and a host of others.

LeRoy didn’t become an overnight success because of his X-Factor appearance…but it was a chance for him to perform in front of a massive audience.. He’d spent much of the 2000s touring with the likes of BB King Etta James, Sheryl Crow, Leon Russell, Joan Osborne, B.B King, Etta James, Al Green, Joe Cocker, Michael McDonald, Van Morrison, Mavis Staples, The Temptations, The O’jays and more.  Whether he’d won or lost The X-Factor made little difference, but he seems grateful and it managed to get a whole new audience. The US version of The X-Factor lasted only two seasons, but he may be the most memorable artist of either one of them.

“It turned out to be a good thing in many ways.  It was definitley an eye-opener and interesting to see how TV is totally different than the side of music that I’d grown up with.  It was nerve-wracking. I was the oldest guy on the show”.

“The unique thing about the X-Factor is they have no age limit.  Most of these things like American Idol are all centered on age people  I think you couldn’t  be over 30 years old,  So here was a show that you didn’t have to be a certain age, so it opened up a lot of things. It was fun in that way”

Much was made at the time that LeRoy was 59 years old, even though he looked half that age; not in a baby-faced way, but as a confident, soft-spoken man who’d also seen a lot of what the world was about.  It seems to have been both a curse and a boon to him.  Constantly being reminded of his looks must have reinforced our reliance and the importance of youth-culture.  Even today at 66 and with the look of a man half his age it’s hard not to notice that LeRoy Bell must have been blessed with good genes…and those genes didn’t seem to reflect only his looks.

One drawback of appearing on the show was he was forced to sing familiar songs by other artists rather than the U.K. show.  LeRoy’s voice got him attention and his presentation was great but his real strength was in his  songwriting. Unfortunately he had to perform songs by more familiar figures like  Bill Withers (Lean on Me), U2 (I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For), Sarah McLachlan ‘Angel’).and a knock-em-dead performance of the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down”

But let’s go back to the beginning.

Leroy Bell was born on born August 8,1951 in Pensacola Florida, but found himself living in Germany the first few years of his life.  His father was in the US Army, and he admits he was an “army brat”

“I got my first guitar when I was 13”. He says “ I thought I was going to play guitar, but ended up playing drums. Back in those days we didn’t have amplifiers but we had tape recorders that we used to use as amplifiers. I played with German guys because I went to a German school.  My dad wanted me to learn a language, so I didn’t go to the base school..  At the time we were at the US base in Darmstadt,Germany, but we moved around a lot”

In 1966 LeRoy’s father retired from the Army, and settled in the Northwest. It wasn’t until he was a teenager in Seattle that his grandfather told LeRoy his uncle was Thom Bell, one of the most prominent producers, arrangers and songwriters of the wildly popular “Philly Sound”. Thom Bell. along with producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff created a sound that blended soulful harmonies, lush arrangements, passionate vocals and heavy doses of funk,  In fact Paul Zollo reports in his great book “More Songwriters on Songwriting”  that Fred Wesley, trombonist for the James Brown band and George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic, called The Philly sound  “putting the bow tie on funk.”

Aside from his friendship with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Thom Bell found his first success as an arranger and session man for Cameo-Parkway Records.In 1966, he was introduced to a local group then called The Orphonics; the band soon changed their name to The Delfonics and Thom Bell produced and arranged their first two singles, both of which got local Philly attention.

In 1967, with Cameo Records on its last legs, Thom Bell once again took The Delfonics into the studio to produce and arrange a song written by lead singer William Hart.The result was “La-La Means I Love You”  By now Cameo no longer existed as a label so the single, and it’s follow-up “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time) were released on the Philly Groove label set up by The Delfonics manager, Stan Watson.  After securing national distribution the label became a viable player. In 1968  and The Delfonics became one of the mainstays of the Philly Sound. In 1970 The Thom Bell/William Hart penned “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time), won a Grammy ;

Thom Bell  went on to work for Gamble and Huff’s label, Philadelphia International  Records before creating his own production company. He also founded his own publishing company BellBoy Music and later joined forces with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff to create Mighty Three Music (a totally apt name for the trio’s publishing house).


The music the three were creating almost defined a generation of black artists that found an audience with people of all races and all ages; The O’Jays, Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes (and later Teddy Pendergrass), The Three Degrees, MFSB, The Stylistics  and dozens more became the soundtrack of the early to mid-’70s

In 1972 Thom Bell was signed to produce a struggling band that had just been dropped from Motown.  The band was The Spinners.  Bell created a stronger Philly influence for their music and they became one of the most successful groups of the early 1970s, pumping out hits like “Ghetto Child”, “I’ll Be Around”, “The Rubberband Man”, “Mighty Love” and what may be their signature song,”Could it Be I’m Falling in Love.

It was from this pedigree that LeRoy Bell had come from, and soon he’d be part of it. LeRoy tells how his career began;

“My uncle, (Thom Bell) came out here to visit and loved it out here  My grandfather told him I was playing in bands and interested in writing, so I ended up going back to Philly with him.  I just hung out with him in the studio while he was producing The Spinners and The O’Jays.  So I was emerged into that whole scene, and soaked it up like a sponge.  Then he moved back out here (to Seattle) in the early 70s.  I started songwriting and he had a little publishing company called Mighty Three Music at the time and I started writing under his wing and he showed me the ropes and how to write a song. I got to see him work; I was spoiled that way. It was a unique “one-of-those-things”.  I owe alot to him-I owe my basically my whole career to him really. I think if he wouldn’t have been there, who knows?  I think I still would have been in music because I loved it,  but I don’t know I would have achieved as much without his help and his guidance”.  That’s how I really got started. I owe alot to him.  I mean I’d been playing music but I got real serious about it at that point…about the early to middle 70s”

Leroy continues the story

“Then I got hooked up with my friend and partner, one of the guys I played in the band with (the short-lived Special Blend) named Casey James.  We were good friends because we were in the same band and then we started writing together.  We became staff writers for ‘Mighty Three Music’, so whenever a project came up we’d have a shot at it.  We could submit some songs”.

“In 1977 we landed a couple of songs on a little-known project (at the time); Elton John’s “Thom Bell Sessions”.  It was done at Kaye-Smith Studios in Seattle (over-dubs were done at Sigma Sounds in Philadelphia) Thom had moved into Kaye-Smith Studio and become friends with Lester Smith (co-owner with Danny Kaye).  Bill Smith wanted Thom to run the studio.  Thom didn’t really want to run the studio per se, but he didn’t mind having offices there.  Anyway we had offices there writing.  We’d go in every day just like a job.

“Elton John had contacted Thom about doing something. So Thom flew to London and hung out with Elton for awhile and they talked and came back and told Casey and I were going to do something  Elton John.  He told us to see what we could come up with. We ended up writing three songs: we got lucky and got all three songs on the record.  It’s got  “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” on it, a song we co-wrote with Thom “Are You Ready For Love” and “Three Way Love Affair”  

The album was left unfinished, but released by MCA in 1979  with the inclusions of “Nice and Slow”, “Country Love Song” and “Shine On Through”
One of the original recordings, “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” became a hit in 1979. It was a top 10 record in the US.and spent one week at the top of the UK charts, even though it remained on the charts there for 25 weeks.

LeRoy tells me “I think they really didn’t know what to do with it (the album) so nothing really happened after that but Elton got nominated for a grammy for “Mama Can’t Buy You Love”

In 2002 ”Are You Ready For Love” got re-mixed by DJ Ashley Beadle and made the rounds of London clubs. Meanwhile Justin Robertson was playing it around Manchester.  Eventually there would be re-mixes by DJ’s Linus Love, Freedom Five and Mylo  Soon afterwards it was picked up as music for a Sky Football TV advertisement that was so popular it was released on Fatboy Slim’s Southern Fried label.  The remixes also catapulted “The Thom Bell Sessions” into the U.K charts (now called “The Complete Thom Bell Sessions)”

“It became a huge hit in Europe because it became a soccer theme” says LeRoy “then it just blew up there and became a way bigger hit than when it had originally come out in ‘79”,

In fact it became a number one UK hit for Elton John; this time selling even more than the original. 1979 release.

Around the time Elton was recording “The Thom Bell Sessions”, LeRoy Bell and Casey James began their own recordings as Bell and James

“We were staff writers and of course we secretly wanted to be a band so we ended up doing a duo thing”

The pair, Bell and James was signed by in 1978 by A&M records based on the previous songs they’d written for Elton John, The O’Jays, Freda Payne, MFSB,The Three Degrees, and others.  Bell and James had a hit right out of the box with  “Livin’ It Up (Friday Night)” from their debut album.  The song made it to #15 in the Billboard charts.
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“That was the height of disco”, says LeRoy, “but we never wrote the song as a disco hit…but it was a dance hit so we got swept up into that whole genre”

They followed up their debut album with “Only Make Believe (1979) and “In Black and White” (1980), but never found the same kind of success as they had with “Livin’ It Up (Friday Night)”  By 1982 their record deal with A&M fizzled out.

“We did a few more projects with Thom”. LeRoy tells me. “In 1984 he produced a project with the ‘I Threes’ (Bob Marley’s widow Rita Marley, Marcia GriffIths and Judy Mowatt).)  The song, “Calling Out Around The World” was written by Thom Bell along with LeRoy and his writing partner Casey James.   “

“We didn’t do anything for awhile” says LeRoy, adding “ I was a little bit down because of the record deal and didn’t feel like creating music for awhile.  I gave up on writing and went back to playing drums.  I played in a cover bands.  One of them called ‘The Lost Vuarnets’ for quite a few years”

The Lost Vuarnets featured Gary Smith on vocals, LeRoy on drums and vocals, guitarist Al Katz also adding vocals, horn man Craig Flory and bassist Keith Bakke).  The band’s name was a tip of the hat to the popular Vuarnet sunglasses that were ”must-haves” in the 1980’s.  In 1993, Smith,who founded the band told journalist Tom Phalen

“It really was a stupid name but after 10 years we’re stuck with it.  If I’d known we would have lasted this long I’d have come up with something better he would have come up with a different name if I’d known we were going to last so long

Leroy Bell & His Only Friends
Leroy Bell-Guitar, Vocals, Daniel Walker-Keyboards, Terry Morgan-Bass, Davis Martin-Drums,

 

After years of cover bands, and picking up day jobs Bell says “around 2000 I’d started getting itchy to sing and write again.  I wanted to do my own thing again”.

LeRoy began doing solo dates and eventually contacted Terry Morgan for some assistance.

“I’d met Terry before.  I didn’t know much about him, but I knew he booked groups, did productions and that kind of thing” Bell says, “so I contacted him and said ‘hey, would you be interested in booking me as a singer/songwriter?’ Then I sent him a demo tape and when I hear back from him he said yeah I’d be interested, but I’d want to play in the band”

During the 1980’s Terry Morgan, had been one of the original members of Modern Productions and had opened up the downtown Showbox to present some of the best punk/alternative shows Seattle had ever seen.  When the original members of Modern Productions went their separate ways Morgan went on to book shows at the Paramount Theater the Showbox and other venues around town under the name Modern Enterprises, He also worked in band management, booked talent for Festival Sundiata, the Out-To-Lunch series of concerts and the Stillaguamish Festival of the River.

“Everybody in Seattle knows Terry”, LeRoy said…and it’s pretty close to the truth.

Terry remembers hearing from LeRoy around 2000;

“He was looking for some personal gigs, so I said ‘send me a demo’.  We’d known each other since back in the ‘Bell and James’ days, but never really connected to do anything with him.  it was just peripheral. I would go down and hang out at ‘Mighty Three Music’s’ office and was once at Kaye-Smith Studios during the Elton John recordings”.

“So LeRoy sent me a cassette” says Morgan”  and I liked it-I really liked it!  So I said look, ‘I really don’t want to manage any more bands after managing everybody in town”. I said ‘I’ll work with you under one condition, and that’s if I can play in the band.  I just don’t want to be a hired-gun that gets tossed aside once you decide everything is good’.

“So we started playing together and I took over management”. Morgan says “Just putting things together”.“The first act I had him open for was Sergio Mendes at the Moore Theater.”  That was about 17 years ago….2000 or 2001 at the latest”.  Terry and LeRoy have worked together ever since.  After his solo work, the band LeRoy Bell and His Only Friends was formed.  With LeRoy at the center, surrounded by Terry Morgan on bass Davis Martin on drums, and Daniel Walker on keyboards. Later Davis Martin was replaced by Bill Ray on drums.

“From the beginning we started booking ourselves and played wherever we could” says Terry.  “ “We had already been out touring with B.B. King, Etta James, Al Green and a number of other acts before LeRoy did X-Factor. We’d also been out with Leon Russell LeAnn Rimes, Los Lobos, Mavis Staples, The Temptations, The O’Jays, Roberta Flack, Idina Mendel, Bare Naked Ladies, India.Aire, Erykah Badu and Jonny Lang’.

I was aware of the British X-Factor”, Terry says  “and over there you could be any age and you could do your own material. So I said “why not? What have we got to lose? The worst that could happen is you’d get on TV and seen by six million people”.

“So we did the auditions in Seattle, and then  just waited and waited and waited and waited.  Eventually he got the call. Then he went to L.A. for a week and they said ‘OK, we’ll call you back’ Then he got the third call and that was the beginning of it all.  We did all the paperwork and legal stuff. 

By the time LeRoy did his last appearance on the show he ended up in eighth place. He’d also found TV was a whole different thing than the music business he’d been working in for so long “but it turned out to be a good thing in some ways”  he says.

One disappointment of appearing on the show was, unlike the British program, he was forced to sing familiar songs by other artists rather than show his skill as a songwriter. His voice caught the judges and audiences’ attention, but his real strength is in songwriting.  In fact he’d already made a living through writing…and most of the audience weren’t even aware of the songs he’d written.

“After the show became really popular we got a request to go to South Africa” says LeRoy.  “We played there as well.  Terry and I made the trip.  There’s a girl who’s really huge over there-Zahara-we did a live DVD with her, which was really really cool-and we ended up co-writing a song or two. It was kind of odd to be in such a different culture and walk down the street and have someone recognize you.  That’s the magic of TV”

LeRoy and Terry did two shows with Zahara on June 8 and 9, 2012.  The concert also included the Soweto Gospel Choir. When LeRoy, who was already well-known in South Africa, walked out on the stage the crowd went crazy.  The concert was packaged as a DVD called ‘Zahara: The Beginning Live’ and it shipped double platinum. In 2013 it was nominated for a South African Grammy (SAMA) for “Best DVD, Live.

Bell admits he had to google her when he was first approached to work with Zahara. He told The Daily Sowetan

“She is an amazing singer who achieved success within a short space of time, a great singer and an accomplished songwriter. I got hold of her music, and simply fell in love with her voice”.

Zahara responded by admitting  initially she nervous about the prospect of working with Bell as he is the same person who has written songs for music greats Michael Bolton, Elton John and the O’Jays, among other big international names.

“But since his arrival, the chemistry between us has been great” she said. “We connected easily when we were introduced.  Now is the time to work, and I know that we will perhaps fight, as this is inevitable in a creative space, and as long as the fight will be for the improvement of the DVD that is fine with me.  I just love this man’s voice and the fact that I titled a song on my album’ Brand New Day’ just like he has done on his, this is simply an incredible coincidence,”

“Since then we were doing a lot of touring but the past two years we haven’t been touring as much”.  Says LeRoy.  “We’re playing much more regional.  We haven’t been out with as many big names as we were for awhile.  Many of them have passed away.  We did a few dates with Steve Miller and quite a few dates with Huey Lewis.  He’s still around and he has a great band.  I don’t have anything against doing national tours, but it has to be the right kind of thing.  We played the house of blues in Chicago.  It was fun. We used to play with all the older guys, but it’s not the same”.

After so many years in the music business LeRoy is aware how much it has changed.

“It’s a completely different scene than it was.  Some things stay the same but whole marketing is completely different now. Streaming and online and videos.  When I was a kid it didn’t matter what a band looked like.  Now it’s more what they look like than what they sound like.You can create any sound on your computer or your laptop.  Then you get a check for 1000 plays for $2.”

It’s something young bands have come to accept.

“We’ve done about six albums and they do pretty well” He says “We sell them at the shows.  We sell a lot better when we tour with the bigger acts, because you’re kind of co-opting their audiences.  They’re used to buying the main acts merchandise or they may already have it. But we have our own label  There are no middle men. You can really enhance your sales that way”.

“We’ve got some shows coming up and I’ve been writing for a new record.  I’ve also been doing some online digital stuff, releasing directly to streaming services.  I have a tiny studio at my house, so I can program and release “stuff,  so I keep writing all the time”.

“I have a couple of songs streaming right now.  One is ‘Who am I to U’,  The other is ‘Stay Together’  Both are available at ‘Spotify’ and ‘i-tunes’  You can also find ‘Jaded’ off our last album, ‘When That Fire Rolls Around’.

After so many years in the business it’s clear LeRoy Bell and his Only Friends are in it for the long haul…maybe another 17 years.  Meanwhile, they continue to work and though their gigs are regional right now, they’ll probably be out touring again when the situation is right.  LeRoy admits that as he gets older he likes his comfort.  It’s probably true of the rest of his crew.  Every one of them are consummate musicians with decades of work behind them….so while they continue to play the Northwest, you might want to get out and see them soon.

LeRoy and His Only Friends will be appearing at:

Saturday April 14, 7:30 PM,The Marysville Opera House, Marysville WA

Saturday April 21 8:00 PM, Jazzbones, Tacoma WA

Saturday April 28, 9:00 PM, The Tractor Tavern, Seattle WA

Friday May 4, 7:00, Hillside House Concerts, Leavenworth WA

Saturday May 19, 10:00 PM, Sunbanks Festival at Sunbanks Resort, Electric City WA

Advance tickets are available at:  http://leroybell.com/   




-Dennis R. White. Sources: Dave Beck “Singer-Songwriter LeRoy Bell:The Rise, Fall And Rise Again KUOW.org,Mar 21, 2013); Tom Fitzgerald “A Hall of Fame hitmaker finds happiness and harmony in Bellingham”(Seattle Times, February 15, 2018); “LeRoy Bell and His Only Friends” leroybell.com, retrieved April 4, 2018); LeRoy Bell (X-Factor US Wiki, retrieved April 4, 2018); Erin K. Thompson “LeRoy Bell’s Breakout Year.  And he’s only…60?” (The Seattle Weekly, December 6, 2011); Dennis R. White “LeRoy Bell Interview” (April 3, 2018); Eric Cerna “LeRoy Bell (Conversations At KCTS 9,Season 5 Episode 508, retrieved, April 3, 2018); Allison Corneau “5 Things You Don’t Know About 59-Year-Old X Factor Standout LeRoy Bell” (Us Weekly, October 7. 2011); Dennis R. White “Terry Morgan Interview” (April 6, 2018); Ed Hogan “Bell and James” (allmusic.com, retrieved April 6, 2018, retrieved April 4, 2018); Edward Tsumele and Patience Bambalel  “Brand new day for Zahara and Leroy Bell” (Sowetan Live [ South Africa}, June 06, 2012); Paul Zollo “More Songwriters on Songwriting” De Capo Publishing, November 8, 2016); “How Thom Bell Rang Up The Hits For Philly International” (Billboard Magazine, June 16, 2006): Tom Phalen “ Lost Vuarnets Find Success Without Even Practicing” (The Seattle Times, October 8, 1993); Michael Paoletta and Lars Brandle “After U.K. Hit is U.S. Ready for Elton?” (Billboard, September 20, 2003)

 

 

Red Kelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harvey Siders in “Jazz Times” wrote of Red:  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Washington State’s Official Voters Pamphlet Kelly wrote;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The OWL Party on the campaign trail 1976

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

According to the King County (WA) Bar Association:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In 2003 Don Siders also wrote;

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

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

Red died on Wednesday June 9, 2004.  

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

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

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

According to writer William Bryk

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

Northwest Songwriters: A Straw Poll

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

Recently I took a straw poll of friends asking:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So let’s return to the original question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

-Dennis R. White

The Bird

Writing the history of a band or a venue can be a daunting task; especially when the author knows far less on the subject than many of his or her readers.  It’s with this trepidation that I approach writing about The Bird.  In most cases the music histories I write rely on research, articles, written or oral histories and scholarly reports..  One-on-one interviews and original documentation also helps; but in the case of The Bird, there is not much documentation or  written histories.  Online blogs and books that mention The Bird often repeat the same exact entries word-for-word. This, in my view is a very poor practice and plagiarism.  However this is the internet age where people recycle all kinds of information they don’t need to be accountable for.

There are at least two authors I know that have done independent research on The Bird There are also others who have kept the memory of The Bird alive in their own individual ways.  I did not arrive in Seattle until 1979; almost a year after The Bird had ceased to exist.  Many of the musicians who had played at The Bird had left Seattle for greener pastures even before the advent of The Bird including The Mentors, The Lewd, The Screamers, Penelope Houston who would front The Avengers.  All were no longer on the scene by the time I’d arrived. Still, many of the fantastic friends I would make in Seattle had been involved or regulars of The Bird.

Many of us have foggy memories of our past, and very little ephemera to document The Bird exists, so I have had to rely on incomplete information and small bits I have learned from friends about The Bird over the years. It is in this spirit that I ask you read this story, keeping in mind that what I am trying is to build a history of The Bird…a history that has been seriously overlooked.  I hope what I write here is accurate, but I know I cannot live up to that hope throughout this story.  This is meant to be the basic outline of a realistic, accurate and detailed portrait of one of Seattle’s most important cultural touchstones.  I welcome corrections, additions, suggestions, photos, posters and most of all, memories.  As I’ve said, the history of The Bird has never been properly recorded..  What I have to write is incomplete without as much input form those who were there.  If you have anything to add, please leave comments in the space provided below. This will help me build a more accurate and complete history.

There’s plenty of points of departure that we could begin the story of The Bird.  It came along after punk had established itself in many other cities in the U.S, Canada, Britain and Australia.  We could discuss the dissatisfaction of young people with their future prospects, the D.I.Y. ethic, or what had led up to the need for an all-ages punk club in Seattle or youth culture in general,  But that would take an entire dissertation…which this already nearly is.   Let’s leave it at the well-known impetus that the gay troupe Ze Whiz Kidz who had broken down the door for punk to make headway in Seattle. Let’s  also point to the T.M.T. show, (The Telepaths, The Meyce and The Tupperwares) which wasn’t exactly “punk” but also opened the gateway of the new, alternative and music and a kick-start for the local scene.  There are the early practitioners and promoters of punk rock or new wave; consider that in the late ‘70s the terms were interchangeable.  These would include Jim Basnight, Neil Hubbard, Lee Lumsden, Mike Vraney and dozens of others including Sheli Story, Eldon Hoke,Upchuck, Ralph and Judy Becker who’s store Kitchy Koo catered to the hoards of Roosevelt High School students that would dominate the early Seattle punk scene.  As far as helping to outfit the new “look” it would only be proper to mention the influence (and gear) of Danny Eskinazi’s store, Dreamland, then located in the University District.

But let’s start with two individuals; Damon Titus and George Gleason,  Although they went to separate high schools and lived in different parts of the city they were thrown together as members of the Unitarian Church’s  Liberal Religious Youth (LRY), around 1969 or 1970. According to George Gleason, within a short time after meeting Damon he joined his band Fuzzy Peach.  At the time they were a folk-rock trio  trio with two sisters from George’s high school, Lisa and Chrissie MacPhaden. Once they became a quartet they spent a year or two on the coffee house and all-ages circuit.

By 1972 Damon moved to Olympia WA to study at The Evergreen State College (TESC).  George also moved to Olympia with an eye to starting a more rock-oriented band.  Don Harper, a friend of George’s from high school, would became their road manager. Roger Husbands, an older guy Damon and George knew through the LRY was hired as manager.  The two thought Roger seemed to know his way around business and theater, but in truth, he had little experience in management. Fellow Evergreeners Suzanne Grant, who’d been a jazz singer was recruited as vocalist and Alan Mundial came in on drums. Mundial would later be replaced by Peter Barnes when the band decided to move to Seattle and Alan chose to continue his studies at TESC. John  Adams was the original bassist and later replaced by Sal Paradise. (Walter Szalwinski)  Along with Damon and George they became The Fruitland Famine Band who deserve their own entry here at a later date,  The band was successful doing gigs in and around Olympia and Seattle and eventually moved to a large, old Mansion on the corner of Union and Minor on Seattle’s First Hill.  The band had a fair amount of success playing cover songs in  bars around the Olympia and Seattle area.  Later they moved further afield to play the greater Northwest and Western Canada.  The band did a few originals, but were mostly playing bar patrons’ favorites…slightly FMish music, some popular covers, and venturing into country and boogie classics  They were not the “average” Top 40 band, but they were a cover band nonetheless.

The Mansion at Minor and Union was across the street from the The Summit Alternative High School.  It was through these students, who used the Minor Mansion’s  garage as their unofficial smoking lounge that the the members of the Fruitland Famine Band started to become familiar with the stirrings of punk rock.  George claims that everything changed when the band heard the albums The Runaways, The Ramones and the bootlegged Ramones Live at CBGB’s. “Finally we were hearing new music that was song-based, and infused with manic humor” says George.

Their act began to reflect those influences, and it was not entirely welcome by the bar crowd they playing to.  The band told manager Roger Husbands they were fed up with being a cover band and fed up with playing bars.  So The Fruitland Famine Band joined the now near-forgotten, and always underrated Uncle Cookie (featuring Ernie Sapiro, Mark Sargent, Conrad Uno and Brock “The Rock” Wheaton as their soundman) for a concert at Capitol Hill’s Oddfellows Hall at 915 East Pine.  The Oddfellows Hall would be the location of future punk shows, and was crucial to Seattle’s nascent punk rock movement.  It had also been the venue for Seattle’s first “punk” concert known forever as “The T.M.T. Show” on May 1, 1976.

George Gleason remembers:
As a goof, we started our set dressed in slick lounge outfits,playing disco and changed into leather and jeans, playing punk in the middle of the set”.  George also reports that “This evidently made quite an impression on the delicate mind of Patrick MacDonald, music writer for The Seattle Times”
MacDonald” according to George Gleason “has never since missed an opportunity to describe us as a band that once “stripped naked” on stage.  This would, of course, be only one of MacDonald’s misinterpretations of the rock music he generally covered.  Not only did MacDonald misinterpret and misreport concerts, for years it was rumored that he commonly sent proxies to events, and he’d write his reviews based on their notes…but we’ll never know for sure, and it certainly wouldn’t have been the first time a critic cribbed others’ notes.  MacDonald retired as a local music critic years ago, but he’s still an object of derision among Seattle musicians and the fans who once read his reviews.

On Oct 30th 1977, The Fruitland Famine Band threw an all-night “Come As You Were or Will Be “ party at the Minor Mansion.  The death of the FFB was declared and the birth of The Enemy, one of the west coast’s first punk bands. At this time Sal Paradiso was let go and Paul Hood (onetime member of The Meyce and future member of The Toiling Midgets and briefly with Student Nurse) was given bass duties.  The Enemy rented space in a vacant building in downtown Seattle and began writing and practicing all-original music,

Damon Titus says
“People forget that at the time downtown Seattle was boarded up buildings. The building at First and Spring was vacant, We were in a nine story building that was vacant.  We were next to the store Warshall’s-a sporting goods store.  The only ones we ever had to worry about disturbing was Warshall’s”

However there was one problem that made the rehearsal space sub-par
“We determined that the only problem was that there were these flyng iron fire doors between the two units that made the place sound terrible.  One day we took the station wagon and went up to Capitol Hill-somewhere around St. Jo’s parish with all these nice big mansions around. We went up there as scraggly looking punk rockers going door-to-door asking for newspapers….and they gave us all these old copies of The Seattle Times-enough to fill the station wagon.  Then we opened our side of those iron doors and filled the gap with all these old newspapers.   The incredible  thing is that later when we ended up getting closed down by the Seattle Fire Department the Fire Department were completely unaware of the newspapers.  Come to think of it it probably was really dangerous!”

Damon admits that part of The Enemy’s agenda was to open punk rock to as many venues as possible.  Roger and Damon had gone to San Francisco for the last Sex Pistols show on Jan. 14, 1978.  Their old friend and ex-Seattleite Penelope Houston had formed her own band in San Francisco, The Avengers, and they had been on the Sex Pistols bill at Winterland.  During their trip  it occurred to  that Damon and Roger that they should open their own rehearsal space as a club and showcase  West Coast punk bands. They also knew that there was enough local talent to fill out bills,
Since bands like The Lewd, The Mentors, The Screamers and The Avenger’s lead singer Penelope Houston all hailed from Seattle they  knew they could create a network of like-minded bands to play at the new club they planned.

Video by Jo David, March 3, 1978

I’ve never talked to her about this” says Damon, but I’ve heard Penelope talk  about feeling she was part of a West Coast team…playing all up and down the west coast.  There were people from L.A  like The Screamers and the Dils  who wanted to bring The Mabuhay (San Francisco’s premier punk club) up here. That’s kind of what we were doing  We had a real cool rehearsal space to work with”

So the die was cast.  Seattle was about to witness the opening of its first official all-ages all-punk club.

Peter Barnes has said that starting the Bird was possible because of what he calls infrastructure.  The band had financial resources (mostly contributed by a single member) good sound and lights systems and a knowledgeable sound technician, They had a space that could hold about the right size of crowd they’d expected-even though the club was often crowded beyond it’s legal limit. They had west coast band connections and bands themselves that were eager to play Seattle.

                                      

Sheli Story Roger Husbands, Neil Hubbard, Gregor Gayden, The Bird, 1978

Despite the credit to Roger Husbands as being the impetus for opening The Bird, it was actually run as a labor of love for The Enemy and their friends.  In actuality Husbands was simply a hired-hand to manage The Enemy’s affairs….at times better than others.  But he became the “official” face of the business/management side of the venture.  He was a bit older, looked more mature and didn’t wear punk rock clothing,  He looked responsible. It was his appearance and business-like approach that got the straggly looking Fruitland Famine Band and The Enemy taken seriously among the press, booking agents and licensing officials. He had helped secure the lease for The Enemy’s rehearsal space at 107 First Avenue.

“So” says Peter Barnes: “we got a pop machine and somebody to watch the door, and then it was a club”

Despite Peter’s tongue-in-cheek remark, it took more than a coke machine and a doorman to keep the club a going concern.  Fortunately The Bird  was run primarily by Husbands and The Enemy’s one-time soundman Don Harper. Various friends and volunteers took up the slack.

According to George Gleason;

“‘I can’t remember them all, but Neil Hubbard, Shelli Story and Gregor Gayden helped Roger & Don (who would eventually marry the band’s singer Suzanne Grant).  Rob Morgan was another one involved in working at the club; often manning the door and generally spreading laughter and mayhem.  Rob would later go on to found The Pudz and later The Squirrels…both bands that lay among the all-time most original bands-even though they chose, ironically, covers as departures for unexplored territory.

Neil Hubbard’s involvement cannot be overestimated.  He had been with this project from its inception and spent a good deal of time getting the message out. Some of the only bits of ephemera left over from The Bird are the press releases he’d written and released during The Bird’s short existence.  Hubbard was a natural for working at the club..  He had pulled off a major coup in 1977 getting a gig for The Ramones at an all-ages venue in Seattle.  

Originally The Ramones were booked to play a bar in Seattle.  Neil knew that bar patrons over the age of 21 were not the core following of The Ramones and that the 21+ crowd would be less interested in seeing a punk band in a bar than their natural fans in an all-ages venue; one that would accomodate the teens and young adults who were actually fans of The Ramones.  

On the first of March Neil  began trying to make contact with The Ramones, their tour manager, their label, or the band themselves….anyone who would listen to him. Eventually he found a contact with The Ramones tour agent and desperately tried to sway him into re-bookimg The Ramones outside a barm and in an all-ages venue.  After he made his argument the tour manager said “OK, if you can find a place the show’s yours”

Hubbard and his friend Robert Bennett then made a series of frustrating calls to venues that could have staged the event and found that none of them were available on The Ramones’ Seattle date. By chance they heard that The Olympic Hotel Ballroom was available the next Sunday night when the Ramones were scheduled to play Seattle  At the time The Olympic Hotel was the grande dame of Seattle hotels.  It had been built in 1924 and retained it’s luxurious architecture and interior.  It was known as the most prestigious hotel in the entire northwest.  The Olympic catered to a well-heeled clientele and had probably never hosted a rock show within it’s confines…-let alone a punk rock show.  In booking the ballroom Bennett simply told the management that he intended to hold a dance that would include live music.
The Ramones management agreed to play, and the Olympic’s staff were left in the dark about the details until the night of the show when hoards of punk rockers in full regalia began to descend on the hotel.  According to contemporaneous  accounts between 400 and 500 Ramones fans showed up to see the band with The Meyce opening,
This was a coup that came about by circumstances, but it was also a coup in the sense that for at least one night punks had infiltrated a society that despised them.  They had won…and although it was really a case of “necessity being the mother of invention”  it was an incredibly punk rock thing to do.

With this under his belt Hubbard was looked upon by the punk rock community as somewhat of a hero and a mastermind.  It was only natural he would also make his mark by helping to manage The Bird.  It also lent a certain amount of credibility to the project.  At the time Seattle punks were suspicious of The Enemy and their past as a quasi-country cover band.  The early days of punk required (a) that you make no money, and (b) did not achieve any kind of commercial success.  Ironically the bands punks had been influenced by-The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned and other bands, were signed to major labels and were enjoying a modest amount of financial success.

An artist and their fans would expect a band to seek widespread fame nowadays, but at the time The Enemy were looked down upon…all this despite they had opened The Bird in their own space, had provided most of the financial backing, were bringing fantastic west coast bands playing on the high quality PA in their club and providing the punk community something they’d never had before…a “real” all ages club.  Perhaps the suspicion had to do with what Barnes had called their “infrastructure”.  The fact that they were becoming adept at songwriting was either ignored or seen as just another form of crass commercialism’

In her 2016 book DesperateTimes Maire Masco explains the self-imposed dilemna the average punk rocker faced.  Maire was just a few years behind the first generation of Seattle punks, but her observation of punk life in the late 70s and early ‘80s sums it up perfectly;

“Although we fashionably hated big business, we secretly desired to be rich, to have freedom from  money and the constant worry of paying the rent or purchasing food.” (Sounds perfectly bourgeoisie to me — how did those three syllables wax syphilitic anyhow?)”

Later Damon Titus would say
“When we started the Bird I was very aware that we were bringing what I used to call….I had all sorts  of names for it…”a three band format” or a “concert band format” ..We were bringing three bands a night, and nobody in Seattle was doing that at the time…It just didn’t exist. We needed a club like The Bird.  That was always part of our mission and we opened a few clubs around town. (to punk music).  We would be the first ones to open clubs around town to that format”.

Despite their mission and their actual contributions to the community, a vaguely negative vibe would follow them throughout their career.  It was a vibe that was unwarranted.



Now there was a club, but no name for it.  According to ‘The Strangest Tribe’, Stephen Tow’s excellent 2011  book on Seattle music history he repeats a story Neil Hubbard had told him:

“Initially Hubbard and the members of The Enemy struggled to come up with the name for the club.  Hubbard then ventured outside and noticed an old sign on the building.  “I went out and looked at it” he recalls “and went ‘Well it says John L. Bird Office Supplies’ Let’s just call it ‘The Bird’. You know [as in] ‘Fuck You!’ Perfect!”

Now with a name a date was set for the grand opening of The Bird; March 4, 1978.  A pre-gala event the night before took place as an introduction for  a new band  called Clone. The band was fronted by local maverick and unapologetically gay, Upchuck. The pre-opening was by invitation-only and gathered up “anyone who was anyone” that had been associated with Seattle punk, the press as well as the gay punk and glam community who had once revolved around Ze Whiz Kidz.  It’s either fortunate (or unfortunate depending on how one looks at it) that a video record of The Bird was created that night.  Local photographer, videographer, and all-around artist Jo David set up a back-drop and invited everyone attending to pose, jump around or otherwise mug to his video camera.  Although the video wasn’t shot as a spectacle it certainly is spectacularly full of those who populated the punk community of the day.  It leaves the viewer wanting more; to see the young fresh faces and probably much more innocent people they remember from the past-and in many cases those that still remain friends.  Ralph Becker (then of Kitchy Koo) recalls;

“Photos were taken due to the presence of Friends of the Rag, the clothing art and performance group.  We were invited to show up dressed as punks.  Some of the members didn’t quite get it, but most of us were interested, and friends of many of those in attendance.  I remember someone (Gregor Gayden?) putting a fist through the door window.  Lots of slamming.  Photos by Don Leber (which I believe are lost to time, but which I would love to see).  Jo making movies of what many thought punk was like.  It was an amazing event that brought the punk movement to Seattle consciousness, but in some ways it was an event where folks could act like New Yorkers”.

CLONE featuring Upchuck March 3, 1978

The now well-known producer Gordon Raphael described that night with these observations;

“We started his band which I named “Clone”-with Jeff Gossard  (cousin of Stone Gossard) who was already playing guitar with Chuck. Mike Davidson (later of The Blackouts and X-15) played bass  and  Dave Drury on drums.  Davidson and Drury were fresh from J. Sats Beret’s, confrontational Cool band The Lewd…Chuck had just recently recorded an amazing single called ‘Jacuzzi Floozie b/w Afterthought’ with Gossard and a super-talented Seattle drummer named Drake Eubanks, whom I never heard anything about after that.  We worked up a few original songs and threw in David Bowie’s ‘Station to Station’ as an opener and a cool song by The Runaways called ‘Hollywood’ which Chuckie delivered with a startlingly sleazy and passionate vocal performance. He had a very full deep trembling voice and could really project in a powerful, emotional way.

The first gig was the “press only” party that Chuck threw before our first show at The Bird” continues Raphael,  “How very irate and pissed off were the rest of the punk rockers from the scene when our unknown band had a well publicized party that most were not invited to! Clone’s first show at The Bird was a night to remember! First off, Chuckie made me put my unfashionable long hair up into a little boat captain’s hat and then wrapped my bare chest in clear cellophane, over which I wore a white plastic boy’s jacket from Goodwill which was way too small

Aside from the music there are great  examples of what went on at The Bird during the day.  Sheli Story worked at The Bird and is still an important part of Seattle’s alternative movement recalls a story about her and the late Gregor Gayden.  Gregor was a much-loved member of the scene at the time.  He’d been the vocalist for The Telepaths and later fronted the band The Look. Sadly Gregor passed away in January of 2008.  Nonetheless he’s still remembered as an important, funny, kind and generous man who made a mark on Seattle’s 70s music scene..  
Sheli recounts this story about hum-drum life around The Bird;

“By the time The Bird had been open for a few weeks the walls were proudly covered in graffiti; most of it musically and politically based. It was an all ages punk club, it was 1978; we were fierce and edgy and full of ourselves . .. With ‘the powers that be’ constantly trying to find a way to shut us down, yet another directive was made by the landlord of the space (which was already pretty much a shithole to begin) to “CLEAN UP THE PROFANITY OR ELSE!!”

“Well fuck that!!” Says Sheli “Roger Husbands decreed that Gregor and I were going to do just that: clean up the graffiti.  Our solution was to paint the entire place black.

“The Bird by night was full of the sizzle of attitude, music, lights and personalities galore. By day The Bird was damp, dark and filthy.  Gregor and I arrived at the club and got to work. We had gallons of black paint, two rollers each – double down painting style, and our paint clothes. Gregor had snagged a pair of jeans from one of his little brothers and of course they were way too small. It was hilarious from the start. The music was blasting – I’m thinking it was The Damned but it could of been anybody . We were slinging paint everywhere. Being soooo smart, we had taped paper bags on our heads to avoid splatter and Gregor was wearing the tiny jeans and  a pair of shoes with wedges and gummy soles. As if it mattered that we would get black paint on our black clothes!!

“When Gregor threw down his rollers and went into dance mode I followed suit but not for long; Gregor was doing the pogo. Yes, the pogo. He was a big, tall man and with every leap he hit the ground with his bouncy wedgies and those little jeans inched down and down until they were bunched at his ankles. He was in tidy whities with his paper bag hat and his face a huge grin. I laughed so fucking hard my stomach hurt and Gregor was unstoppable.

“Eventually we were able to cover enough of the “profanity” and The Bird prevailed!! For another few weeks.  

“This is one of those “you had to be there” stories. Says Sheli, “It is my most precious memory of my friendship with Gregor; a man with huge love in his heart and a vital part of the birth of the music and art scene that was  punk in Seattle. On a side note: Gregor and I used to poster the town like madmen at night!! One night on Capitol Hill the police followed us and stopped us; let us off with a “warning” and made us take down our posters while slowly driving their cruiser beside us. We were back the next night. Because we were determined punks. And we hardly ever got caught”

The “official” opening night saw The Enemy headline with The Mentors and The Telepaths also on the bill.  It was a format (three bands at least) that had fulfilled Damon Titus’s mission.  Every Friday and Sunday night included Seattle bands, touring headliners and usually a capacity crowd…or more.

The Enemy. George Gleason, Suzanne Grant, Peter Barnes, Damon Titus

From the beginning the City, The Seattle Police Department and the Seattle Fire Department were no friends of the club or its clientele.  They were eager to see the club closed just for the sake of it.  Punk rock meant mayhem in the streets, the breakdown of society and the end of family values; the same accusations that have always been levelled against outsiders.  In spite of their hostility The Bird managed to stay open at the 107 First Ave. location until the building’s landlord notified Husbands that The Enemy and The Bird were to vacate the premises by June 1, 1978.  When it finally closed The Bird had lasted only seven weeks.  But those seven weeks were crucial to Seattle’s alternative music scene and resonates even to this day,

Leslie Meyer, a regular at The Bird who seemed to take on a few duties herself sums up The Bird experience in particular, and the punk rock scene in general with these memories;

“When The Bird opened, it was only natural that I would do my best to spend every weekend during its short tenure at the club. In 1978, I was 19 years old and was already adept at sneaking into bars but here was the place I could go to without being thrown out. Seattle’s punk rock scene was small but intense. At best, there were a few hundred kids and young adults but we were passionate.

Going to The Bird on a Friday or Saturday night meant getting dressed up in your finest which usually meant pair of pegged jeans, white dress shirt and a black suit coat, lots of makeup, spiky hair and equally spiky high heels. Then it meant getting on a bus from the conservative north end of Seattle and going downtown which in the 70s was blue color and gritty. The Bird was located on extremely steep hill between First and Second Avenue. Because of the elaborate makeup and spiky hair, it was not uncommon to be harassed on the bus by teenagers for whom punk rock (and its predecessor, glam rock) were anathema. If you did manage to get downtown without being harassed too much on the bus, then it was an easy walk (unless you were wearing 4 inch spike heels) down the hill to the club.

Scraping up the two or three dollar cover charge in those days was always a challenge so quite often I ended up sweeping up after a show in exchange for cover. Gregor Gayden and Sheli Story worked the door and Neil Hubbard was quite often the MC for the shows. Although there were no real rules about conduct, everyone kept an eye on everyone else to the best of their abilities and trying to keep the really young kids out of harm’s way.

We were lucky to have two excellent photographers who captured so many wonderful images. Bob Kondrak went to nearly every show with his son and photographed bands and people in the crowd. His photos showed up in rock magazines around the country. He also made several audio recordings, including the infamous recording of the plainclothes police raid on the club’s closing night. I had recently found out I was pregnant so I ended up leaving moments before the raid.

“Randy Hall was also a photographer whose work captured more intimately members of bands, people in the crowd and even yours truly. I love the  pictures Randy took of me with the late Eldon Hoke (El Duce of The Mentors) at the first Bird and with Gregor Gayden at the second location.

‘The bands we saw during those brief seven weeks downtown and subsequent shows at other locations (including a brief period on Capitol Hill) were in the avant-garde of the punk movement. The music was loud and strident and impassioned. It was filled with frustration over the ongoing political machinations of our government, social injustices and a certain “fuck everything let’s dance” attitude that quite often carried the day. 40 years later, it’s easy to see how the music helped create something new and electric in the world”.


Recently Damon Titus noted:
“It always surprises people when they find out, for all it’s impact, The Bird only lasted seven weeks. Probably about twenty  bands in those seven weeks played; bands from San Francisco, Los Angeles and Vancouver BC.  The lasting impact it made over such a short period  IS impressive!  We wanted to open up sort of a new market”  

The Bird, in spite of its short life did exactly what it was meant to do; not only provide an all-ages retreat for fans of punk, but also to kickstart musicians and non-musicians alike to form even more bands and to become an important part of Seattle’s-and the rest of the world’s-clarion that a new ethic and a new music had arrived.  This was the kind of “market” Damon seems to have been referring to.

According to Stephen Tow, the writer of The Strangest Tribe Rob Morgan told him;

“If The Enemy hadn’t talked their manager into steppin’ up and trying to milk this new scene, “God knows if anything would have happened on the level it did.

On April 14, 1978 The Dils were set to play The Bird.
Nothing seemed unusual about the mood of the crowd.  No one had predicted the outcome of that  night  A new band,  The Dimes were playing-throwing  dimes around.  Then word came like a searing hot chunk of metal. The Seattle Fire Department were across the street  They’re inspecting,  Quick everybody, put your cigarettes out!  Don’t take any chances. Don’t light that.  Keep that one out,…not one person in the place lit up.  The Marshalls made a quick inspection, pointed at something under the stage and left.  Someone said  They’re coming back back in fifteen minutes to close us down-and they did”

Only The Dimes had played. The Mentors were almost ready to go on when the announcement was made;

“Hey!  You keep all those guys in here”.

It was the Fire Marshalls.  They said we would have to stop the show NOW!  Everyone would have to leave.  The Marshall’s  excuse for closing the club was vague. Their report for closing was simply “Too many code violations to list”.  There was no doubt that the move by the city and the Fire Department was a political one; a punk rock club simply could not be tolerated in Seattle. And why was the Fire Department carrying billy clubs?

There were refunds at the door on the way out.  $2 out of $3 were handed out. “The Dils had to get some gas money’ Neil Hubbard has said  It was rumoured that the Seattle City Council had discussed The Bird a day earlier regarding the mass scale poster plastering of posters around the city. (Good job Sheli and Gregor!)  The same day the Fire Department closed the club  an envelope had arrived at The Bird addressed to the Telepaths.  The University of Washington, informed them they were to pay $15 for removal of their posters from a campus building.

The club was now was closed by the Fire Department  but at 11 PM that night a “private rehearsal party” took place “The Mentors finally took to the stage around midnight, although it took some convincing to get them on before the first keg of beer arrived. Says Neil. “Beer after beer was thrown, cocaine was blown, as the masked villains of “rape rock shat out lovable numbers like Secretary Hump,  Nuthang, Macho Package”, and “Total Crap”. After about half an hour of that abusive sort of nonsense ended Steve Clark, another Bird regular, got onstage, with some help, and .unmasked The Mentors. The band ended their set abruptly”.

The unmasking was a bit of a joke, since almost everyone in the club already knew who The Mentors were.  Many were friends of the band members.  They had originally formed in Seattle.

According to Neil “The Dils got set up for their shotgun show, during which yet another keg of stuff to soak people with was brought in…I was too far gone to even rememberwhere I was. Heaven?”

The night was supposed to be over after that, but everyone wanted more. So there was jam featuring Eldon Hoke and Eric Carlson of The Mentors, Bill Rieflin & Donald of The Telepaths, Jimmie from The Avengers (he ran away from the group while they were on their way to Vancouver B.C.), various Dils, Greg Regan of The Feelings.  Rob Morgan (later the genius behind The Pudz and The Squirrels took part  along with Rick Smith (ex-Ratt and future leader of The Girls), Lee Lumsden and Neil.

People were still not ready to leave, so a group of the party-goers (including some members of The Enemy made their way to the roof.  In 2011 Enemy drummer Peter Barnes told Stephen Tow
“The after-show party was lame until some people started throwing things off the roof.
“Somehow the cops were called and they showed up and they sent the vice squad after us. I mean these were heavy-duty cops”.

The incident escalated when the police began to shove badges in people’s faces, called them “faggots” and  became physically abusive. A policeman grabbed The Enemy’s singer, Suzanne Grant, pulling one of her arms behind her back and ended up breaking it. It’s reported that Damon Titus tried to come to Suzanne’s defense, but had his face smashed on the ground in the process.

Luckily one of the people caught up in this mayhem had a tape recorder (remember; this was the day before cell phones) and the entire incident was recorded.  The band used the recorded evidence in a suit they brought against the Police.  The band won and received a monetary settlement.  Portions of the same tape was also used for the intro of their next single, Trendy Violence.

With The Bird officially gone Roger Husbands and The Enemy looked for a space to re-open a regularly running club. However, their attempts were in vain.  Even though they weren’t able to find a permanent space and create the magic of The Bird they booked several all-ages concerts around town, primarily at the venerable Oddfellows Hall mentioned at the beginning of this story, but also at Fourth & Wall, and at The Carpenters Hall.  The concerts were dubbed The Bird In Exile and followed the same format the club had been so successful at. The magic of The Bird may have been gone, but it was clear there was no turning back.  Punk had arrived in Seattle for good.  It became frequently featured as dance music in gay clubs like Tugs Belltown, and later live and recorded punk and new wave became the raison d’etre for bars like WREX and The Gorilla Room (who had also been “opened up” by The Enemy.  It wasn’t long before band that had previously featured cover band began to book edgier bands doing original.  Still the underage crowd were left to organize their own shows around town.  That too would eventually end when The Metropolis, an all-ages club near Pioneer Square began booking national touring acts like Bad Brains, Hüsker Dü, Black Flag, The Butthole Surfers, Flipper. The Replacements, The Meat Puppets and dozens more.  Almost every show was  supported by local bands that included TAD, Mudhoney, Green River, Soundgardem, Mr. Epp, Skinyard, The U-Men, Malfukshun and others who would be the precursors of “grunge”and find wild success later.  But even here we see a direct line from the first punks in Seattle to take a stab at creating their own club..

Around the time The Bird closed, Neil Hubbard wrote;
“The Bird was a complete breakthrough for Seattle. It created sensation in a city that thought the next big thing was the late King Tut exhibit arriving in town.  Never before, outside of the wretched taverns, had there been a regular place for local bands to play for the public–and make money doing it. Everyone had worked together to make it happen; Roger Husbands, for having the wits to open the place.  Don Harper for having the guts to spend over 60 hours a week keeping the place in working order, Gregor and Sheli for working the door and taking any kind of shit from all kinds of assholes and myself, for just being one. The audience dedication had  increased each weekend, with a strong core people that showed up each night  It was those people who were at the parties held at The Bird both the night it was closed and the next might. They deserve all the credit.  And our city.

 

IN MEMORIUM

Gregor Gayden

Homer Spence

Tomata du Plenty

Judy Stay

Upchuck

Geoff Cade

Brock Wheaton

Dave Drewry

Roger Husbands

Annie Mulcahey

Eldon Hoke

Dean Helgeson

Wally Danger

Case B. Armour

Greg Ragen

Randy Hall

Benji Rabinowitz

Bob Kondrak

Mike Vraney

Mike Refuzor

If you remember anyone else you’d like to add, leave their name in the “comments” section below

 

-Dennis R. White.  Sources: Jo David “Seattle Punk Club Opening Video” (March 3, 1978): George Gleason “Story of The Enemy” ; Peter Barnes “Interview with the author ( January 1, 2018); Damon Titus “Interview with the author (January 1, 2018) Sheli Storey (Letter of March 1, 2018 and various conversations 1979-2018); Leslie Meyers (Letter of March 1, 2018 and various conversations 1979-2018) George Arthur “Punk Rock Takes Flight At The Bird” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 21, 1978);  Dave Birkland “Arrest of 15 at Punk-Rock Club Bring Complaints, Police Probe”  (The Seattle Times, June 8, 1978); Unknown Author “Police Arrest 15 Downtown Party-Goers” (The Seattle Times, June 3, 1978); Jeff Stevens “March 4, 1978: The Bird Was The Word” (The Seattle Star, March 4, 2013); “The 40th Anniversary of The Bird – Seattle’s First Punk Rock Club @ The Back Bar, Crocodile Club” (Ticketfly, retrieved February 21, 2018); Derek Erdmen “Seattle Punk Club: The Bird” (The Stranger [Seattle] October 28, 2012); Stephen Tow “The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge” (Sasquatch Books, 2011);   Gordon Raphael “Upchuck in Seattle” Gordotronic.com retrieved January 26, 2018)               

A very special thanks to Neil Hubbard for his guidance, “Why The Bird Died” and “The Bird Weekly Press Releases” as well as photos and posters of The Bird (February, 2018)

Tomata du Plenty: Part One

It’s difficult to tell the story of much of alternative West Coast art, performance, painting and punk rock without recognizing the genius of Tomata du Plenty.  His troupe, Ze Whiz Kidz are also an important element in the evolution of the Seattle alternative social and arts scene…but they deserve to have their complete story told, so we will leave their history for another post.

Tomata du Plenty (David Xavier Harrigan) was born, depending on who you choose to believe, in New York State, in Queens NYC, in Brooklyn near Coney Island or in Coney Island”). The facts seem to point to Queens, but  I prefer to think he was born in Coney Island simply because it conjures up delightful, weird entertainments, a certain amount of artiface and slightly tattered around the edges.  It reminds me of the jumbled construction that improbably holds up the famous Cyclone Roller Coaster and zillions of uncovered treasures that are, in fact, nothing more than metaphoric “glad-rags”.  These were all the wonderful characteristics I associate with the singer/performance artist/painter Tomata du Plenty.

Wherever he was actually born he was brought up in Montebello, California where his Irish-American parents moved when young David was nine years old.  Tomata claims he ran away to Hollywood at age 15-not as daring as it may seem since Montebello is adjacent to Los Angeles and only about 15 miles to Hollywood and Vine.   It’s unclear if he kept in contact during that period with his parents, but there’s nothing that points to him being thrown out of his parents’ home because he was gay.  If his parents were welcoming it would have made a convenient escape from the streets of Hollywood.

In 1968 he hitchhiked to San Francisco and wound up in the Haight-Ashbury.  The twenty-year-old David Harrigan met George Harris and became a member of the psychedelic gender-fuck  troupe, The Cockettes.  The Cockettes were founded by the transplanted New Yorker  Harris (1949-1982) and were influential in helping to usher in not just the modern Gay Liberation movement, but Glam Rock as well.  When Harris moved to San Francisco he’d undergone a metamorphosis. He changed his name to Hibiscus and fell in with a vanguard circle of flamboyant, LSD dropping, hippie drag queens that performed gender-bending free theater on the streets. Hibiscus would eventually organize the entourage into The Cockettes. The Cockettes would later make silent films, produce their own plays and open for film screenings-including the San Francisco premier of John Waters’ Pink Flamingos starring the gay underground’s superstar Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead) or as People magazine dubbed him ” Drag Queen of the Century”. That would be the 20th century since Divine died in 1988 at age 42. Divine himself would later become a member of The Cockettes after they’d become a theater troupe, taking part in Les Etoile Du Minuit, the final version of Pearls Over Shanghai, Journey to the Center of Uranus and their final show, Hot Greeks.  In  Journey to the Center of Uranus Divine sang the song “A Crab On Your Anus Means You’re Loved” while dressed as a lobsterHe was on his waySadly Hibiscus (George Harris) would become one of the first of the many gay men that would be struck down by AIDS.  He died in 1982  at the age of 33.  The New York Times headline referred to the disease that struck him down as the “homosexual disorder” then known as GRID (Gay Related Immuno-deficiency).

By this time David Harrigan, who was now Tomata du Plenty had long since left.  His principle work with The Cockettes had been as “Hazel The Maid” in their film production of “Tricia’s Wedding” (1971);  a take on then-President Nixon’s daughter’s wedding.   In the film, characters as diverse as Phyllis Diller, Jackie Onassis and the Pope are in attendance at the wedding as well as some of the most well-known or notorious politicians and celebrities of the day.  All were played by various members of The Cockettes.  IMDb’s mini-review of the film says:

“The ever-outrageous Cockettes reenact Tricia Nixon’s 1971 wedding to Edward Cox. Hurtme O. Hurtme, television correspondent, covers the wedding and interviews faux celebrities in attendance. Once Eartha Kitt spikes the punch with LSD, events unravel quickly”. 

Another, recent reviewer at letterboxd.com remarked

“If you like flaming creatures this is its educated technicolor grandbaby. Brilliant camping of political figures I have vague frame of reference for. Thoroughly enjoyed”

Tricia’s Wedding is a gay cult classic, but is hardly seen these days.  Unfortunately the short was not packaged with 2002’s popular documentary “The Cockettes” when it became available on DVD.  “Tricia’s Wedding”was released on VHS several years ago-before the Cockettes documentary, but it seems to be unavailable now.  Luckily the film can be found among several online libraries. It takes a bit of looking, but thoroughly worth the time if you want to get a glimpse. The film is not only a document of the times, it’s also the first work of someone who would go on to be a towering figure in film.  “Tricia’s Wedding” was produced by Mark Lester, who later went on to become one of Hollywood’s most bankable directors, with über-hits like Stephen King’s thriller Firestarter (1984) and Commando (1985) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Many of du Plenty’s biographers and casual observers have posited that it was his time with The Cockettes was responsible for his understanding of production and direction.  These skills were useful, but it was Tomata’s natural talent, his charisma and his native understanding of society and satire that were probably more important traits he’d already acquired…after all, his major influence was as an agent provocateur (although a very nice one) and his ability to engage in on-the-spot guerilla theater whether in the streets, in the theater or onstage with one of his bands

After leaving The Cockettes, (before the release of Tricia’s Wedding) Tomata headed north to Seattle.  in 1970 he began to put together his own gender-bending, street performance art troupe-cum-hippie drag community, Ze Whiz Kidz.  This was at a time that street art and off-the-cuff public performances were burgeoning in Seattle.  One notable performance artist working at the time was Seattle native Johanna Went, who would eventually land in L.A. and become one of the most provocative, most extreme performance artists of this or any other era.  It’s said that Tomata du Plenty was a recipient of Seattle’s “one-percent-for-art” program when he arrived in Seattle.  It’s true that Seattle was one of the first U.S. cities to adopt funding the arts in public spaces, but the  “one-percent-for-art ordinance” was not enacted until 1973.  Perhaps du Plenty was partially funded by some other program in the early days, or past biographers have simply misidentified the period that he was funded.  In any event he quickly went about forming the core of his troupe that included Gorilla Rose (Michael Farris), Satin Sheets (Dennis Weikel, later known as J. Satz Beret of The Lewd), Melba Toast (who would become Tommy Gear when he and du Plenty formed the band The Screamers), Rhina Stone, Palm Springs, Co Co Ritz, Rio de Janeiro (David Gulbransen), Daily Flo, Benny Whiplash, Michael Hautepants (costume designer Michael Murphy), Leah Vigeah,  Louise Lovely (Di Linge), Valerie Allthetime (DePonty), and Cha Cha Samoa (Cha Davis).

Roger Downey authored an overview of a 2006 celebratory exhibition of Ze Whiz Kidz at Seattle’s annual arts and music festival, Bumbershoot called Between Garage & Grunge: Glitter, Glam and Proto-Punk in Seattle’s Subversive ’70s He took time to speak with Larry Reid, Seattle’s doyen of alternative arts and music, who was a co-curator of the exhibition.  Downey reports;

“No one would write about these shows, recalls Larry Reid, then a young man in the early ’70s. The Times and P-I (daily newpapers) couldn’t have cared less about one-night cabaret performances and non-theatrical happenings that featured queer content, improv, drag comedy, loud music, and calculatedly poor taste. The Weekly—launched in 1976—was too snooty, and The Rocket  (Seattle’s authoritative magazine concerning local and national music and culture) didn’t yet exist”. And the scene that Reid and Martin Imbach document in ‘Between Garage & Grunge: Glitter, Glam and Proto-Punk in Seattle’s Subversive ’70s’ would no longer exist by the ’80s. It morphed away from pansexual stage performance to traditional music categories—punk, New Wave, and (much later) grunge—and was mostly forgotten.

Downey goes on;

“What were the shows like? Loud, campy, joyous, with the audience sometimes joining the Kidz onstage. “We would call it performance art today,” says Reid. “There was no template to it”—more an amalgam of rock, glam, drag performance, and lingering hippie culture. ‘There’s a very direct connection. Seattle had a long hangover from the ’60s.’ For those who weren’t there, the spirit would later be codified somewhat by ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ and in John Waters movies.

In 1973 Tomata du Plenty would bow out from Ze Whiz Kidz and return to his hometown, New York City.  He and one of The Cockettes, Fayette Hauser joined him to create  ‘guerrilla comedy’ at various East Village clubs, including CBGB.  The two opened for bands then-unknown outside NYC  like the Ramones and Blondie. “I used to do Pat Suzuki between their sets” said du Plenty, in reference to the Japanese-American Broadway performer known for her song ‘I Enjoy Being A Girl’ in ‘Flower Drum Song’.  Other former Cockettes and Whiz Kidz showed up in New York City; Gorilla Rose, John Flowers, and Sweet Pam Tent.  In 1973 Tomata and his cohorts produced two Palm Casino Revues at the Bouwerie Lane Theater, an off Broadway theater that had been transformed from a late 19th century bank.  Tomata du Plenty and Fayette Hauser opened a vintage store on Mott Street that remained unnamed during it’s life.  They also wrote a gossip column called “Hollywood Spit“for an adult journal called Naked News.  Eventually ‘Hollywood Spit’ would be taped and shown on public access TV.  Clearly, there was always a project to work on as well as planning one for just around the corner.

That next project around the corner would be Tomata’s return to Seattle in 1974.  The times and cultural zeitgeist had changed. The geurilla theater that had been so useful earlier in the decade was making way for newer, more provocative tactics and attitudes. As time moved on he set his sites on creating a band called The Tupperwares.  The band included other seminal figures on the Seattle scene….and beyond.  The Tupperwares included ex-Whiz Kidz Tomata du Plenty, Tommy Gear (who was still using his drag name “Melba Toast”) and Rio de Janeiro (David Gulbransen) who’s mother Laurie had been the decades-long owner and manager of beloved Dog House restaurant-where “friends meet friends” and featured on it’s menu “Rib Eye Steak (Tenderness not guaranteed)”.  After Laurie Gulbransen’s death, her son David would take her place until the restaurant was closed in 1994 ).

Back-up vocals were provided by Pam Lillig and Ben Witz (Ben Rabinowitz,later of The Girls) and Bill Rieflin on drums who would go on to play for The Blackouts, Ministry, Pigface, Revolting Cocks, R.E.M. and most recently the newly the re-formed King Crimson.  The band also included a very young Eldon Hoke who later became the notorious “El Duce” of The Mentors. 

According to synthpop.com
“The first Tupperwares show was a short concert at the Moore Theater in Seattle. The event was the premiere of the John Waters movie, “Pink Flamingos,” and the theater wanted to have some sort of musical event to open the night. The Tupperwares, Tomata du Plenty, Rio de Janeiro a
nd Melba Toast, each on vocals, were backed by The Telepaths. Each Tupperware sang one song on lead, with Tomata doing “I’m Going Steady With Twiggy” and Rio doing “Eva Braun.” (cowritten by Erich Werner and Bill Rieflin of the Telepaths). A third song, “Instamatic Fanatic,” with Melba on lead, was pulled at the last minute”.

A second show had been planned for April 18, 1976 at Seattle’s Polish Hall.  The show was to be called ‘The T-T-Oh! Show’ since the line up was The Tupperwares, The Telepaths and Oh! Henry.  Unfortunately the show was cancelled

On May 1st 1976 The Tupperwares joined The Meyce and The Telepaths to perform for the “TMT Show” at Seattle’s Oddfellows Hall (915 East Pine St.); a show that is one of the touchstones of Seattle music history.  It is regarded by many in the musical community as the first departure from the local popularity of big arena bands and top 40 radio to a wider, more experimental and all-encompassing D.I.Y. culture.  In short it is considered the beginning of punk rock in Seattle.  TMT was the acronym for the Tupperwares, Meyce and The Telepaths.

In a May 1981 issue of Rescue Magazine (Seattle) Neil Hubbard recounts that for The TMT Show The Tupperwares  played the songs  ‘I’m Going Steady With Twiggy’, ‘Eva Braun’, ‘Instamatic Fanatic’ and ‘possibly other songs’
Neil went on to say
“Admission to the TMT Show was one dollar (yes, $1), about a hundred people showed up, the groups paid for the room and made their nut. This show (please correct me if I’m wrong) was the first self-promoted show in town. The bands rented the hall, got a P.A. and DID IT. It was as much fun or more than many of the shows now.” At the time Hubbard believed a tape existed.

Meyce consisted of Jim Basnight on guitar and vocals, Paul Hood on Bass and vocals, Pam Lillig on guitar, Lee Lumsden on drums and Jennie Skirvin doing vocals)  Basnight would go on to form the power-pop group The Moberlys, Paul Hood who went on to play with The Toiling Midgets, The Enemy and Student Nurse among other bands.  Pam Lillig would later join The Girls on guitar.  Lee Lumsden became the chronicler of all things first-wave punk in Seattle (and beyond) with Chatterbox, a fanzine he co-created with future promoter and later head of Engram Records, Neil Hubbard.  Lee later recorded with James Husted under the name The Celestial Pymies, and co-founded The Guardians.  In his 2011 book The Strangest Tribe author Stephen Tow asks;

“Don’t know Lee? You should, if you have any interest in Seattle music. Along with a handful of folks like Jim Basnight, Neil Hubbard, and Rob Morgan, Lee essentially created the Seattle music scene out of thin air in the mid-’70s”. Jennie Skirvin (now Jennie Brott) was a regular on the Seattle punk rock social scene during the 1970’s and ’80s, but gave up performing.  She now keeps up with all her old friends and makes her way to the odd concert here and there.   She has many many friends who adore her.

The third band included in the TMT Show was The Telepaths.  Between the years 1975 and 1978 The Telepaths included  (in various line-ups) Geoff Cade, Mike Davidson and Allen McNabe/Michaels on Bass, Dean Hegleson and Bill Rieflin on drums.  Dave Demetre played saxophone at one point, and Homer Spence, Erich Werner and Reid Vance played guitars in the bands’ many incarnations.  Over the course of the band both Gregor Gayden and Curt Werner were vocalists.  The band transformed itself as The Blackouts over the years, with Mike Davidson, Bill Rieflin and Erich Werner at the band’s center. They were joined by Roland Barker, first on synthesizer and later on saxophone.  In 1981 Davidson left the band and was replaced by Roland’s brother Paul Barker.  The Blackouts are arguably the most innovative and fearless band to come out of Seattle.  They became incredibly popular but eventually moved to greener pastures.  After failed attempts at gaining wider recognition in Boston and L.A. bassist Paul Barker and drummer Bill Rieflin eventually hooked up with Chicago’s Al Jourgenson and became crucial members of the industrial/metal band Ministry.

Both Gregor Gayden and Homer Spence have passed on.  Spence suffered a fatal heart attack in 1991.  Aside from The Telepaths Homer Spence had been involved with several projects, including Engram Records, The Blackouts, Pink Section, The Macs and The Fastbacks; but he will probably be most well known as the smartest, most affable and interesting Economics Professor turned Cab Driver turned bartender to ever sling a beer in Seattle.  For years he worked behind the bar of First Avenue’s Virginia Inn.  He could often be found extending his working hours to include hours on the other side of the bar holding forth, dispensing his vast experiences, politics, talking philosophy and baseball.  Gregor Gayden went on to form his own band The Look and was another regular on the punk rock and alt rock circuit.  He died on January 30, 2008 of organ failure.  His obituary, in the Seattle Times of  January 30, 2008  reported quite correctly that:
“Gregory touched so many with his great, big spirit; his sensibilities, as a performer in Seattle’s early punk era,political, historical, cinematic; his verbiage deft (“oops, did I say orientate? Sorry, that was an occident!”). He was amazed and amused by wildlife, Alaska fishing crew, spectacular food, sartorial splendor. He loved life. His heart failed. Our hearts broke.”

In a 2017 essay, Seattle cultural and musical historian Jeff Stevens revealed his upcoming book ‘City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle’ included a summation of the TMT era by Erich Warner;

“Our whole attitude as a gang was a perpetual state of anger about our environment. We opposed just about everything we felt Seattle stood for. We hated suburbia; we were completely opposed to complacent happiness, and we felt the world at large wouldn’t tolerate us. People constantly called us names because of how we looked, so we had a strong identity, a them-and-us polarity.”

So it was with this attitude that Tomata du Plenty, Tommy Gear (who’d dropped his drag name “Melba Toast”) and Rio de Janeiro (David Gulbransen) decided to leave Seattle to find success in Los Angeles.  Seattle lore clams that in late 1976, after legal threats from Tupperware Brands, the owners of the name, the band renamed themselves Gianni Bugatti, then settled on The Screamers.  The final name would be a good change since it carried with it a very punk rock image…one that would represent the sound they created better than The Tupperwares….better than just about anything

This article has been cobbled together from multiple sources.  Some of them are living people. Some are simply quotes from books (which are noted).  In some cases the sources are in conflict. Many of Tomata du Plenty’s friends and colleagues are still with us. If you have a correction, suggestion or omission please leave a message in the comments section.

-Dennis R. White.  Sources:   Mark Vallen; “Who was Tomata du Plenty?” (Art For a Change [blog], May 4, 2014); Brian Miller “Bumbershoot: Remembering Ze Whiz Kidz and Their Glam-Punk Descendants” (Seattle Weekly, October 31, 1970: Ze Whiz Kidz” (Countercultural Seattle Remembers, October 31, 2015); Brenden Mullen “Goodbye Tomata du Plenty” (L.A. Weekly, August 23, 2000); Mark Deming “The Screamers: The Great Lost Band of the First Wave of L.A. Punk” (Nightflight, September 14, 2015) “Population: 1”  (IMDb  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0091781/, Retrieved January 31, 2018); Dave Lang “The Screamers” (Perfect Sound Forever,  March 2000); “Screamers” Various reviews (fusetron, www.fusetronsound.com/label.php?whomart=SCREAMERS , Retrieved January 30, 2018);  “The Life and Times of Tomata du Plenty” (kickstarter,    https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2147432630/the-life-and-times-of-tomata-du-plenty/description); Mark Deming “The Screamers Biography” (allmusic.com retrieved February 1, 2018); Mark Spitz & Brenden Mullen “We Got The Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk” (Three Rivers Press-New York, 2001); “The Tupperwares”  (Synthpunk, www.synthpunk.org/screamers/history75.html , retrieved January 1, 2018); Roger Downey “Glitter and Be Gay: The inspirational extravagance of Seattle’s Whiz Kidz. (The Seattle Weekly, Oct 9 2006); Stephen Tow “The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge” (Sasquatch Books, 2001); Paul Hood “Meyce” (pnwbands.com  September 2002.  Retrieved January 28. 2018); Jacob McMurray “Taking Punk to the Masses: From Nowhere to Nevermind” (Fantagraphics Books, 2011); Art Chantry “Tomata du Plenty, Primal Screamers” (Madame Pickwick Art Blog, madamepickwickartblog.com/2011/08/tomata-du-plenty-primal-screamers . Retrieved January 2, 2018); “Tricia’s Wedding” (IMDb.com, Retrieved January 31,2018); Lee Lumsden “You Don’t Know Anyone Until You Know The Screamers” (Chatterbox issue 6, Summer/Fall, 1977); “Population: 1” (IMDb.com, Retrieved February 3. 2018) Leslie Meyers (Contribution, February 4, 2018

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They signed him on the spot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

 

 

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

The Black And White Affair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DJ Supreme also observed;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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,