Northwest Music History: 1990s

Penta Leslee Swanson

Penta Leslee Swanson in the kitchen. Paris 1996

“I should have been born in Seattle” Penta Leslee Swanson tells me. “Instead I was born in Wenatchee Washington on September 14, 1962, though I never lived there. My parents were visiting my grandmother in Moses Lake. At the time there was no hospital in Moses Lake so they had to drive almost 70 miles to Wenatchee.  That was the closest hospital…That’s where  I was born. The Deaconess Hospital in Wenatchee Washington

That first long trip was a prologue to the peripatetic life of the girl born Leslee Swanson.  Although she went by the name Leslee growing up and in the early stages of career, let’s dispense with the earlier name and use ‘Penta’ just to keep things clear.

“I knew from the time I was a child that I was a singer. I just knew that’s what I wanted to do. I always knew that was what I wanted to do. I grew up in a household with a sister who was 11 years older and she was a big Beatles fan. So I grew up listening to popular music… especially the Beatles. It was just something that I loved all my life. My mom raised me and two of my brothers as a single parent.  We grew up all over in Seattle. We moved all the time. We moved every six months to a year. It was nuts”.

 “I started in my first band when I was 13” says Penta, who was still known as Leslee to her friends and family. “We did cover songs. I don’t even remember the name of the band, but I was hooked. That was it. I got asked to be in other bands over the next few years, and sang in a couple of them. One of the bands I played in was with Richard Stuverud. He played with The Fastbacks for awhile in the 1980s. When Richard was in my band we used to call him ‘Dickie’.

“When I was 15 I had a boyfriend named Jeff Gilbert. He was really cute back then, and quite a bit older than me. He and I wrote songs together and I did my first recording with him when I was just barely 16  at a studio on Queen Anne Hill called ‘Big and Famous Studio’ We recorded about 6 or 7 songs. I actually have cassette copies of the tapes. The songs were super-pop. I think Jeff was trying to go for a Beatle-esque kind of thing. even though he was a big Rolling Stones fan. It was really cute, really sweet music Jeff Humphrey from the Seattle band The Moving Parts drummed with us sometimes.  John Nay who’d go on to play in The Lewd and The Frazz also recorded with us.

As improbable as it may seem the Jeff Gilbert that Penta mentions is the same Jeff Gilbert of Seattle heavy-metal fame. Jeff wrote about metal bands for The Rocket, Playboy, Spin, Britain’s Kerrang! and as a contributing editor for Guitar World. He was manager of  Seattle’s Mansplat Record Store and managing editor of their magazine, Mansplat! He compiled a series of ‘fanboy’ movie reviews from Mansplat! Magazine called ‘Drinkin’ & Drive-in: Horror, Sci-Fi, Beer Vol. 1.’  According to Viral Recordings blog ‘...the reviews are offbeat, darkly humorous and wickedly insightful”.

Jeff Gilbert outside The Feedback Lounge in West Seattle.

 Jeff is also the author of ‘Trick or Shriek’ and ‘Camp Vampires’ two schlocky booksfull of horror movie clichés and teen-age terror…on purpose.  In fact, Gilbert  has plenty of serious journalism under his belt.  He was a long-time disc jockey for Seattle’s KZOK radio and  introduced his listeners to unknown metal bands that would go on to be stars. He also gave the local guys airplay. He was one of the co-owners of Seattle’s rock hangout/bar The Feedback Lounge. The bar lasted from 2009 to 2015 and was a “must visit” for music fans, and tourists taking in the Seattle music scene.  Jeff might be best known for the ongoing appearance on the ‘Lame List’, self-deprecating sketches on Almost Live!,a local show that aired between 1984 and 1999 on Seattle’s KING TV.

Local comedian John Keister’s hosted the show from 1988 to 1999, which is the era the show is best known for.  Almost Live!  was later re-edited to remove ‘local place-names, and broadcast on Comedy Central. It should be noted that Almost Live! also launched the career of Bill Nye, the Science Guy.

In short, Jeff has more Heavy Metal cred than many of the musicians he writes about.  He also has a wicked sense of humor.  He once said;

“Grunge isn’t a music style. It’s complaining set to a drop D tuning”.

Back let’s return to Penta’s story;
“One day Jeff Humphrey, the drummer from The Moving Parts came in while we were recording and said ‘You guys should hear this single that just came out, because you guys sound a lot like this! It was The Pretenders‘Kid’. So of course I fell in love with The Pretenders right then and there.

“I was working at Tower Records by then” says Penta. (Jeff Gilbert had worked there previously). “I was the youngest employee there. They put me in the back room re-sealing records that customers had returned.That was my job because nobody else wanted to do it”. Bill Larsen, who worked with Penta explains that Tower Records used to say ‘if you don’t like it, just bring it back‘.  When records got returned by customers we’d just send the returns down to the basement where there was a re-sealer.  So the records got re-sealed and we put them back on the racks” he says while laughing”.

“Bill Rieflin was also working in the back room at the time” Penta tells me. “He was the shipping and receiving guy.  That’s how I met him.. “Now he’s one of my best friends.  He never talked about being in a band or anything.  When I went to see Iggy Pop at the Showbox in Seattle, Bill’s band opened for Iggy…and there was Bill up on the drums. I thought ‘what are you doing up there?‘ (she laughs).  I had no idea. The band turned out to be The Blackouts. It was their first show”.

“So that’s how I got started” says Penta”.

While she was still in high school she started going to more shows.  Penta says she learned a lot more about music by expanding her experience of new music.  She also admits getting into bars and other places that she wasn’t supposed to get into because she was underage.  Later Penta moved into a house with some of The Blackouts and others who were or had been Seattle’s earliest practitioners of new, alternative and highly original music. It was during the time she lived with them that she started The Dynette Set.

TAKE ME TO YOUR LEADER The Pudz.
Rob Morgan, Mark Halterlein,
Dave Drewry, Dave Locksley

“Around this time I saw Rob Morgan’s group The Pudz” Penta says. “I just flipped. I just loved The Pudz. Then I thought ‘this would be so great, but with chicks” she says with a laugh. “So that’s how I got the idea for The Dynette Set. I thought ‘there’s this whole genre of music; this ‘girl group’ thing that nobody ever thinks about’. So I just put my ideas together and started talking to different people”.

There was lots to love about Rob Morgan and The Pudz as well as his later band, the long-running (now re-united) band The Squirrels. Over the years Rob has been backed by some of Seattle’s best musicians while he weaves in and out of pop songs and mashes them up at a dizzying speed.  It’s both comic and jaw-dropping in it’s expansive brilliance. Morgan careens onstage, makes his way into the audience, sometimes leading conga lines out the door, then back to the stage…all the while singing.

“One day at Tower Records Penta was re-sealing records” Bill Larsen tells me. “We started talking and asking ‘What kind of music are you into?‘ She said, ‘Well I’m really into the Beatles and Ronnie Spector,The Ronettes, and Darlene Love’ and I said, ‘Shit! this is what I’m into’.  Then she says ‘I want to start a band‘ and I told her ‘well count me in’.  It was kind of funny because I’d just met Dave Drewry a couple of weeks before that.  She told me “I have a drummer named Dave Drewry, so I told her ‘Yeah, I know Dave. I just met him.  He’s a great guy!’”

“Dave Drewry was the first person I talked to about it” according to Penta. “I said ‘I really want to put this band together and do something like you’re doing in The Pudz, but with women, doing ‘girl group’ stuff’. He loved that kind of music and he said ‘yeah, yeah, sure‘ just brushing me off.  Finally I made a demo tape at a studio that was then in Pioneer Square. I sang vocals over the top of Ronnie Spector and all those people. I played it over the phone for Dave.  He got excited and he said ‘Oh wow! These sound really great with you singing’. Dave said ‘You should talk to this person and to that person’ so I approached Bill Larsen, a guitarist that played in The Loud Ties. Then I talked to Riki Mafune. She was also someone that Dave recommended. I called her and immediately fell in love with her.

Riki Mafune remembers meeting Leslee the first time.  Riki now refers the young woman she met as Penta. the She says “I knew a lot of the people…Bill Larsen and Penta worked together at Tower Records at the Mercer Avenue store.  Before that Penta had worked at Budget Tapes and Records on ‘The Ave’ (the nickname for University Way near The University of Washington).  I knew Bill and I knew Brent Pennington because Brent and I were dating.  At the time Brent was in one of Seattle’s early punk-power pop bands The Girls. I was hanging out on The Ave a lot.  Bill and Brent already knew each other. Bill, Brent and Dave were walking musical encyclopaedias.. They had this musical bromance going on, which was cool. That’s how I met Penta.  Bill Larsen had heard Penta sing, but he hadn’t heard me. Rumor got around that I was a singer, songwriter and guitar player. Penta and I met at the frickin’ Frankfurter hot dog stand on University Way of all places.  We talked over Penta’s concept.  I knew The Girls were kind of on their last legs for a lot of different reasons.  Brent was looking for a gig and Dave was playing with just about every band in town.  He was heavily invested in Jim Basnights band The Moberlys and The Pudz. I’d known Rob Morgan of The Pudz forever!!!. I’ve known him longer than I’ve known Penta.

“Penta and I said ‘let’s put our heads together’. Dave Drewry was in.  Brent was in.  So  Dave and I went to talk to Penta,  Dave wanted to find a little bit more about what we wanted, so, Penta and I started talking about songs and looking into how to fill out the band, because we wanted that ‘girl group‘ format”.

It was 1980. Scott McCaughey was working at Cellophane Square Records in the University District. His girlfriend was Christy Wilson (later known as Christy McWilson after Scott and Christy married)  They had recently moved to Seattle from San Francisco.  Christy was working at The Deluxe Bar and Grill on Capitol Hill Broadway Avenue. Dave Drewry suggested her to Penta and Riki.  Dave only knew she was Scott’s girlfriend and that she sang.

“It all came together organically”. Says Riki.“Bill Larsen was already on board because he was totally into that genre and Dave Drewry was there..  Of course Penta and I were committed.

“Riki had done some songwriting”. Says Penta. “She was even younger than I was. After we met she said, ‘well I have this boyfriend and he’s played in a band’. It turned out to be Brent Pennington, who had been in The Girls, so he ended up being the guitar player. We did a whole lot of auditions for another vocalist, but nothing worked. People couldn’t sing; they thought they could, but they couldn’t. It was then that Dave said ‘there’s this woman that just moved here from San Francisco with her boyfriend. You should see about her. I heard that she sings’. Then we found out she was the same woman who was with Scott McCaughey.  Riki and I went over to her house to see her audition.

“Scott and Christy were living right off the freeway just south of 45th street. We were sitting there on their porch waiting for her”recalls Riki.. “I was the baby at 17 at the time all this was going down.  Penta was a little bit older than me. Christy said that when she walked up and saw us sitting on her porch she thought….well she later referred to us in a letter as  ‘teen queens’.  She thought we were chewing bubble gum, but I corrected her recently and said ‘No! We were eating Starbursts!‘ There I was  on her porch with my candy and my Marlboro Lights”

The three of them went inside and Christy put on a Connie Francis record and sang into an empty wine bottle, and danced around the room singing.

“We were like ‘who cares if she can sing? she’s hilarious!’. Penta says. “We thought she was great. Then she said ‘I have this boyfriend, and he plays the bass, if you need a bass player’. Of course that was Scott McCaughey. So that’s how The Dynette Set got put together. That was a really wonderful experience”

Their first gig was at The UCT Hall (United Commercial Travellers Hall) on lower Queen Anne Hill. It was Penta’s birthday, but she was still going by Lesslee back then” says Riki Mafune. “We literally took off from there. It was like a rocket! We opened for The Fastbacks.  Duff McKagan was drumming for them. We were nobody.  It was our first gig. It was a pretty good show, even though the crowd leaned a little more to the punk side than the pop side. But everybody seemed to dig us”.

It was probably this show and the nexus that would develop with Kurt Bloch and Scott McCaughey that led to The Dynette Set’s Christy McWilson, Riki Mafune and Leslee Swanson to provide back-up on two of The Fastback’s earliest recordings, ‘In America’ and ‘Whenever I’m Walking.

“I lived at Chez Macabre during this period” Penta says. Chez Macabre was a communal house that saw many of the early Seattle alternative scene had paraded through…too many to name here.

“Mike Davidson had just moved out and I took his room.  Roland Barker and Giselle Spence across the hall from me. Neil Hubbard and Mary Moyer were living in the basement.  Homer Spence was living on the main floor.  Mike Davidson and Roland Barker were in The Blackouts at the time. Roland became part of the band Ministry along with former members Bill Rieflin and Paul Barker. Neil went on to release the seminal album “The Seattle Syndrome” Volumes One and Two. He also released the first Blackouts album Men in Motion  on his Engram label. Giselle Spence would move to Hollywood and become a seamstress and costume designer for the film industry. Homer Spence was a former teacher who gave it up to become a member of the Telepaths and later a sort-of philosopher who drove cab and became one of Seattle’s most loved and respected bartender.  He was also a baseball fanatic who brought his television into the bar to watch every World Series.

Homer Spence. After work at The Virginia Inn.

According to Jeff Stevens of the City of Anxiety blog;

“Homer Spence deserves more than mere passing mention here, since he remains today a genuine legend within Seattle’s countercultural community. A native son of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Spence came to Seattle to teach (economics) at the University of Washington, but quit that gig to play music instead. He would then also work various common jobs to support himself, including cab driving and bartending at Belltown’s Virginia Inn. Spence died tragically of a heart attack on January 18, 1991. Homer is sorely missed to this day.

Kurt Werner had been a member of Seattle’s now-legendary band The Telepaths. His brother Erich Werner was a founding member of The Blackouts. Three of The Blackouts members, Bill Rieflin, Roland Barker and Paul Barker would later join Al Jourgensen to transform his synth-pop band Ministry, who had toured with new wave acts like The Police Culture Club, A Flock of Seagulls, Depeche Mode and Culture Club.  The four of them, with a bit of outside help from Adrian Sherwood and Keith LeBlanc turned Jourgensen’s original new wave band  into a caustic, severe,speed-dirge powerhouse. Ministry went on to be one of the most popular of the so-called industrial bands of the ‘80s and 90s.  Roland Barker was part of Ministry in 1986, but returned to the band in 1992 and 1993.  Rieflin left the band in 1994… midway during the recording of Filth Pig. Paul Barker (a.k.a. Hermes Pan) remained in Ministry 27 years, when he finally broke ties with Al Jourgensen.  It’s said that neither will talk to the other since the band’s break-up

“I stayed with The Dynette Set less than a year” Penta says. “I left Seattle in late 1982. I wanted to go to the big city and be in the arts community. I chose New York and just decided to go”. When I first got to New York I was just getting oriented, and getting over my culture shock. According to Riki Mafune;

“After Penta left The Dynette Set, all we knew was that we were being offered gigs, so we did some auditions for a new singer which was really hard because the original line-up, as I said before, happened organically. We had all just really jibed. So in finding a third voice, a third front person we just lucked-out. We found Shelley Stockstill and she just stepped right in. She was there for the main run of The Dynette Set. She was such a workhorse…we all were, but she was totally invested, never missed a gig.  We were really lucky to find her because if we hadn’t found her I’m not real sure we would have continued”.

The change from Penta to Shelley seems to have gone unnoticed by some.  Shelley and Penta had similar looks and the same colored hair. “Well.she is taller than me and she’s younger..by nine years” Shelley says. “One night out when we were out in Belltown we found out we were both born in the same hospital; The Deaconess in Wenatchee.  They only had one birthing room!”

Sometime in the early 1980s Penta recorded a version of a song written by Jackie DeShannon called Each Time.  It had  been a 1965 hit for The Searchers.  Penta’s recording includes  Phil Motlet on bass, Dave Drewry on drums, Robert T. Dale on guitar, Bill Larsen on guitar and percussion and  Leslee Swanson on vocals. Engineer and co-producer with Steve Larsen was Terry Date. 

“That was kind of cool. We recorded it in a day”says Penta.”But it deserved more time. We recorded it at Steve Lawson’s studio with Terry Date.  Terry was the in-house producer at Lawson’s studio at the time. He went on to become a big local metal producer. Metal wasn’t really his thing but he knew how to get the sound. He was a really nice guy to us. Considering the time we had to do it in I thought he did a pretty good job.  We sent the demo to Gary Stewart at Rhino Records and he said ‘Yeah we’re gonna get it done.  We’re gonna put this track on one of our records’, so we said ‘OK! Great!!!”

The song Each Time appeared on the Rhino Records compilation The Girls Can’t Help It released in 1984. The date of the recording is unclear but it’s clearly after Penta left The Dynette Set.  There is also have a track on  The Girls Can’t Help It by The Dynette Set. The song is Seed of Love was written by Penta’s replacement Shelley Stockstill.  The band is the rest of the classic Dynette Set line up.  The track was produced by Jim Wolfe.  Both songs are as much fun as you’d expect coming from the young Leslee Swanson and from The Dynette Set. Although the album was deleted from the Rhino catalogue years ago, it’s still fairly easy to find through collectors on vinyl

Penta continues her story by explaining how her name came about.

Penta and Eliot Crimson

“I was born Leslee Swanson, but now I go by Penta Leslee Swanson. Penta was just a word that came to me that I really liked. When I went to New York City, Kurt Werner came to pick me up at the airport. I knew who he was, but I had never met him before. I was going to stay at Jim Basnight’s place and Kurt was already living there.  At least  I thought his name was “Kurt so that’s what I called him.  The first time I did he said ‘my name is Eliot Crimson!’  I said ‘OH! excuse me’  I thought to myself  ‘well, where did that come from?’. Then he told me a little about the back-story which I don’t remember. I do remember him telling me how he re-named all of his friends in a book he’d written.  He changed the names of his friends into all these crazy names”

“I told him if I was ever going to change my name it would be to Penta. He said ‘PENTA??? Oh my god that’s Fantastic!’ He flipped over it. Jim Basnight was in Seattle at the time so Eliot took me out to see New York that night. We hit it off right away. I was crazy about him and vice-versa. Everywhere we went that night he introduced me as Penta and I really liked it. So I just kept the name and I’ve used it ever since.  I was 19 at the time. Later I figured out things about the name. In Greek it means five and I’m the fifth of five children and five is my birth path number in numerology.  When you add up all the numbers of my birthdate it becomes a five. My mother was an astrologer. She was quite a remarkable woman.  I grew up surrounded by psychics and numerologists and astrologers and palm readers and all that.

In 1983 Eliot and Penta  moved back to Seattle and spent a year living on Capitol Hill. “I wasn’t doing anything except being Eliot’s girlfriend”  Penta says. I was just dealing with Eliot because he was a handful! We’d sit around and play music together but we never did any shows. I did work with The Moving Parts for a bit. Damon Titus and I got together and started talking about possibilities, but we didn’t do anything.

“I went back to New York City in 1984, and right away I got involved in a cabaret group called Mader and his Biarritz Orchestra” Penta recalls. Mader (born in 1958 as Thierry Schollhammer in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France)  was the leader of a 13 piece band. “He played guitar and accordion and sang” says Penta. “I also sang and we had three violins, contrabass, woodwinds and horns, a flute and a clarinet …it was a wonderful band. It was really my dream. We were doing stuff from Brecht/Weill, and Edith Piaf, so I was singing in French and German, and of course some English. That was a really great experience. I’d been learning Piaf songs on my own for years. I just loved her work. I wasn’t taught French. I just sang it phonetically. Now I speak fluent French because I lived in France so long but I didn’t know any of it back then.

In the early 1980s Mader was playing clubs around New York City that included trendy hotspots like Danceteria, The Limelight and The Pyramid Club.  In 1984 he released a solo album based on his cabaret performances called Tangobidet.  It was voted best album of 1984 by the then-influential Details magazine.  According Mader’s official biography ‘He became an overnight cult sensation.  Somewhere between Yves Montand and Lou Reed, well out of the pop mainstream. Mader’s bold performances of Tangobidet in New York City’s main clubs fascinated audiences because of it’s timeless originality in stark contrast to the New Wave trends of the time’.”

Mader and Penta New York City’s cutest couple ,1984

At that time Details magazine also called Mader and Penta ‘New York’s cutest couple’.

After success in New York, Mader and Penta moved to Strasbourg, France. Mader had gotten a job offer to be be a producer at a recording studio there. “It turned out to be a total disaster” says Penta. “We hated Strasbourg. We only stayed there two months. Then we went down to his parent’s place in Marseilles and then to Paris. In fact we were travelling between Marseilles and Paris the entire time we were in Marseilles. That’s when I met Hector Zazou in Paris.

Zazou is a legendary figure in contemporary French music. He is adored in France and internationally recognized for his work that combined the work of popular western musicians with folk musicians from Africa, Asia and Europe.  He was a skilled musician and avant-gardiste with a cult following around the world.  Zazou was born Pierre Job on July 11,1948 in the town of Sidi Bel Abbès in Algeria while it was still a French colony. His father was French and his mother Spanish. After the Algerian war of independence his family was part of the 900,000 Pieds-noir (Algerian-born Europeans) that fled to France in 1962.  Many of the Pieds-noir settled in and around Marseille.  The French government was not prepared for the chaos such a large number of refugees that were a sudden influx to France.

Hector Zazou

There are many theories how the term Pieds-noir came about. The term literally means ‘Black Feet’ According to Le Dictionnaire Robert one possible establishment of the term Pieds-noir dates back 1901 to describe sailors working barefoot in the coal rooms of ships.  These sailors’ feet would be dirtied by the soot and dust of the coal they used to power the vessel.. Around the Mediterranean this often referred to Algerians working on ships. It was a pejorative label for Algerians until around the middle of the 20th century, when it began refer to the French born in Algeria. It slowly went from a racial epithet (used against native-African Algerians) to become synonymous for the French people who had colonized Algeria.

In the mid 1960s, after Pierre Job’s family having been evacuated from Algeria, Pierre re-named himself to Hector Zazou and founded an artists’ commune that occupied a ruined castle near Marseille. He had chosen the name Zazou’ to refer to a non-conformist youth movement during the Nazi occupation of France.  The Zazou’s were similar to the Zoot Suit culture of the United States, but they had a political bent, and were defiant (as much as they could be) toward their German occupiers.  It was a way for the former Pierre Job to show his defiance to the norms of music and culture.

Mader had been part of Zazou’s commune in the 1970s before striking out on his own, but he and Zazou had remained friends since then.

 “Zazou heard me sing, and he loved my voice” says Penta. “Right away asked me if I would sing in his band. I said ‘Yes! of course!’ and I ended up doing a little tour with them in Europe during 1986. The band was fronted by the well-known Congolese singer Bony Bikaye.

Bony Bikaye and Hector Zazou

Bikaye was not what one would think of as a typical, traditional African artist.  His musical interests included  Krautrock and Karlheinz Stockhausen. He was also an early advocate of using synth-loops, sequencing. the latest electronic studio techmiques and wild avant-garde musical themes.

Later Pitchfork magazine said of his collaboration with Hector Zazou on the 1983 album ‘Noir et Blanc’ (Black and White) ‘The electronic musicians Guillaume Loizillon and Claude Micheli (collectively known as the duo CY1), laid down knotty sequences and gurgling metallic textures while Bikaye multi-tracked his voice in warm, woozy layers…They sound wonderfully alien: weird, vine-like tangles of arpeggiated synthesizer and sweetly harmonized vocals, robotic and ghostly all at once’.”

During the European Hector Zazou/Bony Bikaye tour that included  Penta, Bikaye left most of the studio effects and electronica behind in favor of a more Afrocentric approach to music. Instead of the “weird, vine like tangles” he favored African Pop infused with European overtones.

“There were two African backup singers touring with Bikaye who had really great voices” Penta says. “We sang in Congolese dialects, Lingala, Kikongo, Swahili and in French.  I had no idea what the hell I was singing.  It turns out it was very heavy political stuff.  It was really great and a really fantastic experience”.

Meanwhile Mader had returned to the United States where he began building a career as a respected soundtrack composer for film and television.  He combined his fascination with the music of Ennio Morricone, Henry Mancini, Nino Rota, Maurice Ravel and French popular music of the 1920s that he’d heard as a child from his grandparents collection of of old 78rpm records.  He infused these influences with his own unique musical sensibilities.  It wasn’t long before he started scoring for important indie films by respected directors.  Starting with Ang Lee’s films ‘The Wedding Banquet’ and ‘Eat Drink, Man Woman’. He went on to score Robert Greenwald’s ‘Steal This Movie’ (based on the life of Abbie Hoffman), Duane Baughman and Johnny O’Hara’s documentary Bhutto, about the life and assassination of the late Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto, Alexandre Rockwell’s In The Soup, and Lisa Sprecher’s Clockwatchers among scores of other television and film projects.  He even found time to record and release a second solo album 5 Legged Fish in 2013.

Back in France Penta, as well as other Seattle-based musicians Bill Rieflin and Fred Chalenor continued to work with Hector Zazou. Bieflin and Chalenor worked with  Robert Fripp, Matt Chamberlain, Hector Zazou and Pete Buck as part of the Slow Music Project in 2005 and 2006. Sadly, Chalenor passed away June 23, 2018 of early onset Alzheimer’s Disease.  Chalenor had collaborated with Wayne Horowitz and ex-Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper as well as being a member of the band  known best known by Seattleites, 3 Swimmers

Shortly after her tour with Zazou and Bikaye Penta returned to New York City where she met her first husband Carlo Altomare.

 “I met Carlo through a friend of mine that I was living with on Manhattan’s Lower East Side” Penta recalls. “Her name was Karey Degnan but she used to call herself Cruella De Ville. She had her hair like that and it was awesome”.

Cruella DeVille was well- known throughout the Lower East Side for years.

“We were high on mushrooms and we were crossing the street at Avenue A and 8th Street” Penta tells me. “Carlo was walking in the opposite direction and we met in the middle of the street. Later he came over to Karey’s and when I moved he kept following me wherever I went. So we got together pretty quickly”.

“We lived at the Alchemical Theater space. We were squatting at the Alchemical Theater space for three years. We built the theater at this squat and it was really fantastic. It was harsh, but it was awesome. Later we lived at The Living Theater’ Penta says laughingly. ‘We even lived with Gordon Raphael and Josie Lazo for awhile!”.

Penta and Carlo Altomare Photo: Ira Cohen

“Carlo had been the musical director and the one who did the music for The Living Theater.  “He and I also worked with Tim Wright of Pere Ubu. We had a trio at the time and collaborated together for the live for the music accompanying for The Living Theatre’s production of ‘The Tablets” Penta says.’The Tablets is amazing. It was such a new thing at the time…that would have been around 1986. Anyway, Tim Wright played the bass, I played all kinds of crazy percussive instruments and did my magic with sounds and voices. Carlo played piano which is his specialty. Carlo is amazing. He composed the music for The Living Theater for many years. He’s also a modern classical composer and pianist”

“The guy who wrote The Tablets is Armand Schwerner” Penta tells me. “He was the cousin of Michael r.”

Michael Schwerner, along with Andrew Goodman and James Cheney were abducted and murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in June of 1964. The three of them were involved in the civil rights ‘Freedom Summer’ and on their way to an event in Meridian MS. They were pulled over for speeding outside Philadelphia Mississippi. The three were taken to the local jail, where they spent several hours. After being released the trio were followed by the police and a group of angry racists and Klansmen. The three were stopped again, but this time they were taken to a remote location and murdered. Schwerner and Goodman were shot in the heart and Cheney ( black man) was severely beaten and castrated before being killed by three shots. Their bodies were then shoved back into the Ford Station Wagon they had been driving and taken by the mob where they buried the men within an earthen dam that was then under construction. The car was later located in another location where it had been set ablaze.  The whole affair and original acquittal of many who took place was one of the most profound incentives for all Americans to come to believe Equal Rights were also the natural rights of minorities.

Penta as Mother Courage
Mother Courage and Her Children
U of O Robinson Theater March. 2018

The Living Theater is still going, even though Judith Malina who co-founded The Living Theater passed away in April of 2015.

Malina and her husband Julian Beck had started the theater company in 1947.  The first piece they did was written by Pablo Picasso.  They were a radical political theatre troupe that rose to prominence in New York City and Paris during the 1950s and 60s. The Living Theatre was originally established as an alternative to New York’s commercial theater and pioneered the unconventional staging of poetic drama. They produced plays by William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, John Ashbery, Paul Goodman and Kenneth Rexroth among others.  They also presented plays by Europeans whose works were rarely seen in the United States. These included Jean Cocteau, Bertolt Brecht, Luigi Pirandello and Federico García Lorca.  Julian Beck died in 1985, leaving his wife to capably run the theater for the next 30 years. In1983 The Living Theatre and its founders were the subject of the 1983 documentary Signals Through The Flames.

The Alchemical Theater has also come into prominence.  Aside from their own company they offer space at the re-named Alchemical Studio for several other theater companies to rehearse and perform.  Besides being it’s founder, Carlo Altomare, Penta’s former husband, is now it’s Artistic Director

.I was doing theater for quite awhile in the late 80s, but then I started writing songs” Penta says. “Jeff Cerar had moved to New York City and I played with him for awhile.  We did my songs and he accompanied me on guitar.  We’d do bar gigs around the East Village. That was really fun. It was kind of a weird fluke that we happened to find out we were both in New York at the same time.I don’t remember how that came about.  Somebody must have told me. After a short period performing with Jeff Cerar, Penta set her sights on the theater again.

“I did a show in New York City with Sharon Gannon, David Life and Kathleen Hunt at The Limbo Lounge in the East Village” Penta says. “I was working with Sharon at the time at David Life’s Life Café. “I performed in the nude and sang accapella..just making noises and sounds and sang doing all sorts of crazy stuff with my voice. It was really wild. Sharon and Kathleen danced. I had painted all my body white and did accents on my breasts and accents on my pubic area. It was funny because Eliot had come to see that show and he brought Larry Reid and John Bigley with him.The U-Men were in town playing. They opened for Nick Cave at Danceteria.

Penta then began a collaboration with Tuxedomoon bassist Peter Principle (born Peter Dachert, in 1954 in Queens, New York).

“Peter produced a bunch of demos for me when I was in New York, right before Carlo and I moved to Prague. He was an amazing guy and a great musician. I had a bunch of songs and went to his place.  He had a recording set up; a reel to reel,  so we recorded six of my songs. I played accoustic guitar and sang.  Peter played all the other instruments”.

Unfortunately Peter died July 17, 2017.  His friend and bandmate Blaine Reininger, posted a message on facebook that said Peter ;was found in his room at Les Ateliers Claus in Brussels, where Tuxedomoon has been preparing a new tour and new music. He was the apparent victim of a heart attack or stroke’.

In 1990 Penta made another trip to Seattle.  Carlo followed her and in that year, where their daughter Casimira was born.  Soon Penta was back to work, While Carlo played briefly with the band Sky Cries Mary, alongside  Ivan Král .  Penta says she remembers Ivan used to call Carlo ‘New York; He’d call out to Carlo by saying ‘Hey!.New York!”

“In 1991 when I was in Seattle, I went into the studio with Bill Reiflin, Mike Davidson and Ivan Král. We did three of my songs and a couple of Ivan’s songs. I remember one of his songs was called ‘Cry For More’  (the song Bill Rieflin mentions) and Ivan had me sing lead vocals on it.  Ironically I saw Ivan Král again in Prague because after they’d opened the borders he went back there to play music.  A good friend of mine in Prague played with him, so I saw Ivan again”.

“We did a live gig together in Seattle” continues Penta.  “Ivan Král played guitar.  I don’t remember who played drums.  Mike Davidson played bass.  Bill Rieflin was kind of upset when I told him we did the gig.  He asked ‘Why didn’t you ask me to play drums?’  I said  ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t think you’d want to’.  It was for the ‘Alternative to Loud Boats’ event  that is held every summer when the Hydroplane races take place in Seattle.  It was held over by Seattle Central Community College on Capitol Hill.  I did that show a couple of times; once with Jesse Bernstein.  That was really fun. Another year we held it down by the railroad tracks somewhere, and the trains kept passing by (laughs) It was terrible.

In 1992 Penta and Carlo and moved to Prague.  Carlo had been offered a job as a Theater Professor at The University of Prague.  Penta  convinced Mike Davidson to move there with then. Mike was a ‘super-good friend’  according to Penta. He lived with Penta and Carlo when they moved there. He and Penta did  a lot of shows together in Prague…just the two of them on their own.

“Oh my god, it was totally wild in Prague!!” Penta tells me while laughing. It was right after The Velvet Revolution that freed the country from Communist rule.  “Some people told me it was like Amsterdam in 1968. We rented a place that cost us about  $42 a month. Prague is a great city, but I was really glad to get out too.  While I was living there I was going to Paris and working with Hector Zazou on a regular basis.  I ended up doing an album that he produced in Paris while I was travelling back and forth from Prague.  It was about half my own songs and half covers.  His treatment of the music was really interesting.  The album was called ‘Sorrow and Solitude‘. Zazou did a really fantastic job on it, but it really wasn’t me”  Penta says.  “It was very different than what I probably would have done myself, but it’s a beautiful record. Zazou had his own studio in Paris during the early 1992, but it wasn’t released until 1993 on the German label, Erdenklang.

Penta may be understating what she and Zazou came up with in recording ‘Sorrow and Solitude’ 

Ira Cohen (February 3, 1935 – April 25, 2011) was an American poet, publisher, photographer and filmmaker. He spent the 1960s living between in Morocco and in New York City.  Penta met Ira through her husband,Carlo Altomare in New York City during the mid 80s.  Later Penta  introduced Ira Cohen to Zazou.  She also introduced Bill Rieflin to Zazou.  Ira took the cover photo for ‘Sorrow and Solitude’ and wrote some of the notes for the album. including;

“Imagine whatever you will, but know that it is not imagination but experience which makes poetry, and that behind every image, behind every word there is something I am trying to tell you, something that really happened.” -Ira Cohen”.

“Ira wasn’t a musician” says Penta but I used his poem Annapurna Moon for my song on Return to Alpha.

“On Sorrow and Solitude, Penta Leslee Swanson bares her sole with her voice” reviewer Lynn Freedman wrote in 2006. “Picture a dimly lit alley way in Paris on a warm summer night. A haunting sax leads you into a small, unpretentious bar. Just you, the bartender and the jazz combo. On the stage a sultry singer is at the mike. She sings slowly and deeply, with eyes cast down.
Sorrow and Solitude
is bluesy, moody, and unlike anything you’ve probably heard. Music for times of deep reflection, or deep relationships.”

I’m not sure if she’s being tongue-in-cheek or serious when Penta tells me “I missed  the whole “grunge” thing that was happening in Seattle. but  I do remember seeing Nirvana all over on European television.

“After we moved to Prague with our daughter we had a friend there named Vladimir Penta says. “One day Vladimir asked (here Penta goes into a fake Russian/Slavic voice). ‘Why are you naming your daughter Cazz-ee-meer-a?’ We said ‘Because it means ‘the bringer of peace’ which is what I thought. Vladimir said ‘no,no,no. Vlad-ee-meer is bringer of peace. Cazz-ee-meer-a  is ‘BREAKER of peace.  Penta says they all had a good laugh, since they’d chosen Casimira because to Carlo, as an Italian-American thought that it sounded more Italian than Slavik”.

“By that time I was really just doing my own stuff. I had a band in Paris simply called Penta at the time and I went through different band members over the next few years.  Hector Zazou did a couple of shows playing in my band. I also did some recordings that were possibly going to be on one of his albums, Chansons des mers froides (Songs from the Cold Seas). He record three songs with me, but none of them came out on the album. I have the demos I did with him.

James Trussart with his Rust-O-Matic Fleur de Lys SteelCaster guitar.    2013

“In 1994 I split up with my first husband Carlo.  I went to Berlin to think about the path I was going to take” Penta says.  “I had a German boyfriend in Berlin named Tenta. Really. It was Penta and Tenta! No one believed it!  Then I relocated to Paris full time. In 1994.  I met James Trussart, who became my second husband. Our first date was on my 32nd birthday, September 14th 1994.  James is a world-renowned guitar maker- a Luthier who has become much like the 1960’s British Luthier named Tony Zemaitis. James makes amazingly beautiful guitars. I think he’s the greatest guitar maker in the world. I’m slightly biased but I do think he’s the greatest. They sound fantastic!”

Zemaitis was born Antanas Kazimieras Žemaitis in London in 1935.  His family was Lithuanian was of Lithuanian descent. He started making and selling his guitars in 1960, but in 1961, he came to the attention of many (mostly acoustic) stars of the day.  After experimentation he began making innovative electric guitars  started to be approached by famous players who wanted to use his guitars. In the 60’s and 70’s he was building custom guitars for the likes of Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood (Then of The Faces), Keith Richards, and George Harrison.  Zemaitis became even more famous after 1971, when asked a well-known gun engraver by the name of Danny O’Brien to do beautiful engravings on the metal-bodied guitars he was becoming known for. He was working for so many famous musicians that it’s said that George Harrison called him one day to ask about making him a new guitar.  The phone was answered by Mrs. Zemaitis, who told Harrison, ‘Oh, no no no! He’s far to busy!’

 Trussart followed in Zemaitis’s footstep, but taking it a few steps further.  His metal bodied guitars are sometimes engraved, but he also creates designs that include unusual materials and oftentimes guitars that are rusted, or meant to rust over time. Above all, his guitars, like those of Zemaitis’s produced beautiful tones…after all, anyone can paint or jazz up a guitar, but it’s proof is in the quality of it’s sound.  Penta calls James Trussart the greatest living guitar maker.  This opinion is held by many many guitar players.

James put a studio together in our house” Penta recalls. “It was a  beautiful five storey house in Barbes-Rochechuart  just off rue de la Goutte D’or. (Street of the Chest of Gold)  near Montmartre.  It was closed off to the public in a place called Villa Poissonnière (Villa Fishwife). We lived at nombre 3,Villa Poissonnière. We sent my daughter to l’École Foyatier, a school near the the foot of the funicular line that runs from the bottom of the La Butte Montmartre (The Montmartre Butte) near rue Foyatier to La Basilique du Sacré Cœur (The Basilica of The Sacred Heart, often shortened to Sacré Cœur-pronounced somewhat like sack-Ray Coor in English) at the top of  Montmartre  Mike Davidson had moved from Prague to Paris along with Penta. He worked, recorded, engineered and played in Penta and James’s home studio.

Bill Larsen and his wife visited Penta and James at Villa Poissonnière. He recalls;

“James Trussart is a good guy; a real interesting guy.  We stayed at their place a couple of nights. James, of course, is a guitar builder…he builds incredible guitars.  He also refurbished the house they lived in.  It was like a row house; all brick and probably 150 or 200 years old. There was a facade and everybody had their separate key to their houses. James bought one of those places and totally gutted it. It was literally five storeys tall with a sub-basement. He totally gutted it to a shell, then rebuilt the whole thing. He’s really talented. He was buying a lot of the materials at flea markets (le marché aux puces) around Paris. He’d find an old pile full of interesting things. He put a spiral staircase in the center of the house toward the back.  It was funny because one step was concrete and he said ‘I only had one mold that I bought at a flea market, so I had to mold one stair at a time’’. It was pretty cool”.

 “It was like a fairy tale for me” says Penta.  “I did a whole bunch of recordings over a period of seven years in the studio  that we had built in the house..  It was a 16 track Fostex tape machine and a Mackie board. It was really ,but it sounded  great.  I had all kinds of incredible musicians passing through that were playing in Paris that I or play with. The results of seven years recording led to Penta’s unrecognized masterpiece, Return to Alpha.

James and I used to get invited to all the shows, and get invited backstage, so I met all these incredible people over the years” Penta tells me. “I met David Bowie. I met Bryan Ferry. I met Marianne Faithfull. I met The Black Crows.  I met Bob Dylan’s band-but not Bob.  One  of the guys in Paul McCartney’s band is a friend of mine.  I’ve been backstage and meet all of those guys (except for Paul and Bob).  ZZ Top.  I met Elvis Costello (‘a real gentleman’ according to Penta), Nick Cave, James Burton and dozens of other well-known musicians.  I also met Radiohead when they came through Paris. They played a TV show that James had all-access to.  I got to watch them rehearse for the show! they were really people. Thom Yorke actually came up to me and introduced himself – very sweet”

Penta says she also met Elliot Murphy in Paris and became good friends. She calls him ‘a super-great guy’.  Murphy came to prominence about the same time Bruce Springsteen was starting to get attention. Murphy’s debut album Aquashow got phenomenal reviews from rock music critics as well as reviews in Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and Newsweek.  He too was set to be the “next big thing” but Elliot just didn’t get the fame and fortune that Springsteen got. Perhaps his songwriting was a bit too subtle, but he’s had a sizeable following over the decades, and was the subject of Jorge Arenillas documentary film The Second Act of Elliot Murphy. In 1990 Murphy moved to Europe and has based himself in Paris since then.

Chris Spedding and Penta

“I met Chris Spedding when he was doing the same TV show as I was” says Penta. “He was playing guitar with an early French Rock and roller named Dick Rivers ((born on April 24 1945 as Hervé Forneri). His name was pronounced Deek Rivers, after the character Deke Rivers that  Elvis Presley had played in the 1957 film ‘Loving You’.The French Dick Rivers had been an early French Rock and roller who modeled his persona and singing career on Elvis. The French Dick Rivers had started as the lead singer of the band Les Chats Sauvages (The Wild Cats) and singing on his first record in 1961 on his fifteenth birthday. The band became such a sensation in France, they even caused riots at their shows.  Rivers let the band in 1962, and set out on his very long, successful career over which he’s released  58 albums and 168  singles and EP’s

I think the show-but I’m not certain- was Poum Poum Tchak! (roughly translated as the sound of beating on a drum). I’d heard that Chris Spedding was there. Somebody said ‘yeah, you can go back and talk to him. He’s just in the back room over there’ I went in and he was sitting there by himself, kind of dozing off in his chair. I said ‘Hi!’ I didn’t say ‘I worship you‘, but I came close. I introduced myself and said ‘Would you play guitar with me?’ (Penta laughs). I just asked him if he would do it, and we became friends…and he did play on my album Return to Alpha! I also had some really great people on that recording. Alex Hacke of Einstürzende Neubauten played on the album. He was friends with some people that we knew in Paris. I think we must have gone to an Einstürzende Neubauten show and met him. Other players were Ira Cohen, Mike Davidson, Bill Rieflin, Warren Ellis, Marc Upson, Larry Mullins, James Trussart, as well as about another dozen musicians.

les Rita Mitsouko.
Catherine Ringer and Fred Chichin

James had made a couple of guitars for Fred Chichin of Les Ritas Mitsouko. Chichin’s wife and co-founder of the band was Catherine Ringer. In the 1980s and 90s they were pop superstars in France and had success worldwide. We went over to their house a few times and they came over to ours. They were very nice. Catherine was very funny. She told us that when she got bored with Fred she’d send him off to a brothel to get rid of him for awhile. They were awesome”

When Fred Chichin died of  heart failure from cancer on November 28 2007 the whole of France was shocked and treated his death as seriously as the French have always done for artists like Edith Piaf, Collette or Maurice Ravel.  Sadly, Chichin died two months after his first diagnosis of cancer.

Penta picks up by telling me “The group Pink Martini came for dinner one night.  Another night all of Iggy Pop’s guys came over.  Iggy’s drummer, Larry Mullins played drums on my CD. Larry is fantastic”.

Coincidently, Larry Mullins also played live behind the duo Such in New York City. One half of the duo was Seattle’s own Upchuck.

“Chuck was amazing” Penta remarks a bit sadly.

 Another coincidence;

“Warren Ellis from The Bad Seeds and Dirty Three also played on Return To Alpha. He played violin on a cover of Jacques Brel’s ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’. (Don’t Leave Me) We had just finished recording Warren’s part on violin and we went upstairs and his wife Delphine was there.  She had also been in my band, Penta.  They were both there and we turned the television on, and there was Jacques Brel singing ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’.  It was insane!”

 “I have to say that Alex Hacke had a lot to do with the production of that album, as well as this other fellow, David Husser. He’s a French guy who helped me out a lot.  Bill Rieflin contributed a lot to  the song ‘Humans‘.  I was visiting Seattle from Paris and I told Bill I wanted to do something with him. He said ‘OK, throw a couple of things at me and we’ll see what happens’  I just had the bass line and the lyrics and melody for the song. He did a whole entire production around it that was awesome.  We ended up basically trying our best to copy what he did on Return to Alpha and we kept his rhythm tracks.  David Husser did the guitars and Alexander Hacke played bass on that, but Bill had come up with the arrangement. I have a recording of Bill’s original somewhere…just me and Bill, which I’d really like to have now.  Bill is amazing…just incredible.  One of the nicest people.  A really good guy too. Bill says:

Penta with Bill Rieflin. Eugene Oregon, July 2013

“My memory is a little hazy, but I recall working with Penta on at least two occasions: one was on the song Humans from her record Return to Alpha; the other was a demo for Ivan Kraal on his song Cry For Love. The thing these sessions have in common was how effortless they were. In both cases, everything came together really quickly with no futzing about.  Penta was very open and the overall flow of things was good.  And, great results!!  What more can you ask for?”

 Return to Alpha was a big birthing process and it took seven years to make” Penta tells me. “Like I said it was all those musicians who came through the studio in Paris. Nobody got paid. It was all done through the kindness of their hearts.  They were all incredible. Mike Davidson also played on Return to Alpha. Mike was a super-good friend of mine. He worked with me in our home studio.  He did some engineering and played bass.

“Unfortunately we had a falling-out, but I really love him and I still really care about him” says Penta.  “I would love to see him again. During a recent trip to Seattle I thought I was going to get to see him because I did some recording with Paul Hood of the Toiling Midgets.  Paul asked me to sing some French for him on one song they were recording.  Mike was supposed to be there and help us engineer it.  We couldn’t figure out how to do it and were having a hell of a time.  I ended up doing just the one song in French.  Paul Hood is somebody I played with when I lived in Seattle briefly for a year. Paul’s a dear friend too”.

“Charlie Sexton is a friend of James’ and James has made guitars for Charlie over the years. One night he came to our house in Los Angeles to see James about a guitar, and as he was leaving James gave him a copy of Return to Alpha He told Charlie it was mine. The CD had just come out at that time (2002). So, later that night around midnight I get a phone call from Charlie Sexton! He says to me, ‘Who are you and where did you come from? I’m listening to your CD in the car and I’m on the fourth song and it just keeps getting better and better!’ That was an unreal moment for me! Bob Dylan’s guitar player was not supposed to be calling me and telling me how much he liked my music!  Charlie still puts me on the list every time Dylan is playing somewhere near me. I’ve been backstage at Dylan shows so many times, but I have still never met him. I LOVE Bob Dylan; but I’ve had the privilege of watching Dylan and his band rehearsing!”

Penta and James Trussart, Paris

In fact the music on Return to Alpha defies genre.  In fact it may be an entire genre of it’s own.  One reviewer wrote ‘This music is incredible and her voice is mesmerizing.  Return to Alpha  can only be described as sultry and bohemian.

James Trussart who co-produced the album says  “I think it was a great project. I think it’s fantastic too. Sometimes when people ask me what kind of music it is I like I try to explain depending who’s asking me. What’s great about Penta is she’s very cultured. She’s a really fantastic singer.  I think she’s also a great songwriter.  I’m still happy that we made something like Return to Alpha together. It was a great experience.  It was a challenging experience for me, but I like that. It was also a chance to share the project with great people”

“The album was recorded in Paris” James continues. “We recorded it off and on at our house.  At the time I also had access to a great studio, kind of a jazz studio with a great collection of microphones. Most of her vocals were  recorded with a Neumann U87.  I was trying to capture a Julie London kind of recording. We had a chance to work with a few great guys.  They were all excited by the project. It translates to the audience.  There’s a  great version of ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ . At that time in France it would have been a really great chance to promote that at the time. But we were in the process of moving from Paris to Los Angeles. I gave a copy of Return to Alpha to this guy who was signing bands for Virgin Records but he didn’t ‘get it’” James then talks about his guitars;

‘It’s the same as kind of thing as fashion; the music and the instruments. I collect instruments. Not really to collect them but to use them in musical projects….like cooking.  Early on I put a guitar repair with some friends for three or four years.  I left but kept doing guitar repair by myself with a team.  I did that for ten or fifteen years. Then I moved to Los Angeles and I decided just to do my guitars. That’s what I’ve been doing since 2000.  I repaired and, tweaked a guitar that I made in 1992. It was The original SteelDeVille I made for Willy DeVille when he recorded  Backstreet of Desire.  He was a friend, and I was a fan of his. It’s funny to see what you did 30 years ago.  It all comes back and you. I look at it and it’s still great. It was a good choice of parts,of pick-ups and this and that’.

‘Lisa Johnson is going to take a few photos of my guitars to put in a book to be called Rock Star Guitars”. Says James. “Anyway, I do whatever crosses my mind. Sometimes I’m thinking about a particular guitar player and what he’s going to do with it..  It’s a way to put art into the accidents. The muse is just the art of it.

When I started making guitars I thought ‘You never totally reinvent the wheel’.  You take elements and things that have come before.  For instance I like classic contours.  It’s easy to re-design a personal contour but it’s always going to be around a classic contour no matter what. I think I add a bunch of new elements, not only for the  look, but for the sonic approach”.

Mike Davidson was also on Return to Alpha” Penta says. When I was re-located to Paris, Mike came along. He worked with me in our studio.  He did some engineering and played bass.  Unfortunately We had a falling-out, but I really love him and I still really care about him and would love to see him. When I was in Seattle the last time I thought I was going to get to see Mike because I did some recording with Paul Hood of the Toiling Midgets.  Paul asked me to do some French for him for one song they were recording.  Mike was supposed to be there and help us engineer it but he didn’t make it.  We couldn’t figure out how to do it and were having a hell of a time.  I ended up doing just the one song in French.  Paul Hood is somebody I played with when I lived in Seattle briefly. for a year. Paul’s a dear friend too.

“James and I permanently moved from Paris to Los Angeles in December of 2001. It was a better home base for his guitar business. All the guitar players lived there. He’s still there. We bought a 4,000 square foot Craftsman house in Echo Park when we were there. It was drop-dead gorgeous. Stained glass windows, all original woodwork, original light fixtures,  Everything just beautiful.  It was my dream house.  I just cried when I saw that house.

“While in Paris we had been dealing with a guy who lived in L.A.called Chris Romano” Penta tells me. “He was distributing James’s guitars, but he ripped us off really badly. We had been travelling a lot from Paris to Los Angeles and back to deal with the guitars. James had his guitars at Guitar Center and places like that. We got really screwed over by this Chris Romano guy. He kept telling us that we owed him money. Once he sent us a letter that said that he’d itemized everything and we owed him $97,000. I said to James ‘This isn’t right. What’s going on here?’ So I did all the math and found out that he owed us about $100,000. It was really fucked up. He and his wife both were really fucked-up. I won’t say her name but she used to be in the band The American Music Club”.

“We had to take Chris Romano to court.  He had to pay us back. and pay for the court costs and all of that.”

“I stayed with James for another three and a half years in L.A. and then we got divorced.  It wasn’t too horrible. We had a mediator. It was a very copacetic and fair settlement. I bought a little bungalow across the park from him. My daughter was  going to a private school..a bilingual school called Lycée LILA (Lycée International de Los Angeles). It was really scary where we lived and I was afraid to send her to public school in Los Angeles.  I thought ‘I’m just going to move‘ so I ended up moving to Bend, Oregon because some of my family lived. I hated it. It’s a beautiful landscape, but there’ nothing in Bend. It’s really conservative and just awful”.

“I ended up moving to Eugene Oregon and I’ve been there a long time, and I’m really tired of being in Eugene” Penta says. “I’m moving back to Seattle; that’s my plan. There’s a lot of theater in Seattle now…that’s what I do mostly these days. I’m with a theater company in Eugene, and I do a lot of shows.  I just did  Mother Courage and Her Children. I played Mother Courage. It was unbelievable.  I’ll probably be acting when I get back to Seattle, because I just love it.  I’ll still keep singing though.

The Spyd’elles.
Steve Larsen, Jeff Simmons, Penta Leslee Swanson

After moving to Oregon Penta and Bill Larsen (still in Seattle) hooked up with Jeff Simmons to form The Spyd’elles.  Jeff was a veteran of Seattle’s psychedelic era band Easy Chair. After playing The Seattle Pop Festival and opening for The Chambers Brothers, Cream, Blue Cheer and Led Zeppelin and hundreds of gigs throughout the Northwest Easy Chair were ‘discovered’ by Frank Zappa and his manager Herb Cohen during their sound check before they were slated to open for The Mothers of Invention at the Seattle Center Arena on August 24, 1968. They were impressed enough to fly Easy Chair to Los Angeles and a contract with one of two new labels Zappa had created, Bizarre Records.  After a few high-profile showcases studio sessions never materialized and the band broke up.  Simmons stayed in Los Angeles and ended up being signed to Bizarre Records as a solo artist and delivering two very fine albums.  The first was an incredibly innovative soundtrack to Naked Angels a biker/sexploitation film.  His second album ‘Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up’ included a host of Zappa regulars-and Frank Zappa himself.  Soon Jeff was touring and recording with The Mothers of Invention from 1970 through 1974, with a brief hiatus during the filming of Zappa’s film 200 Motels

Penta says; “Jeff Simmons. I love that guy. He is such an incredible musician.  He’s possibly the most incredible musician I’ve worked with besides Bill Rieflin. Jeff is just so amazing and I learned so much from him. He taught me a lot about singing. He taught me that I could do things with my voice that I didn’t know I could do. He encouraged me and pushed me and got me to sing songs that I never would have even thought that I could sing. Things like Etta James and Dusty Springfield .

“That’s pretty lofty praise”Jeff tells me

.“I’m good friends with Bill Larsen who was in ‘The Dynette Set’ says Jeff. “The thing is, I grew up in the ‘girl group’ era; pre-Beatles, so I have a special affinity for that music.  Bill and Penta would come out to my place, they’d spend some time at Taco Time to get some tater-tots or whatever and then we’d rehearse the group. I actually have two songs recorded, and a live recording. Our repertoire was pretty eclectic.  I had been in a band called the Del Psychics a little while before that and we had a singer who was my girlfriend at the time.  That was one of my first chances to bring my sensibility of the girl groups into the Fender Rhodes, Clavinet, modern kind of deal.”

“We cut Nitty Gritty by Shirley Ellis and tackled some interesting tunes. Me, Bill and Penta would harmonize together on If You Think You Can You Can by Marcia Clark. I also played piano with Penta” Jeff tells me. “Penta would also come around a  little gig I had playing grand piano with bass player Billy McPherson. Billy had been in Ballin’Jack and The Regents out of Tacoma.  He had been a child-prodigy that ended up in The Air Force Band.  Then he played with Buddy Miles and Albert Collins  He’s passed on now” Jeff says. “He and I and Bill Larsen and a various assortment of players would show up at The Pig and Whistle, a little joint on Greenwood Avenue in Seattle. Penta would sing. We did some continental-type jazzier stuff that was really esoteric and off the beaten path”.

“Penta is a tremendous singer and stage presence” Jeff continues.  We only played a modicum of gigs as The Spyd’elles. Two or three live gigs because she was living in Oregon at the time and would come up and sing with us. All I can add is that Penta’s’ a fantastic talent, a beautiful woman and I really enjoyed my time with her and Bill.  Like I said there’s a couple of recordings extant.  Maybe I can dig them up someday”

I worked with Ben Ireland during the same time I was working with Jeff Simmons” Penta tells me. “I was doing a jazz thing with The Pete Leinonen Band . We’d played little lounge gigs. I got to choose my own material. Barb Ireland filmed us once, so there’s some footage of us somewhere in her collection. I sang, Ben was on drums and Pete was on bass. We also had horn players. It was low-key fun.

“After I moved from Bend to Eugene I started going to Massage therapy school. Penta tells me.  “I wasn’t doing music at all, l just started back going to school.  Then in I fell in love with my massage therapy program director.  His name is Cliff Stenquist. We met in 2005. We’re still together”.

“I’m licensed to be a masage therapist. I also did a teacher training class with Sharon Gannon and David Life in 2008  at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck New York. I’m also a certified yoga teacher.  Sharon and David are the creators of the Jivamukti Yoga method. She’s created quite an empire” says Penta. It’s world renowned”.

Sharon Gannon and David Life

Sharon has always been a caring, creative and spiritual person.  It’s nice to see how far she’s come her days  helping Student Nurse guitarist and graphic artist Helena Rogers pull her beautiful silk-screened posters of the 1980s. It’s also somewhat of a validation in her early association and dancing for Sue Ann Harkey and Audio Leter, a band so ahead of it’s time that it was once scorned even by Seattle’s alternative music community. It’s only recently that folks have looked back and seen how the avant-garde quality of what they were doing permeates much of what we hear today.

“I haven’t really written songs for awhile, but I’m still singing. We did a Dynette Set reunion shows in 2013 and 2015 at the High Dive in Seattle.  That was pretty amazing to get everyone back together except Scott McCaughey. We also did a show at The Tractor Tavern which made reunions three years in a row.  We also did a show at the EMP (Experience Music Project) in 2014. It’s now called MoPop (Museum Of Pop Culture).  I just come up from Eugene and do shows in Seattle then go back.  One time I’m going to come to Seattle and stay!”

The 79’ers also got together in 2012.  It was a whole mess of people.  All the guys from The Dynette Set. Me and Riki Mifune.  Rob Morgan. The guys from The Enemy. We had three different drummers; Dave Drewry, Marty Waychoff of The Girls and Peter Barnes of The Enemy.  Rick Smith, also of The Girls was part of it. Henry Boy Jenkins was there. Too many people to name” Penta says. “It was supposed to be a one-off show, but  a year later we did a show with The Dynette Set. It was basically the same line up for that show. I’m not sure if Rick Smith was there that year. The 79’ers opened for The Dynette Set 30th year reunion. at The High Dive. The 79’ers only did two shows and both were at High Dive.

Then Dave Drewry got really sick and died of cancer. It was horrible.  I went down to L.A. at the very end of his life.  It was so sad.  He was such a good guy.”

Dave Drewry died on November 2, 2016. He was 57 years old.

Dave Drewry and Penta

I absolutely adored Dave” Penta says. “He was a dear, dear friend. A fucking awesome drummer. He played that girl group music like nobody’s business. He could do that Hal Blaine thing like WOW!  He was such a great drummer he was mind-blowing. A powerhouse. He held The Dynette Set rehearsals together. He was like a conductor during rehearsals. He kept everybody on track. Now it’s a little bit wonky in rehearsals. We’re all trying to be the boss, but we’re all over the place. Dave was really good at keeping everything together. He was funny as hell and he told great stories. He’d tell hilarious stories during rehearsals and keep us entertained”.

“We have a band now called The Mrs. Bill Larsens” Penta tells me.”  She may not know I already know this, but Bill Larsen has already told me in a tongue-in-cheek manner that he objected to the name at first, but was out-voted.

“We do kind of girl group music, but not exactly” Penta tells me. “It’s kind of women’s music of the 1960s but not necessarily of the girl group genre. There’s a couple of girl group song in there.  It’s really fun. Half of the members of the Dynette Set are involved  Me and Shelly Stockstill will be singing together, which is interesting because we were never in the Dynette Set at the same time. She took my place when I left the band. So we’re having lots of fun with that.  I’m going to be in Seattle because we have a show on the 9th of November at Slim’s Last Chance Saloon (5606  1st Ave, South in Georgetown) with Shagnasty and Shelley and I are also Shagnasty’s back-up singers The Shagri-las”.  (like Shangrillas, geddit?)

The Mrs. Bill Larsens are Damon Titus, John Nay who used to drum for The Frazz and The Lewd, Brent Pennington, Shelly Stockstill, Penta and Damon Titus who’ve all been in The Dynette Set. Kevin Crosby is also in the band. He’s a Berklee School of Music graduate who’s really ino Frank Zappa. He had a Frank Zappa cover band called Zero that actually had Ike Willis in it, which was kind of cool. Ike Willis is a guitarist who was part of Frank Zappa’s studio and touring band from 1978 until Zappa’s final tour in 1988.

The Mrs. Bill Larsens tell me they absolutely LOVE Jackie DeShannon, so they’ll be doing some of her songs, including Each Time that Leslee Swanson sang on The Girls Can’t Help It compilation.  For that matter they’ll probably do The Dynette Set song from the compilation. I’d even like to do more French pop music and add that kind of stuff to the repertoire we do with The Mrs. Bill Larsens”.

Bill tells me “We’re still trying to shake things out.  Penta lives down in Oregon and it’s hard for us, because we don’t have any rehearsal space.  We get space here and there when we can.  So we pulled out some of the old  Dynette Set songs that Shelley wanted to sing like ‘I Know A Place’ and ‘It’s Too Far’ and a handful of Jackie DeShannon songs…like ‘Put A Little Love In Your Heart’ and ‘What The World Needs Now’.  All kinds of songs in that genre.  Some of them are pretty tough songs to play. Everybody knows ‘Love Sweet Love’ but when you’ve just played three chord rock for a long time and then you come up to major 7, minor 9 chords it’s a chore. hat song; but it sounds great and Penta sings it great!  We’ve only played two gigs so far. It seems that every stage we play on gets progressively smaller. We had to fit our band into the  Lucky Liquor and then Tim’s Tavern. It’s even smaller.  Our upcoming gig at Slims will have a bigger stage.  That will be an interesting show because it’s going to be us, Shagnasty, Swedish Finnish and The Maywood Mailmen which is a John Prine cover band.  I play banjo in The Maywood Mailmen.  Bill says he didn’t understand the significance of the name of the Prine cover band until it was explained to him. There should be a few fans there that already know it.

Shagnasty do a Mike Refuzor song” says Penta. “We love Mike. I’m so glad I got to hang out with him a little bit during the last year before he died.  I saw him, and we danced together and he said ‘ I had such a good time’.

“We love Damon Titus too. He’s someone we’ve been trying to work together with for many many years. Finally it’s happening!”

AND WE LOVE THE BEATLES!!!

 

 

 

-Dennis R. White. Sources: Penta Leslee Swanson “Interviews with the author” (October 20, 2018 & October 25, 2018). Riki Mafune “Interview with the author” October 19, 2018).  Bill Larsen “Interview with the author” (October 21, 2018). Jeff Simmons “Interview with the author” (October 30, 2018). James Trussart “Interview with the author” (October 30, 2018). Tessa Jeffers “Builder Profile: James Trussart Guitars” Premier Guitar, January 9, 2013). Bill Scheppler “The Mississippi Burning Trial: A Primary Source Account” (Rosen Publishing Group, 2003). “A Brief History of The Regents of Tacoma (pnwbands.com retrieved October 29, 2018). “Mader: About” (http://madermusic.com/mader, retrieved October 29, 2018). “The Living Theater” (https://www.livingtheatre.org/home, retrieved October 29, 2018). Olivier Lamm “Light and Shadow: The Story of Hector Zazou” (November 5, 2015, Red Bull Music Academy Daily).  Garth Cartwright “Obituary: Hector Zazou” (The Guardian, September 23, 2008). “Alchemical Studios” (https://www.thealchemical.com, retrieved October 20, 2018). “Elliott Murphy: Biography” (http://www.elliottmurphy.com/bio.html, retrieved October 23, 2018). Derek Power “Mader: Biography” (IMDb.com. retrieved October 19, 2018). Pierre Job “Zazou/Bikaye/CY1: Noir et Blanc” (Pitchfork Magazine, November 8, 2017). Sid Smith “So Long Fred Chalenor” (DGM Live, July 4, 2018). Michael Sutton “Scott McCaughey Biography” (allmusic.com, retrieved October 30, 2018). Jeff Stevens “Seattle’s Flaming Telepaths” (City of Anxiety, January 9, 2017).

Bedazzled! An Interview with Al Milman and Moshe Weinberg

            Bedazzled Discs Grand Opening
 Al Milman, John Keister, Moshe Weinberg

 

I’m sitting in Chuck’s Hop Shop on Seattle’s East Union St.  The huge variety of bottled beers lining the walls is overwhelming.  I don’t drink, but I’m fascinated by the colors of the labels. The evening is warm and the doors of the bar are open.  It appears Chuck’s Hop Shop used to be a large garage of some sort.  Did this place used to be a garage I ask myself?  I get a Coke from a vending machine. I’m expecting to meet Al Milman and Moshe Weinberg.  They’re the former proprietors of Bedazzled Discs.  They stuck it out through the 90s while the record business was crumbling around them up to the point that digital downloads were on the brink of overtaking every other form of music. Their store was geared toward imports, garage and pop classics and a bit of the more esoteric music that collectors are always seeking out. In the end the survived into the 21st century.  Despite an uphill battle they made it from 1991 ‘til 2003.

I’ve never met Moshe, but I know Al a bit. Al went out of his way to make sure we scheduled this meeting at a time Moshe was available. It seems he’s a very busy guy.  Al is a man obsessed by music.  He’s been that way since he was a kid growing up in New York City. Along the way he’s managed to rub a lot of shoulders with punk, garage, psychedelic and jazz artists…hell…all kinds of artists.  I also know he and his band The Alan Milman Sect were there at the beginning of the downtown punk explosion in the NYC during the 1970s.  His music and/or Bedazzled Discs have been covered in magazines from Trouser Press to  the NME and the BBC’s music sites to Billboard.  His music also the subject of a multitude of bloggers who are interested in anything punk…or anything off-beat..  The website Killed By Death once wrote ‘Hell, not even Poison Idea does it as good as Alan Milman Sect’. His song ‘Stitches in My Head’ was covered by Urge Overkill.  He has a visible presence on facebook, and he’s not afraid to tell anyone what he thinks online or in person.

Al’s recorded with his own band, The Alan Milman Sect, and managed and produced The Boss Martians.  He’s DJ’d at Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco in Los Angeles and graced the stage of CBGB’s in New York.  Eventually he’d find his way to Seattle and co-own one of the cities’ first stores to cater to those taking part in the record renaissance from the early 90’s and beyond.

Al arrives and we chit chat while we wait for Moshe to arrive.  Al and I are a bit early. Moshe arrives on schedule as planned. He appears much younger than I’d expected…but it must be attributed to good genes.  I know he’s not as young as he looks.  After I get the recorder set up and Moshe grabs a falafel from the food truck outside it’s time to begin.

I hate doing interviews.  I sound so vapid, and there’s only a limited supply of stupid questions to ask, I’m gonna leave this one to the two of them, I think to myself.

“So what was the genesis of your store?”  I blurt out.  Oh god…that sounds ridiculous.

“Al and I met in New York” says Moshe. We have a couple of common friends. I’d heard about Al but I think I met him about 1985 or 1986 for the first time. I was going to college and Al was good friends with my best friend and roommate Danny Israel who lives here in Seattle. I think it was either  Danny Israel, Gary Schrank, or Vinny Hayes; I’m not sure which one. Anyhow, we went to a couple of shows…I think The Lyres (from Boston) a couple of times, but we weren’t close friends at that point.  Later in the 80s I got to know Al better. I was going to college.  I would spend time making tape collections of other people’s record and CD collections. Al had a really cool record and CD collection he was just starting.  I thought it was great that he introduced people to a lot of stuff.  I was mostly aware of it-he thinks I wasn’t- but anyway I would go to his apartment and record a lot of his CDs and records and I think at the end of my time in New York we just ran into each other at random concerts”.  Al later tells me ‘We saw The Fleshtones and Chesterfield Kings (also from Boston) a lot”

Bedazzled Discs owners Al Milman and Moshe Weinberg

“I mentioned I was moving back to Seattle and that I used to work for a record store”. Moshe continues.  “Al’s response was “You’re never going to make money at record store, you have to own one.”  It was an off-hand comment…I think maybe he asked me what I was going to do in Seattle.  I don’t recall exactly why I said it, but for some reason I mentioned that when I got back to Seattle I’d like to work at a record store again.  Once again he threw out the idea that if you really want to make money you have to own a record store as opposed to working in one.  Now I know better. You don’t make money either way but I guess that was the start of “well, let’s look into that” and we decided to pursue it”.

“I moved back to Seattle.  Al was still in New York.  I started looking for a storefront property in different neighborhoods. Then he came out to visit. I think it was around Thanksgiving weekend of 1990. There was a big storm that week and Al  got to know Seattle. I took him around to a few neighborhoods and eventually we found this little spot in Pioneer Square and we went for it.  It was at 101 Cherry Street. It’s a barber shop now.  So Al moved to Seattle”.

I was living in what was my grandmothers house. She had recently been moved to an old age home so the house was vacant. In fact there was someone else living there part time.  Al came to town and stayed at my grandmother’s house for a month or two before he found a job.  We started planning opening the store. The grand opening was June 5, 1991. I think initially our focus was import CDs. Stuff that was not out in the US; mostly ‘60s or Garage or things like The Yardbirds. We didn’t have much vinyl at that point, so later we had to build up our record collection”.

“John Keister was at our opening by the way”. Al points out.

Keister was probably at the height of his celebrity at the time.  His local sketch show ‘Almost Live’ was airing each Saturday night locally, and had been syndicated nationally.  He’s remained on the Seattle comedy and cultural scene for years…as close as Seattle gets to conferring ‘icon‘ status.  Finally, last year Jon performed what he claimed would be his last stand-up comedy schtick at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall.  The show was called “Living and Dying in Seattle” It both lamented and celebrated Seattle’s one-time dowdy and beloved small-town atmosphere into becoming a major American city full of high-tech transplants, bursting with high rise buildings and a much more business-like approach. His show was held on September 9, 2017.  At the time Keister said “It’s a brand new city out there. Natives, Newcomers and anyone else trying to make sense of this town are welcome. Let’s have a party!”

Since then John has now settled into a life of writing and teaching script-writing at the Art Institute of Seattle.  But he says he’ll perform at corporate events and ‘wave from convertibles at whatever parades that will have me”’.

“Do you remember the SoundWaves store in Burien?” Al asks.

I have to admit I’m not familiar with the place because I’ve been to Burien fewer times than I have unbroken fingers on my right hand. That would make it twice.

“I wouldn’t say they were the prototype” Al says  “but they were one of the influences of ours.  Stores in New York like Bleeker Bob’s and those sort of stores”

Now, Bleecker Bob’s is a place I’m quite familiar with.  The online journal Dangerous Minds once called it ‘The most loved and most hated record store in New York City.’ I fall into the former category.  Over the years it was the nexus for oldies fans, proto-punks, punk rockers, psychedelic fans, garage and import enthusiasts, classic rockers, ‘60s folkies and post-punk affecianados.  You name it. Anything and every kind of music seemed to be available, and it became a great place to mix and hang out. Some folks would even trek to New York City just to visit this mecca of music.  Conversely “Bleecker Bob” would make trips elsewhere to find new and used stock to fill the store.  In the 1970’s he went to London regularly, buying crates and crates of British punk rock that wouldn’t otherwise have been available in any American record store.

I used to pass by Bleecker Bob’s about two times a week looking covetously into it’s windows because buying records was a luxury for me back in my NYC days.  I’d go in the store from time to time simply to browse the racks.  But it was hard enough to pay the rent and have extra money to get drunk on.  For a couple of years I had to curtail my obsession with obscure and/or import 7″ singles.

Robert “Bleecker Bob” Plotnik

The “Bob” in “Bleecker Bob’s” was Robert Plotnik who ran the store in it’s several iterations in New York’s Greenwich Village for almost 50 years.  Plotnik was a former lawyer who worked with the New York District Attorney.  In 1967 Robert Plotnik teamed up with  Al Trommers, a  Doo-wop enthusiast who referred to himself as “Broadway Al.”  The two opened a store originally called Village Oldies at 149 Bleecker Street. Because of the store’s location “Broadway Al” suggested Plotnik should take on the name “Bleecker Bob” It stuck. The location would change twice over the decades, eventually ending up at 118 West 3rd Street in 1981.

By this time Trommers had split from Plotnik.  Trommers says his reason for leaving the partnership was due to Plotnik’s abrasive character. Plotnik was often cranky and notoriously abrupt with his customers whether they were kids from the Village (East or West) or one of the many celebrity musicians who frequented his store. He had a sharp tongue and did not suffer fools-many of which were potential customers.  A 1993 episode of Seinfeld called ‘The Old Man’, features a character obviously based on Bleecker Bob, and part of the episode was actually shot in the store.

In 2012 Hazel Sheffield and Emily Judem’s documentary on Bob and the store For The Records. a conversation is captured between Bob and his girlfriend.

She asks him how they can keep the store operational when people weren’t buying records like they used to.

“They’ll buy them if I tell them to buy them,” Bob said.

Behind his temperamental facade Plotnik was well-versed in just about any pop music genre you could throw at him. and when he wasn’t showing his expertise, he was often curt and abrupt. Overall Bleeker Bob’s was a messy playground for music collectors, music stars, and off-the-steet music fans alike.  Bob was at the center of it all.  And as is true with all curmudgeons, there was kind heart at the center of his character.

In the mid-80s Plotnik opened “Bleecker Bob’s Golden Oldies Record Shop” at 7454 Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.  Shortly after the L.A. store’s opening Plotnik suffered a brain aneurysm.  He’s now semi-paralyzed and lives in a nursing home on the Upper West Side.  Chris Weidner took over the day-to-day operations of the New York store and the Los Angeles store didn’t last long.  Weidner was almost as curt and temperamental as Plotnik, but he kept the store open until rising New York rents forced Bleecker Bob’s to throw in the towel. The storefront stayed vacant for a few months, then became the location of a national chain of frozen yogurt stores, Yogo. It went on to have several other tenants, and  today the space is the site of the Miyabi Sushi Bar.

It and much of the rest of old rock, jazz, folk.punk and the other trappings of the vibrant Village scene are gone, and not for the better.  The East and West Villages are now practically as touristy as Times Square and most artists and mucisians have been forced out of the neighborhood because of market prices.

It’s almost apparent that Milman takes on some of the characteristics of Bob Plotnik.  His entire approach to selling records seems similar. Dismissive when asked questions he finds stupid; invested in helping others with recommendations and spinning tales about just about everyone he’s met in the music business or talking about  fantastic bands and artists as well as rarities and obscure recordings.  When a customer is a serious collector or knowledgeable or an honestly interested  in exploring new music, he loves talking music with those who listen.

Returning to Al and Moshe’s story;

Al tells me “SoundWaves was the the closest store like Bleecker Bob’s and other New York record stores near Seattle, and they were stocking import CDs. They had a lot of Japanese imports, but they were out in Burien so we felt that Seattle could use a store like that, with maybe even a wider selection”

Moshe says “We opened our store and it was kind of a shoestring budget”I had to get my dad to co-sign a loan from the bank and Al borrowed money from his dad. There wasn’t a lot of money. We were really restricted so that’s how we started.”

“But we didn’t carry Genesis.” Al says.

Now Al is ribbing me about my first dumb question.  Nothing gets by this guy.

He says “We would have if it was with Peter Gabriel,  but by then it was Phil Collins.  We would laugh at people like Phil Collins because that was sort of the antithesis of what we are doing, Moshe would laugh if somebody asked for “I Just Called To Say I Love You” by Stevie Wonder, and I would laugh at almost anything.  Laugh at them or tell them “Get the hell out of my store!

“Get the hell out of my store!” would be a response to asking for some horrible commercial thing.

They both laugh.

“Gillian Gaar (author of She’s a Rebel and former writer and associate editor at The Rocket) was our  first customer.” Al tells me. “She bought The Chiffons”

“….and I think Little Richard too” adds Moshe.

I ask Moshe who he thinks their average customer was at the time they opened Bedazzled Discs in downtown Seattle.

“I would say the customers were those who wanted to pay $25 for a Japanese CD that was not out in the US.” he answers.

“What was the name of the guy who came and ordered a lot of Zappa stuff?” Asks Al “He was a short guy, really friendly. He was a very big customer. Our customers like that were completists. This guy wanted to order every Zappa CD he could get”.

“I’ve seen him recently, I mean in the last few years. But people like that, who were rabid collectors, they would be repeat customers, There were friends of ours like Shaun Lee or David Hersh, or guys that came in and bought the new “whatever” album, The new Ween album, the new Oasis album or whatever.”

“Were you selling mostly imports?” I ask

“We started transitioning pretty early” says Moshe. “I would say we started off concentrating mostly on imports from Japan and  England. Then I think we realized we were missing out on the Sub Pop thing or whatever you want to call alternative; the people who wanted to buy The Smashing Pumpkins.  Then there was K Records and C/Z and Estrus and all the other local bands and labels. Then we came in contact with the two owners of Sub Pop” (Jon Poneman and Bruce Pavitt)

“I still see Bruce Pavitt on the Hill. I still run into him at the grocery store” Al tells me. “I’ve known him forever and he’s a great guy and probably doesn’t live here anymore, but when they signed Nirvana they took us in the back of our store and told us the whole deal-how it happened which was very very interesting, How many record stores got that directly from the horse’s mouth?

I tell them  I also know Jon and Bruce and that Bruce still comes to Seattle, but spends most of his time at the home and property he bought on Orcas Island several years ago. I’m not a

bsolutely sure if that’s still true  because the fact is I haven’t seen Bruce in many years.

In 1984 Bruce Pavitt worked at store called Bombshelter Records, tucked away on the mezzanine of a small group of shops along Broadway Avenue in Seattle.  Russ Battaglia was working there at the same time.  Bruce and Russ decided to form a partnership and go into the record retail business on their own.  The intention was to present as many bands on indie labels from around the country and overseas as possible. They were also committed to selling local artists and serving skate culture. They named the store Fallout Records and the long-running store was opened in July of 1984.  It was in a tiny space at 1506 E. Olive Way on Seattle’s lower Capitol Hill and remained there until 2003.

The Official Fallout Skate Team

Russ Battaglia amicably split with Bruce about 18 months after the store opened.  Bruce left to pursue different aspects of his Sub Pop brand which included a fanzine, a regular monthly column in The Rocket magazine and his new start-up label Sub Pop. Russ brought his wife Janet on board to help him run the store. They introduced comics and the “illustrated novels’ that were beginning to become popular at the time. It was an important place for both the punk and the skate scene for years.  Fallout actively supported and sponsored their own travelling skate team and put on local skate competitions. although Russ and Janet culled their skateboard business along the way. In 1987 Russ and Janet, along with Larry Reid started their own indie label, Black Label Records.  They went on to release records by The U-Men, Gashuffer, The Hell Cows from Portland, Christ on a Crutch and a video of Big Black’s penultimate show at the Georgetown Steamplant on August 7, 1987.  Black Label later went dormant and Russ and Janet closed Fallout in 1999.  Tim Hayes, who’d been a friend and former employee of the Battaglia’s thought he could revive the business.  Since leaving Fallout for a few years Tim had worked at Seattle’s Fantagraphics Books.  In 1999 he set out to put Fallout back in business.  Russ and Janet gave him their blessing, saying

We worked really hard to provide an antidote to mall culture.  Tim intends to do the same, so we say ‘help him keep our community!’

At the time Tim Hayes told Cynthia Rose of The Seattle Times;

“There will be a lot more of everything. More CDs, more records and additional musical genres. I especially want to help support the local jazz scene. I love jazz, and I know the Seattle scene is really swinging right now.”

Tim did indeed expand the store and was able to keep it afloat until February of 2003.  Digital music was killing record and CD stores across the country.

My discussion with Al and Moshe then turns to the 20th anniversary showing of Robert Pray’s film Hype! The documentary covers the early ‘90s Seattle music scene.

“All the people we know are in Hype! “It’s the best local movie” Al declares. “Hype! nailed it, you know. Jack Endino. Megan Jasper making fun of ‘grunge‘ it’s wonderful”.

This is a statement not even worthy of debate.  Hype! IS a fantastic snapshot of an era.  It is without a doubt the best documentary of any moment in Seattle’s music history.

The 20th anniversary showing was September 25, 2017 at the Egyptian Theater, usually a Seattle International Film Festival venue (SIFF). The Hype! showing was sponsored by the Northwest Film Forum (NWFF) Their own space would have been far too small.

The anniversary screening included a panel discussion featuring Seattle music luminaries like Lulu Gargiulo and Kurt Bloch of The Fastbacks, Producer Jack Endino, Mark Arm of Mudhoney, Green River and Mr. Epp.  A proto-grunge spoof band The Schmitheads (a spin-off of legendary ‘80s bands, The Thrown Ups and Mr. Epp) did a pre-screening set. The Schmidtheads featured Leighton Beezer, Ed Fotheringham, Scott Schickler and Jo Smitty, who co-founded the band Mr. Epp with Mark Arm. The term ‘grunge’ famously stems from a self-deprecating, joke letter written by Mark Arm to Desperate Times magazine in 1981.  The panel was led by former KNDD music director Marco Collins.  Marco was an advocate for local Seattle music after arriving from San Diego and a stint as an intern and DJ at the Mexican-owned, influential  XTRA-FM (91X).  The station had so much power that it could often be heard over large areas of Northern Mexico and the American southwest.  It was also the  inspiration for Wall of Voodoo’sMexican Radio’.

Back in Seattle KNDD (also known as 107.7, The End) was reluctant  to play anything even remotely alternative unless it had already made a national splash (in other words Pearl Jam, Nirvana. Soundgarden. et al.)  The station seemed indifferent to local music.  In spite of this Collins was able to help many now well-known indie artists like Beck and Garbage, and spun records by Death Cab For Cutie, The Presidents of the United States of America, Foo Fighters, Harvey Danger and Sunny Day Real Estate on his all-local Sunday night show ‘The Young and The Restless’  

Marco left KNDD IN 1998 but still spends time in Seattle.  In 2015 Collins, who is openly gay, was the subject of the documentary ‘The Glamour and The Squalor’, directed by Marq Evans…and yes, the spelling’s right.  The film follows his early life and on to his wild success in radio even while dealing with addiction, and his eventual sobriety.  Mike McCready (of Pearl Jam) supplied the score for the the film.  It won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at Outfest in Los Angeles, Audience Favorite at The Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival,  Best Documentary at the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, Alabama, Best Local Feature at The Tacoma Film Festival and it was the runner-up for Best Documentary at the Seattle International Film Festival.  ‘The Glamour and the Squalor’ has also garnered nominations and awards from both LGBT and mainstream festivals world-wide.  Next to Hype!  it may be the second best film based on a musical figure and movement out of Seattle.

Back to Moshe.  He tells me that while the store in Pioneer Square was getting off the ground he was listening to a lot of things Al was listening to…and many other things that Al didn’t listen to like The Jerky Boys.

For the uninitiated, The Jerky Boys were a juvenile and stoopid comedy outfit from Queens, New York. In other words they were hysterically funny.  Especially when stoned.  Johnny Brennan and Kamal Ahmed were childhood friends. In 1989 the pair created a cast of fictitious characters that would make prank calls, record them and release them as tapes.  Their work was somewhat in the vein of Cookie Puss, the first indie 12” by The Beastie Boys but without the beats. The Jerky Boys were much, much more over-the-top in portraying a bevvy of voice characters.  Their tapes found their way to New York DJ and radio host Howard Stern.  His playing them on the air broke the Jerky Boys who went on to have phenomenal success.  Despite their success Kamal left Brennan and The Jerky Boys after a dispute.  Brennan continued producing Jerky Boys material on a solo basis.  Kamal released his own solo album, Once a Jerk, Always a Jerk, in 2000 and in 2001 Brennan put out The Jerky Tapes. It was the last album by Brennan.  He set The Jerky Boys aside after it’s release

Aside from The Jerky Boys Moshe says;

“I was listening to a lot of 60s Garage, a lot of great punk,  and after the store opened I got more into a lot of the indie rock thing. I learned a lot more about it. As we started carrying more and more labels we’d get promos and I could check out more stuff and expand more.”

“The core of our business” says Al “was like Matador and Touch and Go and all the related labels We would try to figure out the new releases but also try to figure out which catalog releases we should have.  We got some help sometimes. We’d have younger customers help us order stuff, to be perfectly frank, because we weren’t really experts on that

Billboard magazine says they were also getting new product through indie distributors like Abbey Road, run by Sam Ginsburg in Los Angeles, and Dutch East India Trading who was carrying Homestead Records, Giant Records, Grass Records and Rockville Records at the time.

I’m an expert on many different kinds of music but certainly not independent music. I mean, I’ve learned about it.  Most people really delve into it pretty heavily. I had some interest in it if I liked the band. I like Sonic Youth and I like Ween, but that doesn’t mean I like 100 other indie bands, I would gravitate toward things that I really liked, but that didn’t necessarily kill our inventory or what our selection had to be. Moshe made a lot of suggestions because he was listening to it much more closely than I was, I think”.

“Wouldn’t you say that was true?” he asks Moshe.

“Some bands, yeah, And some bigger names” Moshe replies.

“You know we were working with with majors too-like Sony” Al tells me. “We also worked with Universal. They were going through different periods and there was stuff we would promote very heavily.  I worked very heavily with those companies. Capitol was a very strange case because there was a woman-I’m not going to even say who she was-but she was a very uncooperative promotional woman who was going out with somebody very well-known in Seattle.  She made a point not to be cooperative with our store so I contacted Donna Ross from Capitol Records in Hollywood (Ross was then national director of alternative sales at) and from then on we got the best service directly from Capitol in Hollywood because the original promo woman was not cooperative.”
“And then there was ‘Grand Royal’ (a vanity label set up by the Beastie Boys after they left Def Jam Records), They had this magazine and these guys were super into ‘The Beastie Boys’. I ran into ‘The Beastie Boys’ subsequently. I still listen to them-especially ‘Paul’s Boutique’ which is one of my favorite albums, But these guys would listen to The Jerky Boys and ‘The Beastie Boys’ night and day,  So did Moshe and his brother Mordy.  It was unbelievable. We even hung out with The Beastie Boys once”.

Moshe tells the story.  Actually what happened was, I think it was Grand Royal that got us into ‘Lollapalooza’ but they forgot to put our names on the guest list.   Al talked our way in…Mordy and Al combined…and we went backstage and Al didn’t recognize any of them.  Al went up to Mike D. and asked him where the food was. I said, ‘Do you realize he’s going on in half an hour or 45 minutes? He’s one of the Beastie Boys! You just asked one of the Beastie Boys where the food was!’

They both break into laughter.
Later Al tells me about smoking pot with them and having a generally bust-up time.

Al admits “I didn’t know what they looked like. When Urge Overkill came here-Urge Overkill recorded one of my songs called ‘Stitches In My Head’  (It was shortened to ‘Stitches’ on the band’s  EP, ‘Stull’).  Eddie Vedder was in the middle of the room when we went back to the motel. All these girls were clustered around this really diminutive guy. I didn’t know what Eddie Vedder looked like because Pearl Jam didn’t put their pictures on album covers. So I just asked Nash Kato from Urge Overkill ‘Who’s that diminutive guy attracting all the chicks in the middle of the room?  He said ‘That’s Eddie Vedder’…I didn’t know….and I’m from Seattle….but he’s not really from Seattle-he’s from California- so I don’t really feel that bad about not recognizing him”.

“We were at 101 Cherry from 1991 through June of 1996 and then we moved to Capitol Hill” Moshe tells me. “Actually we made two moves. To Capitol Hill in 1996 and another move to the University District in 1998.  On Capitol Hill we were next to The Oddfellows Hall. There wasn’t all that stuff that’s there is now, but the Molly Moon store was right by there. I think there’s an ‘H&R Block’ there now. Our store was in the Oddfellows Hall building on the ground floor.  There’s several stores there The address is 911 East Pine which was odd because it was like 9-11, Kind of spooky.

“I think people who live in Seattle, even people who live in the neighborhood always mix up Pike and Pine Streets” says Al. “I do myself-except when our store was there.  Obviously I knew which one I was on because we were on Pine, but now it’s: “Pine?…Pike?…whatever…”  Al goes on to say “The Pine store was a lot larger than the Pioneer Square store, but a little too large. It was HUGE.

Moshe agrees. “Yeah it was much too large. Because there was more space the rent was higher.  It was larger than we needed so it was a little bit of an uphill battle for us. That place only lasted a couple of years, but it had  a good stage if we wanted to have in-stores and bands play there. We had The Wailers play but the space itself just wasn’t great, In the other two locations the customers came in, and they could talk to you right away, so the interaction was better; but the Capitol Hill store was harder  because we were all the way in the back there. The interaction wasn’t great, plus theft was easier because you’re not going to run all the way across the store to catch somebody stealing CDs. The move never really justified itself in sales. Now we did carry a lot of great records there and that’s when our record thing really started to expand, so it was good for that, But we decided to move.”

“We decided that the University District was gonna be the best and probably only reasonable location to move to” Moshe says. “We talked about…it was a different time frame..we talked about the Pike Place Market and all these other locations.. We did find a place in the University District. We moved there in 1998. The first two locations had put us in a bit of a situation…I would say, without getting into too many specifics about the finances, where it was a make or break thing.  We could have easily closed up the shops at either earlier locations because we had debts and all this stuff, but we were both kind of stubborn and decided we wanted to keep this going. You know, find the best way with how to deal with it.

In a 1998 article Billboard magazinefocused on Bedazzled Discs, and it’s impending move from 911 East Pine. They wrote;

    Bedazzled Discs Capitol Hill location

“With more than 5,000 titles the mix of the Capitol Hill store was approximately 50% CD and 50% vinyl.  The music runs the gamut with modern jazz, Jamaican, reggae, ska, psychedelic, garage, grunge, surf, rockabilly, hip-hop, soul, funk, comedy, vintage country and vintage rock and roll.  The store also carries a large number of indie releases, including the entire catalogs of K Records in Olympia, Trojan Records from Jamaica on LP and CD  (Trojan is British, actually) and Blue Note Records on LP and CD.

‘We try to carry real roots music’ Milman says.  ‘Anything with a lot of energy and passion.  The move to our new location in the University District, although slightly smaller with about 1,200 square feet gives us the opportunity to showcase more inventory with a much better lay-out”.

Al says “At one point Moshe tried to buy me out but he didn’t have any money”  I can’t tell if this is tongue-in-cheek or not.

“But you know, I was a pain” Moshe says “because Al did have a lot of knowledge of records so we looked for spaces that were ideal locations…in-between the pursuit of chasing the right size. We needed something bigger than the store in Pioneer Square but smaller than Capitol Hill location.  We didn’t need the extra space and as far as space goes the University District store was perfect, plus the bathroom was another good selling point”

“A good place for people to shoot-up in!” Al says in mock joy.

“We couldn’t fit so many records in the Pioneer Square store” Says Moshe. “We could on Capitol Hill, but as I said the customer interaction was really awkward there.  So the U-District was good, and we moved there in 1998.  Business did actually improve for awhile. quite a bit. The store was on University and 43rd Street, across from Rudy’s Barber Shop.  We were at  4742 University Way, also across the street from the 7-11.  So we were in the U-District, and it took a couple of years for Al to alienate the customers”.

“I did pretty well with alienating customers” says Al.

“So the location was great’ Moshe tells me. ‘The size was good,  the layout of the records was really good and we were big enough that we could have in-stores. There was a bit of an issue with theft, like there was in the other two locations.

“It was generally bad in that neighborhood” says Al. “But both of us were very good at catching shoplifters. Mostly because I was a very good shoplifter when I was younger, so I knew what they were doing.  I use to steal from our shoplifters, I was picking their pockets while they were stealing our CDs. Seriously, we’re both very good at stopping the attrition rate from shoplifting. We would catch people and we only had to have one guy arrested because he stole the whole Johnny Thunders and Iggy Pop sections. I won’t say his name even though I can because he was convicted-but I won’t. This guy shoplifted at every record store in Seattle that had something he wanted. He was a bad shoplifter, though, and we had to press charges”.

“At the third store in the University District-that’s when we were selling the entire Trojan record label”. Al tells me. “We had every record that was in print on Trojan at the time and that was a large part of our business, Also we bought Adam Bratman’s Sub Pop collection, which was another big part of that location. It greatly expanded our market for records”.

Seattle music fans obviously know the Sub Pop label but fewer people are familiar with Trojan Records.

Trojan was originally set up in 1968 by music retailer Lee Gopthal and ‘Island Records’ founder Chris Blackwell in London.  Trojan’s initial output consisted of 7”Jamaican singles released in Britain by artists like Jimmy Cliff, Dave and Ansel Collins, Lee “Scratch”Perry, Desmond Dekker, Toots and The Maytals and many more artists we now consider classic Jamaican stars. In 1972 Chris Blackwell decided to give up his interest in Trojan and by 1975, without Island Records’ resources and overspending Trojan went broke.  At the time they had been trying to re-mix, provide new arrangements and re-master former Reggae recordings for a wider British market. The assets that remained were bought up by Marcel Rodd and his label ‘Saga Records’.  Rodd didn’t have a particular interest in the music of Jamaica, but the company wasn’t an expensive buy and Saga dealt in discounted records. At the time no one knew the Trojan catalog would become a cash cow. There were some thin times financially under Rodd, but Trojan was a source for the many British Skinheads who listened to and danced to the music of Jamaica.  It was also a source for former Carribeans to find and enjoy the music they’d left behind.  Still, this wasn’t a large market. Trojan ultimately succeeded on the strength of the “Ska Revival” of the late 70s and early ‘80s, sparked on by bands like The Specials, The Selecter and Madness. Rodd and his Saga Records then sold Trojan believing that the ‘Ska Revival’ was a fad that would soon implode.  It was later sold to a rabid fan of Jamaican music, Colin Newman (not that Colin Newman) He would be the first of a few that would know how to exploit the label and bring it back to it’s then-fabled history. Newman also knew more than anyone how valuable the Trojan back catalog would become.

One very smart move Trojan had made from the start was gathering up licensing deals for many lesser-known artists and with many smaller labels.  They often released these artists locally on their smaller licensed labels to the Jamaican market rather than internationally. Their catalog included ‘reggae’, ‘rude boy’, ‘ska’ and ‘rock steady’ artists.  A lot of these were deep tracks that would later become essential.  Suddenly Trojan became the label to find these artists on as re-releases, and their original pressings became highly prized by collectors. In 1998 Trojan started compiling that would be a series of 69 boxed sets (so far) each made up of 50 tracks on 3 CD’s.  They’ve also put out three similar box sets that are only available in Japan or as Japanese imports.  Since 2000 the label has changed hands several times, but has made millions of dollars (or more?) off it’s extensive back-catalogue.  Trojan remains one of the most profitable and respected small labels in the world, even though it is now part of the EMI group.  2018 marks its 50th year in business.  Pretty good for a label that started out as labor of love, and a good label to carry for any struggling record store.

“We also bought out ‘Backtrack Video’s’ inventory” Moshe says. “We were undecided whether to rent or to sell them so we ended up doing a little bit of both. We tried to do a rental thing but it really didn’t work out too well. We weren’t really set up to be a rental business so we sold some,  It didn’t make us much money but it was kind of a cool.  I kept some for myself, like a bunch of Russ Meyer movies.  They were on VHS though”.

Several bands played at The University District store.  Moshe tells me. “The Boss Martians and the Alan Milman Sect (‘never heard of ’em’ says Al”) They played at the last store…Pop Slavery and  I think the Fixx played there too when they were in town.  The Makers played in the third store too”
In 1998 Billboard reported that other in-store’s at the Capitol Hill location included Dub Narcotic, Truly, and The Rob Clark Five.

“We had our ups and downs there like we did at all the locations” Moshe admits. “During that time personally…I’d gotten married in ‘95 and I wasn’t making enough money to pay for both of us so I worked at my father’s company. I didn’t so much the first few months in the Pioneer Square days.  Neither my father nor the company are around anymore.  It was a dry cleaning and laundry supply company.  Depending what year you’re talking about I worked 20 to 30 hours a week.  Maybe even sometimes 40 hours so I was struggling with that job, the store and I’d gotten married in 1995 and became a father in 1999. So by the time ‘99 came around we had been one year at the U-District store. It was a struggle for me to find time to really work and do stuff at the store. I was at home a lot because I was with the baby. He’s 18 years old now.”

“Well you brought him to the store a lot” Al says sympathetically.

Moshe continues by saying “I was working at another job, and trying to deal with a marriage that ended up failing around the same time the store failed. There was a lot going on for me personally. It was hard to find a lot of time to be at the store and do a lot of things that when I look back on, maybe I would have done differently, but you know…”

“What killed off the store?”  I ask them.

“The truth is there was debt that was accumulating from day one, and the reasons are numerous. I would say our first location choice, while there were some good parts about it, maybe it was a little bit pricey for us. We had started on a shoestring budget and when we moved to Capitol Hill we took out more loans and put more on credit cards, I feel we kind of put ourselves in a situation where we were, from a business standpoint…well there was a lot to manage.”

Al Milman & Moshe Weinberg

“For instance I was doing a lot of the accounting”. Says Moshe. “So who do I pay?” I’d ask myself. “You have to pay the rent. And the suppliers-you don’t want to hold them up.  It was a struggle to pay our bank loans every month and you have to put people off and people got angry. As I said we could have easily closed after the Pioneer Square store, or after the Capitol Hill store but we had an emotional attachment to the store and we decided to find that ideal location, so when we got to the University District it got better for a couple of years and I felt that even though it would take us years and years to pay-off all our loans we at least had hope. There were a few things like 9-11 that played a part in this, There was some construction project on the Ave”.

“That was the biggest thing…the renovation of the Ave.” says Al.

I should explain here to non-Seattlites although the main street in the University District (or U-District) is ‘University Way’ For some obscure reason the street has been known for decades as ‘The Ave’ short for ‘Avenue’.  It’s a Seattle-thing not even the natives understand.  We just accept it at face value.

“I’m not going to get into personal things” says Moshe “but I think at times Al’s customer service, depending on the type of customer, they could be put off by his approach. Some customers stopped coming to the store-I think in each location- so I think all those things played a factor and then there was the general economy. I could list ten or twelve things. But I think both of us going into it lacked business experience; and this says a little bit about myself.  My dad had a business, but I didn’t have any experience running a business and I think when Al and I both look back on it we would have done a few things differently.  Maybe partly in locations or partly in…who knows?  But I would have done certain things differently. I have a lot more experience now-I learned a lot-but at the time it put us in a bit of a hole”

“It’s a struggle, vinyl is very popular now, but it’s had its ups and downs” says Moshe

“Records are popular too” Al chirps in.  I know he’s being sarcastic.  This is a sore point for him; calling records ‘vinyl’ or ‘vinyls’ drives him nuts. Maybe this has gone over Moshe’s head I think to myself.

“They were very popular at the store when we were in the U-District” Moshe continues.

“I think we helped bring records back into prominence” Al says.

“I think the real major issue” says Moshe “was that we weren’t able to turn our inventory over enough because of our cash flow issues; to keep some of the regular customers. They would come one day and then come a week later (and that wasn’t always the case) we had some weekly customers but it wasn’t on a consistent basis”.

“Al and I had these monthly meetings where we both got really stoned” Moshe tells me. “I had to tell Al that unfortunately we had a budget, because we had to pay the rent and we had to do this and that. So I put a budget on Al for what we could buy, and that was a struggle because we couldn’t get everything we wanted and we were buying things coming in off the street”.

“We should have bought more used records” Al admits. “ I used to go out-of-state and buy records. That’s one of the things that kept the store going for years because we had vinyl that other people didn’t have.  I hate to use the word vinyl, it’s RECORDS. You know what I really hate? The word ‘vinyls’ People who say ‘vinyls‘ are morons” Al says with conviction.  “Ask Mike Nipper about that. He has an epileptic seizure if he hears that word  ‘vinyls’. Millennials use that expression.  Millennials are morons anyway.”

I tell them that once in an article I referred to ‘a chunk of polychloride vinyl on a press’.

That’s a record!” snaps Al

“No I didn’t call it a record because it was a glob pressed into a record.

Moshe says “In my previous job I was with a company that was making equipment and I bought a lot of vinyl. But that was actual vinyl. I tried to put it on my record player but nothing played!”

“I just want to say a couple of things” Al announces.  “We sold more copies of The Small Faces compilation The Darlings of Wapping Wharf Launderette.  We sold 400 copies of that double CD compilation. We sold more in Seattle than any English record store. That compilation sold like Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’. It was over a period of years, but that was incredible. It’s because there were three or four bands in Seattle that covered The Small Faces. The Small Faces are extremely popular in Seattle and that’s very unusual in any city.  It was mostly The Faces, but people who like The Small Faces are more specialists and this is an area (the northwest) where they apparently had a large fan base, It was part of the zeitgeist and it’s unbelievable. When you talk about The Faces ‘ehhhhh’  but when you talk about The Small Faces. ‘Brilliant! Genius!’

.”Moshe talked to Steve Marriott once” Al says.

“Yeah, I talked to Marriott” Moshe says, adding “it was terrible. He was at the end of his life. He was really wasted”There’s a slight pause here because I know how big fans Al and I are of The Small Faces.  I assume Moshe is as well. It’s a bit unsettling thinking about his demise.

We move back to Al and Moshe’s story;

“People like Peter Buck would shop at the last store. We had a Garage and Psychedelic section that was all like Sundazed (a great reissue imprint) and other related labels. That stuff would fly out of there, because nobody had a garage/psych section. Maybe Satellite Records did”.

“Oh, they weren’t around then” Moshe reminds us.

“I know” Al says. But they were the only ones that would have anything comparable. They wound up in a whole different place. I don’t even want to talk about Scott. I actually got to know him later. He was really cool, He burned me a Tony Joe White box that I really treasure”

“We had the largest James Brown section that I’ve ever seen. We had every James Brown we could order. We’d order 36 of them at a time. We had 80 Johnny Cash albums at one time. That’s what made the store different.”

“What was that MTV show? The Real World? Al asks. “They came and filmed in our store. They filmed in our store because they heard we had all these James Brown records and a lot of other great records. They came and shot and they said if they wanted to use it  they’d let us know, but they didn’t. They promised us they’d send us the video but they never did.  So “Fuck You Real World! Fuck You MTV!  I Hate My MTV! 

I tell them occasionally late at night I will watch a bit of I Want My ‘80s

“I HATE THE 80s!” Al tells me abruptly. “I love The Jesus and Mary Chain. I love Echo and The Bunnymen and I love specific groups. But people used to come in the store-and this is where I used to get riled up- people would come in the store and ask ‘Where’s your 80s section?’ and I’d say ‘We file by category and music by genre’.

“That was the thing” says Moshe. “The way Al is talking now. Sometimes that could put people off”.

“But some people were down with that” says Al.  “I had a conversation with somebody the other day; that people have to pick one album by an artist that precludes the rest of the artists’ output. There are certain artists like The Kinks or Pink Floyd or The Beach Boys or Lou Reed or whoever…artists who’ve made multiple great albums, and you don’t have to pick one album. It’s so lazy-minded…like ‘what’s their greatest album?‘ Top 10 lists. Top 40 lists. Bullshit!

“But” says Moshe “Other record stores would tolerate opinions and…”

“But should the come to the store to buy one record?” Al counters.

Moshe responds by saying “Well if they’re giving me money to buy that one record…”

“But I sold a lot of those ‘one records‘ Al says.  “Obviously if it was Love it would be Forever Changes, but that doesn’t negate Love’s self titled album and and Da Capo and Four Sail. We had that conversation”

“Well one time we had a customer come in and say Love Lost is my favorite Love album” Moshe looks at Al “and you’re response was

“Well I’ve heard that cliche before” and I was like ‘Al why are you…”

Al tells me “Moshe’s absolutely right about that. I disagree with it philosophically, but he’s right because there’s no point because favorites are legitimate…

“Moshe looks at Al and says “But this was a guy that has similar tastes in music as you”

“No, no you’re right because favorite is legitimate” Al repeats. “Best is not legitimate. I go off on people on facebook all day when they say“best”. I just had a thing on a facebook thread about T.Rex. Some critics there are are lovely and very nice to me and I like the guys and everything.  I respect them. But this guy didn’t really have any reason to be hostile…he said ‘T.Rex didn’t make any good records after ‘Tanx’…and I said ‘I’m sorry…records YOU didn’t like after ‘Tanx’ didn’t mean they didn’t make any other good records’. That’s the distinction I make between the subjective and the objective. I could go on and on and on; I’m verbose…”

“That’s part of my ethos” says Al.“I bought those albums when they came out. I was one of the three people in America that actually bought The Velvet Underground. I actually went back to The Velvet Underground and started with ‘Loaded’ but I always bought The Small Faces when they came out; The Kinks-I bought them all when they came out. I bought Pink Floyd when they came out.  We had all these people at the shop that would buy all these records and they’d keep coming back to the store and they wanted the next record…they basically wanted something else. They wanted ‘The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society’ and then they wanted ‘Arthur’.

Moshe turns to me and says “This is what the store was like. Al would be like an Al Milman Stage and Word Show.

“I’m not involved in music except listening to it” Moshe says “Once the store closed…I’m not really a musician so there’s no avenue.

“Well you’re a collector” Al tells him.

“I wouldn’t define myself as a collector” Moshe responds “because to me a collector is an obsessive person. I’m a buyer of records”.

“Eventually we’ll call you an obsessive person with a lot of records. It’s all the same.” Al tells Moshe.

“None of my kids understand” Moshe says. “I have four kids now but they don’t understand the mentality; but there are people, and you always know who they are, who are collectors, but I’m not a collector.”

“Oh no no no” Al says as he laughs “You’re not ready for a psychiatrist, but you’re an avid fan and you are a collector on some level.”

   Al Milman sockin’ it to Moshe Weinberg

I admit to them I have a distaste for the collectors market after spending so much time around indie artists and financing indie artists’ projects…and having run three independent record labels. I tell him I’m always disappointed to see collectors make more money off the sale of one record than the band ever made off an entire run of a thousand records. Of course this is kind of a dumb thing to say to someone who has made a living off selling collectible records.

“I don’t mind the collectors market on some level” Al tells me. “I don’t necessarily have a problem if they make money selling it if they like the music. If they don’t have any interest in the music, that’s when I take offense. But I can’t begrudge if they like it, and they’re actual, genuine fans that bought it when it came out and sell it for market value later.  I can’t begrudge them at all because if they sell it cheaply the guy they’re selling it to is going to turn around and sell it for $200. If they just buy it and they don’t have any respect for what it is, that’s another story”.

“It’s just supply and demand. In other words, if you don’t like indicting the whole of capitalism- and capitalism has its drawbacks-but it’s all one whole, and we’re all within that system. So I’m not going to hold it against just one guy. I’m not going to point the finger at one guy because he’s not going to sell it cheap, and get ripped off by some other guy who’s playing for himself. I grew up in New York. We’re wary of things like that. I hope the guys got a good game.  If he couldn’t sell it for that price and they try to talk him down so they can do to sell it at a good price. “I’m not going to fall for that. I don’t fall for any scam”

I tell Al I know artists who have re-pressed their own records if they become valuable much later after their first release. They make them look just like the originals and sell them on the collectors market. They only put out a few at a time so they don’t ruin the price.  I tell him these are not bootleggers.  These are artists who actually own the material.

“Actually it’s diabolical” he says. “I don’t respect it, but these are not stupid people. I’ll tell you what. If they’re getting luxuries from it than I think it’s scummy. If they’re surviving and eating and paying rent from it I think it’s alright. If they’re surviving from it that’s OK.”

“You know what Yoko Ono said about the Beatles and the John Lennon records? She doesn’t care about bootlegs if people are just paying their rent from it. If they’re making millions she’s going to go after them, but she doesn’t go after the small guys that are just eating and paying their rent from it. Paul McCartney does…well he did at one time. I read a story that he allegedly went to a stake-out of a bootlegger and hung out in a surveillance truck. It was in Japan and that’s crazy-obsessive. He seems like a nice guy but that’s nuts.”

Al tells me “We’d like a chapter of your Northwest book if you’re game for that. We know Gillian Gaar and Clark Humphrey. They have great books.”

I don’t have the heart to tell them that I am, in fact, writing a book…but it’s a completely different subject than music.  Then I tell them that recently I saw something about  the 20th Anniversary Edition ‘Loser’ the excellent chronicle of the Seattle music scene written by Clark Humphrey. In the ad the cover of the book’s new edition is shown and beside it copy announcing the release of ‘Loser’ by “Clark Humphries”

“Unbelievable!” I tell Al and he agrees. Clark’s proper name is clearly spelled on the book’s cover in the ad but no one took the time to look at the cover, then the ad copy and back to the cover a few times, and try to figure it out.  A misspelling of the authors name, when the cover of the book clearly shows the authors name?  Anyway, I pray Clark never saw it.  He’s a really good guy and might let it go…but on the other hand if it was me…but then, it is kind of funny knowing what a huge mistake was made.

“My friend had a power pop group in New York called Radio City” Al tells meThey were included in a Power-Pop book and the authors got all the information wrong. In fact I helped them correct it.  One of our friends would have been very insulted; that guy was omitted. I made sure he got reinstated. The other main guy in the group got reinstated too. They (music writers) do this all the time”.

“I’ll tell you what. If you have a chance to proofread when people are doing these things and they don’t proofread than it’s your own fault”.

I have to agree, but somewhat sheepishly, because I’m not able to rely on a proofreader and I make plenty of mistakes that I ask my readers to point out. I’m not above mistakes.

“I proofread a Zappa book with a guy I’m not talking to anymore” says Al “It was translated from French, but because I was  friends with Zappa I did it as a favor. We proofed for accuracy. We corrected all the mistakes.”

We begin to wrap things up.  All of us have more things to do.

“I just wanted to make sure I didn’t talk over any of Moshe’s stuff” Al tells me. “I don’t even know I’m doing that half the time. It’s not like it’s a malicious thing.”

Moshe admits “There were some conflicts with us at the store, but we’ve cleared it up. No one can put up with Al for more than ten minutes!”

“It was a miracle” according to Al. “There’s two different kinds of people. With some people it’s unconditional. I think our friendship is pretty unconditional, but I understand what you’re talking about. With some people it doesn’t rub, but with some people it does rub. I want so say most of the people I know that have had record stores together busted up and wanted to kill each other and I’m not going to mention any names. Moshe knows exactly who I’m talking about.”

“But I did want to chill out at some point” Moshe says. “It wasn’t necessarily before the store busted up. It was a long time before that.”

“I understand that” Al says to Moshe “Usually in a record store there’s one guy like me and one guy like you. It’s not abnormal. And most of these guys never speak to each other again. I think it’s really attributed to dishonesty more than anything else. We never had a dishonesty issue.”

“No” Moshe replies.

Al tells me “I’ve worked with people that run the gamut. People that had your job and people that were very technical. Music is at its freshest no matter how you do that whether it’s primitive or really technical.”

Al stops for a moment and says “I just want to mention people who worked for us before I forget about it. Robert Roth, Matt Sullivan from Atlantic Records and Brandon Pitts, a very good friend of ours.  Another personal friend of ours, Adam Bratman.  Todd Kluger and Rob Gardner.  No offense guys, I don’t remember everybody. I remember a guy named Eric and Gabe and Tom Brady-we have to mention him-not the asshole football player…that guy’s really an asshole, but I don’t have to tell you guys. I’m not a football fan but I can’t stand his politics.

We finish.  Al’s parting words of wisdom?  “We don’t look for trouble. It finds us.”

 

The new Alan Milman Sect record will be out at the end of this year. The Alan Milman with Evan Foster of The Boss Martians will be appearing at Darrell’s Tavern in Shoreline on August 25th. The Alan Milman Sect hasn’t done a show in 20 years so this is a golden opportunity!

Darrell’s Tavern is at 18041 Aurora Ave. North, Seattle, WA, 98133.  If you get lost on your way there, call (206) 542-6688.  Maybe they’ll answer.  Maybe you’ll get a recording of upcoming shows!

 

 

 

 

-Dennis R. White. Sources;  Al Milman and Moshe Weinberg (interview with the author); Jonny Zchivago ” The Alan Milman Sect-Stitches (1977-1988) Bedazzled BCD007″ (DIE OR DIY, April 18, 2014); Fallout Records (www.falloutrecords.com, retirieved July 6, 2018); Cynthia Rose “Legend Of Fallout Records, Books & Comics Evolves As Energetic New Owner Takes Over Capitol Hill Store” (The Seattle Times, August 27, 1999); Kory Grow ” Broken Records: The Final Days of Bleecker Bob’s Golden Oldies” (Spin Magazine, April 24, 2013); Nicole Brodeur “John Keister’s last stand: ‘Almost Live!’ Star Straddles Old and New Seattle” (The Seattle Times, August 25, 2017); Sarah Ravits ” Meet The Man Who Discovered All Your Favorite ’90s Music” (UPROXX, 1October 15, 2015); Zach “Remembering One of Seattle’s Greats on the Eve Of Record Store Day: Fallout Records 1984-2003” 107.7 The End, April 15, 2016); Sean Nelson “Seattle Music Vets Gathered to Revisit Hype! 20 Years Later and It Was Kind of Intense” (The Stranger, September 27, 2017); Michael Canter ” Bleecker Bob’s & The Demise Of The Independent Record Store” (The JiveWired Journal, October 15, 2012); Ira Robbins “The Alan Milman Sect” (Trouser Press, http://www.trouserpress.com/entry.php?a=alan_milman_sect retrieved July 6, 2018); The Alan Milman Sect-Punk Rock Christmas EP” (Old, Weak, But Always A Wanker-The Punk Years, April 21, 2017-retrived July 5, 2018); Rachel Belle”Legendary Seattle DJ Marco Collins is the Subject of the new SIFF film ‘The Glamour and The Squalor” (MyNorthwest.com, January 25,2018); “The Trojan Records Story” (www.trojanrecords.com/the-trojan-records-story-retriveved July 6, 2018); Tony Sokol “Rudeboy: The Story Of Trojan Records:Boogie on Reggae Women and Men, Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records breaks down ska beats” (Den of Geek, June 6, 2018); Steve Traiman “Bedazzled Discs Makes A Mark On Seattle Scene” (Billboard, Oct 10, 1998); Chris Morris “Abbey Road’s Inspiring Altruism” (Billboard, Apr 27, 1996).

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.
.
“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

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

Rob Morgan and The Squirrels

On September 21 2017 Iggy Pop was hosting his “Iggy Confidential” show that’s become  semi-regular Friday night fare on the UKs BBC 6.  About three quarters through his show he dropped the needle on a song almost everyone familiar with the early 80’s Seattle music scene.  It was The Pudz doing “Take Me To Your (Leader)”.  More than a few Seattle listeners ears pricked up immediately and hopefully a few others’ around the world.  After the song finished Iggy related what a horrible year 1981 was-the year The Pudz single was releasedIggy  mentioned pooping out” Zombie Birdhouse and how he’d been relegated to opening for A Flock of Seagulls at New York’s Peppermint Lounge; he was so humiliated he built himself a cross to drag onto stage with him.  Then he went on to tell his audience what a great little band out of Seattle The Pudz were, and that they were a high point for him during that awful year.  One person who heard the broadcast (via the quick thinking of a friend who was streaming it.) was Rob Morgan… the genius behind The Pudz, and for the last four decades one of most visible guys on Seattle’s music scene…25 of which were spent leading The Squirrels-or one of the many iterations of the band. First he tells me about Iggy  playing one of his Pudz records;

“That was mind-blowing”says Rob. “Being a bright shining spot for him in a shitty year. I just about had a heart attack, then when he actually starts singing R.B Greaves’ ‘Take A Letter, Maria’ (the flip side of Take Me To Your ( Leader) and cracking himself up I felt like ‘that kind of validates my entire career; of all the people who  gave me shit for being a quote-unquote “cover band”-which we’re not.  If we were a cover band we’d be doing songs people actually wanted to hear, and playing in Holiday Inns for real money.  We wouldn’t be taking Terry Jacks’ Seasons In The Sun and speeding it up faster and faster before it becomes Van McCoys’ Do The Hustle.

What Rob didn’t mention is that he has at least one other important and influential fan; or he did have until he died in 2004: The great British DJ, John Peel.  Peel kept a box of records near his door, which has become known as The John Peel Record Box.  Peel claimed if there was ever a fire in his house the box was next to the door because it was filled with 147 singles of his favorite records of all-time.  The box contained everything from Anne Peeble’s ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’ and Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’ to much rarer fare like Medicine Head’s ‘Coast To Coast (And Shore To Shore)’ The box is an eclectic mix of jazz, rock, psychedelia and indie-pop.  One of those rare 45’s included is ‘Oz On 45’a record by the band Morgan is more well-known for; The Squirrels.  ‘Oz on 45’ is a piss-take on the once popular output of producers stringing one hit after another, sometimes speeding songs up to segue into the next- and sometimes slowing them down for the same reason.  Most of the time the gimmick was to keep the same pitch and the same beat of top-40 songs.  The best that can be said about the “Stars on 45” records was they keep people dancing (or listening) to some of the most egregious songs of the ‘70s…a pretty egregious decade in it’s own right.

“So you wanna know how we all got to this?” Rob offers in a more and more enthusiastic coffee buzz

Rob grew up in one of Seattle’s bedroom communities, Edmonds, Washington.  He says he ‘There was nothing’ adding I was”a weirdo kid from the get-go” like a lot of the thousands and thousands of other suburban misfits  biding their time before breaking out of the mold to become weirdo artists.  Rob says that during his teens he was listening to people like Jethro Tull and Leon Russell and the Winter’s Brothers.  He points to the Beatles as his earliest love.  He also talks about his sister giving him a copy of The Mothers of Invention’s “Absolutely Free” while he was in the fifth grade. He didn’t know it then but he’d just set out on a journey that what would be Seattle’s next great era in music. He remembers a girl in school noticing Rob had a picture of Ziggy Stardust in his locker.  Rob was being hassled by the jocks who were listening to Elton John “I find that really funny” he says.  Then one day someone gave him a copy of the Seattle fanzine Chatterrbox. The fanzine was put out by Lee Lumsden and Jim Basnight. The cover was a photo of Lou Reed.

“By that time I was doing the back pages of Hit Parader so I was already familiar with the underground thing, but nobody I knew out in Edmonds even knew about that, so I called up Lee Lumsted on the phone because his number was in Chatterbox and we just started  yackin’ back and forth.  Then they invited me to a party so I went down there (to Seattle) and met those kids and the next thing you know I was hanging out with that crowd but I’m still living at my folks.  I’d pack a sack of clothes and a can of soup and hitchhike the 20 miles to the University District and I’d be there two or three days-staying on Jeff Cades’ floor.  Eventually my folks are like “you gotta go” so me and my other buddy from Edmonds fished around and found this place on 55th and University and rented it.  It was $210 a month, all utilities  paid and furnished, so we got me and my other buddy, Gary Womack, and the late Gregor Gayden and whoever. Everybody living in there paying fifty buck a guy.  Eventually the U-Men moved in there…or Tom and Charlie moved in there, and the U-Men were formed in the basement.  Anyway, we were in that house six or seven years. We got up the first time some guy knocked on the door, and went to bed after we threw the last guy out.

Those were the days before the U-District’s main thoroughfare became a dangerous place. In the late 80s University Avenue became a more depressing place full of drugs, runaways and homelessness.  The scene before that it was vibrant, and a great place to hook up wth the altenative music scene.  It was also before there was any social media to bond with other musicians, artists and fans.  There were similar stirrings coming out of Seattle’s Capitol Hill, and by some sort of cultural osmosis among a large crowd of kids coming out of Seattle’s Roosevelt High School.  In the end many of them would meet up, resulting in a city-wide movement. Lee Lumsden would go on to be a multi-talented presence in Seattle, Jim Basnight founded the power-pop band The Moberlys, Rich Riggins and Gary Minkler would found Red Dress, and Rich would later go on to co-found Chinas Comidas. The kid who seemed to be everywhere in the early to mid-80s’ Duff McKagen, also went to Roosevelt High School, though a bit later. Two other important alumni are Tom Price, one of the founding members of The U-Men and Bill Reiflin who played drums with The Telepaths, then went on to The Blackouts, Pigface, Ministry and R.E.M. Now Bill plays in the re-constituted King Crimson.

By 1979 Rob was also ready to jump into the fray.  Since he’d been a kid he’d been a huge fan of just about anything great in pop music. He’d collected a large amount of promo and fan memorabilia (a collection that continues to grow even now) and the sly ability to combine pop music genres and show a great deal of wit in executing it.

“I just started playing. Me and Eric Erickson (who’s passed on) who was my buddy from High School..we were hanging out with this other friend of ours from High School named Kevin played at a party The Enemy were having and we called ourselves The Fishsticks. The Enemy and everybody thought that we were super-funny.  We did “Herman’s HermitsI’m Into Something Good” and “Do You Believe in Magic’ by The Lovin’ Spoonful and a bunch of 60s covers that no one was doing at that time, because they were only about five years old or something.  Later we got asked to do another gig with The Girls, The Radios and Little Magnets at IOGG Hall.  We pretty much stole the whole show and pissed everybody off”.

The band was also asked to play a couple of house parties and they went over well, but it wasn’t ‘til one night during a party at the “Madhouse” (an infamous party house near University Ave.) that The Pudz were actually born and christened.  The entire process was witnessed by about 300 music weirdos, punks, artists and fans.  Everyone went bananas and then ran all over town and told everybody there was this new band called The Pudz so we said “oh well, I guess we’re called The Pudz”. The next day hundred of people were running around talking about The Pudz.   I guess I was a rock singer guy cuz I’d go out there and jump around and have a good time…it just kind of happened.”

“How I wound up in The Pudz, was kind of an accident. Dave Locksley, the guitarist, was trying to start a band with Dave Drewry the drummer (who’s also passed on now) and they would practice in my friend Bill Larsen’s basement.  I was hanging out over there so I’d go down there and we’d start doing some dumb covers just for the hell of it.

After The Pudz were formed they had a successful career as one of Seattle’s favorite bands.

“In 1982 when The Pudz fell apart I did a fanzine called “Pop Lust” for a couple of years”, Rob tells me. “Then I got sick of doing that and I said I want to get back into playing. So I went and saw one of the Young Fresh Fellows first shows and I cornered Scott and said you guys have got the kind of 60s garage-y thing I’m kinda looking for so why not let me be your front man?  And he said “well, I’m gonna be a front man because I’m writing all the songs, but how about if we back you up under a different name doing covers? And I said “GOLDEN!” So the first year The Squirrels was essentially me fronting The Young Fresh Fellows, except Scott would play bass and Jim would play guitar”.

“So they go up to Bellingham and play a show at The 3B’s and they take me with them. Then they put on wigs qnd basically open for themselves and half the time the audience wouldn’t even figure out it was the same band cuz the guy from The Pudz was jumpin’ around. So that’s how we did it first, and it was a bit straighter then, as far as the magic-y kind of thing.  But then they started taking off and they were too busy to keep doing it, but Tad (the drummer) being a wierdo, he wanted to keep doing it.

In 1985 me and Tad brought Eric Erickson back in, got Craig Ferguson on bass (a buddy from Tower Records where I worked), and drafted Joey Kline on a recomendation after checking him out in Boy Toast. He was really funny and talented.  Thats when it really started rolling..  Jimmy Thomas (JT) came into the  band in 1989 and Joey has been my co-pilot 23 out of the 25 years The Squirrels (or one of their pseudonyms) have been together. The name eventually ended up simply as The Squirrels, but any term with the word “squirrel” in it has probably been linked to them.

“So how did we get to this point?” he asks himself again.

“He begins to answer himself.  “Like I said I remember The Beatles…and that prime-era stuff that was on the radio.  This was where I got all my information.  I was just some lonely kid living out in Edmonds, growing up. What the hell?  And then I find Aladdin Sane or something, and I’m like, whoa! there’s a whole world out there that seems to be interesting”.

“It made me realize that either they’re lying to us…all kinds of music is the same and it doesn’t matter and you can smash through rock into jazz into that and the other thing, and it doesn’t freaking matter. This world of ours tried it ourselves and that; along with NRBQ and other things, and there’s so many bands that think that way.  I don’t mean to offend Country people but I just don’t understand why you would say “I do this and paint myself into this little box. I can’t step outside of this box…and it makes me a thousand times more authentic’. That makes no sense to me”.

“The whole tribute band thing also cracks me up cuz in 1986 on our first album one entire side was Johnny Kidd and The Pirates songs (an early British R&R band known for “Shakin’ All Over”-a song not included on their first record).  The other Everybody thought that was completely stupid and that we were insane, and now if you have an original band you can’t get a show, but if you have a band where you dress up and pretend you were Guns N’ Roses you could play every day.  So for our next show since we’re going to do a lot of covers and we’re just going to say “For this next song we are a tribute band to (whatever band we’re supposed to do)” and then we will become a tribute band for whatever the next song is, and then people will like it better”.

“Like I said” says Rob  “The Squirrels just kept going and going and going and by 2009 we couldn’t do it any more” says Rob. “I looked at the calendar one day and said “if I make it to the next Christmas show that will be twenty Christmas shows and twenty-five years under the name of The Squirrels, so that was a good time to just step away”.  I made a bunch of t-shirts with Death With Dignity Retirement Tour on ‘em and that was that.  Until recently we hadn’t done a show since that “farewell tour” that ended Christmas Eve 2009. I mean we kinda did a one-off for a friend of mine’s 60th birthday in his living room. I kinda jumped up with the fellas and did a Mighty Squirrels set, but we haven’t done a fully authorized, sanctioned Squirrels show until last year (2017) and nobody thought it would happen. The first show was in April and then in May and then in September”.

‘Last year”, says Rob, “we brought The Squirrels back together. We had to cheer people up cuz of the whole Trump thing and I had to find something different to do”. He adds “I swore for years and years and years and years there’s no way we would ever do that. It sounds ridiculous but one of the main reasons we did that was because of Cheeto-face and everybody I know is losing their minds and just not having any fun…just losing their minds. I thought to myself It’s ‘boots on the ground time’ and it’s us against them and everybody has to do what they can do.  I’m too old and physically beat-up to go on a march and too broke to give money that would be worth it to anybody, but I can sure as hell go out there and entertain people and distract them and make fun of this freaking idiot (Trump). So I called up the rest of the band and they just said yuh-huh.

The first two shows we railed heavily.  We did “Lump” by The Presidents of The United State, but we changed it to “Trump”. We did “Draggin’ The Line”. We changed it to “Drainin’ The Swamp”.  We did “Carrie Anne” by The Hollies and changed it to “Kellyanne”.  People were peein’ their pants laughing, but by the time we got to the third show we said “You know, we don’t wanna talk about it anymore’.  People know why we came back, and it’s getting to the point that it isn’t funny anymore, so we dumped all the Trump stuff.  Now we’re playing sporadically…I’m not actively trying to get out there and compete and get rollin’ again, but we’re doing  a show every few months.  We have the best band now that we have EVER had.  It’s ridiculous.

We’ve got me and Joey back in, who as I said was in The Squirrels for 23 of the 25 years we’ve been together.  J.T. is back on lead guitar. who was in the band for 15 years at least. Bruce Laven is back in on keyboards who did it for eight or nine years. Then, we’ve got an all-new rhythm section.  We got this guy named Bill Ray on drums who recently moved to town who’s fantastic.  He also works with Leroy Bell right now, but he used to play with Ike Turner for years.  He’s a technical monster, but he just happens to be a big goofball who “gets it”.  Then we brought in Keith Lowe on bass.  He’s another monster who’s been just kinda laying in wait. Certain people we just consider members of The Squirrels whether they’ve ever played with us or not.  Basically Keith Lowe has been in The Squirrels for 20 years but only played the last three shows. Keith plays with everybody.  He even plays with Wayne Horvitz.  Keith’s a world-class bass player, so we’ve got a world-class rhythm section and all the best loved guys we ever had…that’s what the current line-up is. It’s pretty ferocious.

“We could have spun the next show as our fifth one, but it’s really our fourth and a half show.  There was just me and Joey and a drummer from 20 years ago playin’ in a pot store for their third anniversary, so that was kind of The Squirrels.  But we were thrilled to death because we had no idea…well we knew people would remember us, but we had no idea what would happen.  Our first show back, last April, we had more people in Darells Tavern by 9:00 than any other band who’s played there. The door guy was “what the hell is going on?”  They came from miles around and went freakin’ bananas, We couldn’t believe it.  We were totally touched. And we went down to Tacoma a month later and it happened again. Then we played at The High Dive and it pretty much happened again, except the crowd was a little lighter that time cuz it was Labor Day Weekend and Bumbershoot was going on, but we held our own, even against that.  It’s been going really good and people seem genuinely happy and genuinely grateful.  It’s a kick in the pants to look out there and just see a room full of people with shit-eatin’ grins on their face”

The Squirrels have been through about 35 guys. We were the aforementioned Mighty Squirrels for about a year, and then everybody quit except Tad…they just couldn’t do it anymore. Then me and Tad got  guys together as The New Age Urban Squirrels (also mentioned before) and that’s what we were for a couple of years. Then the first album was two split EPs “Five Virgins” by  and The New Age Urban Squirrels and Ernest Anyway and The Mighty Mighty Squirrels doing “Sings The Hits of Johnny Kidd and The Pirates.  Then Tad quit and we got another drummer, and when Craig quit and we got Kevin Crosby on bass and changed the name to Crosby, Squirrels and Nay because we had brought in Jon Nay who used to be in The Frazz.  Nay quit, and then we brought in Nate Johnson from the fastbacks on drums…so we just changed our name to Crosby,  Squirrels and Nate.

“Anyway we’d get into the gradual process of replacing people as they dropped out; and the style would kind of change depending on who else was in it. Now when Eric Erickson was with us he could play anything. When I was about 16 years old in High School I remember him playing the entire The Who Live at Leeds album on his SGN…like OK!  So that’s when we started getting a little all over the map stylistically because we could take on anything. We were doing what they call mash-ups now decades ago.  We called them Mudleys cuz a Medley is a whole bunch of songs in a row.  We figured a Mudley was a whole bunch of songs stacked up. We’d have one bit where half of the band was doing a country version of “Ben” by Michael Jackson and the other half were playing “Giant Steps” by John Coltrane.  Five musicians would be laughing while everyone else scratched their heads. We had another thing “Hawaii Take Five-O”…stuff like that”.

I ask him why people believe The Squirrels are a cover band.  He nearly bristles at the question, so I ask him how he would describe the band.

“The Squirrels were never really a cover band.  They took multiple hooks and melodies  from one band and mooshed them up with another unlikely band or two…or three, etc. The formula was exactly what made The Squirrels shows fun and entertaining.   Then he enigmatically says

“Well we’re not a cover band but we are a cover band”.

“I would call us “the great rock and roll equalizers” he says.  We take really shitty songs and we elevate them.  Then we take really great songs and we grind them through the skewer and we pound it all together into a dough.  Basically we take the entire history of pop music, smash it together into a ball and throw it back in your face..  Some people understand it, and some people don’t. There’s not a lot of middle ground. There’s the people who generally like The Squirrels .  They say “They’re genuine and I love that band” or “I don’t understand what’s going on, make them stop”. You don’t meet somebody who says “oh I have one of their albums…they’re pretty good”.  They’re either in or their out”.

“As far as CDs go, Popllama Products recently went out of business and it’s owner, Conrad Uno retired.  He sold his house and he’s moving away.  He’s done more than enough.  So when he was clearing out his basement he found a few boxes of CD’s he didn’t know he still had.  He found copies of one of our CDs ‘Harsh Toke of Reality’ from 1993.  The band also have a bunch of copies of ‘The Not So Bright Side of The Moon’.  Those two are available at our shows and at our next show we’re hopefully going to be putting in two or three more of the Pink Floyd covers into the live showssays Rob.

“Harsh Toke of Reality” is probably representative of what we do; about a third originals and the rest random covers.  And then, “The Not so Bright Side of The Moon”- it’s our undisputed masterpiece.

“There’s actually an entire album that is unreleased”. he tells me “It was the follow-up to “The Not So Bright Side of The Moon”. We recorded it in 2002 and called it “Rock Polisher”. It’s the mother of ALL Squirrels albums, but we have never found a label to release it cuz rather than doing it at Uno’s studio (where we had to pay for the studio time) we did it at J.T.’s on his computer. We could spend as much time as we wanted  The Not So Bright Side of The Moon” took us ten days total, mixed and everything.  For this album (“Rock Polisher”) we got together every Wednesday for a year, and by the time we made it, it took “Let’s Dance” three days to mix because it had 50 tracks on it. We did “Let’s Dance” and Wish You Were Here” at the same time.  Anyway, all the Squirrels fans wanted it because it has all the medleys, It has the Mandy medley on it and all that stuff that was never on any other album because we didn’t have time to do it right. But by doing what we did on Rock Polisher no one could pay the royalties for it.  They’d have to pay for 27 songs for a half hour album and every single song is like five songs at the same time.  So we sent it to all these labels and they said
“That is the greatest thing you’ve ever made. But I gotta hire a team of scientists to figure out how to pay for it. Good luck”.

Rob ends up with a final message:

“I’d also like to say that we’re super-excited that in 2034 the comprehensive boxed set called Fart Party is gonna come out. However, we have no idea what label it’s going to come out on because the kid who’s going to re-discover us in a pile of crap isn’t even born yet. But this stuff’s all gonna happen. We’ve left a big enough pile of weird crap laying around for somebody to find in 20 years and say “WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?! If there is someone out there who wants to release it we have all the master tapes.

 

THE SQUIRRELS WILL BE DOING A MATINEE SHOW, SUNDAY JANUARY 7, 2018

DARRELLS TAVERN

18041 AURORA AVE. NORTH, SEATTLE, WA, 98133

DOORS OPEN AT 2:00 PM

SHOWTIME 2:30 PM

TWO SETS

$10

 

-Dennis R. White.  Sources; Rob Morgan interview with the author (November 25, 2017); Stephen Tow; “Addendum: Pop Lust For Life, Rob Morgan and The Squirrels” (The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge, Sasquatch Books, 2011); Rich Webb “The Greatest Bands You’ve Never Heard Of” (The Outsider, January 20, 1999); Ned Raggett “The Squirrels: USA (O Canadarm-Fine Musical Trash from Canada and Beyond, September 5, 2009); Michael Krugman “Capt. Morgan’s revenge: In a scene that takes itself too seriously, The Squirrels lighten the Mood” (The Seattle Weekly, October 9, 2006); Scott Schinder / Ira Robbins “The Young Fresh Fellows [The Squirrels

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

Edmonia Jarrett

The Northwest has been the cradle of many more jazz artists than you might imagine.  Certainly not as many as New York or Chicago or LA. but it certainly seems a haven from those scenes.  Who can say why this little corner of the world has both attracted and spawned so many jazz careers? From Larry Coryell to Don Lamphere and Jeff Lorber.  From Dianne Schurr to Ernestine Anderson to Ray Charles and a very young Quincy Jones.   Even the self-proclaimed “inventor of Jazz” Jelly Roll Morton spent time in the Northwest; first in Tacoma, then in Seattle, and later in Vancouver.  Since there are only a handful of Jelly Roll’s documented gigs in the area it’s thought that Morton was spending more time running his “West Coast Line” (a series of bordellos) and gambling. Although he spent less than two years in the areain 1929 he wrote a song called “The Seattle Hunch”.

However, none of these artists’ stories are as interesting or unusual as that of singer Edmonia Jarett.

Edmonia was born in South Carolina on March 11, 1933.  Like most of the jazz and soul greats she grew up in the church. singing in the choir and spreading “the Lord’s word” through music.  At the same time Edmonia’s parents pushed her to make something of herself.  She chose the field of education.  Her path would first lead her to work at The Pentagon, and eventually to Seattle and a job at Boeing. Then she was hired by the Seattle School District, first as a teacher (African-American History and  Physical Education) and eventually as principal of Wilson Middle School and Cleveland High School.  Finally, after 23 years with the Seattle School District she retired.
After retiring Edmonia then made a move that few would even attempt.  She decided she would become a professional jazz singer.  She was 55 years old…much older than anyone else would have dared to begin a musical profession. But Edmonia had kept up her singing in church and to herself for decades.   She had never had a singing lesson in her like.   Edmonia was known for her “grit and determination”.  It was having these qualities that would make her name regionally-and even gain a loyal fan base around the world. As a performer she was even sought out for various international jazz festivals.  Sue Jackson, a former choir mate at St. Therese Church in Madrona. said:

“When she decides she wants to do something, she does it, to heck with everybody.”

Edmonia took her faith seriously.  In the early 90s she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Instead of relying on doctors, chemotherapy or any of the usual routes cancer patients take, she chose to set all of those aside in order to be healed by the Lord.  Either by determination or divine intervention, Edmonia was cured of her breast cancer.

In 1991 she had her first big break.  She was chosen to play the part of Bessie Smith in an original play called “Janis” starring local R&B singer Duffy Bishop.  The play followed the life of Janis Joplin, and included a series of scenes in which Joplin spoke with and about some of people that had inspired her career.   During the play’s run Edmonia was spotted by a booking agent who helped amp up Jarrett’s jazz career by getting her into several jazz clubs in the Seattle area.

Her turn as Bessie Smith was not her only acting role.  She also appeared in a made-for-TV movie, “Face of a Stranger” that starred Gena Rowlands, Tyne Daly and Cynthia Nixon, Kevin Tighe and Jeff Probst.  Edmonia had a small role (unfortunately) as a maid.  In 1994 she lent her talents as the character Poika, in the video game The Vortex: Quantum Gate II, and in 1995 she was included in the soundtrack (along with Gas Huffer) of Maria Garguilo’s film “The Year of My Japanese Cousin”.  The film was a local production that took advantage of several locally known actors, technicians and musicians.  Lulu Garguilo of The Fastbacks, and sister of Maria is credited as cinematographer.

Meanwhile Jarrett’s singing career was gently taking off.  Many of her friends and fellow musicians have mentioned her generosity and the warmth that she infused with her singing.  By the mid-90’s she was Seattle’s favorite live jazz vocalist.  In 1998 The Seattle Times wrote:

“If thick, cloudy ribbons of cedar smoke could talk, their voices would sound a lot like Edmonia Jarrett.”

She was singing more and more alongide well-known and well-respected jazz musicians.  Fellow performer Greta Matassa said of her voice:

“It’s not terribly flowery. It’s a very forthright, direct way of delivery.”

This may have sounded like an underhanded comment, but with even a cursory listen you can tell how effectively Edmonia used this style.

When Edmonia Jarrett was ready to record her first album she was surrounded by a wealth of local and national talent to help her.  She entered the studio alongside Barney McClure, Bill Ramsay, Billy Wallace and fellow Northwest legends Floyd Standifer and  Clarence Acox.  The result was the album “Live, Live, Live!”.  It should be noted that although a live performance would have resulted in a great album the title “Live, Live, Live!”  actually refers to life, not to  live performance. The songs recorded for the album were Jarrett’s interpretations of jazz standards, with a few lesser-known songs thrown in.  The fact that these are interpretations doesn’t detract from the album at all.  Jim Wilke of Public Radio International’s “Jazz After Hours”  said of the album:

“Onstage she’s gracious and commanding with a tough-love, no-nonsense approach…with warm arrangements and hot players it’s a life-affirming celebration that shouts “Live, Live, Live!”

As her local star was ascending she also became noticed by American and international audiences.  During the mid-90s she began appearing at regional and international Jazz Festivals, including the Mile High Festival in Carson City NV, Victoria’s British Columbia Jazz Festival and “Blues Al Femminile” (“women in Blues”) in Torino, Italy.  She also became a member of Seattle’s Northwest Women in Rhythm and Blues, a loose-knit group of women that over the years has included Katie Hart, Nancy Claire and Edmonia’s friend and mentor Duffy Bishop.

In 1998 Edmonia entered the studio again, this time with Larry Fuller, Joshua Wolff, Buddy Catlett, Geoff Cooke,  Larry Jones, Brian Kirk, Susan Pascal, Ernesto Pediangco, Jim Sisko and Floyd Standifer and the estimable bassist Andy Simpkins. Simpkins had played with jazz artists as diverse as Carmen McRae. Anita O’Day, instrumentalists  Monty Alexander and Stéphane Grappelli as well as other top-notch artists.  The result was the album  Legal at Any Age”.  It also includes two duets with Freddy Cole, “Too Good To Be True” and “East Of The Sun (And West Of The Moon)”  Edmonia had developed a working relationship with Freddy Cole and was also featured in Cole’s band in Atlanta GA.  Freddy had to live in the shadows of his late, older brother, Nat “King” Cole and niece Natalie Cole. despite being a respected and well known musician in his own right.   Freddy’s career has spanned over 60 years and he has recorded at least 33 albums.  Freddy Cole was also the subject of the 2006 documentary The Cole Nobody Knows, which covers his career as an impeccable jazz pianist and vocalist.

This album was also full of standards and other songs that Jarrett had been inspired by.  “Legal at Any Age” also garnered rave reviews.  John Gilbreath of Earshot Jazz said the album is “brimming with soul and spirit.  Her singing is a celebration of life.”

Jack Bowers of  All About Jazz wrote:
“On ‘Legal at Any Age’ she meshes wonderfully (on “Too Good to Be True” and “East of the Sun”) with another survivor, Freddy Cole, who has spent years calmly building a solid reputation as someone other than Nat’s brother. She also duets (on “Come Rain or Come Shine”) with virtuosic bassist Andy Simpkins. On both recordings, Jarrett shows that she can swing, sing the blues or caress a ballad about as well as anyone. While the wellspring from which her abundant talent flows is a mystery, we should be thankful that it’s there for everyone to hear and appreciate. Her choice of material, by the way, is exemplary, and her sidemen are outstanding”.

Throughout the late 90s and early 2000s  Edmonia Jarrett was a fixture on the Northwest jazz circuit and audiences never tired of her performances.  Unfortunately cancer reared it head again in 2001.  This time it was lung cancer that had metastasized to her brain.  Once more she put her trust in her faith, but this time she was not able to overcome the disease.  Edmonia Jarrett died on March 16, 2002.  Earlier in March she had shared her birthday with over 150 friends and family members.  Just three days before he death Edmonia gave her last performance: a tribute to singer Carmen McRae at the Seattle Art Museum.  According to her obituary “Though she looked frail, with short hair and dark glasses, Ms. Jarrett wore a stunning, long, silver-blue satin gown and she sang her heart out.”

Edmonia had only had her time in the spotlight for a decade….but she made every moment of it memorable.  Instead of mourning her passing (which couldn’t be helped coming from friends and family) Edmonia should prove to the rest of us the power of “grit and determination”.

-Dennis R. White.  Sources:  Phil Pastras :Dead Man Blues:Jelly Morton Way Out West” University of California Press, 2003); Kurt E. Armbruster “Before Seattle Rocked: A City And It’s Music” (University of Washington Press,2011); “James Bush “Encyclopedia of Northwest Music” (Sasquatch Books, 1999); Dave Nathan “Edmonia Jarrett” (allmusic.com); Janet L. Tu, “Jazz scene loses a fixture as ebullient Edmonia Jarrett dies” ( The Seattle Times,arch 17, 2002); Jack Bowers “Edmonia Jarrett: Live, Live, Live! / Legal at Any Age ” (All About Jazz, March 1, 1999); Edmonia Jarrett (Pony Boy Records); “Edmonia Jarrett (IMDb.com); Timothy Egan “Estate Loses Suit to Control Plays on Janis Joplin (The New York Times, December 18, 1991)


The F-Holes

The F-Holes formed out of a jam session on Nov 21, 1984 at The Central Tavern near Seattle’s Pioneer Square. The original members were “Lucky” Tony Mathews, Douglas “Stringtie” Creson and John “Moondog” Mooney. The jam consisted of three songs. The booker was impressed enough to ask them to open for his band, The Alleged Perpetrators on Dec 14, 1984, and a band was born. Since that night The F-Holes have consistently been part of the Seattle music scene.

One night while Stringtie was playing pinball at a tavern with Kevin Heaven (a local musician and well-known scenester)’ Kevin said;“You gotta check out my new f-hole guitar!” Stringtie went home that night and made a poster. He brought it to rehearsal the next day. “We are the F-Holes” he told them.  The newly-named outfit’s drummer, John “Moondog” Mooney asked;“What am I gonna tell my Mom?”

1985 brought a solid stream of bookings.  The bookings continued.  The first few years The F-holes played more shows than they rehearsed. Doug Creson recalls;

“We’d rehearse on Wednesdays and play shows Thursday , Friday and Saturday”.

Things changed in 1986 when the F=Holes added Otis P. Otis on lead guitar. He was a huge Johnny Thunders fan and brought a heavier sound that lead the band into the pre-grunge era. The original F-holes sound included generous heaps of Psychobilly, Cowpunk, Garage Rock, Punk, Acid Blues and 60s Psychedelia. They add they also play Country music, though they add

“we’re not sure which country“.

Along with Otis  came a sound that brought the band to a new level and wider audience. They still played the same music as before-only heavier.  Their look was still psychobilly with the big pompadours and cowboy boots and bolo ties.  That would change in later years, but for the earlier part of their career the band was known for their appearance as much as their music.  Both were fun, over the edge and a little bit retro as far as their dedication to punk.

“Promoters always had a hard time pegging our sound but we played with all kinds of bands. Punk, Alt Country, Grunge, Power Pop” says Creson.

The biggest misconception may be that the F-Holes are a rockabilly band.  It’s a claim the band adamantly deny.  Since the beginning they’ve always played a few rockabilly-tinged numbers, and they often dressed in a style associated with rockabilly.  Still, it’s hard to listen to them without thinking they’re nothing less than a great punk-pop band with the talent to pull off just about anything they throw out to their audience.

Th band is also known for wicked sense of humor.  In 2011 when the magazine Seattle Sinner asked them what their fondest Christmas memory was Creson told the interviewer;

“We played a Buzz Scooter Club party in an abandoned building with 64 Spiders. On the way to the gig we bought a sheet of windowpane acid, 100 hits. At the party we dissolved the acid into the punch bowl. People were drinking kegger cups full of this shit. By the time we finished our set everyone was just flying, wandering around lost on the upper floors like wide eyed zombies. I wonder how many bodies they found when they tore that place down. This was in 1984, back when you hipsters were still crappin’ in your diapers and sucking breakfast out of your mama’s knockers”.
True story.

By the mid ‘90s band members drifted into other bands, failed marriages, rehab and dead-end corporate jobs. They played a few uninspired shows, now and again…not really breaking up, just not playing with the same passion and frequency as before.

In 2006 The F-Holes were invited to play Geezerfest at Seattle’s legendary Crocodile Cafe. It was a
showcase of bands that helped create the alternative sound and so-called “grunge” Seattle had become known for in the 1990’s.   These were long-time workhorse bands that had actually developed the sound, others had built their success on, but despite their talent were overlooked getting signed to a big record deals. Along with The F-Holes, the line up included bands like Catbutt, Coffin Break, Swallow, Snow Bud and The Flower People,  Blood Circus, Love Battery, and  other worthy bands.

The F-Holes showcase was so well-received that it led to their playing steady ever since. Now in their 33rd year of rocking their fans remain rabidly loyal, and friends are bringing their kids (and grandkids?) to their shows.

The F-Holes recorded output over the years has been sporadic…in fact there’s been only a few recordings available; but the good news is that they’ll be entering into the studio with Jack Endino in 2018. They’ve also found a newer and younger audience while keeping the old-timers.  An Endino-produced album looks promising.

The Stranger magazine’s Mike Nipper observed that after so many years;

“The F-Holes are, dare I say, a smart and (ahem) “songwriterly,” kickass punk group, and live they’re driving as a mofo”.

Even more fitting, on their website the F-Holes simply say “Totally Skankin’ since 1984”.

 

-Dennis R. White-Sources; Doug “Stringtie” Creason;  The F-Holes (home page, http://fholesrock-blog.tumblr.com); Mike Nipper (The Stranger, February 23, 2016); The F-Holes (thatsdadastic.com, 2010); Chuck Foster (“The F-Holes Unmasked: F-Holes Celebrate 28 Years of Being Misunderstood”  Seattle Sinner, December 2011)

The Ventures

Tacoma’s Ventures. They’ve lasted almost 60 years in one form or another. They’ve released over 250 albums.  They’ve sold over 120 million records….more than any other instrumental band in history.  Those records are unlikely to ever be topped by an instrumental band of any genre.  During their career they’ve covered just about every kind of music there is.  Most of their albums are largely covers of popular songs, but surprisingly they write about one third of their music. They helped develop the “surf sound” although they point out they didn’t invent it, and don’t consider themselves a “surf band” at all. In a 2015 interview with Forbes magazine co-founder Don Wilson told interviewer Jim Clash;

“One of our biggest sellers was a surfing album. I guess we got tagged with that – Pipeline and Wipe Out we are associated with – so suddenly we are a surf rock band! I see that written a lot. But I don’t care. I’m used to it. We’re not just surf”.

Band members have always denied their music being founded in the surf sound, but it’s certain The Ventures had a profound affect on it.  It could be they’ve always refused to be labeled surf just as much out of deference to the artists who truly are surf bands as much as the facts.  It’s also true that The Ventures went far beyond any one genre-expect being instrumental.  They’ve also maintained keeping current with putting their sound to current music.  Aside from their top-knotch playing it is these two other factors that have kept them in the world’ public eye for decades.

The story of The Ventures goes back to the day that Bob Bogle first met Don Wilson in 1958. Bogle was looking to buy a used car from a dealership in Seattle.  The car lot was owned by Wilson’s father. Don was the salesman. During their conversation, they found out they both had an interest in music.  They became fast friends, and soon Wilson began working with Bogle in the masonry field.  Obviously carrying mortar and bricks was more lucrative than hawking used cars for small commissions. In 2009 Bob Bogle told The Seattle Times:

“And then we found out that we each knew a few chords on the guitar, you know, and we had a lot of free time on our hands. But neither of us owned a guitar.”  

So off they went to a Tacoma pawnshop where both of them bought very cheap guitars. They say the guitars were less than $10 each.  Over the next few months the two practiced every moment they had between jobs…and they were frequently out of work.  Soon the two were making the rounds of local bars, house parties and any other gig they could find.

Meanwhile bassist Nokie Edwards had begun playing around Tacoma with Buck Owens’s band The Bar-K Gang.   Owens also hosted the KTNT “Bar-K Ranch” TV show that gave Owens (and Nokie) even more local exposure. Sometime in 1960 Wilson and Bogle saw Edwards playing in a Tacoma club (possibly Steve’s Gay 90s where Owens’s band had a residency).  After about a year Nokie left Buck’s band behind to join Wilson and Bogle This move had unknowingly helped spawn two superstar bands.  Owens soon switched fiddler Don Rich to guitar in his newly formed band, The Buckaroos, while Nokie helped fill out The Ventures– a band that would later be dubbed as “The Band That Launched A Thousand Bands”, The Ventures.”

By the time Nokie had joined Owens band he was already a known as a regional virtuoso guitar player.  He’d played professionally since he was 17 and managed to make a very good living with many gigs paying up the $350 a week.  By the time Bob Bogle and Don Wilson lured him into with them he was certainly taking a big financial hit.

Originally Bogle and Wilson had chosen the name The Versatones, but as Don Wilson put it;

“We started out calling ourselves ‘The Versatones’. When we went to register the name, we found out that it was already taken. We were disappointed then, and my mom said, ‘You are venturing into something new, so why don’t you call yourselves The Ventures’?”  I thought it sounded pretty corny, but anyway it stuck!’

This wouldn’t be Wilson’s mothers’ only contribution to the band.  After The Ventures had shopped around for a recording contract (and failed) Josie Williams founded Blue Horizon Records, and arranged studio time at Joe Boles legendary West Seattle studio Custom Recorders.  The Ventures recorded their first single “The Real McCoy b/w Cookies and Coke” with Boles.  Josie wrote the lyrics to Cookies and Coke and produced both sides.  The single was a flop,  but it wasn’t long before Josie booked more time at Custom Recorders and Walk-Don’t Run” was recorded. Bogle played lead guitar with Wilson on rhythm, Edwards on bass, and Skip Moore on drums .  The tiny label pressed up only 300 copies, and distributed them locally.  Unfortunately for Moore, he had decided to leave the band and work for his father’s gas station.  He agreed to be paid $25 for his work on the recording instead of a royalty sharing deal…a mistake that would deprive him of royalties even after a lawsuit a few years later.  Moore was replaced by drummer George T. Babbitt, Jr., but at 16  he was too young to play bars and taverns The Ventures were often hired to perform in.  Finally the band hired Howie Johnson in order to go out on tour in support of their major hit and new-found popularity.  In the fall of 1961 he was involved in a car crash, causing him irreversible spinal damage. Johnson managed to play drums while wearing a neck brace. Beside touring he drummed on the first four Ventures albums and  half of the tracks on the fifth LP.  He ended up quitting in order to spend more time with his family and occasionally played locally throughout the rest of his life.

Josie Wilson pushed Walk-Don’t Run day and night to anyone who would listen. Out of the blue local entrepreneur, DJ and radio station owner Pat O’Day started using a portion of Walk-Don’t Run as a “kicker” (intro) to his newscasts  on his wildly popular radio station KJR.  Listeners wanted to hear more, so KJR put the entire song into rotation.  Soon legendary Seattle label Dolton Records were beating a path to Josie’s door to pick up The Ventures’ contract.  The irony was not lost on Josie and the band that they had previously auditioned for Dolton, but had been turned down.  Though Dolton heads being a bit embarrased theywent on to re-release Walk-Don’t Run on their label.  At the time Liberty Records was their distributor so Dolton licensed the rights to the much bigger and more powerful national label.  

It’s well known that the band had been introduced to Walk-Don’t Run through Chet Atkin’s 1956 version of the song included on one of Bob’s favorite albums; “Hi-Fi In Focus”.  Yet the song had originally been written and recorded by jazz-great Johnny Smith in 1954.  The Atkins version is more syncopated than the very jazzy Smith version.  Both are fine renditions, but The Ventures would put their own Imprint on it- as they did on other recordings-creating yet a third dynamic version of the song. Both Chet’s and Johnny Smiths are worth a listen.  Both are as individual and inspiring as The Ventures’ forward-looking interpretation.  In 2011 Don admitted

“He (Chet Atkins) played it in a classical jazzy style and we couldn’t play it like that. We weren’t good enough. So we decided to make our own arrangement of it and simplify it and that’s how that happened.

Having found a local label with national distribution propelled “Walk, Don’t Run” to number two on the Billboard pop chart and sold over a million copies.  When the Ventures relocated from Seattle to Los Angeles in 1963, Josie Wilson remained the band’s co-producer in tandem with Dolton owner Bob Reisdorf.  Years later she was also instrumental in getting fans to demand The Ventures be inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. During her life she became a savvy business person, a respected producer and one of the first to kick down the doors of the music industry to women. Surprisingly it was another woman-Bonnie Guitar-who grew up just a few miles north of Tacoma-who would also be instrumental in gaining respect for women in music circles.  Josie Wilson remained a trusted insider of The Ventures until her death at the age of 91 in 2007.

Their second release was a re-working for a 1940 Xavier Cugat hit called Perfidia. It only reached number 15 in the charts, and was followed by a steady flow of singles that stalled in the nether end of the charts; but album sales were always a more important money-maker than singles. The band would never see such spectacular single’s success aside from their 1964 re-make of Walk-Don’t Run (it reached number 15 in the US charts) and 1969’s “Theme From Hawaii 5-0” which reached number 8 in the charts.  Oddly enough the theme for “Hawaii 5-0” had been written by director Morton Stevens as a short opener for the show.  It wasn’t until The Ventures full recording of the song that it became a fully-formed song.  The addition of horns to the song may have seemed an odd move for the band, but they utilized brass sections on and off during their career…and fans love “Hawaii 5-0″.  It also didn’t hurt that they’d get a short listen to it once a week on television.

Although The Ventures would have few hit singles, they made up that by releasing hit after hit albums.  They may be the world’s first band that relied on album sales rather than singles.  This was unusual for the 1960s and would only become more common in the 1970s with the advent of FM radio.  When Dolton Records re-located their main offices to Los Angeles in 1963 it was to the detriment of Northwest artists, but an incredibly valuable move for The Ventures. It meant better studio facilities and closer contact with Liberty Records and their distribution executives.

The Ventures set the stage for a guitar line-up that has now become the typical formula; Lead, rhythm and bass guitars backed by a great drummerThe formula was not unheard of before but the band did a lot to popularize it.  They’d also created “the big guitar sound” and although instrumentals were at the core of the late-50s/early 60s Northwest Sound, The Ventures were introducing a new approach that did not heavily rely on  R&B and the ever-present organ.  They were interested in technical advancements as well as new sounds. Over the years they would be pioneers in distortion, reversing tapes, bringing the Theramin to rock and heavy use of vibrato as well as a myriad of other  effects.

Soon after Bob Bogle’s death in 2009, fellow guitarist Don Wilson told The Los Angeles Times;

“Any guitar player would tell you, Bob is the most unique-sounding guitar player ever. The way he used to do the whammy bar — that vibrato bar. He kept his little finger on it while he played it all the time. He’d make it sound, like at the end of a chord, Wow-wow.

Soon after the success of Walk-Don’t Run drummer Howie Johnson (a guitarist in his own right) suggested that Bob Bogle and Nokie Edwards trade places resulting in Bogle as bassist Edwards as lead guitarist.  The formula worked, and the transition was amicable.  It made the band more of an overall talented unit.

Howie Johnson left the band in 1962 he was replaced by Mel Taylor who had been a house drummer at the well-known Los Angeles club The Palamino.  Taylor had already made his mark as a drummer for Herb Alpert and as a member of Bobby (Boris) Pickett’s band who had recorded the seasonally perennial hit  “The Monster Mash”.  On a side note, Mel’s younger brother, Larry, became the bassist for Canned Heat and before that had been a session bass player for Jerry Lee Lewis and The Monkees among others.

One of the reasons The Ventures deserve the moniker “The Band That Launched a Thousand Bands” was their release of several volumes of the “Learn To Play The Ventures” series.  The learning process came to be known as “guitar phonics“. This was a completely new approach to learning guitar and bass.  There had been written “how to…” books  before The Ventures.  There were also a few recorded tutorials.  But there had never been a series of lessons by the bands players themselves to teach kids (and adults) to play specific parts of their own songs.  There’s many a modern artist that proudly admit to having learned to play with The Ventures’ series.  The first volume of the “Learn to Play….even showed up on the popular music charts.

The Ventures were also one of the first bands to take advantage of  fuzztone.  Ventures afficianado’s can’t seem to agree how the fuzz was first created.  Some claim it was the Mosrite guitars’ pickups they were using at the time, the Mosrite Fuzz-Rite or The Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone.  No matter the source, it would become one of The Ventures signature sounds.  Musicians and fans have cited their 1962 single “2,000 Pound Bee” as the first use of the fuzz guitar, but it’s clear it had been used by Ike Truner as early as 1951, on the Memphis recordings of Howlin’ Wolf (1951-52), Johnny Burnette’s “Train Kept a-Rollin” (1956) and Link Wray’s “Rumble” (1958).

In  1963 the band had entered into a deal Mosrite to play live with a series of Mosrite guitars that were specially designed for The Ventures. Before the Mosrite period all three guitarists had  played production models of the  Jazzmaster, the Stratocaster and a Precision Bass.  Mosrite  founder, Semie Moseley had built a guitar that he lent to Nokie Edwards for some recording sessions.  Soon Edwards had bought his own Mosrite and within a year The Ventures had an endorsement and co-distribution deal that made Mosrite a common name among guitarists.  The deal lasted until 1968, and aside from the use of Mosrite guitars, there are some archival photos of the band using the Mosrite Award solid-state amps from the Ventures’ Mosrite Distributing Company.  Despite their popularity with musicians this particular model would never go into mass production.

It was probably Nokie Edwards who had been the most instrumental in popularizing the well-crafted series.   Along with the endorsement and use of the Mosrites the guitar manufacturer sold the series to consumers with a label “The Ventures” on the headstock.  It began a mini-craze for the model that remains to this day.  Guitarists from Jimi Hendrix to Arthur Lee to Kurt Cobain have all played Mosrite’s.  Bands like the MC5 and The Ramones have used them. According to Mosrite’s  promotional material,  the company claims“Jimi Hendrix had two Mosrites. Jimi would commonly smash and burn his easily replaceable Fenders but the Mosrite’s were treasured and well taken care of.  The doubleneck used on Spanish Castle Magic is today on display at the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame”  They go on to say ” Virtually everyone who is anyone has owned a Mosrite at some time in their life”.  This is probably closer to truth than hyperbole.  Despite the quality of the instruments once the endorsement deal ended all three guitarists returned to the use of Fenders  Years later, n 1996 Fender released a limited edition Ventures Signature Series of guitars consisting of their original  Jazzmaster,  Stratocaster, and a Fender Jazz Bass.  This time the band had a hand in their design and specifications.  When Nokie Edwards left the band in 1968  he reverted to his Mosrite  During this hiatus Edwards was replaced by Gerry McGee and Edwards reverted to his Mosrite guitar for solo projects during this period.  When he returned to The Ventures in 1973 he again played a Fender, though occasionally pulled out his Mosrite.

The Ventures had also made a very savvy move in licensing their music to Japanese labels that would include Toshiba/EMI. Japan is the world’s second largest market for recorded music-The Ventures popular appeal in Japan came just as electric guitars were first being marketed in Japan-  Soon The Ventures and their use of the electric guitar were in such popular demand that they began to tour extensively in Japan.  Throughout their career they have been a huge draw in Japan.  The move to satisfy the Japanese market would provide a boon when The Ventures became less popular in the US during the 1970s.  They also recorded and released about 50 albums specifically for the Japanese market, while continuing to tour Japan on a regular basis.  After the 60’s their US output did modest sales and a dedicated fan base did not diminish in Japan.  The very fact that the band had never been dropped by a major label until late in their career allowed them to record and release the vast number of albums they’re known for. .  They also licensed their recording to labels all around the world. The Ventures were consistent sellers no matter what label was issuing or distributing.  Even poor promotion would not detract from their strong fan base.  But great deals with the Japanese and European markets brought in good royalties and a savvy approach to contracts and their huge audience outside the US (even to this day) was a large part of The Ventures success even as music fans at home were turning their backs on what was becoming considered dated artists.

At the advent of the 80s the Surf Sound, along with Rockabilly began to pique the interest of musicians and fans on the outer fringes of popular music.  At first the interest was largely a novelty (who can forget the silly “poodle skirt” era of the 80s?)  The Ventures  became associated with post-modernism-a slightly jaded form of kitsch that was meant to be shared by folks supposedly “in-the-know”  But as the popularity of bands like The Cramps and The Stray Cats became more serious, musicians and fans followed suit.   An entire genre of “surf punk” music arose with bands like Agent Orange, The Forgotten Rebels, and of course The Surf Punks at the forefront.  Many other bands would pepper their output with a surf or rockabilly song or two.  Later film directors used surf music in their film soundtracks.  Quentin Tarantino was instrumental in this by including classic surf tracks in his movie 1994 film Pulp Fiction.  Although their profile had been rising during the 80’s The Ventures were once again on top.

A new generation had found The Ventures…and took them seriously as masters of American pop culture. Sales of their old (and new) albums picked up.  More and more live dates in the US and in Europe were being booked…at first in smaller clubs, but they were finding the venues were getting bigger.  By the time the huge corporate-sponsored era of festivals  became fashionable the band was playing in front of crowds in the tens of thousands…or even hundreds of thousands.

Finally in 2008  one of the band’s dreams would come true.  It was also the dream of Josie Wilson, who had died a year earlier. The Ventures finally were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Artists become eligible only after the first 25 years of their careers.  The Ventures had passed that mark by 22 more yearsThe night of their induction by John Fogarty (Creedence Clearwater Revival) two of the “classic era” members of The Ventures were on hand; Nokie Edwards and Don Wilson.  Bob Bogle and Gerry McGee were unable to attend.  Being ignored by the Hall of Fame so long had been a bitter pill for Don Wilson, but when asked  “Why so long?” Wilson simply said “All we did was quietly sell millions of records.”  In 2010 The members of The Ventures were also awarded  The Order of the Rising Sun by the Emperor of Japan. The medal originated in 1875 and symbolizes “energy as powerful as the rising sun.” The ceremony took place at the Queen Anne  consulate.  During the ceremony Japan Consul General Kiyokazu Ota said”

The Ventures’ unique ‘teke-teke sound’ … grabbed the heart of many Japanese young men and women. These young fans in turn formed groups of their own, thus creating a huge boom of electric-guitar sales in Japan.”

So what of the players that have been part of The Ventures?

In 1972 drummer Mel Taylor left the band to pursue a career because he felt The Ventures had become a “nostalgia act“in and was replaced by drummer Joe Barile.  Taylor returned in 1979 and remained with The Ventures until his death in 1996 of cancer and heart failure.  After his death his son, Leon Taylor took over his duties as drummer.

Gerry McGee also left the band only to return.  He walked away in 1978 to work as a solo artist as well as recording and touring with Dwight Yoakum, John Mayall, Kris Kristofferson and others.  He returned to The Ventures in 1985 and is the only active remaining member left from any of the 1960’s line-ups.  During a subsequent tour of Japan McGee suffered a heart attack, but recovered and continues to play with the band.

Bob Bogle had belonged to the recording and touring outfit until his health began to deteriorate.  He retired from touring in December 2004 and was replaced by Bob Spalding.  He had lived in Vancouver, Washington, for years and died there on June 14, 2009, at 75 of non-Hodgkin lymphoma;

Howie Johnson, the neck-braced drummer that stayed with The Ventures for their first few tours and albums passed away in January of 1988.

Skip Moore who had been the actual drummer that had played on Walk Don’t Run had died in 1988.  Some musicologists have argued that it was Johnson who played on Walk-Don’t Run using the pseudonym “Skip Moore”, but the evidence points a different direction.

Nokie Edwards left the band a second time in 1984 to work in Nashville with Country and Western artists including lead guitar on Lefty Frizell’s final album.  Edwards re-upped with The Ventures for a short time in the late 80’s but soon returned to Nashville and began a very successful career with producer and fellow musician Art Greenshaw.  The critically acclaimed collaboration of Edwards and artist-producer Greenhaw has resulted in Edwards being nominated for “Grammy Award for Best Southern, Country or Bluegrass Gospel Album of the Year” with 2005’s  “20th Century Gospel”  andSouthern Meets Soul”in 2006.

Bob Spalding has remained part of The Ventures while pursuing his own solo projects.  In 2016 Bob’s son, Ian Spalding’  became The Venture’s bass guitarist. Bob now lives in San Bernardino CA.

In 2015 Don Wilson retired from touring and recording with The Ventures.  Since then he continues to keep the memory of the original outfit in  public view.  He now lives in Sammamish WA.

And what of the young George T. Babbit Jr., who, at 16, was too young to play with The Ventures?  Soon after his departure from the band he went to college and joined the ROTC.  He then enlisted in the US Air Force and rose to the commission of 4-Star General. Between 1997 to 2000 he served as Commander of the Air Force Materiel Command (COMAFMC).  On March 1, 1998, (while on active duty as 4-star general), he joined The Ventures onstage in uniform on drums.  He is now living in retirement in Bremerton WA.

 

The current touring line-up of the Ventures is:
Gerry McGee – Lead Guitar (joined in 1968)
Bob Spalding – Lead & Rhythm Guitar (joined in 1981)
Leon Taylor – Drums (joined in 1996)
Ian Spalding – Bass (joined in 2016)

 

-Dennis R. White.  Sources: Del Hartleman”Walk Don’t Run-The History of The Ventures ( Del Hartlman, 2011); Jame Bush. “Encyclopedia of Northwest Music” (Sasquatch Books, 1999); Jim Clash “The Ventures’ Don Wilson On His Big Hit Single Hawaii Five-O, More” (Forbes Magazine,

 

 

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

By the time the mid-60s The Northwest Sound has pretty much wound down.  Many former teen-dance bands were moving closer to rock and the new psychedelic sounds coming out of L.A. and San Francisco. In some ways many local artists had begun to see Seattle as a northern outpost of San Francisco.
One of the bands that emerged in the mid-60s was Blues Interchange.  David Lanz (future star of “new age” music) had been one of the band’s first members.  The band began making the rounds of Seattle venues and became very popular with the tripped-out psychedelic crowd.   Due to some of the members being drafted local boy Jeff Simmons signed on as bassist in 1967. Simmons was already an accomplished player with a gregarious, often comedic air about him  Other members included Al Malosky on drums and guitarists Peter Larson (later replaced by Burke Wallace), and Danny Hoefer.  Danny Hoefer would later go on to play in Tower of Power.
After the change of personnel, Blues Interchange found even more favor with Northwest audiences.  One result of the changes was re-naming the band to Easy Chair. The transformation caught the eye of Seattle’s emerging rock scene as well as other pockets of psychedelic blues  around the country

In 2014 the website Clear Spot would look back on Easy Chair, writing;

“Their epic West Coast blues features the unique chemistry of psychedelic guitar leads, fluid lines and hypnotic chording”.

Around this time the band was emerging they met up with notorious San Francisco manager Matthew Katz.  Katz had been the first manager of Jefferson Airplane and had ben fired even before the release of their first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off.   Seattle native Signe Anderson (September 15, 1941-January 28, 2016) did vocals, but soon left the band, handing over the task to Grace Slick. The firing of Katz would result in ongoing litigation over the release of original or licensed material by Jefferson Airplane.  The litigation between Katz and Jefferson Airplane was not settled until 1987.

Katz was also  involved in a dispute with Moby Grape beginning in 1968.   Katz had sold the  group members’ rights to their songs as well as their own name were signed away in 1973 to manager/producer David Rubinson without the band members knowing it. He retained rights to the name Moby Grape and a large part of their songs. Katz continued to send out various personnel under the name “Moby Grape” until 2005, the original members won back the rights to their name and started performing again as “Moby Grape” Even as late as 2007  Moby Grape (who’d won back the rights to their name) Katz  threatened to file a lawsuit against Sundazed Records (licensed by SONY) claiming ownership of the album artwork and songwriting for the first three albums.  The label was forced to withdraw the albums Moby Grape, Wow and Grape Jam.  The albums have since been re-released.

Hooking up with Katz could have resulted in disaster but he remained a savvy (though untrustworthy) entrepreneur.  In 1967 he opened the club “The San Francisco Sound” on Seattle’s Capitol Hill.  The club was  popular, but it lasted for less than a year.  Katz’s real interest was to establish a venue for bands he managed..  The meeting between Blues Interchange and Katz gave the band more high-profile gigs opening for San Francisco bands he’d booked in his club including  It’s A Beautiful Day,  Tripsacord Music Box, West Coast Natural Gas and Black Swan. Katz also convinced Blues Interchange to change their name to  Indian’ Puddin’ and Pipe. In yet another case of Katz’s dissembling, another band called Indian Puddin’ and Pipe already existed. Katz owned the names of several bands and could bestow them on any line-up he desired.  Simmons’s Indian Puddin’ and Pipe dropped the name after severing ties with Katz in 1968.  Fortunately neither the band nor it’s members walked away beholden to Katz except for the  name he’d given them-not a very good one in the first place.  Obtaining a new manager was painless.  Glen Harmon was chosen to take on Katz’s job and endlessly worked to book and promote Easy Chair. Hammon had been a big fan who worked at Boeing, but from the start of his association with Easy Chair he proved to be a natural for the jobs of promotion and management.

Meanwhile Harmon and the band sought to get a record deal  Eventually they were forced to finance their own recording at Vancouver WA’s Ripcord Studio.  The songs recorded there were  produced by Rick Keefer-who would go on to found Sea-West Studio in Seattle.  The result of their sessions was a single-sided 12′ EP that included only three songs, Slender Woman, My Own Life and Easy Chair.  Both Slender Woman and Easy Chair were written by Jeff Simmons.  My Own Life was written by Peter Larson.  With a release of only 1000 copies, it did well in the Northwest.    The songs show a slight reliance on the San Francisco Sound, but also retains a bit of the jazz-inspired R&B that successful NW bands of the 50s and early 60s had always imbued into their music.  The recordings are sparse, but have an honest, almost innocent quality.  The band would later go on to be much heavier, but their initial (and only) release is probably the most sought-after, and most valuable record by any Seattle band in the collectors market. In the past few years the EP has been re-released on CD by several foreign and domestic labels.

With some powerful gigs behind them and a popular regional hit, Easy Chair were on their way.  An opening slot for Cream at Seattle’s Eagles Auditorium may have been their high point.  They also opened for The Chambers Brothers who were then at the height of their success.  These concerts, along with opening for Blue Cheer the early Led Zeppelin enhanced their reputation.   They were offered a contract with Tetragrammaton Records but turned it down.  The label which was co-owned by Bill Cosby, a fact Easy Chair did not know at the time they were approached by the label  Soon  Tetragrammaton released a worldwide hit with Deep Purple ( “Hush”)    In 1968 the label also licensed the release of  John Lennon’s and Yoko Ono’sUnfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins” in the United States. The album’s cover featured nude photos of John and Yoko on the front and back jacket cover. The Beatles and Lennon’s US label, Capitol Records, refused to release or distribute it, citing negative responses from retailers, and American audiences objection to nuditiy, so Tetragrammaton stepped in to distribute the album in the US.

Easy Chair under the name Ethiopia was slated to open for Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention at the Seattle Center Arena on August 24, 1968. During sound check, Frank Zappa and his business partner Herb Cohen listened to the band and were impressed enough to fly them to Los Angeles for an audition and possible contract with one of two new labels Zappa had created (Straight and Bizarre Records). The Zappa gig took place a week before the band (billed as Easy Chair) performed at the first Sky River Rock Festival.  Easy Chair/Ethiopia played their booked obligations in the Northwest and were then on the way to L.A.  Soon Ethiopia was signed to Bizarre Records and the band waited to record….and waited.  Although they were signed as Ethiopia, the band once again reverted to Easy Chair for a handful of gigs with Zappa.

Their finest moment during their stay in Los Angeles was taking part in  Bizarre Record’s legendary “Gala Pre-Xmas Bash” at Santa Monica’s Shrine Exhibition Hall on December 6th & 7th 1968.   Easy Chair played the shows alongside The Mothers of Invention, Wild Man FischerAlice Cooper, and the GTOs. Ostensibly a pre-Christmas gig, it was actually Zappa’s debut of the roster of Bizarre acts that he, for the most part, had personally signed. This gig was definitely one of the most important shows of it’s day and possibly one of the most important gigs The Mothers of  Invention ever played.

After months of living in hotels, recording negotiations and long periods of inactivity Easy Chair members became discouraged.  It was clear the studio sessions were never going to happen. They decided to return to Seattle.  Jeff Simmons and drummer Al Malosky stayed in LA.  In 1969 Jeff Simmons (as a solo artist) was signed to Frank Zappa’s Straight Records to record two solo albums.  Malosky went along for the ride as a sideman on the first album.   Jeff’s assignment was to create the soundtrack for Naked Angels a biker/sexploitation film .  Although it’s not meant to be high art, the film itself is fairly decent within it’s genre.  Jeff”s soundtrack stands out as well executed psychedelia and is really the highlight of the film.  The film featured Penelope Spheeris (who would later direct both Decline of Western Civilization documentaries) and Corey Fischer (one of Robert Altman’s stable of actors, and who appeared in both the film and the TV series M.A.S.H.  The film got very little attention outside it’s intended audience but Simmon’s soundtrack album has long been a favorite among his fans.

Later in 1969 Jeff released what is universally considered his best solo work.  The album Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up leans more toward the accessible music Frank Zappa had released.  In fact Zappa contributed heavily to the album as a guitarist, wrote the title track and co-produced with engineer Chris Huston.  Zappa wrote the title track and also co-wrote “Wonderful Wino” with Simmons.  Zappa credited his work on the album under the pseudonym Lamarr Bruister.  Later Zappa would work Lucille into an entirely different version for Joe’s Garage and “Wonderful Wino” later shows up on Zappa’s  Zoot Allures.  Zappa rarely co-wrote his music, so it’s apparent that he had high regard for Simmons during this period.

 On “Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up” a variety of players who are often heard in Mothers and Zappa’s bands show up. Simmons is featured on lead vocals, keyboards, bass guitar, and accordion. Craig Tarwater-former member of the legendary L.A. garage band Sons Of Adam plays guitar, Ron Woods (of Pacific Gas and Electric) on drums, Ian Underwood on Sax and fellow Seattle native John Kehlior, (who’d played with The Frantics and The Daily Flash) on drums for two tracks (“Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up” & “Raye“).  The reception of Lucille was positive, but like all Zappa-related albums up ’til then, did not sell to the masses.

Instead of offering another contract with Straight Records, Zappa went a step further.  He asked Jeff to join The Mothers of Invention. He had already played a one-off concert of the the album Hot Rats.

Around this time Jeff reminisced about his hometown to the U.K. Music journal Melody Maker, saying:
“There’s a lot of music in Seattle, a lot of clubs and musically it’s influenced by San Francisco and even more, Chicago.  For instance when I started playing, the first people I heard were the Spoonful and The New Vaudeville Band.  But it wasn’t long before I forgot them and got into Little Milton and Magic Sam”.

In 1970 Simmons appeared on Chunga’s Revenge, which was Frank’s third “solo” album…even though Zappa included his floating roster of musicians with himself as the main character. The album was largely a transitional one, retaining some of the satire and humor of earlier albums, though heading more toward the avant-jazz of future projects.  It was also the first time Flo & Eddie  (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, formerly of The Turtles) made a studio appearance with Zappa.  Jeff Simmons had also stepped up his game with Chunga’s Revenge by playing alongside Ian Underwood again, as well as drummer Aunsley Dunbar, and keyboardist George Duke.  Others who took part in Chunga’s Revenge was John Guerin, Max Bennett and Don “Sugarcane” Harris.

In 1971 Frank Zappa began to film his ambitious art film 200 Motels.  It’s commonly held that Jeff Simmons had quit the band shortly before the shoot began, but it’s not entirely clear what happenedSimmons is seen in the documentary The True Story of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels-though not credited.  The actual film has large segments based on Jeff.  There is a cartoon segment in which “Jeff”, tired of playing what he refers to as “Zappa’s comedy music”is convinced by his good conscience (played by Donovan) to “quit the group”  There’s an ongoing (inside joke?) of characters saying “Jeff quit the group” throughout the film. “Dental Hygiene Dilemma” sees Jeff smoking a marijuana cigarette which had been dipped in Don Preston’s “foamy liquids” and Jeff’s imagining Donovan appearing to him on a wall-mounted television as his “good conscience”.  “His good conscience” asks Jeff not to steal the towels.   Studebaker Hoch appears to him as his evil conscience in the form of Jim Pons, tells Jeff to steal ashtrays and convinces Jeff to quit the Mothers of Invention, to “et your own group together. Heavy! Like Grand Funk or Black Sabbath.

Although it’s likely he was on set at least occasionally it’s claimed that had read the script of 200 Motels before the shooting and discovered it included things Simmons and others had actually said when they thought Frank was out of earshot.  It’s claimed these negative comments were based on secret hotel-room recordings.  Another version is that Zappa fired Simmons for smoking too much marijuana.  This version would be in keeping with Zappa’s firm rule of not working with musicians using drugs…at least not if it affected their professionalism.  But the former version would back up Zappa’s habit of taping discussions among band members (recorded with or without their knowing it).  They were “anthropological field recordings” as Zappa liked to call them.  It would be a more interesting story if Simmons had actually quit because he was angry about the secret recordings.  But it’s just as probable that he was fired for his objection to the  script.  Many years later full songs, out-takes and interviews were included on Playground Psychotics. The album includes a track called “Jeff Quits” and further complicates the question of whether Simmons quit or was fired.  Jeff probably was smoking too much pot and he may have well wanted to move on from Zappa.  In 1972 Frank Zappa told Jip Golsteijn of the Dutch magazine OOR:

“Jeff Simmons is a great bassist, which will become obvious to everyone during the European tour, but I thought he had another talent. He was a comedian and I wanted to exploit it, especially because we use  quite visual elements in our shows. I let (Jeff) play Rudolph the Reindeer which has always been a huge success. Initially, he had no objection, but I was told after a while that he considered himself a heavy bass player not a clown. I knew which way the wind was blowing since Jeff’s wife had  recently said something like that to me. His wife, of course, complained that he should not be misused by me and should leave the group.  Jeff told me in honesty that he was seriously considering starting his own band.  I then said ‘can’t we play that conflict in 200 Motels that he wanted to quit’?
Then at Pinewood Studios ( London), where we recorded the film, I thought we could show Jeff brooding in a hotel room and is torn by doubt. His good conscience tells him to stay in the group, but his bad conscience tells him that he will be made a fool by Zappa and that he has become the real heavy bass player he really is. When Jeff heard what this meant, he turned quite pale, because he took it as a dig, although he knew exactly what was intended. Shortly afterwards he quit the group anyway…precisely at a time when we could not afford to lose him, right in the middle of recordings. Eventually we decided to change Jeff’s portion of the film. Another part was created for Martin Liquort (Ringo Starr’s driver) that is reminiscent of Jeff.  In the scenes where ‘Jeff’ is  playing, it’s Martin in the background with a guitar in his hand. Martin can not really play.”
(Zappa’s words here have been translated to English from Jip Golsteijn interview, originally written in Dutch)

Athough Jeff doesn’t appear in the film there’s an ongoing line of “Jeff has quit the group” sprinkled throughout the dialogue as an inside joke. One long animated sequence called “Dental Hygiene Dilemna” finds a very high Jeff  struggling with his good conscience (who he believes to be Donovan on a wall mounted TV screen) and his bad conscience.  Among advice Jeff’s good conscience  gives him  is”don’t rip off the towels, Jeff“.  His bad conscience soon appears and says “Jeff, I’d like to have a word with you . . . about your soul. Why are you wasting your life, night after night playing this comedy music?” Jeff replies “I get so tense“.  “Of course you do my boy” says his bad conscience.  That’s why it would be best to leave his stern employ….You’ll make it big!”  “That’s right” says Jeff.  “And then I won’t be SMALL!” This is the real you!” Jeff’s bad conscience tells him  “Rip off a few more ashtrays. Get rid of some of that inner tension. Quit the comedy group! Get your own group together. Heavy! Like GRAND FUNK! or BLACK SABBATH “.”Like COVEN!” shouts Jeff.

Apparently it would take animation, in the absence of Simmons, to complete Frank’s vision.

Whatever the reason for Simmon’s leaving, by 1972 he was back in the fold of musicians Frank Zappa employed to record Waka/Jawaka • Hot Rats.  He also continued to tour with Zappa’s band, and took part in the 1974’s Roxy and Elsewhere.  The album includes a live performance at The Roxy Theater in Los Angeles (with some overdubs) recorded the 8th, 9th and 10th of December, 1973.  The Elsewhere” tracks (“Son of Orange County” and “More Trouble Every Day”) were recorded on May 8th, 1974, at the Edinboro State College in Edinboro, PA.  Sections of “Son of Orange County” were also recorded on May 11, 1974, at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago but does not contain overdubbed material.  Jeff Simmons plays rhythm guitar on all tracks and adds occasional vocals. After Roxy and Elsewhere, Jeff played live with some of  Zappa’s succeeding live performances. He’s also heard playing on some of the “official” live albums that were released after Frank’s death.  Recordings Zappa  probably wouldn’t have allowed to be released because of their poor audio quality.

Jeff Simmon’s recorded legacy with Zappa had included  him providing bass, guitar, and/or vocal for Chunga’s Revenge, Waka/Jawaka, Roxy & Elsewhere, You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 1, You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 6, and Playground Psychotics; He’s also featured on the Beat The Boots series of bootlegs that were later released by Rhino Records.  Disc’s he’s included on include Freaks & Motherfuckers, Unmitigated Audacity, Piquantique, Disconnected Synapses, Tengo Na Minchia Tanta, and At The Circus 

Although Jeff’s history after saying goodbye to Frank is a bit sketchy, by 1980 he found his way back to Seattle.  In the 80’s, Simmons was busy performing with such bands as The Backtrackers, The Shimmering Guitars, and Cocktails For Ladies and as his alter-ego l’il Bobby Sumpner and his band The Stump Blasters. He claimed in the 1990’s, he was writing a book (“I Joined The Mothers Of Invention… For The F.B.I.”) which is now in unpublished manuscript form.  Given Jeff’s sense of humor it’s hard to know if the manuscript actually exists.  It would be hard for a publisher or editor to pass up a book based on Jeff’s time with the Mothers…even the title is intriguing!

In 1982 Frank Zappa appeared as a guest DJ on BBC radio (UK).  He played some of his favorite songs including “I’m in The Music Business” by Jeff.

In 1988 Jeff was featured in the psychotronic  “grunge” inspired local film Rock and Roll Mobster Girls, directed by Rick Werner.  Aside from being barrels of fun the film also includes more Seattle rock luminaries as well as local fans.

Over the years Simmons had worked on material for a potential new CD. He says it is the culmination of 20 years work. Finally, in 2004 he was able to release “Blue Universe” which got rave reviews.

In the webzine Jet City Blues Mark Dalton wrote:

“Jeff Simmons, a man with his heart in the blues no matter what he’s doing, has a hilarious persona as a performer that draws from this same well. Simmons has written a whole cycle of great tunes about “Treatment,” for example – with a couple such tunes residing on this CD. Simmons’ ne’er-do-well musician character is always one step ahead of those pesky treatment program guys – whether he’s “Breakin’ Out of Treatment,”or kicking back and enjoying the life of a “Treatmon’ Center Playboy” while he’s there, as he does on this CD.

In November 2010, Jeff Simmons took part in a Q&A session at the “Frank Zappa At The Roundhouse” celebration of Frank Zappa’s music in London. Jeff played with the Dweezil Zappa Played Zappa band at the same festival with special guests Ian Underwood & Scott Thunes as well.  The celebration also included the UK premiere of “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary” an avant-symphonic work that is one of Zappa’s most epic and most popular classical pieces.  Besides The Adventures of Greggery Peccary, the London Sinfonietta played Zappa’s “Revised Music for a Low Budget Orchestra”.  The performance included a solo set by Jeff as a multi-instrumentalist and a long-time member of Zappa’s circle.

Archival footage of Jeff Simmons was included in Thorsten Schütte’s 2016 documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words

IMDb credits Jeff Simmons for sound editor of several TV series during the 90s but I can’t confirm this is the same Jeff Simmons.  Any information would be welcome.  Also feel free to offer corrections or comments below.

-Dennis R. White. Sources; “Jeff Simmons” (Zappa Wikijawaka); Lemonde Kid “Its too late for them to get their due but Katz needs to get HIS!” (Love:  The Message Board for Love Fans, October 12, 2011); Mark Dalton, (“Blue Universe CD Review” Jet City Blues, November 19, 2005); “Jeff Simmons” (spotify.com); “Jeff Simmons” (World in Sound, worldinsound.com); “Jeff Simmons – ‘Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up” ( The Day After Sabbath, Jan 23, 2015) “Jeff Simmons” (Melody Maker, December 5th 1970);  Dean R. Hegerty,”A Guide To Straight Label Records & Compact Discs” (United Mutations, 2002); “Jeff Simmons” (lastfm.com) “Eagles Auditorium” (A Seattle Lexicon)callihan.com/seattle/pophist.htm); Jeff Simmons-Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up (allmusic.com); Alan J. Stein “Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair opens a three-day run near Sultan on August 30, 1968” (HistoryLink.org, Essay 5425. March 15, 2003); “Easy Chair” (Clearspot, www.clear-spot.nl/item/410251/easy_chair_easy_chair.htm); “FZ and Secret Recordings” zappateers.com, July 20, 2010); Jip Golsteijn “De industrie wilde het Fillmore album ontzettend geil aanprijzen”(OOR Magazine, Issue 15. 1971); “Frank Zappa at The Roundhouse”(The 405, September 17, 2010); James Bush, “Easy Chair” (Encyclopedia of Northwest Music. Sasquatch Books, 1999); “Naked Angels” (IMDb.com); 200 Motels. film “Dental Hygiene Dilemna” sequence (directors Frank Zappa & Tony Palmer, 1971); “The True Story of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels” film. (written and directed by Frank Zappa, 1988); “Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words” film. ( directed by Thorsten Schütte, 2016) Scott Hill “From Straight to Bizarre Explores Frank Zappa’s Freak Indies” (Wired Magazine, January 19, 2012); “Jeff Simmons” (IMDb.com)