Northwest Music History: Country

Don Rich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Nancy Claire

Not surprisingly the bands of the 1950s and 60s that would define The Northwest Sound was mostly a boys game.  There had been women who’d made it in their own right –Bonnie Guitar comes to mind- but even she was closer to country than the newer sounds.  Bea Smith had made her name in rockabilly but  The NorthwestSound relied on a hybrid of R&B and jazz.  In fact most of the successful women performing were either coming out of rockabilly, hillbilly music or singing blues and early R&B among the many black venues surrounding Jackson St.  Of course many of these clubs were avoided by whites, and those teenagers wanting to hear the real deal dare not venture into many of the mostly-black bottle clubs and dens of gambling and prostitution that some rightly were known as.  Police raids were common along Jackson Street and door men were careful not to give entry to the kids that may be cause for even more raids.  The musicians who had come to play R&B were the exception to the rule.  Their fans may have been frightened off by what was collectively known as the (primarily black) Jackson St. Scene. The Birdland, The Ubangi Club, The House of Entertainment and especially The Black and Tan (which was largely integrated by the late 50s) were all clubs that attracted the young white practitioners of teen-dance R&B.

Very few of the early Northwest Sound bands ventured into vocals or women in general.  This wasn’t a purposeful lock-out of women.  It was out of popular demand.  Audiences didn’t mind instrumentals, they simply wanted to dance.  Girl Groups from across the nation were seen as a novelty acts.  Very few bands had fully-fledged female members of their bands.  There were exceptions, but this was mostly the face of the Northwest Sound during the mid-late 1950s. Enter The Fleetwoods.

Artist, label owner and producer Bonnie Guitar and her business partner Bob Reisdorff of Dolphin Records (soon to be re-christened as Dolton Records had taken note of the Olympia trio (Gary Troxel, Gretchen Christopher, and Barbara Ellis).  The band did not fit into the girl group mold, nor was it the kind of rollicking R&B Northwest fans were used to… but Bonnie and Bob’s belief in The Fleetwoods and their signing them paid off in droves.  The first two releases by The Fleetwoods rose to the number one position on the US Billboards charts in 1959.  Their music did as spectacularly well in Britain, Canada and the rest of the world.   “Come Softly to Me” by The Fleetwoods  was Dolphin/Dolton’s very first commercial release.  The label  had pulled-off something incredible, even today…an independent, regional label releasing a bona fide, massive hit on their first outing.  Fortunately the label  was widely available due to distribution from Liberty Records in the US and with London Records almost everywhere else in the world.  The second release by The Fleetwoods, Graduation’s Here, did well but it wasn’t until their third release that the band and label landed another number one single and worldwide hit.  Mr. Blue was also released in 1959 and helped make The Fleetwoods one of the best selling trios in the late 1950s

Aside from Barbara Ellis and Gretchen Christopher-along with Gary Troxel-becoming stars arising from the Northwest, there were a few great female singers waiting on the sidelines until regional bands realized that featuring a female singer in one of two songs was a bright move.  Among those waiting in the wings were Merrilee Gunst (later Merilee Rush) a very young and incredibly talented Gail Harris in Tacoma who had appeared on Buck Owens’ radio show and would later sing with Tacoma’s Fabulous Wailers.  But a young woman from Kent, Nancy Claire, was the most sought-after female vocalist in the Northwest.  She would end up singing and recording with the cream of the crop of NW music, notably as a featured vocalist for The Dynamics, The Exotics, and maybe the most popular Seattle white R&B band of the early 60s, The Frantics. The floodgates for featuring girl singers on a couple of songs at live gigs had opened.  In 2009 Seattle Music historian Peter Blecha wrote:

“…scores of Northwest combos joined in the fun and some cool records were one result. In Seattle, Ronnie D. and the Valiants featured Pam Kelley on their “Cherry Darlin'” 45; the Duettes (with Bonnie and Ann Sloan) sang their teen-dream ode, “Donny,” and Barbara McBride and the Nomads cut “The Only Reason”; Walla Walla’s Frets featured Janie Hanlon on “Do You Wanna Dance”; Moses Lake’s Fabulous Continentals cut “I’m Not Too Young” with Marsha Maye Covey; Tacoma’s Cindy Kennedy cut “Skateboard” and Patty Q recorded “Help Me Baby”; Olympia’s Stingrays featured Cheri Robin on “The Dance”; and Wenatchee’s Linda Jo and the Nomads recorded “Stop Your Cryin’.”

And plenty of other Northwest bands with girl singers never issued records, including Tacoma’s Sonics (with “Miss” Marilyn Lodge), Solitudes (with Dani Gendreau), Regents (with Sandy Faye), Galaxies (with Andy Haverly), and Statesmen (with ‘Fabulous’ Juliette); Seattle’s Neptunes (with Melody and Merilyn Landon), the Dynamics (with Randi Green), and the Pulsations (with Darlene Judy); Bremerton’s Raymarks (with future country star Gail Davies); Aberdeen’s Beachcombers (with Jocelle Russell and/or Shirley Owens); Olympia’s Triumphs (with Janet Weaver); Tenino’s Hangmen (with Sandy Smith); Sequim’s Eccentrics (with Pam Clark and/or Nancy Warman); Winthrop’s Danny and the Winthrops (with “Miss” Tessie Thomas); and Spokane’s Runabouts (with Mickey Davis).

But it was Nancy Claire who was in most-demand.  After playing dozens of gigs with an almost unbelievable amount of  well-know Seattle bands, the owner of Rona Records, Nacio Brown Jr. took notice and flew Nancy down to LA in 1961 to cut a few songs for his label.  Nancy was whisked off to Hollywood to pursue a solo recording career.  Her initial route to wide exposure was propelled by the release of “Danny” b/w ” Y-E-S!”.  She toured on the strength of that single and Warner Bros. took advantage of her popularity by licensing the single from Rona…Unfortunately her second release on Rona (Cheatin On Me b/w Little Baby) released in 1962  failed to catch fire among national radio stations, so Nancy returned to Seattle and continued to sing and hang out with dozens of then-important Northwest Sound musicians.  After her return from California she expressed ambivalence about her time in Hollywood.  She had done sessions with excellent musicians, producers and arrangers but the mold  record execs tried to put her into didn’t comport with her natural instincts for R&B and Rock & Roll.  It was, she said “not my bag”.

Nancy was approached to record in Hollywood again in 1963.  It was also to record again with Nacio Brown Jr. but this time the label would be the highly regarded World Pacific Records.  Nancy was put in the studio with a full orchestra and the sessions produced two more singles. (“I’m Burnin’ My Diary” b/w “The Baby Blues” and “Last Night” b/w “Charlie My Boy”  In retrospect both are fairly interesting singles, but top 40 radio at the time all but ignored them, and Nancy headed back to Seattle where she was truly appreciated


Once back in place as the Northwest’s most sought after vocalist Nancy joined up with The Viceroys.  In 1964 legendary radio personality and promoter Pat O’Day took notice.  He put them in the studio to record two cover-songs (Death of An Angel and Earth Angel)  and arranged to have the single released on the prestigious Imperial Records label.  The Viceroys (with Nancy Claire) single went nowhere, and it would be the last attempt by Nancy to release a national recording.

Although Nancy used the name “Claire” she was actually born in 1943 as Nancy Claire Penninger. She used Nancy Claire as her stage name-and who could blame her?  The name seemed so much more fitting for the petite, beautiful girl onstage.  Years later Nancy would officially change her surname to “Claire”  but most of her fans would never see her as Nancy Penninger in the first place. The name she chose to work under seemed so fitting.

Nancy’s earliest exposure to music wasn’t jazz, R&B or Rock and Roll.  It was Country & Western, mostly influenced by KVI DJ, Buck Ritchey and her exposure to his radio program.  Buck Owens also played a role.  Buck did a show on a station he co-owned (KAYE) in Puyallup WA.  As a young girl Nancy had played as an amateur with several C&W outfits, but it wasn’t until Nancy was invited to appear on a talent show televised by Tacoma’s KTNT that she got her break. A local Tacoma band The Versatones also appeared on the same show.  The Versatones had been founded by Don Wilson and Bob Bogle two masonry workers.  Their band would face adversity and challenges before emerging a couple of years later as The Ventures…the most successful instrumental band in rock history.

Del Halterman’s recounts in his book “Walk-Don’t Run: The History of The Ventures”  that Nancy
“strummed a guitar and sang cowboy songs under the watchful eye of her mother. When the TV show ended, the mother introduced herself to [the Versatones] as Nancy’s manager and described a problem that she hoped they could help solve. …[Clair’s] limited ability on guitar restricted the number of songs she was able to sing. Impressed with the Versatones, [she] proposed that they back Nancy on her show. There would be no pay, but [she] would bill the act as ‘Nancy Claire and the Versatones.’ Radio exposure being valuable and not easily obtainable, they accepted and proceeded to perform with her on KAYE each week for about two months”. (sited by Peter Blecha)


I
n fact Nancy occasionally reverted to her C&W roots as an adult and in 1965 she toured the west coast with some of the biggest country stars of her day-The Carter Family,  Skeeter Davis, Marty Robbins, and Merle Travis.


As the 60s progressed and The Northwest Sound made way for more rock, folk-oriented and psychedelic music.  Nancy spent more and more time raising a family, even though she drifted in and out of the music scene and kept up with old friends even though she was no longer in the public eye.  She wasn’t exactly forgotten, but she was certainly seen as a figure from a different era-even if that era had only been 5 or 6 years earlier.  As the 1960s wound down, Claire began singing with a hippie flower-power group, Paleface.  The band found modest success around the Tacoma and South Seattle.  She also sang with the bluesy band Easy Money, and later with a Top 40 band, The Royals.

Although Nancy appeared onstage less frequently she occasionally sat-in with some of her old  pals, and from 1970 thru 1972 she made regular appearances with Jr. Cadillac, a loose aggregation of players of former 50s and 60s regional bands. The line-up often consisted of the late Buck Ormsby (The Wailers), Bob Hosko and Jim Manolides (The Frantics), Jeff Afdem (The Dynamics and Springfield Rifle) and Harry Wilson (The Casuals and The Dynamics), drummer Steve Moshier (The Turnabouts) Les Clinkingbeard and Ned Neltner (Kidd Afrika/Issac Scott/Mark 5), Tom Katica, who passed away in 2010, and a host of others.  The band has played continuously since 1970 and plenty of well-known Northwest Sound artists have sat-in over those 47 years.

Nancy has also sat in alongside Merrilee Rush, Kathi Hart, Kathi MacDonald, Patti Allen as the Seattle Women in Rhythm and Blues,  She continued to make occasional sightings during the 70’s and in 1980 she took part in “The Great Northwest Rock and Roll Show” put together by  Jr. Cadillac gathering featuring Anthony “Tiny Tony” Smith,  Little Bill Englehart and The Wailers with Gail Harris. Nancy also took part in Jr. Cadillac’s 12th Anniversary party at Parkers Ballroom on Aurora Avenue-one of the premier venues that hosted teen-dances in the late 50s and 60s.

Today Nancy sings with “Blues On Tap” featuring Steve Peterson, a 2013 nominee by the  Washington Blues Society for  Best Male Blues Singer; Bruce Ransom who’s shared bills with Taj Mahal, Elvin Bishop, Roy Gaines, Kenny Neal, Billy Branch, Jimmy Burns, Mitch Woods, Deanna Bogart, and Eden Brent;  Ray Hartman who’s credits include a long stint with the Dick Powell Band who’ve opened for B.B. King and The James Cotton Band; and Jim Plano former drummer of the psychedelic-era Crome Syrcus among other gigs.

Over the past few years Nancy Claire continues to show up now and again, even though her audience has aged along with her.  .  Her singles, although ranging from modest hits to flops are worth a listen and various you tube vids of the music is online.  As the one-time First-Lady of Seattle R&B she certainly deserves attention from a younger audience that can take a snapshot of Seattle’s original burst onto the national scene.

Nancy Claire is also a two time winner of  The Northwest Music Associations Hall of Fame Award. Both awards are well-deserved.

 

-Dennis R. White.  Sources; Peter Blecha, “The Great Northwest Rock and Roll Show reunion gig of local rockers kicks of on July 20, 1980″ (NWHistoryLink.org, Essay 10375, April 14, 2013); Steve Flynn,”The Music” (stevenflynnmusic.com, 2017); Peter Blecha “Nancy Claire (b. 1943)” (HistoryLink.org, Essay 10374, May 8, 2023): Del Halterman, “Walk-Don’t Run; The History of The Ventures” (LuLu Books, May 11, 2009); Peter Blecha, “Women of Northwest Rock: The First 50 Years (1957-2007)” (Essay 8935,HistoryLink.org); “Blues On Tap”, (bluesontap.net/bios.php); Photo courtesy of Nancy Claire.

 

The Center For Disease Control Boys

The Center for Disease Control Boys was a loose-knit satirical Country, Western and Folk band formed in Seattle in 1986. Their performances included a mixture of original compositions and older songs written by such artists as Bob Wills,  Asleep at the Wheel, and Woody Guthrie. Their stage show used an extensive array of props and costumes such as bales of hay, stuffed roosters, rubber trout, and wads of self printed ‘country currency’. Although the band was only in existence for six months, they are noteworthy for their ever changing lineup of musicians and performers which included Chris Cornell of Soundgarden Jonathan Poneman, co-founder of Sub Pop Records, and Ben McMillan, lead singer for Skin Yard and Gruntruck.

The CDC Boys was a design and musical collaboration between Dean Warrti and George Hackett. Warrti was manager and booking agent for the Ditto Tavern, which filled a void in the local music scene by providing a venue for folk, punk, art rock, and emerging grunge bands from the Northwest. Hackett was an accomplished guitarist who worked at Boeing and shared Wartti’s interest in cultural satire, diverse musical tastes, and leftist politics. Warrti had a background in theatrical performance and design. As they wrote the songs and assembled the props and graphics, the two realized that a diverse cast of band members could be found within the roster of Ditto performers. Rehearsals were held at the artists collective SCUD (Subterranean Co-operative of Urban Dreams).  The building had previously been the very neglected Sound View Apartments, and before that an SRO hotelSCUD became an incorporated collective and leased the building in Belltown where a plethora of bohemian artists that included Ashleigh Talbot, Art Chantry, Cam Garret,  Arthur Aubrey,Steven Fisk and Willum Hopfrog Pugmire. All had at one time or another been residents.  It’s been reported that Jack Kerouac stayed at The Sound View Hotel a short time during his stop in Seattle in September of 1956.  He had spent the earlier summer at a fire watch look-out in the North Cascades.  He later wrote about the underbelly of Seattle and it’s downtrodden waterfront in a short story called Alone On A Mountaintop.
The building was at one time referred to Seattle residents as The Jello Building since the entire north side of the building was decorated with a multitude of Jello molds.  It was a natural place for the CDC Boys to begin life.  Eventually an opening performance was booked at the Rainbow Tavern as part of a KCMU radio showcase the began the band’s short but illustrious career.  More bookings followed, as well as frequent appearances at Warrti’s Ditto Tavern.

The line up for the debut of the CDC Boys live show was:
Dean Warrti: vocals, washboard, accordion
George Hackett: Twelve string guitar, vocals, waders
Ben McMillan (Skin Yard, Gruntruck): vocals, cowbell
Tamara Jones (Brides of Frankenstein): Double bass, vocals
Bob Maguire (The Subterraneans): vocals, guitar
Gary Heffern (Penetrators): vocals, stage presence
Chris “Jake” Cornell (Soundgarden): drums, vocals, grunts, overalls
They were also joined onstage by the  Americana instrumentalist Orville Johnson: fiddle, mandolin.

The CDC Boys shows also featured singing cowgirls who freely dispensed hay, empty Shake ‘N’ Bake boxes, and wads of ‘country buckeroos. They were Juliana Wood and Debra June Connor.

As the CDC Boys existed mainly as a comedic side project for all concerned, the band’s line up continued to change, and included the following at various times:
Jonathan Poneman (bass)
Artie Palm (mouth harp, saxophone, and guitar)
Tim Bowman (accordion and musical saw)

The CDC Boys concluded their brief career by releasing a 45 single “We’re The Center for Disease Control Boys” b/w “Who We Hatin’ Now Mr. Reagan?” on their own Fin De Siecle label. Their final performance was at Seattle’s annual Bumbershoot Festival, where they debuted a stirring opus to the Kennedy Assassination entitled, “Grassy Knoll“.

Throughout their career, The Center for Disease Control Boys played only nine shows, but they put out a 45 vinyl single on Fin de Siecle Records in 1986.  They would have probably become a footnote if it weren’t that Chris Cornell had once been a member.  There has always been rumblings of curiosity among his fans, but since Cornell’s death in May of 2017 the few copies of the CDC Boys single on the collectors market have skyrocketed.  A long-awaited re-union has been anticipated for several years, but never come to fruition.  In 2013 co-founder Dean Warrti recalled one of the band’s gigs and it’s aftermath in the blog Tales From The Bales.


EPISODE  THREE: ‘A Bale of Hay and the Green River Killer’

Well. a Bale of Hay is a lot like Minnie Pearl in a corset; manageable when trussed, but a heck of a lot to handle once unbound. It was a rainy night in May, a Saturday. I think we had hosted our record release party the night before at the Ditto, As usual, the band booked for this night had asked us to leave the single bale in place for their use; nobody wants to scare up hay on their own….but if there’s a bale in place, what the heck?!?! In this case the Headliner was the Walkabouts, good friends of the Ditto and also of Hay.

After their set, the Ditto emptied out pretty fast, it was really pouring now. We sat at a booth downing pitchers of ‘low brow’ and making idle chatter…..I really wanted to go home. As the Walkabouts did have a van, I suggested that I buy them a couple of pitchers and that they, in return, would cart off the hay bale to parts unknown. The deal was made and I headed off, leaving the bartender to close up.

The next day, Sunday, I got a call from the Fire Department at 8 am. The Captain was quite stern. He informed me that there was a large amount of hay flowing from the dumpster in back of the club, trailing out onto the sidewalk and the street in front of the club. I couldn’t think of any road that led to ‘plausable deniability’, I mean, what could I say? He informed me that I had two hours to clean up all the hay or be cited and fined, well, a lot; about a month’s revenue at the time. I called Andrea and explained the situation and she came right down from Capital Hill in her compact car. I did have some large trash bags on hand and we began to stuff them with wet and heavy hay. Loose hay, man that takes up a lot of space….that’s why they bale it I guess. We must have had about five 30 gallon bags stuffed full by the time we were done. They barely fit in the trunk and back seat. Now…..where to get rid of them?

We figured we couldn’t dispose of them anywhere downtown as the SFD was wise to us and there were no promising empty lots to think of, so we headed up to the north end of Capital Hill. I remember we had the am news on the radio and there had been yet another victim’s body found; again the work of the Green River Killer. It was the height of the civic panic but no clues were forthcoming. At last we found a suitable hillside and pulled over. Now here are two caucasians, 30 something, trolling Capital Hill early on a Sunday morning and attempting to remove heavily stuffed trashbags from the trunk of a car, next to a wooded hillside. It did not look good, and soon the other traffic on the road seemed to consist only of single women in Accuras and Toyotas, slowing down and making note, and perhaps notes, of our activities.

This scenario was repeated at each stop we made, perhaps 4 in all. At last we figured the we did really have to start thinking like killers, so we headed off to the Arboretum, suitably deserted at 10 am. We made the drop unobserved, clenched our teeth, wiped away the sweat, and headed to the Deluxe for a beer….

-Dean Warrti

 

George Hackett, who worked at Boeing at the time of the CDC Boys, went on to become Andrea Hackett, founder of the Las Vegas Dancers Alliance, the most widely-known organization of strippers in Las Vegas.  She now publishes an online journal called “The Flubug Journal, a satiric, fictional small-town paper.

Ben McMillan died in January 28, 2008 in Seattle from complications related to diabetes’

Jon Poneman is the well-known and respected manager/owner of Sub Pop Records

Gary Heffern now lives near the arctic circle in Finland.  He continues to write and record.

Tamara Jones went on to perform in the band Brides of Frankenstein, and is now a real estate agent in the Seattle area.

Dean Warrti was last spotted in Boston.  He continues to present satirical events and create general mischief.

Orville Johnson lives near Seattle and continues his life-long interest in teaching, recording and generally playing any instrument connected with traditional Americana.  He has contributed not only to the preservation of traditional music across the US, but has forever established himself as a vital part of Seattle’s music history.

Chris Cornell died on May 18, 2017 of an apparent suicide

 

-Dennis R. White.  Sources;  Dennis R. White (facebook post 04/01/2013).  Andrea Hackett.  Dean Warrti;  Tim Crowley, “SCUD Stories” (Orgone Research, 02/06/2010) Dean Warrti, “Tales From The Bales” (04/ 10/2013)

All additions and corrections are welcome.

 

 

Bonnie Guitar

On March 25, 1923 Bonnie Buckingham was born in Seattle WA.  As a youn child she was raised in Redondo Beach,  a small community about 30 miles south of Seattle.  Her family were farmers who were able to weather the depression, unlike many of those in the Midwest who’s crops had been decimated by dustbowl storms and drought.  It was a bit later that the Buckingham family moved a short distance to Auburn WA and continued farming.  Growing up Bonnie had a fascination with the family guitar, and took every chance she could to take it from it’s hiding place to practice when her parents were away.  Her mother had told her that “guitars were for boys”.  But Bonnie persisted learning what she could. She recalls regularly climbing trees and pretending they were broadcast towers and she was sending out signals of her miusic  to the entire world.

Apparently her parent’s disapproval of girl’s playing guitars did not last long. By the age of 13 she had inherited her two older brothers’ flat top guitar and was appearing at talent shows throughout the Puget Sound region while gaining wider reception. During this period she took on her first stage name-Bonnie Lane.  She also began tutoring by local musicians.  At the age 16 she was allowed to tour the NW with a country revue and for the next several years she developed her skill at the guitar as well as finding her voice.

Eventually she began travelling to Seattle to be tutored by some of the best players in the city, including Paul Tutmarc. Not only did Bonnie receive lessons, she began to make recordings with Tutmarc in his primitive studio on Pine Street.  Tutmarc was 27 years older than Bonnie, but their work had brought them close together.  In 1943 Tutmarc divorced his first wife and married Bonnie the following year.  They juggled their married and professional lives, along with caring for their daughter Paula (born in 1950) for the next few years, doing Seattle gigs as a duo and finally joining a well-known NW country outfit called the K-6 Wranglers as with a local country outfit called but the couple divorced in 1955, before Bonnie’s wider success.

Around this time Bonnie took on the name she would always be known as- Bonnie Guitar. Bonnie recalls that one day a songwriter approached her with a few songs he wanted her to do demo’s of in order to shop them to labels in southern California. The songs themselves never went anywhere, but an independent producer, Fabor Robison heard Bonnie’s voice and her by now exceptional playing.  He immediately called her and convinced her to come to LA and work with his team.  Robison was well-connected in the growing country music scene.  He’d been involved in the early careers of Jim Reeves, Johnny Horton, the Browns, Mitchell Torok, Floyd Cramer along with Johnny and Dorsey Burnette.  His original label, Abbott Records had been a success starting in 1951 Robison established Abbott Records with the financial backing of pharmacist Sid Abbott and the major goal was to record Johnny Horton who Robison had discovered in Texas.  In fact all ten of Abbott Records first releases featured Johnny Horton. However, distribution problems led Robison to sell Horton’s contract to Mercury in mid-1952.  Even so, Fabor Robison’s Abbott and Fabor labels would find a good deal of success with later artists.

By early 1957 Robison had been trying to produce a new composition written by another of his studio players, Ned Miller. Despite take after take with Dorsey Burnette he was dissatisfied with the outcome. In his book Seattle Before Rock: A City and It’s Music author Kurt Armbruster recounts Bonnies tale:

I had been working in Seattle, and a woman asked me to demo seven or eight songs she’d written. I recorded them, and she sent the disc to Fabor Robison, a producer in L.A.  Fabor called ‘How soon can you get down here?’ I flew down and he hired me as a staff musician in his studio in Malibu Canyon. I played on and helped produce every hit record he had.  One day Fabor said ‘I have a new song that I’m recording with Dorsey Burnette (brother of Johnny Burnette).  I want you to hear it’.  Dorsey had had a big hit and was on his way up the charts.  Well, Fabor played me this song, Dark Moon and I was knocked out.  I had to have it!  I’ll forego all my royalties to record this song.  It’s going to be a smash!  So I recorded it and sure enough it hit big.  But what I didn’t know was that Fabor had already recorded the song with Dorsey and didn’t like the result.  He didn’t bother telling me that”.

Bonnie, was so taken by the song she convinced Fabor to allow her to record it, and hopefully release it as a single.  In exchange she told Fabor she was willing to forego all of the royalties that would be due her just to have a chance at the opportunity.  This was not a smart business deal, but it taught Bonnie lessons she would later be grateful for, and most of all it provided Bonnie with her first huge hit in 1957.  The song would become her signature song, and in it’s  has been covered by everyone form Elvis Presely to Chet Atkins & Hank Snow to Chris Issacs and beyond.
Bonnie had done what she calls “hundred of takes” on the song, accompanied by a backing band and larger production than the final version.  It is this spare, haunting, ethereal and shimmering.  Bonnie told the story in a later interview

Fabor recorded me on Dark Moon with as many as twelve musicians; we must have done it a hundred times, with different combinations, and still he wasn’t satisfied. Then one night Fabor and Ned Miller and I went into the studio to record it as a quartet.  I asked Ned to play just a straight rhythm on acoustic guitar, I played lead, and we had a bass.  That simple version was the one we ended up releasing’.

At the time Bonnie recorded “Dark Moon” Fabor was in search of a larger label to sell his company to, and found a taker in Dot Records who had the muscle and distribution to make Dark Moon a crossover hit on billboard magazne’s charts reaching # 14 on the country charts, and an amazing #6 on the popular chart.

At the height to Bonnie’s position in the charts another Dot artist

, Gale Storm (of My Little Margie fame) also recorded a version of Dark Moon. Storm’s version also raced up the charts and caused some confusion among the public.  But there’s no doubt that Bonnie’s rendition was far superior.  It was haunting and Bonnie’s crystal voice wasn’t muddied by the highly arranged and over-produced Gale Storm version.  Although this would be the last hit record for Gale her producer Randy Wood chose to present a version that was akin to what Pat Boone had done with early rock and roll hits.

Even though Gale Storms’ version charted slightly higher than Bonnie’s, at #4 in the charts, it is Bonnie Guitar’s version that is clealy the definitive recording.  Unfortunately Bonnie’s follow-up single Mr. Fire Eyes did well on the country charts but failed to make much of a dent on the pop charts.  The single only reached the #71 spot on Billboard’s pop chart.  Subsequently she was dropped from Dot Records.  In the future Bonnie Guitar would continue to record albums, release singles, play as a session musician and produce even though she chose to move back to the Seattle area.  She had a clear and dedicated base that weren’t interested in letting her go, despite her treatment by Dot Records.  In fact, Bonnie would later be picked up by several major labels into the 1980. But for the time being Bonnie turned her eye to found her own record label and produce other’s records.  In 1958 she paired up with former Seattle refrigerator salesman Bob Reisdorff to form Dolphin Records.  Soon after the labels founding Bonnie and Bob discovered there was already a label and record store using the Dolphin name.  The label (and store) was owned by John Dolphin a prominent black producer who had had great success in what were then called “race records”- R&B. Jazz and early Rock and Roll primarily aimed at black fans and among white teens and DJs that were more progressive.  Bonnie and Bob changed the name of their label to Dolton Records but before they made the change Bonnie came across a vocal group from Olympia WA   The group consisted of Gary Troxel, Gretchen Christopher, and Barbara Ellis .With Bonnie as producer and Reisdorff mainly in charge of finances the label had a hit straight out of the box with three vocalists from who went by the name The Fleetwoods . Come Softly With Me was a song the trio had written and it became an international sensation that was soon covered-and remains covered-by a multitude of American and British artists.  The attention of the first Dolphin/Dolton single led to a distribution deal with Liberty Records which lasted until Dolton merged with Liberty Records in 1966.  The Fleetwoods second hit (their third outing) with the newly-christened Dolton label was Mr. Blue. It quickly topped Billboard’s pop charts.  Later artists that found success with Dolton were Vic Dana who was a solo artist that had also taken on vocals for live gigs when Gary Troxell was drafted into the military. Other groups that would get their first taste of success at Dolton were Seattle’s The Frantics, and a little combo from Tacoma WA named The Ventures. The Ventures were dubbed “The Band that Launched a Thousand Bands” and ended up releasing 12 projects with Dolton.  Today The Ventures are considered seminal founders of what is considered modern Rock&Roll.

Bonnie herself released a few projects of her own on Dolton, the most intriguing being a song called Candy Apple Red, a self-penned song that she used to show off the virtues of her favorite car that she’d bought in 1956; a candy apple red Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner hardtop convertible.  It was a first production model with a retractable top. Bonnie bought it in 1956 and had it personalized with red guitars stitched into its white leather seats and musical notes that were fashioned into its hubcaps by hotrod hotshot Dee Wescott.  She still owns it.

Although Bonnie had been a co-founder of Dolton Records, there had been friction between herself and co-owner Bob Reisdorff, so in 1960 she left Dolton with another ex-employee, Jerry Denon to found Seattle-based Jerden Records.  Unfortunately Jerden only lasted for about a year, and both Bonnie and Dennon returned to Los Angeles.  Bonnie became a recording artist for Columbia and RCA records, and later returned to Dot Records, who had unceremoniously fired her only a few years before.  Eventually Bonnie ended up being a vice-president at Dot.

Dennon worked in promotions until he was drafted into the army.  Upon leaving the army Dennon revived the Jerden label as sole owner and re-released the entire Jerden catalogue-which featured several of Bonnie’s own recordings and others she had produced.  This second iteration of Jerden Records was far more successful than the first.  In 1963 Jerden released the single Louie Louie by The Kingsmen– a song which has become a high water mark in rock and roll history…and for better or worse on January 24th,  1986 Louie Louie was named the official song  of Washington State.

Bonnie churned out recording after recording during the 1960s and although most were only minor pop hits she continued to have a strong country music fan base and gained more and more respect from both the pop and the country music establishment.  By 1968 she had become one of the all-time biggest country solo artists in history. Later Bonnie released the successful country music hit I’m Living in Two Worlds which became Guitar’s first Top 10 Country hit and she released an even bigger country hit in 1967 with A Woman in Love which peaked at #4 on the Billboard charts. That same year, Bonnie won the Academy of Country Music’s “Top Female Vocalist” award. In 1968, she recorded another Top 10 Country hit I Believe in Love.  And finally she teamed up with Buddy Killen in 1969 to put out A Truer Love You’ll Never Find (Than Mine).  By that time Bonnie’s recording career had pretty much run it’s course, though she continued producing and became more and more involved with the business side of music, working as a talent scout, producer and an A&R representative…all positions she had previously involved herself in and was known for being very sharp at.

In 1969 Bonnie married Mario DiPiano and moved back to Washington State-Orting WA to be precise.  She and her husband spent their time raising quarter horses, but the pull of Hollywood and Nashville was too great.  She continued recording throughout the 1970s.  After DiPiano died in 1983 Bonnie went into seclusion.  A couple of years after Di Piano’s death -the man she called the love of my life-Bonnie received an invitation to perform one show at the Businessmen’s Club of the Notaras Lodge in the desert town of Soap Lake WA.  That single performance led to a residency that lasted until 1996!  Today Bonnie lives in Soap Lake and still tries to do a gig here and there.  She is somewhat active on face book and is happy to share memories and update daily occurances as health permits.

It’s hard to say if Bonnie Guitar was the first female session musician, but she’s the earliest we know of.  She’s certainly the first female artist to crossover from the Country charts to the Pop charts, and it’s near-certain that she was the first woman allowed to take on the task of music studio production.  Again, we simply don’t know of any woman that had previously done that job.  The world owes a great debt of gratitude to Bonnie Guitar, even though her accomplishments may seem over-shadowed today.  But she is surely one of the all-time greats in American recorded music and in the business of creating hits.

On March 23rd 2917 Bonnie Guitar turned 94 years old.  Her latest face book post (July 17, 2017) says:

It has been a little while but I have been working on getting stronger and ready to play some music for you all ! With kindest regards.
BG

-Dennis R. White. Sources:  The Herstory of Women in Rock N’ Roll, Vol 1. By Tia (Vashtia.com, March 15, 2017; Guitar, Bonnie (b. 1923) The Northwest’s Trail-Blazing Pop Pioneer, by Peter Blecha, (Posted 6/19/2008 HistoryLink.org Essay 8656); Womans Work-Bonnie Guitar, by Linda Ray, (No Depression, December 31, 2006); At Age 93, Northwest Music Legend ‘Bonnie Guitar’ Still Gigs Every Weekend by Gabriel Spitzer (KXPX.org, Nov 26, 2011);  Before Seattle Rocked: A City and Its Music, by Kurt E Armbruster (University of Washington Press 2011)

Gary Heffern

Gary Heffern began his career the late 70’s singing with San Diego punk band The Penetrators alongside Country Dick Montana. Heffern’s done poetry readings with everyone from John Doe, to Nina Hagen, The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Henry Rollins. His first two solo albums ‘Bald Tires in the Rain’ and ‘Painful Days’ have featured some of the incredible cadre of his admirers. John Doe, Mojo Nixon, Country Dick Montana, The Walkabouts, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Mark Arm of Mudhoney.

Heffern spent a good part of his career as part of the Seattle music scene, but his muse has taken him to Finland, living near the Arctic Circle where an incredible video of his song ‘La La Land’ was shot in 2008. It’s an epic, sad, beautiful, and reflective observation of the fading away of a parent…It’s touching without ever slipping into the sentimentality one would expect.

His album “Consolation” featured a who’s who of American roots music; Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, Alejandro Escovedo, Peter Case, Mark Lanegan, Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows/R.E.M.) Chris and Carla of The Walkabouts, Jim Roth from ‘Built to Spill‘, and on and on. The depth and breadth of Heffern’s friends and admirers who join him on Consolation and currently as “Gary Heffern And The Beautiful People” and is a continuing testament to his position as an important songwriter whose work rises to the top of the heap.

Seattle rock critic and well-known author Charles R. Cross writes:”In Heffern’s own songs there is a constant struggle between darkness and light, between failed dreams and reckless prayer, between a world where all hope is lost and one where a consoling friend offers a sliver of deliverance. Even on a song as haunting as “(I Am Your) Destroyer” from the album “Consulation” sounds like Iggy Pop could have written it. There is still a core of sweetness among the ruins. “That’s the Beauty (Of the Little Things in Life)” truly rings with a ghost: It was written in Seattle’s Comet Tavern on the very night that Gits’ singer Mia Zapata went missing (and later turned up murdered). Not only a remarkable timepiece, “That’s the Beauty” demonstrates Heffern’s skill at creating a story arc that celebrates the fragility of life at the same time it bemoans it. It’s the kind of re-framing that is uniquely Gary Heffern”.
Aside from his songwriting, albums. online music and live performances, Gary has also been the subject of Finnish filmmaker Erkki Määttänen’s “Sweet Kisses From Mommy” It recounts Gary’s birth in Finland as Veli-Matti Tervaneimi through his adoption, childhood and renaming and growing up in 1950s and 60s San Diego.

Dennis R. White: Sources, Gary Heffern, Charles R. Cross, liner notes for the album Consolation (2008).  Video Janne Huotari / Wolf Productions.