Northwest Music History: Country

Paul Tutmarc and The Mystery of Who Invented The Electric Guitar

 

        Audiovox 736, 1935

On March 6, 2018 a very special guitar was sold on ebay.  It was auctioned off by Dale and Bev McKnight, an elderly couple living in a mobile home park in Snohomish WA. Dale had originally bought the guitar in Seattle in 1947 and after over 60 years of dragging it around it found its place under the bed of their home in their trailer.  The buyer was David Wallis, a retired electrical engineer and guitar collector from Georgia.  Wallis paid $23,850.09 for the guitar-probably a bargain for an instrument so rare.  The guitar Wallis bought was an Audiovox 736 Electric Bass guitar; an instrument that some believe to be the first electric guitar…or at least the first electric bass guitar ever made..  It was Seattle inventor/engineer/tinkerer and musician Paul Tutmarc that had produced the first version of his 736 Electric Bass in 1935 or 1936.  Today there are only four known to exist.  Two are in private collections, and now Wallis will make his the third in a private collection.  The fourth Audiovox 736 known to exist is displayed at Paul Allen’s Seattle Museum of Pop Culture (MoPop); formerly known as the Experience Music Project or EMP).  Local music chronicler and former chief curator at the EMP Peter Blecha tells the story of the Audiovox 736 displayed in the MoPop/EMP museum,  In an April 1, 2018 letter he wrote

“By the late 1980s I was quietly picking up Audiovox guitars and amps wherever I could find them. Thrift shops, antique stores, and guitar stores mainly, plus via the occasional classified ad. The fact is, there was no demand for them and so once these shop owners knew I was interested , they would call me to inform that another had popped up.  Back then I was scooping them up for $25, or $50, or $75.  One place that was always interesting to scour was a very odd ramshackle store in Tukwila. The proprietor, Jake Sturgeon, did appliance repairs/sales there and was well-connected with the local Country music scene, so he also had an array of guitars stuffed in there too. I bought a few Audiovox units from him, and he understood that I was the prime collector of the things. So, in about 1996 — 4 years into my employment as curator with Paul Allen’s museum project — I got another call from Jake. This time he was rather excited and said he had just acquired a “weird 4 string” lap steel guitar” from a little old lady” and wondered if I wanted to come by and see it.  I was there within the hour.  The “weird 4 string laptop” proved to be the very first Audiovox 736 Bass Fiddle to have publicly surfaced.  By that point I was already well into planning the “Quest for Volume: A History of the Electric Guitar” exhibit for the EMP and knew that this would be it’s star attraction.

Becha adds;

“In 1998 I invited about five of America’s top guitar historians to Seattle to attend what I grandiosly named “The Guitar Summit.” They flew into town and we spent 2 or 3 days reviewing my exhibit plan outline, and the guitars I had lined up for inclusion in the Quest exhibit.  I gotta say that of all the amazing instruments we reviewed, that Audiovox Bass was the mind-blower. Not one of the historians had ever seen or even heard of one before.  In time, I found the matching Audiovox amplifier to accompany the Bass. And short story long: that pair of artifacts has been on exhibit at EMP/MoPop ever since the museum’s Grand Opening in June 2000.   Whereas every other inaugural exhibit in the museum has been replaced over time “Quest for Volume: A History of the Electric Guitar” remains. A few years back one recent director there informed me that they consider “Quest” to be the “Crown Jewel” of the museum and that it is truly a permanent exhibit.”.

A MUSICAL DYNASTY

Paul Tutmarc, who’d created the Audiovox Bass Fiddle was and is the scion of a Seattle music dynasty.  He was born in Minneapolis in 1896 and studied guitar and banjo as a child.  At aged 15  he also fell in love with the Hawaiian Steel Guitar.  As a teen he worked with traveling vaudeville troupes playing and singing.. In 1917 Tutmarc moved to the Northwest to work in the shipyards. He met and married his first wife, Lorraine in 1921.  They had two children, Jeanne and Paul Junior (known as “Bud”). Paul Jr. was born in 1922 and would become a respected musician in his own right.  Jeanne came along in 1924

The elder Tutmarc became known for his crystyline tenor voice and dapper appearance, as well as being a regular performer on Tacoma station KMO where he picked-up the nickname the Silver-toned Tenor. KMO was the only network-affiliated radio station in Western Washington (NBC). By 1929 Tutmarc had begun working the Seattle theaters as a tenor soloist with a number of the top dance orchestras, including those of Jackie Souders, Jules Buffano, and the town’s premiere bandleader, Vic Meyers. That same year he was performing with Stoll’s Syncopaters. Stoll was musical director for Mario Lanza and urged Tutmarc to re-locate to Los Angeles and its proximity to the to Hollywood studios. Tutmarc made barely a  mark in two moving pictures, possibly Sam Wood’s 1929 feature, It’s a Great Life and a celebrity newsreel (The Voice of Hollywood # 7)

After failing to catch fire in Hollywood Tutmarc returned to Seattle and continued his work as a vocal tutor and teaching guitar.  Originally he worked out of the home studio he’d built as part of a new house at 2514 Dexter Avenue North, overlooking Lake Union.  Later he set up a studio in the downtown Seattle Skinner Building which also housed The Fox 5th Avenue Theater. The  theater is notable in that it is one of only a handful of pre-war theaters in Seattle that have escaped the wrecking ball.  After years of neglect, the theater’s Chinese Forbidden City motif was restored in all it’s glory in 1980, and it now is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

As Tutmarc become more well-known he began to perform in concert halls, continued on the radio and various theater circuits as well as with Sam Wineland’s Broadway Orchestra at Tacoma’s Broadway Theater. In 1928 the Tutmarc’s moved to Seattle where he began a stint on KJR radio and performed on the Pantages and Orpheum circuits, as well as for the brother/sister ballroom dancers Fanchon and Marco (Wolff) who had created a west coast franchise of theaters.  Tutmarc was also known locally as a musician, tutor and inventor.  By the 1930s he was a popular performer on local Seattle radio as a soloist and as a member of several, mostly Country and Hawaiian bands.  It may seem counter-intuitive, but the earliest electric guitar aficionados were almost equally dispersed between the two genres, and both communities were responsible for the growing popularity of lap steel guitars  Aside from his Country outings,Tutmarc was also respected as an important  populizer of the Hawaiian lap steel guitar  on the local level, a love he passed down to his son Paul “Bud” Tutmarc.

Paul Tutmarc and his first wife Lorraine divorced in 1943, and about a year later Tutmarc married his second wife, Bonnie Buckingham, who’d been one of his students; Tutmarc was 27 years older than Bonnie.  By this time Tutmarc had moved his studio to 806 Pine Street in the Western Laboratories Building.   Paul Tutmarc had initially built each of his guitars by hand…now a neglected art that was once practiced by the builders of stringed instruments known as luthiers.    As demand for his steel guitars (and later bass laptop guitars) escalated, Tutmarc tried to keep up with the demand.  Both Bonnie and Paula (along with Bud Tutmarc and other members of the family) would go on to their own place in NW and national music history. Soon Paul and Bonnie, also from a musical family with her owndreams of stardom were performing at venues such as Eagles Nest Lounge in the Eagles Auditorium building (still standing and also registered as a National Historic Place) the Elks Club and the Surf Theater Restaurant.

Tutmarc continued his figure as a dashing man about town, all the while tutoring voice, and performing with Bonnie.  In 1944 the Tutmarc’s were introduced to a man named Buck Ritchey, a country/western DJ at Seattle’s KVI radio.  At the time Ritchey was promoting a country band called the “K-6 Wranglers (or variously as the “K-VI Wrangles” as a reminder of his station’s call letters).  Eventually Jack Guthrie would join the K-6 Wranglers.  Jack had already found a bit of fame as the co-writer (along with his brother Woody) of the standard “Oklahoma Hills”

The Tutmarcs were relatively new to Country music, but it didn’t take long before they’d mastered it, with Bonnie on vocals and a National Spanish Electric Guitar and Paul playing one of the Audiovox Steel Lap Guitars that he’d been producing since 1934.  The band was featured on KVI’s “K-6 Wranglers Show” which aired from 1944 through 1947.  “The K-6 Wranglers” released their first single on local Morrison Records in 1948 (The Two-Timin’ Yodeler b/w The Old Barn Dance).  Both songs were written by Bonnie.  The Tutmarcs also recorded “Sailing Through The Sunny San Juans” and “Old Montana Cowboys”  for Morrison.  In 1950 the Tutmarcs began recording for Rainier Records, another (obviously) local label.

By 1950 the Tutmarcs were recording country tunes like “Cowboys Serenade” and “Ain’t You ‘Shamed” for a new local label, Rainier Records.  One of the Wranglers shellac records released by Rainier is still available on the collectors market.  “Midget Auto Blues” b/w “Everybody Knew But Me” are both seminal hillbilly-cum-country recordings.

During this period the Tutmarcs were also playing two nights a week at the Seattle’s Silver Dollar Tavern (not to be confused with the famous Silver Dollar Dancehall in Des Moines)  Bonnie became a featured vocalist with The Abe Brashen Orchestra and Wyatt Howard’s Orchestra at the Town & Country Club in downtown Seattle.. She also recorded “If You Would Only Be Mine” with the Showbox Theater’s Norm Hoagy Orchestra for Listen Records, and in 1952 Listen Records also released two pop tunes (“Don’t Blame Me” b/w “I’m In The Mood For Love“) under the pseudonym “Candy Wayne”.

In 1950 Bonnie and Paul’s only child was born…Jeane and Bud’s new half-sister, Paula. The couple built a new home at 2514 Dexter Avenue North, overlooking Lake Union in Seattle.  By that time Bonnie was trying to launch a solo career, calling herself “Bonnie Guitar.  She’d been urged to demo some of her songs in both Seattle recording studios as well as in Los Angeles, but it wasn’t until she recorded the demo of a song, “Dark Moon”at Seattle’s Electricraft Inc. that her career headed for stratospheric heights.  Somehow the demo made its way to Los Angeles producer/promoter and record label owner Fabor Robison.  Robison had a fairly hefty roster of successful artists on his self-named Fabor Records,  In 1957 he signed Bonnie and with his pull in the music industry Bonnie Guitar’s “Dark Moon” became an international hit after Robison licensed it to Dot Records. Bonnie’s career not only included being a recording star, but  probably the first woman producer in the music business and a major label A&R executive for Dot Records and later Columbia. 

“MIDGET AUTO BLUES BY PAULTUTMARC AND HIS WRANGLERS

Slick Henderson-Accordian, Bill Klein-Bass, Paul Tutmarc-Steel Guitar, Bonnie Tutmarc-Spanish Guitar& Vocals.  Written by “Bonnie Guitar” Tutmarc

 

By the age of 15 Paul and Bonnie’s youngest daughter Paula had begun singing and writing while attending Orting high school.  She had moved to Bonnie’s ranch south of Seattle after the split between her parents I 1955. Her mother took Paula into Kearney Barton’s Audio Recording studio.  Paula spent her career using stage names and the first one she chose was Tamara Mills.  She recorded her first would-be single under that name. Her mother  produced the studio session that resulted in master recordings of two original compositions: “Fool’s Hall of Fame” and “Mr. Raindrop.”

According to music historian Peter Blecha who was a friend of Paula

“The plan, evidently, was to have Jerden release a single, but for reasons now lost, the project did not get further than having the two songs mastered at ‘United Recording Corporation’ in Hollywood. Those Tamara Mills tunes would likely be totally forgotten today except that in recent years a California-based record collector unearthed a ‘United Recording’ acetate reference disc of the songs which are pop with a garage-rock edge

Paula later found a bit of celebrity during the 60s going by the stage name Alexys. In October 1965 she released her debut single “Freedom’s Child” b/w “The Evolution of Alexys”.  The single was picked up on local radio and became a regional hit.  As Alexys, Paula became a part of Seattle’s folkie/hippie movement and her success led to sharing stages with bands as diverse as the Beach Boys, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, The Beau Brummels The Mojo Men, and The Yardbirds while Jeff Beck was doing his stint with the band.

Alexys was signed to  Dot Records-obviously the work of her mother, Bonnie.  Bonnie was also instrumental in the early days of The Northwest Sound by launching the careers of The Fleetwoods, Vic Dana, The Frantics and The Ventures on her and her business partner Bob Reisdorff’s Dolton Records.  The label itself was short lived so Bonnie moved to Hollywood to continue her recording career. By the time Paula/Alexys made her debut, Bonnie was the most successful performer in Country music.

Meanwhile Bonnie’s stepson “Bud” Tutmarc continued making his way as a performer and recording artist with the invaluable help of Bonnie.  In 1966, the year Alexys released her debut single on Dot Records,  Bud released his first full length album “Rainbows Over Paradise”…also on Dot Records.  It was his only major label release but Bud would go on to combine his love of Hawaiian music with his passionate Christian faith, recording over 25 spiritual albums, acting as the musical director for The Calvary Temple (now known as Calvary Christian Assembly), and directing The Northwest Youth Choir for many years.  He also ran his own independent studio, Tutmarc-Summit Studios, where he recorded his own music and produced others’,  Over the years Bud Tutmarc shared his ministry with music, on radio, as a volunteer and as a charitable donor.

Bud” died in 2006, and left behind another Tutmarc-Shane Tutmarc who had first found indie success around the Northwest with his band Dolour.  Shane was doing well, but just not well enough to make a mark beyond his fans.  After several attempts and riding an emotional rollercoaster Shane decided to retire from music in 2004.   He left music in a fit of gloom but within a year he had come to a greater understanding of his role, and tried again.

In 2007 Shane told Tom Scanlon of the Seattle Times that after his grandfather Bud Tutmarc passed away in 2006;
“It brought me closer to my family and I decided to put together a family band Shane Tutmarc & the Traveling Mercies”.

The band featured Ryan Tutmarc (Shane’s cousin) on bass and Brandon Tutmarc (Shane’s younger brother) on drums. This is perhaps what Shane had been most lacking: a solid, stable backing band. The Travelling Mercies recorded two critically acclaimed albums-“I’m Gonna Live the Life I Sing About in My Song” and “Hey Lazurus!”-.before Shane’s going solo and moving to Nashville where he still records and produces.

So now we know a bit about the Tutmarc dynasty it’s time to ask the unanswerable:

Who Invented The Electric Guitar?

Both Les Paul and Leo Fender have been given far more credit than they are due in the evolution of the electric guitar.  Each made design improvements and technical leaps, but the fact is the electric guitar has been around for over a century.  What’s more, aside from design and slight adjustments, the basics of the electric guitar have remained constant since even before the earliest version was built.

We might point to (or blame) the French physicist André-Marie Ampère (yes the term “ampere” is named for him).  Ampère was one of the founders of what we today know as  electrodynamics”. In September 1820, his friend François Arago showed the members of the French Academy of Sciences a new discovery by Danish physicist Hans Christian Ørsted. The discovery was elegant in its simplicity: that “a magnetic needle is deflected by an adjacent electric current”.

Ampère set out to apply mathematics and physical laws to refine what Ørsted had theorized.  The eventual result was what is known as Ampère’s Law.  First Ampère demonstrated that two wires carrying electrical currents running parallel to each other would attract or repel each other depending on the direction the electrical current was travelling.  This was the advent of “electrodynamics”. Ampère took this phenomena even further.  If your eyes are already glazing over,  this one is a bit harder to wrap one’s mind around.

Further experimentation led to the conclusion that the mutual action of wires carrying an electrical current is proportional to their lengths, and could be further controlled by the amount of current the wires decreased or increased their power-or intensity.  Ampère not only created and proved his own law, he aligned it up to the work of Charles Augustin de Coulomb and his “Law of Magnetic Action”. The alignment of Ampère’s Law and that of de Coulomb’s became the foundation for the newly science of experimental physics and what we now call  “electromagnetic relationship”  

Other physicists followed suit in the study after a demonstrable an empirical theory had emerged from Ampère’s  and de Coloumb’s work by  showing proof of what we know as the aforementioned electromagnetism. In 1827 Ampère published his findings in the typically French, over-flowery titled “Mémoire sur la théorie mathématique des phénomènes électrodynamiques uniquement déduite de l’experience”  (in English; Memoir on the Mathematical Theory of Electrodynamic Phenomena, Uniquely Deduced from Experience).

From here the story jumps across the English Channel to the brilliant,self-taught physicist, Michael Faraday. Faraday also discovered another elegant but simple example of electrodynamics…one that would eventually lead to the electric guitar-and quite a few other inventions we take for granted.  In 1830 Faraday discovered the “electrical principle of induction”.

Electric guitars rely on one, two or more“pickups”  These pickups are nothing more than  a coil of copper wire wrapped around a magnet. Because of the “electrical principle of induction”, when steel strings vibrate in the vicinity of these pickups an electromagnetic signal in the copper wire wrapped around the magnet occurs.. The signal that is produced can run from the guitar, to an amplifier through a cord. The amplifier increases the signal and it moves on to a speaker so the listener may hear the result.  BTW, we’ve tread into such theoretical territory, let’s pass on explaining how an analog speaker or microphone works. This explanation may have already made the reader fall asleep, and I admit I’m no physicist or electrical engineer, but I’ve described all of this in a way I myself can understand, though it might not be the exact narrative. I’m sure I’ll hear from those who have corrections.  If you follow this; good; if not, you may become more appreciative of how that Ted Nugent solo relates to something that goes back centuries and involves far more intellect than Nugent could ever summon up.

In 2016 writer Ian S. Port covered a three day symposium held at  The Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum. A larger gathering of historians, musicians, electrical hobbyists in the manner of Peter Blecha’s so-called 1998 “Guitar Summit” One big difference; the purported objective was to answer the question “Who Really Invented The Electrical Guitar?”  Port reported on the symposium in the May 25, 2016 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine.  It’s an enlightening article but it’s hard to believe that the symposium would or could answer the question of who invented the electric guitar.  It seems the gathering was more geared toward the joy of discussing electrical engineering, musical tastes, trading stories about guitars, showing off beloved instruments and generally using the question at hand as an excuse to have a good time.  It was a gathering of electrical geeks with guitar geeks, and probably more than a few attracted to the bar.  The inclusion of guitar geeks is self-evident, but the fact is over the past century and a half it has been electrical tinkerers who have driven the creation and evolution of the electric guitar.  There are very few advances in the electric guitar that have been made principally by musicians.  Of course Les Paul is an exception to the rule; so is the long forgotten genius of electronic swing music, Alvino Rey. But it has been physicists, amateur radio operators, electronics fans  as well as old men puttering around in basement workshops who have added more to the evolution of what we think of as an electric guitar.

One reason we cannot attribute the invention of the electric guitar is that there are so many definitions of what an “electrical guitar” is, and so many men and women that were doing the tinkering to develop it.  These tinkerers were often isolated from one another, some found each other as hobbyists, and a few auspicious meetings proved critical. A lot of it was happy coincidence and some was co-opting the technology of one field to apply to another.

According to Ian S. Port who covered the Kansas symposium:

(Faraday’s)  principle of induction is so simple and useful that devices based on it were widespread even before the 1900s. Telegraph keys used it, and some telephones did, too, though the first ones used primitive carbon mics. (The word “phony” comes from the awful facsimile of human speech produced by the early telephone.) Human communication was crucial in spreading the technology that would eventually become the electric guitar. ‘No one would have cared about this if it wasn’t initially about talking’ (over the telephone) Lynn Wheelwright, a guitar historian and collector, explained.”

Port goes on to write;

“A 1919 magazine ad offered a device for amplifying sounds, which, it said, could be used to amplify a violin—or ‘to spy on people’. Another magazine from 1922 touted an amateur-built “radio violin”: basically a stick with a string and a telephone pickup connected to an amp and a metal horn.

“Weak tones can be amplified by a radio loudspeaker,” the caption explained. Later that decade, a few proto-rock-‘n’-rollers figured out that by shoving a phonograph needle into the top of their acoustic guitar, they could get sound to come out of the speaker.  

They were a long way from “Free Bird,” but the basic idea was there”.

ELECTIFIED!

The first person to patent a device to power an electrified instrument resembling a guitar was an American Naval officer named George Breed. In 1890 he was granted a patent for his “Method of and apparatus for producing musical sounds by electricity.” 

As Port puts it:

“ it employed electricity to have the machine play the instrument. It was a self-playing guitar more than a century before the self-driving car.”

According to the Popular Mechanics story;

Matthew Hill, who studies the history and development of musical instruments, built a replica of Breed’s guitar based on its patent, and found that the complex electromagnetic system actually vibrates the strings. The guitar plays itself, in other words, producing an ethereal, metallic drone”.

“Unfortunately the replica weighed more than a dozen pounds and is entirely impractical” he concluded.

One thing that should be patently obvious should be mentioned here.  Up to the 20th century electrical currents weren’t as easy to get as plugging into an electrical outlet on the wall.  All experiment had relied on batteries, creating one more hurdle for physicists and practitioners of electrodynamics to achieve their goals.  It wasn’t until the dynamics and the growing  access of electric availability  that individuals could experiment on a wider scale.

W
ith more availability to electricity, more and more electronic hobbyists and guitar makers were chasing the idea of electrified instruments, and even by 1900 the principles of Faraday and his earlier French counterparts were being put to use.  According to Ian S.Port’

‘From 1919 until 1924 a quality control manager for ‘Gibson Guitars’, Lloyd Loar was working with pickups and amplifiers.  He had built a prototype of what he called an “electrified harp guitar” which would later become known as the “Vivitone Accoustive Guitar”.  

After his contract ended Loar left Gibson because of their lack of support for his creations. But while he was still at Gibson, in late 1923, he is said to have built at least one prototype for an “electrified harp guitar” It is now in thet collection of noted guitar collector Skip Maggiora, owner of Skip’s Music stores in Sacramento, California and a series of smaller local chains across the country.   Maggiora thinks he knows the history of the “Vivitone Accoustive Guitar”.  He appeared in a Smithsonian documentary “Electric! The Guitar Revolution’  His explanation was that by 1924 when Loar’s contract with Gibson expired he left, as we already know.  At the time Gibson was more interested in relying on its sales of acoustic instruments-mostly banjos and mandolins.  It was realistic for them to manufacture and sell proven money makers than fulfill Loar’s dreams.  According to Maggiora, Loar took his “electrified harp guitar” with him, sold it to an hotel orchestra musician and it was passed down by the unnamed musician’s family until it was discovered in 1975.

This makes for a great story-until one realizes electrical amplification was not around in 1923 when Loar is said to have invented his instrument.  Whether Maggiora had perpetrated a hoax or was duped is unclear, but the portion explaining Maggiora’s “electrified harp guitar” was later excised from the film.

It is certain that Loar did later produce and sell a line ofelectified harp guitars” but the “Vivitone Accoustive Guitar” in Maggiora’s collection is probably a second or third generation example from the late 1930s.  Loar is reported to have also built his own electrified bass guitar; but it is said to have a nasty habit of electrocuting players. There are also reports of Loar creating an electrified viola.  In 1933 he’d created his own company Vivi-Tone to market his combination of acoustic and electrified instruments but his attempts did not catch on. In a short Vivi-Tone began to produce and sell the more popular and established keyboards.

In 1928 The Stromberg–Voisinet company of Chicago began touting a new guitar for the consumer market.  The venerable “Music Trades” magazine (which has been continually published since 1890) ran a now-famous article/advertisement from Stromberg–Voisinet entitled “New Sales Avenue Opened with Tone Amplifier for Stringed Instruments.”  The announcement was published on Oct. 20, 1928, claiming their new Stromberg-Electro was:

“an electronically operated device that produces an increased volume of tone for any stringed instrument.”

The ad went further to say;

“The electro–magnetic pickup is built within the instrument and is attached to its sounding board. The unit is connected with the amplifier, which produces the tone and volume required of the instrument.Every tone is brought out distinctly and evenly, with a volume that will fill even a large hall’

This was a welcome announcement for guitarists playing in Hawaiian bands as well as the nascent swing,country and big band orchestras where the guitar was, for all practical purposes never heard except during solos. Up until then the only technology to heighten the sound of the guitar was the resonator-a thin aluminum cone inside the steel instrument that vibrated with the strum ot the strings, thus amplifying sound.  Often there were up to three resonators within a guitar and most steel guitarists were playing their instrument horizontially which made it even more difficult for audiences to hear.  The slightly amplified sound resonators produced was driven out of the guitar’s sound hole.  The resonator was not as effective as guitarists hoped, but resonating steel guitars are still popular with musicians for their unique sound.

Finally guitarists believed their electrified instruments wouldn’t be overshadowed by louder instruments.  But one problem exists concerning the Stromberg-Electro; no examples of the Stromberg-Electro have been found, so it’s questionable if one (beyond a prototype) was ever built.  In 1928 Henry Kay Kuhrmeyer became the president of  Stromberg-Voisinet and the company was soon absorbed in to Kay’s own company, (“Kay Musical Instruments”),  Kay’s new company, was formally established in 1931 from the assets of Stromberg-Voisinet.   The company did later introduce a line of electrical guitars, but under the spelling “Elektro”

Guitar historian Lynn Wheelwright, former guitar technician for Alvino Rey and a great friend of Rey’s was one of those who attended the Wichita symposium.  He  thinks one of his guitars might have an old Stromberg pickup, but he’s not sure.  Experts have found no other mentions of the guitar from this period, and have found no instruments to prove that any models were actually exist.  It’s clear that Kay (and the later Kaykraft label) continued to manufacture acoustic instruments under their own name and for several other companies.  Some historians claim a few Stromberg-Electro guitars were produced for the market, making it the “first” electric guitar; but as said above, not a single one has been located, and Kay Musical Instruments did not issue an electric guitar until 1936 — five years after the Rickenbacker Frying Pan, and the same year the Gibson ES-150 was introduced.

The Rickenbacker Electro A-22. “The Frying Pan”

The Rickenbacker “Frying Pan” was originally designed by George Beauchamp (pronounced as Beech-um in one of the English’s confounding ways to make spelling and pronunciation more complicated).  Beauchamp, a Hawaiian lap guitar player, like other steel guitar players had been looking for a way to make their instrument heard above the din of other louder instruments.  Beauchamp had helped develop the Dobro resonator guitar, and co-founded the National String Instrument Corporation  After months of trial and error Beauchamp created his own pickup that consisted of two horseshoe magnets. The strings passed through these and over a coil, which had six pole pieces concentrating the magnetic field under each string. It’s said he initially used a washing machine to wind up the coil.  At the time poor “Bud” Tutmarc was doing it by hand.

After determining that the horseshoe pickup actually worked Beauchamp approached Harry Watson, a luthier who’d been superintendent of the National String Factory in Los Angeles. Watson crafted a wooden neck and body to create a prototype. In several hours, carving with small hand tools, a rasp, and a file, the first fully electric guitar took form. It was dubbed (like others) as the world’s first electric guitar, even though it’s production model was actually made of aluminum.

Beauchamp then enlisted the help of his friend, the Swiss-born Adolf Rickenbacher.  Adolf had anglicized his name slightly to Adolph Rickenbacker and was cousin of the famous flyer Eddie Rickenbacker.  Adolph had plenty of capital and owned a company that created the aluminum resonators for instruments. Beauchamp and Rickenbacker joined forces and a company was formed to manufacture and sell the guitar that would fondly be known as the “Frying Pan” guitar. The initial name of the company was Ro-Pat-In Corporation then changed to Electro String.

According to the official Rickenbacker website;

“When Adolph became president and George secretary-treasurer. they renamed the company Rickenbacker because it was a name known to most Americans and easier than Beauchamp to pronounce. Paul Barth and Billy Lane, who helped with an early preamplifier design, both had small financial interests in the company as production began in a small rented shop at 6071 S. Western Avenue, next to Rickenbacker’s tool and die plant. (Rickenbacker’s’ other company still made metal parts for National and Dobro guitars and Bakelite plastic products such as Klee-B-Tween toothbrushes, fountain pens, and candle holders.)”

Although the official model name of the new guitar was the Rickenbacker Electro A-22 but it soon became known as the Rickenbacker Frying Pan for obvious reasons.  It’s small round body attached to its long neck is, in fact, reminiscent of a frying pan.  The fact that it was all aluminum also came into the equation.

“By the 30s the electric guitar had found more popularity, and so a race to create a consumer-friendly electrified instrument became paramount.   Electro String (the parent company of Rickenbacker) had several obstacles. Timing could not have been worse–1931 heralded the lowest depths of the Great Depression and few people had money to spend on guitars. Musicians resisted at first; they had no experience with electrics and only the most farsighted saw their potential. The Patent Office did not know if the Frying Pan was an electrical device or a musical instrument. What’s more, no patent category included both. Many competing companies rushed to get an electric guitar onto the market, too. By 1935 it seemed futile to maintain a legal battle against all of these potential patent infringements”
The Rickenbacker Electro A-22 was only produced between 1932 and 1939 and it did not receive a patent until 1937.  Even though the Frying Pan was not a commercial success at the time, it is popular among today’s collectors, and plenty of guitarists have been known to perform onstage with them.

THE FIRST KING OF ELECTRICS

But it was the near-criminally forgotten band leader and pioneer of the electric guitar  Alvino Rey (born Alvin McBurney) who was known for his mastery of the Hawaiian laptop guitar and later the pedal steel guitar.  He became wildly popular onstage later about 1933,  He began to be shown in national magazines with the newly available electric guitar.  Rey himself came to music through his love of electronics and experimentation with it during his boyhood.  It’s said he was constantly taking telephones and other gadget apart and putting them back together to understand how they worked. Aside from popularizing the electric guitar Rey also contributed other important musical  innovations.
He was, and still is called “The First King of Electrics”
by his millions of fans.

Since Rey had been known for his laptop guitar playing in 1935 Gibson  asked Rey to create a prototype with  engineers at the Lyon & Healy company in Chicago. The laptop steel guitar had the disadvantage of it’s sound being directed vertically rather than directly at the audience. The laptop guitar needed amplification as well as the electric pedal steel guitar that was becoming popular among Hawaiian and Country and Western artists. Rey himself was probably the most influential early guitarist for popularizing the pedal steel guitar.

Rey’s prototype resulted in Gibson’s first electric guitar, the ES-150. Many people refer to the ES-150 as the first “modern” electric guitar-though it could easily be argued one way or another. Rey’s original ES-150 prototype guitar is now also on permanent at Seattle’s  Museum of Pop Culture (formerly EMP)

Speaking of their guitar collection, Jacob McMurray, senior curator at the EMP/Museum of Pop Culture;

“There’s Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock guitar, Eric Clapton’s Brownie, which he played on “Layla,” and there’s Alvino.  Rey helped develop that prototype as a consultant for the Gibson company, but how he played was also an innovation”

Rey was also known for introducing an incredible novelty, “Stringy The Electric Guitar ”using what Rey called the “Sono-Vox”  Part technology and part artifice, a July article in Dangerous Minds explains:

Alvino Rey on Electric Steel Guitar with “Stringy The Talking Guitar”.  Vocals by Andy Russell

“Rey, using his steel guitar, appeared to be creating the singing voice for bizarro “Stringy The Talking Guitar.” In fact, it was Rey’s wife Louise, in tandem with Rey’s guitar sounds, that created the effect. Louise was backstage with a carbon throat microphone attached to a piece of plastic tube running to Rey’s amplifier. She would provide the words and Rey would alter them by sliding the steel bar along his guitar strings. Alvino and Louise were able to create some otherworldly sounds using this technique, including the weird voice of ‘Stringy’. Rey’s invention eventually evolved into the ‘talk box’, appearing as the vocal effect on the 1976 ‘Frampton Comes Alive’ album
.

Rey himself became history’s first “superstar” or “guitar hero”,  He became a celebrity that regularly sold out the venues he played, as well as a constant presence on radio.  Rey recorded with Esquivel, Martin Denny, The Surfmen and played on many “exotica” albums as well as film soundtracks, including Elvis’s Blue Hawaii.

Walter Carter a former Gibson guitar company historian has said:

“For millions of radio listeners, the first time they heard the sound of an electric guitar, it was played by Alvino.”

Rey would have a long career, and ventured into the avant-garde  as well as an early proponent of rock and roll.  He is often referred to as the “father of the electric guitar”  Although this is demonstrably untrue, it shows the amount of influence he had on the history of the electric guitar and the public’s affection for him.

Lynn Wheelwright (mentioned before as Rey’s guitar techinician and friend ) told Ian S. Port:

“You should have heard him on stage with a regular guitar—holy god!“ Alvino opened every show with a guitar solo, he closed every show with a guitar solo, and he had a guitar solo in every song. He found a way to use the instrument in such a way that people would buy them and use them.” At first, Rey plugged his guitar directly into the radio station’s transponder”, Wheelwright said. “But if the sound he wanted wasn’t readily available through his instruments, he tweaked the wires himself.
Eventually he would marry into the famously wholesome King Family and became their musical director.  He became less well-known as an i
nnovator even though he had a remarkable history in musical technology. He died in 2004 at the age of 95


We could continue with a discussion of the electric guitar in more modern times, including people like Leo Fender, Les Paul, Gibson, Bailey, et al or the merits of Rickenbacker or Mosrite over the Sears-Roebuck Silvertone guitar, but if we look into the history of the guitar and the laws of electrodynamics, we see that the electric guitar is basically the same basic instrument today that it was over a century ago.  There have been design changes, improvements (notably in humbucking pickups) and the change in popularity from electrified hollow bodied guitars to solid-body guitars (which predate Les Paul and Leo Fender by decades) so now we will return to our original subject;  Paul Tutmarc.

IF IT HADN’T BEEN ME, IT WOULD HAVE BEEN SOMEONE ELSE

Tutmarc continued his performing career through the 1920’s and 30s and we know he taught various stringed instruments.  At the same time he continued his electronic tinkering and it’s application to musical instruments.  He experimented with various types of instruments, various forms of electrified amplification and a device that would later be thought of as a “pickup”

Tutmarc’s son “Bud” reports:

“In the later part of 1930 or perhaps the very first of 1931, a man, Art Stimpson, from Spokane, Washington, came to Seattle, especially to see and meet my father. Art was an electrical enthusiast and always taking things apart to see what made them function as they did. He had been doing just this with a telephone, wondering how the vocal vibrations against the enclosed diaphragm were picked up by the magnet coil behind the diaphragm and carried by the wires to another telephone. My father became interested in this “phenomenon” and began his own “tinkering” with the telephone. Noting that taping on the telephone was also picked up by the magnetic field created behind the diaphragm, he was encouraged to see if he could build his own “magnetic pickup”.

One very important revelation in “Bud’s” story is that Stimson and Tutmarc had been fascinated by the ability of a diaphragm to transfer vibrations from one telephone to another over an electrical connection.  This tells us something we may have overlooked, but should be obvious.  Alexander Graham Bell’s invention, the telephone, had been putting the laws of electrodynamics into pragmatic use for decades.  Bell had early patents on hundreds of devices, including telephone technology. In fact, it’s said he could be vicious in his attempts to accrue patents that he may not have been entitled to.  This should also tell us why it would be so difficult for the early pioneers of the electric guitar to patent their technology.  Graham had beat them to it’s technology years earlier.

About the time Tutmarc met up with Stimson he became friends with another electronics fanatic, Bob Wisner.  According to “Bud” Tutmarc

‘Bob Wisner (was) a young man with a brilliant mind, and a radio repairman of great repute in Seattle as about the only one able to repair the old Atwater-Kent radios. He worked at Buckley Radio in Seattle, on Saturdays, repairing all the radios the regular repairmen could not repair during the week. It was Bob Wisner who helped my dad re-wire a radio to get some amplification of his magnetic pickup”.

Tutmarc then took  an old round-holed flat-top Spanish guitar and discovered he could fit it out with a wire-wrapped magnet (essentially a pickup) inside that would carry the sound of a plucked string to hia newly-created amplifier-the modified Atwater-Kent radio.

According to his son, Tutmarc

“developed a polepiece sticking up through a slot he cut in the top of the guitar near the bridge, and the electric guitar was on its way. Being an ambitious woodworker, he decided to make a solid body for his electric guitar idea and his first one was octagon shaped at the bridge end, containing the pickup and then a long, slender square cornered neck out to the patent heads”.

Tutmarc had accomplished several things at the same time.  He had put the pickup inside the guitar, he’d created a practical amplifier (with Wisner), created a solid body guitar (an innovation he’d borrowed from Rickenbacker’s 1931 “Frying Pan” lap steel guitar), and tied it up with a “polepiece” which would be one of the hallmarks of the electric guitar as we know it today.
Paul Tutmarc may not have “invented” the electric guitar, but he had brought it much closer to the combination of design and technology we know it as today.

His invention caused a lot of interest-especially among local Seattle musicians and his students….all of who were a natural consumer base for his product.  Tutmarc envisioned his new operation as the “Audiovox Manufacturing Company” that would produce and market his guitar and eventually other instruments and amplifiers.

Art Stimson and Paul Tutmarc parted ways in early 1932. The partners understood the importance of what they’d achieved, but they had a difference of opinion on what to do with their discovery. Stimson wanted to sell or license the “pickup” to a larger company. Tutmarc wanted to seek a patent for the pickup’s design.  It’s said that Tutmarc spent $300 on a patent search (about $5000 in 2018 dollars-a cost that might be expected to be spent today, but an enormous sum during the depression of the 1930s).  At the time no patents would have been filed on the instrument Tutmarc created, but he and his lawyers were not seeking a patent on the the instrument;  they were searching for a patent for the “pickup” which had already been covered years earlier by the Bell company in conjunction with the entirety of it’s telephonic gadgetry.  Seeking a patent for his “pickup” technology would be a mistake that could have made Tutmarc a very wealthy man, but he wouldn’t discover it until later .Tutmarc went back to work in Seattle while Stimson left for Los Angeles where he said he was going to try get interest.

In August of 1932 Tutmarc became aware of a Los Angeles manufacturer selling an “Electro String Instrument”. The company was Rickenbacker International!

In  the spring of 1933, the Dobro firm started selling their electrified Spanish-style guitar.  It was obvious to Tutmarc this instrument was based on his own discoveries.  What Tutmarc did not know was that Dobro had filed a patent on April 7th, 1933 for the overall design of the instrument- not just the pickup technology Tutmarc had foundimpossible to patent in 1931.  It was later that he found out that the patent application named “Art Stimson” as the assignor. Besides being stabbed in the back by Stimson, Tutmarc also discovered that the pickup design (which was integral to the instrument) had been sold by Stimson to Dobro for only $600.

According to Blecha;
“Tutmarc finally forged ahead marketing his own brand of electric guitars. Though a bit late to the race now, Tutmarc became ever more determined to create a superior electric guitar and, through more experimentation, vastly improved his old design, effectively creating the world’s first slanted split-polepiece magnetic “humbucking” pickup — a design that Dobro, National, and other firms soon began emulating”

Although Tutmarc continued to improve on his design it was clear he could not compete with the big players.  His instruments became popular with cream of the crop of Hawaiian steel guitar players and among the musicians who had cross-pollenated Hawaiian music with Country music. The most famous Hawaiian guitarist of the day, Sol Ho’opi’i championed Tutmarc and Audiovox in general

According to Bud, Tutmarc his father was an avid woodworker,

“but as more and more instruments became in demand he “contacted a man, Emerald Baunsgard, a young superb craftsman, and an agreement was made. Emerald started doing all the woodwork of the electric guitars for Audiovox. Emerald was a master at inlay work so these black walnut guitars all had inlaid frets, inlaid pearl position markings and beautiful, hand rubbed finishes. The guitars were beautiful and very quickly accepted on the market”.

Bud says his father also manufactured a sold-body Spanish Guitar, but there simply was no market for it.

He also says:

“My dad, being a band leader and traveling musician, always felt sorry for the string bass player as his instrument was so large that once he put it in his car, there was only enough room left for him to drive. The other band members would travel together in a car and have much enjoyment being together while the bass player was always alone. That is the actual idea that got my father into making an electric bass. The first one he hand-carved out of solid, soft white pine, the size and shape of a cello, To this instrument he fastened one of his “friction tape’ pickups and the first electric bass was created. This was in 1933”.

“The idea of the electric bass was very important to him, but he was so dissatisfied with his solid body “cello size” bass that he made a 42 inches long, solid body bass out of black walnut, like his guitars, and the electric bass was launched. The cello sized bass was too heavy and not really accomplishing what he set out to do; wanting to create an instrument, small and light-weight, yet capable of producing more sound than several upright, acoustic basses. My father advertised his electric guitars, single necked steel guitars and double necked steel guitars”. Finally his new electric bass (the Audiovox 736) was shown in a local school’s 1937 Yearbook. That certainly establishes a definite date. I personally played the electric bass in John Marshall Junior High School, here in Seattle, in 1937 and 1938”.

By this time it’s clear Tutmarc missed out on the bragging rights to claim he “invented” the electric guitar, but it seems almost sure he had invented the first electric bass guitar.  The official designation for his bass was the Audiovox 736 Electronic Bass Fiddle.  Instead of the traditional double bass, this model was to be played on the horizontal, not the vertical or “upright” position. Aside from it being electrified and amplified (therefore much louder than the traditional bass) it also featured a fretted neck (also unlike the traditional bass) and not particularly meant to be played with a bow.  Although Audiovox guitars come up for sale now and again it seems very few 736 bass guitars were made-hence it’s rarity.

Besides instruments Audiovox also created and manufactured amplifiers designed by Bob Wisner, the man who’d first paired up with Tutmarc to turn the old Atwater-Kent radio into an amplifier.   Wisner created an amplifier to accompany the Audiovox 736; the Audiovox Model 936.    After his time as a repairman and electronics wizard in Seattle Bob Wisner went into scientific work. He ended up as part of the team working on the Atomic Bomb in Wendover, Utah and Alamagordo, New Mexico.  After WWII Wisner worked on the Bomarc missile program at Boeing. Eventually he went to Cape Canaveral (now Cape Kennedy).  Sadly Wisner died during the first American space-shot to the moon.. He witnessed the lift-off but did not survive to see the successful landing.

In 1948 Bud Tutmarc began making his own electric guitars that were distributed by Portland’s “L.D. Heater Music Company.  He also went on to create his own electric bass; the Serenader.  Bud believes  the “L.D. Heater Music Company”was the first large distributor to carry any electric bass.  Bud also created several innovations, in particular an attempt to find a way to have the steel guitar give more depth on the bass strings.  He reverted to the old practice of putting the pickup outside the guitar,plaing them at various locations over the strings. He also put the a pickup six inches in front of the bridge,  giving the instrument  much more depth of sound. After he discovered this trick he went on to place  all of his pickups on the electric bass six inches from the bridge. This is still prevelant in basses today.  Bud also tried slanting the pickup so that the polepiece would be farther from the bridge under the bass strings and closer to the bridge under the treble strings.  This further gave more depth to the bass strings without  affecting the treble sound of the higher strings. The slanted pickup near the bridge is another of his innovations that are still commonly used.

Peter Blecha, the Audiovox expert this article has relied so heavily upon believes;

Even though Audiovox sold numerous Electronic Bass Fiddles to Northwest musicians, the instrument was so completely ahead-of-its-time that it never succeeded commercially. So, despite the trail-blazing uniqueness of Audiovox instruments, relatively few were sold, no national distribution strategy was ever implemented, and Tutmarc’s contributions basically fell through the cracks of history. All of which helps explain why the Audiovox saga went missing in all of the early electric guitar history books, and other men — like Fullerton, California’s Leo Fender (who first marketed his famously successful bass guitar in 1951) — long received all the credit for “inventing” the electric bass.  Until recently Paul Tutmarc’s innovations have not been considered among the most important facets in the history of the electric guitar…and although an argument can be made that he invented the first electric guitar and bass guitar it really doesn’t matter much.  The most important thing is that his place among the pioneers of the electric guitar has been restored.

It’s often been noted that Paul Tutmarc was not a fan of rock and roll and felt some ambivalence toward his creations, the electric guitar and bass.  Shortly before his death in 1972 he told a newspaper interviewer “A lot of fathers and mothers probably would like to kill me. Then again, if it hadn’t been me, it would have been someone else”

 

 

 

-Dennis R. White. Sources; Bud Tutmarc “The True Facts on the Invention of the Electric Guitar and the  Electric Bass” (http://tutmarc.tripod.com/paultutmarc.html retrieved April, 20, 2018; Peter Blecha “Tutmarc, Paul (1896-1972), and his Audiovox Electric Guitars” (HistoryLink.org Essay 7479, September 18, 2018); Erik Lacitis “Historic, Seattle-made electric bass guitar sells for $23K “ (The Seattle Times, March 11, 2018); Ian S. Port “Who Really Invented the Electric Guitar? After 80 Years, We Still Don’t Really Know”(Popular Mechanics, May 25, 2016);. Peter Blecha “Audiovox Electronic Bass: Discovered! The World’s First Electric Bass Guitar” (Vintage Guitar Magazine, March 1999); L. Pearce Williams “Michael Faraday, British Physicist and Chemist” (Encyclopaedia Britannica (retrieved April 21, 2018); Rich Maloof “Who Really Invented The Electric Guitar?” (reverb.com, June 29, 2017); Christopher Popa “Alvino Rey: Wizard of the Steel Pedal Guitar” (bigbandlibrary.com, retrieved April 20, 2018); “Les Paul Biography: Guitarist, Inventor (1915–2009)” April 27, 2017. Retrieved April 23, 2018); Phyllis Fender & Randell Bell “Leo Fender:The Quiet Giant Heard Around the World” (Leadership Institute Press, 2018); G.W.A Drummer “Electronic Inventions and Discoveries: Electronics from its Earliest Beginnings to the Present Day [Fourth Revised and Expanded Version]” (Institute of Physics Publishing, January 1, 1997); Sonia Krishnan “Paul ‘Bud’ Tutmarc, who shared Christian faith through music, dies at age 82” Seattle Times, December 8, 2006); Tom Scanlon “Shane Tutmarc Finds Healing In His Roots” (Seattle Times, October 19, 2007) “Shane Tutmarc Home Page” (www.shanetutmarc.com, retrieved April 21, 2018)  Peter Blecha correspondence, (April 29, 2018):  Clayton Park  “North Seattle Was Birthplace of the Electric Guitar, Bass” (Jet City Maven, volume 4, issue 8, August 8, 2000); “The Earliest Days of the Electric Guitar” (Rickenbacker.com, retrieved April 2, 20180;  Listen to The Music [Smithsonian Channel] “Electrified!  The Guitar Revolution” (first airing August 15, 2010); A.R. Duchossoir “Alvino Rey: The First King of Electrics” (Gibson Steel Guitars: 1935-1967, Hal Leonard Books, 2009).               

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

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.