Northwest Music History: Jazz

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).               

LeRoy Bell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But let’s go back to the beginning.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Leroy continues the story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Terry remembers hearing from LeRoy around 2000;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s something young bands have come to accept.

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

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

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

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

LeRoy and His Only Friends will be appearing at:

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

 

 

Red Kelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harvey Siders in “Jazz Times” wrote of Red:  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Washington State’s Official Voters Pamphlet Kelly wrote;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The OWL Party on the campaign trail 1976

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

According to the King County (WA) Bar Association:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In 2003 Don Siders also wrote;

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

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

Red died on Wednesday June 9, 2004.  

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

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

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

According to writer William Bryk

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

Northwest Songwriters: A Straw Poll

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

Recently I took a straw poll of friends asking:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So let’s return to the original question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

-Dennis R. White

Mildred Bailey

She was a superstar in the 1930’s and 40’s.  She introduced Bing Crosby to the music of Louis Armstrong  and Bessie Smith.  She worked with the most famous big bands of the era.  Tony Bennett said

“From 16 to 20 years old  the only thing I listened to was Mildred Bailey. I just said  I want to sing like her”  She provided the template for the “girl singers” from Ella Fitzgerald to Anita O’Day.  She introduced Billie Holiday to the famous producer John Hammond.  She started from the speakeasies of Spokane and Seattle and made her way to Los Angeles and then to The Savoy Ballroom and Stork Club in New York City. Yet Mildred Bailey and her contributions to jazz and pop music have all but been disregarded.  She is the most famous jazz singer of the 1930s and ‘40s that you’ve never heard of.

Over the years there’s been attempts to replace her to the stature she once had, but she still remains a cult figure who is absolutely loved by her fans.  Every one of her recordings have been available for years-most of them have been in continual release since 1951 when she died.  Her entire Columbia Records catalogue has been lavishly presented as boxed sets in both LP and CD formats for decades.   So it must be asked-in the words of jazz critic Michael Steinman; “Who Erased Mildred Bailey?”  It certainly wasn’t singers like Tony Bennett,mentioned above.  It wasn’t Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra who helped her out at the end of her life.  It wasn’t a change in taste; The Big Band sound and jazz/pop singers were in their heyday when she quit the music industry.   It wasn’t for a lack of exposure on the new media of television…she even had her own television program at one time.

The fact is that there doesn’t seem to be a simple answer to why Mildred Bailey has been erased from our collective musical consciousness, and the answer remains elusive to this day.

Mildred Bailey was born Mildred Rinker on February 27, 1903 in Tekoa Washington, a small farming community about an hour southeast of Spokane Washington. Mildred’s mother, Josephine had been deeded land there and created a farm on the land she owned.  Josephine was one quarter Native American.  Her ancestors were what became known as the Coeur d’Alene tribe. Owners of valuable property by tribal members was unusual at the time: so while the Coeur d’Alene people were generally living in poverty, Mildred’s family were more economically secure. Until the age of 13 her family lived in De Smet Idaho.  Though miles apart,both communities (De Smet where she lived and Takoa where she was born) butted up on the Washington/Idaho border (each one on different sides).  It’s thought her father Charles Rinker was of Irish/Swiss descent but because of her mother’s tribal affiliation Mildred’s early upbringing was spent on the Idaho side of the border the family lived on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation which at the time was (and still is) within the confines of the state of Idaho.  According to her tribe’s custom, inclusion into the tribe is based on either maternal or paternal lines. Mildred’s  lineage as a Native American came directly through her mother who was a full member of the Coeur d’Alene tribe.

 The tribe’s modern name, Coeur d’Alene was arbitrarily bestowed upon them by the first French traders that operated in the area.  The literal translation of Coeur d’Alene to English is “heart of an awl” or more colloquially, “pointed hearts”.  The name was given to them because they were tough negotiators with European traders.  It’s unclear if the designation “pointed hearts” was due to a respect for the natives or as a derisive term based on their generally seeking the upper hand in matters of commerce.  As traders came to be more common in the area, Catholic missionaries moved in and converted most of the people of the nation are Roman Catholic and many place names on the area are French.  Most tribal members today are Catholic, but in recent decades younger members are returning to their traditional spiritual roots.

The Coeur d’Alene name has stuck as the preferred name the US government and Idaho state uses to designate the tribe, but they themselves have always called themselves “Schitsu’umsh” or “Skitswish” meaning “The Discovered People” or “Those Who Are Found Here”.  Traditionally the Coeur d’Alene homeland included most of Idaho’s panhandle, a portion of Eastern Washington and Western Montana.  The historical north/south borders spanned between the lower end of Lake Pend Oreille at the northern extreme and The Palouse Hills to the south, and the Clearwater River to Spokane Falls.  The homeland originally consisted of more than 3.5 million acres of forests, mountains, lakes, rolling plains, marshes and rivers.  The entire Coeur d’Alene (or Schitsu’umsh) territory has now been reduced to a 345,000 acre reservation, all of it within the state of Idaho, abutting the Washington State border.

At the time of Mildred Rinker’s birth in 1907, the Schitsu’umsh people lived in poverty, surrounded by mining operations in and around the reservation that stripped the land of minerals, leaving  much of the land and water was left damaged and polluted.  The environmental conditions were so bad and so prevalent that in recent years the tribal council has brought several (successful) civil actions against the US government and private mining corporations-ASARCO being the worst offender. In 2014 then-Idaho House Representative Paulette Jordan claimed the industries “left several thousand acres of land and tributaries connected to the Coeur d’Alene Basin, contaminated with heavy metals”.

According to the tribe’s website;.

“These mining operations have contributed an estimated 100 million tons of mine waste to the river system.Over a 100 year period the mining industry in Idaho’s Silver Valley dumped 72 million tons of mine waste into the Coeur d’ Alene watershed. The State of Idaho, meanwhile, looked the other way. As mining and smelting operations grew, they produced billions of dollars in silver, lead and zinc. In the process, natural life in the Coeur d’ Alene River was wiped out. In 1929, as the river flowed milky-white with mine waste, a Coeur d’Alene newspaper reporter described a river trip to the Silver Valley a “Up the River of Muck and into the Valley of Death.”Today, the Silver Valley is the nation’s second largest Superfund site. The natural resource damages, however, extend upstream and far downstream from the 21-square mile “box” that is now under Superfund”.

All of this may seem extraneous to the story of Mildred Bailey, but it helped shaped her reaction to adversity both in positive and negative ways. It also informed her view of discrimination and the downtrodden,  So it was into this environment that Mildred, her three brothers were born..  Despite the surroundings the Rinker siblings were also fortunate to be exposed to music all their lives.  Their mother, Josephine, played piano and taught all of them to play at an early age. Mrs.Rinker had studied music at the Catholic Academy in Tekoa..  It’s said that she was proficient in both classical music as well as all the current popular genres sweeping the nation.  Their father, Charles Rinker was a fiddler who took part in local squaredances and also took time to teach his children as much music as he could. The family spent many a night playing and singing, often with neighbors joining in.

By the time Mildred was 13 years old the Rinker family had moved to the city of Spokane Washington. In 1912, Charles Rinker had bought one of the first automobiles in the Takoa area and upon his work-related trips to Spokane he found he was more suited to city life. The Rinkers leased their farm and moved 60 miles to the city…already Washington State’s second largest metropolis.,.  Mildred’s father  opened an auto supply shop.  It was after this move that Mildred and her brothers became more closely involved in music as a vocation. Mildred was enrolled at St. Joseph’s Academy, where she studied piano and her brothers continued to learn piano with their mother at their side.

In 1916 their mother Josephine died. Various reports indicate the cause of death being either tuberculosis or The Spanish Influenza.  Soon after the death of Mrs Rinker, Charles Rinker remarried.  According to Mildred Bailey biographer Gary Gibbin the second Mrs Rinker was;
“an abusive, grasping woman, who moved in with her daughter while insisting he send his kids to boarding school”. Charles Rinker resisted her threats, trying to keep the family together, but Mildred despised her”.

Even so the house was still filled with music.  Al Rinker remembers his step-mother at the piano singing songs of longing and faraway places: Rinker recalled some of her favorites were “Siren of the Southern Seas,” “Just a Baby’s Prayer at Twilight,” and “Araby.” among others.

After putting up with her step mother for about a month Mildred packed her bags and headed for Seattle to live with an aunt  We know that for a few months Mildred demonstrated and sold sheet music at Woolworth’s in downtown Seattle.  She also began singing in some of the local speakeasies. Within a year she married a man named Ted Bailey. The marriage was brief, but upon the couple’s divorce Mildred chose to keep the surname Bailey.  She believed it sounded more professional, and more American than her birth name, Rinker.  It’s not coincidental that Mildred chose Bailey over Rinker;  her given name sounded vaguely Teutonic and WWI had aroused suspicion and overt abuse toward anyone suspected of being of German heritage.

After her father’s divorce from her step-mother Mildred returned to Spokane and once again began to demonstrate and sell sheet music; this time at Spokane’s  Baileys Music Store-the name of the store and Mildreds surname were coincidental.  Her brother Al began hanging out at the shop and brought along one of his friends, a young singer named Bing Crosby.  Soon the three of them became fast friends and hang  out at the store on Riverside Avenue where Mildred briefly worked.  The three no doubt spent time strategizing about their future careers.

This was the era of Prohibition and the speakeasy.  Mildred would spend the next few years travelling up and down the west coast singing her way from Seattle and Los Angeles to Vancouver BC and as far afield as Alberta.

Mildred’s Spokane break came with a one night singing engagement at Spokane’s most popular speakeasy Charlie Dale’s.  It’s said that Bing Crosby saw her at Charlie Dale’s that night and called her “the area’s outstanding singing star”  Even though Mildred was obviously talented and fashionably lithe at barely five foot tall and weighing under a hundred pounds, Bing’s statement may be apocryphal, but he later remembered her as “specializing in sultry, throaty renditions with a high concentration of  southern accent such as “Louisville Lou” and “Hard Hearted Hannah”  That would be far closer to the truth, even if she eventually perfected her style in much the same manner. And she had not yet become the heavy-set, matronly figure she’d later become popularly associated with.

Soon Mildred was off to Los Angeles hoping to pursue her singing career in popular speakeasies. Biographer Giddens reports that

“Mildred and Benny moved to Los Angeles where they bought a house at 1307 Coronado Street, a few blocks off Sunset Boulevard.  He was prospering with his bootlegging and she was earning a reputation singing sad songs in local dives”.

By 1925 Mildred was singing at Jane Jones’s Hollywood Hills speakeasy-a popular watering hole for the Hollywood elite.  During her stint she had convinced brother Al and his buddy Bing to come to Los Angeles.  Still, it was a shock when the two showed up unannounced.  However as the older more experienced artist she allowed them to stay and showed them the ropes to survive in Los Angeles.

By this time Mildred had begun to put on weight-a condition that would follow her the rest of her life.  She also cemented her life-long friendship with Bing Crosby, who would later come to her aid. During he and Al’s first months in Hollywood Bing called Mildred “mucho mujer”, a great talent. Within a few months Mildred, through her connections,  had the famous bandleader Paul Whiteman have a look at Al, Bing and Harry Moss (The Rhythm Boys).  After one audition Whiteman hired them as featured vocalists in his Orchestra.

Three years later, before Bing went solo, he and Rinker returned Mildred’s favor by getting Whiteman to have a look at Mildred onstage. At the time The Rhythm Boys were involved in the filming of Paul Whiteman’s film The King of Jazz .  Al Rinker later retold the story that Bing Crosby could only film during the day.  He was on work release after hitting a telephone pole while driving drunk!

The film and Whiteman’s orchestra were in a state of disarray at the time..  Whiteman had no time audition a new singer, and that same week he saw Mildred he had turned down Hoagy Carmichael.  The three (Al, Bing and Mildred)  concocted a plan.  Mildred was friends with several members of Whiteman’s orchestra and invited them and the bandleader to a “going away party” where she would serve her own well-regarded homebrew, taking advantage of the well-known fact that Whiteman was a heavy beer-drinker.

At some time during the party Bing Crosby (on cue) asked Mildred to sing something. At first she pretended to be too embarrassed, but finally she asked brother Al (as planned) to accompany her on “(What Can I Say) After I Say I’m Sorry?”

She nailed it.

Whiteman was impressed, asked her to sing an encore, and by the end of the party had made arrangements for Mildred to appear on his Old Gold radio show.  Although she was not an outright member of The Paul Whiteman Orchestra within the year Mildred Bailey became Whiteman’s highest-paid musician.

The story may or may not be true, but it’s an interesting one. There are other reports that Whiteman only became familiar with Mildred Bailey through a demo recording she’d made.  We’ll never know if the party stunt was ever employed-but it makes for a good story, and it’s as likely as any other.

Mildred’s was making her ascent to becoming the most well-known singer of her era.  Soon the critics were heralding her as the first “white” singer to be compared with black singers such as Ethel Waters. Bessie Smith and those taking advantage of the syncopation Louis Armstrong had brought to jazz.  This claim, however, dismissed the fact that Mildred had a strong Native American heritage and she was proud of it.  She made no attempts to hide her ancestry, and was one of the first American celebrities to actually stand up for racial equality. It would be years before her ancestry was truly recognized and admitted among her fans and champions.  But even then there was some confusion. Some believed she was black. Others believed she was of mixed race-the former being true, but the races assumed being incorrect.   As late as 1994 The US Postal Service issued a series of stamps commemorating the great Black blues and jazz musicians that had made notable contributions to American music. The series included  Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, Billie Holiday, Robert Johnson, Jimmy Rushing, Ma Rainey, Howlin’ Wolf…and Mildred Bailey, the only non-African American in the series.  It’s hard to say if this was a case of mistaken racial identity or not, but one other problem with the Mildred Bailey stamp is that it is printed with the wrong year of her birth (1907 instead of the correct 1903).That, however is a common mistake.

It wasn’t the first time Mildred was assumed to be African American.  Nothing of consequence was made of her ethnicity in the jazz world (except for later, after Prohibition ended). Because the milieu she worked in, it was populated by people of color.  But to be Native American during the early to mid 20th Century could be even worse than being black and discrimination was widely practiced.  In fact even in the early 21st Century discrimination and outright dislike of Native Americans is not unusual. But within the jazz world things were more relaxed since it wasn’t a strictly whites-only profession.  In fact Mildred Bailey believed that the Native American music she grew up with had influenced her style.  In an essay by Chad Hammill “American Indian jazz: Mildred Bailey and the origins of America’s most musical art form” the author cites Mildred Bailey as saying:

““I don’t know whether this (native) music compares with jazz or the classics, but I do know that it offers a young singer a remarkable background and training. It takes a squeaky soprano and straightens out the clinkers that made it squeak; it removes the boom from the contralto voice, this Indian singing does, because you have to sing a lot of notes to get by, and you’ve got to cover an awful range.

In any event by the 1930s Bailey had created a sound of her own that acted as a transition from the old blues belters (like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey,) to the breezier, jazz interpretations of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. It’s especially easy to hear Bailey’s influence over Billie Holiday, even though Bailey’s style is slightly stiffer, more clearly enunciated  and her voice not as sultry and breathy as Billie’s. The years of.
Mildred’s success set off the popular format of the “girl singer”.  The name might not be politically correct today, but at the time of the “girl singers” it referred to the women who Big Bands featured to interpret well-known songs, try out new material for up-and-coming songwriters and provide a few torchlight songs in order to break up the big band’s mostly instrumental presentation.  Most women singing with the big bands were and are referred to “girl singers”.  Women as diverse as Mildred Bailey herself to Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne, Anita O’Day, Kay Starr and Helen O’Donnell. The list goes on and on.  One of the attractions of the “girl singers” is that they usually sang for several big bands, some for a few years at a time, and others working with several bands simultaneously.  This offered fans of both the singers and the big bands a heady mix of styles and sounds.

Mildred first recording was a 1929 uncredited vocalist for a session by the Eddie Lang Orchestra in 1929 (“What Kind o’ Man Is You?”), Her next was a Hoagy Carmichael song that was issued only in the UK).  In 1932 she recorded what would be her signature song, “Rockin’ Chair” written by Hoagy Carmichael in 1929.  The song became so popular that she would be known as The Rockin’ Chair Lady”. It was a name that would stick.

By 1933 Prohibition and the era of the speakeasy had ended and Mildred Bailey found herself more and more in demand.  She toured the country, played legitimate nightclubs, dance halls and ballrooms.  She made frequent radio appearances.  She continued to work with the best big bands of the day, and created several herself to back her. Bailey’s backup bands were never less than first-rate. Besides Norvo’s ensemble, she’s accompanied on these vintage recordings by the Casa Loma Orchestra, the Benny Goodman Orchestra and a band led by the Dorsey brothers, Jimmy and Tommy.  According to Owen McNally of the Hartford Courant;

“There’s a classic blues session with pianist Mary Lou Williams (a powerful, groundbreaking female figure in the sexist jazz world) and more than 20 tracks with the John Kirby Orchestra, an early chamber jazz group that was a forerunner of the classicism of the Modern Jazz Quartet. There are witty arrangements by Eddie Sauter and composer Alec Wilder’s progressive, third-stream charts for an octet. Wilder scored for oboe, English horn, bass clarinet and flute — instruments then not much associated with jazz”.

One blatantly missing facet of her career was appearances in feature films.  She certainly had the popularity of other singers who were featured.  It may have come down to her being less photogenic than her peers.  She continued to gain weight, and there was no escaping she was obese.  Her biographers believe she made a Vitaphone short, and possibly one for Universal but as of 2018 they haven’t been discovered.

She remained popular throughout the 30’s but even more fame came after she married her third husband, Red Norvo (Kenneth Norville) .  Norvo had been a vibraphonist, marimba player and xylophonist who brought those instrument to the fore in many jazz recordings.  He’d started his career playing in an all-marimba band on the vaudeville circuit, and early on in his career had become part of Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra in 1931.  It was there that he and Bailey met.  Soon afterward they married, Mildred having dumped her second husband, the bootlegger.  Norvo would go on to be one of the most influential figures in jazz.  After a brief stint with Whiteman, Norvo went on to form his own band.  During his career he would come to work as a soloist, with his own band and a featured player on the recordings of Benny Goodman, Charlie Barnet, and Woody Herman,  Billie Holiday, Dinah Shore and Frank Sinatra. Norvo was a non-conformist and attracted to the newer movements in jazz.  During his later years-after the popularity of big bands came to a close- he would play with bebop luminaries such as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker as well as establishing a name for himself

Shortly after marrying Mildred, Norvo’s band was on the verge of collapse.  Mildred offered to step in and bring some of her popularity to Red’s band.  The coupling saved Norvo’s band and both played off each other, creating some of their finest music.  After success the couple became known as  “Mr. and Mrs. Rhythm” Now Mildred had two nicknames “The Rockin’ Chair Lady” and “Mrs. Swing”  It’s been said the thin “Mr. Swing” pounding out near-athletic backing on vibes and xylophones and the corpulent “Mrs. Swing” doing some of her best singing created quite a dramatic scenario.  And the fans loved it.

Many critics point to Mildred and Red’s best work together on the album 1937 album Smoke Dreams. (re-released in 1999) The sound is a critical departure from big band stylings and more forward looking, as most of Red and Mildred’s work would veer toward.  Originally released on Songbirds Records, the label’s web site includes a review by Jeff Austin.  He writes;

“The Red Norvo Orchestra with Mildred Bailey had an unmistakable sound, with Bailey’s feather-light vocals paralleled by the delicacy and grace of Norvo’s xylophone, all couched in light, ever-swinging arrangements by the likes of Eddie Sauter. The title track, ‘Smoke Dreams,’ epitomizes what made Bailey/Norvo different than anyone else. Legend very credibly has it that, subsequent to Sauter’s being the object of a Bailey rage, he fashioned for her an arrangement that would be any other singer’s worst nightmare, riddled with ear-bending dissonance that might have permanently traumatized most other lady band singers. Undaunted, Bailey sails serenely through the din—and one is left wondering what other band (save, perhaps, for Stan Kenton ten years later) might have attempted a chart so avant-garde.”

Although the couple was successful, by the late 1930’s Mildred’s weight had become such a problem that she was kept more and more from public appearances.  Along with the weight came problems with diabetes.  This may have been part of her Native American heritage (Native Americans and Alaska Natives have a greater chance of having diabetes than any other US ethnic group according to the CDC). She had always had wild mood swings, but now she was more and more depressed.  This was a time in her life that would have been incredibly bittersweet.  She and Norvo divorced in the late 1930s (though remained friends and worked together on several recordings).  She would also have two more number one hits during this period.  In May of 1938 Red Norvo and His Orchestra with Mildred Bailey would have a chart-topper on the Hit Parade chart with the song “Please Be Kind”. In June of the same year they would also have a number one hit with “Says My Heart”  Mildred’s final number one hit would be on Benny Goodman and His Orchestra’s 1940 song “Darn That Dream”.

She continued to take solace in food. Medical specialists-in fact most citizens today- know that there is a dangerous correlation between weight and diabetes. It wasn’t well known before the 1960s.   Top that off with depression and it becomes an even more serious life-threatening condition.  Today we would recognize Mildred Bailey as having an eating disorder that could be treated, alongside her mood swings.  At the time many of her friends felt sorry for her and her inability to lose weight, while others simply blamed her condition on her own gluttony.  According to her best friend, jazz singer Lee Wiley, Bailey suddenly threw herself on the floor just after Wiley said goodbye and was leaving her apartment one day.

By God, I really talked her into living, because she apparently wanted to be dead,” Wiley said. “Well, what I did was to use some of her own language. I said, `Mildred! Now get your ass off that floor! Or something like that. And do you know that pretty soon a smile came over her face, and she got up?” 

Yet she would again turn to food for comfort.  The only other comfort she found was in her two dachshunds’

Her working relationship with Norvo lasted until 1944 when she retired because of her ongoing health problems.  She continued to make sporadic appearances and in 1947 she performed to a sold-out audience at Carnegie Hall.  Her health continued to deteriorate and along with the diabetes came something she’d never achieved while she was well.  She became dangerously thin and frail.  Not only was she very ill, she was broke and living in poverty in Upstate New York,  Old friends like Bing Crosby paid her back for starting his career and supporting her during her final years.  Those friends she’d picked up along the way also came to her aid, including Frank Sinatra who she’d dueted with in her later years. In fact it was an appearance on Bing Crosby’s radio show (her final appearance) that covered her mortgage payment in late 1951.

Finally on December 12, 1951 in Poughkeepsie, New York, at age 48 Mildred Bailey died of heart failure, due chiefly to diabetes and the exertion put on her heart throughout her adult life.  Her death had not been a dramatic tragedy.  Instead it was a long, drawn out affair that was precipitated by years of ill health.  She was no longer in the public eye by the time she died, and although swing was in its final years her early contributions to be-bop weren’t yet recognized.  So we’re still left with the unanswered question: why is Mildred Bailey forgotten?.  Every 20 years or so jazz critics and enthusiasts ask the same question.  The last period of interest in Mildred Bailey to ask the question came when Columbia Records released their complete recordings box set in 2001.  That means we’re headed toward the same interest in Mildred Bailey and being stupefied why she is so forgotten is due within the next couple of years.  I say take a listen NOW.

According to her official biography Mildred Bailey was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1989. Her contributions to jazz were commemorated by a United States Postal Stamp was issued in 1994.  In 2012, the Coeur d’Alene Nation introduced a resolution honoring Bailey to the Idaho state legislature. They were seeking acknowledgement of the singer’s Coeur d’Alene ancestry as well as to promote her induction to the Jazz at Lincoln Center Hall of Fame in New York City.  The resolution was adopted by The National Congress of American Indians.  She has not yet been inducted into the Jazz at Lincoln Center Hall of Fame.

 

-Dennis R. White. Sources: Scott Yanow “Jazz on Film” (Backbeat Books, 2004); Catherine Bainbridge & Alfonso Maiorana “RUMBLE: The Indians Who Rocked the World” [film] (Kino Lorber 2017); “Mildred Bailey, American Singer” www.britannica.com/biography/Mildred-Bailey (retrieved February 14, 2018); “Mildred Bailey”www.biography.yourdictionary.com/mildred-bailey (retrieved February 13, 2018); Murray Horvitz “Mildred Bailey: That Rockin’ Chair Lady” (NPR, August 1, 2001); Owen McNally “Unforgettable Mildred Bailey Somehow Forgotten” (Hartford Courant, March 18, 2001); “Bailey Discography” www.slipcue.com/music/jazz/artists/mildredbailey.html (retrieved February 12. 2018); Michael Steinman “Who Erased Mildred Bailey?” (Jazz Lives, December 27, 2009); Gary Giddins “Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams-The Early Years, 1903-1940 (Brown & Little, 2001); Dennis Zotigh, “Meet Native America: Paulette E. Jordan, Idaho House Representative” (National Museum of the American Indian, 19 December 2014 retrieved February 12, 2018); Gary Giddins “Mrs. Swing” (The Village Voice, June 6, 2000); “Native Americans with Diabetes (Center for Disease Control and Prevention retrieved February 14, 2018); Jim Kershner “Coeur d’Alene Tribe celebrates jazz great’s reservation roots” (The Spokeman-Review lSpokane] April 1 2012);

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They signed him on the spot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

 

 

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

rapid-i

The first thing the former members of rapid-i want to make clear is that their name pre-dates the wide success of R.E.M. Their name evolved out of the same expression (Rapid Eye Movement) but it was coined in 1980, about three years before the debut of R.E.M.s album, Murmer on I.R.S. Records. The point isn’t really that important except to point out that the small “i” in the name is a reference to Prince-Far-I, the dubbiest of the deep-dub artists to come out of 1970’s Jamaica…go through the used records racks and find a copy of one of the the tuffest records of all time; “Prince Far I & King Tubby “‘In The House Of Vocal & Dub”.  rapid-i was not a reggae band, but their respect for a wide range of artists brings up accomplished and experimental pop artists and music figures. They name artists like Mark Smith and The Maffia as well as Smith’s former band The Pop Group. Linton Kwesi Johnson,  James Chance and the Contortions, James Blood Ulmer, Adrian Sherwood, King Crimson and The Sex Pistols among the jazz greats.

It might seem these guys were all over the map musically, but it’s clear they were more interested in musical execution and innovation than any particular genre. This interest showed up in their own music, whilw doing a ripping version of the funky Barney Miller theme song-written by Jack Miller and Allyn Ferguson with the killer bass line performed by Chuck Berghofer. The rapid-i version is practically note for note-not because they were anything near a “cover band”, but because, hell…why mess with something near-prefect?

The changes in keys and difficult rhythm patterns of their original compositions were clever moves for them to share onstage. One might not understand exactly what they were up to but audiences weren’t left out as if their musicianship was an “inside joke”. The bands joy and exuberance in pulling off a slick musical move never cane off as intellectual and snobbish. The audience could see their open enthusiasm and glee. The band didn’t care if it’s audience was classically trained, musically illiterate or astute jazz and classical musicians. They openly invited them to enjoy what they were doing. In fact, one of the apparent “inside jokes” they shared with the audience was covering the Barney Miller theme…It proved finding brilliance in the most mundane, unexpected places.

Which comes to audiences-or perhaps lack of them. The early 1980’s and Seattle’s post-punk era produced some mighty fine bands that strayed from the punk formulae developed in the late 70s. For instance, how would it be possible to accurately label The Blackouts, with their weird and  near-mysticism laid over an almost indescribable sound? And how could a power-pop oriented band like X-15 be referred to as “one of Seattle’s original punk bands” when, as entertaining as they were, they simply were not a punk band, and arrived on the scenefrom Bellingham in the 1980s;  long after The Telepaths, The Lewd, The S’nots and The Mentors had established Seattle as a major outpost of West Coast punk. All of these bands (punk and post-punk) shared one thing in common; small, very loyal fan bases and audiences that mostly consisted of friends, family and like-minded musicians and fans.

This is typical of what goes on in all cities, but Seattle at the time seemed so insular, and it seemed that everyone on “the scene” either knew or knew of everyone else.  So it was with rapid-i. They spent many nights at local “punk” clubs like WREX or The Gorilla Room playing to near-empty houses., to friends family and others who actually appreciated the music.  Of course the upside to this for any band is that it allows them to practice, to grow and try-out new material to mostly open (if small) audiences. This seemingly negative situation has birthed many of the greatest pop and rock bands of the 20th and 21st century. Even today it’s difficult for friends around the globe to believe that Nirvana’s first Seattle show on April 10, 1988, at the Central Saloon was practically empty.

No one else remembers it,” says Sub-Pop founder Bruce Pavitt “because it was just me, the doorman and about three other people.”

As Nirvana went on to success on their own terms (at least originally) rapid-i certainly had the chops and the good nature to play the more lucrative fraternity-boy filled clubs that abounded in Seattle at the time. Their repertoire included plenty of “accessible” dance-music, but they studiously avoided falling into that “trap”. Oddly enough unapologetically “pop” bands like The Visible Targets and X-15 also avoided playing to drunk, mostly indifferent and rowdy college crowds. As far as The Visible Targets went, they pulled in crowds, but they were far more dedicated to performing their tight, self-written music; and to be honest a band fronted by three attractive sisters would have probably killed any chance of being taken seriously in a club full of horny young students They would be a novelty act that were nothing more than “three hot sisters” despite their musical talent.  On a side note, The Visible Targets were one of the bands that set the stage for the following generation of women involved in the riot grrrl movement.  The Visible Targets’ music wasn’t the same, the lyrics not as political, but the attitude toward being taken seriously certainly was.  It’s interesting to note that the aforementioned Bruce Pavitt took an early interest in The Visible Targets as well as Drew Canulette and Steve Fisk-none of them  known as fans of lightweight pop.  Even the Target’s first EP was recorded in Olympia WA…later the spiritual home of the riot grrl movement.

The odd thing is that rapid-i often attracted fewer audience members, and that even though what they were doing was almost the antithesis of punk, it is probably more punks that saw them in near empty rooms than anyone else. This is not to say they had nothing in common with the punk scene.  It’s also not to say they were underappreciated. Promoters and fans came to see them as solid performers even though it was hard to pigeon-hole what they were doing. It made it difficult to find appropriate opening slots for the great variety of new American and British artists touring at the time.  Bands like Magazine, The Specials, John Cale, The Dead Kennedy’s, Pere Ubu or The Stranglers..all bands that had a high degree of popularity in the Northwest, and had played sold-out concerts in early 1980’s Seattle.  None of the bands mentioned fit into neat pigeonholes either, but  rapid-i wasn’t a logical choice as opening bands, no matter how inventive or oddball the headliners were. So they chose small club shows which in the end didn’t hurt them in any way.  There was one opportunity to play to a large crowd-an all day event at Seattle’s Showbox Theater that went exceedingly well.  The audience was enthusiastic and their set was one of the best of the day.

So how did all of this come to be?

Phil Otto and Dave Ford met at Stanford University. Otto was working on a degree in Cultural Anthropology and Ford says he was “just hanging around”, though it’s hard to believe he was simply a slacker or couch surfer. He is by nature always on the move; always working hard to accomplish what he’s set out to do.  Otto and Ford  joined three fellow students (Jimmy Jett on bas,s Tim Clark on Rhythm Guitar and Dave Latchaw on drums) to form a band called Raw Meat.  Otto took on vocal duties and it’s been reported that even at this early stage (1978) Ford was already a top-notch, inventive and talented guitarist.   The band found an audience on campus and in couple of clubs in Palo Alto.  They also became a part of near-by San Francisco’s burgeoning punk scene, playing famed venues like The Mabuhay Gardens and The Deaf Club. Otto often performed wearing nothing but a black skeleton painted on his body…”I was very devoted to Iggy Pop, that’s all I can say.”

Otto and Ford both agree that their original tastes in music were quite different, with Ford being drawn more toward jazz, the experimental and the mélange of dissimilar sounds coming out of Britain at the time.  Otto’s background in music was more “traditional” but there’s no doubt that he used the best of it while becoming exposed to newer sounds and changed quickly by exposure to punk, reggae, garage rock, etc.  By the time Raw Meat were at their height both Ford and Otto were pretty much in synchmusically.  Although the band was closer to being punk than what we’ve come to know as new wave Dave Ford wrote at the time

“Listening to New Wave is like having a nose job done with a jackhammer during an earthquake in a vat of boiling tar and pig intestines

Just substitute “new wave” for “punk” and you get the idea…especially if you were there.

After Otto graduated from Stanford he headed home to Everett WA and his parent’s home to ponder his next move.  Phil and Dave had made enough of a connection at Stanford that Dave (a native of the Bay Area) followed his buddy north where they both crashed at Phil’s parents house until moving to Seattle, where they decided to continue their musical pursuits.  Those pursuits may have been different than those of Raw Meat, but Seattle at the time was a great place to experiment and invent, whether it was the hardcore punk of The Fartz or the incredibly dense and near incomprehensible barrage of Audio Leter (yes, that’s spelled correctly).

Having decided to form a new band Dave and Phil put a “musicians wanted” ad in The Rocket, Seattle’s all-around chronicler of the music scene.  The two were incredibly fortunate when a fellow named Jerry Frink turned up.  Jerry was a great drummer, but his real talent was in his mastery of all forms of percussion, whether it be congas, bongos, bell trees, marimbas or just about anything else he could hit or strike in perfect unison.  The greatest-and probably most unexpected instrument he brought into the mix was the timbale….not an instrument normally found in punk or no-wave music-outside the Contortions, perhaps…but still not a featured instrument by any means

The addition of a stand-alone percussionist offered a broad array of directions, but the band would still need a drummer behind a full kit.  Terry Pollard, a drummer who’d studied music theory but with little live experience showed up on the recommendation of Bryan Runnings who was then running The Gorilla Room on Second Avenue.  Pollard admits he didn’t have a musical agenda.  He was ready to play just about any genre as long as it presented a challenge…why waste that music theory degree?  The other three were open to jazz, funk, Caribbean, African, rock and punk themes, and as they wrote new songs they took advantage of all those sounds, as well as bit of  musique concrète ala John Cage.  Despite delving into some serious musical territory there was always a sheen of fun encapsulating everything the band played. Self-seriousness was never a part of the show.

In late 1980 rapid-i went into American Music studios to record four songs for a projected EP.  Songs included “New Style”, “Each Second (both featured here) as well as “Misinformation” and “Hungry People“.  The two tracks here are less angular and more traditionally structured than both “Misinformation” and “Hungry People”, but there’s no doubt the other two tracks are plenty of fun with odd (changing) time signatures and plenty of clanging (but not annoying) guitar laid over an inventive rhythm section, and of course, plenty of quirky percussion fills by Jerry Frink.

Unfortunately the EP was not released at the time, and the tapes were forgotten,  They finally saw the light of day in 2013, and were released as a digital download on dadastic! sounds along with an extended mix of the title song “New Style”  The EP is widely available at almost all internet download and streaming services.  Take a chance!

Shortly after the EP’s recording rapid-i called it quits.  Ford was ready to go back to the Bay Area and pursue a career in journalism.  He became a contributor for The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Francisco Bay Guardian.  He also became a yoga instructor a vocation he still takes part in.  By all accounts he’s a pretty good teacher.  His students love him and the quirky sense of humor he has always shared has made many of his students actually enjoy yoga! Dave is currently living in Tampa Florida.  He still plays occasional gigs and records.

After the dissolution of rapid-i Phil Otto formed the band Steddi-5 along with Student Nurse drummer John Rogers, guitarist Tim Clark, Saxophonist David Fischer and Corinne Mah on vocals.  The band had a brief but successful career in Seattle, and in 1983 their song “Fame or Famine” was included in The Seattle Syndrome Volume II compilation.  The song featured Jack Weaver on trumpet.  Jack was the original owner of Triangle Studio, which would later be made famous when Jack Endino took it over as Reciprocal Recording.

After their break-up Rogers would continue to play in Student Nurse and self-produce his weirdo-pop solo project “Sunworm”  Tim Clark had been a member of The Hurricanes, although it’unclear if he continued with the band.  Corinne Mah, would return to British Columbia where she was born. David Fisher continued to lend a hand in several productions by Marc Barreca (formerly of Young Scientist).

Otto took a job teaching on the east coast, but soon found himself back in the Bay Area, where as his profile as the head of his Otto Design Group says;
“Philip has been designing innovative systems for retail and living for over 20 years — beginning with his work at the Headlands Center for the Arts crafting spaces for artists Ann Hamilton, Andres Serrano and David Ireland. With a degree from Stanford in Cultural Anthropology, an MA in Human Development from Pacific Oaks College and MFA from San Francisco Art Institute — Phil brings a uniquely humanistic approach to all of his work — creating truly memorable environments and experiences for clients all over the globe”.

Jerry Frink and Terry Pollard went on to co-found The Beat Pagodas along with Terry’s brother Tim on vocals, Stanford Filarca (previously of The Spectators), and Steve Homman and Chris Anderson (besides Jerry and Terry) on various drums and percussion and vocals. The band became very successful on the Seattle club circuit, and never failed to point out that the entire band were percussionists except for Filarca who played bass. so their rallying cry became “no guitar!” Their shows were kinetic, full of dedicated abandonment and driven by controlled chaos.  The Beat Pagoda’s only released one EP on Left Coast Records in 1984.were, like rapid-i a complete anomaly among Seattle’s then crop of  rock bands-perhaps the same can be argued even today.  It’s  certain there have never been Seattle bands that brought across such joy in the decades since.  After all is said and done the gloom and doom that became so fashionable in the late 80s and early 90s “grunge” era there was a parallel universe of fun, unabashed dancing and the pull of the avant garde in Seattle’s early to mid 80s scene.  We still need bands like rapid-I to remind us in the joy of both the avant garde and the mundane.  Most of all we could all use a respite from the seriousness of our times.

 

 

-Dennis R. White, Sources; Dave Ford (interview with the author, September 9, 2017); Philip Otto (interview with the author, September 19, 2017); Terry Pollard (interview with the author, September 20, 2017); “rapid-I New Style” dadastic.blogspot.com, retrieved December 29, 2017); Dave Seminara “Chasing Kurt Cobain in Washington State” (New York Times, March 25, 2014); Dave Ford “A Mabuhay Punker Spills His Wisdom” (The Stanford Daily, 18 May 1978); “Philip H. Otto, Primary” (ottodesigngroup.com, retrieved December 29, 2017)  Raw Meat -78″ (collegeband.com, retrieved December 29, 2017) 

Billy Tipton

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

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

”Did your father ever have a sex change?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to author Francesca Susannah;

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

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

Francesca Susannah goes on to write;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Since Billy’s death he’s been memorialized with

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

Edmonia Jarrett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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