Northwest Music History: Soul

Gail Harris, The Fabulous Wailers and Spanish Castle Magic

Gail Harris was a seasoned pro by the time she first appeared with Tacoma’s Fabulous Wailers at the age of 13.  By 1959 Tacoma’s Fabulous Wailers had made it as a regional powerhouse as well as made their national mark.  Their first single, the instrumental “Tall Cool One” b/w Roadrunner (released in June of 1959) had made the Billboard charts at number 36. Shortly after “Long Cool One” fell off the charts the band released a second single, Mau-Mau b/w Dirty Robber. (August 1959). They’d made an appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and on The Allen Freed Show, and done a tour of the East Coast.

In December of 1959 Golden Crest  released an album to capitalize on their success.  The album was simply named ‘The Fabulous Wailers”. Golden Crest was eager to have the band relocate to New York City, but the band declined (probably under orders of their parents) and returned to the Northwest.  Golden Crest soon lost interest in promoting them even though they were still under contract with the label. Golden Crest would eventually drop them but their contract would, for the immediate future create some problems.

Shortly after returning to the Northwest the band took on a new singer and frontman,”Rockin’ RobinRoberts (Lawrence Fewell Roberts II). Roberts had previously worked with another Tacoma band, ‘Little Bill and The Bluenotes”. Along with Rockin’ Robin” Roberts came dissension. Roberts had pushed for a souped-up version of a song written in 1956 by  Richard Berry. The song  Roberts was pushing  for, Louie Louie  was originally inspired by the song “El Loco Cha Cha” written by Cuban-American René Touzet.  It had been a popular song performed live in the 1950s by Ricky Rillera and the Rhythm Rockers in Southern California while Berry was sitting in with The Rhythm Rockers for some time before he created Louie Louie around the “El Loco’s” lead riff.  Berry later said;

“I took some Latin, some calypso, some pop, threw it all in and came up with ‘Louie Louie’.

It was decided in order to get by The Wailers’ contract with the now disinterested Golden Crest, Louie Louie would be released under the artist name “Rockin’ Robin” Roberts even though the recording would actually be recorded by The Wailers.  Buck Ormsby has claimed that Gail Harris also took part of The Wailers final arrangement of Louie Louie.  The band rightly assumed that listeners and DJ’s would know the song was actually The Wailers despite whoever the label said the artist was. However this didn’t set well with guitarist John Greek and he was promptly dismissed by The Wailers and replaced by John “Buck” Ormsby, another recent member of The Bluenotes.  Buck Ormsby has also credited Gail Harris in helping arrange Louie Louie

The band had a plan for how they should move forward, but without a record label no one believed they could succeed, and would probably fall into oblivion. During a meeting in late summer of 1960 the band came up with a solution. The band would form their own label and self-release their records.  Although thousands of small labels were  thriving throughout the US, not many actually belonged to the bands themselves.  Not every one of The Wailers could afford to take part in the scheme so Ormsby, Roberts and  Morrill financed this very risky project in an equal partnership. They chose the name Etiquette.

The Wailers had begun as an instrumental band (like many of the original NW Sound artists) but with the addition of Rockin’ Robin Roberts they set out to imitate the R&B “revues” that were popular at the time…one band backing several featured singers.  Obviously the main attraction was “Rockin’ Robin” but soon the band added a “girl singer” from Puyallup, Gail Harris.  Harris had appeared on The Bar-Kay Jamboree, a weeky show hosted by Buck Owens  and aired simultaneously on radio KAYE and KTNT TV.  Buck’s regular band (The Bar-K Gang) included Don Rich who would become Owen’s best friend and one of the architects of the Bakersfield Sound, Dusty Rhodes and a young guitarist named Nokie Edwards.  Gail Harris was a regular guest. Some of the Bar-K’s other guests included Don Wilson and Bob Bogle (then known as The Versatones) Nancy Claire, who would become the most sought-after guest singer in the Northwest, and Loretta Lynn in her first television appearances.  Later Nokie Edwards would leave Buck’s band and join Don Wilson and Bob Bogle to form The Ventures.  Zero Records would find Lynn through Buck’s show and release Loretta’s first hit, “Whispering Sea” b/w“I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” in March of 1960. “Whispering Sea” didn’t get much traction, but the b-side “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl” hit number 14 in the country charts, and as they say,  Loretta became an overnight success after years of hard work in postage stamp sized venues, and travelling and sleeping in the car with her husband , Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn.  They tried to hit every radio station and every interview they could find.  Much of her eventual success came down to selling her record out of the back of their car.

Buck Owens wanted Gail Harris to become a regular member of his “gang” but Harris’s first love was R&B and she was already pursuing her dreams diligently practicing her favorite R&B artists and honing her stage presence at home.  From the beginning of her 2-3 year stint with The Wailers she must have blown the bobby socks and tenny-runners off every largely teen-aged audiences.   Gail could be compared to both Little Brenda Lee with the clarity of her voice and occassional growl, and the growl of Tina Turner and her occassional clarity.  Gail’s love of R&B made the Ike and Turner 1960 hit “I Idolize You” one of her signature songs, and blew the house down every time she performed it-or just about any other soul/R&B song she sang.

It didn’t hurt that Gail Harris also looked well beyond her actual age and could be just as demure as her ravaging onstage singing.  Her version of “I Idolize You” would show up later of The Wailers groundbreaking live album, “The Fabulous Wailers at The Castle” The live album is one of the NW Sound/garage rock’s most important albums and set high standards that other bands would try to emulate-but not quite get to. The album also included her interpretation of the Jimmy Davis penned  “All I Could Do Was Cry” that had been made famous by Etta James.  The performance was rounded out with four numbers sung by “Rockin Robin” Roberts and two by Kent Morrill.  The album (recorded by Joe Boles and produced by Ormsby, Morrill and promoter/DJ/entreprenuer Pat O’Day) was an immediate  regional hit when it was released.

“The Castle” in the title of the album referred to is the long-gone Spanish Castle (demolished in 1968)  It’s also the inspiration of Jimi Hendrix’s “Spanish Castle Magic”. The Spanish Castle had been built as a gaudy, illuminated, faux-crenelated roadhouse and dance hall built in 1931.  It had seen many swing and jazz bands in it’s earlier years-especially at the height of it’s popularity in the 1940s; but by the late 50’s it had also been a home for teen dances. One might even wonder if Hendrix was there the night the Wailers recording was made.  It’s been reported by many that The Wailers was, at the time, Jimi’s favorite local band and Rich Dangle was his favorite guitarist.   In fact a young Hendrix had even played several times on the Castle’s stage.  According to Northwest music historian Peter Blecha, in the mid-80s Pat O’Day told him;

… Jimmy would come out to the Spanish Castle and would bring his Gibson amplifier with him. And, people were always blowing amplifiers [back] then. And bands would only carry one or two amplifiers. So one night, I forget who was playing — I think it was the Checkmates who blew their amp — and Jimmy’s deal was: It was his amp: He got to play on stage. So, he’s on the side of the stage and he played his axe”

Other acts that were booked into the Spanish Castle were Gene Vincent ,Johnny Burnette, Roy Orbison, and Jan and Dean, Jerry Lee Lewis, as well as dozens of other local and national bands making their way up the ladder.

One other act to record a classic live recording at The Spanish Castle was Ernest Tubb and The Texas Troubadors. The performance was caught on tape one night in September 1965 by former Texas Troubador, Jan Kurtis Skugstad. Tubb had given the engineer/producer permission to record the show even though Tubb was then under contract with Decca Records. Tubb asked Skugstad to be “discreetwith the tapes. Skugstad had founded his own label, Camelot Records in 1964, but did not release the tapes.  In fact, Skugstad held onto the tapes until long after Tubb’s death in 1984 and they finally saw the light of day in 1998.  They are a remarkable artifact of country music and northwest  history.

But it’s here that we return to the story of Gail Harris.  Because of her popularity she eventually became a “permanent” member of The Wailers-inasmuch as the ever-changing line-up could have any “permanent members” outside the core players. A trio of backup singers (Marilyn Lodge, Penny Anderson and Kay Rogers) were hired to back Gail up. The trio were known as “The Marshans.” According to one of the trio, Marylyn Lodge

Pat O’Day actually named us. He thought we needed a name that would be remembered and that would be great to introduce: ‘and here they are, the fabulous MarSHANS!’ But I can’t tell you how many times it was pronounced MARshans (as in Martians)!

However their name was pronounced (or mispronounced) they became a popular addition to The Wailers “revue”. The Mar SHANS had originally been inspired by Ike and Tina Turner’s Ikettes, but the world of teen dances would never allow the sexuality (or state of undress) of The Ikettes. The Marshans were far more sedate.

Gail also recorded a single of her own in 1961. It was Etiquette’s third single “Be My Baby” b/w “So Much”. The A-side was written by Fabulous Wailer Kent Morrill, and not a cover of the song later popularized by The Ronettes-which, by the way, wasn’t even released until 1964.

Finally in late 1962 Gail left the Wailers in pursuit of a solo career. She changed her name’s spelling to “Gayle” and in 1963 she cut a single for Carlton Records (“”).   It didn’t create sparks, but Billboard magazine gave “Hurt” four stars.  Another single for Carlton was “released in September (“They Never Taught That At School” b/w “Don’t Make The Angels Cry”  did well regionally and Billboard said;

“Here’s one of the best sides from the label in a good spell. It’s a good rocking teen groover with much of the Detroit sound about it and the lyric packs a wallop. Action already indicated in the West, and it could take off everywhere…”

Despite Billboard’s hopeful prediction “Here Comes The Hurt” didn’t pick up elsewhere, although in the last couple of decades the song has re-emerged and been included in several 60s, and “girl group” compilations. Gayle found her way to a San Francisco and came to the attention of arranger/producer Don Costa.  Costa had an impressive C.V. Starting as a side-musician in New York City, Costa eventually worked up to the position of arranger for Steve Lawrence and his wife, Eydie Gormé.  Soon he found himself as head of A&R and house arranger at ABC  Records.  His first big launch was a young Canadian singer by the name of Paul Anka. In 1959 Costa and Steve and Eydie moved over to United Artists Records where he continued to arrange for the couple, but was also carving out his own place as a recording act. Apart from his arranging skills, Costa was a guitarist. In 1956 and ‘57 he released two 45s on ABC-Paramount using the alias “Muvva “Guitar” Hubbard. His first release was “Ponytail” was an R&B instrumental. b/w “Congo Mombo”His second release was a cover of “Raunchy” originally recorded by Bill Justis. The b-side was appropriately named “The Other Side”. Apart from his arranging skills, His 1960 version of the Manos Hatzidakis penned “Never On A Sunday” (originally known as “Ta paidia tou Peiraia” in Greek) sold over one million copies.  The Melina Mercouri version may be better known to the public, but it was Costa’s version that outsold all others.

In 1961 Frank Sinatra asked Costa to arrange his album “Sinatra and Strings”. (released in 1962). The album was filled with standards like Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” andAll or Nothing at All” by Jack Lawrence and Arthur Altman. The album became hugely popular among Sinatra fans as well as the public in general. Eventually Sinatra would hire Costa away from Steve and Eydie as an arranger and took Costa on as his producer as well.  Don Costa then formed his own company (Don Costa Productions) and started working with artists as diverse as Trini Lopez, and Little Anthony and The Imperials.  Don Costa also continued  to work with Sinatra. Don would go on to conduct Sinatra’s orchestra until he had a heart attack during one of Sinatra’s Las Vegas performances.  Costa recuperated, but did not return to the draining job of conducting for Sinatra…but he was not ready to quit. Costa would go on to produce and arrange for Mike Curb Productions.  His later successes included production for The Osmonds, Sammy Davis Jr. and Petula Clark, Sinatra, Paul Anka. In fact Costa ended up producing 553 albums and arranging or writing 953 songs.

Somewhere along the way Costa also found  time to become a father.  His daughter, Nikka Costa would go on to be a performer in her own right.  Father and daughter would work on several projects, that included a duet with Don Ho,when she was only five years old and Nikka singing along with her father on the album “Don Costa Plays the Beatles”. She sang at The Whitehouse with Sinatra, but Nikka’s most famous childhood hit was 1981’s “Out Here By Myself” (from the film Fame) at age 10. The single sold over three million copies. Shortly after her biggest hit, her father, Don Costa died from a second heart attack.  Fortunately, Nikka Costa managed to parlay her child stardom into adult success by crossing over to funk and R&B.

Don Costa “discovered” Gayle Harris one night when she was booked into the Galaxy Club in San Francisco.  He signed her to his production company almost immediately and  started handling her career.  With it came more “adult” bookings rather than the teen-dances Gail had been used to.   One of her most prestigious dates came at The Playboy Club in Los Angeles where she did a stint opening for African-American singer Adam Wade. Wade was popular throughout the 1960s for his smooth, jazz-tinged voice.  In 1959 he had his first success with a song called “Ruby” b/w “Too Far”, the a-side being a cover of the hit movie song from 1953. In 1960 three of Wade’s singles managed to make it into the Billboard top 10; Take Good Care of Her” b/w “Sleepy Time Gal” reached number 7, and “As If I Didn’t Know” b/w “Playin’ Around” peaked at number 10 and “The Writing on the Wall” b/w “Point of No Return” made it to number 5.

Whatever one may think of Hugh Hefner and his magazine one thing is very clear; Hefner was a dedicated supporter of civil rights throughout his adult life. In 1959, he helped organize the Playboy Jazz Festival, which included performances from black and white  musicians like Dizzie Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson and Jack Teagarden. The  profits went in part to the NAACP. Later festivals would proudly continue to feature black and white musicians sharing the stage. The first interview published in Playboy was with jazz great Miles Davis and was written by an up-and-coming  black journalist called Alex Haley. The magazine also published interviews with prominent black figures such as Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Hefner was not afraid to have African-Americans and Latino entertainers play his clubs. He hired a bevy of Black women to work as “bunnies” and his clubs-even his television show “Playboy Penthouse”-were integrated.  It wasn’t unusual to see mixed race “party guests” on his television show. So Gayle Harris was thrown into this milleu.  It was probably an atmosphere she appreciated because back in the Northwest the teen dance scene was largely segregated.  Gail had deep admiration for the Black women singers and belters of the late 50s and early 1960s-as did many participating in the Northwest Sound.  After all, the basis of most Northwest Sound artists had been admiration of R&B since the beginning. In 1965

Don Costa had Gayle cut a promo single (“Ain’t Gonna Let Me Down” b/w “Here I Go Again”) for his label DCP International.  Once more.  The sides were great, but Costa chose not to release the single.

In the mid 60’s Gayle was introduced to Arlin Harmon, then woking with a dynamic outfit called The Big Beats. The introduction probably involved Don Costa, since The Big Beats had originally played as “Trini Lopez and His Big Beats”, though Lopez would leave to pursue a solo career after only one album, Costa continued to producer..  Harmon had been the featured vocalist on one of the Big Beats singles (“Out of The Picture” b/w “The Work Song” ) and as a member of The Big Beats on another seminal live album “The Big Beats LIVE! At The Off-Broadway” recorded in San Francisco in 1965 where they’d  found a large audience. The Big Beats were also known as one of the best bands of the 60s and 70s in Las Vegas. The two married in 1967 and worked together, travelling the country with Arlin’s bands.  They later returned to the Northwest to work as “Gail and Arlin…Gail had reverted to the original spelling of her name.  Harmon would later join James King & The Southsiders. While Gail pursued a career in music. Gail and Arlin had more in common than music.  They also shared a love of Harley-Davidsons.  They spent plenty of time on their bikes and even occassionally showed up on their Hogs and in their leathers. While Gayle was spending  time in San Francisco during the 60s she had trained with the vocal coach Judy Davis at her Oakland studio.  Davis was often referred to as “The Vocal Coach To The Stars” for having clients as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand. Grace Slick and Country Joe McDonald. Davis was an expert in the physiology of sound projection.  She was well-known for her method of teaching vocalists to breathe properly and to strengthen their vocal cords so they may project and control their sound. Davis had conjured up a method of vocal training that is still used around the world.

Actually, I’m just a vocal plumber,”Ms. Davis told The San Francisco Chronicle in 1995, when she received a Lifetime Achievement award at the Bammies-awards given by BAM magazine (now the California Music Award). I fix pipes.”she added.

This training was not only useful in Gayle’s vocation, it also brought opportunities to work with musical artists such as Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, and Frank Sinatra Jr. among others.  For many years Gayle has been a vocal coach based out of Tacoma and still incorporates lessons she learned from Judy Davis. Gail Harris has taken part in the occasional Wailers get-togethers, most notably in the 1980s.  But with the passing of Buck Ormsby (on his 75th birthday in 2016) while in Mexico, none of the original members remain.  Ron Gardner died in 1992. Richard Dangel died of an aneurysm in 2002. John Greek died in 2006, Mark Marush in 2007, and Kent Morrill died of cancer on 15 April 2011. Perhaps the most tragic death of any one of the Wailers was that of “Rockin’ Robin” Roberts who  died at the age of 27. Roberts was killed in a head-on collision after leaving a night club celebration on December 22, 1967. He was a passenger in a car traveling the wrong way on the Interstate , just south of San Francisco.  He was killed on impact. Gail Harris remains one of the brightest stars of the early Northwest Sound.  She went on to work in music the rest of her life (up until now) had a wonderful and exciting marriage to Arlin Harmon who died in 2014. She is deeply loved by her fans and friends throughout the world.

Any additions or corrections are welcomed.

 

 

-Dennis R. White. Sources; “Don Costa Biography”,”Space Age Musicmaker”. Retrieved December 12. 2017); Singles Reviews (Billboard Magazine, September 21, 1963); Shannon McCarthy “Nikka Costa Biography” (musicianguide.com, retrieved December 10. 2017); Buck Ormsby “Etiquette Records-The Short Story” (etiquette.com, retrieved December 10, 2017); Peter Blecha “Etiquette Rules! The Northwest’s Reigning ’60s Garage-Rock Record Company” ( April 10. 2009, HistoryLink.org. Essay 8947); Eileen Sisk “Buck Owens: The Biography” (Chicago Review Press, 2010); Gail Harris (Learning Musician.com, retrieved December 12, 2017); Jesse Hamlin “Judy Davis of Oakland-Vocal Coach To Stars” (The San Francisco Chronical, January 31, 2001);”I Don’t Jump Rattlesnakes No More” (afflictor.com, November 13, 2017); Tim Sendra “One Kiss Can Lead To Another: Girl Group Sounds, Lost and Found” (AllMusic.com, retrieved December 10.2017); Buck Ormsby “The Marshans” (etiquette .com, retrieved December 10, 2017); Peter Blecha “Music In Washington: Seattle and Beyond” (Arcadia Press, November 7, 2007); “Don Costa” (Space Age Music Maker. Spaceageop.com, retrieved December 10. 2017); “The Fabulous Wailers” (bands.fogcity1.com/THEFABULOUSWAILERS/index.php/home, retrieved December 10, 2017); Arlin Harmon 1945-2014: Musical Memorial (https://www.facebook.com/JazzbonesTacoma/ retrieved December 12, 2017): “The Wailers” (PNW Bands, pnwbands.com/wailers.html, retrieved December 8. 2017); Cub Coda “The Fabulous Wailers at The Castle” (AllMusic.com, retrieved December 8, 2017); Russell Webster “The Fabulous Wailers at The Castle” (Gaslight Records, gaslightrecords.com/reviews/albums/the-wailers-the-fabulous-wailers-at-the-castle, retrieved December 8, 2017;  PNW Bands “The Spanish Castle” pnwbands.com/spanishcastle , retrieved December 8, 2017); Jan Kurtis Skugstad “Ernest Tubb Live 1965” (Camelot Media, www.camelotmedia.com/ernest.html, retrieved December 8, 2017); John Broven “The Wailers” (Golden Crest www.johnbroven.com/goldencrest/wailers.html retrieved  December 8, 2017)

Nancy Claire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Pat Wright and The Total Experience Gospel Choir

Since it’s formation in 1973 the Total Experience Gospel Choir has travelled the nation and across the globe, from the Far East to Europe to Russia and a lot of places in between.  Under the tutelage of Pastor Pat Wright, the Total Experience Gospel Choir has  journeyed to Japan where they not only presented their ministry through song, but also delivered supplies to victims of the Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami who had taken refuge  in Ishinomaki, Japan. In 2006 the Total Experience Gospel Choir also travelled to Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi to help victims of Hurricane Katrina and to rebuild and refurbish homes for hurricane victims in Gulfport, Mississippi.

Pat Wright was honored for her and the choir’s efforts by ABC News World News Tonight.  In May of 2007 she was named one of that month’s Person of the Week, and later in a broadcast on December 27 2007, Pat was declared one of 2007’s “Persons of the Year”. It’s clear that the choir is not only one of the Northwest’s greatest musical assets, they spread their ministry through music, and actual, on-the-ground help.

Aside from performing for President Bill Clinton and President Obama,  the Total Experience Gospel Choir have been featured at prestigious venues from the Sydney Opera House to The Mormon Tabernacle.  Even though they’ve been ambassadors around the world, and won many prestigious awards, it’s clear the Pastor Wright’s greatest mission is to the uplifting of her own community, here in Seattle.

Pat Wright was born Patrinell Staten in Odessa Texas as one of eight children.  Her father was a Baptist preacher and her mother taught school.  Both parents urged her to pursue a career in gospel music.  Having started to sing at an early age, Pat performed her first solo at the age of 3 and by the time she was 14 Pat had taught herself to play piano and was directing two choirs in her father’s church.  Her parents saw to it Pat grew up in the church, but education also played an important part in her upbringing.  Pat graduated as valedictorian of her high school class (Turner High School, 1961)  and later attended Prairie View A&M College just north of Houston TX.

Pat first arrived in Seattle in October of 1964 to help her sister, who was then going through a divorce.  Her intention was to be of assistance to her sister, and then move back home.  She later explained her plan to return to Carthage, but then discovered she could make $7 a week in Seattle compared to $3 back home.  She chose to throw her lot in and remain.

At the time Pat moved to Seattle, the nation was embroiled in the Civil Rights struggle.  Pat had felt the sting of segregation and discrimination back in Texas, and on her bus trip from Carthage to Seattle.  In 2014 Pat told local Seattle (and PBS) TV presenter Enrique Cerna:

“The bus ride took about four days. Being the only African American and the only female on the bus for the last 2500 miles was quite an experience. When she finally got to Seattle, after having survived just about every abuse on that long ride, she wanted to get back on the bus and go home. “But I’ve always had a bulldog tendency,” she admitted. “I decided to stay. The lessons I needed to survive…gave me a backbone that won’t quit.”, they’ve always told me that. And I decided that I was going to stay. But it was a very hard time for me because it was at the height of the civil rights movement, and I had participated in the civil rights movement personally, because I was in college at the time. A small college, A&M, now university…”

Having decided to stay in Seattle, Pat naturally gravitated toward the church and to gospel music in general.  Her sister lived in Renton, but regularly visited a church in Seattle. On one of their trips into Seattle to attend church one Sunday Pat says she heard music coming from a church across the street. The church she was sitting in must have bored her and she was drawn to the other church.  She walked across the street and entered the church.   “I remember stumbling over somebody’s feet trying to get a seat because the place was pretty packed. And that somebody happened to end up being my husband” Benny Wright who became a preacher in his own right, has always been critical in Pat’s Total Experience Gospel Choir and her other endeavors. Benny also became teacher and football coach at Seattle’s Franklin High School and also served as head chaplain for the King County Youth Detention Facility in Seattle.  Both his and Pat’s ministry have always revolved around helping at-risk youth.

Pat says she always knew the ministry was her calling, but for a brief period she walked away in order to pursue a more secular side of her life.  She says she briefly gave up gospel back in the late ‘60s. “Actually decided I was tired of gospel, so I was going to try my hand at soul music.”

As music historian and author Peter Blecha wrote in 2013:

“In 1969 Wright was discovered singing in church by a recent Louisiana transplant, LaVera Clark, who took Wright under her wing, telling the songbird, as Wright recalled years later, “A voice like yours — the world needs to hear it and they’re not gonna hear it in church. They are not going to church to hear it! … Especially in Seattle” 

The two began composing songs together and then making test recordings in Clark’s little home studio (2407 E Boston Avenue). Clark then matched the singer with a previously existing group, the Blenders, and they re-emerged as Patrinell and the Casanovas. Clark, who wanted to promote rhythm and blues music locally, then formed her own Sepia Records company to do so. After a trip to Vancouver, B.C., to record a few songs, Sepia released a single — “I Let a Good Man Go”b/w”Little Love Affair” (Sepia Records No. 8201). By September, Seattle’s soul station, KYAC, began pumping it up to hit status locally”.

The pressing on Sepia Records was small, but that didn’t stop it from being a regional R&B hit…but the story of Pat’s foray into R&B and soul goes much deeper.  We’ll leave that story to a seprate, future post.

By 1970 Pat had been hired by the Seattle School district to lead a class in gospel music at Roosevelt High in the north end of the city. Pat initially led what was known as The Franklin High School Gospel Choir.  It was later known as The Black Experience Gospel Choir  The Seattle School District hired Wright to teach and conduct gospel music.  She also began work at radio station KYAC as a DJ playing a gospel music program that lasted 13 years.  She had begun her own gospel group, Patrinell Wright’s Inspirational Seven.  The Inspirational Seven were guests of churches around town as well as taking part in organized events in support of the still simmering racial divide in the US and as a way to support self-determination among the black community at large, drives to fight sickle-cell anemia and to help raise funds for KYAC among other causes.

After two years teaching gospel choir at Roosevelt High, funds for her program dried up and Pat was left without a day job.  But this set-back proved to be the birth of Pat’s Total Experience Gospel Choir.  She began taking the lessons she’d learned in her gospel background, her secular experience and her ministry to young people through music.   In the process she created one of Seattle’s longest-running musical outfits, based on Pastor Wright’s determination to help kids in her community.   She wanted to offer a safe, positive environment at-risk youth could escape to, and allow them to take part in the world outside their own neighborhoods.

Soon after forming the Total Exerience Gospel Choir it swelled to over 100 students that she’d brought along from Roosevelt High and the Mount Zion Baptist Church. Soon Pat opened the choir to non-students and people of all ethnic background and race, even though the thrust of her work remained her ministering to black youth as well as other communities of color.

One of the most remarkable aspects of  The Total Experience Gospel Choir is that there are no auditions in order to be a member.  From the beginning Pat seemed to take the position “if you can’t sing, come on down-we’ll teach you”.  Despite causing the Choir to become chaotic and unfocused, the opposite occurred-Pat’s Choir began to win awards and honors both in the Northwest and around the nation-and beyond.  The Total Experience Gospel Choir would become one of America’s most famous and most beloved Choirs in the country.  With more recognition the Total Experience Gospel Choir were able to raise the money it takes to take a large-scale choir on the road-both within the US and outside.  The Choir has won numerous awards and traveled to 38 states and performed on five continents in 28 countries at last tally.  They have been welcomed with open arms everywhere they’ve gone.

Pat worked ceaselessly and seemed capable of juggling the tasks to run the choir, to continue in her own ministry, plan tours, raise money, become a soloist in her own right, and finally to open and run her own store-front church.  Granted, Pat relied on volunteers, but even the co-ordination of volunteers took a great deal of energy.

Eventually disaster-or divine intervention-came into Pat’s life.  On March 18, 2001 Pastor Pat Wright was struck by a heart attack.  Pat believes she died that day, but God sent her back to continue her work and her ministry.  Pat had been born with a hole in her heart, but her family had no money for doctors growing up, and the condition went unknown until a medical examination when Pat was 23 years old.

Once healed from her brush with death, Pat went back to her hectic schedule-and also became an ambassador for the American Heart Association.  In 2006 she told Seattle Times reporter Nicole Brodeur that sometimes her colleagues feel uncomfortable when she speaks of divine intervention and the gates of heaven.

“They don’t think faith should be a part of it,” she said of her survival story. “But how could it not be?”

As the Choir began to become more well-respected Pat recognized the need to bring of all ethnicities into the choir. This particularly hit home because, as she says, she grew up in the South where mixed marriage-at least during her youth-was very uncommon.  As Seattle became more enlightened she noticed more and more children of mixed-ethnicity were becoming members of the Choir. She realized that they (and others) deserved to learn about their heritage no matter how Caucasian they might look.  Besides, both Caucasian and kids-of-color were facing the same temptations and dangers.

Pat had also opened more opportunities for adults to take part.  A good deal of them were white and they still remain an important part of the Total Experience Gospel Choir-both those who are married to people of color, and those who have married within their own ethnicity. But the goal she’s always worked toward is improving the lot in life of at-risk kids…who are more often found in the African-American community  This is an attitude Caucasian and mixed ethnicity adults in the Choir also share.

The 1990’s and early 2000s saw the Total Experience Gospel Choir attract more and more attention and these years may possibly be the most successful of the choirs mission to date.  Although Pat remained dedicated to her gospel roots she would make a very unusual move in during the early 2000s..  Seattle-based Light In The Attic records released the album Wheedle’s Groove: Seattle’s Finest In Funk & Soul 1965-75 in 2004.  The album included artists who had been involved in the early Seattle Sound that developed in the late 1950s and into the 1960s.  Pat Wright’s only soul single (I let a Good Man Go b/w Little Love Affair) was included in the boxed set of newly pressed 7″ singles.  A  reunion show and the release of the album was so well-received that almost immediately a follow-up album was planned.  This newer release would include artists that had previously worked with one of the Northwest’s most important studio engineers, Kearney Barton.  Barton had been instrumental in developing the Northwest Sound by recording The Wailers, The Ventures, The Sonics, The Fleetwoods, The Frantics, Quincy Jones, Dave Lewis, The Kingsmen and other artists that were responsible for establishing a regional sound that was every bit as important as the “grunge” coming out of Seattle in the 1990s.   Paricipants in the new recordings did both originals and covers of current music.  The tracks were recorded at Barton’s original studio, Audio Sounds, and fittingly as analog recordings.

Pat Wright and the Total Experience Gospel Choir chose the most audacious song of the collection on what would be released under the title Wheedle’s Groove: Kearney Barton.  Their choice was a cover of Soundgarden’s Jesus Christ Pose.  Despite the title, Jesus Christ Pose was a secular piece of rock music that was critical of celebrities, private and public figures that used religion in a false show self-aggrandizement.  In short, it was critical of those who used religion as a hammer.  In an incredible turnabout Pat and the Choir turned the tables on the meaning of the song.  The point Pat was making was equally critical, but it was aimed at Christians believing themselves better than others, rather than the pretention of celebrities trying to criticize religion itself.  Pat and the Total Experience Gospel Choir managed to turn what might be thought of as a cynical and non-religious song into a warning against intolerance and self-importance.  Reports at the time indicated that the members of Soundgarden liked Pat’s rendition.  It’s such a powerful version that it’s hard not to like!  It clearly impressed music fans that had not given gospel music much of a listen.  The performance was roundly praised by critics as the finest song in the fine collection found on the album.

Shortly after it’s release in 2009 Pat Wright told Dave Segal of The Stranger:

“I was asked to put my own personality on it. I thought that the music was great. Soundgarden is a very powerful group. I was already working with the gentleman [Matt Cameron] who played drums for them… on another project. So I felt very comfortable doing it. And besides, the words of the song epitomize what I try to say in my sermons and the way I live my life. [Light In the Attic Records] said, ‘You can put a little gospel twist on it.’ Well, I’m a gospel singer and a minister and a pastor, so therefore I put my little twist on it.”

For the last few years Pat Wright has continued to work with the Total Experience Gospel Choir, taking their ministry of song around the country, and lending a practical hand where they see they’re needed.  Pastor Benny Wright has retired…a few years ago he had knee surgery.  Pat continues to be the whirlwind she’s always been, but has had to slow down a bit.  As of this writing (September 2017) she is working on a new album and continues to solo with the choir.  Aside from their usual appearances the Choir has backed up artists as diverse as Barry Manilow and Dave Matthews.  The majority of the current members of the Total Experience Gospel Choir are adults that have grown up in the Choir, or joined within the past decade or two.  Sadly, gospel music has fallen out of fashion among younger people these days, and the black community’s roots in the church have become less important.  But gospel music lives on despite it’s adversities….another total experience in the history of blacks in America.  It is certain to make a renewal, the more that people understand it’s importance in itself, and to pop music.

Many music fans today ignore gospel music, probably because of it’s roots in Christianity.  But the fact is that most of the great R&B and Soul artists of the past and present have deep roots in gospel and in the church.  It was the secularization of the lyrics, not the music of gospel that gave rise to artists like Aretha Franklin, The Winans, James Brown, Ben E. King, Otis Redding, George Clinton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and a host of other widely vaying artists.  Even the Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson has an important place in the development of popular music.  It was Mahalia, more than anyone that brought gospel music into American homes through TV and radio.  If you’re one of those who feel turned-off by religious music, have a listen to any good gospel choir.  Let the sound and the passion roll over you.  You will soon find yourself tapping to the music and experiencing the communal joy that gospel brings.  At the very least Pat Wright and The Total Experience Gospel Choir deserve a listen.  You might just see them for what they are; an important, but too-often overlooked part of Northwest music history.

For upcoming live performances of the Total Experience Gospel Choir see the schedule at http://www.totalexperiencegospelchoir.org/calendar

 

-Dennis R. White. Sources: Nicole Brodeur “Heartening Glimpse of Heaven” (The Seattle Times, February 23, 2006); Unknown Author “Pat Wright: Seattle’s First Lady of Gospel” (Northwest Prime Time, November 29, 2014); Peter Blecha “Wright, Pat b.1944” (HistoryLink.org Essay 10392, June 16, 2013); Interview with Enrique Cerna (KCTS, January 30. 2012); Misha Berson “Pat Wright’s Total Experience-Seattle’s Mistress of Music Lives The Gospel She Sings” (The Seattle Times, December 10, 1998)  Terry Morgan (interview with the author, September 22, 2017); Dave Segal (Barton Funk in the Soundgarden of Eden: How Wheedle’s Groove Revived Old-School Seattle Soul, September 3, 2009); Jason Ankeny (Patrinell Staten Biography, allmusic.com); Total Experience Gospel Choir home page ( http://www.totalexperiencegospelchoir.org/ ); Photo: Christopher Nelson.

Ballin’ Jack

Ballin’ Jack was formed in Seattle by former childhood friends Luther Rabb and Ronnie Hammon. Both of them had gone to school with and been friends with Jimi Hendrix at the city’s Garfield High School.  In the early 60s Luther Rabb played around the NW with several moderately successful outfits on the teen and R&B circuits.   He had even played saxophonist alongside Jimi Hendrix’s in The Velvetones, the first band Hendrix had been involved in.  Ronnie Hammon was a drummer who’d also backed a few Seattle bands-none of them particularly notable.  In 1967 Rabb and Hammon decided to form their own band.  Rabb, a multi-accomplished musician would leave the saxophone behind and switch to bass guitar.  Hammon continued drumming, thus forming a strong rhythm section.  Almost immeadiately they added Jim Coile on flute and Tim McFarland on trombone. A bit later Jim Walters would come onboard as their saxophonist and Glen Thomas providing the lead guitar.  The name Ballin’ Jack has obscure origins.  It could be based on “Ballin’ the Jack” a 1913 song written by Jim Burris and  Chris Smith.  It could refer to the and the ensuing dance that became popularized by the song.  The expression “Ballin’ the Jack” also has ties to railroad workers who used the expression “to go full speed”.  But the band’s use of the shortened expression probably was chosen for one of two other reasons.  Sometimes the term “ballin’ the jack” implied having a great time.  There’s certainly enough examples of the expression being used in film, on Broadway and popular music….but sometime the meaning was (literally) deep, full-on sex.  Blues great Big Bill Broonzy sang in “Feel So Good”

My baby’s coming home
I hope that she won’t fail because I feel so good, I feel so good.
You know I feel so good, feel like balling the jack

As Bessie Smith sang in “Baby Doll” in 1926,

He can be ugly, he can be black
So long as he can eagle rock and ball the jack

There’s several ways to interpret the term, but “ballin the jack” was an expression often used in jazz and blues circles to mean deep, full and fast sex.  It may be this veiled, slang reference is the meaning the band intended their name to represent.

Ballin’ Jack found themselves moving to Los Angeles, living in a large house cum-home studio near the Sunset Strip.  Although all of the members had put plenty of time paying dues, their signing to Columbia Records and tour success came almost immediately, partly due to the encouragement of their old friend Jimi Hendrix.  One key to their success is that Ballin’ Jack had been formed not only as a soulful funk unit, but also as one of the “horn bands” that were popular on the fringe of pop music in the late 60s and early 70s.  They found themselves treading the waters of both James Brown and Sylvester Stone along with bands like WAR, Pacific Gas and Electric, Cold Blood, Tower of Power and other rock bands featuring horns that were arising from on the West Coast.  Obviously the most successful of these bands was the more commercial Chicago Transit Authority-later shortened to Chicago-from the Windy City

Many of these bands had begun creating a new hybrid of soul, jazz, funk with strong horn sections. They also followed the current (at the time) move to integrate multi-ethinic players into their line-up. Ballin’ Jack could be counted among this new genre, and their rise had been quick, but Ballin’ Jack they only found modest success outside the Northwest and Bay Area of being an incredibly tight and incredibly well-loved live act.  They played the college circuit, auditoriums  like the Fillmore West and the Fillmore East and a myriad of rock festivals.  In 1970 Billboard Magazine proclaimed

“Ballin Jack’s’ reputation was that live their shows were so good that fans were known to have left afterwards, and that some headliners had actually refused to have them again as an opening act”.

Unfortunatly none of this translated into the kind of album sales and radio play they deserved. The band only lasted five years, but not before becoming a reliable touring draw and Jimi Hendrix insisting they be included as openers for several of his 1970 Cry of Love tour. After .Hendrix’s death that year they would continue to share bills with the likes of B.B. King, Spirit, Elton John, Sly and The Family Stone, The Kinks, and more of the most famous artists of their day.  They even found themselves playing two of America’s most venerated small clubs, The Bottom Line in New York City, and The Troubador in Los Angeles.  The band also played two separate sold-out dates in their hometown, at Seattle’s Paramount Theater in 1973 and 1974 respectively.  In 1973 Ballin’ Jack were featured on Burt Sugarman’s prestigious late-night show The Midnight Special.  One thing that distinguished the show was that bands played live in the TV studio.  No lip-synching.  No backing tracks.  Of course, Ballin’ Jack tore the place up.

In 1974 Ballin’ Jack called it quits due to poor album and single sales, and the band’s running it’s natural course. Co-founder Luther Rabb went on to tour as vocalist with Santana in 1976.  He then began working with Lola Falana and in 1977 released his own solo album Street Angel. Throughout the early to mid 1980’s Rabb was the bass player for

In 1986 Rabb was involved in a serious automobile accident that left him with nerve damage-consequently ending his career as a bassist.  At that point Rabb moved on to management and production until, sadly, he was left paralyzed by a stroke in 2002.  Eventually Rabb died in 2006, but he’s still recognized for his incredible talents in Ballin’ Jack,  Santana, and WAR.  He had kept close contacts with friends and musicians in the Seattle area, where his passing also had a great effect.

Although Ballin’ Jack never found the audience they should have in the 70s it’s ironic that since the band’s demise their music has been used in TV and Radio ads for the ESPN X Games and Found A Child was re-recorded in 2005, by Kon & Amir” and released as 12″ vinyl for sale to hip-hoppin’ live DJ’s.    The Beastie Boys also sampled Ballin’ Jack’s  “Never Let ‘Em Say” on their album Paul’s Boutique.  Their music has also been sampled by Ozamatli, Gang Starr and DoubleXX Posse Cheetah Girls .  Their most famous and most heavily sampled Found A Child was used liberally on Young MC’s international hit, Bust A Move.

 

-Dennis R. White.  Sources: “Luther James Rabb”  “Jump Up: “Crusin’ The Super Highway…”From Hendrix To Hip Hop”)  (DancingMonica.com); Ballinjack.com:  PNW Bands;  Harry Blair, The Louie Report, the blog for all things LOUIE LOUIE; Harry Blair ” RIP Luther Rabb, Seattle musician with Jimi Hendrix”,Feb 16, 2006.

 

 

 

Red Dress

Any live-music lover who’s lived in Seattle long enough has seen Red Dress. In fact, it’s likely their parents-or grandparents have seen the band play. Red Dress might be the longest-running show in the Northwest. Throughout their career they’ve attracted punk rockers, hippies, drunks, blues aficionados, art-rockers, probably a few metal heads and everyone in between. Despite their long-running history, the band are still one of the most creative and relevant bands working the clubs, bars and festivals in and around Seattle. They do what they do better than anyone else; they always have. Red Dress infuse absurdity with the pure joy of funk, jazz and R&B. The result is far from what one would expect from looking at it on paper. This isn’t a retread of the typical whitebread tribute to a style long out of date. This isn’t a goofy pastiche of kitsch and nostalgia. This is as real and original as things get. Producer Conrad Uno Producer Conrad Uno (Love Battery, Young Fresh Fellows, The Presidents of the United States of America, etc.) hit the nail on the head when he described Red Dress as “Captain Beefheart meets James Brown.”  Minkler himself confirms that when he heard Captain Beefheart’s seminal Trout Mask Replica everything changed

Red Dress has always been a band of solid, professional musicians. Orignally formed with Minkler’s high school friend Rich Riggins in 1976. The duo explored jazz, contemporary classical music, and of course the blossoming punk rock scene.  Eventually Riggins left the band-taking with him the poet/singer/performance artist Cynthia Genser.  Minkler would man the more and more funky and soulful Red Dress, while Riggins and Genser went on to found Chinas Comidas, a band that also found an important place within the city’s alternative music  community.  In fact, it wasn’t unusual to find Red Dress and Chinas Comidas on the same bills in the late 1970s and early 80s.  The stylistic, musical and lyrical content of those on the punk/alternative scene meant little in those days.  Seattle had a very tight-knit community that was too interested in innovation to face off in differing camps.

Over the years more than a few have wandered in and out of the band. But the songwriting has been consistently impeccable and the players pitch-perfect. But there’s no getting around it. This is a band dominated by the talent and presence of vocalist Gary Minkler, and the rest of the band are smart enough to know it. None of them are expendable. Any of them could play in a myriad of talented and successful bands, but there’s real camaraderie at work here.

Minkler is a force to be reckoned with. A huge voice full of character and surprise come out of this guy that producer Conrad Uno referred to as “the wild little red-faced singer’. Uno described Minkler perfectly in very few words, but listeners know there should be equal emphasis on the word ‘wild’ as ‘singer’. Minkler wanders, dances and shuffles his way across the stage and directly into the audiences’ hearts. He has an almost unheard of combination of sheer talent onstage and kind humility offstage. His performance is full of self-deprecation and supreme self-assurance. And above all else he knows how toentertain. Red Dress have never exactly been underappreciated…at least by anyone whose seen them perform.  But the focus on the immensely white, suburban and angsty sound popularized in 1990s Seattle locked the band out of major label attention at their height. It’s not certain by watching the band live that they really care about record deals and stardom.  They seem happiest when they are in front of a live audience and entertaining anyone watching…or dancing.  By the time a career-spanning album was released in 1994 Red Dress was not quite together as a band and not quite broken up. Fortunately, in the past few years the band has reconstituted and re-committed itself to bringing audiences their “strange and wonderful musical vantage point” (that’s Conrad Uno again). Nowadays Red Dress gigs are frequent in Seattle, but they’ve moved offstage and into people’s living rooms where they do acoustic sets.  The audience members may be limited but it proves how enjoyable it is to see live music from your recliner.  Red Dress also has the distinction of recording the final song at Conrad Uno’s Egg Studios.  The song will be released in 2017

-Dennis R. White. Sources: Stephen Tow, “The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge” (Sasquatch Books, 2011), “Pacific Northwest Bands” June 2013, Gary Minkler.  Artwork by Art Chantry.