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)
In 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.