It’s difficult to tell the story of much of alternative West Coast art, performance, painting and punk rock without recognizing the genius of Tomata du Plenty. His troupe, Ze Whiz Kidz are also an important element in the evolution of the Seattle alternative social and arts scene…but they deserve to have their complete story told, so we will leave their history for another post.
Tomata du Plenty (David Xavier Harrigan) was born, depending on who you choose to believe, in New York State, in Queens NYC, in Brooklyn near Coney Island or in Coney Island”). The facts seem to point to Queens, but I prefer to think he was born in Coney Island simply because it conjures up delightful, weird entertainments, a certain amount of artiface and slightly tattered around the edges. It reminds me of the jumbled construction that improbably holds up the famous Cyclone Roller Coaster and zillions of uncovered treasures that are, in fact, nothing more than metaphoric “glad-rags”. These were all the wonderful characteristics I associate with the singer/performance artist/painter Tomata du Plenty.
Wherever he was actually born he was brought up in Montebello, California where his Irish-American parents moved when young David was nine years old. Tomata claims he ran away to Hollywood at age 15-not as daring as it may seem since Montebello is adjacent to Los Angeles and only about 15 miles to Hollywood and Vine. It’s unclear if he kept in contact during that period with his parents, but there’s nothing that points to him being thrown out of his parents’ home because he was gay. If his parents were welcoming it would have made a convenient escape from the streets of Hollywood.
In 1968 he hitchhiked to San Francisco and wound up in the Haight-Ashbury. The twenty-year-old David Harrigan met George Harris and became a member of the psychedelic gender-fuck troupe, The Cockettes.The Cockettes were founded by the transplanted New Yorker Harris (1949-1982) and were influential in helping to usher in not just the modern Gay Liberation movement, but Glam Rock as well. When Harris moved to San Francisco he’d undergone a metamorphosis. He changed his name to Hibiscus and fell in with a vanguard circle of flamboyant, LSD dropping, hippie drag queens that performed gender-bending free theater on the streets. Hibiscus would eventually organize the entourage into The Cockettes. The Cockettes would later make silent films, produce their own plays and open for film screenings-including the San Francisco premier of John Waters’ Pink Flamingos starring the gay underground’s superstar Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead) or as People magazine dubbed him ” Drag Queen of the Century”. That would be the 20th century since Divine died in 1988 at age 42.Divine himself would later become a member of The Cockettes after they’d become a theater troupe, taking part in Les Etoile Du Minuit, the final version of Pearls Over Shanghai, Journey to the Center of Uranus and their final show, Hot Greeks. In Journey to the Center of Uranus Divine sang the song “A Crab On Your Anus Means You’re Loved” while dressed as a lobster. He was on his way! Sadly Hibiscus (George Harris) would become one of the first of the many gay men that would be struck down by AIDS. He died in 1982 at the age of 33. The New York Times headline referred to the disease that struck him down as the “homosexual disorder” then known as GRID (Gay Related Immuno-deficiency).
By this time David Harrigan, who was now Tomata du Plenty had long since left. His principle work with The Cockettes had been as “Hazel The Maid” in their film production of “Tricia’s Wedding” (1971); a take on then-President Nixon’s daughter’s wedding. In the film, characters as diverse as Phyllis Diller, Jackie Onassis and the Pope are in attendance at the wedding as well as some of the most well-known or notorious politicians and celebrities of the day. All were played by various members of The Cockettes. IMDb’s mini-review of the film says:
“The ever-outrageous Cockettes reenact Tricia Nixon’s 1971 wedding to Edward Cox. Hurtme O. Hurtme, television correspondent, covers the wedding and interviews faux celebrities in attendance. Once Eartha Kitt spikes the punch with LSD, events unravel quickly”.
Another, recent reviewer at letterboxd.com remarked
“If you like flaming creatures this is its educated technicolor grandbaby. Brilliant camping of political figures I have vague frame of reference for. Thoroughly enjoyed”
Tricia’s Wedding is a gay cult classic, but is hardly seen these days. Unfortunately the short was not packaged with 2002’s popular documentary “The Cockettes” when it became available on DVD. “Tricia’s Wedding”was released on VHS several years ago-before the Cockettes documentary, but it seems to be unavailable now. Luckily the film can be found among several online libraries. It takes a bit of looking, but thoroughly worth the time if you want to get a glimpse. The film is not only a document of the times, it’s also the first work of someone who would go on to be a towering figure in film. “Tricia’s Wedding” was produced by Mark Lester, who later went on to become one of Hollywood’s most bankable directors, with über-hits like Stephen King’s thriller Firestarter (1984) and Commando (1985) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Many of du Plenty’s biographers and casual observers have posited that it was his time with The Cockettes was responsible for his understanding of production and direction. These skills were useful, but it was Tomata’s natural talent, his charisma and his native understanding of society and satire that were probably more important traits he’d already acquired…after all, his major influence was as an agent provocateur (although a very nice one) and his ability to engage in on-the-spot guerilla theater whether in the streets, in the theater or onstage with one of his bands
After leaving The Cockettes, (before the release of Tricia’s Wedding)Tomata headed north to Seattle. in 1970 he began to put together his own gender-bending, street performance art troupe-cum-hippie drag community, Ze Whiz Kidz. This was at a time that street art and off-the-cuff public performances were burgeoning in Seattle. One notable performance artist working at the time was Seattle native Johanna Went, who would eventually land in L.A. and become one of the most provocative, most extreme performance artists of this or any other era. It’s said that Tomata du Plenty was a recipient of Seattle’s “one-percent-for-art” program when he arrived in Seattle. It’s true that Seattle was one of the first U.S. cities to adopt funding the arts in public spaces, but the “one-percent-for-art ordinance” was not enacted until 1973. Perhaps du Plenty was partially funded by some other program in the early days, or past biographers have simply misidentified the period that he was funded. In any event he quickly went about forming the core of his troupe that included Gorilla Rose (Michael Farris), Satin Sheets (Dennis Weikel, later known as J. Satz Beret of The Lewd), Melba Toast (who would become Tommy Gear when he and du Plenty formed the band The Screamers), Rhina Stone, Palm Springs, Co Co Ritz, Rio de Janeiro (David Gulbransen), Daily Flo, Benny Whiplash, Michael Hautepants (costume designer Michael Murphy), Leah Vigeah, Louise Lovely (Di Linge), Valerie Allthetime (DePonty), and Cha Cha Samoa (Cha Davis).
Roger Downey authored an overview of a 2006 celebratory exhibition of Ze Whiz Kidz at Seattle’s annual arts and music festival, Bumbershoot called “Between Garage & Grunge: Glitter, Glam and Proto-Punk in Seattle’s Subversive ’70s“ He took time to speak with Larry Reid, Seattle’s doyen of alternative arts and music, who was a co-curator of the exhibition. Downey reports;
“No one would write about these shows, recalls Larry Reid, then a young man in the early ’70s. The Times and P-I (daily newpapers) couldn’t have cared less about one-night cabaret performances and non-theatrical happenings that featured queer content, improv, drag comedy, loud music, and calculatedly poor taste. The Weekly—launched in 1976—was too snooty, and The Rocket (Seattle’s authoritative magazine concerning local and national music and culture) didn’t yet exist”. And the scene that Reid and Martin Imbach document in ‘Between Garage & Grunge: Glitter, Glam and Proto-Punk in Seattle’s Subversive ’70s’ would no longer exist by the ’80s. It morphed away from pansexual stage performance to traditional music categories—punk, New Wave, and (much later) grunge—and was mostly forgotten.
Downey goes on;
“What were the shows like? Loud, campy, joyous, with the audience sometimes joining the Kidz onstage. “We would call it performance art today,” says Reid. “There was no template to it”—more an amalgam of rock, glam, drag performance, and lingering hippie culture. ‘There’s a very direct connection. Seattle had a long hangover from the ’60s.’ For those who weren’t there, the spirit would later be codified somewhat by ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ and in John Waters movies.
In 1973 Tomata du Plenty would bow out from Ze Whiz Kidz and return to his hometown, New York City. He and one of The Cockettes, Fayette Hauser joined him to create ‘guerrilla comedy’ at various East Village clubs, including CBGB. The two opened for bands then-unknown outside NYC like the Ramones and Blondie. “I used to do Pat Suzuki between their sets” said du Plenty, in reference to the Japanese-American Broadway performer known for her song ‘I Enjoy Being A Girl’ in ‘Flower Drum Song’. Other former Cockettes and Whiz Kidz showed up in New York City; Gorilla Rose, John Flowers, and Sweet Pam Tent. In 1973 Tomata and his cohorts produced two Palm Casino Revues at the Bouwerie Lane Theater, an off Broadway theater that had been transformed from a late 19th century bank. Tomata du Plenty and Fayette Hauser opened a vintage store on Mott Street that remained unnamed during it’s life. They also wrote a gossip column called “Hollywood Spit“for an adult journal called Naked News. Eventually ‘Hollywood Spit’ would be taped and shown on public access TV. Clearly, there was always a project to work on as well as planning one for just around the corner.
That next project around the corner would be Tomata’s return to Seattle in 1974. The times and cultural zeitgeist had changed. The geurilla theater that had been so useful earlier in the decade was making way for newer, more provocative tactics and attitudes. As time moved on he set his sites on creating a band called The Tupperwares. The band included other seminal figures on the Seattle scene….and beyond. The Tupperwares included ex-Whiz Kidz Tomata du Plenty, Tommy Gear (who was still using his drag name “Melba Toast”) and Rio de Janeiro (David Gulbransen) who’s mother Laurie had been the decades-long owner and manager of beloved Dog House restaurant-where “friends meet friends” and featured on it’s menu “Rib Eye Steak (Tenderness not guaranteed)”. After Laurie Gulbransen’s death, her son David would take her place until the restaurant was closed in 1994 ).
Back-up vocals were provided by Pam Lillig and Ben Witz (Ben Rabinowitz,later of The Girls) and Bill Rieflin on drums who would go on to play for The Blackouts, Ministry, Pigface, Revolting Cocks, R.E.M. and most recently the newly the re-formed King Crimson. The band also included a very young Eldon Hoke who later became the notorious “El Duce” of The Mentors.
According to synthpop.com
“The first Tupperwares show was a short concert at the Moore Theater in Seattle. The event was the premiere of the John Waters movie, “Pink Flamingos,” and the theater wanted to have some sort of musical event to open the night. The Tupperwares, Tomata du Plenty, Rio de Janeiro and Melba Toast, each on vocals, were backed by The Telepaths. Each Tupperware sang one song on lead, with Tomata doing “I’m Going Steady With Twiggy” and Rio doing “Eva Braun.”(cowritten by Erich Werner and Bill Rieflin of the Telepaths). A third song, “Instamatic Fanatic,” with Melba on lead, was pulled at the last minute”.
A second show had been planned for April 18, 1976 at Seattle’s Polish Hall. The show was to be called ‘The T-T-Oh! Show’ since the line up was The Tupperwares, The Telepaths and Oh! Henry. Unfortunately the show was cancelled
On May 1st 1976 The Tupperwares joined The Meyce and The Telepaths to perform for the “TMT Show” at Seattle’s Oddfellows Hall (915 East Pine St.); a show that is one of the touchstones of Seattle music history. It is regarded by many in the musical community as the first departure from the local popularity of big arena bands and top 40 radio to a wider, more experimental and all-encompassing D.I.Y. culture. In short it is considered the beginning of punk rock in Seattle. TMT was the acronym for the Tupperwares, Meyce and The Telepaths.
In a May 1981 issue of Rescue Magazine (Seattle) Neil Hubbard recounts that for The TMT Show The Tupperwares played the songs ‘I’m Going Steady With Twiggy’, ‘Eva Braun’, ‘Instamatic Fanatic’ and ‘possibly other songs’
Neil went on to say “Admission to the TMT Show was one dollar (yes, $1), about a hundred people showed up, the groups paid for the room and made their nut. This show (please correct me if I’m wrong) was the first self-promoted show in town. The bands rented the hall, got a P.A. and DID IT. It was as much fun or more than many of the shows now.” At the time Hubbard believed a tape existed.
Meyce consisted of Jim Basnight on guitar and vocals, Paul Hood on Bass and vocals, Pam Lillig on guitar, Lee Lumsden on drums and Jennie Skirvin doing vocals) Basnight would go on to form the power-pop group The Moberlys, Paul Hood who went on to play with The Toiling Midgets, The Enemy and Student Nurse among other bands. Pam Lillig would later join The Girls on guitar. Lee Lumsden became the chronicler of all things first-wave punk in Seattle (and beyond) with Chatterbox, a fanzine he co-created with future promoter and later head of Engram Records, Neil Hubbard. Lee later recorded with James Husted under the name The Celestial Pymies, and co-founded The Guardians. In his 2011 book The Strangest Tribe author Stephen Tow asks;
“Don’t know Lee? You should, if you have any interest in Seattle music. Along with a handful of folks like Jim Basnight, Neil Hubbard, and Rob Morgan, Lee essentially created the Seattle music scene out of thin air in the mid-’70s”. Jennie Skirvin (now Jennie Brott) was a regular on the Seattle punk rock social scene during the 1970’s and ’80s, but gave up performing. She now keeps up with all her old friends and makes her way to the odd concert here and there. She has many many friends who adore her.
The third band included in the TMT Show was The Telepaths. Between the years 1975 and 1978 The Telepaths included (in various line-ups) Geoff Cade, Mike Davidson and Allen McNabe/Michaels on Bass, Dean Hegleson and Bill Rieflin on drums. Dave Demetre played saxophone at one point, and Homer Spence, Erich Werner and Reid Vance played guitars in the bands’ many incarnations. Over the course of the band both Gregor Gayden and Curt Werner were vocalists. The band transformed itself as The Blackouts over the years, with Mike Davidson, Bill Rieflin and Erich Werner at the band’s center.They were joined by Roland Barker, first on synthesizer and later on saxophone. In 1981 Davidson left the band and was replaced by Roland’s brother Paul Barker. The Blackouts are arguably the most innovative and fearless band to come out of Seattle. They became incredibly popular but eventually moved to greener pastures. After failed attempts at gaining wider recognition in Boston and L.A. bassist Paul Barker and drummer Bill Rieflin eventually hooked up with Chicago’s Al Jourgenson and became crucial members of the industrial/metal band Ministry.
Both Gregor Gayden and Homer Spence have passed on. Spence suffered a fatal heart attack in 1991. Aside from The Telepaths Homer Spence had been involved with several projects, including Engram Records, The Blackouts, Pink Section, The Macs and The Fastbacks; but he will probably be most well known as the smartest, most affable and interesting Economics Professor turned Cab Driver turned bartender to ever sling a beer in Seattle. For years he worked behind the bar of First Avenue’s Virginia Inn. He could often be found extending his working hours to include hours on the other side of the bar holding forth, dispensing his vast experiences, politics, talking philosophy and baseball.Gregor Gayden went on to form his own band The Look and was another regular on the punk rock and alt rock circuit. He died on January 30, 2008 of organ failure. His obituary, in the Seattle Times of January 30, 2008 reported quite correctly that: “Gregory touched so many with his great, big spirit; his sensibilities, as a performer in Seattle’s early punk era,political, historical, cinematic; his verbiage deft (“oops, did I say orientate? Sorry, that was an occident!”). He was amazed and amused by wildlife, Alaska fishing crew, spectacular food, sartorial splendor. He loved life. His heart failed. Our hearts broke.” In a 2017 essay, Seattle cultural and musical historian Jeff Stevens revealed his upcoming book ‘City of Anxiety: An Alternative History of Seattle’ included a summation of the TMT era by Erich Warner;
“Our whole attitude as a gang was a perpetual state of anger about our environment. We opposed just about everything we felt Seattle stood for. We hated suburbia; we were completely opposed to complacent happiness, and we felt the world at large wouldn’t tolerate us. People constantly called us names because of how we looked, so we had a strong identity, a them-and-us polarity.”
So it was with this attitude that Tomata du Plenty, Tommy Gear (who’d dropped his drag name “Melba Toast”) and Rio de Janeiro (David Gulbransen) decided to leave Seattle to find success in Los Angeles. Seattle lore clams that in late 1976, after legal threats from Tupperware Brands, the owners of the name, the band renamed themselves Gianni Bugatti, then settled on The Screamers. The final name would be a good change since it carried with it a very punk rock image…one that would represent the sound they created better than The Tupperwares….better than just about anything.
This article has been cobbled together from multiple sources. Some of them are living people. Some are simply quotes from books (which are noted). In some cases the sources are in conflict. Many of Tomata du Plenty’s friends and colleagues are still with us. If you have a correction, suggestion or omission please leave a message in the comments section.
-Dennis R. White. Sources: Mark Vallen; “Who was Tomata du Plenty?” (Art For a Change [blog], May 4, 2014); Brian Miller “Bumbershoot: Remembering Ze Whiz Kidz and Their Glam-Punk Descendants” (Seattle Weekly, Sep 1 2015); Jeff Stevens “October 31, 1970: Ze Whiz Kidz” (Countercultural Seattle Remembers, October 31, 2015); Brenden Mullen “Goodbye Tomata du Plenty” (L.A. Weekly, August 23, 2000); Mark Deming “The Screamers: The Great Lost Band of the First Wave of L.A. Punk” (Nightflight, September 14, 2015) “Population: 1” (IMDb http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0091781/, Retrieved January 31, 2018); Dave Lang “The Screamers” (Perfect Sound Forever, March 2000); “Screamers” Various reviews (fusetron, www.fusetronsound.com/label.php?whomart=SCREAMERS , Retrieved January 30, 2018); “The Life and Times of Tomata du Plenty” (kickstarter, https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2147432630/the-life-and-times-of-tomata-du-plenty/description); Mark Deming “The Screamers Biography” (allmusic.com retrieved February 1, 2018); Mark Spitz & Brenden Mullen “We Got The Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk” (Three Rivers Press-New York, 2001); “The Tupperwares” (Synthpunk, www.synthpunk.org/screamers/history75.html , retrieved January 1, 2018); Roger Downey “Glitter and Be Gay: The inspirational extravagance of Seattle’s Whiz Kidz. (The Seattle Weekly, Oct 9 2006); Stephen Tow “The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge” (Sasquatch Books, 2001); Paul Hood “Meyce” (pnwbands.com September 2002. Retrieved January 28. 2018); Jacob McMurray “Taking Punk to the Masses: From Nowhere to Nevermind” (Fantagraphics Books, 2011); Art Chantry “Tomata du Plenty, Primal Screamers” (Madame Pickwick Art Blog, madamepickwickartblog.com/2011/08/tomata-du-plenty-primal-screamers . Retrieved January 2, 2018); “Tricia’s Wedding” (IMDb.com, Retrieved January 31,2018); Lee Lumsden “You Don’t Know Anyone Until You Know The Screamers” (Chatterbox issue 6, Summer/Fall, 1977); “Population: 1” (IMDb.com, Retrieved February 3. 2018) Leslie Meyers (Contribution, February 4, 2018
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 owingRoulette $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 goodand 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 “TheMetropolitan 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
On September 21 2017 Iggy Pop was hosting his “Iggy Confidential” show that’s become semi-regular Friday night fare on the UKs BBC 6. About three quarters through his show he dropped the needle on a song almost everyone familiar with the early 80’s Seattle music scene. It was The Pudz doing “Take Me To Your (Leader)”. More than a few Seattle listeners ears pricked up immediately and hopefully a few others’ around the world. After the song finished Iggy related what a horrible year 1981 was-the year The Pudz single was released. Iggy mentioned “pooping out” Zombie Birdhouse and how he’d been relegated to opening for A Flock of Seagulls at New York’s Peppermint Lounge; he was so humiliated he built himself a cross to drag onto stage with him. Then he went on to tell his audience what a great little band out of Seattle The Pudz were, and that they were a high point for him during that awful year. One person who heard the broadcast (via the quick thinking of a friend who was streaming it.) was Rob Morgan… the genius behind The Pudz, and for the last four decades one of most visible guys on Seattle’s music scene…25 of which were spent leading The Squirrels-or one of the many iterations of the band. First he tells me about Iggy playing one of his Pudz records;
“That was mind-blowing”says Rob. “Being a bright shining spot for him in a shitty year. I just about had a heart attack, then when he actually starts singing R.B Greaves’ ‘Take A Letter, Maria’ (the flip side of Take Me To Your ( Leader) and cracking himself up I felt like ‘that kind of validates my entire career; of all the people who gave me shit for being a quote-unquote “cover band”-which we’re not. If we were a cover band we’d be doing songs people actually wanted to hear, and playing in Holiday Inns for real money. We wouldn’t be taking Terry Jacks’ Seasons In The Sun and speeding it up faster and faster before it becomes Van McCoys’ Do The Hustle.
What Rob didn’t mention is that he has at least one other important and influential fan; or he did have until he died in 2004: The great British DJ, John Peel. Peel kept a box of records near his door, which has become known as The John Peel Record Box. Peel claimed if there was ever a fire in his house the box was next to the door because it was filled with 147 singles of his favorite records of all-time. The box contained everything from Anne Peeble’s ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’ and Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’ to much rarer fare like Medicine Head’s ‘Coast To Coast (And Shore To Shore)’ The box is an eclectic mix of jazz, rock, psychedelia and indie-pop. One of those rare 45’s included is ‘Oz On 45’a record by the band Morgan is more well-known for; The Squirrels. ‘Oz on 45’ is a piss-take on the once popular output of producers stringing one hit after another, sometimes speeding songs up to segue into the next- and sometimes slowing them down for the same reason. Most of the time the gimmick was to keep the same pitch and the same beat of top-40 songs. The best that can be said about the “Stars on 45” records was they keep people dancing (or listening) to some of the most egregious songs of the ‘70s…a pretty egregious decade in it’s own right.
“So you wanna know how we all got to this?” Rob offers in a more and more enthusiastic coffee buzz
Rob grew up in one of Seattle’s bedroom communities, Edmonds, Washington. He says he ‘There was nothing’ adding I was”a weirdo kid from the get-go” like a lot of the thousands and thousands of other suburban misfits biding their time before breaking out of the mold to become weirdo artists. Rob says that during his teens he was listening to people like Jethro Tull and Leon Russell and the Winter’s Brothers. He points to the Beatles as his earliest love. He also talks about his sister giving him a copy of The Mothers of Invention’s “Absolutely Free” while he was in the fifth grade. He didn’t know it then but he’d just set out on a journey that what would be Seattle’s next great era in music. He remembers a girl in school noticing Rob had a picture of Ziggy Stardust in his locker. Rob was being hassled by the jocks who were listening to Elton John “I find that really funny” he says. Then one day someone gave him a copy of the Seattle fanzine Chatterrbox. The fanzine was put out by Lee Lumsden and Jim Basnight. The cover was a photo of Lou Reed.
“By that time I was doing the back pages of Hit Parader so I was already familiar with the underground thing, but nobody I knew out in Edmonds even knew about that, so I called up Lee Lumsted on the phone because his number was in Chatterbox and we just started yackin’ back and forth. Then they invited me to a party so I went down there (to Seattle) and met those kids and the next thing you know I was hanging out with that crowd but I’m still living at my folks. I’d pack a sack of clothes and a can of soup and hitchhike the 20 miles to the University District and I’d be there two or three days-staying on Jeff Cades’ floor. Eventually my folks are like “you gotta go” so me and my other buddy from Edmonds fished around and found this place on 55th and University and rented it. It was $210 a month, all utilities paid and furnished, so we got me and my other buddy, Gary Womack, and the late Gregor Gayden and whoever. Everybody living in there paying fifty buck a guy. Eventually the U-Men moved in there…or Tom and Charlie moved in there, and the U-Men were formed in the basement. Anyway, we were in that house six or seven years. We got up the first time some guy knocked on the door, and went to bed after we threw the last guy out.
Those were the days before the U-District’s main thoroughfare became a dangerous place. In the late 80s University Avenue became a more depressing place full of drugs, runaways and homelessness. The scene before that it was vibrant, and a great place to hook up wth the altenative music scene. It was also before there was any social media to bond with other musicians, artists and fans. There were similar stirrings coming out of Seattle’s Capitol Hill, and by some sort of cultural osmosis among a large crowd of kids coming out of Seattle’s Roosevelt High School. In the end many of them would meet up, resulting in a city-wide movement. Lee Lumsden would go on to be a multi-talented presence in Seattle, Jim Basnight founded the power-pop band The Moberlys, Rich Riggins and Gary Minkler would found Red Dress, and Rich would later go on to co-found Chinas Comidas. The kid who seemed to be everywhere in the early to mid-80s’ Duff McKagen, also went to Roosevelt High School, though a bit later. Two other important alumni are Tom Price, one of the founding members of The U-Men and Bill Reiflin who played drums with The Telepaths, then went on to The Blackouts, Pigface, Ministry and R.E.M. Now Bill plays in the re-constituted King Crimson.
By 1979 Rob was also ready to jump into the fray. Since he’d been a kid he’d been a huge fan of just about anything great in pop music. He’d collected a large amount of promo and fan memorabilia (a collection that continues to grow even now) and the sly ability to combine pop music genres and show a great deal of wit in executing it.
“I just started playing. Me and Eric Erickson (who’s passed on) who was my buddy from High School..we were hanging out with this other friend of ours from High School named Kevin played at a party The Enemy were having and we called ourselves The Fishsticks. The Enemy and everybody thought that we were super-funny. We did “Herman’s Hermits “I’m Into Something Good” and “Do You Believe in Magic’ by The Lovin’ Spoonful and a bunch of 60s covers that no one was doing at that time, because they were only about five years old or something. Later we got asked to do another gig with The Girls, The Radios and Little Magnets at IOGG Hall. We pretty much stole the whole show and pissed everybody off”.
The band was also asked to play a couple of house parties and they went over well, but it wasn’t ‘til one night during a party at the “Madhouse” (an infamous party house near University Ave.) that The Pudz were actually born and christened. The entire process was witnessed by about 300 music weirdos, punks, artists and fans. Everyone went bananas and then ran all over town and told everybody there was this new band called The Pudz so we said “oh well, I guess we’re called The Pudz”. The next day hundred of people were running around talking about The Pudz. I guess I was a rock singer guy cuz I’d go out there and jump around and have a good time…it just kind of happened.”
“How I wound up in The Pudz, was kind of an accident. Dave Locksley, the guitarist, was trying to start a band with Dave Drewry the drummer (who’s also passed on now) and they would practice in my friend Bill Larsen’s basement. I was hanging out over there so I’d go down there and we’d start doing some dumb covers just for the hell of it.
After The Pudz were formed they had a successful career as one of Seattle’s favorite bands.
“In 1982 when The Pudz fell apart I did a fanzine called “Pop Lust” for a couple of years”, Rob tells me. “Then I got sick of doing that and I said I want to get back into playing. So I went and saw one of the Young Fresh Fellows first shows and I cornered Scott and said you guys have got the kind of 60s garage-y thing I’m kinda looking for so why not let me be your front man? And he said “well, I’m gonna be a front man because I’m writing all the songs, but how about if we back you up under a different name doing covers? And I said “GOLDEN!” So the first year The Squirrels was essentially me fronting The Young Fresh Fellows, except Scott would play bass and Jim would play guitar”.
“So they go up to Bellingham and play a show at The 3B’s and they take me with them. Then they put on wigs qnd basically open for themselves and half the time the audience wouldn’t even figure out it was the same band cuz the guy from The Pudz was jumpin’ around. So that’s how we did it first, and it was a bit straighter then, as far as the magic-y kind of thing. But then they started taking off and they were too busy to keep doing it, but Tad (the drummer) being a wierdo, he wanted to keep doing it.
In 1985 me and Tad brought Eric Erickson back in, got Craig Ferguson on bass (a buddy from Tower Records where I worked), and drafted Joey Kline on a recomendation after checking him out in Boy Toast. He was really funny and talented. Thats when it really started rolling.. Jimmy Thomas (JT) came into the band in 1989 and Joey has been my co-pilot 23 out of the 25 years The Squirrels (or one of their pseudonyms) have been together. The name eventually ended up simply as The Squirrels, but any term with the word “squirrel” in it has probably been linked to them.
“So how did we get to this point?” he asks himself again.
“He begins to answer himself. “Like I said I remember The Beatles…and that prime-era stuff that was on the radio. This was where I got all my information. I was just some lonely kid living out in Edmonds, growing up. What the hell? And then I find Aladdin Sane or something, and I’m like, whoa! there’s a whole world out there that seems to be interesting”.
“It made me realize that either they’re lying to us…all kinds of music is the same and it doesn’t matter and you can smash through rock into jazz into that and the other thing, and it doesn’t freaking matter. This world of ours tried it ourselves and that; along with NRBQ and other things, and there’s so many bands that think that way. I don’t mean to offend Country people but I just don’t understand why you would say “I do this and paint myself into this little box. I can’t step outside of this box…and it makes me a thousand times more authentic’. That makes no sense to me”.
“The whole tribute band thing also cracks me up cuz in 1986 on our first album one entire side was Johnny Kidd and The Pirates songs (an early British R&R band known for “Shakin’ All Over”-a song not included on their first record). The other Everybody thought that was completely stupid and that we were insane, and now if you have an original band you can’t get a show, but if you have a band where you dress up and pretend you were Guns N’ Roses you could play every day. So for our next show since we’re going to do a lot of covers and we’re just going to say “For this next song we are a tribute band to (whatever band we’re supposed to do)” and then we will become a tribute band for whatever the next song is, and then people will like it better”.
“Like I said” says Rob “The Squirrels just kept going and going and going and by 2009 we couldn’t do it any more” says Rob. “I looked at the calendar one day and said “if I make it to the next Christmas show that will be twenty Christmas shows and twenty-five years under the name of The Squirrels, so that was a good time to just step away”. I made a bunch of t-shirts with Death With Dignity Retirement Tour on ‘em and that was that. Until recently we hadn’t done a show since that “farewell tour” that ended Christmas Eve 2009. I mean we kinda did a one-off for a friend of mine’s 60th birthday in his living room. I kinda jumped up with the fellas and did a Mighty Squirrels set, but we haven’t done a fully authorized, sanctioned Squirrels show until last year (2017) and nobody thought it would happen. The first show was in April and then in May and then in September”.
‘Last year”, says Rob, “we brought The Squirrels back together. We had to cheer people up cuz of the whole Trump thing and I had to find something different to do”. He adds “I swore for years and years and years and years there’s no way we would ever do that. It sounds ridiculous but one of the main reasons we did that was because of Cheeto-face and everybody I know is losing their minds and just not having any fun…just losing their minds. I thought to myself It’s ‘boots on the ground time’ and it’s us against them and everybody has to do what they can do. I’m too old and physically beat-up to go on a march and too broke to give money that would be worth it to anybody, but I can sure as hell go out there and entertain people and distract them and make fun of this freaking idiot (Trump). So I called up the rest of the band and they just said yuh-huh.
The first two shows we railed heavily. We did “Lump” by The Presidents of The United State, but we changed it to “Trump”. We did “Draggin’ The Line”. We changed it to “Drainin’ The Swamp”. We did “Carrie Anne” by The Hollies and changed it to “Kellyanne”. People were peein’ their pants laughing, but by the time we got to the third show we said “You know, we don’t wanna talk about it anymore’. People know why we came back, and it’s getting to the point that it isn’t funny anymore, so we dumped all the Trump stuff. Now we’re playing sporadically…I’m not actively trying to get out there and compete and get rollin’ again, but we’re doing a show every few months. We have the best band now that we have EVER had. It’s ridiculous.
We’ve got me and Joey back in, who as I said was in The Squirrels for 23 of the 25 years we’ve been together. J.T. is back on lead guitar. who was in the band for 15 years at least. Bruce Laven is back in on keyboards who did it for eight or nine years. Then, we’ve got an all-new rhythm section. We got this guy named Bill Ray on drums who recently moved to town who’s fantastic. He also works with Leroy Bell right now, but he used to play with Ike Turner for years. He’s a technical monster, but he just happens to be a big goofball who “gets it”. Then we brought in Keith Lowe on bass. He’s another monster who’s been just kinda laying in wait. Certain people we just consider members of The Squirrels whether they’ve ever played with us or not. Basically Keith Lowe has been in The Squirrels for 20 years but only played the last three shows. Keith plays with everybody. He even plays with Wayne Horvitz. Keith’s a world-class bass player, so we’ve got a world-class rhythm section and all the best loved guys we ever had…that’s what the current line-up is. It’s pretty ferocious.
“We could have spun the next show as our fifth one, but it’s really our fourth and a half show. There was just me and Joey and a drummer from 20 years ago playin’ in a pot store for their third anniversary, so that was kind of The Squirrels. But we were thrilled to death because we had no idea…well we knew people would remember us, but we had no idea what would happen. Our first show back, last April, we had more people in Darells Tavern by 9:00 than any other band who’s played there. The door guy was “what the hell is going on?” They came from miles around and went freakin’ bananas, We couldn’t believe it. We were totally touched. And we went down to Tacoma a month later and it happened again. Then we played at The High Dive and it pretty much happened again, except the crowd was a little lighter that time cuz it was Labor Day Weekend and Bumbershoot was going on, but we held our own, even against that. It’s been going really good and people seem genuinely happy and genuinely grateful. It’s a kick in the pants to look out there and just see a room full of people with shit-eatin’ grins on their face”
“The Squirrels have been through about 35 guys. We were the aforementioned Mighty Squirrels for about a year, and then everybody quit except Tad…they just couldn’t do it anymore. Then me and Tad got guys together as The New Age Urban Squirrels (also mentioned before) and that’s what we were for a couple of years. Then the first album was two split EPs “Five Virgins” by and The New Age Urban Squirrels and Ernest Anyway and The Mighty Mighty Squirrels doing “Sings The Hits of Johnny Kidd and The Pirates. Then Tad quit and we got another drummer, and when Craig quit and we got Kevin Crosby on bass and changed the name to Crosby, Squirrels and Nay because we had brought in Jon Nay who used to be in The Frazz. Nay quit, and then we brought in Nate Johnson from the fastbacks on drums…so we just changed our name to Crosby, Squirrels and Nate.
“Anyway we’d get into the gradual process of replacing people as they dropped out; and the style would kind of change depending on who else was in it. Now when Eric Erickson was with us he could play anything. When I was about 16 years old in High School I remember him playing the entire The Who Live at Leeds album on his SGN…like OK! So that’s when we started getting a little all over the map stylistically because we could take on anything. We were doing what they call mash-ups now decades ago. We called them Mudleys cuz a Medley is a whole bunch of songs in a row. We figured a Mudley was a whole bunch of songs stacked up. We’d have one bit where half of the band was doing a country version of “Ben” by Michael Jackson and the other half were playing “Giant Steps” by John Coltrane. Five musicians would be laughing while everyone else scratched their heads. We had another thing “Hawaii Take Five-O”…stuff like that”.
I ask him why people believe The Squirrels are a cover band. He nearly bristles at the question, so I ask him how he would describe the band.
“The Squirrels were never really a cover band. They took multiple hooks and melodies from one band and mooshed them up with another unlikely band or two…or three, etc. The formula was exactly what made The Squirrels shows fun and entertaining. Then he enigmatically says
“Well we’re not a cover band but we are a cover band”.
“I would call us “the great rock and roll equalizers” he says. We take really shitty songs and we elevate them. Then we take really great songs and we grind them through the skewer and we pound it all together into a dough. Basically we take the entire history of pop music, smash it together into a ball and throw it back in your face.. Some people understand it, and some people don’t. There’s not a lot of middle ground. There’s the people who generally like The Squirrels . They say “They’re genuine and I love that band” or “I don’t understand what’s going on, make them stop”. You don’t meet somebody who says “oh I have one of their albums…they’re pretty good”. They’re either in or their out”.
“As far as CDs go, Popllama Products recently went out of business and it’s owner, Conrad Uno retired. He sold his house and he’s moving away. He’s done more than enough. So when he was clearing out his basement he found a few boxes of CD’s he didn’t know he still had. He found copies of one of our CDs ‘Harsh Toke of Reality’ from 1993. The band also have a bunch of copies of ‘The Not So Bright Side of The Moon’. Those two are available at our shows and at our next show we’re hopefully going to be putting in two or three more of the Pink Floyd covers into the live shows” says Rob.
“Harsh Toke of Reality” is probably representative of what we do; about a third originals and the rest random covers. And then, “The Not so Bright Side of The Moon”- it’s our undisputed masterpiece.
“There’s actually an entire album that is unreleased”. he tells me “It was the follow-up to “The Not So Bright Side of The Moon”. We recorded it in 2002 and called it “Rock Polisher”. It’s the mother of ALL Squirrels albums, but we have never found a label to release it cuz rather than doing it at Uno’s studio (where we had to pay for the studio time) we did it at J.T.’s on his computer. We could spend as much time as we wanted The Not So Bright Side of The Moon” took us ten days total, mixed and everything. For this album (“Rock Polisher”) we got together every Wednesday for a year, and by the time we made it, it took “Let’s Dance” three days to mix because it had 50 tracks on it. We did “Let’s Dance” and Wish You Were Here” at the same time. Anyway, all the Squirrels fans wanted it because it has all the medleys, It has the Mandy medley on it and all that stuff that was never on any other album because we didn’t have time to do it right. But by doing what we did on Rock Polisher no one could pay the royalties for it. They’d have to pay for 27 songs for a half hour album and every single song is like five songs at the same time. So we sent it to all these labels and they said
“That is the greatest thing you’ve ever made. But I gotta hire a team of scientists to figure out how to pay for it. Good luck”.
Rob ends up with a final message:
“I’d also like to say that we’re super-excited that in 2034 the comprehensive boxed set called Fart Party is gonna come out. However, we have no idea what label it’s going to come out on because the kid who’s going to re-discover us in a pile of crap isn’t even born yet. But this stuff’s all gonna happen. We’ve left a big enough pile of weird crap laying around for somebody to find in 20 years and say “WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?! If there is someone out there who wants to release it we have all the master tapes.
THE SQUIRRELS WILL BE DOING A MATINEE SHOW, SUNDAY JANUARY 7, 2018
18041 AURORA AVE. NORTH, SEATTLE, WA, 98133
DOORS OPEN AT 2:00 PM
SHOWTIME 2:30 PM
-Dennis R. White. Sources; Rob Morgan interview with the author (November 25, 2017); Stephen Tow; “Addendum: Pop Lust For Life, Rob Morgan and The Squirrels” (The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge, Sasquatch Books, 2011); Rich Webb “The Greatest Bands You’ve Never Heard Of” (The Outsider, January 20, 1999); Ned Raggett “The Squirrels: USA (O Canadarm-Fine Musical Trash from Canada and Beyond, September 5, 2009); Michael Krugman “Capt. Morgan’s revenge: In a scene that takes itself too seriously, The Squirrels lighten the Mood” (The Seattle Weekly, October 9, 2006); Scott Schinder / Ira Robbins “The Young Fresh Fellows [The Squirrels
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)
Gail Harris was a seasoned pro when she first appeared with Tacoma’s Fabulous Wailers in 1959 at the age of 13. By then, The Wailers had become a regional powerhouse and were creating a national reputation.
In 1958 the Wailers had made a demo of an instrumental called “Tall Cool One”. The demo came to the attention of Clark Galeshouse, head of NYC’s Golden Crest Records. Clark signed a record deal and had the Wailers re-record the song in a Lakewood studio, just outside Tacoma in February of 1959.
The instrumental “Tall Cool One”b/w “Roadrunner” was released in June of 1959 and peaked on the Billboard charts at number 36. Shortly after “Long Cool One” fell off the charts, their second single “Mau-Mau” b/w “Dirty Robber” was released in August of 1959. It only made it to number 68 on the Billboard charts, and their third single, but the band was making enough of an impression that it landed them an East Coast tour and appearances on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and The Allen Freed Show.
In December of 1959, the Wailers label, Golden Crest Records recorded and released an album to capitalize on the band’s success. The album was titled The Fabulous Wailers, a name they would later use to distinguish themselves from Bob Marley’s band, also known as The Wailers.Golden Crestwas eager to have the band relocate to New York City, but the group declined (probably under orders of their parents) and returned to the Northwest. Golden Crest soon lost interest in promoting the band even though they were still under contract with the label. Golden Crest Records would eventually drop them, but their contract would create some problems in the immediate future of The Wailers.
Shortly after returning to the Northwest, the band took on a new singer and frontman, “Rockin’ Robin” Roberts, whose birth name was Lawrence Fewell Roberts II, not a name that conjures up the image of a rock and roll idol with greased back hair and skin-tight pants. Roberts had previously worked with another popular Tacoma band, Little Bill and The Bluenotes.
Along with “Rockin’ Robin” Roberts came dissent. Roberts was pushing to record a souped-up version of a song written in 1956 by Richard Berry. The song was “Louie Louie”, created by Berry, who was inspired by the song “El Loco Cha Cha” written by Cuban-American René Touzet. It had been a popular song performed live by Ricky Rillera and the Rhythm Rockers in Southern California during the 1950s. Roberts had heard Berry’s performance of the song and may have been the single most responsible person for it becoming a beloved Northwest standard.
Richard Berry had spent time sitting in with The Rhythm Rockers before creating “Louie Louie” based on the lead riff of “El Loco’ Cha Cha”. Berry said,“I took some Latin, some calypso, some pop, threw it all in, and came up with ‘Louie Louie”. Berry later added that he was partly inspired by Chuck Berry’s“Havana Moon” as well as Johnny Mercer’s lyrics to “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)” that was first popularized by Fred Astaire in 1943 and later in 1949 by Frank Sinatra.
Berry’s label, Flip Records, released Berry and his band, The Pharaoh’s version of “Louie Louie” twice. First, in 1957 as the B-side to Berry’s cover of “You Are My Sunshine” and again in 1961, this time as an A-side backed by the song “Rock, Rock, Rock”.
‘Louie Louie” had become a favorite of R & B fans during Berry’s forays into the Northwest, and as we know, the song was destined to become a massive success for The Wailers, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and it’s the most well-known version by The Kingsmen. Thousands of other versions have followed. According to some accounts, the song is claimed to be the “most covered” song in music history, but it’s clear this is not true. Both the Beatles’
“Yesterday” and the hymn “Amazing Grace” with words written by English cleric John Newton have been recorded more times than “Louie Louie”. The all-time award belongs to the song “Summertime”, written by George Gershwin with lyrics by DuBose Heyward. The Guinness Book of World Records states that, as of June 1st, 2017, the song had been recorded 67,591 times. Still, “Louie Louie” may have the most out-sized influence of any other song of the 20th and 21st centuries.
To get around The Wailers contract with the now disinterested Golden Crest Records, it was decided that “Louie Louie” would be released under the artist name “Rockin’ Robin” Roberts even though it was The Wailers who would record the song with Roberts as vocalist.
The band rightly assumed that listeners and DJ’s would know The Wailers actually performed the song despite whoever the label said the artist was. This plan didn’t sit well with guitarist John Greek. He was promptly dismissed and replaced by John “Buck” Ormsby, another recent member of Little Bill andThe Bluenotes. Ormsby later claimed that Gail Harris had helped in arranging “Louie Louie” even though she remains uncredited.
The Wailers had a plan for moving forward, but without a record label, no one within the music industry believed they could succeed, and The Wailers would probably fall into oblivion. During a meeting in the late summer of 1960, the band came up with a solution. The Wailers would form their own label and self-release their records. Although thousands of small labels were thriving throughout the US, not many belonged to the bands themselves. Labels selling, distributing, and promoting records is quite different than writing, recording, and performing them.
Not every one of The Wailers could afford to participate in the scheme, so Ormsby, Roberts, and Kent Morrill, the lead singer and keyboard player for the band, financed this very risky project as equal partners. They chose the name Etiquette for the name of their label. It’s often been pointed out the label’s name is not “Etiquette Records”. It is simply “Etiquette”. With no remaining members living, this finer point is not as important as it once was to the partners in the venture.
The Wailers had begun as an instrumental band like many of the original NW Sound artists. 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 group added a “girl singer” from Puyallup named Gail Harris.
Harris had appeared in several talent contests and on The Bar-K Jamboree, a weekly show hosted by Buck Owens, who was then pursuing a radio and television career in the Northwest. The Bar-K Jamboree aired simultaneously on radio station KAYE and KTNT TV. Buck’s regular band (The Bar-K Gang) included Don Rich, then a fiddler who would become Owen’s best friend and one of the architects of the Bakersfield Sound, Steel guitarist Dusty Rhodes, guitarist,and songwriter Rollie Weber, Shot Gun”Red Hildreth playing double bass, drummer Howie Johnson, and pianist/horn player Don Markam. Filling out the group during the first year was a local kind named Nokie Edwards, Gail Harris and Barbara Vogel made occasional appearances.
Guests of the Bar-K Jamboree’s included Don Wilson and Bob Bogle (then known as The Versatones, Nancy Claire, who along with Gail and a young woman then known as Merilee Gunst would be the three most sought-after lead female vocalists in the Northwest. Gail Harris, as we know began singing with The Wailers and later had couple modest hits of her own. Nancy Davis continued singing with various local groups and also had modest success with a few singles.
Merilee Gunst went on to be a member of the group The Amazing Aztecs, and later co-founded her own band, Merilee and Her Men that was largely a cover band. She later ended up working with the R&B group Tiny Tony and the Statics. Eventually, she married her long-time collaborator, saxophonist Neil Rush and the two founded one more group, Merilee and The Turnabouts. The group garnered regional success and eventually toured with Paul Revere and the Raiders. Merilee met record producer Chip Moman through Raiders singer Mark Lindsay. It wasn’t long before Merilee Rush found herself in Moman’s Memphis studio recording “Angel of the Morning”, a song written by Chip Taylor, who I’m obligated (like all other music writers) to point out is the brother of John Voight and uncle of Angelina Jolie. Extra points are added for including Chip and John’s brother Barry Voight, a geologist/engineer/vulcanologist and former professor at Pennsylvania State University where he still holds the title of Professor Emeritus and still conducts research. It was Barry Voight who first correctly foresaw the devastating eruption of Mt. St. Helens and causing it’s north flank to collapse. It was his study and work surrounding the eruption of Mt. St. Helens that brought him worldwide recognition.
Merilee Rush had a top ten single and worldwide success on her hands. Her rendition of “Angel of the Morning” earned Merilee a 1968 Grammy nomination for”Best Contemporary-Pop Vocal Performance, Female”. The Grammy that year went to Dionne Warwick for “Do You Know The Way to Santa Fe?” which, ironically Warwick didn’t like and had to be coerced into singing.
Rush’s version has become a timeless staple of 1960’s music and created so many fans of the song that Chip Taylor had written that it’s been recorded by dozens of artists. Among those artists are P.P. Arnold, Connie Eaton, Melba Montgomery, Juice Newton, and Chrisse Hynde.
The Bar-K Jamboree launched even more careers. That kid Nokie Edwards? He was recruited by Don Wilson and Bob Bogle of The Versatones, to play bass, along with Skip Moore on drums to form The Ventures. Soon the band was in the studio working on “Walk, Don’t Run”. Moore opted out of the band and agreed to $25 for his work as a session man and future royalties for the song. He was replaced by an underage George T. Babbit, who left the band and eventually became a four-star General in the U.S. Airforce. After a couple of other drummers,it was Mel Taylor who became the permanent stick man for the band.
The Venture’s first single “Walk Don’t Run” sold over one million copies and launched a decades-long career as one of the innovative guitar groups of all time.
Things really coalesced for the Ventures in 1961 when Nokie Edwards turned in his bass to play lead guitar and Bob Bogle who had formerly played lead guitar became the bass player. This resulted in Nokie’s career and his influence to rise to the stratosphere. Even though Edwards led the Ventures in 1968 he’s still considered one of the major gods in the history of the electric guitar.
There were other stars that would be birthed from Buck Owen’s little show. Loretta Lynn (then a housewife living in Custer Washington) made her first television appearance on the Bar-K Jamboree.
Loretta, born Loretta Webb, had grown up in poverty in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky. She married Oliver “Doolittle Lynn at age 15 and moved from Kentucky to Washington state when she was seven months pregnant. Beginning in 1953, Loretta taught herself how to play guitar over three years and went on to form a band she named Loretta and The Trailblazers. She played in postage-stamp-sized venues, grange halls, and bars before Vancouver Canada’s Zero Records discovered Lynn through Buck’s show and released Loretta’s first single “Whispering Sea” b/w “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” in March of 1960. She and her husband “Doolittle” spent months traveling and sleeping in their car to promote her debut single. The couple crossed the nation and tried to hit every country radio station possible to hand out Loretta’s record or do unscheduled, on-the-spot interviews with any DJ that would let her talk. Much of Loretta’s eventual success came down to selling records out of the trunk of her and Doolittle’s car.”Whispering Sea” didn’t get much traction, but the B-side “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl” hit number 14 on Billboard’s country music chart on July 24th, 1960′. Loretta Lynn, as they say, had become “an overnight success after years in the making.“
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 by diligently practicing songs by her favorite R&B artists and honing her stage presence in front of a mirror and for her family. 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 teenaged audience. Gail could be compared to both Little Brenda Lee with the clarity of her voice and bravado and the sustained, sexual growl of early recordings by Tina Turner. Gail’s love of R&B made Ike and Turner 1960 hit “I Idolize You” one of her signature songs, and blew the house down every time she performed it.
It didn’t hurt that Gail Harris also looked well beyond her actual age and could be just as demure and charming off stage as she was ravaging onstage singing. Gail performed “I Idolize You” with The Wailers on their groundbreaking live album, The Fabulous Wailers at The Castle. The record is still one of the NW Sound’s most important albums. It set high standards that other of the early 1960s bands would try to emulate, but only a handful could achieve. The live album also included her interpretation of the Jimmy Davis penned “All I Could Do Was Cry” made famous by Etta James. The live album was rounded-out with four numbers sung by “Rockin Robin” Roberts and two by Kent Morrill. The album was recorded by Seattle legend Joe Boles and produced by Ormsby, Morrill, and promoter/DJ/entrepreneur Pat O’Day. The album was an immediate regional hit when it was released.
In 1963 Carlton Records released a single by Gail Harris-now going by the name Gayle Harris “Here Come The Hurt” b/w “Don’tYou Love Me No More?” A February 9, 1963 issue of Billboard Gayle’s release is noted by a small mention that reads “GAYLE HARRIS Drums rolling for Cartlon Records (Honest, fellows she’s really only 16) and her”Here Come The Hurt”
“Here Comes The Hurt” didn’t pick up at the time, 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 Curriculum Vitae. s 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, Steve and Eydie moved over to United Artists Records where Costa continued to arrange for the couple, He 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, “Ponytail”, was an R&B instrumental. The single’s B-side was “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” and “All or Nothing at All” written 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 Costa 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 total, 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 has gone 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 Nikka was only five years old. Nikka is also found 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 recorded 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 the earlier “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)
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.
-And last but not least The Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet (now known as The Tiptons Sax Quartet) based in Seattle WA formed by the multi-talented Amy Denio. (Alto Sax and vocals), Jessica Lurie – (Alto saxophone, Tenor saxophone, Vocals), Tina Richerson (Baritone saxophone, Vocals), Sue Orfield (Tenor saxophone, Vocals), Chris Stromquist (Drums) as well as a host of former members and guests.
According to Amy;
“We began in November 1988 (election day) with a rehearsal in my house, reading through a few charts. My suggestion of the name ‘Phlegm Fatale’ stuck (as opposed to les Femmes Fatales). When we discovered the story of Billy Tipton, a musician who followed their path, we renamed the group ‘The Billy Tipton Memorial Sax Quartet’, got signed to the Knitting Factory and started touring. Eleven CDs later, we will tour in Europe in March, 2018, 30 years after our inception.
-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”
We recently purchased an almost complete collection of Helix Magazines from the generous Jerry Jermann. One issue came with this fantastic wrap-around “Sky River Festival And Lighter Than Air Fair” poster cover. The iconic Walt Crowley is credited with it’s design. At the time Walt was the art director of The Helix, who’s staff and friends were mostly responsible for the festival. Notice the clever way the wrap-around took advantage of the “ split fountain” effect-one that uses two separate colored inks at either end meeting in the middle as a third. This example is probably the result of pouring four horizontal bands of ink (top to bottom blue/red/yellow/blue). No matter how it was done, this is one of the best uses of the process we’ve ever seen, and it’s clear Crawley’s drawing was specifically designed with the intention to be printed exactly as it appears.
The festival itself was held Labor Day Weekend, 1968 near Sultan WA in a 40-acre pasture owned by Betty Nelson. Although we prefer to believe the “Sky River” referred to is some unknown visionary, LSD-fueled floating waterfall that’s inferred in the illustration, “Sky River” is actually a clever reference to the adjacent Skykomish River. The “Lighter Than Air Fair” refers to a tethered helium balloon on site for attendees to rise above the crowd. In fact, the first balloon flew off by itself before the festival even began. It took quite a bit of scouting to find a replacement, but one was found in Spokane and hastily made it’s way across the state just in time. One of Sky River’s organizers,Paul Dorpat, later reflected on the impetus for the festival- The “Piano Drop” that had taken place earlier in 1968: ““We thought if we could do a Piano Drop and get 3,000 people to come into a narrow road near Duvall, we could probably do a festival.”
According to many who attended, the line-up shown in this Helix wrap-around came closest to the actual bill, although ultimately there were plenty of additions and no-shows. There’s still some inconsistent memories of the performers that actually took part, but we know the Grateful Dead took part (The Grateful Dead’s full set was filmed) and we’ve been told this poster is the closest thing to the final line-up. Other acts are certain to have played. Country Joe and the Fish (who had taken part in an earlier event that inspired the festival-more on that later) an unexpected, unscheduled Jam between Big Mama Thornton, James Cotton (who’d supposedly flown up with The Dead) and Billy Roberts-the writer of “Hey Joe”. The proceeds of the Festival were to be donated to Native American organizations, as well as to the black community. Unfortunately the Festival failed to make a profit and came up short $5000. A modest amount, to be sure…but it certainly would have made a profit if all the attendees had paid admission instead of sneaking in.
The weekend was almost completely rain-drenched even though the showers were intermittent. It’s said that an underground spring began to flow because of the activity. Before the final act played the crowd is reported to have chanted “no rain-no rain-no rain” According to the reports of many festival goers the sun finally came out as the festival ended, appropriately with a performance by “It’s a Beautiful Day” It’s believed that this version of the Sky River festival (there were three in all) was the first organized rock festival held in an open air venue in a rural area. The much more famous Woodstock Festival would not happen until almost a year later; August 15–18, 1969. Click here to see it in all its psychedelic glory. More Helix related posts to come.
Looking back on heyday of 50s and 60s teen-dance music in the Northwest we tend to forget there was also a very healthy scene in eastern Washington, Northern Idaho and to a lesser degree in eastern Oregon. Teen dances were just as popular on the east side of the Cascades as they were on the west, but we often overlook it. Perhaps the crowd sizes were smaller, but it’s important to remember the distances between the small towns of the Inland Empire. Bands did much of the bookings themselves in Grange Halls, all-ages clubs, teen fairs in the larger towns and relentlessly trying to get the attention of small, local radio stations that were largely forgotten by labels and distributors. One of the many bands that would follow in the tradition of eastern Washington bands was The Continentals (later The Fabulous Contitnentals). The band was formed was formed at Moses Lake High School in 1961/1962. Originally the Continentals was loose-knit affair with personnel coming and going. During the early years Ron Covey was added on electric guitar, and singer John Draney got on board. According to bassist Chuck Wallace;
“John (Draney) could do a pretty good Roy Orbison and ‘Pretty Woman’ was an early addition to our repertoire. Ken McDonald was the leader of the group and named it the Continentals. His father owned the local Lincoln, Mercury car dealership but at the time I’m not sure we were sharp enough to make a connection”.
Ken suggested the band play a “real” gig and they ended up with a 1962 booking for a New Year’s dance at a local Elks Club. The band played “Five Foot Two” and the mostly-adult crowd loved them. Chuck says “I was playing the upright bass, Bob Hull was on piano and I don’t really recall the exact make up of that first combo.”
After graduating from High School in 1963 Ken went off to college, and the band went through drummers Stan Gibson and Nick Varney. But it was Bob Galloway that finally became a permanent member of the band. Bob Hull had also gone off to college and was replaced by keyboardist Mike Balzotti, and guitarist Mardi Sheridan joined the group around the same time. It was at this point that the band re-christened themselves as The Fabulous Continentals and added Marsha Mae, sister of Ron Covey, on vocals. Chuck Warren says:
“We were traveling the state and enjoying some success on the dance circiout but the size of the group made traveling and dividing up the paycheck at the end of the gig was a challenge”.Early on we rented our own halls and probably hit every Grange and Armory, and City Hall in Eastern Washington. As our popularity grew we began being hired by promoters who ran dances in roller rinks and larger venues”
It’s clear the core members of the Fabulous Continentals had aspirations and were willing to work as much as possible to make things happen. Keyboardist Mike Balzotti, guitarist Mardi Sheridan, drummer Bob Galloway, and bass player Chuck Warren were at the core of the band and made a decision to scale down the band to it’s basics. Marsha Mae was told “to stay home. Her brother Ron quit in solidarity with his sister-or possibly on the orders of his mother and father. At this point the Covey parents asked the remaining members to “leave the basement” where they’d practiced and “never return!” The parents even went so far as to run a local newspaper ad proclaiming that Ron and Marsha Mae Covey were no longer associated with The Fabulous Continentals “Lucky for us” Warren slyly adds “Bob Galloway had a garage!”
The move didn’t seem to deter Marsha Mae’s rise to local fame and her notoriety was probably more to her parents’ liking. In 1968 she would be crowned “Miss Moses Lake” and the year after she was crowned “Miss Washington”. Ron Covey became involved in Moses Lake politics and spent years on the city council as well as serving as Mayor. Later he headed ‘The Moses Lake Irrigation and Rehabilitation District Board’ but resigned (without explanation) in 2014 after a contentious four years with the MLRDB.
Once Balzotti, Sheridan, Galloway and Warren had pared down the group to a quartet they started looking for a new name. The musical world had been turned up by the British Invasion, with The Beatles at the forefront. Contemporary musical tastes were changing at a dramatic pace, and bands across the US were in the process of finding more British sounding names. Peter Blecha has pointed out a few Eastern Washington bands that followed the trend to Anglicize their band name;
“Spokane’s Runabouts retooled themselves as the London Taxi, Ellensburg’s Avengers reformed as the Scotsmen and recorded “Sorry Charlie” replete with Brit accents, and a Moses Lake band, the Bards — who had originally formed as the Fabulous Continentals back in 1961 — began restyling themselves after the Beatles…Another popular Moses Lake-area band, the Page Boys, got signed by Seattle’s Camelot label, which released their single “Our Love” The members of the Fabulous Continentals were changing (like many of their contemporaries) from a primarily instrumental band playing raucous R&B-tinged garage rock to a more lyrical outfit that would be known by a name that implied a more “British” sound. The band started looking through a Roget’s Thesaurus to find a name that would describe the new path they’d chosen…to make use of classical lyrics and content set to modern music…and of course to “sound” British. After a search, they decided on the name The Bards.
The band kept up a hectic schedule playing as many venues across Washington, Oregon and Idaho as possible. After years as a dance band, and the hard work as The Bards things started paying off. Although they were writing new music all along, they made sure to keep their audiences satisfied with playing plenty of their old standards from the Fabulous Continentals days, thus keeping fans old and new happy. After years of constant playing they were becoming the most popular band in the Northwest…on both sides of the mountains; so it wasn’t a stretch that they’d eventually come to the attention of Seattle-based Jerden Records head Jerry Dennon.
Dennnon offered the band a chance to record a few songs at Kearney Barton’s Audio Recording Inc. studio, then on Fifth Avenue. Barton’s Audio Recording Inc. was built inside space he’d made into one of the most sophisticated studios in the Northwest, complete with two echo chambers and a three track tape recorder. The Bards initially recorded four sides with Barton. “The Owl and The Pussycat” based on the poem by Edward Lear, “The Jabberwocky” inspired by the Lewis Carroll poem, an original composition “The Light of Love” and a cover of The Who’s “My Generation”. The sessions were engineered by Barton and produced by Gil Bateman who also produced the Sonic’s “Psycho” and “The Bears” by Springfield Rifle among other great Northwest sides.
Even though The Bards had originated about the same time as The Wailers, The Frantics and dozens of other NW Sound bands The Bards tried to distance themselves from what was popular west of the Cascades.
“We purposely tried not to be too “Seattle” as we felt that many of the groups over there sounded a lot alike”.
Their first recordings show they were serious about that claim. After completing their first recordings Dennon shopped them around Hollywood and New York City, but couldn’t find a major label willing to release them. He had proposed “The Owl and The Pussycat” b/w “The Light of Love” as a single but label execs found the lyrics of “The Owl and the Pussycat” too…suggestive… even though the lyrics were mostly an unadulterated reading of Edward Lear’s original poem.
Instead of continuing to pursue a major label, Dennon decided to release The Bards’ first single on his Piccadilly Records imprint. Picaddilly was the regionally distributed label that Jerden Records used to float a trial balloon for local talent they were considering signing, or as a respected regional label that might attract the majors. The release got a bit of Puget Sound and Eastern Washington attention, but really went nowhere. “The Owl and The Pussycat” was rooted in what we might think of as “The Northwest Sound” but it definitely wasn’t garage rock in the manner of the Wailers, The Frantics or The Sonics. There was far more folk-rock influence, and it’s clear the band were interested in a more “pop” sound-albeit one based in serious songwriting rather than playing to the masses. The prominent organ was not played in the standard local R&B and vocal harmonies were more pronounced. Over all it’s a great tune. Ironically it was later re-issued by Capitol Records as well as a slower version that is pure early psychedelia. Unfortunately the later Capitol release didn’t do well either, although it’s worth a listen, and some collectors even covet it over the original recordings. They’re great examples of early psychedelic pop.
The Bards second release (also on Picaddilly) didn’t fare any better outside the Northwest. Their cover of “My Generation” was solid but not particularly innovative. The “B’ side of the single is “The Jabberwocky” which would be used again later as a B-side (as was their song “The Light of Love”). “The Jabberwocky” is set to fine instrumentation, but the lyrics of the Lewis Carroll poem seem out of place here. A bit too forced. This might be because the poem was far less referenced in 1967 than it has been in the ensuing decades. At a time that most songs on radio were love songs, or all-out rockers it gets marks for innovation.
Finally on their third try The Bards hit pay dirt. The band had heard the song “Never Too Much Love” on the B-side of Curtis Mayfield and The Impression’s 1964 hit “Talking About My Baby” The Bards were smitten. They rushed back over the mountains to Kearney Barton’s studio to cut their own version almost immediately. Mayfield had originally written the song and performed it in the classic R&B/Soul style that he pioneered. The Bard’s version didn’t veer too far off vocally, aside from being less smooth than the incomparable Impressions. The smooth instrumental harmonies and a gentle horn section were missing on The Bards version. They did what most rock bands do when faced with ballads-they relied more on electric guitar. The result was a truly new reading of Mayfield’s song. Instead of cool soul it took on a more folk-rock/psychedelic air. It was also infectious and rose to number one status on many Northwest and British Columbian regional radio station’s playlists. More importantly, it drew the attention of the major labels who had earlier turned The Bards down. The Bards were left to choose several offers that were coming in fast but chose Capitol Records, since it was the American home of their revered Beatles.
The result was taking their regional hit “Never Too Much Love” to a nationwide distribution deal, and would become a minor hit around the US. It still ends up on compilations of both Northwest and psychedelic bands. In the aftermath of their “hit” The Bards remained on the road even more than they had in the early 60s. They found themselves as openers for bands like The Young Rascals, The Turtles, The Dave Clark Five and as pick-up band for Tommy Roe. Although they admit they found Roe to be a top-knotch performer, they weren’t as thrilled by his music. The Bards also opened for other top national and international acts around the region.
Between opening gigs they continued headlining the kind of venues that had always provided their bread and butter; teen dance halls, roller rinks, grange halls, county fairs and whatever other spaces that hosted teen dances. According to Chuck they were working 20-25 nights a month and in 1967, 1968 and 1969 they had put over 100,000 miles a year on the Bardsmobile, a car that towed a small trailer carrying their equipment with The Bards logo prominently displayed on each side.
“Virtually all of those miles were in the Northwestern Part of the United States. Washington, Oregon, and Idaho were Bard states. Parts of Montana, British Columbia and Northern California were part of the circuit also”
The schedule got incredibly demanding after “Never Too Much Love” and the band was afraid of becoming stale. They cancelled a month’s worth of gigs and rented an old theater in Moses Lake (The Ritz) to write, practice and record. It was these recordings that showed an even more original and innovative sound. The band recorded on a reel-to-reel and a song or two at a time was sent to Kearney Barton’s studio for mastering. At the core of what they were writing was a sort of mini rock opera they called “Creation”. The Bards were so pleased with the results they decided to drive to Los Angeles with demos in hand to find a label interested in releasing the totality of “Creation” which would include a few other remarkable compositions that would fill out an album.
Before their move to find a label in LA The Bards recorded one more song at Kearney Barton’s studio. This time the band chose Jeff Afdem of the bands The Dynamics and Springfield Rifle to arrange and produce. The A-side of the single was “Tunesmith” by Jimmy Webb. Webb was at the height of his career at the time, writing classic songs such as “Galveston”, Witchita Lineman” and “MacArthur Park”. The B-Side of “Tunesmith” was written by an unknown singer/songwriter born in Spokane and commuting between his home in Yakima and his gig with the Seattle based band Caliope. The song chosen was “Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues”, and of course the singer/songwriter was Danny O’Keefe. O’Keefe had recorded a demo of “Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues” about a year before The Bards release. O’Keefe’s version had remained unreleased since it was, in fact, a demo that O’Keefe had used to find a label. O’Keefe had also caught the eye of Jerry Dennon very early on, and O’Keefe had become friends with Jerry, and signed with his Jerden label, as well as Dennon’s Burdette Publishing. It’s likely that this was the connection that brought the song to The Bards attention
The single was released on Parrot Records (a U.S. subsidiary of London Records) who would go on to license two other Bards re-issues. Danny O’Keefe would have an international hit with his song a few years later, and since then his song has been covered literally by dozens of well-known artists. Although Jimmy Webb was considered one of America’s best songwriters at the time, Keyboardist Mike Balzotti says:
“Had it been up to The Bards, ‘Goodtime Charlie’s Got The Blues’ would have been the “A” side”.
He goes on to say:
““As it turns out, a year later Danny O’Keefe made a big hit out of a similar rendition of the song!” (The song would actually become a hit for O’Keefe in 1971, three years after The Bards).
Despite Webb’s fame and popularity The Bards were on the right track. “Good Time Charlie” has become the longer lasting song, that still remains a staple of oldies radio, and the many other covers of it remain favorites of the fans of other artists.
. Once in Hollywood, by pure coincidence The Bards ran into singer/songwriter/producer Curt Boettcher in an elevator after they’d visited the offices of Mike Curb, one of the most successful producer/executives of all time. Boetthcher was taken by the band right away so he drove them to his business partner Gary Usher’s house to listen to the tapes they were shopping. Both Boettcher and Usher were impressed. Later the band were introduced to Usher and Boettcher’s third partner, Keith Olsen. Boettcher, Usher and Olsen were then in the process of putting together a label called Together Records. On paper the trio seemed like a team that couldn’t be beat. All had been successful producers and/or engineers on a plethora of hit records.
Boettcher had produced The Association’s debut album which resulted in the hits “Along Comes Mary” which reached number seven on the Billboard Charts and “Cherish” which reached number one. Boettcher is remembered as one of the earliest proponents of “Sunshine Pop”-a slightly more serious version of “Bubblegum Music” and although he only lived to be 41 he would go on to produce The Grateful Dead, the mixdown engineer for Emmit Rhode’s “Farewell to Paradise” and in the mid-1970s, he sang backing vocals for artists as diverse as Elton John, Eric Carmen and Tanya Tucker among a host of others. He’d also managed to perform and record as a solo act.
Gary Usher had strong ties with the Beach Boys, had produced a few of their early singles and co-written several songs with Brian Wilson, including “409” and “In My Room”. He’d also produced The Byrds, The Surfari’s and Dick Dale, as well as “discovering” The Firesign Theater and being instrumental in getting them a major label deal. Usher would go on to have his own successful career in the 1970’s.
At the time Keith Olsen was a respected engineer, but his incredible track record of production credits was a bit ahead in his future. During the 1970’s Olsen produced dozens of hit artists and several number one albums. In all he would produce more than 39 Gold records, 24 Platinum records, and 14 Multi-Platinum albums. So under contract to “Together Records”The Bards set out to record what would be an album with “Creation” at it’s core. Their new label seemed bound to be a huge success with all of the talent on hand and with distribution through Curb. One hitch was that The Bards were still under contract with Jerry Dennon of Jerden Records, and also to Capitol Records. They needed a new name to release any new recordings.
Curt Boettcher, as producer had been fascinated by the name of The Bards’ hometown, Moses Lake. He suggested the band their name should be changed to “Moses Lake” The band liked the idea, so the recordings proceeded with the assumption the band name had changed. While the erstwhile Bards were recording , Usher, Boettcher and Olsen were in the process of finding financing and distribution for their new label. The three had been in talks with Motown in the beginning, but no deal could be reached. The trio then returned to Mike Curb (in who’s office elevator the band had met Boettcher) and were able to secure the finances they needed to get off the ground, and a distribution deal through Curb’s organization.
Mike Curb was and is a legendary figure in the music and film business. He had worked with artists such as the young Linda Ronstadt, The Electric Flag (featuring Mike Bloomfield and Buddy Miles) as well as writing songs for and producing The Osmonds, Roy Orbison, and Liza Minnelli among many of the acts that would later become best sellers. Curb would also sign artists such as Richie Havens, Gloria Gaynor, Eric Burdon, Johnny Bristol and War. In 1969 Curb merged his successful Curb Records with MGM and became President of MGM Records and Verve Records.
Shortly after becoming President of MGM Curb became embroiled in a crusade to rid the music business of drugs by dropping 18 acts that in the words of Billboard Magazine
“had, promoted and exploited hard drugs through music.”
Billboard added that Curb was motivated by the drug-related deaths of Janis Joplin Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix. Oddly enough one of the acts Curb had dropped was Frank Zappa. Even in the 1960s Zappa had been well-known as a critic of drug use. Apparently Curb had not gotten the memo. He also hadn’t got the memo that Zappa had already fulfilled his contract and was in the process of establishing his own labels, Bizarre and Straight Records.
Sadly Together Records failed to live up to it’s promise. It’s said that their only release that came near being a “hit” was used for paying staff. The compilation “Preflyte” by The Byrds is a collection of demos and non-released material that predated their being signed to Columbia. The album also contains a great deal of early material recorded under The Byrds original name, The Jet Set. The album stalled at number 84 on the Billboard charts, and other Together releases by The Hillmen, Sandy Salisbury and Charlie Musselwhite, and Curt Boettcher himself didn’t even chart. The label was out of money, and their distribution deal was dropped. Mike Curb was not interested in putting more money and more energy into a label that looked like it would continue to be disastrous. No one else would touch it. The result would also be disastrous to The Bards/Moses Lake. They’d mostly finished their album after working many months on it, but were now without a label to release it.
Producer Curt Boettcher suggested the band return to Moses Lake with him coming along as the band’s lead singer. This suggestion did not go over well with all members of the band, and going through an ordeal like the one with Together Records again was too much. Apparently Mardi Sheridan and Mike Balzotti had already seen the writing on the wall and left the band. Chuck Taylor decided he’d spent too many years and too many miles on the road and wanted to return to Moses Lake to spend time with his family. Drummer Bob Galloway chose to keep the band going with a series of players until 1972. Bob was the only original member, but “new” Bards found gigs in the Northwest, although never found the kind of success or popularity of the classic 1965-1968 line-up. Despite their disparate reasons for dissolving The Bards/Moses Lake, the band agrees the split was amicable. This was reinforced when the band re-united one more time to celebrate Mike Balzotti’s 40th birthday in 1987.
The Bards work for Together Records was not a complete failure, though. The label had released a single from their “Moses Lake” sessions. The single, “ Oobleck” b/w “Moses” was finally released under the band name, Moses Lake in 1971. The A-side, “Oobleck “ was inspired by Dr. Seuss’s 1949 book “Bartholomew and the Oobleck” with music by Mike Balzotti. Although it has an intro that seems to go nowhere at first, and sounds appropriately Seussian, it becomes the kind of unexpected song that rings “genius” and leaves a person wanting more. Even though it’s launch was completely ruined by the concurrent collapse of their label there are a few copies to be found on the collectors market.
One other unexpected results was that without a label the band no longer had a contract with Together Records. Their contract had not been bought-up by another label-they were, in fact, free agents. The tapes of the “Moses Lake” sessions would remain in their hands and under their control. But life has a way of keeping us from reliving unfortunate and discouraging past events. Better to concentrate on the present and future than to revisit the past…so the “Moses Lake Recordings” stayed with Balzotti, without public exposure, for three decades.
Mike Balzotti was surfing the web one day and came across the site for Gear Fab Records out of Orlando Florida. Gear Fab releases what they term “Legitimate and Authorized re-issues of Psych, Garage and Rock Sounds, 1965-1972” Since the band had already come across an unauthorized bootleg of their early Piccadilly recordings along with a few later Bob Galloway-era songs, Gear Fab seemed like a natural, ethical label to release their only album on. If not for this re-issue The Bards would probably be near-forgotten today. With help from Gear Fab head Roger Maglio, the record was re-mastered for CD and released in 2002.
The album is still in print and is a great reminder of how psychedelia, pop, good songwriting , lyrics (even borrowing from the masters) and great musicianship combine to make a total much more than the sum of it’s parts. Despite the material on the album being stellar, the title is a bit cumbersome. Officially it is “The Bards resurrect ‘The Moses Lake Recordings’ Produced by Curt Boettcher and Keith Olsen featuring ‘The Creation’. But no matter, it’s not that difficult to simply search for “The Moses Lake Recordings” Even though it sounds as if the recordings were done in Moses Lake they were not. The title is meant to point to the band’s re-naming. Over three decades since it was first recorded this album seems revolutionary in it’s mix of pop, garage, psychedelia, bubble-gum and prog-rock. It’s final release is truly the end of an amazing story.
One last note; Near the end of the documentary “I Am What I Play” Pat O’Day, the dean of west coast AM-Top 40 DJs was asked was asked what NW group deserved greater national recognition. His answer? “The Bards”
-Dennis R. White. Sources: Don Rogers “Dance Halls, Armories and Teen Fairs” (Music Archives Press,1988); The Bards (http://mikebalzotti.com/BardsHomePage.htm); Richard Flynn (“Woodstock Rock RTR-FM 92.1,Perth Australia”); Stanton Swihart (The Bards Artist Biography. allmusic.com); Chuck Warren “The Bards Interview” (http://home.uni-one.nl/kesteloo/bards.html); “The Bards” (discogs.com); Mike Dugo “The Bards” (The Lance Monthly, Volume 4, No. 3, May 2002); Peter Blecha “Inland Empire Rock: The Sound of Eastern Washington” ( HistoryLink.org Essay 7490); “Resurrect The Moses Lake Recordings by The Bards” [album20909] (rateyourmusic.com); Stanlynn Daugherty “Rock ‘n Roll Group Draws Anxious Crowd” (The Lantern, [Pendleton Oregon], Friday November 1, 1968); Beverly Paterson, Review of The Moses Lake Recordings (September 23, 2002. The Lance Monthly); Mike Flynn “Once-obsure political race in Moses Lake takes on new import for areas’s economy. (Flynn’s Harp [Columbia Basin] November 16, 2011)
Who would have thought that a kid from Olympia WA would become one of the architects of country music’s Bakersfield Sound? Don Eugene Ulrich was born in Washington’s state Capitol on August 15th, 1941, and grew up in the adjacent town, Tumwater WA. He was the adopted son of Bill and Anne Ulrich and went by that name as a youth but would later shorten his last name to Rich. Don’s parents encouraged him to play music, going so far as to give him a home-made violin at the tender age of three. Don was a musical child prodigy. He learned the fiddle in short order and soon after picked up a guitar, also becoming proficient at the instrument in a short time. Don’s parents were confident enough of his skill to enter him in a series of local talent and variety shows.
By the age of 16, Rich had opened for a matinee performance by Elvis Presley on September 1st, 1957, at Tacoma’s Lincoln Bowl. Lincoln Bowl was an amphitheater adjacent to Lincoln High School overlooking Puget Sound. Since Presley’s performance took place next to Lincoln High School, the show saw the amphitheater full of screaming teens.
During his last year of High School, Don Rich had started playing his fiddle around the south Puget Sound region and forming a rock and roll band called the Blue Comets with drummer Greg Hawkins and pianist Steve Anderson. But Don’s love was closer to country and folk than rock and roll, so he continued playing gigs as a fiddler. One of those gigs was at Tacoma’s Steve’s Gay ’90s, where he would catch his first break-one that would change his life forever. Former Bakersfield CA musician Buck Owens was doing a stint at Tacoma radio station KAYE at the time. Rich was playing at Steve’s Gay ’90s when Buck Owens walked in one night in 1958. Owens, a fiddler in his own right, had already seen Rich onstage and was taken by Rich’s talent almost immediately. After their first meeting, they soon became great friends and collaborators. Don would join Owen’s band that played around Tacoma and Seattle. Owens was also a radio and television presenter, so when Rich joined-up with Owens, he found himself doing a weekly spot on KTNT-TV 11’s BAR-K Jamboree. The show had the distinction of introducing Loretta Lynn to television with her first appearance in a talent-contest Owens held on the Bar-K Jamboree in 1960. Buck had become a local personality in and around Tacoma, but earlier, he’d worked as a session player in Hollywood. Buck played lead guitar on what is sometimes regarded as the first “Bakersfield Sound” recording, Louisiana Swing by Bud Hobbs. MGM Records released the song, and although it wasn’t a huge hit, it set the groundwork for a sound that Buck Owens, along with Merle Haggard, would primarily be responsible for beginning in the late 50s and throughout the 1960s. The “Bakersfield Sound” had slowly developed since the days of Bob Willis, but it had never caught on aside from Willis’s novel idea of conflating Swing with Country and Western.
In 1959 Buck got a significant response to his first “hit” “Second Fiddle”, which hit No. 24 on the Billboard country chart. It was soon followed by “Under Your Spell Again” that peaked at number 4 in the Billboard country charts. It wasn’t long before Owens was packed-up and ready to return to Bakersfield and it’s proximity to Columbia Records, who had signed him and would release most of the Buck Owens and The Buckaroos recordings. Buck urged Don Rich to follow him as part of his band, but Rich chose to remain in Washington and study to become a music teacher and tutor in Centralia WA, where he continued to play fiddle at local bars.
After a year, Don had a change of heart and left for Bakersfield to play fiddle in Owen’s band. Buck Owens had an even bigger hit with “Above and Beyond,” which peaked at No. 3 in 1960. The song was the first track Rich had played fiddle on. From then on, Don and Buck became practically equal collaborators, driving near and far to play gigs up and down the west coast with pick-up musicians- or as a duo- and building a reputation for the basic, honky-tonk inspired and stripped-down sound of their live performances.
The Bakersville Sound was not entirely developed until 1963 when Owens and his band released the single “Act Naturally”, a song that’s been covered by everyone from the Beatles to Mrs. Miller. to Loretta Lynn and Dwight Yoakam. Ringo Starr, who had sung the Beatles version of the song released in August, 1965 joined Buck Owens for a duet of the song in 1989. “Act Naturally” was the first recording on which Don played lead guitar. By the time Owens recorded the song, he and Rich were backed by The Buckaroos, which included Kenny Pierce on bass, Jay McDonald on steel guitar, and Willie Cantu on drums. The band was filled-out during recordings with various session members. The name The Buckaroos is thought to have been created by Merle Haggard. At the time, Haggard was also building his estimable career out of Bakersfield.
So what, exactly, is the “Bakersfield Sound“? A lot of it is based on the idea of being an outsider. This may come from the fact that a good portion of those living in and around
Bakersfield were transplants from Oklahoma, Kansas, and Northern Texas…the so-called Okies trying to escape the dustbowl of the 1930s. Many had found work in California’s San Joaquin Valley, and especially around its southern portion, where Bakersfield was a center of agriculture, cattle, and oil drilling. All were occupations Okies would already be familiar with.
The Okies had brought their traditional music and the instruments they played; fiddle, guitar, any percussion that was available whether it be banging on a tin pot or stomping on the floor. They had a prominent and deep respect for “Hillbilly Music” and what we’ve come to know as Americana. A few early practitioners of this stripped-down sound (Wynn Stewart and The Maddox Brothers and Sister Rose, for instance) were playing what would become the “Bakersfield Sound” in and around the city during the mid-50s. Not many practitioners of the pre-Bakersfield Sound found wide commercial success. At first, this was a regional sound, but within a decade, it would become a huge influence on Country Music outside it’s traditional home, Nashville TN.
The Bakersfield Sound was a direct response to what was happening in Nashville. Country artists and songs there were being produced with lavish string arrangements and prominent, soothing background choruses. The piano was included but always as an accompaniment and NEVER in the honkey-tonk style. The Hawaiian or Steel guitar was barely featured-if they were used in the first place.
The music of Nashville had become closer to the pop music of the day than what we think of as Country and Western. Even Patsy Cline, who is almost universally considered the greatest country vocalist of all time was subjected to this kind of over-produced approach. Take a listen to “Crazy”, “Sweet Dreams” or “She’s Got You”. All are classics and can’t detract from Cline’s genius. But if we listen without the pre-conceived notion these are meant to be Country songs the only conclusion we can come to is that they represent the sound of the pop music of the 50’s. The songs wouldn’t be as wonderful, but it’s not too far a stretch to envision the production more fitting Gayle Storm or Patti Page. The Bakersfield Sound stripped away the adornment, the huge productions, the orchestration and brought in the electric guitar, pushed percussion forward and added a backbeat. What they had in effect done is created a hybrid of rock and roll.
Don Rich had found himself in the midst of this progression while playing fiddle with Buck Owens in the Northwest, but fairly soon took the guitar up in Buck’s band once he landed in Bakerfield. It was his smooth, restrained and precise playing on his Telecaster that contributed to the overall sound of The Buckaroos, and in turn with the way Country and Western Music would move toward in the 60s.
In 1963, Buckaroos bassist Kenny Pierce quit the band during a tour. Rich called in an acquaintance named Doyle Holly to replace him About a year later steel player Jay McDonald quit and was replaced by Tom Brumley. This is the classic line-up thought of as The Buckaroos. Following incarnations of the band would include many talented musicians but it was Buck’s voice, Don’s guitar that was always at the center of the band.
What followed was an incredible string of hits in the 60s and 70s that made Buck Owens and The Buckaroos not only country music favorites, but true crossover hitmen. The ‘60s saw hits like “Together Again”, “I’ve Got A Tiger by The Tail”,“My Heart (Skips A Beat)”, “Waitin’ In Your Welfare Line” and “Before You Go” which spent an incredible 17 weeks at the top of the country charts.Hit after hit seemed to flow from the band one after the other. The band was so popular that they managed to put out eight full albums in the short time between 1967 and 1971. They also played at The White House and Carnegie Hall. The Carnegie Hall recording is considered one of the best-if not the best live country album of all time.
It was the harmonies of Don and Buck, and the expert playing of Rich himself that was the cornerstone of their popularity. Don stepped out occasionally to sing, and later he went on to record two solo albums with The Buckaroos as side-projects. Don’s guitar work was becoming an inspiration not only to fans of The Bakersfield Sound, but also influenced the nascent country-rock movement that began mostly out of Los Angeles in the late 1960s. It’s early adherents were Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, and The Flying Burrito Brothers and later practioners like Linda Ronstadt and The Eagles picked up on the sound.In fact in 1968 Buck’s band was enough of an underground music influence to play a sold-out concert at San Francisco’s Fillmore West. Today’s most prominent player of the sound is probably Dwight Yoakam.
In 1968 Buck Owens signed on as a co-host of an amiable, corn-ball summer replacement for the popular Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Don Rich was made musical director of the show Hee Haw, and although the show was only planned for the summer it became such a hit that the show was continued on CBS for two more seasons and afterward went into first run syndication for another 20 years. During it’s run Don Rich appeared as a member of The Buckaroos as well as a lead performer with The Buckaroos backing him. This gave viewers a front-row seat in watching and listening to Don’s guitar picking. The Buckaroos, featuring Don’s outstanding playing continued to be a top crowd draw as well as the reigning stars of country music.
In 1969 The Buckaroos released “Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass.” Don had complimented his usual picking style with a more dense fuzz-tone. Traditional country music fans were shocked, and some even became angry at Buck for “defacing country music” with such a blatant rock and roll techniques. Don, Buck and the band didn’t pay much attention..they didn’t have to because “Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass?” became another big hit. It reached number one on the country charts for two weeks.
The early 1970s would continue to see hits for The Buckaroos even though eventually the only original members remaining were Buck and Don. As the power of the Bakersfield Sound was popularized and then diluted Don and Buck had their last number one hit in 1972 with the song “Made In Japan”. The two continued their personal and professional relationship. They wrote and recorded music just as they had in the early days, and in their salad days.
On July 17, 1974 Don Rich finished a few recording chores at he and Buck’s Bakersfield studio. He then set off, by motorcycle to meet his family up the coast in Morro Bay where they had been vacationing. Somewhere between his night ride from Bakersfield to Morro Bay Don’s motorcycle crashed into a lane divider and he was thrown from his bike. Don Rich suffered extensive damage and was transported to a local hospital where he was pronounced Dead On Arrival. He was only 32 years old. The cause of his accident is still a bit of a mystery, since there were no witnesses, but police at the time noted there were no skid marks before the crash, so it was likely Don accidently drove directly into the divider at a high rate of speed.
Buck Owens was devastated by the loss of his friend, his collaborator and one of the most renowned guitarists in country music history. Buck later said:
“He was like a brother, a son, and a best friend. Something I never said before, maybe I couldn’t, but I think my music life ended when he died. I carried on and existed, but the real joy and love, the real lightening and thunder is gone forever.”
Don Rich’s life may have ended that day, but his musicianship and reputation as an all-around gentleman lives on. Country musicians still try to copy his lean but precise and complicated guitar licks. He’s become a near-legendary figure among the old and newly introduced country music fans and musicians. His reach has grasped all the way into the 21st century. In a way Don Rich has achieved what he wanted to before his studies in Centralia. He is still considered the gold standard of the Bakerfield Sound guitar. History has made Don Rich the music teacher and tutor he had once set out to be.
-Dennis R. White. Sources; Don Duncan (The Tacoma News Tribune – September 2, 1957); Scott Bomar & Randy Poe, Bakersfield Sound Judgement: Pair Pick top 50 songs (Bakersfield.com, December 31, 2015); Buck Owens Brunch: The Tragic Story of Don Rich (thebigfootdiaries.blogspot.com, 2/09/2014); Rich Kienzle-“Buck Owens and The Buckaroos-A Bunch of Twangy Guitars” (Vintage Guitar Magazine, May 2007)
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 albumshe 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)
The F-Holes formed out of a jam session on Nov 21, 1984 at The Central Tavern near Seattle’s Pioneer Square. The original members were “Lucky” Tony Mathews, Douglas “Stringtie” Creson and John “Moondog” Mooney. The jam consisted of three songs. The booker was impressed enough to ask them to open for his band, The Alleged Perpetrators on Dec 14, 1984, and a band was born. Since that night The F-Holes have consistently been part of the Seattle music scene.
One night while Stringtie was playing pinball at a tavern with Kevin Heaven (a local musician and well-known scenester)’ Kevin said;“You gotta check out my new f-hole guitar!” Stringtie went home that night and made a poster. He brought it to rehearsal the next day. “We are the F-Holes” he told them. The newly-named outfit’s drummer, John “Moondog” Mooney asked;“What am I gonna tell my Mom?”
1985 brought a solid stream of bookings. The bookings continued. The first few years The F-holes played more shows than they rehearsed. Doug Creson recalls;
“We’d rehearse on Wednesdays and play shows Thursday , Friday and Saturday”.
Things changed in 1986 when the F=Holes added Otis P. Otis on lead guitar. He was a huge Johnny Thunders fan and brought a heavier sound that lead the band into the pre-grunge era. The original F-holes sound included generous heaps of Psychobilly, Cowpunk, Garage Rock, Punk, Acid Blues and 60s Psychedelia. They add they also play Country music, though they add
“we’re not sure which country“.
Along with Otis came a sound that brought the band to a new level and wider audience. They still played the same music as before-only heavier. Their look was still psychobilly with the big pompadours and cowboy boots and bolo ties. That would change in later years, but for the earlier part of their career the band was known for their appearance as much as their music. Both were fun, over the edge and a little bit retro as far as their dedication to punk.
“Promoters always had a hard time pegging our sound but we played with all kinds of bands. Punk, Alt Country, Grunge, Power Pop” says Creson.
The biggest misconception may be that the F-Holes are a rockabilly band. It’s a claim the band adamantly deny. Since the beginning they’ve always played a few rockabilly-tinged numbers, and they often dressed in a style associated with rockabilly. Still, it’s hard to listen to them without thinking they’re nothing less than a great punk-pop band with the talent to pull off just about anything they throw out to their audience.
Th band is also known for wicked sense of humor. In 2011 when the magazine Seattle Sinner asked them what their fondest Christmas memory was Creson told the interviewer;
“We played a Buzz Scooter Club party in an abandoned building with 64 Spiders. On the way to the gig we bought a sheet of windowpane acid, 100 hits. At the party we dissolved the acid into the punch bowl. People were drinking kegger cups full of this shit. By the time we finished our set everyone was just flying, wandering around lost on the upper floors like wide eyed zombies. I wonder how many bodies they found when they tore that place down. This was in 1984, back when you hipsters were still crappin’ in your diapers and sucking breakfast out of your mama’s knockers”. True story.
By the mid ‘90s band members drifted into other bands, failed marriages, rehab and dead-end corporate jobs. They played a few uninspired shows, now and again…not really breaking up, just not playing with the same passion and frequency as before.
In 2006 The F-Holes were invited to play Geezerfest at Seattle’s legendary Crocodile Cafe. It was a
showcase of bands that helped create the alternative sound and so-called “grunge” Seattle had become known for in the 1990’s. These were long-time workhorse bands that had actually developed the sound, others had built their success on, but despite their talent were overlooked getting signed to a big record deals. Along with The F-Holes, the line up included bands like Catbutt, Coffin Break, Swallow, Snow Bud and The Flower People, Blood Circus, Love Battery, and other worthy bands.
The F-Holes showcase was so well-received that it led to their playing steady ever since. Now in their 33rd year of rocking their fans remain rabidly loyal, and friends are bringing their kids (and grandkids?) to their shows.
The F-Holes recorded output over the years has been sporadic…in fact there’s been only a few recordings available; but the good news is that they’ll be entering into the studio with Jack Endino in 2018. They’ve also found a newer and younger audience while keeping the old-timers. An Endino-produced album looks promising.
The Stranger magazine’s Mike Nipper observed that after so many years;
“The F-Holes are, dare I say, a smart and (ahem) “songwriterly,” kickass punk group, and live they’re driving as a mofo”.
Even more fitting, on their website the F-Holes simply say “Totally Skankin’ since 1984”.
-Dennis R. White-Sources; Doug “Stringtie” Creason; The F-Holes (home page, http://fholesrock-blog.tumblr.com); Mike Nipper (The Stranger, February 23, 2016); The F-Holes (thatsdadastic.com, 2010); Chuck Foster (“The F-Holes Unmasked: F-Holes Celebrate 28 Years of Being Misunderstood” Seattle Sinner, December 2011)
Tacoma’s Ventures. They’ve lasted almost 60 years in one form or another. They’ve released over 250 albums. They’ve sold over 120 million records….more than any other instrumental band in history. Those records are unlikely to ever be topped by an instrumental band of any genre. During their career they’ve covered just about every kind of music there is. Most of their albums are largely covers of popular songs, but surprisingly they write about one third of their music. They helped develop the “surf sound” although they point out they didn’t invent it, and don’t consider themselves a “surf band” at all. In a 2015 interview with Forbes magazine co-founder Don Wilson told interviewer Jim Clash;
“One of our biggest sellers was a surfing album. I guess we got tagged with that – Pipeline and Wipe Out we are associated with – so suddenly we are a surf rock band! I see that written a lot. But I don’t care. I’m used to it. We’re not just surf”.
Band members have always denied their music being founded in the surf sound, but it’s certain The Ventures had a profound affect on it. It could be they’ve always refused to be labeled surf just as much out of deference to the artists who truly are surf bands as much as the facts. It’s also true that The Ventures went far beyond any one genre-expect being instrumental. They’ve also maintained keeping current with putting their sound to current music. Aside from their top-knotch playing it is these two other factors that have kept them in the world’ public eye for decades.
The story of The Ventures goes back to the day that Bob Bogle first met Don Wilson in 1958. Bogle was looking to buy a used car from a dealership in Seattle. The car lot was owned by Wilson’s father. Don was the salesman. During their conversation, they found out they both had an interest in music. They became fast friends, and soon Wilson began working with Bogle in the masonry field. Obviously carrying mortar and bricks was more lucrative than hawking used cars for small commissions. In 2009 Bob Bogle told The Seattle Times:
“And then we found out that we each knew a few chords on the guitar, you know, and we had a lot of free time on our hands. But neither of us owned a guitar.”
So off they went to a Tacoma pawnshop where both of them bought very cheap guitars. They say the guitars were less than $10 each. Over the next few months the two practiced every moment they had between jobs…and they were frequently out of work. Soon the two were making the rounds of local bars, house parties and any other gig they could find.
Meanwhile bassist Nokie Edwards had begun playing around Tacoma with Buck Owens’s band The Bar-K Gang. Owens also hosted the KTNT “Bar-K Ranch” TV show that gave Owens (and Nokie) even more local exposure. Sometime in 1960 Wilson and Bogle saw Edwards playing in a Tacoma club (possibly Steve’s Gay 90s where Owens’s band had a residency). After about a year Nokie left Buck’s band behind to join Wilson and Bogle This move had unknowingly helped spawn two superstar bands. Owens soon switched fiddler Don Rich to guitar in his newly formed band, The Buckaroos, while Nokie helped fill out The Ventures– a band that would later be dubbed as “The Band That Launched A Thousand Bands”, The Ventures.”
By the time Nokie had joined Owens band he was already a known as a regional virtuoso guitar player. He’d played professionally since he was 17 and managed to make a very good living with many gigs paying up the $350 a week. By the time Bob Bogle and Don Wilson lured him into with them he was certainly taking a big financial hit.
Originally Bogle and Wilson had chosen the name The Versatones, but as Don Wilson put it;
“We started out calling ourselves ‘The Versatones’. When we went to register the name, we found out that it was already taken. We were disappointed then, and my mom said, ‘You are venturing into something new, so why don’t you call yourselves The Ventures’?” I thought it sounded pretty corny, but anyway it stuck!’
This wouldn’t be Wilson’s mothers’ only contribution to the band. After The Ventures had shopped around for a recording contract (and failed) Josie Williams founded Blue Horizon Records, and arranged studio time at Joe Boles legendary West Seattle studio Custom Recorders. The Ventures recorded their first single “The Real McCoy b/w Cookies and Coke” with Boles. Josie wrote the lyrics to Cookies and Coke and produced both sides. The single was a flop, but it wasn’t long before Josie booked more time at Custom Recorders and Walk-Don’t Run” was recorded. Bogle played lead guitar with Wilson on rhythm, Edwards on bass, and Skip Moore on drums . The tiny label pressed up only 300 copies, and distributed them locally. Unfortunately for Moore, he had decided to leave the band and work for his father’s gas station. He agreed to be paid $25 for his work on the recording instead of a royalty sharing deal…a mistake that would deprive him of royalties even after a lawsuit a few years later. Moore was replaced by drummer George T. Babbitt, Jr., but at 16 he was too young to play bars and taverns The Ventures were often hired to perform in. Finally the band hired Howie Johnson in order to go out on tour in support of their major hit and new-found popularity. In the fall of 1961 he was involved in a car crash, causing him irreversible spinal damage. Johnson managed to play drums while wearing a neck brace. Beside touring he drummed on the first four Ventures albums and half of the tracks on the fifth LP. He ended up quitting in order to spend more time with his family and occasionally played locally throughout the rest of his life.
Josie Wilson pushed Walk-Don’t Run day and night to anyone who would listen. Out of the blue local entrepreneur, DJ and radio station owner Pat O’Day started using a portion of Walk-Don’t Run as a “kicker” (intro) to his newscasts on his wildly popular radio station KJR. Listeners wanted to hear more, so KJR put the entire song into rotation. Soon legendary Seattle label Dolton Records were beating a path to Josie’s door to pick up The Ventures’ contract. The irony was not lost on Josie and the band that they had previously auditioned for Dolton, but had been turned down. Though Dolton heads being a bit embarrased theywent on to re-release Walk-Don’t Run on their label. At the time Liberty Records was their distributor so Dolton licensed the rights to the much bigger and more powerful national label.
It’s well known that the band had been introduced to Walk-Don’t Run through Chet Atkin’s 1956 version of the song included on one of Bob’s favorite albums; “Hi-Fi In Focus”. Yet the song had originally been written and recorded by jazz-great Johnny Smith in 1954. The Atkins version is more syncopated than the very jazzy Smith version. Both are fine renditions, but The Ventures would put their own Imprint on it- as they did on other recordings-creating yet a third dynamic version of the song. Both Chet’s and Johnny Smiths are worth a listen. Both are as individual and inspiring as The Ventures’ forward-looking interpretation. In 2011 Don admitted
“He (Chet Atkins) played it in a classical jazzy style and we couldn’t play it like that. We weren’t good enough. So we decided to make our own arrangement of it and simplify it and that’s how that happened.
Having found a local label with national distribution propelled “Walk, Don’t Run” to number two on the Billboard pop chart and sold over a million copies. When the Ventures relocated from Seattle to Los Angeles in 1963, Josie Wilson remained the band’s co-producer in tandem with Dolton owner Bob Reisdorf. Years later she was also instrumental in getting fans to demand The Ventures be inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. During her life she became a savvy business person, a respected producer and one of the first to kick down the doors of the music industry to women. Surprisingly it was another woman-Bonnie Guitar-who grew up just a few miles north of Tacoma-who would also be instrumental in gaining respect for women in music circles. Josie Wilson remained a trusted insider of The Ventures until her death at the age of 91 in 2007.
Their second release was a re-working for a 1940 Xavier Cugat hit called Perfidia. It only reached number 15 in the charts, and was followed by a steady flow of singles that stalled in the nether end of the charts; but album sales were always a more important money-maker than singles. The band would never see such spectacular single’s success aside from their 1964 re-make of Walk-Don’t Run (it reached number 15 in the US charts) and 1969’s “Theme From Hawaii 5-0” which reached number 8 in the charts. Oddly enough the theme for “Hawaii 5-0” had been written by director Morton Stevens as a short opener for the show. It wasn’t until The Ventures full recording of the song that it became a fully-formed song. The addition of horns to the song may have seemed an odd move for the band, but they utilized brass sections on and off during their career…and fans love “Hawaii 5-0″. It also didn’t hurt that they’d get a short listen to it once a week on television.
Although The Ventures would have few hit singles, they made up that by releasing hit after hit albums. They may be the world’s first band that relied on album sales rather than singles. This was unusual for the 1960s and would only become more common in the 1970s with the advent of FM radio. When Dolton Records re-located their main offices to Los Angeles in 1963 it was to the detriment of Northwest artists, but an incredibly valuable move for The Ventures. It meant better studio facilities and closer contact with Liberty Records and their distribution executives.
The Ventures set the stage for a guitar line-up that has now become the typical formula; Lead, rhythm and bass guitars backed by a great drummer. The formula was not unheard of before but the band did a lot to popularize it. They’d also created “the big guitar sound” and although instrumentals were at the core of the late-50s/early 60s Northwest Sound, The Ventures were introducing a new approach that did not heavily rely on R&B and the ever-present organ. They were interested in technical advancements as well as new sounds. Over the years they would be pioneers in distortion, reversing tapes, bringing the Theramin to rock and heavy use of vibrato as well as a myriad of other effects.
Soon after Bob Bogle’s death in 2009, fellow guitarist Don Wilson told The Los Angeles Times;
“Any guitar player would tell you, Bob is the most unique-sounding guitar player ever. The way he used to do the whammy bar — that vibrato bar. He kept his little finger on it while he played it all the time. He’d make it sound, like at the end of a chord, Wow-wow.
Soon after the success of Walk-Don’t Run drummer Howie Johnson (a guitarist in his own right) suggested that Bob Bogle and Nokie Edwards trade places resulting in Bogle as bassist Edwards as lead guitarist. The formula worked, and the transition was amicable. It made the band more of an overall talented unit.
Howie Johnson left the band in 1962 he was replaced by Mel Taylor who had been a house drummer at the well-known Los Angeles club The Palamino. Taylor had already made his mark as a drummer for Herb Alpert and as a member of Bobby (Boris) Pickett’s band who had recorded the seasonally perennial hit “The Monster Mash”. On a side note, Mel’s younger brother, Larry, became the bassist for Canned Heat and before that had been a session bass player for Jerry Lee Lewis and The Monkees among others.
One of the reasons The Ventures deserve the moniker “The Band That Launched a Thousand Bands” was their release of several volumes of the “Learn To Play The Ventures” series. The learning process came to be known as “guitar phonics“. This was a completely new approach to learning guitar and bass. There had been written “how to…” books before The Ventures. There were also a few recorded tutorials. But there had never been a series of lessons by the bands players themselves to teach kids (and adults) to play specific parts of their own songs. There’s many a modern artist that proudly admit to having learned to play with The Ventures’ series. The first volume of the “Learn to Play….even showed up on the popular music charts.
The Ventures were also one of the first bands to take advantage of fuzztone. Ventures afficianado’s can’t seem to agree how the fuzz was first created. Some claim it was the Mosrite guitars’ pickups they were using at the time, the Mosrite Fuzz-Rite or The Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone. No matter the source, it would become one of The Ventures signature sounds. Musicians and fans have cited their 1962 single “2,000 Pound Bee” as the first use of the fuzz guitar, but it’s clear it had been used by Ike Truner as early as 1951, on the Memphis recordings of Howlin’ Wolf (1951-52), Johnny Burnette’s “Train Kept a-Rollin” (1956) and Link Wray’s “Rumble” (1958).
In 1963 the band had entered into a deal Mosrite to play live with a series of Mosrite guitars that were specially designed for The Ventures. Before the Mosrite period all three guitarists had played production models of the Jazzmaster, the Stratocaster and a Precision Bass. Mosrite founder, Semie Moseley had built a guitar that he lent to Nokie Edwards for some recording sessions. Soon Edwards had bought his own Mosrite and within a year The Ventures had an endorsement and co-distribution deal that made Mosrite a common name among guitarists. The deal lasted until 1968, and aside from the use of Mosrite guitars, there are some archival photos of the band using the Mosrite Award solid-state amps from the Ventures’ Mosrite Distributing Company. Despite their popularity with musicians this particular model would never go into mass production.
It was probably Nokie Edwards who had been the most instrumental in popularizing the well-crafted series. Along with the endorsement and use of the Mosrites the guitar manufacturer sold the series to consumers with a label “The Ventures” on the headstock. It began a mini-craze for the model that remains to this day. Guitarists from Jimi Hendrix to Arthur Lee to Kurt Cobain have all played Mosrite’s. Bands like the MC5 and The Ramones have used them. According to Mosrite’s promotional material, the company claims“Jimi Hendrix had two Mosrites. Jimi would commonly smash and burn his easily replaceable Fenders but the Mosrite’s were treasured and well taken care of. The doubleneck used on Spanish Castle Magic is today on display at the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame” They go on to say ” Virtually everyone who is anyone has owned a Mosrite at some time in their life”. This is probably closer to truth than hyperbole. Despite the quality of the instruments once the endorsement deal ended all three guitarists returned to the use of Fenders Years later, n 1996 Fender released a limited edition Ventures Signature Series of guitars consisting of their original Jazzmaster, Stratocaster, and a Fender Jazz Bass. This time the band had a hand in their design and specifications. When Nokie Edwards left the band in 1968 he reverted to his Mosrite During this hiatus Edwards was replaced by Gerry McGee and Edwards reverted to his Mosrite guitar for solo projects during this period. When he returned to The Ventures in 1973 he again played a Fender, though occasionally pulled out his Mosrite.
The Ventures had also made a very savvy move in licensing their music to Japanese labels that would include Toshiba/EMI. Japan is the world’s second largest market for recorded music-The Ventures popular appeal in Japan came just as electric guitars were first being marketed in Japan- Soon The Ventures and their use of the electric guitar were in such popular demand that they began to tour extensively in Japan. Throughout their career they have been a huge draw in Japan. The move to satisfy the Japanese market would provide a boon when The Ventures became less popular in the US during the 1970s. They also recorded and released about 50 albums specifically for the Japanese market, while continuing to tour Japan on a regular basis.After the 60’s their US output did modest sales and a dedicated fan base did not diminish in Japan. The very fact that the band had never been dropped by a major label until late in their career allowed them to record and release the vast number of albums they’re known for. . They also licensed their recording to labels all around the world. The Ventures were consistent sellers no matter what label was issuing or distributing. Even poor promotion would not detract from their strong fan base. But great deals with the Japanese and European markets brought in good royalties and a savvy approach to contracts and their huge audience outside the US (even to this day) was a large part of The Ventures success even as music fans at home were turning their backs on what was becoming considered dated artists.
At the advent of the 80s the Surf Sound, along with Rockabilly began to pique the interest of musicians and fans on the outer fringes of popular music. At first the interest was largely a novelty (who can forget the silly “poodle skirt” era of the 80s?) The Ventures became associated with post-modernism-a slightly jaded form of kitsch that was meant to be shared by folks supposedly “in-the-know” But as the popularity of bands like The Cramps and The Stray Cats became more serious, musicians and fans followed suit. An entire genre of “surf punk” music arose with bands like Agent Orange, The Forgotten Rebels, and of course The Surf Punks at the forefront. Many other bands would pepper their output with a surf or rockabilly song or two.Later film directorsused surf music in their film soundtracks. Quentin Tarantino was instrumental in this by including classic surf tracks in his movie 1994 film Pulp Fiction. Although their profile had been rising during the 80’s The Ventures were once again on top.
A new generation had found The Ventures…and took them seriously as masters of American pop culture. Sales of their old (and new) albums picked up. More and more live dates in the US and in Europe were being booked…at first in smaller clubs, but they were finding the venues were getting bigger. By the time the huge corporate-sponsored era of festivals became fashionable the band was playing in front of crowds in the tens of thousands…or even hundreds of thousands.
Finally in 2008 one of the band’s dreams would come true. It was also the dream of Josie Wilson, who had died a year earlier. The Ventures finally were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Artists become eligible only after the first 25 years of their careers. The Ventures had passed that mark by 22 more years. The night of their induction by John Fogarty (Creedence Clearwater Revival) two of the “classic era” members of The Ventures were on hand; Nokie Edwards and Don Wilson. Bob Bogle and Gerry McGee were unable to attend. Being ignored by the Hall of Fame so long had been a bitter pill for Don Wilson, but when asked “Why so long?” Wilson simply said “All we did was quietly sell millions of records.” In 2010 The members of The Ventures were also awarded The Order of the Rising Sun by the Emperor of Japan.The medal originated in 1875 and symbolizes “energy as powerful as the rising sun.” The ceremony took place at the Queen Anne consulate. During the ceremony Japan Consul General Kiyokazu Ota said”
“The Ventures’ unique ‘teke-teke sound’ … grabbed the heart of many Japanese young men and women. These young fans in turn formed groups of their own, thus creating a huge boom of electric-guitar sales in Japan.”
So what of the players that have been part of The Ventures?
In 1972 drummer Mel Taylor left the band to pursue a career because he felt The Ventures had become a “nostalgia act“in and was replaced by drummer Joe Barile. Taylor returned in 1979 and remained with The Ventures until his death in 1996 of cancer and heart failure. After his death his son, Leon Taylor took over his duties as drummer.
Gerry McGee also left the band only to return. He walked away in 1978 to work as a solo artist as well as recording and touring with Dwight Yoakum, John Mayall, Kris Kristofferson and others. He returned to The Ventures in 1985 and is the only active remaining member left from any of the 1960’s line-ups. During a subsequent tour of Japan McGee suffered a heart attack, but recovered and continues to play with the band.
Bob Bogle had belonged to the recording and touring outfit until his health began to deteriorate. He retired from touring in December 2004 and was replaced by Bob Spalding. He had lived in Vancouver, Washington, for years and died there on June 14, 2009, at 75 of non-Hodgkin lymphoma;
Howie Johnson, the neck-braced drummer that stayed with The Ventures for their first few tours and albums passed away in January of 1988.
Skip Moore who had been the actual drummer that had played on Walk Don’t Run had died in 1988. Some musicologists have argued that it was Johnson who played on Walk-Don’t Run using the pseudonym “Skip Moore”, but the evidence points a different direction.
Nokie Edwards left the band a second time in 1984 to work in Nashville with Country and Western artists including lead guitar on Lefty Frizell’s final album. Edwards re-upped with The Ventures for a short time in the late 80’s but soon returned to Nashville and began a very successful career with producer and fellow musician Art Greenshaw. The critically acclaimed collaboration of Edwards and artist-producer Greenhaw has resulted in Edwards being nominated for “Grammy Award for Best Southern, Country or Bluegrass Gospel Album of the Year” with 2005’s “20th Century Gospel” andSouthern Meets Soul”in 2006.
Bob Spalding has remained part of The Ventures while pursuing his own solo projects. In 2016 Bob’s son, Ian Spalding’ became The Venture’s bass guitarist. Bob now lives in San Bernardino CA.
In 2015 Don Wilson retired from touring and recording with The Ventures. Since then he continues to keep the memory of the original outfit in public view. He now lives in Sammamish WA.
And what of the young George T. Babbit Jr., who, at 16, was too young to play with The Ventures? Soon after his departure from the band he went to college and joined the ROTC. He then enlisted in the US Air Force and rose to the commission of 4-Star General. Between 1997 to 2000 he served as Commander of the Air Force Materiel Command (COMAFMC). On March 1, 1998, (while on active duty as 4-star general), he joined The Ventures onstage in uniform on drums. He is now living in retirement in Bremerton WA.
The current touring line-up of the Ventures is:
Gerry McGee – Lead Guitar (joined in 1968)
Bob Spalding – Lead & Rhythm Guitar (joined in 1981)
Leon Taylor – Drums (joined in 1996)
Ian Spalding – Bass (joined in 2016)
-Dennis R. White. Sources: Del Hartleman”Walk Don’t Run-The History of The Ventures ( Del Hartlman, 2011);Jame Bush. “Encyclopedia of Northwest Music” (Sasquatch Books, 1999); Jim Clash “The Ventures’ Don Wilson On His Big Hit Single Hawaii Five-O, More” (Forbes Magazine,