THE CHECKERS: YAKIMA'S ROCKERS (1958-1962)

YAKIMA'S LEGENDARY ROCKABILLY KING, guitarist Jerry Lee Merritt, left his local band the Pacers in 1958 to join Gene Vincent for his riotous ‘59 overseas tour and one studio LP, Crazy Times. But that’s a whole ‘nother story . . . 

Meanwhile, the Pacers rock­ed on with new members including Mike Mandel (piano). The band held down a steady gig at the Walk In Club -- Yakima's early teen hangout -- but were eventually ousted by crosstown rivals, the Rumblers.

Around that time period another combo, the Checkers, were starting to create some noise in the Lower Yakima Valley. The original Checkers -- Bob Campbell (piano), Bob Torres (bass), Nick Torres (vocals), Johnny Hensley (guitar), Glen Dahl (vocals, bass) and Ralph Gibson (drums) -- performed their initial gigs at community festivals throughout the In­land Empire. By 1959 Lowell Fronek (drums) and Mike Metko (sax) had joined on. ­Metko, who worked at radio sta­tion KENE, arranged for the group to record their first instrumental-rock single, “The Big Cat”/“Buzz” live from the Toppenish Grange hall.

During this period the Checkers began making trips to the coast to face the Wailers, Frantics, Adventurers and others in Battles of the Bands. Hensley eventually left for Seattle, Campbell dropped out, Mandel was added and later, ex-Rumbler Doug Robertson (drums) joined on. 
By sheer chance the Checkers soon met a young guitarist, Larry Coryell, at Korton’s Music Store in Richland, and hired him on the spot. Earlier Metko’s radio connections got the group hired for a series of shows with singing sensation, Jimmy Bowen. This break led to a long string of gigs backing artists of the day: Brenda Lee, Buddy Knox, Paul Anka, Jimmy Clanton, the Mills Bros., Johnny Preston, Dorsey Burnette, Dodie Stevens, Gene Vincent and many others.

In 1960 the Torres Bros. dropped out, ex-Rumbler, Dick Ruthardt (bass) was added and the Checkers proceeded to do some recording sessions with engineer, Joe Boles, in West Seattle. Then, somehow, the guys convinced themselves to drive to Phoenix, Arizona to find fame and for­tune. However, Coryell was trapped in spring semester high school classes. Hey, no problem! The Checkers packed their gear into a trailer and simply kidnapped Coryell (locked in the trailer!) to Phoenix. Their only booking upon arrival was at a wrestling match intermission.

Months later the Checkers headed to Hollywood with their Boles Studio tapes and began knocking on doors. The Arvee Record Co. agreed to release their twin wild honkers, “Skooby Doo Part l”/ “Skooby Doo Part 2” but only weeks later rereleased “Part I” with “Swingin’ Summer” as the flipside. The Checkers had also recorded “Soft Blue” and a remake of Metko's “Big Cat.” Recorded by Boles for local record mogul Jerry Dennon, the record’s release was delayed for two years, much too late to make a positive im­pact for the band.

In the winter of 1960 to ‘61, the Checkers were signed to an extended road tour with Bobby Vee, the Ventures and Little Bill. With Coryell back attending Richland High, ex-Adventurer Joe Johansen stepped in. By the summer's end Metko moved to Phoenix and another ex-Adventurer, Jim Michaelson, replaced him. The Checkers were invited by Jimmy Bowen and Johnny Burnette to record a single, “Blue Saturday”/ “Cascade” at the famed Gold Star Studios in L.A. “Blue Saturday,” a Floyd Cramer-esque pop-instrumental, saw significant chart action in numerous regions. The Checkers toured that autumn with Freddy Cannon, while Coryell moved to Seattle to attend fall classes at the UW, and he was soon recruited by the Dynamics. The Checkers made their final tour in early 1962, backing Johnny Burnette across Canada. They returned to the NW and gigged locally with newest members Brady Anderson (guitar) and Dennis Yaden (sax) before cashing in their chips in mid-‘62.

The Dynamics became a top draw on the Northwest teen-R&B dance scene, and released several regional hit records including, “J.A.J.” in 1962 and “Genevieve” (with guest organist Mandel) in ‘63; but Coryell also began moonlighting at after-hours jam sessions with the areas top jazzers; Overton Berry, Chuck Mahaffey, Jerome Grey, Chuck Metcalf, etc. In 1965 local players convinced Coryell to further his jazz quest in NYC where he first hooked up with an odd avant outfit, the Free Spirits, who recorded an LP of very primal folk-rock-jazz.

Meanwhile, Mike Metko and the Nocturnals formed and they became a fixture on the Phoenix club scene. Metko’s still in the music biz and has been respectfully nicknamed Daddy Rock ‘n’ Roll by the younger crowd down there. Johansen went on to the Dave Lewis Trio and appears on their classic recordings of 1963-‘66. As one of the key musicians of the early Northwest scene, today Johansen gigs with a trio in Tacoma. Mandel fell into the Sea-Tac blues scene for a long spell and in l969 Jack Bruce (ex-Cream) added him, Coryell and drummer Mitch Mitchell (ex-Jimi Hendrix Experience), creating the world’s newest supergroup. Jack Bruce and Friends toured the country with hard-rockers, Mountain, before dissolving.

In 1971 Coryell and Mandel formed Foreplay and released the Offering LP. Their next ensemble work together was as the Eleventh House, which released three LPs of progressive jazz-fusion between 1973-‘76. In 1980 Mandel recorded an LP for Vanguard Records. By the 1980s he was working out of NYC as a successful freelancer, writing ad jingles and background themes for daytime TV (All My Children, Another World), and was involved in other diverse musical activities. Coryell has gained a reputation as a master of many styles, but since ’76 he has focused on his acoustic classical technique and has written an instructional column in Guitar Player magazine since ‘78. Coryell, has performed and/or recorded with innumerable jazz greats, continues his life in music, recording albums and performing an incredible and ongoing schedule of concerts around the globe.

[This is an updated and revised version of a copyrighted essay by Peter Blecha that was originally written and published in The Rocket magazine in December, 1984.]

BARNEY HILLIARD: SEATTLE’S '50s TEENAGED SAX STAR

BARNEY HILLIARD HAS LIVED TWICE THE LIFE that most people ever will. As a pre-teen saxophonist he studied under Seattle’s 1930s jazz giant, Frank Waldron. Then, while a student at Garfield High School, he helped found Seattle’s first teenage ‘50s rockin’-R&B band, the Dave Lewis Combo. They became locally influential stars – Jimi Hendrix was among their biggest fans – and Hilliard was likely the very first kid to honk out what would ultimately become Washington’s “unofficial state rock ‘n’ roll song,” “Louie Louie.”
The Civil Rights Era saw Hilliard and the Combo, as members of the still-racially segregated AFM Local 493 (“negro musicians union”), helping break down barriers by touring the state in 1955 backing rockabilly stars Bill Haley and His Comets, and later being the first African American band to play the north end’s top teen dancehall, Parker’s Ballroom. And, all along the way, Hilliard honored his own father’s example, by working one or more side jobs– including being the first black man hired as a management trainee by a major downtown department store. While raising his own family of five kids, Hilliard went on to graduate from the University of Washington, serve in the ROTC, work for Governor Dan Evans’ administration, earn his law degree, and serve as manager of a couple businesses and several more government agency departments. Playing in weekend nightclub bands all the while, Barney Hilliard finally retired in 2012 – one year prior to being honored by the musicians’ union for fifty years of dedicated service.

Deep Roots
Barney Hilliard was born on December 6, 1937, to Lamar and Argola Hilliard who had moved to Weed, California, from Mississippi the year prior. But then in 1943 – at the midpoint of World War II – the draw of good-paying shipyard work in Seattle brought the family here where they initially settled in West Seattle. Young Hilliard proceeded to attend E. C. Hughes Elementary School (7740 34th Avenue SW) from kindergarten into second grade. The family then moved to a Central District home (721 21st Avenue) while Mr. Hilliard began a long career at Washington Iron Works. He also made ends meet by taking on a second job as a part-time custodian on weekends – and that example was one that would have a direct bearing on his son’s life.

Hilliard began attending Horace Mann School and at around the same time that his cousin, Bob Herring, acquired a trumpet and began learning to play music. His parents agreed but suggested that instead of another trumpet, he should pick a different instrument, and while shopping at a downtown music shop the youngster selected an alto saxophone.

It was a later when he was attending Meany Jr. High that he met a social studies teacher who taught music to students on the side. Hilliard recently recalled that: “I remember that he introduced me to [jazz great] Coleman Hawkins – he pulled out a record player and played a Coleman Hawkins record for me right then and right there at Meany. He said, ‘Now that’s real music. Listen to what he does and how he does it. Isn’t that smooth?’”

Hilliard liked jazz and early R&B tunes, but because they were rarely aired by Seattle’s whitebread radio stations, he and his pals’ access to this music was almost strictly through records. He earned his record-buying money from a Seattle Post-Intelligencer paper route – and among the sax-men he most admired were Louis Jordan, Illinois Jacquet, Big Jay McNeely, Sam Butera, Gene Ammons, and Cannonball Adderly. “In those days,” said Hilliard, “the mass media considered R&B and Soul and all that to be ‘race music’ and it was banned, so we mostly listened to records in the black community. And so we would have to buy records and listen to those at home or at house parties. So that’s how you would hear the music – and that’s how I found out that a lot of those songs had saxophone solos. I said ‘Oh, boy,’ you know [laughter]. So that got me locked in.”

By this point Hilliard was getting reasonably good on his sax and he fell in with a couple fellow students – Dave Lewis (piano) and John Johnston (drums) – and the trio began performing at various school events (as did Lewis’ other group, a doo-wop vocal quintet, the Five Checks, which included George Griffin) before graduating in June 1953.

Garfield Days
In the fall of that same year these kids began attending Garfield High School, an educational institution already renowned for having most multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and cosmopolitan student body in the Seattle School District. Garfield had already produced such talents as Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, Quincy Jones, and Ernestine Anderson. Hilliard joined Garfield’s marching band (under instructor Ray Johnston), while he also took music lessons with Frank Waldron, a legendary Seattle jazz veteran who had already taught Quincy Jones, Jabo Ward, and many others. Soon Hilliard and his piano-playing buddy Dave Lewis, recruited additional players (including George Griffin as drummer) and formed a quintet, the Dave Lewis Combo.

As Seattle’s first teenaged rockin’-R&B band, the Combo played their debut dance at a YMCA but were soon spotted by prominent entertainment booker, Leonard Russell, who brought them into the old Palomar Theatre. Russell then got them additional gigs in Olympia, Tacoma, Yakima, Everett, Bremerton, and even Oregon’s Jantzen Beach Amusement Park.

Travails & Tours

For five decades Seattle had two racially segregated musicians unions – American Federation of Musicians Local 76 (for the white players), and AFM 493 (for everyone else). Local 76 had always been very zealous in protecting their control of the most lucrative gigs in town, which were the large theaters, nightclubs, and hotel ballrooms downtown and towards the north end. Over the years discussions had occurred regarding the possibility of merging the two unions, but that would not occur until January 1958.

But back in 1954 the Combo was beginning to get a few gigs at cabaret dance parties and that’s when an agent from Local 493 caught them and insisted that they join the union – and Hilliard has been a union man ever since. In the summer of 1955 the Combo was hired as opening act for Bill Haley and His Comets who were out touring Washington in support of their radio hits like “Rock Around The Clock.” And then – after graduating from Garfield in June 1956 – their bands repeated the tour again. That same summer Hilliard took a seasonal job at Boeing, and in the fall began studies at the University of Washington.

Though established as Seattle’s top rock band, the Combo had never yet been able to play at the north end’s prime dancehall, Parker’s Ballroom, which had always been considered Local 76’s turf. But the Civil Rights movement was making progress and Parker’s management wanted the Combo enough to force that union to live with their decision. And thus that wall was finally breached and the Combo showed that they could attract white kids too.

The Birdland & “Barney’s Tune”

At mid-decade local African American businessman Wilmer Morgan converted an East Madison Street neighborhood roller skating rink (and former theater and nightclub) into the Birdland Supper Club. It was here that Hilliard and his pals were first exposed to big-time jazz and R&B artists including Dexter Gordon, Big Jay McNeely, Blinky Allen, Pony Poindexter and Cal Tjader.

It was in 1957 when Morgan invited the Combo to work as Birdland’s house-band. Although the band would be giving up their ability to travel, the upside was that they would have a regular weekend gig in their own neighborhood and a ready daytime rehearsal space as well. Although the Combo had begun by copying their favorite records, in time they began to come up with their own original songs, including Lewis’ later regional radio hit, “David’s Mood” – and “Barney’s Tune,” which when recorded by the Combo in 1960 would stand as the only disc Hilliard would ever cut.

“Louie Louie”

Hilliard took a day job again at Boeing that summer of ’57, and by winter had also renewed courses at UW where he joined on with the ROTC program. On May 3, 1958, he married Norberta Arviso and later that year they were blessed with their first of five children. Meanwhile, the Birdland gig was an key part of his life. The Combo was considered the hottest thing in town and by now plenty of younger musicians – like young Jimmy (“Jimi”) Hendrix – were dropping in nightly to study the best.

One thing they all took away was “Louie Louie.” The Combo had been the first local band to adopt that 1957 tune by California R&B singer, Richard Berry, and from there it eventually snowballed into a must-play teen-dance favorite. Today it is regarded as Washington State’s “unofficial rock ‘n’ roll song” – and it was Hilliard (and the band’s other Sax-man, J.B. Allen) who got all this honking started.

Changing Times

In time George Griffin left the Combo to join guitarist Wendell Johnson at a steady five-nighter gig downtown at Dave’s Fifth Avenue, and in 1959 Hilliard joined them. Hilliard also returned to Boeing, but those late nights out finally caught up with him, and eventually he left Boeing. Hilliard moved on to the Colony Club, playing five nights a week (and backing the floorshows on the weekends) for a year with Leroy Franklin (keyboards/vocals) and Dennis Trout (drums). It was a grueling schedule and one that caused Hilliard to take stock, and finally committing himself to finding a day job and only playing music on weekends.

In the early-mid ‘60s the Civil Rights movement was making significant gains and Hilliard would be a grateful beneficiary of this social progress. “At that time, organizations like CORE and the Urban League were putting pressure on the downtown merchants to do something about hiring African Americans. As it turned out, each of those downtown department stores moved on that. And I was the first [black] management trainee at J.C. Penney’s.”

From 1962 to 1967 Hilliard worked weekdays at Penney’s and weekends playing music. He also managed, in 1963, to purchase a home for his growing family. Meanwhile – between 1962 and 1967 Hilliard played the military base dance gigs all around the area with a variety of weekend bands. But in 1967 he settled in for a three-year stint with the Four Sounds.

Hilliard had a growing urge to get involved in the Civil Rights movement, so in 1967 he accepted a job offer to become coordinator of Equal Employment Opportunity activities and the Jobs Now program for the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. He worked with corporations to identify private sector job opportunities for the disadvantaged and minority youth. Hilliard coordinated with the Seattle Urban League, the State Employment Security Department and various community agencies to find applicants and referrals for jobs through the program. He also conducted race relations seminars for corporate managers and supervisors. He interacted with big-time players like Boeing and Lockheed. Through this activity Hilliard developed a keen sense of local politics and corporate culture, and when he asked some friendly downtown business leaders what next steps he should take for his career, he was advised to complete his college degree and thus in 1968 Hilliard returned to UW where he graduated in 1971.

Law School & Government Gigs

That same year Hilliard entered the UW law school -- while simultaneously playing music on weekends with the Johnny Lewis Trio at the Trojan Horse, and working as a part-time law clerk at PACCAR during that summer of ’71. In addition, Hilliard volunteered as a board member with the Central Area Mental Health Center for over twenty years, and served as board president for six years. The agency provided mental health services for low-income citizens regardless of their ability to pay. They merged with Therapeutic Health Services in 1990. Along the way his connections at the Chamber led to a consultant gig with Governor Dan Evans administration’s Department of Commerce & Economic Development, where he helped organize a statewide minority business program. The following summer Paccar invited Hilliard to work downtown at their litigation law firm.

Hilliard also volunteered with the UW football coaches’ recruiting program from 1975 to 1990, where he served as liaison with Garfield High School to encourage student athletes to attend the UW and play football for the Huskies. During those years, notable recruits were future City Council member Bruce Harrell, and Anthony Allen, who continued his career in the NFL and later, returned to coach football at Garfield.

Upon earning his law degree in 1974 Hilliard embarked on a two decade-long period of employment in the private sector. At Submarine Base Bangor he was a project manager overseeing 150 employees, and then he became a partner in a telecommunications startup that wound down in 1993. For the next 11 years Hilliard commuted to the State Capitol, working first for the Department of Corrections, then at the Insurance Commissioners Office, and finally at the Employment Security Contracts Office.

Then, when the opportunity arose in 2006 to work a bit closer to home, he took on the managerial role at the Unemployment Insurance Tax office in Lynnwood. Four years later he moved on to a Program manager role at the City of Seattle’s Office of Executive Administration (today’s Office of Finance and Administration) where he managed the business license and tax office until retiring in 2012.

A Lifetime of Music

Throughout a long career at corporations and government agencies, Barney Hilliard proved his love for playing music and commitment to entertaining fans by always keeping a band on the side. Back in 1978 the Four Sounds fell apart and in ’79 Hilliard and Jack Smith (drums) regrouped as the Carousel Band by adding DuWayne Andrews (organ), and later Ed Tinker (guitar/vocals). For bigger gigs they’d bring along trumpeter Larry Lusier or Ed Lee), and sometimes Steve Nowak (guitar). The Carousel Band market niche was private golf clubs, yacht clubs, the Seattle Tennis Club and numerous weddings, where they thrived for over twenty-five years.
It was around 1993 that the group decided to play less of the private club- and private party- circuit, and instead find a local venue where they could be based, and where family and friends could attend. That new home-base would be Seattle’s rollicking New Orleans Café. The six-piece Carousel Rhythm & Blues band – occasionally augmented with Shauna Rogers (vocals) – would become a popular monthly draw there for about five years. It was also Hilliard’s all-time favorite gig because they had their six-piece group with the rich sound of the Hammond B3 organ. But all good things must end, and finally in 2012 Hilliard set down his beloved saxophone and left the music biz. But then, in 2013 – a decade after being saluted as a Life Member of AFM 76-493 – the musicians’ union awarded Hilliard with their 50 Year membership pin. Today, a still active Hilliard enjoys retirement; playing golf and watching his grandchildren grow up.

ARAGON RECORDING STUDIOS & the VERN MALLORY ORCH (1944-1945)

HERE IS A PRIME EXAMPLE of how the discovery of a vintage artifact can lead to a research quest that uncovers all sorts of interesting – at least to me – information.
An eBay auction recently yielded a set of 13 acetate discs dated 1944–1945. They each have labels from a previously unknown Seattle facility: Aragon Recording Studios (1916 ½ Fourth Avenue). 

It has been known that a local jazz impresario, Art Benson, had run the Aragon Ballroom on that site during the 1940s and 1950s, but the associated studios & record company are brand new factors.

Now, some of these discs are credited to Vern Mallory and his Orchestra, & Mallory himself was certainly a remarkable fellow. He’d arrived in Seattle back in the 1930s, joined the Musicians Union (AFM-76), & rose through the ranks until he was leading his own band – one of the very few white Swing-era bands that played actual jazz. But, even that’s not exactly correct: Mallory was actually one of the few white bandleaders who was also open-minded enough to periodically bring aboard some of Seattle’s top African American players – members of the town’s other racially segregated union (AFM-493) – including Ulysses “Jabo” Ward (sax) & Roscoe Weathers (sax). But regardless of the racial composition of Mallory’s combo at any particular time, they were one of the few bands with any white players who were hip enough to be booked to entertain the mostly black crowds at the Savoy Ballroom (2203 E. Madison Street).
As for Art Benson: in the mid-to-late-'50s he went on to "discover" a number of local talents and bring them to Chet Noland's Celestial label – including rockabilly pioneers (the Maddy Brothers) & one of Seattle's first black rock 'n' roll acts (Joe Boot & the Fabulous Winds) both of whom I've written about previously.

Am still determining exactly the best way to digitize the music contained on these unique & fragile discs, & will report back when that is accomplished…

[NOTE: Vern Mallory Orchestra photo posted courtesy of AFM 76-493.]

JACK McVEA & HIS DOOR OPENERS (1946-1948)

AMONG THE MORE INTRIGUING SONG-ORIGIN SAGAS associated with the Pacific Northwest, has got to be Jack McVea’s huge 1947 R&B hit, “Open The Door, Richard!” Formerly a tenor saxophonist with Lionel Hampton’s esteemed jazz band – & a contributor to the recording of their big 1942 hit “Flying Home” – McVea had gone on to form his own combo & hit the road.
Their tour-routes brought McVea through the Northwest on repeated occasions, playing various black-oriented nightspots including Seattle’s Washington Social Club (2302 E Madison Street) & Portland’s Dude Ranch (240 N Broadway) where they built up followings of fans who dug their jazz, jump blues, & early R&B. Such bands could also find work gigging on, or near, military bases by Tacoma, Moses Lake, & Vancouver, Washington.

In his 2005 book, Jumptown: The Golden Years of Portland Jazz (1942-1957), historian Robert Dietsche reveals that McVea’s “act at the Dude was more entertainment than art, full of costumes and comedy routines. While he was playing at the Dude and the Vancouver Barracks, he wrote or actually compiled his biggest hit and one of the best-selling records of the decade, ‘Open The Door Richard!’”

The reason McVea is credited with having “compiled” the song is that – original tune aside – the lyrics (or comedic spoken-word storyline) were based on an old, African-American vaudeville routine. McVea & his band simply revived that stage act, and boosted it with a good rhythm & classic riff. The plot, in short, has the rowdy and inebriated band-members all arriving at home one night in the wee hours, and realizing that while they are locked out, their pal “Richard” is inside sleeping. Much hollering, door-knocking, & general tomfoolery results in a fair amount of low-brow humor.

Recorded by Jack McVea and His Allstars in October 1956 for the cool Los Angeles-based Black & White Records company, the song (with a composer credit of: “McVea-Clarke”) began to get considerable plays on tavern jukeboxes and a few black-oriented radio programs. But when 1947 began, a frenzy suddenly erupted and all sorts of labels and artists produced their own competitive renditions of “Open The Door, Richard!”

A version on National Records by pianist Clinton “Dusty” Fletcher (with Jimmy Jones and his Band) was, on January 31, 1947, the first one to hit Billboard magazine’s Best Seller chart. Tellingly, the disc not only gives composer credit to “Fletcher,” but also – in a manner exuding territorialistic sensitivity about the topic – also asserts that his recording is “By the Originator.”

Next came the Count Basie Orchestra’s disc for RCA Victor (with a composer credit of: “McVea-Clarke) which charted on February 7 and soared to the No. 1 slot; then McVea’s disc hit Billboard on February 14, eventually peaking out at the No. 7 slot; that same day the Three Flames disc for Columbia Records (with a composer credit of: “McVea-F. Clark-Howell”) hit Billboard, peaking at No. 4; then came Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five’s foxtrot version for Decca Records (with a composer credit of: “Jack McVea-Dan Howell-‘Dusty’ Fletcher-John Mason”) debuted in Billboard on March 7, peaking at No. 7. Finally, a version by Walter Brown (and the Tiny Grimes Sextet) was issued by Signature Records (with a composer credit of: “McVea-Clark-Howell”) – though about a dozen additional recordings of the tune would soon follow.

When the Duchess Music Corporation published and marketed sheet music for the song in 1947, it listed these credits: “Words by ‘Dusty’ Fletcher and John Mason / Music by Jack McVea and Dan Howell.” Makes one ponder who all these Clarke, Clark, Mason, and Howell dudes were...maybe song-publishing / music biz lawyers? Regardless, with all this action going on it is no wonder that lawsuits broke out over the song’s theoretically lucrative authorship.

In the end, it was Fletcher who won rights to the song – but it was McVea’s disc that earned credit for a couple significant achievements. Historians believe that it was the very first recording to feature a purposeful fade-out ending, and – because various other artists recorded thematically responsive novelty songs, such as Stepin Fetchit’s “Richard’s Answer (I Ain’t Gonna Open That Door)” for Apollo Records – “Open The Door, Richard!” is noted for having sparked the fad of producing so-called “answer songs.”

Meanwhile, when McVea’s band returned to Seattle in 1948 they performed at Sy Groves’ Washington Social Club. Paul deBarro’s 1993 jazz history book, Jackson Street Afterhours, quotes local jazz bassist, Wyatt “Bull” Ruther, recalling that during this period: “If you couldn’t play the blues, you couldn’t play in Seattle. That was during the time when the smaller bands would be patterning themselves after Louis Jordan’s band. There was Jack McVea and his ‘Open The Door, Richard.’ Everybody did that one. You had to entertain.”

The trio that was hired to open this 1948 McVea show was new on the Seattle scene, having just been formed by two cats fresh in town from the south – guitarist Garcia McKee & a blind young pianist/singer, Ray Robinson – who’d hired a bassist, Milt Garred, through Seattle’s “Negro Musicians’ Union” AFM Local # 493. McVea was quite impressed by the Maxin Trio & later, when back in Los Angeles, he mentioned them to black record executive, Jack Lauderdale. Long-story-short, within weeks Lauderdale raced up to Seattle, heard the trio, quickly took them into a downtown studio, & produced what would be the very first bluesy disc ever cut in Seattle and released commercially – “Confession Blues” – which was issued on his Down Beat label. By ’49 Lauderdale was convinced that it was the singer he really wanted to work with, & after the young musician adopted his first and middle names as a new stage name – Ray Charles – he went on to global fame as the “Genius of Soul.” For his part, McVea carried on, recording for Black & White, and touring the “chitlin’ circuit” with his newly renamed band: Jack McVea & His Door Openers.

THE BOEING BAND LIVE @ BOEING FIELD (1931)

WITH THE BOEING AIRPLANE COMPANY in the news a lot these days – mainly because of the firm’s increasing disloyalty to its historic hometown of Seattle while once-again attempting to extort zillion$ in tax breaks from the State of Washington, and additional concessions from its workforce (by threatening to take more work out-of-state) – I figured it was timely to gaze back and recall happier times. Like, ironically, the Great Depression when the Boeing Band used to perform for outbound passengers and spectators alike in free concerts given at Boeing Field’s airplane terminal. Comprised of musically inclined Boeing pilots (on 4 saxophones, a trumpet, clarinet, tuba, and guitar), the octet was photographed in 1931 by ACME Newspictures Inc. – and I was lucky enough to unearth this vintage photographic print – which was originally distributed with the suggested caption headline: “There’s Music In The Air.”

GENE KRUPA ROCKS SEATTLE'S TRIANON BALLROOM (1946)

THE SEATTLE SCENE has nurtured numerous world-class drummers over the years – just consider Skip Moore’s cracklin’ rimshot work on The Ventures’ 1960 global hit “Walk—Don’t Run,” or Dave Grohl’s supercharging of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in 1991. But local audiences have also been exposed to other ace tub-thumpers who came touring through the area, from Lionel Hampton and Buddy Rich and their various bigbands, to Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, & Santana's Michael Shrieve. Still, a good case can be argued that perhaps the most astounding drummer of all time was Gene Krupa (1909-1973) – & at his 1930s-1940s prime he played Seattle at least five times.
Rising up through Chicago’s Prohibition Era jazz scene, in 1934 Krupa joined one of the most high-profile ensembles of its day: the Benny Goodman (1909-1986) band. The first time that Krupa hit Seattle, he appeared with Goodman at the Trianon Ballroom (218 Wall Street).

The Seattle Times’ Lenny Anderson, who attended the show, later described that evening: “The Trianon had subdued lights in bunting that ballooned from a low ceiling, overstuffed furniture on the raised portion that bordered the floor, and the band shell at the north end of the hall. …When it was time for the music to start, a skinny college kid named Norm Bobrow [1917-2008] walked to the microphone and said it was the
thrill of a lifetime to introduce Benny Goodman. Then Goodman smiled his familiar, half-embarrassed grin and played the opening clarinet passage of ‘Let’s Dance’ into a roar of approval from the crowd and against the free-swinging background of the band. It was a 15-piece band that included the likes of Harry James, Gene Krupa, Ziggy Elman and…Jess Stacy on the piano. At intermission, Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton joined Goodman and Krupa in the quartet. …A few scattered couples jitterbugged but most of the crowd was standing, pressing in upon the bandstand. When the band played its big numbers such as ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’…it was almost worth your life to be standing in the front row, jammed in against the bandstand by the crowd behind.”
And it was that hit song, “Sing, Sing, Sing,” which is remembered by history for containing what are thought to be the very first extended drum solos ever cut for a commercial recording. People loved Goodman’s records, but live in person, Krupa’s drumming simply drove their audiences wild. It also brought Krupa’s legions of fans back to see his own bigband at the Trianon when he made return appearances here on: May 24, 1940; September 5, 1941; March 11, 1946; & May 26, 1949.

It was at that 1946 gig when a young Seattle photographer named Mike Michel captured some action shots of Krupa. At the time, Michel worked for the Photo Flash Picture Company which was based in the Wilhard Hotel Building (711 Union Street). His job was to shoot pictures of various attendees and then hurry that film to “an onsite dark-room. There the negative would be rushed in developing the image, quickly cleared and the wet negative put in an enlarger to print…the exposed print was then put through a similar rush process, put on a hot tin to dry, put in a folder and then delivered to” those same customers within twenty minutes – at which point they paid the photographer $1.25 for this souvenir of their memorable evening out on the town. But in this instance, Michel didn’t sell the photos to Krupa, he instead had the star autograph some of them & he held onto them – until recently, when I acquired them.

SADIE & YAM: SEATTLE's "BANJOISTS SUPREME" (1925)


BACK IN THE VAUDEVILLE ERA – when there were countless stage performers barnstorming around the country trying to catch a break in any venue that would have them, many theaters across the Pacific Northwest mounted multi-act shows every week. There would be singers, dancers, comedians, jugglers, elocutionists, whistlers, thespians, trained dancing animals, wrestlers, and musicians of every stripe. Two of America’s largest theater chains got their start and/or were based out of Seattle: the grand Orpheum and Pantages enterprises. But plenty of other nice, if smaller, theaters also booked such shows. Among them was the fabulous and still extant Neptune Theatre (1303 NE 45th Street), which opened in Seattle’s University District on November 16, 1921. 

One vaudeville act that hung around town for at least a while – they had numerous promotional photographs taken here, and also played music downtown on the pioneering KFOA radio station – were SADIE & YAM - “Banjoists Supreme.” A married couple, Yam and Sadie Stephens, played the Neptune as early as 1925, but it is also known that they popped up at the Hippodrome down in Portland, Oregon, and as far away as Ypsilanti, Michigan. One Portland newspaper review stated that there were “A versatile pair…who play their banjos so well that they hold their audiences charmed. They introduce new harmonic ideas and novelty methods of playing. They are experts on the banjo.” Among the tunes they performed were: “Grand Opera Strains,” Theobald Boehm’s “March Militaire,” Frank Meacham’s “American Patrol,” Abraham Holzmann’s “Blaze Away,” Henry S. Cuqua’s “Medley of Old Songs,” and Thomas S. Allen’s “Lot o’ Pep.” While not much more is currently known about Sadie and Yam, those of us in Seattle are lucky that the Seattle Theater Group (SGI) acquired a lease for the Neptune in 2011, and they have been mounting regular live music shows there ever since.