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.

THE BLACK HAWKS: SEATTLE's LEGENDARY ROARING '20s JAZZ BAND (1928)

THE BLACK HAWKS are among the very earliest Seattle-based African-American jazz bands – and members of the "Negro Musicians' Union" (American Federation of Musicians' Local-493) –  whose photograph has survived all these decades. Recently unearthed from the institutional archives of AFM Local 76-493, it represents a whole lotta significant history. Seen standing here in 1928 are (left-to-right): Joe Bailey (bass & tuba), Crawford Brown, Ray Williams, Floyd Turnham Sr. (drums), Floyd Turnham, Jr. (alto sax & fish horn), Robert Taylor, Floyd Wilson, Creon Thomas (drums, violin, banjo, & piano) – & bandleader/pianist/vocalist, Edythe Turnham, seated at center.
The eventual musical matriarch of her family, Edythe Payne originally hailed from Topeka, Kansas, where she'd begun learning piano at age three. Arriving in Spokane in 1900 at around age ten, she married Floyd Turnham, a waiter, in 1907. Together with her sister Maggie, & about four other family members, they created a minstrel show that scuffled for work around the Eastern Washington & Idaho area. In time, new members were added & the ensemble morphed into the Edythe Turnham Orchestra, and then, the Edythe Turnham and Her Knights of Syncopation, which featured her husband & his namesake son, and Maggie (as a dancer). As the band gelled they began to get bookings in rooms including Spokane’s fine Silver Grill – where young Spokane/Tekoa, Washington native, Mildred Bailey, also began her eventual big-time jazz career. In 1920 the family moved to Tacoma, scorings gigs in rooms including the Tacoma Hotel.  Then in 1922, they moved to Seattle where they joined AFM-493, & played gigs in venues including the Alhambra, the Bungalow Cabaret, the Coon Chicken Inn, & the Copper Kettle. The Knights did quite nicely, apparently, with the Turnhams purchasing a home (707 22nd Avenue) in 1926. Then, in 1928, the expanded and renamed Black Hawks nine-piece band scored what would be a successful audition with John Considine’s giant Seattle-based Orpheum Theater circuit. That led to a week-long feature gig in Seattle, & they also set out on the road playing those huge rooms in cities ranging from Winnipeg, Canada, all down through the states, winding up in Los Angeles where they floundered a bit before recasting themselves with a few new players & reemerged as the Dixie Aces. For his part, Floyd Turnham Jr. went on to enjoy quite a solid jazz career in California – but that’s a whole ‘nother story….

SEATTLE'S COLUMBIAN TRIO PLAYS HAWAIIAN MUSIC (1920s)

THE GREAT HAWAIIAN MUSIC CRAZE originally began sweeping over America in the wake of two early Worlds’ Fairs – Portland, Oregon’s Lewis and Clark Exposition of 1907, and then Seattle’s Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909 – which both featured native Hawaiian musicians playing their exotic indigenous tunes. And then, thanks in good measure to Tacoma’s mega-successful pop songster Bing Crosby (1903-1977), Hawaiian-themed music became the biggest-selling genre of musical records in the Roaring ‘20s and well into the 1930s. And that demand for such 78rpm discs (and sheet music) was also matched by increased radio airplay of the music, and box office bonanza’s for vaudeville theaters that booked the growing legions of new Hawaiian-oriented bands.

Among the earliest such bands to pop up in Seattle was The Columbian Trio. Led by an authentic Hawaiian native, steel guitarist J. Nawhai, the ensemble also featured a Spanish-style guitarist (whose name is lost to the mists of time), but who appears in photographs to also have been Hawaiian. Then on ukulele, there was band-manager and music teacher, George M. MacKie, who although apparently not a Hawaiian, was also not a rookie. As early as June of 1918 he was a member of the Queen’s Hawaiians group who performed at the California Complete Small Homes Exposition in Los Angeles that very month.

But by 1920 MacKie (and his wife Florence) had settled in Seattle where they got a home (3608 Palatine Avenue N), and he also rented a downtown music studio (216 Epler Block Building, on 2nd Avenue, between Columbia and Marion Streets) where he offered musical instruction on the ukulele and Hawaiian steel guitar. Indeed, his business cards tried to allure new students with this invitation: “Learn to play ‘the most Weirdly Beautiful Music of the Dreamiest Island ever Anchored in any Ocean!’”

Meanwhile, MacKie helped form The Columbian Trio and they presumably performed around the area. In 1922 the couple – and his mother Mary MacKie, who’d moved in with them in 1921 – relocated several blocks over to a different home (3648 Phinney Avenue), so they had seemingly intended to stay here awhile. But that was not to be. Perhaps because the Epler Building was sold to the Bank of California (whose intent was to raze it to build a new bank), or some other reason(s), the couple left Seattle around 1923.

The Columbian Trio showed up next in Denver, Colorado, where they scored a regular radio slot on KOA. But then they lost a member and went to a local music teacher to inquire if there might be somebody else around who could join them. That teacher pointed them towards one of her students, Don Wilson (who would later gain some fame as Jack Benny’s announcer). As Wilson would recall in a 1980 interview: “I joined them and we were busier than bird dogs. We made a lot more money in radio, even in those days, with the extracurricular things that we did, appearances of all kinds, including fill-ins at the Orpheum Theatre. Whenever an act couldn’t appear, the trio would be engaged to play a week here and a week there.”

The Columbian Trio also traveled the West Coast a bit, performing on stations including KFI in Los Angeles, and KGO in Oakland. But somewhere along the way the band was saddled with a corporate sponsor the Piggly Wiggly self-service supermarket chain – and they agreed to change their name to the somewhat less-than-dignified “Piggly Wiggly Hawaiian Trio.” It remains unclear exactly where and how that regrettable transmogrification took place. Denver?  Or, Los Angeles (where by 1925 the MacKies had resettled at 121 S Flower Street)? Or even in Seattle where, back in 1921, Boulder, Colorado’s William Louis Avery had arrived to open up a Piggly Wiggly franchise store downtown (408 Occidental Avenue)? The last meager clue uncovered about all this is that Mary MacKie had acquired her own home in Seattle (1717 W 58th Street) by 1925, and after that she, like George and Florence MacKie, disappears from the public record…