"THE FAIRMONT SINGERS: OREGON's FINE FOLKIES" (1962)

THE AMERICAN FOLK MUSIC boom of the 1950s gained even more momentum as the 1960s dawned. Young new groups formed all across the land, and the Northwest saw its fair share of spirited kids singing and recording traditional tunes. Among those scoring notable recording deals were The Group (Golden Crest Records) from Olympia, the Brothers Four (Columbia Records) from Seattle, the Chad Mitchell Trio (Colpix, and Kapp Records) from Spokane, and the Travelers 3 (Elektra Records) from Eugene, Oregon.
Then there was the Fairmont Singers who originally formed as high schoolers, and having been inspired by hometown heroes, the Travelers 3, they carried on into their college years at Eugene’s University of Oregon. The band’s lineup solidified as: Dave Ellington (vocals, guitar), Hal Ayotte (tenor vocals, tenor guitar), Terry Tillman (banjo), & Rob Mills (vocals, bass). In the summer of ’61 they scored a two-week gig at the famous Ice House folk club in Pasadena, California, where they struck a chord with the discerning audiences and their contract was extended to a whole month.
During that time one of the most successful late-‘50s folk/pop pioneers, Jimmie Rodgers (of Camas, Washington) – whose tunes like 1957’s “Honeycomb” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” had became international hits – discovered, and then began mentoring the group. The Fairmont Singers were suddenly opening concerts and nightclub gigs for Rodgers, including a home-coming show on April 28, 1962 – the Folk Music ’62 event at UO’s Mac Court venue (with a concert at 7:30 pm, and a dance at 9:30 pm).
Along the way Rodgers began producing the band’s recording sessions for the same label he was currently with, Dot Records. They cut a dozen tunes – including “This Land Is Your Land” which Woody Guthrie had written during his days in the Northwest. The end result was their 1962 album, Jimmie Rodgers Presents the Fairmont Singers [Dot DLP 3439 / 25439] – which is a fairly scarce unit today. The album’s content consisted of these tunes:
  • “900 Miles”
  • “Copper Kettle”
  • “Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”
  • “Cockles and Mussels”
  • “Bull Run”
  • “Pastures of Plenty”
  • “This Land Is Your Land”
  • “Billy Don’t Play the Banjo”
  • “Cindy, Oh Cindy”
  • ”Shiloh”
  • “I’m Just A Country Boy”
  • “Sweet Mary Jo”
 Text copyright ©, 2014, Peter Blecha

"THE FABULOUS HAMMERS: PIKESVILLE" (2009)

SO WHERE IN THE WORLD, exactly, did these Fabulous Hammers pop up from?

Well, right here in Seattle of course – and if you would just listen to the rock band's stunning brand new disc you wouldn't be asking such silly questions.

The Hammers boast an enviably slinky '60s vibe that unmistakably harkens directly back to the heyday of the original "Northwest Sound." Talk about a regional rock 'n' roll time-warp! The original compositions contained on the Fab Ham's new 14-song disc reveal a remarkable fluency in the musical language developed in this region four decades ago by such influential local players as the Dave Lewis Trio, Frantics, Wailers, Playboys, Dynamics, Viceroys, and Imperials. Song-by-song, one can detect sly and skillful aural homages to some of the finest instrumental rock songs produced in the Pacific Northwest between 1959 and 1965. 

But far from just "borrowing" specific riffs or "quoting" previous hits, the Hammers instead evoke the entire musical milieu that was forged by the first generation of teenaged Northwest rockers. Laced throughout the 14-song disc are the requisite oomphs of an electric organ, the traditional saxophone squawking, the rockin' garage/jazz guitar lines (informed by innovations pioneered back in the day by aces with names like Coryell, Dangle, Nokie, Olason, and Johansen) – all anchored by reams of driving bass-work, snappy snare-drumming, and sizzling cymbals.

Such standout tunes as "Late Last Night," "4 Quarts of Soul," "Pikesville," and "Wasabi" (think "Tequila"), are no mere museum-pieces -- and, Hey: I like museums! -- or simple-minded salutes to bygone days of Northwest glory. Instead, this band is a living testament to the timeless power embodied by a regional strain of rock 'n' roll whose original moment in the sun was, shall we say, unfortunately shaded by other Hollywood-led music biz priorities (Fabian & Annette Funicello anyone?!?). Rather than attempting to recreate a long-gone day, these guys successfully resurrect the best elements of a music-form still held in great esteem by many fans -- but they do it with a modern sensibility and the full-on energy of today. Major kudos go out to the band for this Pikesville disc: Fred Slater (organ), L.A. Berger (sax), Tom King (guitar), Ronaldo (bass), and Steve Howell (drums).

Like the old saw goes: "If the only tool you have is a hammer – everything starts to look like a nail." And, man, do these pounding Fabulous Hammers ever nail it!!!


[NOTE: An edited version of this May, 2009, essay was previously published by The Bluesletter Magazine.]

Copyright ©, 2009, Peter Blecha

"THE SQUIRRELS: SCRAPIN' FOR HITS" (1996)

IF NIRVANA'S MASSIVE MAINSTREAM SUCCESS was -- as the pundits claimed -- the ultimate validation for all the underground punk rock that had come moshing down the pike since the Sex Pistols, then the same correlation ought to be made with the mid-90's radio hits of Seattle's comedic popsters the Presidents Of The United States Of America, and that band's spiritual forebears and musical mentors, Seattle's Mighty Squirrels.


And even though the Presidents' wacky tunes may seem to be a left-field twist on the dark, heavy, sexy, "Grunge rock" that Seattle bands have come to be pegged with in recent years- that wiggy sense of humor is certainly nothing new around these parts. Although having a high humor quotient goes against certain trends in the modern post-punk world, the noble quest for goofy musical yuks can in fact be traced way, way back...

Hell, I suppose a case could be made that the humor impulse is actually a particular sub-strain of this region's rock traditions. Indeed, even some of the most revered early Northwest bands had their nutty moments. For example the Ventures' debut 45 from 1959- "The Real McCoy"- features the combo doing a bizarre "Tequila"-esque tune replete with impersonations of that beloved-but-crotchety old TV star Walter Brennan grousing about those despicable rock ‘n’ roll drumbeats. And even the Northwest's tuffest garage-rockin' punks, the Sonics, released their mindless "Village Idiot" recording circa `65. So, who sez you can't rock out and be silly simultaneously?

Certainly not the irrepressible Rob Morgan who has based his whole existence on this precept.

The teenaged Morgan fled home in Edmonds, Washington in 1977 and settled into his notorious rocker flophouse in the U-District with other human flotsam who would soon be forming seminal Seattle punk bands including the U-Men and the Look. Morgan's "first band,"The Fishsticks, were a motley crew who became infamous for throwing frozen seafood at their audience. And is if that wasn't enough, Morgan has persisted over the years with a string of bands with increasingly zany names including the Pudz, the Pamona Boners, and, for over two decades now: the Squirrels.

All of these bands featured Morgan's patented cartoon-quality vocal stylings, beyond-eclectic song repertoires, and a penchant for using costumes, dolls, bubble machines, and large-scale props in their stage shows. It has been Morgan's innate sense of the absurd that helped forge bands which managed to cross-pollinate bubblegum sensibilities with punk attitudes. His first "successful" band, The Pudz, were equal parts 1910 Fruitgum Company tributes, Alice Cooper-inspired horror rock, and black leather punk. What other way to explain the Pudz' seemingly schizoid debut 45: here was an original-yet-instantly-classic Martian Invasion Era punk tune, "Take Me To Your, (Leader)", coupled with a flipside cover of that horrid `60s pop ditty, "Take A Letter, Maria". SHEESH!

Who's in charge here? Why, Rob Morgan of course.

Anyway, The Pudz' A-side got airplay support on Seattle's first New Wave station KZAM, sold out at local record shops, and was later revived on the 1981 "Seattle Syndrome" compilation LP. All of this was quite an accomplishment considering that this modest level of success was as close as one got to having a "hit" during a period when Seattle bands couldn't score if their lives were at stake. Of course, true to the real "Seattle Syndrome", just about the time that the Pudz' tune was picked up by Rodney Bingenheimer at KROQ in LA sparking a few calls of interest from Atlantic Records, the band broke up.

Another interesting aspect of all this is that Morgan's bands' weren't alone in reviving long-lost pieces of pop trash like "Quick Joey Small" and "Yummy Yummy Yummy (I Got Love In My Tummy)". It was back around the dawn of the New Wave in the late `70s/early `80s that Seattle's U-District became the center of an offbeat, wacky school of rock as defined by a slew of fun-lovin' bands including the Frazz, the Dynette Set, the Acoustinauts, Mondo Vita, the Power Mowers, the Young Fresh Fellows, Prudence Dredge, and: the Mighty Squirrels. This then was the parallel universe where the music of the Monkees, Bay City Rollers, and Herman's Hermits was held in far higher regard than, say, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, or Cream. Get the picture yet?

In the early `80s Morgan formed Ernest Anyway and the Mighty, Mighty Squirrels with backup by members of the new Young Fresh Fellows band. When YFF's album was touted in Rolling Stone and the guys needed to focus on their own thing, Morgan quickly recruited a few new members including veterans of the Frazz and Prudence Dredge (most notebly guitarist Joey Kline, who has pretty much been with the band ever since). Rechristening the band New Age Urban Squirrels, they quickly learned their first song- a Who-style/parody version of Billy Joel's "Just The Way You Are." OUCH!

Over the years, and with an ever-revolving cast of castoffs contributing, Morgan's ever-evolving musical vehicle was booked at clubs and concerts throughout the Northwest under various ridiculous monikers including The Squirrels Group `87 (AKA Crosby, Squirrels, and Nate), Ron Voyage and the New Squirrels, the 23 Squirrel Five, and the Squirrels Live Unit. Over the years Morgan's bands have shared the stage with headliners including Iggy Pop, The Dickies, 999, Jonathan Richman, Dread Zeppelin, the Wallflowers, Roy Loney, The Sweet, the Village People, Mojo Nixon, and the Pleasure Barons.

On the collectables front Morgan's bands have issued numerous LPs, CDs, 45s, cassettes, etc., including the psychotic "Oz On 45" disc (the b-side of which featured members of The Posies on a surprisingly straight reading of "Alone Again (Naturally)"). Interestingly enough, the record won by popular vote the 1989 Northwest Area Music Association's Best Single award, beating out competition including Mudhoney's "Touch Me, I'm Sick"...they've really done it all.

What they don’t have is a legitimate big-time hit.

This is what it has all come down to: Either the public rewards Morgan & Co. with a damn hit or else. Let's leave no room for doubt: if the band's latest CD (whatever it may be) doesn't jump-start Morgan's musical career, why he's just liable to... to... well, knowing Rob, I suppose that he'll up & record some more musical insanity just like he's always done. Whether or not Morgan finally scores as a result of his efforts is anybody's guess. What is certain is that Rob Morgan will have the last laugh.

He can't help himself: he's having too much fun...

(This essay originally appeared as liner notes to PopLust's CD.)

Copyright ©, 1996, Peter Blecha

"THE ULTIMATE SONICS" (1990)



THE SONICS WERE THE UNHOLY PRACTIONERS of punk rock long before anyone knew what to call it. But that's not to say that certain parents in the Pacific Northwest didn't try to come up with a few choice words for the band and their primitive and brutally raucous sound.

Originally cut in 1964 and '65 the recordings offered here represent nothing less than some of the very rawest and most savage rock music yet achieved by mankind.

The Sonics aggressive aural attack was due in equal measure to the perfectly chaotic lead guitar spasms of Larry Parypa, the murderous screams that serve as vocal lines as patented by Gerry Roslie, the frenzied propulsion generated by Rob Lynn (sax) and Andy Parypa (bass) and the absolutely atomic tub thumping of Bob "Boom Boom" Bennett. These five bad-boys were strictly lewd, rude and crude.

Not only did the Sonics come up with killer riffs on a regular basis but their song's lyrical content relentlessly explored the full range of topics from satanic threats ("He's Waitin’"), to evil chicks ("The Witch"), to the joys of overdosing on toxic substances ("Strychnine") to disturbing mental states ("Psycho"). And all this in the name of fun.

The Sonics helped fuel a vibrant teen dance scene that also included other such notable Northwest combos as the Frantics, the Kingsmen, Paul Revere & the Raiders, the Ventures, Don & the Goodtimes, the Viceroys, the Counts, the Dynamics, and of course the one band that overshadowed virtually all of them - the Fabulous Wailers.

Inspired by the Wailers' success, the Sonics formed in 1963 on the north side of Tacoma, Washington, in the heart of Boeing country. "We got our name from the sonic boom made by the jets," Andy once recalled. "It seemed natural."

The young band's first gigs were the usual, teen sock-hops and skating rink parties, and on occasion threw their own dances before finding work at places such as Evergreen Ballroom, Pearl's in Bremerton and of course the Spanish Castle Ballroom on old Highway 99

Although they maintained the standard 5-piece lineup (sax, keys, guitar, bass, drums) and they did share with many other local bands a common core of the Northwest standards in their repertoire, the Sonics simply transcended any possible limitations erupting with a tough and unprecedented new sound. It took a good year for the Sonics reputation to take hold, but then came the day when the Wailers' bassist, Buck Ormsby, out scouting for talent for their label happened to cross paths with our boys. "They were practicing in Bob Bennett's basement," Ormsby recalled in 1985. "I was looking for something that was different, something that would rock my socks off. I went down and saw them, and I found it. I liked the guitar because it sounded dirty, and I liked Gerry because he was such a screamer."

As producer, and co-producer with Kent Morrill, Ormsby's greatest challenge was to capture on tape, by whatever means necessary, the raw power and sinister essence of ths unique quintet. And he didn't give a damn what it took to accomplish this. In this quest they must have irked the poor studio staff to no end. The band members began by tearing down half the egg cartons that lined the ceiling and walls in one studio, "to get a liver sound." They then proceeded to push every piece of the studio's ancient gear well past reasonable limits. By redlining the deck's VU meters and overloading every tube in every old amp in the place the Sonics found their sound. "We had a hell of a time with the engineers," says Ormsby. "They just weren't used to the full energy stuff. You have to remember that the state of the recording industry in 1964 was something less than crude. We kept saying we wanted to do this or that and they kept saying you can't do that. We didn't care if it bled - I wanted to hear sweat dripping on the tape."

Hey, it bled. It sweated. And it was the most gloriously primitive din you were ever lucky enuff to hear on your transistor radio.

That first single, The Witch, charted within weeks on a few brave but minor local radio stations, but not on KJR the region's dominant Top-40 giant. Led by DJ Pat O'Day the station was clearly ignoring the single. Kids kept requesting "The Witch", so Pat started playing it on KJR and the place went nuts". Charting on KJR's fabulous 50 gave it a real boost and before long "The Witch" was breaking out in scattered radio markets including Orlando, Pittsburg, upstate New York, and San Francisco. "The Witch" became the all time best selling local rock single in Northwest history. Andy once revealed, "O'Day later told me that eventually the song had reached #1 in sales, but the station policy said it was too far-out to chart at #1." The station only played it after kids got out of school because of the station management's fears of alienating the housewives that comprised KJR's daytime audience.

1965 was a wild year for the Sonics. These were the glory days for Northwest Rock in general and for the Sonics in particular. By 1966 the band had opened shows for many top acts including the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, Jay & the Americans, Ray Stevens, Herman's Hermits, the Righteous Brothers, the Kinks, and the Lovin' Spoonful

In '66 the Sonics signed with Seattle's Jerden label which released a handful of uneven recordings that received national distribution through ABC Records, but regrettably they just never did score that one big international smash hit. But then, their’s was a specialty market, a finite potential audience, perhaps an acquired taste.

The Sonics remained a top draw at local dances right into 1967 when they broke their last sound barrier and folded. The Sonics will forever be revered for their solid proto-punk contributions to the sixties. They rocked like bastards and one imagines to this day that their name alone might send high school principals and small town police chiefs running for cover.

Three chords, two tracks, and one hell of a band: THE SONICS!


[NOTEThis essay was also published as liner-notes to the Sonics' 1993 British CD Psycho-Sonic (Big Beat CDWIKD 115) & again in 1997 with a re-issue CD]















Text copyright © 1990, Peter Blecha

"NORTHWEST BATTLE of the BANDS: Vol. I" (2001)

AT EASE TROOPS: Resting in your hands is the first volume of Ace Records’ mighty Battle of the Bands compilation sets of prime vintage rock ‘n’ roll from the Pacific Northwest. And though this CD series is new, the tradition that it is named for dates well back in time and was, for example, already established in the jazz world at least as far back as the Roaring ‘20s. Needless-to-say, of course, decades later when some rock ‘n’ rollers got ahold of the idea, the stakes were raised considerably.
 
Regional Band Championships, in which legions of local bands battled for supremacy, were first promoted as part of Seattle’s (and then Portland’s and Spokane’s) Teen Fair events in the mid-‘60s. The strategic objective for young musicians – other than a chance at winning the attentions of girls – was to capture some of the array of spoils being offered, chief among them being a genuine recording contract with the happenin’ local label that had recently launched the Kingsmen’s infamous “Louie Louie” 45 from the Northwest into an international phenomenon.Indeed, this entire Ace Records CD series is based on the prodigious output of Jerry Dennon’s Seattle-based Jerden family (e.g. Panorama, Piccadilly) of labels – a consortium that released many additional radio hits and contributed more than any other firm in the promotion of Northwest rock.

It seems worthwhile to ponder for a moment here the notion that a staged musical skirmish’s ultimate purpose is probably similar to that of certain competitive sports, that is, as one of modern culture’s ritualized forms of warfare – a way to blow off steam. But even though bloodshed and wanton pillaging have been relatively rare at such rock ‘n’ roll rumbles, the battles have not all been without consequence. One extreme example is documented by a notorious mid-‘60’s “Grudge Match” poster (Mr. Lucky & the Gamblers vs. the Redcoats) which proclaimed that the losing local band would suffer what was undoubtedly then considered to be the most horrendous punishment imaginable: the public shaving of their heads! Wow -- wasn’t that outlawed by the Geneva Convention?


Witnesses recall that competition among the scores of teen combos engaged in the ‘65 Battle was particularly fierce – Hey! Tell the truth: How would you, tenderfoot, like to have had to square off against such battle-hardened vets as the Sonics, Live Five, Bandits, Dynamics, Liberty Party, Counts, Bards, Dimensions, City Limits, Mercy Boys, Don & the Goodtimes, George Washington & the Cherrybombs, and Mr. Lucky & the Gamblers? – but, when the drums were stilled, the dust settled, and the smoke had finally cleared, the first Battle of the Bands! compilation LP honored the victorious combatants.

Similarly, the ’66 battle rewarded the top-ranked combos (the Kingsmen, Sonics, Bards, Live Five, Magic Fern, Brave New World, London Taxi, Bumps, Springfield Rifle, Breakers, PH Phactor Jug Band, Don & the Goodtimes, and the Rock Collection) with inclusion on the second Battle of the Bands! volume. The champion band that year was Seattle’s Jack Horner & the Famous Plums who also scored both an old-fashioned trophy and a then-cutting-edge electric 12-string guitar before slipping into obscurity.

Because Dennon’s labels documented this region’s musical evolution from the earliest original “Northwest Sound” instrumental years, up through the garage rock heyday and well into the psychedelic sixties era, his Master Tape vaults are still capable of providing significant surprises. And so, Ace is proudly able to offer here, for the first time anywhere, a good number of previously unissued discoveries that offer ten-megaton proof of the power of one region’s take-no-prisoners rock ‘n’ roll traditions…and a sound that continues to storm the barricades and conquer hearts around the world.

(This essay originally appeared as liner notes to the CD issued by Ace Records.)

"THE SONICS: BUSY BODY!!! LIVE IN TACOMA 1964" (2007)

IT WAS IN THE SUMMER of ’64 when a couple of DJs from Tacoma, Washington’s KTNT radio station began hauling a car-load of broadcasting gear around to various remote teen-dance venues in town and their weekly Teen Time program made its on-air debut. Every Friday night (10:35 p.m.—11:00 p.m.) for two years Teen Time featured live performances by energetic young local bands including the Regents, Galaxies, Accents, and Sonics.

These recently unearthed recordings of the Sonics’ Teen Time sets from the Red Carpet teen club (5212 South Tacoma Way) and the Tacoma Sports Arena (South 38th and South Tacoma Way) are a treasure. In addition to an explosive early blast through the Sonics’ own soon-to-be radio hit, “The Witch,” we are also treated to two sets of songs that reveal how a regional sound can be sparked when a cluster of bands begin emulating each other.

The Pacific Northwest’s early rock ‘n’ roll scene was shaped in part by the fact that the first pioneering bands often had some of their tunes – or even entire set-lists –copied by impressionable up-&-coming bands. In Tacoma, the band to emulate was the Wailers, a combo who first rocked the world back in ‘59 with their international hit record, “Tall Cool One.” The commercial success of that debut disc swept the teenaged band from their hometown of Tacoma, Washington to a big-time tour of major East Coast markets and their hit also won fans in distant lands ranging from England to Germany, Canada to South Africa.

Meanwhile, back in their hometown area, the Wailers’ influence was so strong that a legion of newer bands – including the Ventures, Paul Revere & the Raiders, the Kingsmen, Don & the Goodtimes, and the Sonics – all learned much by studying their performances and recordings, and along the way the original “Northwest Sound” was forged.

Indeed, members of the Sonics practically learned their instruments by playing along with “Tall Cool One” and the Wailers’ other early discs – but as the Teen Time sessions show, the Sonics also came to admire some of the best tunes featured by other groups around the region. So, in the two broadcast sets documented here we have a number of songs associated with other Northwest bands including the Viceroys’ “Goin’ Back To Granny’s,” the Dynamics' live favorite “Busybody,” and “Night Train,” a tune that many of the era’s bands dug, and that Paul Revere & the Raiders even used as the b-side to their 1963 “Louie Louie” 45.

But just as the Sonics had been directly inspired by the Wailers, that pattern of influence repeated itself once again when even newer bands began padding their repertoires with signature Sonics songs – and that is precisely how the Master Tape for this new album came into existence. As it happened, a 15-year old Seattle bassist named Doug Paterson spent many a Friday night with his ear glued to the radio and a 4-track Ampex tape deck cued up to record the live broadcasts of local combos – all in order to bring new tunes to his garage band, Consolidated Roq.

What Paterson couldn’t have known at the time was that the Sonics were a band that would transcend their era and continue to hold sway in the hearts of savvy rock fans around the globe all these decades later. Miraculously he managed to hang onto his tape archives and this remarkable recording represents the first vintage live recordings of the Sonics to publicly surface in over two decades. Although the sound quality here is somewhat compromised due to the circumstances surrounding its creation – a live AM radio broadcast captured on reel-to-reel tape some forty years ago – having this rare chance to listen to the band in their early prime is to once again revel in awe of the raw power of the Sonics.

  (This essay originally appeared as liner notes to the CD issued by Norton Records in 2007)


Text copyright ©, 2007, Peter Blecha

"THE '50s ROCKABILLY INVASION of the NORTHWEST" (2001)

"LAND OF THE ROCKING SUN: WHEN MEMPHIS' ROCKABILLY GODS INVADED THE NORTHWEST"

ONCE UPON A TIME – long before the Northwest region was established as one of the world’s great rock ‘n’ roll incubators – locals actually had to “import” genuine rockers for entertainment and inspiration. And one of the great “exporters” of new sounds in the 1950’s was Memphis, Tennessee, home of the ground-breaking Memphis Recording Services. That studio – and its associated Sun Records label – gave birth to the new hillbilly rock, or rockabilly, music pioneered by the likes of Elvis “That’s Alright Mama” Presley, Carl “Blue Suede Shoes” Perkins, Roy “Go! Go! Go!” Orbison, and Jerry Lee “Great Balls of Fire” Lewis -- all of whom made a direct impact on young rock ‘n’ roll fans (and musicians) by touring and bringing their new brand of music out to the backwaters of the Pacific Northwest.

Now, the Sun stars were not the first, or only, rockabilly cats to roll through this region – Bill “Rock Around The Clock” Haley & His Comets blazed through in 1956 and ‘57 doing shows at various grange halls and roadhouses. Buddy “Rave On” Holly & the Crickets performed here around ’58 as did Gene “Be Bop A Lula.” Vincent and the Blue Caps. (Incidentally: Vincent actually liked the area so well that he moved here, lived locally, married – and between ‘58 and ‘60, even assembled a new band comprised of Northwest boys.) And too, Eddie “C’mon Everybody” Cochran (along with Ritchie “La Bamba” Valens) came up from Los Angeles to play a couple local dates in 1959.

But of the Sun luminaries, Elvis Presley was the first to play locally. Elvis’ trio made their first tour swing through the region in 1957, playing just five dates (Spokane, Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, and Vancouver, BC). Roy Orbison, on the other hand, discovered that he could work this market for weeks on end by performing at skating rinks, grange halls, armories, ballrooms, and community centers in every 2-bit town on the map and so his tours were extensive and he spent numerous weeks performing here. It was a similar situation with Jerry Lee Lewis whose rampage through the Northwest began with a few scheduled dates and was expanded as his legend spread.

Of course part of Lewis’ legend was as that of a wildman whose shows were riotous – known for wrecking pianos from coast to coast, Lewis always kicked piano stools across the stage, sometimes shoved pianos off stages into crash heaps -- and, at least once, even set a piano aflame.

Well, the lucky local combo that got hired to open for Lewis’ band on the Northwest leg of his ’58 tour was Centralia Washington’s Clayton Watson & Silhouettes. Watson, now age 62, recently recalled how much he admired Lewis’ menacing onstage demeanor: “It wasn’t something you were used to [at that time]. I mean: Little Richard (who I saw a lot) had that same sort of wild abandon – but not that sense of danger. Little Richard’s band was tight and well-rehearsed, [but] with Jerry Lee Lewis you didn’t feel like anything was rehearsed. Anything could happen here. He carried on a lot.” Watson vividly recalls other crazy nights like the dance where a brawl erupted onstage and somebody “got knocked through the bass drum…it took ‘em a while to clear that.” Then there was the night they played the Cottonwoods hall outside of Albany, Oregon and “Afterwards we went out to eat. Later he and his band came in and sat down a couple booths over. Then a guy came over and unplugged the jukebox and Jerry Lee went and plugged it back in – it was playing his records I think – and told him to leave it alone. [Laughter] so, they were really gettin’ into it…they was wrasslin’ all over the place!”

Partially due to the exposure they received on that tour, the Silhouettes, who were once billed as “The First Rock and Roll Band in the State,” soon became known as a sort of “A-team” and were subsequently hired to perform with visiting rockabilly stars like Buddy Knox, Jimmy Bowen, and Dorsey Burnette.

But of all the rockabillies, Lewis was easily the most outrageous, and his shows the most volatile. Here’s a revealing little tale from those days: Around 1959 Lewis was booked to perform at Seattle’s fabled Parker’s Ballroom which had hosted dances since the Big Band glory days of the 1930s. Then in the late-‘50s Dick Parker and his wife began dabbling in the new field of rock ‘n’ roll sock hops and teen dances. There were plenty of memorable nights during those years including the legendary time when teen idol Bobby Darin sang his hits there (supported by Seattle’s hometown heroes, the Frantics). Then too, Olympia’s doo-wop hit-makers, the Fleetwoods, made one of their very few Seattle performances at the ballroom. And so, Parker’s was becoming established as a cool north end outpost for early rock ‘n’ roll fans and things were going just swell. Swell, that is, until “The Killer” rolled into town.

That fateful night Lewis reportedly provided a typical rafter-shaking performance of all his hits like “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” So far so good. But then, after masterfully working the crowd to a thoroughly frenzied fever pitch, Lewis ratcheted things up yet another notch by applying one of his patented stage tricks – jumping atop the piano.

Well, that was the final straw for Mrs. Parker. Rightfully concerned that the rockabilly hellion was scuffing up the ballroom’s new instrument with his street shoes, she reportedly stormed the stage mid-song and scolded the star down from his perch. Whether or not the entire show was stopped cold isn’t certain, but what is known is that the Parkers made the firm decision that rock ‘n’ roll shows would no longer be welcome at their venue. This was a disappointing turn of events for many fans who had come to rely on Parker’s as a mainstay of their weekend agendas. But the management was firm in their resolve, and it seems that the ban lasted for about a full year and a half.

That’s when Parker agreed to hear a pitch from a nice young fresh-faced fellow named Jim Valley who was a leader of a fairly new local band called The Viceroys. Valley explained that his band – who had honed their act playing mainly “functions” at the Seattle Tennis Club, the Washington Athletic Club and other stops on the local “society circuit” – really wanted to perform at the ballroom and would do everything they could to keep things safe and sane. For unknown reasons, the Parkers caved, the Viceroys played (jumping up on the piano nary a time) and once again the grand old hall was back in the rock ‘n’ roll biz.

But by then the rockabilly trend was winding down. And even though the music of those seminal Sun pioneers had inspired a generation of local rockabillies and rockabelles (including Bobby Wayne & the Warriors, Darryl Britt & the Blue Jeans, Johnny Clark & the Four Playboys, the Volk Brothers, Jerry Merritt & the Pacers, Vinnie Duman & the Rhythmaires, Ray Gentry, the Maddy Brothers, Sheree Scott, Benny Cliff, Leon Mach, and Leon Smith & the Orbit Rockers) the main thrust of Northwest Rock would rely more on straight R&B elements rather than hillbilly rock.

However, as we all know, the Sun influence – and rockabilly itself – did not die back then. It did, however, hibernate for a number of years while the Surf Rock, British Invasion, Garage Rock, Folk Rock, and Acid Rock trends emerged sequentially. And then around the time that Punk Rock and then New Wave came to fore in the late-‘70s/early ‘80s rockabilly awoke once again and discovered a revived audience. Perhaps the first Northwest band who donned the then-requisite mile-high pompadours and matching hep threads was the Magnetics. After that a whole series of rockabilly bands rose up including: the 88's, the Hurricanes, the Razorbacks, the Alley Gators, the Jackals (later: the Flapjacks), and the Rockabilly Hell 5. In recent years a number of bands that draw the alt.country/Americana/ rockabilly crowds to area nightclubs includes the Picketts, the Souvenirs, and the Dusty 45’s.

Though the Sun stars were nothing less than rock ‘n’ roll “Johnny Appleseeds” – sowing the idea that rockin’ and rollin’ was not only fun, but also eminently doable – the fruit of their efforts went much further than scoring hit records. The Sun sound served as blueprint for teenaged musicians all around the world, and here in the Northwest helped ignite the rock ‘n’ roll scene that continues to inspire a whole lotta shakin’ in area nightclubs and concert halls.

[Note: a version of this essay was originally published by Feedback Magazine in June 2001]