SEATTLE'S FIRST ANNUAL MUSIC FESTIVAL: 1916


IN JULY 1916 AN AMBITIOUS MUSICAL EVENT was promoted as Seattle’s “First Annual Music Festival.” A recently discovered promotional card reveals that the main musical attraction would be a performance of George Frederic Handel’s oratorio from “The Messiah.” A hand-penciled note at bottom states "Heard this in Arena, Seattle, July 23-1916" – but a bit more research will be required to determine what venue that actually was. The festival orchestra’s conductor was none other than the town’s very prominent musician, Claude Madden – who also served the arts community in many other capacities including the Musical Director for the Amphion Society, and the President of both the Seattle Clef Club and the Seattle Composer’s Society. The concert’s soloists included some of the finest singing talents on the local scene including Mary Louise Clary – who was already singing in Seattle by 1902, the same year that the Musical Courier magazine described her as “a contralto of unusual power and fine quality.” Clary went on to record for Victor records in 1923, and tour widely with her own Clary Concert Company. Another, Seattle soprano Alma Simpson, went on to study in Europe and also tour South America several times. The Musical Monitor magazine once noted her as “an American prima donna” who drew large crowds to gigs at prestigious rooms including New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, the Town Hall, and Carnegie Hall. Seattle baritone George Hastings also went on to a career in New York, and later in 1916, Olympia’s famed tenor Theo Karle also went on to make his New York debut and recorded for Victor Records that same year, but cut his best-selling discs later for Brunswick Records between 1920 & 1924. Karle also toured with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, sang concerts throughout Europe, and finally settled back home in the Northwest, finally passing away in Seattle in 1972.

SWEET MADNESS: SPOKANE'S LOST NEW WAVE KINGS (1978-1981)

The practice of rock ‘n’ roll archaeology continuously accelerates as the decades race by. At this late date – and given the countless rock compilation albums that have been issued since the 1980s, & the growing number of albums that have been issued to represent many deservedly overlooked vintage bands – it comes as a supreme surprise to discover any group whose old music demands one’s full attention.

sweetmadness1coverSweet Madness is perhaps the perfect example.

Formed in Spokane in 1978 – a time period when that town had zero cultural space for punk, New Wave, or anything musically interesting – Sweet Madness toiled in predictable obscurity without breaking through commercially in any measurable way. But as energetic and highly creative young men, the quartet focused admirably on their craft: writing impossibly catchy tunes, playing whatever gigs they could conjure, and – to our great luck – taking the initiative to cut plenty of their originals at numerous recording studios across the Northwest.

In that pre-Grunge Era – when our local music biz infrastructure was still in its infancy – it was the extremely rare local band that managed to rise above the legions of other bands and achieve any notable success. To get a manager was a miracle. To actually cut a record was highly unlikely. To get that record on the radio was almost unprecedented. Many tried. Many failed. When the Heats’ “I Don’t Like Your Face” 45 became a minor “powerpop” hit on a handful of regional radio stations in 1980 all the scenesters took notice.  Then, somehow, the Allies and Rail each saw their new music videos airing on MTV, and when the Young Fresh Fellows’ debut album was reviewed by Rolling Stone in 1984, that fact was the talk-of-the-town for weeks. In 1985 both the U-Men and Green River each signed to New York’s cool Homestead label and the excitement was palpable all across town…even though, the looming rise of Seattle’s Sub Pop label (and the all-conquering Grunge phenomena) were yet unknowable.

Still, by that point in time it was just plain too late for some of the scene’s most promising early talents including Red Dress, the Blackouts, and the Visible Targets. So the vast majority of the era’s bands were destined to basically be forgotten footnotes in music history. Which is downright unjust. It is also why us fans of Northwest sounds were thrilled to death with the release, a couple years back, of Sweet Madness’ Made In Spokane 1978-1981 album – as distributed by Seattle’s mega-successful Light In The Attic label. The disc won rave reviews far and wide, which undoubtedly helped prompt the recent [2015] release of the Made In Spokane 1978-1981 Volume 2 album. Both are chock full of delightfully quirky, but fully realized, rock tunes that might easily have remained locked away in the subterranean pop-memory vaults of only the band-members themselves and perhaps a few loyal fans.

Instead, we can all now gaze back and play the mental game of: What If.

What if Sweet Madness had managed to score a few more connections with Seattle’s fledgling music-oriented media? What if those young Spokeville rockers had gotten a shot at playing better gigs on the New Wave era dance-club scene? What if they’d signed a recording contract with a savvy label? What if kindred big-time outside bands – like, say, Split Enz, or Oingo Boingo, or Squeeze – had gotten the chance to hear them and maybe bring them along on tour? What if? What if? What if?

Well, of course, now we’ll never know. But with these Sweet Madness songs readily available I know that a lot of us somehow overlooked a terribly promising band, and it is simply everyone’s loss that we weren’t able to encourage them along their rightful path to greater success. Next time, as a creative community, let’s all be more vigilant & try and do a bit better, agreed?

EARLY SEATTLE SONGBOOK: 1890s

SONGS IN SHEET MUSIC FORM were being published in the Oregon Territories by at least the 1870s. Local musicians and songsmiths -- both professional and amateur -- would typically pay a local printing house to design some cover-art and then print a number of copies either for use onstage, or possibly to satisfy their personal vanity by seeing them available for sale at a local music shop, or even with the far-fetched goal of scoring a hit song. Their lyrical topics ranged from sentimental notions, to romantic thoughts, to regionally relevant ditties about the area's natural appeal. Notable examples over the decades include: Olympia's Francis Henry and his "The Old Settler" (1874); Bellingham's Alice Nadine Morrison and her "My Love Is All For You" (1920); and Seattle's Harold Weeks and his "Little Cabin in the Cascade Mountains" (1929).
But, individual songs are one thing, while folios of multiple songs are a whole 'nother matter. They are far more scarce. Seen here is what must be one of -- if not the -- earliest published booklet of songs that can be associated with Seattle. A recent eBay find, this (presumably circa 1890s) booklet is titled: All the Latest and Most Popular SONGS Of The Day - Comic and Sentimental - Compliments of The Leading Merchants and Business Houses of Seattle, Wash.  The printing firm of Finlayson & Gratke may have been based down in Astoria, Oregon, but the advertisers credited in the 48-page booklet are strictly Seattle-based -- and, interestingly enough, are largely booze & smokes oriented.

They include: The Merchants cigar shop (109 Yesler Avenue); Butler Cafe - The Choicest of Wines, Liquors and Cigars (Second Street & James Street); Gill & Gill liquors (806 Front Street); Delcho Beer, Wines, Liquors & Cigars (111 Yesler Street); The Demijohn Wines, Liquors and Cigars (910 Second Street); The Drum Fine Wines, Liquors and Cigars (812 Second Sttreet); L. Jaffe & Co. liquors; R. Satori & Co. Wines & Liquors (115 James Street); Harms & Dickman Wines Liquors & Cigars (corner Front Street & Marion Street); P.J. Smith's Oyster House (202 Yesler Street); and Seattle's fabled Horse Shoe tavern.

A few of the 20+ songs included here are: "A Pretty Girl, A Summer Night," "Kiss and Let's Make Up" -- and the new technology-inspired "Telephone In De Air." However, the commercial genius behind a publication such as this one is that it only included the lyrics to each composition, rather than those and the musical notation required to actually play the songs at home on your parlor piano. Thus, at the bottom of each song's page is a helpful reminder that: "The music for this song can be obtained at O. E. Pettis & Co.'s Music house." As for who the authors of these songs might be, we may never know as this publication failed to bother to mention them!

LOUIS JORDAN ROCKS SEATTLE's NEW ORLEANS CLUB: 1940s

SEATTLE MUSIC FANS had a long and mutual love affair with the pioneering Harlem-based jump-blues / R&B bandleader, sax-man – and widely renowned “King of the Juke Box” – Louis Jordan (1908-1975). For decades Jordan brought his band through the Northwest thrilling throngs of dancers with explosive shows that were spiced with a comedic edge. Today Jordan is best remembered for a couple of his many, many hits: “Saturday Night Fish Fry” – which has been touted by historians as a contender for the title of “First Rock Record” – and “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie.”
When the final time was that Jordan performed in Seattle is yet to be determined, but this photo (from the estate of his widow, Martha Jordan) recently surfaced showing the couple visiting the Century 21 World’s Fair in 1962. Jordan’s band probably first toured the area pushing their 1930s recordings for the giant Decca label. Then in the 1940s they came through town quite regularly, playing major shows in large venues like the Trianon Ballroom (218 Wall Street) and the Palomar Theater (1300 Third Avenue). But the fun-lovin’ band also enjoyed after-gig jams at various jazz rooms around town – and even a bit south of town.

In the 1940s a legendary but short-lived nightspot called the New Orleans Club – not to be confused with Seattle's more recent (1985-2014) New Orleans Creole Restaurant (114 First Avenue S.) – was founded just down the old dirt road from the Longacres racetrack west of Renton. As Seattle jazz historian Paul de Barros noted in his 1993 book, Jackson Street Afterhours: “The club had a barbeque pit and a New Orleans chef; the band was as hot as the food. …There was a complete floor show and, for a while, big-time traveling acts…performed there.”

I recently acquired the New Orleans Club’s original owners’ amazing collection of vintage promotional photographs of many of the artists who gigged there. Among these images are those of Billie Holiday (who sang there in March 1949), Christine Chatman (the boogie-woogie pianist who toured with bluesman Joe Liggins), sax-man Jimmy Jackson, sax-man King “The Pied Piper of Swingdom” Perry, Texas blues-shouter Smilin’ Smokey Lynn, Mabel Scott, blues singer Mickey Champion, Johnny Otis, Mel Walker, & Little Esther, and as shown here, two pix of Jordan and his band.

FOX THEATRE ORCHESTRA (1929)

THE FOX THEATRE (at 7th Avenue & Olive Street) had the historic misfortune of opening on April 19, 1929 – a mere six months before the stock market crash and beginning of the Great Depression. Tough times saw the grand Spanish Baroque-style venue changing ownerships and identities over subsequent years, at times presenting entertainment as the Roxy, the 7th Avenue, the Emerald Palace, and finally the Music Hall (razed in 1992). But, while still doing business as the Fox, its house orchestra included some of Seattle's finest players. Here is a newly unearthed photograph showing the ensemble's dapper woodwind section, who were all prominent members of the town's American Federation of Musicians Local-76. Seen (left-to-right) are:
  • Ronald Phillips (1906-2004): clarinet / conductor, joined AFM 76 in 1920, also played with the Seattle Symphony and was a noted UW instructor.
  • Frank Horsfall (1883-1968): flute, joined AFM 76 in 1908, also played with the Seattle Symphony, and has a major annual flute competition named in his honor.
  • Whitney Tustin (1911-2002): english horn / oboe, joined AFM 76 in 1927, also played with the Seattle Symphony and was an important local oboe teacher.
  • Recchia Angelo (1898-1981): clarinet / saxophone / oboe, joined AFM 76 in 1918, and (according to AFM 76-493's Secretary, Kirsten James) was a quite probably another member of the Seattle Symphony.

MERRILL WOMACH: SPOKANE's GOSPEL GREAT

MERRILL WOMACH (February 7, 1927 – December 28, 2014) was the Spokane-born son of a salesman who began singing publicly at age six. As a high schooler he hosted his own radio show, and also sang with local quartet and a choir. While attending Seattle's Northwest Ministerial College, Womach directed a daily radio program for three years, and also served as assistant pastor and music director at Spokane's Fourth Presbyterian Church. He also sang as a soloist with a civic choir, and then spent a year in Los Angeles making concert, radio and television appearances.

After entering the mortuary field to work as an undertaker, in 1958 Merrill also founded a business, the  National Music Service,  which provided recordings of his own spirituals (5,000 songs, eventually) along with one of two primitive playback systems which he leased out to funeral parlors.

That regional business eventually grew into a much larger entity (the Global Distribution Network, Inc.) which serviced 5,000 clients. In 1960 he formed Melodies Divine records in Spokane and released his debut LP, My Song, which featured as many as 42 of his overdubbed vocal lines that created a chorus effect.

Meanwhile, as an aviator, Womach was involved in a plane crash in Beaver Marsh, Oregon, on November 23, 1961. It was an horrific accident which left him disfigured with third degree burns on his hands and his entire head. People magazine reported in 2013 that: "On the race to the hospital he startled his fast-driving benefactors with a song of celebration. 'My doctor says most people burned as badly as I was die from shock....I didn't, I sang. That kept me awake. That kept me alive.'"

A lucky survivor, Womach went on to authorize an autobiography, Tested by Fire, and a documentary film titled He Restoreth My Soul was also made about Womach's accident and subsequent recovery. Merrill began recording again in 1967, cutting over a dozen LPs, and finally died in his sleep on December 28, 2014.























Merrill Womach's recordings include these albums:
  • 1960 My Song
  • 1967 I Believe in Miracles
  • 1968 Merrill Womach Sings Christmas Carols
  • 1969 A Time For Us
  • 1970 Surely Goodness and Mercy
  • 1973 I Stood At Calvary
  • 1974 Happy Again
  • 1976 Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory
  • 1977 In Concert
  • 1977 In Quartet
  • 1977 New Life Collectible
  • 1979 Images Of Christmas
  • 1979 My Favorite Hymns
  • 1980 Reborn
  • 1981 Classical
  • 1981 I'm A Miracle, Lord
  • 1981 Merrill
  • 1983 Feelin' Good
  • 1985 Thank You, Lord

NW MUSIC: THE SAGA OF "LOUIE, LOUIE."

BELOW ARE LINKS to essays detailing the long history of the Northwest's signature rock 'n' roll song: "Louie, Louie." From 1957, when Richard Berry brought his song here from California; to Seattle's Dave Lewis Combo rockin' it at the Birdland; to its adoption by the Playboys, Little Bill & the Bluenotes, and the Viceroys; to radio hit versions by Rockin' Robin & the Wailers, the Kingsmen, and Paul Revere & the Raiders; then the Sonics booming it for all eternity; a humorous 1980s campaign to get the ditty named Washington State's "official rock song," and ever onwards...