IT IS A BIT SAD that such scant information has survived regarding what is surely one of Seattle’s most fabled jazz joints: the Old Rocking Chair Club. Sure, I occasionally turn up various vintage trade tokens from the place (as seen below) but the shortage of photographs of the long-gone place is simply a travesty to our efforts to document local history. So, saints-be-praised then that this image just recently surfaced in a stack of old pix recently unearthed here in town.Based in a 2-story wooden house on the Southeast corner of 14th & Yesler – note: its street address has variously been listed as either being 115 14th Avenue S., or 1301 E. Yesler Way – the Rocking Chair was run by Fred Owens who had begun in the nightlife biz by operating the Blue Rose club in that same locale back in the Roaring ‘20s. The greatest legend about the room certainly centers on its role in the “discovery” of one of America’s greatest musical talents: Ray Charles – who considered it “the gonest place in town.”
It was in March, 1948, that the 17-year-old pianist, Ray Charles Robinson – seeking a better life & a way into the music business – arrived in town by Greyhound bus from his home down south. On his very first night in town he was steered to a jam session at the Rocking Chair, a venue that boasted a comfortable bar built from glass blocks, a small bandstand, & a not-so-discrete gambling room upstairs. Since its opening back in ‘46, the Rocking Chair had fully earned its reputation as the place to stir up some action or just hang: even touring stars like Count Basie & his band would relax, or jam, there into the wee small hours after their main gigs across town. The original house band was the Elmer Gill Trio & that’s who was onstage when Robinson showed up and asked to sit in a play a few tunes. Instantly winning over the club’s colorful cast of regulars, the kid was offered a weekly gig at the local black chapter of the Elks Club (662 1/2 S. Jackson Street). Robinson (who soon assumed the stage-name of “Ray Charles”) added guitarist Garcia McKee & the duo held down that gig until summertime when they formed the McSon Trio (which soon became: the Maxin Trio) by adding bassist Milt Garred & moving up to the Rocking Chair gig.
Then one night in late-‘48 an LA-based businessman named Jack Lauderdale was shooting dice at the Rocking Chair and began diggin’ the tunes that were wafting up from the bandstand. And Lauderdale certainly knew his music: he operated what was one of the very first black-owned independent labels, Downbeat Records, which had already issued R&B hits by artists including Lowell Fulson, Jay McShann, & Joe Turner. So when the Maxin Trio informed him that some of the tunes they’d been playing were originals, he tried to lure them into a recording session. As Charles later recounted:
“I first met Jack Lauderdale…when we were at the Rocking Chair. There was a private club upstairs – that's where they would gamble at – and downstairs was where we were working. Jack was there one night and he came downstairs and heard us playing. He said, ‘I'd like to sign you guys up to a contract. What would you think about that?’ Oh, Man, I was so excited! ‘Wow! We're gonna get a record contract!’ There was nothing about any advance or money up front. All the man said to me was the he was gonna record me, and we'd have a hit. I didn't even ask about the terms. All I knew was that I wanted to make a record; this was a big thing to me at that time.”
Jazz historian Paul de Barros once reported that: “When Lauderdale offered the trio a record date, they thought he was putting them on. McKee recollects: ‘Ray and I got together and said, “This guy thinks we damn fools!”…We didn’t know he was serious, because we didn’t know nothing about recording. He kept on persisting, and persisting, and finally he got us down to this station and then that’s when we did our first tune. …We recorded them downtown.’ …‘You know,’ adds Charles, ‘…We just couldn’t believe that – we’re going to make a record and we’re going to make it in Seattle.’” “A record! Man, that was the ultimate!” Charles enthused in his autobiography, Brother Ray. “Yes we’ll cut a record, Mr. Lauderdale. Good God Almighty! Just show us the way, Papa. Nothing I want to do more. …Jack was the first person I signed with, and I have to give him credit. I don't know what he heard, but he must have heard something – because he recorded me in Seattle.”
The Trio’s debut session was likely held at the KOL radio studio in the Northern Life Tower – one of the very few options in town at the time. At session’s end Lauderdale split with the master tape – which contained the first bluesy tunes ever recorded in Seattle: “Confession Blues” and “I Love You, I Love You” – and in early 1949 it was released on his Down Beat label. Though the disc’s commercial success was marginal, Lauderdale had the trio come down to LA for another session. After that he sent again for Charles and McKee, who recorded with a hired rhythm section before returning home once more. Finally, in February 1950 Lauderdale sent just for Charles – and thus the Trio’s days were over. Perhaps feeling a bit homesick, Charles – who would soon launch his fabulous career as the “Genius of Soul” – cut his next record which was a sweet tribute to the ol’ gang back at the club: “Rocking Chair Blues.” Here's some of what Brother Ray sang about his Seattle pals:
“If you're feeling lowdown, don't have a soul to care, (X2)
Just grab your hat and start for the Rocking Chair.
There's Dubonnet Judy, Gin Fizz Flo, Cocktail Shorty, and old Julip Joe.
I'm telling you, it's the gonest place in town,
If you don't have your rubbers, take a taxi down.
If you're a regular guy, you're bound to get a souvenir, (X2)
And when you write back home, you can say you're spooning at the Rocking Chair.”