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.
In was back in 1957 that another combo, the Checkers, started to create some noise in the Lower Yakima Valley. The original Checkers -- Glenn Willis (guitar),
Glenn Dahl (vocals), Nick Torres (vocals), Norm Drake (sax), Glenn Lambert (bass), and Dale Yule , (drums) -- performed their initial gigs at community festivals throughout the In­land Empire. In time, the personnel shifted to this lineup: Johnny Hensley (guitar),
 Nick Torres (vocals), Bob Torres (bass), Bob Campbell (piano), and Ralph Gibson (drums). 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 at 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 (and ended up touring with Jimmy Bowen), 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.


[Note: This is an edited version of an essay that originally appeared in the “Northwest Music Archives” column of Seattle’s The Rocket magazine back in July, 1984.]

Text copyright © 1984, 2014 by Peter Blecha.