There is an old saw in the music world regarding the origins of rock ‘n’ roll. It states that rock was born as a result of the merging of the musical genres of country/western and rhythm & blues. And, this notion is one that may very well be true. Certainly the debut recordings cut by young Elvis Presley in Memphis, Tennessee, in the mid-1950s seem to fit the bill: in other words, these are rockabilly songs that obviously share the genetic code of both musical parents.
But, as we pause here today to consider regional variations in rock traditions – in particular, Northwest rock and its origins – another quote pertains, I believe, much more aptly. And that is a line that bluesman Muddy Waters once sang: “The blues had a baby and they called it rock ‘n’ roll.” Now clearly: Under Muddy’s theory, blues is deemed fully capable of self-pollinating – and presumably mutating – while country music is not credited with fulfilling any sort of progenitorial role whatsoever. And though no systematic study has yet been conducted, I believe that the surviving aural evidence suggests that the early, original “Northwest rock sound,” was particularly, and profoundly, blues-based…relying very little on traditional country music elements. In other words, Northwest rock owed infinitely more to Ray Charles, Willie Dixon, and Hank Ballard than to Ray Price, Willie Nelson, and Hank Williams.
Again, certain seminal ‘50s rockers evince clear ties to country music… Bill Haley, the Everly Brothers, Duane Eddy, Ricky Nelson, and Jerry Lee Lewis come easily to mind. But the pioneering Northwest rockers forged a different school of rock – one based on a canon of shared tunes that were heavily weighted in favor of hard-core R&B numbers and one on which country conventions had virtually no perceivable impact. So, indeed, while the Beatles, for example, were busy recording cover versions of Buck Owens and Carl Perkins tunes in the early ‘60s, their generational peers here in the Pacific Northwest were obsessed with songs by R&B stars.
The Northwest Sound was, by definition, a driving, jazz-tinged – and largely instrumental – form of, to coin a phrase, teen-R&B, that had been created in the rowdy dancehalls of the area's biggest seaport towns of Seattle, Portland, and Tacoma. In fact, an early descriptive street name for this music was, actually, the “Sea-Port Beat.” This backwater mutation was essentially a unique regional sub-branch of rock 'n' roll that in hindsight seems firmly anchored by the West Coast blues of the likes of Big Jay McNeely, T-Bone Walker, Charles Brown, Ray Charles, Richard Berry, and Freddy King. Additionally, the powerful horn-driven bands that backed Little Richard, Little Willie John, and Hank Ballard & the Midnighters were key influences on Northwest musicians.
The Northwest Sound’s early phase was initially based on a repertoire of cover versions of recent and current R&B hits and that era’s largely-instrumental rude-jazz tunes. The difference being: very few of the young Northwest players possessed the skills or finesse demonstrated by the seasoned professional musicians who composed these songs originally. Truth is, the Northwest school squared-off a lot of the subtleties and nuances of these songs. Simplifying them yes, but, on the bright side, often making the tunes rock harder in the process.
This super-charging phenomenon was noted as early as the mid-‘70’s when the editor of New York’s Kicks magazine, Billy Miller, wrote that: “As a tried and true East Coaster I can’t tell downtown Seattle from uptown Tacoma – drop me off a bus in Portland and I may as well be on Mars. Despite my geographical shortcomings, however, I can spot a vintage Northwest disc at a hundred paces in a blizzard. It ain’t all that hard mind you. There’s a feel about the way they tend to pound a little harder and blast off faster than most rock & roll records.”
Well, to Northwest teenagers of the day it would seem that whatever musicality might have been lost in this transformative process was more than made up for in raucous energy and sheer danceability. In due time, and after honing their chops, the Northwest bands began composing original tunes that, while based on a basic R&B vocabulary, were nonetheless an innovative new take on those traditions. In 1993 Warren Gill illuminated the situation in a Canadian Geographer essay when he wrote: “The rhythm-and-blues-based music of the dancehalls of the region was, in its own way, as fresh an interpretation of the African-American roots of rock and roll as that of the pioneers of the genre in the mid-1950s and the revival to come from the United Kingdom in the 1960s. In a period bereft of these elemental aspects of rock and roll, the Northwest Sound was not simply a return to a previously successful formula, but a different evolutionary direction in response to local conditions.”
This evolutionary process is perfectly represented by the case of “Louie, Louie” an obscure 1956 tune by an otherwise obscure LA-based R&B singer, Richard Berry. His original calypso-tinged rendition became a Top-10 radio hit in Seattle and was eagerly adopted by black and white teen combos to the extent that by 1960 the song – simplified and modified now with a chunky power-chord feel – had become firmly ingrained as a primal social teendance ritual all across the region. Ultimately nearly a dozen Northwest teen bands, including the infamous Kingsmen, recorded their competing versions of the R&B ditty, effectively establishing “Louie, Louie” as the region’s signature rock song.
But “Louie, Louie” was merely the centerpiece of a core list of songs that became the standardized canon of the Northwest teen-R&B bands. Examples abound: The Ventures, Paul Revere & the Raiders, and the Kingsmen each recorded versions of Jimmy Forrest’s classic, “Night Train”. The Wailers and Viceroys both cut Julian Adderly’s gem, “Sack ‘O Woe.” The Dynamics (a combo our fellow panel member, Larry Coryell, long-ago performed with) and the Raymarks each cut Nat Adderly’s groover, “The Work Song.” The Dave Lewis Trio, the Raiders and the Ventures each cut Bill Doggett’s ground-breaker, “Honky Tonk.” Another local favorite was Earl King’s gem “Come On (Let The Goodtimes Roll)” which many bands played and the Dynamics and Viceroys each issued recordings of. Of course, Seattle’s Jimi Hendrix also famously recorded the song at his prime. Many local bands included Big J. McNeely’s “There Is Something On Your Mind” in their set-lists and it was recorded by Don & the Goodtimes, and Jr. Cadillac, as well as by Hendrix. Other Northwest staples included Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” which the Capers and Hendrix each cut around 1965, and Freddy King’s “San-Ho-Zay” which both the Wailers and Hendrix also recorded.
So, we see, those types of R&B tunes were a deep inspiration, but where this really gets interesting is the point when local bands began composing their own original songs. As it transpired, these originals were consistently based on obvious R&B elements….making clear the black roots of Northwest Rock.
But why? Why did the original Northwest rockers explore a form of music that shunned Country and Top-40 Pop influences -- instead fixating so plainly on R&B sources? Well, a partial explanation was first expounded over 35 years ago. And, interestingly, that theory was presented in an essay published in the UW Daily of all places. In an article with a headline that blared: “WHY DID THE NORTHWEST HAVE A DIFFERENT SOUND?”– the writer went on to proclaim that:
“The Seattle bands have, by and large, stuck to the blues and have turned a deaf ear toward the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Al Hirt. Hence, Seattle bands like Dave Lewis and the Dynamics have developed original and natural styles of playing that are welcome alternatives to the pop music that is packaged and peddled by Madison Avenue and shoved down the ears of gullible subteens as ‘music of today’.”
Some things, it seems, never change…
By the way: the author of that piece was none other than a young journalism student here at UW named: Larry Coryell.
So: This question of why things developed in this fashion locally is an issue of some musicological interest – and a matter that I hope we can further explore here today…
[Text copyright 2000, Peter Blecha]