THE SWAGS: BELLINGAM'S FIRST ROCKSTARS (1958-1960)

ONCE UPON A TIME there were only a handful of combos existing in the Pacific Northwest who could rightfully lay claim to being genuine rock 'n' rollers. Among the very first were the Swags. Formed at Bellingham High School in 1958, the six-piece band dubbed themselves after the  instrumental-guitar record by Link Wray and his Ray Men, as released in April of that year. Their initial lineup consisted of Bruce Reddick (vocals, guitar), Gailen Ludtke (lead guitar, sax), Allen Bar (guitar), Chet Dow (piano), Wayne Morrisett (bass), and George Johnson (drums). After debuting at a few school events, they continued by playing at local grange halls. Band leader Ludtke explained in a recent interview: "You see, there wasn't any real teenage dances until we started doing them up here. We were the first band of our type in the area."

As the teen dance circuit developed across the state the Swags rocked area ballrooms including the Beacon outside of Blaine, Washington, Mount Vernon's Seven Cedars, and Birch Bay's Forest Grove. Many gigs they played were sponsored by Seattle's AM radio giant, KJR. The band also shared double billings with Seattle's pioneering band, the Frantics, and even competed in a "Battle of the Bands" against Tacoma's Wailers at the Spanish Castle ballroom at Midway. "We did a lot of prom nights then," Ludtke elaborated, "because we were the only known group north of Seattle. But I think one of the highlights for us were the times we appeared on Seattle Bandstand." First "live on KING TV" in 1958, this teen-dance show occasionally spotlighted local talents and the Swags also traveled to appear on the Portland Bandstand and Yakima Bandstand programs.

Discovered by a local radio DJ, Jim Bailey, the band was taken to Seattle where a recording session was held at Commercial Productions' studio. The result was their debut single "Rockin' Matilda" / "Blowing The Blues" which was released in on his Westwind label (WW1003) in early 1959. As their new manager, Bailey successfully promoted the disc enough that Bob Keane's Del-Fi Records in Hollywood which was riding high with the first hits by East L.A.'s up-&-coming Chicano rocker, Richie Valens took notice, licensed the Swags tune's and re-released them (Del-Fi 4143) nationally.

At that point Dick Clark took notice and chose to air "Rockin' Matilda" for two consecutive weeks nationally on ABC-TV's mega-popular American Bandstand show. From there the record broke out on the radio charts in a scattered few regions of America. Other highlights for the young musicians must have been the big shows they opened for touring rockabilly and country stars including: Johnny Burnette, Ernest Tubb, Johnny Tillotson, and Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps. Most significantly, they also shared the bill with Richie Valens, who played a gig in their area, even though he never was booked in the much larger Seattle/Tacoma markets.

But then, after just two years together the Swags disbanded when college and career decisions conflicted.  Soon thereafter, Reddick helped form a new band, the Toggeries, with some fellow Western Washington State College kids and today his current group, Country Sunshine, performs regularly in the Whatcom County area.

[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 October, 1983.]

Text copyright © 1983, 2014 by Peter Blecha.