THE CHANGING SCENE – Bellingham, Washington’s beatnik coffeehouse (1307 State Street) was the home-base throughout 1967’s Summer of Love for the town’s first psychedelic folk-rock band, Fat Jack. But the group’s beginning trace back to the Fall of ’66 when Hal Wright (guitar, harmonica) and Bill Tootel (guitar, flute), an amateur acoustic duo based out of Western Washington State College's Highland Hall dormitory, were spotted by a fellow with managerial designs. This fellow soon lured another dorm folkie guitarist, Bruce Kirkman, and an off-campus fringie banjoist, Jack Hansen, into the fold.
This was accomplished primarily by offering them shiny new electric instruments. Kirkman became a bassist, and Hansen learned to play lead guitar. The quartet, the Safety Patrol, soon added fellow dormie Jerry Dawson (drums) and a powerful singer named Kathi McDonald. She had considerable stage experience having already fronted the local teen rock combo, Thee Unusuals, who had even cut a record or two. Then, before long Rich Condon replaced Dawson.
It was on May 26, 1967, that the Safety Patrol performed at what amounted to Bellingham’s first freak gathering – a concert with the Jefferson Airplane. Those wildass outside agitators, the Merry Pranksters (with Neal Cassidy et al) arrived from Haight Ashbury by the paisley/Flower Power busload. Allen “Howl” Ginsberg and Ken “Cuckoo’s Nest” Kesey both served as the show’s MC’s. Inside Carver Gymnasium, the seated audience finally responded to the Airplane’s exhortations to get up and dance, thereby breaking WWSC rules. This, the first sign of any emerging hip community, was too much for many townies, and the fallout was amazing. The event was the subject of weeks worth of outraged letters to newspaper editors and seemingly endless reactionary editorial page diatribes.
The young band was suddenly the talk of the town when they took the gamble of abruptly changing names. Their rotund guitarist, Hansen, was understandably less-than-thrilled with their new choice: Fat Jack. Performing at The Scene, the town’s hip new coffeehouse, they introduced regular light shows to the town and began gigging at such unlikely venues as the tiny Fredonia Grange Hall, the Anacortas Armory – and directly after the elephant act at the Washington State Fair down in Mount Vernon.
Midsummer, McDonald was axed for missing rehearsals and Ken Cantrell was added. Then within days of relocating down to Seattle, Fat Jack fell into some really great bookings. On September 8th and 9th they opened for the Grateful Dead at the Eagles Auditorium after the Seattle band Magic Fern had to cancel.
After that Fat Jaclk appeared at nearly every high school and college in the area and even once split a bill at Parker’s Ballroom with Merrilee Rush & the Turnabouts – only months before she broke out with her big national hit “Angel Of The Morning” – but that night created a real odd mix of crowds. In October they opened concerts at the Eagles hall for zen-jazzer Charles Lloyd, in November for Country Joe & the Fish, and in December for folkster John Fahey. By early ’68 the band began gigging at the San Francisco Sound hall, located in the old Encore Ballroom (13th Avenue & Pike Street).
Then around February, the bubble finally burst. One day the band’s manager cheerily announced that he had taken the liberty of squandering their sizeable savings account on leasing a seedy downtown jazz nightclub, The Door (7th Avenue & Stewart Street). Stunned, Fat Jack nevertheless gave it a go as house-band at this new “13th House” joint, but the place just didn’t draw crowds and a dismayed Kirkman soon split for New York where he performed for a year and half at the legendary Gerde’s Folk City.
Fat Jack carried on though, opening at the Eagles hall for the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Peanut Butter Conspiracy. Two weeks later, on March 24th, they also took part in the ACLU Pot Test Benefit as did folkie Phil Ochs, a new Bellingham hippie band called Uncle Henry, and other acts. On April 5th they played Eagles hall with Blue Cheer, but soon after Hansen headed back to Bellingham and Fat Jack was no more. Condon, however, joined up with Uncle Henry.
It was in 1969 that Wright, Condon, and Kirkman recruited John Shoemaker (guitar) and formed a hard rock band called Kiss Porky that only lasted a brief period. Then in 1971, Kirkman, Shoemaker and two others reprised the name for another go, and as the purveyors of rather-ahead-of-its-time – and self-described “dirge-like deathrock” – they became local legends. Then in 1975 Kirkman and Hansen reunited to found Seattle’s sports-rock zanies, Herb & the Spices, along with Barry Curtis (ex-Kingsmen) and a few other Northwest rock veterans.
Meanwhile: Kathi McDonald had experienced quite a career of her own. She moved to San Francisco where Ike Turner actually saw her singing and dancing at the front of his and Tina Turner’s stage one night. He invited her to audition, and McDonald suddenly found herself working as a backup singer in their great band. From there, she sang with lots of the greats: Big Brother and the Holding Company hired her after Janis Joplin’s death; and she also sang with the likes of Leon Russell, Don Nix, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. Check your copy of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 masterpiece LP, Exile On Main St., to verify that she was in on those sessions as well! In 1979 she scored a radio hit in a duet with Long John Baldry, singing “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” and after returning home to the Northwest McDonald became a key member of the local blues scene for many years.
[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 January, 1987.]
Text copyright © 1987, 2014 by Peter Blecha.
Text copyright © 1987, 2014 by Peter Blecha.