The "SEATTLE SONG" (1952)

THE SEATTLE SONGWRITERS CLUB was an organization formed in the mid-20th Century to provide budding composers with a supportive place to compare notes with their peers, and where they could safely debut in-the-works songs for constructive critiquing. Among the members who progressed to the point of seeing their tunes published as sheet music – and/or even recorded by professional musicians – were Rosetta Perry Gibbon (who had gained some local notoriety back in 1932 when she won a Seattle Chamber of Commerce contest with her song, "Ho The Navy, Hail The Navy" which was penned to honor Fleet Week) and Marge Whaley (seen here at her piano). 
Whaley was a popular pianist who went on to cut her own recordings for one of Seattle’s pioneering record companies, Celestial Records, including her toe-tapping 1958 classic “Marge’s Monday Boogie.” But the disc spotlighted here is one that preceded that by a few years. “The Seattle Song” was written by Gibbon and Whaley, recorded by the Electricraft Studio, performed by the Showbox Theatre’s house-band, the Norm Hoagy Orchestra (backing Whaleys vocalizing) – and issued in 1952 by the Listen Records label. 
This whole production was sponsored by Greater Seattle Inc. – the organization that launched and managed this city’s annual summertime Seafair festival. Photographs on the disc’s cardboard cover depict typically touristy attractions including scenes of the Seafair “Torchlight” Parade, waterskiing babes, sailboats, a totem pole, fishermen, Naval ships on Puget Sound, and Mt. Rainier. Liner notes were provided by local music impresario, Arthur “Art” Benson, who promoted jazz music locally and was later associated with Celestial Records. 
And lastly we see Gibbon in July, 1952, showing off her new record "The Seattle Song" / "Hail The Navy" to Mr. Don Follett, manager of the Chamber of Commerce.


THERE WAS A TIME not so long ago in Pacific Northwest history when one large corporation – the Rainier Brewing Company – fairly dominated a major portion of this region’s commerce and culture. That suds-producing firm, based just west and below Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood on today’s Airport Way S., has a rich history (1893-1999) [which I explored earlier in this essay: ]. But along with brewing this town’s most famous beer, Rainier also made its impact in many other ways. Including, as the sponsor of the town’s beloved Seattle Rainiers baseball team and the annual Rainier Cup hydroplane races, and also as one of the region’s top buyers of advertising – first in newspapers and later on radio and television. In the 1950s the company even supported KIRO radio’s Rainier Ranch show, and later, KING-TV’s Rainier Ranch TV program which spotlighted local Country/Western musical stars of the day such as Texas Jim Lewis, and Jack Rivers. Along the way many different ad campaigns were concocted to promote Rainier Beer. The most famous being the 1970’s popular “Running of the Wild Rainiers” TV commercials. 
But even back in the heyday of radio, Rainier was already commissioning the writing of original jingles for airplay. An early one was a tune penned around 1952 by the noted New York composer Phil Davis. His instructions were to write a waltz that would be evocative of “the light, sparkling ‘character’ of [the] brewery’s product.” Written and then recorded, it was reported that: “Listener reaction was immediate. Disc jockeys found themselves receiving requests for––a commercial!” It was then that Rainier’s advertising agency – Seattle’s Miller & Company, Inc. – convinced Rainier to go all out and have the song revamped in long-form and re-cut in Hollywood by the popular Les Baxter and his Orchestra. 

Baxter, who is best remembered by today's hipsters for his series of easy-listening / exotica / lounge music theme albums – then took his 26-piece ensemble into Hollywood’s state-of-the-art Capitol Studios and recorded what was soon released as a promotional ten-inch 78rpm vinyl record. It was then issued on the Capitol / SRS imprint – the record company’s special custom imprint produced by its “Studio & Recording Services” division (which was apart from the label’s own growing catalog of pop and country discs, and which specifically catered to outside enterprises that wanted to cut high-quality recordings for their own purposes). Hence this white-label promotional disc, which is rather rare on its own (I’ve seen about three copies in 40+ years of collecting Northwest-related records). But, this recent find came replete with the very first, as far as I know, original gatefold jacket to ever be unearthed – and it features graphics depicting Mount Rainier and Seattle’s skyline with Harbor Island, King Street Station, Smith Tower, the Cascade Range and other notable landmarks. And, logically enough, it came straight out of a elderly longtime Rainer Brewing Co. employee’s estate. Cheers!


ON THE EVENING of February 9, 1937 eight big-bands from the Pacific Northwest competed in what was promoted as the "first annual" Musicians’ Benefit Ball. Sponsored by Tacoma’s American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Local 117, this stunning – and recently acquired – promotional poster is a surviving artifact of the event.
The dance was held in Fife, Washington at Rocco “Mac” Manza and Jimmy Zarelli’s Century Ballroom (1406 54th Avenue East) on the old “Seattle – Tacoma Highway (U.S. 99), which had opened back on December 29, 1934,  and had been built to resemble the Washington State Pavilion at the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago.  The benefit gig kicked off at 9:00 pm with music performed by the host band, an eighteen-piece ensemble led by Joe Rausch. Following that, eight bands would each take turns playing for the assembled dancers from the main-stage located across the room (which boasted a 20,000 square-foot dance-floor) – with Rausch’s band playing additional songs between those 30-minute sets.  The competitors were bands led by: Auby Akins, Brad Bannon, Harold Eaton, Louie Grenier, Ronald Isham, Stan Miskoski, Grady Morehead, and Sig Thorson. The contest’s promoter, Al Paige, predicted that "a record crowd is expected to be on hand to witness Lieut. Gov. Victor Meyers, head judge of the affair, present the winning band with a beautiful" trophy at around 2:00 am.  Alas, we may never learn who won the battle – and thus, the title of "Champion of the Northwest" – as the Tacoma newspapers don’t seem to have published a follow-up report, and I've thus far found no references to similar dances in subsequent years! The Century, which went on to host massive dances into the 1950s featuring touring bands – including those led by such musical stars as Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Kay Kyser, and the Lombardo brothers (Guy, Carmen, Lebert and Victor) – closed in 1956 and the building burned in 1964.


AMONG THE THOUSANDS of records produced in the Pacific Northwest since the very first musical recording was cut here in Seattle way back in 1923, are a number that cross-over into two notable categories: awesome music and rare as hell. I mean: music which is so outstanding that its obvious merits would be acknowledged by anyone with functioning ears and an open mind – but music that was originally issued on a vinyl (or shellac) disc that is so exceedingly scarce that almost nobody has ever seen, owned, or heard it.
Today’s example of such a specimen is: “Tired of Livin’” / “If I Knew Then” a 45rpm disc issued in 1959 by the Country Records label and credited simply to Rollie Webber. If the name seems at all familiar, perhaps it is because he was an early musical associate of Bakersfield, California’s eventually-famous honky-tonk band-leader, guitarist, and singing star, Buck Owens. And that is really where this little story begins.

It was in 1958 that the then-young and still-struggling Owens heard from one of California’s finest steel guitarists, Dusty Rhodes, that there might be better opportunities to make a living up in the Northwest. That advice quickly proved to be true. Owens moved up here, found work at a tiny Puyallup-based radio station, KAYE (1540 AM), and began meeting all the players on the Sea-Tac country scene. In seemingly no time at all, Owens recruited a fine band comprised of Don Ulrich (fiddle), “Shot Gun” Red Hildreth (upright bass), Nokie Edwards (guitar), and Dusty Rhodes.

Before long the group was drawing crowds to gigs in towns including Tacoma, Fife, Sumner, Steilacoom, and Seattle – and they also found their way into a local recording studio or two. The most prominent studio in the area at that time was Joe Boles Custom Recorders in West Seattle – the home of those hit recordings just then breaking out nationally for local teenage rock ‘n’ roll groups including the Fleetwoods, the Frantics, and the Ventures. Boles kept a Guest Log in his basement studio and many clients signed-in during their visits with him.

Thus it was around January 1959 that Owens and the boys – which now included guitar ace, Rollie Webber, as a replacement for Edwards (who’d quit to join the Ventures) – inscribed a few brief messages for Boles. Owens wrote: “I've never worked in a better studio or with a more cooperative fellow – You're a great Guy.” Rhodes agreed: “Thanks for that good ‘Country’ Sound.” Hildreth noted: “Thanks for a fine job in our recordings. Let Country Music Live.” The teenaged Ulrich gushed: “It was sure an experience to record in your ‘studio’, it is a swell set-up.” And Webber expressed his gratitude:  “Thanks for the fine session. Best wishes Joe.”

It is my best guess that the result of that session was today’s "Rarest Record." Backing that theory is the fact that many local records produced by Joe Boles feature matrix codes etched into the dead-wax just outside each side’s paper labels. Numerical codes preceded by two alphabetical letters: the audio engineer’s initials, “JB.” And, sure enough, this Country Records single bears these codes: “JB 2371D1” and “JB 2371D2.” Another interesting detail, as we shall soon see, is that the A-side song’s composer credit is given solely to Webber, while the B-side gives credit to Owens, and both tunes were published by “Blue Book Publishing BMI.”

Moving right along, it was on March 16, 1959, that Billboard magazine noted:  “Country Records, new diskery with headquarters in Tacoma, Wash., has as its first release, ‘If I Knew Then’ b/w ‘Tired of Livin’,’ by Rollie Webber, formerly on the Pep label. The firm is interested in hearing from deejays who would like to be placed in its mailing list.” Around that same point in time Owens was called down to Hollywood to begin a few recording sessions for Capitol Records.

That foray southward yielded “Second Fiddle” a tune cut with session players at Capitol Recording Studio – a song that would become Owens’s first genuine (No.2) hit. Meanwhile he returned back to the Northwest and continued gigging. On June 1st Billboard again noted:  “Buck Owens, currently stirring considerable action with his new release, ‘Second Fiddle,’ on the Capitol label, is being featured in a new 30-minute seg, ‘The Bar K Jamboree,’ simulcast each Saturday afternoon via KTNT radio and TV, Tacoma, Wash. Other features on the show are Dusty Rhodes and Rollie Webber, with guests spotted on occasion to support the regular Bar K gang.”

But by June 16, 1959, Owens was back at Capitol’s studios cutting another couple songs – which would soon be issued as a Capitol single – one featuring Webber’s “Tired Of Livin’” and the other, a new one: “Under Your Spell Again.” That latter song also has an interesting back-story, in that it was directly inspired by a 1959 Capitol Records (F4168) R&B single: “Castin’ My Spell” by Johnny “Willie And The Hand Jive” Otis. It was in 1996 that I interviewed Owens at his Bakersfield headquarters and he happily told the tale while expounding on the art of songwriting:

“First of all, I’ll tell you: there’s no set way to do it. …There’s no set way. I’ve tried writing songs with people. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Other ways you write a song, where someone says something and it triggers something in you. Then there’s a way: you hear something. Maybe on the radio. I had a song … called ‘Under Your Spell Again.’ And while I was in the Seattle area there, I’m riding along in a car and there’s this Johnny Otis record, who was an old-time big-band guy. And they was doing a song called ‘I’m Going To Cast A Spell On You’ [sic]. Something like that. I think that was the title. And I thought: ‘Spell on you. He’s going…’ And I went home and sat down and wrote [‘Under Your Spell Again’] in about 30 minutes. And came to record it a couple of months later. And so you know, that’s just the way it happens sometimes. Something you hear. Anyway there’s tales and tales about how songs are written. And I’ve written a lot of ways.”

But, scoring a major hit is always a significant milestone for any musician, and this Capitol disc – coming on the immediate heels of Owen’s first Capitol hit, “Second Fiddle” – was an important one for Owens. “Under Your Spell Again” / “Tired of Livin’” (Capitol F4245) was released on July 13, 1959 and the A-side became a strong (No. 4) national smash. As for the B-Side? Well, the evil music biz had its nasty way, and the publishing of “Tired of Livin’” was transferred from Blue Book over to “Central Songs BMI” while the composition itself was now suddenly credited to “Buck Owens-Rollie Webber.”

The two songs would also appear on Owens’s debut Capitol album, Buck Owens, in January 1961, by which time he had moved back to California, and Dusty Rhodes and the Bar-K Gang carried on, playing frequent gigs at Tacoma’s Britannia Tavern, Seattle’s Circle Tavern, and the Evergreen Ballroom near Olympia. For his part, Webber stayed busy locally, cutting a more discs including another Webber-Owens composition, “Flash, Crash and Thunder” (Virgelle Records 725), as issued in 1964.

Decades later, right after I had just completed a couple hours-long interview with Owens, I asked him if he had a few more minutes to listen to a few song snippets that I’d brought along on a cassette. My goal was to have him help me nail down whether or not he’d been involved in a few records that I suspected he had played on. He graciously agreed. About 1.5 bars into Webber’s “Tired Of Livin’” 45 – which I didn’t identify beforehand – Owens exclaimed “Yep. That’s me.” I said: “Wow! How did you know so quickly?” He said authoritatively: “That’s my guitar playin’ – I just know when I hear it. Where’d you get that?” I explained, again, that I’d been long collecting Northwest records and had a few mysterious ones that I could use his input on. So, we tested a few more songs and he was similarly helpful. But then he suddenly turned to his assistant and sort-of whispered something like: “You stay on this. You get this feller’s information.” Well, I have stayed in contact with Owens’s team over the years – and now everybody has “this feller’s information” about one insanely rare record – and I hope you enjoyed reading about its saga.