The Civil Rights Era saw Hilliard and the Combo, as members of the still-racially segregated AFM Local 493 (“negro musicians union”), helping break down barriers by touring the state in 1955 backing rockabilly stars Bill Haley and His Comets, and later being the first African American band to play the north end’s top teen dancehall, Parker’s Ballroom. And, all along the way, Hilliard honored his own father’s example, by working one or more side jobs– including being the first black man hired as a management trainee by a major downtown department store. While raising his own family of five kids, Hilliard went on to graduate from the University of Washington, work for Governor Dan Evans’ administration, earn his law degree, and serve as manager of a couple businesses and several more government agency departments. Playing in weekend nightclub bands all the while, Barney Hilliard finally retired in 2012 – one year prior to being honored by the musicians’ union for fifty years of dedicated service.
Barney Hilliard was born on December 6, 1937, to Lamar and Argola Hilliard who had moved to Weed, California, from Mississippi the year prior. But then in 1943 – at the midpoint of World War II – the draw of good-paying shipyard work in Seattle brought the family here where they initially settled in West Seattle. Young Hilliard proceeded to attend E. C. Hughes Elementary School (7740 34th Avenue SW) from kindergarten into second grade. The family then moved to a Central District home (721 21st Avenue) while Mr. Hilliard began a long career at Washington Iron Works. He also made ends meet by taking on a second job as a part-time custodian on weekends – and that example was one that would have a direct bearing on his son’s life.
Hilliard began attending Horace Mann School and at around the same time that his cousin, Bob Herring, acquired a trumpet and began learning to play music. His parents agreed but suggested that instead of another trumpet, he should pick a different instrument, and while shopping at a downtown music shop the youngster selected an alto saxophone.
It was a later when he was attending Meany Jr. High that he met a social studies teacher who taught music to students on the side. Hilliard recently recalled that: “I remember that he introduced me to [jazz great] Coleman Hawkins – he pulled out a record player and played a Coleman Hawkins record for me right then and right there at Meany. He said, ‘Now that’s real music. Listen to what he does and how he does it. Isn’t that smooth?’”
Hilliard liked jazz and early R&B tunes, but because they were rarely aired by Seattle’s whitebread radio stations, he and his pals’ access to this music was almost strictly through records. He earned his record-buying money from a Seattle Post-Intelligencer paper route – and among the sax-men he most admired were Louis Jordan, Illinois Jacquet, Big Jay McNeely, Sam Butera, Gene Ammons, and Cannonball Adderly. “In those days,” said Hilliard, “the mass media considered R&B and Soul and all that to be ‘race music’ and it was banned, so we mostly listened to records in the black community. And so we would have to buy records and listen to those at home or at house parties. So that’s how you would hear the music – and that’s how I found out that a lot of those songs had saxophone solos. I said ‘Oh, boy,’ you know [laughter]. So that got me locked in.”
By this point Hilliard was getting reasonably good on his sax and he fell in with a couple fellow students – Dave Lewis (piano) and John Johnston (drums) – and the trio began performing at various school events (as did Lewis’ other group, a doo-wop vocal quintet, the Five Checks, which included George Griffin) before graduating in June 1953.
In the fall of that same year these kids began attending Garfield High School, an educational institution already renowned for having most multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and cosmopolitan student body in the Seattle School District. Garfield had already produced such talents as Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, Quincy Jones, and Ernestine Anderson. Hilliard joined Garfield’s marching band (under instructor Ray Johnston), while he also took music lessons with Frank Waldron, a legendary Seattle jazz veteran who had already taught Quincy Jones, Jabo Ward, and many others. Soon Hilliard and his piano-playing buddy Dave Lewis, recruited additional players (including George Griffin as drummer) and formed a quintet, the Dave Lewis Combo.
As Seattle’s first teenaged rockin’-R&B band, the Combo played their debut dance at a YMCA but were soon spotted by prominent entertainment booker, Leonard Russell, who brought them into the old Palomar Theatre. Russell then got them additional gigs in Olympia, Tacoma, Yakima, Everett, Bremerton, and even Oregon’s Jantzen Beach Amusement Park.
Travails & Tours
For five decades Seattle had two racially segregated musicians unions – American Federation of Musicians Local 76 (for the white players), and AFM 493 (for everyone else). Local 76 had always been very zealous in protecting their control of the most lucrative gigs in town, which were the large theaters, nightclubs, and hotel ballrooms downtown and towards the north end. Over the years discussions had occurred regarding the possibility of merging the two unions, but that would not occur until January 1958.
But back in 1954 the Combo was beginning to get a few gigs at cabaret dance parties and that’s when an agent from Local 493 caught them and insisted that they join the union – and Hilliard has been a union man ever since. In the summer of 1955 the Combo was hired as opening act for Bill Haley and His Comets who were out touring Washington in support of their radio hits like “Rock Around The Clock.” And then – after graduating from Garfield in June 1956 – their bands repeated the tour again. That same summer Hilliard took a seasonal job at Boeing, and in the fall began studies at the University of Washington.
Though established as Seattle’s top rock band, the Combo had never yet been able to play at the north end’s prime dancehall, Parker’s Ballroom, which had always been considered Local 76’s turf. But the Civil Rights movement was making progress and Parker’s management wanted the Combo enough to force that union to live with their decision. And thus that wall was finally breached and the Combo showed that they could attract white kids too.
The Birdland & “Barney’s Tune”
At mid-decade local African American businessman Wilmer Morgan converted an East Madison Street neighborhood roller skating rink (and former theater and nightclub) into the Birdland Supper Club. It was here that Hilliard and his pals were first exposed to big-time jazz and R&B artists including Dexter Gordon, Big Jay McNeely, Blinky Allen, Pony Poindexter and Cal Tjader.
It was in 1957 when Morgan invited the Combo to work as Birdland’s house-band. Although the band would be giving up their ability to travel, the upside was that they would have a regular weekend gig in their own neighborhood and a ready daytime rehearsal space as well. Although the Combo had begun by copying their favorite records, in time they began to come up with their own original songs, including Lewis’ later regional radio hit, “David’s Mood” – and “Barney’s Tune,” which when recorded by the Combo in 1960 would stand as the only disc Hilliard would ever cut.
Hilliard took a day job again at Boeing that summer of ’57, and by winter had also renewed courses at UW where he joined on with the ROTC program. On May 3, 1958, he married Norberta Arviso and later that year they were blessed with their first of five children. Meanwhile, the Birdland gig was an key part of his life. The Combo was considered the hottest thing in town and by now plenty of younger musicians – like young Jimmy (“Jimi”) Hendrix – were dropping in nightly to study the best.
One thing they all took away was “Louie Louie.” The Combo had been the first local band to adopt that 1957 tune by California R&B singer, Richard Berry, and from there it eventually snowballed into a must-play teen-dance favorite. Today it is regarded as Washington State’s “unofficial rock ‘n’ roll song” – and it was Hilliard (and the band’s other Sax-man, J.B. Allen) who got all this honking started.
In time George Griffin left the Combo to join guitarist Wendell Johnson at a steady five-nighter gig downtown at Dave’s Fifth Avenue, and in 1959 Hilliard joined them. Hilliard also returned to Boeing, but those late nights out finally caught up with him, and eventually he left Boeing. Hilliard moved on to the Colony Club, playing five nights a week (and backing the floorshows on the weekends) for a year with Leroy Franklin (keyboards/vocals) and Dennis Trout (drums). It was a grueling schedule and one that caused Hilliard to take stock, and finally committing himself to finding a day job and only playing music on weekends.
In the early-mid ‘60s the Civil Rights movement was making significant gains and Hilliard would be a grateful beneficiary of this social progress. “At that time, organizations like CORE and the Urban League were putting pressure on the downtown merchants to do something about hiring African Americans. As it turned out, each of those downtown department stores moved on that. And I was the first [black] management trainee at J.C. Penney’s.”
From 1962 to 1967 Hilliard worked weekdays at Penney’s and weekends playing music. He also managed, in 1963, to purchase a home for his growing family. Meanwhile – between 1962 and 1967 Hilliard played the military base dance with the Four Sounds.
Hilliard had a growing urge to get involved in the Civil Rights movement, so in 1967 he accepted a job offer to become coordinator of Equal Employment Opportunity activities and the Jobs Now program for the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. He worked with corporations to identify private sector job opportunities for the disadvantaged and minority youth. Hilliard coordinated with the Seattle Urban League, the State Employment Security Department and various community agencies to find applicants and referrals for jobs through the program. He also conducted race relations seminars for corporate managers and supervisors. He interacted with big-time players like Boeing and Lockheed. Through this activity Hilliard developed a keen sense of local politics and corporate culture, and when he asked some friendly downtown business leaders what next steps he should take for his career, he was advised to complete his college degree and thus in 1968 Hilliard returned to UW where he graduated in 1971.
Law School & Government Gigs
That same year Hilliard entered the UW law school -- while simultaneously playing music on weekends with the Johnny Lewis Trio at the Trojan Horse, and working as a part-time law clerk at PACCAR during that summer of ’71. In addition, Hilliard volunteered as a board member with the Central Area Mental Health Center for over twenty years, and served as board president for six years. The agency provided mental health services for low-income citizens regardless of their ability to pay. They merged with Therapeutic Health Services in 1990. Along the way his connections at the Chamber led to a consultant gig with Governor Dan Evans administration’s Department of Commerce & Economic Development, where he helped organize a statewide minority business program. The following summer Paccar invited Hilliard to work downtown at their litigation law firm.
Hilliard also volunteered with the UW football coaches’ recruiting program from 1975 to 1990, where he served as liaison with Garfield High School to encourage student athletes to attend the UW and play football for the Huskies. During those years, notable recruits were future City Council member Bruce Harrell, and Anthony Allen, who continued his career in the NFL and later, returned to coach football at Garfield.
Upon earning his law degree in 1974 Hilliard embarked on a two decade-long period of employment in the private sector. At Submarine Base Bangor he was a project manager overseeing 150 employees, and then he became a partner in a telecommunications startup that wound down in 1993. For the next several years Hilliard commuted to the State Capitol, working first for the Department of Corrections, then at the Insurance Commissioners Office, and finally at the Employment Security Contracts Office.
Then, when the opportunity arose in 2002 to work a bit closer to home, he took on the managerial role at the Unemployment Insurance Tax office in Lynnwood. Four years later he moved on to a Program manager role at the City of Seattle’s Office of Executive Administration (today’s Office of Finance and Administration) where he managed the business license and tax office until retiring in 2012.
A Lifetime of Music
Throughout a long career at corporations and government agencies, Barney Hilliard proved his love for playing music and commitment to entertaining fans by always keeping a band on the side. Back in 1978 the Four Sounds fell apart and in ’79 Hilliard and Jack Smith (drums) regrouped as the Carousel Band by adding DuWayne Andrews (organ), and later Ed Tinker (guitar/vocals). For bigger gigs they’d bring along trumpeter Larry Lusier or Ed Lee), and sometimes Steve Nowak (guitar). The Carousel Band market niche was private golf clubs, yacht clubs, the Seattle Tennis Club and numerous weddings, where they thrived for over twenty-five years.
It was around 1993 that the group decided to play less of the private club- and private party- circuit, and instead find a local venue where they could be based, and where family and friends could attend. That new home-base would be Seattle’s rollicking New Orleans Café. The six-piece Carousel Rhythm & Blues band – occasionally augmented with Shauna Rogers (vocals) – would become a popular monthly draw there for about five years. It was also Hilliard’s all-time favorite gig because they had their six-piece group with the rich sound of the Hammond B3 organ. But all good things must end, and finally in 2012 Hilliard set down his beloved saxophone and left the music biz. But then, in 2013 – a decade after being saluted as a Life Member of AFM 76-493 – the musicians’ union awarded Hilliard with their 50 Year membership pin. Today, a still active Hilliard enjoys retirement; playing golf and watching his grandchildren grow up.