Text copyright © 1984, 2014 by Peter Blecha.
THE FRANTICS: SEATTLE's TOP TEENAGE '50s BAND (1984)
Text copyright © 1984, 2014 by Peter Blecha.
THE BOOTMEN: OLYMPIA'S BADDEST '60s BAND (1984)
Text copyright © 1984, 2014 by Peter Blecha.
THE DYNAMICS: NORTH SEATTLE'S TOP '60s TEEN-R&B BAND (1959-1968)
Text copyright © 1984, 2014 by Peter Blecha.
CLAYTON WATSON: NORTHWEST '50s ROCKABILLY PIONEER (1983)
Text copyright © 1983, 2014 by Peter Blecha.
DAVE LEWIS: SEATTLE's 1950s R&B PIONEER (1983)
“That was the Top-10,” recalled Lewis in a recent interview. “But I wanted to do something…I wanted to play for dancing, and we tried to find records that were, I guess, black-oriented, and we tried to introduce them to the people. And I think that’s what got us over. Because here in Washington there wasn’t a big opening for underground R&B music.”
Text copyright © 1983, 2014 by Peter Blecha.
THE SWAGS: BELLINGAM'S FIRST ROCKSTARS (1958-1960)
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 1960. 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, Ritchie 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 Ritchie Valens, for his gig at the Holiday Ballroom just outside of Burlington, Washington.
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.
"THE 'BLACK ROOTS' of the ORIGINAL NORTHWEST SOUND" (2000)
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]
THE KINGSMEN: "BEST OF, FEATURING 'LOUIE, LOUIE'" (1988)
“LOUIE, LOUIE" BY THE KINGSMEN – the undisputed garage-rock hit of all time – was still charting nationwide that first week in February 1964 when the Beatles landed at Kennedy Airport. Although the Beatles were spearheading a major British Invasion of America’s radio airwaves, the Kingsmen successfully held their own. Between 1963 and 1967, at least eleven of the Kingsmen’s singles and five of their LPs scaled Billboard magazine’s charts. These discs were a non-stop series of some of the loudest and rawest rockin’ radio hits ever. The Kingsmen emerged from their Portland, Oregon garage in 1959, around the same time that the world was first being introduced to the developing Northwest Rock Sound. The Seattle/Tacoma based combos: the Wailers, the Frantics, Little Bill and the Bluenotes, and the Ventures each scored on the national charts with their early releases.
The Kingsmen originally formed as a 4-piece unit: Jack Ely (vocals/guitar); Mike Mitchell (guitar); Bob Nordby (bass); and Lynn Easton (drums). They performed popular standards, Top-40 tunes, and their favorite raunchy R&B songs at local supermarket grand openings and school sock-hops. In the fall of ’62, the Kingsmen lured Don Gallucci (keyboards) away from another Portland band, Gentleman Jim & the Horsemen. Just prior to this Ely acquired a copy of “Louie, Louie” by the Wailers – a cover of Richard Berry’s 1956 underground R&B hit. This version featured the Wailers’ raving vocalist, Rockin’ Robin Roberts (along with his patented “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah’s…”), and it raced up the charts in 1961 on KJR, Seattle’s then-mighty Top-40 / rock ‘n’ roll radio station. That achievement and the disc’s five-digit sales figures offered simple statistical evidence of the Pacific Northwest region’s undying fondness for the song. It also bolstered the local tradition for rockin’ combos to feature the song nightly at dances.
The Kingsmen adopted it and began employing the song as an extended showstopper finale. When a local disc jockey, Ken Chase, hired the Kingsmen to open his new teen club, The Chase, and noticed the young crowd’s wild reaction to “Louie, Louie,” he booked the band into a downtown Portland studio. “Louie, Louie, and an original instrumental number, “Haunted House,” were quickly cut in March, 1963, for thirty-eight legendary dollars. When DJs at Portland station KISN began broadcasting this “Louie, Louie,” Seattle record mogul, Jerry Dennon, took notice, signed the boys up, and released their debut single on his fledgling Jerden Records label.
Such was the early ‘60s Northwest teen-dance scene, that many of the working combos a shared a core canon of the same songs in their sets. So, it made perfect sense for a crosstown rival band, Paul Revere & the Raiders, to enter that very same studio, that very same week, in order to cut their own version of “Louie, Louie.” These two bands battled it out on Portland’s radio charts all through that summer.
The Kingsmen’s chaotic version with its manic lead guitar solo, insane cymbal crashes, generally slurred and unintelligible lyrics – as well as that famous fluffed third verse – rose to about the #20 slot. The Raiders’ good, though comparatively tame, sax-based rendition went on to get them signed to the big-time Columbia Records’ talent roster. Easton, meanwhile, had been devising other schemes: he had secretly registered himself as the legal owner of the Kingsmen’s name – and he had also taken up the saxophone. Finally at a rehearsal session in late-August, he dropped his bombshell: Easton would now be taking over as their frontman/vocalist. Needless-to-say, the guys were stunned. It was, however, a bloodless coup as both Ely and Nordby opted to quit and Gary Abbott (drums) and Norm Sundholm (bass) were recruited from other local bands.
Only weeks later, Easton was phoned by some college students in the deep south who were curious about the garbled lyrics within “Louie, Louie” and they wondered whether it was true that they could be deciphered if the 45 rpm disc was slowed down to 33 1/3 rpm. The Kingsmen were initially humored by these outlandish rumors, but before long the news networks were filing reports from New Orleans, Florida, Michigan, and elsewhere about an American public nearly hysterical over the possible dangers of this record. When Boston radio DJ, Bernie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg, at WMEX caught wind that the Governor of Illinois was preparing to ban the song, he immediately set the tune into heavy rotation on his show. Ginsburg apparently reasoned that it might not appear proper if the song were to be outlawed in another area before staid ol’ Boston could have its chance.
That’s when the New York-based R&B label, Wand Records, jumped in, reissued the disc, and 21,000 copies were sold that first week in Boston alone. As “Louie, Louie” began to saturate every radio market, a frenzy began building, the rumor mills were working overtime, and ugly record-burning incidents reportedly occurred. A congressional subcommittee took an interest, the FBI paid the band a visit, and both Ely and Berry ended up being summoned by the FCC to make statements regarding the song’s lyrical content. “Louie, Louie” entered the Billboard charts in November ’63, charted for sixteen weeks (resting in the nation’s #1 position for two solid weeks), and would go on to sell probably 10 million copies worldwide.
The Kingsmen embarked in late-December on a whirlwind three-week tour for the powerful William Morris Agency. Soon after returning home, Abbott was replaced by Dick Peterson and Barry Curtis joined because Gallucci was still stuck in high school and wasn’t free to tour. By the spring of ’64 various concert promoters were urging Ely to form his own Kingsmen because Easton’s crew was experiencing a bit of trouble on the road: people had begun to question whether Easton’s was the same voice as the hit record. Jack Ely and his brand-new Kingsmen began booking shows but eventually the two groups would end up facing off in court. A settlement was reached: Ely would desist from making further bookings as the “Kingsmen,” but any subsequent pressings of “Louie, Louie” would have to specifically credit “Jack Ely” as the vocalist – and Easton was barred from lip-syncing to Ely’s original vocals during TV appearances.
In March 1964 the Kingsmen’s second single, a cover of Barrett Strong’s 1960 Top-40 smash, “Money,” was released, and it charted for 11 weeks. The Kingsmen began four years of endless concerts, road tours, dances, and appearances on all of the teen-set’s TV shows: Hullaballoo, Shivaree, Shebang, Where The Action Is, and others. They also performed the title track and tough rocker, “Give Her Lovin’,” in what was perhaps the zaniest of Annette’s surfin’ flicks, How To Stuff A Wild Bikini.
In January 1965 the Kingsmen’s fifth single, “The Jolly Green Giant” – a novelty tune based on a well-known frozen vegetable company’s popular animated trademark character – sparked another mild controversy. “The Jolly Green Giant,” boosted by all the attending “bad” publicity, charted for 12 weeks, peaked at the nation’s #4 slot, and became the Kingsmen’s second best-seller. That disc’s flipside, “Long Green,” became a regional standard that was covered by numerous Northwest bands and, in fact, Jimmy “Sugar Shack” Gilmer & the Fireballs even scored a minor national hit version of it later in 1969.
Don & the Goodtimes – Gallucci’s newly formed band – burst out in ’65 with a scorching original, “Little Sally Tease,” a song that the Kingsmen promptly covered with a full-blown studio effort. “Little Latin Lupe Lu” (1964), “Death Of An Angel” (1964), one of the band’s contributions to the dance-craze-of-the-week fad, “The Climb (1965), and other hits kept the Kingsmen charting regularly through November 1967.
The Kingsmen experienced further personnel changes, brought in new producers, and booked recording sessions in Hollywood. By this time, the era’s psychedelic influences began to shade some of their recordings: “I Guess I Was Only Dreaming,” “Just Before The Break Of Day.” These final Wand label releases were, perhaps, just a little too experimental and did not met with the same massive commercial success that the band’s previous teen-R&B outings had. The Kingsmen finally abdicated their throne in 1968 and went into a self-imposed musical exile.
Meanwhile, “Louie, Louie” – the song that couldn’t be stopped – had made a remarkable re-entry onto the Billboard charts for a couple of weeks back in mid-1966, and then Jack Ely & the Courtmen, now signed to New York’s Bang Records, released spirited rewrites such as “Louie, Louie ‘66” and “Love That Louie.” The phenomenal impact of the Kingsmen’s classic cut remains undiminished and its legend grows. In the 1978 movie Animal House, the late John Belushi gave a memorable performance leading a debauched frat-house party in a hilarious slurred sing-a-long with the Kingsmen’s record. Then, in 1979, the British mod group, the Who, also paid tribute by including the Kingsmen’s “Louie, Louie” in the soundtrack to their film, Quadrophenia.
Today, the Kingsmen are back at what they have long been renowned for: raucous live performances at dances throughout the Greater Northwest and beyond. The band’s recent “Louie, Louie” video has been airing on MTV, and there is currently a grassroots movement underway to have “Louie, Louie” declared the official Washington State Song.
The Kingsmen – a teen combo that began their reign banging out truly basic three-chord tunes steeped in the strong R&B elements of the Pacific Northwest’s school of rock ‘n’ roll – may for all eternity be pegged as the prime example of that wonderfully crude, supremely sloppy, sixties garage band sound that many of us still hold near and dear.
And that’s one hell of a high honor.
[NOTE: This is a slightly edited version of the original liner notes to Rhino Records' The Best of The Kingsmen, Featuring “Louie Louie” 1988 LP (RNLP 126) and 1991 CD [Rhino 2 70745]. It was named as one of the "25 Best Liner Notes" ever by Dave Marsh in his 1994 book, The New Book of Rock Lists. In addition, Bruce Eder wrote in the All Music Guide that: "The Best Of The Kingsmen was the album that helped restore the group to modern record collections...and Peter Blecha's essay is still the definitive account of the band's history." Thanks guys!]
[Text copyright 1988-1991-2014, Peter Blecha]
THE UBANGI CLUB: SEATTLE'S HOT NITESPOT (1936-1938)
Jackson Street Jazz Scene
In the early 1930s Seattle’s African American-oriented newspaper, The Northwest Enterprise, described the town’s notorious Jackson Street scene that, in part, ran straight through the neighborhood historically known as “Chinatown” – today’s International District. It reported that the area “attracts persons from all sections of the city and numerous migrants who are attracted by the bright lights and allurements. And there are allurements, if you know where to find them…Jackson Street might be called the ‘Poor Man’s Playground.’ Here all races meet on common ground and rub elbows as equals. Fillipinos [sic], Japanese, Negroes and whites mingle in the same hotels and restaurants and there is an air of comradeship.”
The Black and Tan
“Smith was a gambler and a businessman,” de Barros further informs, “who was nicknamed ‘Noodles’ because no matter how much he risked in a crap game, the story went, he always set aside enough cash to buy a bowl of noodles before he went to bed.” He had begun to amass his considerable fortune back in the 1920s by co-founding the fabled Black and Tan club (12th Avenue and Jackson Street) – a long-lived room whose very name signaled its racially tolerant access policy.
But times were already moving on, as Kaegan
Faltys-Burr has written: “In the climate of Roosevelt’s New Deal, Jackson
Street jazz clubs began catering to more class-specific audiences.” And it was
Smith who “saw the need for a more sophisticated club to satisfy the growing
demand of wealthy whites for jazz venues.”
Thus begins the short-lived but legendary saga of Smith’s most ambitious nightclub enterprise of all, the Ubangi (410 7th Avenue S). He set out by renting a large space on the east side of the Louisa Hotel – which had originally been built (by a trio of Scandinavian emigrants) back in 1909 as the Nelson, Tagholm & Jensen Tenement (a 120-room boarding house that catered mainly to recent-arrivals and ethic workers awaiting passage to seafood canning jobs up in Alaska). “The Louisa was something of a sanctuary,” Ellis E. Conklin has written, “and in the 1920s and 1930s, Chinatown throbbed with excitement. Paper lanterns and glowing neon hung from the stoops of apartment dwellings. Children pitched baseball cards in Canton Alley. Adults gathered in social clubs, tucked away in basements and backroom parlors, for card games, and feasted on platters of” authentic Chinese delicacies. “The hotel, with its orange brick facade and windows with cast-stone sills and lintels, boasted a second-floor billiard room where seven two-story bay windows allowed light to stream in. Rumors persist that a secret casino with a surreptitious passageway may also have been on the second floor.”
Rumors aside, what is certain is that the hotel’s alley featured an entrance to one particular Chinese social club – the Blue Heaven (665 South King Street) – where illicit gambling flourished for decades. Recast later as the Wah Mee Club, the basement room would become widely infamous in 1983 as the site of one of Seattle’s most shocking robbery/murder sprees. Much of what had long occurred at this club was hidden and illicit, whereas the illegal activities at the Ubangi were rather more open, and Smith dealt with whatever fallout the traditional way: by paying off the police.
Direct from the Cotton Club
Smith’s goal was to run a swanky room that offered the finest in entertainment, and towards that end he and a manager, Bruce Rowell, took a trip down to Los Angeles to scout out talent. A visit to Frank Sebastian’s famous Cotton Club brought him into contact with one of that town’s leading black bands, Les Hite’s Cotton Club Orchestra. A deal was struck and Hite, his band, and a chorus line of singing/dancing girls were successfully booked for a twelve-week stint to mark the Ubangi’s grand opening. The two-story club featured two distinct ballrooms and a mezzanine that boasted a solo pianist, initially the legendary Seattle pianist Palmer Johnson. Seattle’s most glamorous black-owned rooms, the Ubangi offered the public the town’s first floor-show spectacle, in an atmosphere of elegance and exotica – replete with potted palm trees and an African-themed décor.
The Ubangi – which the Northwest Enterprise deemed “the largest race-owned enterprise…north of Los Angeles” – was an immediate hit. Especially with certain members of the white community who had extra money to burn during those Great Depression years – and Les Hite’s band got the joint off to a jumpin’ start. After a dozen weeks, Hite moved on but other fine talents kept the momentum up. Seattle’s own Howard Wyatt dance orchestra was brought in, as were additional stars from Los Angeles. Among the biggest names to work the stage was Gene Coy’s 11 Black Aces, and Cab “Hi-De-Ho” Calloway.
It's A Raid!
“Smith spared few expenses,” Faltys-Burr wrote, “flying in musical and dance acts from Los Angeles, and as a result most of the patrons attracted to the club were white. But even the lavish Ubangi continued to deal with problems of police harassment.” Raids by the Seattle Police Department, and/or state liquor agents, were common along Jackson Street, even if they often only resulted in punitive fines (or were forestalled by cash payoffs). But the Ubangi’s physical layout afforded employees, like manager Rowell, opportunities for escape via secret doors, stairwells, and even a hidden slide.
Decades after-the-fact Rowell once gleefully recalled to de Barros: “That’s how I got away from the Washington State liquor board, three times! Heh-heh-heh! When they came in, I’d go to [my] office, see, and say ‘Let me get my overcoat.’ Then I’d zip down that little deal, you know, near the floor, and Sheeoop! I’m downstairs in the basement. Next thing I know, I’m coming out [in the back alley], go down to the Mar Hotel, get a room, take a bath, and go to bed! They’re all up there looking’ for me and I’m in the shower!”
All this must have been a frustration for Smith, but he had enough income streams – additional nightclubs, his personal gaming and gambling, and various real estate investments – to forge ahead. Indeed, his profile within the community continued to grow with every step including his founding and supporting of a very popular black semi-pro football team called the Ubangi Nighthawks. Smith was renowned for attending each of their games, while Rowell attended to, as Brent Campbell has written, “the team’s financial and physical health.”
Alas, the well being of the Ubangi itself couldn’t be maintained once the building it was based in was sold off in February, 1938 – and then 75 years later, on Christmas Eve, 2013, a fire destroyed the top floor of the historic building and ruined numerous businesses below.
A New Discovery
Now, in late 2014, I have recently unearthed what is perhaps the only known artifact related to this whole little realm of Ubangi club history: a vintage photograph of an as-yet-unidentified racially diverse band that includes a pianist, six sax and trumpet players, a bassist, a drummer, a leader, and three female singer/dancers(?). The 8x10 glossy print is autographed thusly: “9/27/36 To Hazel Simpson: May you never get any nicer, may you never get any worse. Paula Walton Ubangi Club. Seattle Wash.”