EXACTLY ONE-HALF CENTURY AGO – in the spring and summer of 1959 – Northwest rock 'n' roll made its initial impact on the greater world of music. And although that historic milestone for Seattle's music scene has nearly slipped by without fanfare, it is not an anniversary that Seattle Sound can let go without notice.

Just consider: Up until that major turning-point this region's rock 'n' roll had no track record of particularly meritorious achievement within the music biz. Furthermore, the nascent "Northwest Sound" had no generally agreed-upon aural markers. Sure, by the late-1950s a very few enterprising teenage bands had already managed to cut records -- but the explosive level of teen scene action in 1959 was simply unprecedented.

Rock fans who recall the excitement that permeated the air in Seattle around 1988–1989 might begin to understand the electrifying zeitgeist of such a period of musical upheaval. It was then that our local bands (like Alice In Chains, Mother Love Bone, and Soundgarden) were suddenly all being courted by various major labels. Meanwhile, Seattle's Sub Pop Records was "discovering" the likes of Nirvana and Mudhoney while releasing hot new grunge records seemingly every week and Nastymix Records was simultaneously stirring up all sorts of local hip-hop action. Thrilling days, indeed!

But, that period was not the first time that local music fans had experienced such a heady rush of activity. Thirty years earlier, one Seattle company – Dolton Records – burst forth with an amazing string of successes. The label single-handedly launched four different teen groups into the international world of pop, and scored big-time international hits with a half-dozen of its very first releases. And compounding Dolton's triumphs that year were the winning discs pushed by three other brand new labels: Seattle's Nite Owl and Penguin Records, and Tacoma's Blue Horizon Records.

In hindsight, the eruption of '59 was significant in great part because prior to that point no outsiders had ever been faced with the concept of "Northwest Rock." And so when that initial flood of high-quality Northwest 45s suddenly surfaced, it must have seemed like they'd materialized out of thin air. Certainly the sheer abruptness with which these hits elbowed their way onto the nation's best-seller charts and into the hearts of rockers far and wide was astonishing.

Of course, in time – and especially after the subsequent hits by other early Northwest bands it became clearer that this region's rock music was here to stay. But in the weeks and months before those first hits erupted in 1959 – it must have been like the fabled calm before the perfect rock 'n' roll storm. In truth, by mid-1958 the stars were already aligning and numerous ambitious locals were busily scheming. Bands were booking recording sessions to cut their tunes, and music biz insiders were pondering if there might be any local teen talents worth promoting. The former included Seattle's top white teen band, the Frantics, and Everett's doo-wop group, the Shades, who each saved up their gig money to record a few tunes at Chet Noland's Dimensional Sound studio (2128 Third Avenue), and Tacoma's pioneering rockers, the Wailers, who'd booked time at Lyle Thompson's Commercial Recorders (1426 Fifth Avenue) in an attempt to cut their instrumental song, "Scotch On The Rocks."

Meanwhile, across town at Seattle record wholesaler, C&C Distributors, a savvy sales manager named Bob Reisdorff was seducing his bosses with the idea of founding their own label. By the end of 1958 Reisdorff had cemented a partnership with those bosses – and with Seattle's own pop star, Bonnie Guitar, who (after scoring a few national hits in recent years) had moved back home from Hollywood where she'd gained deep experience in recording studio techniques. That team settled upon launching Dolphin Records and began casting about for young acts to work with. Along the way, they considered the Wailers but passed on the opportunity and instead signed up an Olympia High School teen trio who would gain global fame as the Fleetwoods. The following timeline tracks the subsequent developments as they occurred in that amazing rock 'n' roll year of 1959.

----------------------------------------------TIMELINE 1959----------------------------------------------
Working at Joe Boles' basement studio (3550 Admiral Way) in West Seattle, Bonnie Guitar and Bob Reisdorff complete the production of the Fleetwoods' first doo-wop recording, "Come Softly To Me."

January 10:
After the Shades circulate a demo tape of two doo-wop tunes – "One Touch Of Heaven" and "Dear Lori" -- to various Hollywood-based labels, Aladdin Records signs the group.

Dolphin Records debuts with the Fleetwoods' 45 and Seattle's KING radio is the first to air "Come Softly To Me."

February 23:
The Fleetwoods and Frantics both open for touring star, Bobby Darin at a dance promoted by KING DJ, Ray Briem, at Parkers Ballroom (170th & Aurora Avenue N.) On the preceding weekend, Darin had also performed at Skateland Roller Park (2201 California Avenue) -- a gig that also featured the Shades and was promoted by radio DJ, Glenn Brooke, from Everett's KRKO. 

February 24:
Impressed with the Frantics, Darin proposes that they find a studio and record his latest composition. The Frantics and Bobby Darin cut demo versions of two new songs – "Dream Lover" (as penned on Olympic Hotel letterhead) and "Bullmoose"– with Boles.

March 9:
The Fleetwoods' "Come Softly To Me" goes national, beginning a sixteen-week run on the Billboard magazine charts which peaked with a four-week stand at #1. From there the song spread out to become an international radio classic.

April 4:
The Shades' Aladdin 45 arrives by mail and the group rushes promo copies over to Everett's KRKO and KQTY; on the 6th Seattle’s KAYO begins airing “One Touch of Heaven” as does KQDE on the 7th.

April 10:
KAYO's Hit Parade Club host, Pat O’Day, begins airing “One Touch Of Heaven” from the fishbowl studio at the Ware House of Music (421 Pike Street), and it climbs to the influential retail shop's #11 slot. Meanwhile Shades member, Larry Nelson, marries, quits the group, moves to Seattle, and takes a job with the King County Sheriff’s office.

April 20:
Bobby Darin's "Dream Lover" – which had been re-cut in an identical sound-a-like version back in NYC -- hits Billboard and soon becomes a huge #2 smash. Inexplicably, the very Frantics-esque instrumental, "Bullmoose," served as B-side for the singer's new 45.

May 18:
The Wailers' second recording of "Scotch On The Rocks" – now re-titled, "Tall Cool One," and issued by New York's Golden Crest label – hits the Billboard charts, peaking at #36 in a thirteen- week run. On this same day the Fleetwoods' second Boles-cut 45 -- "Graduation's Here" – climbs the Billboard chart, this time hitting #39 in an eight-week run. [Note: due to complaints from a previously existing Dolphin label, Reisdorff and company switched names to Dolton Records.]

KOL radio's Jim Hammer forms Penguin Records, cuts the Continentals with Boles, issues an instrumental 45 – "Soap Sudz" / "Cool Penguin" – and promptly licenses the disc up to Hollywood's Era Records for national distribution.

May 25:
Signed to Dolton, the Frantics' classic Boles-cut instrumental, "Straight Flush," hits Billboard reaching #16 in a nine week run. On this same day Big Jay McNeely's R&B ballad, "There Is Something On Your Mind" – a tune cut with Boles a year and a half prior – begins a forty-four-week run that nets him his long career's greatest hit.

May 30:
The Shades' “One Touch of Heaven” hits #14 on KQTY and begins to gain legs at scattered stations down the West Coast.

June 22:
Little Bill and the Bluenotes' Boles-cut teen ballad, "I Love An Angel," enters the Billboard charts, reaching #66 in a six-week run.

Penguin Records issues the Dynamics' Boles-cut instrumental 45 – "Aces Up" / "Baby" – and promptly licenses the disc up to NYC's Guaranteed Records for national distribution.

Seattle teen singer, Ron Holden, completes his ninety-day sentence at the King County Jail. He'd been busted during a dance for partying with his bandmates (the Playboys) and some underage girls. While incarcerated he'd written a song, "Love You So," that impressed Sheriff's Deputy (and former Shades singer) Larry Nelson who offered to record Holden for his new Nite Owl label. The Playboys had moved on -- recording an excellent 45 for Dolton ("Party Ice"/ "Icy Fingers") -- and Holden was shoe-horned into another band, the Thunderbirds. A session at Fred Rasmussen's Northeast Seattle home studio (7551 28th Avenue NE) yielded three songs: "Love You So," "My Babe," and "Louie Louie."

Nite Owl Records takes Seattle doo-wop group, the Gallahads, into Kearney Barton's Northwest Recorders (622 Union Street) where they cut "Gone" and "So Long." Meanwhile, manufacturing complications delay Holden's 45 and the Gallahads' single marks Nite Owl's debut.

August 17:
The Wailers' second instrumental 45, "Mau-Mau," hits Billboard peaking at #68 in a five-week run.

September 7:The Fleetwood's astound everyone with their second national #1 hit, "Mr. Blue," a timeless classic which was cut with Barton – and that charted for twenty weeks.

September 14:
The Frantics return to Billboard with their #93 instrumental hit, "Fog Cutter." A few months later, on February 29, 1960, the Frantics would score a final time for Dolton with the instrumental, "Werewolf," which hit #83 on Billboard.

Hollywood's Del-Fi / Donna Records signs the Gallahads away from Nite Owl, and in Los Angeles the group cuts "Lonely Guy" which gets some solid national radio and TV exposure but narrowly misses becoming a big hit – a unfair fate shared by their Del-Fi follow-up, "Be Fair."

Nite Owl finally issues Holden's “Love You So” / "My Babe" 45. [Note: the Thunderbird's other song, "Louie Louie," was never released, thus forfeiting the chance to become the earliest local recording of what would become the Northwest's signature rock song.]

On an unknown day in the fall season of 1959, Tacoma's Ventures, self-produce their second of two Boles-recorded singles for their very own label, Blue Horizon Records. Prior to cutting the song "Walk—Don't Run" the guys actually auditioned it in person at Dolton headquarters, but Reisdorff passed, telling them that he already had an instrumental combo, the Frantics. Thus the Ventures plodded onwards, issuing the 45 on their own. The Ventures had taken their Blue Horizon 45 over to Pat O'Day (who had recently joined KJR) and he spun the disc on the spot. Interestingly, Reisdorff happened to be listening and struck by the tune this time, he stepped in licensed the song, and promptly reissued it on Dolton. On July 18, 1960 "Walk—Don't Run" would enter Billboard where it peaked at #2 in an eighteen-week run.

October 26: The Fleetwoods enter the Billboard charts again with a #84 hit, "You Mean Everything to Me."

November 6:
Holden's “Love You So” charts at #5 on Seattle’s KQDE; then on the ninth it soars to #1 on the Ware House of Music chart – and after that, numerous area radio stations push it into their own Top-10.

December 28:
Music Vender magazine notes that Donna Records – which had spotted the action with Holden's disc and cut another deal with Nite Owl – re-released “Love You So” nationally. On April 4, 1960 "Love You So" would enter the Billboard charts, peaking at #7 in a nineteen-week run.

As the promising year of 1960 chugged along Dolton would score an additional three hits for the Fleetwoods and a second with the Ventures. But it was the label's astonishing success ratio that likely prompted Hollywood's Liberty Records to make the little Seattle company an irresistible offer. By fall, Reisdorff (abandoning all his acts except for the Fleetwoods and Ventures, who each scored plenty more hits as the decade progressed) was ensconced in a deluxe new California office complex that housed both Dolton and Blue Horizon. Each label went on to enjoy much additional success – in fact, the latter discovered and promoting England's Fleetwood Mac – but neither focused exclusively on Northwest talent ever again. Yet Dolton's inspirational role during that magical year of 1959 definitely established a serious high-water mark for Northwest rock 'n' roll – one that wouldn't be challenged until the rise of Sub Pop and the Grunge Era three decades hence.

[Note: This is an edited version of an essay that originally appeared in Seattle Sound magazine in 2009]

Text copyright © 2009, 2014 by Peter Blecha.