Bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Nirvana are synonymous with the grunge genre, or “Seattle sound,” known for its muddy electric guitar and angsty vocals. But before Kurt Cobain was getting Rolling Stone cover features, he was just one of many Seattle teenagers enthralled by Seattle band Bam Bam and its late frontwoman, Tina Bell.
On July 9, Seattle-area musicians pay tribute to Bell, whom they revere as one of the founders of grunge, by playing a show of her music at the Central Saloon. Matt Cameron, the former Bam Bam and Soundgarden drummer who now plays with Pearl Jam, will hold down the rhythm section. Kendall Jones of Fishbone and singer-songwriter Ayron Jones will play Bam Bam’s chords and leads. Jenelle Roccaforte from New Orleans will play bass. And Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard will play a song as a special guest.
The legacy of Bell, a Black woman, has often been overlooked in a genre typically associated with long-haired white guys.
Seattle-area musician Om Johari, singer for Bad Brains tribute band Re-Ignition, used to sneak out after curfew to go to Bam Bam shows as a teenager. Johari says she was inspired to see a fellow Black woman screaming into a microphone in front of crowds in the Seattle hard-rock scene, which wasn’t always inclusive of Black people or women. She says Bell doesn’t receive the recognition she deserves as one of the founders of grunge music, because of sexism and racism. Bam Bam bassist Scott Ledgerwood says grunge stars like Cobain roadied for Bam Bam before they were famous — Ledgerwood remembers jokingly yelling at Cobain for dropping his guitar, saying Ledgerwood was the one who was supposed to give the guitar character, and seeing the future Nirvana frontman “sitting at the side of the stage hugging his knees” at Bam Bam shows, completely absorbed in the music.
Johari organized the concert after CBS News contacted Ledgerwood and Eva Walker of the Black Tones, because CBS producers wanted to do a segment on “CBS This Morning” about Bell, who died in 2012. For the location of the TV interviews, Ledgerwood says he and Walker chose the Central Saloon, a venue with rich grunge history that recently put a mural of Bell on one of its walls. With so many former Bam Bam band members and fans-turned-musicians coming to one place, Johari says she had a golden opportunity for a show.
For vocalists, Johari chose Black women influenced by Bell’s music: Walker, Shaina Shepherd of BEARAXE, Dmitra Smith of Ex’s With Benefits and New York-based songwriter Dejha Colantuono. Johari also chose the singers to capture Bell’s huge vocal range on the 13 Bam Bam songs the tribute band will play. Ledgerwood says Bell’s voice “could go so quickly from a sultry coo to an absolutely spine-chilling shriek.”
Johari says though Black women like Sister Rosetta Tharpe were among the founders of rock ‘n’ roll, they’ve never been adequately recognized for their contributions to the genre.
“People sometimes have a really difficult time accepting women who happen to be Black in the genre of rock ‘n’ roll — that we invented,” Johari says.
Ledgerwood says Bell didn’t get the record deals and fame some white male grunge artists achieved because people in power in the music industry didn’t give her the shot she deserved. “They were too blind to see that America was ready for a Black superstar, a gorgeous lady, up front in a hard [rock] band.”
Now with the CBS segment, the mural at the Central Saloon and the tribute concert, Ledgerwood says Bell is finally starting to get the recognition she deserves.
This story has been updated to include the name of the bass player for the tribute band, Jenelle Roccaforte, to give Scott Ledgerwood and Eva Walker credit for organizing the CBS interview and choosing the location of the show and to clarify that Ledgerwood yelled at Kurt Cobain as a joke.