Editor’s note: This is an edited excerpt from Peter Blecha’s new book, “Stomp and Shout: R&B and the Origins of Northwest Rock and Roll,” published by the University of Washington Press.
IN 1947, A SIGNIFICANT new teen band formed in Seattle when tenor saxophonist Charlie Taylor — a son of pianist Evelyn Bundy, who’d formed the pioneering Garfield Ramblers jazz combo here in the 1920s — met a fast-learning, young trumpeter named Quincy “Quick” Jones in the band room at Garfield High School. Jones’ family had moved from Bremerton to Seattle in 1944.
The Charlie Taylor Band came together when he and Jones recruited, among others, two of Seattle jazz legend Oscar Holden’s kids — Oscar Holden Jr. (sax) and Grace Holden (piano) — and Jones’ brother Waymond Jones (drums). (Meanwhile, Jones’ other brother, Lloyd, got a job working at the butcher shop run by the Blackwell brothers, Robert “Bumps” and Charlie.) The band first played a lunch break at Garfield High, then the spring season’s Garfield Funfest talent show. After that came their first paid gig: a teen dance at the East Madison YMCA. It was while playing a show at Vasa Park on Lake Sammamish that Bumps Blackwell offered to manage them under a new name: the Bumps Blackwell Junior Band.
The teenagers agreed, and thus began intensive months of training and rehearsals at Blackwell’s Central District bungalow at 217 14th Ave. It was here where Blackwell nurtured numerous budding jazz talents, including future stars such as Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, Patti Bown, Floyd Standifer and Ernestine Anderson. In 1983, while visiting his former home in Seattle, Blackwell reminisced about the old days in a KOMO television special about Charles, Quincy Jones and Anderson: “So, the music scene … this is actually where it started. We used to rehearse — I’d have them in the bathroom, in the dining room, the kitchen, the upstairs bedroom, downstairs bedroom, in the front room and the den. All playing on their instruments. Learning.”
And Blackwell, who later produced records for Little Richard, Sam Cooke and Bob Dylan, among others, did his best to teach the teenagers about the wild ways of the entertainment business. “Bumps acted like a father to us,” Taylor would later recall. “He gave us lectures on dope and drinking — don’t do this; don’t do that.”
When Blackwell figured all these youngsters were polished enough, he scored them a regular Sunday gig at the Savoy Ballroom in 1947. (The Savoy, opened by a Black businessman named Lemuel Honeysuckle on Dec. 27, 1942, was originally the Anzier Theatre when it was built in 1925, then the Gala Theatre and after the Savoy years would become Eastside Hall and, finally, the Birdland club, which was razed in 1965.) Blackwell also booked his young band into the legendary Washington Social and Educational Club across the street, which another Black businessman, “Reverend” Sirless F. “Sy” Groves, had founded in 1944.
AMONG THE LAWS still on the books in the 1940s was one that forbade nightclubs from serving mixed cocktails; instead, there were BYOB venues called “bottle clubs,” where patrons arrived with their own booze (which was expected to be discreetly kept in a bag on the floor under each patron’s table), and the house made its profit by selling “setups” (ice and glasses). Exempt from such rules were private “social” or “educational” clubs — a legal wrinkle that allowed mainstream organizations such as the Eagles, Elks and Moose lodges, and tennis and yachting clubs, to continue to party. In addition, there were still (until 1966) no liquor sales allowed on Sundays — except at the numerous local officers’ and enlisted men’s clubs on local military bases.
This was the legal backdrop Groves faced when he’d wanted to run his own nightspot. His solution was to incorporate his business as a “private” members-only organization. He seized the opportunity with gusto, choosing to bestow it with an exacting name: It would be both a social and educational club that happily would sell a “membership” to anyone who showed up.
“I never did figure out where the Reverend Groves’ church was,” Jones would later joke in “Q,” an autobiography. “Nor did I know how his club got the ‘educational’ part of that title, unless you consider the act of lifting a peach jar full of VAT 69 whiskey to your lips and sliding it down your throat educational, but the reverend’s club was definitely social. People brought bottles of whiskey and wine in paper bags, paid a dollar or two for a ‘setup’ from the club — a bucket of ice, four water glasses and maybe some soda pop — and then partied all night long, drinking whiskey and eating home-cooked barbecue while watching us play. … Occasionally there were police busts, fistfights, even gunfire, and we’d have to haul ass out the back door.”
Among the stars that Groves booked were Cab Calloway, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, T-Bone Walker, Jack McVea and B.B. King — in other words, some of the finest musicians alive. It was a room that players loved to play, and where partyers loved to party. The popular — and sometimes way over legal capacity — venue would see many a wild night and more than one news-making police raid.
In 1947, the Seattle Police Department started to crack down on after-hours venues. That year alone, they raided 90-some nightclubs, including jazz and R&B rooms such as the Black and Tan as well as the Rocking Chair, which was shuttered the following year. Between 1948 and 1950, the Washington Social and Educational Club (known by most more simply as the Washington Social Club) was raided on several occasions, with Groves himself arrested a couple of times before he grew tired and quit the biz.
Meanwhile, Bumps Blackwell had continued making professional connections all around the region and was able to book his Junior Band into a wide variety of shows — all the while making serious inroads on Seattle’s segregated scene. In time, they began getting better and better gigs — some in downtown venues. Blackwell got his band into the Metropolitan Theatre at Fourth Avenue and University Street, and at Club Encore student events on the University of Washington campus. He also booked the band in shows supporting touring stars such as Calloway, “The Hi-De-Ho Man” himself, at Civic Auditorium on Mercer Street, and the jazz world’s reigning diva, Billie Holiday, at the Senator Ballroom in the Eagles building at 700 Union St.
AND THEN, AS if they weren’t already plenty busy, in October 1947, Blackwell, Taylor and Quincy Jones all joined the military, with Blackwell becoming the first Black officer in the Washington National Guard and leader of the 41st Infantry Division Band based out of Fort Lewis. Yet, they still found time to keep up their gigging.
“On the first of the week, we would be in the National Guard band,” Blackwell recalled in a 1983 interview with Roberta Penn. “I was playing military music. Then, on Tuesday or Wednesday, we’d be at the Workman’s Circle playing for a bar mitzvah. Then, on the early part of Friday or Saturday night, we’d be playing … schottisches, mazurkas, hambones, things like that. Then, after we finished that, down at Broadmoor or Madison Park, or wherever we were, we’d end up at the Washington Social and Educational Club at 2:30 or 3 in the morning and play until about 6:30 or 7. That’s where they’d sell a gallon of wine for about 35 cents [laughter].”
“We’d play five nightclubs a night,” Jones told Los Angeles Magazine in 2016. “First we played pop … at the Seattle Tennis Club. We’d have our little cardigans on and ties. Then we’d change into our suits and go over to the Washington Social and Educational Club. … We played everything: rock ’n’ roll, rhythm and blues. Then we’d go down to the red-light district and have bebop jam sessions.”
The personnel roster of Blackwell’s Junior Band evolved — seemingly only getting better over their three-year run. When their drummer left, Blackwell came up with a killer replacement, Tommy Adams, who is considered the father of Northwest funk. Blackwell also discovered another newcomer to town, teenage Texan singer Ernestine Anderson. Though her parents had hoped that moving to Seattle would keep their daughter away from a raucous music scene like Houston’s, that plan didn’t really work, and Anderson fell right into Blackwell’s outfit.
In 1947, a visiting star, Oakland’s R&B pioneer Johnny Otis, heard Anderson sing and immediately recruited her to join his traveling revue. In 1948, she scored a contract and cut her first R&B record, “Good Lovin’ Babe,” backed with “K.C. Lover,” for the Black & White label. Soon after, she joined Lionel Hampton’s band, and from there Anderson was on her way to jazz stardom.
THIS, THEN, WAS the current state of Seattle’s music scene that Ray Charles had found upon his arrival in 1948. Based on the tip he’d lucked into at the bus station — that it was “Talent Night” at the Old Rocking Chair club — Charles made his way across this strange new town to 13th Avenue and Yesler Way in the Central District, where he instantly heard the strains of a jam wafting out the jazz room’s door. Charles, just 17 years old, tried to enter, but the doorman blocked his path and denied him entry due to his obvious youthfulness. But Charles pleaded that he was new in town, was starved, and was a pianist and singer who just wanted to play a few songs for the crowd.
Showing mercy, the doorman let Charles slip in, and Seattle would never be the same. Because Ray Charles was in the house — and he brought the blues. When his turn came to mount the modest stage, Charles sat at the house piano and played and sang two mellow West Coast hits by Los Angeles singer Charles Brown: “Traveling Blues” and “Drifting Blues.”
“I must tell you, I really sang my ass off,” Charles remembered in his 1978 autobiography, “Brother Ray.” “I mean, I’m singing the blues! I know that song as well as my own mother, and when I’m through, I can tell that the folks dig it: The place rings with applause.”
Soon after, Charles was approached by a man who complimented his playing and asked whether he might be able to pull a trio together. Charles’ answer was an enthusiastic yes, and with that he was offered a prime gig at the Black community’s beloved Elks Club on South Jackson Street. After recruiting Garcia “Gossie” McKee (guitar) and Milton S. Garred (bass) at the American Federation of Musicians Local 493 union hall, his new trio played, and Charles was instantly welcomed into the Seattle jazz community. Georgia Kemp, a cook at the Elks Club, invited him to move into her rooming house at 20th Avenue and East Madison.
Settled in, Charles was able to eke out a living by gigging long nights in various after-hours clubs. But one night, he crossed paths with a young fellow who soon would steer him to an opportunity to scrape up a few extra bucks by performing with, and then penning arrangements for, Bumps Blackwell.
“I had my little trio at the Black and Tan club one night,” Charles fondly reminisced in Jones’ autobiography, “and this 14-year-old cat comes up to me talking about music, about jazz, about Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. He said, ‘I’m Quincy Jones, and I play trumpet and I want to write music.’ ”
Thus began a lifelong friendship between the two players’ players. They started hanging out at Charles’ apartment, where he shared some advanced music theory lessons, and they began gigging together with Blackwell’s Junior Band.
DURING THIS POSTWAR period, popular music was evolving quickly, and swing jazz, jump blues, bebop and early R&B were all advancing. Given Seattle’s growing Black population, and ever more venues popping up where all this beat-driven music could be performed, more stars from outside the region began touring here. Among them were red-hot bands led by Louis Jordan, Lionel Hampton, T-Bone Walker, Big Jay McNeely, Bill Doggett, Hank Ballard and The Midnighters, Little Willie John and tenor sax honker Jack McVea.
It was the latter’s combo that came through Seattle in 1948 to play the Washington Social and Educational Club, and Charles’ trio happened to get hired to open. In a 2007 book about Charles, author Carin T. Ford writes, “One evening, Ray asked McVea whether he could try his sax. Ray had learned how to play the instrument, along with trumpet and clarinet, in school. McVea agreed and was stunned at how well Ray played. The audience went wild over Ray’s solo.”
Upon his return home to Los Angeles, McVea passed the word to an executive named Jack Lauderdale, president of Down Beat Records (which was one of the very first Black-owned, independent labels). Meanwhile, Charles was winning fans with his soulful singing and stunning musical chops with his group, the McSon Trio. They scored a regular gig at the Rocking Chair as well as their own show on KRSC, Seattle’s first TV station.
In November 1948, Lauderdale followed up on McVea’s hot tip and made his way to Seattle. The story goes that one night while shooting dice upstairs at the Rocking Chair, Lauderdale was digging the tunes echoing up from downstairs, and searched out Charles: “One night he approached me and told me that he had a record label. Wow!” Charles said in “Brother Ray.” “Just the thought of getting the chance to record was a thrill — a record! Man, that was the ultimate! I had been listening to records my whole life … and here I was actually about to make one. ‘Yes, we’ll cut a record, Mr. Lauderdale. Good God Almighty! Just show us the way, Papa.’ ”
Lauderdale showed the trio the way downtown — most likely to the KOL radio-associated Western Recording Studios facility — where they recorded two songs, “Confession Blues” and “I Love You, I Love You.” That night, they cut the first R&B record produced in the Pacific Northwest. Released nationally by Down Beat in February 1949, the record — credited inadvertently to the Maxin Trio instead of the McSon Trio — sold well in Seattle, and in April “Confession Blues” entered Billboard magazine’s “Race Records” charts at No. 11, stayed for a good three months and peaked at No. 5. Lauderdale was pleased, and he had Charles cut a few more songs, including the originals “Alone in the City” and “The Snow Is Falling” (a song Charles wrote during his Seattle days), as well as McKee’s “Rockin’ Chair Blues.”
The latter, released in November 1949, was a sweet tribute to the barfly regulars at that friendly venue. The tune’s guitar work hinted at the future arrival of rock ’n’ roll. As one writer later noted, “Ray’s tone is straight out of the cocktail blues playbook. … As soft and dreamy as Ray’s part had been, the over-amped bridge sounds as if it was packed with dynamite. … The eventual shift in rock ’n’ roll’s most dominant lead instrument that would occur a decade down the road was just starting to take shape.”
In June 1950, Lauderdale sent Charles out on a long tour with bluesman Lowell Fulson. When they came to Seattle on Oct. 16, 1951, the advertising for their show at the Eagles Auditorium noted that Fulson was bringing his orchestra, along with “Seattle’s own blind sensational singing star! Ray Charles.”
In time, Charles would, of course, become a worldwide star who earned — based on R&B hits such as 1954’s “I Got a Woman,” 1956’s “Mary Ann” and 1959’s “What’d I Say” — the moniker “the Genius of Soul.” But back in Seattle, the jazznik crowd already had seen that Ray Charles’ impact was utterly profound. His rootsy sound and indelibly blue influence played a key role in the eventual rise of an original school of rockin’ R&B that would come to be known as the Northwest Sound.
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