Seattle caught whale fever in the summer of 1965.
Just three years after the Space Needle and the Seattle World’s Fair captivated the region, Namu arrived.
The killer whale was accidentally captured in a fisherman’s net and towed to the Seattle waterfront by a tug. He was then put on display at Ted Griffin’s Seattle Marine Aquarium at Pier 56, sparking a period of orca captures in the region, when a generation of southern resident killer whales was taken and shipped to aquariums around the world. Sadly, Namu died less than a year later.
But for a moment, Namu was the city’s biggest tourist attraction.
Visitors flocked to see him. Downtown shops sold Namu mugs, hats, sweatshirts and souvenir coins, among other trinkets. There was even a dance, “The Namu,” a successor to “The Swim.” A headline in The Seattle Times read: “Move Over, Space Needle; Seattle is Whale City, U.S.A.”
The city’s newest resident was a star.
It was during this time that a relatively unknown garage band from Alaska, The Gatormen, met up with Jan “Kurtis” Skugstad, who owned Camelot Records and Sound Studios in Lynnwood, Washington. Together they planned to cash in on the cultural phenomenon.
“They never came here to do the killer-whale song, they came to be a rock band,” Skugstad said.
The band recorded two songs, “Namu” and “Killer Whale.”
Skugstad said he got the idea after he heard a recording of the whale singing.
“KJR or KVI (radio) recorded the whale sounds,” Skugstad said. “That’s Namu on the record. I edited the sounds to get in time with the music. I’ll never forget that because it took me hours to get the right sound to go with the record and to go with the beat.”
According to Skugstad, Namu’s clicks and squeals are what you hear on “Killer Whale,” the b-side of the single.
In his studio, The Gatormen recorded the instrumental music and another local band, The Young Men, recorded the vocals. On the single they decided to call the band The Dorsals with the Gatormen — a nod to their marine muse.
“We didn’t know what to expect, we just came down to record some records,” said Walt Melewski, the guitarist and vocalist for The Gatormen.
The rambunctious tune on the A side clocks in at just under two minutes, perfect for radio. Stylistically it lands somewhere between The Sonics and The Wailers.
Vocals on the songs are by Rainier Rey, of The Young Men, a band that recorded for Skugstad’s label.
“The melody is a standard melody, kind of like a three-chord ‘Louie Louie,’ ” Melewski said.
The single was released in 1966 and, according to Skugstad, it received substantial airplay on KJR AM. At the time, The Gatormen were busy playing clubs and teen dances organized by local radio personality Pat O’Day.
Despite getting played on the radio in Seattle, “Namu” failed to catch the attention of a national audience.
“We didn’t really sell a lot of records nationally,” Skugstad said. “Locally it may have sold a couple of thousand records. I know I didn’t make any money, but it was fun and we contributed a little bit to Seattle lore.”
The Gatormen recorded a few other singles for Camelot Records, including, “Hey Girl (What’s Your Name),” which Skugstad said also did well locally.
Melewksi now lives on Anderson Island, Pierce County, west of Steilacoom, where he still plays music with his band, Homemade Island Jam. His proximity to Puget Sound has given him a perspective on the plight of southern resident orcas.
“It was kind of exciting back then, but now I look back and it’s kind of sad,” Melewski said. “After seeing what they made them do in captivity … I don’t think they were meant to do that.”