Introduction to the Northwest Sound – The Early Years

After Kirk Wilde left radio (1975), he continued to stay up on music and wrote extensively about everything–including this history. Steven Smith, editor at QZVX

Introduction to the Northwest Sound

The Early Years

Washington State had produced its share of major recording artists before 1959, from Bing Crosby (Tacoma & Spokane) to Bonnie Guitar (SW Seattle) to Quincy Jones (early transplant to CD Seattle) the Fleetwoods (Olympia) and Jimmie Rodgers (II)-(Camas WA). They were outside the purview of the following unique “NW Sound”…

It was in early 1959 that a readily identifiable movement developed, soon to produce dozens of bands fronting a unique regional sound. It was represented–barely–on the national charts that year by four instrumentals. The main export market was California, where numerous imitators would, within 3 years, adopt a mostly thinner guitar-based sound called “surf music.”

The Northwest scene was primarily urban and working-class, which probably accounts for its R&B inclination. Yet, of the artists here presented, only Seattle’s Ron Holden & Dave Lewis were black.

Ron Holden (L) and Dave Lewis
Click on any of the singles to hear them play!

Holden would have one national hit (#7 in 1960), but we choose to play his strong follow-up, which was ignored. Many bands covered Lewis’ material, like “J.A.J.” Seattle’s Dynamics covered Lewis’ song. (Listen to it HERE).

Many bands cross-fertilized this organ-and-sax-based sound through the mid-’60’s. It was predominantly original material. All the artists here are from Puget Sound, the northwest corner of Washington, except for the Raiders (Spokane & Idaho) and Don & The Goodtimes (Portland).

While not Revere’s original, “Night Train” would become obligatory for NW bands. Another popular northwest record was “Little Sally Tease” by Don & The Goodtimes from 1965.

Any competent history of the genre must place heavy emphasis on the Wailers. Not to be confused with Bob Marley’s later Jamaican group, the Wailers were the Archetype. They defined the sound, influencing everyone else. From Tacoma, it was a large ensemble, including full-time sax, full-time keyboards and five walk-on vocalists, all startlingly talented and charismatic. The leader was songwriter-keyboardist-singer Kent Morrill — a sweeter-sounding, white, deadpanned Little Richard.

The Wailers: (L – R) Rich Dangel (guitar), Mike Burk (drums), Mark Marush (sax), Kent Morrill (keyboards), John Greek (guitar)
“Tall Cool One” by The Wailers was a hit in 1959.
Two tracks: “Dirty Robber” (Kent Morrill, vocal) & “Roadrunner” – The Wailers – 1959
“Out Of Our Tree” – The Wailers  from 1966

“TCO” made it to #36 and they appeared on American Bandstand (1959) when all Wailers were still teenagers. It charted again in 1964 at #38, but they were forever stereotyped and hamstrung by radio stations as “a surf band only.”

Not strictly Wailers, Rockin’ Robin Roberts and Gail Harris sang exclusively with the group after RRR’s tour with Tacoma’s Little Bill & the Bluenotes.

Robin, a crewcutted chemistry student, provided the only physical animation of the live show. He is best known as the answer to the trivia question, “who saved the song ‘Louie Louie’ from obscurity?” He and the Wailers found the forgotten classic and were arguably the first to arrange its now-famous rock instrumentation. He recorded it three years before the national hit version. “Louie” became his/their most-demanded song, compelling versions from every band in the region, including (in chronological order), the Viceroys, Raiders and Kingsmen. (WA locals never did buy Portland’s Kingsmen’s version of their “Teen National Anthem.”)

Harris is white and 15 years old when you hear her. (!) She broke every heart in the place.

Rockin’ Robin Roberts (left) and Gail Harris
“Louie Louie” by Rockin’ Robin Roberts and The Wailers. Robert’s vocal style became the standard for the song.
Two tracks: “All I Could Do Was Cry” & “I Idolize You” – by Gail Harris and The Wailers.

Little Bill recorded his Louie take early, perhaps two days before RRR’s. He presented quite an image onstage — a barely walking hipster with a cane.

We play little by the Raiders and only one by Tacoma’s Ventures because their careers are well-documented elsewhere. The Raiders would be forced by Dick Clark to “clean up” their act and wear clown suits. They played a strong Louie (Listen HERE) on the circuit before the Kingsmen.

The Ventures leaped to L.A. with “Walk Don’t Run,” their first hit in 1960. (Watch the video on ad free Vimeo – click on the start button 2x, once will take you to Vimeo andthen click again to start the video.)

The Ventures on the “Saturday Night Beech-Nut Show” in 1960.

The Ventures’ reputations would be progressively ruined by Liberty Records, their contracts forcing them to turn out a quota of pop pap. Still, their albums sold respectably to thousands of would-be guitarists.

Tacoma’s Sonics, led by Gerry Roslie, live on as underground legends. Nobody before or maybe since has attacked R&R so aggressively, still within actual chord-songs. They certainly produced the rawest shakeup to that mid-’60s point in history. “The Witch” was their biggest regional hit.

The Sonics (L-R) Andy Parypa (bass), Gerry Roslie (keyboards), Rob Lind (sax), Bob Bennett (drums), Larry Parypa (guitar)
“The Witch” by The Sonics was from 1964.

The Sonics released some other astonishing stuff, like their version of “Louie Louie” and “Shot Down.”

Two tracks: “Louie Louie” & “Shot Down”

North Seattle’s Frantics had fine minor hits in ’59:  “Fogcutter” and “Straight Flush” (Listen to both HERE).

Jimmy Hanna fronted the Dynamics with serious R&B covers: “Busybody” (Listen HERE).

Jeff Afdem, leader of the Dynamics, banged his head against the unyielding wall of fame nearly as long as Kent Morrill and Rich Dangel.

North Seattle’s Counts also had horns. Here’s their original ‘Turn-On-Song” (Listen HERE).

Seattle’s Viceroys had a local hit with “Granny’s Pad,” but this follow-up rocks more: “Goin’ Back to Granny’s” (Listen HERE).

The Unusuals had a big hit in hometown Bellingham with “Babe, It’s Me” (1966) (Listen HERE). Seattle radio wouldn’t play it and it went no further. But singer Kathi McDonald (Click Here) went on as a sought-after voice, including replacing Janis Joplin.

North Seattle’s Merrilee Rush had the first hit version of “Angel of the Morning” (#7 Billboard in 1968). But she also composed, played keyboards and rocked with the Statics and Merrilee & the Turnabouts. As a trio, the Statics presaged punk.

Outside of “the NW Sound,” respect to West Seattle’s Bonnie Guitar, who had the first hit version of “Dark Moon” (1956) (Listen HERE).  Bonnie discovered and produced Olympia’s Fleetwoods (Listen HERE).

{We’ll limit this seminar to the ’50s and ’60s, and to particular parts of it. Yes, Seattle had a significant psychedelic scene in the late ’60s, but we’ll leave that for someone else to journal — except to note that Jimi Hendrix was from Southeast Seattle and had been working sessions out of state the whole decade.}

Apologies and respect for hundreds of others who made this scene happen.

Author: Kirk Wilde

Kirk Wilde, Tacoma boy, was in the Top 40 wars in the Pacific Northwest and Denver. He never stopped following the music.

38 thoughts on “Introduction to the Northwest Sound – The Early Years

  1. I remember the day when the Brothers Four actually performed for my Lincoln High School classmates, at an assembly…this must have been around 1964-5….the girls were actually swooning a little bit, at these guys, who were, I thought, too old for the high school ladies!..they were probably only in their early/mid- twenties at the time…Mr. Foley had a great speaking voice too, and was an on-air radio personality for years.

  2. In response to this article Puget Sound Media contributor and radio veteran Bruce Caplan wrote in with his suggestion of a PNW band that he would like to see listed among the PNW greats.

    “”I would like to add another Northwest group to Kirk Wilde’s list. Dick Foley and I were childhood friends and I so admire all of his wonderful achievements with the Brother’s Four and his accomplishments after leaving the group. Here’s a sample of The Brother’s Four and their fantastic talent”! ……….. Bruce Caplan

  3. Ann,
    I think you were my daughter’s music teacher at Parkview elementary in the 1980s? At Puget Sound Media we would be happy to obtain your information and photos and do some stories on Dan. I have a couple of his KOL airchecks that I have yet to release here. I got the best one from overseas of all places. Dick Stark, over at KPUG, was his friend and I am in touch with Dick.

  4. My brother was Danny Holiday. I have many stories and pictures of being with Dan as he was West Coast Manager of A&M records mid 6Os, after KPUG.
    Ann Gray (“Transistor Sister”)

    1. And A&M Records was started, I believe, by Herb Alpert…there was a guy who really knew how to build a musical career!

    2. Danny Holiday was a KPUG star in the 1960s and I listened to him on stations including KSER till his passing. He is much missed. All best to you in 2021 – Bruce Scholten (Durham, UK)

  5. Right–Quincy and Ray Charles are pretty big names to leave out. They collaborated together when both were living in Seattle, ’48-’50. Charles recorded his first charted hit, a blues, in Seattle. But they weren’t parts of the later Puget dance scene.

    (But then, neither were Bonnie Guitar or the Ventures.)

    1. Dick & Steve ~ I must confess I was not aware of the “Little Green Thing” by any other name … music history trivia. My understanding was it was named after one of KJR deejay Lan Robert’s inane buzzword phrases. Jerry Dennon took the trio into the famed Kearney Barton Audio Recording Studios in Seattle in the spring of ’64 to cut the instrumental. I should mention one of my favorite guitarists of that era in the PNW. Joe Johansen was part of the Dave Lewis Combo and played with a number of other area groups during that time. He was highly praised by all local musicians.

      1. Jay,

        You’re most likely right about it being Lan Roberts. All I could remember was that it was a radio promotion of some kind. Maybe it wasn’t a contest at all. But are you thinking Lan used that phrase before the song was written?

        1. Dick ~ That’s my understanding. I always assumed it was just a clever way to possibly assure some early airplay at KJR.
          “J. A. J.”, the 1962 Northwest hit by The Dynamics was also written by Dave Lewis. There was, at one time, a guitar player in the band named Jerry Allen. Dave used to call him “Jive Ass Jerry”… thus the title J. A. J.

      2. I would like to know more about Joe Johansen…I think he died of heroin abuse…but back around 1968. he was in a local band named “Floating Bridge”…I took some girl to a venue in Seattle, called “The Trolley”, and danced like crazy to those guys!

    2. Steve,

      It was some radio contest either to come up with a more exciting name than just “thing” or to win a copy of the record or maybe just a catch phrase that hung around for a little while. It lodged in one of my lobes and I never forgot it.

      “Little Green Thing With a Picture of a Duck on It”

    1. I just Googled “full name of Dave Lewis’s “Little Green Thing”” and got nothing. Maybe Yahoo has it. . .yes! And it’s just as I remembered. My gray matter may be slowly decomposing but my amygdala is alive and well.

  6. Dick,
    That is really interesting. I knew Seattle was a jazz hub, love Jazz Alley, but that is interesting. You and I should do a story on that. You can tell it and I can help put the media together to make it easier for the storyteller.

  7. Somebody once referred to Ron Holden’s first record as a double-sided one-hit wonder. The A-side was the beautiful “Love You So” and the B-side was a rocker called “My Babe” that made me think of Little Richard. It was released on the Eric, Nite Owl and Donna labels in the United States and on Apex in Canada. Seattle radio leaned on both sides equally and frequently, and the disc must have kept every decent jukebox in town filled with nickels and dimes.

    Ron’s father was Northwest jazz legend Oscar Holden. His brother Dave and sister Grace worked in various area bands. Dave met Sam Cooke back when they were both playing at some little club. Grace was still singing the blues as recently as 2010. The Holden kids attended Garfield High School at 23rd Avenue and East Jefferson Street a few years behind Quincy Jones.

    Seattle was a hot stop on the jazz circuit in the 1940’s and 1950’s and it was all happening in the Central Area. Duke Ellington, Ernestine Anderson, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles and many others played dates there. Ray couldn’t afford rent and lived in a music lover’s bedroom for a time.

    There were stage shows at Washington Hall, still standing at 14th Avenue and East Fir Street, and there were dozens of night clubs on Jackson Street from 12th Avenue down to the waterfront.

    1. Steve: If I recall correctly that album was titled “Miss Bonnie Guitar” on Dot Records. ~ Kirk’s article is about much more than just Bonnie, but there’s no denying she had an important impact on Northwest music beyond her own singing talent. Although, her discovery, The Fleetwoods were not technically a Northwest “band”, the fact they had #1 national hit records inspired all types of NW musical talent to try for that gold ring. The Frantics (also on her record label) had that effect … as did The Wailers (on Golden Crest) before them. So with that in mind here’s a link to a documentary on Bonnie:

  8. Steve Smith did more here than edit. He was the producer. He hung all the audio and accommodated all my constant changes.

    1. I really like taking a creative piece, written by someone else, and then adding photos, other media (audio and video) to create a piece that other media cannot do as effectively as online. I recall reading a book on early rock music years ago. It was a good read and it was pre-internet, with photos, so I was busy trying to hear samples of some of the pioneering music mentioned….checking at the library, etc. With this type of interactive blog post people can read the words, see a photo and then listen to or even see a video of an artist’s work. It is hard to beat as a way of conveying any type of historical information.

    1. No dispute on the recording date of “Dark Moon”.

      Fabor Records recorded and released “Dark Moon” and got great listener response from airplay on “Lucky Lager Dance Time” up and down the west coast.

      In March of 1957 Fabor Robison transferred the rights to “Dark Moon” to Dot Records. By April, Bonnie’s version and Gale Storm’s, both on Dot, were heading for the top ten.

  9. “Dark Moon” was written by Ned Miller. Ned, with his wife Sue, wrote songs for a lot of C&W singers, including Ned’s own hits, “From a Jack to a King”, “Invisible Tears”, and “Do What You Do Do Well”.

    “Dark Moon” was Bonnie Guitar’s first charted record. It debuted on Billboard’s pop chart April 13, 1957 and on the country chart June 10, 1957.

    The song was covered thirty-two times, most recently and very nicely in 2012 by a duo from Tasmania, “Sagebrush Sue” Dilly and “Ukelele Lou” Bell, The Wayward Sisters.

    Hear it here:

  10. Excellent article! Thank you very much. I understand that Buck,s Garage is returning to nwczradio on december 17th. I miss the radio show ,”tall cool ones” on the old KCMU.

  11. In the early 70s. my late brother fronted a group, who managed to play a few of the more well-known taverns in the Seattle area….they had limited material, but one day I was talking to all of them, and I pointedly suggested that they develop a set of NW Rock classics, and see what would happen–I was a few years older than these guys, and I knew what would happen!…Their first gig had attracted only a hundred or so folks…but after they laid these powerful NW tunes on them, the word got out…They were held over for the next four weekends, and the venue had to turn people away…people simply got up and danced their asses off to the magic of NW classic Rock tunes…several other groups–one of the more successful ones being Kid Chrysler(with the future Hendrix tribute dude, Randy Hansen) proceeded to make a good living, catering to their local audiences, who clearly had not gotten enough of the fantastic sounds that came out of the NW in the late 50s and early 60s……thank you so much for this post…I have all of these tunes downloaded unto CDs, but you still brought a tear to my eye, remembering the dances I attended , that featured some of the many fine NW Rockers…and that photo of Gail Harris!….what a young beauty she was!…Jimi Hendrix once mentioned her(her amazing voice, and great looks!) while giving an interview about his hanging out at the Spanish Castle, as a young, aspiring guitarist.

      1. Indeed…there are some excellent articles available on the Internet about her…she really is a living legend of sorts, sadly, none of the original Fabulous Wailers are extant anymore…My brother actually had taken a few guitar lessons from Rich Dangel, in the late 60s.

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