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 Puget Sound Media

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

  1. 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

  2. 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.

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