Food & Culture
Books: R&B and the origins of Northwest rock-‘n’-roll
‘Stomp and Shout’ details how Black and youth culture shaped the Northwest sound
By Seattle Mag March 29, 2023
YOU KNOW THAT SEATTLE was the birthplace of grunge. You may not be aware that the city also boasts a distinct offshoot of rockin’ R&B that took hold back in the late 1950s.
In his newest book, Stomp and Shout: R&B and the Origins of Northwest Rock and Roll, historian Peter Blecha tells the story of the Pacific Northwest’s rich music scene from the 1940s to the 1960s — a golden era that shaped generations of musicians to come. Blecha was a founding curator at Seattle’s music museum, MoPOP, and is a staff historian and contributing editor with Historylink.org. This is his 10th book. It was recently published by University of Washington Press.
“Music critics, historians, and even a few ivy-tower academics have explored the saga of the scene that produced this energetic music. But the deep backstory has never been told by the musicians who created the sounds, as well as key local music industry figures who pushed a remarkable number of their recordings into genuine radio-hit status,” writes Blecha. “Now those luminaries finally get a chance to have the story presented in their own words.”
Here is an excerpt as it appears in the book.
Seattle’s late-night jazz scene has been jolted by the arrival of electric guitarist Clarence Williams in 1946 and the soulful Ray Charles in 1948. Duly inspired, a generation of kids — raised on jazz but ready to help forge a local R&B scene — began to arise. Among them are two wild saxophone honkers, Billy Tolles and Frank Roberts, who will each lead their own combos and help launch an era of all-city teenage dances. Other key characters are Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, businessman and leader of the town’s premier Black dance bands; Wally Nelskog, star DJ on Seattle’s top radio station, KJR; and Dave Lewis, the eventual leader of the scene’s pioneering Black teenage rock band.
Mardi Gras was the name of Seattle’s new annual six-day celebration of Black culture launched on August 4, 1952. In a nod to the centuries-old New Orleans– based event of the same name, the festival featured a parade, a public barbeque, carnival activities, and more. But for neighborhood kids, the best part may have been the free Saturday-night street dance held at 21st Avenue and East Madison.
As it happened, Billy Tolles had just begun a new side career — that of concert and dance promotion, which would benefit from the myriad connections he’d made over time within the wider jazz and R&B worlds. For that debut year’s festival, Tolles didn’t disappoint: he hired the hot Los Angeles–based blues band led by electric guitar ace T-Bone Walker.
From there, Tolles started renting a couple old downtown halls and producing concerts and dances that would feature all sorts of major stars.
Meanwhile, another of Seattle’s great early R&B honkers, Frank Roberts, had returned to town from serving in the US Air Force, and his background is worthy of review. New Orleans–born, Roberts and his family moved here when he was a third grader. It was at the age of twelve that he took on a job peddling copies of the Chicago Defender newspaper around town, which was how he first saw Ray Charles singing at the Tuxedo Club. He also witnessed some exceptional live music at his school’s dance parties. “The music scene at that time,” Roberts would reflect many years later, “it was kind of like . . . you know, I remember Ray Charles and Quincy [Jones] goin’ in and playin’ my grade school dances!”
In time Roberts bought a saxophone and formed his first combo with some high school pals. Their big break came after Billy Tolles split off from the Savoy Boys. The Frank Roberts Combo was a hit until he began three years’ service, where he played in a large military band. Upon his discharge, Roberts realized music had changed, and he had to adjust.
“I remember going from a sixteen-piece band, where I could just kind of play along, to a much smaller band, where I had to really get out there and solo. It forced me to become good.” Indeed, Roberts became a very good player and quite the showman, one who would walk the bar top while blasting out the blues or jump down to the dance floor and do the splits. That’s how he came to be known as the “Incredible Wildman on Saxophone.”
“That’s when my career really started to take off,” Roberts acknowledged. “I was playing rock.”
Meanwhile, another historical breakthrough was about to occur at that venerable North End venue, Parker’s Ballroom, which had been hosting white bands and audiences at dances since its opening back in the Prohibition era. The catalyst for this change was none other than Billy Tolles, who’d been promoting his own teen dances every Sunday at the Washington Social Club for years. But by 1953 Tolles began competing with Wally Nelskog by buying radio ads on KJR to promote his own Bop City dances up north. “He was pissed off about it, but I was serious,” Tolles maintained. “I had been doing it in the Black neighborhood for a long time.”
It was now 1956 — still two years away from when Seattle’s two racially segregated musicians unions would merge, and turf claims were still being enforced. But cracks in this wall were beginning to appear . . .
Tolles went back to Parker’s management and negotiated the rental of the hall on Friday nights that summer of ’56. Tolles had ambitious plans to produce and emcee a new teen dance show, Rock ’n’ Roll Party, which would feature his new band, the Vibrators, and other musical guests all to be broadcast live from Parker’s. Tolles’s TV show made its debut on July 13, 1956:
“They put it on TV, live, for an hour, and then I got a couple of sponsors. Boy, it had built up to about three, four, or five thousand kids that were coming out there. That was a big thing. I had two or three white groups, and I had five or six Black groups, vocal groups, bands — Dave Lewis was one of my little teenage bands.”
Still, the powers that be were not yet as willing as Parker’s to be in the vanguard of all this societal change. So, even though Tolles made every effort to run respectable dances, some young attendees still created havoc in the parking lot. Another issue was that both white and Black kids were coming out.
“The police didn’t like that part,” Tolles recalled:
They broke that up, man. So I started taking the Rock ’n’ Roll Party elsewhere . . . but it never did get to be that big anymore. That one at Parker’s was a hell of a thing.
Parker’s Ballroom did, however, continue to play a key role in the subsequent rise of the Northwest Sound. It became one of the area’s most fabled teen dance spots, hosting local hit-makers including the Fleetwoods, Frantics, Viceroys, Kingsmen, Sonics, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and others — and even helped launch the career of Heart in the 1970s.
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