Sunday, September 17, 2006

First Avenue Breakdown - Seattle Blues in the 70's

By Mark Dalton

Note: This article first appeared in the Washington Blues Society Bluesletter.

Looking back to the early days of my involvement with the then-fledgling Seattle blues scene, playing the dives and honkytonks of First Avenue stands out foremost in my mind. In fact, as far as playing the Blues in Seattle goes, it always seems to come back to First Avenue - for a blues guy, First Avenue is probably a state of mind as much as a geographic area.

I can go back and listen to tapes that were recorded at "Pig Alley" (still in the Public Market, a.k.a. the Place Pigalle) and at the late lamented Ridge Tavern (where one night we had to step over a large pool of blood to get our equipment in the doorway) that seem to be of some historical interest, and perhaps have musical value for the true fanatic, but the recording quality is so horrible that it would be unkind to subject a normal person to them.

I have other such tapes where the recording quality is pretty good, but the performances are horrible, often due the ingestion of excess quantities of mind-altering chemicals by the band (and everyone else in the place). The performances thus have only a low comedy value, sort of like those "blooper" albums people used to like, or perhaps "America's Funniest Home Videos"... a very low sort of humor indeed, and not something I'd want to inflict on anyone other than a confirmed Three Stooges fan.

But in late 1973, when Tom McFarland and I settled into our five-nights-a-week gig at the Boulder Cafe at First and Pike, I was in heaven. I came out here from Nebraska looking for a real blues bar to pay my dues in, and the Boulder was IT. Anything could happen in the Market in the early 70's, and there was a kind of freedom and energy in the air that was simply exhilarating.

I'd come out with the plan of going to work for harp player Don "Junior Earl" McNeff, but my wife Katha and I screwed around in the Bay Area, crashing on various friends floors, ingesting controlled substances at the beach, seeing Charlie Musselwhite with the Ford Brothers Band in Berkeley, hanging out on Telegraph Avenue, staying a few weeks longer than we planned. By the time I got here, the job was filled, but Tom McFarland had just moved up to Seattle from Portland, and was looking for a steady band.

So I had an audition with McFarland. I came over to his place, which was right off of 10th Avenue on Capitol Hill. His little house had a dirt floor basement, and I brought up my stuff from the car. Precision Bass, rolled and pleated black Kustom amp. I was cool. McFarland came to the door and he had on this black leather car coat, and he had a Budweiser in one hand and a Pall Mall in the other, and he said, "Let's go down in the basement." So I hauled my bass amp down there, and he turned on his brown-faced Fender Pro amp, got out his red Gibson ES-355 stereo guitar, sat down on a stool and poured himself a shot of whiskey from a silver flask,and opened up another Budweiser and put on his finger picks and said, "Well, let's play some Freddie King." He started playing these Freddie King tunes, which I knew, because Id played them all in Nebraska. The Seattle version of Tom McFarland and the Rhythmtones started that way.

The Tom McFarland Blues Band - mid '70s. Left to right: Peter Brown (drums), Isaac Scott (guitar/vocals), Frank Reich (bass), and Tom McFarland (guitar/vocals).

We played for a couple of hours that first day, and it was great. This guy was exactly the guy I came out to Seattle to play with. We played a few seamy clubs around town, and finally landed a regular gig at the Boulder Cafe on the corner of First and Pike. The Green Parrot porn theater was right next door, and Vyvyn Lazonga was working her first gig as an apprentice in a tattoo parlor just down the street. First Avenue, in those days, was a real scene.

The Boulder Cafe was a 70's version of a go-go joint. It wasn't topless, but they had what were then called B-girls working there, taking turns dancing on a little tiny stage in bikinis, while the rest of the girls mingled with the customers and kept them drinking. The place was all red and black vinyl, and Tony Jones, a rough longshoreman with an occasional heart of gold, was our patron and club manager. Some folks said the Boulder was actually owned by Seattle night life character Frank Collacurcio, but I wouldnt know about that. I do know that Tony Jones was a sort of a Godfather for blues bands at that time. He eventually added a club in West Seattle called The Admiral Tavern to his roster, and both places featured the Blues, and nothing but the Blues.

The Boulder was exactly the kind of place that I came out to Seattle to play in. It looked, and felt like a blues bar. It was a Jack Kerouac kind of a place - filled with working people, mixed with funky hipster intellectuals who would come in to drink and listen to the blues. The whole Market scene at that time was an amazing amalgam of really poor people, street hustlers, black folks, white folks, asian folks, everybody looking for action came down there. The atmosphere felt a little bit dangerous, but just enough to be really interesting. There was always an edge of excitement in the air, because you never knew what was going to happen that night, who would come in or what was going to go down. Every now and then someone would get cut or shot, but they left the band alone, and we played on....

The Public Market and all of First Avenue, that whole community, was Skid Row back then. The area is really quite cleaned up compared to back then, before the forces of gentrification cleared out most of the riffraff and turned it all into a nice little touristy street. First Avenue was not nice back then, but it was a lot more fun after dark than it is today.

In addition to the Boulder, Pig Alley, and the Ridge, live music bars included the Victrola in the lower Market, and the old Mint upstairs (where Little Bill, Joe Johansen and Larry Harris held forth for years on end). Downstairs from the Mint was a joint called Docs, and moving up Pike street there were clubs like Smittys and the Caballero.

In those days playing was everything - We looked for work wherever we could get it. We played on First Avenue a lot because we wanted to be there, and also because those were the guys that would hire us. We'd go out on booking expeditions - I'd go out with Junior Earl, or with McFarland, hitting the clubs on either side of Pike Street, for example. We'd go in and hit the club owners up, and say, "Look. We've got a couple bands here, and we want to play the blues and we're pretty good. We've been playing across the street and they like us over there. Why don't you give us a job." And the club owners would hem and haw around, but in the end they'd often let us play there. They'd pay us a nominal amount of money and we'd play the blues. In some of these clubs, I am sure the owners had a hard time figuring out why we would want to play there at all - these, again, were not nice places - this was skid row - it had a funky kind of authenticity that appealed to us fledgling bluesmen, but to the rest of the world, these joints were strictly for hitting bottom. Only young men and women enamored of the South Side of Chicago could find the kind of success we were looking for here! In any event, here we were, actual live bands, able to play in tune and get the people dancing, and we worked cheap. So we worked a lot.

The Gray Blues Band at the Place Pigalle (Pig Alley), Seattle - 1974. Left to right: Jerry Christie, Don "Junior Earl" McNeff, and Keith Duncan (dig the Mosrite bass!).

Pig Alley, or just The Pig, for example, paid $225 for three nights, total, for the whole band. They paid all the bands the same amount of money. No matter how many people in the band, or how good you thought you were, it was $225 for Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Gary, the owner of the Pig, had us over a barrel. There simply wasnt a cooler place to play in the greater Seattle area, and he knew it. "Hey, I dont NEED you guys," he'd say when we complained about the lousy pay. "I got bands lining up to play here." Rather than lose the gig to any of dozens of hipster wanna-bes, we always gave in and came back for that same old money. Some of us would probably be playing there still if Gary hadnt given in to the forces of gentrification and turned one of the greatest Dylan Thomas Slept Here hipster bars in the world into a middling French Restaurant, which it remains today.

While it lasted, the Market Blues Scene was the best - a tight little scene, incredibly ethnically and economically diverse, where the players all knew each other, and everyone was there, week after week, sitting in with each others bands, trading off gigs, hanging out day and night. Bands nurtured each other - trading tunes, trading licks, trading players. The good-sized audience of Blues fans we ultimately attracted supported the bands in every way, including after-gig parties and breakfast in the morning. The pawn shops on First Avenue sold good old guitars cheap (the kind we liked to play). Life was simple, and life was good. If we hadnt been blues people, we might have thought it would last forever... but we'd already been told that good things dont last always. And they didn't. But life goes on, and the Blues does survive, and memories persist.

Note: The photos for this article were contributed by Mark Dalton.

Originally from Nebraska, Mark Dalton moved to Seattle in the early '70s. He is an accomplished bassist and stalwart bluesman. He currently plays with the Chris Stevens Band. Photo by Ronda Lee.


Anonymous said...

Mark, Great piece as usual! I dig your work with a pen or a Percision Bass. John Lee

Tall Cool One said...

Thanks, John Lee! The feeling is mutual - both ways!

Tom Boyle said...

Damn! I missed this party (as a player) by about 4 years. I was in the Navy on Whidbey Island from 1974-1978. I started getting into blues about 1976 and ventured often to Seattle to go to Place Pigalle to see Mike Lynch and Nitelife, Isaac Scott, Blueseye (David Brewer), Kim Field, Brian Butler, Jack Cook, John Lee, Tom McFarland, John Stefan, etc. I learned who the players were, but didn't dare approach them until after I had spent the next few years woodshedding, gaining the confidence to try to hang with 'em musically. Mark, you and the rest of the original Seattle blues cats inspired me more than you will ever know! Thanks to all of you!

Mike Lynch said...

Thanks for letting me republish this article, Mark. Dig the photo of the Gray Blues Band I just added. Jr. Earl was the first harp player I met in Seattle, back about 1973. The first time I ever played in the Market was at the Victrola (now the Bistro) on a New years Eve gig, probably in '74 or '75, with a very young Daddy Treetops on guitar. Remember the bald bouncer at the Ridge Tavern that had the solar system tattooed on his head? I played a wild gig there once with Isaac Scott and John Stephan where I pretended to play lead guitar for few tunes - I led the totally smashed crowd around the dance floor in a snake dance of sorts while "playing" one of John's unplugged guitars. Those were the days...

Terrible Ted said...

Last time I saw John Lee was in Anchorage in the '80s. I think he had turned gay. I'm not certain about that, but he was acting real funny. I'd be careful of him, if I were you. He took off sayin' he wuz gonna open an X-rated video store. Pervert!

Did I really try to pee in your tip bucket at the Shamrock Bar and Supper Club?

Mike Lynch said...

Terrible Ted - a blast from the past!! Yeah, peeing in our tip bucket was one of your missions in life at that time. Send me an e-mail at slapbackslim at yahoo dot com.


stoopdown said...

$225 for three nights work? nowadays we have to pay the CLUBOWNER that much just to play...anyhow, great article by one of the greatest of the west coast kool bluesmen, Mark Dalton. I read this book on disappearing Seattle that included a pic of Pig Alley and said nothing about the great music, just that it was a watering hole for hippies and political activists...i showed KT the picture and he stared at it for a long time before commenting "i didn't know the Pig had windows." sorry i missed out on those days, seattle was much cooler then...