Rock ‘n’ roll reunion concerts are a tried-and-true way for fans and bands to re-experience some of the joy and revelry of bygone days. It is now quite common for long-defunct bands to reunite in an effort to rake in the bucks playing, for example, the gambling casino or state fair circuit. In such instances, rather rusty band-mates typically hit the road in an attempt to relive their glory days of playing onstage before a crowd of their also-aging fans who wish to immerse themselves in fond memories of their youth.
But there is another type of reunion that seemingly carries much more cultural significance -- the gathering of members of an entire music scene: e.g. the musicians, fans, and supportive radio DJs who had, in collaboration, built up a locally based subculture. Like the Pacific Northwest’s vibrant teen-scene of the late-1950s through the mid-1960s, in which DJ’s hosted dances at scores of halls all across Washington state, where hundreds of bands performed for thousands of fans on a weekly basis.
Seattle has seen a number of notable examples of this sort of reunion event. Such as the June 2000 Grand Opening of the Experience Music Project (EMP) -- the museum produced a “Northwest Legends” concert at the Seattle Center’s Mural Amphitheater which drew a record-size crowd to witness performances by early hit-making local rockers including: the Wailers, the Dynamics, the Viceroys, Little Bill Engelhart (b. 1939), Merrilee Rush (b. 1944), Paul Revere and the Raiders, and the Ventures.
Even back in the 1980s, there were at least a couple gatherings of some of those same bands. It was on September 3, 1984, that the Bumbershoot festival hosted its “Northwest Rock Reunion” at the Seattle Center Coliseum, which featured the Fleetwoods, the Kingsmen, Don and the Goodtimes, Dave Lewis (1938-1998), Ron Holden (1940-1997), Merrilee Rush, and Tiny Tony Smith (1940-1987). And on December 28, 1983, the then-new Tacoma Dome hosted its “The Best of Louie Louie” concert honoring this region’s signature rock song, “Louie Louie.” The show was organized, in part, to honor that song’s composer, Richard Berry (1935-1997), who returned to this area from Los Angeles for the first time since he’d debuted the song locally in 1957.
The event also offered performances by many area musicians who’d played a role in establishing “Louie Louie” as a foundational rock song locally. Among them were the Wailers, the Kingsmen, Ron Holden, Little Bill, Tiny Tony, Merrilee Rush, Gail Harris, and Nancy Claire (b.1943). In 1980 “The Great Northwest Rock and Roll Show” was held at The Place nightclub (15221 Pacific Highway S), featuring the Wailers, Jr. Cadillac, and the Northwest All-Star Band (with members of the Kingsmen, Sonics, and other vintage groups) who backed singers including Little Bill, Tiny Tony, and Claire. At some point in the late-1970s Jr. Cadillac’s saxophonist, Les Clinkingbeard, began hosting, in various taverns, an annual reunion -- “Les Follies” -- where veterans of the early scene gathered to perform.
But it was way back in 1972 that history of sorts was made with the first-ever Northwest rock ‘n’ roll reunion. At that point in time -- after numerous waves of rock ‘n’ roll trends (including surfer-rock, Merseybeat, folk-rock, acid-rock, country-rock, and heavy metal had now swept the world of rock ‘n’ roll -- the old “original Northwest Sound” of guitars, saxophones, and electric organs was almost ancient history. But it wasn’t. In 1972 it was then just 13 years since four local groups -- the Fleetwoods, Frantics, Little Bill and the Bluenotes, and the Wailers -- had all debuted with records that suddenly broke out as national radio hits.
Nineteen seventy-two was only a dozen years since the Gallahads (with Tiny Tony Smith) had cut their first doo-wop hit “I’m Just A Lonely Guy.” In 1972 it was a decade since the Wailers saw their version of “Louie Louie” rise to the No. 1 slot of KJR radio’s charts (and this for the second time, as that record had done the same thing in 1961). It was nine years since the Kingsmen and the Raiders had recorded their versions of “Louie Louie,” and the Viceroys scored with “Granny’s Pad.” Only six years since the Frantics moved to San Francisco and morphed into the psychedelic hippie band, Moby Grape. It was four years since Merrilee Rush enjoyed her first national hit with "Angel Of The Morning" -- and four years since the Wailers had broken up.
Nineteen seventy-two was also a mere three years since the Sonics broke up -- and two years since a few members of defunct bands including the Wailers, Frantics, and Sonics formed a new group, Jr. Cadillac, with a mission of carrying the torch for rock ‘n’ roll oldies, including plenty of classics from the old Northwest canon. And that would prove to be a winning formula, as Jr. Cadillac quickly became the biggest drawing band on the region’s tavern scene for the following couple of decades.
With the glory days of the "original Northwest Sound" -- and memories of the 1960s teen-dances -- already fading, the idea of a “Northwest Rock 'n' Roll Revival” concert arose. It was the brainchild of Jr. Cadillac guitarist Ned Neltner (b. 1942) -- who had been a member of various second-generation bands including the Redcoats, Demons, and the Mark 5. Neltner figured that the pioneering generation of local rockers deserved a retrospective salute:
"Even in ’72 I felt that the distance between what had been, and what was, was so enormous. I mean, all of a sudden there were not teen-dances at [Seattle’s] Spanish Castle [Ballroom, located near the corner of old Highway 99, now Pacific Highway S, and the Kent-Des Moines Road] and Lake Hills [Roller Rink, located in Bellevue] anymore. The music was moving into the taverns and bars, and a lot of the bands that had influenced all of us had disbanded. So I just thought it would be something worthwhile to do. Because even in ’72 it felt like an historic idea. That’s the way I felt about it then. I had great reverence for the music and those bands so it just made sense to me to do this, because I had such a deep love for it" (Neltner interview).
Neltner proceeded to enlist the support of Pat O’Day -- the kingpin hit-maker at Seattle’s then-influential KJR radio station, which had launched many local hit records in the 1960s. O'Day agreed to help promote and then emcee the show. O’Day also steered Neltner to contacts at the Rainier Brewery who agreed to supply some production funds, as well as overly generous amounts of backstage beer. Under Neltner’s direction, the entire affair was done in fine style: Seattle’s grand 1928 venue, the Paramount Theatre, would be the site; and the bassist with the psychedelic-era band Crome Syrcus, “Yakima Lee” Graham (d. 2009), set up his gear in the hall’s basement and recorded the entire concert.
And thus it was that -- after a grueling, and beer-fueled, all-day rehearsal session -- at 8 p.m. on Sunday May 14, 1972, the biggest names in early local rock history reunited for a one-night blow-out before a crowd of 1,400 fans. And even though the local media failed to offer any significant coverage of the event, various participants’ memories have helped to reveal what occurred that night. Appearing onstage were: the architect of the Northwest Sound, organist Dave Lewis; the Statics’ singers, Tiny Tony Smith and Merrilee Rush; Tacoma’s teen-R&B pioneer Little Bill Engelhart; Seattle’s first notable rock band, the Frantics; Tacoma’s first notable rock band, the Wailers (with their singer, Gail Harris); the Seattle band that had sold the most records on a local label up to that point (with 1963’s “Granny’s Pad”), the Viceroys; the Portland band who took “Louie Louie” to global infamy, the Kingsmen; and the fabled Tacoma band that is often credited as the originators of garage-punk rock, the Sonics.
At least three notable results arose from the 1972 Northwest Rock Revival show. One was that the Kingsmen -- who punctuated their performance by pealing off their old-school matching blazers and tossing them into the crowd as a symbolic salute to long-gone days -- ended up reconstituting themselves that same year and they have remained an active band ever since. Another is that the overabundance of Rainier suds resulted in the Wailers’ saxophonist Mark Marush (d. 2007) over-imbibing a bit and the Viceroys’ Kim Eggers necessarily filling in for him (and eventually joining the band for a period when it re-formed years later). In explanation to the concert crowd that night, O’Day reportedly quipped that “Some of the soldiers have fallen by the wayside” (Neltner).
The other was that the legendary Sonics -- who would not reunite again for another 36 years -- reminded those who witnessed them play that night exactly why they were already living legends. That the band rocked the house ferociously is proven by the forensic evidence: the 1972 live recordings of their songs (“Lucille,” “Psycho,” and their 1964 hit “The Witch)” which were finally released by Etiquette Records in 1986 on the Sonics Live / Fanz Only disc [ETLP 1185], and in Europe on the New Rose/Fan Club label [FC 033]. Since 2007 the reunited Sonics have been actively touring the world -- including a triumphant return to the Paramount on October 31, 2008 -- recording new material, and reviving the Northwest Sound for a whole new generation of fans.