Rush, Merrilee (b. 1944)

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 12/14/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11159
Merrilee Rush was among the most popular homegrown singing stars that the Northwest rock 'n' roll teen scene produced during the mid 1960s. Her trademark low voice and comely looks and an exciting stage presence helped her lead a string of teen combos -- notably the Statics and the Turnabouts -- to regional fame. But then in 1968, after scoring her first of several international radio hits, "Angel of the Morning," she was no longer Seattle's private treasure and the years of major-label record deals, television appearances, and concert touring began.

Seattle's Rock 'n' Roll Sweetheart

Born Merrilee Gunst to Reuben and Edith Gunst in Seattle on January 26, 1944, Rush grew up in the the city's north end. Reuben was a home-builder and the family -- eventually including Merrilee's younger siblings Cheryl, Marsha, Laura, and Clayton -- moved at least a few times into new houses he had built. Merrilee attended Lake Forest Park Elementary and began taking piano lessons, then started at Morgan Junior High. By age 13 she was volunteering as a performer in various United Service Organizations (USO) programs entertaining military troops along with a girlfriend named Lynn Vrooman. Then, while a 16-year-old student at Shoreline High School, she agreed to accompany Vrooman to a band audition in Renton. That band was the Amazing Aztecs, led by 18-year-old saxophonist and budding music-biz entrepreneur Neil Rush. As events unfolded, the young bandleader was more impressed by Merrilee and he asked if, in addition to playing piano, she could sing.

Indeed she could. Merrilee had been singing all her life and she would become known for a voice that was by turns earthy, husky, and sultry. And as a teenager she'd been inspired by the rockin' R&B music she was witnessing at dances featuring the region's earliest white rock 'n' roll groups, the Frantics, Little Bill and the Bluenotes, and the Wailers. Auditioning with the Aztecs, she nailed it and was hired -- placing her in the vanguard of young local female rock singers alongside Gail Harris (with the Wailers) and Nancy Claire (with the Versatones and Frantics). But that gig didn't last long, as the Aztecs split up in a disagreement over giving too much of the spotlight to Merrilee. Already by May 1961, she was gaining a bit of a citywide reputation. Billed as a "rock-and-roll personality," Merrilee was advertised as part of the "outstanding live entertainment" included in an event with Abigail "Dear Abby" Van Buren at Seattle's grand Orpheum Theatre on May 19 ("Dear Seattle ..."). By October she would also be appearing in "an all-woman cast in a half hour musical comedy on KOMO-TV's Once Upon a Holiday" ("Paula Bane Will ...").

Meanwhile Merrilee's parents were becoming concerned about the attention that Neil Rush was paying their daughter, who had been blessed with beautiful blue eyes, long brunette tresses, and a winning and effervescent personality. They decided to find her a manager and get her signed to a solo personal management contract. Thus Neil now had to negotiate everything with them, but he persevered and they put together a new combo, Merrilee and Her Men, which gigged on a little circuit of venues -- Everett, Mount Vernon, Bellingham, and more -- that he had assembled for the Aztecs.

A year and a half later, Neil and Merrilee broke free and joined a red-hot Burien-based band, the Statics, that included former Gallahads doo-wopper "Tiny Tony" Smith (vocals), Dick Gerber (guitar), Randy Bennett (bass), and Dave Erickson (drums), and a sax player and organist who were bounced out to make room. Now billed as "Tiny Tony, Merrilee, and the Statics" -- and with Merrilee playing a giant Hammond organ instead of her piano -- this band was all set for success. Smith once recalled the stage-show elements that made them such an entertainment powerhouse:

"What we had at that time was ... Merrilee was playing organ and she would do a first show. Then I would do a second show. Then Merrilee and I did the last set. And we would get wild at the end. See, we had all the steps down. See, that's what made the Statics a real dynamic group. I'd basically been the choreographer for the Gallahads and I took all those steps and taught 'em to the Statics and we had a basic hardcore front line of R&B steps. And that coupled with our sound made our show fantastic" (Blecha interview, 1984).

Teenage R&B

All the members of the Statics were becoming dedicated students of R&B music and many was the time they piled into cars to drive to Olympia, where all the top touring bands performed at the Evergreen Ballroom. Among the most memorable shows for Merrilee were those by Bobby "Blue" Bland, James Brown, and Ike and Tina Turner. Meanwhile by 1962 it was time for the Statics to cut their first record, and they became one of the last groups recorded by Joe Boles (1904-1962) at his home studio in West Seattle, where they chose an old favorite, Jimmy Forrest's 1952 cha-cha hit "Hey Mrs. Jones," and a new original (a completely different song than the Beatles' later, similarly titled song), "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" (Bolo Records 734). The A-side -- which featured a catchy back-and-forth duet by Tony and Merrilee -- broke out on Seattle's black-oriented radio station KZAM in July at the same time the band was gigging at the city's new Peppermint Lounge West nightclub at 222 5th Avenue.

As that venue had been purposely situated across the street from the ongoing Century 21 World's Fair, the management of the fair took notice of the crowds the band was drawing and hired the Statics to perform at a free outdoor teen dance. On the evening of July 28, 1962, the band -- with Merrilee playing a new Hammond organ -- performed on a bandstand erected at the International Plaza where the attendees were thrilled to see "Hey Mrs. Jones" performed live.

From there more records followed. There were covers of Little Richard's 1956 rocker "The Girl Can't Help It" and Bob and Earl's 1963 hit "Harlem Shuffle" (Camelot Records 110). A bit later when they opted to cut "Buster Brown" at Fred Rasmussen's Acme Sound studio, the band members formed their own label whose name -- T. T. BREGG Records -- hinted at their love of soulman Bobby Bland, who toured with an opening act, the hot sax-man Al "TNT" Braggs. The Statics discovered that the initials of their last names spelled "Bregg" -- Bennet, Rush, Erickson, Gerber, Gunst.

Meeting Paul Revere

On July 1, 1963, Merrilee Gunst and Neil Rush married, and the following year she gave birth to their son Michael. But the Statics kept on rocking, playing high school dances, skating rinks, armories, frat parties, and engaging in staged Battles of the Bands events from Seattle to Missoula. One gig was especially memorable for Neil -- a night in Clarkston, Asotin County, in the southeastern corner of Washington on the Idaho border, when they showed up Idaho's top band, Paul Revere and the Raiders. Booked at one venue, the Statics discovered that the Raiders were also booked nearby at a place called Jungert's Auction House. Decades later, Neil Rush recalled:

"We drove into town in our little Volkswagen bus all painted up [with the Statics' logo] ... and we were having fun, and we ran into these guys running around in a '53 Pontiac hearse with 'Paul Revere and the Raiders' painted on it. So, we chased them all day back and forth in the streets and everything. And then, at 10:30 that night Revere was standing in front of us because we had a full house and they had nobody. I remember that later we -- Tiny Tony and I -- sat out there in front of a Chinese restaurant that night and basically taught them the basics of doing dance steps" --
which in time would become a major visual trademark for the Raiders (Blecha interview, 2009).

The Turnabouts

A major turning point came in 1965, during the era of Beatlemania, when Merrilee and Neil broke off from the Statics and formed a new group -- one christened with a vaguely Brit-sounding name. Merrilee and the Turnabouts hit the ground running with former Static Dave Erickson managing them and a lineup of Vern Kjellberg (guitar), Terry Gregg (bass), and Ed Leckenby (drums). Best of all, Merrilee was now roaming the stage in her famous candy-striped silk suit, working the crowds and enjoying being no longer stuck back behind her keyboards.

On the night of April 30, 1965, the Turnabouts performed at the Seattle Center Coliseum's Spring Spectacular event organized by Pat O'Day (b. 1934), which also featured fellow Northwest bands Don and the Goodtimes and the Sonics. Headlining were such national radio stars as Johnny Rivers, the Shangri-Las, Dino, Desi and Billy, the Lovin' Spoonful, and the Mamas and the Papas. Then on June 19 the Turnabouts played O'Day's "Teen-Age Fair" at the Seattle Center Exhibition and Display Halls as part of a nine-day event that also featured Top-40 stars like: Lou Christie, Ian Whitcomb, Chubby Checker, and Chris Montez.Neil Rush soon formed a partnership with Lewiston, Idaho, radio DJ Bill Rosencranz, creating a label name based on the beginning letters of their own: RU-RO Records. The Turnabouts' next single, "Party Song"/"It's Alright" (RU-RO 0411) -- recorded by Kearney Barton (1931-2012) in his Audio Recording studios at 2227 Fifth Avenue in downtown Seattle -- made clear that the band's music had now shifted from a deep R&B thing to a post-Beatles rockin' pop focus. And that shift helped propel them into a new status as one of the Northwest's premier dance attractions.

By now Pat O'Day, the program director and top DJ at Seattle's dominant pop radio station, KJR, had discovered that Merrilee Rush was a surefire draw for his weekly teen dances and he began to hype the band in his endless on-air promotions. As the Seattle Post-Intelligencer noted a few years later:

"Transistor radios from Alki Beach to Golden Gardens would shriek mile-a-minute superlatives describing the next appearance of Merrilee and her rock group. And with Pavlovian predictability, Northwest teenagers would swarm to the dances where she would play. ... Religiously, they would come and dance to the ten-ton rock beat of a band fronted by a little girl named Merrilee" (Walters).

Indeed, at area dances ranging from the Spanish Castle Ballroom in south King County on Highway 99 (later Pacific Highway S) near Kent-Des Moines Road, to Parker's Ballroom at 17001 Aurora Avenue N in Shoreline and over to the Eastside at Bellevue's Lake Hills Roller Rink (16232 NE 8th Street) -- a dance attended by a young Ann Wilson years before she surfaced in the rock band Heart -- the Turnabouts were booked solid. The band, now managed by Neil, was making a haul. Merrilee began driving a powder-blue Lincoln Continental and in early 1966 Neil built his own studio in the basement of the couple's Lake Forest Park neighborhood home at 20413 55th Place NE. In addition, they formed a yet another label -- Merrilin Records -- combining the names of Merrilee and Linda Hughes, a singer and wife of label partner Tex Hughes.

On the Road

Merrilee and the Turnabouts began a multi-year schedule of grueling one-nighters in towns like Tacoma, Olympia, Montesano, Yakima, Richland, Moses Lake, Ephrata, Walla Walla, Spokane, Corvallis, Salem, Portland, Seaside, Moscow, Lewiston, and Missoula, ad infinitum. And this took a toll, with numerous players dropping away and fresh ones rolling into the lineup. But word about the band was spreading, all the way to California evidently. When the Turnabouts were booked into the Ice House in Glendale, its owner, Bob Stane, enthused, "This is the first time that [the club] has put in a headline act without an audition or hit record" and that he'd hired them due to their "spectacular reputation in the Northwest" (The Beat).

As 1967's "Summer of Love" unfolded and the counterculture flowered, the Turnabouts began playing to a different kind of audience, at a different kind of gig that would be promoted via psychedelic art posters. Opportunities were arising to perform shows at various auditoriums replete with hippie dancers and mind-bending light shows projected on the stage. The band did one in Tacoma on August 26 at the Charles Wright Academy and in October appeared in Seattle with the Wallflowers and the Gas Company at The Happening at 1426 First Avenue.

Meanwhile the Statics' former roadie, Jimmy Johnson, had gone on to work for the Raiders. Lore maintains that it was he who kept reminding Revere about how great Merrilee Rush was. An offer to tour the deep South with the Raiders resulted -- only Merrilee would be supported by a backing band known as the Board of Directors. The musicians traveled by bus caravan playing many concerts in places like Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, finally ending in Louisville, Kentucky. It was while in North Memphis, Tennessee, that Rush was invited to attend a recording session where the Raiders were cutting their next album, Goin' to Memphis, at American Sound Studio. After meeting the studio's owner, veteran hit producer Chips Moman, she was asked to cut some demonstration tracks. Moman was pleased and invited her to return in a few weeks, when she would ultimately be paired with producer/musician Tommy Cogbill (1932-1982) and various other members of the ace house band, The Memphis Boys.

One song offered to her was "Angel of the Morning," penned by a hit-writing ace, Chip Taylor. Rush loved it. The musical hooks were great, and the lyrics -- about a woman offering a lover assurance that he need not linger around if it wasn't in his heart to do so -- were compelling and cutting-edge socially. In January 1968 Rush was back in Seattle, and soon thereafter the song was released by the New York-based Bell label. By March Seattle's KJR had jumped on the record, Spokane's KJRB followed, then Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and on and on. In May "Angel of the Morning" broke out in Billboard magazine's Hot-100 charts, climbing for 16 weeks, and finally peaking at the No. 7 slot.

"Angel of the Morning," with its beautiful melody, accessible chords, moderate tempo, light martial snare fill, intriguing lyrics, and Rush's unique harmonious vocals, rightfully became a giant hit through that hot summer of 1968. Its prime period on the charts overlapped a troubling season spanning the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy and the riotous Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Surrounded on the charts, as it was, by such heavy tunes as Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" and the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man," it felt like an aural oasis of needed calm. The right song for the right moment.

Sign On for the Good Times

Merrilee Rush was now a blazing star and suddenly in demand for interviews in all the teen publications, like The Beat, Fave, and 16 Magazine, which dutifully noted such information as her favorite things in life, said to include:

Fave color: Orange
Fave drink: Shirley Temple
Fave group: The Raiders
Fave singers: Mark Lindsay and Otis Redding
Fave song: "Louie, Louie"
Fave town: Memphis

Then Bell released her next single, "That Kind of Woman"/"Sunshine and Roses" (Bell 738), which followed suit, hitting Billboard on August 31, 1968, and charting for six weeks with a peak at No. 76, while going Top-40 on the Cash Box charts. Then the Angel of the Morning album (Bell 6020) was released. On a roll, Moman opted to issue Rush's next single on AGP Records, Bell's subsidiary label that he ran. A psychedelic-esque cover of the Four Tops' 1966 hit "Reach Out (I'll Be There)" (AGP 107) appeared on Billboard's Hot-100 in December, charting for four weeks and climbing to No. 79. AGP was satisfied enough to follow up with additional singles including "Everyday Livin' Days" (which won considerable airplay), "You're Lovin' Eyes Are Blind," "Sign On for the Good Times," and "Angel on My Shoulder." One genuine career highlight occurred when Rush got the chance to record her version of "What the World Needs Now," a Burt Bacharach tune that Quincy Jones produced for the soundtrack album of the 1969 film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Meanwhile Rush received a Grammy nomination for best Contemporary Pop Female Vocalist of the year.

But all was not what it appeared to be. When Rush had signed her contract back in Memphis, the fine-print details weren't really all that favorable to her and she ultimately only received about $5,000 from a record that would go on to sell more than one million copies by 1970. The upside was that she was making serious headway in the biz, raising her national profile with appearances on many popular TV shows including Dick Clark's American Bandstand, the Steve Allen Show, The Joey Bishop Show, the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, The Johnny Cash Show, the Everly Brothers Show, Happening '68, the Della Reese Show, and Something Else.

And ultimately Rush parlayed her success into seven nonstop years of solo touring -- including a major gig in 1971 at The Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, where she appeared alongside the likes of comedian Don Adams and the Carpenters.

"Angel on My Shoulder"

But whenever possible Rush also returned home, taking on rather more humble gigs where she could perform for old friends. In 1971 she gigged at the Steak-Out Restaurant in Bellevue's Eastgate neighborhood. That same year she signed a deal with New York's Scepter label, which released her single cover of Carole King's "Child of Mine" (Scepter 12329).

In 1972 she played at the Aquarius Tavern, the hippie-era identity of the old Parker's Ballroom. By this point, the original fans of Northwest rock were aging and nostalgia was beginning to settle in and she was invited to participate in the big Northwest Rock 'n' Roll Revival concert at Seattle's Paramount Theatre -- a gig which also featured her fellow first-generation rock stars the Kingsmen, the Frantics, the Viceroys, Dave Lewis, Don and the Goodtimes, and the Wailers.

In 1976 Rush signed with United Artists and that label released her "Could It Be I Found Love Tonight" single (United Artists 930). The following year United issued her Merrilee Rush album (United Artists 735), and the singles "Rainstorm" (1103) and "Save Me" (993) -- which entered Billboard on June 11, charted for seven weeks, and peaked at No. 54 -- and Rush opened at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. The year 1977 also saw the end of her marriage. In the years since the split, Neil Rush operated several recording studios, record labels, and other businesses including the Artists Development Management firm and Entertainment Authorities. He became a leader in Renton's Musicians' Union and, like fellow Static Dick Gerber, he also served for a period as a member of Paul Revere and the Raiders.

"Could It Be I Found Love Tonight"

For the rest of 1977 and most of 1978, Merrilee Rush took a break from showbiz. She settled into a rustic old house on the 17-acre parcel along the Redmond-Fall City Road that her maternal grandfather -- George Magnuson, who had emigrated from Sweden in 1906 -- developed as a dairy farm. She also took up the raising of Arabian horses and Old English Sheepdogs.

Meanwhile, during a gig at the Swinger Lounge in Miami Beach, Florida, back in 1974, she had crossed paths with a talented New Orleans-based pianist named Billy "Mac" McCarthy who was also working there with his band. Fate saw to it that the very same night that her pianist quit, Mac's band was fired. Thus began their musical partnership, performing together while touring the nation for the following decade, and along the way the duo married. Mac fell right in with Merrilee's circle of musician friends in the Northwest and remained busy performing and recording. And before long a new tradition developed: the annual MacFest on their farm, with musicians gathering each summer and performing for each other. Merrilee also carved out a sideline activity of recording TV and radio jingles (including for the Bon Marche, Metro Transit, and the Washington Dairy Council) and in 2015 she remained in demand as a performer at conventions and county fairs far and wide.

Northwest Hall of Fame

Appreciation for early Northwest rock was growing and back in 1980 the Great Northwest Rock and Roll Show was held at The Place nightclub at 15221 Pacific Highway S. It featured the Wailers, Jr. Cadillac, and the Northwest All-Star Band (with members of the Kingsmen, Sonics, and other vintage local groups) who backed singers including Little Bill, Nancy Claire -- and Tiny Tony Smith and Merrilee Rush.

By 1981 Rush was fronting a new quintet, The Edge, playing big local rooms like Parkers -- which had reverted back from the Aquarius. Then in September 1984 Merrilee and Tiny Tony reunited again to perform "Hey Mrs. Jones" at a Northwest Rock Reunion event in the Seattle Center Coliseum during the annual Bumbershoot Festival. In 1985 Rush was invited to contribute to the Seattle Helps the Hungry fund-raising benefit project. It amounted to a Northwest all-star recording project -- cutting "Give Just a Little," featuring many musicians including Danny O'Keefe, Duffy Bishop, members of Jr. Cadillac, Rail, the Dynette Set, the Cowboys, and more.

In June 1986 Rush's new single "Don't" (Tell International 428) became a brief Top-10 hit on the Independent charts. It was in 1989 that the Northwest Area Music Association (NAMA) honored Rush with membership in the NAMA Hall of Fame (full disclosure: the author was a member of the NAMA Hall of Fame Committee). By 1988 Rush was gigging at Chicago's in the Lower Queen Anne Hill neighborhood with Billy Mac and the Knives, and she was also being included in the growing wave of "oldies" revue shows over on the East Coast. In addition Rush also began making appearances with a crew called the Seattle Women in Rhythm and Blues, which also showcased other veteran singers, including Nancy Claire, Patti Allen (the Toggeries), Kathi Hart (the Bluestars), and Kathi McDonald (the Unusuals).

Sources: Peter Blecha interviews with Merrilee Rush (March 1987, 1998, November 19 and December 7, 2015, and other dates); Peter Blecha interviews with Neil Rush (January 15, 2009, and other dates); Peter Blecha interview with Tiny Tony Smith (1984); Peter Blecha interviews with Paul Revere (March 1987, 1998); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Evergreen Ballroom: Olympia's Lost Landmark (1931-2000)," "O'Day, Pat (b. 1934) -- Godfather of Northwest Rock?," "The first-ever Northwest rock 'n' roll reunion concert is held on May 14, 1972," and "'The Great Northwest Rock and Roll Show' reunion gig of early local rockers kicks off on July 20, 1980" (all by Peter Blecha), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed November 7, 2015); "Dear Seattle -- I'll Be Visiting You ...," display ad, The Seattle Times, May 2, 1961, p. 25; "Paula Bane Will Star Tuesday," The Seattle Times, October 22, 1961, This Week in TV, p. 6; Marty Loken, "City's First Teen-Age Fair Opens Friday at Seattle Center," The Seattle Times, June 12, 1966, p. 36; Don Duncan, "Area's Top Singer Doing Well at Home," The Seattle Times, December 18, 1968; Steve Wainwright, "Where Are They Now? A Down-to-earth 'Angel,'" The Seattle Times, March 12, 1995, Pacific Magazine, p. 3; Joel Whitburn, Top Pop 1955-1982 (Menomonee Falls, WI: Record Research, Inc, 1983), 361; "Merrilee & the Turnabouts Conquer Pacific Northwest," The Beat, June 3, 1967; Mike Buckley, "Raiders' Paul and Mark: New Album Has Wide Appeal," Bellevue American, February 8, 1968, p. 36; "Meet Merrilee and the Turnabouts," unknown teen magazine, ca. 1968, p. 44, copy in possession of Peter Blecha, Seattle, Washington; Merrilee Rush, "My Unforgettable Tour with the Raiders," unknown teen magazine, ca. 1968, copy in possession of Peter Blecha; Jim Kelton, "Seattle's Perennial Favorite: Merrilee Rush Still Our First Lady of Rock 'n' Roll," The Seattle Times, undated clipping, ca. 1981, copy in possession of Peter Blecha; Jim Walters, "Merrilee: She Rolls Along," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 19, 1969, Northwest Today magazine, p. 9; Victor Zak, "After Long Break Singer Back, Seeks New 'Angel,'" Shoreline Journal, November 15, 1978, p. 3; Cary Ordway, "Merrilee Rush Sings: 'Angel' Wings No Riches," Record Chronicle, May 7, 1978, p. 2; and author's archives.

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