Morrison, "Morrie" and Alice -- Northwest Music Industry Pioneers

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 11/20/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7548
At the dawn of the Roaring Twenties, a Pacific Northwest couple -- Howell Oakdeane "Morrie" Morrison (1888-1984) and his wife, Alice Nadine Morrison (1892-1978) -- launched what became the region's first successful local commercial pop music empire. Fueled by a fortune made off royalties earned from a string of original hit song compositions, the Morrisons' pioneering web of interrelated mom-and-pop businesses would grow to include a dance school, a sheet music publishing company, a vaudeville orchestra, a dancehall chain, a record label, a Seattle-based recording studio (with a record-pressing plant), and even a film production endeavor.

Morrison School of Dancing

It was back in 1900 that Morrie's family had relocated from Birmingham, Alabama, to Marysville, Washington. Showbiz was in their blood: Morrie's older brothers had played in various bands and he talked of his own early travels with circuses. By 1907 Morrie was giving dance instruction lessons and eventually began playing drums in a local dance band.

At some point he met up with an Anacortes belle named Alice Nadine Lanterman who sang and played piano and organ to accompany silent films in local theaters. In 1912 they married, the following year a son, Lew, was born, and in 1914 the young family moved north to Bellingham where Morrie -- who began advertising that he was a graduate of the American College of Dancing New York -- was offering his lessons at the Blue Bird ballroom where they ran the Morrison School of Dancing.

Morrison Music Company

It was in 1919 that Alice wrote "My Love Is All For You," a waltz that won an immediate local following. This inspired the couple to start the Morrison Music Company to publish the tune in sheet music form. Sales went so well that the giant Chicago-based sheet music company, Forster Publishing, stepped in to license and reissue it as "Say You'll Be Mine (My Love Is All For You)." From there the hit broadened out into a nation-wide smash in 1920, going on to sell, according to The Seattle Times, a half-million copies. By December the Los Angeles-based Film Music Company was marketing a player piano roll of the song, and it was further popularized when the New York-based Emerson Phonograph Co. issued a recording of the tune by their popular Green Brothers Novelty Band.

That same year Alice, along with Morrie's sister, Nellie, co-wrote another song titled "Love's Ship" and when Forster stepped in again the firm's clout helped the tune sell a reported one million sheet music copies. "Love's Ship" was included in the score for Shore Acres, a 1920 movie that featured silent film stars Alice Lake and Joseph Kilgore; the famous tenor singer Joseph O'Hara recorded it for Brunswick Records; and the Club De Vingt Orchestra grafted the two Morrison hits into a medley for the esteemed New Jersey-based Edison Records.

Morrison and her Novelty Dance Orchestra

Lew Morrison has recalled the excitement his family felt when the first of the royalty checks ($3,000) began rolling in. The Morrisons had hit the pop music jackpot and they began expanding their activities, forming the Morrison's Marimba Xylophone Orchestra -- which advertised that: "We are in position to furnish music for any occasion. Always up to the minute with our Dance Music" -- and opening Morrison's Dancing Academy in Bellingham's Central Building on Commercial Street. Then in 1922, they scored their third major hit with "Sweet Anabel," which reportedly sold about 100,000 units when marketed by Seattle's leading publishing house, Capitol Music.

That same year the Morrisons relocated to San Francisco with plans to dramatically expand their publishing activity, settling into suite 502 of the Pantages Theatre Building. While Morrie hobnobbed with major talents -- like bandleader/songwriter Isham "It Had To be You" Jones, and hit songwriter Al "Mairzy Doats" Hoffman -- and busied himself opening a dancehall/school and producing a successful stage show called the "King of Melody Land," Alice worked as a song-plugger, playing piano and demonstrating tunes in the music department of the Woolworth's and Kress stores. By 1923 Alice had joined the Fox Follies at the Fox-Oakland Theater and in 1924 was performing marimba solos live on KPO radio.

But eventually their momentum subsided and the Morrison Orchestra embarked on years of performing in upended barns, grange halls, open fields, anywhere and everywhere. With their funds depleted, the Morrisons joined a traveling troupe and soon had moved on to Sacramento, Weed, and then Roseville, California. It was there that Morrie leased the McRae Hall and on December 19, 1925, the room held an opening dance with music "furnished by Alice Nadine Morrison and her Novelty Dance Orchestra."

Morrie's Musical Comedy Company

By 1931 Morrie's Musical Comedy Co. -- which included his mother, Alice's sister (Grace Simington, dancer), brother-in-law (Ed Simington, trombone), Lew (who performed in whatever capacity was required including blackface, banjo, vocals, drums, guitar), and others -- finally worked their way from Dunsmuir, California, back to Seattle where Morrie somehow finagled control over the Ingraham Hall on 1st Avenue.

In addition to booking nightly dances there, he also began teaching dance at the new Morrison Dance School at the 3107 Arcade Building. In 1932 Morrie gained control over the Moose Hall and began teaching dance and throwing dances there. The Morrison troupe also played shows from Arlington to Coulee City to Quincy, Soap Lake, and beyond. In 1934 and 1935, Morrie ran and also performed at the Riviera Ballroom. His orchestra also played at McElroy's Spanish Ballroom, the Lonesome Club, the Encore Ballroom, Faurot's Ballroom, and the Senator Ballroom. All this activity got the family ahead financially once again and in time he would eventually help form the G.T.M. Corporation, which by decade's end controlled six Seattle dancehalls, and 122 other dancehalls from Bellingham to Mexico.

Morrison Records

By 1942 the Morrisons were serving as live-in managers of Seattle's Mandal Apartments (720 Queen Anne Avenue) -- but their musical efforts brought additional successes: in 1944 Alice's new song, "Goodbye, Little Girl, Goodbye," was adopted by the Ink Spots, and in 1946 another, "Please Don't Sing That Song Again," was featured by the Andrews Sisters. The following year, Morrie invested a whopping $20,000 into producing and promoting his "Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow" local music extravaganza at the Metropolitan Theater. He hired many local artists, including expensive ones like Frankie Roth's Orchestra, but after just a few sparsely attended shows the production was halted.

Meanwhile Morrie forged on, founding one of Seattle's very first record labels. Morrison Records' earliest sessions were engineered by Lyle Thompson over at John Keating's studio (408 Second & Pine Building), and the company began releasing 78 rpm discs of specialty dance-oriented songs that Morrie marketed to his dance students. But then he also began to place advertisements in The Seattle Times that offered to "Get Your Poem Set To Music." And when these new customers sent their poetry in, and paid a fee, Alice, Morrie, or even Lew would then be assigned to write a tune to accompany it. From there the client/poets usually wanted to hear their collaborative composition on record and, for an additional fee, the Morrison Recording Orchestra would record it often with that customer -- usually an amateur singer with dreams of stardom -- contributing the vocals themselves.

In time, and as word spread amongst active musicians and union members about the existence of Morrison Records, a number of locally prominent orchestras (led by Frankie Roth, Jackie Souders, and Art Mineo) and popular country bands (Curly Hayes and his Hayseeds, Clyde Wesche and his Western Rangers, and Paul and Bonnie Tutmarc) also had their recordings issued by the label. And then by late-1950, Morrie had negotiated a national distribution deal with the larger California-based Vega Records and hopes were raised that hit records would soon follow. But scoring such successes would prove to be a challenge -- especially for a label that generally leaned towards the old-fashioned strains preferred by ballroom dancers.

Morrison Records Manufacturing Company

Then around 1954, the Morrisons suddenly inherited the Mandal Apartment building (and a few other properties on Capitol Hill) from the deceased owner. Feeling flush, they splurged on a European vacation and also purchased "The Mansion" -- the Queen Anne Hill home of the Japanese Consul (1025 1st Avenue W) up until the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack.

This opulent house became their new headquarters. They set up a recording studio there with sessions often engineered by Chet Noland, though in time Morrie decided that he could take on the actual sound engineering aspect of recording, and acquired his own tape recorder.

Morrison Music Company, Electronic Recorders and Associates

By the mid-1950s business was so good that Morrison Records expanded their operations. Morrie rented a storefront (1825 10th Ave W) situated just a few blocks west to serve as the Morrison Records Manufacturing Company's warehouse and shipping center. Then the Morrison Music Company, Electronic Recorders and Associates began working with a dedicated studio (at 6309 Woodlawn Avenue), and even launched what was, he claimed, the first local label to have its own pressing plant (at 211 Clay Street). Now, the Morrisons controlled the entire industrial infrastructure required to compete in the modern music biz. Their new ads accurately solicited new business this way: "Let Us: Print Your Music, Record Your Songs, Press Your Records. Complete Service and Nation Wide Distribution."

Once a local talent's song had been recorded, the master tape was sent off to California where the master stampers were made and then shipped back. At that point the Morrison team would begin pressing records one-at-a-time from "biscuits" of virgin vinyl. This labor-intensive work also required that the rough edges of each disc be hand-sanded. Morrie once told The Seattle Times how when some of his titles began selling quite well, it "[g]ot so that I hated to get the mail and see a request for another 5,000 records" (Duncan). And even though Morrison Records never scored a genuine smash hit, they did move considerable units -- caused perhaps by two distinct factors: each disc featured a unique swirl of dazzling colored vinyl, and customers could choose from a catalog of at least 150 different song titles -- any two of which could be pressed as custom ordered.

Morrison's Unique and Colorful Motion Picture

By the mid-1950s Morrie was advertising the availability of "motion picture reels and prerecorded tapes" of his dance lessons and he went from being a teacher to a theorist, with the self-publication of his "systemized course" of instruction -- Morrie Morrison's Dance Book: A Journey In The Land of Terpsichore. This 1955 booklet was an eccentric 75-page "treatise" on the "Terpsichorean Art" of dance, replete with diagrams, photos, descriptions of particular dance-steps (with tips about which Morrison Record to use) and enthusiastic essays about such fanciful notions as "Melodial Waves" and his "Newmo" (new motion -- new mode) approach to modern dance.

Meanwhile, the years passed, and by 1968 The Seattle Times reported that "Morrison is making a color movie to demonstrate Elysian dancing" (Duncan). This new dancing form -- and that movie with the old-school P. T. Barnum-like title: Morrie Morrison's Unique and Colorful Motion Picture, the Discovery of the Elysian Phenomena and A Show Of Shows -- were seemingly based on a charmingly eccentric blend of mystifyingly cosmic concepts and straight-up aerobic principles -- or something. In 1975 the Morrisons began down-sizing, selling off their mansion -- at least in part to help further finance the film -- and moving over to 8th Avenue W. Upon completion, the film was apparently screened a time or two, but it never did spark the level of public interest he'd hoped for.

Alice passed away in 1978, Morrie followed in 1984, and thus the Morrison music empire faded away -- though Lew carried on playing professionally until about 1994, and his son KenĀ (a producer at Seattle television stations) continued the family legacy as a locally active musician.


Sources: Peter Blecha interviews with H. O. Morrison (November and December 1983), Lew Morrison (July 14, 1984 and January 20, 2003), and Bonnie Guitar (April 4, 1989 and December 16-17, 1995); "My Love Is All For You," sheet music (Bellingham: Morrison Music Co., 1920); "Say You'll Be Mine," sheet music (Chicago: Forster Music Publisher Inc., 1920); "Love's Ship," sheet music (Chicago: Forster Music Publisher Inc., 1920); Emerson Records catalog, (October 1920); "My Love Is All For You," player piano roll [#1282], A Film Music Company, Los Angeles (1920); A Film Music Company, dealer's ad sheet, (December 1920); Joseph O'Hara, "Love's Ship" Brunswick Records [#2161-A] (ca. 1920); Club De Vingt Orchestra, "Love's Ship Medley Waltz Intr Say You'll Be Mine," Edison Diamond Disc #50803 (1920); Morrison Music Co. ad, "A Bit of History About The Company," The Sunday American-Reveille (Bellingham), December 19, 1920; "Well Known Dancing Teacher Takes Term Lease on McRae Hall -- Wife of Lessee is Nationally Known Writer of Popular Songs," Roseville Tribune, December 11, 1925; E. V. During, "On The Side," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 12, 1946; Mack Mathews, "Hit Tunes from the Home Town," The Seattle Times, January 4, 1948. p. 3; Morrison Record Co. ad, Footnotes, December 1950; Morrie Morrison's Dance Book: A Journey in the Land of Terpsichore (Seattle: Morrison Records, 1955); "Marriage Couldn't Last -- But It Did," The Seattle Times, June 20, 1962; Don Duncan, "Life Offers Couple Much to Sing About," Ibid., September 4, 1968, p. 14; "Alice Morrison," obituary, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 3, 1978; C. B., "Quick as a Cat: Conversations with Morrie Morrison," Pike Place Market News, November 1983, pp. 14-15; "'Morrie' Morrison, Musician, Dies," obituary, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 8, 1984; "H. O. Morrison," obituary, The Seattle Times, July 10, 1984; Peter Blecha, "H. O. Morrison," The Rocket, August 1984; Merle Irene Smith, Seattle Had a Tin Pan Alley, Too! (Seattle: Merle Irene Smith, 1989) pp. 44-45; Peter Blecha, Taboo Tunes: A History of Banned Bands & Censored Songs (San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2004), 20; and author's (Peter Blecha's) Northwest Music Archives.
Note: This essay was revised slightly on December 28, 2014.

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