Gallahads, The: Seattle's 1950s Doo-Wop Kings

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 7/31/2008
  • Essay 8710

In the 1950s, doo-wop singing flourished on the street corners of America's big cities, where countless a cappella vocal harmony groups created classic rock 'n' roll songs, often characterized by the chanting of nonsense syllables. Here in the Pacific Northwest, such groups were rather scarce, but a few of historical note are Tacoma's Barons and Four Pearls, Everett's Shades, Seattle's Five Checks, Fabulous Winds -- and the Gallahads, who cut a handful of promising discs in Hollywood. One single, "Lonely Guy," hit Billboard and Cash Box magazines' best-seller charts in 1960, and various members of the group went on to sing with early popular Northwest bands, including the Dynamics, Viceroys, El Caminos, Statics, Counts, Soul Deacons, and the Boss Five.

Echoes of the Early Days

The Gallahads' origins trace back to 1952, when a few teenaged African American students at Edmond Meany Junior High School formed a neighborhood "club" (the Strokers) and then a singing group called the Echoes. Those kids included Jimmy Pipkin (b. 1939), Anthony "Tiny Tony" Smith (1940-1987), Clifton Jones, Joe Hardy, and Bobby Dixon. But in time, even friendship couldn't prevent a couple lesser talents from being edged out -- Hardy got booted and Jones drifted off -- and the new lineup became Pipkin (tenor), Smith (baritone), Dixon (lead/second tenor), and newcomer Ernie Rouse (bass).

"We were doing a lot of 'mixers' -- afternoon dances when school was over," recalled Smith. "Also we were doing a lot of things on Friday afternoons and nights at the girls' YWCA and at the boys' YMCA. There were different adult clubs that sponsored those things for the kids. We used to sing at these gigs at the Y, and I can remember the Dave Lewis Combo used to play those too" (September 5, 1984, interview).

"We started at school, singin' assemblies, Fun Fests, the YMCA on 23rd [Avenue] and Olive [Street], and the Birdland," Pipkin agreed. "The Dave Lewis Combo was playin' at the time. They were our heroes. They were from Garfield High, so we were like underclassmen. We'd go up to the Birdland [2203 E Madison Street] and sing on Friday and Saturday nights" (February 5, 1988, interview). By the time the doo-wop crew started school at Garfield, they'd changed their name to the Gallahads. In 1957, Pipkin (piano) also joined his first combo, the Doug Robinson Combo, which included Johnny O'Francia (tenor sax) and Carlos Ward (sax) -- both of whom later joined Lewis's combo, as did Pipkin (on drums), when Lewis lost his drummer, George Griffin, to Lionel Hampton's touring band.

Gallahads Get a Break

One night, the Gallahads heard some hot R & B on Renton's pioneering Top 40 station, KQDE. The group called in and sang their original tune, "Gone," over the telephone to the hip young DJ, "Hey Hey" Steve Wray. Impressed, Wray bought the Gallahads matching white, chain-stitched bulky sweaters and began booking them at Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) sock hops -- which were, at the time, some of the only teen dances allowed in Seattle because of an ordinance mandating that underage dancing events be tied in with a charitable or nonprofit group.

It was at one of those gigs that two budding record entrepreneurs, Larry Nelson and Chuck Markulis, happened upon the group. "They were just wowed to find that there was an actual group here in the Pacific Northwest that had a sound like that," recalled Smith. "And with original material. So it was only one or two days before they had us hooked up, and they said 'Let's record these tunes'" (September 5, 1984, interview).

Nelson and Markulis had just issued their Nite Owl label's debut 45, Ron Holden and the Thunderbirds' "Love You So," and they were antsy to get a second project going. Thus, the Gallahads' moody doo-wop tunes "Gone"/"So Long," featuring Dixon's soaring lead and combo support from the Thunderbirds, were cut in the late summer of 1959 with sound engineer Kearney Barton at Northwest Recorders (622 Union Street).

Bright Lights, Big City

Undaunted when no significant local radio stations supported the disc, Nite Owl plugged away, cutting a demo of the Gallahads' new song, "(I'm Just a) Lonely Guy," in Nelson's living room. Nelson and Markulis shipped the recording to Bob Keane at Del-Fi/Donna Records in Hollywood, and Keane responded favorably. In September 1959, the starry-eyed Gallahads were on their way to Los Angeles in an old '49 Ford, and they were quickly signed to an exclusive five-year contract. Booked into a big-time studio with top session pros (including drummer Barry White), the Gallahads cut "Lonely Guy" and "Jo Jo the Big Wheel," which were later issued as a single -- on both Donna (No. 1322), in February 1960, and in August on Del-Fi (No. 4137).

During their one-week Hollywood stay in September 1959, the Gallahads had the time of their lives: one evening they went across town to a fabled R & B mecca, the 5-4 Club, and got invited to perform a spotlight set during a break by James Brown and the Famous Flames. The downside was that the Gallahads' meager funds were dwindling fast: having received no signing bonus, cash advance, allowance, performance fees, or anything from Keane, they ended up begging him for pocket money for meals -- and then even had to spring for gasoline for their ride back to Seattle.

"We were on our own," Smith sheepishly confessed. "It was the hard knocks days man. We got lost in the big world down there too. You know, it's embarrassing to admit this ... but, we kinda got flamboozled down there. 'Cause it was all 'bright lights and big city' and we weren't concerned too much about our welfare and contractual agreements and whatnot. And: we got screwed -- there's no doubt about it. But, on the other hand, we had fun. We lived a life while we were livin' it" (September 5, 1984, interview).

Be Fair

Back home, the Donna 45 received initial airplay on Seattle's KUDY, but because Tiny Tony Smith had married and taken a job at the U.S. Post Office straight out of high school, he had little time for the Gallahads. The group's personnel shifted a bit, occasionally including Leo Robinson and even a woman named Lynn Brooks (Shepard), who later joined the Driftwood Singers (with Billy "Hey Joe" Roberts) during the folk music craze. But Smith did find the time to pick up some extra work singing with the Dynamics, just as Pipkin sang with the Viceroys (and Pipkin, Smith, and Rouse provided backing vocals on the Viceroys' debut 45, "I Love A Girl"/"My Only Love").

It was on August 15, 1960, that "Lonely Guy" landed on Billboard magazine's best-seller chart, at number 111. Keane suddenly needed the Gallahads to be in LA to promote the hit by showing their stuff at a few teen dances and TV sock-hop shows. Problem was, the group was in disarray with Smith being tied down to his job, and Dixon had bailed out. But, meeting the challenge, Pipkin (now on lead) and Rouse recruited a new member, Ray Robinson (tenor), and the group headed back south where they added Charles Wright (who would later go on to fame as the leader of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band).

Luckily, things went much better for the group on this second trip: the hit-making R & B DJ, Hunter Hancock, offered up airplay and took the Gallahads around to a number of lip-synch parties at LA high schools. With Hancock and Wolfman Jack's support, "Lonely Guy" became the number 1 song in the LA market for eight solid weeks -- success that led to appearances on the Wink Martindale Show every Saturday for a couple months and even one airing on Dick Clark's American Bandstand.

Additional recording sessions ensued, and in 1961 the Gallahads' "I'm Without a Girlfriend"/"Be Fair" single (Del-Fi no. 4148) was issued. It got some initial radio airplay and even an airing on the Dick Clark Show. According to Charles Wright, that's when the group's real problems began. At that time, the famed DJ Alan Freed was working at LA's KDAY, and he promoted huge live shows at the El Monte Legion stadium. The Gallahads happily participated, but were frustrated when Freed failed to compensate them: "They went to AFTRA [American Federation of Television and Radio Artists] which enticed them to sign a complaint against Freed. Dick Clark had picked the record to be a favorite and started playing the record. Freed influenced him to stop [supporting it]" (Propes).

Making matters worse, the poignant "Be Fair" suddenly began meeting serious resistance at some radio stations, though the song is considered by some to be among the Gallahads' finest tunes. Concerns supposedly arose because of the song's plotline -- about a blind fellow and his faithless girlfriend who, while "holding my hand ... [is] kissing my best friend." This turn of events, along with the lack of any royalties from Keane, caused Pipkin to take a bus home to rethink things.

Regrouped, the Gallahads -- now with Pipkin, Ernie Rouse, Betty (Martin) Rouse, and Sonny Taylor -- went to Joe Boles Custom Recorders in West Seattle to try and cut some songs with guidance from Chuck Markulis. But after working through a new version of "Gone" and a cover of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers' classic "Why Do Fools Fall in Love," Pipkin said that "Markulis slipped past the engineer, got the session tapes. We came back the next day: the tapes were gone" (Propes).

It is not clear how Markulis figured that the group's exclusive contract with Keane and Del-Fi/Donna Records could be ignored, but Markulis apparently took the new master tapes to California's Rendezvous Records and a single was promptly issued. Possibly unaware of the subterfuge, Keane eventually persuaded Pipkin to return, and the singer was matched with a new group -- this time billed as Jimmy Pipkin and the Gallahads on the 1962 single "This Letter to You"/"The Answer to Love" (Donna No. 1361).

Dancing at the Seattle World's Fair

The Gallahads (including Tiny Tony Smith) regrouped again in Seattle, where they opened for Ike and Tina Turner at the Eagles Auditorium (7th Avenue and Union Street). But the era of vocal groups was drawing to a close. Dance combos were where the action was, and the individual members of the Gallahads found themselves in considerable demand as featured front men. Pipkin helped form the Boss Five, who took over the house-band gig at the Birdland after the Dave Lewis Combo split up. And Smith sang with the El Caminos before joining Burien's Statics, who played some big outdoor dances celebrating the grand opening of the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. In June 1962 the Statics' Bolo Records 45, "Hey Mrs. Jones," erupted as a massive regional radio hit -- in spite of the then-daring vocal format of Smith singing playfully seductive lyrics in a duet with his teenaged (and white) bandmate, Merrilee Rush.

Smith, Rush, and the Statics became a top teen-dance draw for the following three years or so, renowned for their soulful singing, fine musicianship, hot synchronized front-line dance-steps, and groovy singles like "Harlem Shuffle"/"The Girl Can't Help It" (Camelot No. 110) and "Tell Me The Truth"/"Rinky Dink" (Camelot No. 115). Meanwhile, the Gallahads were revived whenever possible. By 1964 they began gigging at Sid Clark's downtown teen club, the Tolo House, and with a premier Northwest combo, the Counts. The Counts backed the Gallahads (Pipkin, Smith, Rouse, Leo Robinson, and lead singer Billy Burns) on a single (Sea Crest No. 6005) that featured Richard Berry's "Louie Louie" knockoff, called "Have Love Will Travel," and "My Offering."

The following year saw the Boss Five hook up with Chuck Cunningham, a radio DJ who pushed the group's "Walkin' the Duck"/"Goodnight My Love" single (Camelot No. 123) to No. 1 hit status at Bob Summerrise's Kirkland-based R & B station, KYAC. Soon after, the band cut two singles: they rerecorded "(I'm Just a) Lonely Guy," backed by a funky tribute to their DJ/manager, "Mr. C.C." (Emerge No. 1108); and they released "Mister Clean '67 Pt I"/"Mr. Clean '67 Pt. II" (Norman No. 579). The year 1965 also saw Merrilee Rush and her husband/sax-man Neil Rush split from the Statics to form the Turnabouts. Between 1966 and 1968, Tiny Tony Smith and the remaining Statics morphed into the psychedelic band International Brick, who recorded the "Flower Children"/"You Should Be So High" single (Camelot No. 137) and opened local shows for touring stars, including the Byrds and the Doors.

Radios, Revivals, and Reunions

Meanwhile, Ernie Rouse had moved on to gospel music, Bobby Dixon reportedly to prison, and Jimmy Pipkin to a career in radio, working at KSCR, KYAC, KOL-FM, and later at a Portland station. Years passed before the Gallahads reunited. In 1972 they agreed to play some gigs at the Mint (later called the Pike Place Bar and Grill). The early 1970s also saw the Boss Five reemerge as Quiet Fire (with Pipkin now on keys), while Smith remained busy fronting Tiny Tony and the Homeboys and other ensembles.

The Gallahads resurfaced for a well-attended reunion show on June 8,1974, at the Golden Crown, and then played a gig or two backed by the town's top '70s funk bands, Cold, Bold and Together (with future sax star "Kenny G" Gorelick) and Robbie Hill's Family Affair. In September 1976, the Statics reunited to play the Ad Lib taverns in Bellevue and Kent, and Seattle's Aquarius Tavern (formerly Parker's Ballroom). But after a glorious 1977 New Year's Eve show opening for the Doobie Brothers at the Paramount Theatre, the Statics embarked on a tour through Canada, during which Smith fell ill and was diagnosed with diabetes.

Although, his touring days were over, Smith carried on performing in area taverns with Les Follies (Les Clinkingbeard's annual aggregate of scene veterans) and groups including Red Beans and Rice, and Tiny Tony and the Rock 'n' Roll Jones. Smith's final show was with Les Follies at Parker's Ballroom in January 1987. A few months later, on March 25, 1987, Smith -- the father of three sons -- died of complications from his medical condition.

Although the Gallahads' commercial success peaked with 1960's lovely "Lonely Guy" -- a tune that has been reissued on countless oldies-but-goodies-type compilation albums -- the band's later tunes were also well-loved by fans. This was evident on the evening of February 20, 1999, when Jimmy Pipkin and the Gallahads sang all of their classics to a sold-out crowd at the Petroleum Club in Long Beach, California, at the Doo-Wop Society of Southern California's concert celebrating Black History Month.

Sources: Herb Adams, "Hey Hey Steve Wray!," DJ magazine, May 19, 1960; Ed Baker, "Rocking 'n' Rolling with Statics Again," The Seattle Times, August 27, 1976; Peter Blecha conversations with Anthony "Tiny Tony" Smith, Jimmy Pipkin, Larry Nelson, Dave Lewis (1980s-1990s); Peter Blecha interviews with Anthony "Tiny Tony" Smith (September 5, 1984), Larry Nelson (September, 12, 1984), and Jimmy Pipkin (February 5, 1988), recordings in author's possession; Peter Blecha interview with Bob Keane, Hollywood, California (October 4, 1995), videotapes in EMP Oral History archives; Peter Blecha, "Northwest Music Archives: The Dynamics," The Rocket, January 1984; Peter Blecha, "Northwest Music Archives: The Viceroys," The Rocket, April 1984; Peter Blecha, "Northwest Music Archives: The Counts," The Rocket, June 1984; Peter Blecha, "Northwest Music Archives: The Gallahads," The Rocket, October 1984; uncredited LP liner notes, Vocal Sound Vol. III, Solid Smoke Records, No. SS-8033, 1984; "Rocker 'Tiny' Tony Smith Dies," The Seattle Times, March 27, 1987; Steve Propes, "The Gallahads" (September 1999), manuscript in author's posession; Doo-Wop Favorites by the Gallahads compact disc, Nite Owl Records, No. NOCD-220, n.d.

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