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Boles, Joe (1904-1962): Seattle's First Hit-Making Sound Engineer
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Jay F. "Joe" Boles -- well-known founder of the Seattle Harbor Water Tours -- is far more famous as the proprietor of Seattle's first truly successful recording studio. A one-time hi-fi audiophile who initially snuck into various local concert halls in order to surreptiously record his favorite touring acts, Boles progressed from being a dedicated hobbyist to a recognized master of the recording arts. Although he conducted countless sessions in his home studios, his skill behind the mixing console will always be associated with seminal Northwest rock 'n' roll classics including the Fleetwoods' No. 1 hit ("Come Softly to Me"), the Ventures' smash ("Walk -- Don't Run"), and Rockin' Robin Roberts and the Wailers' timeless No. 1 regional fave, "Louie Louie."
On the Waterfront
Long attracted to the hurly-burly action down on Seattle's bustling waterfront, Joe Boles -- a native Seattleite and self-described professional "seaman" -- was involved in various maritime enterprises that were based on those downtown docks. Among the legendary old salts that he called friends were Rudy "The Wharf Rat," Scuttle Butt Pete, and O. H. "Doc" Freeman. Boles and Freeman even entered into a partnership around 1943 when they purchased and briefly co-owned the famous steamship, Virginia V, which served as one of the "Mosquito Fleet" of smaller freight and passenger carrying vessels plying the waters of Puget Sound from the late nineteenth century up until World War II.
At war's end Boles was serving on the Puget Sound Log Patrol while he simultaneously captained a "Duck" tour-boat based at West Seattle's Alki Beach -- and he had parlayed that experience into the founding of his own Seattle Harbor Water Tours service (1101 Alaska Way) at Pier 55 (and later, Pier 54), which for many years became a popular means for the public to experience a unique tour of Seattle's waterfront by boat.
The Sounds of Seattle
By 1951 Boles had begun delving as a hobbyist into another of his keen interests -- the new art and science of capturing sounds on a new device that had only emerged in the wake of World War II: the magnetic tape recorder. He assembled an initial set of gear (including an Ampex 350 recorder and, eventually, a Fisher amp, and a couple Telefunken U-47 and U-45 microphones) in the rec-room of his -- and his second wife, Virginia's (1911-2007) -- West Seattle home's (3333 59th Avenue SW) basement, and began hanging out with a number of fellow Seattle-area audiophiles -- including former KFN radio announcer Jim Kuhnhausen, Boeing engineer Jerry Hybeck, and budding engineer Glenn White Jr. (b. 1933), whose namesake father repaired hi-fi gear at Seattle's Electricraft shop (622 Union Street).
In time Boles also realized that he could gain insight into the finer techniques and tricks-of-the-trade by observing recording sessions directed by the town's exceedingly few professional engineers: Lyle Thompson at John Keating's studio (408-2nd and Pine Building), and Chet Noland at Dimensional Sound (2128 3rd Avenue). In addition, Boles began getting advice about gear from a new pal, Sheridan, Oregon's Wally Heider (1922-1989) -- a sound engineer who would go on to great acclaim in California during the late 1960s.
In addition to holding experimental sessions in his home, Boles really loved to get out and remotely record interesting sounds out in the field. Among the significant moments that he managed to capture for posterity were the very last steam train to puff away from Seattle's Union Station, and the take-off of early Boeing 707 jets from Renton Field in 1954.
Boles also had a love for music and he made many expeditions with his portable new Ampex 601-2 recorder to various local venues from Tacoma's Crescent Ballroom to The Cave nightclub in Vancouver B.C., where he cut performances by many artists including Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and a lot of jazz big-bands, the New York Philharmonic at the Civic Auditorium (600 5th Avenue) and the Guy Lombardo Orchestra at Olympia's Evergreen Ballroom. Other efforts to record the Harry James Orchestra at the Trianon Ballroom (218 Wall Street) and, on another occasion, Milton Katims and the Seattle Symphony at the Orpheum Theater (506 Stewart Street) failed when he was discovered setting up or adjusting his gear.
In February 1955, Boles was waylaid by a heart attack -- an incident that caused him to semi-retire from his main Seattle Harbor Tours gig and begin taking on more recording work. In 1957 the Boles moved into a beautiful new home (3550 SW Admiral Way) that featured a large basement room in which he set up a new studio. He formalized his business -- J. F. Boles Recording -- and in no time a parade of ambitious local talents were beating a path to Boles's door. Everyone seemed to think that they had penned a potential hit song and Boles soon realized that perhaps he could form a record company -- or, at the very least, a song publishing firm to control the songs that his clients brought in.
One early client was Atillio "Art" Mineo, an affable New York Italian -- the uncle, incidentally, to the '50s movie star, Sal Mineo -- who had worked in the past with big-time East Coast orchestras led by Paul Whiteman and Vincent Lopez. Settled in Tacoma, Mineo now led the house-band at his own New Yorker Cafe and occasionally acted as a talent scout for some old pals who happened to be heavyweights in the record biz. Somehow the idea of a partnership arose and Boles and Mineo went on to form Bolmin Publishing (which they named by conflating their two surnames) and begin cutting a few master tapes. However, the inevitable strains of a partnership -- Mineo was interested in his orchestral mainstream pop, and Boles wanted to cut hits -- caused the duo to part ways. Boles retained ownership of Bolmin.
With each recording experience Boles's skills grew as did his reputation and soon everyone on the local scene was coming by to check things out, including old-school dance orchestra leaders, Max Pillar and Jackie Souders, jazz bandmaster Robert "Bumps" Blackwell, jazzers Chuck Mahaffay, Joe Venuti, Frank Sugia, rockabillies Eddie Kline, Peggi Griffith, and "Lucky" Lee, doo-wop pioneers, the Mello-Aires and Hi-Liters, and KING-TV star "Sheriff Tex" Jim Lewis.
It was in 1957 that Boles's engineering brought the first brush with fame. That occurred just after a young Japanese American lounge diva named Pat Suzuki was discovered by Bing Crosby while performing at the Colony Club (408 Virginia Street) -- a downtown supper club run by veteran jazz impresario, Norm Bobrow. Brought over to Boles's studio, Suzuki's demonstration tapes not only went on to help score her a major contract with RCA Victor and launch her national career, but they also caught the ears of the industry who became curious about the little Seattle studio with the big and warm-yet-crisp sound.
Although Boles seems to have never advertised his services, word-of-mouth sufficed to broaden his reputation and soon all sorts of industry folks -- including Folkways Records head Moses Asch and big-time artists such as Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians, the Four Freshmen, the Martin Denny Group, Cal Tjader, Rusty Draper, Dick Contino, Gus Mancuso, Jack Jones, Timmie Rogers, and Buddy Greco -- were stopping by his basement to check out the action.
A Day with Big Jay
In the fall of 1957, the Watts, California-based R&B saxophonist and bandleader Big Jay McNeely rolled into Seattle to play nightclub bookings at the Birdland (2203 E Madison) and Dave's 5th Avenue Tavern (506 Denny Way). Wanting to record while here, he'd asked around and been advised to contact Tom Ogilvy (1916-2000), the operator of the town's successful pop label, Seafair Records. It was right around New Year's Day 1958 that Ogilvy was able to get combo into Boles's studio where a few sessions yielded a number of recordings including the tune, "There Is Something On Your Mind."
McNeely was quite pleased and asked if Ogilvy and/or Boles wanted to release the tune on record themselves -- but after pondering the slim chance that Seafair would have any luck promoting a heavy R&B disc to area radio stations, they passed on the offer. Thus it must have been a bittersweet moment when the two men later watched as McNeely's tune became a huge hit for the Los Angeles-based Swingin' Records.
Boles's Reputation Grows
In 1958, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer noted Joe's "hobby." Particularly the plans to record -- with his new twin "stereophonic" Ampex 350-2 recorders -- the sound of his beloved waterfront: "Like the tugboat whistles. And the sad bleat of the fog horns. The chug of engines, the roar of Alaska Way traffic. Chatter of gulls -- sounds like that" (Lynch).
Meanwhile, a number of significant sessions were taking place in Boles's studio. Among them were those undertaken independently by ambitious local teenaged rock 'n' roll bands including the Dave Lewis Combo and the Frantics. Although those recordings didn't create much of a stir, a demo tape cut there by the Brothers Four -- a folk quartet of University of Washington Phi Gamma Delta fraternity brothers -- helped get them signed to Columbia Records, which soon produced their No. 2 national hit single, "Greenfields."
That time period was also when a radio DJ at Puyallup's KAYE brought his band up to record a few times with Boles. After cutting tunes like "Red Hot," "You're Ruining My Gladness," "Mama Inez," "Marching Saxophones," and "Tired Of Living" -- that bandleader ended up splitting for Hollywood where he became a big country music star and his name, Buck Owens, has ever after been associated with West Coast honky-tonk music.
It was Boles's contributions to the rise of Seattle's first successful rock 'n' roll label, Dolton Records, that remains his career highpoint. Around the summer of 1958 a few local record distributors -- headed by sales manager, Bob Reisdorff -- decided to form that label and begin scouting for worthy local talents to promote. Reisdorff discovered a singer from Olympia High School named Gretchen Christopher, who was then filling in for Suzuki at the Colony Club. Impressed by her talents -- and a demo tape of an original tune that she and two pals (Gary Troxel and Barbara Ellis) had cut at Yantis Recording back home -- Reisdorff figured that he'd found the act he'd needed.
Seeking a second opinion, Reisdorff played the tape for Seattle's reigning pop star, Bonnie Guitar, who loved the wispy doo-wop tune titled "Come Softly To Me." That was when Dolton brought Bonnie aboard as another partner and the teen trio -- the Fleetwoods -- were taken into Boles's studio. That session resulted in a recording that was significant on several fronts: when released in January 1959, "Come Softly ..." was the debut disc for Dolton; it launched the Fleetwoods' amazing career; and the tune became the first international hit -- No. 1 on Billboard magazine's charts -- ever cut in the Northwest.
But that was merely the beginning for Dolton and Boles. Over the next nine months they worked together and scored big national hits with the first six releases -- including tunes by the Frantics, Little Bill and the Bluenotes, and several more for the Fleetwoods. Unfortunately, Boles and Reisdorff had a falling out over business terms and in September 1959 Dolton switched over and subsequent sessions took place across town at Kearney Barton's new Northwest Recording studios (622 Union Street).
But there was one subsequent Dolton disc that happened to get cut by Boles. That occurred because the band -- Tacoma's Ventures -- independently booked time and recorded the song "Walk -- Don't Run," which they released on their own Blue Horizon label. It was then that Reisdorff heard the song on KJR radio and Dolton stepped up, signed the group, reissued the 45 and it became the next massive international hit to come from Boles's basement.
September 1960 saw the debut of Bolo Records -- Boles and Ogilvy's new label, which would prove to be one of the region's most active throughout that decade. Early Bolo singles (featuring songs registered via Bolmin Publishing) by the Continentals, the Exotics, Little Bill Engelhart, and the Frantics -- not to mention those Boles cut for the Seafair imprint by the Dave Lewis Combo, the Dynamics, Billy Saint, and the Night People -- were all well-produced and showed promise, but things really clicked with the March 1962 release of the Dynamics' "J.A.J.," which became an influential regional hit. About a month later came the release of the Wailers' classic LP At The Castle, which Boles had recorded live at the Spanish Castle Ballroom in late 1961.
But the biggest Bolo hit yet was the "Official Song" of 1962 Seattle World's Fair by Joy and the Boys -- "Meet Me In Seattle (At The Fair)" -- a 45 that sold thousands of copies to visitors that spring and summer. Boles also recorded the LP by the World's Fair Band, and the next hit, "Hey Mrs. Jones," came from a Tiny Tony and the Statics (with Merrilee Rush) session on June 2nd -- the final artists to sign-in on the studio's visitor log.
Sadly, Boles did not get to enjoy the thrill of watching the tune take off that summer because on the evening of July 18th he suddenly passed away at the age of 58 (due to a second heart attack). Joe Boles was buried at Evergreen Cemetery (11111 Aurora Avenue N) on the 20th. In the end, his awesome gear was sold to Heider (who presumably used it on later sessions with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young), and the Ogilvys acquired full ownership of Bolo -- a label that went on to issue 40+ singles, and a few popular albums including 1965's collection of early hits, Bolo Bash.
Northwest Hall of Fame
Boles also was responsible for countless additional sessions including those by local jazz greats, Corky Corcoran, Elmer Gill, and Johnny Lewis, R&B pioneers Merceedees and the Individuals, Seattle doo-wop kings, the Gallahads ("Why Do Fools Fall in Love"), rockers like Tacoma's Rockin' Robin & the Wailers ("Louie Louie"), Seattle's Keynotes, Blazers, and Playboys, Elma's Titans, Renton's Aztecs, Centralia's Lord Dent and the Invaders, Yakima's Rumblers and Checkers, St. Helens, Oregon's Teen Kings, Spokane's Gary Hodge, Olympia's '50s folkies The Group -- and even Dorsey Burnette (with the Checkers), and Bobby Darin (a demo session for "Dream Lover" with the Frantics).
The passing of Joe Boles was not only a major blow to the kindly man's family and many friends -- it also created a gaping void on Seattle's music scene. And though other local engineers like Kearney Barton, Ray Van Patten, and Fred Rasmussen would each pick up some of the slack, many music fans still believe that Boles's subtle touch in the studio was unparalleled.
The Northwest Area Music Association's Hall of Fame Committee (of which this writer was a member) felt likewise and on April 23, 1989 Joe Boles was inducted into the NAMA's Hall of Fame in a ceremony held at the Moore Theater (936 2nd Avenue). Then in June 2000 -- when Seattle's rock 'n' roll museum, The Experience Music Project (EMP) opened -- it was my pleasure (as the Senior Curator who'd developed the local history exhibits in the Northwest Passage gallery) to be able to present a bit of Joe Boles's amazing story in a display about the Dolton Era.
J. F. Boles Recording studio "Guest Log" (May 1956-June 1962) in possession of Virginia Boles; Frank Lynch, "Seattle Scene" column, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 31,1958, p. 25; Jack Jarvis, "Our Man At The Fair" column, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 20,1962, p. 6; "Jay F. Boles, Harbor Tours Partner, Dies," obituary, Seattle Post-Intelligencer July 20, 1962 p. 40; Peter Blecha telephone conversation with Ellen Ogilvy (December 4, 2008) and interviews with Virginia Boles (1984, 2000), Tom and Ellen Ogilvy (August 9, 1983, etc.), Bob Reisdorff (1988 and 1999), Kearney Barton (1983, 1984, 1998), Gretchen Christopher (1985, 2000, etc); Gary Troxel (January, 1987); Jim Manolides (The Frantics) (January, 1984 etc.); Ron Peterson (The Frantics) (August, 1989, etc); Little Bill Engelhart (October 1983, etc.), Rich Dangel (1987, 1998), Bonnie Guitar (1985 and April 14, 1989), and Glenn D. White (November 6, 2003), tapes in possession of author; author interviews with Big Jay McNeely (March 18, 1998, videotaped by EMP, Babe's and Ricky's Inn, Los Angeles), Bonnie Guitar (November 16-17, 1995, videotaped by EMP at Notaras Lodge, Soap Lake); Don Wilson and Bob Bogel (October 28, 1995, videotaped by EMP at Los Angeles), and Buck Owens (October 27, 1995, videotaped by EMP at Bakersfield California); Peter Blecha, "Studio Saga: The History of Northwest Recording," The Rocket November 1984; Peter Blecha, "1989 Northwest Hall of Fame Awards," The Rocket, May, 1989 p. 20; Peter Blecha, "Leavin' Here: Seattle's Original 'Record Man' Tom Ogilvy," The Rocket, February 9, 2000; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Virginia V, Last Mosquito Fleet Steamer" (by Larry E. Johnson), www.historylink.org (accessed December 4, 2008); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Dolton: The Northwest's First Rock 'n' Roll Record Company" (by Peter Blecha), www.historylink.org (accessed December 4, 2008); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Bonnie Guitar: The Northwest's Trail-Blazing Pop Pioneer" (by Peter Blecha), www.historylink.org (accessed December 4, 2008); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seafair Records: Seattle's Swingin' '60s Music Company" (by Peter Blecha), www.historylink.org (accessed December 4, 2008).
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Joe Boles in his recording studio, Seattle, ca. 1950s
Courtesy Virginia Boles
Joe Boles and the Puget Sound Log Patrol, Alki Beach, Seattle, April 1947
Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives
Joe Boles (left) with Pacific Motor Boat magazine's Scuttle Butt Pete, n.d.
Courtesy Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society (Neg. 8198-8)
Joe Boles in his recording studio, Seattle, ca. 1960
Courtesy Tom and Ellen Ogilvy
Big Jay McNeely 45, 1959
Courtesy Peter Blecha
The Fleetwoods, autographed sheet music, 1959
Courtesy Peter Blecha
The Ventures, Dolton 45, 1960
Courtesy Peter Blecha
Promotional copy of Rockin' Robin's "Louie Louie" 45, 1961
Courtesy Peter Blecha
Joy and the Boys 45, 1962
Courtesy Peter Blecha
Joe Boles in his recording studio, Seattle, ca. 1960
Courtesy Tom and Ellen Ogilvy