Dave Holden: On Race and Music in Seattle, 1956-1966

  • By Heather MacIntosh
  • Posted 5/25/2000
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 2562
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Dave Holden was born on May 21, 1937, in Seattle. Son of local jazz legend Oscar Holden, Dave got his first paid gig as a jazz musician in the late 1950s. From that time on, Dave's keyboard and vocal talents have taken him around the world. In this HistoryLink interview conducted by Heather MacIntosh in Kent on May 23, 2000, Dave Holden shares his memories of Garfield High School, growing up in the Central Area, and his virtual isolation from the explosive racial tensions of the 1960s.

House of Music

"I remember my grandmother, my uncles and aunts who lived in Yakima which is where my mother was from. We used to always go there in the summertime and they would come over to Seattle. Yeah, I remember the good times in my life when I was very young. There was always music in the house.

"Its hard for me to say [when I started playing the piano] because we always had a piano in our front room in the house and I would always tinker around with it like the rest of us would. You know my brother Ron and my brother Jimmy, all of us would tinker around with the piano just because it was there.

Garfield High in the 1950s

"My first instrument [with lessons] was a clarinet. That was in high school. I was part of the high school band, and I of course played sports. I went to Garfield. I tried to play football, but I wasn't very good, so the coach asked me to play basketball, he said don't play football cause you'll get hurt. During the football season I was in the band so the band teacher wanted me to be the drum major, so I was the drum major for the band, and during basketball season I played basketball in high school.

"I was there, '54 to '56. I would have to say they were very good days for me. Most of the people that went there during those years would probably say the same thing. It was a very good era and a very good time. They had all kinds of races and religions and everybody worked together for one common goal: to get along. We all got along at that time. From what I hear, after we left, it changed.

"I went to Everett Junior College for two years on a basketball scholarship. From there I went on the road playing music. When I was in college, my second year, I learned enough piano to play in a nightclub.

The First Gig

"I came home from college one night, and my dad told me to go around the corner to get some milk at the corner grocery on 14th and Yesler. So I did. But when I came out of the grocery I heard this music down on the street, down about half a block, coming out of this doorway that was open to the sidewalk.

"It sounded really good to me so I went down there and said, 'Wow, I really like this!' And at the end of the song, no more music came out. Then this guy that I thought was a drunk stumbled out and he stumbled past me, bumping me, and went along and stumbled into his car and went away. Still no music for another 10 or 15 minutes, and I waited for them to get through with their intermission, and there was no music.

"I got kind of impatient and I put my head inside the door in the corner there and the drum and the saxophone player were just standing there. And then they saw me and they said, 'Oh, that's one of them Holden boys!' Then the saxophone player said, 'Hey, don't you play the piano? I heard you played piano!' And I said, 'Oh yeah, I play, yeah, of course I play, I'm a piano player, yes.'

"He then said, 'Come in here and play.' And I said, 'Well what happened to that other guy?' And he said, 'he had to go home because he had the Asiatic flu,' and they couldn't continue cause they didn't have a keyboard player, so they asked me to play and I did. I did cause somebody wanted me to play the piano.

"I was too young to be in there. I was 19 or 20, in my second year in junior college. The owners behind the bar knew my mom and dad were around the corner. Their son went to school with my older brother Oscar and my sister Grace. They had police that walked the beat, you know, and they said that if the police came by, that they'd take care of me, that they wouldn't let me drink, that it would be okay.

"Well I said, 'but I only know three songs!' And they said, 'well play one.' So I started playing and I don't even remember what it was I started playing, but it was something I knew fairly well, so then people started dancing and they were like, 'Oh that Holden boy, Yeah, Ooo Ooo!'

"Pretty soon they started clapping and throwing chips and things and -- Oh me! -- it was a thrill. And after that first song he said 'So what else you know?' And I said, 'well, I only know two more songs.' So he said, 'Well play one.' So I did, and they started again, and then the same thing happened on the third song. And after the third song, he said 'well, what else do you know?'

"The owners were happy, the place was going and people were dancing and drinking again, so when he says, 'what else do you know?' and I says, 'I don't know anymore,' he says, 'well, play the first one again.'

"So I started playing the first one again, and they came on in and played it just a little different and I did the same three songs, what I knew, and they pitched in and made it happen, and the owners were happy and by that time it was the end of the night, Billy Tolles was his name, an older guy and a drummer named Tommy Adams who my sister knows, he said, 'If you want a gig come by my house tomorrow at 12 o'clock and learn some more songs, and then be here tomorrow night.'

"So I was there at his house at 12 o'clock and every day for the next month and I learned songs. My dad didn't like it cause it made me late coming in from college and then I'd be going to play in the gig, so he locked me out. Then I didn't have anywhere to go.

"So that's when my sister Grace took me in and I went with Grace to live. That's how I got started playing professional music.

The Mardi Gras Grill

"After that guy got well he came back and got his gig back. So I was out of a gig. But there was another gig on 21st and Madison at a place called the Mardi Gras Grill. It was a real in place in the community at that time owned by Ben Beasley who also knew my dad and mom from years of music in and around Seattle ... all the old timers knew each other.

"They needed a keyboard player so I got to play over there because there was no one else around to hire except this young Holden boy and he just got through playing at this other place that they all knew about. So I worked over there, almost a year with different musicians but there weren't any keyboard players around town. Other instrumentalists came and went, but I stayed there.

"That's where I got to meet Sam Cooke for the first time, and so many others that would come through there because that was the place to go after their gigs downtown. When they were in town they would play their gigs at the Palomar Theater etc, but after their gigs the Mardi Gras Grill was one of the places where other entertainers would go because that was where it was at. It was an in club. That was in '58.

In the last part of '58 I went out on the road with the Billy Tolles Trio. I was working with a couple of different bands in Seattle before I left town. But the last band I worked with was the first band I worked with to get into music. They hired me on another gig in '58, which was Dave's Fifth Avenue, which was right under the Monorail on 5th Avenue and Boren, I think. That's where the Monorail crosses over the street to go into the Seattle Center. I watched the Monorail and the Space Needle being built. Every night that I went to the gig it was coming along a little further.

"Thursday night they had swing dancing and all the people from the University of Washington would come there because there was a big floor and they could swing dance there. It was a place to meet. We were the perfect band for that kind of dancing. When we started playing, they loved us so much the guys hired us for a long time.

The Chitlin Circuit

"My brother Ron got a hit song, "Love You So," so he's got on a big show in Detroit and didn't know how to handle it. He was a star, he was a real star. I was never a star like him.

"We went on the Chitlin Circuit with James Brown and Jackie Wilson. They called it the Chitlin Circuit. That was the Apollo Theater all the way down to Florida and all the cities down to Houston and Dallas.

Strange Land: The South in the Sixties

"My brother and I went through those places [where lynchings and demonstrations occured] to play music. We made special trips just to find out what this color thing was all about. We went to Jackson High School [Jackson, Mississippi] where the governor stood at the door. [Alabama Governor George Wallace is better known for blocking two black students from the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963].

"We went at night and walked up to the door, and said, 'So oh! This is where it happened! This is it.' We went where they walked, where Martin Luther [King Jr.] walked up from Montgomery. We drove along there [the highway between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama]. We went to the same places because we didn't know.

"I had a station wagon, and a lot of guys from the other bands sometimes wanted to ride with us, so we give 'em a lift. Like guys from the James Brown band. One time, late, we had to stop and get something to eat.

"So we saw this place and said, 'Hey, why don't we stop here?' It was a Howard Johnsons. I'd been to Howard Johnsons all over Seattle and California, but the guys said, 'Don't go in there, they might kill us or beat us up.' And I said, 'Come on man, they don't really do that kind of stuff.'

"After Emmett Till, [a 13 year old boy lynched in Money, Mississippi, for allegedly misspeaking to a white local woman. His court case was a benchmark of the Civil Rights Movement] they don't do that kind of stuff. We never knew about that stuff because we were from Seattle.

"We go through the front door and they see us coming in. Then this guy came to us, you know, all like this [surly], and said, 'You know you can't come in here, you got to go out to the back and wait for the cook.' All of a sudden three or four guys got up and stopped us from coming in to eat.

"It was about 4 o'clock in the morning and we were tired and sweaty, and had been driving all night. But to the other guys, they were like, 'Alright, we don't want no trouble' so we went around back. They took their time. The cook, he just kind of put some food together, and it was horrible, you know.

Back in Seattle

"I started my own band, because all the guys I started working with were dead and gone by that time. And from that point on it's been the Dave Holden Trio or just Dave Holden through the years. I came back to Seattle in the mid-sixties. I wasn't here for that long.

"I was only here for five years, when I first came back I worked at a place called the Down Beat at 2nd and Yesler. It was owned by a friend of mine named Joe Frank. He changed the name to the Pink Pussy Cat. That was opened for maybe a year, maybe a little longer. It was a real brightly lit club with lots of bright colors, greens and whites and reds and the round bandstand that went around in circles, lots of lights and go-go girls and that sort of thing.

"After that length of time I moved to Los Angeles. That was in 1966. Started working all over Los Angeles. When I came back to Seattle, I played the Bellevue Holiday Inn, the Washington Plaza downtown which is now the Westin, and various places around Seattle. I traveled around to places like Vancouver, B.C., and then to Fairbanks, Alaska, lots of places, Spokane, until 1980, and then in Vegas again, the Sahara Hotel. In Vegas for six, eight months, then came to California again, and took up residence again, in Los Angeles in particular, Orange County, all these different places.

Falling into the Gap

"I totally missed out on [racial tensions in Seattle]. I heard about it, read about it, and saw in on TV. I heard that they had a particularly bad time here in those areas [the Madison Avenue corridor and the Central Area]. My first exposure to racism was on the Chitlin Circuit. I didn't get down there until '66.

"I certainly ran into the attitudes of the people that had been through that, other black people, 'cause they were real bitter. They had a lot of hostility. Not just toward whites, but toward blacks that burnt the black buildings up. I landed right in the middle of it and I didn't know which way to go.

"I didn't know what to do, because I didn't have any fear. They were trying to figure out what kind of black person I was because I didn't have any feelings. I missed it here in Seattle and I missed it in Los Angeles. I feel lucky in some respects but in other respects, I wish I would have seen some of it. I would have known the intensity behind how some people felt.

"At Garfield, it was one fourth, one fourth, one fourth, one fourth. It was just this pocket of time that was really special for those that were in it. They didn't have anything bothering them like this prejudice, to hinder them in their thinking or expanding of their minds.

"My kids caught hell with that color thing. I didn't. We differ in the way we think, in a lot of things, because I went through it and they didn't. Or I went through the clear, open-minded thing, and they didn't. Because of their environment, some of our children's generation may be bitter and we are not."


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