Once upon a time in the Pacific Northwest, the region's early rock 'n' roll scene boasted but a few teenage female singers -- and of those first-generation rockers, it would be the Kent Valley area's own Nancy Claire who would become the most in-demand vocalist of them all. She was Northwest Rock 'n' Roll's First Lady. Between 1959 and 1965 she was spotlighted on countless teen-dance stages fronting most of the area's finest pioneering rock bands. In 1961 Claire was lucky enough to experience a thrill most musicians could only ever dream about -- she was "discovered" by a music biz bigwig who swept her away to Hollywood for recording sessions with famous studio players, and her first pop record, "Danny," became a No. 1 radio hit locally and scored airplay down the West Coast. Additional records followed on three other labels. After marrying and bearing two sons, Claire withdrew from the scene for a while before easing back onto local stages in the late-1970s -- precisely when a revival of interest in the Northwest's musical roots was revving up. She was eagerly welcomed back into the spotlight. Over the following decades Claire honed her blues skills with numerous fine bands and earned many new fans.
A Cowgirl and her Guitar …
Born at Seattle's Providence Hospital (500 17th Avenue) on August 2, 1943, Nancy Claire Penninger, was the daughter of John and Alice Penninger -- who also had an older daughter (Joan) and son (Richard), and later, a younger daughter (Dawn, or "Pinky"). The Penninger baby was first brought home to their berry farm on Garrison Road in the East Hill area of Kent, just southeast of Seattle. In 1950, the whole family moved to Idaho to help care for her aging grandparents. In 1955 they moved back and ran a chicken farm (Route 2, Box 203) on today's Wax Road near Covington, and Nancy Claire began attending Panther Lake Grade School. In the mid-1950s the AM radio in their farmhouse was always tuned into Seattle's premier country/western DJ, Buck Ritchey (1915-1973) and his long-running show on KVI.
The young girl -- who would eventually attend Kent-Meridian Junior High, and then adopt the stage name of "Claire" -- first began singing with friends in their 4-H Club. "I started by singin' in the cow barns! We were in the cattle/dairy area of 4-H, that's where it all began: sitting around in the hay during the fairs, playing guitars and singing" (Blecha, 1985). In 1957, at age 14, Claire won a talent contest with the prize being her very own weekly 15-minute show Saturday mornings on Puyallup" tiny KAYE radio station. By 1959 and while attending Kent-Meridian High School (10020 SE 256th Street, Kent) -- she was invited to appear on television at Tacoma's KTNT. Among the other young performers there on that day of March 20th were a Tacoma rock trio called the Versatones.
According to one published account, Claire
"strummed a guitar and sang cowboy songs under the watchful eye of her mother. When the TV show ended, the mother introduced herself to [the Versatones] as Nancy's manager and described a problem that she hoped they could help solve. …[Clair's] limited ability on guitar restricted the number of songs she was able to sing. Impressed with the Versatones, [she] proposed that they back Nancy on her show. There would be no pay, but [she] would bill the act as 'Nancy Claire and the Versatones.' Radio exposure being valuable and not easily obtainable, they accepted and proceeded to perform with her on KAYE each week for about two months" (Halterman, p. 23).
During this time the show expanded to an hour.Before long she and the band also began appearing Saturday evenings on Bill & Grover's Variety Show over at Tacoma's KTVW. "It was fun for me to do that every Saturday," she recalled. "Do the radio show in the morning, and the TV show at night -- and then we played the Belfair Barn [Belfair, Washington], and the different cowboy grange halls and, you know, we did rodeos and things" (Blecha, 1985).
At the dawn of Northwest rock many early bands specialized in instrumental tunes, and only occasionally risked whelping out a vocal. But that was changing. "It was neat back then," Claire recalled, "because the musicians in the groups didn't vocalize as often as they later did when the Beatles came out. So female singers were popular back then. It was kinda necessary to have a female singer in your band -- it was a highlight for a band to have a female singer" (Blecha, 1987).
Thus it was that in 1959 Claire responded to a "singer wanted" classified ad placed by Neil Rush, the leader/saxophonist for a Renton-based band, the Amazing Aztecs. She, singing a Brenda Lee song, did not pass that audition however -- probably because she was still too country music oriented and the Aztecs were ready to rock and instead chose to add another local gal, Merrilee Gunst (later, Merrilee Rush) and they soon morphed into a popular Burien-based band, the Statics.
Meanwhile, down in Tacoma, the Wailers would soon add the 13-year-old Gail Harris, who they found singing country music with Buck Owens's band on KTNT's Bar-K Jamboree show, which played opposite Bill & Grover's Variety Show. And across town the Versatones added a new member -- bassist/guitarist Nokie Edwards, who sometimes played with Buck Owens and also had his own show (with his brothers) on KAYE -- and took on a new venture. They recorded a song ("Walk -- Don't Run") at Joe Boles's (1904-1962) home studio (3550 SW Admiral Way) in West Seattle, changed their name to the Ventures, and scored a global smash hit in 1960. They soon relocated to Los Angeles.
Meanwhile Claire attended a dance in Auburn one evening and met up with the band, the Adventurers, who were pushing their new record of the region's signature rock 'n' roll song, "Louie Louie." At the time the group included Little Bill Engelhart (who had already scored his own teen-ballad national hit, "I Love An Angel," back in 1959 with his previous group from Tacoma, the Bluenotes), and Mossyrock, Washington's guitar ace, Joe Johansen (1941-1997). The boys in the band recognized her from TV and razzed her a bit about her country/pop and Brenda Lee (b. 1944) leanings. "Oh! Little Bill ruined me [laughter]! He and Joe Johansen. I met them ... and they had me sing and they liked me. Bill asked me to join up with them, and we started by doing a lot of Brenda Lee songs. [But] Joe said: 'Quit singin' those cowboy songs,' and he gave me Aretha [Franklin]'s first record and said: "Learn this" -- those were his exact words! And that was the beginning of my rhythm & blues. I hung up my Brenda Lee records" (Blecha, 1985). Soon thereafter, she made her debut gig with them at the fabled Spanish Castle Ballroom (located near the NW corner of old Highway 99, now Pacific Highway S, and the Kent-Des Moines Road).
Another band Claire sang with early on was the Exotics, whose members hailed from the tiny towns of Auburn, Kent, and Renton -- right around her own home-turf. The Exotics recorded instrumental singles for Seattle's Seafair Records and Jerden Records before following the vocals trend, and booking gigs with Claire out front. Yet another was the Night People whose members hailed from Burien, Bellevue, Kirkland, Woodinville, and North Seattle. The Night People recorded instrumental songs for Seafair and gigged with Claire. They dissolved in late 1961.
On A Night Like This
The most prominent band that hired Claire to sing was the Frantics -- Seattle's first important Caucasian rock 'n' roll group. Way back in 1959 they had enjoyed three instrumental hit records that all got some national radio play. Although they were between record deals at this point, they had now come of age and in addition to playing the usual teen-dances, they also were getting their first nightclub/cocktail bar gigs. She first met them at a Tacoma TV show and they ended up hiring her for college dance gigs. But, as Claire later recalled, one problem was that she was still underage: "I'd play with bands until they reached the age where they could play nightclubs, and I couldn't get in. I remember one time I was with the Frantics when they were paying Dave's Fifth Avenue (112-16 5th Avenue N), I was only seventeen so they had to pass a mic to me out in the alley" (Bright).
One night in 1961 Claire and the Frantics were down at Tacoma's Crescent Ballroom (S 13th Street and S Fawcett Avenue) supporting a teen singer who had come up from Los Angeles to play some local teen-dances to promote his new single. Time has clouded memories of who exactly that singer may have been, but it was either a young man named Kenny O'Dell (who had worked with Arizona's rock-guitar star, Duane Eddy), or another billed as "Shane." The case for O'Dell includes the fact that he would later record a 45 single for the same record company that Claire soon would, whereas "Shane" was actually Judd Hamilton (b. 1942), a musician from Wenatchee, Washington, who had made his way down to California earlier that year, worked as a roadie for the Ventures, and then cut a 45, "On A Night Like This." Regardless of which singer it was, his manager heard Claire that night and encouraged her to cut a demo and forward it to him to maybe score her own record deal.
Toward that end, Claire enlisted her pals the Exotics and together they recorded a few songs at their rehearsal basement and that tape was mailed off to Los Angeles. Meanwhile, on New Year's Eve 1961 she and the Frantics (along with Seattle's Counts) played a dance at Seattle's funky after-hours R&B mecca, the Birdland (2203 E Madison Street), "And that was so strange," she marveled, "because I had never been into an all-black nightclub before!" (Blecha, 1985). That same night she met University of Washington freshman, Larry Coryell -- who had just moved to town from Richland, and joined on as guitarist with another local band, the Dynamics. She mentioned that the Frantics were moving on to nightclub work and he invited her to audition with his band. Thus began her relationship with another of that decade's top Seattle bands.
Other Nights, Other Gigs
Simultaneously Claire began picking up work with the Casuals -- which included guitarist Harry Wilson (who would go on to replace Coryell in the Dynamics after Coryell left to pursue jazz) playing rooms like the Spanish Castle, and West Seattle's Morrison Hall (3601 SW Alaska Street), a recently built venue specifically designed for dances and other events replete with a "floating" floor and stereophonic sound system. Claire also sang with Coryell's earlier band, the Checkers, which had originated in the Yakima Valley in the late-1950s, and now featured ex-Adventurer, Joe Johansen.
Claire struck up a fine friendship with the Checkers' blind keyboardist, Mike Mandel, whom she often drove home after their gigs. En route they occasionally took detours: "I always wanted to go to these afterhours clubs," which she was legally too young to attend, "and I'd lead him to these places -- which if my parents had known at the time where they were -- [in the largely African American neighborhoods] ... oh! But they were so much fun! The Birdland [2203 E Madison]! The Black and Tan [404½ 12th Avenue S]! The House of Entertainment [204 Occidental S]! [Nightclubs] where all these real neat people would jam and play jazz. Well, I used to really feel lucky getting to chauffeur Mandel around" (Blecha, 1985).
But before long the Checkers were signed to embark on a road tour backing the national teen-star Bobby Vee (b. 1943), along with the Ventures and Little Bill. Poor young Claire, still in high school, was only allowed do the tour's first date at the nearby Shadow Lake Resort. But that's right about when she finally heard back from Hollywood bigwig Nacio Brown Jr. (1928?-2002) -- the owner of the fledgling Rona Records label. He had heard her demo tape and sent her airplane fare to fly down and record four songs. Brown produced the sessions, with another seasoned pro, Perry Botkin Jr. (b. 1933), conducting the orchestra. Yes, an "orchestra." It was a far cry from the raucous rock 'n' roll bands Claire was accustomed to, but it seems the music biz machine intended to mold her into another saccharine teen-idol like Annette "Tall Paul" Funicello (1942-2013) or Shelly "Johnny Angel" Fabares (b. 1944).
Still, it was quite an experience for the rural farm girl to suddenly be in the presence of big-time players. "I had never been in studio before and I was like a little girl in a candy store with all these musicians I had heard about. I have great memories of meeting [guitar master] Barney Kessel [1923-2004] and some of the other musicians at the session" (Blecha, 1987). "We had really big-name jazz people doing this record. I couldn't believe it! Earl Palmer [1924-2008] was the drummer. Carmel Jones [1936-1996] played trumpet, and Plas Johnson [b. 1931] played saxophone. Oh, it was neat! To get to see and meet everybody ... it was like a fairy tale" (Blecha, 1985).
So Claire was handed the lyrics to a pop song titled "Jimmy," but "I had gone steady with a Jimmy for a year, and we broke up" Claire laughed. "So when I got the tune I said 'Ohhhh! I really don't want to do a song called "Jimmy."' And so they changed the name to 'Danny'" (Blecha, 1987). Thus, the "Danny" / "Y-E-S" single (Rona Records No. 1007) was released and she was immediately booked on a brief tour (to gigs in Los Angeles, Bakersfield, San Francisco, and other spots) -- along with some other striving stars (Jan and Dean, Timi Yuro [1940-2004], and Johnny Burnette [1934-1964]) to promote their records.
That's when "Danny" began winning airplay at stations from Los Angeles, to Chicago, to Hawaii, to Idaho, and back home in the Northwest where it scored on KOL (No. 1), KAYO (No. 1) and KJR (No. 5). Yet Claire had mixed feelings upon hearing it for the first time on the radio: "I was excited. It was an accomplishment. But, it was out of my bag -- I'd been doing rhythm & blues and to turn around and do something like that ... I wished I could have done more Northwest blues like I was used to doing" (Blecha 1987). Still, "Danny" received an impressive Four Star rating in Billboard magazine and one of the giant labels, Warner Brothers, was apparently convinced enough to step in and license it from Rona for rerelease on their own label (No. 5298). But even as the single's momentum stalled out, Rona forged ahead with a follow-up 45, "Little Baby" / "Cheatin' On Me" (Rona 1009), alas with even less luck.
Back in the Northwest
Meanwhile, Claire returned home and picked right back up playing again with both the Dynamics at Parker's Ballroom (17001 Aurora Avenue N), and with the Frantics at rooms including Dave's Fifth Avenue and the A Go-Go (101 Eastlake Avenue E). It was also 1963 when she was called back to Los Angeles by Nacio Brown Jr. to record again -- this time for the World Pacific Jazz label. Entering the legendary Radio Recorders studio with the famed Gerald Wilson (b. 1918) Orchestra (featuring guitarist supreme, Howard Roberts [1929-1992]), those sessions eventually yielded two singles, "I'm Burnin' My Diary" / "The Baby Blues" (No. 376) and "Last Night" / "Charlie My Boy" (No. 384). But even though the former was touted as a "Pick Hit" in a few radio markets, it and its follow-up both slipped away without much notice.
That same year Claire began gigging with the latest hot band in town, the Viceroys, who were sailing on the success of their No. 1 regional smash instrumental, "Granny's Pad" (Bolo No. 736). Led by guitarist Jim Valley, the band played huge gigs at prominent teen-dance spots like Parker's and Bellevue's Lake Hills Roller Rink (NE 8th Street and 164th Avenue NE).
With the addition of Claire, the band briefly became the Viceroys Five and they entered Seattle's Commercial Productions studio (1426 5th Avenue R306) -- with the town's kingpin DJ, Pat O'Day (b. 1934) from KJR radio serving as producer -- to cut two moldy-oldie fifties doo-wop songs, Donald Woods's "Death Of An Angel" and the Penguins' "Earth Angel." Striking a deal with Los Angeles's big-time label Imperial Records, the single (No. 66058) was released in August 1964, with little fanfare and no promotional support. It quickly sank. Late that same year the band headed off to a gig at San Francisco's famed discotheque, the Peppermint Tree, but shortly after their return home Claire got married to the Dynamics' Harry Wilson and with the birth later that year of their son, Chris Wilson, she slipped way from the scene a bit in order to raise a family.
Yet she couldn't resist the opportunity to reemerge long enough to reach back to her country roots and accept an offer to tour for six weeks in 1965 -- though California, Oregon, and Washington -- with major stars including the Carter Family, Merle Travis (1917-1983), Skeeter Davis (1931-2004), and Marty Robbins (1925-1982). Similarly, in 1967 when the Dynamics' main vocalist, Jimmy Hanna (b. 1942), formed his own new 18-piece Jimmy Hanna Blues Band, Claire joined on and began appearing with them.
A New Era
As the 1960s wound down, Claire began singing with a hippie-era group, Paleface, that worked as house-band for a long time at the My Place Tavern (18729 Pacific Highway S) near the SeaTac International Airport and also at Tacoma's Players Tavern. In 1969 and 1970 she also gigged with Clever Baggage, an eight-piece horn-band from Bellingham that packed the room at John Johns restaurant/nightclub (1616 4th Avenue) in Seattle. Meanwhile, over the years she had divorced and married a few times -- though her second son, Chandler Wilson (b. 1970), was given the surname from her first marriage. Eventually she formally changed her last name to Claire.
In 1970 a new "supergroup" of veterans from top Northwest bands -- including the Frantics (keyboardist Jim Manolides and sax-man Bob Hosko), the Wailers (bassist Buck Ormsby), and the Mark 5 (guitarist Ned Neltner) -- joined forces to form Jr. Cadillac. This new band would serve as the torchbearer of the original "Northwest Sound." Claire joined them regularly between 1972 and 1973 and on many occasions over the following years including at a memorable gig at the Rainbow Tavern (722 NE 45th Street) on August 13, 1978, when the band hosted a benefit gig to help raise funds for medical care for Little Bill after his heart attack. Also participating were Joe Johansen, the Wailers' guitarist Rich Dangle (1942-2002), and as more recent arrivals, bluesmen Brian Butler and Isaac Scott (1945-2001).
During the 1970s Claire often sat in with Little Bill's band at The Mint (90 Market Street) in Seattle, as she did with the Johansen Blues Band in 1979, and in 1980 she was fronting Easy Money in gigs at the Jolo Tavern (4864 Beacon Avenue S). That same year, on July 20 and 21, Claire was included in a big scene reunion gig -- "The Great Northwest Rock and Roll Show" -- hosted by Jr. Cadillac and held at The Place (15221 Pacific Highway S), and also featured the Wailers (with Gail Harris), Tiny Tony Smith (of the Statics), and Little Bill. Then in 1982 Claire returned to an old haunt, Parker's Ballroom, to sing at Jr. Cadillac's 12th anniversary party.
Play It Again Sam
Devoting much of her time to her marriage and the tasks of raising a family, Claire backed off a bit from her musical endeavors -- but it would seem not all that much. It was in 1983 that Louella Martin -- the owner Martin's Manor in Des Moines, Washington, encouraged her to put a blues band together and begin gigging there. Before long Claire fell in with a Top-40 nightclub act, the Royals (which included Seattle's blues guitar ace, Rod Cook), and she was back in the groove. One music historian/critic gushed: "a more compellingly authentic vocalist would be very hard to find. Her style is melodic and unpretentious, patterned in the best tradition of Southern ladies of the blues who helped to make black music in the 'fifties the irresistible force that it was. ... From this observer's point of view, she has demonstrated beyond question that at least one historic figure of early Northwest rock is coming back stronger than ever" (Bright).
Claire also made plenty of appearances with numerous other bands including the Rentones and the Mussletones (both with blues guitar ace Mark Riley), the Reverbs, the Bowling Stones, and the Hardly Everly Brothers. She also performed with a few more "supergroups" including the Groove Juice Symphony -- which included Jim Manolides and Hosko and bassist Buck Ormsby (ex Bluenotes and Wailers). Then came Play It Again S.A.M. -- which included Jeff Afdem (the Dynamics) and Harry Wilson (the Casuals and Dynamics), and drummer Steve Moshier (the Turnabouts). And then there was the Seattle Women in Rhythm and Blues, which also featured veteran singers including Merrilee Rush (the Statics and the Turnabouts), Kathi McDonald (the Unusuals), Patti Allen (the Toggeries), and Kathi Hart (the Bluestars).
Claire was very proud to be honored by the Northwest Area Music Association (NAMA), which bestowed two Hall of Fame awards on her in the 1990s. Later, on August 1, 2003, many musician friends from the old scene gathered to celebrate Nancy Claire's 60th birthday in a "Rockin' Birthday Jam Session" at the Moonraker Bar and Grille (23803 104th Avenue SE, Kent).