Jerden Records (1960-1969): When the Seattle Music Biz Got Serious

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 12/26/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8441

History will always remember Jerden Records as the Seattle company that foisted the Kingsmen and their infamous "Louie Louie" on the world back in 1963. But there is much more to the saga behind the family of record labels launched by Jerry Dennon (1938-2017) -- Panorama, Piccadilly, Burdette, Great Northwest Music Company, First American, Music Is Medicine, and SpeechWorks. Indeed, the Jerden saga is a veritable roller-coaster ride of false starts, big hits, fortunes made, aggressive business tactics, financial troubles, and always ... new beginnings.

In the Beginning -- Dolton ...  

For much of the 1960s, Jerden was the most active and most successful label in the Pacific Northwest. Following in the wake of Dolton Records (the Seattle label that scored a quick half-dozen international hits for local teen bands like he Fleetwoods, Frantics, Little Bill and the Bluenotes, and Ventures), it was Jerden who probably did the most to overturn a longstanding mindset that had concluded that no one would ever launch hits from Seattle. After Dolton’s spree in 1959 and 1960, that label relocated to Hollywood, a move that really opened up some room for new labels to emerge, and Jerden was among those that arose to fill that void.

Dolton had been the brainchild of Bob Reisdorff, the sales manager at Seattle’s top independent record wholesaler, the C&C Distribution Company (located at 708 6th  Avenue), in partnership with the town’s leading country/pop star, Bonnie Guitar. Well, when their new label’s debut release, the Fleetwood's "Come Softly To Me" became an instant smash hit, Reisdorff suddenly had a full-time venture on his hands and C&C needed a new Northwest Promotions Manager to replace him. Reisdorff immediately suggested that they hire Portland’s ace record promo-man, Jerry Dennon.   

On The Recordbeat

Gerald B. "Jerry" Dennon was a Cannon Beach, Oregon, boy who quit college in 1956 to work for KOIN-TV in Portland but was soon hired by BG Record Service to push records to area shops and radio stations. Dennon also moonlighted as a columnist with TV-Prevue, writing a tip-sheet column on local goings on called "On the Recordbeat." Dennon had proven to be a natural at promoting the indie records that BG distributed, and before long he was cruising around the region in a flashy white T-Bird meeting and greeting the staff at radio stations. Dennon knew every radio station’s Program Director and soon found that he could turn just about any decent record into a solid regional hit.   

In the late-summer of 1959 Dennon relocated to Seattle to push the independent product that C&C handled and before long he discovered that Reisdorff and Bonnie were already butting heads over the direction of their label. When she mentioned her frustrations to Dennon, the two began dreaming and scheming: Bonnie knew music and sound engineering and Dennon knew promotion ... perhaps they could launch a new label and duplicate the success of Dolton. With only a bare business concept (and a name derived from a combination of Dennon's names: Jerden Records) decided upon, Reisdorff caught on and C&C promptly axed Dennon. The Dolton partnership settled accounts with Bonnie and she was free and clear to compete with a new company.   

Jerden Music Inc.   

Jerden Music Inc started out based in Dennon’s apartment on Queen Anne Hill and the duo began scouting for talent. In early 1960 Bonnie performed a solo gig at Vancouver, Washington’s Frontier Room and discovered a teen vocal trio that had a very, well, Fleetwoods-like sound. Darwin and the Cupids were brought up to Seattle’s Electricraft Studios (622 Union Avenue) to record with sound engineer Kearney Barton, and the Jerden execs were certain that the world would welcome their label’s debut release, “How Long.” By June local radio ranging from Seattle’s mighty KJR to Vancouver B.C.’s C-FUN were supporting the tune and Jerden was off to a fine start.

A significant marketing error was made though: Dennon quickly cut a distribution deal with Liberty Records in Hollywood, fully expecting for the tune to explode nationally. And then it died. Only in hindsight did he realize that he’d made a deal with a built-in conflict: Liberty was the big-time label who’d helped Dolton make the Fleetwoods into an overnight sensation. Perhaps their lack of energy in promoting Darwin and the Cupids was a way to protect the already successful sound-a-like group that preceded them.   

With their starry eyes now perhaps a bit less starry, Jerden went ahead in 1960 by issuing a pair of cool instrumental 45s by local combos -- “Little Genie” by the Adventurers and “Four Banger” by the Exotics -- both of which sank without a trace. Dennon also signed a whole slew of other local acts, but before the year’s end Jerden folded and he and Bonnie each went their separate ways.

The Era Period   

Both, however, ended up in Hollywood: Bonnie as a recording artist with RCA (and then as an A&R rep with Dot Records), while Dennon worked as a promo-man for Era Records. While promoting Era’s catalogue, Dennon also managed to guide a couple Northwest talents to his new employer, and to the hit charts. The first was Wenatchee’s Jack Bedient whose dramatic teen-ballad opus, “The Mystic One,” hit West Coast radio charts in July 1961, and looked like a winner. Meanwhile Dennon struck again with Keith Colley (a teen band leader from Connell, a small town just outside the Tri-cities area). Era proceeded to issue a string of pop 45s with Colley and “Put ‘Em Down,” received some strong airplay regionally but finally fell through the cracks.

Then just as Dennon was learning the ropes of record biz in Los Angeles, he suddenly received notice to report immediately for military service. Upon being discharged in September 1962, he persuaded Seattle’s local Columbia Records distributor, the Craig Corporation, into competing against his old employer, C&C, by forming the new Independent Record Sales.    

Jerden Part Two   

While working at Independent Record Sales, Dennon simultaneously decided to resurrect the moribund Jerden label. By this time Kearney Barton had left Electricraft and had set up in his own new Audio Recording company (located in Seattle at 170 Denny Way) and he allowed Dennon to share that space while Jerden got back on its feet. Lacking the funds to finance any new recording sessions, he dug into his stash of old tapes from the label's first incarnation and commenced once again with the release of 45s by locals talents that he (and Bonnie) had earlier signed and recorded, including the Checkers, the Devilles, and  even one by his former partner, Bonnie Guitar.

Few of those singles actually sold any copies but Dennon knew that he was simply going to have to beat the bushes to find some fresh acts to record. What he didn't know was just exactly how or where he'd find his next hit act or who it would be.  Perhaps it was the challenge of making ends meet, but Dennon -- who had many pans (distribution, promotion, etc.) in the music biz fire -- apparently began cutting corners a bit:  Jerden issued a 45 by Seattle's premiere R&B musician, Dave Lewis, who was already signed to Seattle's Seafair label.

The Dave Lewis Trio's “David’s Mood Pt. 2” became an immediate radio favorite on KZAM but KJR also picked it up and Lewis had his first big smash regional hit. Dennon cut a promising deal with A&M Records but, once again, the bigger label failed to give the smaller label’s disc any serious promotion. Regardless, the “Louie Louie” knock-off became an absolute regional standard that was adopted by many local teen bands. The next tune that Barton cut with Lewis in the spring of 1963 was “Little Green Thing” which KJR jumped on, making it such a strong regional hit that A&M went ahead and issued an entire album by the trio.   

Cut to The Chase

That same spring season brought a phone-call from Portland where KISN radio DJ Ken Chase had a teen combo called the Kingsmen who served as the house-band at his Portland teen-club, the Chase. It seemed that the band had just cut a version of the Northwest’s long-time favorite, “Louie Louie” and were seeking a way to get it released as a single. Dennon was quite receptive to Chase’s pleas for help. After all, one hand washes the other: Jerden presses the 45 and Chase’s station supports it with guaranteed airplay.   

By May 1963, 300 fresh new pressings of “Louie Louie” on the Jerden label arrived and Dennon began pushing it. Long story short: through sheer perseverance Dennon ultimately got the disc to break out East Coast radio, a big-time R&B label, Scepter/Wand Records, stepped in with a deal and the Kingsmen’s tune was on its way to hit-dom. It sold millions upon millions of copies, earned Gold Record Awards for Dennon and the Kingsmen, filled the coffers of various record biz execs, and along the way became a global garage-rock phenomenon that is still honored today.

The Hitmaker   

Jerden had created rock ‘n’ roll history on a level that few small-time labels ever will. And Jerry Dennon’s notoriety soon surpassed any other local music industry figures -- he was now the most prominent record man in the region. And thus began the parade of aspiring young musicians finding their way to Jerden’s front door (now settled into new office space at 1621 1/2 East Olive Way) seeking stardom.   

In the midst of the British Invasion in 1964 -- when every record executive in the world probably wished that they had discovered the Beatles -- was the point when a British tourist (and musician) named Ian Whitcomb rolled into Seattle on a sightseeing bus tour, and ended up on the doorstep of Dennon, who was bowled over: “Here's this very British young guy with his little armload of tapes to listen to. And I got all enraptured ... Oh, this is great! Here’s my Beatles right here!”

Dennon signed him up, pressed a couple different Jerden singles, got some quick airplay on KJR, engineered a deal with Tower Records, and Whitcomb parlayed his British accent into a string of national hits -- including “This Sporting Life” which hit Billboard's Hot-100 in March 1965. Then “You Turn Me On (Turn On Song)” hit No. 8 in May, and suddenly Whitcomb was off to Hollywood’s TV variety shows, national tours, and fame.   

The year 1965 continued as a very good year for Dennon -- his bread-and-butter band, the Kingsmen scored again with the Top-5 national smash, “Jolly Green Giant” -- and Jerden relocated to more upscale digs at 2227 Fifth Avenue. Dennon also sealed a distribution deal with ABC-Paramount and that larger label would now be pushing many Jerden discs nationally.

Dennon shifted into high gear, signing any local band with talent -- including a few more who already had contracts with other local labels. Seafair Records lost Billy Saint, Tom Thumb and the Casuals and the Dynamics (who were soon recast into the hit-making soft-pop group, Springfield Rifle). Etiquette Records felt the sting when Dennon sweet-talked their prized band, the Sonics, into jumping ship.  

The Original Great Northwest Hits   

As the 1960s flowed along Dennon launched new labels including Panorama, Piccadilly, and Burdette Records to help handle the sheer quantity of releases he was planning. Indeed, over the next several years, Dennon’s machine would produce more discs by more local artists than any other label up until Seattle’s Sub Pop Records came along in the 1980s. In the 1960s alone, Jerden (and its family of sister labels) issued around 300 different singles and 18 LPs. And among those were rock ‘n’ roll, country/western, R&B, and pop releases that became regional hits and/or national hits.   

One specific significant contribution that Dennon made to the rise of a scene here was to help define and establish the concept of the “Northwest Sound” in the public’s mind. He not only penned a feature essay (“The Seattle Sound”) for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1967, but also issued a series of classic compilation LPs like 1964’s two-volume set, The Original Great Northwest Hits, 1966’s Battle of the Bands, 1967’s The Hitmakers, and 1968’s Battle of the Bands Vol. 2.   

Wheeling & dealing   

In addition to issuing discs on his own labels, Dennon also mastered the art of cutting distribution deals with various big-time labels with a goal of getting his artists a better shot at scoring a national hit.   

A few examples will indicate the level of activity occurring at that time: Over the next few years Dennon signed Portland’s Don and the Goodtimes, cut a deal with Scepter, and their “Turn On” single became a regional hit in 1964. Then in July 1965 the band’s next hit, “Little Sally Tease,” jumped from Jerden to ABC-Dunhill Records and got some national exposure. In 1967 Dennon got Portland’s New Yorkers signed to Sceptor and their “Mr. Kirby” became a regional radio hit. That same year Dennon signed a Moses Lake, Washington-based band, the Bards, and their first of several strong regional hits, “Never Too Much Love,” signed to Capitol Records. A follow-up, 1969’s “Tunesmith,” was licensed by Parrott Records. Subsequent deals saw Sir Walter Raleigh going with Tower, Jim Brady with Pulsar, Dennis Roberts with Sims, the Sonics and Hamilton Walker with Uni, Onyx with Pye, and Doug Robertson and the Goodguys, and City Limits with Uptown, and Bobby Wayne, and Brave New World with Epic Records.

 Brave New Worls represented a whole new trend in rock ‘n’ roll that emerged in the late-1960s:  psychedelic hippie rock. It was a sound that the other active local labels like Seafair and Etiquette Records didn’t really pursue. But Dennon was open to exploiting any and every musical fad that came along, and thus his catalogs ended up holding hallucinogenic recordings by such area bands as the Bumps, Magic Fern, PH Factor Jug Band, and Crome Syrcus.   

The Great Northwest Music Company

By 1970 changes in the music industry were accelerating and Jerden Records (like Seafair, Etiquette, and most other pioneering Northwest labels) was mothballed. An era had ended. It would be a long, long time before another local label would arise and enjoy as much success as Jerry Dennon’s labels did in their 1960s heyday.   

Dennon laid low for a while at his getaway near Rolling Bay, Washington, on Bainbridge Island seven miles across Puget Sound from Seattle. He started a salmon farming company, and wrote and published a cookbook among other activities. But the world of music beckoned him and so in January 1976, he launched The Great Northwest Music Company with the release of a string records by current artists and the first of a successful multi-volume retrospective compilation set titled The History of Northwest Rock.

In addition, Dennon formed some new side labels, Music Is Medicine, and First American Records. By the 1980s, Seattle was changing fast, and although local radio was not as supportive of local bands as it once had been, there were now more people with more money around and quite a few of them wanted to invest in Dennon’s enterprises.   

Unfortunately, in the mid-1980s Dennon found himself in deep legal troubles with the U.S. Justice Department when certain investors who’d been successfully plowing funds into his Master Tape tax shelters (between the years of 1977 and 1982) now suddenly saw their filings rejected by the IRS. Though Dennon has consistently maintained that nothing nefarious was occurring -- but, rather, that the IRS had unfairly changed the ground rules -- he ultimately pled guilty to tax fraud in May 1985, and retreated from the biz.

Soundworks, Inc.

Always a talented businessman, Dennon found that he could apply those skills to a wide range of endeavors. In the late-1980s he resurfaced as the head of Montcalm, Inc. a radio and television station brokerage firm. One easily supposes that even that peripheral proximity to the music business gnawed at the old record man in him and thus in September 1991, Dennon announced that his labels would re-emerge once again in order to participate in the revolutionary Compact Disc marketplace.

The new company, Soundworks, International Inc., would go on to build up a large catalog based on Northwest oldie compilations, historic recordings of important political speeches, and other niche market CD concepts. In recent years, various hip outside labels -- including England’s Ace / Big Beat Records, and New York’s Sundazed / BeatRocket Records -- have licensed many recordings from Soundworks for numerous Northwest retrospective compilation CDs, bringing those vintage sounds to whole new, younger, audiences.  

In 2003 Dennon made international news headlines when he auctioned off his prized "Louie Louie" Gold Record award via eBay, and that same year Dennon (and his Soundworks partner, Bob Wikstrom) relocated their base of operations to Redmond (17725 NE 65th Street), where it continues conducting business.


Sources:

Peter Blecha interviews with Jerry Dennon (recorded December 3, 1988, Seattle, telephone interview December 19, 2007, etc.), Bonnie Guitar (recorded April 4, 1989, videotaped by EMP at Notaras Lodge, Soap Lake, December 16-17, 1995, etc.), Virginia Boles (recorded 1984, 2000 etc., Seattle); Kearney Barton (recorded 1984, etc., Seattle); Dave Lewis (recorded July 1983, April 12, 1989, Seattle), Jack Ely (recorded 1985, Seattle); Jim Valley (recorded March 8, 1984, etc.,Seattle), Steve Lalor (recorded 1984, Seattle), Stan Foreman (recorded 1984, Seattle), Ron Peterson (recorded August, 1989, etc., Seattle); Ian Whitcomb (videotaped in Palo Alto, CA by EMP October 29, 1995), Keith Colley (telephone interview, ca. 1996), Joe Johansen (recorded 1997, Seattle), all recordings except EMP in possession of Peter Blecha, Seattle, Washington; Jerry Dennon, “On The Recordbeat,” TV-Radio Prevue (Portland, Oregon), various issues, ca. 1958; Jerry Dennon, “DJ Tempo,” DJ Magazine (Seattle), July 1, 1960, p.14; John Hinterberger, “For The Record: A Local Producer Can Make It,” The Seattle Times, April 9, 1967; Jerry Dennon, “The Seattle Sound: What’s Happening Is Pop,” Northwest Today, Seattle Post-Intelligencer,  May 28, 1967, p. 10; Patrick MacDonald, “Hitmaker of the ‘60s plunges into the ‘70s” The Seattle Times, August 24, 1976; “‘Louie Louie’ Producer Admits Tax Scam” (Associated Press, circa May, 1985); Peter Blecha, LP liner notes, The Best of The Kingsmen, compilation LP, Rhino Records (RNLP 126), 1988; Jerry Dennon, publisher, Northwest Log: Radio and Music News, various issues 1992; Stephanie Reader, “On a Roll, Jerden Rides Northwest Rock Hype,” The Morning News Tribune (Tacoma), March 16, 1994; Jim Christie, “Label proves oldies still goodies,” Bainbridge Review, July 19, 1995, p. A11; Peter Blecha, CD liner notes, The Sonics, Maintaining My Cool, Jerden Record (JRCD 7001) 1991; Peter Blecha, CD liner notes, The History of NW Rock Vol. I: The Original NW Sound, Jerden Records (JRCD 7002), 1994; Peter Blecha, CD liner notes, The History of NW Rock Vol. II: The Garage Years, Jerden Records (JRCD 7007), 1999; Peter Blecha, CD liner notes, The History of NW Rock Vol. III: Psychedelic Seattle, Jerden Records (JRCD 7008), 2000; Peter Blecha, compilation CD liner notes, Battle of the Bands: Vol. I, Big Beat Records (CDWIKD 204), 2001; Stuart Eskenazi, “‘Louie Louie’ Gold Record Going on eBay,” The Seattle Times, December 5, 2003; Gene Johnson, “Producer of ‘Northwest Sound’ Parts with Archives” (Associated Press, December 2003). 
Note: This essay was updated on March 11, 2017.


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