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Holden, Ron (1940-1997): Seattle's Sweet '60s Teen Balladeer
HistoryLink.org Essay 8705
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A self-described “dancehall singer,” Ron Holden (1940-1997) was born into a prominent African American Seattle family that has long excelled in music and sports. A Garfield High School (Class of ’58) football star, he also helped form one of the town’s very first teenage rockin’ ‘50s R&B groups, the Playboys, who helped establish the song “Louie Louie” as a regional standard. Holden’s original 1959 ballad, “Love You So,” became an international Top-10 hit, he appeared on American Bandstand, shared gigs with Ray Charles and Elvis Presley, and toured the world. Exhausted by showbiz, he returned to Seattle in 1977 and later ran his own popular nightclub, Ron’s 5th Ave., while also participating in countless oldies concerts far and wide.
Son of “Father of Seattle Jazz”
Rolan Webster Holden was born in Seattle on August 7, 1940, to parents Oscar (1886-1969) and Lela (d. 1950), two professional musicians who led the Oscar Holden Quintet and opened local gigs by touring stars including Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington. Oscar -- who is considered to be the Father of Seattle Jazz -- was a talented Southern multi-instrumentalist who was first brought to town in 1929 by the famed (and self-proclaimed) “inventor of jazz,” Ferdinand “Jellyroll” Morton.
The Holden family home (1409 E Fir Street) was a happy one where music rang out constantly. Sister Grace (who played jazz with young Quincy Jones in Charlie Taylor’s pioneering swing band in the 1940s), and brothers Dave and Jimmy all played the household piano a bit, while Oscar taught his eldest son, Oscar Jr., saxophone and Ron learned trombone.
It was while singing in the church choir that Holden met a young bassist named Johnny Millward who led his own big-beat combo and offered to arrange instrumental backing if the young singer would perform the old pop standards, “How High The Moon” and “The Life of The Party” at Garfield High School’s spring, 1957, Fun-Fest talent show. That gig went well, and soon some fellow students, Carlos Ward (bari and alto sax) and Johnny O’Francia (tenor sax), recruited him to help form their own rock ‘n’ roll combo. Joining with Bob Risley (piano) and Andy Duval (drums) they started off by learning Fats Domino’s “The Valley of Tears” and a portentous new R&B tune, “Louie Louie,” by the Los Angeles-based singer, Richard Berry.
Sock-hops and House Parties
Ron Holden and the Playboys made their public debut at a sock-hop dance:
“Our first gig was intermissions at a record hop. See, we were rehearsing every night at Andy’s house and his mom and dad were getting really uptight about it. So one day they just kicked us out. We didn’t have anyplace to practice so, Bob Risley’s girlfriend’s sorority, was having their sock-hop at the University Presbyterian Church. So we went over there and said ‘Please let us play!’ So, they played records for 45 minutes and during a 15 minute break, we played. Well, it was so unique that they kept us on and the next set we played 45 minutes and they played 15 minutes of records! From there we played tea parties. House parties.“
Inspired by the Dave Lewis Combo, who ruled the roost at the Birdland dancehall (2203 E Madison Street), the Playboys added a guitarist, Roland Green, and as they built up their repertoire they began getting hired at more, and better, gigs. But there were still hurdles: “Our first recognizable competition came from the [white combo] Frantics,” recalled Holden. “And there were definite lines drawn. There were boundaries: the Frantics more or less played the north-end, and we more or less played the south-end.” But after the city’s two racially segregated music unions finally merged in 1958, the turf skirmishes eased up.
In April 1959, the Playboys shared a teen-dance bill with Seattle’s top white combo, the Frantics, at the Encore Ballroom (1214 E Pike Street).
“During the intermission we went out to the parking lot to drink some whiskey and maybe smoke one of them funny little cigarettes. So, the boys in the band and a couple girls were in the car. All the windows were steamed up and so one of the security policemen at the place came around the corner, pulled us all out. He checked everyone's ID, and immediately recognized me as the singer in the band. And: it turned out that I was 18 and-a-half and everybody else was 18 or under. And so, I was arrested for contributing to the delinquency of minors -- they hauled me off to jail and I got 90 days, which I served at the King County Jail.”
Luckily, the sheriff’s deputy assigned to fingerprint him, Larry Nelson, was acquainted with Holden’s police officer brother, Dave, and they struck up a friendship: “He would come in and get me on the pretense that he had to run another test on me. And almost every day we would go in his office and smoke cigarettes and BS, you know?” It turned out that Nelson had only recently hired-on with the Sheriff’s department: earlier that spring he’d enjoyed some personal musical success when his own doo-wop group, the Shades, saw their songs -- “Dear Lori” and “One Touch of Heaven” -- nearly become national hits via the Los Angeles-based R&B label, Aladdin Records. And though his recent marriage had “inspired” him to get a real job, that near-miss still had Nelson excited about the pop music world -- and he (and fellow former Shades member, Chuck Markulis) kept their dream alive by planning to manage other singers.
One day Nelson heard Holden and his fellow jailbirds singing a catchy doo-wop song -- “My darling, I love you so ...” -- in the lavatory, and inquired about it and Holden explained that it was based on the letter he’d just penned to his girlfriend. So, “Larry starts telling me that he’s going to retire in the next month or so and that he’s going to start a record company and ‘when you get out, I want you to come see me.’”
A ‘Ridiculous’ Recording Session
Upon release, Holden discovered that the Playboys had necessarily recruited a replacement singer, but Nelson introduced him to a north-end group, Little Willie and the Thunderbirds. In addition, Nelson and Markulis had a written agreement with California’s Challenge Records to issue a single by any worthy group that the duo could produce. And that is how Holden and the Thunderbirds ended up at Fred Rasmussen’s Acme Sound and Recording home studio in North Seattle (7551 28th Avenue NE) with hopes of cutting his “Love You So,” “Louie Louie” -- and perhaps something else.
“We did it in Fred Rasmussen’s living room. For 19 hours there were 14 people in this room which was 10 x 12 [feet] -- it was the engineer, his wife, his daughter, and his dog sitting there on the couch, and a couple of the guys’ girlfriends. Larry Nelson was playing the claves and Chuck Markulis was playing the tambourine. Little Willie Bell and I were in the alcove and the other guys were all in the other room. And every time the dog would bark, we’d have to start over! On “Love You So” it was up into the 90s on takes! It was ridiculous!”
The Thunderbirds had worked out an arrangement of “Love You So” that employed the unusual and hypnotically off-beat Caribbean-derived clavé pulse. The song, however, kicks off with what is considered (by modern-pop-single-standards) an impossibly long -- twenty bar -- instrumental intro before Holden’s plaintive vocals begin. It was apparently after cutting “Louie Louie” (with Bell on vocals), that the crew decided to try another song and Holden improvised some lyrics over a raucous riff that became the thrown-together gem, “My Babe.”
Session completed, the Master Tape was sent to Challenge Records, which promptly shipped it back saying that their corporate focus had recently shifted to Country/Western music. But Nelson and Markulis reminded them of their previous agreement and the label compromised by shipping the would-be record moguls 5,000 label-less copies of the “Love You So” / “My Babe” single. That was when Nelson and Markulis’ Nite Owl Record company (423 Boren Street) was born. The first task was designing, printing, and gluing (one-by-one) new labels on those discs.
A Double-Sided Hit
As if all that wasn’t daunting enough, the real work began with efforts to get local radio support. Seattle’s top pop stations -- KING, KOL, and KAYO -- simply ignored the disc while KJR’s imperious Program Director/DJ, John Stone, specifically refused to air it. But then the Northwest’s pioneering African American radio veteran, Bob Summerrise, broke the song on Tacoma airwaves via his late-night KTAC show. And then, around November 6, 1959, the tiny Renton station, KQDE, also added “Love You So” to their play-list. But the big breakthrough came when the Ware House of Music (419 Pike Street) retail shop agreed to stock 25 copies -- which Holden’s pals snapped up, causing the 45 to enter the store’s “Best Sellers” roster. And then, KAYO disc jockey, Pat O’Day -- who broadcast his daily program from a “fishbowl” window in the shop -- was obliged to air the thing and within weeks “My Babe” was resting at No. 11 and “Love You So” was at No. 1.
Well, that was enough to attract the attentions of reps from all the big-time labels including: Argo, Capitol, Chess/Checker, Decca, and Mercury Records. But the offers received from them were too, well, sensible -- they wanted to slowly build a career for Holden -- whereas he and Nite Owl wanted immediate action. So they instead signed up with the head of a Hollywood-based label, Donna Records, Bob Keane, who rolled into town toting a big cigar, 10,000 dollars, and a promise to re-release the tunes nationally right now.
By late-March 1960, Donna’s “Love You So” suddenly broke on a top San Francisco station, and that exposure (coupled with regular spins by Hunter Hancock on LA’s giant KGFJ) was all the tune needed. By the first week of April, “Love You So” had entered Billboard’s charts and during its glorious 19-week ride it chugged up to the nation’s No. 7 slot. Meanwhile, the disc also hit in England, but it was actually the flipside, “My Babe" that became the Brits’ favorite -- and as one American historian later noted, the tune “became instant teen band fodder for any combo that wanted to mow ‘em down on a Saturday night” (Koda).
Fame and Glory
Holden was suddenly a hot commodity: “In May of 1960 I had the No. 7 record in the country and Ray Charles had “What'd I Say” out -- which was No. 30 -- and I was headlining a show that he and his band were on!” In Hollywood, Holden made TV appearances on the Lloyd Thaxton Show and the Mike Douglas Show. In June he was in Philadelphia for American Bandstand (with Connie Francis, the Crests, Bobby Freeman, and Conway Twitty) -- and a limousine ride then swept him into New York City for the Dick Clark Show and a week later (right about the time his Love You So LP was issued in July) he began a two-week run at the fabled Apollo Theater (with Jackie Wilson, the Crests, and Redd Foxx).
Holden had hit the big-time: “There was hysteria. There was the mob scene. I was a star! There wasn’t a street in America I could walk down and they weren’t playing my record. I was recognized everywhere I went. Always signing autographs, giving away pictures, cufflinks, ties. Everybody wanted to touch you.”
And thus began a long, long, series of old-school R&B road tours: “That was the way we traveled from 1960 to 1965 -- on buses and in cars. I traveled at various times with Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, James Brown, Brook Benton, Etta James, Cleve Duncan & the Penguins, Rosie & the Originals, the 5 Royales, Coasters, Freddy Cannon, the Crests, Marvin & Johnny, Don & Dewey, Big Joe Turner, Marv Johnson, Mickey & Silvia, Harvey Fuqua & the Moonglows, Jimmy Clanton, the Olympics, Donnie Brooks, and Bill Haley.” Holden even did USO tour-stops with Elvis Presley, Pat Boone, and Connie Francis: “We toured all over the world -- Germany, France, Spain, Japan, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand.”
Burned by the Biz
Meanwhile, the young singer was taken into studios with legendary Hollywood session pros -- including George “Red” Callender (bass), Plas Johnson (tenor sax), Jackie Kelso (tenor sax), René Hall (guitar), Earl Palmer (drums), and the Blossoms (backing vocals) -- and additional singles were issued. Among them were four Donna 45s, including 1961's "Gee But I'm Lonesome" which broke out briefly on Billboard’s R&B Top-40 charts. Holden was a happy young man: He recorded records for labels including Baronet, Eldo, Rampart, Challenge, and Now Records, drove a Mercedes Benz, married a California beauty, lived in a swell home -- and he knew that Donna Records had a sizeable royalty fund awaiting him.
“I was 18 when I signed with the company,” Holden explained. “And the laws of California said that the record company had to set up a trust fund for me that would mature when I was 21. From 18 to 21 I traveled, and then when I was 21 I came back to California and thought it was about time I collected this huge fortune that I had amassed. The first time I came off the road and inquired about the royalties they said that the book-keeper was ‘behind'; the next quarter she was ‘sick.’ I entered into this five-year litigation to recover my royalties. And the judge awarded me a half-million dollars. But the company was bankrupt. I went home to my starlet wife and said: ‘The record company ripped us off for half a million. But, I’ve been making money and giving it to you, and we have all this! And she goes to her desk and hands me a divorce decree.”
Rock & Roll Revival
Broke and bummed, Holden withdrew from the biz and did whatever he had to in order to survive: selling blood, selling bibles door-to-door, painting buildings. Back home in Seattle he worked a bit at Pat O’Day’s short-lived Party Line teen-club, and then on September 19, 1963, he married a Queen Anne High school graduate, Kathy, and began a new family.
Regaining his desire for onstage work, Holden eventually returned to Hollywood and in 1970 entered LA City College to study theater arts. Then, in 1972, he was hired to join the first Rock & Roll Revival show at the Hollywood Bowl (along with Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and other stars), and in 1973 he cut the “pick hit” soul 45, “Can You Talk,” and began performing (and gigging as MC) at Art Laboe’s Oldies Club on Sunset Strip -- a five-year stint that burnt him out. Thus on January 1, 1977, he quietly returned to Seattle, “went underground” and embarked on a liberating gig as an anonymous interstate truck driver with the CB handle of the “Lone Ranger.”
As the 1980s dawned, Holden looked around his hometown and realized that none of the area’s nightclubs were very inviting, and by 1983 he had signed a long-term lease at the old site of the legendary 1950s jazz room, Dave’s Fifth Avenue (112 5th Avenue N) where he launched Ron’s 5th Avenue, a room that booked fine jazz and R&B -- including the Reputations (which he fronted, and also featured little brother, Jimmy, on keyboards and ex-Wailers’ guitar ace, Rich Dangel).
Seattle’s "Dancehall Singer"
That same year, Holden was included -- along with Richard Berry, the Wailers, the Kingsmen, and others -- at the huge Best of Louie Louie celebratory concert at the Tacoma Dome. Then in 1987, he joined all his old Northwest peers in an historic Northwest Rock reunion concert at the Seattle Center Coliseum and in 1994 Donna Records finally reissued his Love You So album on Compact Disc for a whole new generation of music fans to discover and enjoy. Along the way, Holden had begun accepting gigs at numerous far-flung venues -- and it was while booked at a club in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, that he died of a heart attack on January 22, 1997.
Ron Holden passed away too soon to ever know that his “Love You So” would resurface in Kevin Bacon’s 1997 movie, Telling Lies In America, or that in 2000 his story would be featured in the Experience Music Project’s (EMP) Northwest Passage exhibit about Seattle R&B history. Once asked how he wanted to be remembered, Holden told me: “I sang for dances: the Encore Ballroom, the Spanish Castle, the Evergreen Ballroom, the Eagles Auditorium, the National Guard Armory, the Knights of Columbus Hall, the Carpenters’ Hall. That’s what I did. I’m a dancehall singer.”
“Cutie’s Swingin’ 60,” KQDE radio chart, November 6, 1959; Music Vendor April 11, 1960, p. 3; DJ Magazine May 26, 1960, p. 13; Eddie Rocco, “The Moldin’ of Ron Holden: You Can Make it if You Try,” Hit Parader, September, 1960, pp. 7-9; DJ Magazine, July 4, 1960, p. 5; Ron Holden, Love You So LP, Donna Records (DLP No. 2111) 1960; author conversations with Ron Holden (May 1983, etc); author interviews with Ron Holden (September 19, 1983), Larry Nelson (September, 12, 1984), Fred Rasmussen (1984), recordings in Peter Blecha’s possession; Ron’s 5th Ave. press release, September 16, 1983; Roberta Penn, unpublished interview transcript with Ron Holden, September 27, 1983; Peter Blecha, “Northwest Music Archive: Ron Holden,” The Rocket, April, 1985; Steve Propes, “From Fingerprints to Fame,” Goldmine, September 11, 1987, p. 22; Ron Holden, Love You So, CD Del-Fi Records CD (DFCD No. 721111-2) 1994; author interview with Bob Keane, Hollywood, California, October 4, 1995, (videotapes in EMP Oral History archives); Cub Koda, “The Vinyl Junkie,” Goldmine, October 27, 1995, p. 16; Carole Beers, “Musician Rolan ‘Ron’ Holden dies,” The Seattle Times, January 26, 1997.
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Ron Holden, Love You So LP, Donna Records (DLP No. 2111), 1960
Courtesy Peter Blecha
Display ad for "Love You So" single, Donna Records (No. 1315), 1960
Courtesy Peter Blecha
Ron Holden single ("Love You So"), Nite Owl Records (No. 10), 1959
Courtesy Peter Blecha