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Recording Studios of the Pacific Northwest: Part 1 (1940s-1960s)

HistoryLink.org Essay 8946 : Printer-Friendly Format

The Pacific Northwest is today widely renowned for the music that has been generated in the region over the years -- and increasingly so for the recording studios and audio engineers who actually produced those songs. But this situation is one that has been a long time in the making. Although never considered in same the league as America's major "music capitols" like New York City, Chicago, Hollywood, or Nashville, Seattle nevertheless does have a long and interesting history in this realm. And that saga is one that spans the gamut from amateur hobbyists working in their basements to formally trained professionals founding state-of-the-art facilities, from local wannabe "American Idols" cutting "vanity projects," to major homegrown talents reaping international mega-hits.

They Laughed with Edison

The people of Seattle were first afforded the opportunity to see and hear the amazing new phenomenon of sound recording in action way back on Wednesday, September 11, 1878.  It was earlier that year that the famous inventor Thomas A. Edison (1847-1931) had established his Edison Speaking Phonograph Company, and a Mr. James H. Guild was in town to provide a public demonstration of the remarkable invention.

That event -- which took place at Henry Yesler’s Pavilion (SE corner of Front Street [today's 1st Avenue] and Cherry Street) -- was promoted as presenting "The Merits and Workings of the Phonograph." Seattleites who paid 50 cents to attend were presumably thoroughly amused by witnessing the novel and elaborate process required to record various voices and other sounds on the Edison company's tinfoil-coated cylinders and they must have then been astonished at then hearing the playback of those same sounds.

Although Edison's Phonograph was a technological marvel of the age -- the arts and sciences of audio engineering still had, by any measure, plenty of room for improvement. And while the Northwest would produce plenty of amateur recording enthusiasts over the following years, it would require another six decades before the area would see the founding of a professional recording facility.

In the Northwest

As the national recording industry picked up steam in the early 1920s, some of the major record companies were in need of more talents than they were able to find in America's musical capitols of New York, Chicago, and Hollywood. One solution they came up with was to send roving teams of field agents equipped with still-primitive mobile gear to far-flung regions of the country to attempt to discover and cut sessions with various undiscovered talents.

In August 1923 a team from Brunswick Record rolled into Seattle and conducted the first professional recording session in Seattle’s history -- one that resulted in the debut 78 rpm disc by Vic Meyers's dance band: “Mean Mean Mama” / “Shake It and Break It.” Then in May 1927 a team from Victor Records arrived in Portland and cut four tunes by Herman Kenin’s Multnomah Hotel Orchestra.  Those sessions in the hotel’s Tea Garden room yielded two discs, “Sad ‘n’ Blue”/ “Some Other Day” and “All I Want Is You” / “Pretty Little Thing.”

That September, Columbia's crew arrived in Spokane and set up their recording gear on the balcony of the town’s finest dancehall, the Garden Dancing Palace (West 333 Sprague Street). The Garden Dancing Palace Orchestra, led by Miss Lillian Frederic, cut a few songs -- “Night Time In Picardy,” “Sunshine” / “I’m Afraid You Sing That Song To Somebody Else,” and “Rose Room.”

Then in June 1928, a second trip produced more, including “Deep Hollow” and “When Erastus Plays His Old Kazoo,” which featured vocals by former Souders’ band-member, Walton McKinney. And that same Seattle expedition also captured, on June 19, 1928, the Lions Quartet singing "Sweet Genevieve" and "How Can I Leave Thee.”

Leaving Home

In the early decades of audio recording, some locals who harbored a desire to cut a song necessarily had to travel elsewhere to accomplish that goal due to the lack of a suitable facility in the region. Among those who headed off on such a quest were a popular collegiate dance band, a boogie-woogie pianist, and an early country string band. The first to embark on such a journey was Seattle's Jackie Souders Orchestra, which went down to San Francisco and cut two 78rpm discs (“By The Alamo” / “Every Little Thing,” and “Kiss Me and Then Say Goodnight” / “I Never Knew What the Moonlight Could Do”) for Columbia Records on September 27, 1926.

Then there's Butte's Art “Montana” Taylor, who ended up in Chicago where he cut his boogie-woogie piano classics, “Whoop and Holler Stomp” and “Hayride Stomp” for Vocalion Records on April 4, 1929. The next were the Happy Hayseeds from John Day, Oregon, who cut “Cottonwood Reel” and “Home Sweet Home” for Victor Records in Culver City, California, on March 4, 1930.

Portland's John Keating Studios

The Northwest's very first professional recording facility was one launched in 1940 by John Keating (919 SW Taylor Street) in Portland. Keating's business was based on recording radio jingles and advertisements along with time-delayed network programming distributed to radio stations.

In those early days before magnetic tape existed, recording was done via RCA 74B microphones and a Presto brand machine which literally cut one-at-a-time on fragile acetate “instant discs.” Business was good, but with the outbreak of World War II, staffers were drafted into the military and on August 1, 1943, the company hired a new engineer, Robert "Bob" M. Lindahl (1922-2006), who had received a medical waiver from service. Thus began four-plus decade as Portland's top sound engineer.

Seattle Recording Studios

Seattle's earliest recording company appears to have been the modest George Rex Music Studio (315 Seneca Street) which began cutting acetate discs for local singers around 1941. Another facility that provided a similar service -- albeit in a vastly larger room – was the KOL radio studios in the Northern Life Tower building’s basement (1220 3rd Avenue).

It was to that studio that a major jazz buff -- the wealthy Dr. Fred Exner -- took a local jazz group, the Johnny Wittwer Trio, for a session in 1944. Jimmy Linden engineered the date, which produced four songs released on Exner Records. The first -- “Joe’s Blues” / “Wolverine Blues” -- was not only the very first jazz record cut in a Seattle studio, it was also one of the last to have its master cut on an “instant disc.”

Located in the same building as KOL was Jimmy Linden's father's business, Western Recording Studios, launched in 1943 by Adolph Linden, who was soon running the Linden Record Company – replete with its own disc-pressing plant (824 E Pike Street) -- as well. The label's first release, circa 1944-1945, was a 78rpm single featuring two jazzed-up Irving Berlin songs, “The Dark Town Strutter’s Ball” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” by Norm Bobrow and the Gay Jones Trio. But the most consequential session that was likely engineered by Jimmy Linden (at either KOL or Western) was the historic event in early 1949 that produced future-star, Ray Charles's very first disc: "Confession Blues."

Around 1946 Seattle’s Federal Old Line Insurance Co. launched the Evergreen Records label out of their Northwest Recording Studios (9405 Aurora Avenue N). Among their earliest 78rpm releases were a couple classic country tunes like “A Smile From My Baby” by Tacoma’s radio KMO artists, "Cherokee Jack" Henley and his Rhythm Ridin’ Wranglers. Reportedly Henley lived with frustration that he’d once passed on an offer to join the mega-successful Sons of the Pioneers, and instead ended up as a welder and Tacoma radio DJ.

Seattle's John Keating Studios & the Magnetic Tape Era

In January 1946 Lyle Thompson was hired as a salesman by Portland's John Keating Studios (now in the Alder Way Building on SW Broadway). Then in June 1947 Thompson was transferred to Seattle to help open up a second studio (2nd and Pine Building, No. 408).

That was the same historic year that the Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Company (today’s 3M Company) issued their new Scotch 100 magnetic recording tape (just as California's Ampex Electric Corporation did). The dawn of this new technology -- which had only been developed after the U.S. Army captured a Magnetophone device (and tapes) from the defeated Nazis in Germany -- caught the public's imagination and by 1948 a parade of folks seeking to have a recording made of their singing, instrumental, or poetry performances for posterity began beating a path to the studio's door.

That was the year that a brand new piece of equipment had arrived: Seattle’s first tape recorder -- the Brush Sound Mirror model. In truth the deck didn't work all that well, so Thompson was excited when Keating bought a couple new Magnacorder decks which were far superior. Among the first to record some tunes were various artists recording for Seattle's Morrison Music Company. Then, in about 1952, Keating sold the studio to Don Motter who moved it to a new facility in the Fifth Avenue Building (1426 5th Avenue, No. 306) in 1953. 

Morrison Music Company

Around 1947 Thompson began doing sessions for H. O. "Morrie" Morrison and his Morrison Records firm. In time, Morrison decided that he could handle the recording himself and with the acquisition of a recorder and a rental storefront (at 4th Avenue and  Bell Street), he launched the Morrison Music Company, Electronic Recorders and Associates.

Morrison would record an artist, send the master tape off to California, await the return shipping of metal disc-stampers, and then begin making records on his own vinyl pressing-machines. The Morrison label ended up issuing more 100 discs by local artists including orchestras, pop singers, and country players such as Paul & Bonnie Tutmarc.

Dimensional Sounds

Also in 1947, Chet Noland returned home from military service and began doing audio engineering for Morrison and other projects. Then in 1952 Noland founded his own Dimensional Sound, Inc. (2128 3rd Avenue) and the Celestial label which gained national recognition for pioneering the commercially marketing of pre-recorded reel-to-reel musical tapes.

Noland began by recording "vanity projects" for local pop singers, vainglorious DJs, and pizza-parlor-quality Dixieland bands, but before long Celestial's tapes began to feature serious jazz by Seattle's Elmer Gill Trio, Floyd Standifer, Corky Corcoran, and the Gay Jones Trio. Eventually Celestial began issuing records -- including some of the Northwest's very first R&B and rockabilly discs.

Commercial Productions, Inc

By late 1953 Don Motter's John Keating studio was ailing and two of its engineers, Lyle Thompson and Lew Lathrop, quit in January 1954 to launch their own Commercial Recorders in the old KJR radio studios on the seventh floor of the Skinner Building (1326 5th Avenue). Only months later, in May 1954, Keating folded and Commercial promptly moved over a block and rented that space.

Equipped with four brand-new Ampex 350 tape recorders they proceeded to become the town’s top studio for years to follow, recording everything from an early Seattle Symphony album, to jazz, to some of the earliest rock ‘n’ roll records from the region. In 1958 they added a new partner, cameraman Dick Larsen, renamed the firm Commercial Productions, Inc. and in 1969 moved the growing company into new studios (1200 Stewart Street). In time Thompson's company morphed into Telemation Productions, and Lathrop split off to form Lew's Recording Place (1219 Westlake Avenue N).

Northwestern, Inc.

In April 1954 Bob Lindahl bought out Keating's Portland studio (now at: 411 SW 13th Avenue) and recast it as Northwestern, Inc. One of his fondest memories was the day that that a local high school student came by the studio to cut an original song called "Little White Cloud That Cried." That kid would, of course, go on to become one of the 1950's biggest international singing sensations -- Johnny Ray -- who scored a major hit with a rerecording of that same composition.

Another memorable early session was one with a kid from the little town of Camas, Washington – a singer named Jimmie Rodgers who would gain fame later, in 1957, with the smash hit "Honeycomb." Among the countless other sessions that Lindahl conducted were those that produced some of the region's first rock 'n' roll discs including 1957's "Teenage Boogie" by Dennis Wayne, and April, 1958's "Everybody Boppin'" by Clayton Watson and the Silhouettes. But Lindahl's most historic sessions were undoubtedly those of April 6, 1963, when the Kingsmen cut their infamous "Louie Louie," and April 13th's "Louie Louie" session by Paul Revere and the Raiders -- the track that got them signed as the first rock 'n' roll band with giant Columbia Records.

Sound Recording Company

In 1951 Paul W. Carter (d. 1991) started the Sound Recording Company at his home on East Sinto Avenue in Spokane. By the following year SRC was based out of a storefront shop on South Howard Street and was advertising its services as "Complete recording facilities, commercial pressings, radio productions and transcripts, audition and reference recording, recording supplies, sales and service on all audio equipment."

SRC Records was launched in 1951 with 78 rpm singles by Spokane's Scandinavian polka band, Arly Nelson & the Tunetoppers, and by 1957 the firm had moved (200 Symons Building) where it -- including Carter's wife, Irene (d. 1996), who reportedly began engineering as well -- recorded various country bands (Charlie Ryan and the Timberline Riders), and teenage rock 'n' roll bands including Bobby Wayne and the Warriors ("War Paint"), the Four Playboys ("Jungle Stomp"), and the Renegades ("Black Jack").

Electricraft, Inc.

By 1953 the competition in Seattle increased significantly: George Rex’s Rex Music & Recording Studio had moved to bigger facilities (710-11 University Building), as had Linden’s Western Recording Studios (2417 2nd Avenue). In addition, new studios – like the Excelsior Recording Studio (604 University Street), and Oliver Runchey’s Electricraft, Inc. (622 Union Street) – opened for business.

Electricraft was an electronics and hi-fi shop that included a studio in back that was mainly used for the broadcasting of KNBX's radio programs and various "vanity projects," some of which -- by artists including Seattle's "Texas Jim" Lewis, Peggi Griffith, and Jack Rivers -- were issued on a number of early labels including Listen, Now and J.R. Ranch Records.

Joe Boles Custom Recorders

In 1957 Seattle's J. F. "Joe" Boles (1904-1962) built a basement studio in his new home (3550 Admiral Way) and began making local recording history. A hobbyist since about 1951, Boles proved to have a good ear and nimble touch with his Ampex recorders -- qualities that saw him cut sessions that helped get major label recording contracts in the 1950s for Seattle's lounge diva, Pat Suzuki, and the Brothers Four folk group.

In addition he recorded the tune, “There Is Something On Your Mind,” that became the biggest hit ever for the visiting veteran R&B star, Big Jay McNeely, in 1959. That same year Boles engineered legendary sessions for a string of teenage hit-makers: the Fleetwoods, Frantics, Little Bill and the Bluenotes, and the Ventures (who all recorded for Seattle's new Dolton Records) -- not to mention Rockin' Robin and the Wailers' fabled 1961 regional smash, "Louie Louie."

Northwest Recorders

It was back in early 1958 that Electricraft, Inc. hired Kearney Barton as a new engineer. Within months he took over the failing firm and renamed it Northwest Recorders.

Then, within weeks, he was doing sessions for Seattle's pop star, Bonnie Guitar (formerly, Bonnie Tutmarc). Then in September 1959 she and her new business partner, Bob Reisdorff -- the dynamic duo who ran Dolton Records -- stopped working with Joe Boles and began working for Barton, who scored his first major success cutting the Fleetwood's No. 1 international hit, "Mr. Blue."

Acme Sound & Recording

Fred Rasmussen was a machinist who moonlighted as an amateur audio engineer and ran the Acme Sound and Recording service from his home (7551 28th Avenue NE). He'd spent years recordings country bands -- including Seattle's "Texas Jim" Lewis' combo -- in various local venues. In the late-1950s that Rasmussen also began recording visiting African American R&B acts like Big Joe Williams, Wild Bill Davis, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters -- and even Big Jay McNeely, whose classic 1957 gig at the Birdland (2203 E Madison) was later released as CD.

But Rasmussen also recorded important local teen-R&B bands including the Dave Lewis Combo (in the Eagles Hall's Senator Ballroom at 7th Avenue & Union Street). But Acme's biggest claim to fame was the 1959 session that produced the international Top-10 hit, "Love You So," for Seattle's young R&B band, Ron Holden and the Thunderbirds. In addition he recorded the Static's "Buster Brown" 45 and some of the songs at Parkers Ballroom (17001 Aurora Avenue N) for inclusion on Bolo Records' 1965 classic The Dynamics With Jimmy Hanna LP.

Ray-O Studio

Raymond "Ray" Van Patten -- by trade, a chemical tester at the Scott Paper Company plant in Everett -- was another audio buff who indulge in his sound recording hobby from a home basement studio (2215 Burley Drive). It was around the time of the Century 21 Seattle World's Fair that his Ra-O record label debuted with the Madmen of Note's "Club 21" / "Peppermint Fink" 45, and Bob Mathews and the Hysterics' "You’ve Got Me All Wrong" 45.

Over the next couple years RA-O went on to issue additional singles by area talents such as those '50s rockabillies-gone-country, the Maddy Brothers ("Mixed Up"). Van Patton's most widely appreciated work, however, were the tunes he cut for Bolo's The Dynamics With Jimmy Hanna LP at Parkers Ballroom.

Audio Recording, Inc.

Only a few months after the March 1961 session that produced yet another legendary Northwest rock 'n' roll disc -- Little Bill Engelhart's "Louie Louie" -- Kearney Barton moved out of Northwest Recorders. Starting fresh with a new operation, Audio Recording, Inc. (170 Denny Way), Barton  conducted countless sessions in that new facility.

In 1965 he took on partners, moved up to bigger facilities (2227 5th Avenue), and cemented his reputation as the man behind the "Northwest Sound" of '60s garage-rock. Among the best bands he worked with were the Kingsmen, the Wailers, Sonics, Don and the Goodtimes, Counts, Dynamics, and Merrilee Rush and the Turnabouts. In 1981 Barton moved Audio once again -- this time into his gigantic home studio (4718 38th Avenue NE) where sessions continue.

Camelot

As a youth in Ballard, Jan Kurtis Skugstad taught himself the drums and was soon working with area talents like Pat Suzuki, Patty Summers, and Jack Roberts and the Evergreen Drifters. Then, from 1960 through 1961, he joined Ernest Tubb's famous Texas Troubadours -- but in 1964 he returned home to form the Lynnwood-based Camelot studio and record label. That year Camelot issued its best-known LP, The Fiesta Presents Little Bill and the Bluenotes. Some of the most highly regarded discs that Skugstad engineered were those by the teen-R&B artists, the Statics, Dave Holden, Jimmy Pipkin, Ron Buford, and Mr. Clean & the Cleaners. Camelot's greatest radio hit was "Namu," by the Dorsals (with the Gatormen) -- 1965's rock 'n' roll tribute to Seattle's famously captured Killer Whale.  

By about 1966 Camelot had issued a half-dozen LPs and 40-some singles. In  addition Skugstad engineered two notable gigs in September 1965: Ernest Tubb's Spanish Castle Ballroom show, which was released on CD by Rhino Records in 1992, and John Coltrane's show at Seattle's jazz mecca, The Penthouse, released by Impulse Records as the Live In Seattle LP. Today Skugstad works out of Paradise Sound Recording studios and Camelot Media is involved in audio and video production work.

For The Record

The Northwest boasted numerous other audio engineers over the years, and in more recent times -- with the advance of technology and the economy-of-scale providing high-quality gear at attractive price-points -- the recording industry has exploded. Today there are literally hundreds of active studios cutting sessions in nearly every town across the region.

From unquantifiable home-based studios to world-class digital production facilities, the Northwest has demonstrated -- especially since the Grunge Era when massive international hits by bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden were often cut locally -- that our best studios and engineers are now second to none in the global industry.

Sources:
Peter Blecha conversations with: Mary Linden Sepulveda (May 16, 2006), Norm Bobrow (2001), Bob Lindahl (1994), and Ray Van Patton (1984); Peter Blecha interviews with Lyle Thompson (April 11, 1989), H. O. Morrison (November and December 1983), Lew Morrison (July 14, 1984 and January 20, 2003), Glenn D. White (October 2003), Kearney Barton (1983, 1984, 1998, July 31, 2008) and Glenn White Jr. (November 6, 2003), and Fred Rasmussen (1984, 1985), recordings in possession of author; Clarence Bagley, History of Seattle From the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, Vol. 2 (Chicago, S.J. Clarke Publishing Co. 1916), 684; Peter Blecha, "Studio Saga: The History of Northwest Recording," The Rocket, November 1984; "Portland Profile: Bob Lindahl,"  Water Cooled (Portland Oregon's Society of Broadcast Engineers newsletter), August 2000 and September 2000, Society of Broadcast Engineers website accessed on December 9, 2008 (http://www.sbe124.org/newsletters/pdx0206/06-02124.txt); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Linden Records: Seattle’s 'lost' post-war music company" (by Peter Blecha), "'Morrie' and Alice Morrison -- Northwest Music Industry Pioneers" (by Peter Blecha), "Kearney Barton: The Man Who Engineered the Northwest Sound" (by Peter Blecha), "Dolton: The Northwest's First Rock 'n' Roll Record Company" (by Peter Blecha), "Seafair Records: Seattle's Swingin' '60s Music Company" (by Peter Blecha), and "Nite Owl Records and Everett's 1950's R&B Stars: The Shades" (by Peter Blecha), http://www.historylink.org (accessed on January 15, 2009); Camelot Media website accessed on December 10, 2008 (http://www.camelotmedia.com/skugstad.html).
Note: This essay was corrected on April 17, 2011, and on January 23, 2014.


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Lyle Thompson at Keating studios, Seattle
Courtesy Lyle Thompson


John Keating disc label, 1947
Courtesy Peter Blecha


Western Recording disc label, ca. 1940s
Courtesy Pete Blecha


Lyle Thompson at Commercial Recorders, ca. 1950s
Courtesy Lyle Thompson


Bob Lindahl at Northwestern Studios
Courtesy Bob Lindahl


Commercial Recorders disc label, ca. 1950s
Courtesy Peter Blecha


Chet Noland at Dimensional Sound studios, Seattle, ca. 1950s
Courtesy Chet Noland


Joe Boles in his recording studio, Seattle, ca. 1960
Courtesy Tom and Ellen Ogilvy


Joe Boles in his recording studio, Seattle, ca. 1960
Courtesy Tom and Ellen Ogilvy


Electricraft studios disc label, ca. 1950s
Courtesy Peter Blecha


Fred Rasmussen at Acme Sound studios, Seattle, ca. 1950s
Courtesy Fred Rasmussen


Sound Recording Company disc label, ca. 1950s
Courtesy Peter Blecha


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


Ray van Patton at home studio, ca. 1960s
Courtesy Ray van Patton


Jan Kurtis Skugstad at Camelot studios
Courtesy Camelot Media


Audio Recording Records (No.104), The Imperials, ca. 1960
Courtesy Peter Blecha


Kearney Barton at Audio Recording studio, Seattle, 2008
Courtesy Peter Blecha


 
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