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Birdland: Seattle's Fabled 1950s R&B Hotspot

HistoryLink.org Essay 8415 : Printer-Friendly Format

Seattle’s long-time musicians and music fans alike hold fond memories of numerous long-gone 1950s nightclubs and dancehalls. But of all the fabled rooms, there is one that is probably missed more so than all the others: the Birdland. Because its unique location (at 22nd Avenue and E Madison Street) placed it on the border between a largely African American portion of the Central Area and the more homogenously white north-end neighborhoods, it eventually attracted an ethnically mixed clientele, evolved into a catalytic nexus of social tolerance in a then still-segregated town, and ultimately became a fertile musical laboratory that helped forge the original “Northwest Sound.”

The Savoy Boys are in the house

The roots of the Birdland building itself trace back to the 1930s, when the Gala Theatre was built on a Central Area site at 22nd Avenue and E Madison Street that had reportedly been an original location of the old Madison streetcar line’s roundhouse. Then in 1941 a neighborhood pool-hall operator named Lemeul Honeysuckle turned it into the Savoy Ballroom -- a name selected in tribute to the famed Harlem jazz room of the same name.

Honeysuckle launched the business by throwing Saturday-afternoon dances and among his first bookings was a local high school-aged swing-to-bop combo called the Savoy Boys, who debuted in the room in December 1941. Keeping the hall financially afloat was a struggle though, at least in part because at that time local post-Prohibition laws were still in force. Those rules didn’t allow the sale of individual liquor cocktails within city limits, and so the legal business model options were to either run a (beer and wine) tavern, or establish a “bottle club” roadhouse just outside the city line your where patrons brought their own brown-bagged alcohol and the house profited by charging them for “set-ups” -- a glass, a mixer, and ice cubes.

Even beyond not enjoying food or booze sales though, the Savoy faced another complicating factor: For decades Seattle authorities had capriciously and systematically rejected applications submitted by African American businesspeople for licenses to open nightclubs -- or, “cabarets” as they were termed -- anywhere near the borders of the Central Area.

But around 1945 Honeysuckle sold the Savoy to two new African American owners, Edward E. Taryer and George Barnes, who petitioned the City Council and finally, on February 19, 1946, The Seattle Times reported this momentous bit of news: “An unwritten but rigid policy of the city council, forbidding cabarets east of Eighth Avenue in the central portion of the city, was relaxed yesterday, to give Seattle’s Negro community a dine-and-dance establishment at the Savoy Ballroom, 2203 E. Madison St., operators of which were granted a cafe-dance license.” The newspaper also noted that the council was assured by the new licensees “that they intend to provide an attractive place which will be a credit to the city’s Negro citizens.”

The Birdland Takes Flight

By 1949 the Savoy was known for hosting jam sessions that included notable local players including future-star, Ray Charles, and trumpeter Floyd Standifer. In the years that followed, many a night saw dancing and partying until the wee small hours at the Savoy, but by the early 1950s it was revamped as the Eastside Club and the Savoy Boys were replaced by another young black band, the Frank Roberts Four.

Then the joint changed hands again: a black entrepreneur named Wilmer Morgan (who also owned the Mardi Gras Grill across the street, and the China Pheasant down on Marginal Way) reopened it in mid-August 1955 as the Birdland Supper Club with a show by the popular former saxophonist with Dizzy Gillespie’s big-band, James Moody, who now had his own group, the Bop Men.

Birdland a "Bottle Club”

The Birdland was named (like its similarly dubbed, but far more famous, cousin in Harlem)  in honor of the be-bop jazz sax icon, Charlie “Bird” Parker, and Morgan booked room with some of the finest national jazz and R&B stars including Big Jay McNeely, T-Bone Walker, Amos Milburn, Sil Austin, Red Prysock, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Percy Mayfield, Solomon Burke, and James Brown.

But Morgan soon grew weary of all the hassles with running a restaurant in his nightclub. Indeed, operating a dancehall -- as opposed to a restaurant -- simplified everything for him. It meant less overhead, less paperwork, fewer inspections by the city, and even though the liquor laws had changed back in 1948 to allow the sale of cocktails, Morgan opted to remain (officially, at least) a “bottle club.” Some locals, however, will tell you that the room was making ends meet by selling cocktails without the proper licenses.

Another way Morgan created revenue was by establishing a new policy: Minors were welcomed in to dance from 8:00 p.m. until 11:00 p.m. and then from 11:30 p.m. until about 4:00 a.m. the room became an adults-only . But again, plenty of people can testify to gaining entry well before they were of age -- and the Birdland soon earned a reputation as probably the hottest after-hours dancehall in Seattle.

Live at Birdland -- 1957

In 1957 the “Deacon of the Blues,” tenor sax honker Big Jay McNeely, arrived with his band from Los Angeles and settled into their gig at the Birdland. On one of those nights a local recording hobbyist named Fred Rasmussen set his up gear captured the band in full glory – a fact attested to by the Live At Birdland -- 1957 album that was issued some three decades after the fact. It was a cold night with a hot crowd and the audience clearly adored McNeely’s singer, Little Sonny Warner, and his soulful vocals on the band’s soon-to-be-hit (which was recorded in Joe Boles’s basement studio in West Seattle), “There  Is Something On Your Mind” and other favorites like Ray Charles’s “I Got A Woman.”  

And just as the Birdland crowd loved Charles' music, he too, apparently, loved the Birdland -- the sixth verse in his original recording of the classic 1959 hit, “What'd I Say,” began with these lines: "See the girl with the red dress on, she can do the Birdland all night long ..."

The Dave Lewis Combo Era

In May 1957, Morgan hired a young local African American group to serve as the house-band, and the talented pianist/leader of the Dave Lewis Combo was someone he’d known for a few years already. Lewis had actually been intrigued by the place since he was a kid: “Birdland was in my neighborhood. It had started when I first moved into the area. It was a legitimate nightclub and they booked in some major black artists. When Birdland first opened I couldn't get in because they had liquor and everything. But I could go around to the stage door and they would let me sneak in the back wing you know, and standing and just listening. So, you know, I got to know the proprietor, Wilmer Morgan, and he’d say: “David! Whatchoo doin’ here? Get out of here! [laughter]". And so I got to know what was happening.”

By 1956 the Dave Lewis Combo -- billed as the “Northwest’s Greatest Rock ‘N’ Roll Band” -- had already proved itself by touring the state opening shows for Bill Haley and His Comets and other stars, but this new 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. gig meant a lot to the band. “We were there after hours,” said Lewis, “so most of the groups that finished other jobs that they had could come over to Birdland like from 2-to-4 in the morning.” Over the next three years the Combo ruled the scene from their Birdland perch and the rockin’ teen-R&B sound they were helping forge was a musical cornerstone of what eventually became known as the original “Northwest Sound.”

On nights when major stars passed through, the Combo opened for them, and on others they backed up local talents including doo-wop groups like Tacoma’s Barons and Four Pearls, and Seattle’s Joe Boot and the Fabulous Winds and the Gallahads. Member “Tiny Tony” Smith once recalled: “You know ... the whole thing was if you could get a chance to play at Birdland with Dave Lewis. You know: that was the whole thrill. From a musician’s standpoint the greatest thing was being able to play there -- and seeing how the people appreciated that good music there.”

Fellow Gallahad, Jimmy Pipkin agreed: “The Dave Lewis Combo was playin’ at the time. They were our heroes. They were from Garfield High so we were like underclassmen. We’d go up to the Birdland and sing on Friday and Saturday nights.” Smith adds: “We got our first start at the Birdland. And you know, ‘yer supposed to be eighteen to get in there, but I was goin' in there [laughter] long before that! And so were a lot of my other friends -- we used to party till daybreak!”

Jammin’ at the Birdland

Among the memorable names of those who Lewis recalled coming in to jam were two other young African American players who would make it big: Jimmy Hendrix and Ron Holden. Holden, then a singer with the Playboys, recalled those early days: “When I first started getting into the musical scene we had to sneak into places like Birdland. That’s where the music was happening. They would let me in the backdoor. The main opening act was the Dave Lewis Combo. He was the hottest thing happening. He was it. He played all of those gigs. They had a saxophone duo: it seemed like it was the hottest sax duo anywhere in the world! Yeah, those twin horns -- they were just monsters. That combo owned this city. They were the hottest rhythm & blues band. Well, it was rhythm & blues -- but they called it ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ [laughter]!”

Lewis had vivid memories of Hendrix’s attempts to jam with the Combo, but his own teenaged bands -- the Velvetones, Rocking Kings, and Thomas and His Tomcats --  each got their shot on the stage when Morgan began hiring a series of local groups to fill out the calendar when Lewis got other bookings. Among the legends surrounding Hendrix’s Birdland gigs were the nights that he was reportedly beat up in the restroom by a Rocking Kings band-mate who was jealous of his girlfriend's attraction to the guitarist [Henderson], and another time when the poor kid’s beloved guitar was stolen off the stage during a break [Hopkins].

“Doin’ The Birdland”

Word of the great music and fun scene at Birdland spread and it didn’t take any time at all for many white college kids, jazz-niks, and bohemians to begin showing up. “Birdland let in anybody that that came and wasn’t worried about the ethnic part of it,” said Lewis. “It was just about the music.” Soon more and more young musicians -- both white and black -- made pilgrimages there to see if they could work up the courage to climb on the bandstand, sit in with the Combo, and see if their skills passed muster.

Jim Manolides, bassist with the Frantics -- probably the first all-white teen band to play the room -- reflected on the scene: “Birdland was open from like 11:30 ‘till 3:30 in the morning. After hours. All black clientele -- except for some young white musicians that would go in to hear the band ... and it was a neat place! It was centrally located at the edge of the black district, so you had a lot of black music going on there. It was a big hall, not fancy, but the music was louder there than any other place” (Manolides interview). 

Another white bassist, Gordy Lockhard of the Pulsations, also has vivid memories: “I used to go there to see Dave Lewis. He was playing a piano and that Organo (and he was playin’ it through the PA) and he had the funkiest damn sound. They were the funkiest thing -- to this date -- that I ever heard. It was so badd I just can’t even get started! It just showed you how powerful music can be. Man: it was a wild-ass club, I gotta tell ‘ya. A typical night there was: you had the Five Steps and they were kinda a dance troupe and they’d get out and do their routine. And there’d be smokin’ goin’ on in the back room -- but I was just a teenager then and didn’t get involved in all that, But, I always grooved on the club” (Lockhard interview). 

Another young musician, organist Buck England, was equally impressed on his first visit to Birdland: “I saw Lewis at Birdland in Seattle one night when I was 15 years old and he had a band that was just kickin’. He was playing piano and had horns in his band. He had all these guys just killin’. That was in the mid-‘50s. I was this rube kid from Onalaska [Lewis County]. I had only seen black people in movies and on a train. I walked into Birdland, and it felt good right away ... it impressed me that these guys were such good players. To see it live, that really started me thinking about music” (Nelson interview).

Battle of the Bands

Another big gig at the Birdland was the Battle of The Bands that Morgan organized for the night of New Years Eve, 1960-1961. The combatants that night included a number of the up-and-coming black bands -- and exactly one white group, the Frantics (with Nancy Claire). In 1961 Lewis broke up his combo, switched to the electric organ, formed a quartet, and moved out to Dave Levy’s downtown club, Dave’s Fifth Avenue. It was the end of one era for the room, but suddenly the door was open for other bands to work at the Birdland.

Although African American musicians had long dominated the bandstand -- and members of black groups like the Playboys, Don Mallory Combo, Doug Robinson Combo, the Skyliners, and the Boss Five all got their chances to play there -- in time a few more white combos like the Continentals, the Thunderbirds, Sharps, Counts, Nitesounds, and the Pulsations started getting gigs there. The Continentals’ drummer, Don Stevenson, recalled his earliest memories of the joint: “Birdland: That was an amazing place. I used to go down there and just watch, that was when Dave Lewis really had a great band. I used to sit there and watch ‘em and want to play ... . That was a great period of time actually. ... It seemed to me that the music kind of like made a bond among the people. And, you just had to be cool and you were respected and accepted. It was a wonderful place to be.”

In 1961 the members of the multi-racial band, the Dynamics, began to visit the Birdland. That summer their band’s potential new guitarist, future-jazz-star Larry Coryell, moved to town from the Tri-Cities area and the band began seriously wooing him by squiring him all around the scene’s hotspots. He vividly recalls that first time he entered the Birdland:

“The first week I arrived in Seattle I was knocked out by Dave Lewis. All the Dynamics really dug Dave Lewis and so we went down and we walked into the club and his band was playing “J.A.J.”. And, you know, I’d never heard anything like it! I remember commenting to myself that it was a combination of Ray Charles and Chuck Berry! That’s the only way I could relate to it. And, I sat in and played something called “D Natural Blues” which is a blues of Wes Montgomery’s” (Coryell interview). 

At the Mardi Gras

Meanwhile the crowds at the Birdland were growing to such an extent that Morgan decided to try booking teenaged bands into his other spot located just across the street: the Mardi Gras Grill. The Dynamics -- who had two African American members (the post-Gallahads singer, Tiny Tony, and drummer Ron Woods) -- were among the first and their Mardi Gras debut had pleased the largely black crowd. That was enough to get Morgan to give the band their shot on the Birdland’s stage.

Drummer Ron Woods recalled that: “Birdland was cool. I remember one gig: we went out to the Spanish Castle and then we came back and played Birdland. Two gigs in one night. Because Birdland you didn’t have to start playing ‘till twelve or one, and then we went to 3:30 or four in the morning! We were the only band with all those white guys that played Birdland. We helped cross it over. Although there was no big race trip ...  but it was like breaking ground anywhere I guess. People couldn’t believe that these white guys were kickin’ out that R&B shit real heavy and stuff you know?”

It was in March ’62 that Seattle’s Bolo Records issued the Dynamics’ first single since Coryell had joined -- a version of Lewis’s “J.A.J.” accompanied by an new instrumental B-side, “At The Mardi Gras,” a 45 that was soon followed by another original tribute tune, “Doin’ the Birdland.”

“Louie Louie” at the Birdland

The Dynamics did well with their trial-by-fire and the Continentals followed their path. That band’s saxophonist, Eldon Butler, recalled one memorable night:

“I remember playing Birdland one night -- and we might have been playing “Louie Louie” or something like that -- and you’d look out there and all you’d see are their heads going up and down, all in unison, fwonk! fwonk! fwonk! fwonk! And the whole building is going: fwonk! fwonk! fwonk! And this big piece of plaster about eight feet in diameter let loose from the ceiling and it came down right in the middle of the dance-floor and it cooled about three of ‘em. Laid ‘em out on the floor and we kept playing and everybody just kept dancing and there was this circle with all these guys, [laughter] and all this plaster laying in the middle of the floor and the dance just kept going! Finally somebody came out with a broom and swept the whole thing up -- but the music didn’t even stop! [laughter]” (Butler interview).

Dirty Dancing, Fighting, Births, Deaths ...

Despite the general good vibes at the Birdland, the mixture of drinking, dancing -- and the mingling of different kinds of people -- inevitably led to the occasional outbreak of violence. Stevenson recalled more than a few such incidents: “Seriously, there’d be fights. Yeah, it could be a bad place. I had people getting’ punched into my drum-set!” One time this big guy that lived up above me -- he was like a football guy -- and he and his wife came down. And, everybody down there used to do ‘The Pony’ -- and they'd all do it together. You'd look out there and this whole place would be just throbbing up and down. And they’d raise their hands and then put ‘em down, and raise their hands and put ‘em down. And when they were doin’ that dance and I mean it was like hypnotic. It was really funky and this guy started goin’ out there and dancin’ like some kinda, you know: redneck idiot. And [laughter], it was just like piranhas with blood: they just took that guy apart. It was terrible.”

Another night, as Lockhard recalled: “We were up on stage playin’ away and we heard two shots ring out -- BANG! BANG! -- and a murder went down.” Incredibly, the Seattle police came and did their business, and the dancing and partying went on as if nothing had even happened. On a lighter note, Stevenson’s memory banks top even that story: “One night a lady had a baby up in the balcony while we were playin’!”

In 1962 Morgan hired the Pulsations to play every other weekend (rotating with the Nitesounds) for a 10 month period. Lockhard remembered that “We ended up playing there for almost a year. It was a thrill. It really was. We were an all-white group in an all-black club. We fell into that black music thing early on -- we were early adaptors. Our singer -- Darling Judy -- she was a cute little thing. But kinda wild. Like: she’d have her nipples stickin’ over the top of her outfit. And the black guys would go ‘Ooweee baby!’ [laughter] There was more dirty dancin’ there than I could ever hope to imagine” (Lockhard interview). 

Birdland’s Inglorious End ...

Many, many other nights saw great music being made at the Birdland with far less drama. But on at least one other occasion the room played an interesting side role in another tragic event. On the night of October 17, 1964, the Detroit-based 1950s R&B star, Little Willie John -- famed for his immortal classic “Fever” -- stopped in after completing his gig at the Magic Inn Niteclub downtown at 5th Avenue and Union Street,. John partied heartily and even climbed the stage to sing a few for the stunned crowd. But at closing time early the next morning he joined a nearby house party on 23rd and managed to get into a fight during which he stabbed a man to death. John’s career stopped in its tracks. He went to trial, and was sentenced to a term in the Walla Walla State Penitentary. He died there in 1968 at the age of 30.

About four years before Little Willie John's death, around 1964, all the action at the Birdland finally came to an ignoble end. During a particularly heavy winter snowstorm  the old building’s beams began to sag and crack and finally caved in. City inspectors declared the hallowed and historic venue a hazard. The music, dancing, and marry-making ceased, the shell was razed, and a good bit of Northwest music history was suddenly gone.

Sources:
“City Approves License For New Cabaret,” The Seattle Times, February 19th, 1946, p. 24; Peter Blecha interviews with Dave Lewis (recorded July, 1983 and April 12, 1989, Seattle), Floyd Standifer (recorded March 1984, etc., Seattle), Fred Rasmussen (recorded 1984, Seattle), Ron Holden (recorded May 1983, etc., Seattle), Tiny Tony Smith (recorded September 1984, Seattle), Jimmy Pipkin (recorded 1984, Seattle), Pernell Alexander (recorded March 1985, Seattle), Don Mallory (recorded 1985, Seattle), Ron Woods (recorded 1983, etc., Seattle), Larry Coryell (recorded December 7, 1983, etc., Seattle), Don Stevenson (recorded 1984, Seattle), Eldon Butler (recorded 1984, Seattle), Nancy Claire (recorded August 7, 1985, and February 20, 1987, Seattle), Jim Manolides (recorded January 1984, etc., Seattle), Jimmy (Ogilvy) Hanna (1984, Seattle), Joe Johansen (recorded 1997, Seattle), and Gordy Lockhard (telephone interview 2004), all tape recordings in possession of Peter Blecha, Seattle, Washington; David Henderson, ’Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky: The Life of Jimi Hendrix (NYC: Bantam, 1981) 36;  Jerry Hopkins, Hit & Run: The Jimi Hendrix Story, Perigee, NYC, 1983, 34; Big Jay McNeely, Live At Birdland – 1957 (Collectables Records CD 5131, 1992); Paul deBarros, Jackson Street After Hours (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1993) 71, 87, 173. Rick Nelson, “Blues Festival to Honor ‘The Man’ -- Dave Lewis,” Tacoma News Tribune, November 12, 1999. p. SL-4.


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The Birdland, Seattle, ca. 1965
Photo by F. Herrick, Courtesy UW Special Collections (Neg. 144489)


The Birdland, (2203 E Madison Street), Seattle, ca. 1955
Courtesy UW Special Collections, (Neg.18092)


The Dave Lewis Combo, May 1957
Courtesy Dave Lewis


Big Jay McNeely, Live At Birdland -- 1957 CD, 1992
Courtesy Collectibles Records


The Dynamics, “At The Mardi Gras” Bolo Records single No. 730, 1962
Courtesy Peter Bletcha


 
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