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Nite Owl Records and Everett's 1950's R&B Stars: The Shades

HistoryLink.org Essay 8568 : Printer-Friendly Format

The rainy lumber-mill town of Everett, Washington, may seem an improbable home for a multi-racial teenaged doo-wop group -- especially one that scored a national hit back in 1959 for a hard-core Los Angeles-based rhythm & blues label. But even more surprisingly, after that success two members, Larry Nelson (1937-2007) and Chuck Markulis, even went on to form their own pioneering R&B label, Nite Owl Records, which launched the careers of local doo-wop stars, the Gallahads, and Seattle’s Top-10 hit-maker, Ron Holden.

Budding Music Moguls

It was in January 1958 that two Everett Junior College students -- Redmond’s Larry Nelson (b. October 16, 1937), and San Pedro, California’s “Big” Chuck Markulis -- wrote a delightfully wimpy teen ballad, “One Touch of Heaven,” that they figured was a natural hit. Nelson recalled the duo penned it while loitering in a corner booth at Everett’s Chin’s Café (1501 Hewitt Avenue).

That same month the two budding music moguls recruited a few more college guys (Josiah “Joe Hill” Ferrell, Thurston James “T.J.” Reuben -- and briefly, Ozzie “Ozz” Moore), and an Everett High School girl (and Nelson’s girlfriend), Loreen “Lori” Methven, whose parents’ home became the group’s first rehearsal pad. Apparently things developed quickly because by the 30th of the month that sextet -- now named The Shades – held a meeting in the E.J.C. student lounge and signed a written “contract” which codified that they “will not terminate the group” and will “practice singing at any reasonable time while in the making of the song ‘One Touch of Heaven’ to a time when it is completely finished” and “released in records.”

In mid-February the Shades performed at Methven’s school and on February 18, a local newspaper excitedly speculated that “In the near future, perhaps, Everett will have a claim to fame in the Rhythm and Blues world with these kids” (press clipping). That same month Nelson moved from his parents' home in Redmond to a boarding house (2116 Grand Avenue) in Everett, and the group soon scored a gig for a Shriners Club dance at Everett’s Cascade Room (First National Bank Building, 1604 Hewitt Avenue).

February also saw the Shades rehearsing with a young Lake Stevens-based combo -- Rollie’s Trio, which was led by teenaged pianist, Rollie Farrow -- at the Normanna Hall (2725 Oakes Avenue).

Playing Gigs and Making Records

Before long they were playing gigs at various Everett house parties, hot rod club beer bashes, the Eagles Club (1419 Hewitt Avenue), the American Legion Club (2828 Wetmore Avenue), the Snohomish High School Senior Ball, and the Lynnwood Bowling Lanes (6210-200th  NW).

Somehow the Shades came to the attention of a Seattle label, Celestial Records, and on February 28, 1958 they (sans Moore) signed a personal management and recording contract. Celestial was based out of recording engineer Chet Noland’s Dimensional Sound studios (2128 3rd Avenue) and One Touch of Heaven” was soon recorded with Rollie’s Trio.

Something about that session was deemed unsatisfactory however and on May 21, the tune was cut at Dimensional again, this time with the backing of a veteran Seattle jazz band, the Floyd Standifer Trio. By June 1, the Shades had begun rehearsing at the Markulis family home (2118 Wetmore), but on the 5th Methven exited the group and replaced by Nelson’s next girlfriend (and future first wife) Diane Norwood. At least a little guilt was felt about this switch -- or at least that is the conclusion one might draw from listening to the next song that the Shades recorded. Its title was “Dear Lori” and the lyrics were apologetic in tone. 

Nelson and Markulis had big dreams for their group and (apparently ignoring the fact that they’d just signed with Celestial a few months prior) began penning letters to the heads of some of America’s top rhythm & blues record companies. Surprisingly enough they received a few positive responses: on August 25, they got a letter back from Chicago’s mighty Chess/ Checker / Argo labels that welcomed the submission of a demo tape, and September 3, saw another similar response from Dootsie Williams at Los Angeles’ esteemed Dootone Records. 

Meanwhile “Dear Lori” and “One Touch of Heaven” were both recorded (on November 27) with the Floyd Standifer Trio at Northwest Recorders (622 Union Street) with Kearney Barton engineering this time. Then on December 11, “Dear Lori” was cut again at Northwest Recorders -- this time with the El-Trey Trio backing them.

Finding a Label

This was all very exciting for the Shades and at some point Nelson and Markulis made a sojourn to California with their Celestial demo tapes in hand: “We hitchhiked to San Pedro and borrowed Chuck’s dad’s car and drove to Hollywood,” Nelson recalled. “The two of us just went down there and found a label.” That label turned out to be Aladdin Records in Hollywood -- a music company whose talent roster included hit-making R&B stars like Thurston Harris and Shirley & Lee.

Nelson returned to Everett before Markulis did and by December 30, he would write, “Aladdin wants ‘Dear Lori’ and ‘One Touch of Heaven’ to distribute nationally.” The one catch though was that the label’s execs asked that the tune be recorded again from scratch.  The recordings feature Joe (lead) Nelson (bass), Markulis (baritone), Diane Norwood (alto), and “T.J.” Reuben Jr. (falsetto).

Delivered to Aladdin, the Master Tape was accepted and on January 10, 1959, the Shades signed a four-year contract. In the meantime the Shades scored their coolest gig ever -- opening the show at West Seattle’s Skateland Roller Park (2201 California Avenue) for the pop star, Bobby Darin, who was pushing his hit, “Splish Splash.” Then finally, on April 4, vinyl copies of the Aladdin 45 (#3453) were shipped up to Everett and the band gleefully raced the 45s across town to their radio DJ pals at KRKO and KQTY.

"Dear Lori"

The odd thing was: both stations opted to push the Shade’s least favorite side, “Dear Lori” (KRKO even named it their “Pick of the Week”), and after the tune saw some promising chart action, even a big-time Seattle station, KAYO, jumped on it and the record worked its way right up into their Hit Parade Club chart’s Top-10. Within days KAYO DJ Pat O’Day flipped the disc and began airing “One Touch of Heaven” from the fishbowl studio in the front window booth of the downtown Seattle Ware House of Music shop (421 Pike Street) and it immediately hit the station’s #11 slot and began climbing. It was right about that point that the Shades made a lip-sync appearance on KING-TV’s new Seattle Bandstand show and by May 30th their song was charting at No. 14 at KQTY. It looked like a legit hit -- or two! -- were in the making as both of the Shades’ songs began to pop up on additional playcharts down the West Coast and in a few other markets across the nation.

The Shades were ecstatic: Nelson and Markulis were proving to be one of the Northwest’s first rock ‘n’ roll management teams that had any real clue about how effective record promotion was done. And their dreams began to grow: Maybe they should form their own label? Maybe they could discover, produce, and promote other young Northwest talents?

Nite Owl Record Co.

Meanwhile, Nelson and Norwood married and for a day job he took a job as a deputy with the sheriff’s office at the King County Jail in Seattle. Eventually, hopes that the Shades two songs would exploded into massive national hits faded, but Nelson’s and Markulis's plans moved ahead when they formed the  Nite Owl Record Co. and open small office in a downtown storefront (423 Boren Street Suite 124).

While Markulis held steady hours at Nite Owl, Nelson worked away at various law enforcement tasks, including the fingerprinting of freshly arrested criminal suspects. Which is exactly how he discovered a young local African American singer who would shortly become Nite Owl’s first signed talent. And that teenaged musician was Ron  Holden, a member of the Playboys combo and the unlucky guy who’d been arrested the previous night mid-way through a teen-dance gig at the Encore Ballroom (1214 E Pike) after having been caught partying outside in a car along with his minor girlfriend and other friends.

"Love You So"

The two became friends after Nelson heard Holden and his fellow jailbirds singing a doo-wop ditty Holden had written based on a love letter he’d written to that girlfriend. The song was called “Love You So” and Nelson liked what he heard and began sneaking cigarettes as gifts to Holden. Upon his release after serving 90 days, Holden discovered that the Playboys had replaced him, but Nite Owl soon hooked him up with another combo, the Thunderbirds -- and in time they would also sign up, record, and release records by the Playboys, and Seattle’s finest African American doo-wop group, the Gallahads. 

The Thunderbirds were led by a wild, rockin’ Little Richard-look-alike pianist named Little Willie Bell and Nelson and Markulis liked them so much they actually convinced the management at the downtown Roll In Tavern (1526 8th Avenue) to give the combo a shot. And that booking made history: Nelson proudly claimed that Little Willie and the Thunderbirds thus became the first local rock ‘n’ roll band to ever gig in a Seattle tavern.

Beyond that support, Nite Owl also booked a session or two for Holden and the band up at Fred Rasmussen’s home-based Acme Sound studio (7551 28th Avenue NE) in North Seattle. The tunes that were cut included Holden’s “Love You So” and “My Babe,” along with a few local R&B favorites including “Louie Louie.”  

Thinking that both “Love You So” and “My Babe” were both potential hit singles, Nelson and Markulis thought that perhaps they would bypass launching Nite Owl and instead cut a quick deal with an established label. That’s when Gene Autry’s Challenge Records bit, signed a contract, and pressed up 5,000 45s. But before those discs had labels applied to them, Challenge experienced a management shift and now suddenly wanted to renege. Nite Owl agreed to let them off the hook -- if they shipped those 5,000 discs up to Seattle. Which is how Nelson, Markulis, and Holden wound up spending a few days gluing “Nite Owl” labels on them one-by-one on a table in warehouse space provided by a local distributor, Andy Huffine.

Long-story-short: Around August 1959, Ron Holden’s debut 45 (Nite Owl No. 10) was finally issued -- only to be hugely disappointed when “Jockey” John Stone -- the morning DJ and Program Director at Seattle’s powerhouse station, KJR, flatly refused to give the record any support. The good news was that in Tacoma (at KTAC) the Northwest’s top African American DJ, Bob Summerise, dug the tunes and gave “Love You So” its entree to the local radio market. Then, by November, the song was charting at No. 5 on Seattle’s KAYO, at No. 3 on KQDE, and at No. 1 on the Ware House of Music sales chart.

But the biggest area stations still wouldn’t touch the record -- or any of Nite Owl’s subsequent releases. In fact, Nelson long insisted that when they recorded the Gallahads doing “Heaven and Paradise,” Pat O’Day -- by then working at KJR -- rejected it: “He said it was ‘too black.'"

Meanwhile, by December 1959 Nite Owl had cut a deal with Del-Fi / Donna Records in Hollywood and “Love You So” / My Babe” was re-released as Donna (No. 1315), and on the 28th Music Vender magazine wrote: “Fact, not fiction, is heavy action on newcomer, Ron Holden’s first Donna disk, Love You So, distributed by Del-Fi.” Then Billboard magazine ran a display ad stating "'Love You So' is Selling BIG! in Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, & Chicago and Breaking BIG! in Cleveland, Baltimore, New York, & Detroit." True enough, it quickly sold 2,500 copies in the Northwest region, and another 70,000 in the Los Angeles area -- and on April 4, 1960, the hit entered Billboard charts, finally peaking at the nation’s No. 7 spot in a nice 19-week run. For its part, “My Babe” actually surpassed the popularity of “Love You So” in Britain -- a marketplace fluke that ended up giving him two concurrent hits there. 

And other releases came along: the Gallahads’ “Gone” / “So Long” (Nite Owl No. 20), and the Playboys’ “South Bound Express” / “Cross My Heart” (Nite Owl No. 30). Although the latter didn’t do much commercially, the former soon led to another deal with Del-Fi /Donna, and the Gallahads ultimately went to record in Hollywood and ended up enjoying a minor hit with “(I’m Just A) Lonely Guy” (Del-Fi No. 4137) which got a national boost when Dick Clark chose to air it one Saturday morning on his influential American Bandstand ABC-TV show.

Beloved and On the Air

But as time went on the intricacies of the music biz began to wear on Nelson and Markulis: there were lawsuits filed over song publishing contracts and unpaid royalties and other complications. In the end, Markulis returned home to California (where he did sign one last doo-wop group to Nite Owl, the Chants) and Nelson branched off into a new career in radio with his first such job at Bellevue’s KFKF-AM.

Then from the 1960s all the way up into 1997 Nelson established himself as a beloved on-air presence in the Northwest. While working at KOMO throughout that period, Nelson (who sometimes enjoyed a remarkable 10 per cent audience share) became a local fixture and upon his untimely passing on November 27, 2007, he was widely mourned and described in tributes as having a “sweet-honeyed voice” (Payne), indeed, “a deep musical voice that most women in the morning were in love with” (whidbeydreamer.blogspot). His show became many households' “soundtrack of the morning” and Nelson was a radio ace with a “warm, friendly, upbeat but never frenetic approach that drew in generations of listeners” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).

And just as Larry Nelson is missed by his many fans, the Northwest rock ‘n’ roll songs that he helped produce so long ago are also still held in high regard by aficionados of vintage doo-wop and R&B music. Both “Dear Lori” and “One Touch of Heaven” were first re-released commercially (on the two-disc compilation album of Aladdin and Imperial label classics titled, Sweet and Greasy) at the very beginning of the Sha Na Na-induced ‘50s Rock Revival that kicked off around 1969-1970.

Then at some point, the two songs were both issued on a bootleg 45 with an Imperial Records, rather than Aladdin, label (No. X5358). In 1999 the songs were reprised again when the Beat Goes On label’s Rhythm & Blues: Volume 1 & 2 compilation CD (CD466 ) was issued in the UK -- which was followed in the USA by the Cedar label’s Aladdin & Imperial R&B Vocal Group Magic, Volume 1 (No. 9084) and Volume 3 (No. 9230) compact discs.

Sources:
Undated press clipping, February 18, 1958 (from Larry Nelson’s personal scrapbook, in possession of the Larry Nelson Estate [Gina Nelson]); Coast Capers column, Music Vender magazine December 28, 1959; author telephone interview with Larry Nelson (September, 12, 1984); interviews with Ron Holden (May 1983, etc), Tiny Tony Smith (September 1984), Chet Noland (1983, 1984, etc), Glenn White (November 6, 2003), Fred Rasmussen (1984); discussion with Gina Nelson (January 16, 2008), telephone interview with Diane Thrasher [nee Norwood] (January 16 and March 31, 2008); KOMO Staff, “Longtime KOMO Radio Host Dies,” November 29, 2007, KOMO-TV website accessed December 5, 2007 (http://www.komotv.com); Patty Payne, “Larry Nelson’s Generous Legacy,” Puget Sound Business Journal, December 7, 2007 (http://seattle.bizjournals.com); Mary Lou Chandler, “Larry Nelson: A Cup of Christmas Tea” Life After Nexcom website accessed January 20, 2008 (http://whidbeydreamer.blogspot.com); Bill Virgin, “Larry Nelson, 1937-2007: KOMO Radio Veteran Larry Nelson Dies,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 29, 2007  (http://seattlepi.nesource.com); and Peter Blecha archives.


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The Shades backstage (Joe, Chuck, Diane, T.J., and Larry), ca. 1958
Courtesy Gina Nelson


The Shades doo-wopping, ca. mid-1958
Courtesy Gina Nelson


Chuck Markulis and Larry Nelson (of the Shades), Everett, 1958
Courtesy Gina Nelson


Aladdin Records (No.3453), The Shades, "Dear Lori," 1959
Courtesy Peter Blecha


Aladdin Records (No.3453), The Shades, "One Touch Of Heaven," 1959
Courtesy Peter Blecha


Ron Holden single ("Love You So"), Nite Owl Records (No. 10), 1959
Courtesy Peter Blecha


Gallahads single, Del-Fi Records (No. 4137), 1960
Courtesy Peter Blecha


Larry Nelson (1937-2007), radio veteran
Courtesy KOMO Radio


Larry Nelson (1937-2007), August 27, 2006
Courtesy Gina Nelson


 
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