On the evening of Saturday, June 28, 1969, popular Seattle jazz pianist Overton Berry (b. 1936) and his trio make their debut performance in the Cork Tree lounge of the new Doubletree Inn hotel/restaurant at Tukwila. Within weeks, the trio will begin drawing sizable crowds, and in early 1970 they will record the Overton Berry Trio at Seattle's Doubletree Inn album, which decades later will become a much sought-after collector's item as it becomes a prized source for a younger generation of musicians and pop producers seeking groove samples to create their own hip-hop tunes. The trio's extended engagement at the Doubletree will stretch into early January 1975, when Berry will move on to a gig in downtown Seattle at the grand Olympic Hotel's Marine Room lounge.
A Pianist's Life
Overton Berry Jr. was born on April 13, 1936, in Houston, Texas, and raised by an aunt in Los Angeles until he was 10, finally resettling with her and her new husband in Seattle in 1945. He began studying classical piano as a child, and continued at the Cornish School (710 E Roy Street) until age 13. By then the sounds of jazz had become a fascination, and he joined a Central District community youth band that rehearsed at a nearby recreation center known as the Neighborhood House (304 18th Avenue S). A gifted student, he attended Garfield High School; in a hurry to move forward, he took summer classes and in 1952 graduated, at age 16, from Lincoln High School.
Berry formed his first jazz trio while still at Garfield and joined one of Seattle's two racially segregated Musicians' Unions -- the "Negro Musicians' Union" (American Federation of Musicians [AFM] Local 493) -- rather than the white players' Local 76. By 1955 Berry was leading a quartet that won a gig at the fabled downtown Seattle jazz joint Dave's Fifth Avenue (112-16 5th Avenue N), and so began a remarkable career that would span more than a half-century of international-nightclub, music-festival, and concert work. Berry would also record a good half-dozen albums over the years, but it was the first two that would remain particularly esteemed by collectors.
The Doubletree Inn
It was in 1969 that an Arizona-based wannabe hotel chain, the Doubletree Inn, opened its second outpost -- this one at a shopping center (today's Westfield Southcenter Mall) near Sea-Tac International Airport at Tukwila, Washington. After acing the audition, Berry's trio was hired to open the new venue's Cork Tree lounge (the restaurant portion was called the Boojum Tree). On Friday, June 27, 1969, The Seattle Times announced that the Doubletree
"restaurant and lounge in the Southcenter complex at Tukwila, opens to the public tomorrow evening with music by Overton Berry's trio ... . the Double Tree [sic] Combo, which will play six nights a week, consists of the leader on piano, Art Todd on bass and Bill Leyritz on drums" (Baker, 1969).
Within three months of gigging at the Cork Tree, lines were forming each night and the hotel's management knew they had a winning formula: a charismatic and genial host/bandleader, quality music, a dance floor, and good food and drink.
In September 1969 a couple of former band-mates -- Chuck Metcalf (bass) and Bill Kotick (drums) -- rejoined Berry, and many a memorable night ensued, especially after a new Jazz Showcase Sundays series was launched in which various luminaries of Seattle's old jazz scene played. These Jazz Showcases in particular began packing in a racially diverse audience. As the Inn's manager informed The Seattle Times: "On Sunday nights this room is integration personified." Berry chimed in with thoughts about his role in planning the music, saying that it is
"a tremendous challenge. When you are successful, you start thinking more about what kinds of groups you bring in. You mix them. At first we were basically jazz, but now we're on a broader base: Jazz, Afro-Cuban, pop. Many musicians nowadays are not oriented towards hard-nose jazz. They're just trying to play good music, and we try to give them that opportunity" (Baker, 1970).
On January 8, 1971, The Seattle Times noted that the trio had just released an LP that had been cut at the Doubletree one year earlier (Baker, 1971). The Doubletree's managers had been seeking outside investors to continue their expansion plans, and the decision was made to cut an album, The Overton Berry Trio At Seattle's Doubletree Inn (Jaro Records JA 13570) -- an LP that would initially be used as bait to attract said investors. The ploy worked, and as the Doubletree chain grew Berry was promoted to entertainment director for the opening of their Tucson and Phoenix locations. Then, on December 1, 1972, it was announced that the Doubletree had signed Berry to a new one-year contract, and that the Overton Berry Ensemble's new album, TOBE (CE Records 1001), had just been released.
The Double-LP Set
The years went by, with Berry continuously leading various trios, quartets, the "ensemble," and working solo gigs as well. Then came the surprise: Two decades after the fact, a number of young musicians worldwide somehow discovered his funky At the Doubletree Inn and TOBE albums and began grabbing groove samples from them to create their own new hip-hop tunes.
In 1993 an Oakland-based band, The Coup, sampled Berry's rendition of "Jesus Christ Superstar (Medley)" for their song "Funk" on the Kill My Landlord album. Then Volume One of a series of albums called Dusty Fingers (compiled by the influential Bronx-based DJ known as Danny Dann the Beat Mann) included "Hey Jude" from the At the Doubletree Inn LP as a tune that features excellent "open breaks" -- producer-speak for solo drum passages that dance-DJs treasure for use as transitional grooves between songs. And in 1995 the San Francisco-based Ubiquity label licensed Berry's "Jesus Christ Superstar" from the TOBE LP for inclusion on their Feelin' Good compilation album.
In 2005 Light in the Attic (LITA) -- a Seattle-based reissue-oriented record company -- stepped in. As their website crowed:
"While local music lovers, dedicated crate-diggers, and diehard funk heads will have heard of the classy pianist (often compared to his better-known peer, Ramsey Lewis), it's finally time to let the world in on our little secret."
And the secret was this: Berry's vintage albums:
"Both take the listener to a time long forgotten, a place where music engaged, invited dialogue, and struck chords deep in one's soul" (Light In The Attic).
LITA produced the Wheedle's Groove album, which compiled the best recordings from Seattle's R&B and soul communities, including Berry's take on the Beatles' "Hey Jude" from the At the Doubletree Inn LP.
Film director Jennifer Maas followed up in 2009 with her critically acclaimed Wheedle's Groove documentary (which included interview snippets with Berry), and Berry and his son Sean launched their own label (TOBE Productions), which re-released TOBE on compact disc. Finally, in 2011 LITA repackaged At the Doubletree Inn together with TOBE in a limited edition, double-LP vinyl format. Thus, the musical legacy of Overton Berry -- who was inducted into the Seattle Jazz Hall of Fame in 2012 -- seems to be firmly established amongst both longtime fans and a whole new generation of music lovers.