A Northwest songster of note, Paula Tutmarc-Johnson was born into Northwest music royalty. Her father was 1920s Seattle radio star, pioneering 1930s electric-guitar maker, music teacher, and bandleader Paul Tutmarc Sr. (1896-1972). Her mother was the 1950s country/pop star and music producer "Bonnie Guitar" Tutmarc (1923-2019). Raised in Seattle, Renton, and Orting, Paula went with Bonnie to Hollywood at age 15 to record an album of folk-pop songs with famous top-tier session players. In 1965 -- promoted as "Alexys" -- she scored a Top-10 regional radio hit with her tune "Freedom's Child," and in 1966 her band performed at the Seattle Center Coliseum on the same bill with such big-time stars as the Beach Boys and the Yardbirds. In the late 1960s she resurfaced with the Maple Valley-based hippie band Peece, playing the outdoor rock festivals of the day. Tutmarc married bassist Jerry Johnson, they raised two children, and in the 1970s -- revealing, again, her penchant for adopting stage names -- she performed as "Cookie Irene" and then as "Iris Hill." More recently she toured Europe singing rhythm & blues music, and as an entrepreneurial businesswoman, operated her own Two Vaults Art Gallery in Tacoma before passing away on March 5, 2013.
Paula Irene Tutmarc was the daughter of two prominent Seattle musicians: radio star, electric-guitar manufacturer, and longtime music teacher Paul Tutmarc and nationally famed country/pop singer and record producer Bonnie Guitar. Tutmarc Sr. had a previous marriage (which resulted in two children, Paul "Bud" Tutmarc Jr. and Jeanne Tutmarc), but he divorced in 1943 and in 1944 married one of his music students, Bonnie Buckingham, from the rural King County town of Auburn.
In 1948 the couple moved into a custom-designed house at 2514 Dexter Avenue N on Seattle's Queen Anne Hill, which included space for "Paul and Bonnie's Guitar Studio" where they each offered musical instruction, and they were finally blessed with their sole child, Paula, who was born at Providence Hospital on August 5, 1950. "Paula was a very happy baby," Bonnie recalled. "And, she was definitely what they would call [astrologically] a 'Leo.' She had an outgoing personality and was very bossy -- even when she was little" (Blecha interview, 2013).
The Tutmarc duo had been cutting records in Seattle for a few years already when, in 1952, some of Bonnie's recordings caught the ear of showbiz bigwigs in Hollywood. Chasing that opportunity, the couple (and their 18-month old daughter) raced down there. But all the attention lavished on his wife upset Tutmarc Sr., and after he threatened to take their baby back home, Bonnie abandoned her quest -- for the moment -- and they all returned to Washington. In 1953 Tutmarc Sr. built a new ranch home at 11204 SE 176th Street, off SE Petrovitsky Road, at a private horse-club (where he served as president) in Renton, and the young family moved to enjoy the open space and owning horses. Meanwhile, as Bonnie remembered, the Dexter house was rented out: "It seems I recall that he had some FBI people rent it for a while" (Blecha interview, 2013).
By about 1955, though, Bonnie was lured back to Los Angeles once again and the marriage finally split up, with Tutmarc Sr. moving back to the Seattle house along with young Paula. Following her life's dream to become a professional musician, Bonnie became a notable recording session guitarist in Los Angeles -- learning the art and science of audio engineering and production along the way. She also scored her first international Top-10 hit single when, in the spring of 1957, the big-time Dot Records company issued her country/pop classic "Dark Moon." Over the subsequent decade she had many more hits and became a trailblazing female record industry pioneer, serving Dot (and later RCA Records) as a talent scout, A&R (Artist and Repertoire) representative, and session producer. Meanwhile, Bonnie made periodic visits back home to the Northwest to visit with her daughter who loved coming to the Renton ranch to see her mother and play with the horses. "Paula used to come to the ranch -- I recall her being there one time and she was feeding the horses and I told her to keep her hand flat, and she didn't, and she got a little nip on the fingers [laughter] which frightened her" (Blecha interview, 2013). Bonnie also enjoyed bringing her daughter gifts.
"I used to come and take Paula shopping at Christmas and different times. I didn't have a good rapport with Paul at that time, because if I wanted to buy her something, it was 'too expensive.' Paul didn't believe in buying expensive things or anything special. Well, I remember one time when I wanted to get her a velvet purple coat and leggings (which were popular with children at that time). Well, I couldn't get them 'cause he wouldn't give me the money. So, I was working in the music business and I was saving my tips for that. And I remember I paid $40 for the coat and leggings. He and I weren't friends during that time -- but the baby was between us and that certainly meant something to both of us" (Blecha interview, 2013).
Meanwhile, young Tutmarc had begun attending elementary classes at the nearby North Queen Anne School and her doting father exposed her to the best things in life. "I have a really great love of all kinds of the arts and culture," she recalled. "And he did that. Because he took me to see Carlos Montoya when I was eight years old. He took me to see Andre Segovia -- he took me to see my first [Marlon] Brando movie!" Tutmarc and her father also shared plenty of quality time together in the woodshop in their home: "He was always in his cabinet shop -- and I spent many hours in there with him. He really always was making a lot of interesting things. I remember great times sitting in the cabinet shop: just being there while he was making something. I don't think he was [still] making [electric] guitars" (Blecha interview, 1996).
In the summer of 1958 Bonnie finally moved back to her ranch, and only months later connected with some Seattle businessmen who were planning the launch of a new pop-oriented record company, which would come to be called Dolton Records. With all of her evident skills and knowledge about the music biz, she was invited to be a partner and in-house producer. It was early 1959 when Dolton scored its first of several international hit records, with a single produced and arranged by Bonnie: the doo-wop classic "Come Softly to Me," as sung by Olympia's teen trio, the Fleetwoods. Then several more of her productions went on to score big-time for Dolton into 1960, and the partners decided to relocate to Hollywood. Bonnie stayed and instead helped co-found Seattle's next successful label, Jerden Records, in 1960. Then at one point Bonnie sold the Renton home and bought an idyllic 82-acre ranch, 40 miles south of Seattle, in Orting, where she lived with her aging parents.
It was while attending Queen Anne High School that the teenaged Tutmarc began to get into minor trouble with her father. "I know that she had snuck out of the house one night and met with some friends and they'd all gone to the University District," Bonnie recalled. "In those days that wasn't a good thing for girls to be doing, on their own ... so there were just a few things like that. She was getting out to rebel against her father's strict ways -- and I'm not thinking he was wrong, because in many ways he was right. But, then she wanted to come out and live with me. So, it worked out, and she came out to live at the ranch" (Blecha interview, 2013).
With Tutmarc Sr.'s approval, their daughter joined Bonnie and began attending Orting High School. That's about when Tutmarc began writing a passel of original songs on her guitar -- "She could sing anything, even at that age," Bonnie recalled -- and mother began guiding daughter's career (Blecha 2013). Perhaps inspired by her mother's successful use of a catchy stage-name, or maybe because she didn't think the hard consonants of her Russian surname were mellifluous enough for showbiz, Tutmarc choose "Tamara Mills" as a new moniker. Bonnie then produced a studio session -- probably with veteran audio engineer Kearney Barton (1931-2012) at his Audio Recording, Inc. -- that resulted in master recordings of two original compositions: "Fool's Hall of Fame" and "Mr. Raindrop." The plan, evidently, was to have Jerden release a single, but for reasons now lost the project did not get further than having the two songs mastered at United Recording Corporation in Hollywood. Those Tamara Mills tunes would likely be totally forgotten today except that in recent years a California-based record collector unearthed a United Recording acetate reference disc of the songs which are pop with a garage-rock edge.
The Evolution of "Alexys"
In 1965 Tutmarc adopted her next stage-name, "Alexys," and began rehearsing with a group of musicians from the Puyallup/Sumner area called III Generation ("Third Generation"). The band had begun in 1962 as the Vibrations, then morphed into the T-Birds in 1963, and in 1965 began gigging with a singing guitarist from Orting named Gary Ballor, who happened to know Bonnie. The guys -- Barry Breen (bass), Steve Phelps (guitar), Scott Templeman (piano), and Steve Northrop (drums) -- entered a talent contest at Seattle's Orpheum Theatre (506 Stewart Street) and battled their way to the semi-finals, while Ballor eventually headed off to seek fame and fortune down in Los Angeles.
A connection was made with Alexys, and Bonnie led the band through some recording sessions at Audio Recording's new location (2227 5th Avenue). The results were a rough demonstration recording of a mother/daughter-composed folk-rock tune, "Freedom's Child." The two Tutmarc women soon went on to Hollywood, where Bonnie produced new sessions that featured some of that city's heaviest session pros. The great jazz-man Shorty Rogers (1924-1994) served as musical director/arranger/conductor, and an all-star band comprised pianist Pete Jolly (1932-2004), drummer Earl Palmer (1924-2008), Emil Richards (marimba), Ben Benay (harmonica), Lyle Ritz (bass) Dennis Budimer (guitar), Jimmy Gordon (drums, on three songs), and Don Peake (b. 1940) -- who later that year would also play the memorable guitar lines on Bobby Darin's Top-10 recording of Tim Hardin's folk-pop masterpiece "If I Were a Carpenter."
In October 1965 Dot Records released Alexys's debut single, "Freedom's Child" / "The Evolution of Alexys" (Dot Records No. D1634). As anticipated, Pat O'Day (b. 1934) -- the key DJ at Seattle's dominant AM radio station, KJR -- grabbed "Freedom's Child" and broke it as a Top-10 regional hit. At the time KJR was one of America's most influential stations and the tune spread as a Top-20 hit to a few other radio markets down the West Coast and then into Texas. Meanwhile, hopes ran high and Alexys and III Generation continued rehearsing, and Bonnie hired a Fife-based tailor to take measurements and sew a matching set of blue stage-outfits for the guys and a gold lamé dress for the singer.
1966 New Year's Spectacular
Back in 1964 O'Day had begun producing multi-band concerts on the former fairgrounds of the 1962 Seattle's World's Fair: the Seattle Center campus. Over time they were marketed as quarterly seasonal events -- the Spring Spectacular, Summer Spectacular, Thanksgiving Spectacular, and so on. It was on December 31, 1965, and January 1, 1966, that the New Year's Spectacular was held -- and Alexys made her live debut.
On the evening of New Year's Eve 1965 she and her band were booked to open the concert that was held at the University of Puget Sound's UPS Fieldhouse (1500 N. Warner Street) in Tacoma. But just getting to the gig became an exhilarating fiasco -- as the III Generation's bassist, Barry Breen, recalled decades later:
"The first night, in Tacoma, the band drove in one car and had to park a ways from the Fieldhouse. We showed up in full costume, the jackets, cocktail ties, black pants, and suede Beatle boots. Halfway across the parking lot we were spotted by teenage girls that screamed and chased after us. Steve Northrop was the slowest runner, got caught, and had his jacket torn a bit, before we were rescued by security" (Breen).
After they played "Freedom's Child" the band left the stage to enjoy watching the subsequent acts -- including Los Angeles's Beach Boys and Gary Lewis and the Playboys; San Francisco's Beau Brummels, Vejtables, and Mojo Men; and England's Yardbirds (with guitar ace Jeff Beck) -- perform.
Then, on the evening of New Year's Day the whole show was repeated on the Seattle Coliseum's famous revolving round stage. The musicians went a little wild partying together backstage, and then carried on partying even heartier afterward at the Hyatt Hotel near SeaTac International Airport.
In May 1966, Dot released a follow-up single, "Gretl" / "A Broken Piece of Crystal" (Dot Records No. 16893), this time credited to "Canterbury Tales featuring Alexys and Gary Ballor." A later round of sessions then commenced in Los Angeles -- this time with guitar ace Glen Campbell (whose most recent solo hit had been 1965's rendition of Donovan's folkie protest anthem "The Universal Soldier") joining in -- resulting in "A Cold and Lonely Room," "I'm Beginning to See the Light," "Big Wayne," and "The Last of Me."
Then came the release of the Alexys album (Dot Records No. DLP-3713) which included "Freedom's Child," "A Broken Piece of Crystal," "Half Breed Star," "I'm Beginning to See the Light," "Gone With the Rain," "Miss Misfortune," "No More," "A Cold and Lonely Room," "This Ole World," "Lotta Work," "Ole Devil," and "Kansas City." Finally came the follow-up single -- "Big Wayne" / "The Last of Me" (Dot Records 16994) -- which dates to about February 1967. Alexys also featured Shorty Rogers's liner notes, which commanded:
"O.K. everybody. The time has come for everybody to move over and make room for one more. The one more I'm speaking of is ALEXYS. On second thought, it doesn't matter if you move over or not. A great talent like ALEXYS is strong enough to make room for itself. This is an amazing young girl ... with deep, strong musical roots. All of her life she has been surrounded by music, thanks to her famous mother, Bonnie Guitar. I don't think she could have a more capable teacher than Bonnie to expose her to traditional American Folk music ... On top of her natural heritage ... she has successfully found her own means of musical expression, both as a performer and writer. With Bonnie's approval and encouragement she has developed musical scope that goes from ancient English Folk music, to American Folk music, to Country & Western music, to jazz, to Motown, to Donovan (her favorite). ... She is an experience to hear and a great joy for this arranger to work with. ... I know I am right. Listen and I'm sure you'll agree" (Rogers).
Cash Box magazine certainly agreed, giving Alexys, as Bonnie recalled, a "Best Bet" rating -- which "was big in those days" (Blecha interview, 2013).
As the 1960s flowed into the seventies outdoor rock festivals were a key counter-culture phenomenon and the Seattle Pop Festival (July 25-29, 1969) in Woodinville's Gold Creek Park became a legendary one. As it happened, Bonnie Guitar served as chauffeur for her daughter and Barry Breen -- both dropping them off to attend and then picking them up later. Before long Tutmarc began performing with the Maple Valley-based band Peece, which formed in 1969. That same year, she married a guitarist named Gary Morton who is remembered for playing with local bands Clear Mountain Lookout and Front Page.
Paula Morton sang with Peece -- which included Dick Gerber (guitar) and Randy Bennett (bass) formerly with Burien's Statics (which later morphed into Merrilee Rush and the Turnabouts), and drummer Karl Peters (1944-2003) from Burien's Nomads (and then the Turnabouts). Some of Peece's best gigs included the Sunrise to Sunset Festival near Duvall on May 1, 1969; at The Happening (1422 First Avenue) with Black Snake, Crome Syrcus, Floating Bridge, the Gas Company, Guitar Shorty, Truck, and Jimmy Winkler & Muff on August 24, 1969; Festival '71 (the precursor to Seattle's annual Bumbershoot Arts Festival) on Seattle Center's Mural Amphitheater stage on August 13-15, 1971; and at the Moore Theatre (936 Second Avenue) on June 12, 1971, opening for Joy of Cooking.
It was also in 1971 that Peece was booked to perform at the Hippodrome in Federal Way -- a venue where a bassist from White Center, named Jerry Johnson (b. 1952) had been throwing monthly events with his brothers. That's when Paula Morton -- who had been divorced for about a year -- met Johnson. They hit it off well, and he ended up becoming a roadie for Peece. The duo moved in into a rental house at Pacific Highway S and S 188th Street with a half dozen good friends.
On September 25, 1972, two major events rocked Paula Morton's world: her father, Paul Tutmarc Sr., died, and her first daughter, Amy, was born. Soon after, Bonnie proposed that Paula and Jerry help form a band to back her on the road. With six-week-old Amy in tow they, and pianist Dennis Yaden (who had initially played with an early-sixties Maple Valley band, the Exotics) and Korean drummer Yong Ukha, headed to Nevada. Jerry drove his family in a 1963 Buick Riviera pulling a house trailer and all went fine until they were in a wreck and he had to buy a new vehicle. After Nevada the band gigged through Oregon and back up to Washington.
Paula and Jerry got married on July 28, 1973, and after Paula inherited a 40-acre spread in Matlock from her late father, the young family moved there and lived for several months in a parked 1949 Ford bus equipped with a woodstove and outhouse. It was a hard existence and they moved back to a rental house in White Center. Paula Johnson gave birth to their second daughter, Emily, in 1976.
Ever fond of taking on new names, Tutmarc/Mills/Alexys/Morton/Johnson resurfaced in the early 1970s as "Cookie Irene." In 1972 she headed to Nashville where she had some sessions for 4-Star Records led by 4-Star's head, Joe Johnson, and arranged and conducted by Bill Justis (1926-1982), who famously worked at Sun Records' Memphis, Tennessee, studio, arranging sessions for Johnny Cash (1932-2003), Jerry Lee Lewis (b. 1935), Roy Orbison (1936-1988), and Charlie Rich (1932-1995).
Among the tunes Cookie Irene cut were a version of Barbara George's (1942-2006) 1961 hit, "I Know (You Don't Love Me No More)," "Hello Love," "Free to Flirt," "Moonlight Dancer," "Flesh and Blood Man," and a new Kris Kristofferson (b. 1936) composition, "The Loving Gift." The vagaries of the often-exasperating record biz soon came into play though: About two weeks later blues singer Bonnie Raitt's second album, Give It Up, was released with her own rendition of "I Know," and Irene's version was put on hold. Meanwhile, "The Loving Gift" was produced as a vocal duet with Gary Troxell (b. 1939), a former member of the Fleetwoods, whose initial 1959 No. 1 international hit "Come Softly to Me" had been produced by Bonnie. Alas, during that particular session Kristofferson dropped in with his buddy Johnny Cash, and several days later, on October 12, 1972, Cash and his wife June Carter Cash (1929-2003) released their own duet version of the same song, which became a sizable hit, and Irene's was effectively trumped in the marketplace.
In early 1974 Cookie Irene began performing nightly at the Pioneer Square neighborhood's Pioneer Banque restaurant (601 First Avenue) with a trio led by Dennis Yadon. In addition, for perhaps a year or so, they also filled in for Seattle jazz pianist Overton Berry (b. 1936), when he took time off from his longtime gig at Tukwila's Doubletree Inn lounge.
In September Irene also popped up in downtown Seattle at the Trojan Horse restaurant/nightclub (415 Lenora Street) contributing to her mother's show. A columnist at The Seattle Daily Times attended one performance and reported, "Whenever she pauses for breath, Bonnie brings on her singing daughter, Cookie Irene. Bonnie says Cookie Irene, 24, who has a recording contract with the huge M.C.A. company, will be a superstar. Maternal pride aside, Bonnie does know the music business inside and out and does not air such judgments lightly. I had time to only hear one number by Cookie Irene -- a knockout version of Al Jolson's 'Mammy.' The brief exposure convinced me that Cookie Irene has a lot of talent, at the very least" (Baker). Finally, in 1975 4-Star released four of her recordings on two singles: "I Know (You Don't Love Me No More)" / "Hello Love" (4-Star No. 5-1005) and "Flesh and Blood Man" / "Free to Flirt" (4-Star No. 5-1014).
"Paula Irene"/"Iris Hill"
The next years flew by with many gigs and incarnations of various bands. The year 1977 saw the Johnsons relocating to Fairbanks, Alaska, for an extended hotel-lounge gig with their new band Sunstone, featuring -- wait for it! -- "Paula Irene," along with Gary Morton (guitar) and Don Johnstead (drums). In 1979 the family moved back to the Matlock property where Jerry placed a mobile home and worked at the nearby Simpson lumber mill. Simultaneously, they began playing what Jerry humorously called the "animal clubs" -- Elks, Eagles, and Moose clubs -- with the band Freefall, composed of Hoods Canal-area musicians Randy Linder (guitar) and Peggy Linder (drums).
Around 1981 Paula reemerged as "Iris Hill," with a namesake band that included her husband (bass), Pat Williams and Mark Thompson (guitars), and John Howard (drums). Over the next several years the Iris Hill Band played many gigs at nightclubs and taverns including Seattle's Buffalo Tavern (5403 Ballard Avenue NW), Captain Coyote's on Olympia's West Side, and the Slammer (2802 Auburn Way N) in Auburn. Then in 1982 Hill decided that she wanted to run her own venue and for a brief spell booked bands and events at her Rat City Rock Room (9801 16th Avenue SW) in White Center.
Meanwhile Bonnie Guitar married Mario DiPiano and they began raising quarter horses on the ranch at Orting. After his death in January 1983 Bonnie moved to Soap Lake in Eastern Washington to take on a decade-plus-long gig at the town's Businessmen's Club. And she asked if her daughter's family would like to move and take care of the ranch, which they did, living there until 1989. They moved next to Puyallup, staying until 1998, and then moved to Tacoma where they eventually bought a home and remained for the rest of Paula's life.
Around 1995 the singer finally began proudly performing under her actual name: Paula Tutmarc-Johnson. That same year Paula and Jerry decided to independently produce an album of new songs she had been writing. Booking session time at the highly esteemed David Lange Studios (8514 25th Street E) in Edgewood and recruiting some of the area's finest musicians -- including John Morton (guitars), Jon Goforth (sax), Clipper Anderson (upright bass), and Mark Ivester (drums) -- they recorded a set of tangos, bossa nova, samba, and gypsy jazz tunes that were released on Tutmarc-Johnson's Souls CD. That was followed up with 2000's Nomad Heart album.
Meanwhile the Johnson family had taken to hosting a series of foreign exchange students in their home and it just so happened that one student's parents were active in booking musicians at festivals across Europe. When they heard those recent recordings an offer was tendered, and in 2000 and 2001 Tutmarc-Johnson performed there each summer. She also appeared with the Seattle Women in Rhythm and Blues, which featured a varying lineup of veteran local singers including Merrilee Rush (the Statics and the Turnabouts), Nancy Claire (Frantics, Dynamics, Viceroys), Kathi McDonald (1948-2012) of the Unusuals, Patti Allen (the Toggeries), and Kathi Hart (the Bluestars).
Since You've Gone
In 2007 Tutmarc-Johnson launched her own Two Vaults Art Gallery (206 Fawcett Avenue) in Tacoma, and about that time a fine thing happened within the greater Tutmarc family: various musical members (grandsons and great-grandsons) from Paul Tutmarc's original marriage, along with Bonnie and Paula and Jerry (who by now had four of their own grandkids), began getting together for family jam sessions. Several family-made videos of such sessions were posted on YouTube including one from 2007 of Bonnie debuting a particularly touching new composition, "Angel Face." Then in 2008 Shane Tutmarc (b. 1981) -- a son of Bud Tutmarc's son Greg (b. 1953) who had become a quite promising Nashville-based musician/singer -- issued his latest album, Hey Lazarus!, which featured two duets he cut with Paula: "Angel Face" and "Since You've Gone."
In July 2012 Paula suddenly faced a surprise diagnosis of terminal cancer, but fought bravely and cheerfully for the remainder of her life. Her spirits were raised during the following winter when some discussions were held with a record label that had shown some interest in re-releasing her 1960s recordings in a new CD package, but licensing difficulties got in the way. Paula Tutmarc-Johnson passed away peacefully in the arms of her husband on the morning of March 5, 2013.
Tutmarc-Johnson was an artist known for giving her all to every song she sang, but also one who refused to single-mindedly pursue stardom. Reflecting back on his wife's whole life and career -- and her confounding insistence on performing under so many different pseudonyms -- Jerry Johnson wistfully concluded with evident pride: "She was the most-reluctant great singer you'll ever meet" (Blecha interview, 2013).