Belltown Sounds: A Brief History of Music in the Neighborhood

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 6/18/2018
  • Essay 20589
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Several of Seattle's distinct neighborhoods are closely associated with their rich musical histories, including the Jackson Street area's early jazz scene, E Madison Street's funky R&B past, and downtown's long-standing theater and nightclub activities. Perhaps less recognized is the wide-ranging musical action that has taken place in the Belltown/Denny Regrade neighborhood just north of the city's central business district. For more than a century this area of once low-rent urban residences, light industry, and labor-union offices has also been the home base for many outposts of the music biz and entertainment industry, including theaters, ballrooms, taverns and nightclubs, recording studios, record labels and a record-pressing plant, band-rehearsal spots, and, indeed, the longtime site of the headquarters of Seattle's Musicians' Union, AFM Local 76.

Bell's Town

On November 13, 1851, the Denny Party pioneers arrived from Portland, Oregon, by ship, landing at Alki in what is now West Seattle. Among that group of settlers was William Nathaniel Bell (1817-1887). Toward the end of the following winter, a few of the men decided to scout out other spots on Elliott Bay to make land claims. Carson D. Boren (1824-1912) and Arthur Denny (1822-1899) grabbed sections bordering what would develop into Seattle's old-town Pioneer Square neighborhood, but Bell went north. Bell's claim was on a narrow bayside shelf that backed up to Denny Hill, one of Seattle's steepest. Beginning in 1897 it would be flattened in the Denny Regrade project initiated by city engineer R. H. Thomson (1856-1949).

Relatively isolated because of the terrain, Bell's property didn't enjoy the rapid and profitable development that saw a central business district arise on Boren and Denny's land to the south. But Bell's family played a key role in the tiny community of settlers, and his daughters Olive (1846-1941) and Virginia (1847-1931) sang duets as the Bell Sisters, providing some of the earliest musical entertainment in the muddy village. As the neighborhood was platted, William Bell named various streets in honor of his family: Bell, Virginia, Olive, and Stewart (for Olive's husband, Joseph H. Stewart).

Belltown is bordered by Seattle's central business district to the south, Elliott Bay to the west, the Denny Hill regrade area to the east, and to the north -- since 1962's Century 21 Exposition (the Seattle World's Fair) -- the music-venue-rich Seattle Center campus, which since 2000 has included the city's music museum, the Experience Music Project (EMP), later renamed the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP).

Seattle Musicians' Union

In the wake of Seattle's Great Fire of 1889 -- after much of the city's core had burned and the rebuilding effort begun -- local musicians began discussing the need to join together to improve their negotiating stance versus the proprietors of various theaters and dancehalls. The union's charter members held their initial board meeting on November 2, 1890, in the Armory Hall on Union Street between 3rd and 4th avenues. Their Mutual Musical Protective Union No. 30 was officially admitted to the national organization on December 17 that year. Nearly a decade later, in 1898, the union was recast as the Musicians' Mutual Protective Union No. 76, chartered by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM).

Meanwhile, in 1909 a new armory was built in Belltown at Virginia Street and Western Avenue, and in time it would be made available for dances and other community events. Soon Seattle's musicians' union would acquire a new headquarters, the Musicians' Club of Seattle, in an old house between Virginia and Lenora streets at 2025 4th Avenue. Finally, between 1952 and 1955, AFM Local 76 built an all-new Musicians' Union Hall at 2620 3rd Avenue, where it was based until moving to 3209 Eastlake Avenue E in 2009.

Belltown's Theaters

Anticipating the crowds expected to descend on Seattle during the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909, various local businessmen set plans in motion to accommodate those visitors. Among them was James Moore, whose Moore Hotel at 2nd Avenue and Virginia Street opened in 1907. Attached to it was the 1,400-seat Moore Theatre at 936 2nd Avenue -- the venue for many theatrical musicals and concerts ever since. Perhaps the most legendary was Sub Pop Records' sold-out "Lame Fest" on June 9, 1989, which spotlighted rising grunge stars Mudhoney, TAD, and Nirvana.

With the emergence of the movie industry in the early twentieth century, the Belltown area came to be the home of myriad film-related businesses, and indeed the area was soon known as Seattle's "Film Row." Among the numerous Hollywood-based film-distribution shops were several that boasted private screening rooms where the region's theater owners could review new films and decide which to book into their venues. One small one remained in 2018 -- the Jewelbox Theatre at 2316 2nd Avenue, a gem of a spot that has been used on-and-off since the 1970s to present live theater and musical performances.

Belltown's Ballrooms

The Trianon Ballroom at 218 Wall Street held its grand opening on May 20, 1927. The hall, which covered a half block, had seating for 800 and a 30-by-135-foot dance floor that accommodated more than 5,000 dancers. It was hyped by its owners, Seattle's John Savage and Los Angeles-based bandleader Herb Wiedoeft, as the largest dancehall west of Chicago. Crowds attending the debut were thrilled to dance to Wiedoeft's famous Brunswick Recording Orchestra, and thus three decades of merriment commenced at the Trianon.

Over the years top-tier touring dance bands -- including those led by Guy Lombardo (1902-1977), Duke Ellington (1899-1974), and Lionel Hampton (1908-2002) -- were brought to town, but the Trianon also provided an opportunity for up-and-coming local talent to perform before sizable audiences. Among the Seattle players who strode its stage were a dance band led by Vic Meyers (1897-1991) and the hottest 1930s swing band in the whole Northwest, the Gay Jones Orchestra. A decade later Robert "Bumps" Blackwell's (1918-1985) Junior Band -- which included a teenage trumpeter named Quincy Jones (b. 1933) -- performed at the Trianon, as did the Maxin Trio, led by the teenage pianist/singer Ray Charles (1930-2004), who would go on to great fame as the "genius of Soul."

On December 23, 1927, the Roseland Dance Palace, located at the northeast corner of 3rd Avenue and Bell Street, held its grand opening, with tunes provided by Nick Carter and his Varsitonians. Built with a huge $100,000 budget, the building boasted an exotic mottled-stucco Spanish motif, an 80-by-100-foot maple dance floor and seating for 200. "We have spared no effort to make the Roseland the finest dance palace in the Northwest," the Roseland corporation's president and manager, W. L. Scribner, told The Seattle Times ("New Roseland Dance Hall ...").

A fine dance venue it was, but the Roseland Dance Palace didn't last long, and on May 18, 1928, it was recast as Cole McElroy's Spanish Ballroom. J. Cole "Pop" McElroy had originally brought his Spanish Ballroom Band to prominence from its home base in Portland, scoring a recording contract with a major label, Columbia Records, in 1926. But the opportunity to acquire a Spanish-themed venue in Seattle must have been irresistible to McElroy, an ambitious businessman.

The Record Biz

One of the Pacific Northwest's pioneering record labels -- Howell Oakdean "Morrie" Morrison's (1888-1984) Morrison Records -- began recording local talent in the late 1940s. Among those recorded were orchestras led by Frankie Roth, Jackie Souders (1904-1968), and Art Mineo (1918-2010), and western singers, including Curly Hayes and his Hayseeds, Clyde Wesche and his Western Rangers, and Paul (1896-1972) and Bonnie "Bonnie Guitar" (1923-2019) Tutmarc. Within a few years the business had expanded to include a recording studio in North Seattle, a warehouse just west of Queen Anne Hill, and what was likely Seattle's first record-pressing plant, in Belltown at 211 Clay Street.

Later, in September 1961, one of Seattle's premier audio engineers, Kearney Barton (1931-2012) -- the fellow who had cut recordings for most of Seattle's 1950s pop stars, including Bonnie Guitar, Pat Suzuki (b. 1930), The Fleetwoods, and the Brothers Four -- moved his Northwest Recorders from a downtown location at 622 Union Street to the northern edge of Belltown. Starting over as Audio Recording, Inc., Barton's studio at 170 Denny Way would be the site of numerous significant sessions. In April 1965 Barton moved deeper into Belltown, converting a former muffler-repair shop at 2227 5th Avenue into a state-of-the-art studio. This was where hit-making sessions with local bands, including the Wailers, Counts, Dynamics, Sonics, Don and the Goodtimes, Merrilee Rush and the Turnabouts, and others, occurred up through 1981, when Barton built a new studio at his home in Seattle's Bryant neighborhood.

Another notable recording studio in Belltown was Kaye-Smith Productions. Kaye-Smith was a joint venture headed by Seattle businessman Lester Smith (1919-2013) and Hollywood actor Danny Kaye (1911-1987). Founded in 1958, Kaye-Smith Enterprises built an investment portfolio that included Seattle radio stations KJR and KISW-FM, Spokane's KJRB and KEZE-FM, Portland's KXL, and other stations in Kansas and Ohio. In addition, Kaye-Smith launched Concerts West, a company that handled nationwide tours for the likes of Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin. Along the way, a new Kaye-Smith Studios opened for business at 2212 4th Avenue -- the former site of Dave Levy's late-1960s R&B-oriented nightclub, DJ's, which by 1969 had become The Showcase. Among the recording artists who used the Kaye-Smith facility were Bachman-Turner Overdrive (1973's Bachman-Turner Overdrive II LP and 1974's Not Fragile LP), Steve Miller (1976's Fly Like An Eagle LP and 1977's Book of Dreams LP), Elton John (1979's The Thom Bell Sessions '77 EP), and Heart (1977's Little Queen LP).

In 1979 former KING radio disc jockey (and KING Broadcasting production director) Steve Lawson went independent, founding Steve Lawson Productions -- a modest 8-track jingle-production house on 6th Avenue. Lawson was gaining a good reputation for his studio skills, and in 1990 he moved up, buying the old Kaye-Smith spot in Belltown at 2212 4th Avenue, which was eventually expanded with the addition of a large state-of-the-art recording room called Studio X. In 1991 Heart's Ann (b. 1950) and Nancy (b. 1954) Wilson invested in Lawson's enterprise and the studio was recast as Bad Animals Studios. As the Northwest's grunge movement took hold and bands including Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Pearl Jam used the facility, other artists took note, and Studio X was soon assisting the efforts of established stars, including Johnny Cash (1932-2003), R.E.M., and Danny Elfman (b. 1953). In 1997 Studio X was split off from Bad Animals, and it continued to draw top talents, including Neil Young (b. 1945), Dave Matthews (b. 1967), Macklemore (b. 1983) and Ryan Lewis (b. 1988) , and Chance the Rapper (b. 1993). Both studios continued their track records of excellence.

From 1979 through 2000, the Northwest music scene benefited greatly from having a dedicated music-oriented magazine, The Rocket, which reviewed local recordings and publicized upcoming gigs. Between 1981 and 1986 its offices were in the B. F. Shearer building at 2318 2nd Avenue, after which it was based in another Belltown location at 2028 5th Avenue. The buildings surrounding the old Rocket office would later become known for providing rehearsal spaces for such notable local bands as Pearl Jam, Hammerbox, and the Walkabouts.

Belltown is also renowned as the original home of Seattle's most successful record company, Sub Pop. Founded in the early 1980s by Olympia's Bruce Pavitt (b. 1959) as a fanzine/compilation-cassette project, Sub Pop issued its first LP, Sub Pop 100, in 1986. The following year Seattle guitarist Jonathan Poneman (b. 1959) joined forces with Pavitt and soon record releases by promising local bands Green River and Soundgarden got the grunge-rock phenomenon rolling. In April 1988 the pair formally incorporated Sub Pop Records LLC and moved into headquarter offices in the circa-1923 Terminal Sales Building at 1932 1st Avenue. From there Sub Pop discovered and helped guide the successful careers of many alternative-rock bands including Mudhoney and, most famously, Nirvana. In 2003 the label moved a few blocks to its current (2018) headquarters at 2013 4th Avenue, where it has continued with successful local artists, including Sleater-Kinney, the Fleet Foxes, and Shabazz Palaces, among countless others from far and wide.

Nightclubs and Cocktail Lounges

Live music has also long been a part of the Belltown/Denny Regrade area nightclub scene. Back during the 1930s Prohibition era, local bandleader Vic Meyers opened his popular Club Victor at 2221 4th Avenue, and when Prohibition was finally repealed in December 1933, Seattle partied hardy at the spot. Then in March 1934, fabled Seattle businessman E. Russell "Noodles" Smith (d. 1952) invested a ton of money to launch his New Harlem Club nearby at 1916 1/2 4th Avenue. It was touted as a top-quality venue, one that would feature musicians and other entertainers straight from New York City's Harlem. But things went haywire, and by May liquor-enforcement agents focused on the business and successfully shut the place down.

The 1930s also saw Bob Murray open his Dog House restaurant at 714 Denny Way; it moved to 7th Avenue and Bell Street in Belltown in the early 1950s. The place became an iconic late-night joint, with a cocktail lounge that for years featured musical performers on occasion and organists -- like the beloved Dick Dickerson (1928-2006) -- on a more regular basis. Right up until its last call on January 31, 1994, lounge lizards, businessmen, media folks, and rock 'n' rollers all found a haven there where good food and cheap drinks were the norm.

In the mid-1950s Seattle's foremost jazz impresario, Norm Bobrow (1917-2008) -- a concert producer, promoter, KRSC (and then KING) radio DJ, and bandleader -- opened his popular nightspot, The Colony, in the Claremont Hotel at 408 Virginia Street. The Colony was among the first local uptown venues to book African American musicians, and it was where the singing sensation Pat Suzuki (b. 1930) made her name with local audiences before launching a major career on television, then moving on to New York's Broadway and an RCA Victor recording contract.

Another legendary Belltown fixture was the Trade Winds Restaurant in the old Sailors' Union of the Pacific Building at 2505 1st Avenue. Situated below was its Palm Room, at 90 Wall Street, a cocktail bar with dark and cozy Polynesian-themed décor, a classic basement piano bar manned for decades by Lou Bianchi, who entertained generations of night owls who enjoyed singing along to tunes they'd requested. Alas, an electrical fire brought an end to the Palm Room's reign in 1986, and since 1998 the Pampas Room bar has replaced it, with the associated El Gaucho swank steakhouse above.

The northern edge of Belltown also served as the home of some interesting musical nightspots. Among them was Dave Levy's Dave's 5th Avenue nightclub at 112 5th Avenue N, which was a red-hot jazz joint from the 1950s up into the 1960s. Top jazz bands toured through and the room also booked favorite R&B players, among them Big Jay McNeely's band. Also appearing were local groups, including Seattle's first significant white rock-and-roll band, The Frantics, and it was here that the seminal Dave Lewis Trio earned its first fan base.

In 1962, the Peppermint Lounge opened at 222 5th Avenue and Seattle's Merrilee and the Statics entertained dancing crowds during that period of the 1962 World's Fair. Around May 1968, the teen club the Trolly opened up at 2115 4th Avenue, featuring occasional bands (Crome Syrcus, Bread, Big Foot), as well as DJs -- including KOL radio star Robert O. Smith (1942-2010) -- spinning discs. One legendary night members of Three Dog Night dropped in and jammed after their big concert at the Coliseum.

At 131 Taylor Avenue N the Cirque Dinner Theatre popped up in 1973. Owner Gene Keene had struggled for years to find the right location for his business, but here he achieved success presenting musicals and other shows to packed crowds. Years later the building was home to a rock 'n' roll room known as Skoochies, and by 1989 to the OZ Nightclub.

Another happening restaurant/nightclub in Belltown was the 350-patron capacity Trojan Horse at 415 Lenora Street. It was opened on November 24, 1967, by Louie Carras and partners as a Greek restaurant/nightclub that featured a lounge quintet called the Trojans. Over time many acts were brought in, such as the Novelties, the Kings IV, the Back Porch Majority, the Summer Winds, the Rising Generation, and the Burgundy Street Singers. Northwest-based stars got bookings too, including the John Lewis Combo, Rusty Draper, Bonnie Guitar, and the Brothers Four. By 1971 management stepped things up by bringing in hit-makers like Lou Rawls (1933-2006), Jimmie Rodgers (b. 1933), O. C. Smith (1932-2001), the Shirelles, the Platters, and the Ramsey Lewis Trio. In 1975 an arson fire shut the place down, but it re-emerged in December 1979 as Astor Park, "the finest nightclub facility in town" ("Astor Park Is Closed ..."). It was a place where icons like Ray Charles and B. B. King (1925-2015) performed, as well as then-unknown newbies including Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and U2. Astor Park was also a proving ground for a generation of early 1980s Northwest rock bands.

Disco, Punk, Grunge, and Hip-hop

The Belltown dance-club scene got kick-started in 1977 with the arrival of a hip gay bar called Tugs Belltown at 2207 1st Avenue. It featured a sizable dance floor, lots of fresh punk and new-wave rock music from England and New York, and the occasional live band. Down the street another gay venue, Johnny's Handlebar at 2018 1st Avenue, followed Tugs's lead in the fall of 1979 by re-emerging as Wrex, a gay-friendly video dance club that spun alternative- and punk-rock records. In April 1980 Wrex booked the first of countless live bands, both local and touring acts, including Delta 5, Joan Jett (b. 1958), X, Grace Jones (b. 1958), Hüsker Dü, and Romeo Void. In 1982 Wrex was shuttered and the Vogue arose in its place. All the best local bands performed here, including Mudhoney and Alice in Chains, and it was the venue for Nirvana's first well-attended Seattle show, on April 24, 1988.

Belltown was to see an explosion of music venues from the 1970s through the 1980s, including those that featured disco (the Watertown at 2301 1st Avenue); jazz (Dimitriou's Jazz Alley at 2033 6th Avenue); punk (Carpenter's Union Hall at 2nd Avenue and Wall Street, the Lincoln Arts Center at 66 Bell Street, and Danceland U.S.A. at 1510 1/2 1st Avenue); soul, cabaret, and disco (Sidney's at 2600 2nd Avenue); and rock and proto-grunge (Gibson's at 2nd Avenue and Stewart Street, Ditto Tavern at 2303 5th Avenue, and the Athens Café at 2200 2nd Avenue -- later the grunge era's Crocodile Café).

The King Cat Theater (formerly the King Cinema, which had closed in the 1980s) was a large 1,800-capacity venue at 2130 6th Avenue that began hosting live bands (including Nirvana on August 6, 1993) and other events. In the early 1990s the Weathered Wall at 1921 5th Avenue featured a techno DJ on the main floor and a live-band space below, and later morphed into I-Spy, a rock and hip-hop hot spot. In September 1993 the Belltown neighborhood became home to one entirely different type of venue: Sit & Spin, at 2219 4th Avenue. It was a combination restaurant, laundromat, art gallery, and performance hall that hosted scores of rock bands and fringe theater performances -- as well as the washing of plenty of grungy flannel clothing -- until closing in 2003.


"Roseland, Third Avenue and Bell, Inaugurates Gala Season Dec. 23 -- New Amusement Palace Will Open Friday with Nick Carter's Orchestra, The Seattle Times, December 20, 1927, p. 24; "New Roseland Dance Hall Opens Tonight," Ibid., December 23, 1927 p. 11; Robin Updike, "Recording Studio Just a 'Heart' Beat Away," Ibid., October 7, 1991, p. B-1; Patrick MacDonald, "Astor Park Is Closed Over Tax Dispute," Ibid., March 26, 1987, p. E-1; Patrick MacDonald, "Belltown by Night -- Night Life in Seattle's New Downtown Hot Spot Has Begun to Sizzle," Ibid., September 23, 1984, p. G-1; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Morrison, 'Morrie' and Alice -- Northwest Music Industry Pioneers" (by Peter Blecha), "Barton, Kearney (1931-2012): The Man Who Engineered the Northwest Sound" (by Peter Blecha), "Cirque Playhouse (Seattle, 1950-1981)" (by Peter Blecha), "Crocodile Cafe: Seattle's Icon of the Grunge Rock Era" (by Peter Blecha), "Pat Suzuki: The Seattle Years (1955-1958)" (by Peter Blecha), "Jones, Quincy (b. 1933)" (by Peter Blecha), "Seattle's Film Row and Its Rendezvous Cafe and Jewel Box Theater" (by Peter Blecha), (accessed May 30, 2018); Clark Humphrey, Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story (Portland: Feral House, 1995), 53.

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