Rosa, Valerie (b. 1948)

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 9/11/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20848

Soulful Seattle singer Valerie Rosa's family roots were in Italy, Norway, and pre-statehood Alaska Territory. Her father was a professional musician who performed with prominent Seattle dance bands of the 1940s and '50s, and her home life always included much music-making. At age 13 Rosa worked her first paying jazz gigs in an afterhours nightclub in Seattle's Chinatown-International District. While still a teenager she sang with early Pacific Northwest rock 'n' roll bands, including the Dimensions, Viceroys, and Dynamics, and joined Jimmy Hanna's Big Band -- a large ensemble of premier R&B players that opened local concerts for touring Motown stars. Rosa headed to Hollywood in 1967, where she experienced brushes with fame and had many memorable musical encounters. Capitol Records released her solo single in 1971, and she sang with the likes of soul pioneer Ray Charles (1930-2004) and jazz diva Nancy Wilson (1937-2018). After marriage and motherhood -- and gigging and recording with numerous bands -- Rosa returned home in the 1980s, sang for years with the Dynamic Logs, established herself as a beloved fixture on the local R&B scene, and appeared regularly on television's Northern Exposure.

The Rosa Familia

Valerie Ann Rosa was born at Seattle's Providence Hospital on April 30, 1948, to Ernest "Babe" Benjamin Rosa (1914-1974) and Bernice Laura Rosa (1921-1987). Babe's father, Giovanni "Johnny" Rosa, was an artisanal cutler -- a craftsman of handmade knives -- who immigrated to America from Casasola, Italy, in 1898. He later returned to Italy to marry his childhood sweetheart, Magdalena ("Mary"), and the couple made their way out to the Pacific Northwest. They settled in the tiny King County coal-mining town of Black Diamond, where Johnny became a miner and the couple had the first of eight children. Ernest, their last son, was born in the family's new home on Renton's Talbot Hill at 9446 S 150th Place.

The Rosa clan was welcomed into the area's robust Italian American community, and there was always good food, wine, and music at house parties and picnics. Ernie had natural musical talent, quickly learning to read music and improvise tunes on the family piano. He took lessons from Renton-based teacher Ida Harries Dexter and later studied music at the University of Washington. Ernie met Bernice Jensen, a cocktail waitress at Seattle's Roll Inn Tavern (1526 8th Avenue), who was born in Kenai, Alaska Territory, and raised in Everett. Her father, John Jensen, had emigrated from Bergen, Norway, while her mother, Mary, was of the Sugpiaq/Aleut Alaska Native people.

Bernice Rosa loved to sing and listen to Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday records, while Ernie carved out a career as a professional musician -- the only job he would ever hold. A member of the Tacoma and Renton Musicians Unions, and after 1941 the Seattle AFM Local No. 76, he worked steadily, performing solo, in duos, with little combos, and with top local dance bands, including the Norm Hoagy Orchestra, the Hugh Bruin Combo, and a Latino outfit called the San Souci Boys. Over time he befriended and performed with all the top local players, including Frank Sugia, Joe Venuti, Joe Farmer, Al Turay, Floyd Standifer, and many others. This took him all over town -- from such fabled Seattle's jazz joints as the Black and Tan (1205 Jackson Street), Club 410 (410 Seventh Avenue S), the China Pheasant (10315 E Marginal Way), and the Magic Inn (602 1/2 Union Street) -- to the grand Palomar Theatre (1300 Third Avenue).

"Twist & Shout"

Val Rosa and her older sister, Signe (b. 1943), were raised in the family's Talbot Hill home and attended Henry Ford Elementary School. They worshiped at the local Lutheran Church, where Val began singing. She took piano lessons from Ms. Dexter, but ended up playing the flute, eventually being taught by Seattle Symphony flautist Victor Case.

When rock 'n' roll began bubbling up, Val was invited to make an occasional appearance with fledgling combos, and the first rock song she recalls ever singing was the Isley Brothers' 1962 hit, "Twist and Shout," at a gig at Bellevue's Vasa Park. She soon was invited to sing with the Dimensions, a South Seattle band that later, in 1966, scored a Top-10 radio hit on KJR with "She's Boss."

After attending McKnight Junior High, Val entered Renton High School, where she took up playing the oboe and joined the orchestra and choir. What she really wanted was to play in the school's swing band -- a sticky situation, as no female had ever been allowed to join that ensemble. But her obvious talents convinced the music program's instructor, Randall Rockhill (1917-2008), to allow her in, a change that was considered a significant policy advance. Rosa also studied vocals with the noted New York opera singer Madame E. Bianchi, and with George F. Peckham (1904-1994). Also interested in the theater arts, Rosa appeared in one production at the University District's Showboat Theatre, and she also worked briefly at the Cirque Playhouse (3406 E Union Street).

Northwest Rock

As early as 1961 Val, at the tender age of 13, was invited to begin performing at an afterhours Chinatown nightclub in a duo with a friend of her father's, the pianist Overton Berry. Not long after, she was contacted by Nancy Claire (b. 1943), another teen singer, who hailed from the Covington area near Renton. Claire hired her to join a backup vocal group, the Bluesettes, that played teen dances with the Viceroys, a band from North Seattle. The Viceroys would later score a No. 1 regional radio hit with their instrumental tune, "Granny's Pad," and guitarist/leader Jim Valley would go even further, becoming a member of one of the Northwest's greatest rock bands of all time, Paul Revere and the Raiders.

The Viceroys cut records for Seattle's Bolo Records, the same label that issued discs by the Dynamics. That band traced its roots back to 1958, when its members formed as the Keynotes at West Seattle's Sealth High School. At that time they were one of a mere handful of white rock 'n' roll combos in the area. In 1961 they added a singer, "Jimmy Hanna," the stage-name for Jim Ogilvy, the son of Tom and Ellen Ogilvy, who operated Seafair Records and Bolo Records, two of the region's top recording companies.

While Hanna fronted the Dynamics, the band sometimes also featured Nancy Claire, and later began hiring Rosa to do gigs with them. Five years older, Claire also hipped Rosa to the action in town, and one night she took her to see the Ike & Tina Turner Revue perform for a largely African American crowd in downtown Seattle at the old Eagles Auditorium (700 Union Street). Rosa also began attending teen dances at popular local venues, including Parker's Ballroom (17001 Aurora Avenue N) and the Spanish Castle (NW corner of old Highway 99 and the Kent-Des Moines Road), where she first saw the popular Burien band, the Statics, which featured Tiny Tony (1940-1987) and Merrilee Rush (b. 1944).

The Dynamics also had one of Washington's finest guitarists, future jazz star Larry Coryell (1943-2017). Several of their singles -- and the iconic 1964 live album The Dynamics with Jimmy Hanna (aka  At Parkers [Ballroom]) -- became local hits and bestsellers for Bolo Records. For her part, Rosa was easy to work with; at age 15 she'd bought her own car, a '49 Plymouth Deluxe, and at sweet 16 was able to drive to her own gigs, including to the Fort Lewis Officers Club south of Tacoma and Seattle's  Party Line nitespot (707 First Avenue), where she snuck in to sing with Mike Mandel's combo. But Rosa also took her musical education seriously, studying at Seattle's esteemed Cornish School (710 E Roy Street).

A Big Blues Band

The Dynamics rose through the ranks to become Seattle's premier dance band and began to score notable gigs, like opening for a new pop act from Hollywood, Sonny and Cher. But this music was not the direction that the Dynamics -- and Jimmy Hanna especially -- were interested in. It was in 1966 that Hanna began to engineer his next career step -- forming and leading his own funky big-band, modeled on the large ensembles led by James Brown and Bobby Blue Bland, that would play a mixture of R&B, jazz, and pop tunes.

This new band (which started as an 11-man group but grew to have 18 members) would feature many of the area's most-promising young musicians, including Jimmy Holden (organ); John Carmody (guitar); Keith Baggerly; and/or Bob Cozetti, Ron Soderstrom, Jay Thomas (trumpets); Marty Tuttle (drums); and bassist John Keski (who would later play with Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys and, in 1968, with Lee Michaels).

Billed variously as Jimmy Hanna and His Band, the Jimmy Hanna Big Band, Jimmy Hanna's Big Blues Band, and the Jimmy Hanna Revue, the group also showcased a vocal quartet comprising Rosa, Nancy Claire, Billy Burns, and Steve Fischler. Hanna usually took the lead vocals on their recordings, but in a live performance setting everybody got their turn in the spotlight, and Rosa's signature solo was on Burt Bacharach's "Are You There (With Another Girl)?" The band's 1966 recording of "The Happy Hour" showed Hanna channeling his best Smoky Robinson, with Rosa provided backing vocals.

Hanna's band -- with their formidable skills, sophisticated arrangements, and formal stage attire -- secured a string of prime gigs, which included opening for Martha and the Vandellas and Major Lance on April 9, 1967, at the Seattle Center Arena, and for Brenda Holloway and David Ruffin on May 29 at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall. Other shows backing the Temptations and the Four Tops followed. Yet the large, horn-heavy band's timing proved to have been a bit off; it launched in the midst of the guitar-driven British Invasion, when the world's most exciting new band was the British power trio Cream, with Eric Clapton. But to their credit, Hanna and his band did blaze a trail that was followed by subsequent brassy bands, including New York's Blood Sweat & Tears, Chicago's Chicago Transit Authority, and Oakland's Tower of Power.

From the Haight to Hollywood

A life and career in showbiz is never an easy one, and taken as a whole, Val Rosa's experiences are mindboggling. Around 1967's Summer of Love she was contacted by Nancy Claire, who had recently completed a nightclub gig in San Francisco with a Seattle band, the Frantics. Claire told her of an opportunity in that city -- gigging at the Peppermint Tree nightclub with Bob Bogle (1934-2009) of Tacoma's great instrumental band, the Ventures. Rosa fired up her new Barracuda automobile, drove south, got the gig, checked out the burgeoning Haight-Ashbury counterculture scene, and quickly moved along to Hollywood.

Upon arriving in L.A., Rosa saw that an old friend of her mother's, jazz singer Anita O'Day (1919-2006), was booked at a popular restaurant/nightclub in Inglewood, Marty's On The Hill, a venue frequented by movie, music, and TV stars. Rosa went there, saw O'Day, and scored a job as a hostess. From there she proceeded to make all sorts of connections and friendships, and was soon invited to move in with famed singer Della Reese (1931-2017) to work as a nanny to the star's daughter. She auditioned as a dancer with the Golddiggers, a glamorous group that appeared weekly on NBC-TV's The Dean Martin Show. Rosa also got involved in a vocal-quartet project led by famed jazz singer Nancy Wilson, and on one occasion sang backup for the "Genius of Soul," Ray Charles. She also sang with Jazz Crusaders' keyboardist Joe Sample (1939-2014), with jazzmen Mongo Santamaria (1917-2003), Buddy Rich (1917-1987), and Oliver Nelson (1932-1975), and studied flute with Buddy Collette (1921-2010).

Rosa's old Viceroys pal, Jim Valley, had become a star as "Harpo," the guitarist with Paul Revere and the Raiders, but by 1967 he'd left the band and launched a solo career. He invited Rosa to sing backing vocals on "Try, Try, Try" a single cut for the big-time label, Dunhill Records. In 1969 she appeared onstage as an extra on ABC-TV's Hollywood Palace variety show with "Godfather of Soul" James Brown, and at about that same time joined a hippie band in San Francisco called Brotherly Love.

The Music Capital

Meanwhile, a song-publishing executive offered to work as Rosa's manager, and one connection he made was with the country-music-biz figure Cliffie Stone (who had guided Tennessee Ernie Ford and others to fame). Stone must have had no clue what to do with this R&B belter from Seattle, but at least he did something. Stone offered Rosa over to his son Steve Stone, a pianist/songwriter turned producer who worked with country stars, including Dorsey Burnette, Roy Clark, Freddie Hart, Jody Miller, and Red Simpson.

Steve Stone was equally befuddled, but he selected five country songs that were languishing in a publisher's portfolio and ran them by Rosa. She wasn't thrilled with any of them, but her least favorite was one called "Snowbird." As it happened, Stone soon took that rejected tune, paired it with another up-and-coming singer, Anne Murray, and in 1970 her recording became an international Top-10 hit. Ouch…

Rosa's career in Hollywood got underway in earnest when Steve Stone gave her with a choice of available arrangers, and she was pleased to select Milton "Shorty" Rogers, an in-demand ace who helped define the sound of 1950s West Coast jazz and later  wrote scores and conducted orchestras for numerous Hollywood films. Rogers also dabbled in pop music, working on tunes ranging from Ray Peterson's 1959 hit, "The Wonder Of You" to the Monkees' 1967 smash, "Daydream Believer."

Rosa ended up in Capitol Records' esteemed Studio A, with Stone and Rogers leading sessions that featured famed drummer Hal Blaine (1929-2019), West Coast electric-guitar ace, Neil Levang (1932-2015), and a crew of other first-call studio players. This team cut four country songs -- "Hometown Revival," "Wine On My Mind," "Man," and "Misery" -- albeit in a jazz-tinged manner. It would be the latter two tunes that Capitol liked. On October 7, 1970, the label officially registered their purchase of the master tracks and issued the single in February 1971. The record -- countryish tunes rendered in a pop idiom -- seemed only to confuse the marketplace. "Man" garnered the only airplay, on a scattered few radio stations in the Deep South.

From Vegas to Electric Ladyland

In 1972 Rosa hired on with the New Kick, a troupe of poppy folksingers (promisingly managed by the famed William Morris Agency) who were alumni of the New Christy Minstrels and had a stage show in which Rosa became the token soul singer. On New Year's Eve 1971 she began an extended gig on the top floor of the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel -- where Tina Turner was booked in the lounge -- and was welcome to hang out backstage with Elvis Presley and his "Memphis Mafia" gang, an option she found unappealing.

Returning to Los Angeles, Rosa joined the Hollywood-based pop band Dailey Variety, whose drummer, Carson Michaels, she married in June 1972. The following year they moved to Seattle, where their son Justin Carson Michaels was born on May 23, 1973. Their second child, Vivienne Rosa Michaels, was born on May 26, 1983, and the couple also raised Michaels' daughter Sarah Spry, born in 1966. They later moved back to California, where they helped manage Carson's parents' health-food store.

From there, many more adventures unfolded. Michaels joined McKendree Spring, a folk-rock band from Glens Falls, New York, and when they set out to record their next couple of albums -- at Bearsville Studios near Woodstock, and then at Jimi Hendrix' Electric Ladyland Studio in New York -- both he and Rosa contributed to the sessions. In the late 1970s Rosa fronted an all-originals San Francisco-based band, Strut.

Galactic Street Band

Back in Seattle, Rosa found herself stuck at the Sea-Tac Hilton, gigging unfulfilling six-nighters with a band called Horizon. Then she saw a classified ad seeking a new singer for a ragtag Seattle band called the Dynamic Logs. After she made contact, several members came down to the Hilton to check her out.

The Logs had been founded in 1978 by an ever-shifting crew of experienced street musicians who gained early notoriety busking at the Pike Place Market. At one point their reputation was such that that a Time magazine article included a quote describing the combo as the "street band of the galaxy" ("The Bands of Summer"). Though they'd started out on the streets, the Logs would soon prove to be among the most popular club acts in the Northwest tavern scene. It was a time when members of the Baby Boom generation wanted to dance to the funky music of their youth, especially bluesy soul music and the Motown catalog. Bands like Annie Rose and the Thrillers, Eddie & the Atlantics, and the Dynamic Logs emerged to fill that niche

That's when the Logs added a genuine soul singer with deep experience: Val Rosa. The band moved in from the streets to some of the region's most popular dance spots, including the Fabulous Rainbow Tavern (722 NE 45th Street), the Buffalo Tavern (5403 Ballard Avenue NW), the Owl Tavern (5140 Ballard Avenue NW), and the G-Note (300 NW 85th Street) before disbanding in 1984. For a time, both Rosa and Michaels played in the band, although he also had a stints with Annie Rose and the Thrillers, the Reputations, and the D-Rangers. The Log's farewell recording -- the Vinyl Reunion album -- featured Rosa's lead vocals on the funky Isaac Hayes gem, "You're Taking Up Another Man's Place."

Northwest Exposure

A familiar presence at all sorts of Northwest venues and musical events, Rosa has sung with numerous ensembles, including her own group, the Dreamband, Sweet Talkin' Jones, the Reputations, Red Dress, Eddie and the Atlantics, Ron Holden's house band at Ron's Place in Seattle (112 5th Avenue N), and with Merrilee Rush and her husband, Billy Mac, in a gospel show called Joy Cathedral. She also was an original member of a local supergroup -- the Seattle Women in Rhythm & Blues -- that opened for such touring stars as Bonnie Raitt and Roy Orbison, and whose original lineup included Rosa, Nancy Claire, Merrilee Rush, Duffy Bishop, and Annie Rose De Armas.

Rosa's vocals have also graced many, many Northwest recordings, including some by Jim Page, Eric Apoe, P. K. Dwyer, Red Dress, Kent Morrill, Tim Noah, Billy Mac, and Jim Valley's Rainbow Planet. And she surfaced as an actor when hired for a few seasons to appear as a regular extra on the CBS television network's Northern Exposure comedy-drama show that was filmed in Roslyn and Redmond from 1990 to 1995.

In 2007 Rosa was diagnosed with cancer, and like  many musicians, she did not have medical insurance. Facing mounting expenses, she was supported by her music community. On July 15th, 2007, a benefit concert for Rosa was held at Seattle's Triple Door (216 Union Street). It featured her longtime friend Merrilee Rush (who'd scored her biggest radio hit "Angel of the Morning" back in 1968), along with a reunited Dynamic Logs and many others. Their fundraising effort -- supported by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences' MusicCares program -- brought in an amazing $30,000 towards Rosa's medical expenses.

Rosa survived her illness, and in 2011 she joined a fine lineup of fellow Northwest musicians to produce a tribute concert  and album to honor the memory of longtime local musician and songwriter, Ron Davies (1946-2003). The CD, titled The Mystery of Ron Davies -- A Pacific Northwest Tribute, included his songs performed by such local talents as Seattle folk-blues pioneer Alice Stuart, Wailers vocalist Kent Morrill, Annie Rose De Armas -- and Rosa, with her rendition of "Stranger In Your Own Hometown."


Sources:

Peter Blecha interview with Val Rosa, July 5, 2019, Seattle, audiotape in possession of Peter Blecha, Seattle; Jane Estes, "Seattle’s Free-Spirited Street Musicians," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Northwest Magazine, September 9, 1979, pp. 8-10; "Music: The Bands of Summer," Time, Vol. 14, no. 9 (August 27, 1979); Sharon Wootton, "Merrilee Rush Headlines Benefit for Valerie Rosa," Everett Herald, July 12, 2007 (https://www.heraldnet.com/); Peter Blecha Archives, Seattle, Washington.


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