Inland Empire Rock: The Sound of Eastern Washington

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 10/12/2005
  • Essay 7490
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The "Northwest Sound" usually describes that regional strain of R&B-tinged rock 'n' roll that was forged decades ago (ca. 1957-1964) in various Puget Sound-area towns and then taken to wider prominence with hit records by coastal bands like the Frantics, the Wailers, the Sonics, and Paul Revere and the Raiders. But just across the Cascade Mountains in the "Inland Empire" of Eastern Washington another rock scene was also simmering. And although some of the earliest rockin' and rollin' there owed more of a stylistic debt to rural 1950s rockabilly sounds than to West Coast R&B, in ensuing years the area contributed significantly to subsequent trends, including the Pacific Northwest's grunge explosion of the 1990s.

Teen Time

Rock 'n' roll's roots in Eastern Washington trace back to the 1950s when lots of budding young rock fans were inspired by seeing shows performed in their own communities by some of the music's biggest stars. The Northwest's top promoter, Pat Mason (1907-2001), brought pioneering rockabillies like Gene Vincent, Bill Haley, Eddie Cochran, Buddy Knox, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis to perform at grange halls and armories all across the region -- and Elvis Presley's trio left 12,000 fans "All Shook Up" after his performance at Spokane's Memorial Stadium on August 30, 1957.  

At that time, options for any musician there who may have dreamed of cutting their own record were limited, as there was basically one quality recording studio active in the area (Irene Carter's Sound Recording Company [SRC] in Spokane) -- and it mainly worked with the popular local country and Scandinavian dance bands. But around 1957 Spokane's Charlie Ryan cut his original proto-rockabilly tune, "Hot Rod Lincoln," at SRC and the 45 garnered strong radio-play. It was re-issued by the California-based 4-Star label, and became a classic national hit.  

That same year, a teenage Spokane singer named Gary Williams sang his way to Hollywood. There he was signed by Verve Records, which released his debut 45, "Travelin' Blues Boy," and marketed him on the rare Teen Time compilation LP right alongside their other new singing star, Ricky Nelson.  

Guitar Movement

SRC also produced Spokane's first teenage band record, Bobby Wayne and the Warriors' rockabilly classic, "Sally Ann," issued around 1958. And the same studio went on to document other early area bands (most were issued by Chester Adkins's Souvenir Records in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho), including Spokane's Darryl Britt and the Blue Jeans ("Lover Lover"), the Stompers ("Blue Moon of Kentucky"), the Trebletones ("Guitar Movement"), Oakesdale's Johnny Clark and the Four Playboys ("Jungle Stomp"), and Walla Walla's the Shadows ("Puff Stuff").  

In 1959 a Spokane kid named Gary Hodge was signed by Seattle's Dolton Records, which released his rockabilly 45, "Not For Love Or Money." The same year, Cascade Records issued the Wild Childs' "Rockin' Heart."

Teen Beat

In the Yakima Valley area, rockabilly guitarist Jerry Merritt (1933–2001) formed the Pacers (with players from Wapato and Union Gap), who served as the house-band for a teen-dance joint, the Rock-It Club, and quickly earned the opportunity to open many of Mason's big armory shows. Along the way, Merritt also got the chance to perform with Jerry Lee Lewis and Bobby Darin, and in 1959 his skills led to a stint with Gene Vincent. They toured together internationally and Merritt contributed fine guitar-work to 14 of Vincent's tunes, including "Hot Dollar" and "Wild Cat," and he even penned a hit -- "She She Little Sheila" -- for the star.  

Other bands who called Yakima home were Gerald Diaz and the Flames, the Rumblers, the Redcoats, and Lonnie Nye and the Silvertones, whose "I Gotta Know" was issued by Lo-Lon Records. The Yakima Valley also produced the Checkers, who eventually became the first Eastern Washington band to break through the "Cascade Curtain" and win a following in the Seattle-Tacoma area. Formed in 1957, the Checkers originally included Glenn Willis (guitar), who was superseded by a blazing rockabilly guitarist named Johnny Hensley (who later toured with Buddy Knox). In time the combo would also feature two Chicano brothers from Selah, Bob Torres (bass) and Nick Torres (vocals), and a series of additional members. The Checkers' first single, "Buzz," was self-recorded at the Toppenish Grange Hall on gear borrowed from the KENE radio station.

Those years also saw a few good bands emerge from towns like Spokane (the Rockin' Bandits, the Vikings, and the Rockers), the Tri-Cities (the Pyramids), Richland (the Royals), and Connell (Keith Colley and the Corvaires). The Royals recorded one 45 ("Teen Beat") in 1959, but their guitar wunderkind, Larry Coryell (who also did a stint with the Corvaires), went on to join the Checkers, who recorded a few more singles including "Cascade." Meanwhile, Colley went on to a successful solo career as a Hollywood-based singer and songwriter whose "Poor Man's Prison" and "Bird Doggin'" were even recorded by Gene Vincent.

Pink Socks & Rolling Wheels

As the 1960s dawned, increasing numbers of bands began cutting 45s, including Kennewick's Tornadoes of Kennewick ("Tornado Express"), Goldendale's Goldmen ("Shy Sal"), and Spokane's Runabouts whose two singles "Pink Socks" and "Rolling Wheels" were issued by the Los Angeles-based mega-label, Columbia Records, in 1961-1962. It was in 1961 that Coryell moved to Seattle, cut some seminal Northwest teen-R&B discs with the Dynamics, and then in 1965 headed off to New York where he established himself as a top tier jazzman.  

The Redcoats experienced some changes when singer Ned Neltner moved to Spokane, where he formed the Demons and recorded (at SRC) the instrumental "El Lobo" 45 for Gemco Records of Lewiston, Idaho. That band morphed into the Mark Five, whose Jani Records issued their (SRC recorded) 45s "It's Your Heart" and "Who Made Lonely," along with two by the Capers. The Redcoats replaced Neltner with a new singer -- one who would resurface years later as the leader of Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, whose long string of Top-10 hits included "Young Girl" and "Lady Willpower." In 1960 the Redcoats' guitarist, Barry Curtis, helped form the Klassics.

Double Whammy

Another local label, Don Bernier's Julian Records, began issuing 45s by various bands from the Wenatchee/Chelan area including the Aztecs, the Chargers, the Talismen, Billy and the Kids, Blane and the Julians, Linda Jo and the Nomads, and Judd Hamilton and the Furys. In time, Hamilton and his brother, Dan, moved to Hollywood where they formed the T-Bones and scored a big (No.3) national hit in 1965 with the instrumental, "No Matter What Shape (Your Stomach's In)." Both brothers wrote prolifically, recorded under various pseudonyms, and then in 1971 Dan's new band Hamilton, Joe Frank, & Reynolds scored a series of eight national hits including 1971's (No. 4) winner, "Don't Pull Your Love," and 1975's (No. 1) smash, "Fallin' In Love."  

One talent Bernier didn't manage to sign up was Wenatchee's Jack Bedient who scored a promising West Coast radio hit with the teen idol-type pop ballad, "The Mystic One," on the Los Angeles-based Era Records label in 1961. After that he took his band, the Chessmen -- composed of former members of the Furys -- over to a series of other labels where they cut some good rock tunes like "Double Whammy."

Drivin' Home

The succession of rock 'n' roll trends in the 1960s all found expression in Eastern Washington, with the instrumentals craze seeing Spokane's Doug Robertson and the Goodguys recording tunes like "Quiet Riot" and "Drivin' Home" (plus the vocal number, "Sweets For My Sweet," which became a strong regional radio hit), and Wenatchee's Impacts recording "Burnt Valves." The "Louie Louie" garage rock era was represented in Yakima with the Intruders, Lost Souls, and the Gentlemen Wild, in Spokane with the Coachmen, the Mystics, the Registered Trademark, the Rotations, and the Madd Hatters, in Colville with the Continentals, in Pasco with the Rock-N-Souls, in Ellensburg with the Intruders, the Shards, Odus and the Savages, the Confederates, and Dick Turpin and the Nightriders.  

In Walla Walla, bands like the Showmen, the Frets, the Gems, and Hawk and the Randellas all had 45s issued by the Uptown label, which was run out of Vincent Rezuti's Uptown Music shop. Each of those bands produced members who went on to greater acclaim: the Gems's bassist, Ron Overman and the Randellas's singer, Jeff Hawks both joined up with Portland's Don and the Goodtimes, and the Frets's guitarist, Craig Tarwater, later played with Seattle's Daily Flash. Meanwhile, Curtis was lured away by Portland's Kingsmen and he ended up touring the country pushing "Louie Louie" with them in early 1964 and playing keyboards on all their subsequent hits.

Come Along and Dream

The British Invasion era actually saw one genuine English group, the Liverpool Five, settle in Spokane (where their manager was based) and work their way into the regional dance circuit. Meanwhile with Beatlemania running rampant, Spokane's Runabouts retooled themselves as the London Taxi, Ellensburg's Avengers reformed as the Scotsmen and recorded "Sorry Charlie" replete with Brit accents, and a Moses Lake band, the Bards -- who had originally formed as the Fabulous Continentals back in 1961 -- began restyling themselves after the Beatles, and their "Never Too Much Love" 45 became a huge regional radio hit that reached the nation's Hot-100. Another popular Moses Lake-area band, the Page Boys, got signed by Seattle's Camelot label, which released their "Our Love" single.  

The 1960's folk-rock era saw Wenatchee songsmith Danny O'Keefe performing with Calliope in Seattle, the New Folk recording for Julian Records, and the Younger Generation recording at SRC. The psychedelic rock revolution saw bands like Yakima's Velvet Illusions recording "Acidhead" in the Summer of Love '67, Wenatchee's Double Image recording "Love Joy and Sorrow," Bonneville's Lincolns recording "Come Along and Dream," and Spokane's Universal Joint, Tender Green, United States of Mind, and others playing light-show dances and various hippie rock festivals.

Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues

In the early-1970s, O'Keefe hit the big time after a unique long-distance telephone audition for the legendary founder of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun. Signed, he went on to score with 1972's (No. 9) smash, "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues" -- a classic that many others, including Elvis Presley, later recorded. Meanwhile Neltner (who'd recorded "I See" with the Gas Company), moved to Seattle and formed Jr. Cadillac, a band that would prove to be the most popular club draw in the entire region for many years.  

Around that same time a Spokane group, the Wilson-McKinley, made history as perhaps the very first Christian Rock -- or, in the parlance of the day: "Jesus Freak" -- band anywhere. Between performing and proselytizing, the Wilson-McKinley cut (at SRC) three LPs On Stage (Jesus' Peoples Army), Heaven's Gonna Be a Blast, and Spirit of Elijah that have become incredibly valuable rarities on the international collector's market. "Hard Rock" was also on the rise and Spokane's Kracker issued a couple discs, Spokane's Cheyenne recorded a couple singles before relocating to Seattle and becoming Shyanne, while Yakima rocker Brad Sinsel surfaced with some of his hometown pals in the Pickle Sisters -- a backing band for Seattle's fabled glam troupe, Ze Whiz Kidz -- and then in 1977, they became the core of an influential heavy metal band, TKO.  

Later, when that decade's punk rock movement morphed into the post-punk scene, a number of area bands made their impact. Yakima's Wreckless caused a stir in Seattle after they became the Visible Targets, scored a New Wave and college-radio hit with "Life In The Twilight Zone," and toured widely, opening for Simple Minds. Meanwhile, a Spokane power-pop band, Sweet Madness, also relocated to Seattle where they reemerged as Next Exit, playing the town's clubs and cutting the fun and quirky gem, "Static Cling."


It was in Ellensburg that the career of the most successful rock band to yet to rise from the Inland Empire would begin. Back in 1984 a musician/producer named Steve Fisk moved to town and set up operations in Velvetone Studios, a tiny facility located next to the old train station. From his perch there, Fisk would go on to record promising local bands including King Krab and Moses Lake's hard-core punks, Moral Crux.  

But it was another local group, the Screaming Trees, whose recordings would have the greatest impact of any area band. When their debut LP, Clairvoyance, was released in 1986 it stunned Northwest rock fans with the sonic sophistication of Fisk's neo-psychedelic production, the raga-noodling guitar-work of Gary Lee Connor, the nuanced drive of the rhythm section (bass: Van Connor, drums: Mark Pickerel), and the poetic ravings of Mark Lanegan.  

The Screaming Trees created a distinctive and powerful sound that soon got the band signed to the West Coast's most revered independent punk label, the California-based SST Records, who issued their next few albums. Later, the band signed with Seattle's up-and-coming Sub Pop Records, but when the Northwest's grunge rock movement erupted in 1990, they were courted by a major label, Epic Records, and with their next couple discs became established as peers of the other reigning bands of that era, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, and Mudhoney. The Screaming Trees's biggest commercial success was the 1992 hit song, "Nearly Lost You," which was included in the Singles movie soundtrack, and whose video got heavy rotation on MTV.

Sources: Peter Blecha interviews with Pat Mason (July 18, 1984, etc), Charlie Ryan (September 1997), Gary Williams (December 10, 1985, etc), Jerry Merritt (December 1983, June 1991, etc), Don Bernier (ca. 1985), Barry Curtis (September 28, 1983, etc), Ned Neltner (October 1984, etc), Vincent Rezuti (June 1985), Craig Tarwater (August 1984), Keith Colley (March 14, 1995), Larry Coryell (December 1983, etc), Mike Mandel [piano: Checkers] (August 20, 1984), Mike Metko [sax: Checkers] (August 1984); conversation with Bill Timm [bass: Goodguys] (ca. 1986); interview with Leon Jeffreys [bass: Talismen] (circa 1985), conversation with Judd Hamilton (1996-1997); interview with Brad Sinsel (ca, 1998); conversations with Steve Fisk (June 1986, etc.); Pacific Northwest Bands website accessed September 15, 2005 (; Joel Whitburn, Top Pop: 1955–1982 (Menomonee Falls, WI: Record Research, 1983); and the author’s Northwest Music Archives.
Note: This essay was slightly expanded and revised on June 3, 2016.

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