Dolton: The Northwest's First Rock 'n' Roll Record Company

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 3/14/2006
  • Essay 7636
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The Pacific Northwest has produced its fair share of pioneering record companies over the years including early ones like Seattle's Evergreen, Rainier, Linden, and Morrison Records; Portland's Rose City Records; and Spokane's SRC Records. Although such labels enjoyed a fair number of local sales by issuing discs of provincial pop singers, country roadhouse bands, or Scandinavian dance music in the 1940s and 1950s, each lacked either the savvy management, adequate capital, or effective distribution channels required to break out and score "hits" outside the region. It took the formation of Dolton Records in 1959 -- the region's first rock 'n' roll-oriented label -- to achieve that goal.

And Dolton accomplished all that in a big way, issuing records by teenaged musicians from various Northwest towns including Olympia, Tacoma, Spokane, and Seattle -- and scoring a breathtaking series of six singles in a row (including an international Gold Record Award-winning No. 1 hit with their debut release), which all placed on the Billboard and/or The Cash Box magazine best-seller charts.

In the Beginning ...

The Dolton saga traces back to the late-1950s when a young sales account rep with Seattle's independent record wholesaler C & C Distributing Company -- Robert "Bob" Reisdorff (1922-2002) -- decided he wanted to get involved in producing records rather than simply selling them to retail shops and radio stations. As Reisdorff began demonstrating his uncanny ability to spot promising tunes before they actually scored as legit hits, C & C soon promoted him to the position of Promotion Manager.

When he mentioned his dream of launching a start-up label to his boss, Lou Lavinthal (and partners Stan Solman and Stan Jaffe), they bought in and allowed him to base Dolphin Records out of their warehouse/offices (in downtown Seattle at 708 Sixth Avenue N). And with this business foundation firmly set, all the would-be music mogul needed now was a promising talent to groom, record, and promote.

An Absolute Natural Hit ...

Making his weekly rounds for C & C, Reisdorff met everyone in the local music biz, and he began hearing tips and receiving tapes from all sorts of "talents" wanting to make a hit record. But his interest wasn't fully piqued until early in the summer of 1958 when Norm Bobrow -- a veteran local jazz DJ and operator of the Colony Club (408 Virginia St.) -- tipped him off about a young dancer/singer named Gretchen Christopher who saved the day one evening when the headliner, Miss Pat Suzuki, fell ill. Christopher not only carried the show that night, but also took the opportunity to play a demo tape for Bobrow of an original ditty she and her teenaged friends had self-recorded.

Those pals comprised a trio (Two Girls and A Guy) of Olympia High School kids -- Christopher, Barbara Ellis, and Gary Troxel -- and their a cappella song was called "Come Softly." Reisdorff recalled that upon Bobrow's advice, Christopher brought him her tape and "It was just beautiful. And I thought it was a natural hit." But the untested label operator still thought the tape merited a second opinion and so he contacted the one person in town who had a lengthy track record of involvement in the recording business.

Bonnie Guitar was the Northwest's top pop star, a singer/musician who had been recording for a decade, had scored an international Top-10 hit in 1957 with "Dark Moon," and who had learned the art and science of record production during her Hollywood years before returning home to Seattle. And, sure enough, after one listen to "Come Softly" she seconded the motion declaring, "This is absolutely a hit sound."

Come Softly To Me

Bonnie was lured into a partnership position as a Vice President, and the trio was immediately signed and given a new name, The Fleetwoods. It was on February 18th, 1959, that a recording session was held at Seattle's best independent studio, Joe Boles Custom Recorders. By then Bonnie had rehearsed the group, trimmed the song's length to a shorter pop form, lengthened the song's title to "Come Softly To Me," and worked out an incredibly sparse arrangement of the song that would highlight the innocent and wispy harmonies of the Fleetwoods, backed only by Troxel's rhythmic rattling of a key-ring and her own simple gut-string guitar-work.

Reisdorff raced to get his Master Tape processed and pressed as Dolphin Records' debut single. Once in hand, Reisdorff took copies of the 45 around to various contacts at Seattle stations and KING radio's immediate support caused others -- including KOL, KJR, KUTI, and KAYO -- to follow suit. As the record built up to a sudden statewide hit, and then down the West Coast, Reisdorff cut a distribution deal with some pals down at the big-time Los Angeles-based label, Liberty Records.

That was about the point in time when Dolphin's success caught the attention of a big New York publishing house, Doubleday Books, who quickly informed Reisdorff and company that they already had a corporate label called Dolphin Records. The Seattle crew agreed to desist from using the name -- and instead using the name Dolton Records -- after this first single faded.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer trumpeted the fact that the surprise-hit single had already shipped over 100,000 copies, and was sitting at No. 1 in the Miami and Cleveland markets. While the Fleetwoods quit their day jobs and college courses in order to set out on their first national tour, "Come Softly To Me" soared to No. 1 on the American and U.K. Pop charts (and to the No. 5 slot on Billboard's R&B charts), became a huge international hit, and went on to become the first million-seller in Northwest history. The excitement increased when the trio suddenly found themselves making television appearances on American Bandstand, The Dick Clark Show, and the Ed Sullivan Show.

I Love An Angel

Meanwhile, Dolton was actively scouring for talent and the firm's next discovery was the region's top rock 'n' roll dance combo, the Frantics, whose bass player, Jim Manolides, was an art student who had designed the Dolphin/Dolton label's logo/graphics. The label's second disc was the band's driving instrumental tune. "Straight Flush," which proved to be a Top-10 regional seller that Dolton pushed nationally (where it landed in the Hot-100 for a few weeks in May/June) and internationally (where it saw release in England and Germany). That same May, the Fleetwoods scored again when "Graduation's Here" hit the national Top-40, and in June, Little Bill and the Bluenotes' sweet teen ballad, "I Love An Angel" hit the nation's No. 66 slot.

The Bluenotes were the region's first white teenaged R&B group, and the Tacoma-based band was also unwittingly at the center of a clash between Dolton and Boles. Their March 28th recording session -- which Reisdorff had advised them to book in order to get a demo tape for him to review -- ended with Boles excitedly calling Reisdorff to announce that he'd just discovered the next big thing: a young band with a gem of an original song. Reisdorff wasn't pleased and heatedly informed Boles that he'd sent the band over and didn't appreciate Boles trying to barge in. An argument ensued -- one that resulted in Boles being offered a penny-a-copy cut of any possible profits and the end of Dolton's alliance with the sound engineer. From then on, the label took its business over to a downtown studio, Northwest Recorders [622 Union Street], where they worked with another engineer, Kearney Barton.

Mr. Blue

In September alone, Dolton scored again twice: the Fleetwood's "Mr. Blue" rocketed to No. 1, and the Frantics landed again on Billboard's Hot-100 chart with the single, "Fogcutter." Then in October, the "Mr. Blue" single's flipside, "You Mean Everything To Me," also hit the charts and suddenly Dolton had a two-sided hit on its hands. On a serious roll now, Dolton proceeded to release its first album, Mr. Blue, in October.

Dolton and Barton hit it off so well that before long the label moved out from the C & C headquarters and into a small office space in the same building as Northwest Recorders. Now, Dolton would literally be only a few short steps away from their new preferred studio. Simultaneously, Reisdorff left C & C and was replaced by Jerry Dennon, who had experience as a promo-man for Portland, Oregon's BG Record Service.

Meanwhile Dolton kept racking up victories: In February, 1960, the Fleetwoods' "Outside My Window" hit No. 28 and the Frantics' "Werewolf" entered Billboard's Hot-100. In March 1960, The Cash Box acknowledged Dolton's amazing trajectory by featuring a photograph of Reisdorff, Bonnie Guitar, and the Fleetwoods on its cover -- a charming image that belied the fact that the executive duo had begun to butt heads a bit over the direction of the label. Frustrated that she was discovering more local talent than Dolton was able to market, Bonnie and Dennon began dreaming about launching a new label of their own -- Jerden Records. But, just before they were ready to give notice and leave Dolton, Reisdorff and Lavinthal discovered their plans and the two schemers were axed.

Walk -- Don't Run

Meanwhile, Reisdorff auditioned a Tacoma-based combo called the Ventures in his office but declined to sign them because he already had an instrumental group -- the Frantics. Undaunted, the Ventures formed their own label -- Blue Horizon Records -- and issued two 45s that initially failed to spark much interest. But towards the summer of 1960, DJ Pat O'Day at Seattle's KJR radio took an interest in one of the songs -- a version of a jazzy tune called "Walk -- Don't Run" -- began airing it, and that's when his telephone rang. On the other end of the line was an excited Reisdorff who'd been listening and now wondered: "Who was that song by?"

Informed that it was none other than the Ventures, he swallowed his pride, admitted he'd been wrong, quickly cut a deal with the band, and immediately reissued the song on Dolton. By July 1960, "Walk -- Don't Run" was on its way to becoming an international (No. 2) smash and all-time classic. The Fleetwoods' successes kept mounting: their May single, "Runaround," reached No. 23, and that fall season saw the trio score their seventh hit, "The Last One to Know" as well as the Ventures' second Top-20 hit, "Perfidia" and with that success the band was well on their way to recognition as the world's top instrumental rock group who would enjoy more than a dozen subsequent hits.

The End of an Era ...

The fall of 1960 was also when Dolton concluded momentous negotiations with Liberty Records which saw the label leave Seattle and relocate to a brand new office complex in Los Angeles where Reisdorff would oversee the Dolton division. This was great news for Dolton -- and it definitely helped the Fleetwoods and Ventures -- but it was not so great for the other Dolton acts, who were unceremoniously abandoned. While the Frantics and Little Bill muddled ahead by recording for new Seattle labels like Seafair, Bolo, and Camelot Records, the Ventures plowed ahead scoring four more international hits in 1961 and the Fleetwoods enjoyed a No. 10 smash with "Tragedy" in April, 1961, the No. 30 hit "(He's) The Great Imposter" in September, and two more Top-40 hits in 1962 and 1963.

In late 1963 Reisdorff finally sold Dolton outright to Liberty Records, and the following year he was sent over to England to manage the establishment of a British branch for Liberty. Soon Reisdorff relocated to New York where he founded a successful Greenwich Village restaurant, and with the changing times, in 1967 Liberty phased the Dolton label out.

Dolton's output ultimately totaled about 50 different albums and 120 singles -- including overlooked Northwest gems like "Look At Me," by a black doo-wop group from Tacoma, the Four Pearls; "Not For Love or Money" by Spokane's rockabilly, Gary Hodge; "Dream," a pop ballad by Wenatchee's Judd Hamilton; and "Party Ice" by a black rockin-R&B band from Seattle, the Playboys. But this exhilarating era of Northwest rock 'n' roll had finally come to a close, and Dolton -- the little label that made the scoring of million-selling hits look so easy -- was no more. Though subsequent Pacific Northwest companies (like Jerden, Bolo, Camelot, and Etiquette Records) would enjoy many regional hits in the 1960s, none would attain the levels of success as those achieved by Dolton -- a feat not matched until the emergence of Seattle's Nastymix Records' hip-hop breakthroughs in the 1980s and Sub Pop Records' grunge eruption of the 1990s.

Sources: The Fleetwoods Fan Club Bulletin #1 (Seattle), February 1959; "The Fleetwoods" Dolton Press Release (Seattle), 1959; Joe Boles' studio log; Charles Russell, "Teenagers Set To Start 3-Week Tour," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, ca. February 1959; "'Softly' Is The Song Of The Week," DISC magazine (London, England), April 18, 1959; "A New Look for the Fleetwoods," DJ magazine (Seattle) June 16, 1960, pp. 5, 8-9; Peter Blecha interviews with Bob Reisdorff (1988 and 1999); Bonnie Guitar (April 4, 1989, December 16-17, 1995, etc.); Norm Bobrow (2001); Virginia Boles (1984, 2000 etc); Kearney Barton (1984, etc.); Jerry Dennon (December 3, 1988, 2001, etc.); Gretchen Christopher (1985, 2000, etc); Gary Troxel (January, 1987); Jim Manolides (The Frantics) (January, 1984 etc.); Ron Peterson (The Frantics) (August, 1989, etc); Little Bill Engelhart (October 1983, etc.); Pat O'Day (1987-2005); Don Wilson & Bob Bogel (the Ventures) (1989, 1995, etc.); Peter Blecha archives.

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