Alice Stuart is a singer, guitarist, and songwriter whose old-timey, folk-blues style earned her a decades-long career and an enduring fanbase. From the tiny burg of Chelan, Washington, she worked her way up through the beatnik coffeehouses of early-'60s Seattle, to regular appearances on KING-TV's Seattle Center Hootenanny show, to the 1964 Berkeley Folk Festival, through numerous record deals, and even a spot in the original lineup of Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention. Stuart toured internationally and shared stages with the likes of Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Mississippi John Hurt, Lightnin' Hopkins, Albert King, Jerry Garcia, John Prine, and Van Morrison. Along the way she blossomed from a stage-shy '60s solo acoustic act to perhaps the quintessential, Stratocaster-slinging, Harley Davidson-ridin', '70s electric blues band-leading, female road-warrior musician of her generation. A Grammy- and Handy Award-nominated player, Stuart has had her compositions covered by other recording artists, and her fans include such stars as Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, and Melissa Etheridge. Stuart – a very hip great-grandmother -- is a trailblazing godmother of the modern day rootsy "Americana" music movement.
A Tomboy in Central Washington
Alice Stuart was born on June 15, 1942, in the rural lakeside town of Chelan, Washington, and thus began her unusual life journey. Her unwed mother Laura Louise Sheehan invented the surname "Stuart" for the baby as a pretense to pretend she'd been married (the girl never did meet her biological father Howard McNabb, who died in 1974). When Alice was 2, Louise felt the need to pass the child off to her namesake aunt, Alice LaChapelle, who with her husband Alfred raised Alice as their own. Something was missing though: "I never felt like I really had anyone that I was truly close to. There was no one that I felt was a real friend that I could share my innermost thoughts with. I had a couple of girlfriends that rode horses with me but no one else that had the passion to play music. I was most definitely a tomboy." Stuart loved playing baseball and music. But the neighborhood boys didn't think this was cool for a girl to do: "It was all just too weird for people to accept, so I think music was my link to my soul, a way to communicate and put my feelings into words" (Limnios).
At age 5 Stuart began playing the piano, and by elementary school had taken up the drums in the concert and marching bands. The LaChapelle household didn't have a television until she reached age 12, and AM radio coverage in Chelan was spotty. But, "I did have a short-wave radio that occasionally picked up KOMA in Oklahoma City and they played music I had never heard before, rhythm and blues. I was just entranced with the rhythm and phrasing and the heartfelt, soulful feeling in the music" (Limnios). Stuart also loved recordings by country stars such as Hank Snow and Hank Williams, and then the rocking '50s hits by Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly.
Stuart first got a ukulele, and then began writing songs at age 13, before finally acquiring a guitar -- a Tatay brand Spanish classical instrument -- at 18. She soon made the discovery of a pile of 78 rpm records in the house, old recordings by blues singers such as Bessie Smith, Rabbit Brown, and Blind Willie McTell, and "I found I was just drawn to the passion in the music and identified with it" (Limnios). "I first heard a recording of Blind Willie McTell doing 'Statesboro Blues' when I had only been playing a year or so. It was like, 'Wow, that's what I want to play!'" (Plumbley).
Meanwhile Stuart's sense of distaste for the claustrophobic atmosphere of small-town life was intensifying. And so, like many a country girl prior, she began dreaming about life in the big city.
In the 1950s and early '60s Seattle's folk music scene revolved around a string of coffeehouses and other hangouts that were mostly located in the U District along the western edge of the University of Washington campus. Among the folk-friendly joints that arose were the Pamir Espresso House (at 4111 University Way NE) and the Queequeg (at 4114 University Way NE). But this scene was a small tribe compared to the Northwest's rock 'n' roll world, in which huge teen dances were held weekly, featuring bands such as the Wailers, whose single, "Louie Louie," was the region's No. 1 radio hit throughout 1961 and 1962.
This was the setting Alice Stuart landed in when at age 18 she rolled into Seattle with her uke, as fresh-scrubbed and earnest as a Kennedy Era folkie could be. Hitting the pavement looking for a job in the U District, she stumbled across the Pamir House but, too frightened to enter, stood outside for the first few nights. Finally, she worked up enough courage to enter, and in time inquired if she might take a turn playing a few songs. The small crowd responded positively, and she was rewarded for taking this first brave step with an offer to play there nightly for $2 to $4 a gig. In 1962 Stuart bought her trusty Martin D-18 guitar. After discovering that she was pregnant, she left for Arizona, where she stayed with family and bore a daughter, Deana Louise Crowley.
Along the way, Stuart struck up friendships with fellow troubadours including Billy Roberts, Steve Lalor, Mike Hall, Don McAlister, Paul Gillingham, and many others. Roberts, a Southern boy who played a mean blues on his 12-string and mouth-harp, impressed her with his authentic, if-rather-over-the-top, stylings. From him she learned blues numbers such as Furry Lewis' "The Ballad Of Kassie Jones" and "I'll Turn Your Money Green" -- not to mention Roberts' own soon-to-be-classic "Hey Joe." For a while, she and Roberts dated, and she credits him with teaching her how to fully commit to a song and play it with authentic feeling.
The Upper U District Singers
After gigging a bit as a member of the G. E. Murry Trio, Stuart formed a new trio in early 1963 with Steve Lalor and Mike Hall, one with a humorously elongated name: the Upper University District Folk Music Association, Mandolin Society and Glee Club. They soon recorded a folk single, "Green Satin"/"Sing Hallelujah" -- as credited to, for brevity's sake, The Upper U District Singers -- for Jerden Records, the very label that had recently released the famous garage-rock single "Louie Louie" by the Kingsmen.
The trio scored a gig appearing regularly on KING-TV's Seattle Center Hootenanny program aired weekly from the outdoor stage at the Horiuchi Mural (Mural Amphitheater). That exposure led to additional opportunities. In 1963 Stuart gigged at the Red Garter (at 108 Cherry Street) singing "blues, spirituals and folk songs" and that November she and Mike Hall played the grand opening of St. Michael's Alley (at 6108 Roosevelt Way NE), where she scored a residency leading folk singing sessions on Thursday nights.
Stuart had come a long way already, from isolated Chelan to the "big city" of Seattle, where she was creating a lifelong family of friends. "After I left home and began playing music professionally, I found my real 'family,' the people I share music with," she would recall. "They remain very special to me and have all played a part in my evolution as a whole person and a good musician" (Limnios).
All The Good Times
In December 1963 Stuart felt ready to aim for the big time and see what was in store for her in the music capital of Los Angeles. The following spring she performed at a few lowkey hoots, and luck intervened when she was "discovered" independently by a two movers and shakers: Chris Strachwitz (who ran the hallowed folk-oriented label, Arhoolie Records), and Barry Olivier (who was in the midst of planning the 1964 Berkeley Folk Music Festival on the University of California campus). Strachwitz saw her at a coffeehouse gig and later recalled:
"I liked her sound ... Her voice was not pretentious -- she wasn’t overly dramatic -- she was a natural, a fine stylist but with a deep respect for the material she was using. Her humor was delightful and refreshing -- especially these days when it seems most folk singers are looking for their doom -- she was alive -- full of energy and good fun -- but sensitive ... I knew right that evening that this girl was destined to be one of the most interesting and important folk artists" (Strachwitz).
Olivier concurred, and Stuart, now 22, suddenly found herself booked to play the Berkeley Folk Fest's stage at the university's Hearst Greek Theatre. The printed program hyped her as follows:
"Alice Stuart, a 22-year-old girl from Seattle, is the most important young artist to come out of the folk music movement in years, and the Berkeley Festival represents her first major appearance anywhere. Heavily influenced by blues, country music, ballad singing, and the contemporary songwriters, she sings in a unique and beautiful style, accompanying herself on guitar and banjo.”
Though mortified by the massive size of the amphitheater audience that June 28th -- not to mention the thought of being billed alongside such roots music greats as Joan Baez, Doc Watson, the New Lost City Ramblers, and the fabled bluesman Mississippi John Hurt -- Stuart rose to the occasion. Her performance won over the crowd and sparked a lasting friendship with Hurt, one that led to them touring together.
It was the following month when Stuart cut her debut album, All The Good Times for Strachwitz (Arhoolie F4002) at Sierra Sound Studios in Berkeley. The LP included numerous traditional folk dirges like "Black Jack David," along with the New Lost City Ramblers' "Leavin' Home" and Mississippi John Hurt’s "Stackerlee." Stuart's original, "Beatnik," had been written back in Seattle after some Pamir House patron hurled that descriptor at her.
Though some critics opined that she came across as an acolyte of Joan Baez, the major record trade magazine, Billboard, felt otherwise, reporting in October that, "A beautiful new female voice is now on the folk horizon. Its owner's name is Alice Stuart. She sings with a clean freshness that is exciting in its simplicity. A folk find!" (Billboard). With her profile raised, Stuart made a triumphant homecoming trip to Seattle, where the Queequeg booked her as "The Berkeley Folk Festival Star" for a couple of weeks in October. She then embarked on a mini-tour of the East Coast.
Pondering the idea of putting together her own band, Stuart made arrangements to meet with a guitarist friend named Steve Mann. She drove from Berkeley to the designated coffeehouse in Santa Monica, but Mann never arrived. Instead she struck up a conversation with another fellow who, it turned out, was by chance also waiting to meet Mann to discuss a bluesy band he was forming called the Mothers of Invention. That musician was Frank Zappa. "We were about the only people there and we got to talking and when we finally gave up waiting for Steve, we ended up leaving together. We had a fast and furious love affair and tried to incorporate music into the equation. His music was so much different than mine that it was destined to end in disappointment" (Plumbley).
For the following six weeks Stuart was a member of the Mothers, but Zappa "wanted to write and create a new kind of music at that point and wanted me to play my Delta style acoustic guitar and [for him] to play in and around what I was playing. At the time, it was just too far out for me" (Limnios).
Years later Zappa would recall in Hit Parader magazine that, "We had added a girl to the group, Alice Stuart. She played guitar very well and sang well. I had an idea for combining certain modal influences into our basically country blues sound. We were playing a lot of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf-type stuff. Alice played good finger-style guitar, but she couldn't play "Louie Louie," so I fired her" (Zappa). The snide little joke about not being able to play the easy 3-chord rock riff to "Louie Louie" aside, Zappa did at least give a nod to Stuart when he listed her in the acknowledgments on the jacket to the Mothers' June 1966 debut LP, Freak Out! -- albeit misspelled as "Alice Stewart." Meanwhile, Stuart was briefly married to John Costello, but soon left him and moved to Berkeley.
Back to Berkeley
By June 1965, a cohort of proto-hippie refugees from San Francisco, including the pioneering acid-tested band, the Charlatans, had relocated to the old western semi-ghost town of Virginia City, Nevada, where they created a creative new community and the folk-oriented Red Dog Saloon. Stressed out by Los Angeles and her East Coast tour, Stuart followed their path to Virginia City and laid low for a few years. While there she played in a ramshackle jug band, met and married a guitarist, Wayne Thomas, but then moved back to Seattle, where she bore their son, Jesse Stuart Thomas.
Once rejuvenated, she returned to Berkeley and began playing as a duo with guitarist/singer John Shine. Stuart's creative juices began flowing and she got the opportunity to cut a demonstration tape at the studios of Fantasy Records, a label that had begun as a jazz outlet but would soon make a fortune with sales of Creedence Clearwater Revival records.
In June and July 1966, the Berkeley Folk Music Festival once again booked Alice Stuart Thomas, alongside such other talents as Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, John Fahey, and a new psychedelic Haight Ashbury-based band, Jefferson Airplane, that was comprised of former folkies gone electric, just as Bob Dylan and the Byrds had recently done.
In 1968, she returned to the Folk Fest, where she and Howlin' Wolf, John Fahey, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and others performed. That same summer, she returned to the Pacific Northwest, where a cabal of U District hippies had produced what history recognizes as America’s first-ever multi-day, overnight, rock festival: the Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair. Based on a farm outside Sultan, Washington, the event was held from August 31 through September 2, 1968, and boasted a lineup including rock bands (Santana, Country Joe and the Fish, It's a Beautiful Day), blues artists (Big Mama Thornton, James Cotton), and folkies (Alice Stuart-Thomas, the Youngbloods, the New Lost City Ramblers) among many others.
Rock 'n' Roll Queen
In 1969 Stuart acquired a Fender Stratocaster guitar and with a band of Berkeley musicians recorded the Full Time Woman album for Fantasy Records. Rolling Stone magazine took note, saying she was "a major talent ... her lyrics are evocative but not maudlin, simple but not banal ... she makes the blues rub shoulders with classical, Cajun and rag" (Park).
Soon after, Stuart assembled a Bay Area, Marin County-based electric rock band comprised of veteran players (including a couple formerly with Southern Comfort) called Snake. It would include the experienced players, bass ace Karl Sevareid (who would go on to the Robert Cray Band), and drummer Bob Jones (formerly with the We Five, who'd scored the 1965 folk-rock hit "You Were On My Mind"). Snake played the Bay Area's top venues, including The Fillmore, Winterland, and various Golden Gate Park concerts, and in 1971 embarked on a five-week European tour through Germany, Holland and England. On November 28, 1971, Stuart performed on BBC2's influential The Old Grey Whistle Test television show.
In 1972 Snake set about recording Stuart's third album, Believing. The horn section from Oakland's Tower of Power joined them in Fantasy's studios to work on her song "Karma Stands In My Way." As Stuart recalled, "I sang them the part I heard in my head and all five of them played it exactly how I wanted it the first time. Amazing players" (Limnios).
Throughout the 1970s Rolling Stone noted Stuart's activities, once approving that, "she gave herself over totally to the performance ... she sings with a raw, emotional directness." Guitar Player magazine concurred, describing her as "lithe and funky with a natural warmth and animation ... skillfully picking on the Fender Stratocaster" (Solveig).
The year 1972 was an interesting one for Stuart. Not only did the pop star Jackie DeShannon choose to cover Stuart's "Full Time Woman," but Stuart herself was hired to record the title/theme song for the Fantasy Records soundtrack to the cartoon movie, Fritz The Cat -- the first commercially animated feature film to receive an X rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. Produced with a budget of $850,000, it became a major hit that raked in $90 million. Stuart is still waiting for her royalties.
Also in 1972, Stuart opened a gig for the Sons of Champlin at San Francisco's Boarding House Theater. Then, on January 2, 1973, Snake appeared on ABC TV's Dick Cavett Show. On March 28-29, Stuart was a special guest when Tower of Power headlined at the fabled Whisky a Go Go nightclub in West Hollywood. Soon after, Snake was booked to open a couple of Bay Area shows for Van Morrison. Those led to another show at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. From there, Snake was invited to join Morrison's upcoming European tour, but with this unusual caveat: The band needed to post a $5,000 bond. Desperate to accept the offer, Stuart asked her Fantasy Records labelmate, Creedence Clearwater Revival's John Fogerty, for a loan. As he famously battled their controversial label, Fogerty sought to help out and instead gifted her the funds -- and at tour's end would not accept any repayment.
In January 1974 Guitar Player magazine published a feature on Stuart, and by summer she'd reconfigured her group as the Alice Stuart Band, with Karl Sevareid still on bass, but Jon Detherage on keyboards, and Larry Martin on drums. Melody Maker magazine raved: "Alice's guitar work is really splendid and she's really gunning for that title of 'Rock 'n' Roll Queen.' To prove it she’s written a little number by the same name and is proceeding to tear places apart. Look out Suzi Quatro -- here’s one chick that really honks her axe" (Tolces).
By mid-decade Stuart was a member of a much wider musical community, and she either toured, or sat in on gigs, with fellow players including Michael Bloomfield, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Elvin Bishop, John Prine, the Chambers Brothers, Commander Cody, and blues great Albert King. "I played with Albert King," she recalled, "and he picked me up off the floor and said, 'Honey, you play good guitar!' If Albert King says I can play, that's alright with me" (Foley).
In 1975 Rolling Stone included Stuart, alongside Bloomfield, Chet Atkins, Bonnie Raitt and other top pickers, in their Guitars of the Stars feature. The girl from Chelan had come a long way. Self-motivated and often self-managed, Stuart was an original do-it-yourself businesswoman. In 1976 she relocated to the burgeoning roots scene in Austin, Texas, for a spell. But by around 1979, Stuart, who had been raising her two children as a single mom, was exhausted by the music business. So, at age 37, she opted to withdraw, enroll in college, marry Daniel Bell, and bear a third child, Marisa. Along the way she worked as a cook, a legal secretary, and a mother and housewife. "I had to create a totally new identity for myself and learn how to just be a normal, everyday person. That wasn't easy after being a professional musician since I was 18" (Limnios).
Stuart had not been forgotten. In 1985 West Coast folkie Ginny Reilly covered Stuart’s "Cajun Man" on her Oh, Reilly! album, and in 1987 Kate Wolf covered "Full Time Woman" on her Gold In California album. Following that, the notorious gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson dropped Stuart's name in a typically bizzarro March 1988 passage from his Generation of Swine book about the '80s political scene. A nutty character named Skinner raves about hanging out with then-presidential candidate, George H. W. Bush, who implausibly "loves music, really high rock 'n' roll. He has tapes of Alice Stuart that he made himself on the Nak" [a Nakamichi tape recorder] (Thompson).
Stuart was tempted in 1991 to return to the music world. On June 15 many of her old Seattle folkie friends, including Don Firth, Mike Atwood, Billy Roberts, Steve Lalor, Paul Gillingham, and others, participated in a Pamir House Reunion gig at the New Melody Tavern (at 5213 Ballard Avenue NW). Her love of performing was reignited and she began appearing live, formed a band, and started thinking about recording again.
1996 saw the release of her (and Marianne Rooney's) Really Good album, followed by Crazy With The Blues in 2000, and then 2002's breakthrough Can't Find No Heaven, which brought critical acclaim and Grammy and Handy Award nominations. The following year saw her named Best Songwriter by the Washington Blues Society (as it also did in 2005 and 2006), and her song "I Ruined Your Life" was chosen for the soundtrack of The Station Agent Miramax film. In 2004 the Washington Blues Society named her group as Best Band and the following year she recorded her Live At The Triple Door CD at the Seattle theater of that same name (at 216 Union Street), and was named Seattle’s Best Guitarist by Seattle Weekly. The year 2005 also saw Stuart's song "Rather Be The Devil" included on Ruf Records' Blues Guitar Women compilation CD, just as her 1964 take on "Black Jack David" would be included on Arhoolie's Hear Me Howling! Blues, Ballads & Beyond 2011 compilation CD set, which also featured tunes by various blues icons.
Back in the saddle, Stuart assembled a new band, the Formerlys, with a few Northwest rock 'n' roll all-stars including bassist Marc Willett (formerly with the Kingsmen) and keyboardist Steve Flynn (formerly with Jr. Cadillac), guitarist Pat Tennis, and drummer Rick Boice (and later, Dan Pakinas). In 2007 their Freedom album was issued, and in March 2008 Flatpicking magazine had Stuart as its cover feature article.
Meanwhile, time was surely passing by, nostalgia for the good old days was rising, and several Seattle folkies revived the long defunct Pacific Northwest Folklore Society with a series of legacy shows. In January 2009 they got Stuart to perform solo to an SRO crowd at the Wayward Coffeehouse (at 8570 Greenwood Avenue N) and for many, it felt like old times. To honor the memory of Ron Davies (1946-2003), another longtime Northwest folkie songwriter, the Mystery of Ron Davies album was produced in 2011 and Stuart contributed her beautiful version of his "Up In The Canyon."
Stuart carried on gigging about three nights a week, but in August 2013 suffered a mild stroke. Never one to back down from a challenge, she stoically worked her way back on the music scene once again. Though she never got fabulously rich in the music business, she was rich with friendships, peers, and fans who recognized her gifts and remarkable accomplishments.