Skip to main content

Searching beyond grunge to the rock 'n' roll heart of the 'Northwest sound'

peter blecha stomp and shout book
Enlarge Icon
Photo courtesy of University of Washington Press

When you hear the words “Northwest sound,” you probably think grunge.

But long before the region made its mark through indie rock and hip hop, there was another golden era of music here in the Pacific Northwest.

From the 1940s to the 1960s, cities like Seattle, Olympia, and Tacoma were developing a distinctly Pacific Northwest flavor of R&B and rock and roll.

Peter Blecha is the author of "Stomp & Shout: R&B and the Origins of Northwest Rock and Roll."

Blecha says his fascination with this particular period of Northwest music history goes all the way back to his youth, when he was listening to local radio stations play music produced in the Pacific Northwest.

"There was a band down the street about three houses down from me that had put out a couple records. I and a buddy used to go over there and peek in the basement window and watch this band rehearsing and a couple times, they said, 'Hey, you guys want to come down and see us?'" Blecha said.

The band was The Bootmen, a Tacoma-based rock and roll band signed to Etiquette Records.

By the time Blecha was in junior high, he was seeing shows and collecting records.

The origin of the Northwest sound

So what makes Northwest rock and roll different from rock music originating from Southern California, Texas, Memphis, or New York?

Blecha says that, in order to understand Northwest rock and roll, you have to go back to Seattle's bustling jazz scene of the 1920s and '30s, and the groundwork it laid for our region to put its own spin on rock and roll decades later.

"The defining aspects of it, in my opinion, are that it was heavily reliant on saxophones and keyboards," Blecha said. "It wasn't guitar oriented necessarily. The early rock was not based on Chuck Berry and Link Wray and Eddie Cochran and the guitar players of the 1950s. It was based on the bands led by Little Richard, Fats Domino, R&B bands like Hank Ballard and The Midnighters and Bobby "Blue" Bland.

The influence of jazz on Northwest rock and roll can be traced back to Seattle's Central District, where big bands and jazz clubs reigned supreme and became the stage to future legends like Ray Charles.

After packing up and leaving his home state of Florida, Charles took a bus across the country to Seattle. He eventually found his way to South Jackson Street, where he checked into a hotel.

It didn't take long for him to end up at the Black & Tan Club, where he wowed the audience with a blues song. Charles went on to record his very first single in Seattle, "Confession Blues" in 1949.

Peter Blecha is speaking about his book, "Stomp and Shout: R&B and the Origins of Northwest Rock and Roll" with musician D'Vonne Lewis Wednesday, April 19, at Town Hall Seattle.

Why you can trust KUOW