New book looks at city's musical history 'Before Seattle Rocked'

Oct 16, 2011

Long before “grunge,” Seattle was home to big band musicians, immigrant choral groups and a seafood restaurant owner who sang folk songs about clams.

Those are only some of the stories  in Kurt Armbruster's new book, "Before Seattle Rocked: A City and Its Music" (University of Washington Press).

The book, based on archival research and interviews with 78 musicians, chronicles  Seattle's music history from the 1850s to the 1980s.

In an interview with KPLU-FM, Armbruster narrated an armchair tour back in time:

"Nineteenth Century Seattle was a raw, pulsating, sawdust-fiilled town. You had uptown: respectable society. Fry's Opera House playing Offenbach.

"Then you came to the Skid Road. Yesler Way. And south of the Skid Road, The Old Deadline, you had the beating heart of Seattle. Two dozen saloons.

"On Aurora Avenue North, was Parker's Ballroom at one time. You could go in there and hear Jack Hungerford and Jackie Souders' orchestra playing.

"Driving north on Third Avenue, come to Vine Street, you see a large tan building. The old Trianon Ballroom, once boasted the largest dance floor on the West Coast."

Armbruster decided to write the book after chronicling the story of railroad workers for the City of Auburn's Centennial in 1991. He's a musician, playing jazz, classical, country and rock who has gotten to know a lot of local veteran musicians.

"It occurred to me to tell their stories as best I could. I realized an era in live music was passing."

Armbruster's book is full of characters: Victor Meyers, the smart aleck big band leader; Ivar Haglund, the Seattle restauranteur who appropriated an old Irish drinking song from the 18th century and made it his "Acres of Clams" anthem; and Pat Suzuki, the Japanese-American singer from the 1950s who the author says was Seattle's first celebrity export.

"She wowed Norm Bobrow who was Seattle's major music promoter at the time. And proceeded to go on and 'Wow' Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra and stood everyone on their ear. She got a leading role in Roger and Hammerstein's 'Flower Drum Song.'"

But the story that most struck the author was that of Patrinell Staten Wright, the founder of the Total Experience Music Choir in 1973.

"I got emotional when (she) described her trials and tribulations trying to make music and how lonely and frustrating it could be."

The author reads from his book at 7 p.m. Oct.  29 at New Orleans Creole Restaurant, 114 First Avenue S.

More information is available at the Elliot Bay Book Co. website.

Artscape” is a weekly KPLU feature covering Northwest art, performances and artists. The feature is published here on Sundays and airs on KPLU 88.5 on Monday during Morning Edition, All Things Considered and on Weekend Saturday Edition.