Pop quiz time: what do Bing Crosby, Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, the Kingsmen, Jimi Hendrix, Woody Guthrie, John Cage, Soundgarden, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Macklemore all have in common? Seattle was their breeding ground . . . and the list could be a lot longer.
That’s a vast array of artists and a wide range of genres, covering nearly the last 100 years of popular music. No wonder Seattle has taken on the moniker, “The City of Music.”
Recently, Seattle is most closely identified with grunge, which slithered out of the primordial musical goo in the late ’80s with the emergence of Kurt Cobain and a slew of other flannel-shirted, angst-ridden rockers. But few know the true cultural influence of this West Coast landscape going back to the early 1900s
“It’s in the water” is the fallback response when trying to explain the prevalence of something in a certain area, but in the case of Seattle it might be true. Observers have proposed that the rainy weather in Seattle and the Northwest led artists, including musicians and songwriters, to burrow down indoors to focus on their tasks at hand.
Another explanation for Seattle’s musical fertility could be its relatively isolated location, which bred a self-reliance and strong base of support for homegrown artists. But Seattle has always been accepting of newcomers and new sounds.
Seattle was the center of one of the great vaudeville circuits in the country. No doubt this hastened the rise of jazz here, which was in full bloom by the start of the 1920s. Throughout the decade and Prohibition, Seattle saw the rise of a true black jazz scene. Even the self-proclaimed “inventor of jazz,” Jelly Roll Morton, spent time here.
Downtown boomed with bootlegging, prostitution, gambling, after-hours clubs and everything that goes with a flourishing jazz scene. The presence of soldiers from nearby bases and defense industry workers created a virtual Petri dish for the growth of a jazz audience, which helped launch the careers of Ray Charles and Quincy Jones.
Things cooled off in the early ’50s, but it wasn’t long before rock and roll emerged. Seattle was home to such local groups as the Ventures, Fleetwoods, the Wailers, the Sonics, the Frantics and the Kingsmen, most of which featured hard-driving guitars.
Who can forget “Louie Louie”? This R&B oldie, originally from the mid-50s, became a mainstay in the Pacific Northwest, one of those songs that every band played before the night was over.
It was recorded by almost anyone of any stature in this area, but the Kingsmen’s version is the one that lives on. Admittedly, they were from Portland, but it was a Seattle producer and his label that brought them to fame. It’s not a stretch to say that the 1960s “garage band” era began with the Seattle artists of the period.
Rock continued to roll in Seattle throughout the 1970s with an alternative music scene that featured punk and new wave. This is not to overlook mainstream groups like Heart, which was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year.
Hard core and metal dominated the early 80s, morphing into grunge. Once again, that Seattle do-it-yourself attitude led to bands that focused on their music and message with little, if any, concern about popularity or the mainstream record industry.
A new local label, Sub Pop, was essential to the rise of this new genre. Sub Pop worked closely with local radio and really believed in the viability of Seattle’s indigenous groups. The local music press also did its part. Some observers point to Soundgarden’s debut in 1986 as the jumping off point for grunge, while others feel that Nirvana’s release of “Nevermind” in 1991was the start. Regardless, these alternative bands quickly became mainstream successes, which alienated some early fans and contributed to grunge’s somewhat short-lived reign.
Seattle remains a unique breeding ground for American popular music. The traditions and sense of community built up over the last century continue to support a vital arts scene and such acts as Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie and Fleet Foxes.
Finally, could there be a less likely success in the hip hop world than Macklemore and Ryan Lewis? These guys have merged today’s party/street tenets with a strong revival of the urban contemporary messaging that made hip hop so compelling and meaningful in years past. And just think about it . . . all this from a couple of white boys in the Pacific Northwest. Under the circumstances described above, I would contend that it all makes perfect sense.