The Boys From Tacoma

Behind the scenes of Jini Dellaccio’s first rock n roll photo shoot in the early 1960s is a captivating story of teens coming of age in a blue collar town, determined to create their own distinct sound. Mary Vlahovich was there and this is how she remembers it…

Tacoma’s roots as a blue collar city fostered a no-nonsense, conservative climate for youth growing up in that time. We were kids raised by parents of the Depression whose struggles produced a culture of frugality and apprehension. But…it was post war, it was the ‘50’s and Bill Haley and Comets had made their announcement. It was a new era, a time of possibility and youth had taken charge. I quickly found solace from this strange place through music, the radio, and teen dances. But the blue-collar ethic of Tacoma was not lost on the musicians that emerged in the late 1950s.
Tacoma represented the same desolate background as Elvis’s Tupelo. Elvis’ rise from poor boy to the heights of fame made youthful rockers everywhere imagine they could do the same. From a gritty, unimaginative town, poverty as a way of life, to a new music theirs was a burst of freedom and newfound teen independence. The pieces of the puzzle were the same, and that’s how these kids endeared Elvis’ dream to their own.
Going back in time and listening to the stories of the legends’ sparse beginnings made you believe anyone could do what they did; a cheap guitar, a cranky piano, changing the strings on the guitar to sound like a bass…sort of like the original blues players who with a string and a soup can tied to a porch post created an instrument and that struggling melodic plunk became blues. But in all cases with the legends, a spark ignited a passion. Music, someone’s rock inspiration, riveted them to action and in Tacoma the sound came from The Blue Notes and The Wailers. They were the first rockers in the northwest. We give little appreciation to that fact.

My generation witnessed a remarkable local music scene and the rise of The Wailers and Lil’ Bill and the Blue Notes and later The Sonics. More incredible, they were kids. Kent Morrill, leader of The Wailers, was a friend and classmate of mine. We attended Catholic schools, he Bellarmine Prep boys high school, and I the affiliate, St. Leo’s girls school. In fact, The Wailers were first exposed through student dances at Bellarmine, if only briefly. Student dances were occasional affairs, meant more as mixers since the private schools segregated the boys and girls into independent schools. The Wailers’ initiation began like this. The dance committee, of which Kent Morrill was likely a member, rightfully figured the priests would veto his rock band for the mixer so they strategized. They had a most respected student who was the Student Body President and captain of the debate team, lobby the most lenient priest who gave his permission. Once one priest had given approval it was too difficult for others to protest.

The first dance at Bellarmine was a sellout to a packed hall.By the time the next dance was scheduled word had passed to other schools. Bellarmine’s parking lot was packed with cars from rival schools, the social hall couldn’t hold all the kids, and the obscured invisible line of the south side vs the north spelled trouble. The third dance would be the last. Faculty frowned on non students attending a private dance but it was the party crashing, rampant libation with fights and squealing cars that quickly put a lock on rock at Bellarmine. But The Wailers had cut their teeth and quickly took stage at all-city dances across town. I went to all of the dances during my teen years. Pity those still too young to know the fervor that music created when it exploded into our lives, it’s incredible impact at that time, and the fact we had such potent talent in our own city. I wish I had been aware we were making history, but as kids you never consider that the next minute, hour, month, year will be history. The fact there were still so few musicians in the 50’s made them memorable and oh so special.

Teen Dancing in Tacoma  The Richards' Collection,  courtesy Tacoma Public Library

Teen Dancing in Tacoma The Richards’ Collection,
courtesy Tacoma Public Library

The Wailers were young, at fifteen and sixteen years old they would steal out to the Evergreen Ballroom in Lacey, WA to listen to black artists like Little Richard and BB King and, from there, learned the music that would be their influence. Tall Cool One hit the national charts at #36 written when Kent Morrill was only seventeen. Morrill’s arrangement of the iconic Louie Louie was written at age nineteen.

Popularity brought notoriety and in the late ‘50’s rock and roll had its protestors. City Fathers all across the country were ripping into the music as Satan’s music, calling it racial music demoralizing to youth and they self-righteously went on a path destroying records. Tacoma’s City Father’s climbed onto the national band wagon and dictated that The Wailers could not perform inside the city limits. The dictate didn’t stall talent and the rock bands found places to play in Tacoma; in grange halls, community centers, Bresemann’s Dance Hall at Spanaway Park, and Little Jem on Hwy 99. As kids, I doubt we understood there had been a crackdown, and if we had it would have simply cemented our intent to support the bands. We just knew where they were playing and found them no matter how far into the night we had to drive.

Tacoma’s dance scene was the place to see and be seen. In the summer, dances were every Wednesday and Saturday night. Cost $1. Their success had the rockers thinking bigger and if Tacoma wouldn’t let them play, well, maybe Seattle would. Kent Morrill approached Seattle’s prime top 40 DJ, KJR’s Pat O’Day, with the idea of promoting both the music and dances to the Seattle market. Seattle didn’t have the dance scene that was a Tacoma inception. Quick to see the potential, O’Day’s regional radio personality was huge and created an opportunity to pull the dance concept away from two Tacoma young men who initiated and propelled the vibrant dances and the rocketed the bands. With O’Day onboard, rockers felt he would create visibility and air time for their music. O’Day did adapt the dances to Seattle and opened up new venues like the Spanish Castle on Hwy 99.
With Seattle onboard, Tacoma City Fathers finally relented and eventually allowed the rockers back into town to crowds at Odd Fellows Hall, The Crescent Ballroom, Fellowship Hall, the Armory, and even back to the Evergreen Ballroom as performers. Once  Tall Cool One hit the charts the East coast took notice. The Wailers were hosted on Dick Clark’s Bandstand and management offers followed.

By the time Jini Dellaccio was commissioned to shoot the Wailers Wailers Everywhere album cover the boys from Tacoma had paid their dues. That Jini’s photography was selected by designer John Vlahovich hinged on her use of black and white, grainy, full bleed, large format photography. Her work was contemporary and edgy. The essence of the music and the origin of the The Wailers is tied to the gritty, blue collar town of Tacoma and magnified through Jini’s black and white film work. I find that connection colorful.

Production Still courtesy  Her Aim is True

Production Still courtesy
Her Aim is True

The core of Jini’s success with these groups is the personal connection she developed with each individual complimented by her photography style. She seemed to see through persons, found a little something in them even they didn’t know existed. Genuine and effusive, it was as if she loved everyone simply for their individuality. Her approach upon meeting was intentional; she slowed the moment and forced more than a rushed passing. You were in her world and she had all the time in the world for you. She committed you to her.

A scene in the film Her Aim Is True reveals an intimate moment when Jini singles out Mick Jagger for a shot while he’s performing. She said “For a moment our eyes met, I smiled at him, and took the picture. He looked exhausted.” There’s the connection she creates. A smile signaling acceptance… ‘you look good, great, got it’…and the subject’s shoulders relax. You have to know he caught that smile and his expression was one of questioning. Questioning…which is what they all must’ve felt at seeing Jini in their world.

Guest Post by Mary Vlahovich,  from Tacoma, Washington State