Inspired by a screening of cult hit “Blackboard Jungle,” Jason Lee Middle School classmates Bill Engelhardt, Buck Ormsby, Lasse Aines and Frank Dutra teamed up to start their own band, the Bluenotes. They started throwing teen dances, eventually scored a national hit with “I Love an Angel” in 1959, and thus started the Northwest garage-rock scene that spawned the Wailers, the Ventures and the Sonics. Engelhardt is still going strong, nearly six decades and several incarnations of Little Bill & the Bluenotes later. Sunday, the Mountlake Terrace resident will return to Tacoma when Little Bill’s Big Band headlines Immanuel Presbyterian Church’s monthly Blues Vespers showcase at 5 p.m. We caught up with the living legend to mark that occasion.
TW: In 2009, then mayor Bill Baarsma declared March 28 Little Bill Day. How do you celebrate?
Engelhardt: (Laughs) It’s really funny, when I got that award my son said, “Does that mean the kids get the day off from school?” That was quite a night. My friend Randy Oxford, you know, had put that (tribute concert) together. He played in my band for, gee, about eight years; nicest young man you’d ever want to meet. ... That was a really special night. But we don’t actually celebrate that day.
TW: The December Blues Vespers has turned into a tradition. When did you start doing that over at Immanuel Presbyterian.
Engelhardt: Well, I started working for Rev. Dave when he was in a church up in Seattle. We did a couple of jobs there, the Blues Vespers. And then he moved down to Tacoma out off of Pacific. But the Blues Vespers, where he’s at now, I think I’ve been going up there - I don’t know - 10, 12, 13 years. I’m not sure (keyboard player) Buck England’s gonna be there this year. He’s having some health problems, and I don’t know if he’s going to be able to make it. I do know that on the job will be Rod Cook on guitar and Tommy Morgan, drums; and then Scotty Harrison on tenor sax and Brian Kent on tenor sax and Tony Grasso on trumpet. So it’ll be good music.
TW: Is this considered a Bluenotes show?
Engelhardt: We do the Bluenotes in the summer. I just call this Little Bill’s Big Band every year.
TW: When did you change it up by adding the horn section?
Engelhardt: About three years ago, ‘cause the Bluenotes in the ‘90s, the band I had then was a 7-piece band with three horn players, a hammond organ, guitar, bass and drums.
The Bluenotes that I had in the ‘80s, that big band, was without a doubt my favorite combination of Bluenotes that I ever had. I think there’s been over 50 people in the Bluenotes since 1956 when we started.
TW: So the Bluenotes have been going on for close to 60 years now.
Engelhardt: I find it even amazing, because when we started in Tacoma we were the only kid band in Tacoma playing rock n’ roll. Although, we were playing more rhythm n’ blues, ‘cause we were very influenced by black musicians. My very first job playing music was when I was probably 15, and it was at the George Washington Carver Legion Hall on Tacoma Avenue, the black American Legion Hall. That was my very first job, and that band was called the Bluenotes. So when that broke up and all that and when I went on to start my own band, I called it the Bluenotes.
TW: What keeps music exciting for you?
Engelhardt: I always want to keep learning more. Good friends of mine, the guys in the Wailers ... what they did they did great. I never could have done that. Now that Kent’s (singer and keyboard player, Morrill) passed away, I don’t know if that will continue. He was kind of the driving force musically in that band. But they were playing the same music two years ago that they were playing in the late ‘50s. That’s not to put them down at all. It’s like the Kingsmen did “Louie Louie.” I did a show some years back with my big band at the Puyallup Fair, on the main stage. Basically, when I did those kinds of shows all I really had to do was “I Love an Angel.” Then I could pretty much do what I wanted to do. One of the guys in the Kingsmen came up to me later and says, “You’re really lucky. ... You do all this really great music. We do the same show every time we play.” I thought, wow, I guess I am lucky. But I’ve always wanted to learn.
TW: In the past, weʼve talked about how after you had your hit with “I Love An Angel” you were a little bitter about that. But I guessed thatʼs also freed you in not being so attached to that era. Engelhardt: Well yeah, I used to kid around. I said, “That record damn near killed me.” I was 19 years old and it got on the national charts, it was released in Europe and then it was over. And it was over pretty fast. Iʼve said it before, but I was 19 and I felt like a has- been, you know. I just put it in the back of my heart or my head or something. I didnʼt like doing “I Love and Angel” in a club setting. I was always praying nobody would ask me to do that. The first thing that really changed my thinking was my daughter had an eating disorder when she was a teenager, 13, 14. And she was talking to a counselor over in Bellevue. We were asked to come over as a family to one of the sessions with Lisa. The therapist says to me, “I understand youʼre a musician.” I said, “Yeah, I am.” She said, “Tell me about that.” And I started to cry. (chuckles) Jan looked at me like, “Bill, whatʼs the matter?” The lady said to me, “Whatʼs wrong?” I said, “Nothing, Iʼm sorry I brought it up. I donʼt mean to embarrass my family.” And she says, “No, whatʼs happening?” I blurted out, “I wish I would have never had that record. It was like having one potato chip and you canʼt have any more.” She said something to me that changed me right there. She said, “How many of your friends had hit records, Bill?” What she was saying was you should be happy for what you did have, and sheʼs absolutely right. It changed me. All of a sudden I had a whole different attitude about it - about that song and singing that song. So I just needed a little kick in the butt I guess.
TW: You are known as a guy who, with the original Bluenotes, started the scene that spawned bands like the Sonics, the Ventures and the Wailers.
Engelhardt: Yeah, when we started the Bluenotes we were the only one in Tacoma. In Seattle, there was a group called the Frantics, and then another group called the Playboys. But that was it for the Seattle-Tacoma area. Around 1958, maybe, it just exploded. There were bands coming out of the woodwork. I don’t know if it happened anywhere else, but it sure happened in the Northwest.
TW: To think that you as a kid started this thing that lead to there being all these bands over the decades.
Engelhardt: It was really weird, ʻcause we didnʼt ever think that way ourselves. We never thought, gee, weʼre the first ones over here. Looking back now I think thatʼs amazing. But when we first started we just wanted to have a band. I met Buck Ormsby and the drummer, Lasse (Aines). I was with a guy named Frank Dutra. We were at the Sunset Theater up on Sixth Avenue, and I recognized these guys from school. We started talking. Buck played steel guitar and Lasse played drums. We got together the next day at Buckʼs house and started practicing in my dadʼs garage, and away we went.
[code]Blues Vespers featuring Little Bill’s Big Band
5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 16
Immanuel Presbyterian Church, 901 N. J St., Tacoma
By donation, open to all ages
(253) 627-8371 or http://ipctacoma.org
Organizers request that you bring a new, unwrapped toy
for donation to Christmas House