Make a Scene: Merrilee Rush teams up with Gabriel for Mardi Gras show

Fans of classic Northwest rock may have noticed that Grammy Award-winning “Angel of the Morning” singer Merrilee Rush has, of late, teamed up with Gabriel, one of the region's hottest bands throughout the '70s.

They appeared together last summer at Proctor Arts Fest and more recently at the Swiss Tavern. Fans will be able to catch another rare appearance on Feb. 8, when the super-group headlines a Mardi Gras themed show at Key Peninsula Civic Center, with support from Tacoma singer-songwriter Kim Archer and zydeco band Filé Gumbo.

Recently, we caught up with Rush, who reflected on her career and the dawn of Northwest rock.

TW: When you were getting started, you were part of that vibrant teen dancehall circuit in the '60s.

Rush: It was the best in the nation. In the '60s we had the greatest dancehall circuit – here, Spokane, Oregon. It was just enough to keep us busy all the time.

In the early '60s I was with a rhythm and blues band called Tiny Tony & The Statics for about three years. That's when R & B was huge; and then the Beatles came along, and R&B disappeared, and we all shifted over to pop. In '65, we started the Turnabouts, so it was Merrilee & The Turnabouts.

TW: What do you remember about what very first sparked your interest?

Rush: The first band that I saw was Little Bill & The Bluenotes at the Lynnwood Roller Rink, and Buck Ormsby, who later was in the Wailers, was in that group.

TW: I think Buck left the Bluenotes in 1960, so you're talking about …

Rush: 1959, probably, is when I saw him with Little Bill. … That was really my first, and from that I met Neil Rush, who put me in his band. It was called the Aztecs.

I joined the band, and it really brought a pop feel to what they were doing. That band broke up because it really wasn't their cup of tea, you know. They were more serious musicians. So we went on and formed Merrilee & Her Men, which lasted about a year and a half, probably. Then we joined the Statics, and that was a very hot band at the time.

TW: So that's when you started gaining some real traction, with the Statics.

Rush: That was my favorite period ... because it gave me a wonderful background to combine rock and R & B. That's something I've loved, the combination of rock and R & B. Later, I was a huge Bad Company fan. Delbert McClinton (had) that combination. Foreigner had it. And Tina Turner was my idol.

We used to go to the Evergreen Ballroom (a defunct venue in Lacey) and see Bobby Blue Bland and Ike & Tina Turner every time they'd come to town. Tina was it, and still is to me. I rarely go see live acts because nobody compares to what she did.

TW: You mentioned the Evergreen Ballroom, and so much of that happened here in the Northwest can be traced to that one venue.

Rush: Oh yeah, yeah, the teen dances and the national acts that came through. To bring rhythm & blues to the Evergreen Ballroom was pretty wild because … it was kind of out in farmland, north of Olympia, in the Lacey area. They would draw all the blacks from the area, and then the Wailers and us, we'd be the only white kids in the front. (She laughs.) That was our school.

TW: A lot of people know you for “Angel of the Morning.” How did you wind up recording that song?

Rush: (Paul Revere & The Raiders) were going to do a southern tour. … They put me on as the opening act, and they ended up in Memphis where they were cutting their “Goin' to Memphis” album.

I was just along for the ride, so I did a demo for the producer, Chip Moman, and he liked my voice. I went back a month later, and they brought me “Angel.” It had been released on Cameo (Parkway Records) by … Evie Sands. She was a protege of the writer, Chip Taylor, who is also John Voight's brother.

The problem Evie had with Cameo is they went out of business right then, so her version never saw the light of day. They played the song for me, and I just went, “Oh, my gosh.” I never care about lyrics, but the lyric was really revolutionary for its time; and, basically, the chord progression is “Louie Louie.” It's “Wild Thing.” It's that old chord progression. I just went, “Oh, this is it.”

TW: Lately, you've been active with Gabriel. What's that connection all about?

Rush: I was a big fan of Gabriel. That's what this thing on Feb. 8 is about. It's a Mardi Gras party, but it's Gabriel doing their tunes. They were, to me, musically the best, as far as singing, writing, playing. They had it all. Terry Lauber is the lead singer now ... and he's just got the most beautiful voice you've ever heard. I can listen to him all day.

What I do is songs from the '60s and stuff that people know. We'll be doing “China Grove,” stuff like that. But it's more about my long-time love of this band. The drummer, Michael Kinder, is one of the very best. Gary Rule, one of the best; Terry Lauber, and then my husband, Billy Mack, is on the keys.

TW: What are you working on now?

Rush: Right now we're concentrating on Billy Mack because he has great opportunities out of L.A., to get songs pitched. So everything is being focused on him right now.

I've been dog showing, and I have a breeding coming up. (She breeds Old English Sheepdogs.) This is what I'm focusing on now. But I do go out and do these shows once in a while, so it's a nice balance. I get to live on this farm with my dogs and my husband, and go out and do things once in a while. It's a perfect life. I can't complain at all.

And I have a horrible birthday coming up on Sunday (Jan. 26) People say what are you gonna do for that birthday? (She laughs) I can't even say the number.

TW: Is it one of the even, 10-year ones?

Rush: It's an even number, yes it is. It's an ugly, even number. A friend of mine is turning this age this summer, and I said, “Well, what are you doing?” She said, “I'm building my coffin.” (She cracks up.)

Mardis Gras concert with Merrilee Rush and Gabriel

6 p.m. Feb. 8

Key Peninsula Civic Center

Tickets are $30 to $35 and include a Southern themed meal

(253) 884-3456 or http://www.kpciviccenter.org

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