The wisdom of Little Bill

// Legendary blues man reflects on what he’s learned in 75 years

  • BLUES MAN. Little Bill Engelhardt performs at Destination Harley-Davidson in Fife on March 8. He’ll celebrate his 75th birthday during a special Blues Vespers show on March 16 at Immanuel Presbyterian Church. (Photo credit Ernest A. Jasmin. )

After catching a screening of cult hit “Blackboard Jungle” one fateful day in at the Sunset Theater, Tacoma teens Bill Engelhart, Buck Ormsby, Lasse Aines and Frank Dutra decided to form their own band, Little Bill & the Bluenotes.

They started throwing teen dances and scored a national hit with “I Love an Angel” in 1959, the first of the rock era to come out of Tacoma. And thus began the legendary Northwest garage-rock scene that spawned the Wailers, the Ventures and the Sonics.

In 2009, former Tacoma mayor Bill Baarsma declared March 28 “Little Bill Day” in commemoration of Engelhardt’s role as a regional rock pioneer. His actual 75th birthday falls on St. Patrick’s Day, though. Not that you’ll catch him celebrating publicly.

“I don’t like working on my birthday,” the Mountlake Terrace resident said recently, “because March 17, for some reason, makes people feel they should get real drunk and boisterous. They all think they’re Irish.”

So the party is set for 5 p.m. Sunday, March 16, at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, which is located at 901 N. J St., in Tacoma.

Engelhart will headline a special installment of the church’s monthly Blues Vespers series. He will be joined by Rod Cook on guitar, Russ Kammerer on drums, Ron Handee on trumpet, Brian Kent on tenor sax and guest vocalists Patti Allen, The Randy Oxford Band’s Jada Amy and Junkyard Jane’s Leanne Trevalyan.

But, before that, we thought we’d ask him about some of the biggest lessons he’s learned over six decades as a performer. Here’s some of what he had to say:

“Whether it’s music - or whatever it is - just be honest with what you do and what you say. If you’re not, people will see right through it, and that takes away all your credibility. Once you lose your credibility, with any form of what you do, it’s hard to ever get that back.”  


“I was telling my wife this story last night. When I was 21 years old, I got my first job in a bar. It was in Tacoma, and I was singing with these older guys. They were all in their 40s and 50s – maybe a little older than that, some of ‘em.

“The drummer was an old guy, named Vernon Brown – a black guy. He’d sit back there on those drums and he’d say, ‘Sing the blues, Bill. Sing the blues.’

“On the breaks, we’d go outside. He drank Thunderbird wine, I remember. He’d tell me these great stories, and I just loved this guy, everything about him. I was so impressed with him, and I wanted him to be impressed with me.

“One night, I decided – because I’m getting a little cocky now – that I’d come to work having smoked some marijuana. I’m up there, and I think I’m like Shecky Green or something. I think I’m real funny, and I’m screwin’ up the songs and everything. My set got over, and I was sitting at the bar. I’d say Vernon at that time was in his late ‘60s; and he walked over to me and he said, ‘I thought you were special, but you’re not.’ Because I wasn’t honest. I wasn’t being honest.

“I did win him back. But even when he said that, I’m sorry to say, it still took me a number of years to get my life together. But I’ll never forget that. … I’ll never forget the look on his face, the look of disappointment, and how embarrassed I was. I was terribly embarrassed, and I should have been.” 

“Our heroes in those days were all drunks and dope addicts: Hank Williams, John Coltrane, all guys that died young; and for some reason these were our heroes. (He chuckles.)

“Do everything you can to not make the mistakes that I’ve made, and avoid anything that could take control of your life. Alcohol and drugs will do that to most people. Some people can drink and never (falter.) But you’re playing real Russian roulette there.

“I can remember going to work and thinking, ‘I just won’t have one drink. Then I’ll be fine.’ Then I’d sit down, and it was like somebody else was talking. ‘Yeah, I’ll have a beer and a shot of whiskey.’ I look back at that now and I think what a waste. What a waste.

“After I was completely straightened up it was such a strange thing because I think I started believing in myself a little more. I wasn’t hiding behind anything, a bottle or a pill. I think I gained more confidence, for sure. I started really enjoying my family more, my kids. I’m so glad I straightened myself up by the time my grandkids came along. Yeah, you see things a lot differently.”

“I think it’s really important to follow your dreams, and don’t let go of ‘em. I knew when I was 10 years old what I was gonna do. There was no doubt in my mind. My dad had a cousin that played guitar, and I knew. So I followed that dream.

“I have a disability, but it never occurred to me that I couldn’t do it. That never occurred to me.

“I quit a couple of times and worked at day jobs. Basically, a lot of that had to do with my family. My wife was raising two little kids. Sometimes, you have to look at priorities, too. As it turned out, I got off the road. I stayed home with my family, and I sobered up; and my dreams just kept coming true.

“I sit in my office right now. I’m not bragging, but there are awards on my wall, for God’s sake. When I started, when I was 17, all I wanted was to be in a band. If you have a passion, stay with it. Follow it.” 

“I think it’s really important, when you’re young – or even as you get older – that you ask all the questions you can think of to your aging relatives, about their life and what they went through. What happens, is pretty soon there’s no one left to ask. They’re gone.

“I tell my kids that. I tell my grandchildren that. Ask me everything you can think of. I don’t want to die and have you say, ‘I wish I had asked him such and such.’ I think that’s really, really important. All my aunts and uncles are all gone. Even now – I’m 75 – I’ll think, ‘I wonder what happened there’ or, ‘I wonder how that came about.’ And I’ll think I’ve got nobody to ask. That’s really important, to stay in touch and find out as much about your family’s history as you possibly can.”

“Don’t be afraid to tell someone you love ‘em. They don’t have to be a relative or a wife or a kid. That’s important. My dad never, ever said that word to me; and I learned from him not ever saying that word to me how important that word is. His way of saying I love you was to buy me something or give me money. But he couldn’t say those words, you know.

“(Keyboard player) Buck England hasn’t worked with me for a while now, because his health is bad. We were talking a while back. I called him up. When he hung up he told me, ‘You know, Bill, I love you.’ ‘I love you, too, Buck.’ And I do. I think it’s OK to say that to someone. I guess I can thank my dad because he never did say that.”


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