Arts & Entertainment

The Tacoma sound: from forgotten vocalists to Seaweed

We aren’t just grunge!

Tacoma music goes a lot further than “Louie Louie.” From groundbreaking ‘60s surf and garage rock to ‘90s punk and alternative, the last sixty years of Tacoma music have been plentiful, gritty and made a mark on music history. Learn about Tacoma’s best deep cuts and the history behind them.

Photo via The Louie Report | Gail Harris

Gail Harris: “So Much / Be My Baby” (1961)
Performing with The Wailers as young as 13, Gail Harris was a Tacoma singer who exemplified the soulful and powerful vocal style of the early ‘60s. Her solo career produced a handful of singles, including the 1961 upbeat track “So Much,” which features her signature howl, and the wistful “Be My Baby.” With credits on The Fabulous Wailers “At The Castle,” one of their renowned live albums recorded at the local Spanish Castle Ballroom, Harris deserves more credit for her contributions to the success of the famed garage band.

Jonah’s Whale: “Why / Feelin’ Loose” (1972)
Released on Valane Records in Seattle, this groovy 45 has everything: the heartfelt, soaring harmonies of “Why” and the catchy, danceable funk hit “Feelin’ Loose.” As one of Tacoma’s only funk bands, Jonah’s Whale was active for over 25 years, from 1971 to 1997. With a talented and diverse lineup, many members of the Whale remain fixtures of the Tacoma scene, like guitarist Michael Stubblefield and drummer Bill Barner.

Photo by Pacific Northwest Bands | The members of “Jonah’s Whale.”

Neko Case: “Furnace Room Lullaby” (2000)
A uniquely Tacoma album, Neko Case’s “Furnace Room Lullaby” is full of scenery only Tacoma natives will recognize. “South Tacoma Way” is both haunting and serene, epitomizing the five-mile stretch of old neon signs we all know and love, while “Thrice All American” is more celebratory, defending the gritty and empty nature of the city. However, often overlooked on this album is “Bought and Sold,” a song with raw vocals and perfect alt-country guitar tones. Case grew up in Tacoma and often references the city, even in her later works. Fun Fact: iconic Tacoma band, Girl Trouble, has a song called “Neko Loves Rock ‘N’ Roll.”

Photo via Wikipedia | Neko Case

The Fuckers: “Block Party” (1992)
Rumored to be Seaweed in disguise, the four ski-masked members only released two singles, “Block Party” and “QuickCash / Coming Home (Crashing The Crackhouse).” With likely the most entertaining liner notes you’ll ever read, including a shout out to the recently-closed Hilltop Pawn, The Fuckers are classic Tacoma punk.

Seaweed: “Spanaway” (1995)
Seaweed’s fourth album, “Spanaway,” is full of catchy and edgy songs with excellent vocals. The Tacoma band is known for their unique and influential sound that combines elements of alt-rock, punk and early pop-punk. “Start With” is one of those timeless, great songs that will be stuck in your head for weeks, but “Magic Mountainman” is the deep cut that will have you singing along with the guitar line. Surprisingly, PNW drummers Matt Cameron of Soundgarden and Barrett Martin of Screaming Trees played on each of these unforgettable tracks.

Photo via Pette Discographies | Album Cover for “The Fuckers.”

Little Bill and The Bluenotes: “I Love An Angel / Bye Bye Baby” (1959)
With the classic ‘50s rhythm & blues dancehall sound, Little Bill and The Bluenotes are a time capsule for Tacoma in a different era. Produced by Bonnie Guitar, their single “I Love An Angel” is a sweet teen ballad, undoubtedly the perfect slow dance number, while “Bye Bye Baby” has more swing to it, with rather fiery lyrics for the time. While Little Bill later rebranded as Bill Engelhart and continued to release solo work, two members of The Bluenotes, Buck Ormsby and Rockin’ Robin Roberts, went on to found The Wailers.

No Tacoma music history account would be complete without the big three: The Sonics, The Wailers and The Ventures. All dominating the Tacoma scene in the early 1960s, each have impressive and extensive discographies. Deep cut favorites include The Wailers’ alias project, The Breakers, along with The Ventures’ endless early singles and The Sonics’ lovably-weird collaboration Christmas singles with The Wailers, “Don’t Believe in Christmas / Christmas Spirit?”

Photo via Tacoma Public Library Online Digital Collections | A group of teenagers dancing to the “Bluenotes” in 1958.