Wednesday, November 7, 2001

Back to the future with Little Bill

• During his 44 year career in music, Northwest rock pioneer Bill Engelhart has constantly reinvented himself.

By Steve Stav, for The Enterprise Newspapers, Lynnwood, 2001.

Although Bill Engelhart -- known since childhood as "Little Bill" -- is one of the pioneers (many say the pioneer) of Northwest rock 'n' roll, the Mountlake Terrace-based singer, bassist, and author doesn't live in the past much -- he can't afford to.

"I've never taken anything for granted... several times, I've thought, 'If it ended right now, I couldn't say that I haven't gotten enough [recognition],'" the slight, 62-year-old musician said from a chair in his plaque-and-record-adorned den. As Engelhart calmed his attention-starved Boston Terrier puppy, he continued, "I've always been grateful for anything that I get... so when people come up to me after a gig -- and thank God that they do -- and say something like, 'I first saw you 30 years ago, and I want to see you again -- I really enjoyed it,' that means a lot to me. You see, I don't play the same stuff I did 30 years ago -- I can't, I have to grow -- and to hear that they weren't disappointed, that's really something."

During his 44 year career in music, Little Bill Engelhart has constantly reinvented himself -- from teenaged R&B bandleader (he formed little Bill & the Bluenotes in 1956) to young pop crooner (his only hit, 1959's "I Love An Angel," led to tours with the like of Roy Orbison, The Ventures and Ricky Nelson), to down-and-dirty, dive-bar bluesman in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Though some critics have opined that his gravelly, hard-times-echoing voice is most suited for the blues, the 21st century incarnation of Little Bill is a diversified performer who doesn't stick to any one particular genre.

"I don't do 'all-blues' anymore... actual blues, 12-bar blues, I might play a couple during a set," he stated, "I don't want to be labeled -- I never wanted to be tagged as a rock 'n' roll singer, I never wanted to tagged as a blues man -- I just want to sing. So well do anything from the traditional -- 'Stormy Monday Blues' to 'Bye Bye Blackbird' or 'Johnny B. Goode.' It depends on the audience -- I want them to have a good time."

The self-effacing singer has another method to keeping his audience -- and his band -- on their toes, a method he learned from watching B.B. King during a five-night opening gig years ago at Seattle's long-gone Trojan Horse.

Engelhart explained that "No one in the band but me knows what the next song is -- and I don't either, until just before I call it.

"B.B. told me, 'Watch the crowd, you'll know what to play,'" continued Englhart, who, along with fellow Bluenote and lifelong friend Buck Ormsby, first met King at Olympia's Evergreen Ballroom in 1957. "Heck, the guys in the band don't know who's going to solo next until I look at them. It might sound like I'm a control freak, but that's not my reasoning -- I want to keep our sets interesting for the audience."

The Bluenotes' current lineup have enabled Engelhart to produce his finest body of work -- his most recent CD, "Naked Blues." Stripping away the usual horn section, Engelhart reduced the band to an trio -- himself, drummer Tommy Morgan (who's played with Little Bill since 1962) and master guitarist Mark Riley, a Bluenote veteran of six years. The result is a gritty, acoustic sound that is unbelievably authentic -- full of bottlenecked axe, brushed skins and Engelhart's road-worn yet powerful voice. Ironically, "Naked Blues" is sort of an accident -- it was recorded live in the studio, during a casual day's session to make a demo disc.

"I really believe it's the best record I've made since 'I Love An Angel,' and it's the most accepted, in terms of sales," Engelhart said. After pausing a moment, he added, "I don't think I'll record again. Without sounding too dramatic, I feel in my heart that It's the kind of recording that I've tried to make for years. It like my book (Engelhart's riveting autobiography, Next Stop, Bakersfield, now out of print) -- people ask me, Vhen are you going to write another book?' I'm not... I've said everything I wanted to say."

Oh, Little Bill Engelhart lives in the present and looks to the future, all right -- he plays around 150 gigs a year to audiences that are simultaneously getting older and younger. However, he's not yet tired of telling a tale or two when prodded; the Northwest legend, naturally, has a lot of stories bouncing about upstairs.

From his wheelchair onstage (victimized by polio as a child, he finds a chair the most comfortable means of performing), Engelhart might tell you the story of how he and Ormsby “discovered” another Northwest legend, the late "Rockin'" Robin Roberts, singing on a park bench at the Puyallup Fair. Backstage, packing the treasured bass that Riley once handcrafted for him, the singer might relate the tale of how Ormsby, then with the Wailers, found out that Engelhart had recorded, "Louie, Louie" -- and rushed to release his band's version before Engelhart did. Fishing a puppy treat from his pocket, he'll tell you how he wound up playing billionaire Paul Allen's super-secret birthday cruise in Alaska almost 40 years later.

Perhaps his best -- and most enlightening -- anecdote is this one, told from his Mountlake Terrace home, many miles (and seeming light years) from his boyhood home in a town whose famed "Tacoma sound" he helped create decades ago.

"In the old days -- when I was in my early 20s -- we used to go down to what was called 'Lower Broadway' in Tacoma and play music -- it was the 'black area' of town," Little Bill recalled with a grin. "It was like going to school... the bars, the pool halls and restaurants -- I loved everything about it, and the fact that I was accepted there..."

Years later, while on a trip to Seattle (he had moved all about the Southwest), Engelhart had an inspiration. "I decided to pull off the freeway and revisit Lower Broadway -- except it wasn't there anymore.

"The pool halls, the juke joints -- the buildings themselves were all gone," he explained, concluding, "I think about what good times those were... but then I think, 'Nothing lasts forever.' Things change -- that's part of life."

Originally published in The Enterprise Newspapers, Lynnwood, 2001.

copyright 1997-2011, Steve Stav


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