Seafair Records: Seattle's Swingin' '60s Music Company

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 1/23/2008
  • Essay 8459

Of all the Pacific Northwest’s pioneering record companies, it was Seafair Records that perhaps best embodied Seattle’s innocent early days when a good honest effort would bring success. A true “mom and pop” enterprise long run by founders Tom and Ellen Ogilvy, Seafair (and its associated imprints Bolo, Virgelle, and Nolta Records) can, among other achievements, be credited with issuing the most consistent stream of high-quality 1960s rockin’ teen-R&B of any label in the region.

The Singing Soldier & E’lan the Hi-Fi Girl

The Seafair Records saga traces back to the World War II era when Tom Ogilvy  (1916–2000), a young trooper stationed at Fort Lewis, earned a stage-name “The Singing Soldier” while making guest appearances with the Jimmy Grier Orchestra (and others) in venues like the Seattle’s Palomar Theater and the Century Ballroom.

An aspiring songwriter, Ogilvy had met Ellen Woods (1922-2010) back in high school in Cle Elum in 1937.  Woods was an accomplished organist from Cashmere, Washington, who would go on to perform under the exotic stage name of “E’lan the Hi-Fi Girl from Kashmir,” marry Ogilvy, and in 1942 bear a son named Jimmy.

At war’s end, the couple opened their small Electro-Mart Inc. record shop in Seattle’s racially diverse Central Area (409 15th Avenue Ave N) neighborhood and soon Tom was DJing a show from the store (the “Home of the Platter Concert”) over KOL radio. Then, after acquiring an acetate “instant disc” recorder, the Ogilvys began recording touring big-bands (like Sammy Kaye and his Orchestra) on location and supplying these remote recordings to KJR radio for broadcast. More significantly though, the Ogilvy’s started producing recording sessions at Electro-Mart -- sessions that resulted in historic recordings by a variety of local acts including Bumps Blackwell’s Junior Band (which included teenaged African American trumpeters named Quincy Jones and Floyd Standifer, and a jazz singer named Ernestine Anderson).

Seattle’s “Record Man”

In addition to all this, the couple’s love of songwriting remained firm, and they recorded a few 78s for the obscure local Globe Records. Their first commercial breakthrough occurred in March 1956, with the release of “Old Rooster Tail (The Legend of a Proud Racing Boat),” a song commemorating the spectacular 1955 crash of Seattle’s favorite “thunderboat” – the Slo-Mo-Shun V – during the annual Seafair Gold Cup unlimited hydroplane race on Lake Washington.

Tom’s rousing tribute tune was performed by an ad hoc group (that included the E’lan Trio and three folk singers -- the Whitney Brothers) that were collectively called the Seagull Six. It was recorded by one of Seattle’s pioneering sound engineers, Chet Noland of Dimensional Sounds (2128 Third Avenue).  Tom arranged to have it pressed under the Seafair Records company label, and the 45s and 78s were distributed by the local Thriftway grocery store chain.

Though this scenario hardly seems to be the recipe for success, sentimentality about the wrecked hydro had captured the locals’ imagination and sales took off. Newspaper coverage helped make the record the talk of the town for weeks and established Tom as Seattle’s “record man” -- the guy who had accomplished the impossible: He’d taken a local recording of local singers doing a locally written song released on a local label and created a hit!

There Is Something On Your Mind

Word spread, and in 1957 their old friend Bumps Blackwell (who’d relocated to Hollywood where he worked in the record biz and had helped shape the career of a few up-&-comers like Little Richard) returned to Seattle on a promotional visit accompanied by his latest discovery, a singer named Sam Cooke. While Ellen made dinner for all, Blackwell -- seeking their reaction to Cooke’s potential debut single, “Summertime” – spun an acetate disc on his host’s record player. Years later Tom always laughed while proudly noting that Ellen had instantly proclaimed that she liked the proposed b-side (“You Send Me”) better. And, that when the 45 was actually issued a few weeks later, that tune was now the a-side.

The year 1957 was also when the Los Angeles-based R&B honking sax master, Big Jay McNeely, came to town for an extended gig at the Birdland nightclub. And he  wanted to cut a new record. Asking around, he was pointed to Tom who promptly made arrangements for a recording session at Joe Boles’s home basement studio (3550 SW Admiral Way) in West Seattle. The result was “There Is Something On Your Mind,” a soulful blues-ballad that McNeely wondered if Seafair Records would like to issue. But Tom -- believing that Seattle’s whitebread radio stations simply wouldn’t support it -- instead advised the bandleader to take the Master Tape with him back to Los Angeles where it would have half a chance.

Tom’s generous advice proved to be true and upon release the tune became a strong national No. 5 hit, McNeely’s most successful hit of many, and a classic that impacted the Northwest scene with lots of bands immediately adopting it -- indeed, it was one of the very first that a pre-fame Jimmy (“Jimi”) Hendrix would cut after resettling in New York City in 1965.

Tribute to Ray Charles

In June 1960, Seafair Records released their debut rock ‘n’ roll 45, the Dynamics’ “Onion Salad.” The Ogilvys were enjoying working with Boles so much that Tom proposed that they start a new collaborative “sister” label with a name derived by conflating their two names: Bolo Records. This label debuted in September with the “Searching For Linda” 45 by Skip. In November Seafair scored with a teen idol-wannabe billed as Billy Saint whose bright pop number, “Polly Ann,” became a local radio hit on KJR catching the attention of Hollywood’s Dot label, which licensed it for national re-release.

Over the next couple of years Seafair/Bolo signed, recorded, and released discs by various teen bands including the Continentals, Night People, Exotics, Galaxies, Frantics, Nitesounds, Gems, Mystics, Titans, Mark V, and the Dave Lewis Combo. One of their most promising 45s was cut by the latter band: “R.C. (Untwistin’)” was a Twist-era song titled in tribute to Lewis’s local musical hero, Ray Charles. According to Tom, everyone loved Lewis’s sound -- everyone, that is, except KJR who even went so far as to say that it was just “too R&B” for their audience. The record did, however, end up being a moderate hit on the town’s new R&B station, KZAM-FM, which was managed by veteran African American DJ, “Eager” Beaver.

Meanwhile, the Ogilvys and Boles expanded their efforts by founding two new labels with specific goals for each: the Country/Western-oriented Virgelle Records (named to honor the partner’s wives, Virginia Boles and Ellen), and the experimental NOLTA Records (an acronym for the talent agency they briefly pondered forming, Northern Lights Talent Association).

In 1962 lots of local musicians (and new labels) prepared for the Grand Opening of the big Seattle World’s Fair by recording topical tunes as souvenir items for the expected hordes of visiting tourists. Though scores of such discs were released, it was Seafair Records whose “Meet Me In Seattle At The Fair” -- by the lounge combo, Joy and the Boys, who were based in the Boulevard Room at Rosellini’s Four-10 Restaurant (410 University Plaza) -- was declared the fair’s official theme song.

Leaving Here

Sadly, 1962 also saw the sudden death of Joe Boles of a heart attack. The Ogilvys carried on, working with various other local sound engineers -- including Acme Recording’s Fred Rasmussen, Commercial Recorders’ Lyle Thompson, and Everett, Washington’s freelancer, Ray Van Patten.

Meanwhile, the Ogilvys' various labels scored a string of regional radio hits with excellent songs including the Dynamics’s “J.A.J.,” Tiny Tony and the Statics’ “Hey, Mrs. Jones” -- and the Viceroys’ “Granny’s Pad,” which reportedly became the biggest-selling local 45 up to that point in time and one that was re-issued nationally in a deal with Dot Records. In late-1963 Bolo scored a surprise left-field smash with a novelty number, “Charlie Browning,” as cut by the Young Men. That group’s salute to Charlie Browning -- a star football player with the University of Washington’s Huskies – was based on the Coasters’ goofy 1959 No. 2 hit, “Charlie Brown,” and it quickly sold many thousands of copies to music and sports fans alike.

The Dynamics had experienced a few rounds of personnel changes and one was the addition (back in June 1961) of the Ogilvys' teenaged son, Jimmy -- who would soon adopt his grandmother’s maiden name, Hanna, as his own stage name. Regionally influential hits that followed included “Busybody,” “Genevieve,” and “Leaving Here” (which was picked up for national distribution by Atlantic Records).

Interestingly, while most local African American bands struggled to get the attention of any local label, the Ogilvys had no problem working with black artists and issued  records by some including Dave Lewis, George Griffin, Dave Holden, Frank Roberts, Mr. Lee and the El Caminos -- and even Tom and the Tomcats whose awesome NOLTA label original, “Drive, Drive, Drive,” was recorded only weeks after their original guitarist, Jimmy Hendrix, quit to join the U.S. Army in May 1961.

That Sound

Bolo Records also issued three beloved albums: January 1964, saw the release of the Viceroy’s Granny’s Pad LP, and September brought The Dynamics With Jimmy Hanna LP. Then their classic multi-artist compilation LP, Bolo Bash, came out in January, 1965.

One frustrating challenge that the Ogilvys faced was that their talent roster kept on getting raided by a rival crosstown company, Jerden Records, who apparently didn’t care to honor the exclusive recording contracts that already been signed with Seafair/Bolo. Decent people that they were, the Ogilvys feelings were hurt but they never battled when Jerden grabbed their artists such as Dave Lewis, the Exotics, Billy Saint, and Tom Thumb and the Casuals.

Facing changing musical times, the Ogilvys also moved ahead by issuing folkie 45s by groups like the Trem-Los and the Mandrakes, and even 1965’s “That Sound” which would serve as the basis for a psychedelic makeover when the Viceroys -- newly renamed the Surprise Package -- re-recorded it as “Out Of My Mind” for the mega-label, Columbia Records in 1966.

By 1967-1968 the Seafair and Bolo labels had lost their momentum -- the former was inactive and the latter limped along with a few pop 45s of the new Jimmy Hanna Band. It had been a good run for the Ogilvys’ companies but those were tough times for independent regional labels -- indeed, the next couple years would see the demise of virtually all the early record labels that had originally helped launch the “Northwest Sound” including Dolton, Blue Horizon, Etiquette, Jerden, and Camelot Records.

Memory Bank of Northwest Sounds

As the general appreciation for vintage Northwest sounds increased during the 1980s some of these labels made comebacks including Jerden and Etiquette Records. Bolo too gave it another shot with the release of the Dynamics’ 1983 LP, Memory Bank of Northwest Sounds and the 1984 LP, Leaving Here. But after the release of 120-some different discs, Tom and Ellen Ogilvy finally passed the torch to a group of investors (including Jimmy Ogilvy) who have released a few new discs sporadically since 1998.

A decade before this, in 1988, Tom was honored by the Northwest Area Music Association (NAMA) with a Lifetime Achievement Award presented to him onstage by his son at a ceremony event at Seattle’s Moore Theater. As a member of the NAMA Hall of Fame Committee, I personally know that he deeply appreciated that recognition -- and in hindsight I only wish we’d also included Ellen that night as they both contributed mightily to local scene and the rise of a viable music industry here.

When Tom Ogilvy passed away in January, 2000, the Northwest lost not just a great friend but also one of the last of his breed: a pioneering independent record-man from the early days of our regional music industry. That June, when Seattle’s rock ‘n’ roll museum, The Experience Music Project (EMP) opened, it was my pleasure (as the Senior Curator who’d developed the local history exhibits in the Northwest Passage gallery) to see the Dynamics and Viceroys both reunite and perform once again -- as well as to see Ellen Ogilvy and her longtime friend, Virginia Boles, touring the museum where they saw that the history they and their husbands had created was not forgotten.

Sources: Peter Blecha interview with Tom & Ellen Ogilvy (recorded August 9, 1983, etc.), Jimmy “Hanna” Ogilvy (recorded 1984), Chet Noland (November 1983, etc.), Virginia Boles (recorded 1984, 2000, etc.), Dave Lewis (recorded July 1983, April 12, 1989), Larry Coryell (recorded December 7, 1983, etc.), Terry Afdem (November 1983), Jeff Afdem (July 1987), Ron Woods (recorded 1983, 1988), Jim Valley (recorded March 8, 1984), Mike Rogers (recorded 1984), Fred Zeufeldt (recorded 1984), Jim Manolides (recorded January 1984, etc.) -- all recordings in Seattle, all in possession of Peter Blecha; “Tom Ogilvy Writes Seafair Song,” The Capitol Hill Times, March 23, 1956, p. 1; Stanton H. Patty, “Theme Song: World’s Fair Tune Given Official O.K.” The Seattle Times, November 3, 1961, p. 1; Bruce Smith, “Bolo Records,” Golden Oldies Times, ca. 1978, p. 3; Gene Stout, “Robert Cray and Young Fresh Fellows Win NW Music Awards” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 27, 1988, p. C-15; Peter Blecha, “Leavin’ Here: Seattle’s Original ‘Record Man’ Tom Ogilvy,” The Rocket,  February 9, 2000.
Note: Ellen Woods's name was corrected on December 2, 2008.

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