Monday, June 23, 2014

Dave Holden, Musician

Dave Holden has worked as a musician since childhood. Coming from a celebrated family of local musicians, he generously shares his story with us. 

Photo: Madeline Crowley

So, you grew up in the Central District?

Let me tell you one story about growing up here. When I came home from school my Dad sent me to get some milk from Poppa’s Grocery (where the Urban League is now). I’m hearing music coming down the street. It sounded really good so I kept walking over there. The music was going, everybody was swinging and clapping; it was wild, wild, wild. There was no air conditioning so the door was thrown open. I just stood there and watched ‘til the song ended thinking, ‘That’s what I want to do with my life!’ Then, this guy came out bumping against the door, stumbled to a car and drove away like he was drunk. I stood there waiting for the music to start up again but there was no music – then people started leaving. 

So, the stumbling guy was the music?

That’s right. That was Mike Taylor, a great piano player even now. After a few minutes I peek into the room. Billy Tolles, the boss tenor player, and Tommy Adams are just sitting there on stage, like, what are we going to do now? The piano player was gone. He wasn’t a drunk. He just looked drunk because he had Asiatic ‘flu, and he had been throwing up so he couldn’t stay. Billy Tolles saw me and said, ‘Hey, ain’t you a Holden? Don’t you play?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I play!’

How old were you?   
Photo: Collection Dave Holden

Maybe 16 or 17. He said, ‘C’mon, sit down here and play.’ I was so surprised that he wanted me to play. I told him I only knew three songs. He said, ‘Then play one!’ I think it was ‘Begin the Beguine’. People looked up and said, ‘Hey, ain’t that the Holden kid?’ Back then everybody knew everybody in the neighborhood. So, we played.

The boss was sitting there smoking his cigar. People started buying drinks. Everyone relaxed and was happy. Then the boss said, ‘Hey Holden!’ And I thought, Wow, they recognize me and I’m not even old enough to be in here.

Tolles and Adams, they played so as to make it (the song) happen because I wasn’t good; I was young. So, they asked me what the other song I knew was, so I just struck out with the next one. Billy started playing the melody, Tommy started the rhythm and more people were calling out, ‘Yeah, Holden!’

The boss of Ayer’s Café got happy. It was a nice joint in those days.

How did you feel?

Like my head was this big! They recognized me as a Holden, as a piano player from the Holden family, like my Dad, my Mom and my brother. 

Then they asked me to play the last song I knew, and I played it. The others were picking around trying to play it and they made it happen again.

I didn’t know any more songs. And I told them that, so Billy told me to play the first one again. And I listened as they played around it differently to make it happen. To make the songs happen all again, over and over.

Did you read the book, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter & Sweet? There’s a story like this in that book. He must have heard that story from someone.   

From me! He came here and interviewed me.

Photo: Collection Dave Holden

But going back to the story, when it was time to take a break, Tolles says to me you want a gig? I said, Yeah! I got a big head right away because the people were clapping.

I just knew this is what I want to do! This is what I’m going to do with my life. I’m going to play music!

My Dad was really mad when I got back to the house because he had gone to bed. He heard me put the milk in the icebox and he yelled, ‘Boy! What have you been doing?’ He was real mad because I took so long.

But before I left the club, Billy Tolles told me to go his house the next day and he’d teach me some more songs. He lived on 24th just past Union. So, I went over there every day for a week. I was a sponge in those days. I quickly had a whole repertoire of tunes in a week. And at the club at night, Billy stood up proud just doing what I’d learned. It worked out really good. But then, all the sudden, that guy I’d seen going out with the ‘flu just came in one night and sat down at the piano. I thought, ‘What! What’s happening?’ Then Billy told me, “I’m sorry. It’s a Union gig. It’s his gig.” So I had to let it go and go home. 

Were you heartbroken?

Oh, yeah! I was getting ready to learn, I was learning every time I went there.

That’s how it was in the neighborhood. And that’s how I got started at Ayers’ Café on 13th & Yesler. 

So did you grow up in the Central Area on 14th?
The first house that I can remember was on 26th & Madison.
So you lived in what had been Mr. Grose’s plat.  

Photo: Collection Dave Holden

What is that?
Mr. Grose was the first large Black landowner in the late 1800s and he bought acres of land along Madison, about 23st to about 27th
Our first family home was on 26th & Madison, right over the corner in a duplex an up-and-down duplex. The guy downstairs was Jerome Butler. His family is in Seattle musical history like our family is. They lived downstairs and us Holdens lived upstairs.
There were six of us at that time. Then we had two more. The second house was on 24th, right behind the YMCA. Then we moved to 14th and Fir.
What was the neighborhood like when you were young?
The neighborhood was very mixed, really integrated around 14th  & Fir. I thought the whole world was like that. There was one guy who was Chinese and he went to war for the Americans that lived in the apartment. He owned the apartment complex that was next to our house on 14th and Fir. He went in the 2nd World War and he came back…Howard was his first name. He also owned Poppa’s Grocery Store on 14th and Yesler. He walked with a limp and he was good to all of us, he was nice and we all bought groceries from him. On the other corner, the southwestern corner of that same intersection was another building owned by another Chinese man.
One of my first jobs was working at his grocery store washing vegetables and fruit to put in the freezer at night. Then my Dad said, “Go out and get a job; go get you a paper route.” So my brother and I went and got paper routes. We didn’t have to make any money, but we had jobs.

You mentioned Bruce Lee lived there. Do you remember what street that was?
Oh yeah! Fir! That’s where our family house is. And it’s right across the street from the Washington Hall where my Dad used to work in the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s.
Bruce lived in the Fir Apartments right across the street from our house, we lived at 1409 and he lived across the street. Right across the street from Washington Hall, there’s a garden, that’s where the Fir Apartments were. That’s where the big old building owned by Japanese was, it was a big old building.

In the neighborhood of that time, everybody knew us as the Holdens. Everybody in the whole neighborhood knew my folks because they were musicians and they played in all the places in the Central District.
When you were a kid, they were already kind of famous?
Not famous; they were just regulars. They were regular in the music business, which was run through the Musicians Union. The Musicians Union, the Black Musician’s Union 493, was on 14th and Jefferson. Of course that’s where my dad went, and finally when I got old enough, I joined that union too. That was before they got accepted in the white union on 3rd Avenue which was called Union 76; it is still there.
Photo: Collection Dave Holden

So Union 493 was just up the street from our house. My Dad and those musicians would try to have rehearsals in that small hall but there wasn’t much room. A lot of times, they’d come and rehearse in our front room because my dad owned a Spinet parlor grand piano.
And all these musicians, Joe Gauff, and Joe Darensbourg, Charlie Taylor, Zach Harrison…so many it’s hard to even say. I was a little kid roaming around trying to get in the room. They shooed me out. I’m learning music because I’m a sponge. I’m just getting infiltrated with music. I’m just trying to be in there, and they’re all… “Get out of here!” I just learned by listening as a kid, and that’s what us kids grew up with, was music in the house, in our front room all the time.
We were kids, then teenagers, then we were out on our own. After my Mom died, the family fell apart.  I was in the ninth grade, so I didn’t really get a chance to get into my Dad’s life. Then, the Mardi Gras Nightclub (picture of club) manager asked my Dad, “You’ve got a young Holden over there, can he play? And my Dad said, “Yeah.” And so that was a gig I had. I was out on my own.
So, you grew up in nightclubs to some degree?

Well, not completely. I applied for a job at Boeing and worked there for two weeks and they fired my butt because I couldn’t get there on time in the morning.

Because you were playing out at night?

All of that.

It sounds like your house, beyond rehearsals, was a hub for musicians, period.
It was one of the hubs; there was also Frank Waldron. Frank, he was a music teacher that was in the Union, and a lot of the musicians that grew up around there like Charlie Taylor, Bumps Blackwell and Buddy Chapman, and Van Lear, Harold Redman, they would all take lessons from Frank up the street…a few blocks up the street. So many learned from him, including my brother Oscar.
I never got a chance to study with him because by the time I got to high school he had passed away. He taught so many in the community; he was a very smart, musical man.

Going back to the neighborhood, then. I can remember on the northeast corner of Yesler was Bon Roberts Drugstore was there. Her name was Bonnie and she was nice to everybody. She was white and she was very nice to everybody; I mean everybody. On the southeast corner, was a gas station that did repairs. It was owned by one of the musicians from the union, his name was Louie. I can’t remember his last name, all the guys from the union would bring their cars for gas there and repairs. 
  That corner on Yesler was where I first saw Ray Charles. He had come up from the south, from Florida. He was playing a Ferguson piano, one of those little portable ones with the electric cord going into the drugstore for electricity. He had a guy on the side with him and he was doing this (rocks back and forth).
He was singing for a little money in a can. But back then he didn’t sound like Ray Charles the way you remember Ray Charles…
He was singing and playing sounding exactly like Nat King Cole. Like Nat King Cole! I mean, he had that kind of voice at that particular time; he was that young.
  Then later on, his voice changed. I don’t know what it was, drugs, or maybe he just developed. I don’t know. His voice changed from that silky Nat King Cole sound to a Ray Charles sound.
When I next heard Ray Charles, I saw him at the end of the block just across the street. Right there was a big house, a three-story house. It was called the Rocking Chair because of the music in there. Everybody would go there because Ray Charles was in there singing like Ray Charles does like you’ve heard.
The reason I know that is because I had a paper route all the way down to Chinatown. Here I am on my paper route, going down the street and I see these people down there walking around, some drunk, some loud talking, and there’s music that’s coming out of there. I was on my paper route but I would stand there for as long as I could, an hour maybe, ‘til the sun starting to come up and I gotta go do the rest of my route in Chinatown.
That house had Ray Charles, and Milt Garred, and all these other guys from the Union. Gerald Brashear…so many others, but Ray Charles attracted everybody
Photo: Collection Dave Holden

At that point, what kind of music was he playing?
Funky. Yeah, funky and just…the best way I can explain that is that it was Ray Charles’ music. Because whatever he played if was a ballad, funky, or Latin, or whatever it was, it was Ray Charles. Because you knew the feel of the way he plays. Nobody else played like that. Nobody else sounded like that. It was Ray Charles’ music.
It wasn’t like when he’s in a certain vein or anything; it was just Ray Charles. And he didn’t become diversified until later on when he got big and then he opened a studio up in Los Angeles. He left and went to Los Angeles.
So, going back to that first time on the street corner, you were standing there listening it must have been because you knew this was something interesting, something distinct.
No, I just knew there was a guy on this street corner that was playing and singing! That’s all I knew.
But it stopped you from continuing past.
Well, I had to listen like everybody else was listening. You know, some people would put some money in the can but they would keep on walking because in those days it was a hustling time.
There were not very many good jobs in the area, so people were pimping and prostituting and all these things in the area, so they didn’t have time to listen to this guy, but he was just out there like anyone else that would be begging. I didn’t even really think about it as unusual.
To me, that means that the standard of musicianship in the neighborhood was pretty high because if you didn’t think “Wow!” that meant you were hearing lots of things that were remarkable.
Oh, you know, the musicians in those days in the neighborhood, in the so-called “hood”, or the black area, there were some brilliant musicians there. I mean, real brilliant. They weren’t known as brilliant except in the community because that’s the only places they could play. 
They couldn’t get the contracts to play out in Ballard or West Seattle or the UW or anything, any places like that, so the Central Area was where they were. And it just kind of cultivated a scene but they passed away before they could even be noticed as being great. You know, one brilliant musician being Jabo Ward, another being Brendan Brown, another being Pony Poindexter. So many. One guy who came through Seattle and then got out, he went to Los Angeles and became the permanent drummer on the Lawrence Welk Show was Paul Humphrey. He was one of the greatest drummers/timekeepers that I’ve ever seen. I’ve even worked with him one time, yeah, Paul Humphrey!
There’s so much about the Central Area, so much, that if you’re not getting it down, it’s going to be lost.

Photo: Collection Dave Holden

I mean, Jack Harrison, he was one of the brilliant musicians. He had a bad leg and hip, but oh could he play! There’s so many that could really play. Duke Moore, a drummer, used to play with my Dad all around the area. We was such a great drummer. He used to come to our house when I was younger and my Dad was younger. Anyways, he died of alcoholism on 1st Avenue standing around begging for money but he was great.
When you think about people who have these incredible talents and aren’t allowed to share that with other people…when you think about the loss of that talent, the people they could have taught, the influence they could have had on other young musicians of all stripes…
They weren’t allowed to share it with the general public; they were channeled into the Central District.
So, you grew up surrounded by music, wanting to be a musician?

Let me tell you more about my second gig. The day after my first gig at Ayre’s Club, my Dad’s phone rang. It was Ben Beasley the owner of the Mardi Gras Nightclub at that time. He told my Dad, “You’ve got a young boy over there who can play and I want him to play over here.” So, my Dad said, “You got to be over there tonight - you got a gig.” And that’s how I started playing there.

We were going through so many different musicians there at that time: Pony Poindexter, Gerald Frank, Paul Humphrey, Jabo Ward, Billy Tolles.  A lot of them had this attitude, ‘Well, this kid doesn’t know anything’ so they’d move onto play elsewhere. Then Gerald Brashear came in and he said, ‘Man, I’ll work with you.’ Then Brendan Brown moved on but in came Gerald Frank. That was really bad, it was fun. But it was really bad. You’d have to know Gerald Frank. That’s why I say it that way; he’s a real legend in Seattle. Some say it’s a good legend, some say it’s a bad legend. I love the guy; he was good to me. That’s all I know.

One night, maybe a month into it, Sam Cooke came into the Mardi Gras. Pony Poindexter was playing the alto, he was one of the great sax players of history. He was very close to Charlie Parker in quality and in ability. He was a drug addict but he was really great.

That night when Sam Cooke came in everybody said, “Sam! Sing a song!” He came up on stage and said, “What do you know? Do you know, You Send Me?” And I said, “No,” because I’d never heard it before. So, he said, “It’s just ice cream changes, Bb, G C and F. Do that, just do that in tempo.” So, I did and that was it. And he jumped down. He was young and good looking and everything.

I thought, ‘Man, he can sing so good’. He was in the room, meeting and greeting people. They all loved him. It was really exciting to watch. I’m just watching this guy but I didn’t know who Sam Cooke was. Then later, some other day, people would say, “Man, you were playing behind Sam Cooke!”

What it was like in the Mardi Gras Nightclub?

Photo: Collection Dave Holden

There was a whole lot going on. It was where all the attorneys, and the drunks, and the pimps, and the girls of the night gathered, plus all the other musicians who really liked the music there. They’d come by and listen. It was just people of the community; that was one of the places people would come to.

What about the Church people? 

They would come but not if they were all-the-way church people, only if they were the types to go to church on Sunday but go to nightclubs on other night. Generally church people don’t go to nightclubs.

So there’s a part of the community that never saw any of these musicians?

Well, they did but not concrete. They generally wouldn’t go in there because they don’t drink because that’s what it’s all built on. They might go in for a few minutes, they might have a drink but they’re not regulars. Those who came in regular were night people.

They’re all night people, the pimps and the prostitutes and the drunks as well as the well-known families who get around to all the clubs because of the music. They’re comfortable because it’s all black. That’s the way it was, generally speaking. That’s the way it went in those days.

Sounds like a lot to see in those days for a young kid.

My head was spinning. I was learning. I was a sponge. Also, right across the street from the Mardi Gras was the Birdland Club. Birdland was big place, a dancehall. They had different groups that would come out of there like: Big Jay McNeely; many blues groups; Johnny Guitar Watson; and local groups like Dave Lewis. He played the Hammond (organ). We all went to Garfield together. He was all around the nightclub circuit just like I was. He was really good, and a really good-looking guy. He died of cancer, it was very sad.

He had Dickie Enfield and George Griffin on drums and Joe Johansen on guitar. It was a mixed group, white and Black, and it was great. They were working right across the street. They’d kind of laugh at us at the Mardi Gras because they’d have three times as many people in that big space. They were playing young people’s music while we were playing standards and jazz. That was what I was learning and I was enjoying it. I didn’t want to play rock and roll. I was lucky my whole young life with music.

You’re in this nightclub life and you’re really young. Did you even know about working girls?

Heck, no!

How did you figure out that was what was happening?

Photo: Collection Dave Holden

It’s easy to figure out because you’re amongst them. Most of those women took me on as a friend. I was innocent and young. They just wanted to be around me because I’m more or less nice to sit and talk to. It was nothing about nothing. Then she’d get a call. She’d tell me, “I’ll see you later, Dave.” She’s gone, just like that.

So, you figured it out.

Later. There were so many. I was in the middle of it, of all those kind of people. The musicians I was working with were the popular musicians in the Central Area at the time. Women would come in there because of the music. I just happened to be there and be the youngest one there.

When I was in the Central District growing up I didn’t know there was a problem about color, because I went to Garfield High School. Garfield High School at that time was very mixed with Montlake and all these areas; we were at the time the most mixed school in the Seattle School System. Through the years it’s changed and other schools have changed, but at that particular time we had every kind of kid there. I would have to say that those were some of the best years of my life to date because I didn’t know anything about a color problem. Once I got to Everett Junior College after I graduated from Garfield; I wound up there on a basketball scholarship, I learned about racial problems. It was a shock to me! I mean, the color problem.
It’s a big deal even today. I mean, that happens today. We’re much more liberal, but...
I wonder about the shock of going to Everett College and realizing there are racial problems. What does that do to your sense of yourself?
Well, I was really mixed up when I got to Everett Junior College. I was the star of the basketball team, the star in the two years that I was there, so that put me in a different category from the other Black kids over there. You know, I mean they came up to me…”You’re the star” and…I had no problem. But I was in the midst of a problem and I noticed the problem, because in some ways it came and hit me in the face until they found out I was on the basketball team.
Then, even at that, some of them didn’t even care that I was the star of the basketball team and played music; they didn’t care even at that.
Yeah, it’s such a strange thing that…
Well, it was strange to me.
…that the race thing can erase, for some people, all of somebody’s very real, tangible qualities as a human being, as an athlete, as a musician.  That all that somehow, for some people, that doesn’t matter. It’s incomprehensible.
It is true, because I’ve seen it throughout my life so many times. You know, I’ve had no problem…well I have, but I take it as ‘I have no problem’ because being a musician, that
breaks down a lot of barriers right from the beginning. I wouldn’t be there if the club owner or the managers didn’t want me there, so they prepared people for me being there. ‘Well, these people wouldn’t mind this Black guy playing the piano,’ for their clientele. So I’m zoomed in there for real good money. I have no problem, if you know what I’m saying. That doesn’t mean the racial problem is not there, it’s just that they’re all white, and I’m the only Black. You understand? That has happened to me over many years, many years because they’re thinking, ‘He’s a good-looking guy; he’s nice, he doesn’t talk black; he doesn’t do this and that. He’s good and we’ll pay him good money and let him stay as long as he can because we want somebody like that. It’s kind of like that New York society piano player in New York.
At the Carlyle Hotel? Bobby Short!
Bobby Short was in that same kind of role in New York, just like Nat Cole was in that same kind of role at the Pig Out in Los Angeles when he first started. He got so big that Vegas wanted him, the Sands, Frank Sinatra – they signed Nat King Cole in Las Vegas; he headlined for years.
So there was kind of a role for the society piano player in a way, and you were able to take that here in Seattle.
That’s what I did, I did -- the door just opened for me. For one reason, the ground was laid, more or less by my Dad, my Mom, and my older brother Oscar. Oscar played saxophone in the Garfield High School band and then he played saxophone in the Bumps Blackwell Jr. band, which had Quincy Jones in it. And so they grew up together at Garfield.
How much older was your brother?
Five years. Quincy is also five years older than me. And that band, a lot of those guys in that band, Charlie Taylor, and so many others were brilliant musicians but they couldn’t get out of that segment, the community band of the Central District.
Do you think that was because the way that your parents raised you? Did they force you to learn a certain way of being and a certain way of talking? Why were you able to make that jump, besides your brother you think?

My Mom taught us to do the right thing, to be better. I had it ass-backward before that. But I came to take her side.

She would try to reason with my Dad, “They’re kids… and they don’t need a spanking. I’ll talk to them, I’ll give them a hug and a kiss and they’ll do right next time.” My Dad though came from the south. He’d had a hard time there. He was so glad to be in the Seattle area and meet my Mom and have this family.

He was the King. He wanted it to be that way all the time because that’s the way he grew up in the South, the man is the King. He determines everything so my Mom would bend
Photo: Collection Dave Holden
to him but she had a way of settling him down more or less, saying don’t be so hard on them.

I took my Mom’s side, the way her personality was, because my Dad was staunch. He said, “Do this! If you don’t, I’m going to knock you upside your head.” Then, my brothers and I, we’re guys and as we’re getting bigger we say, ‘Oh, Yeah?’ And he’d knock us across the room. He didn’t hurt us; he was disciplining us.

That was the kind of man he was. He had been through so much to become the man he was so he didn’t take any stuff from anybody. He knew that he had something to offer the people through his music. He was a good man. He was strict.

I would say, my personality is more from my Mom. My Mom played piano also, that’s how my parents met in Everett on Highway 99 in the old days, the 1930s, that’s where they met. They became this union with eight of us, I have a half-sister, that was just our family. We grew up in the Central District.

Was everybody in your family musical?

All of us were musical but not all of us became professionals, making money from it. Now, my half-sister Arleen, the oldest, she was like Lena Horne. She sang; she played piano. She was that good, up ‘til she got on the wrong track of alcohol; that took her down. If you heard her and Lena Horne, you couldn’t tell the difference. She was beautiful. She could sing her butt off, and she could play her butt off - and then alcohol. That’s all I can say. She was a sweet woman though.

One thing I always hear from people who used to live in the neighborhood is how quiet it is now.

I think it’s quiet because people used to be different in the days of old. I think I could cite a lot of things… In those days there was a lot of freedom but scared freedom. In those days, every policeman had to be 6’3” or more. They used to walk the beat in the Central District, every street.

And they would have been white?

Every time, until later on in the 1960s. When they’d come around and Black people are partying and all that… You have to understand that you couldn’t have alcohol in the open, not even in nightclubs, you had to have it under the table. That was the Blue Laws of the State of Washington of those days. In bars, women could not sit at the bar; only men were allowed at the bar. Just men.

I was a kid back then. No alcohol was served on Sunday, except in private clubs and the only private clubs were the Air Force, Army and Navy clubs. I know because I played in those Officers and Enlisted Men’s Clubs, they were the only music jobs you could get on Sunday. Now in the neighborhood there would be a sneaky house party that had alcohol and no one knew about that
except those people (the invited), and if the Police got a call about that party, they’d raid the place.

If I understand you, the subtext of that was that the alcohol laws were used as a way of controlling people.

Very much so, because everything was controlled, especially the Black area of town. The other neighborhoods did pretty much what they wanted to do. The only reason I know about that difference (between what was happening in the neighborhoods) was my Dad was one of very few musicians who was really good on the keyboard here in Seattle. Matter of fact, he was in the range of brilliant. They wouldn’t give him that, but he was in that area of skill.

What that meant was when the Seattle Tennis Club needed someone of quality to play the piano and couldn’t find someone white to take that gig, they called the Black Musician’s Union to get him. He was the only Black man to work the Seattle Tennis Club. He was so good that, you remember the Orpheum Theatre? In the early days the 1930s and 40s, the organ would come out of the side of the stage, a pipe organ. He was the only Black man to play that organ because he was the only one qualified to play that thing. That’s how powerful my Dad was.

Photo: Collection Dave Holden

You grew up in a house filled with music and musicians but did you play as a family?

Well, that’s been a kind of a thing. That was tough because we all had kind of attitudes. We’re all thinking, ‘I’m bad’, and my brother’s thinking that too… so it never really came to pass.

We knew other families who played together but we just never could. It was silly; it was stupid.

When we lived at home, Jimi Hendrix would come to the house to play with my brother Jimmy (James). My Dad would say, “What is all that noise down there? Tell them to stop!”

Do you remember him very well?

I don’t, no. Matter of fact, he left Seattle. He got kicked out of Garfield. I don’t know if he was a good guy or not.

I was younger than Quincy Jones but I did know him from the neighborhood. He used to come and rehearse in our front room because we had a grand piano. He and my brother were in the same band. Sometimes they’d rehearse in our front room, Quincy, Van Lear, Bill Johnson, my brother Oscar and Harold Redman.

Oscar was five years older (than me) and Ron was five years younger and Jimmy was ten years younger. I have three brothers that have passed away, Bob, Ron and Oscar. I was one of eight. There are four of my siblings left; I have sons and daughters too.

Ron passed away 14 or 15 years ago at 57. He died way too young. He died in Mexico. It was not nice. It was not good. He was my brother and a good guy. He had incredible talent too; to me he was really unbelievable, even though I was the older brother. I really looked up to my younger brother Ron. He had character; his character was way ahead of me at the time. I said to myself, I’m going to try to be more like him. He respected me because I was older but I respected him because of who he was. I wanted to be like that.
My brother Ron had a lot of nerve. He got his big hit record when he was only 19 and he got into a lot of situations where he had to stand up - or go away - and he stood up. I had really admired him for those times he stood up. In his leaving the earth, though, it was one of those times he stood up. I wish he hadn’t because then he’d still be here. You know, though, that’s another story.

My brother Ron was a good man. I have his picture up there, (points to the wall in his recording studio). I know a good person when I feel it.

The music business is so different nowadays. Back in the day, I was on the road with James Brown. I’ve directed 18 piece orchestras but now I can get all that from the keyboard. I got so sick of band members showing up late that I just moved to the keyboard. The whole band is all in the keyboard now.

Today, there’s more work for musicians. Musicians are making more money than they used to… they don’t have to go through a major label.

Photo: Collection Dave Holden

I didn’t know that. Like Macklemore?

He doesn’t need a label.

That’s good, there were some pretty evil people in the labels back in the day.

My brother Ron sold over a million records back in the days when Chubby Checker was popular.  He had a record company and a manager that sent him on the Dick Clark Show and all that. So, the record company gets all the money at first, then they give the artist money but only enough to keep him hungry, to keep him working out there making money for them.

We were in New York in a hotel off Times Square. My brother had a certain amount of money on the road. These women would come around, ‘My baby, he’s sick’, and he would give them money, to women he’d never seen before and never would again. Then he wanted to get some money so he called his manager in Hollywood and said, “I need money, I’m on the road.”

We were on the Chittlin’ circuit, all over the country. His manager said, “Well, we don’t have an accounting.” But we were going into every big town there was, playing every night and hearing his song on the radio as we’re driving into town. The manager says, “We don’t have an accounting of how much money you’re making.” So, they get into an argument and my brother says, “I’m getting an attorney and suing you.” The manager said, “Go ahead, we have six on staff.” And they beat him out of over a million dollars. Artists in those days didn’t know the business of music but the managers did.

And artists today, they get big, they get a studio in their house so the money comes direct to them. They’re their own manager.

The reputation of Tin Pan Alley was that some of them were mobsters.

Of course, those were the managers. They made sure you never got paid.

The music business is tough; there are some really bad people in the music biz.
A whole lot. A whole lot. I’ve been around many of them. I’ve been around guys who were in my band, or I was in their band…I was in a band that had drug addicts around. I’m going back and forth to work with them every night and they say, “Here, take this man. Why don’t you do this?” And I never did; I said, “No, I just want the music.” So every time something like that happened these musicians said, “Well, who is that n****?” So, the musicians put me out there as a young band leader. They’re drug addicts; I’m taking them to work every night. You can talk to the bosses of the place we once worked. I could tell you…
Do you have any thoughts for young people who are interested in music?

Well, with rap and hip-hop a lot of older people feel left out of that music because it’s taken away wishes and ideals and direction from a lot of young people. The rhetoric in (some) rap music is not quite ethical. That gangster thug culture, young people get sucked in by the beat, but they’re not taught middle-class (values) and below that, they feel they don’t have anything to strive for so they begin to live that lifestyle. It’s not good for the earth.

There is plenty of good rap but gangster rap is catching hold of people in the way they act and respond. I’m ok with rap if it’s a positive message but when it’s about degrading women and all these other negative things then that’s no good to me.

There’s a lot of that going around. It’s not for me; my thoughts don’t go there. (Laughs) Even if I could talk that fast… Really, though, it’s not good for the poor Black people of this country. They get deeper into that, in their thoughts and the way of their dress, with no belt, and their pants hanging down. They’re making a statement that’s not that healthy. Still, there are always exceptions to that too.
What was the happiest moment you can remember living in the Central Area?

Well, I can tell you about the happiest time. Three blocks over from our house on the other side of Yesler, there was a park called Collins Playfield (great pictures and story at the link). All the kids would go there. There was a pool, a teeter-totter and ropes and all that. There was also a basketball team run by a guy named Gene Boyd. He was a great man but he didn’t act like a big man.

Your parents would send you off there to play when they were tired of you, until it was dinner-time. The park had formed little leagues of basketball teams for different ages. We’d go there year after year after year because of one man, because of Gene Boyd.

Gene Boyd. Copyright Seattle Archives. Parks Department

He was a white man that cared; he cared. All of us who grew up at that time knew he cared about trying to help us stay good people, he’d talk to us, and guide us in basketball and baseball. He was a special person. He was there from my early childhood, through there my teenaged years and beyond. He retired to the Parks office downtown so we didn’t see him anymore except when he came by. When he did we’d reminisce about us kids. That was a special time in my young life that because of that one man.

How did he make you feel?

He made us all feel welcome. He made us all feel we could do better. We could be better. He say, “This is the way you do it and then they can’t stop you. You’ll be a big hit at Garfield High.”

So, he was invested in seeing your potential, in seeing everyone’s potential?

In everybody’s potential - not just me. I was just one of the kids. It came from the heart. He wanted to help us, that was the way he was, that was his being. That’s one thing that might be overlooked in history. I hope this makes it into history.

Gene Boyd was a great man. That really was one of the highlights of my life to date.

As was graduating from Gene Boyd at the Collins Playfield into Garfield High which was the most integrated school in the country at that time. I was in heaven the whole time.

This might be boasting a little bit but in 1956 (the year I graduated from high school), one day I was late to school. I always walked from our house. I was late that day because I had a paper route before school and that morning they were having an assembly at eight in the morning. I get to school, at the back of the auditorium looking for my class, and I see them sitting in the front. I start walking towards them but I couldn’t get far because these girls were coming at me down the aisle start singing “Mr. Wonderful.” Then the whole student body started singing Mr. Wonderful. They grabbed me saying, “Come on, Dave! We have to take you to the stage.”

I had no idea what was going on because I was late, but the assembly had already done Mr. Smiles, Mr. Manners and so on. They put me on the stage with a crown, and I was supposed to be a big basketball player and all but I started bawling. I couldn’t stop crying because in those days it was a ballot for every class. It was overwhelming that so many people had voted for me. A lot of people I didn’t know even paid attention to me (except that I was on the basketball team and we’d won the state tournament). I just thought I was just one of the guys but I won the vote for Mr. Wonderful from all the guys in school. So, I’m looking out at the student body, bawling thinking, ‘They voted for me, they voted for me!’ I’m just saying this because I don’t get to talk about it and who cares anyway? It was over 60 years ago but it happened.

It speaks well of you because high school kids are pretty judgmental so that a majority of kids thought you were wonderful...

Beyond that is the fact it was the most mixed high school in the country at that point. It wasn’t more Black kids than everyone; it was truly mixed. I just know the years 1954, ’55, and ‘56 it was the most integrated high school in the US. By the 1960s, it changed. That was one of the highlights of my life being recognized like that by my fellow students. I was just up there crying in a chair. I think about that and laugh now.

We had a high school reunion and they asked me to play for them for that event. They asked me to play for them and that was a thrill in itself. I played keyboards.

Then you probably knew Bob Santos?
Of course; I know Bob Santos. He’s a great guy. He’s got so much knowledge about the area. I mean the Central District as well as the International District. Bob Santos is…the best compliment I can give to Bob Santos is that he’s a good guy.
Yeah. He is a very good man.
I say he’s a good guy, and when I say he’s a good guy, I don’t say that about too many people.

©  Madeline Crowley People of the Central Area 2014   All material is covered by copyright. Express written permission must be given for any copyrighted material on this page. Email to request permission to copy or paste materials.
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About Me

Seattle, WA, United States
I am not a professional photographer nor a trained journalist. At community meetings, it became clear that many of us don’t know each other. We haven’t heard each other’s stories and don't know each other’s circumstances. This is my attempt to give a few people the chance to tell their story, to talk about our community, to say their piece in peace. As such, comments have been disabled. The views and opinions expressed here are those of each narrator and do not necessarily reflect the position of views of the CentralAreaComm.blogspot blog site itself. The is not responsible for the accuracy of any information supplied by narrators of this project. All interviews have been edited and in places condensed.

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