March 28 shall henceforth be known as Little Bill Day. So says Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma, who delivered said proclamation Saturday night at the Rialto Theatre during a celebration of the life, legacy and music of Little Bill Engelhart, elder statesman of Washington blues and the namesake of seminal Tacoma garage band, Little Bill & the Bluenotes.
Engelhart turned 70 on St. Patrick’s Day. And while he may not be as famous as some of his Tacoma rock peers, he’s a legendary figure in the development of rock and blues in Washington. Fabulous Wailer bassist and former Bluenotes band mate Buck Ormsby took the stage to explain how he, Engelhart, Lasse Aines and Frank Dutra met up after seeing a 1955 screening of iconic rock flick "Blackboard Jungle," back when they all attended Jason Leigh Junior High. That fateful encounter led to the Bluenotes, the band that paved the way for the Wailers and the Ventures, Tacoma bands that would in turn inspire fledgling rockers around the globe. (Dutra and the Wailers’ Kent Morrill were also in attendance.)
Engelhart was a portrait of cool, dressed in a black fedora and sunglasses as he sat on stage near wife, Jan Engelhart, and local band leader and show organizer Randy Oxford. And Little Bill looked pleased as he observed a cross-section of regional blues all-stars put their stamp on his material, as recorded for a new tribute CD "Big Blues for Little Bill."
Billy Roy Danger & the Rectifiers ripped through a rockin’ version of Little Bill’s "Texas." Adorned in black leather and slicked back hair, slide guitar wiz Henry Cooper offered a simmering riff on Engelhart’s "Comin’ Home Again." And Junkyard Jane’s Leanne Trevalyan played a mean washboard as she sang "Thangs Gone Be" with the Blues Vespers All Star Band, a group of musicians that had performed at Immanuel Presbyterian Church’s monthly blues series.
And, of course, the man himself capped things off. I had my camera handy for the second half of the show, and here are some more highlights.
Mayor Bill Baarsma set up his Little Bill Day proclamation by recalling a time in the ’50s when Tacoma’s "city fathers" barred Little Bill & the Bluenotes from playing "the Devil’s music." "I’m the city fathers now, so I get to make things right," he joked. Engelhart was also presented with an honorary diploma to Stadium High School, where he didn’t graduate in the 1950s, in part because of difficulties he suffered because of polio. Well, he also apparently had the rebel without a cause thing going on, too. "Mr. Christie told me on my last day, ‘Bill, you’ll never amount to a damn thing,’" he recalled with a big grin. "He was almost right."
Diva Patti Allen came out with guns blazing as the Randy Oxford Band got started with Etta James’ funktastic "The Blues Is My Business." Between songs, she remarked at how she’d worked with Engelhart since the early 1960s. But between her infectious intensity and the form fitting dress she was wearing, it was hard to believe her when she joked, "We’re all on Medicaid now. It’s workin’, honey. I’m usin’ all the benefits." In a poignant moment, Allen also acknowledged Randy Oxford Band drummer Riky Hudson, who recently suffered a stroke. Hudson received and ovation as he flashed a peace sign from his wheel chair at the back of the theater.
Backed by the Rusty Williams Band, Merilee Rush also brought the house down with a booming delivery of her late ’60s hit "Angel in the Morning" (also a hit for Juice Newton.) The band also put their stamp on Engelhart’s "Better Things to Do." "We’re gonna do this song we took of his, and we just butchered it," joked the bubbly Rush.
Of course, Engelhart’s set included his 1959 hit "I Love an Angel," with Heather Mueller, of Randy Oxford Band fame, handling the vocals. "She’s the only other person I’ve heard sing that besides me," Engelhart joked. Many of the night’s performers crowded the stage for the big finale. And a palpably thrilled Engelhart made his exit with a few heartfelt words of thanks. "Thank you for letting Bill Engelhart be Little Bill all these years."