The godfather of Northwest blues music is still doing his thing, nearly 60 years in.
Little Bill Englehart brings his Blue Notes to North Bend on April 20 for the first-ever North Bend Blues Walk.
The only original member of the Blue Notes who still plays, the Mountlake Terrace resident has kept a band together under that name since their founding in Tacoma in 1955.
After Bill, drummer Tommy Morgan’s been in the longest. He’s only put in 25 years, though.
“We’ve known each other for so many years,” says Englehart. Besides the Blue Notes, he plays with a trio, and it gives him plenty of musical variety.
Back in the day
It all got started in 1955, when 15-year-old Bill went to an audition to play a dance in Tacoma. The only other person who showed up was a drummer, who said he would bring some musicians from downtown Tacoma to play the job.
Those musicians turned out to be African-American bluesmen several years older than Bill. Despite his age, he hit it off with them.
They asked him to play with them at the George Washington Carver Legion hall, downtown.
“I’d been playing county music, which was a lot like blues,” he said. “They hired me. We worked Friday and Saturday from 10 to 2 in the morning. I got paid nine dollars a night.”
Bill’s musical career grew out of those sessions, playing, as a teenager, alongside experienced blues musicians. On weekends, he found himself at the great dance halls of the Puget Sound, listening to the greats. Meanwhile, he started playing as part of his own band, the Blue Notes, with original members Frank Dutra, Buck Ormsbey and Lassie Aanes.
‘Little’ Bill's name
His immortal nickname originated in 1959. He and the rest of the Blue Notes went to Seattle to do some recording, all instrumentals. The engineer asked, “do you have anything else? You still have some time.” Bill had written a song with a vocal that they’d been playing at dances. After they played it, the engineer emerged from the control room.
“Who wrote that song? I’m calling some people to talk to you.” He thought Dalton Records, the label of the Fleetwoods and the Ventures, would be interested.
“They listened to it, and they liked it,” Bill said. The only problem was the name. The Blue Notes wasn’t enough. The label people wanted something more.
“The bass player opened his mouth and said, ‘Bill’s grandmother called him Little Bill, because he grandfather’s name is Bill.” The label man liked that.
“They might has well have tattooed it on my forehead,” said Englehart.
Hard at work
Five-foot-two, Bill’s a little shorter since he started using a wheelchair. Bill’s always worn leg braces since a childhood bout with polio.
Bill’s vocal has been described as rough, raw and plain, but he doesn’t read too much into what critics say about his song technique.
“I can’t say I have a favorite,” says Bill. The song he plays the most is Ray Charles’ ‘Drowned in My Own Tears.’ “I try hard to do the best I can and pay respect to the song.”
He doesn’t play with a set list: “I call all the songs off the top of my head. I just watch the audience.”
A good night is when the band plays well and the audience is really into it. He doesn’t blame audiences if it goes bad. And Bill still really enjoys playing: He’s doing 85 shows this year. That’s down a little bit from his previous full tour schedule of 120-plus shows.
A few years ago, he turned to Tommy: “You really want to work this much?”
Morgan replied, “I thought you wanted to work this much?”
New down-town festival
The North Bend Blues Walk is 6 p.m. Saturday, April 20. Little Bill and the Blue Notes are among a slate of dozens of Northwest musicians to play including North Bend resident and Chicago bluesman Paul Green, the T-Town Aces, Blues Redemption, the Brian Lee Trio, and others. Thirteen venues in the downtown area take part, including The Pour House, the Snoqualmie Valley Moose Lodge, Pioneer Coffee, Birches Habitat, Emerald City Smoothie, North Bend Theatre, Twede’s Cafe, Euro Lounge Cafe, George’s Bakery, Valley Center Stage, Boxley’s, Chaplins Chevrolet and Scott’s Dairy Freeze.
Tickets are $18 for adults and $8 for children under age 15, in advance, $20 and $10 on the day of the event.