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 Ormsby 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.
Steve: Bill, first of all, thank you for this interview and my respect for you goes without saying. You are an icon of NW musicians that have weathered many storms. There are not too many of the “old guard” left, and I mean this with tremendous respect. How do you feel about the legacy you have left and continue to leave and maybe some fond memories you have about the old days versus how things are today?
Bill: I never think about leaving a legacy, although I guess we all do leave memories? When I first started playing we would rent a hall, hire a cop and actually make more money than our friends.
Steve: I grew up in Bremerton and knew of many bars and clubs that had live music on this side, including up and down Hood Canal from Olympia to Neah Bay, and including Port Angeles. I do remember playing up here in Port Angeles in 1974 at a long gone establishment called “Aggies”. There was another iconic place in Bremerton called Perl’s or Perl Maurer’s. What do you remember from those days traveling around the west side of the peninsula?
Bill: My band, The Blue Notes played Perl’s several times, which was in Bremerton. As time went on, we played all the dance halls all over Washington.
Steve: I have played all over the country as well and wonder if you have had some thought about what makes the NW R&B sound “different”?
Bill: A good friend of mine came up with the answer to the Northwest R&B Sound. Young white guys trying to sound like old black guys.
Steve: We have many mutual friends. Some with us, some not. It gets lonelier, to me as time goes on but I believe those that have passed would be smiling down, and also to appreciate who are with us and appreciate life? How do you appreciate the simple things now as maybe not when you perhaps were more “cavalier” about it then?
Bill: I have my health, a son and daughter and four grandchildren. I have been married to my best friend for 52 years! I am now 76 years old and still able to do what I want to make a living. What’s to complain about?
Steve: It sounds you have hit the lottery. I will just throw some names at you of older venues and please give me your thoughts about them. Parker’s, The Old Armory, Scarlet Tree, (anything in Pioneer Square), Spanish Castle, old downtown Tacoma, Perl’s, Eagle’s Auditorium, I have a ton more but those come to mind.
Bill: All of those dance halls were very important to a bunch of us young musicians then. It was a time of learning and experimenting musically. Places to make mistakes. I wouldn’t have wanted it to be any different.
Steve: Being a horn player myself, I always loved your horn bands. It’s tough to make payroll of any kind paying at least 6 people in the musical economic environment for that configuration. My New Orleans friends are doing the same cut-back of horns and going with a traditional 3-4 piece band, or less. Do you think the live music thing is going by the “way-side” of people spending money and driving to a bar when there are so many obstacles and economic reasons not to?
Bill: My original band, The Blue Notes was a horn band. Two tenor saxophones and a baritone sax. In the 90’s I was able to put another one together. I feel that was my best band. Thanks to our tenor sax player, Robbie Jordan it was then that I started writing and recording again. All in all, it’s been an interesting ride with lots of bumps and disappointments. But that’s part of life.
Bill will be playing in the month of May at these venues; May 3 Johnny’s Dock Tacoma 5:00, May 8 Bakes Place Bellevue 9:00, May 9 H20 Anacortes 7:30 and May 23 Dawson’s Tacoma 9:00.
(Steve Swanson is a Port Angeles resident and professional trumpet player who has worked with many top performers including: Buddy Rich, Lionel Hampton, Lou Rawls, Johnny Mathis, Temptation, Four Tops, Frank Sinatra, Gladys Knight and many more).