⠠⠠⠁⠏⠗⠊⠇⠂ 2008


ELECTRONIC EDITION: Now free to email subscribers and supported by tasteful, music-oriented advertising with a unique news-format approach.

A monthly guide to early rock, blues, country, folk, and traditional jazz in the Seattle area and beyond.

Editor and Publisher: Doug Bright

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Editor's Note: Links to the books and albums mentioned in this issue come from my participation in the Amazon Associates affiliate program, which enables me to earn commissions on the products I recommend when readers buy them through this website. The links represent my judgment of the most relevant and reasonably priced musical packages available. Heritage Music Review does not collect, store, or share confidential information generated by its readers' purchases. Enjoy!







By Doug Bright

   Early in 1959 the nation's pop record charts were invaded by a new vocal group from Olympia, Washington, with a sound that was totally unique. They called themselves The Fleetwoods, and their initial effort combined an imaginative vocal blend and delicate, guitar-based accompaniment on an original tune called "Come Softly To Me". In less than a month it vaulted to the top of the charts both locally and nationally, launching the trio's hit-making career. This year co-founder Gretchen Christopher, born February 29, 1940, celebrated her 17th leap-year birthday basking in the critical acclaim generated by her recent, independently-produced CD. The project, started four years ago in celebration of her previous leap-year birthday, is cleverly titled

Gretchen's Suite 16

 (Sweet 16) and was cited by Billboard Magazine critic Fred Bronson as one of 2007's best albums.

   The Fleetwoods' story begins in the spring of 1958 when Gretchen Christopher and Barbara Ellis, two seniors at Olympia High, decided to prepare an act for a school talent show. When they needed a trumpet player for an arrangement of the old swing-era standard "Stormy Weather”, they summoned Gary Troxel, a senior who had just transferred in from another school that year. As it turned out, Troxel couldn't play the song in a key that suited the girls' voices, but the encounter still proved historic. "After school that day," Christopher told this publication in 1983, "Gary walked me downtown, where I was supposed to meet my mother. As he stood there waiting with me on the corner, he started humming to himself, and I could tell that what he was humming was based on the same chord progression as a song I'd been writing. I asked him to keep going but slow it down a little bit, and I put "Come Softly To Me" against it in counterpoint. It worked beautifully so I said, Let's do it for Barb, and if she likes it as much as I do, we'll incorporate that into the song and you into the group."

   Barb liked it, and the song was performed for the first time at the senior class talent assembly. "The students were absolutely silent all during the song and for a moment afterward," Christopher recalled. "Then they just went wild! For weeks they were coming up to us in the halls and asking, How does that song go?"

   Successful as the school appearance was, it wasn't Gretchen Christopher's first contact with the performing arts. Raised in a musical family and having sung and danced since childhood, the 18-year-old high-school senior had already decided that show business would be her life's work, so one day in February 1958 she made her first decisive step toward that goal. Arranging to take a day off from school, she caught a bus to Seattle with the purpose of visiting the local television stations. Her inquiries resulted in an audition for a show on KING-TV called "KING's Camera". "I auditioned singing "Fools Rush In", which I think is quite significant," she remembered with a laugh. "I was only eighteen years old and had grown up all my life in Olympia. I made my way to this huge city alone. It might as well have been San Francisco or Los Angeles."

   The "KING's Camera" viewing audience was just as impressed with Christopher's performance as were the show's producers, and when the fan mail started coming in, she was invited back for a second appearance. On the advice of a receptionist at the station, she auditioned at The Colony Club, a nationally recognized Seattle nightspot owned and managed by jazz impresario Norm Bobrow. "I think it was a Thursday night," she recalled. "He said that

Pat Suzuki,

 the club's songstress in residence, was sick. He offered to pay expenses for my mother and me if I could come and take over the first show the next night. The audience was so receptive that Norm asked me to stay and split the second show with Pat. Again I was so well received that he asked me to stay and play the weekend. He paid all our expenses plus $25 or something like that. I was a professional!"

   After such a triumphant debut, Gretchen Christopher found herself in a very good position to capitalize on her success at the senior class talent show. "I've written a song with some classmates," she said to Norm Bobrow one day. "We did it at a class assembly and the kids want us to record it so they can buy it. What should I do?"

   "I'll introduce you to Pat Suzuki's record promoter," Bobrow promised.

   True to his word, Bobrow put her in touch with Bob Reisdorff, a promoter at C&C Distributing. "Bring me a tape recording," said Reisdorff, "and if I think it's good, I'll send it out to different record labels with a note of recommendation. If I don't think it's good, you can pay your own postage and send it yourselves."

   An unaccompanied version of "Come Softly To Me" was promptly recorded at Christopher's home in Olympia and just as promptly submitted to Reisdorff. "It'll sell a million," he concluded, and to prove his point, he formed Dolphin Records in partnership with C&C owner Lou Lavinthall. For additional prestige

Bonnie Guitar,

 a local artist with national hit-making status, was brought into the partnership as record producer.

   With these steps completed, only one minor adjustment was necessary. When Gretchen Christopher and her friends had formed their group, they had simply billed themselves as Two Girls 'n' A Guy for lack of a better idea. "You need a name that really sounds catchy," Reisdorff told her one day on the phone. "Something like—Fleetwood."

   The sudden inspiration had come from the name of Olympia's local telephone exchange. The issue was settled.

   In the summer of 1958 the Fleetwoods started recording at Joe Boles' basement studio in West Seattle. It was the beginning of a slow, painstaking process that finally resulted in a marketable product. "In the studio Bob Decided that Gary's humming needed some lyrics, so Gary wrote his lyrics on the spot, so to speak," Christopher recalled. "One of the most wonderful things about that record is the perfect balance between the male and female parts as they weave in and out. You could take away all the instruments and you'd still have a complete thing. In fact, we recorded it in Seattle without instruments. Then Bonnie Guitar and Bob Reisdorff took the tape down to Hollywood and overdubbed just guitar and bass. Our only rhythm was Gary shaking car keys in his hand. It was a long creative process putting "Come Softly To Me" together, and I really have to give Bob Reisdorff a lot of credit for that."

   The creative process continued through the summer and into the fall. The final session took place during Christopher's Thanksgiving vacation from Whitman college. Two songs were soon ready for release:

"Come Softly To Me”

 and another original called

"I Care So Mumh".

   With a quality product finally in his hands, Bob Reisdorff prepared to launch a vigorous marketing campaign. Meanwhile, Gretchen Christopher was going through the most intense soul-searching period of her life. "I had always assumed I'd have a college education," she explained. "That was just part of our family way, but I had gotten really discouraged in high school because they wouldn't let you advance as quickly as you wanted. My heart was totally in dancing and singing, but I decided in August that if I didn't get my college education then, I probably never would: it would be too hard to come back later. I had to just let my love of dancing and everything fall away. It was like consciously not watering a plant and watching it die, but it was something I felt I needed to do."


"Come Softly To Me”

 was released shortly after the beginning of the new year, and Christopher feared that its success would require the group to tour nationally. "I called Bob," she remembered, "and begged him not to take me out of school because it had been so emotionally expensive to decide to go."

   Reisdorff consented on condition that if the record hit nationally, Christopher would leave immediately with no argument. Considering herself fairly safe, she agreed.

          Consequently, Gretchen Christopher was quite unprepared for what happened next. "WHEN I came back to Whitman after my first semester," she recalled, "the kids would tell me they heard the record and it was in the Top Ten. The higher it got on the charts, the more my heart sank. I was just four days into my second semester when Bob called and said it was hitting nationally."

   From that point on, things began to happen quickly. A three-and-a-half-week tour was arranged, beginning with an appearance on KING-TV's "Seattle Bandstand" show late in February. At every stop—Hollywood, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Boston, and New York—the game plan was the same. "The main thing," Christopher explained, "was going to radio and TV stations and occasionally doing a sock hop singing "Come Softly To Me" and "I Care So Much": that's all we had. I was in charge of the public relations and promotion under Bob Reisdorff's direction. He was in charge of setting up the tours and taking us places, but he instructed me to keep a list of every disc jockey we met and every station we visited. Then I was to send them a thank-you note afterward with an autographed picture. I took all my responsibilities very seriously."

   Despite the glamor of their national tour, the three teenagers would hardly have described it as a joyride. "If there was a party, it was a promotion party," Gretchen Christopher pointed out. "We were there to meet and talk with disc jockeys. It was strictly business. We had real standards for the group. We were not flashy at all: we were always neat and clean. We never smoked or swore in public. I felt that we had a very great influence on teenagers—that they looked to us as an example."

   The Fleetwoods' success continued with two more classics. Late in the spring Reisdorff's label, renamed Dolton because of a trademark issue with the Dolphin name, released

"Graduation's Here",

a song Gretchen Christopher and Barbara Ellis had written a year earlier for their graduating class. It was followed in the summer with the unforgettable

"Mr. Blue",

 which topped the national record charts just as "Come Softly To Me" had done. The Fleetwoods' first album,

Mr. Blue

was soon released, and included on it were both of their million-selling hits.

   By this time it was obvious to everyone in the industry that the Fleetwoods  were here to stay. Given such an impressive track record, other companies were casting an envious glance at Bob Reisdorff and his new supergroup. "Many labels wanted to buy the Fleetwoods' contract," Gretchen Christopher recalled, "but of course, Dolton wouldn't sell that. Then Liberty offered to buy the whole label. Part of the deal was that Bob would remain in control of Dolton as president for five years. It was a really good deal for Bob, so that's the deal he went for, but we felt like we'd been auctioned off the block. We were the product but there was no benefit to us for being sold. We were very aware of that, and we thought this was what slavery must be like."

   With the sale completed in late 1960, Dolton Records moved to Hollywood. "I flew down there for a recording session the next February and celebrated my 21st birthday there," Christopher recalled. "After that, Barb and I decided to live down there. Gary went into the Navy, but he would come back to record. We'd get together for three weeks at a time and work day and night on material."

   The Fleetwoods continued to record for five more years. Album sales were quite steady, but the group's success in the single-record market went into a slow decline. "Liberty Records considered us so strong that they didn't need to promote us," Gretchen Christopher explained. "They were so sure our records would be hits that they put their promotion efforts into weaker artists. On

"The Great Imposter”

 (1962) they were so sure that it was going to be Number 1 that they didn't co-ordinate the promotion effort. They were right in that it did go to Number 1 everywhere, but it went to Number 1 at all different times. You have to have it going to Number 1 at the same time in every market in order for it to show that way nationally, so instead the record spent many weeks at mid-chart. Bob Reisdorff confided to me that the five years when he was president were a very, very frustrating period. He had to fight for everything he got for Dolton: it got last priority."

    Frustrating as they were, Liberty's promotional policies were only part of the problem. The rest of the trouble lay in artistic disagreement developing between performers and producers. "Gary and I have a lot of jazz in our blood, so to speak," Christopher explained, "and we had a tendency to do more sophisticated things, but Bob would say no. They'd bring us demo tapes that were sort of like parodies of the Fleetwoods sound. If we were sugar, they were saccharine! There was some of that stuff that I just didn't want to do: it wasn't sincere."

   Even when presented with material that they could sing enthusiastically, the Fleetwoods sometimes found their efforts frustrated in the studio. "On

"Lovers By Night, Strangers By Day,”

Christopher remembered, "Barb and I sang our hearts out, but then in the mastering they dialed us way back in the background. I was just sick when I heard it! We had put heart and soul into that song, and to have them dial it back like that was heartbreaking!"

   Looking back on those years of insensitive, shortsighted management, Gretchen Christopher feels that the successes and failures of the Fleetwoods' heyday offer dramatic proof that the artist is usually right. "The successful things were all things that I loved," she reflected. "The things that were not successful were things that were done against my better judgment. We kept on recording right up until February of 1966 when our contract expired. We were just waiting for that so that we could say no thanks."


   (Note: This article will be continued in the next issue of Heritage Music Review. Gretchen Christopher's recent album, GRETCHEN's SUITE 16 (Sweet 16), can be sampled and purchased at her website, www.gretchenchristopher.com.