Few would think that the U.S. Army actually played a role in the birth of rock and roll. Even fewer would believe the military-assisted birth of hip gyrating and power chording occurred on Puget Sound.
But it’s true. It happened here. And it happened for quite practical reasons.
The year was 1951. Fort Lewis, as Joint-Base Lewis-McChord was known in those days, wanted a way to keep the sons and daughters of soldiers stationed there from getting into trouble. See, the base was fairly isolated from surrounding communities, so that meant the children pretty much had to fend for themselves. Well, that often led to trouble with fights, graffiti, underage drinking and other things teens do to pass the time.
That gave rise to the Youth Activity Center that provided children with places to read, play pool, do homework, or just hang out. As luck would have it, a facility close to the residential neighborhoods had just become available. First built in 1919 to serve as a Red Cross convalescence hall for soldiers returning from World War I, the building had a second purpose as a soldiers’ club, and then a third life as the home of the Fort Lewis Employee Association Club. That club closed in 1953, which meant the building could have yet another use. But few teens actually went to the center, so the minor crimes and teen troubles the center was supposed to help really didn’t subside.
That changed in 1959 when the center’s management had the novel idea of asking the teens what they wanted to do. They formed a youth advisory board that gathered ideas and suggestions. Teens wanted to dance. The teens then set out to organize concerts by local bands. Most of these garage and basement bands came and went as their members graduated high school, moved away, or started non-musical careers. But some of the bands that played shows at Fort Lewis’ Teen Center became the pioneers of the rock and roll scene. Tops among them were the Wailers and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame resident the Ventures.
More local-only rock icons such as Little Bill and the Blue Notes, the Exotics, and Nancy Claire also graced the Fort Lewis stage.
The Wailers were among the first to perform. Also known as the Fabulous Wailers, the group hailed from Stadium High School and had already played at nearby McChord Air Force Base under the name the Nitecaps. The Wailers rocked the Youth Center and within months found themselves on American Bandstand and national music charts with “Tall Cool One.” The song had been recorded in Lakewood and remains a song the band still plays to this day. They still tour the world as pioneers of the musical genre noted by their version of “Louie Louie.”
The Ventures, an instrumental group formed in Tacoma in 1958 that revolutionized music with its use of special effects and distortion pedals, played a Thanksgiving show and then again on New Year’s Eve in 1959. The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.
Little Bill and the Blue Notes was a band on the rise after forming in 1956 and topping the charts in 1959 with “I Love an Angel,” a teen heart-throb ballad the band played at the center during a Halloween show in 1959 that drew in 2,000 teens.
Claire, a Kent singer who is known as the first lady of the Northwest’s rock scene, sang with the Frantics and then the Exotics, before being discovered and landing a solo career that first included her pop hit “Danny.”
Other bands and soloists would come and go, but none would match the roster of names linked to the center’s early years. The concerts ended in 1969 when the Teen Center moved to a former enlisted soldiers clubhouse. The building itself would later change to a one-stop center for family services, a use it still serves to this day.