Hammond B-3 photo courtesy The Hub / Musicians Friend
Interview with Buck England
Re-printed by permission of the
Author and Bluesletter magazine
By Rocky Nelson
“So we shall let the reader answer this question for himself: who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?”
― Hunter S. Thompson
This summer, I had the pleasure of reconnecting with legendary keyboard player Buck England. I hope that Bluesletter readers will enjoy this stroll down memory lane with Buck; more importantly I hope Bluesletter readers and blues fans see Buck play live!
This month, Buck performs with the Ted Dortch Quartet. Catch TDQ on the 14th at the J & M Café and Cardroom in Pioneer Square, on the 16th at Capitol Cider in Seattle and across the Sound at Brother Don’s in Bremerton. On the 29th, TDQ plays Uncle Thurm’s Finger Lickin’ Ribs and Chicken in Tacoma.
RN: Buck, I’ve known you for quite some time, decades in fact, as a renowned PNW Hammond B-3 organ player with history. I am honored to get some of your time to ask a few questions. You have won the Washington Blues Society’s Best Keyboard award, the society’s Joe Johansen Memorial Award for Excellence, performed in the Washington Blues Society All Star Band, received a Grand Summy (named after 50s Tacoma DJ Bob Summerize), Blues Musician of the Year and the Ecclesiastic Hammond Organ Artist of Alberta. In the early 1950’s, Tacoma was the real hub in this region for blues, R&B and rock and roll. Tell us a little about yourself and how yourpath brought you into the music you have entertained so many people with for so long.
BE: I was born in Lewis County in Morton. I attended Mossyrock Grade school 1st grade, then my family moved a little west to Onalaska nearby and I completed high school there. I continued my education at Centralia College where I met Don Rich. I also attended Tacoma Community College after that.
RN: Who was your first influence in playing music so long ago?
BE: My dad hooked me up to music early and he was my biggest supporter. He loved all music. Louie Armstrong and the big bands of the time and country from Jimmy Smith to Hank Williams. He had a great voice. He set me on his knee at the piano, played a little ditty and asked me if I liked. “Oh yeah!” I said and I started piano lessons soon after. Our lessons were at home by a “traveling” teacher once a week. The teacher, Quevy Thomas, came home from the road. He was a blues, boogie-stride man who also appreciated the great classical composers. Dad convinced him many times to stay around after lessons to have some dinner and play a couple more tunes while we waited for mom to finish cooking. He got a gig playing somewhere so Julian Middleton took over for our lessons. I was not deprived of culture. Limited, yes because of the times and lack of technology but we had the radio with the Louisiana Hayride, Grand Ole Opry and other shows that had musical guests. There were lots of local talent shows, recitals and PTA with radio appearances that exposed me to the "adoration of the masses"!
RN: So you were aware then you were playing to more than just to your family?
BE: Well, audiences anyway. It was preparation for nerve control as I was a little scared playing live. Boogie woogie, stride, rock and roll was my passion until I heard Little Richard, Fats Domino, Hank Ballard and Little Willie John. Then R&B and blues took over. We lived in a foothill valley with no radio or black and white television reception. I would pay anyone with wheels to take me up to a ridge to catch good radio.
I played boogie and ragtime everywhere. School, church, homes, etc. Finally found comrades in arms at the dances we attended. We started a band. Michael Kinder and I met then. The drummer in our band was Michael’s brother Jerry. We practiced at Kinder’s house. Their mom would bribe us with a shot of wine if we would play a torch song for her to sing along with. Soon, I was blown away by Little Bill and The Blue Notes! Positive proof that young white guys could be blues men! Then came the Wailers and the Sonics! Another mind blower! The first time I heard Rich Dangel, I made it my life’s goal to someday play with Rich. He played with me in a group we called Butterbean in the 90s and 2000s. A fulfilled goal not nearly long enough as Rich left us for the Big Band upstairs. May he rest in peace!
RN: I knew Joe Johansen when he lived in Mossyrock. When did you start playing with him? His brother Jay and I were great friends at the same age and ran barefoot through Mossyrock together and listened to Joe play. Who was Joe to you?
BE: He was my first cousin. Joe Johansen began guitar lessons the same time I started my schooling. A long, close relationship in music and life began then. He checked out way too early too. I miss him. We lived 15 miles apart (he in Mossyrock, me in Onalaska) so hanging out was hard to do but we managed some memorial events later.
RN: Who was in your first real band?
BE: My first band included Gary Hill on guitar, Jerry Kinder on drums and me at the piano. We rehearsed at the Elks Club in Centralia with Clayton Watson, who was a drummer, singer, bandleader and all around good guy and very popular in Southwest Washington and Northwestern Oregon. He showed up with a proposition: his regular piano man was too sick to perform, so Clayton asked if I would be interested. This was the beginning of my “career”! I had some experience playing with Onalaska High Dance Band when I was 14 and 15 years old. We rented grange halls for dances and made a few bucks. We got serious about music when we discovered Bill Doggett. I wore out my first album of his learning all we could.
RN: What did you do then?
I took the offer with Clayton Watson and the Silhouettes all through high school. Then played with the Adventurers where I met Little Bill and Nancy Claire, The Col-EE-Jets, George Barner and the Corvettes. We went on the road with Clayton backing Little Bill. He doesn’t remember any of it, staying up all night writing and singing three nights running. This was the highlight of my life so far. On the home swing we backed Gentleman Jimmy Bowen. Attending teen dances when I wasn’t playing was a main focus. Heard the infamous Rich Dangel and decided we would play together some day. Connecting in a band is everything. Getting paid is nice, but money and audience aren’t everything. As I said before, Rich also left us too soon. I had a wife, a day job,two kids and a third on the way shortly after high school when Little Bill dangled a carrot that I couldn’t refuse. He brought me to Tacoma to join him as a Blue Note. For me, this was a huge move into the fast lane.I always knew that I would be a Blue Note someday. I was a happy young man!
RN: What type of band was this?
BE: This was the quartet version which morphed into the Hammond B-3 trio which lasted a few good years. We had six- to eight-month,six nights a week of gigs in Seattle!Later, I got a gig in Ketchikan, Alaska so we could be fresh for the home market and came home to no gig. It was time for me to explore other avenues. We had a few casual gigs and went to jam sessions where Corky Ryan and I hooked up playing as a Lee Michael’s-type duo. We were heard and hired by the famous Kingsmen. We rehearsed in Seaside, Oregon at Pat Mason’s teen club for three days. The band was then served papers to appear in court to defend against a plagiarism charge. Me, Corky and Missy (his English Bull Dog who lived with us)decided to turn away from this situation and head to Berkeley,you know, California! My first trip to the golden state. We were bona fide hippies!
RN: Yeah, I remember that establishment “tag” used in an effort to degenerate our generation. I even had to sue my high school as late as January of 1971 with the American Civil Liberty Union’s help to try to set them on their heels and won my “long hair” discrimination court case.It was a damn shame to have to do that, but what do you remember of those earlier times?
BE: It’s kind of hard to remember everything for the next few years. That’s what they say about the 60s, right? (We both share a belly laugh). We hit Berkeley in 1964. Corky knew some people so we couched surfed and lived in his ’56 Caddy for shelter. We played coffee houses, bars, cafes, car show rooms and on the college campus free speech center. Hooked up with the Merry Pranksters and opened the first Trips Festivals.”We were the party band nearly every night at a love in’s and acid tests. I got a casual gig to make a few bucks on North Beach in the Peppermint Tree and Big Al’s topless joints. That was an education.
RN: Sounds like a tough gig with a lot of, let’s just say, distractions!
BE: Yeah, no doubt! Then we started one of the first multi-day music festivals. At about the one minute mark of our first tune, the police shut the power off and announced that this illegal activity must stop. Well, they were outnumbered about 40 to 1! Theyadvised us to tone it down, but we cranked it up! They wisely disappeared not to be seen there again.My casual gigs were with Joe Pollard, who was a drummer I last saw on the Dick Clark Show. We were a multi-horn R&B group with a singer who channeled Lou Rawls. We worked an after-hours joint in Redwood City called Winchester Cathedral. Yep! An old converted church!
RN: Not to be mistaken for the one in England right? Let’s take this path “Furthur” down that road.
BE: Ok. Folk music was 7 to 9, R&R dance music from 9 to 12 and Adult music 12 to 6am. We were the opening band for Sly and The Family Stone for five or six weeks. They were tuning up for their first road trip and were unbelievably good. Sly and the Family Stone was another real big influence that bounced around in my head for a while. I mention this because I can blame chemical abuse for holding up progress for some time. About this time I was introduced to heroin. Not one of my best moves. I handled further and varied abuses for another few years. I bounced from San Francisco to Seattle, back down to San Francisco, then Denver for a short stay. I headed back to Seattle for a visit and hit bottom. No gig, home, money or a place to be. I had enough money for a bus ticket to my parents’ house. They were not too happy with me, but they saved my bacon. Now that is real love. I went catatonic, dried out in treatment for a couple of years, tried to get back into music but I wasn’t ready, so I built boats for a few years. Didn’t get back interested in music yet. The radio intercepted me once more. I heard Stevie Wonder and Joe Cocker and the Shelter People atthe same time. Message received! It struck and old musical chord: I couldn’t refuse the sound and feel of some of that good stuff.But I had to pay the bills so I went from building boats to working on rock crushers with my dad.
Buck England at the B-3 ( credit pending )
RN: Hey man, it was still rock, but of a different kind.
BE: True! (We shared another laugh) I spent a couple years on a portable crusher unit, made some good money and slowly hooked up with some musicallywell respected local Lewis County boys again. They were Kurt Kolstad and Mike Lacey, principally. I got another job as a concrete batch man in Port Orchard. Did that for five or six yearsandI still played on the side. I lived in Gig Harbor on the water and it was a little slice of paradise. Our landlords were a wonderful down to earth,wise and proper couple who helped us get our feet on the ground and decide what was right and essential for my beautiful wife,Quirina Von Moos England,who is also my partner, caregiver and interpreter. A model of love and decency. The most important chapter in my life started when my good friend found this beautiful lady working at a restaurant just a few blocks from my parents’ house. I went to get a piece of pie, to check her out, you know. Well, that was the moment I cherish most in my life. I took over for friend John, wooed and wed this young farm girl 43 years ago. I am a most fortunate person.
RN: What a beautiful sentiment my friend.Love conquers all! What happened next?
BE: My longtime friend, Blue Note drummer and band mate Tom Morgan, found me and helped me get back into it with Billy Blue and the BluePort News. Those guys were exceptional. Tom played drums, Kurt Brameplayed bass andJoe Johansen played a smoking guitar! We even had a horn section with Greasy Jim Pribbenowand Pete Lira on sax, Mark Doubleday occasionally on trumpet, Bob Hill played rhythm guitar and me on the Rhodes organ. A powerhouse that couldn’t get out of Tacoma. Then cameTru Adventure. This band included Mike Lacey on drums, Carl Peters, me on multi keys and a great guitarist, vocalist Keith Bystrom. R&B was our primary interest.We started the music at Larry’s Greenfront in Pioneer Square in Seattle. We worked a while until I got fired. So times got tough. I had a few casual construction opportunities but then was injured in 1974 and couldn’t stay in heavy construction so after a while I became a phone installer for a few years. Fortunately, I was hired by Little Bill again to work with him and longtime friend Lee Parker guitar and vocals and eventually Tommy Morgan on drums once again. This rock and R&B group grew into the Blue Notes big band, with Bryan Kent, Robbie Jorden, Hans Ipsen, Randy Oxford and many great guests and substitutions. This was a heady time for me as it included my first gig with Rich Dangel and we recorded a Blue Notes album. Pioneer Square was musically cooking back then. We were a fixture not only in Pioneer Square, but in the recording studio, festivals, smoking gigs and fun.
RN: What changed that magic?
BE: Eventually my phone tech job interfered with my music so I went to full time as aHammond B-3 operator. I joined a group from Spanaway soon after leaving the Blue Notes named Big Nasty. The fabulous Shelly Ely on vocals and Tom Murphy and Michael Kinder on drums, Terry J on bass, the infamous JhoBlenis on guitar and myself on theHammond B-3. This was a significant group from Tacoma. Every now and then a good un’ pops up andBig Nasty was one of those.Times were good until I saw the other side of the fence. I wanted something else and I got it. The group Butterbean was brand new dream gig. Kinder, Dangle, myself and guests like Tim Scott, Lloyd Jones, Duffy Bishop, Curtis Salgado and more. We were in high cotton. As if this wasn’t enough of a challenge, world class drummer/vocalist, writer and producerTony Coleman offered me a position in his new group. He was working with B.B. King and decided to take a break for a while. Tony moved to Seattle to start a new project that I couldn’t refuse to take. Butterbean and Tony Coleman! Hey, I was almost a celebrity!
RN: Sounds like we are getting to the end of our “intrepid” voyage here Buck. Tell me how you could sum up your place musically in life?
BE: I got to play and hear more good music than I thought I ever could! The “Bean” had plenty of work around Puget Sound and with Tony we opened for many great artists Like Ray Charles, Ike Turner, Otis Clay just to name a few. I traveled a bit internationally and at the same time missing out on Butterbean performances. I turned 60 on a road trip in Canada on the way to Hermosa Beach and Long Beach. When we got home Tony went with Ike Turner and “Bean” was alive and working hard again!I was two months older than Rich. We had a birthday celebration for him at the Swiss Tavern in Tacoma, our nearly second home. Tragically, he passed on early the next morning from an aneurysm. He was a local treasure and is missed by many. He was the main architect of the Pacific Northwest guitar sound along with Joe Johansen and JhoBlenis. The best of the best, I was so fortunate! After I experienced some major health episodes, my recovery included getting back into music. I am letting the “healing” take over. I have appeared with the New Blues Brothers Review and opened for Joey DeFrancesco and Doctor Lonnie Smith. I’m hanging now with the Ted Dortch Quartet as much as my energy will allow. I’m still trying to carry on the Pacific Northwest sound and tradition. Times are different but real music doesn’t change, only methods of conveying it!
RN: Thank you Buck for your valuable time and sharing so much with me and our readers. Also for playing in that group for one of my Afghanistan deployment parties which I had some help naming. You played at the Ballard Salmon Bay Eagles club with Mike Lacey and others and I advertised you as The “Mossyrockers”. Much peace and love to you sir!