With the City Series, TIDAL investigates the local music scenes of U.S. cities. Enlisting the expertise of a locally-based music writer, we explore the past, present and future of music in each town. In the first installment on Portland, OR, Travis Leipzig writes about the city’s musical heritage.
Portland has been a town of pioneers since the beginning.
Situated at the end of the historic Oregon Trail, Portland was the ultimate destination for many of the hundreds of thousands of settlers migrating west in the 1800s.
More recently the city, nestled between the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, has been a breeding ground and magnet for talented musicians for the better half of the past century. The Pacific Northwest’s long, cold, and wet fall and winter seasons make not only the perfect climate to cultivate roses (earning Portland’s nickname, “City of Roses”), but it also attracts a populous with a certain affinity for hibernation and indoor creativity.
Going back to the 1940s, Portland was home to a thriving jazz scene.
Jazz nightclubs were clustered in the predominately black neighborhoods of inner North Portland, with Williams Avenue serving as the epicenter. The most notorious club on the scene was called the Dude Ranch, which, despite the cowboy name, showcased touring acts by the likes of Lionel Hampton, Art Tatum, Nat King Cole and Thelonious Monk.
In an article for Open Spaces Magazine, author Bob Dietsche wrote of the Dude Ranch, “It was the Cotton Club, the Apollo Theatre, Las Vegas and the wild west rolled into one. It was a shooting star in the history of Portland entertainment—a meteor bursting with the greatest array of black and tan talent this town has ever seen.”
With the invention of rock & roll, followed by the British Invasion of the ’60s, there was an explosive proliferation of new garage, frat and psychedelic rock bands across the States.
Portland acted as one of the largest regional hotbeds in the country. The Kingsmen were one of the biggest Portland bands of the time. Their big break was sparked by an impromptu recording of Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie” in 1963, which landed the band a No. 2 spot on the Billboard charts for six weeks.
Paul Revere & the Raiders were another act to achieve mainstream success during this response to the British psychedelic movement. Originally from Boise, Idaho, the garage rock/protopunk band relocated to Portland for a good duration of their career, helping drive the growing music scene throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s. The group is best known for major hits such as, “Kicks,” which was ranked No. 400 in Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and their 1971 No. 1 single “Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian).”
It was also during the late ’60s that one of Portland’s most seminal and longest-running musicians, Fred Cole, arrived on the scene from Las Vegas with his band Weeds.
The band signed a contract with UNI Records and soon changed their name to The Lollipop Shoppe. Their first release “You Must Be a Witch” had an appearance in the biker B-movie, Angels from Hell, and landed the band dates opening for major acts like The Doors, Buffalo Springfield and Steppenwolf.
After The Lollipop Shoppe broke up in 1969, Fred Cole went on to create many new musical projects, many of which he self-recorded using the exact mono-lathe that was used to cut the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie.” Cole’s other best know projects throughout his career include: The Rats, whose music was apparently “referred to as ‘grundge’ in a local review of the day… a full decade before the Seattle Sound;” Dead Moon, which became a household name in the Portland punk scene over their 20-year duration; and most recently, Pierced Arrows, who remain active today and are signed to Vice Records.
Regarding Cole’s lifelong devotion to rock and roll, Portland Monthly Magazine wrote,
“When Cole Formed Pierced Arrows in 2007, it marked at least the 15th different moniker he’s performed under since 1964. The band’s upcoming album, Descending Shadows, is—as near as anybody can tell—Cole’s 35th collection of songs, its 11 tracks pushing his total number of compositions toward 300. And when Pierced Arrows finishes its current West Coast tour, Cole’s personal odometer will flip further into the hundreds of thousands of miles.”
Along with Cole’s numerous projects, a handful of other Portland punk and hardcore outfits reached genre-leading heights in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the most prominent of the bunch being the Wipers and Poison Idea.
The tight and distortion-heavy Wipers, led by Greg Sage, received wide admiration by various world-renowned alternative rockers including Melvins, Dinosaur Jr. and, most notably, Kurt Cobain. Nirvana was known to cover several Wipers songs and Cobain acknowledged them as an early influence in his songwriting.
Although Nirvana was based out of Portland’s sister city to the north, Seattle, WA – and arguably that city’s biggest musical claim to fame – it is rumored that it was in Portland, during a Dharma Bums show at the infamous Satyricon club, where Cobain first met his future wife and front-woman of Hole, Courtney Love.
While grunge and punk scenes were thriving in Portland and the surrounding regions during this era, they were not the only genres to locally produce nationally acclaimed artists.
About an hour and a half drive south of Portland, the college town of Eugene was home to blues legends Curtis Salgado and five-time Grammy winner Robert Cray.
Salgado, a vocalist and harmonica player with a flashy front man appeal, is openly acknowledged as the inspiration behind the Blues Brothers movies and music. While in town filming Animal House, John Belushi met and befriended Salgado after the actor-comedian caught the bluesman’s set fronting The Nighthawks at the Eugene Hotel. Curtis Salgado and Robert Cray went on to form the Cray-hawks, and later the Robert Cray Band in the ’80s before parting ways.
Nu Shooz, a husband and wife led group emerged in Portland in the mid eighties, playing R&B synthpop tunes. The band’s 1995 release Tha’s Right gained them wide local attention, but it wasn’t until their single “I Can’t Wait” was remixed by an engineer from the Netherlands that the band caught the attention of a major label. Signed to Atlantic Records in 1986, Nu Shooz released Poolside with singles that soared up the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts, and got the band nominated for a Grammy Award for Best New Artist. After splitting in 1992, the band reformed in 2007 and remains active, if not widely popular, today.
By the late eighties and nineties in Portland, grunge was thriving, but had also expanded to include alternative, riot grrrl and indie rock music.
Carrying the grunge torch for the City of Roses from 1897 to 1992, The Dharma Bums frequently had soon-to-be superstars Nirvana as an opening act for shows in town. In 1993, alternative rockers and San Francisco transplants, Everclear released their first album, World of Noise, only a year and a half before signing a three-album deal with Capitol records – a fast tracked success story that bred contempt among locals.
Along with Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, punk feminist trio Sleater Kinney was an integral part of the Northwest’s riot grrrl scene. The band formed in Olympia, WA before settling in Portland. Lead guitarist Carrie Brownstein would later become co-star of the hit TV show, Portlandia.
Perhaps one of the most influential indie artists to grace the Portland music scene was Elliott Smith.
Growing up between Nebraska and Texas, Smith moved to Portland in 1992 with his college-formed rock band Heatmiser. The singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist began his solo career in 1994, being quickly singled out for his quiet, sensitive songs and whispery vocals.
In his 12-year career Smith released albums on Cavity Search, Kill Rock Stars and DreamWorks Records. His songs were featured on the soundtrack to the major motion picture Good Will Hunting, which the track “Miss Misery” getting Smith nominated for Best Original Song at the 1998 Academy Awards. Tragically, Smith suffered from alcoholism, drug dependency and severe depression and his life was cut short when he allegedly committed suicide by stabbing himself twice in the chest, lacerating his heart. He was 34.
Over the past decade and a half, so many nationally acclaimed indie rock outfits have been born out of Portland that the city could well be regarded as that scene’s capital city.
Major indie acts to come from Portland include The Decemberists, M. Ward, Dandy Warhols, The Helio Sequence, Menomema, Yacht, and Blitzen Trapper, to name a few. Recent years have also brought a wave of other nationally acclaimed indie, pop and experimental artists intentionally relocating to Portland, including Modest Mouse, Portugal. The Man, The Shins, Spoon’s Britt Daniel, and Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus.
With the current, overflowing roster of major indie acts as well as the massive and ever-growing arsenal of amazing up-and-coming acts, it is no wonder that Portland has become one of the indie rock’s most proud and prolific producer, with poise to continue that proud legacy in the foreseeable future.
Travis Leipzig is a Portland native and has been actively involved in the local music scene for over a decade. He is the editor in chief for The Deli Portland Magazine, as well as a staff writer for Eleven PDX Magazine. Travis plays the bass guitar and sings backing vocals for local experimental indie/psych bands Aan and The We Shared Milk. When not engulfed in music, he spends his time snowboarding on Mt. Hood, or skateboarding in Oregon’s various world-renowned skate parks.