Joint Base Lewis-McChord served a pivotal – and little known – role in the history of modern music as the host of teen dances during the early days of rock and roll that included performances of now-legendary bands.
Flash back to the 1950s. The top brass at Fort Lewis, as Joint-Base Lewis-McChord was known in those days, wanted to provide something for the children of soldiers stationed at the fort to do so that they wouldn’t get into trouble.
The base had been experiencing a rash of alcohol-fueled parties, fights, and petty vandalism. Teens were simply bored, so they needed someplace to play games, do homework and just hang out.
A World War I-era Red Cross convalescence hall was available. The center’s management then had the novel idea of asking the teens what would draw their attention. They wanted to rock.
A youth advisory board began organizing concerts by local bands. Bands came from local high schools in Lakewood and Tacoma, and most of them have long faded into history. Some of the bands that played shows at Fort Lewis’ Teen Center, however, became the pioneers of the rock and roll scene.
Who played at Fort Lewis?
“There are so many bands that came out of Tacoma, WA,” filmmaker Randy Sparks said. “It’s amazing.”
The story of how JBLM helped foster the early careers of rock and rolls icons is largely forgotten outside of local historians, but Tacoma film makers are helping new audiences discover those stories with documentaries, featuring the surviving band members. Sparks’ film, “Tacoma’s Rock-n-Roll Legends,” for example, sheds some light on that story as does another film, “Boom: A film about the Sonics” by Jordan Albertsen.
The Wailers were among the first to perform on the base.
Also known as the Fabulous Wailers, the group hailed from Stadium High School in Tacoma and had already played at nearby McChord Air Force Base under the name the Nitecaps.
The Wailers rocked the Youth Center in 1959, only to then find themselves on American Bandstand just months later with their chart-topping hit “Tall Cool One.” That band went on to become rock royalty with their version of “Louie Louie.”
Another ground-breaking band to play the Fort Lewis Youth Center in those days was the Puget Sound-based Ventures. The Ventures revolutionized music by introducing sound effects and distortion pedals into their signature sound.
The group played a Thanksgiving show at the center in 1959 and then rocked in the new year a month later. The band would become an international hit with its single “Walk, Don’t Run” the following year. The song is often cited as one of the greatest guitar songs of all time and was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. The band itself was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, where it played its most well known hit “Hawaii Five-O,” a song that served as the theme music for the hit television show.
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.” The ditty was a teen heart-throb ballad the band played at the center during a Halloween show in 1959 that drew 2,000 teenagers.
One band that is often called the grandfather of what would become the punk rock sound also got some stage time at Fort Lewis. That hard-driving band was the Sonics, a band of local high schoolers that drew its name from the sound of jets flying over their heads from McChord while they rehearsed in 1960.
The left-handed Seattle legend
Of course, the Pacific Northwest’s most legendary musician, Jimi Hendrix, played Fort Lewis as well.
He was a noted fan of The Wailers while in high school and fit right into the rising music scene, alongside his friend Jerry Miller. Miller would later become a founding member of Moby Grape and holds the number 68 slot on Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest guitarists of all time.
But for his role, the young Hendrix was in a short-lived group called the Tomcats in 1960, which played recreation centers up and down Puget Sound, including gigs at Fort Lewis and Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Hendrix was just 18.
He would go on to join the Army and served in the 101st Airborne Division through 1962, when he was discharged and continued his climb up the ranks of rock and roll history with “Are You Experienced,” “Hey Joe,” and “Purple Haze.”
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.