Black Arts Legacies: Shaping the Seattle sound

Dave Lewis was a talented keyboardist, vocalist and key player in the Pacific Northwest’s booming rhythm and blues scene of the 1950s and ‘60s — a scene that eventually morphed into Seattle’s iconic take on rock ’n’ roll. Zoom forward to the 21st century, and The Black Tones, led by Seattle-born twins Eva and Cedric Walker, are a genre-busting rock band taking Seattle by storm.

Getting people on the dance floor was a priority of mine.

from The Seattle Times obituary of Dave Lewis

Starting at Meany Junior High, Dave Lewis formed The Five Checks (1953-1957), a doo-wop group directed by his father David Sr. who had moved his family from Texas to Bremerton for work during the early 1940s. (The family landed next door to the Joneses, whose teen son Quincy was proving to be a skilled trumpeter.) When Lewis moved on to Garfield High School, the group morphed into the Dave Lewis Combo (1955-1962), which soon became hailed as the “Northwest’s greatest rock ’n’ roll band.”

Person behind a key board in a suit Person behind a key board in a suit
Musician Dave Lewis at Dave’s Fifth Avenue nightclub in the 1960s. (Courtesy Lewis family)

The Combo regularly played as the house band at the Birdland Supper Club, one of the many popular Black-run music venues along Jackson Street. But it was also notable for playing shows in majority white venues, including in Bellevue and around the University of Washington. During the Seattle World’s Fair, the band played nightly standing room only gigs at Dave’s Fifth Avenue downtown.

Lewis released his first album, Little Green Thing, while playing with the Dave Lewis Trio (circa 1961-1968). The album’s symphonic collision of jazz, swing, ragtime and a dose of blues reflected the “Original Northwest Sound” Lewis helped invent. He was inducted into the Northwest Area Music Association’s Hall of Fame in 1989 and his grandson, D’vonne Lewis, has continued the musical line, playing drums in many Seattle bands and teaching his own son how to play.

One person plays on drums while the other sings and plays guitar, both in front of a black screenOne person plays on drums while the other sings and plays guitar, both in front of a black screen
Twins Eva and Cedric Walker of The Black Tones are photographed in the basement of their mother’s home in Mt. Baker, which was their original practice space when starting their music career. (Meron Menghistab for Crosscut)

Twins Eva and Cedric Walker (b. 1989) of The Black Tones got their start in their grandmother’s basement in the Mount Baker neighborhood — Eva on guitar and Cedric on drums. Once Eva revealed her powerful singing voice to her brother (she had been secretly practicing), the band was a no-brainer. “When I found out she had the voice, I was like: I can’t not do anything about this,” Cedric told Crosscut in 2019. A potent blend of Seattle grunge, Jimi Hendrix and New Orleans spice, the band’s first album, Cobain and Cornbread (2019), highlights Eva’s full-bodied voice on top of Cedric’s hard-hitting drums. The duo plays packed live shows all over the city, sometimes with Eva’s husband, Jake Uitti, on organ and Ezekiel Lords on bass.

The band’s punk rock take on rhythm and blues carries the history of the Northwest Sound forward. You can hear traces of not only Dave Lewis and his band’s hodgepodge of rock and soul, but also of grunge vanguard Tina Bell’s growls and shouts. With songs spanning from “Ghetto Spaceship,” about a space nerd looking for love, to “The Key of Black (They Want Us Dead),” about police brutality, the band manages to both charm audiences with goofball humor and unite them in a call for justice.

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