Who was rocker Tina Bell? And why it matters


In Seattle, an important conversation, which perhaps defines the genre, has taken place over the past six months about one local artist more than any other. That person is not Macklemore or Ryan Lewis, Ann or Nancy Wilson, Kurt Cobain or Jimi Hendrix. She is the singer of Bam Bam, Tina Bell.

Haven’t you heard of her? You’re not alone.

Tina Bell, who is black, led the early 1980s Seattle rock band Bam Bam. By all accounts, she was a dynamo on stage, as compelling as any Seattle has seen before or since. Bell, who died nine years ago today (October 10, 2012) at the age of 55, is remembered as being short – about five feet two inches – beautiful and ready to use her microphone stand as gun on stage whenever she felt someone disrespected her or encroached on her space.

Tina Bell at the Reciprocal Recording Studio

Today, the history of Bell is representative of a big problem: erasure. While Bell was a contemporary and even a predecessor of big names in rock like Chris Cornell and Kurt Cobain, she is nowhere near so memorable. For some, it is a crime of racism. A forgotten black singer in place of many, many more white singers (who were probably given more opportunities early on). It wouldn’t be the first time either: Bands like IMIJ (below) and even its reverse namesake, Jimi Hendrix, have never found a foothold in the Emerald City. The great Quincy Jones too.

There is probably a lot of truth to this “erasure” explanation as to why Bell is not more widely and positively known today in or outside Seattle. There are certainly many examples of this in the past nationwide; the pioneers of music, who are black, are often dismissed for those with lighter skin. Think of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Elvis.

For many who listen to Bell today, she is the rediscovered and just queen of grunge. The energetic stage presence that sang, screamed and moaned from a troubled and unfair life on muddy, often dark and brooding guitars and rhythms. She wore black Mohawk eyeliner. she growled. And she came years before the Seattle greats of Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains.

In fact, Bam Bam recorded his EP 1984, The bad guys (also wear white), before the Seattle band Green River made their first album in 1985 Come down, which is often considered the beginning of the grunge genre. And Bam Bam, accompanied by Bell, recorded their album in the same studio with the same producer who was there later for Green River. Is it possible for those in the room to remember some of Bell’s tips and sound preferences while later working with Green River? Sure.

But still, others who were around at the time of Bam Bam, from journalists to musicians, say the group. was not the beginning of grunge. In fact, they say, the group wasn’t even everything this popular, playing in venues of about 30 people. However, other accounts remind them of playing in crowded bars and clubs. Yes, they will say, the members of Bam Bam knew the stars of the grunge, hung out with them, even inspired them, but they, Bell and Bam Bam, do not invent grunge. (Let’s get to that in a moment.)

Bam Bam, who everyone says is a great live band, doesn’t have a lot of studio recordings, especially in their prime, which hurts their legacy. To date, the band with Bell in the lead have released an EP, The bad guys (also wear white); two singles, “Ground Zero” and “Show What You Know”; and two albums, Bam Bam house demo and Free fall from space. All were registered in 1983-84. But – and this is crucial – for years, The bad guys (also wear white) was their only version available. The band, which consisted of Bell, her husband and guitarist Tommy Martin (who has also since passed away), bassist Scotty Ledgerwood and drummer Matt Cameron, were essentially just live.

Besides, yes, it is the Matt Cameron, who would later star in Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. Today, Cameron is one of Bam Bam’s biggest supporters, telling everyone about Bell’s prowess and abilities back then. Here’s where a reviewer might say, “But Matt, why didn’t you stay in Bam Bam? Whatever Cameron’s answer to this question, while slightly interesting, is ultimately not crucial. Queues are changing. The bands are changing. A small explosion in rehearsal can lead to the end of a group. Maybe there’s a good reason Cameron left or maybe Bam Bam really wasn’t as promising for him at the time compared to other bands he was playing in, like Soundgarden.

These details are not particularly important if you ask me. I’m not interested in whether Tina Bell started the grunge or why Matt Cameron finally left the group. I’m much more interested in why everything that Tina and Bam Bam were doing in the ’80s, which by all accounts was influential and interesting, was almost entirely forgotten until recently? How could this have happened?

Bell, who was one of the first to produce these muddy sounds (although some, like Seattle guitarist Jimmy James, note that Jimi Hendrix may have sparked grunge), also dabbled in new wave music. and punk. And she was excellent at those, too. So how has all this talent been lost to history? This is what I would like to know; not if Bell “invented grunge”.

The reality of an art form is that no one creates a genre on their own; there are always useful influences and contemporaries. While it is also true that these early blacks are often overlooked in the first place in place of their white counterparts in America. And this is also the central problem.

As the proto-grunge sounds, styles and swagger took shape in the Northwest, Bell was there, contributing greatly, day in and day out. So why hadn’t so many people in Seattle heard from her? That is until a recent story arises and goes viral in the region (and the world) of Please kill me magazine by writer Jen B. Larson, which described in detail the history of the group. The article has since rekindled a conversation about Bell and Bam Bam in Seattle and abroad that has left many city residents wondering: why was Bell’s secret kept?

Today, the Bell story continues to both shock and inspire. She and Martin had a son, TJ, who grew up to be an Oscar and Emmy winner. And TJ, speaking to Larry Mizell, Jr. recently on the excellent KEXP tale of Bell’s life story, talks about his mother’s death in Las Vegas from cirrhosis of the liver. Bell died alone, isolated, found about two weeks after her death, without the success or notoriety she deserved. Ledgerwood had worked with TJ to find an apartment, but when Bell went silent for too long he knew something was wrong. What about his business? Discarded because they were “contaminated,” TJ was told.

Bell and Mozart are now tied for the saddest musical burial.

As a songwriter, Bell was one of the best in town during her time, which is clear from just the peers she has kept. Namely, Guns N ‘Roses bassist Duff McKagan even played drums with the band one night. Listening through her work and it’s also obvious that she was onto something, and variations of those same sounds would later be found on Upper Left platinum albums. Again, the point here isn’t to decide who started what (not for me, at least).

The point is, Tina Bell and Bam Bam were definitely Well– maybe even awesome. Bell and Bam Bam have also had a great influence. And Bell and Bam Bam were also definitely forgotten. And it really sucks.

Bell is remembered again thanks to points of sale like Please kill me (their story has been shared over 20,000 times), writers like Brazilian journalist Tania Seles and Seattle residents like musician Om Johari, who, after seeing a tidal wave, put on a recent tribute show for Bam Bam last summer, starring Cameron, Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard, guitarist Ayron Jones and many more. (Rumor has it that Ron Howard’s folks were attending and filming.)

Johari was there in the ’80s, worshiping and looking at Bam Bam, inspired by one of the few black faces on stage. Back in the days of Johari’s tribute show, CBS News was also in the early stages of writing an article on Bell. This piece was released recently and now the ringing of Bell’s name is starting to find more ears. She deserves this. There is hope and momentum forward. Ledgerwood says he also recently signed a new recording contract with the band with Bric-a-Brac Records, which will re-release material, mixed and mastered by grunge legend Jack Endino. More and more outlets are noticing, places like Seattle weather.

But it’s silly, if not unfair, to keep Bell’s legacy on par with the Grunge or Bust Godmother. There are a lot of perfectly good and remarkable Northwest bands that get the love of fans who didn’t have to invent a whole genre. They are just musicians and they are good at getting the required sparkle. We remember a lot of them, but somehow we lost Tina. And while we never find an answer as to why Bell and Bam Bam have been lost for decades, let’s collectively make sure it doesn’t happen again.

For Seattle-born rock’n’roll singer Eva Walker, now 32, of popular band The Black Tones, performance counts for the next generation:

“It would have helped a lot sooner if I had known Tina Bell as a child,” says Walker. “Because I thought loving rock as a black kid made me strange or unusual, because other people made me feel that way, who in their defense didn’t see us being portrayed in the genre.

“Knowing her now, in addition to rock legends like Jimi Hendrix, further confirms why I can be here to continue what I am pursuing. Representation matters and we have never been alone on this rock journey. It further contributes to the drive that I have to keep doing it and to be seen. “

(All photos courtesy of Buttocks Productions / Scott Ledgerwood)

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