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Thursday, April 23, 2020

Historical Note: Gabe's and The Shamrock

Gabe's tavern, Seattle, WA
(Photo from back cover of Gabe's Dirty Blues)

Thanks to a post in a Seattle Vintage Facebook post, I recently became aware of the remarkable history of a Seattle bar in downtown Seattle during most of the 50s and the 60s. The bar itself, known first as the Shamrock Beer Parlor and later simply The Shamrock, had been in the divey location on 6th Avenue since at least 1934. The building no longer exists; after hosting the Nikko Garden Tavern through the 70s and into the mid 80s, it was demolished and replaced by the 44-story U.S. Bank Centre in the later 80s. But whatever its previous history, the Shamrock became a unique part of Seattle history when it was purchased by one Gabriel McManus in 1951.

Gabe McManus with his jukebox system, 1967
(Billboard Magazine photo)
McManus was a one-time whiskey salesmen who at an early age fell in love with jazz and blues -- or simply "negro music," as some knew it at the time. Over his life he collected and curated a mammoth set of singles, exceeding 70,000 carefully chosen sides, before he died. When he purchased the Shamrock he loaded the jukebox with his own records, starting out with just a single speaker jukebox and eventually expanding to perhaps the most sophisticated jukebox system in the country, with 40 pairs of headphones and 24 speakers in the divey 35'x60' space that he eventually renamed "Gabe's." It was a rough crowd of assorted characters, best described by Gabe himself on the album he and his son Mike McManus released just before he died in 1978. "Gabe's Dirty Blues" was a double (vinyl) album that collected 30 of the remarkable artists and performances that Gabe loved. And I doubt if there exists any better description of the bar, the music, and the melting pot of people than the one written by Gabe and featured on the back of the album:

"When I bought the Shamrock Tavern in Seattle, the seamen and street people didn't cotton up to me at first. It took 6 months for me and my crazy music to win them over -- and then it was standing room only for years. You see we started with blues and never changed except for jazz. That was it for 17  years. Jazz and blues -- you never had it so good. 

Hell, I didn't know that these singers were legends-to-be. I just loved them and so did my crazy customers. Sometimes during a break of music, the screams of the whores and chippies defying each other, I could never figure out why they placed such a distinction between giving it away and selling it. 

Jack and Betty helped me run the Shamrock for awhile -- then came Ed, an old seaman bartender, and his wife Maria. Ed and Marie came to my rescue many times -- they were one of the good things that happened at first. 

Jazz and blues -- folk -- rhythm and blues -- what a hell of an umbrella covers all these forms and interrelates them. But that is for the musicians, writers, managers, and the critics -- not me. I am a listener and have been for over 55 years. I just got stung with the bug and have been in love with jazz and blues practically my whole life. 

The tunes in this album were basically tunes I played on a juke box and the original Shamrock and later 'Gabe's,' a downtown Seattle joint in the 1950s and 1960s. Now we had an old jukebox with one speaker and we would turn it up as loud as we could. The customers were mostly seamen and street people -- pimps, hustling broads and chippies -- gamblers and boozers -- pinball mechanics (some of the most loveable bastards of all) -- pill-heads and addicts. It was a rough joint and we only had one light in the place -- the juke box. Constant fights -- the seamen were mean. But it was exciting too. Seamen and street people are something else and we never knew what the hell would happen at any given moment. Wow, did seamen love to fight -- drink -- screw and listen to jazz and the blues. And Jack and Betty were right in there with them -- running tremendous shifts. Jack started drinking pretty heavy -- but what the hell. Just another visit from the Liquor Board. And now we had another segment of society added to our unusual clientele -- the gay boys. They loved the blues and the seamen. Pretty touchy at times. Special rules and all that. One to the can at a time and no fraternizing with straights. 

I have always been confused as to the exact musical differences between rock and roll and rhythm and blues. Music experts can give you a technical difference. My ear tells me there is a great difference. Like as if they put a hill billy kick in a rhythm and blues tune -- it becomes rock and roll. One thing it seems to adapt itself to the white dancing styles. Just as soul music adapts itself to the black dance movement. 

Although I have been a blues and jazz addict most of my life, never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would be programming these sounds. True, I always collected jazz, blues, swing, and some popular music but this was dictated more by love and necessity (I owned a lot of taverns) than by reason. Blues and jazz are my obsession. This two-album set comprises just a few rhythm and blues highlights of the late '40s to the late '60s. Some of the greatest and toughest are not represented. It would take 20 albums to chronicle a fairly complete history of the great rhythm and blues hits. This saddens me but for what it's worth, here they are. These are 25 years of great memories shared by thousands of my customers. 

I particularly dedicate this set to my beloved son, Mike McManus, who shared my dream and made it possible; to Richard Schenkar, who unselfishly and devotedly gave the benefits of his extensive research in ragtime, jazz, and blues history to this project when it was just an idea; to my beloved friend Robert Hardwick, who discovered me, promoted me, put me on radio -- he's the first man on a commercial radio station who had the guts to feature blues, jazz, Dixieland, any old thing that Gabe loved and he did it with Our Hour -- four hours every Saturday morning -- and to my knowledge, first exposed the city of Seattle to Jack Dupree's famous song "Walking the Blues"; to Buddy Webber who played my stuff almost as much as Hardwick; and to Danny Niles, a real friend, who's helping us tell people about this album." 

-- Gabriel McManus, from back cover of Gabe's Dirty Blues

'"This is probably the highest priced [jukebox] location in the world. We have about 40 sets of headphones in here and more speakers than I can count." "Sixteen major speakers and eight complimentary speakers," said McManus. "All in an area that has a floor space of 35 by 60 feet. All of them playing the most authentic blues and jazz you've ever heard." ... "I first started listening to Negro music when I was a kid. Then when I was a whisky salesman in the Middle West back in the '30's, I used to hear some of the great early jazz, the blues and even gospel music in the clubs that were in my territory. I've been following it ever since and I have collected more than 15,000 singles through the years." "... I must admit that Max's suggestion to put in earphones, and all the fine equipment and service he has provided for me has helped a lot. He might not be making as much money from me as he does from his best locations," McManus said, "especially when you consider how many times I've needed instant service. When a tube blows out or something, I have to have it replaced immediately because my whole business depends on the sound system. But even with all the headaches, I know that Max [Mondshein] is proud of this location. For him, as well as for Galante (Ray Galante, of Music-Vend Distributing, who handles Seeburg products), this is a showcase of coin operated music equipment used to the utmost." 

-- Gabe McManus, Billboard, Jan 21, 1967   

"Gabe collected some 70,000 sides of blues and jazz. At one time he had them all stored in an attic cubby hole, until his son Mike one day suggested the discs really belonged in a vault. ...Mike also had some other ideas. He pleaded with his father not to keep the music under lock and key. The world deserved to hear this music again, the younger McManus maintained. Gabe agreed. Two years ago (1978), Gabe, Mike and several friends set about searching the ownership titles to some of the master tapes. By the fall of 1978 they had come up with several dozen tunes which they were able to license from the original owners. They picked 40 of the hottest tunes in Gabe's collection and had them mastered into a two-album set called Gabe's Dirty Blues. The package came off the production line just in time for Gabe to hold a test pressing and the artwork in his hands. Before the album could hit the stores, Gabe McManus died of cancer."

-- Jef Jaisun, Bellevue Journal-American  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just found the album. 1-16-22 it was unopened! What a great legacy. I’m will cherish this Gabe’s Dirty Blues as one of my top albums in my collection. I love the story and have been a patron of many places that would resemble the Shamrock. They just didn’t play great music.