Bellingham drummer Warren Palken called me about a special "Sweet 16 Anniversary Party," but it's not for some dewy-eyed debutante. It's for his band, The Motown Cruisers.
The Cruisers is a seven-piece band that formed in 1998. They have opened for the Drifters, Coasters and Platters, and have played for festivals in Seattle and British Columbia, as well as at Sea to Ski, Boulevard Park and at local casinos.
The Motown Cruisers will perform three sets of soul, rhythm and blues, and rock in a family-friendly "Sweet 16" anniversary party from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 29, at the Squalicum Boathouse at Zuanich Point Park, 2600 Harbor Loop Drive, in a tribute to the Motown era.
Admission is $10 adults, $20 per family. There will be free refreshments and giveaways, plus trophies for best dancing and soul costume.
Palken says playing drums with the Cruisers still excites him, even after 16 years.
It was an unlikely marriage at first, though. Palken started out a kid in a white, upper-middle-class neighborhood in Seattle. He played drums for a four-piece rock band, playing covers by the Beatles, Monkees and the Rolling Stones.
But he listened to '50s doo-wop at night in bed, he says, from a green plastic radio with a giant tuning knob. He admits he didn't have soul in junior high, but he listened to local black soul and jazz stations constantly. (They had soul, he says.)
"Me play music with Afro-Americans?" he asks, kidding. "I was a young Jewish boy in the suburbs. I might find spirit, but 'soul' couldn't be in me."
At that time in the '60s and '70s all over the United States, rhythm and blues songs were recorded by black musicians. Slowly, the genre became appreciated by a majority of Americans.
Today, Palken says, "Motown Sound" is accepted as mainstream. And thus came the Motown Cruisers.
When they started the group, Palken says, their goal was hit songs of such R&B greats as Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Al Green, Otis Redding and The Temptations. Palken ran into an African-American in town in 1989, which was somewhat rare in Bellingham, and asked him if he'd like to be in a soul band, and he answered "Sure."
Palken didn't ask if he knew how to play or sing, and it turned out he couldn't hold a tune, sing, or harmonize, Palken says.
But, he says, William "Chill Will" Clement had soul.
"So he sang James Brown tunes. Grunts and shouts. 'Uuh! Get up off a' that thing.' Whatever he did on stage didn't matter. He was a real thing. Chill wore a bright-red suit jacket, with a hoarse, soft voice. The fans loved him."
Chill named the band The Cruisers, then they added "Motown" so people would know they played Motown. (People still ask what they play, Palken says.)
"Chill died years ago in Chicago, his hometown. For the Zuanich Park gig, the Cruisers will dedicate James Brown's 'I Feel Good' to Chill's memory," Palken says.
STATE ARTS DIRECTOR COMING TO BELLINGHAM
The public is invited to a forum with Karen Hanan, the new executive director of the Washington State Arts Commission, from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 3, at Mount Baker Theatre, 104 N. Commercial St.
The session is the sixth in a series of statewide forum on Hanan's quest to meet with artistic communities around the state to hear about local concerns about the arts. People can bring their questions and comments, and learn more about the programs of ArtsWa.
Items for discussion include promoting and documenting the arts as a creative industry; building participation in the arts; and using ArtsWa as a resource. Details: arts.wa.gov.
Behind the Scenes focuses on the people who make the arts and entertainment world of Whatcom County happen. It appears in Take Five, The Bellingham Herald's entertainment section, each Thursday. Margaret Bikman is the Entertainment News Coordinator at The Bellingham Herald. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-715-2273.