At the age of 25, I was a Seattle, Washington, Pike Place Market “busker”. That is, I played for tips at the bustling Seattle institution which was frequented by visitors and tourists alike. My musical partner during the winter of 1974 was a gifted young guitarist and singer, Mike “Sixball” Stengel. Mike, who was 20 years old, had recently traveled far from his Pennsylvania home, to ensconce himself in the amazing city that was Seattle. Having played a good deal of music in his home territory, he wanted to see how he would fare here.
Mike and I met at the market. Having admired each other’s style, we started jamming together, and soon formed a duo. Mike and I each had success playing in the smaller towns we originated from. We were not exactly green rookies. We’d been in electric bands, we’d played the best venues in our respective hometowns. We simply desired to make our mark in a bigger city. — Most performers didn’t just move here and start playing the best venues that same day. Everyone had to get his or her foot in the door. And a good way to get started in Seattle in the 70’s was to busk at the Market. This allowed musicians to put their music out there for people to hear, while making a little money; plus it provided good exposure. You never knew who might walk by and offer you a real job, performing in a nightclub, or at a big party.
Considering the fact that many folks treated us as if we were one step up from beggars, Mike and I worked very hard to be professional. We played every day, we practiced, and learned new tunes. We acted appropriately, looked good and sounded good. And we made a pretty good living, thanks to the generous tips we received from passersby, who often expressed how impressed they were with our music. We were accustomed to hearing folks make comments such as, “You’re too good to be playing on the street”. Then, they’d drop a fiver into our hat! On the other hand, there would always be someone who’d say something like, “Why don’t you bums get a job?” People definitely fell into two camps: those who enjoyed our music and appreciated the Market buskers, and those who didn’t. – Mike and I soldiered on throughout the cold winter months, in spite of any negative comments we were on the receiving end of. — Because we knew if we kept trying our best, we’d wind up playing professional gigs, for good money.
Mike and I had managed to build a reputation as one of the Market’s better musical attractions. One day, when we were performing under the iconic Market Clock (the best busking spot in the entire Market) a Pike Place Market Merchants Association bigwig approached us with an interesting proposition. He asked, “Would you like to be on TV? KIRO TV is filming a story at the Market today, and they need to film an act. We’d like you guys to do it. It would be great exposure.”
Well, Mike and I thought it over for about a half-second, and said that we’d be glad to participate. So the “suit” told us to show up at a particular spot, at a particular time, later that day, and we’d be on TV.
Mike and I immediately started batting around song titles, trying to determine which would be the very best song to play for the cameras. After all, this could be the big break we were hoping for. We wanted to be seen and heard at our very best. “KIRO 7” was Seattle’s CBS affiliate. One never knew: if the story was good enough, it might even make the CBS Nightly News!
We finally decided upon our version of a great Mason Proffit song from 1973, “Stoney River”. It was a beautiful song, with nostalgic, countryesque lyrics; it offered an opportunity for Mike and me to demonstrate our fine harmony singing: “Waitin’ where the Stoney River is rollin. Waitin’ where your sorrows fade away….”
When the appointed time arrived, Mike and I were right where we were supposed to be; all tuned up, warmed up and ready to perform. A KIRO cameraman spoke with us, telling us to just sing into the camera – to be natural; to do what we normally did, when he gave us the sign.
We waited patiently while the cameraman and sound person set up their lights, focused their camera, checked their sound levels. We finally received the “go” sign. And Mike and I proceeded to just nail “Stoney River”. We put our hearts and souls into our performance. Having a good deal of professional experience up our sleeves, we appeared as comfortable as if we were in our own living room. When we completed the song, the cameraman shook hands with us, and complimented us “up one side and down the other”. And other folks who had witnessed the filming came up and congratulated us on our fine performance. We felt pretty good, knowing we had given it our best.
Mike and I rushed over to his house, gathered our friends and his roommates together and grabbed some beers. At 5 PM, we turned on the TV to KIRO 7, to see our “triumphant Seattle television debut”. We sat through stories about car crashes, gas prices, weather conditions, football scores – practically the entire hour-long newscast went by. At last, one of their talking heads said, “When we come back, we’ll have a story about the Pike Place Market”. We waited through a couple of commercials touting an appliance store and a car dealership; then the anchors’ faces reappeared on our TV screen. The camera closed in on the anchor’s beautiful countenance, as she uttered the words, “There’s a lot of commotion at the Market these days. Street singers are causing all kinds of difficulties”. (Cut to Mike and Randy: “Waitin’ where the Stoney River is rollin’….”)
I spent the next forty years not watching KIRO 7.
The anchor did make this admission, at the end of the story: “Well, today, at least, the street singers were very harmonious”.
Mere months after our being humiliated by the Market and KIRO 7, Mike and I, joined by our good friend, dobro player Randy Knowles (yep, I’m Randy Bowles and he’s Randy Knowles) played on the Main Stage at the Country KAYO Radio Picnic at Seattle Center’s iconic Mural Amphitheater, for a huge crowd of country music fans who came to see me, after I finished in fifth place in the nation in the Grand Ole Opry’s 50th Anniversary Talent Search.
To hear Mason Proffit perform their beautiful “Stoney River”, here you go:
(All photos are from the author’s archives or creative commons)