A few weeks ago, Bill Engelhart got a large dose of perspective while sitting in a car stopped at a red light.
“Some kids pulled up next to us, and I could hear their radio, and I thought, I wouldn’t want to be a teenager now, I hate their music. And my parents hated mine!” he said, then laughed at himself.
A Northwest music icon, Engelhart is in the Washington Blues Society’s Hall of Fame with his group, Little Bill and the Blue Notes — a band that’s had more than 30 members come and go over the decades.
They formed in Tacoma in 1956, with “Little Bill” Engelhart singing lead and playing bass, inspired by music his parents couldn’t stand.
He’s still playing it.
“Rod Cook and I do a duo, I’ve got a trio and the larger group, the Blue Notes,” Engelhart said. “I can do different things in each. We do everything from blues to country to rock ’n’ roll.”
A Tacoma kid who dropped out of Stadium High School, Engelhart will come home Sunday, playing a special gig at Immanuel Presbyterian Church’s “Blues Vespers” event.
“Bill’s a legend, and he’s played here twice a year since about 2000,” said Rev. Dave Brown. “Usually, he brings his trio, but this time he’s bringing the Blue Notes, which has three horns, an organ and female backup singers.”
And the special occasion?
“Bill’s 75th birthday is Monday,” Brown said. “So this is a birthday bash.”
Age has had its effect on Engelhart, a polio victim who wore leg braces throughout his childhood and into middle age. Now, he’s in a wheelchair. And as he and Jan, his wife of 52 years, have learned, there’s nothing like a grandchild to humble you.
“I like to show off,” Engelhart said, “and I showed my granddaughter this really beautiful guitar I’d bought myself. She looked at it and said ‘Oooh, it’s so beautiful — do I get this when you die?’”
A man who once toured six nights a week, Engelhart has cut down his performances. He’s long taken January and February off, and this year he’s performing only when he feels like it.
“I’ve got 88 jobs booked this year.”
In a previous interview with the News Tribune, Engelhart talked about his career being in its twilight.
“I’m amazed that I work as much as I do. I’d have thought everybody would get real sick of me by now,” he said.
That interview was 20 years ago.
Since then, he’s taken more time to be with his grandchildren and enjoy his Mountlake Terrace home.
“When my kids were young, I was on the road a lot. I grew up in Tacoma, had two children there,” Engelhart said. “I was an egomaniac. It was all about me, and I moved to California while Jan and the kids stayed in Tacoma.
“We were playing El Centro, Calif., and Kodiak, Alaska, and when I was in Kodiak, my mother died. I flew home, went to the funeral and headed back to the airport. My daughter Lisa was probably 2, 3 years old at the time, and she said, ‘Goodbye, Daddy!’
“I thought ‘What the hell am I doing?’ I cried all the way to Kodiak. After that, I didn’t travel until they were older. It changed me. With my grandchildren, I try to be what I wasn’t to my own kids.”
Over the decades, Little Bill and the Blue Notes have toured with B.B. King, the Ventures, Bobby Vee and other rock groups of the ’50s and ’60s, spurred by a top-of-the-charts 1959 single, “I Love An Angel.”
Are there songs Engelhart won’t play anymore?
Only “Louie, Louie,” the rock ’n’ roll classic whose supporters once campaigned to make it Washington’s official state song.
“Rockin’ Robin Roberts was the first one to record ‘Louie, Louie,’ and we were the second — before The Kingsmen,” Engelhart said. “If I never sing that song again, it will be too soon.”
Then he laughed.
“If someone asks, I’ll do it. I never forget, I’m not there for me. I’m there for them,” Engelhart said.
It’s still working, too.
“Rod and I played the B Sharp Coffee House in Tacoma as a duo recently, and people just kept coming in,” Engelhart said. “It was a lot of fun, and the capper? We had this little tip jar, and at the end of the night there was $200 in it.
“That made us smile.”
Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638