Ahead of their time, The Esquires keep rockin' decades later

 

August 9, 2023

Six musicians from the 1950s gather for a photo

Contributed photo

BACK IN THE DAY – The original lineup of The Esquires, from left to right: Gene Robbins, Don Grant, Jeff Hendricks, Gerry Robbins, Jim Reynolds, and Terry Nelson.

A trained classical pianist, La Conner Mayor Ramon Hayes has great appreciation for a variety of musical genres.

He naturally keeps tabs on those playing keyboards. And one of his favorites is La Conner's own Terry Nelson.

"Terry is the epitome, the soul, of La Conner," Hayes told the Weekly News recently. "He's so forward thinking."

A longtime proponent of green energy, having for more than four decades advocated solar heating options, Nelson is also one of a handful of home-grown La Conner musicians who as teenagers were quick to recognize the potential impact of rock-and-roll, then in its infancy.

Longtime locals fondly recall when Nelson, Don Grant, Jeff Hendricks, Jim Reynolds and brothers Gene and Gerry Robbins performed together as The Esquires at the outset of the rock era, playing countless venues in Northwest Washington and British Columbia.

The La Conner High School products, all friends who grew up here before the town became a popular destination point, once backed up national headliners Jan and Dean, pioneers of the so-called California Sound and vocal surf style, at the legendary Seven Cedars Ballroom in Mount Vernon.


"It's amazing," said Reynolds, "that from a high school of 88 students we were able to put together a six-piece rock-and-roll band."

Now, more than 60 years later, the beat still goes on for The Esquires.

Four of the original band members – Reynolds, Nelson and the Robbins brothers, occasionally joined by newcomers to the Esquires – continue to play a dozen or more times each month at area senior centers and retirement communities.


"The people we play for," said Gene Robbins, the band's saxophonist and historian, "are really grateful for us to come in and play for them. Many of them are now fairly restricted in their movement."

The group has a hefty playlist of a couple hundred songs loaded with hits from the early rock era.

Reynolds and Nelson were drawn to rock-and-roll after a visit to Seattle's famed Orpheum Theater, whose stage was graced by big-time acts like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Lavern Baker and Bill Haley and the Comets.

It was transformational.

"We'd never seen anybody boogie before," recalled Nelson.

It helped inspire a series of La Conner-based bands that ultimately morphed into The Esquires.


"Our first band," said Gene Robbins, "started in the late 1950s."

That was soon after Reynolds had seen Elvis Presley perform on television. Nelson, meanwhile, found inspiration in Ray Charles. Berry, universally considered rock-and-roll's most important early architect, was likewise influential.

"Whenever Chuck Berry came out with something," Gene Robbins said, "we'd go buy it."

Like their idols, the Esquires blended showmanship with musicianship. They brought choreography to their sets and often wore either matching suits and ties or sweaters for publicity photos and gigs.

The shows they played at the Seven Cedars, which was razed by fire in 1963, drew upwards of 300 kids on Friday nights.

Looking back, The Esquires remember having benefited from a strong band program at La Conner Schools. Music was also part of their home life.


Reynolds, who glides seamlessly from guitar to keyboards to drums, grew up in a musical household. His mother, Norma, was an accomplished musician. Same with Nelson. His dad, Louie, played accordion, piano and violin.

Gene Robbins chose the saxophone because he found the fingering required to master it similar to the flute he had played. For Gerry Robbins, the drums seemed a natural extension of athletics.

"Timing is important in all sports," he explained. "And playing the drums is about timing and control."

Nelson, the pianist, agreed.

"I've always maintained that the drums are the most important part," he said.

While the band gained much notoriety for its music, Gene Robbins also did so with a run for mayor here shortly after turning 21, the legal voting age in the early 1960s.


"Nobody was running for mayor at the time," he said. "I said to my mom: 'I'm going to run for mayor.'"

The youngest mayoral candidate in the state, his campaign attracted newspaper coverage.

"I knocked on five or six doors, including Louie's," he remembered, "and said: 'Hi, I'm running for mayor. I'd like you to vote for me.'"

But it wasn't meant to be, and Gene Robbins' concession speech remains a classic part of La Conner lore.

Eventually, The Esquires hit the pause button. Gene Robbins and Reynolds went into the Army. Gerry Robbins served in the Air Force. Nelson enrolled at the University of Washington.

"After a long period of each going our separate ways," Gene Robbins said, "we're now back together playing music."

Four musicians gather around a drum kit

Bill Reynolds

THE BAND PLAYS ON – The Esquires of 2023, from left: Gene Robbins, Jim Reynolds, Terry Nelson and Gerry Robbins.

The group continues to practice weekly at Reynolds' La Conner home.

"It's nice to be playing music and having fun doing it," said Reynolds, now 80. "I hope we can keep doing this for a few more years."

 

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