Living

Love notes that last

Roses wilt. Candlelit dinners and boxed chocolates disappear even sooner.

But writing a song for your special someone? Now that’s a thoughtful and lasting way to say “I love you.”

Just ask the writers behind some of the South Sound’s most iconic love songs. Granted, their hits weren’t necessarily the songs with the most romantic back stories. But they’ve endured.

HE LOVES AN ANGEL

Take local legend Bill Engelhart, for example. He penned “I Love an Angel” in 1959 and – with his band, Little Bill & the Blue Notes – scored one of the first Northwest hits of the rock era.

But Engelhart wasn’t as smitten as the song’s lyrics suggest. His “muse” was actually a friend of the band who suggested writing a song with that title.

“He had it on a piece of paper,” recalled Engelhart, a Tacoma native who lives in Mountlake Terrace. “I said ‘OK,’ and I put it in my wallet and kind of forgot about it.

“Quite a long time after that, I was going through my wallet one day, and I found this piece of paper that said ‘I Love an Angel,’ and I wrote that song in about five minutes. But it was never about anyone.”

Other set staples hold deeper meaning for him and Jan, his wife of 47 years.

“There’s no one I would rather see in the audience than Jan,” he said. “And if she’s there, I usually will in some way or another direct (Ray Charles’) ‘I Want a Little Girl’ or something like that directly to her. t’s just a great lyrical song. It just says, ‘I want a little girl to call my own, someone that’s all alone.’ You know, I just feel like it fits my feelings for Jan.”

Jan Engelhart added that “I don’t go very often, just because we have been married for such a long time. So when I do go, I guess it is kind of a special occasion for both of us. When he dedicates a song to me it’s very flattering.”

More personal, still, is “Like a Friend,” a song from Little Bill & the Blue Notes’ “Shades” CD that started as a gift to Jan. Engelhart might not have written it if not for an accident; he broke his foot during a gig in the ’90s and, as a result, barely left the house for a while.

“Valentine’s Day came along, and I got up that morning,” Engelhart said, “and Jan had bought me a little heart-shaped box of chocolate. And I thought, damn! I can’t even get to the store to get her something, you know. So I thought, I’m gonna write her a song. Again, the song just flew out of me.”

“Through the years, there were times I didn’t think I was gonna make it,” he sings in the song’s opening stanza. “But there you were, holdin’ out your hands, like a friend.”

It’s “really a song about our life together,” Jan Engelhart elaborated. “The words to the song, they just kind of say there were times maybe I shouldn’t have stayed, but I did.

“We went through a lot of things together, and (it’s about) how it’s all come out on the other side, and how we’ve become not only lovers, but really true friends. So when he wrote it for me … I was very touched by it.”

COME SOFTLY (BACK) TO ME

As a member of Olympia doo-wop group, the Fleetwoods, Gretchen Christopher helped pave the way for Little Bill’s chart success in 1959.

“Come Softly to Me,” a song Christopher wrote as a student at Olympia High, was the first million-selling pop single from the Northwest. That and subsequent Fleetwoods hits were the soundtrack to high school romance, coast to coast.

At the time her group was taking off, Christopher was with her first boyfriend, fellow Oly high student Richard Vosburgh, a.k.a. Vos. They met after Christopher’s best friend, Ann Galkowski, wanted to date the captain of the football team.

“They wanted to double date for their first date,” she recalled. “So Dick Dunn suggested his friend Dick Vosburgh, who was also on the football team and a track star. And Ann suggested me, her best friend.”

The couple hit it off and dated for two years. Early versions of “Come Softly” were influenced by their song, the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Nite.”

“I suggested we quit going steady when he went to college so that he could have a full college experience,” Christopher said. I thought he should date sorority girls and go to dances – you know, do the full thing – and not be tied to a high school senior, which I was.”

Fast forward to the late ’90s.

“I went to Europe and performed, and when I came back The Olympian did a feature story on me,” she said. “Some woman saw it and sent it to her son in Orange County, California. And he in turn sent a letter to Evergreen State College where I had for years taught my dance classes. They forwarded me the letter and it turned out to be my first love, Vos.”

The two began dating again, long distance. “He moved up here before Feb. 28, 2000. That was my 15th birthday party,” said Christopher, a leap year baby.

“There is sort of a bond because were each other’s first loves,” she said, “going to the same high school and knowing the same people and the same teachers. It’s just a very nice comfort level.

Christopher’s latest album, “Gretchen’s Sweet 16,” celebrates the couple’s rekindled romance. Liner notes feature photos of her and Vosburgh, past and present.

“The album is really inspirational … for people who are falling in love for the first time (who) wonder if it’ll last,” Christopher said.

“It can. Or for people who have fallen in love and break up. If they can ever get together again, they can. It’s possible. And for older people who think they are way beyond the age of romance but long for it. It can happen again.

Ernest Jasmin: 253-274-7389

ernest.jasmin@thenewstribune.com

blog.thenewstribune.com/tacomarockcity

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