I don’t know it, walking through the living room’s dim television light. At the end of the tunnel is The House of Entertainment.
What I do know is that this is old-time R&B singer Ural Thomas’ place, and that Into The Woods was called here by local history buffs and cultural visionaries the Dill Pickle Club. The plan is to film Ural playing “Pain Is The Name of Your Game,” a big band, deep soul cut originally recorded back in the 1960s.
Ural and his wife show us through the muted front house. Exiting the kitchen, we arrive in a long back room full of instruments. A shower curtain with a photo-realistic beach scene hangs over the windows. Oddball decorations mingle with furniture and scattered gear. What looks like a velvet painting of Napoleon overlooks an unironic motivational poster of a lion prowling twin mountain peaks. An image of the Beatles is bordered by one of Bruce Lee. Nearby, a string of white lights corral a display of unframed photographs.
After we load in, details of our session are ironed on the fly.
“I can play it on guitar,” offers Ural, “or I could do it on keyboard.”
The keyboard version is briefly weighed against an a cappella rendition, and Ural settles on guitar and voice. He wipes the dust from an old acoustic and corrects the strings by ear, bending the notes into a slightly imperfect, traditional tuning.
Antique stage lights point from the ceiling to the stool that Ural will later perform from. Audio cables hang from exposed beams and nest on the floor.
Ural is quick to tell us about the room’s history.
It’s the aforementioned House of Entertainment, a practice space and social center, as well as stage to weekly Sunday jam sessions that’ve been happening since the 60s, back when Ural first moved in. To understand the significance of such a room, you have to imagine a time when venue real estate was limited, local record labels were few, and getting your music in front of people– especially as an R&B or soul artist– was no small feat. Ural knew the realities of the music industry better than most.
After singing in churches and street-performing line-ups “as a kid,” as he puts it, he recorded a few songs with a doo-wop group called the Montereys in the 1950s, and soon after left Portland’s limited opportunities for greener, urban pastures.
A good handful of 45s were recorded in the post-Montereys years (mostly under other artist’s names), and Ural began sharing studio sessions with members of The Supremes, Quincy Jones’ band, and others, while opening for international names like Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, and Otis Redding. Things were on the up and up.
In Seattle circa the late 1960s, Ural was posed to make his break, but a longtime friend and collaborator by the name of Ron Buford took his recordings “down to Hollywood” and sold them as his own. There was no recourse, no way to claim ownership of the songs.
With a stabbed back, Ural worked the national circuit– doing stints in cities from LA to New York– and after opening for Otis Redding at the Apollo Theater, he met his manager in Cincinnati. Things got weird, the aforementioned manager got greedy, and Ural headed back West on a borrowed train ticket.
He landed in the same North Portland neighborhood he’d lived in since 1955, quietly tending industry wounds. The House of Entertainment, a name originally given to a club in Seattle back in the 20s, took new roots and launched into full swing. The Sunday free sessions became a popular cornerstone. People of all sorts found their way to the room. Ural tells stories about dropping acid with Owsley Stanley (the famed Grateful Dead sound engineer and instrumental figure of the even more famed “Acid Tests”) and describes it as a place where “nobody ever fought, like the Garden of Eden.”
It’s unclear as to who all played music in the room or crashed in the house, and the reel-to-reel recordings that captured the happenings have been gone since 1974, when the original space burned down in a mysterious fire.
The current House of Entertainment has been in a state of construction ever since, and the rebuilding efforts are nothing short of incredible. The brief details: After working days as a bellhop downtown, Ural collected discarded building materials on his walks home. The scraps accumulated to a living space, but in 1977 the city bulldozed The House for code violations. A back and forth ensued– bulldozing and rebuilding and bulldozing again– until 1979, when Ural was granted building and plumbing permits, as well as a deed.
From the piecemeal drum kit down to the recycled concrete floors, it’s a salvaged landscape.
Our sound guy Jeff picks up an Asian sun hat and puts it on his head. He finds a pair of huge plastic lips and holds them over his own. Ural laughs, and I get the feeling that both items come with stories. Everything here does.
Rather than ask, I stay seated in the back of the room on an island of couches, keeping my distance from the crew as they film the final take of “Pain Is The Name of Your Game.” Warm light comes through the shower curtain’s recursive beaches, the same clustered palm trees repeating across its perfect, clip art ocean. A man comes in the back door and sits down. He nods to me. I nod back.
He’s one of several neighbors who’ve stopped in over the course of the afternoon.
I motion to a jug of Kool-Aid and he fills a red Solo cup and neither of us say anything and nobody in the room seems to notice. In a way, I’m not paying much attention to our interaction either. The long years in Ural’s voice have made an audience– an audience in the humble, salvaged Eden.
(The Dill Pickle Club worked alongside the Oregon Historical Society to curate Oregon Rocks, an exhibition of Oregon’s music history in which Ural Thomas is featured. More details over at the Portland Mercury.)