Tina Bell was grunge before grunge was cool.
Bell was the lead singer of the Seattle alternative rock band Bam Bam. Founded in 1983, the band’s drummer, Matt Cameron, went on to play with Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. Reportedly, Kurt Cobain served as a roadie for the group before he hit it big with Nirvana. Just last week, the Seattle Times ran a story headlined, in part, “Before Nirvana or Pearl Jam, there was Tina Bell, the godmother of grunge.”
Bell, who died in 2012, was a Black woman, and various reports argue that she didn’t get her just due when she was alive because her race and her gender didn’t fit the white narrative that critics had created for the Seattle scene.
But if you listen to her music, especially songs like “Ground Zero,” all the hallmarks of what would become the Seattle Sound are there–the angsty vocals, the sludgy guitars, the energetic mix of metal and punk wrapped around a melodic core. Soundgarden, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Hole and others all built on the sonic foundation that Bell helped create.
Too often, Black creators in music don’t get their due. They invent new forms, and are quickly replaced and their innovations repackaged by white artists doing similar things. Memphis Minnie, Big Mama Thornton and Sister Rosetta Tharpe helped create guitar-based rock and roll, but few kids today know their names. When I wrote a cover story on alternative rock for Time magazine back in 1993, not a single person I talked to in Seattle even mentioned Tina Bell and Bam Bam.
Tina Bell deserves a place in the Seattle pantheon.
Check out my upcoming novel “Zero O’Clock“–a book about BTS, BLM, Covid-19, and a 16-year-old girl trying to cope with it all.