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Meet Tina Bell, The Black ‘Godmother Of Grunge’ Who Created The Seattle Sound

Meet Tina Bell, The Black ‘Godmother Of Grunge’ Who Created The Seattle Sound

Half a decade before Nirvana released their first album, Tina Bell and her band Bam Bam pioneered the combination of punk and heavy rock that would come to define grunge music.

Before grunge even had a name or famous faces, a 26-year-old Black woman named Tina Bell was giving it a powerful voice. In 1983, Bell and her husband, Tommy Martin, formed a band called Bam Bam that created the new “Seattle sound” years before anyone else.

Bam Bam uniquely mixed rock genres that would come to define grunge music. They were the first to record at the studio that later nurtured bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. While Kurt Cobain was shifting between punk bands and Eddie Vedder was moving between San Diego and Chicago, Bell was performing to sold-out clubs in the heart of the Seattle scene.

However, her story has remained largely untold in the official histories of the genre. While the men of grunge received widespread acclaim, Bell spent the rest of her days in obscurity, away from music, and passed away at the age of 55.

Thanks to the efforts of her Oscar-winning son and modern music historians, Bell is now being recognized as Seattle’s forgotten “godmother of grunge.”

Tina Bell And The Formation Of Bam Bam

The oldest of 10 siblings, Tina Marie Bell was born in Seattle, Washington, in 1957. She first honed her vocal skills at Seattle’s Mount Zion Baptist Church, where she sang in the choir. By high school, Bell was performing on stage with the drama department and as a cheerleader on the football field.

After studying drama at Washington State University, she returned to Seattle and joined the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, leading to a significant connection in her life.

In the late 1970s, Bell needed help with her French for a performance of “C’est Bon Si” with the institute, so she contacted a French tutor whose ad she found in the paper. That tutor was Tommy Martin, a local musician. They quickly fell in love, got married, and had a son — the Oscar-winning documentarian T.J. Martin — in 1979.

This was just the beginning of their collaborations. Their next creation would change musical history.

In 1983, Tina Bell and Tommy Martin founded Bam Bam — an acronym of their names, Bell and Martin. With Bell on vocals and Martin on guitar, Bam Bam added bassist Scott Ledgerwood and drummer Matt Cameron, who would later find fame in bands like Soundgarden and Pearl Jam.

They were an explosive force.

“She was amazing. That’s all there is to it,” said musician Om Johari. Johari grew up going to Bam Bam shows as a teenager in Seattle and later co-founded several rock bands.

“She was incredible as a performer. I’ve only seen one white male lead singer command the stage like Tina Bell did.”

How Tina Bell Created The Seattle Grunge Sound

A few months after Bam Bam was founded, the band became a staple of Seattle’s club scene with their unique mix of punk, hard rock, and heavy distortion. Tina Bell was known for her wild stage presence and powerful vocals, switching effortlessly from sultry melodies to screaming outbursts.

“Her voice was super powerful. She could sing over a super loud guitar-based rock band, which is not an easy feat,” drummer Matt Cameron told CBS.

It didn’t take long for Bam Bam to catch the attention of other Seattle musicians. Future members of bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains came to see Tina Bell perform. Kurt Cobain even served as a roadie for the band at one point. Teenage Duff McKagan, who would later join Guns N’ Roses, once filled in on stage during a set.

By January 1984, Bam Bam recorded their first tracks with producer Chris Hanzsek at Reciprocal Recording Studio, located between Seattle’s Ballard and Fremont neighborhoods. They released their first singles and only EP, Villains (also wear white), in 1984—almost a year before Green River, often credited with pioneering the “Seattle sound,” recorded their first songs in the same studio.

Nirvana would record their debut album with Reciprocal four years later. By then, the post-punk sound that Tina Bell and Bam Bam had created had a name: grunge.

Why Tina Bell Was Written Out Of Grunge History

Despite Bam Bam’s popularity, Tina Bell faced both explicit and implicit racism. People didn’t know how to handle the 5-foot-2-inch Black lead singer of a punk band. Her husband, Tommy Martin, mentioned to The Stranger that the press often compared her to Tina Turner, “as if that made any sense.”

The recognition Tina Bell did receive during Bam Bam’s rise was hard-won. At one show at The Metropolis, a punk club in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, neo-Nazi skinheads came to taunt her. Scott Ledgerwood recounted to writer Stephanie Siek for Zora how Bell responded:

“A couple of skinheads were up front, calling her [the N-word]. Suddenly, Bell grabbed a microphone stand and started twirling it around her head like a lasso,” he said. “She swung it around and the fourth time, she smashed it into one of them, hitting him in the temple. He went down, and we’re like, ‘What the fuck?'”

After the band left the stage to regroup, Ledgerwood told Siek, Bell came back and “put out the most blistering set of our career.”

Even so, she faced more subtle resistance. Ledgerwood told Samantha Hollins in an interview for The Culture Rock Griot, “People back then expected a Black girl to be Hip-Hop, a Soul diva, or Pop singer. Fronting a Hard Rock band was inconceivable to many despite her brilliance.”

Christina King, a longtime friend of Tina Bell’s, told KEXP that she remembers someone saying they didn’t get “the whole Black girl singer thing.” They were too ahead of their time.

Despite local fame and a few independent record label offers, Bam Bam couldn’t achieve mainstream success. After an unsuccessful stint in Europe in the late 1980s, Tina Bell returned to the U.S. and quit the band in 1990, just as the grunge sound she helped create was emerging. Bam Bam continued as a trio for a few years before fading out by the end of the decade.

In 1996, Bell divorced Martin and eventually moved to Las Vegas, struggling with alcoholism and depression. She sometimes volunteered at a local church but often withdrew from the world.

By 2011, when a book on grunge history came out, she was completely omitted. The book’s subjects remembered Bam Bam only as the trio it became in the 1990s, without a vocalist.

On October 10, 2012, Tina Bell died alone in her Las Vegas apartment at age 55 from cirrhosis of the liver. According to her son, she’d been dead for weeks before anyone found her. By the time he was notified of her passing, officials had already discarded all of her personal archives.

How The ‘Queen Of Grunge’ Finally Got Her Due

The same year Bell died, her son T.J. Martin won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for his film, Undefeated. This might have been her legacy if CBS hadn’t called in 2021.

Lee Cowan, a CBS Mornings reporter, contacted Om Johari to do a story on Bell. This led Johari to organize a tribute concert with many of Seattle’s top musicians, including former Bam Bam drummer Matt Cameron.

When the news segment aired nationally, featuring clips from the concert, Tina Bell finally started getting the recognition she deserved. For Bell’s son, the response to his mother’s legacy was bittersweet.

“My parents were very different. My mom internalized her struggles and pains. My dad expressed his openly. She didn’t talk much about the difficulties she faced in the band,” T.J. told The Portland Mercury.

“My dad spent the rest of his life talking about how they didn’t get the recognition they deserved.”

During Bam Bam’s prime, bands that opened for Tina Bell, like the Melvins and Alice in Chains, later became more famous in the Seattle grunge scene. For many who remember her, she is long overdue for the recognition she and Bam Bam are finally getting.

“She was an innovator with no peers, a key figure in creating grunge music, which later forgot she existed,” Scott Ledgerwood told KEXP.

“It’s not the first time a person of color helps develop a new idea and doesn’t get credit, but it’s a clear example of it… she was the queen of grunge.”

Now that you’ve read about Tina Bell, learn about the tragic final days of Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell and the truth about his death. Then, check out these photos from the 1990s, when grunge was king.

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