Up Close With Buck Ormsby
Legendary Wailers’ Bassist And Major Pioneer Of The Northwest Sound
[Interviewer’s Note: Bassist for The Wailers since the early ‘60s, John “Buck” Ormsby is one of the premier pioneers of an unprecedented music expression that made a huge impact on rock and roll during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s in the Pacific NW—a region of the United States that can easily be argued as the birthplace of what today is often referred to as “frat rock.”
Of course, we all know that the song that defined this genre of rock and roll was the late Richard Berry’s “Louie, Louie,” and even though The Kingsmen’s version turned out to be the monster hit (reached number two on Billboard), Ormsby along with partners Kent Morrill and Robin Roberts were the first to release it as a rock-and-roll number via their label, Etiquette. The performing group was The Wailers (although not mentioned on the label because of contractual issues), with Rockin’ Robin Roberts belting out the vocal and receiving sole label credit; and it was this historic regional hit that inspired The Kingsmen and Paul Revere and The Raiders, et al, to release their versions, thereby giving strength to the belief that The Wailers were indeed the principal founders of “The Northwest Sound.”
“Robin is the person who added the ‘yeh, yeh, yeh, yeh’s’ to ‘Louie Louie,’ including the ‘let’s give it to ‘em right now’ lead into the guitar solo,” says Ormsby. “That addition became a significant part of the song and was included in the later Kingsmen version.”
Today, Buck is very active with The Wailers and other music projects, and because of his very busy schedule, this The Lance Monthly in-depth interview with Buck Ormsby has been in the works now for more than six months, and is still ongoing with the hopes of a completion within the next few months. This is the first installment of Ormsby’s fascinating music career:]
[Lance Monthly] When and where were you born, Buck?
Buck Ormsby Born in Seattle, WA, 1941 and raised in Tacoma, Washington, about 30 miles south of Seattle.
[Lance Monthly] Did you grow up in the country or a city neighborhood?
Buck Ormsby Grew up in a city neighborhood where there was still lots of space. All the neighbors knew each other, lots of kids/friends, and plenty of fun stuff to do.
[Lance Monthly] How many brothers and sisters do you have?
Buck Ormsby Three brothers (one died in the early ‘90s) and one sister.
[Lance Monthly] Did other members in your birth family have an interest in music aside from yourself?
Buck Ormsby My parents tried to get us all involved in music; I started with steel guitar, one brother played accordion, one tried trumpet, and I can't remember if the other was interested in an instrument. My sister was not, but my parents had music going all the time from Eddie Arnold to Johnny Ray, to Billie Holiday, and more. They had parties where musician friends would come over and jam, and everyone would sing songs that were popular of the day.
My mother owned a couple roadhouses where they had local orchestras (dance bands) play. I attended a local music conservatory for a few years. My brothers dropped their music interest for other things they were interested in.
[Lance Monthly] What were the typical chores that your parents expected of you during your youth and how did you entertain yourself during your free time?
Buck Ormsby In those days we had fireplaces, wood stoves, and wood deliveries; so [it was] chopping wood, making kindling, mowing lawns, [and] feeding the animals (cats/dogs). Growing up was always discovering or building something that brought out our creative abilities to enhance our young adventures; for example, clubhouses, water rafts, and then hiking, camping, swimming holes, bicycle trips, etc.
[Lance Monthly] You grew up in a city in which rain is measured in feet. Did you ever get use to it?
Buck Ormsby We didn't and don't mind a bit. It made the green more beautiful and the air a little cleaner. We used to exaggerate the rain even more in an attempt to discourage people from moving here when Boeing, the Dot Coms, and Microsoft, of course, became a major attraction all over the country for expanding technology jobs, etc. Now we have more congestion, polluted air, jammed highways and freeways. And rain.
[Lance Monthly] Larry Thompson, drummer for The Randy Fuller Drive, had a similar family musical background as you, as his dad performed professionally during the Big Band era. As he’s also from your neck of the woods, did you know him during your childhood?
Buck Ormsby No, I met Larry and his brother, Jim, in the '60s. Larry became the drummer in Rich's (Dangel/guitar player extraordinaire) group the Rook's, and Jim used to work for the Wailers as equipment man, driver, and all around good guy and helper. I'm not sure I was aware he played saxophone at the time. Later, I learned he either was a great player or a monster on his horn. What I know now is he's both. Not too often you find two brothers who are excellent players. Once in a while they visit Tacoma, but I haven't seen them in quite a while.
[Lance Monthly] Before rock and roll came on the scene, what kind of music did you have a passion for? In addition, when rock and roll became a reality, were you immediately taken by it? Who were your favorite artists?
Buck Ormsby I liked all kinds of music. I couldn't possibly list all the music and artists I've been lucky to hear, see and meet. But, at our house there was always a variety of music. Beside a record player with 78, 33 1/3, and 45 speed settings, we even had an old wind-up player, a single 45 player with the center piece for big hole 45s, and, of course, the radio.
Besides popular music on the radio, I liked the big orchestras: Benny Goodman, Dorsey Brothers, Ray Brown, Harry James, and singers like Frank Sinatra, Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald, Satchmo, Dean Martin, etc. But I also got hooked on rhythm and blues when a friend, Little Bill (and the Bluenotes), who I started a band with in the late '50s after a meeting at a local theatre showing "Blackboard Jungle" featuring the song "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and the Comets, took me out to an old dance hall called the Evergreen where we always stood right in front of the stage about two feet from the artists, and saw every R & B act touring through every Sunday night. It was the most awesome music experience I ever had.
Just to name a few: Fats Domino, Hank Ballard and The Midnighters, Ray Charles and the Raylettes, Ike and Tina Turner and the Ikettes, Jackie Wilson, Little Richard and the Upsetters, James Brown and the Famous Flames, Etta James, and many more. I got into instrumentals with songs like "Raunchy", and Duane Eddie’s "Detour." I also saw Elvis in a high school Stadium here in Tacoma, and Jean Vincent and the Blue Caps, Bill Haley and the Comets at an old dance hall called the Crescent Ballroom where the Wailers would eventually play every weekend in the early '60s to packed teen dances.
Yeh, the first time I heard rock ‘n’ roll I was hooked. I also liked Jan and Dean, the Beach Boys, and several artists of that era.
[Lance Monthly] What were the call letters of the hot rock-and-roll radio station(s) in Seattle during the early ‘60s?
Buck Ormsby KJR AM and KOL AM. Pat Oday and Dick Curtis were major DJs, respectively. There were others stations which would come and go, trying to challenge those stations, but both Ks were pretty powerful. The DJs from these stations became very popular, were active in events, and when they eventually left the stations, [they] went on to become major jocks in other markets. Larry Lujack in Chicago, Murphy in LA, Lan Roberts in Hawaii and Taiwan, and I'm sure many others. But the best about radio in those days was you had access and could get to know the DJs, bring your record in, and more than not, they would give your record a spin.
There were a lot of independent radio stations in each city and some small towns where you could get major momentum going promoting to each station. Most of the stations would also sponsor and promote dances in their towns and cities. The entire Northwest was a pretty lucrative circuit for a lot of bands, which included Idaho, Oregon, Northern California, Montana, and western Canada. You could actually make a living.
[Lance Monthly] What high school did you attend and give our readers a brief description of what was in as far as attire, verbal expressions, and automobiles?
Buck Ormsby Stadium High School in Tacoma [and] built to look like a castle with steeples and spires, including a drive-in walk-up hamburger joint across the street. Everyone would park their custom, chopped, channeled, lowered and leaded in '55 - '57 Chevys, Buicks, Fords, Plymouth Furies, all waxed and polished, in the parking lot. It was probably the most damn fun any young musician playing in a band at that time could have.
Everything seemed to fit: cool cars, radio playing our records, weekend teen dances where at the big halls a 1000 and more kids would dance their butts off, house parties, keg parties, and, of course, girls. We started off playing house parties, then small legion halls and private parties, and it exploded from there.
[Lance Monthly] You didn’t mention The Ventures as your early likes. Did this group make an impression on you?
Buck Ormsby The Ventures came along a few years after I was already performing in my own bands. They were not very well known to the teen audiences we performed for, and at the time, they were not very well known in the area. They played mostly in the local taverns and bars in the surrounding Tacoma area. To answer your question, I wasn’t aware of them until they had “Walk Don’t Run,” and that was only through the radio plays they received. They began to grow and become known when that media support came into play.
I wasn’t initially impressed by them, but respect the hell out of them. We were more into creating original music while they were into developing their cover versions of popular hit songs. Through the process of a couple gigs together and time, we met them and today are friends. Funny thing is they credit the Wailers for their inspiration. They are excellent at what they do and the tremendous amount of material they recorded and hits they created is testament to that. They should be in the Hall of Fame.
[Lance Monthly] Buck, did you listen to or have an interest in Buddy Holly’s music? In addition, what about the early rock-guitar instrumentals by George Tomsco and The Fireballs that filled the airways during the late ‘50s?
Buck Ormsby I loved Buddy Holly’s music. He was a young pioneer in capturing the spirit, energy, and emotional and lyrical angst in his music, able to keep it simple and rooted as a great writer and performer. Early on Bill Haley, Elvis, Gene Vincent, Fats Domino, and Little Richard were all capable of this emotion and energy; later, Springsteen, Petty, Mellencamp, Fogerty, and Seger [became but] just a few of the neo-traditionalists who periodically and successfully enter into that same realm.
Instrumentals could very well fit into this same class, also, and certain early groups like The Fireballs, The Champs, Bill Doggett, Duane Eddy, Booker T, Dick Dale, Junior Walker, etc., were very capable at capturing that same spirit and energy sans vocals.
[Lance Monthly] What was the name of your first band, when did it form, and at what type of venues did the group perform?
Buck Ormsby In 1955, a friend and I met in junior high school (middle school today) and discovered we were both into rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues. After school, I attended a music conservatory at the time, studying music, etc. I had an old Silvertone guitar, a three-tiered Fender steel guitar, and a Fender Bassman amp. My friend wanted to be a drummer, so we put our money together and bought him a trap set and began practicing in my bedroom. We thought we were pretty hot, learning some of the current tunes of the day. One Friday night, late ’55 or early ’56, we went to a local movie theatre to see a movie named “Blackboard Jungle.” The opening tune of the movie was “Rock around the Clock.” That, to me, was an inspiring and magical moment.
After the movie we both walked out to the lobby and there met a fellow named Bill Englehart [that] I recognized from school, and heard he was a guitar player and singer. He was also with his friend, who I learned was a tenor sax player in the school band. Through our conversation we found we were all on the same page as far as our tastes in music. I invited them over to my house to see if we might make some music together. We did, and the four of us formed the beginning of my first band we called Little Bill and the Bluenotes.
We started out playing weekends at friends’ house parties. To our surprise we were developing a following that grew so large that we began putting on our own dances that were basically dance parties, renting small fraternity halls, legion halls, and making up posters and putting them in soda shops, school bulletin boards, and music stores, etc. We also entered a talent contest at a local Tacoma dance hall that ran for about three or four weeks and won, based on audience response.
By that time we had quite a large teen following who supported the band. (An aside here: much to our surprise, the city and, I guess, the mothers and fathers of these teens thought we were corrupting their kids and calling our music the ‘devils music, causing us some unexpected dilemmas, but they eventually got over it). The owner of the hall noticed how large our following was and decided that teen dances might work on Saturday nights; we were hired to play there every week. That lasted for about a year and opened a ton of offers to perform all over the state in local dance halls and a variety of other venues. If I remember correctly, admissions were about twenty-five cents rising to seventy-five cents as teen dances grew.
We added two more saxes, a baritone and a tenor, so we could expand our repertoire to include more rhythm and blues, and began creating a revue by adding another singer named Rockin’ Robin Roberts, another high school friend. We were the only rock-and-roll rhythm-and-blues band in the area for about three years.
In 1958 we made our first record, an original song written by Bill called “I Love an Angel,” released on Seattle-based Dolton Records, distributed nationally by Liberty Records, and landing on the Billboard charts at about number twenty in 1959.
[Lance Monthly] Did you go on to college or did your desire to become a professional musician take precedence?
Buck Ormsby Leaving junior high school already playing in a band, and all through high school playing weekends with the Bluenotes, I was hooked on our music adventure. As I mentioned before, every Sunday night Bill and I would go watch and experience some of the great rhythm and blues performers touring through our state.
Looking back on that time, I realize it was part of an advanced musical education that could never had been taught or learned in a college or school environment. It was the most uplifting, exciting, unforgettable, high-learning experience that any young musician could have encountered. Without question, it was the driving force that determined my decision and destiny to involve myself in all aspects of music throughout my career and life.
To answer your question, I was encouraged to go to college, and actually did attend classes at Tacoma Community College and the College of Puget Sound, but rehearsals, touring, recording, and performing took precedence over studies. I chose music and the adventure, but not realizing at the time that it would be a profession that would last throughout my life. I feel lucky and blessed, even through all the ups and downs, the roller-coaster rides, good times and bad that, from this side of life, making music, performing, and creating something that might add some joy or positive input to the world, I couldn’t comfortably do from behind a desk or working a nine to five.
Throughout this run I’ve met some of the most interesting and talented and bizarre people, and with the life experiences that accompany the adventure you could ever imagine have made life pretty damn interesting and fulfilling in so many uncountable ways.
[Lance Monthly] Were your parents supportive of you wanting to become a professional rock-and-roll performer?
Buck Ormsby Both my mom and dad were very supportive. I think they noticed early on that I was interested in music and may have recognized some semblance of talent as I was into magic, entertaining, acting, being a comedian, making my first cigar box guitar, and banging away on our upright piano we had in our house.
Our family attended our local church where one day in about 1949 they had a talent show where one of my neighborhood friends played his Hawaiian steel guitar. He never told any of our friends that he played. I think he thought it was not cool and kept it secret. But it intrigued me, and I asked my mother if she would sign me up to take lessons. She did, and I started into the conservatory of music and continued for about seven years. After about the second year, I came home one day, and there was my mom and dad and the three-tiered steel guitar and a Fender Bassman amp.
Even though the conservatory offered standard guitar, upright bass, ukulele and a variety of other instruments, I stuck with the steel. When we formed Little Bill and the Bluenotes, that’s the instrument I was playing, but, on one of the guitars, I tuned the bottom four strings down an octave to play bass lines. When I saw the Little Richard’s band, the Upsetters, and his bass player whom they called the “professor” playing a Fender P bass with an Ampeg Portaflex amp, I immediately traded my steel guitar in and got one of the only two P basses available in the Northwest at the time. A musician friend of mine in Seattle bought the other. That was 1957, and since then that’s been my instrument.
[Lance Monthly] For “I Love an Angel” to land that high on the Billboard charts would mean that a healthy number of units were sold. Did Dolton treat the band well in reference to royalties and did you personally make any money from that release?
Buck Ormsby In the late ‘50s, labels were focused on solo vocal artists, and since Dolton Records was distributed by Liberty Records, a major independent L.A. label, band members were considered as only the back-up players on the recording. Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Bobby Vinton, Bobby Vee, etc., were examples of the single solo artists who were popular at that time, and Liberty thought Little Bill would fit into the mold, although the song “I Love an Angel” was a catchy ¾ ballad and fit more into a rhythm and blues category. So, the Bluenote band members were eventually not considered to be too important in the final outcome. BIG MISTAKE!
Bill and I drove down to L.A. to meet with Liberty Records as the song was doing well on the charts and getting a lot of radio play around the country. One thing I think that affected the song rising further up the charts was when we met the wigs at Liberty, and they discovered Bill was a polio victim. He contracted it at an early age, had leg braces, and used a walking cane/stick. Liberty wigs didn’t really comment on it, and were cordial during our visit, but I think they had some apprehension about how the label was going to support the artist and Bill’s future. Of course, we all viewed Bill as a very talented artist [and] never paid much attention to Bill’s condition, nor did his fans, or Dolton Records. But I think the wigs may have had some second thoughts and made some decisions to limit support while Bill and I returned to the Northwest.
I wasn’t privy to any comments Liberty may have made to Dolton regarding Bill after that visit. Dolton owner Bob Reisdorff was very supportive of Bill, and righteously so, as it was a damn good record. I believe Dolton backed it up by supporting him as a solo artist, and arranged for Bill to tour with a group called the Adventures who were traveling and touring at the time. It affected the Bluenotes in a big way, but we continued performing with Rockin’ Robin as our lead singer, and replaced Bill with another local guitar player/singer.
[Lance Monthly] Who came up with the name of Little Bill and the Bluenotes and was an album and tour immediately in the offering because of the success of “I Love an Angel?”
Buck Ormsby Before I met Bill he had performed with some local older black blues players who loved to have this young talented white kid come into the bar and play guitar and sing with them. It was a funky little dive and I guess everybody knew and liked Bill, and looked the other way when he came to play and sing. Bill would join the guys when they played for some private events, and when they did, they called themselves Little Bill and the Blue Notes. Later, when we formed the band with Bill, we took the name.
I remember when we worked up “I Love an Angel” we had already added two more saxes, a baritone and another tenor. The three saxes sounded sweet together, allowing us to create more diversity. We styled it after seeing Little Richard and the Upsetters, who had the same horn configuration. It sounded real ballsy, and the band had quite an advanced and tight show for a bunch of young guys. The solo on “I Love an Angel” features those horns, a classic R&B sound that worked perfectly.
But, as I mentioned in the last [response], things changed after the L.A. trip, and Bill went out on his own with another group to promote the song and himself as a solo artist. We don’t know how successful Bill’s tour was, and if there was talk of an album, we were not informed. Bill came back a few times and performed with the Bluenotes, but it was hit and miss. He recorded a couple more tunes for Dolton and then we kind of lost touch for a while. But the Bluenotes in their time were quite an amazing group, with Bill, the horn section, and Rockin’ Robin, [which] basically set the stage for other bands to start up—particularly the Wailers.
[Lance Monthly] The Blue Notes did a version of “Louie, Louie.” It seems like a lot of Pacific Northwest groups released that song: The Wailers, The Kingsmen, Paul Revere and The Raiders, et al. How did the Blue Notes’ version do and what’s your opinion on why The Kingsmen’s “Louie, Louie” came out on top? Do you believe that it had a lot to do with the way Jack Ely sang it?
Buck Ormsby Skipping ahead a bit, the phenomena of “Louie, Louie,” a song written and recorded by Richard Berry in the late ‘50s, began with a performance we heard of that song by a local artist named Ron Holden. Ron also had a hit in the late ‘50s titled “Love You So” that topped the Billboard Charts. In 1959, Bluenotes’ singer Rockin’ Robin had taken a gig with the Wailers, and in 1960 the Bluenotes’ four-year-run was basically coming to a close. The Wailers needed a bass player and I was offered the slot that I enthusiastically took.
And, back to “Louie,” Robin heard the Jamaican style version [that] Ron Holden performed, and liked the song. Robin also worked in a record store after school, and went searching for the original Berry record in their cutout bins to learn the “right” lyrics and adapted it to his style. Wailers’ guitar player Richard Dangel and Robin worked up a rock ‘n’ roll version of the song, but with a rootsy R&B feel, and we began performing it at gigs.
Robin’s ability to ad-lib and add his own take to a song was brilliant. Robin is the person who added the “yeh, yeh, yeh, yeh’s” to “Louie Louie,” including the “let’s give it to ‘em right now” lead into the guitar solo. That addition became a significant part of the song and was included in the later Kingsmen version. The song was a phenomenal hit at Wailers’ dances.
In 1960 we recorded the Wailers’ version, but because of a few Wailers’ contractual circumstances we had to deal with, which I will comment on later, and even though we had it ready to go at the pressing plant, we couldn’t release it right away. Kent Morrill, Robin and I partnered to form a record label we named Etiquette Records and were anxious to release it as our first release. I learned that Little Bill was recording his own version of the song, which hastened our decision to not hold up the release any longer.
We released it in early 1961 with Robin’s name on the label as the artist to circumvent any problems that could have arisen regarding Wailers’ contractual agreements with their former label, Golden Crest. It became an amazing hit throughout the Northwest, and was picked up for national distribution by Liberty Records. It launched our label and we followed it up with an album The Fabulous Wailers at the Castle, recorded live at a dance hall named the Spanish Castle. The album even today remains a classic.
Without getting too high and mighty, the Wailers were a powerful, precedent setting and influential group that had a major affect on several Northwest rock groups, and were emulated and honored by many other groups performing Wailers’ original songs and versions of songs performed by the Wailers. “Louie Louie” happened to be one of them.
Little Bill did release his version on a local label and later in 1963, [so did] the Kingsmen, basically in an attempt to copy the Wailer’s version for a demo to get gigs. While Kingsmen Jack Ely flubbed the lyrics, their recording was a more trashed up version of the Wailers’, and following the phenomena in all “Louie’s” compelling simplicity became what we call “the National Anthem of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
A controversial attempt to declare the Kingsmen’s version and lyrics indecent by a Boston mayor, and subsequently investigated by the FBI, catapulted the song into major national headlines and into the minds of teenagers, making it all the more compelling, which translated into sales and fame for the Kingsmen. Paul Revere and the Raiders were also followers of the Wailers, and couldn’t help but join the crowd by including “Louie Louie” in their play list and recorded their own version, later adding a spin off with “Louie Go Home.” Eventually we all became friends through performing on shows, dances and concerts together, and remain friends to this day. All true stories.
[Lance Monthly] So The Bluenotes departed after four years?
Buck Ormsby The Bluenotes formed at the end of 1955 and lasted until I joined the Wailers in 1960. With Robin leaving to join the Wailers, and the personnel changes in the Bluenotes, I was quite tired of booking the band and trying to keep it together. In ’59, when the Bluenotes weren’t gigging, or we were openers for major acts traveling through, if there was time left in the evening I would go to a Wailers gig and perform with them. I loved the Wailers music and their first instrumental recording, “Tall Cool One,” including their first Fabulous Wailers album.
All were great players, especially playing with drummer Mike Burk, who was an innovator with his kick beats and pioneering his training and knowledge into rock ‘n’ roll drums beyond what I was used to. I was amazed how he influenced my own playing.
I got a call one day from the Wailers booking agent/promoter, and was told that John Greek, second guitar (rhythm player) and trumpet player in the Wailers was either fired or was leaving the band, and if I was interested in joining the group. I was and did. After my jamming with the Wailers during the last days of the Bluenotes, I felt this would be a good move for me. In fact, I felt that Wailers’ lead guitar player, Richard Dangel, and lead singer, Kent Morrill, were phenomenal innovators.And [I] noticed that everywhere we played, large groups of musicians attending dances and performances would scramble to gather in front and around these players to learn how they played, pick up licks, etc. Still today I can feel the magic and thrill of being in this company of players, and insofar as playing and creating music with them, it was another reinforcement and force that kept my interest and dedication to music and, with the label, into the business of music.
[Lance Monthly] A Wailers’ Internet bio indicates that Rockin’ Robin Roberts lost his life in 1967 as a result of an automobile accident. Can you recall the details of this accident and was he still with the band up to his untimely death? In addition, the bio also shows a lot of members that came and went. Why was there such a big turnover in the group?
Buck Ormsby Robin left the Bluenotes in 1959 to join the Wailers as a solo singer with the band. Little Bill and I discovered him when we were attending the Western Washington Fair, compliments of free tickets given to our high school. We were walking down a fairway and noticed a crowd grouped around a guy standing on a bench waving his arms and, from a distance, looked like he was giving a wild speech. As we got closer we heard him singing and people clapping and cheering him on. This guy was amazing, in his style, his voice, and his no-fear approach to entertaining at the drop of a hat. We asked him to join the Bluenotes as a solo singer, and learned he was a student at our high school.
Robin’s appearance was what you would describe today as a geek, a bookworm type, and when meeting him you wouldn’t have a clue he was a killer singer. Bill and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Robin was a super hyper guy and added tons of energy to the band. On stage he was a dynamo, and blew everyone away with his antics and moves. Bar none, Robin was the ultimate singer/entertainer that in comparison to singers today and through the eons [that] I’ve been involved in musically, I have never met or heard anyone who could match him. He was also a best friend and always up for a party. Robin was a learned student with high grades, but performing, touring and partying took its toll on his grades, which was disturbing to his mother, who was a firebrand behind Robin keeping his grades up and preparing for college.
After graduating from high school, Robin entered into the University of Puget Sound here in Tacoma, but still performed with the Bluenotes and also when he joined the Wailers, but began missing a few nights until he graduated. Robin then entered the University in Seattle studying biology, science and chemistry. After the University of Washington, Robin put performing on hold, sold his interest in Etiquette Records to Kent and I, and left for Oregon to attend the University of Oregon for his Masters degree in biochemistry. [When Robin] graduated he moved to San Francisco to work for Dow Chemical.
When the Wailers were in L.A. recording in 1965, I called Robin in San Francisco and asked if he would come down to L.A. and record with us for a release on Etiquette. He was so excited he immediately flew down and we recorded two songs, “You Don’t Love Me,” and a Ron Gardner song, “You Weren’t Using Your Head.” Robin wanted to get back into music and I was thrilled to sign him up again as an artist for Etiquette. Ironically, Robin was the first artist on Etiquette ET 001 “Louie Louie” single 45, and the last with “You Don’t Love Me” ET 026 single.
I was home in Tacoma, 1966, sleeping on a Saturday morning when I received a phone call from a local writer for the Tacoma News Tribune asking me about some background on Robin. Curious to why someone would call this early in the morning about a friend who hadn’t been in Tacoma for quite a while, I asked why the sudden interest. I guess he thought I had already received the news that Robin was killed in a car crash along with five of his co-workers on a freeway south of San Francisco. They had been partying and left a bar late at night, and the girl driving entered the freeway the wrong way on an off ramp and hit head on with another car.
We had Robin’s funeral here in Tacoma at the University of Puget Sound Chapel, where we all gathered and offered support to his mother. Robin is buried in a local Tacoma cemetery near his mother’s grave. I think about Robin often and remember the good times, the parties, the gigging, and how much damn fun we had playing music together. I was blessed with having some of the best people involved in music in my life to learn from and work with. It was real, honest and constant high energy, and Robin was definitely one of the most memorable highlights.
The Wailers’ tenor sax player was first to leave the Wailers in 1962, caused by personal differences and culminating in an argument I got into with Mark. We all drank, partied, got into speed, girlfriends, groupies, etc., and had some crazy blowouts; but when it started affecting performances and staying focused, I guess I would get a little peeved if we veered too far off and sometimes nerves would get bruised and arguments would happen. Mark decided to leave on his own.
We replaced Mark with Ron Gardner, who was playing in another band recording for Etiquette called the Bootmen. Ron played sax and was a singer and writer who would take some of the load off Kent, so he filled a couple spots as well as being a good front man.
Rich was next to leave, about 1963, and for a brief time we tried out several guitar players, one of whom was Jerry Miller, then a local player who was and is a great guitar player (went on to become a Mobey Grape), and finally landed on Neil Andersson, who fit nicely in the band. (What was helpful is that most Northwest players already knew or were totally familiar with the Wailers’ songs.)
Mike Burk was next to leave, about 1964, and we got Dave Roland, another local player, who was an excellent dynamic rock ‘n’ roll drummer, singer, and girl magnet. We recorded our Out of Tree LP with Kent and I,[along] with Neil, Ron and Dave, who were the Wailers from about 1965 until ’68. And while in San Francisco and L.A., we recorded an LP called Outburst for United Artists Records released in ’67.
Neil left, and then guitarist Denny Weaver came on board. After United artists decided to fold their record label, we recorded our last album, Walk Thru The People, with Denny on guitar for the Bell label, but things were steadily going downhill from there. Not because of Denny, but the album was so far away from the Wailers, produced by an L.A. nitwit producer, that I and everyone else in the band felt the album was a sign of reality that the Wailers’ run was coming to a close.
The transitions eventually and gradually diluted the band’s original sound, but every change did give the band new energy and guaranteed each of the re-configurations brought excellent players and performers, doin’ the gigs, touring and recording. But, in the middle ‘60s, beyond every U.S. band’s control, things began changing with the British invasion. And then towards the end of the ‘60s, the San Francisco hippy movement, the Vietnam war, and psychedelic drugs sent music going in several different directions.
In the end, all said and done, the Wailers ran a great course for ten plus years: all the music, the transitions, the members, the creativity, recordings, the fans etc., and more importantly the experience, friendships and memories; not a bad history for a bunch of early rock ‘n’ rollers. (To be continued …)
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