Northwest Music History: Surf

Northwest Songwriters: A Straw Poll

James Marshall Hendrix, Paratrooper, 101st Airborne Division 1960-1961

Recently I took a straw poll of friends asking:

Who do you think is the most important songwriter to come out of the Northwest? This is not a quiz and there are no wrong answers.

Some of the responses were obvious, many were downright baffling and others were very close to what my personal belief of what a songwriter truly is.  I left my question open-ended as an experiment to find out what others might give their explanation of what and whom constitutes an important songwriter.  I made sure to tell those I polled  there were no wrong answers, allowing them to offer up names without spending too much time or offering up suggestions simply because they thought the person they chose was based on others’ (especially critics’) dubbing that artist as “most important”  Several people went on to ask what I defined as “important”.  My reply was that I did not want to define the term.  Everyone uses different criteria of what is “important”; besides I was more interested in others’ opinions, than my own.  I asked people to decide what was important to them because this was also an exercise was for me to understand what other people considered worthy.  I wanted to learn about how others saw things and challenge myself a bit in what I personally feel is important in a songwriting. I saw this as just as much a lesson for me.  It was by no means a popularity contest.

So here I’ll take my natural tendency to digress.

I am a fan of good songwriting.  I cannot put my finger on what it is exactly but I have certain criteria.  I think when a song’s lyric is written in a way that it may be interpreted universally by listeners is a good start. This is probably why so many songs deal in lyrics about the many states of love; from it’s stirrings, it’s longings, it’s attainment and it’s loss. I believe original, creative lyrics are important, but I know they are not always crucial to good songwriting.  They don’t need to be about love…but they usually speak to the human condition.  Beyond the universality of lyrics, the actual music is just as important.  I think sometimes people put more emphasis on lyrics rather than their combination with melody or arrangement. In my opinion all good songs are founded in the music.  I suppose most people at least subconsciously know that, despite the overemphasis of  lyrics alone.  But there’s no doubt a lyric can as easily set the mood as a melody.

Anyone who’s listened to the work of Frank Zappa might  point to “Peaches En Regalia”  (among others) as an example of brilliant songwriting  without the use of lyrics.  None of us can say what the song is actually about (except peaches dressed in the signs of their royal or noble status?) but there’s no doubt this song-among many other instrumentals-has been crafted, and composed in a way that each and every note seems to belongs exactly where it lies. It seems unlikely that anyone else would compose this particular song other than Frank Zappa. It contains a mix of elaborate musicianship, purposely-cheesy sounding orchestration and themes and a distinct left-of-center pop sensibility, although it’s highly influenced by jazz. For all it’s grandiosity of Peaches en Regalia uses an economy of tones and instrumentation.  It relies more on the unusual juxtaposition of sounds and an exceptional thematic device. More precisely; it’s fun to listen to.

On the other hand sometimes lyrics carry the day…a witty, unusual, or unexpected lyric might save an otherwise mediocre melody, but good songwriting rarely relies on the melody alone  The truth, to me, is that good songwriting is the result of craftspeople who devote their lives to songwriting, with little regard to who records their material….even  themselves.  This is what makes Leiber and Stoller, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Lennon and McCartney (together or separately) soar above the rest.  Songwriting is a craft unto itself to these writers  It goes beyond the performance of others, though there certainly are a large number of songwriters that are best suited to record their own material.  All of this congealed during the mid-19th century “Tin Pan Alley” an actual place in Manhattan on West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues,  “Tin Pan Alley” later became a collective term for the musicians, songwritersand publishers who dominated New Yorks’ popular music up until the mid-20th century.   If you ever visit New York City you will find a  comerrative plaque on the sidewalk on 28th Street between Sixth St. and Broadway.  Later, as songwriters drifted into the early days of rock and pop The Brill Building (1619 Broadway)  was considered their spiritual home.  The building had previously been a hotbed of activity for songwriting and publishing of music for the “big bands” like those of Benny Goodman or  The Dorsey brothers.  In the 1950s and the early 1960s  songwriters like Neil Diamond, Ellie Greenwich, Johnny Mercer, Billy Rose, Bobby Darin and Neil Sedaka Goffin and King, Leiber and Stoller emerged from The Brill building.  It proved to be a very successful time for songwriters pumping out well-crafted songs for teen idols, budding pop-stars and “girl groups”.  During the mid-60s “Tin Pan Alley” and The Brill Building became somewhat outdated.  By this time bands, individuals and those who would become singer/songwriters emerged, as well as the pop music charts becoming extremely influenced by “The British Invasion” The British had styled their s roots in the American blues rather than American popular music in general.  Soon the center of the music world shifted to the west coast even though many New York City-based songwriters were still able to create a hit or two.

 

In many cases the craftsmanship of songwriting is enhanced by the writers’ own renditions of their work..  This is the case with the aforementioned Elvis Costello or the collective work of a band like XTC.  Although I’d say there have been successful interpretations of Elvis Costello songs, it’s Elvis that usually supplies the definitive version.  In the case of XTC, it’s hard to imagine anyone else properly interpreting their work.

Other times we can actually hear and imagine the songwriter’s “voice” when a particular song is covered.  A case in point is The Monkee’s version of Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer”…really, who else could have written this song besides Neil?  Even though Diamond released his own version of it (about a year after The Monkee’s hit version) The song attributed to The Monkees is the one that counts and it should be!  The performance was actually recorded by guitarists Al Gorgoni and Sal Ditroia, Buddy Saltzman on drums, Carol Kaye on bass,  Artie Butler on the Vox Continental organ and the song’s producer, Jeff Barry, adding piano and tambourine.

It is Micky Dolenz’ vocals that add the typical Monkees sound, but the craftsmanship of Neil Diamond is the real star, no matter who played on the recording.  Aside from being a huge hit for The Monkees, Diamond once again shows his prowess as a songwriter because the song has also successfully interpreted by other artists-from The Four Tops to Robert Wyatt (his first recording after the June 1973 accident that left him a paraplegic).  It’s also famously been recorded by Smash Mouth for the film Shrek in 2001 but not quite as inventive or successful as other versions.

Another case may be made for the song “Theme from The Valley of The Dolls” as interpreted by Dionne Warwick.  The song itself was written by André and Dory Previn, instead of Dionne’s usual writers throughout her career, Hal David and Burt Bacharach.  Despite the mighty trio of Warwick, David and Bacharach, The Theme From The Valley of The Dolls remains as powerful an interpretation as anything else she has sung.  Of course it is Dionne’s incredible reading of the song that makes it so heart-tugging and melancholy as well as hopeful.  Another example of an interpretation of brilliant songwriting by another artist is Elvis Costello’s rendition of  “(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace Love and Understanding?”  I know I’m treading on thin ice here, but I’d say Costello’s rendition of an excellent song written by the gifted Nick Lowe is the definitive version of the song.  I believe this not only a sign of a great interpreter of another’s song, but also the sign of Lowe’s ability to write a near-perfect, unforgettable anthem.

My point (and I know I’ve been exhaustive about it) is that there is an animal called “the songwriter” whose first duty is to write solid, universal themes that combine well thought out lyrics and original, innovative  musical themes. This is a craft that takes hard work….much harder than merely performing the song, although a good song always deserves a good interpreter..  A good songwriter sculpts the song like Michelangelo, who claimed the end product was already within the stone.  It was his job to chip away enough to reveal what was already there.

Getting back to my straw poll, none of the writers’ work included writers included in the “Great American Songbook”. Although Spokane’s Al and Charles Rinker are considered among the talents of the era,  The more famous can be said to emerge out of the Northwest from that era is not someone we’d think or as a songwriter; it is the singer; Bing Crosby. In the late 1920s Bing  joined his Spokane friend Al Rinker  and pianist/singer Harry Barris to form The Rhythm Boys, who were featured as part of Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra. They had phenomenal success with both Rinker and Harris’s compositions as well as others’ writing.  The song below was written by Bing Crosby and Harry Barris. The song isn’t the most memorable of their output, but I’ve included it as an example of Bing Crosby’s early crack as a writer.

Al Rinker’s  brother Charles  wrote twenty-seven songs with Gene de Paul (who’d also written with Johnny Mercer) including “Your Name is Love”, which has been recorded by George Shearing and Nancy Wilson as well as other songs written by himself that have been recorded  by Frankie Lane, Red McKenzie, Shearing, Nancy Wilson, and Alan Dawson. Although both Al and Charles Rinker were capable songwriters who  crafted their music it’s hard to think of them as “important” since they are all but forgotten today.

I admit (once again) that I believe one of the hallmarks of an important songwriter is their ability to affect interpretations and long-term influence.  This can be somewhat confounding, because a composer’s work may be forgotten today, but at some time in the future re-discovered and influence unborn generations.  For my purposes I will only reflect on writers that we consider estimable from any time in the past up to the current era.  We cannot look into the future, nor can we anticipate a great songwriter’s work ever coming to light.

So let’s return to the original question:

Who do you think is the most important songwriter to come out of the Northwest?  

This was the question I asked in my straw poll, but I also invite YOU to ponder this messy question.  After all, the Northwest has a history of producing “important” songwriters, keeping in mind that the question in itself is based not only opinion, but personal taste and perhaps even a history of songwriting on your own part; and as I pointed out, there are no wrong answers

It shouldn’t come as a prize that the most often songwriter mentioned (according to my unscientific poll). was Kurt Cobain.  There’s absolutely no doubt he could write an excellent pop song, and partially wrap it up as something that could be defined loosely as “punk”.  I will refrain from the title “grunge” because I find it a useless and intellectually lazy…Any group of artists who’s output includes songs as diverse as Pearl Jam’s “Even Flow”, Seven Year Bitch’s M.I.A. or Nirvana’s cover of  David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” does not define a genre.  It might mark a period of successful Northwest bands, but the term itself denies the individuality of the bands who fall under this nonsensical term.  We can’t even compare it to the thread that ran through the 1960’s “San Francisco Sound” which largely relied on one similar electric guitar sound.

So, we know the place Kurt Cobain many people attribute to him. I believe most of Kurt’s talent was in listening intently to what had come before him, whether it was The Beatles or one of his particular favorites, Sonic Youth. He was able to distill everything from metal to punk to Americana and pop in crafting his songs.  The only question we can ask is, had he lived longer would his output have been as high-quality as what he left us?  We’ll never know.

The second most mentioned songwriter was Jimi Hendrix.  This seemed perplexing to me since I have always considered him an innovator and a performer rather than a songwriter; but looking a bit closer I can see brilliance in his writing, even though his output is far less than I’d have liked to see. I’d always seen his real strength as innovating the sound of the electric guitar and his incredible showmanship.   It was possible for him to “ramble” along a riff, playing guitar, with no discernable song structure, and still overwhelm and amaze his listeners.  I will admit I thought  that the core of his guitar pyrotechnics was strong, but were birthed by somewhat derivative standard blues riffs. Looking back this was a common practice among his contemporaries, especially among the British where he spent a lot of his later years.

His strong suit was exploding and expanding from his riff.  Even though I am a huge fan of his playing and performance I consider a handful of his songs contain signs of great songwriting in them.  For instance“The Wind Cries Mary”, “If Six Were Nine” and my personal favorite “Angel”. It’s fairly well-known that “Amgel” was written about a dream Jimi had of his mother coming to him after her death.  The song is considered by many (myself included) as the best song Jimi Hendrix ever wrote.  Again, I understand I may be walking on thin ice here; but the theme, it’s lyrics and it’s lovely melody is so universal that it can mean something special, for many reasons to its listeners.  It’s also telling that Hendrix spent about two years perfecting the song and how he wanted to record it. One other aspect we might consider is near the time of his death, Jimi was contemplating an entirely different approach to his music.

Some folk writers were mentioned, but to be fair I think some of the best folk writers near the Pacific Northwest happen to be Canadian. If Ian Tyson (of “Ian and Sylvia” and “The Great Speckled Bird”) had been born 20 miles south of his hometown of Victoria B.C. he’d  be one of my top candidates for important Norhtwest songwriters.  However, due to the constraints placed on my own choice of covering only the history of NW music of the U.S. I thought it unfair to include anything outside Washington, Oregon and Idaho.  Ian Tyson has written an incredible song book including “Someday Soon” and “Four Strong Winds” His songs have been covered by Neil Young,  Moe Bandy, Johnny Cash, Hank Snow, Bob Dylan,The Kingston Trio  Marianne Faithfull, John Denver, Trini Lopez, Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez, Glen Yarborough, Bobby Bare, Harry Belafonte, Tanya Tucker, Suzy Bogguss, Lynn Anderson and countless others.  Although Canadians could reasonably disagree, perhaps the most popular (and most definitive version outside of Tyson’s) is “Someday Soon”sung by the Seattle-born Judy Collins. But Tyson is a near-mythic figure in Canada, and will always be considered as one of the most important songwriters in Canadian history no matter if we include British Columbia as part of the Pacific Northwest or not.  He is identified and rightly claimed as a purely Canadian artist.

Loretta Lynn was mentioned; an excellent choice.  But Loretta will always be “A Coal Miner’s Daughter” and though she lived in Washington, and her career was kickstarted here with the help of Buck Owens, Kentucky has always been her real home in her heart, and it’s there and Nashville that she’s written the bulk of her output.

Local heroes like Scott MacCaughey, Rusty Willoughby. Alice Stewart, Gary Minkler, Pete Pendras, Jon Auer, Ken Stringfellow, Eric Apoe and Ben Gibbard were were all mentioned as “important” songwriters..  There’s no doubt these artists deserve respect for their work…I’d only add that Gary Minkler, over the past five decades,  is also one of the most dynamic performers the Northwest has ever produced.

Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart got lots of recognition.  Although Heart put out some spectacular music, not all of it was written by the Wilson sisters collectively or apart.  Very early on the two of them brought in the very talented songwriter abnd collaborator, Sue Ennis, to work with them.  Sue would eventually go on to be one of the members of the Wilson’s post-Heart projects; The Love Mongers. We can’t dismiss the Wilson sisters’ work, but Sue Ennis may be the least-known of great Northwest songwriters.  Her work  with the Wilsons helped mere rock songs and ballads become great songs and ballads.

Quincy Jones is another good example of a writer whose output will always be considered genius even though his writing seems secondary to other facets of his career. He isn’t particularly known for his songwriting simply because it is overshadowed by his career as an excellent jazz performer, and later as one of the world’s most renowned producers and arrangers.

Ray Charles was mentioned several times for his R&B contributions.  Although there’s no doubt he was a dedicated and talented performer, he’s often assumed to have written many songs he did not actually write.  The best examples of this are the songs “Georgia On My Mind”, his definitive version of a song written by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell in 1930. Another of Ray Charles’ signature tunes is “Hit The Road Jack”. The song was written by a friend of Ray Charles, Percy Mayfield. Mayfield initially recorded a demo of the song for Art Rupe, a producer and one of the most influential figures in the US music industry at the time.  Rupe was running  Specialty Records, and “Hit The Road Jack” found it’s way to Ray Charles rather than be fully recorded by Percy Mayfield.  This may be evidence that Charles himself was not as important a songwriter as others, but there’s little doubt he is one of the most influential artists in American music. No legitmate list of the most imortant American artists would be complete without him.

Mia Zapata was also mentioned by many people; a songwriter that left us too early to provide the much larger body of work she otherwise might have given us; still  she certainly inspired one of the most powerful, angry and cathartic songs of 90s Seattle music- M.I.A – a song by Seven Year Bitch that I’ve already mentioned.

It had to be pointed out more than once that there were actual women songwriters who need to be mentioned.  Perhaps it is the male domination of rock fans that prevents more talented women their due.  Aside from the aforementioned Wilson sisters, Mia Zapata and Alice Stewart there is a plethora of women writers that deserve to be mentioned: Carrie Acre, Amy Denio Kathleen Hanna, Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, Jean Grey, Kimya Dawson, Neko Case all deserve recognition, and I’m certain there are far more that I’m failing to mention.  What’s more, these women should not be consigned to a ghetto of being “women” or “girls”  Their output is just as important-sometimes more important-than their male counterparts and a good songwriter does not rely on sex

Surprisingly it also had to be pointed out that Portland and the rest of Oregon are part of the Northwest too.  The prolific Chris Newman, Fred Cole, Greg Sage among others got mention.  Eastern Washington seemed to be under-represented too.  Folk singer and songwriter Danny O’Keefe (Wenatchee) got a single mention.  The late jazz great Larry Coryell, who learned his guitar chops in Richland, Washington before moving to Seattle and then on to jazz fusion history around the world only got a single mention.  Jazz players and writers did not make much impact on the list…surprisingly Chehalis, Washington born Ralph Towner (of both the bands Oregon and The Paul Winter Consort) wasn’t  mentioned at all.  Nor was

I had promised not to mention names but I’m going to make an exception.  Penelope Houston (who is a Northwesterner despite being mostly associated with San Francisco). Replied to my question with  a simple “phew”; I assume because it’s so hard to begin listing the “important” songwriters that have come out of the Northwest.  Of course she was too modest to name herself among those important songwriters. Houston’s writing in general deserves mention since her importance can never be overestimated.  But it would be important based simply as a co-author of what may be the single greatest American punk anthem of all time: “The American In Me”  The rest of her output stands above most others during the first wave of west coast punk as well.

As I’ve said there were a few artists named that baffled me. Perhaps it’s because I’m not familiar with their work or that they are in fact not from the Northwest.  One of the artists named in this category was Bruce Hornsby.  I agree that Hornsby is a terriffic songwriter but his bio states he was born in Williamsburg Virginia, and I could find no Northwest ties.  If he does have ties in the Northwest, please contact me with the information.  Another mention was of the Canadian musician and social justice activist Bill Bourne. Bill was closely associated with Scottish traditionalists The Tannahill Weavers during the 1980s.  They were originally based in Paisley Scotland, but considered a world-renowned ensemble. Bill has also worked with various other world-roots and traditionalist artists including ex-Tannahill Weaver Alan MacLeodm, Shannon Johnson, Lester Quitzau,, Aysha Wills, Eivør Pálsdóttir, Wyckham Porteous, Madagascar Slim and Jasmine Ohlhauser. Bill was born in Red Deer Alberta, and grew up in   Besides Alberta, Bill also spent time on the road worldwide, and for a short time in TorontoBill Bourne is certainly worthy of mention, as he’s won the Canadian Juno award several times.  But I know of no Northwest connection outside of  recording with vocalist Hans Stamer and Vancouver, B.C. guitarist Andreas Schuld on the album No Special Rider, released in 1997.  Once again, if you know of ties to the Northwest, please leave them in the comments section.

A less baffling recommendation was  saxophone great Skerik.  I personally am not familiar with Skerik’s output as a songwriter, but definitely familiar with his (often improvised) brilliant performances. Perhaps I am underestimating his output, but I am certainly not underestimating his importance as a player or as an innovator.  Please set the record straight as far as Skerik as a songwriter.  He’s consistently been one of my favorite Northwest artists.

I suspect others were mentioned because they are important figures that deserves all of our respect.  The most notable of these songwriters is Richard Peterson, who is practically a living treasure of Seattle. I was happy to see Anthony Ray (Sir-Mix-a-Lot) mentioned.  The submitter rightly pointed out that Mix-a-Lot has undoubtedly influenced and outsold many of the indie and/or famous Seattle bands of the 1990s.  So often people of color are left out of anything to do with “rock” no matter how much pull they have. Besides Mix-a-Lot, Ishmael Butler and Thee Satisfaction were mentioned because they are probably better known nationally and world-wide than many of the others on this list.

Finally we reach what I consider the pinnacle of “songwriters’ songwriters”  These are the best of the best in my opinion.  I know I have overlooked many great NW songwriters; but I consider these craftsmen to represent the high-water mark (so far) of not only Northwest writers, but among the entirety of ALL American songwriters.  This  list includes Ellensburg, Washington-born Mark Lanegan, Ellliott Smith (who was born in Texas but grew up and first found fame in Portland Oregon), Eugene Oregon native Tim Hardin, and a guy from Shreveport Louisiana who moved to Bremerton, Washington at an early age, the late Ron Davies.  It was satisfying to see each ot these get multiple mentions.

I recognize that everyone has their favorite songwriter, and usually that person writes within at least one of the individual’s musical tastes.  Keep in mind  I said there are no wrong answers in this unscientific quiz or its overview. In fact I hate the Rolling Stone type lists of “bests”.  Many of us know they are B.S. and some publications concoct these kinds of lists to drive circulation and advertising sales.  If that’s not the case they’re often put together by elitist critics and celebrities.  I believe everyone has a right to their personal favorites.  I admit at one time I too was a snotty elitist who looked down on other people’s choices…but for many years now I have looked at music in a far more ecumenical way, and my musical horizons have expanded because of it.

If you have a favorite Northwest artist that you believe deserves recognition as an important songwriter post it in the comments section below. Your opinion is always valid no matter what others think and any additions to this list may well open whole new musical worlds to other people.  I’ve also made a list of every songwriter submitted, since I have left so many talented people out of this story..  You may or may not agree if they’re worthy-but someone else does.

In the sidebar is a list of everyone voted for that I left out in the above article. It’s in no particular order of importance:  Feel free to add your choice in the comments section below.

 

-Dennis R. White

The Ventures

Tacoma’s Ventures. They’ve lasted almost 60 years in one form or another. They’ve released over 250 albums.  They’ve sold over 120 million records….more than any other instrumental band in history.  Those records are unlikely to ever be topped by an instrumental band of any genre.  During their career they’ve covered just about every kind of music there is.  Most of their albums are largely covers of popular songs, but surprisingly they write about one third of their music. They helped develop the “surf sound” although they point out they didn’t invent it, and don’t consider themselves a “surf band” at all. In a 2015 interview with Forbes magazine co-founder Don Wilson told interviewer Jim Clash;

“One of our biggest sellers was a surfing album. I guess we got tagged with that – Pipeline and Wipe Out we are associated with – so suddenly we are a surf rock band! I see that written a lot. But I don’t care. I’m used to it. We’re not just surf”.

Band members have always denied their music being founded in the surf sound, but it’s certain The Ventures had a profound affect on it.  It could be they’ve always refused to be labeled surf just as much out of deference to the artists who truly are surf bands as much as the facts.  It’s also true that The Ventures went far beyond any one genre-expect being instrumental.  They’ve also maintained keeping current with putting their sound to current music.  Aside from their top-knotch playing it is these two other factors that have kept them in the world’ public eye for decades.

The story of The Ventures goes back to the day that Bob Bogle first met Don Wilson in 1958. Bogle was looking to buy a used car from a dealership in Seattle.  The car lot was owned by Wilson’s father. Don was the salesman. During their conversation, they found out they both had an interest in music.  They became fast friends, and soon Wilson began working with Bogle in the masonry field.  Obviously carrying mortar and bricks was more lucrative than hawking used cars for small commissions. In 2009 Bob Bogle told The Seattle Times:

“And then we found out that we each knew a few chords on the guitar, you know, and we had a lot of free time on our hands. But neither of us owned a guitar.”  

So off they went to a Tacoma pawnshop where both of them bought very cheap guitars. They say the guitars were less than $10 each.  Over the next few months the two practiced every moment they had between jobs…and they were frequently out of work.  Soon the two were making the rounds of local bars, house parties and any other gig they could find.

Meanwhile bassist Nokie Edwards had begun playing around Tacoma with Buck Owens’s band The Bar-K Gang.   Owens also hosted the KTNT “Bar-K Ranch” TV show that gave Owens (and Nokie) even more local exposure. Sometime in 1960 Wilson and Bogle saw Edwards playing in a Tacoma club (possibly Steve’s Gay 90s where Owens’s band had a residency).  After about a year Nokie left Buck’s band behind to join Wilson and Bogle This move had unknowingly helped spawn two superstar bands.  Owens soon switched fiddler Don Rich to guitar in his newly formed band, The Buckaroos, while Nokie helped fill out The Ventures– a band that would later be dubbed as “The Band That Launched A Thousand Bands”, The Ventures.”

By the time Nokie had joined Owens band he was already a known as a regional virtuoso guitar player.  He’d played professionally since he was 17 and managed to make a very good living with many gigs paying up the $350 a week.  By the time Bob Bogle and Don Wilson lured him into with them he was certainly taking a big financial hit.

Originally Bogle and Wilson had chosen the name The Versatones, but as Don Wilson put it;

“We started out calling ourselves ‘The Versatones’. When we went to register the name, we found out that it was already taken. We were disappointed then, and my mom said, ‘You are venturing into something new, so why don’t you call yourselves The Ventures’?”  I thought it sounded pretty corny, but anyway it stuck!’

This wouldn’t be Wilson’s mothers’ only contribution to the band.  After The Ventures had shopped around for a recording contract (and failed) Josie Williams founded Blue Horizon Records, and arranged studio time at Joe Boles legendary West Seattle studio Custom Recorders.  The Ventures recorded their first single “The Real McCoy b/w Cookies and Coke” with Boles.  Josie wrote the lyrics to Cookies and Coke and produced both sides.  The single was a flop,  but it wasn’t long before Josie booked more time at Custom Recorders and Walk-Don’t Run” was recorded. Bogle played lead guitar with Wilson on rhythm, Edwards on bass, and Skip Moore on drums .  The tiny label pressed up only 300 copies, and distributed them locally.  Unfortunately for Moore, he had decided to leave the band and work for his father’s gas station.  He agreed to be paid $25 for his work on the recording instead of a royalty sharing deal…a mistake that would deprive him of royalties even after a lawsuit a few years later.  Moore was replaced by drummer George T. Babbitt, Jr., but at 16  he was too young to play bars and taverns The Ventures were often hired to perform in.  Finally the band hired Howie Johnson in order to go out on tour in support of their major hit and new-found popularity.  In the fall of 1961 he was involved in a car crash, causing him irreversible spinal damage. Johnson managed to play drums while wearing a neck brace. Beside touring he drummed on the first four Ventures albums and  half of the tracks on the fifth LP.  He ended up quitting in order to spend more time with his family and occasionally played locally throughout the rest of his life.

Josie Wilson pushed Walk-Don’t Run day and night to anyone who would listen. Out of the blue local entrepreneur, DJ and radio station owner Pat O’Day started using a portion of Walk-Don’t Run as a “kicker” (intro) to his newscasts  on his wildly popular radio station KJR.  Listeners wanted to hear more, so KJR put the entire song into rotation.  Soon legendary Seattle label Dolton Records were beating a path to Josie’s door to pick up The Ventures’ contract.  The irony was not lost on Josie and the band that they had previously auditioned for Dolton, but had been turned down.  Though Dolton heads being a bit embarrased theywent on to re-release Walk-Don’t Run on their label.  At the time Liberty Records was their distributor so Dolton licensed the rights to the much bigger and more powerful national label.  

It’s well known that the band had been introduced to Walk-Don’t Run through Chet Atkin’s 1956 version of the song included on one of Bob’s favorite albums; “Hi-Fi In Focus”.  Yet the song had originally been written and recorded by jazz-great Johnny Smith in 1954.  The Atkins version is more syncopated than the very jazzy Smith version.  Both are fine renditions, but The Ventures would put their own Imprint on it- as they did on other recordings-creating yet a third dynamic version of the song. Both Chet’s and Johnny Smiths are worth a listen.  Both are as individual and inspiring as The Ventures’ forward-looking interpretation.  In 2011 Don admitted

“He (Chet Atkins) played it in a classical jazzy style and we couldn’t play it like that. We weren’t good enough. So we decided to make our own arrangement of it and simplify it and that’s how that happened.

Having found a local label with national distribution propelled “Walk, Don’t Run” to number two on the Billboard pop chart and sold over a million copies.  When the Ventures relocated from Seattle to Los Angeles in 1963, Josie Wilson remained the band’s co-producer in tandem with Dolton owner Bob Reisdorf.  Years later she was also instrumental in getting fans to demand The Ventures be inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. During her life she became a savvy business person, a respected producer and one of the first to kick down the doors of the music industry to women. Surprisingly it was another woman-Bonnie Guitar-who grew up just a few miles north of Tacoma-who would also be instrumental in gaining respect for women in music circles.  Josie Wilson remained a trusted insider of The Ventures until her death at the age of 91 in 2007.

Their second release was a re-working for a 1940 Xavier Cugat hit called Perfidia. It only reached number 15 in the charts, and was followed by a steady flow of singles that stalled in the nether end of the charts; but album sales were always a more important money-maker than singles. The band would never see such spectacular single’s success aside from their 1964 re-make of Walk-Don’t Run (it reached number 15 in the US charts) and 1969’s “Theme From Hawaii 5-0” which reached number 8 in the charts.  Oddly enough the theme for “Hawaii 5-0” had been written by director Morton Stevens as a short opener for the show.  It wasn’t until The Ventures full recording of the song that it became a fully-formed song.  The addition of horns to the song may have seemed an odd move for the band, but they utilized brass sections on and off during their career…and fans love “Hawaii 5-0″.  It also didn’t hurt that they’d get a short listen to it once a week on television.

Although The Ventures would have few hit singles, they made up that by releasing hit after hit albums.  They may be the world’s first band that relied on album sales rather than singles.  This was unusual for the 1960s and would only become more common in the 1970s with the advent of FM radio.  When Dolton Records re-located their main offices to Los Angeles in 1963 it was to the detriment of Northwest artists, but an incredibly valuable move for The Ventures. It meant better studio facilities and closer contact with Liberty Records and their distribution executives.

The Ventures set the stage for a guitar line-up that has now become the typical formula; Lead, rhythm and bass guitars backed by a great drummerThe formula was not unheard of before but the band did a lot to popularize it.  They’d also created “the big guitar sound” and although instrumentals were at the core of the late-50s/early 60s Northwest Sound, The Ventures were introducing a new approach that did not heavily rely on  R&B and the ever-present organ.  They were interested in technical advancements as well as new sounds. Over the years they would be pioneers in distortion, reversing tapes, bringing the Theramin to rock and heavy use of vibrato as well as a myriad of other  effects.

Soon after Bob Bogle’s death in 2009, fellow guitarist Don Wilson told The Los Angeles Times;

“Any guitar player would tell you, Bob is the most unique-sounding guitar player ever. The way he used to do the whammy bar — that vibrato bar. He kept his little finger on it while he played it all the time. He’d make it sound, like at the end of a chord, Wow-wow.

Soon after the success of Walk-Don’t Run drummer Howie Johnson (a guitarist in his own right) suggested that Bob Bogle and Nokie Edwards trade places resulting in Bogle as bassist Edwards as lead guitarist.  The formula worked, and the transition was amicable.  It made the band more of an overall talented unit.

Howie Johnson left the band in 1962 he was replaced by Mel Taylor who had been a house drummer at the well-known Los Angeles club The Palamino.  Taylor had already made his mark as a drummer for Herb Alpert and as a member of Bobby (Boris) Pickett’s band who had recorded the seasonally perennial hit  “The Monster Mash”.  On a side note, Mel’s younger brother, Larry, became the bassist for Canned Heat and before that had been a session bass player for Jerry Lee Lewis and The Monkees among others.

One of the reasons The Ventures deserve the moniker “The Band That Launched a Thousand Bands” was their release of several volumes of the “Learn To Play The Ventures” series.  The learning process came to be known as “guitar phonics“. This was a completely new approach to learning guitar and bass.  There had been written “how to…” books  before The Ventures.  There were also a few recorded tutorials.  But there had never been a series of lessons by the bands players themselves to teach kids (and adults) to play specific parts of their own songs.  There’s many a modern artist that proudly admit to having learned to play with The Ventures’ series.  The first volume of the “Learn to Play….even showed up on the popular music charts.

The Ventures were also one of the first bands to take advantage of  fuzztone.  Ventures afficianado’s can’t seem to agree how the fuzz was first created.  Some claim it was the Mosrite guitars’ pickups they were using at the time, the Mosrite Fuzz-Rite or The Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone.  No matter the source, it would become one of The Ventures signature sounds.  Musicians and fans have cited their 1962 single “2,000 Pound Bee” as the first use of the fuzz guitar, but it’s clear it had been used by Ike Truner as early as 1951, on the Memphis recordings of Howlin’ Wolf (1951-52), Johnny Burnette’s “Train Kept a-Rollin” (1956) and Link Wray’s “Rumble” (1958).

In  1963 the band had entered into a deal Mosrite to play live with a series of Mosrite guitars that were specially designed for The Ventures. Before the Mosrite period all three guitarists had  played production models of the  Jazzmaster, the Stratocaster and a Precision Bass.  Mosrite  founder, Semie Moseley had built a guitar that he lent to Nokie Edwards for some recording sessions.  Soon Edwards had bought his own Mosrite and within a year The Ventures had an endorsement and co-distribution deal that made Mosrite a common name among guitarists.  The deal lasted until 1968, and aside from the use of Mosrite guitars, there are some archival photos of the band using the Mosrite Award solid-state amps from the Ventures’ Mosrite Distributing Company.  Despite their popularity with musicians this particular model would never go into mass production.

It was probably Nokie Edwards who had been the most instrumental in popularizing the well-crafted series.   Along with the endorsement and use of the Mosrites the guitar manufacturer sold the series to consumers with a label “The Ventures” on the headstock.  It began a mini-craze for the model that remains to this day.  Guitarists from Jimi Hendrix to Arthur Lee to Kurt Cobain have all played Mosrite’s.  Bands like the MC5 and The Ramones have used them. According to Mosrite’s  promotional material,  the company claims“Jimi Hendrix had two Mosrites. Jimi would commonly smash and burn his easily replaceable Fenders but the Mosrite’s were treasured and well taken care of.  The doubleneck used on Spanish Castle Magic is today on display at the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame”  They go on to say ” Virtually everyone who is anyone has owned a Mosrite at some time in their life”.  This is probably closer to truth than hyperbole.  Despite the quality of the instruments once the endorsement deal ended all three guitarists returned to the use of Fenders  Years later, n 1996 Fender released a limited edition Ventures Signature Series of guitars consisting of their original  Jazzmaster,  Stratocaster, and a Fender Jazz Bass.  This time the band had a hand in their design and specifications.  When Nokie Edwards left the band in 1968  he reverted to his Mosrite  During this hiatus Edwards was replaced by Gerry McGee and Edwards reverted to his Mosrite guitar for solo projects during this period.  When he returned to The Ventures in 1973 he again played a Fender, though occasionally pulled out his Mosrite.

The Ventures had also made a very savvy move in licensing their music to Japanese labels that would include Toshiba/EMI. Japan is the world’s second largest market for recorded music-The Ventures popular appeal in Japan came just as electric guitars were first being marketed in Japan-  Soon The Ventures and their use of the electric guitar were in such popular demand that they began to tour extensively in Japan.  Throughout their career they have been a huge draw in Japan.  The move to satisfy the Japanese market would provide a boon when The Ventures became less popular in the US during the 1970s.  They also recorded and released about 50 albums specifically for the Japanese market, while continuing to tour Japan on a regular basis.  After the 60’s their US output did modest sales and a dedicated fan base did not diminish in Japan.  The very fact that the band had never been dropped by a major label until late in their career allowed them to record and release the vast number of albums they’re known for. .  They also licensed their recording to labels all around the world. The Ventures were consistent sellers no matter what label was issuing or distributing.  Even poor promotion would not detract from their strong fan base.  But great deals with the Japanese and European markets brought in good royalties and a savvy approach to contracts and their huge audience outside the US (even to this day) was a large part of The Ventures success even as music fans at home were turning their backs on what was becoming considered dated artists.

At the advent of the 80s the Surf Sound, along with Rockabilly began to pique the interest of musicians and fans on the outer fringes of popular music.  At first the interest was largely a novelty (who can forget the silly “poodle skirt” era of the 80s?)  The Ventures  became associated with post-modernism-a slightly jaded form of kitsch that was meant to be shared by folks supposedly “in-the-know”  But as the popularity of bands like The Cramps and The Stray Cats became more serious, musicians and fans followed suit.   An entire genre of “surf punk” music arose with bands like Agent Orange, The Forgotten Rebels, and of course The Surf Punks at the forefront.  Many other bands would pepper their output with a surf or rockabilly song or two.  Later film directors used surf music in their film soundtracks.  Quentin Tarantino was instrumental in this by including classic surf tracks in his movie 1994 film Pulp Fiction.  Although their profile had been rising during the 80’s The Ventures were once again on top.

A new generation had found The Ventures…and took them seriously as masters of American pop culture. Sales of their old (and new) albums picked up.  More and more live dates in the US and in Europe were being booked…at first in smaller clubs, but they were finding the venues were getting bigger.  By the time the huge corporate-sponsored era of festivals  became fashionable the band was playing in front of crowds in the tens of thousands…or even hundreds of thousands.

Finally in 2008  one of the band’s dreams would come true.  It was also the dream of Josie Wilson, who had died a year earlier. The Ventures finally were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Artists become eligible only after the first 25 years of their careers.  The Ventures had passed that mark by 22 more yearsThe night of their induction by John Fogarty (Creedence Clearwater Revival) two of the “classic era” members of The Ventures were on hand; Nokie Edwards and Don Wilson.  Bob Bogle and Gerry McGee were unable to attend.  Being ignored by the Hall of Fame so long had been a bitter pill for Don Wilson, but when asked  “Why so long?” Wilson simply said “All we did was quietly sell millions of records.”  In 2010 The members of The Ventures were also awarded  The Order of the Rising Sun by the Emperor of Japan. The medal originated in 1875 and symbolizes “energy as powerful as the rising sun.” The ceremony took place at the Queen Anne  consulate.  During the ceremony Japan Consul General Kiyokazu Ota said”

The Ventures’ unique ‘teke-teke sound’ … grabbed the heart of many Japanese young men and women. These young fans in turn formed groups of their own, thus creating a huge boom of electric-guitar sales in Japan.”

So what of the players that have been part of The Ventures?

In 1972 drummer Mel Taylor left the band to pursue a career because he felt The Ventures had become a “nostalgia act“in and was replaced by drummer Joe Barile.  Taylor returned in 1979 and remained with The Ventures until his death in 1996 of cancer and heart failure.  After his death his son, Leon Taylor took over his duties as drummer.

Gerry McGee also left the band only to return.  He walked away in 1978 to work as a solo artist as well as recording and touring with Dwight Yoakum, John Mayall, Kris Kristofferson and others.  He returned to The Ventures in 1985 and is the only active remaining member left from any of the 1960’s line-ups.  During a subsequent tour of Japan McGee suffered a heart attack, but recovered and continues to play with the band.

Bob Bogle had belonged to the recording and touring outfit until his health began to deteriorate.  He retired from touring in December 2004 and was replaced by Bob Spalding.  He had lived in Vancouver, Washington, for years and died there on June 14, 2009, at 75 of non-Hodgkin lymphoma;

Howie Johnson, the neck-braced drummer that stayed with The Ventures for their first few tours and albums passed away in January of 1988.

Skip Moore who had been the actual drummer that had played on Walk Don’t Run had died in 1988.  Some musicologists have argued that it was Johnson who played on Walk-Don’t Run using the pseudonym “Skip Moore”, but the evidence points a different direction.

Nokie Edwards left the band a second time in 1984 to work in Nashville with Country and Western artists including lead guitar on Lefty Frizell’s final album.  Edwards re-upped with The Ventures for a short time in the late 80’s but soon returned to Nashville and began a very successful career with producer and fellow musician Art Greenshaw.  The critically acclaimed collaboration of Edwards and artist-producer Greenhaw has resulted in Edwards being nominated for “Grammy Award for Best Southern, Country or Bluegrass Gospel Album of the Year” with 2005’s  “20th Century Gospel”  andSouthern Meets Soul”in 2006.

Bob Spalding has remained part of The Ventures while pursuing his own solo projects.  In 2016 Bob’s son, Ian Spalding’  became The Venture’s bass guitarist. Bob now lives in San Bernardino CA.

In 2015 Don Wilson retired from touring and recording with The Ventures.  Since then he continues to keep the memory of the original outfit in  public view.  He now lives in Sammamish WA.

And what of the young George T. Babbit Jr., who, at 16, was too young to play with The Ventures?  Soon after his departure from the band he went to college and joined the ROTC.  He then enlisted in the US Air Force and rose to the commission of 4-Star General. Between 1997 to 2000 he served as Commander of the Air Force Materiel Command (COMAFMC).  On March 1, 1998, (while on active duty as 4-star general), he joined The Ventures onstage in uniform on drums.  He is now living in retirement in Bremerton WA.

 

The current touring line-up of the Ventures is:
Gerry McGee – Lead Guitar (joined in 1968)
Bob Spalding – Lead & Rhythm Guitar (joined in 1981)
Leon Taylor – Drums (joined in 1996)
Ian Spalding – Bass (joined in 2016)

 

-Dennis R. White.  Sources: Del Hartleman”Walk Don’t Run-The History of The Ventures ( Del Hartlman, 2011); Jame Bush. “Encyclopedia of Northwest Music” (Sasquatch Books, 1999); Jim Clash “The Ventures’ Don Wilson On His Big Hit Single Hawaii Five-O, More” (Forbes Magazine,