Gail Harris was a seasoned pro when she first appeared with Tacoma’s Fabulous Wailers in 1959 at the age of 13. By then, The Wailers had become a regional powerhouse and were creating a national reputation.
In 1958 the Wailers had made a demo of an instrumental called “Tall Cool One”. The demo came to the attention of Clark Galeshouse, head of NYC’s Golden Crest Records. Clark signed a record deal and had the Wailers re-record the song in a Lakewood studio, just outside Tacoma in February of 1959.
The instrumental “Tall Cool One” b/w “Roadrunner” was released in June of 1959 and peaked on the Billboard charts at number 36. Shortly after “Long Cool One” fell off the charts, their second single “Mau-Mau” b/w “Dirty Robber” was released in August of 1959. It only made it to number 68 on the Billboard charts, and their third single, but the band was making enough of an impression that it landed them an East Coast tour and appearances on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and The Allen Freed Show.
In December of 1959, the Wailers label, Golden Crest Records recorded and released an album to capitalize on the band’s success. The album was titled The Fabulous Wailers, a name they would later use to distinguish themselves from Bob Marley’s band, also known as The Wailers. Golden Crest was eager to have the band relocate to New York City, but the group declined (probably under orders of their parents) and returned to the Northwest. Golden Crest soon lost interest in promoting the band even though they were still under contract with the label. Golden Crest Records would eventually drop them, but their contract would create some problems in the immediate future of The Wailers.
Shortly after returning to the Northwest, the band took on a new singer and frontman, “Rockin’ Robin” Roberts, whose birth name was Lawrence Fewell Roberts II, not a name that conjures up the image of a rock and roll idol with greased back hair and skin-tight pants. Roberts had previously worked with another popular Tacoma band, Little Bill and The Bluenotes.
Along with “Rockin’ Robin” Roberts came dissent. Roberts was pushing to record a souped-up version of a song written in 1956 by Richard Berry. The song was “Louie Louie”, created by Berry, who was inspired by the song “El Loco Cha Cha” written by Cuban-American René Touzet. It had been a popular song performed live by Ricky Rillera and the Rhythm Rockers in Southern California during the 1950s. Roberts had heard Berry’s performance of the song and may have been the single most responsible person for it becoming a beloved Northwest standard.
Richard Berry had spent time sitting in with The Rhythm Rockers before creating “Louie Louie” based on the lead riff of “El Loco’ Cha Cha”. Berry said, “I took some Latin, some calypso, some pop, threw it all in, and came up with ‘Louie Louie”. Berry later added that he was partly inspired by Chuck Berry’s “Havana Moon” as well as Johnny Mercer’s lyrics to “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)” that was first popularized by Fred Astaire in 1943 and later in 1949 by Frank Sinatra.
Berry’s label, Flip Records, released Berry and his band, The Pharaoh’s version of “Louie Louie” twice. First, in 1957 as the B-side to Berry’s cover of “You Are My Sunshine” and again in 1961, this time as an A-side backed by the song “Rock, Rock, Rock”.
‘Louie Louie” had become a favorite of R & B fans during Berry’s forays into the Northwest, and as we know, the song was destined to become a massive success for The Wailers, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and it’s the most well-known version by The Kingsmen. Thousands of other versions have followed. According to some accounts, the song is claimed to be the “most covered” song in music history, but it’s clear this is not true. Both the Beatles’
“Yesterday” and the hymn “Amazing Grace” with words written by English cleric John Newton have been recorded more times than “Louie Louie”. The all-time award belongs to the song “Summertime”, written by George Gershwin with lyrics by DuBose Heyward. The Guinness Book of World Records states that, as of June 1st, 2017, the song had been recorded 67,591 times. Still, “Louie Louie” may have the most out-sized influence of any other song of the 20th and 21st centuries.
To get around The Wailers contract with the now disinterested Golden Crest Records, it was decided that “Louie Louie” would be released under the artist name “Rockin’ Robin” Roberts even though it was The Wailers who would record the song with Roberts as vocalist.
The band rightly assumed that listeners and DJ’s would know The Wailers actually performed the song despite whoever the label said the artist was. This plan didn’t sit well with guitarist John Greek. He was promptly dismissed and replaced by John “Buck” Ormsby, another recent member of Little Bill and The Bluenotes. Ormsby later claimed that Gail Harris had helped in arranging “Louie Louie” even though she remains uncredited.
The Wailers had a plan for moving forward, but without a record label, no one within the music industry believed they could succeed, and The Wailers would probably fall into oblivion. During a meeting in the late summer of 1960, the band came up with a solution. The Wailers would form their own label and self-release their records. Although thousands of small labels were thriving throughout the US, not many belonged to the bands themselves. Labels selling, distributing, and promoting records is quite different than writing, recording, and performing them.
Not every one of The Wailers could afford to participate in the scheme, so Ormsby, Roberts, and Kent Morrill, the lead singer and keyboard player for the band, financed this very risky project as equal partners. They chose the name Etiquette for the name of their label. It’s often been pointed out the label’s name is not “Etiquette Records”. It is simply “Etiquette”. With no remaining members living, this finer point is not as important as it once was to the partners in the venture.
The Wailers had begun as an instrumental band like many of the original NW Sound artists. With the addition of “Rockin’ Robin” Roberts, they set out to imitate the R&B revues that were popular at the time…one band backing several featured singers. Obviously, the main attraction was “Rockin’ Robin,” but soon, the group added a “girl singer” from Puyallup named Gail Harris.
Harris had appeared in several talent contests and on The Bar-K Jamboree, a weekly show hosted by Buck Owens, who was then pursuing a radio and television career in the Northwest. The Bar-K Jamboree aired simultaneously on radio station KAYE and KTNT TV. Buck’s regular band (The Bar-K Gang) included Don Rich, then a fiddler who would become Owen’s best friend and one of the architects of the Bakersfield Sound, Steel guitarist Dusty Rhodes, guitarist,and songwriter Rollie Weber, Shot Gun”Red Hildreth playing double bass, drummer Howie Johnson, and pianist/horn player Don Markam. Filling out the group during the first year was a local kind named Nokie Edwards, Gail Harris and Barbara Vogel made occasional appearances.
Guests of the Bar-K Jamboree’s included Don Wilson and Bob Bogle (then known as The Versatones, Nancy Claire, who along with Gail and a young woman then known as Merilee Gunst would be the three most sought-after lead female vocalists in the Northwest. Gail Harris, as we know began singing with The Wailers and later had couple modest hits of her own. Nancy Davis continued singing with various local groups and also had modest success with a few singles.
Merilee Gunst went on to be a member of the group The Amazing Aztecs, and later co-founded her own band, Merilee and Her Men that was largely a cover band. She later ended up working with the R&B group Tiny Tony and the Statics. Eventually, she married her long-time collaborator, saxophonist Neil Rush and the two founded one more group, Merilee and The Turnabouts. The group garnered regional success and eventually toured with Paul Revere and the Raiders. Merilee met record producer Chip Moman through Raiders singer Mark Lindsay. It wasn’t long before Merilee Rush found herself in Moman’s Memphis studio recording “Angel of the Morning”, a song written by Chip Taylor, who I’m obligated (like all other music writers) to point out is the brother of John Voight and uncle of Angelina Jolie. Extra points are added for including Chip and John’s brother Barry Voight, a geologist/engineer/vulcanologist and former professor at Pennsylvania State University where he still holds the title of Professor Emeritus and still conducts research. It was Barry Voight who first correctly foresaw the devastating eruption of Mt. St. Helens and causing it’s north flank to collapse. It was his study and work surrounding the eruption of Mt. St. Helens that brought him worldwide recognition.
Merilee Rush had a top ten single and worldwide success on her hands. Her rendition of “Angel of the Morning” earned Merilee a 1968 Grammy nomination for”Best Contemporary-Pop Vocal Performance, Female”. The Grammy that year went to Dionne Warwick for “Do You Know The Way to Santa Fe?” which, ironically Warwick didn’t like and had to be coerced into singing.
Rush’s version has become a timeless staple of 1960’s music and created so many fans of the song that Chip Taylor had written that it’s been recorded by dozens of artists. Among those artists are P.P. Arnold, Connie Eaton, Melba Montgomery, Juice Newton, and Chrisse Hynde.
The Bar-K Jamboree launched even more careers. That kid Nokie Edwards? He was recruited by Don Wilson and Bob Bogle of The Versatones, to play bass, along with Skip Moore on drums to form The Ventures. Soon the band was in the studio working on “Walk, Don’t Run”. Moore opted out of the band and agreed to $25 for his work as a session man and future royalties for the song. He was replaced by an underage George T. Babbit, who left the band and eventually became a four-star General in the U.S. Airforce. After a couple of other drummers,it was Mel Taylor who became the permanent stick man for the band.
The Venture’s first single “Walk Don’t Run” sold over one million copies and launched a decades-long career as one of the innovative guitar groups of all time.
Things really coalesced for the Ventures in 1961 when Nokie Edwards turned in his bass to play lead guitar and Bob Bogle who had formerly played lead guitar became the bass player. This resulted in Nokie’s career and his influence to rise to the stratosphere. Even though Edwards led the Ventures in 1968 he’s still considered one of the major gods in the history of the electric guitar.
There were other stars that would be birthed from Buck Owen’s little show. Loretta Lynn (then a housewife living in Custer Washington) made her first television appearance on the Bar-K Jamboree.
Loretta, born Loretta Webb, had grown up in poverty in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky. She married Oliver “Doolittle Lynn at age 15 and moved from Kentucky to Washington state when she was seven months pregnant. Beginning in 1953, Loretta taught herself how to play guitar over three years and went on to form a band she named Loretta and The Trailblazers. She played in postage-stamp-sized venues, grange halls, and bars before Vancouver Canada’s Zero Records discovered Lynn through Buck’s show and released Loretta’s first single “Whispering Sea” b/w “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” in March of 1960. She and her husband “Doolittle” spent months traveling and sleeping in their car to promote her debut single. The couple crossed the nation and tried to hit every country radio station possible to hand out Loretta’s record or do unscheduled, on-the-spot interviews with any DJ that would let her talk. Much of Loretta’s eventual success came down to selling records out of the trunk of her and Doolittle’s car.”Whispering Sea” didn’t get much traction, but the B-side “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl” hit number 14 on Billboard’s country music chart on July 24th, 1960′. Loretta Lynn, as they say, had become “an overnight success after years in the making.“
Buck Owens wanted Gail Harris to become a regular member of his “gang” but Harris’s first love was R&B, and she was already pursuing her dreams by diligently practicing songs by her favorite R&B artists and honing her stage presence in front of a mirror and for her family. From the beginning of her 2-3 year stint with The Wailers, she must have blown the bobby socks and tenny-runners off every largely teenaged audience. Gail could be compared to both Little Brenda Lee with the clarity of her voice and bravado and the sustained, sexual growl of early recordings by Tina Turner. Gail’s love of R&B made Ike and Turner 1960 hit “I Idolize You” one of her signature songs, and blew the house down every time she performed it.
It didn’t hurt that Gail Harris also looked well beyond her actual age and could be just as demure and charming off stage as she was ravaging onstage singing. Gail performed “I Idolize You” with The Wailers on their groundbreaking live album, The Fabulous Wailers at The Castle. The record is still one of the NW Sound’s most important albums. It set high standards that other of the early 1960s bands would try to emulate, but only a handful could achieve. The live album also included her interpretation of the Jimmy Davis penned “All I Could Do Was Cry” made famous by Etta James. The live album was rounded-out with four numbers sung by “Rockin Robin” Roberts and two by Kent Morrill. The album was recorded by Seattle legend Joe Boles and produced by Ormsby, Morrill, and promoter/DJ/entrepreneur Pat O’Day. The album was an immediate regional hit when it was released.
In 1963 Carlton Records released a single by Gail Harris-now going by the name Gayle Harris “Here Come The Hurt” b/w “Don’tYou Love Me No More?” A February 9, 1963 issue of Billboard Gayle’s release is noted by a small mention that reads “GAYLE HARRIS Drums rolling for Cartlon Records (Honest, fellows she’s really only 16) and her”Here Come The Hurt”
“Here Comes The Hurt” didn’t pick up at the time, although in the last couple of decades the song has re-emerged and been included in several 60s, and “girl group” compilations. Gayle found her way to a San Francisco and came to the attention of arranger/producer Don Costa. Costa had an impressive Curriculum Vitae. s Starting as a side-musician in New York City, Costa eventually worked up to the position of arranger for Steve Lawrence and his wife, Eydie Gormé. Soon he found himself as head of A&R and house arranger at ABC Records. His first big launch was a young Canadian singer by the name of Paul Anka. In 1959 Costa, Steve and Eydie moved over to United Artists Records where Costa continued to arrange for the couple, He was also carving out his own place as a recording act. Apart from his arranging skills, Costa was a guitarist. In 1956 and ‘57 he released two 45s on ABC-Paramount using the alias “Muvva “Guitar” Hubbard. His first release, “Ponytail”, was an R&B instrumental. The single’s B-side was “Congo Mombo”, His second release was a cover of “Raunchy” originally recorded by Bill Justis. The B-side was appropriately named “The Other Side”. Apart from his arranging skills, His 1960 version of the Manos Hatzidakis penned “Never On A Sunday” (originally known as “Ta paidia tou Peiraia” in Greek) sold over one million copies. The Melina Mercouri version may be better known to the public, but it was Costa’s version that outsold all others.
In 1961 Frank Sinatra asked Costa to arrange his album “Sinatra and Strings”. (released in 1962). The album was filled with standards like Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “All or Nothing at All” written by Jack Lawrence and Arthur Altman. The album became hugely popular among Sinatra fans as well as the public in general. Eventually, Sinatra would hire Costa away from Steve and Eydie as an arranger and took Costa on as his producer as well. Don Costa then formed his own company (Don Costa Productions) and started working with artists as diverse as Trini Lopez, and Little Anthony and The Imperials. Don Costa also continued to work with Sinatra. Don Costa would go on to conduct Sinatra’s orchestra until he had a heart attack during one of Sinatra’s Las Vegas performances. Costa recuperated but did not return to the draining job of conducting for Sinatra…but he was not ready to quit. Costa would go on to produce and arrange for Mike Curb Productions. His later successes included production for The Osmonds, Sammy Davis Jr. and Petula Clark, Sinatra, Paul Anka. In total, Costa ended up producing 553 albums and arranging or writing 953 songs.
Somewhere along the way Costa also found time to become a father. His daughter, Nikka Costa has gone on to be a performer in her own right. Father and daughter would work on several projects, that included a duet with Don Ho, when Nikka was only five years old. Nikka is also found singing along with her father on the album Don Costa Plays the Beatles. She sang at The Whitehouse with Sinatra, but Nikka’s most famous childhood hit was 1981’s “Out Here By Myself” from the film Fame recorded at age 10. The single sold over three million copies. Shortly after her biggest hit, her father, Don Costa died from a second heart attack. Fortunately, Nikka Costa managed to parlay her child stardom into adult success by crossing over to funk and R&B.
Don Costa “discovered” Gayle Harris one night when she was booked into the Galaxy Club in San Francisco. He signed her to his production company almost immediately and started handling her career. With it came more “adult” bookings rather than the teen-dances the earlier “Gail” had been used to. One of her most prestigious dates came at The Playboy Club in Los Angeles where she did a stint opening for African-American singer Adam Wade. Wade was popular throughout the 1960s for his smooth, jazz-tinged voice. In 1959 he had his first success with a song called “Ruby” b/w “Too Far”, the a-side being a cover of the hit movie song from 1953. In 1960 three of Wade’s singles managed to make it into the Billboard top 10; Take Good Care of Her” b/w “Sleepy Time Gal” reached number 7, and “As If I Didn’t Know” b/w “Playin’ Around” peaked at number 10 and “The Writing on the Wall” b/w “Point of No Return” made it to number 5.
Whatever one may think of Hugh Hefner and his magazine one thing is very clear; Hefner was a dedicated supporter of civil rights throughout his adult life. In 1959, he helped organize the Playboy Jazz Festival, which included performances from black and white musicians like Dizzie Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson and Jack Teagarden. The profits went in part to the NAACP. Later festivals would proudly continue to feature black and white musicians sharing the stage. The first interview published in Playboy was with jazz great Miles Davis and was written by an up-and-coming black journalist called Alex Haley. The magazine also published interviews with prominent black figures such as Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Hefner was not afraid to have African-Americans and Latino entertainers play his clubs. He hired a bevy of Black women to work as “bunnies” and his clubs-even his television show “Playboy Penthouse”-were integrated. It wasn’t unusual to see mixed race “party guests” on his television show. So Gayle Harris was thrown into this milleu. It was probably an atmosphere she appreciated because back in the Northwest the teen dance scene was largely segregated. Gail had deep admiration for the Black women singers and belters of the late 50s and early 1960s-as did many participating in the Northwest Sound. After all, the basis of most Northwest Sound artists had been admiration of R&B since the beginning. In 1965
Don Costa had Gayle cut a promo single (“Ain’t Gonna Let Me Down” b/w “Here I Go Again”) for his label DCP International. Once more. The sides were great, but Costa chose not to release the single.
In the mid 60’s Gayle was introduced to Arlin Harmon, then woking with a dynamic outfit called The Big Beats. The introduction probably involved Don Costa, since The Big Beats had originally played as “Trini Lopez and His Big Beats”, though Lopez would leave to pursue a solo career after only one album, Costa continued to producer.. Harmon had been the featured vocalist on one of the Big Beats singles (“Out of The Picture” b/w “The Work Song” ) and as a member of The Big Beats on another seminal live album “The Big Beats LIVE! At The Off-Broadway” recorded in San Francisco in 1965 where they’d found a large audience. The Big Beats were also known as one of the best bands of the 60s and 70s in Las Vegas. The two married in 1967 and worked together, travelling the country with Arlin’s bands. They later returned to the Northwest to work as “Gail and Arlin…Gail had reverted to the original spelling of her name. Harmon would later join James King & The Southsiders. While Gail pursued a career in music. Gail and Arlin had more in common than music. They also shared a love of Harley-Davidsons. They spent plenty of time on their bikes and even occassionally showed up on their Hogs and in their leathers. While Gayle was spending time in San Francisco during the 60s she had trained with the vocal coach Judy Davis at her Oakland studio. Davis was often referred to as “The Vocal Coach To The Stars” for having clients as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand. Grace Slick and Country Joe McDonald. Davis was an expert in the physiology of sound projection. She was well-known for her method of teaching vocalists to breathe properly and to strengthen their vocal cords so they may project and control their sound. Davis had conjured up a method of vocal training that is still used around the world.
“Actually, I’m just a vocal plumber,”Ms. Davis told The San Francisco Chronicle in 1995, when she received a Lifetime Achievement award at the Bammies-awards given by BAM magazine (now the California Music Award). I fix pipes.”she added.
This training was not only useful in Gayle’s vocation, it also brought opportunities to work with musical artists such as Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, and Frank Sinatra Jr. among others. For many years Gayle has been a vocal coach based out of Tacoma and still incorporates lessons she learned from Judy Davis. Gail Harris has taken part in the occasional Wailers get-togethers, most notably in the 1980s. But with the passing of Buck Ormsby (on his 75th birthday in 2016) while in Mexico, none of the original members remain. Ron Gardner died in 1992. Richard Dangel died of an aneurysm in 2002. John Greek died in 2006, Mark Marush in 2007, and Kent Morrill died of cancer on 15 April 2011. Perhaps the most tragic death of any one of the Wailers was that of “Rockin’ Robin” Roberts who died at the age of 27. Roberts was killed in a head-on collision after leaving a night club celebration on December 22, 1967. He was a passenger in a car traveling the wrong way on the Interstate , just south of San Francisco. He was killed on impact. Gail Harris remains one of the brightest stars of the early Northwest Sound. She went on to work in music the rest of her life (up until now) had a wonderful and exciting marriage to Arlin Harmon who died in 2014. She is deeply loved by her fans and friends throughout the world.
Any additions or corrections are welcomed.
-Dennis R. White. Sources; “Don Costa Biography”,”Space Age Musicmaker”. Retrieved December 12. 2017); Singles Reviews (Billboard Magazine, September 21, 1963); Shannon McCarthy “Nikka Costa Biography” (musicianguide.com, retrieved December 10. 2017); Buck Ormsby “Etiquette Records-The Short Story” (etiquette.com, retrieved December 10, 2017); Peter Blecha “Etiquette Rules! The Northwest’s Reigning ’60s Garage-Rock Record Company” ( April 10. 2009, HistoryLink.org. Essay 8947); Eileen Sisk “Buck Owens: The Biography” (Chicago Review Press, 2010); Gail Harris (Learning Musician.com, retrieved December 12, 2017); Jesse Hamlin “Judy Davis of Oakland-Vocal Coach To Stars” (The San Francisco Chronical, January 31, 2001);”I Don’t Jump Rattlesnakes No More” (afflictor.com, November 13, 2017); Tim Sendra “One Kiss Can Lead To Another: Girl Group Sounds, Lost and Found” (AllMusic.com, retrieved December 10.2017); Buck Ormsby “The Marshans” (etiquette .com, retrieved December 10, 2017); Peter Blecha “Music In Washington: Seattle and Beyond” (Arcadia Press, November 7, 2007); “Don Costa” (Space Age Music Maker. Spaceageop.com, retrieved December 10. 2017); “The Fabulous Wailers” (bands.fogcity1.com/THEFABULOUSWAILERS/index.php/home, retrieved December 10, 2017); Arlin Harmon 1945-2014: Musical Memorial (https://www.facebook.com/JazzbonesTacoma/ retrieved December 12, 2017): “The Wailers” (PNW Bands, pnwbands.com/wailers.html, retrieved December 8. 2017); Cub Coda “The Fabulous Wailers at The Castle” (AllMusic.com, retrieved December 8, 2017); Russell Webster “The Fabulous Wailers at The Castle” (Gaslight Records, gaslightrecords.com/reviews/albums/the-wailers-the-fabulous-wailers-at-the-castle, retrieved December 8, 2017; PNW Bands “The Spanish Castle” pnwbands.com/spanishcastle , retrieved December 8, 2017); Jan Kurtis Skugstad “Ernest Tubb Live 1965” (Camelot Media, www.camelotmedia.com/ernest.html, retrieved December 8, 2017); John Broven “The Wailers” (Golden Crest www.johnbroven.com/goldencrest/wailers.html retrieved December 8, 2017)