Gail Harris was a seasoned pro by the time she first appeared with Tacoma’s Fabulous Wailers at the age of 13. By 1959 Tacoma’s Fabulous Wailers had made it as a regional powerhouse as well as made their national mark. Their first single, the instrumental “Tall Cool One” b/w Roadrunner (released in June of 1959) had made the Billboard charts at number 36. Shortly after “Long Cool One” fell off the charts the band released a second single, Mau-Mau b/w Dirty Robber. (August 1959). They’d made an appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and on The Allen Freed Show, and done a tour of the East Coast.
In December of 1959 Golden Crest released an album to capitalize on their success. The album was simply named ‘The Fabulous Wailers”. Golden Crest was eager to have the band relocate to New York City, but the band declined (probably under orders of their parents) and returned to the Northwest. Golden Crest soon lost interest in promoting them even though they were still under contract with the label. Golden Crest would eventually drop them but their contract would, for the immediate future create some problems.
Shortly after returning to the Northwest the band took on a new singer and frontman,”Rockin’ Robin” Roberts (Lawrence Fewell Roberts II). Roberts had previously worked with another Tacoma band, ‘Little Bill and The Bluenotes”. Along with Rockin’ Robin” Roberts came dissension. Roberts had pushed for a souped-up version of a song written in 1956 by Richard Berry. The song Roberts was pushing for, Louie Louie was originally inspired by the song “El Loco Cha Cha” written by Cuban-American René Touzet. It had been a popular song performed live in the 1950s by Ricky Rillera and the Rhythm Rockers in Southern California while Berry was sitting in with The Rhythm Rockers for some time before he created Louie Louie around the “El Loco’s” lead riff. Berry later said;
“I took some Latin, some calypso, some pop, threw it all in and came up with ‘Louie Louie’.
It was decided in order to get by The Wailers’ contract with the now disinterested Golden Crest, Louie Louie would be released under the artist name “Rockin’ Robin” Roberts even though the recording would actually be recorded by The Wailers. Buck Ormsby has claimed that Gail Harris also took part of The Wailers final arrangement of Louie Louie. The band rightly assumed that listeners and DJ’s would know the song was actually The Wailers despite whoever the label said the artist was. However this didn’t set well with guitarist John Greek and he was promptly dismissed by The Wailers and replaced by John “Buck” Ormsby, another recent member of The Bluenotes. Buck Ormsby has also credited Gail Harris in helping arrange Louie Louie
The band had a plan for how they should move forward, but without a record label no one believed they could succeed, and would probably fall into oblivion. During a meeting in late summer of 1960 the band came up with a solution. The band would form their own label and self-release their records. Although thousands of small labels were thriving throughout the US, not many actually belonged to the bands themselves. Not every one of The Wailers could afford to take part in the scheme so Ormsby, Roberts and Morrill financed this very risky project in an equal partnership. They chose the name Etiquette.
The Wailers had begun as an instrumental band (like many of the original NW Sound artists) but 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 band added a “girl singer” from Puyallup, Gail Harris. Harris had appeared on The Bar-Kay Jamboree, a weeky show hosted by Buck Owens and aired simultaneously on radio KAYE and KTNT TV. Buck’s regular band (The Bar-K Gang) included Don Rich who would become Owen’s best friend and one of the architects of the Bakersfield Sound, Dusty Rhodes and a young guitarist named Nokie Edwards. Gail Harris was a regular guest. Some of the Bar-K’s other guests included Don Wilson and Bob Bogle (then known as The Versatones) Nancy Claire, who would become the most sought-after guest singer in the Northwest, and Loretta Lynn in her first television appearances. Later Nokie Edwards would leave Buck’s band and join Don Wilson and Bob Bogle to form The Ventures. Zero Records would find Lynn through Buck’s show and release Loretta’s first hit, “Whispering Sea” b/w“I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” in March of 1960. “Whispering Sea” didn’t get much traction, but the b-side “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl” hit number 14 in the country charts, and as they say, Loretta became an overnight success after years of hard work in postage stamp sized venues, and travelling and sleeping in the car with her husband , Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn. They tried to hit every radio station and every interview they could find. Much of her eventual success came down to selling her record out of the back of their car.
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 diligently practicing her favorite R&B artists and honing her stage presence at home. 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 teen-aged audiences. Gail could be compared to both Little Brenda Lee with the clarity of her voice and occassional growl, and the growl of Tina Turner and her occassional clarity. Gail’s love of R&B made the Ike and Turner 1960 hit “I Idolize You” one of her signature songs, and blew the house down every time she performed it-or just about any other soul/R&B song she sang.
It didn’t hurt that Gail Harris also looked well beyond her actual age and could be just as demure as her ravaging onstage singing. Her version of “I Idolize You” would show up later of The Wailers groundbreaking live album, “The Fabulous Wailers at The Castle” The live album is one of the NW Sound/garage rock’s most important albums and set high standards that other bands would try to emulate-but not quite get to. The album also included her interpretation of the Jimmy Davis penned “All I Could Do Was Cry” that had been made famous by Etta James. The performance was rounded out with four numbers sung by “Rockin Robin” Roberts and two by Kent Morrill. The album (recorded by Joe Boles and produced by Ormsby, Morrill and promoter/DJ/entreprenuer Pat O’Day) was an immediate regional hit when it was released.
“The Castle” in the title of the album referred to is the long-gone Spanish Castle (demolished in 1968) It’s also the inspiration of Jimi Hendrix’s “Spanish Castle Magic”. The Spanish Castle had been built as a gaudy, illuminated, faux-crenelated roadhouse and dance hall built in 1931. It had seen many swing and jazz bands in it’s earlier years-especially at the height of it’s popularity in the 1940s; but by the late 50’s it had also been a home for teen dances. One might even wonder if Hendrix was there the night the Wailers recording was made. It’s been reported by many that The Wailers was, at the time, Jimi’s favorite local band and Rich Dangle was his favorite guitarist. In fact a young Hendrix had even played several times on the Castle’s stage. According to Northwest music historian Peter Blecha, in the mid-80s Pat O’Day told him;
“… Jimmy would come out to the Spanish Castle and would bring his Gibson amplifier with him. And, people were always blowing amplifiers [back] then. And bands would only carry one or two amplifiers. So one night, I forget who was playing — I think it was the Checkmates who blew their amp — and Jimmy’s deal was: It was his amp: He got to play on stage. So, he’s on the side of the stage and he played his axe”
Other acts that were booked into the Spanish Castle were Gene Vincent ,Johnny Burnette, Roy Orbison, and Jan and Dean, Jerry Lee Lewis, as well as dozens of other local and national bands making their way up the ladder.
One other act to record a classic live recording at The Spanish Castle was Ernest Tubb and The Texas Troubadors. The performance was caught on tape one night in September 1965 by former Texas Troubador, Jan Kurtis Skugstad. Tubb had given the engineer/producer permission to record the show even though Tubb was then under contract with Decca Records. Tubb asked Skugstad to be “discreet” with the tapes. Skugstad had founded his own label, Camelot Records in 1964, but did not release the tapes. In fact, Skugstad held onto the tapes until long after Tubb’s death in 1984 and they finally saw the light of day in 1998. They are a remarkable artifact of country music and northwest history.
But it’s here that we return to the story of Gail Harris. Because of her popularity she eventually became a “permanent” member of The Wailers-inasmuch as the ever-changing line-up could have any “permanent members” outside the core players. A trio of backup singers (Marilyn Lodge, Penny Anderson and Kay Rogers) were hired to back Gail up. The trio were known as “The Marshans.” According to one of the trio, Marylyn Lodge
“Pat O’Day actually named us. He thought we needed a name that would be remembered and that would be great to introduce: ‘and here they are, the fabulous MarSHANS!’ But I can’t tell you how many times it was pronounced MARshans (as in Martians)!
However their name was pronounced (or mispronounced) they became a popular addition to The Wailers “revue”. The Mar SHANS had originally been inspired by Ike and Tina Turner’s Ikettes, but the world of teen dances would never allow the sexuality (or state of undress) of The Ikettes. The Marshans were far more sedate.
Gail also recorded a single of her own in 1961. It was Etiquette’s third single “Be My Baby” b/w “So Much”. The A-side was written by Fabulous Wailer Kent Morrill, and not a cover of the song later popularized by The Ronettes-which, by the way, wasn’t even released until 1964.
Finally in late 1962 Gail left the Wailers in pursuit of a solo career. She changed her name’s spelling to “Gayle” and in 1963 she cut a single for Carlton Records (“”). It didn’t create sparks, but Billboard magazine gave “Hurt” four stars. Another single for Carlton was “released in September (“They Never Taught That At School” b/w “Don’t Make The Angels Cry” did well regionally and Billboard said;
“Here’s one of the best sides from the label in a good spell. It’s a good rocking teen groover with much of the Detroit sound about it and the lyric packs a wallop. Action already indicated in the West, and it could take off everywhere…”
Despite Billboard’s hopeful prediction “Here Comes The Hurt” didn’t pick up elsewhere, 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 C.V. 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 and Steve and Eydie moved over to United Artists Records where he continued to arrange for the couple, but 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 was “Ponytail” was an R&B instrumental. b/w “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” 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 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 fact 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 would go 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 she was only five years old and Nikka 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) 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 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)