On March 25, 1923 Bonnie Buckingham was born in Seattle WA. As a youn child she was raised in Redondo Beach, a small community about 30 miles south of Seattle. Her family were farmers who were able to weather the depression, unlike many of those in the Midwest who’s crops had been decimated by dustbowl storms and drought. It was a bit later that the Buckingham family moved a short distance to Auburn WA and continued farming. Growing up Bonnie had a fascination with the family guitar, and took every chance she could to take it from it’s hiding place to practice when her parents were away. Her mother had told her that “guitars were for boys”. But Bonnie persisted learning what she could. She recalls regularly climbing trees and pretending they were broadcast towers and she was sending out signals of her miusic to the entire world.
Apparently her parent’s disapproval of girl’s playing guitars did not last long. By the age of 13 she had inherited her two older brothers’ flat top guitar and was appearing at talent shows throughout the Puget Sound region while gaining wider reception. During this period she took on her first stage name-Bonnie Lane. She also began tutoring by local musicians. At the age 16 she was allowed to tour the NW with a country revue and for the next several years she developed her skill at the guitar as well as finding her voice.
Eventually she began travelling to Seattle to be tutored by some of the best players in the city, including Paul Tutmarc. Not only did Bonnie receive lessons, she began to make recordings with Tutmarc in his primitive studio on Pine Street. Tutmarc was 27 years older than Bonnie, but their work had brought them close together. In 1943 Tutmarc divorced his first wife and married Bonnie the following year. They juggled their married and professional lives, along with caring for their daughter Paula (born in 1950) for the next few years, doing Seattle gigs as a duo and finally joining a well-known NW country outfit called the K-6 Wranglers as with a local country outfit called but the couple divorced in 1955, before Bonnie’s wider success.
Around this time Bonnie took on the name she would always be known as- Bonnie Guitar. Bonnie recalls that one day a songwriter approached her with a few songs he wanted her to do demo’s of in order to shop them to labels in southern California. The songs themselves never went anywhere, but an independent producer, Fabor Robison heard Bonnie’s voice and her by now exceptional playing. He immediately called her and convinced her to come to LA and work with his team. Robison was well-connected in the growing country music scene. He’d been involved in the early careers of Jim Reeves, Johnny Horton, the Browns, Mitchell Torok, Floyd Cramer along with Johnny and Dorsey Burnette. His original label, Abbott Records had been a success starting in 1951 Robison established Abbott Records with the financial backing of pharmacist Sid Abbott and the major goal was to record Johnny Horton who Robison had discovered in Texas. In fact all ten of Abbott Records first releases featured Johnny Horton. However, distribution problems led Robison to sell Horton’s contract to Mercury in mid-1952. Even so, Fabor Robison’s Abbott and Fabor labels would find a good deal of success with later artists.
By early 1957 Robison had been trying to produce a new composition written by another of his studio players, Ned Miller. Despite take after take with Dorsey Burnette he was dissatisfied with the outcome. In his book Seattle Before Rock: A City and It’s Music author Kurt Armbruster recounts Bonnies tale:
I had been working in Seattle, and a woman asked me to demo seven or eight songs she’d written. I recorded them, and she sent the disc to Fabor Robison, a producer in L.A. Fabor called ‘How soon can you get down here?’ I flew down and he hired me as a staff musician in his studio in Malibu Canyon. I played on and helped produce every hit record he had. One day Fabor said ‘I have a new song that I’m recording with Dorsey Burnette (brother of Johnny Burnette). I want you to hear it’. Dorsey had had a big hit and was on his way up the charts. Well, Fabor played me this song, Dark Moon and I was knocked out. I had to have it! I’ll forego all my royalties to record this song. It’s going to be a smash! So I recorded it and sure enough it hit big. But what I didn’t know was that Fabor had already recorded the song with Dorsey and didn’t like the result. He didn’t bother telling me that”.
Bonnie, was so taken by the song she convinced Fabor to allow her to record it, and hopefully release it as a single. In exchange she told Fabor she was willing to forego all of the royalties that would be due her just to have a chance at the opportunity. This was not a smart business deal, but it taught Bonnie lessons she would later be grateful for, and most of all it provided Bonnie with her first huge hit in 1957. The song would become her signature song, and in it’s has been covered by everyone form Elvis Presely to Chet Atkins & Hank Snow to Chris Issacs and beyond.
Bonnie had done what she calls “hundred of takes” on the song, accompanied by a backing band and larger production than the final version. It is this spare, haunting, ethereal and shimmering. Bonnie told the story in a later interview
‘Fabor recorded me on Dark Moon with as many as twelve musicians; we must have done it a hundred times, with different combinations, and still he wasn’t satisfied. Then one night Fabor and Ned Miller and I went into the studio to record it as a quartet. I asked Ned to play just a straight rhythm on acoustic guitar, I played lead, and we had a bass. That simple version was the one we ended up releasing’.
At the time Bonnie recorded “Dark Moon” Fabor was in search of a larger label to sell his company to, and found a taker in Dot Records who had the muscle and distribution to make Dark Moon a crossover hit on billboard magazne’s charts reaching # 14 on the country charts, and an amazing #6 on the popular chart.
At the height to Bonnie’s position in the charts another Dot artist
, Gale Storm (of My Little Margie fame) also recorded a version of Dark Moon. Storm’s version also raced up the charts and caused some confusion among the public. But there’s no doubt that Bonnie’s rendition was far superior. It was haunting and Bonnie’s crystal voice wasn’t muddied by the highly arranged and over-produced Gale Storm version. Although this would be the last hit record for Gale her producer Randy Wood chose to present a version that was akin to what Pat Boone had done with early rock and roll hits.
Even though Gale Storms’ version charted slightly higher than Bonnie’s, at #4 in the charts, it is Bonnie Guitar’s version that is clealy the definitive recording. Unfortunately Bonnie’s follow-up single Mr. Fire Eyes did well on the country charts but failed to make much of a dent on the pop charts. The single only reached the #71 spot on Billboard’s pop chart. Subsequently she was dropped from Dot Records. In the future Bonnie Guitar would continue to record albums, release singles, play as a session musician and produce even though she chose to move back to the Seattle area. She had a clear and dedicated base that weren’t interested in letting her go, despite her treatment by Dot Records. In fact, Bonnie would later be picked up by several major labels into the 1980. But for the time being Bonnie turned her eye to found her own record label and produce other’s records. In 1958 she paired up with former Seattle refrigerator salesman Bob Reisdorff to form Dolphin Records. Soon after the labels founding Bonnie and Bob discovered there was already a label and record store using the Dolphin name. The label (and store) was owned by John Dolphin a prominent black producer who had had great success in what were then called “race records”- R&B. Jazz and early Rock and Roll primarily aimed at black fans and among white teens and DJs that were more progressive. Bonnie and Bob changed the name of their label to Dolton Records but before they made the change Bonnie came across a vocal group from Olympia WA The group consisted of Gary Troxel, Gretchen Christopher, and Barbara Ellis .With Bonnie as producer and Reisdorff mainly in charge of finances the label had a hit straight out of the box with three vocalists from who went by the name The Fleetwoods . Come Softly With Me was a song the trio had written and it became an international sensation that was soon covered-and remains covered-by a multitude of American and British artists. The attention of the first Dolphin/Dolton single led to a distribution deal with Liberty Records which lasted until Dolton merged with Liberty Records in 1966. The Fleetwoods second hit (their third outing) with the newly-christened Dolton label was Mr. Blue. It quickly topped Billboard’s pop charts. Later artists that found success with Dolton were Vic Dana who was a solo artist that had also taken on vocals for live gigs when Gary Troxell was drafted into the military. Other groups that would get their first taste of success at Dolton were Seattle’s The Frantics, and a little combo from Tacoma WA named The Ventures. The Ventures were dubbed “The Band that Launched a Thousand Bands” and ended up releasing 12 projects with Dolton. Today The Ventures are considered seminal founders of what is considered modern Rock&Roll.
Bonnie herself released a few projects of her own on Dolton, the most intriguing being a song called Candy Apple Red, a self-penned song that she used to show off the virtues of her favorite car that she’d bought in 1956; a candy apple red Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner hardtop convertible. It was a first production model with a retractable top. Bonnie bought it in 1956 and had it personalized with red guitars stitched into its white leather seats and musical notes that were fashioned into its hubcaps by hotrod hotshot Dee Wescott. She still owns it.
Although Bonnie had been a co-founder of Dolton Records, there had been friction between herself and co-owner Bob Reisdorff, so in 1960 she left Dolton with another ex-employee, Jerry Denon to found Seattle-based Jerden Records. Unfortunately Jerden only lasted for about a year, and both Bonnie and Dennon returned to Los Angeles. Bonnie became a recording artist for Columbia and RCA records, and later returned to Dot Records, who had unceremoniously fired her only a few years before. Eventually Bonnie ended up being a vice-president at Dot.
Dennon worked in promotions until he was drafted into the army. Upon leaving the army Dennon revived the Jerden label as sole owner and re-released the entire Jerden catalogue-which featured several of Bonnie’s own recordings and others she had produced. This second iteration of Jerden Records was far more successful than the first. In 1963 Jerden released the single Louie Louie by The Kingsmen– a song which has become a high water mark in rock and roll history…and for better or worse on January 24th, 1986 Louie Louie was named the official song of Washington State.
Bonnie churned out recording after recording during the 1960s and although most were only minor pop hits she continued to have a strong country music fan base and gained more and more respect from both the pop and the country music establishment. By 1968 she had become one of the all-time biggest country solo artists in history. Later Bonnie released the successful country music hit I’m Living in Two Worlds which became Guitar’s first Top 10 Country hit and she released an even bigger country hit in 1967 with A Woman in Love which peaked at #4 on the Billboard charts. That same year, Bonnie won the Academy of Country Music’s “Top Female Vocalist” award. In 1968, she recorded another Top 10 Country hit I Believe in Love. And finally she teamed up with Buddy Killen in 1969 to put out A Truer Love You’ll Never Find (Than Mine). By that time Bonnie’s recording career had pretty much run it’s course, though she continued producing and became more and more involved with the business side of music, working as a talent scout, producer and an A&R representative…all positions she had previously involved herself in and was known for being very sharp at.
In 1969 Bonnie married Mario DiPiano and moved back to Washington State-Orting WA to be precise. She and her husband spent their time raising quarter horses, but the pull of Hollywood and Nashville was too great. She continued recording throughout the 1970s. After DiPiano died in 1983 Bonnie went into seclusion. A couple of years after Di Piano’s death -the man she called the love of my life-Bonnie received an invitation to perform one show at the Businessmen’s Club of the Notaras Lodge in the desert town of Soap Lake WA. That single performance led to a residency that lasted until 1996! Today Bonnie lives in Soap Lake and still tries to do a gig here and there. She is somewhat active on face book and is happy to share memories and update daily occurances as health permits.
It’s hard to say if Bonnie Guitar was the first female session musician, but she’s the earliest we know of. She’s certainly the first female artist to crossover from the Country charts to the Pop charts, and it’s near-certain that she was the first woman allowed to take on the task of music studio production. Again, we simply don’t know of any woman that had previously done that job. The world owes a great debt of gratitude to Bonnie Guitar, even though her accomplishments may seem over-shadowed today. But she is surely one of the all-time greats in American recorded music and in the business of creating hits.
On March 23rd 2917 Bonnie Guitar turned 94 years old. Her latest face book post (July 17, 2017) says:
It has been a little while but I have been working on getting stronger and ready to play some music for you all ! With kindest regards.
-Dennis R. White. Sources: The Herstory of Women in Rock N’ Roll, Vol 1. By Tia (Vashtia.com, March 15, 2017; Guitar, Bonnie (b. 1923) The Northwest’s Trail-Blazing Pop Pioneer, by Peter Blecha, (Posted 6/19/2008 HistoryLink.org Essay 8656); Womans Work-Bonnie Guitar, by Linda Ray, (No Depression, December 31, 2006); At Age 93, Northwest Music Legend ‘Bonnie Guitar’ Still Gigs Every Weekend by Gabriel Spitzer (KXPX.org, Nov 26, 2011); Before Seattle Rocked: A City and Its Music, by Kurt E Armbruster (University of Washington Press 2011)