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Where Northwest rock was born

Meet three seminal South Sound bands that inspired thousands of followers



Published: 04/05/09  12:05 am   |   Updated: 04/05/09   3:42 am


Grunge was king in the early ’90s when Nirvana, Pearl Jam and other Western Washington bands stormed the pop charts. And now a new generation of Northwest outfits – the likes of Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse and the Decemberists – continues to redefine pop chic.


But the original Northwest sound invaded radio airwaves five decades ago, in 1959. And a pair of concerts in Seattle next weekend will serve as reminders of how South Sound bands – especially, the Ventures, the Fabulous Wailers and the Fleetwoods – helped put Northwest rock and pop on the map.


“The Northwest was such an isolated place. Seattle, Tacoma – according to people in New York or Chicago – was still back in the wagon train days,” said Mark Christopher of the former rock station KBSG-FM. “We had an arena to develop our own music scene. And look at all the different music that has come out of this area each decade, based on these roots of rock ’n’ roll of the Ventures and the Wailers.”


Actually, Olympia doo-wop trio the Fleetwoods had the Northwest’s first million-selling single in the rock era, though they aren’t generally associated with the raunchy garage rock that’s synonymous with “the original Northwest Sound.” “Come Softly to Me” topped the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in the spring of 1959.


Gary Troxel’s current Fleetwoods lineup, minus his fellow original members Gretchen Christopher and Barb Ellis, will perform “Come Softly to Me,” “Mr. Blue” and other hits during a Saturday showcase at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle that’s billed as the Ultimate Doo-Wop Show.


But before that, garage rock pioneers the Ventures and the Fabulous Wailers will team up to celebrate 50 years in the record biz Friday night at Seattle’s Moore Theatre. There the Tacoma legends will perform their biggest hits, many recently re-recorded for a new joint CD called “Two Car Garage.”


In the weeks leading up to those two shows, band members recalled the modest expectations they started with and serendipitous events that lead to hits and appearances on “American Bandstand.”


“We were thinkin’ it was gonna be over in a couple of years,” recalled Wailers bassist Buck Ormsby, who was a member of Tacoma’s Little Bill & the Bluenotes in 1959, an outfit that reached No. 66 on the Billboard Hot 100 with “I Love an Angel” that year.

“It was amazing when you look back at it, because we just sort of took it for granted,” Wailers bandmate Kent Morrill said. “But there was more live music in the Northwest than probably anywhere.”


“We weren’t influenced by the typical stuff that was going around on the top 40,” he added. Instead, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Little Willie John and other acts that performed at Olympia’s Evergreen Ballroom were early inspirations, Morrill said.

“Those were our heroes. And to be frank, they wouldn’t play ’em on the radio at that time. So people thought we did those songs originally,” he said.



But the South Sound’s first rock-era superstars can be traced back to Olympia’s William Winlock Miller High School (renamed Olympia High in the early ’60s.) That’s where Gary Troxel went to school after he moved to Olympia, from Carmel, Calif., in 1956.


“I don’t remember when I met the girls,” Troxel confessed, referring to classmates Gretchen Christopher and Barbara Ellis. But he recalled early attempts to collaborate on music, initially with him playing trumpet as Christopher and Ellis sang.


“And I just kind of hung around, and I would sing with them, songs like (The Moonglows’) ‘Sincerely,’ for instance,” he said. “That’s a pretty harmonious thing, easy for kids to sing. I remember doing that kind of stuff.”


One day, Troxel said, he started singing a jazzed-up version of “Come Softly to Me” while he and Christopher were walking. Christopher suggested he slow the lyrics down, thinking they might work with a tune she and Ellis had been working on.


“And it really did,” he said. “It just fell right in there.”


The trio first performed “Come Softly to Me” during a high school talent assembly in early 1958, making up the short-lived moniker Two Girls and a Guy, before the show.


The song came to the attention of Bob Reisdorff, the founder of Seattle’s Dolton Records, thanks to a tip from Norm Bobrow, the owner of the Colony Club, a Seattle venue where Christopher had performed.


“We went out to her place on South Bay in Olympia and recorded on home recorder,” Troxel said. “And she took that tape up, and that was it.”


Before long, they were at Joe Boles Custom Recorders in Seattle, trying to capture the perfect “Come Softly to Me” take with rustic Ampex recording gear.


Boles “didn’t know about over-dubbing at that point, and I don’t know that Bob did either,” Troxel recalled.


“We must have sung that thing 125 times. Of course, they’re trying to get the perfect take with three voices. And that’s probably impossible depending on who’s listening to it.


“So he just took everything down to Hollywood, and they put a couple of those takes together. And if you listen to the song, the original version, you can hear it speed up and slow down, which is kind of funny. I guess people don’t notice that, but we do.”


Reisdorff and Christopher came up with the trio’s new name, taken from Olympia’s telephone prefix “Fleetwood.” And the song quickly became the hit that launched Seattle’s first influential rock label.


“We did not perform anywhere (locally) because we weren’t old enough,” said Troxel, who was 19 when the band’s initial hits – also “Mr. Blue,” “Graduation’s Here” and “You Mean Everything to Me” that first year – broke.


“The only place we could do anything was high schools and, like, the Dick Clark show (‘American Bandstand’) – national stuff. We were on Dick Clark a number of times, and then Ed Sullivan, also, in ’59. That was a big show to do.”


The Fleetwoods enjoyed a string of hits with “Tragedy,” “The Great Imposter” and others before tastes shifted away from doo-wop in the mid-60s. Ellis was the first to leave the group in the early 1970s. Troxel and Christopher parted ways in 1989.


Troxel lives in Mount Vernon, and worked for years as a longshoreman until he retired a few years ago. Currently, he performs Fleetwoods songs with singers Cheryl Huggins and Bonnie Hannukaine


Troxel said his trio will perform a few of their big hits and one lesser known number during Saturday’s showcase.


“This time I think it’s being advertised that we’re gonna do ‘Confidential,’” he said. “That was not a gold record or anything, but it was a single. I don’t know how much it sold, but it’s pretty nice. We like it.”



While the Fleetwoods were enjoying doo-wop stardom, the Wailers were laying down the foundation of Northwest garage rock in Tacoma.


The band was formed in 1958 out of a series of jam sessions held at McChord Air Force Base. Morrill joined the band after introducing “Dirty Robber,” a song he’d written, at one of those sessions.


The band’s early lineup included Morrill on keyboards, Rich Dangel and John Greek on guitar, Mike Marush on sax and Mike Burk on drums.


“There was a whole bunch of people in that band,” Morrill said. “It wasn’t called the Wailers. The first name we called ourselves was the M.G.s. Then we called ourselves the Nightcaps for a while. It wasn’t very long, but we were the Nightcaps for about a week and a half or something like that. And then John Greek came up with the name Wailers. It was on sheet music or something from a jazz band.”


The Wailers grew popular by playing teen dances and sock hops at the Spanish Castle, the Crescent Ballroom and other local venues.


In the summer of 1958, Morrill came up with a catchy tune that was originally called “Scotch on the Rocks,” but eventually renamed “Tall Cool One.” New York’s Gold Crest Records released the song the following year, and label owner Clark Galehouse recorded a gig at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Lakewood that would yield the band’s self-titled debut album.


After the dance, Galehouse used “one microphone on a big stand and pointed it at our playing out of the sound system,” Morrill recalled. “And he did one take of ‘Tall Cool One,’ one take of ‘Dirty Robber’ and one take of ‘Lucille’ and a couple of other songs.”

The new album was quick to generate a buzz. “And two weeks later we got a call from Dick Clark,” Morrill said. “That’s how easy it was back then because we didn’t have the competition they have today, you know. We were probably one of a dozen bands in the whole country.”


As the Wailers played “Bandstand,” it was easy to let that meteoric rise go to their heads.


“I remember what I was thinkin’ at the time,” Morrill said. “I was about 18 years old or something like that, 17, 18. And I’m checkin’ out the girls in the bandstand and I’m thinkin’ boy, this was easy. I’ll probably be retired by the time I’m 21.”


Laughing, he added, “Well, 50 years later I’m still workin.’”


As rapid and serendipitous as the Wailers’ rise had been, the next decades were marred by bad luck and possibly worse decisions.


What if, for example, the Wailers’ version of “Louie Louie,” which predated the popular remake of Richard Berry’s song that propelled the Kingsmen to stardom, had been picked up instead? (Morrill and Ormsby say politics led to Liberty Records sitting on their version.)


And what if the Wailers had met the Beatles? The Fab Four had reportedly requested a meeting with their garage rock influence when they came to Seattle in 1964. But the Wailers didn’t learn about it until years later.


And Morrill can only laugh at some of he and his bandmates’ questionable decisions.

“We had a number of biggies that looking back, we took a right when we should have gone left,” he said.


Case in point: The band had produced the Sonics, the Galaxies and other local bands on their own label, Etiquette Records. “And we got a call from (Atlantic Records founder) Ahmet Ertegn who wanted to pick up our line and distribute it,” Morrill said. “And Buck and I still look at each other and go, ‘Why didn’t we do that?’”


But between the attention the Ventures have gotten since their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, and the enthusiasm the Sonics have generated since that Tacoma band ended its 40-year hiatus in late 2007, there has been a lot of renewed appetite for vintage Northwest rock. And Morrill is hoping the Ventures/Wailers show could represent another big break.


“Who knows?” he said. “This concert is a world tour kick off. So we might – gosh – after 50 years start making some noise out there.”



Hot on the heels of the Wailers came the Ventures, the most successful band to ever hail from Tacoma.


The group started after workers Don Wilson and Bob Bogle picked up a pair of guitars at a Pacific Avenue pawn shop, hoping only to get good enough to headline local nightclubs and quit their day jobs.


“Our aspirations were to pick up nothing heavier than a guitar,” Wilson told The News Tribune last year, before his band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The Fabulous Wailers may not have become a household name. But they inspired the Ventures, the band that spurred on thousands of bands around the world.


“When you learn how to play,” Wilson said, “you listen to other people’s stuff. And I wore their album out. I still have it. From me trying to learn their songs, all those tracks turned white on the vinyl. That’s how many times I played them, over and over and over.”


By 1959, Wilson and Bogle had formed the Ventures with bassist Nokie Edwards and drummer Howie Johnson. (Skip Moore would play drums on the band’s first hit single. And Mel Taylor would take over and cement what is considered the band’s classic lineup in 1962.)


In 1959, the young Ventures honed their skills at Tacoma-area taverns, including Bob’s Java Jive, the Blue Moon and the Brittania. Wilson recalled that last one being an especially tough venue.


“We were gettin’, like, $15 a night to split,” he said. “They had a police car out in front and an officer at the front door. And we used to get a lot of G.I.’s who got drunk. I mean, really drunk.


“You were sometimes duckin’ beer bottles, and there were five fights or 10 fights in there every night. And they would just take ’em out by the scruff of the neck and put ’em in what they called the paddy wagon at that time. And they wouldn’t take the first one out, because they knew there’d be three or four more before they went to the police station and put ’em in a cell and had ’em sober up.”


At least one set staple would keep those rowdy early crowds happy. Bogle had found a copy of Chet Atkins’ “Hi Fi in Focus” album, which included a Johnny Smith song called “Walk, Don’t Run.”


The Ventures added it to their set list and wound up playing it several times a night after all the requests. The band had already recorded one single, and it seemed like a no-brainer what the second one should be.


The following year, the Ventures released “Walk, Don’t Run” on their own Blue Horizon label, with Wilson’s mom, Josie Wilson, producing.


Influential Seattle disc jockeys DJ Pat O’Day on KJR-AM was among the first DJs to play the song, which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was a springboard for the Ventures, who went on to sell 100 million records, and charted with 38 albums between 1960 and 1972 alone.


“It made us feel good when our little old Pacific Northwest was able to launch hit records nationally,” O’Day said. “It gave courage to many that the Northwest could be the springboard to music fame. Without those events, I think people from the Northwest would have thought it’s too steep a hill to climb. You’ve got to be from New York or Nashville or L.A.”


Read more about the Ventures and the Wailers and their new CD in Friday’s GO magazine.


Ernest Jasmin: 253-274-7389


The hits

Here are some of the hit songs that helped put Tacoma and Olympia on the rock and pop map in 1959.


The Fleetwoods (Olympia doo-wop trio):

“Come Softly To Me” helped launch Dolton Records, which was still named Dolphin Records when the song charted on March 16, 1959. “Come Softly” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on its way to becoming the Northwest’s first million-selling single.

“Mr. Blue” also hit No. 1, with its 17-week chart run beginning on Sept. 14. The Fleetwoods also had minor hits with “Graduation’s Here” (No. 39) and “You Mean Everything to Me” (No. 84).


Little Bill & the Bluenotes (Tacoma R&B/garage rock): A March 28 recording session with this popular Tacoma band yielded another Dolton hit. “I Love an Angel” reached No. 66.


The Fabulous Wailers (Tacoma garage rock): Issued by New York’s Golden Crest Records, “Tall Cool One” charted on June 1 and reached No. 36 during the song’s initial two-week run. However, the band charted again with the same song when it reached No. 38 in 1964.


The Ventures and the Fabulous Wailers’ 50th anniversary show and “Two Car Garage” CD release party

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Where: The Moore Theatre, 1932 Second Ave., Seattle

Tickets: $29.50 to $100

Information: 1-877-784-4849 or



The Ultimate Doo-Wop Show, featuring the Fleetwoods, the Vibrations and the Vogues

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: The Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle

Tickets: $45 to $65

Information: 1-877-784-4849 or


 • Hear clips of the Ventures, the Fabulous Wailers and the Fleetwoods’ Gary Troxel talking about their roots on Bring the Noise,




Original Fabulous Wailers members Kent Morrill, left, and Buck Ormsby will appear at a show in Seattle that celebrates their 50 years in the music industry. They’ll appear with fellow garage rock pioneers the Ventures 




An early promo shot of the Fleetwoods (from left) Barbara Ellis, Gary Troxel and Gretchen Christopher. Dolton Records



On April 26, 1960, the members of the Tacoma-based rock group "The Ventures," from left, Nole F. (Nokie) Edwards, Bob Bogle, Howie Johnson and Don Wilson, posed with their shiny new Fender guitars for one of their earliest photo shoots.





The Spanish Castle ballroom in the 1930s:


Click below to view an article on the history of the Spanish Castle

click here to download file

Click Here for Link to Tacoma Public Library Site

The 1950s were cruising years for teenagers in everywhere USA. Carhops delivered burgers and cokes on trays that attached to rolled-down car windows. Cruising was car hopping -- teenagers met friends and wannabe friends at these 1950s social gathering places. In Tacoma, Busch's Drive-In restaurant was the place to be on Saturday nights. Bill and Thelma Busch bought the former Triple XXX Barrel Restaurant in 1943 and it remains today as Busch's Restaurant, 3505 South Tacoma Way. From the Tacoma Public Library Photography Archive.


The health science instructors at Lincoln were teaching a progressive curriculum in March 1960. Students were exploring the nutritional benefits of algae cookies years before the current craze of "health" foods.


An exterior view of the Lincoln Bowling Alley in 1946. Large bowling pins are painted on the two front doors. 3828 Yakima Ave. So. (from the TPL collection)


Click here to play a bowling sound

Below: In February of 1958, this group of young men was prepared for a long wait as they settle in before the closed doors of the Washington Hardware Co. store, 922-24 Pacific Ave. The store was having their annual Washington Birthday Sales and these teens may have camped out overnight. They are warmly dressed against the cold winter weather and have brought along the comforts of home: chairs, books, and food. Besides the lure of sporting goods and various hardware, the teenagers may have been attracted by the presence of KTAC radio which was broadcasting live from the sale.








"The Ventures" Web Sites:

Ventures site featuring our own George

Official site of "The Ventures"

Another Ventures Site



When the Wailers first got together back in 1958, they had no idea what they were doing. "The whole thing was trial and error," said bass player Buck Ormsby. "It was the beginning, the roots of rock 'n' roll. We really did have garage bands and practice in garages."

Without meaning to, the boys from Tacoma created a powerful sound that packed halls around Puget Sound and beyond. They had hits with songs. "It's kind of gratifying to think the national anthem of rock 'n' roll is something we put together, even if we don't get credit for it," said Kent Morrill, who joined the band as piano player and sings as well.


Link below contains a link to an mp3 site

Click Here for Official Web Site of the Fabulous Wailers

Several more links to Wailers web sites are listed below

Historical site with lots of info

Rockabilly Hall of Fame site

UK site with records for sale from "The Sonics" and "The Wailers"

Site for Wailers' music, history and anthology

More music from "The Wailers"

More history and photos of the group

The Sonics



Anthology of the group with pictures

Formation of the group in Tacoma

Complete history of the group up to the present and with pictures

More history and links to sites for "The Sonics"

The Kingsmen




"Official" site for the group with photos and other links

Complete history of the song "Louie Louie"