Although a bit late, it’s with sadness today that I report the passing of John “Buck” Ormsby, longtime Wailers bassist. He died in Mexico on his 75th birthday, October 29, after a fall.
Although the Wailers are not very well-known today (“Oh! You mean Bob Marley’s group?”), they are often considered the first garage band and were undeniably one of the most influential bands of the late 50s and early 60s in the Pacific Northwest.
The band’s humble beginnings date back to 1958 at Clover Park High School, located just outside of Tacoma. Woody Mortenson (acoustic bass) and John Greek (trumpet) began performing local gigs with a menagerie of other musicians as a Dixieland band. Guitarist Rich Dangel asked if he could join and play a few rock n’ roll tunes with the group. Greek consented, and the trio soon turned their focus to rock n’ roll.
The shift in styles resulted in a personnel shift. Pianist Kent Morrill, and two students from Stadium High School (Mark Marush on Saxophone and Mike Burk on drums) completed the lineup. Thus, The Nitecaps were born!
As The Nitecaps started playing better gigs, Tacoma’s other teen band, Little Bill & the Bluenotes, discovered their existence. Bill Englehart, namsake of The Bluenotes, invited The Nitecaps to be their upcoming act at an upcoming dance. The group accepted, changed their name to The Wailers, and stole The Bluenotes‘ popularity.
In late 1958, the group recorded a demo of an original instrumental that somehow ended up in the hands of Clark Galehouse of Gold Crest Records. “Tall Cool One” was re-recorded in early 1959 and released as a single. It charted at #36 on Billboard Top 100. The Wailers released their first LP, “The Fabulous Wailers”, on the Gold Crest Label later that year.
Following the success of “Tall Cool One”, the group toured the East Coast and even appeared on American Bandstand. Despite Gold Crest’s wishes for them to remain in New York, The Wailers returned home. Greek left the group, and two members of The Bluenotes joined: Rockin’ Robin Roberts (vocalist) and bassist John “Buck” Ormsby.
Disappointed by the loss of their label, Ormsby suggested something novel and maybe a little bit crazy: why not create their own record label? At first he was met with opposition, but eventually Morrill and Roberts relented and Etiquette Records was born!
The first single released on the Etiquette label was The Wailers’ own version of “Louie,Louie”, featuring Roberts on lead vocal. This version of the Richard Berry classic was later imitated by the Oregon-based Kingsmen, who would launch the song into infamy and the center of an FBI investigation.
The Wailers continued to enjoy local success, performing with and without Roberts and sometimes with girl singer Gail Harris or girl group The Marshans. Marush left in 1962 and was replaced with Ron Gardner, a saxophonist/singer whose energy and songwriting significantly changed the group’s sound.
By 1964, the Bristish Invasion was in full swing and The Wailers were trying to compete. The group moved toward a more polished, pop sound and publicist Barrie Jackson developed a marketable image: two-toned suits and a “Wailer” haircut. Jackson also penned fake bios on the back of their new album, Wailers!!!! Wailers Everywhere: Burk was especially displeased with his.
Photographer Jini Dellaccio is responsible for the photographs on the album. The images on the front were taken in Tacoma’s Wright Park, while the ones on the back were taken at her home in Gig Harbor.
Despite the fabulous photography and fake biographies, Wailers!!!! Wailers Everywhere was not a commercial success. Many considered it too much of a shift from the group’s earlier, raw sound and image, including Rich Dangel who was becoming less interested in rock n’ roll and left the band the following year.
There is much more to be said about The Wailers and Etiquette Records, but for this post, I’m going to pause here and present you with a complete listen to Wailers!!!! Wailers Everywhere, taken directly off of the 1964 Etiquette LP.
I purchased this record from it’s original owner who bought it while he was living in Bothell.
Buck Ormsby was raised in Tacoma, Washington. He started playing ukulele at age 7 and eventually learned steel guitar. It wasn’t until he joined The Wailers that he switched to bass guitar.
A driving force in the creation of Etiquette Records (still in business today), he is also credited with signing the wildly popular Sonics to the Etiquette label.
After The Wailers split in 1969, Buck played with Jr. Cadillac, and devoted himself to promoting Etiquette’s music. He took suitcases of LPs to Europe and struck up a partnership with Ace Records. In the 80s he revived Etiquette Records and he re-released its music on CD, straight from the master tapes.
The Wailers reunited on several occasions over the next several decades, and released an album with The Ventures in 2009, marking their 50th anniversary. A line-up including Kent Morrill and Buck occasionally performed until around 2010.
Buck’s daughter, Gregory Anne Ormsby, remembers him as a caring man wholly devoted to music.
“Everything was music, always music,” she told The Seattle Times. “He was either a producer, or an event planner or a musician. He just lived and breathed music.”
This post is for you, Buck.