Formed in 1958 in Tacoma in the northwest corner of America by guitarists Bob Bogle and Don Wilson, the Ventures are one of the most successful groups of the original rock’n’roll era and almost certainly the longest surviving US band still touring. In 2014, 81 year-old Don Wilson completed a gruelling 44-date concert tour of Japan which would put most musicians a fraction of his age on their knees. That’s not bad for two guys who started out with a couple of cheap guitars bought from a Seattle pawnshop along with a single amp which allowed them to play through it simultaneously.
They first met when Bob bought a car from Don at The Bargain Spot, his father’s second-hand dealership. The two struck up a friendship and before long Bob had secured Don a job at the construction company where he worked, the two spending most of their days manhandling bricks and their evenings honing their guitar skills.
Once they had become sufficiently skilled, they purchased new Fender guitars, named themselves the Versatones and began playing local gigs as a duo. During their travels they came across Nokie Edwards, an exceptionally gifted guitarist who was also plying his trade in the Tacoma area, most notably with emerging country star Buck Owens. Gradually a friendship developed between the three musicians. With the addition of George Babbitt on drums, in 1959 they recorded ‘Cookies & Coke’ on the Blue Horizon label, the first disc under the name the Ventures. Demonstrating an entrepreneurial spirit and can-do work ethic that would be permanent features of their long career, Blue Horizon was set up by Don and Bob with financial and organisational assistance from Josie Wilson, Don’s mother.
Despite their best efforts promoting ‘Cookies & Coke’, the disc failed to gather any momentum. Undeterred, in 1960 the Ventures returned to Joe Boles’ Seattle studio to record ‘Walk Don’t Run’, a Johnny Smith tune they had heard on a Chet Atkins LP. With the aid of Nokie’s friend Skip Moore sitting in on drums and a much simplified arrangement of the tune, within 12 takes they had crafted a worldwide smash hit. Unfortunately for him, Skip Moore opted to take a $25 session fee rather than a cut of the royalties and he did not stay with the band. Once ‘Walk Don’t Run’ began racing up the charts, the Ventures lost no time in recruiting exceptional local musician Howie Johnson to fill the vacant drum seat and it was the mighty Bogle / Wilson / Edwards / Johnson line-up that conjured up the magic alchemy of sounds which produced their early hits and first four albums.
While hugely successful in late 1961 and early ’62, behind the scenes it was a tricky period for Don and Bob. Howie was involved in a road accident which forced him to leave the group and Nokie flirted with the idea of forming his own band, the Marksmen, with close friend Gene Moles. However, by the end of that time Don and Bob had recruited the outstanding Brooklyn-born Mel Taylor to the drum seat and Nokie had decided to return to the fold on a permanent basis. Things were looking up.
The Ventures and their producer Bob Reisdorff were now safely ensconced in Hollywood, the centre of the West Coast recording scene, and they had realised the enormous financial benefits of album sales. They were one of the first bands to focus more on LPs than 45s, turning out an average of four albums a year throughout the 60s. To cope with the big demands on their time, Bob Reisdorff began to draft in sessioneers to augment the band or on rare occasions to fill in for absent members, using musicians such as Billy Strange and Bud Coleman as well as two hugely talented Tulsa musicians newly arrived in Los Angeles: David Gates and Leon Russell.
In 1962 the Ventures undertook their first Japanese tour alongside Jo Ann Campbell and Bobby Vee. Their record company would not finance all the members going, so Don and Bob did it on their own, using pick-up Japanese musicians on drums and bass. They became the real stars of the show and when they returned for a full-band tour two years later there were crowds at the airport to welcome them and fanatical teenagers followed them wherever they went. They recorded LPs specifically for the Japanese market and turned out live albums most years, all of which sold by the lorry load. When the US recording industry finally cottoned on to the huge Japanese market in the 70s with releases such as “Bob Dylan At Budokan”, Ventures fans permitted themselves a wry smile, knowing their band had conquered Japan over a decade earlier.
Although the Ventures were missing from the US singles charts during 1963, their “Play Telstar” LP reached an impressive #8 and a further four albums charted. Despite the arrival of the Beatles in the American charts in January 1964, the Ventures enjoyed another US Top 10 smash that summer with their inspired surf-based revival: ‘Walk Don’t Run ’64’. While many American bands fell by the wayside as the British invasion gathered pace, the Ventures enjoyed three US album chart entries in ’64, five in ’65, four in ’66 and ’67, two in ’68 and three in ’69, plus another four in the early 70s.
In 1968 Nokie Edwards quit the band and was replaced by blues guitarist Gerry McGee, who had previously toured with Captain Beefheart and also worked with Delaney & Bonnie. At first it seemed a strange choice, a band who were by now thought of as old-fashioned being led by one of the new breed of hip guitar-slingers. What many did not realise at the time though was that Gerry had already had his own instrumental releases on Reprise in the early 60s, worked sessions with the Monkees and appeared as lead guitarist on one of Sandy Nelson’s mid-60s LPs. He was exactly what the Ventures needed. Like Nokie, he was a naturally gifted guitarist who also brought in some fresh influences and, while Don and Bob’s hands on the tiller meant the Ventures would never stray too far from their populist agenda, the new line-up was nevertheless portrayed on their first album together with long hair and kaftans. For a band which had steadfastly remained aloof from fashion and shunned any attempt to manufacture a hip image, that was a big change.
Shortly afterwards the Ventures enlisted their first official keyboard player: former Five Americans member John Durrill, who enjoyed a three-year stay with the band. Prior to this their most frequently used studio keyboard player during the mid to late 60s had been Evelyn Freeman, sister of renowned producer and arranger Ernie Freeman.
By the summer of ’69 the Ventures were standing at #4 in the US singles charts with ‘Hawaii Five-0’. However, for the post-Beatles generation of critics who set about re-writing the history of rock it was already too late. The Ventures were lazily written off as a 60s covers band who were neither radical nor revolutionary and therefore decidedly unworthy. Those critics had not been there to hear the Ventures’ early classics such as the fuzz extravaganza ‘The 2,000 Pound Bee’ or ‘The Swingin’ Creeper’. For every ‘Snoopy vs The Red Baron’ they were obliged to cover, there were a dozen sparkling original compositions bristling with invention and delivered with muscle and flair. In fact, a truly genuine “Best Of” compilation would consist almost exclusively of the band’s self-written material.
In 1972 Nokie Edwards returned to the band after McGee moved on. During the 70s the highly fragmented nature of the music scene made it increasingly difficult for them to find a commercial foothold or even a positive direction to follow. There was a disco album, a Latin album, albums dedicated to the Carpenters and Jim Croce and a crack at popularising classical music, but they were all in a middle-of-the-road style that some fans found unexciting. During this decade their presence gradually diminished in the States, although highly successful annual tours of Japan helped keep them afloat. Mel Taylor also took a break from the band from ’72 till ’79 and was replaced by Joe Barile.
By the beginning of the 80s the old guard of radicals and revolutionaries was giving way to an army of new wavers who were more interested in dancing and having fun. One of Los Angeles’ most popular DJs, KROQ’s Rodney Bingenheimer, began to notice that when he played his favourite Ventures tracks from the 60s at Hollywood’s Starwood club the dance floor would fill up with punks and new wavers. After he began to get requests to play this “new punk instrumental band” on his show, he arranged for them to perform at the Starwood. Although the Ventures were seasoned veterans, they felt a little apprehension at facing this young and aggressive-looking crowd. But they went down a storm and afterwards were visited backstage by members of Blondie, the B-52s, Dr Feelgood and Nick Lowe, who all congratulated them and expressed a debt to the band’s early records. In no time they were collaborating with all-girl new wave band the Go-Gos, and the Ramones were already sporting Ventures model Mosrite guitars to get their exciting sound. When their “30th Anniversary” DVD was belatedly issued in 1989 (it had been filmed five years earlier), it featured appearances by Peter Frampton, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Robbie Krieger, David Johansen, Chris Spedding and Max Weinberg, who all sat in with the band and acknowledged their huge influence. For the first time in years the Ventures undertook road tours of the USA and continued to enjoy further critical acclaim from artists such as Elliot Easton (the Cars), Jeff Cook (Alabama), Rick Derringer, Marky and Joey Ramone and jazz guitarist Al Di Meola. In ’85 Gerry McGee returned to the band after Nokie Edwards left to pursue his solo career once more. Sadly, original drummer Howie Johnson died in 1987.
The surging popularity of the CD in the 90s saw the Ventures’ entire back catalogue released inJapan, the UK and, finally, in the US. There were even a couple of excellent new releases, “Wild Again” and “New Depths”, which approached the excellence of their 60s work. In 1997 Ace Records commenced their “Ventures In The Vaults” series, featuring rarities and unissued titles.
On a far less happy note, the band’s long-serving drummer Mel Taylor succumbed to lung cancer in 1996. Active almost until the very end, he was in the middle of a Japanese tour but was forced to return home and died 10 days later. He was replaced in the band by his son Leon Taylor, another great drummer. Further bad news arrived on 14 June 2009 when it was announced founder member Bob Bogle had died from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He had largely retired from the band in 2005 when his illness began to take hold.
Bob Bogle’s place in the band was filled by Bob Spalding, who had been playing with the Ventures in various capacities as far back as 1981, subbing for Nokie, Gerry, Bob or Don as needed. He had recorded with the band Sweet Pain in 1970 and in 1972 was invited by Mel Taylor to tour Japan as a member of his band the Dynamics. Bob’s first gig with the Ventures occurred after Nokie Edwards was taken ill midway through a US tour in 1981. Bob is another exceptional guitarist and an excellent ambassador for the Ventures, having appeared at many fan gatherings over the years, including the Pipeline Convention in London on two occasions.
On their 50th Anniversary in 2008 the Ventures were at long last inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by John Fogerty who remarked, “This is long overdue. The Ventures have issued over 250 albums in their career. Think about that for a moment. These days, some of us are happy just to sell 250 albums.”
Currently the Ventures are Don Wilson, Gerry McGee, Bob Spalding and Leon Taylor. Long may they continue.
DAVE BURKE/ Pipeline Magazine