This rock icon no longer a risky Venture

April 6, 2009

By Jim Feehan

Don Wilson, co-founder of The Ventures (left), with his son Tim Wilson, of Issaquah, holds his award from the 2008 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. By Jim Feehan

Don Wilson, co-founder of The Ventures (left), with his son Tim Wilson, of Issaquah, holds his award from the 2008 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. By Jim Feehan

Don Wilson is celebrating 50 years of recording rock ’n’ roll — but don’t expect him to slow down anytime soon.

In fact, the 76-year-old co-founder of the seminal rock band The Ventures is about to embark on a worldwide tour, beginning this week in Seattle.

Coincidentally, The Ventures and fellow Northwest band The Fabulous Wailers will release an album, “Two Car Garage: Fifty Years of Rock and Roll.”

Wilson and members of the Wailers spoke at a news conference March 31 at Seattle’s Edgewater Hotel.

Last year, The Ventures were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with officials recognizing The Ventures as “the most successful instrumental combo in rock ’n’ roll history.”

Wilson, who lives in Sammamish, grew up in Tacoma. He formed the group with Bob Bogle, also of Tacoma. In 1958, they each bought guitars at a downtown Tacoma pawnshop for $15 each, learned how to play them and, 18 months later, had a No. 2 hit with “Walk Don’t Run.”

The two did masonry work by day and played small clubs between Tacoma and Seattle at night. Initially calling themselves The Versatones, in 1959 they recorded and released “The Real McCoy,” a song where Wilson lampooned actor Walter Brennan.

The following year, they recorded “Walk Don’t Run.” The reason the song didn’t make No. 1 was because Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” and Elvis Presley’s “It’s Now or Never” came out at the same time, Wilson said.

The president of the record company that released The Ventures’ first album said the group was good for only three albums at the most, Wilson said. So, the record executive sold The Ventures to another record label after their third album.

“Now, here it is 250 albums later. He was wrong,” Wilson said. “I am really surprised that we’re here 50 years later and still working, and have never stopped, actually.”

After the performance at The Moore Theatre, the band heads off to Florida’s Disney World for three performances in mid-April. In late May, the band tours eastern Canada.

On June 12, The Ventures return to the Northwest with a gig at the Liberty Theatre in Puyallup. Later this year, the band tours Japan, where the band enjoys a large fan base.

Wilson attributes his success to enjoying his work.

“People tell me, ‘Don’t you ever get tired of playing “Walk Don’t Run,”’” he said. “I don’t. The reason is the audience loves it.”

In the band’s formative years of playing honky-tonks between Tacoma and Seattle, audiences repeatedly asked the band to play the song, and some nights they performed “Walk Don’t Run” five times, Wilson said.

During last year’s Hall of Fame induction, Billy Joel told Wilson that “Walk Don’t Run” was one of the first songs he learned on the piano. Elton John, in his Starbucks Christmas Collection, pays homage to The Ventures.

Other artists listing The Ventures as an influence include George Harrison, Jimmy Page and Stephen Stills.

So, too, have Keith Moon, of The Who; Max Weinberg, of The E Street Band; and Alan White, of Yes.

“They were the beginning of rock ’n’ roll for a lot of us,” said White, who lives in Newcastle and has performed with the band. “The Ventures are going to be remembered as a landmark in music.”

As a youngster growing up in Tacoma, Wilson said The Wailers were a big influence on him. During last week’s news conference, Buck Ormsby, the bassist for the Wailers, said he’s surprised to be performing a half-century later.

“We thought rock ’n’ roll would have been over in 1959 or 1960,” he said. “I kept thinking it was going to end. I find it amazing we’re still playing after 50 years.”

Tacoma city leaders considered The Wailers’ music “the devil’s music,” so the band had to perform outside the city limits, he said.

In the band’s early years, Wilson said the band’s members visited local radio stations asking disc jockeys to play their music. One of the first DJs to take an interest in the band was Nancy Claire, who at 14 hosted a 15-minute show on a Puyallup radio station, Wilson said.

“I just remember them as being very professional,” said Claire, who was among about 50 people at the press conference. “I’m honored they included me in their life story.”

Reach Reporter Jim Feehan at 392-6434, ext. 239, or jfeehan@isspress.com. Comment on this story at www.issaquahpress.com.

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