Japan honors founding member of The Ventures

September 14, 2010

By Ari Cetron

The Consul General of Japan Kiyokazu Ota (left), presents Don Wilson with the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette. By Gerry Collen

Don Wilson was just trying to stop all the heavy lifting.

In 1958, he and friend Bob Bogle were working construction and were getting tired of the manual labor. The pair went to a pawn shop in Tacoma and bought a pair of beat-up guitars, marking the beginning of surf-rock band The Ventures.

Within 16 months, their song “Walk, Don’t Run” had become the No. 2 hit in the country. After a career spanning decades, the band was honored this summer by Japan with the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette.

“This award is from the emperor of Japan. I mean, how big can you be?” Wilson, of Sammamish, asked.

The award is presented in the name of the Emperor of Japan as recognition of excellence in a host of different fields.

The Ventures were honored for their contributions to Japanese music and culture and for their work in promoting relations between Japan and the United States.

This marks the first time the award has been given to a non-Japanese popular music group, and also the first time it has been awarded to all members of a group, according to Japanese consulate officials.

Wilson said he has yet to process all of the information about the award, which was presented during a ceremony at the Japanese consulate in Seattle.

“There are rules about where you can wear it,” he said.

The Ventures, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 and known for songs including the theme to television’s “Hawaii 5-0,” first toured Japan in 1962. During the tour, Wilson said they opened for Bobby V. and Jo Ann Campbell, who had a movie about the Twist out at the time.

“The first time we were there, nobody had heard of us — rock ‘n’ roll was almost unheard of,” Wilson said.

Their instrumental music caught on, and when The Ventures came back in 1964, they were greeted by thousands of screaming fans at the airport, he said.

“When we came over, we just blew everybody out of the water,” he said.

The band sought to capitalize on their popularity and composed about 30 songs just for the Japanese market.

In some cases, their instrumental version would be a hit, and then a Japanese singer would add vocal tracks to the song. Often, that version would also top the charts, Wilson said.

They’ve been touring the island nation ever since and have had 20 No.1 songs there. The band still draws between 3,000 and 5,000 people to its shows, and last year played 47 dates there, Wilson said. The tour included a kabuki theater in Kyoto — the first time a rock group had been permitted to play the venue.

This year’s tour is set for about 45 shows, Wilson said. It includes a Nov. 13 stop at the Snoqualmie Casino Ballroom.

The band is still going strong on this side of the Pacific, as well. Later this year, “Hawaii 5-0” will return to television, said Leonard Haggarty, of the band’s record label. The theme will once again be the iconic song by The Ventures.

Ari Cetron: 392-6434, ext. 233, or samrev@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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