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Voodoo Queens - Interview

  by Lisa Torem

published: 27 / 10 / 2011

Voodoo Queens - Interview


Don Wilson from acclaimed instrumental group the Ventures speaks to Lisa torem about his group's fifty year career and the influence of his band on musicians such as Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck

The acclaimed instrumental group the Ventures originally called the Versatones and then the Impacts was first started in Tacoma, Washington, by a duo consisting of rhythm guitarist, Don Wilson and lead guitarist, Bob Bogle. The Ventures were most known for the Chet Atkins cover, ‘Walk, Don’t Run’ and ‘Hawaii Five-O’, but their discography extends way beyond those smash hits. Between 1960-1973, they sold nearly one million albums per year in the US alone and charted with thirty eight They impacted the pop music culture of the US with their broad appeal and expert musicianship. They were one of the first groups to design concept albums such as: ‘Ventures in Space’ (1963), ‘Surfing’(1963) and the more psychedelic “Guitar Freakout”, ‘Flights of Fancy’ and ‘Underground Fire’.’ Also, they were among the first groups to fulfill the demand for instructional material; they satisfied the longing of guitarists who wished to learn their fresh, guitar styling through guided recordings. Currently, the band consists of Gerry McGee who has replaced Nokie Edwards, as lead guitarist, twice; Leon Taylor, who replaced his late father, Mel Taylor, as drummer, in 1996; Don Wilson, one of the original creators, and Bob Spaulding. Nokie Edwards continues to perform as a solo act, but performs with the Ventures during selected dates. When the band’s success began to dip in the 1970s, due to America’s changing musical interests, the group became international icons in Europe and Japan. Original member, Don Wilson, reminisced about the early days, the challenges and the techniques, which made the Ventures one of the most exciting and successful instrumental bands in pop music history. PB: What were some of the techniques the Ventures used to create their unique sound? Did you use any special effects? DW: We used no effects whatsoever, except for a little echo. The engineer that we had at the time on our first three albums in Seattle recorded on two track. He had this echo chamber which was a microphone hanging from the shower (Laughs). We used that. That might have been a little bit different. And then he wanted to “mic” the picks. When the pick hit the string, he wanted to “mic” that. I never heard that – I don’t think it came out very well. As innovation goes, it was a natural thing on our part. Let me explain this to you, first, maybe it will clear something up. When we first started, just Bob and I, we bought two guitars in a pawnshop in 1958. They probably cost $15 a piece and they were not electric. They were acoustic. We were construction workers and we had families so it was hard for us to put the money together to buy an electric guitar. We rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed and we did not know a bass player and we did not know a saxophone player and who wants to work with a couple of guys that just learned how to play? We didn’t have a piano player or anything; we didn’t even know one, So, when we went in to record ‘Walk, Don’t Run’ – and there was a recording before that that we saved our money for - locally, okay, but as far as some record company picking it up, no, it wasn’t that good. With ‘Walk, Don’t Run’, because Bob and I didn’t know any other musicians, we just played two guitars. And, when we went to do these talent contests in which whoever got the most applause and who ever had the most people in there, was going to win. So, we never had that many people in there (Laughs). But, pretty soon, (even though) we never had anybody in there, we started winning anyway. This is the situation. I played very percussion-type, rhythm guitar because we had no drum and we had no bass player; just two guitars, and Bob tried to fill out what an organ or a piano or whatever might do, by playing a melody and then coming to a certain note, maybe the end note, and he would play a chord for that note. S, people would say to us, “How did you ever get that sound?” That sound is natural. Once we did pick up a bass player and a drummer, that was our style (Laughs). We didn’t know anything else. So it worked out very well. You’re talking about innovation. It’s a natural occurrence. I don’t know why. And, then you have to get the right song – instrumentals are tough. You have to get the right song, you have to get the right arrangement, you have to get the right sound, you have to get the right mix. Everything just came together for ‘Walk, Don’t Run’. As time went by and we started doing albums – we were big, big album sellers for Liberty Records, and they had some pretty, decent artists at the time - we were responsible for 25 % of their total volume in the first four years, probably five. So, we did very well for a couple of construction workers. PB: I read that the record label used some employees to stand in for you on a record cover. Were they just trying to get everything done quickly? DW: Yeah, they were. We were on the road. We had to get out and make some money. We were being played, ‘Walk, Don’t Run’ and then ‘Perfidia’ right after that. We were out on the road and they wanted an album that they had already recorded, and for us just to come back and take a picture? Well, we couldn’t do that. So they got stock room boys (Laughs) to fall all over each other. They tried not to show their faces so much, so that’s how that happened. And then we did ‘Walk, Don’t Run’, Volume II, or ‘Walk, Don’t Run, ‘64’, or whatever it might have been – the memory is not that great – when you have over 260 albums out – you know what I mean? (Laughs) You kind of lose track of them? I don’t know exactly what happened, but we did the same pose on our ‘Walk, Don’t Run, ’64.’ Let me say this about that album. I’m watching Casey Kasem (American radio personality) and the America Top 40 Countdown on television and he has a trivia question just before a break and he asks: ‘Who was the first artist, not just the group, who was the first artist ever to have the same song hit again with a different arrangement? The same song, different arrangement, top ten? And he came back and said, “It was the Ventures” (Laughs). I almost fell out of my chair. We were the first, my gosh! So, both of them went top ten. PB; That was amazing. DW: It is amazing. Our career is amazing and I may say this while we’re talking about amazing, I consider us to be the Rodney Dangerfield’s of the rock world. We just don’t get no respect. PB: A number of musicians have varied opinions about the Mosrite era – when the Ventures switched their brand of guitar. DW: There’s no doubt about that. Every time I heard the word, ‘Mosrite’, I get red-faced. He cost us so much money; Semie Moseley, you wouldn’t believe it. He was a terrible business man. He made a decent guitar. We tried to have him change what we didn’t like, if he wanted to put the Ventures name on it – he said, “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah”, but he never would do it, never. “Because I make a guitar the way I make a guitar, and that’s it now,” he said. To make that story a little shorter; he went into the record business, okay, and he went bankrupt. He had a factory and the way it was set up was just terrible. We had the distribution. If he goes broke, what do we got? We were up to 500 guitars a month from him making five guitars a month in his garage with his brother. Liberty Records wanted to buy it. They could see, not just potential, but actual sales. They wanted to buy him out and you have to remember, now, this was about 1964 or 1965. They wanted to buy him out for $50,000 a year when people were making $7000, and a million dollars in front and a five-million guarantee if they kept selling guitars. He turned it down. And, how it happened was our lead guitarist, Nokie Edwards, had been contacted by Semie Moseley. He was in Bakersfield. He told Nokie that,” If you play my guitar, I will give you $50 every time you sell one”, and it started when people began playing it because they liked it. The way he played was incredible anyway, and maybe it was ¾ Nokie’s style as opposed to what the guitar looked like and sounded like. PB: Nokie originally played bass and then he switched over to guitar. Did that create problems in the band? DW: No, no problems at all. Bob and I had just learned to play the guitar about a year and a half before that. Bob was limited. I was limited. I played some lead. He played some lead. Nokie had been playing since he was five years old. PB; That sounds like it was a good decision. DW: It was a very good decision. If it weren’t for Nokie, I’m not sure that we would have been a three-album artist. That would have been the end of it. PB: Mel Taylor had such an immediately, distinguishable style of drumming. Your instrumentals weren’t that aggressive sounding. How did you know your styles would converge? DW: See, we had a drummer to begin with – I could go for hours on this. We had a drummer and we said that we were going to go in and record and he had done a few of those talent show contests with us, so he knew ‘Walk, Don’t Run’ and he really did have a different style of drumming and we really liked it. I approached him. His name was Skip Moore. He wasn’t working with anybody in particular; different bands. I said we’re going to record a song, “You remember ‘Walk, Don’t Run”? He said, “I know it.” I said, “We’re going to record it. Would you play the drums?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “This is the deal. We’ll give you one-fourth of whatever the record makes or $25.” You know what he took? He took the $25 and it probably was a smart move at that time because so many people probably came to him and he went and recorded and on the “if come” and that never happened. Another drummer that played with us was Howie Johnson. He was actually on the first two or three albums. He got in a car accident and hurt his back and he couldn’t travel anymore. So, we didn’t have a drummer then. When we met Mel Taylor he was playing at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood, which was a very, very popular country kind of place. All the top country artists, if they were in town, would drop in and set in. So, Mel sounded like he could be a Skip Moore or a Howie Johnson. PB: How did it work out when Leon took over drumming? DW: It worked out absolutely great. I mean Leon gets more compliments when we go out on the road than we do. (Laughs). When you line up for autographs, at the end of the show, which we do for an hour or hour and a half, selling CDs, as every artist does, people say, “I never heard a better drummer, than you.” And, that was Leon, and his dad got all kinds of accolades. So, he learned from his dad, plus having his own top forty band. He was even more into what was happening then than what Mel was. It worked out very well. He’s been with us now for fifteen years. Then we have Bob Spaulding who is more a utility player. He plays rhythm, bass, lead guitar, but not drums. We started with him coming in when we were recording, as an added musician. He went on the road when somebody got sick. That was since 1980. So that’s 31 years that he’s been with us. PB: I saw a video with Peter Frampton who looked like he was having so much fun playing with you guys. DW: Oh, yeah, he did. PB: It seems that, for many musicians, it is a real honour to play with the Ventures, not just because you’re legends, but also because you play such complex music that musicians feel a great deal of pride if they can keep up with you. Has that always been the case? DW: That’s always been the case. We felt like, you know,” Huh?” About the time that we did that was in the 1980s and we knew that we had a lot of fans and a lot of guitar player fans and a lot of famous, guitar player fans. Gene Simmons from Kiss was in our fan club. And, somebody told me that Aerosmith had written a book and mentioned us a couple of times in it. And, when we were in Japan and we were going on a train, I see this foreigner (Laughs).He keeps looking at us. Pretty soon he walks over and asks: “Are you guys the Ventures? You are, right?” I mean, he knew it anyway. I said, “Yeah.” He said, “I’m the guitar player in Aerosmith. Can I have my picture taken with you?” We said, “Yeah, sure. Get in here.” We all got together and he said to his manager, “Come on, get in this picture. This is history” (Laughs). Then, they invited us – we happened to have a rare night off – when they were playing at the Tokyo Dome. We were back stage. Steven Tyler came out of his dressing room, walked right up into my face and said, “Do you know what an honour it is to be standing here talking to you?” And, I’m thinking, “Really?” (Laughs). So we certainly have the respect of countless musicians – there’s no doubt about it. PB: Speaking of history, you had Duane Eddy on one of your albums from the late 1990s and I know the Ventures have paid a lot of respect to Dick Dale. Why were their influences so Important? DW: Duane Eddy was my biggest influence ever. I played his songs. ‘Rebel Rouser’, and a couple of others. I still try to play them when we’re on stage. It’s a compliment to him I think, that we do that. Unfortunately, when it came to the album cover, we let the record company go ahead and make the album cover or the CD cover, and they gave him not much. That wasn’t good and we didn’t really like that, but they never did change it. He did some fantastic things and he was one of the nicest people ever. If I would say, “I want you to do this and I want you to do that”, he would say, “Yeah, okay, sure, yeah.” He wouldn’t say, “Oh, yeah, but…”There are those who do that…they want to do their own thing. It’s like Semie Moseley wanting to do his own thing and never changing anything. So, let’s get back to that one. He goes bankrupt. We have accounts receivable out there to send guitars out and they have thirty/sixty days to pay – and do you think they’re going to pay them when they know they’re never going to get another Mosrite guitar? No. He cost us about $200,000 dollars in 1965. How much is that now? It almost brought us to our knees. And, then, he had the gall to call me and ask: “Can I still use the Ventures names on…? I said, “Are you kidding? Don’t you ever do that. We’re through.” And then he did it anyway. And, I still see some today, with his widow – I don’t want to get in any law suit but there are some unsavoury characters that she partnered up with and they had just put the Ventures name on, anyway, and, as a matter of fact, just two years ago, after one of our shows, a guy wanted me to sign his guitar - a Mosrite guitar. I said, “What year is that?” He said, “It’s new. It had the Ventures’ model name on it.” So, they’re still doing it. I said, “Where did you buy it?” He said, “I bought it from a friend.” I said, “Where did the friend buy it?” He said, “ I don’t know…” So, I never could get to the bottom of that one, but I’ve heard stories like that, all through the years since we parted. PB: Let’s talk about another innovation. The Ventures put together videos of instructional guitar and they were really popular. What prompted that idea? DW: There were so many people who sent us letters asking how did you do this and how did you do that. So somebody came up to us and said, “I can put out an album of instruction to show these people how to do it.” And I think we had four of them. Every one hit the top one hundred. That’s never happened before. (Laughs) So, that’s quite a compliment too. PB: The concept album idea, too, was yours. You even had some singers from Japan called the Rice Girls. DW: We tried to make the records memorable. The Spice Girls were popular then. And, these girls were Japanese and they had a different name, actually. Well, we said, “Let’s call them the Rice Girls.” PB: Which of those concept albums were the most fun to make? It seemed like there was some fun energy that took place in creating those. DW: Yeah, there was. But a lot of fun and energy was put into all of our albums. We really enjoy doing what we do. Even now, if we go and do a recording, we enjoy it. Bob Bogle died two years ago. Not this last June, but the one before that. That was a terrible loss for everybody, and especially for me. He and I were partners for over 50 years, and, believe it or not, we never had an argument, maybe a little disagreement, but never anything like: “Well, I’m going to quit and I don’t want this and I don’t want that…” We learned early not to do that. And, that just lasted and lasted. He was easy-going and so was I. So, I listened to what he said and there were a lot of times when I wanted to say “Are you crazy? Are you out of your mind?” But, I just went, “Mmm. Hmmm (Laughs).” PB: I’m not sure how many people are aware that the Ventures wrote about fifty original songs. ‘Driving Guitars’, ‘Guitar Freak Out’, ‘Lonely Girl’…How did you feel about the originals? DW: Unfortunately our originals were never really pulled out to make a single; to make a hit. We’re album sellers, and not single sellers. At that time there were a lot of people who sold singles out of their albums, but that didn’t happen with us, for some reason. That’s why I say we’re the Rodney Dangerfield of the rock world. But, I don’t know if you know this – we’ve had twenty number one hits in Japan. When Bob and I started going to Japan, Jerry McGee was our lead guitarist, Nokie quit a couple of times and wanted to go on his own, so we got a guy named Jerry McGee. He’s played with different people. He’s even played with Bobby Darin. He played on the Monkees songs before they started picking up their instruments. He’s a really good guitarist. Nokie has gone, pretty much on his own. He just came back from Japan. He goes on tour himself and does about eight shows or something. We used to do 100 shows in the summer. 100 shows. In three months. And, if you figure that you can put Japan into the boundaries of the state of California, you’re only playing an hour or a half-hour away from where you were before. And you can still fill the places, and we did. Once we did 108 concerts in 78 days, without a day off. There aren’t too many nineteen- year- olds that do what I do. PB How do you keep up? DW: I enjoy it. I don’t really think of anything else – I don’t fish, what am I going to do? And I’m 78 years old. PB: It’s been said before, but it’s so true the Ventures were so ahead of their time. As far as some of the other guitar greats, Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen, the Allman Brothers, Jeff Beck; do you hear some of the influence in their work? DW: Yes definitely. We do. Jeff Baxter, who is with the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan. I was listening to something where he’s playing a sitar and I hear Nokie (Laughs). DW: We just got Happy Anniversary from Jimmy Page. PB: Congratulations. DW: And Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. They all said, “Happy Anniversary.” So, yes, we’ve influenced a lot of players and how many that are not famous that we’ve influenced? You know what I mean? Garage bands and things like that. PB: The Ventures have such an incredible body of work. But, if somebody has not heard your work, what would you suggest? DW: I think an original song. If you’re going to play Top 40 stuff, then you got a job. But I don’t think it will go any further than that job. When you’re playing that kind of music, when you’re playing in clubs, people don’t want to hear some song they’ve never heard of, unless it’s so special and you can sneak it in there – I’m sure that bands do that, put in a couple of their originals, if the beat is okay and the melody, it will probably go over okay. But it’s tough and it gets tougher every year. More people are picking up a guitar since, I think, 1970, than in any time before. So there’s a lot of competition out there. PB: Is it important for musicians to use the effects that are available? Does it really matter or should they really concentrate on being sound players and using their ears? DW: I think effects are fine. Yes, I do. They have these pedals that can make your guitar sound different. In fact, they have a guitar synthesizer. We don’t use any of that stuff though. But, we have started, in Japan – Bob Spaulding goes over with us. He plays the bass in Bob Bogle’s place. What they say about Bob Bogle is that he is one of the most underrated guitar players, and it’s not fair. So, if you listen to some of those things that he did in the later years, it’s incredible. He was excellent - what he lacked in talent, he made up for in perseverance He had his own studio downstairs, where he lived and he’d go down there and spend twelve hours. That’s dedication. Bob loved what he was doing. He is terribly missed.. PB: ‘Pulp Fiction’ helped you cultivate a new audience. Yet, it was not the type of film people would normally associate with Tthe Ventures. The Ventures represented a youthful innocence, and that film was more edgy. Did you have any problems with your music being showcased in that kind of film? DW: What we tried to do, because it kind of started to fizzle out a little bit, you put out an album of something that is all original and, for some reason, people are not interested. We had to survive. So we had to come up with ideas for survival. What we started doing was to take Top 40 hits and do them and venturize them. PB: How did you “venturize” them? DW: Just by playing them with our sound. PB: I noticed some really, cool slides down the neck. I can’t even articulate what some of those techniques are. Can you? DW: You mean, the “digga digga digga digga?” PB: Yeah. Moving down the whole neck… DW: Yeah, what it is, it’s called a glissando (Laughs). That’s what they would call it if I were a symphony player. I call it just a “run down.” It was Bob Bogle who started that. He was doing that, but he never deadened the string. I do. PB: That’s very cool. DW: Yeah. He just went: “digga digga digga digga” on the bass and then coming into whatever came into it after that. Like I said, we went to Japan, and we were there for quite some time and we started writing, and in about 1968 we really got the feeling of what the Japanese really liked. We started writing songs just aimed at Japan. And, then when our publishing company heard those songs, they said, “That’s great.” They get someone, usually a girl. to sing with Japanese lyrics; maybe some famous songwriter of the time, but they put words to it, and they all went to number one; theirs and ours. (Laughs) They all went to number one in Japan. So, Japan is our most valuable possession, really. PB; Do you have any plans to do a Midwest tour or any other parts of the US? DW: We work so much in Japan. We go twice a year. We work sporadically here, but not a lot. It’s more or less by choice. We’ve turned down quite a few jobs, actually. We’ve worked places like Epcot Center and somewhere where we will land for about three or four days to an audience outside. That’s usually some time before we go to Japan. The thing is that they have labeled us a surf group. I’m not crazy about that. PB: I never understood why you were categorized in that way, either. DW: We’re much more than surf, and I’m not putting surf down. We’re either a surf group or a surf-rock group. It just so happens that we put out a surfing album and it’s one of the biggest albums that has ever sold. So, people identify us with that. But, I must tell you this to straighten anything out. Somebody came to our office, some time in the 1960s. He was a manager of a group called the Lively Ones. He said, “We have a song that is pretty much like your ‘Surf Rider’. I want to play it for you to see if it is far enough away” He played it and I said, “That is the song. What are you talking about? (Laughs)” So, Quentin Tarantino, when he went to do ‘Pulp Fiction’, we never put out a single on that. They happened to have their version of that. It wasn’t the Ventures playing on that. It was the Lively Ones. But, it was written by Nokie Edwards, and Bob Bogle and Don Wilson, actually. So we have a song in ‘Pulp Fiction’. It isn’t played by us, but it was one that we wrote. If you want to know how strange the music business is, go figure this one. All of these songs were in his personal record collection. I mean he never got somebody to come in and do a soundtrack. And, it’s upwards of at least five or six times platinum now. And, these are songs that he happened to like (Laughs)/ And, now, ‘Hawaii Five-O’ has been revived. ‘Hawaii Five-O’ was probably the most noticeable song that was ever done for TV, as a theme. I had an agent get a hold of them as we wanted to offer to do the music again. So he called us back and said that they have their own music director. So, they’re going to come up with, get this, a synthesizer version, and I say, “You’re kidding.” They tried to put it out with a synthesizer and people hated it. But, what do they do? They copy us. PB: I’m sure you get copied a lot. DW: But, we get no credit for it. No nothing. Our name doesn’t appear at all. PB: I discovered that you sing and you sing well. DW: My voice is different and I don’t know how great it is. At that time, I had a contract with Imperial Records, and, of course, you could put out a single then. It got to a point to where one of our producers, we had for about five years, Joe Serasino – we told him we had a single and we think it’s pretty good and he said, “Singles. Forget about it. You could put ‘White Christmas’ out as a single and it wouldn’t make it.’ People buy albums. So that’s when that big turnaround came about. We got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after twenty years of eligibility. PB: Why did you have to wait so long? DW: Rodney Dangerfield. I don’t know why. That’s typical Ventures. We have to do a little bit more than anybody else does to make it work. We put out a record called: ‘Diamond Head’ and the record company just lost it. We sold 25,000 copies of ‘Diamond Head’ in Chicago. It was a big breakout. Do you think they could spread it? No. I don’t know what they were thinking at the time, so we sent it to Japan and it went immediately to number one. It is probably one of our most famous songs in Japan. PB: Thank you.

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