THE VENTURES: The Best Selling Instrumental Rock Band in Music History -Interview with Don Wilson
By Ray Shasho
-Interviewed June 10th 2014
Don Wilson and The Ventures have inspired thousands of promising musicians and enthusiasts across the globe for over five decades, and many of their pupils became legendary in the music world. Ventures alumnus include… Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Jimmy Page, Stephen Stills, Joe Walsh, Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Billy Joel, Elton John, John Bonham, Mick Fleetwood, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Gene Simmons, and many-many more.
At 81, Don Wilson, guitarist & co-founder of the legendary rock and roll/surf band says he has no plans for slowing down any time soon. The Ventures recently concluded a lengthy tour in Japan where they are still idolized. Don and his son Tim Wilson have also initiated a new record label with promising young musicians to mentor and promote.
THE VENTURES are the best selling instrumental rock band in music history. In 1958, the group was formed by Tacoma, Washington residents Don Wilson (rhythm and lead guitar) and Bob Bogle (lead and bass guitar). The duo’s plan was to earn a permanent living playing guitar instead of working at their hard labor construction jobs as bricklayers. They originally performed as the Impacts and the Versatones before finally settling on The Ventures.
Nokie Edwards (lead guitar) joined in 1960 and they recorded their first big hit, a Chet Atkins cover entitled “Walk, Don’t Run.” The Ventures lineup in the studio also included Skip Moore on drums. In 1960, the song peaked at #2 on the Billboard’s single chart amid stiff competition from Chubby Checker, Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, and Bryan Hyland. Drummer Howie Johnson replaced Moore in 1960. Mel Taylor became The Ventures permanent drummer in 1962 until his passing in 1996.
From 1960 thru 1972, The Ventures consistently toured worldwide and charted 37 albums. The group was hailed as America’s instrumental Beatles.
Some of The Ventures hit singles include … “Telstar,” “The Lonely Bull,” “Rebel-Rouser,” “Honky Tonk,” “Let's Go,” “Pipeline,” “Walk, Don't Run,” “Tequila,” “Apache,” “Wipe-Out,” “Memphis,” “Out of Limits,” and their mega-hit … “Hawaii Five-O” (#4 on Billboard’s Singles Chart -1969), (The album reached #11 on Billboard’s album chart).
The Ventures were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. That same year also marked The Ventures 50th Anniversary.
Here’s a list of incredible accomplishments by The Ventures …
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame - Class of 2008
Ranked #4 among all-time instrumental artists on Billboard's Single Charts
Ranked #6 among all 1960s artists on Billboard's Album Charts
Ranked #26 among all-time artists on Billboard's Album Charts
Ranked #20 in most albums on Billboard's Album Charts with 37
“Walk, Don't Run” is one of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Top 500 Hits of all time
1960 to 1969 - Placed 14 singles on Billboard's Single Charts
“Walk, Don't Run (1960), “Walk Don't Run '64” (1964), “Hawaii Five-0” (1969),
1960 to 1972 - Placed 37 albums on Billboard's Album Charts with 5 on the charts simultaneously during 1963.
Telstar and the Lonely Bull (1963), Golden Greats (1967), Hawaii Five-0 (1969)
To date, more than 450 LP and CD albums released worldwide (and still counting)
1960 to 1973 - Sold nearly 1,000,000 albums per year in the U.S.
Japan sales approaching 40,000,000 units (and still counting)
Collective worldwide sales approaching 100,000,000 units (and still counting)
1964 - Popularized Mosrite Guitars with introduction of The Ventures Model. Today these are among the most sought after guitars, known for their tone and playability.
Successfully adapted their unique guitar style to countless changes in musical trends
Released an acclaimed set of instructional records with the Play Guitar with The Ventures series
Cited affectionately as "the group that launched a thousand bands"
Credited with popularizing rock and roll and the electric guitar in Japan
1971 - First non-Japanese artists elected to the Japanese Conservatory of Music
Jan 1987, Guitar Player magazine 20 Anniversary Issue cited Walk Don't Run as one of "20 Essential Rock Albums"
1990 - Inducted into the Washington State Music Hall of Fame
Feb 1996, Guitar magazine identified “Walk Don't Run” as one of ten 1960's albums included in "The Fifty Greatest Rock Guitar Records" (albums)
Inducted into the Hollywood Rock Walk
Invited to participate in the Smithsonian Institution's celebration of the development of the electric guitar
Honored by Fender Guitars with a limited-edition line of Ventures Model Jazzmaster, Telecaster and Jazz Bass signature guitars
2001 - Honored by Aria Guitars with limited-edition Ventures Model guitars
2004 - Award by Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs for contributing to friendly relations between Japan and US. No other artists in modern music share this honor
2005 – Washington State Senate Resolution 8645 to honor The Ventures, to "recognize the contributions of those who have had a significant impact over the evolution, development and perpetuation of rock and roll"
2006 – “Walk, Don't Run” is inducted into The Grammy Hall of Fame
Numerous contributions to movie and commercial soundtracks, including ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘Madagascar’
The Ventures have reached over 100- Million in record sales, 14-songs that hit the singles chart, and 37 albums that charted.
The band continues to record and tour with their current lineup of …Don Wilson (rhythm guitar- co-founder 1958), Nokie Edwards (lead guitar -joined 1960), Gerry McGee (lead guitar –joined 1968), Bob Spalding (lead and bass guitar –joined 1981), Leon Taylor (drums – joined 1996 after the passing of his father Mel Taylor).
Co-founder, lead and bass guitarist Bob Bogle passed away in 2009.
Drummer Mel Taylor passed away in 1996.
I had the rare privilege of chatting with Don Wilson back in June about … The “Walk, Don’t Run" legacy … The early days of The Ventures … Their devoted Japanese fans … My infamous ‘Field of Dreams’ question …The inception of “Hawaii Five-O”… And much-much more!
Here’s my interview with The Ventures legendary guitarist, co-founder, pioneer …DON WILSON.
Ray Shasho: Hi Don how are you doing?
Don Wilson: “I guess okay for an old man Ray. (All laughing) I celebrated my 80th birthday last year at the Hard Rock Cafe here in Seattle.”
Ray Shasho: Congratulations on your eightieth birthday and on such an illustrious career with The Ventures … simply amazing!
Don Wilson: “It really is and I’m still working. I have never missed a gig in Japan since 1962. All the other guys have but I never have. So that’s pretty cool. In Japan we’re doing 40-42 shows in sixty days and never the same place twice. So that’s a lot of travelling if you know what I mean.”
Ray Shasho: Don, I’m not sure I can do that much travelling.
Don Wilson: “I always said …I dare a twenty year old to do what I do.”
Ray Shasho: The Ventures influenced so many legendary musicians … who were the musicians that influenced The Ventures?
Don Wilson: “Duane Eddy when we first started was very popular, instrumental, and his stuff was easy to learn, the melodies were simple and he had about four or five hits in the late 50’s until we came along. (All laughing) But I know him and he’s a real nice guy. And of course our lead guitar player Nokie Edwards was into Chet Atkins and Les Paul. As a matter of fact when he was trying to learn Les Paul stuff he didn’t understand that it was speeded up, so that’s the way he learned it was just playing it like that. He’s a hell of a guitar player I’ll tell you that.”
"Bob Bogle … my partner when we stated the Ventures was a killer bass player. If you listen to some of the things we’ve done …my God, and he had a unique style of lead guitar, nobody plays like him, it’s a certain sound. When we got started it was just the two of us from Tacoma, Washington. When we went in to record “Walk, Don’t Run” which was our first hit in 1960, my partner and I bought two guitars at a pawnshop in late 1958 and in 1960 by learning how to play had the number two hit in the nation which was “Walk Don’t Run.” It should have been number one but this was our competition … “The Twist” -Chubby Checker, “Only the Lonely” -Roy Orbison, “It’s Now Or Never” -Elvis Presley, “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” -Bryan Hyland … all those songs in the Top 5 along with “Walk, Don’t Run.” We stayed at number two while they were switching back and forth to number one.”
Ray Shasho: Did you get radio airplay help from the deejays during that time?
Don Wilson: “We had a hell of a time getting “Walk, Don’t Run” played, just an awful time because what happened was my mom was very interested in working with us and my dad was just the opposite. Our dream was to be able to support ourselves by just playing the guitar. We wanted to be able to quit our hard labor jobs in construction. My mom helped us and we started our own label called Blue Horizon and she went out and did all the legwork for us because we worked out of town a lot. She really was a big part of our success because we couldn’t do those things. So she took the record around to radio stations and they said Nah, it’s not a hit. There was a record label here called Jerdon Records, Jerry Dennon in Seattle and he said no, it’s not a hit. We were starting to believe that maybe he was right.”
“There was another record company in Seattle called Dolton Records and they had some success with The Fleetwoods … they had such hits as “Come Softly to Me,” and “Mr. Blue” and we finally did get a disc jockey who we knew from the past who worked at a smaller radio station, and then became the most famous Top 40 disc jockey in Seattle to play “Walk, Don’t Run,” but it was only being played as a news kicker. He said we’re going to play about thirty seconds of your song before the news. The way they know if people like it was that they’d call in and say… what was that I really like that. The disc jockey never says who it is or what the name of it is, you have to call in to find out. So this guy from Dolton Records happened to be listening and he got a hold of us, his name was Bob Reisdorf and he said I’d like to talk to you about a contract. He said I really like the song. Everybody had turned us down but him, you find an angel every once in awhile. So we met with him and he said I’m going to send this to my distributor in Los Angeles which happened to be Liberty Records. The President of Liberty Records said… no, I don’t want it, doesn’t sound like a hit to me, and Bob Reisdorf of Dolton Records said, let me tell you something, I think it’s a natural hit. Bob said, you put it out and if it loses money I’ll pay it. And it went on to be a number two hit in the nation. Then we went to Japan and became monsters! We were the instrumental Beatles; we couldn’t leave our hotel room.”
“We received the Order of The Rising Sun Gold Rays with Rosette medal which was awarded by Japan’s Emperor in recognition for The Ventures contribution to the development and enrichment of music culture in Japan as well as to the promotion of cordial relations between Japan and the United States. In 2004, The Ventures received the Japanese Foreign Minister’s Award on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Treaty of Amity between Japan and the United States. There was never a group like ours who got that kind of recognition and especially from the Emperor and the government.”
Ray Shasho: The Beatles earlier guitar sound sort of mimicked The Ventures.
Don Wilson: “George Harrison wrote an article that said he really liked The Ventures; yea you can hear that in The Beatles early stuff. George said we have The Shadows here in England but I’ve always opted for The Ventures.”
Ray Shasho: It’s truly amazing how many great guitarists started out playing the Ventures music.
Don Wilson: “I’ll give you a partial list right now … how about Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Joe Perry of Aerosmith, and many-many country artists. While I was waiting to get my presentation at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Billy Joel was backstage and he said to me one of the very first songs that I learned on the piano was “Walk, Don’t Run.” My daughter called me about five or six years ago and she said somebody told me that you had something selling at Starbucks. I said if we had a CD in there I would know it. I told her that I’ve got to go and find out what that might be. So right before Christmas I went down to Starbucks and I see ‘Elton John’s Favorite Christmas Songs’ none by him but by other artists. And I see one of our songs from our Christmas album and he had a paragraph inside the insert of everybody that he had chosen to be in there and when it came to The Ventures he said, I grew up with The Ventures … “Walk, Don’t Run” and “Perfidia,” the last thing he said was The Ventures are cool! I would have never known about that or Billy Joel. There were also a lot of drummers that we influenced too like John Bonham and Mick Fleetwood.”
Ray Shasho: Not sure if you considered ‘The Ventures’ as a Surf Band or a Rock and Roll band … Personally I always thought of ‘The Ventures’ as a Rock and Roll band.
Don Wilson: “Oh no doubt about it! Not only that but we have somewhere between 260-270 different albums out. Who has a Gold 8-track, I want to know. And of course we got real popular in Japan. GAC was the agency that was booking us and we were doing a four hour gig for dancing while getting paid around $250.00 …and that was when “Walk, Don’t Run” was a hit! (All laughing) They asked us if we wanted to go to Japan and I said yea, that would be great. But there was good news and bad news …. They couldn’t afford all four us, only Bob and I, and we still said yes. They weren’t really into rock and roll; they were mostly into big bands at that time in 1962. They didn’t have an electric bass in the whole country, acoustic guitars were popular there, mostly Mariachi type of stuff. One of the most popular groups was called ‘Trio Los Panchos’ and so when we started with the guitar the kids just went crazy for it, but not at first.”
“When we went back there in 1964 they had been playing our records everywhere … radio, TV, loudspeakers, coffee houses …and we hadn’t realized how popular we were. There were three thousand people waiting for us at the airport building and we all wondered who’s on this airplane the President? (All laughing) The closer we got to the terminal we saw all kinds of signs saying… ‘WELCOME THE VENTURES,’ and if we’d known that we would have asked for more money. (All laughing)”
Ray Shasho: One of the most memorable album covers growing up as a kid was ‘Golden Greats by The Ventures’ spotlighting a young beautiful blonde girl wearing a gold bikini on the front and inside cover. I think many of us fell in love with that particular album cover.
Don Wilson: “For one thing she was a centerfold in Playboy magazine. It was the record company’s idea to put a sexy woman on the front. We sold records mostly to guys who wanted to know how to play the guitar. The very first album we had ‘Walk, Don’t Run’ had that girl on it too wearing capris pants. It was photographed from below and she looked real tall but she wasn’t, she was only about 5’2 inches but a very sexy girl. To tell you the truth I never met her back then. All those guys on the album cover that were falling down with the guitars and holding them up while they’re falling to the ground were stockroom boys, because we were on the road, so I never met her.”
“But in the early 90’s we were playing at a beach resort in Southern California and this guy comes in and he says do you know her? I’m looking at her and I say no … and he says she’s the one that’s on your first album cover, she has a boutique right down the street. She always looked tall on the album cover but she was only about 5’2 inches. It was a total surprise! So that was the first time that I met her. We did another album that had the same kind of look, but it was really us falling down on the cover. They wanted to repeat the look with the artists.”
Ray Shasho: Don, talk about the inception of "Hawaii Five-O” …Morton Stevens wrote it and his original theme was played on the TV show … but The Ventures longer version of "Hawaii Five-O” was actually recorded and became a huge hit?
Don Wilson: “I’ll tell you the whole story … our drummer who was Mel Taylor at the time, he passed away and my partner Bob who passed away too, so there’s only me and Nokie Edwards, and he doesn’t play much anymore but I do. (Laughing) I’m still working … I don’t have to but I want to. I don’t fish and golf, what am I going to do lie in bed and watch TV and eat? (All laughing)”
“Anyway, our drummer had gotten closer than we did to one of our engineers. He told Mel Taylor, you know the writer only has a thirty second version of “Hawaii Five-O” just for the TV show. He said, I suggest that you guys record it because he’s (Morton Stevens) not going to. We did record it; I’m telling you The Ventures are snake bit; we’re the Rodney Dangerfield of the rock world, we don’t get no respect. (Laughing) So anyway he says why don’t you guys do a two minute version of it and put it out there? So we did.”
“The TV show wasn’t really making it. At that time after thirteen weeks if you didn’t make it you were through. Then the scripts got better and it finally caught on. We released “Hawaii Five-O” and it wasn’t a hit for seven months after it was released. We were trying to get people to play it so we hired somebody to push the record and he got turned down everywhere. He finally got a breakout and then calls a lot of radio stations and tells them that stations are playing the hell out of it. They ask him, oh yea, where? He says in Hawaii, which wasn’t very impressive to them. Eventually somebody did play it and went up the charts to number one in Sacramento, California, and that started the whole thing off. Then it landed on the Top 5 in the nation.”
Ray Shasho: “Was there ever a time when The Ventures considered using a vocalist?
Don Wilson: “I did in Japan; in 1976 we took a couple of female vocalists with us. It’s not what they wanted to see though; they want to see The Ventures. The people that we were working for over there said no, you guys are a four piece and are The Ventures … two guitars, a bass, and a drum, because they would have had to pay them and I’m sure they didn’t want to do that.”
Ray Shasho: Don, do you own a collection of vintage guitars?
Don Wilson: “I just sold my guitar for $75,000., of course not as much as guitarists like Eric Clapton (Laughing). It was a 1967 Jazzmaster and I had played that all the time until after we had our deal with Mosrite Guitars. That guy was the worst businessman in the world. He started a record company and lost all of his money. We had guitars out that were accounts receivable and my partner and I lost about $200,000. That was in the 60’s, how much is that now? And then he had the gall to come ask me …Can I use your name? I said I don’t think so, but he did anyway.”
Ray Shasho: We never get tired of listening to The Ventures and it’s amazing how people will usually identify a Ventures cover over the original song.
Don Wilson: “We’ve gone from playing other people’s songs … how many instrumentals is there that aren’t movie or TV themes. Instrumentals are hard to come by with hits, so we got other people’s instrumentals and put them on an album, and in many instances our albums sold more than their single. We identified with doing that too. People say oh, you’ve got that hit, not originally but we did make a big hit out of it. Of course “Wipe Out” was The Surfaris and we did it a little bit different than that, and I think we outsold their single by two to one. With “Pipeline” every time I see Bob Spickard of The Chantays he gives me that praise where he gets down on his knees, because they came and went. The Chantays were one-hit wonders and that’s it. And here we are with over 270 different albums. We went from surf to rock to classical. We also have a classical album called ‘Joy!’ out with a 35-piece orchestra behind us. We also did a Beatles tribute album called ‘In My Life’ (2010), Japan wanted us to do that and so we did … people love it!”
Ray Shasho: Don, here’s a question that I ask everyone that I interview. If you had a ‘Field of Dreams’ wish like the movie, to play or collaborate with anyone from the past or present, who would that be?
Don Wilson: “I suppose it would have been the thrill of my life to play with Duane Eddy, that’s how I learned the lead guitar that I play, by listening over and over to his stuff. Duane Eddy is more or less the blueprint for what I play. People always ask me how you get your sound, it’s unique and different. When my partner and I got together we didn’t know a bass player or a drummer, they were playing with other bands. So it was just he and I. We’d go to these talent shows and in order to make up for the drum kind of sound I played a very percussive rhythm, and he played lead. I did play more lead guitar than he did at that time, but he played lead on “Walk, Don’t Run” and a lot of the early stuff. So he would come to a note and would make a chord out of it, and then he would use the whammy bar to make it a full rich sound. Once we did get a bass player and a drummer …that stuck! I think that had a lot to do with The Ventures success. At that time in the early 60’s we were going in to record “Walk, Don’t Run” and other musicians were saying … you’re going in there without a piano or saxophone, you’re not going to be able to do anything without that. (All laughing)”
“Thank God we didn’t have a saxophonist or a pianist.”
Ray Shasho: Anything else you’d like to promote?
Don Wilson: “My son and I have started a record label and I just produced a group from Seattle and now we’re waiting for the art work to be done. I’m also going to do a video and I have high hopes for them. They’re young boys … one seventeen, another nineteen, and the other one is twenty one, two of them are brothers …and I have to tell you these guys are really good. They’re all good looking boys. People that have gone to see them around here say that they’re really great onstage … the name of the band is ‘Asterhouse.’
Ray Shasho: Don, thank you so much for being on the call today, and more importantly for all the incredible Ventures music you’ve given us and continue to bring.
Don Wilson: “Thanks Ray that was great … good interview!”
Very special thanks to Fiona Taylor
COMING UP NEXT … Folk/Rock/ Singer & Songwriter Jonathan Edwards (“Sunshine”)
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