31st October 2016
Wailers bass player, Sonics producer and co-founder/owner of Etiquette Records, John "Buck" Ormsby passed away on 29th October, his 75th birthday. Ace’s Alec Palao mourns the departure of not only a friend, but one of the great rock’n’roll spirits.
BUCK ORMSBY defined the term “rocker” better than anyone I have ever met in the music business. Not in the clichéd sense of an extrovert who struts the stage and lives life with abandon; rather, Buck was a clear champion for, and a willing slave to, the cause that unites us all. Unlike others in a similar position, he was never overbearing or proprietary; eschewing the spotlight, Buck Ormsby proffered no agenda other than to keep the faith for what he felt need nurturing and preserving: real rock’n’roll.
In fact, Buck Ormsby could with all impunity be considered the true architect of the Northwest sound: that hard-hitting, full-blooded and visceral take on vintage rock and R&B best personified by the Sonics, but audibly the common thread that united that corner of the US in the 1960s, with lasting reverberations through to the more celebrated grunge movement thirty years later. He didn’t invent the style or the method – Northwest rock was always amongst the most organic tributaries of the first rock era - but more than any other single personage, Buck sensed the importance in what was occurring and shepherded it to fruition in several significant ways. He was like a dedicated mechanic, the grease monkey who customized this sputtering, sparking hot-rod and revved it up out on the track to dazzling effect. When things fizzled at the end of the decade, Buck kept that old banger filled with gasoline, checked the oil regularly and drove it everywhere he could, to remind the citizens how special that era had been. Rarely has a scene had such a dedicated torch bearer than the Pacific Northwest had with Buck Ormsby.
Superficially, the man’s greatest achievement could be considered his discovery of the Sonics. But lest we forget, the Sonics were fashioned in the image of the Fabulous Wailers, the cornerstone Northwest rock’n’roll aggregation who boldly put their money where their mouths were with the formation of the independent Etiquette Records in 1961. The label’s first release was the Wailers’ own rock interpretation of ‘Louie Louie’; a Rosetta Stone not only for every musician in the region, but soon to become the very first word in the garage band lexicon.
Growing up in Tacoma, Washington, the blue collar conurbation to the south of Seattle, the Wailers had been Buck’s hometown rivals while he played steel guitar with his first outfit, Little Bill & the Blue Notes. Replacing John Greek in the Wailers in 1960 in the wake of their national hit ‘Tall Cool One,’ he moved to bass and quickly became, along with singer Kent Morrill, the prime motivator in the group. From 1961 to 1964, Etiquette produced a further eight singles and two albums, including the epochal live album “At The Castle”, all of which featured the Wailers or members of their ‘revue’ – Rockin’ Robin Roberts, Gail Harris and the Marshans. After a spell in the army reserves, Buck returned, determined to expand Etiquette beyond the band’s own retinue and in due course scouted local acts for the label such as the Galaxies, Bootmen and of course the Sonics.
At the end of 1964, ‘The Witch’ hit local airwaves and forever upped the ante for rock’n’roll in the Northwest, and each member of the Sonics gives due credit to Buck for pushing them to create as furious a din as was heard on this molten disc. All of the band’s Ormsby-supervised Etiquette releases adhered to the same power-packed formula, and while they would only enjoy regional success at the time, the tremendous influence of that brace of recordings is felt as strongly today as it has ever been. Yet the Wailers’ own subsequent recordings maintained a similar power, not least in the barnstorming original ‘Out Of Our Tree.’ In a move that was as prescient as it was unexpected, Ormsby latched onto the songwriting talent of Ron Davies to provide the band’s last hit, the folk-rocking ‘It’s You Alone.’
A word here about Buck as a musician. In the early 1960s, every member of the Wailers was regarded by the enthusiastic audiences – a young Jimi Hendrix included - as an expert upon their chosen instrument. Rich Dangel on guitar, Mike Burk on drums and Kent Morrill’s hamburger-throated vocals were all notorious, but Ormsby’s abilities as a bass player were rarely noted. He was in fact their secret weapon, the quiet but rock-solid centre of the raucous Wailers racket, a “pocket” player who kept it all together. Ormsby was also unusual in that he used thumbpicks rather than his fingers, the result being a clear, punchy tone that can be heard throughout the band’s recordings.
When discussing the last years of the Wailers, Buck often rued the band’s decision to collectively move to Los Angeles in a misguided attempt to expand beyond their “big fish” status in the Northwest. After the band split in 1970, he returned to Seattle and picked up the bass again for one of the city’s most fondly remembered roots rock outfits, Junior Cadillac. Yet it was in the mid-70s that the legend of the Sonics and Etiquette began to ferment, and rather than dismiss his recent past, Ormsby began to actively revive it. Etiquette Records was reactivated, and the first Sonics reissues emerged by the end of the decade.
In the 1980s Buck continued releasing material and even travelled to Europe to push the catalogue. In doing so, he established a relationship with Ace Records that has continued to this day. While our Sonics’ “Psycho-Sonic” compilation remained a best seller, I felt personally that there was room for a more expanded view of the Etiquette roster, and so I embarked upon discussions with Buck about revamping the Wailers’ albums and the other acts on the label. His occasionally abrupt manner was known to confuse people, but even from our first conversation, Buck was gracious, and it was obvious he cared more than anything about the legacy of Etiquette, and the Pacific Northwest as a whole.
Over the course of numerous visits to his apartment in Tacoma near the shore of the Puget Sound, not to mention lengthy chats with him, Kent and other Wailers alumni, he came to understand and appreciate my intentions. More importantly, I discovered that beneath Buck’s “bulldog” exterior lay not only an unbridled passion for vintage rock and R&B but also a true heart of gold; that of a friend that you would be glad to have on your side. Once when my accommodation fell through at short notice, he was quick to offer his couch, and even cooked me bacon and eggs the next morning. There was the time in Memphis when, after discovering my car had been broken into, he was unfailingly supportive, despite having just played a killer two-hour set with the latter-day Wailers, one of many that I was fortunate to witness. We hung out a lot when he managed the Sonics in the early stages of their recent reunion - in New York, London and elsewhere, sharing hotel rooms on occasion. And he always showed up to check out whatever band of my own I was bringing up to the Northwest.
It meant a great deal to me that Buck appreciated the histories I wrote for the various Ace reissues of Wailers, Sonics and Etiquette material, and often talked about expanding them into book form. It was a part of a greater vision that he would often verbalize, one that included the foundation of a Tacoma-based museum for Northwest music (the “House of Rock’n’Roll”) that would truly celebrate local rock, and not just offer a tacit nod like that found in the much-ballyhooed Experience Music Project in Seattle. One event that Buck did pull off was the 1000 Guitars concert at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma, featuring that quotient of players, or close to it, all performing ‘Louie Louie.’ It was worth attending just to see the grin on Bucks face during this cacophonous reverie.
Increasingly, over the two decades that I knew him, Buck often called to discuss ideas and issues, and would invariably ask, “well, whaddya think?” He had other confidants I’m sure, but I felt that he really valued my opinion – not always a given in the circles I’ve moved in - and that was also gratifying. The last project we collaborated upon was a Sonics vinyl set, with which Buck wanted not only to acknowledge the fiftieth anniversary of ‘The Witch,’ but also to instigate a new, and as it would happen, final release on the Etiquette label. For various reasons, his original concept had to be modified slightly, and I wasn’t sure how he would accept the final product. I clearly remember the call when he first picked it up from the distributor. “I got the box,” he announced in his classic gruff tone. Equally gruffly: “it’s beautiful.” The sentiment was heartfelt, and once again I felt proud to have assisted in an Buck Ormsby endeavor.
Now he is gone and rock’n’roll – that’s beat bashing, guitar-clanging, bass-boomin’ real rock’n’roll – is that much lesser for Buck Ormsby’s absence. The sincerest condolences to his family and girlfriend, Pam. No doubt he’s straight back in there raising the roof with Rich and Kent at the great Wailers House Party in the sky.