The Boys from Tacoma: The Fabulous Wailers

— by Abbi Kanouse-Schaefer

The Fabulous Wailers were a garage band formed in Tacoma, Washington in 1958 and are an integral part of the area’s musical history. Often considered one of the first garage bands, The Wailers and other local groups of the time laid the foundation for the grunge scene in the Pacific Northwest. In Tacoma and beyond, The Wailers were an inspiration for many artists, and even produced some of them through their record label, Etiquette Records. The band is also notable for their cover of “Louie, Louie,” which gained local favor and was considered for the Washington state song in the 1980s.

Early Days

The founding members of the Fabulous Wailers were John Greek, who played guitar and trumpet, Richard Dangel, who played lead guitar, Kent Morrill, who played piano and was the lead vocalist, Mark Marush, who played tenor sax, and Mike Burk, who played drums. The boys were very young when they began jamming together in 1957 – still in high school – and were not much older when the band saw its first major success.

A Seattle-recorded demo of the band’s lively instrumental song “Tall Cool One” drew the attention of Golden Crest Records, a record label in New York. The Wailers were signed with Golden Crest and released a number of singles and an album under the label in 1959 and 1960. “Tall Cool One” was one of those releases, and it was a hit. The song landed the Tacoma boys a promotional appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand in Philadelphia. At the time, Greek, Morrill, and Barush were 18, and Burk and Dangel only 16. Their young age, while impressive, was part of what brought them back to their hometown. The boys missed their girlfriends and families, and they needed to finish school.

Return to Tacoma and the Beginning of Etiquette Records

Displeased with the group’s decision to leave New York, Golden Crest Records no longer showed much interest in recording or touring The Wailers. They knew they’d need to find another way to record and release music, or else disband. The members, now consisting of Morrill, Dangel, Burk, Marush, and two new members, locals Buck Ormsby and Rockin’ Robin Roberts, sat down to discuss their options. It was decided, at the suggestion of Ormsby, that they would start their own label in Tacoma. And that’s what they did.

1961 was the beginning of Etiquette Records. The first release under this new label had to be a single due to budgetary restraints. Though the song was recorded by The Wailers, they couldn’t release it under their name because they were still signed to Golden Crest Records. Instead, they released it under the name of their new lead singer, Rockin’ Robin Roberts. The single was a cover of “Louie, Louie,” a song originally written and performed by California singer, Richard Berry. The Wailer’s version gained significant local popularity. In fact, their garage-rock version of “Louie Louie” became so popular it was up for consideration as the official state song by the Washington Legislature in the 1980s (The News Tribune).

“Louie, Louie” was especially popular with the younger local crowd. In a 1985 issue of The Western Front, the official Western Washington University paper, a student is quoted as saying: “’Louie, Louie’ for state song may be kind of wild for the old folks, but it sure sounds better than ‘Washington, My Home.’ Who wants to sing that boring song anyway? I couldn’t do it without laughing or puking somewhere before the end.” The Washington State song was, and remains, “Washington, My Home,” despite strong favor for the change.

Eventually able to use their own name again, The Wailers went on to record four new albums under their record label: “The Fabulous Wailers – At The Castle,” which was a live album with an appearance local singer Gail Harris, “Wailers & Co,” “Out of Our Tree,” and “Wailers Wailers Everywhere.” The live album was a recording of a show the Wailers played at a Seattle venue, the Spanish Castle Ballroom, and was just one of many Wailers’ performances catered toward local youth.

Besides releasing The Wailers’ music and solo albums for some bandmembers, Etiquette Records also recorded and released music for other local artists such as Gail Harris, The Galaxies, and the Marshans. One of the most notable groups the label worked with was The Sonics, another Tacoma garage band of great influence on the music scene.

The Wailers went through many personnel changes in their active years and eventually disbanded in 1969. Their final two albums, “Outburst” and “Walk Thru The People,” were released under different labels.

Later Days – Reunions and Legacy

The end of The Wailers wasn’t really the end – some members of the group continued to reunite on occasion, performing their old hits in local venues such as The Swiss and the Snoqualmie Casino. In 2009, The Wailers collaborated with another Tacoma band, The Ventures, for the release of an album called “Two Car Garage” and a tour, in celebration of the 50 year anniversary of each band.

Today, there are no living members of The Fabulous Wailers, but their music, their impact, and their record label (now managed by Buck Ormsby’s son, Gregory), remain.

The Wailers in 2009, photo courtesy of Merri Sutton.

“Before there was grunge, there was garage. Don’t ever forget that. And there are two bands that started that whole thing: The Wailers and The Ventures.”

Billy Bob Thornton

SOURCES

Abbi Kanouse-Schaefer wrote this article as her final project for Musical History of Tacoma, a class taught by Kim Davenport at the University of Washington Tacoma.

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