by Diana Zagorenko
The Ventures was a rock and roll ball band that formed in Tacoma, Washington in 1958. As a band, they recently celebrated their 50th anniversary and continue to perform live shows to this day. They are well-known in other parts of the world and particularly popular in Japan.
The Ventures experienced many different band members throughout the years. Bob Bogle and Don Wilson formed the original band in 1958. At the time they did not have a bass player or drummer. Bogle played lead guitar with melody notes mixed in with chords. Wilson played a “very percussion kind of rhythm” with his guitar, he said in a Japanese 1998 interview. And technique later stuck with them after getting a drummer and bass player. Bogle and Wilson played in small clubs, private parties, and beer bars throughout the Pacific Northwest. In 1959, George T. Babbitt joined as their drummer. In 1960, Nokie Edwards joined the band as their lead and bass guitarist.
However, Babbitt, opted out as he was not old enough to play in bars and night clubs. So, they hired Howie Johnson in 1960. The group lasted until September 1962 when Johnson was replaced by Mel Taylor. The band had some success in single albums but quickly became top in the album market. The Ventures were pioneers in album concepts. A Japanese interview in 1998, Bogle said, “In the 60s and 70s when we would record a new album, pick vocal hits that were in the top ten globally. And would record them instrumentally. Write five to six songs that were like the vocals that were recorded. Once released all the songs would be in the top ten.”
After Johnson quit The Ventures because of a car accident that left him irreversible spine damage. They already knew Mel Taylor, who played at The Palomino in North Hollywood. After inviting him for a few recording sessions, he got a permanent place in the band in 1962. Their success in America was moderate after having such big hits. But their popularity was increasing overseas. Particularly, the Japanese music market. After Bogle and Wilson toured the country in 1962, the music industry welcomed their music.
Their 1965 single Diamond Head was #70 in the US but #1 in Japan. The first time they went to Japan, they went with Bobby Vee and Joanne Campbell, who was a headliner. And thanks to Campbell they really got their popularity in Japan. In Japan guitars and guitar instrumentals were barely heard at the time. When they returned in 1964, they were greeted by thousands of fans at the airport. They were treated as The Beatles in Japan.
The band played together until Edwards left in 1968 and Gerry McGee was hired for the guitar. Edward’s did come back in 1973 and was with them until 1984. And once he left, McGee replaced him. Taylor left in 1972 and was replaced by Joe Barile. But later came back in 1979 and stayed with until he passed in 1996. His son took over his place, Leon Taylor. Mel’s death was hard for the group. They questioned if they should continue playing. Mel asked Leon, should anything happen to him, can he take over? Leon grew up listening to The Ventures, in a way it was a dream for him to play with his favorite artists.
Their popularity declined in the U.S. in the early 1970s from the changing of musical trends. Interest in the band’s music happened between the late 1970s and 1980s from punk and new wave music, as people were discovering their band. The Ventures were still a very popular American rock band in Japan.
When the duo first started, Wilson’s mother, Josie Wilson, was very interested in helping her son and his friend in their musical career. She went around stations and later became their co-producers with Bob Restore. The duo bought their first electric guitars from a pawn shop. In an interview with Neil Norman, they said the guitars weren’t very good, and they were cheap, but were electric. They played in many clubs for several months and keeping their day jobs in construction was killing them. Wilson’s mother really helped a lot in the beginning of their musical career.
Their musical career in the US was successful. The Ventures bought themselves a car and a trailer filled with their amplifiers. A lot of people hired them, as there were a lot of singers who hired them to play their hits and back them up. Don said, “We were used, but we enjoyed it. We thought it was fun and sometimes we were gone for six months at a time.” On their first tour, the walk tour, Bob said he felt this one of their successes in the interview with Norman. When Edwards joined the band in 1960, their hit Walk Don’t Run sold over 500,000 of December 1960. Other successful songs and albums were Perfidiaa (1961) and Hawaii Five-o (1968). Their albums and songs Surfing (1963), Pipelines (1963), and Wipeout (1963) did well.
Surf music came around in 1962 and some say Walk Don’t Run is considered one of the first surf songs. However, it wasn’t considered surfing then. The genre of music really fit well with them, but they never really thought of themselves as a surf band. Wilson stated that, “It just seemed to fit what we did before if you add a little of reverb on the lead guitar and some clicky sounds with the rhythm guitar.” It would be the basis of surfing. Like their song Pipeline, it fit nicely with one of their biggest albums called Surfing. Surf Rider was another hit in the movie, Pulp Fiction.
The band itself does not sing much in their songs. They were told early in their career by Al Bennett, the president of Liberty Records, told them. “You have a strong image which is instrumental. Don’t ever try to change that, you’ll wreck your career.” The Ventures took his advice. They told Norman, “We don’t know if it’s true or not, but it seems to work for us.”
They were top record seller in the entire decade of the 60s. With artists like Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and The Beatles. They even had some of their music in movies, like Pulp Fiction. The composition called Surf Rider was a collaboration with Nokie Edwards. In a sense, it created a renaissance for all types of surf music. The 60s were a golden age for the music era. Music consumers and the music industry never let go of it.
When the band toured in Japan, they really got popular. Their popularity created a new music called eleki boom. Eleki boom is a contribute to the electric rock boom of the 1960s. In the Japanese interview in 1998, the group said they came to Japan because Japan had lots of musical influence and drive. The music played in Japan was different compared to the US. Much of the music was played in a minor key. Bogle said, “I found it to be beautiful and started experimenting with it.” “You want to write for that country,” Wilson stated. The Ventures were new to Japan and their music industry. The sound and instrumental combos in the style of The Ventures, took hold of many Japanese people.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
The Ventures were invited to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 inducted by John Fogerty. The members that were invited at the time were Bob Bogle, Don Wilson, Gerry McGee, Mel Talyor, and Nokie Ewards. Being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a great honor for an artist. An artist’s musical influence on others, the length and depth of their career, and the body of work, innovation, in style and technique are some traits that artists of the Hall of Fame must have. In their acceptance speech, Don says, “Who would’ve thought we would be going through this tonight. Not bad for two former brick layers.”
Where they are today
Today the current members of The Ventures are Bob Spalding as the lead guitarist, Luke Griffin as the bass player, Leon Taylor as the drummer, and Ian Spalding for rhythmic guitar. The original duo have both passed away. Don Wilson was part of the band until 2015, where he retired but still active. Bob Bogle was part of the band up to 2005. Today The Ventures are still an active band, playing and touring for all audiences to hear them.
The Ventures | Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (rockhall.com)
Richards Studio A126221-29 – Image Archive – Northwest Room Collections (oclc.org)
Walk — Don’t Run | Tacoma Public Library | BiblioCommons
40 Year Itch: Interview with Don Wilson of The Ventures (1001-songs.blogspot.com)
About the Author
Diana Zagorenko prepared this article as her final project for TARTS 225: Musical History of Tacoma, taught by Kim Davenport at the University of Washington, Tacoma. At the time she took the class in Autumn Quarter 2022, she was a sophomore still deciding on her major.