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The Ventures

The most popular and influential rock instrumental combo of their day, the Ventures pioneered a sound that anticipated surf music with their emphasis on clean guitar twang and a precise rhythm section that added a punchy kick to their melodies. Whether they were playing original compositions or interpreting familiar tunes, the group's trademark style proved to be surprisingly adaptable, and they released dozens of thematically programmed albums in the 1960s and '70s (17 of which made it into the Top 40 of the LP charts), as well as scoring hit singles such as "Walk Don't Run" and "Hawaii Five-O." The Ventures inspired a small army of similar groups in their heyday, and plenty of aspiring rock guitarists learned the rudiments of the instrument from their 1965 album Play Guitar with the Ventures. The group gained a sizable following outside their native United States, especially in Japan, where they toured often and recorded albums strictly for that market. The 1990 collection Walk Don't Run: The Best of the Ventures is a superb introduction to their catalog, featuring 25 tracks from their '60s releases, while Live in Japan '65 is an outstanding document of their live show, and 1963's The Ventures Play Telstar, The Lonely Bull is an archetypal example of their albums from their classic era. The Ventures' origins lie in a Tacoma, Washington group called the Versatones, formed around 1959 by semi-pro guitarists Bob Bogle and Don Wilson. The two worked together in masonry, and after buying cheap guitars at a pawn shop, they learned to play (Bogle on lead guitar, and Wilson on rhythm) and began gigging around the Pacific Northwest with a rotating lineup of bassists and drummers. As they began playing out regularly, they discovered the name the Versatones was already in use, and on the advice of Wilson's mother, they adopted the new moniker the Ventures. Bogle and Wilson brought aboard a permanent bassist when they recruited Nokie Edwards to join the group, and they rounded out the lineup with drummer George Babbitt. The group self-released a debut single, "The Real McCoy" b/w "Cookies and Coke," on their own Blue Horizon label; the B-side was a standard issue rock tune with lyrics about a teenage party, but the A-side pointed to their future, with a tight guitar chart occasionally punctuated by Wilson imitating Walter Brennan's character of Grandpa Amos from the then-popular situation comedy The Real McCoys. From that point on, the group put their focus on instrumental numbers, and Babbitt was replaced on drums by Skip Moore when he left the band to focus on his military career. (Babbitt would go on to become a four-star general in the United States Air Force.) For their next single, Bogle picked a song called "Walk Don't Run" from a Chet Atkins album, and after first putting it out on Blue Horizon, the Seattle-based Dolton Records label picked it up for nationwide re-release. The single would peak at No. 2 on the national singles charts, and the Ventures were rising stars. (By the time the single made the charts, Moore had left the band, and opted out of future royalties for the single; Howie Johnson promptly took over behind the drum kit.) Before 1960 was out, the Ventures landed another hit single, "Perfidia," which rose to number 15, and put out their first album, Walk Don't Run, which just missed the Top Ten, peaking on the LP charts at 11. 1961 brought a third hit single, "Ram-Bunk-Shush," which reached number 29, as well as no fewer than three albums, The Ventures, Another Smash!, and The Colorful Ventures (the latter dominated by songs that had colors in their titles). In 1962, Howie Johnson left the band as he didn't enjoy being away from his family because of touring and recording commitments, and Mel Taylor was hired after Bogle and Wilson saw him play at the Palomino Club in Los Angeles, completing the group's definitive lineup. Also in 1962, Nokie Edwards moved from bass to guitar, while Bob Bogle swapped out guitar for bass. The following year, The Ventures Play Telstar, The Lonely Bull was released, which became their highest-charting LP, peaking at number eight and going gold. In 1964, the arrival of the Beatles on American shores kicked off the British Invasion, which marked a shift in popular tastes that made the Ventures seem less fashionable than they once were. However, the group continued to record and tour extensively, and they found they were remarkably popular in Japan; a Japanese documentary about one of their tours in that nation was titled Beloved Invaders, and they would go on to sell 40 million records in that country, leading them to launch their own label in the 1980s for their Japanese releases, Tridex Records. The group was so prolific that by the end of the 1970s, the group had released more than 75 albums. The group scored another Top Ten single in 1968 with their recording of the theme song from the TV series "Hawaii Five-O," which went to Number 4 on the singles charts. It would be the group's last significant hit (they would only chart two more singles, the most successful stalling at Number 83), though the reputation of the Ventures kept them active as a live act. In the 1980s, the rise of New Wave rock led to a new appreciation of vintage guitar sounds, including the work of the Ventures; Ricky Wilson of the B-52's not only played a Ventures-branded Mosrite guitar but was clearly influenced by their elemental guitar attack. In 1981 the Go-Go's recorded a surf-styled instrumental number, "Surfing and Spying" in homage to the Ventures, and the band returned the favor by covering the song that same year, with Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin providing backing vocals. And in 1994, when the movie Pulp Fiction sparked a revival of interest in surf music, the Ventures were represented on the film's soundtrack by a cover of their song "Surf Rider," performed by the Lively Ones. In 2008, the Ventures were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In 1968, Nokie Edwards dropped out of the Ventures, and Gerry McGee took his place on guitar. In 1972, Edwards returned to the act, and stayed until 1985; McGee came back as his replacement, though Edwards would occasionally perform and record as a guest until 2016. He died on March 12, 2018 at the age of 82. Gerry McGee died on October 12, 2019; he was 81. Bob Bogle left the Ventures in 2005, and he passed on June 14, 2009, when he was 75. After Mel Taylor moved on from the Ventures in 1973, Joe Barile became their drummer until Taylor came back in 1979. Taylor died on August 11, 1996 at the age of 62, and his son Leon Taylor signed on as their timekeeper. And Don Wilson died on January 22, 2022, in Tacoma, Washington; he was 88 years old. Despite the passing of the key members of the group's lineup, the Ventures continued, with Bob Spalding on lead guitar, Ian Spalding on rhythm guitar, Luke Griffin on bass, and Leon Taylor on drums.
© Mark Deming /TiVo


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