Buck Ormsby: 1941 - 2016
Buck Ormsby was a badass.
The longtime bassist of the Wailers, among other Northwest bands, passed away Saturday, October 29—his 75th birthday—after a long battle with cancer. I didn’t know him well, but to say he left an impression on me would be an understatement. As a member of the Wailers, the Tacoma rock and R&B band most active from 1958 to 1969, he cast a long shadow not only over the music of the Northwest, but much farther afield: Jimi Hendrix, the Ventures, the Cramps, and many others would all claim the band as an influence. It was the Wailers, not the Kingsmen, who wrote the now-classic arrangement of “Louie, Louie” (an eternal source of irritation to Buck). Later, he would go on to help found a foundation to provide instruments to kids in need, and the label he co-founded, Etiquette, kept records by bands like the Sonics in print long enough that, decades after they were recorded, they could blow the minds (and speakers) of younger generations.
I had a brief intersection with the Sonics, shepherded by Buck: Their latter-day bassist’s main gig was as an on-call music director, and the band needed a stand-in in case he was needed elsewhere. Perhaps more to the point—and the reason I didn’t get the gig—was that said replacement needed to be able to sing lead from time to time, to give legendary screamer Gerry Roslie a break for a couple of numbers. I’ve yet to hear a singer who can match Gerry’s unhinged vocal blasts, and that person was most definitely not me.
A date was set to rehearse with the band, with Buck serving as my chaperone. I had already met him a few times through friends in Tacoma, and regarded him as a simultaneously warm and flinty personality; he was described as “cantankerous” and “curmudgeonly” by others. I got a taste of both sides on that visit.
The conversation on our car trip up to the Seattle suburbs didn’t begin particularly auspiciously; I put my foot in my mouth early by suggesting—innocently, I thought—that the Wailers had made even substandard material like “Hang On, Sloopy” great. “Bullshit!” sputtered Buck. “We never shoulda been playing that weak shit!” No amount of backtracking could assuage him, so I desperately steered the conversation instead toward the recording techniques the Wailers and Sonics had used.
I had heard that the mic setup for the drums was centered on a cardioid dynamic placed more or less in the drummer’s point of view. “BULLSHIT!” spat Buck. “That’s a load of crap.” He explained that the bands typically used top and bottom mics on snare, and front and back on kick. One or two overheads, depending, and the trick was to place a big piece of plywood under the kick to introduce some “liveness” to a dead room. Though not a recording engineer himself, Buck had plenty of excellent advice from the early days of rock recording: Placing all the amps on risers to decouple them from the floor, and—courtesy of the Sonics—deliberately mismatching the speaker impedances to get a rawer, more blown-out sound.
By this point we had arrived at our destination: Sonics guitarist Larry Parypa’s trim ranch house. I was excited and nervous in the extreme: As far as I’m concerned, the Sonics are the greatest band of their genre—a blown-up, incredibly raw rock and R&B hybrid—to have ever cut a side. Based on the ferocity of their recordings, I was duly concerned that I was going to get my ass kicked for some shortcoming or another.
As it turned out, the band—including original members Larry, Gerry Roslie and sax player Rob Lind—were complete sweethearts. With no disrespect to the many fine people I’ve shared the stage with, this one low-volume afternoon rehearsal has to stand as one of the greatest experiences of my musical “career,” if not my entire life. Though my singing wasn’t strong enough to carry lead vocals, the guys loved my playing and encouraged me to “go for it” even more than my usual mode (i.e. totally overplaying at all times). And of course they dug the vintage Traynor amp and P-Bass I had put together from parts just for the occasion.
After we had run through much of their set, the band adjourned to watch YouTube videos of their recent shows in Scandinavia. “Wow! Listen to all those girls screaming!” exclaimed Larry as “He’s Waitin’,” perhaps the band’s best song, opened the show on the small screen. I just had to find out more about it: It’s such a singular, raw and threatening song. “I don’t think we ever even played it live,” said Larry. “You know, we played dances, and that’s not what they wanted to hear.” I was dumbfounded, but I had to press on. Turning to Gerry, who seemed much more of a gentle soul than his singing voice would suggest, I asked, “What about the lyrics? I mean, they’re kind of…dark!” He looked at me mildly and said, matter-of-factly, “That’s because we’re e-vile.”
We said our goodbyes, and as I got in Buck’s car, drummer Ricky Johnson—late of the Wailers—came out to ask Buck about some tour expenditures. Clearly there was some backstory at play, because a conversation about long-distance phone bills quickly became explosive. I sat in the passenger seat in terror, eyes glued to the dashboard, while just outside Ricky and Buck screamed bloody murder at each other. As I saw it, the only two options were a.) Both parties pulling lead pipes—or worse—from their trunks, or b.) One or both of them suffering heart attacks and expiring in the driveway.
Just as swiftly as the argument had begun, some accord was reached and Buck got in the driver’s seat, cursing Ricky but otherwise unfazed by the encounter. I was just grateful no one had died. After a few miles of awkward silence, we picked up our earlier conversation, and it was then that Buck told me a story that truly touched me.
I’ve always been attracted to the history of subcultures, and always wondered what a rock nd roll show was like—in the days before the “rules” of the genre were set—so I asked Buck about his formative years in the 1950s. What kinds of shows did he go to? What was the rock scene in those days like?
He explained that shows—large ones, sometimes upwards of 2,000 people—were the Saturday night draw, staged at venues like the Evergreen Ballroom in Olympia or the Spanish Castle (inspiration for Jimi Hendrix' "Spanish Castle Magic") between Tacoma and Seattle (where the Wailers recorded a phenomenal live album in 1961). Buck was the eager kid who wheedled his way backstage—I role I know well from personal experience—and was dying to soak in the energy and the sheer newness searing off the stage from artists like James Brown and the Famous Flames, Ike and Tina, and other stars on the circuit. One show in particular was a game-changer for him, and the moment he realized that he could become more than just a bystander: Little Richard and the Upsetters, sometime in 1956.
For a typical suburban white kid in the 1950s, the Upsetters and their flamboyant bandleader truly were upsetting: Little Richard was a mold-breaker in nearly every possible dimension, and it was clear that under those matching suits, the Upsetters were not to be trifled with. Buck described hunkering down in the orchestra pit at the edge of the stage, staring in gape-mouthed wonder as the band burned through their warm-up set before Little Richard took the stage to really bring the house down. The bassist had seen Buck hanging around backstage before the show, and after a few numbers he looked down at him and asked, to Buck’s complete astonishment, if he wanted to play bass on a few numbers. He jumped up onstage—giving the regular bassist time to go off and do god knows what backstage—and had, as he put it, the formative experience of his life.
Describing this night some fifty-odd years after the fact, Buck’s face was lit by a pure wonder and gratitude I recognized: I too had been the geeky kid hanging out as close to the action as I dared, dying for a chance to show the world what I could do with a bass guitar. A small act of kindness had opened a door he might not have found on his own, and in that moment his life was changed forever.
I can recall seeing Buck only once after that day, in Tacoma at my favorite guitar store on the planet, Guitar Maniacs. As luck would have it, he was picking up his bass, a beaten-up Fender Mustang with a tug bar (an old-style finger rest below the strings, rather than the later style above them). We chatted a bit, but mostly he wanted to show off both the bass and what he could do with it. I lapped it up; he was a master, and his energy and delight were utterly contagious. Buck’s love of the scene, his musical ferocity and his DIY ethos were a bright beacon. There won’t be another like him anytime soon.