Surf music pioneer Don Wilson dies at 88

Rhythm guitarist Don Wilson, co-founder of surf music staple The Ventures, has died aged 88. his family said on Saturday.

He died peacefully of natural causes early in the morning with his four adult children by his side in his native Tacoma, Washington, his family said in a statement.

“Our dad was an amazing rhythm guitarist who touched people all over the world with his band, the Ventures,” his son Tim Wilson said in the statement.

Wilson was the last of the original surviving members of the group.

The Ventures have sold over 100 million records and are the best-selling instrumental rock band in history, according to the band’s and Wilson’s websites. Among the band’s most notable and familiar records is their version of the theme from the original TV show “Hawaii Five-O” and his trademark, surf left.

Although they’re based along a stretch of Puget Sound that’s nearly 100 miles from the freezing ocean waves and nearly 2,700 miles from the birthplace of surfing in Hawaii, Wilson and his colleague builder Bob Bogle, both aspiring rockers, founded the band in the Pacific Northwest in 1958.

It was the year before the movie “Gidget” blew up surf culture across the country and three years before the Beach Boys began harmonizing about beach life from their base in Hawthorne, in California. The Ventures even predated Dick Dale’s evolution in the early 1960s from country musician to “king of the surf guitar.”

Dale described his screaming licks as so rhythmic that it’s “as if I were playing the drums”. It might not be a coincidence, then, that Wilson had grounded the Ventures with rhythm guitar.

When he inducted the Ventures into Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival said, “The sound became surf music, and its boldness empowered guitarists everywhere.”

Wilson seems to agree with this statement. He has argued in the past that the Ventures were adopted by the surfing craze of the ’60s, not the other way around.

In a 2020 email interview with People to announce the release of his documentary, “The Ventures: Stars on Guitars,” produced with help from the family, the band’s co-founder said: “We never intended to be a surf band.”

“Honestly, I love playing surf music – it’s great fun and feels good,” Wilson said. “But we never really thought of ourselves as a surf band. It was just all of those things coming together—surf culture, electric guitar, Americana—when we got to the early 1960s.”

Still, the act wasn’t above capitalizing on the craze. Wilson and Bogle later carried out and checked in a version of the Surfari classic, “Wipe Out”.

Wilson, a fan of country and western, the Glenn Miller Orchestra and Tommy Dorsey, started playing chords on the ukulele-like Spanish tiple when he was a boy. After high school, he served 19 months in the United States Army. Upon his return, he turned to the guitar, like many of his generation.

The Ventures were said to have first formed about 30 miles north of Wilson’s hometown, although Tacoma and Seattle media have each claimed the group as their own.

The book approved by the group, “Ventures Essential Albums Discography”, said Wilson’s mother, Josie Wilson, helped the duo record their first music.

Wilson and Bogle used the Versatone name for their first gigs but, according to the book, they found that name had been taken. They settled on the Ventures to represent the duo venturing into a new career.

The duo was joined by another guitarist, the late Nokie Edwards, who is credited more than anyone with the band’s surf guitar sound. With Oklahoman influence, The Ventures’ version of jazz guitarist Johnny Smith’s “Walk Don’t Run” hit the pop singles chart in 1960 and eventually peaked at number two.

Bogle played bass and guitar. Mel Taylor on drums and Gerry McGee on another guitar round out the band, which finds a niche in instrumental tracks.

When the group performed “Walk Don’t Run” on Dick Clark’s eponymous television show in 1960 he billed the tune, with its go-go drumming and familiar surf tune as “probably the greatest instrumental record of the day”.

The band survived lineup changes and even deaths by moving on to new members, including drummer Leon Taylor, who joined in 1996 to replace his late father, Mel. Wilson continued to perform with the touring act until his retirement in 2015.

With his passing, the Ventures may have been riding their last wave.

“He will go down in history forever and was much loved and appreciated,” said his son Tim. “We will miss him.”

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