John “Buck” Ormsby, bass player in Tacoma’s legendary band the Fabulous Wailers and a lifelong champion of rock ‘n’ roll’s “Northwest sound,” died Oct. 29 at the age of 75.
John “Buck” Ormsby, bass player in Tacoma’s legendary band the Fabulous Wailers and a lifelong champion of rock ‘n’ roll’s “Northwest sound,” has died.
Mr. Ormsby died on Oct. 29, his 75th birthday, from complications related to lung cancer in Tepic, Mexico, where he had sought alternative treatment.
Mr. Ormsby grew up in Tacoma, where he started out on ukulele at age 7 and soon took up steel guitar. A year before graduating from Tacoma’s Stadium High School in 1959, Mr. Ormsby became a founding member of “Little Bill” (Englehart) and the Bluenotes, but was recruited by the Wailers in 1960, along with “Rockin’” Robin Roberts. In the Wailers, Mr. Ormsby switched to bass guitar.
“He played Fender upright bass with a thumb pick,” recalled John Hanford, senior lecturer in music history at the University of Washington, who is in the Wailers’ current lineup. “The sound he got was ferocious. I’ve never met anyone who had quite the touch he had. He was a huge part of the sound of that band.”
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When the Wailers got into a dispute with their East Coast record company, Mr. Ormsby came up with the idea of forming the band’s own label, Etiquette Records, which is still in business. The Wailers’ locally successful recording of “Louie Louie” on Etiquette inspired the Portland band the Kingsmen to record the song, which became a rock ‘n’ roll classic.
Between 1961 and 1965, Etiquette released 26 45-rpm records and eight LPs, including the Wailers’ “At the Castle” LP, another Northwest rock classic.
Scouting new bands for Etiquette, Mr. Ormsby discovered another seminal group in Tacoma, the Sonics.
“When he first went to listen to them, every song they played was a Wailers song,” recalled Mr. Ormsby’s longtime girlfriend, Pamela Ruzic. “He told them, ‘Call me when you’ve got something other than the Wailers.’ ”
The band came back with “The Witch,” released in 1964, and, later, “Psycho,” which not only became a Northwest rock classic, but more than a decade later inspired a generation of punk rockers in London with their raw sound.
The Wailers went on a long hiatus in 1969, but Mr. Ormsby continued to play, joining another Northwest institution, Jr. Cadillac, soon after its formation in 1970.
When members of that band took annual winter vacations, recalled Ruzic, Mr. Ormsby would go to Europe with suitcases full of LPs by the Wailers, Sonics and other Northwest bands, to promote the music.
“He was a bulldog with a heart of gold,” recalled Alec Palao, consultant for London’s Ace Records, which has made a mission of keeping vintage U.S. rock available to British listeners. “No one else believed in Northwest music like he did.”
In the early ’80s, Mr. Ormsby revived Etiquette Records and spent the rest of his life devoted to the craft and the business of music.
“Everything was music, always music,” recalled his only daughter, Gregory Anne Ormsby, who was with Mr. Ormsby when he died after a bad fall. “He was either a producer, or an event planner or a musician. He just lived and breathed music.”
His daughter also remembered Mr. Ormsby as a gentle, unpretentious, caring man.
“Dad was the one who always showed up to my recitals, to my master’s-thesis presentation,” she said. “He would sit in the back. He always had his head down, with his baseball hat down. If he’d go hear music, he’d listen with his baseball cap on.”
In addition to Ruzic and Gregory Ann Ormsby, Mr. Ormsby is survived by two brothers and a sister, all living in the Northwest.
A public celebration of Mr. Ormsby’s life will be held sometime in 2017, Ruzic said.