Photo by Merri Peterson-Sutton
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.Buck passed on Oct. 29, his 75th birthday, from complications related to lung cancer in Tepic, Mexico, where he had sought alternative treatment.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“He has a huge amount of devoted friends, The music community is putting together a big memorial for him.” – Pamela Ruzic, Buck’s longtime partner.
Buck formed Etiquette Records when The Wailers were in a dispute with their label on the East Coast. Despite the setback of “Losing our Bassist”, Etiquette Records shall carry on in the memory of Buck’s vision.
Buck 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.