Gary James' Interview With Don Willson of
Guitar Player Magazine called them "the quintessential 6O's guitar band", and their first LP, "The album that launched a thousand bands." Guitar Player was talking about, The Ventures.
The Ventures are probably best known for their instrumental hits, "Walk Don't Run", "Ghost Riders In The Sky", "Perfidia", "Lullaby of the Leaves", "Diamond Head", "2,000 Pound Bee", and the theme from the t.v. show "Hawaii Five-O". The Ventures have sold over 85 million records worldwide, including 40 million in Japan, where they are still accorded superstar status. We spoke with rhythm guitarist and original member - Mr. Don Willson.
Q - Don, why do you think there's still this interest in the music of The Ventures?
A - I don't know. Our music seems to last. All the shows we go to, have fans that treat the albums they bring in to have signed, like Gold. Our music is just fun music.
Q - Why don't we see more instrumental songs on today's charts?
A - I really don't know. I've seen all through the years that there aren't very many instrumentals on the charts, especially combo, rock 'n' roll instrumentals. I can count 'em on one hand probably.
Q - Was it easier to get a record deal when The Ventures started out than it is today?
A - Well, it's a whole different ball game now. What we used to do, is put out a single, and you could even put it out regionally. But now, they just don't do that. It's been over 10 years since we had a single. We asked somebody at a major label if they were interested in it, and they said no. If you had 'White Christmas', they wouldn't be interested in it, 'cause it costs to much to promote and you don't have an album to back it up. When we first started, there weren't that many album sales, and they were almost all monoural, ninety per cent. As far as saying was it easier, in that respect it was. It's still tough. It was though then, as it is now, except for that reason.
Q - When you sent out the "Walk Don't Run" demo tape and it was rejected by the record companies, what reason did they give?
A - Well, it was more disc jockeys than anything. I remember taking it to a radio station, before we were ever heard of, of course. We were a local group and the guy was just getting off his shift. He said, 'I'll tell you what I'll do, I'll play it for you, but let me listen to it.' We said 'OK.' He goes, Yeah well, it's pretty run of the mill.' It was anything but run of the mill. I saw him 2 months later when it was Number One in Seattle. He said, 'Remember when I told you it was run of the mill?' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Well, I was going home in the car, and I was listening to the station, and when the guy played it, it hit me like a ton of bricks. It's a natural hit.' The Ventures grow on you. Our music seems to be timeless.
Q - Your mother released "Walk Don't Run" as a single on her label, Blue Horizon. Was your mother involved in the record business?
A - There were actually 3 partners. My partner and I, Bob Bogle (Ventures bassist) and me and my Mom. See, he was a bricklayer and I was a hot carrier. We were working eight hours a day, 5, sometimes, 6 days a week. We didn't have time to run things around. She did. She did a lot of leg work. We were a 3 way partnership in that record company. But, it didn't take too much money to do.
Q - Who taught you to play guitar in the Army?
A - A guy who was a guitar player for the Page Cavanaugh Trio. I mean, he said he was. He and I got to be pretty good friends. He showed me a lot of chords. I didn't really get into it that much because 1 didn't know that much when I met Bob. So, he and I actually learned together.
Q - How much of an influence was Duane Eddy on The Ventures?
A - He was a big influence on me. I learned to play a lot of my things off of his records. He had a simple style, and it was easy to pick up on. So, that's how I did it.
Q - Rolling Stone Magazine has said The Ventures sound can be heard in bands like Blondie, The B-52's, and the Go Gos. Can you hear that influence?
A - Sure I can... and a lot more, (laughs)
Q - The Ventures are often classified as a surf-rock band, but you formed, before surf was in, and you've certainly outlasted that craze. How do you see The Ventures, as a rock 'n' roll band?
A - Absolutely. We're not just rock 'n' roll. We play all kinds of different things. We had a classical album out, which is Bach and Beethoven, with 35 pieces on it. Our Tenth Anniversary album was certainly considered to be, I don't want to say a step above rock 'n' roll, 'cause I think rock 'n' roll is number one, but at least a step away from it. I think we're much more than surf that's for sure.
Q - What accounts for your popularity in Japan?
A - Well, we've sold about 40 million records in Japan. So, we really are a mainstay there. They just continually want us, and continually buy our records. In 1970 we were the number one composers in Japan. And, in 1971, we were the number one composers again, which put us in the Top Ten of the Japanese composers, and the very first foreigners to ever get in it, in music history. We've written standards for Japan.
Q - Back in the mid 70's, a woman by the name of Nancy Bacon wrote a book, that included a segment about you. She wrote that at the very height of your career with The Ventures, and all of the success, you were an unhappy guy. Was that true? Or did she misread you?
A - I think she just misread it. You know when you come out of someplace, and we came out of Tacoma, Washington, a couple of bricklayers, hot carrier, and you get into something very successful, you do have your ups and downs.