This interview is part of a larger article to appear in Munster Style, a magazine devoted to Kustom Kulture and vintage rock.
Paint a picture of what it was like and what that experience was like for you.
Starting in about the spring of 1966, they [Sandy Gillespie and Ron Gardner of The Wailers] asked me if I wanted to go on the road early part of the summer and I said yes.
At that time the band had three vehicles. They had a new Ford station wagon that had "Wailers" painted all over the side of it. They had an Oldsmobile — it wasn't a limousine, but it was a great big sedan, and they had an Econoline [van] that also has "Wailers" painted on it. So the Econoline had the equipment in it, the wagon sometimes had the band and more equipment in it, and the Oldsmobile had the band in it. I usually was driving the wagon or the Econoline.
Anytime I could be in their car and be seen in it, I would jump on it. One time I drove to Owens Beach, Point Defiance in Tacoma, five of my buddies crammed in back, as far back as possible, and when I pop the clutch, I could do wheel stands.
Once I pulled into burger joint before a concert. I get out and there are all these kids. I get my burger, get back in and then back into a telephone pole. It crushed the quarter panel. I wasn't nearly as cool anymore. I crunched the van twice and also got a ticket in it.
How many guys were there?
There were five guys. Plus me [Lance] and Sandy in the entourage.
Kent Morrill – Keyboard and Vocal
Neal Anderson – Lead Guitar
Buck Ormsby – Bass Guitar
Ron Gardner – Saxophone, Keyboard and Vocal
Dave Roland - Drums
How were they getting their gigs? Did they have a booking agent?
They played every little podunk town between here and wherever. They had a guy out of Tacoma that was their manager —I don't remember his name — their office was on 6th Avenue in Tacoma, near Pearl or Proctor. It was south of Proctor neighborhood just west of 6th Avenue and S. Stevens Street.
And he was booking them in small venues?
Anybody that would pay. Back then (need to verify) their standard wage was $700/night. We'd be in Hoquiam one night and Spokane the next night and Eugene the next night. It was just grueling. Those guys were fine with it — they were raised on it — this guy was dying.
When I was in the wagon I would get to a town before the band — a half a day or whatever, and one of my jobs was to contact the promoter. And it was usually a radio station. You'd get a hold of the station and sometimes they'd have me come on and do an interview, which was really fun because I'd say, "Yeah, and my boys will be here later today," and I'd make this big deal.
And you were 19 years old? That's insane!
Yeah, well the DJs that were interviewing me were probably 21—the ones who were interviewing me.
And the motels or hotels would be set up in advance so I or we would roll in. The band almost (and I'm showing you a small window, but in that summer) usually they got two rooms: One for for sleeping and one was for partying. And one of my jobs was — somebody went out and bought the beer, and I would fill the bathtub up with ice and beer.
What was the drinking age at that time?
Twenty-one. And most of the guys were probably 21 at that time — not all of them were, but a couple of them were. I think Kent was the oldest guy in the group. Not sure about that. So we'd hit town, set up at the hotel, Sandy and I would go to the venue and set the equipment up, and then the band was really into their "entrance," which was really cool. Very theatrical. They were really smart about that.
So they would build a lot of excitement and anticipation?
Yes. Sometimes they would intentionally, well, sometimes they would get there early, tune up all their equipment, so everything was ready to go (this is before anybody got there) —I don't remember how many times it happened, but I remember it happening — they would intentionally be a little late. You know, the thing was supposed to start at 7 or 8 or 9, and they would get there at 7:10, or 8:10 or 9:10, and the crowd would be [antsy] — yeah, they'd come through the front door. And they would even sometimes wear trench coats. So these guys would come walking in in trench coats (everyone knew who they were) and rather than come in through the back door like anyone else, they'd come through the front door and the crowd would just part as they came in. And they'd walk up onto the stage, pick up their instruments, and BANG, they'd start playing.
Whenever they played in Vancouver, Canada, the Canadians would fly even though it was just from Seattle because the newspaper in Vancouver treated them like they were the biggest name in the world, so they'd get their picture taken, coming off the airplane, like they were The Beatles or something. Yeah. And they had some of that stuff down.
Sounds like they did a lot of really intelligent things? Like things that were very sophisticated?
They were a smart band—a very smart band. That's why their music's so good.
They would pay their own way and make sure the local media knew when they were arriving. I remember seeing a picture on the front page of the Vancouver newspaper of the band walking down the ramp off the plane while waving at the crowd. Very “Beatles-ish”.
So it seems like they had it all, but musically they were challenged to put out something that reached the same level as when they were at their pinnacle?
When rock and roll was rock and roll, they were the kings around here. Not just here, but they were the kings in Seattle, Portland, Ore, Vancouver—the northwest. When music started changing — and this is just a personal opinion — they were a little slow to change —not that they even needed to change, but once The Beatles started happening, I think the Wailers and a lot of other people thought, "yeah, that'll go away." And it didn't.
And so their music was becoming a little dated. So then they started playing "catch up," and if you listen to their "Out of Our Tree" — Correction —“Walk Through The People" album, that's when they tried to get psychedelic. And a few things before that. And some of it worked, some of it didn't. A typical Wailers album, no matter where they were in the time line, it was always the same thing: a third of it was killer—just number one stuff, a third of it was okay and a third of it was like, nyah. But I suppose you could say that about everybody back then.
I remember that last album — "Walk Through The People," I think was on Bell Records — and I remember, even though this really wasn't the case, the attitude was — boy I hope I don't get in trouble saying things I've twisted in my memory—but it was kinda like, "This one's gotta make it. This album's gotta make it or we have to really look at what we're doing."
With the album art on “Walk Through The People” I think they shot themselves in the foot on it. It looked like two things: “A Web of Sound” by The Seeds was released in 1965 and the Wailers album cover looked too much like it. And then it sort of looked like it wasn't “current.”
So that was still like around '66? So how long do you think that ride continued? You said you kind of hooked up with them just after they'd peaked and they were kind of heading down.
Of course they've had a resurgence, but probably '68 or so? [Things were really changing radically by 1968] They went through...their album, sitting in a spaghetti house in San Francisco — "Outburst"— that has some really good stuff on it—very commercial sounding— and every time I hear it, it sounds like The Monkees to me. And that album— I used to hang around their office—there might've been another writer. They hired a guy to write a bunch of stuff for them, R. Wayne Davies. It was like, OK, put an album out that's not ours—someone else is going to write it. But I remember the guy drove up. He was a rag-tag looking hippie before there were rag-tag hippies. He drove a beat up Corvette and I remember him driving to the office. And he wrote a good part of the "Outburst" album — I think. It was pretty commercial sounding, but there was some good stuff on it. Commercial stuff isn't necessarily bad.
It was sorta like, we're gonna stop being the original Wailers and sound like everybody else, and [not be true to yourself].
Those two albums were produced around the time you hung out?
I think "Out of Our Tree," and "Walk through the People." Maybe they put out 15 albums? Something like that. Among them:
The Fabulous Wailers
The Wailers At The Castle
Tall Cool One
Out of Our Tree
Wailers Wailers Everywhere
The Wailers and Company
Walk Through The People
Cadillac to Mexico
Two Car Garage
The Boys From Tacoma
The Sonics is a huge piece of the Wailers history. The Sonics recorded a lot of the Wailers music. The Sonics were another Tacoma band. The Wailers get credit for being the first garage band. The Sonics were really different. They had this feedback system they were using that no one else was using. The Kinks, I think got their whole gig from the Sonics. There are a lot of people who think that.
People think the Kinks were influenced by the Sonics?
Yes. Sonics were recording stuff that the Kinks got a hold of. They thought, “Hey, this stuff is really different.” But the Sonics were a local, popular band. The Wailers took them under their wing—started recording them on the "Etiquette" label. The Sonics, in some people's eyes, eclipsed the Wailers. Their song, "The Witch," was a pretty big hit. I don't know where it landed nationally, but it definitely was up there. And they had a bunch of local hits—some other stuff. They were really an acquired taste.
Did you ever like the grunge stuff? Did it resonate with you at all? Like, did it harken back to those days?
I didn't pay attention. As time went by, I'd hear some Nirvana stuff and thought it was good—it sounded more like the Sonics. I claim no expertise. My own taste in music stopped in 1975 or so.
So during the time you were the band boy, you were traveling vast distances?
I keep getting side tracked. This is a good story. It was really a grind. We'd set up the equipment, the band would go play. Part of my job, for lack of a better word, was being a "pimp." I would make sure that I was seen on stage by the audience. Still to this day I make sure I get "seen by the audience." [Smile.] I would make sure they would make a connection. I would walk up to girls and all I would say is, "Are you 18?" Laughs. They'd say, "yeah." I'd say, [for example] "The Wailers are staying at The Tradewinds tonight. C'mon down. We're in room 502." Only the cute ones. And everything you've ever heard about groupies? They're all true.
There were no drugs. In fact, the Peanut Butter Conspiracy was playing in SF or somewhere and The Wailers might've opened for them. I was invited to go smoke dope with them, and I can't remember if it was Buck or Kent, but he gave me the finger shake. They were all for drinking themselves into oblivion, but don't touch marijuana — nothing.
Do you think that changed over time?
I would suspect so. Laughs. But I have no stories. I witnessed nothing. [Smiles.]
So on a typical summer—would you guys play...
Seven nights a week. One night off per month. They were booked night after night.
If they were making $700 per night, that was a sizable amount of money back in those days.
Each guy, I don't remember the amount of money, but each guy would get a certain amount of money every week and all the rest of it went into Etiquette Records. So they were on a "wage." Etiquette was THEIR label and it still is.
So it was night after night after night. The thing that was hard was, some nights you'd finish playing at one or two in the morning, tear down the equipment, go back to the hotel, sleep til 8, 9, or 10. But sometimes you'd tear down the equipment, climb back into the van, then drive 300 miles. The band might stay behind and sleep, but Sandy and I would drive to the next town. And I did this for two and a half months. One day we were in a restaurant. It was really bizarre because we were eating breakfast at breakfast time. I remember thinking it was 8 o'clock and we were eating breakfast. I got up from the table and went into the bathroom and puked my guts out, came back and said, "Guys, I can't do this anymore. It's just too hard on me, physically."
It must have been the time of your life.
When you guys would do these gigs, would you say you'd have an audience of a couple hundred?
Easily. There'd be an audience of 150 to 1,000. A roller rink, dance hall. Probably the biggest gig I saw when I was with them was the Coliseum in Spokane. Huge. Big enough that I was with the Wailers band and Chuck Cantrell (the roadie for the Sonics) is in his van, and we drag-raced inside the Coliseum, aiming straight for the stage. Have you read Pat O'Day's book? There are some pictures in it of the Wailers taken on stage in the Coliseum, that night.
Was there like a pinnacle moment for you in that whole overview of the summer? Like you thought, wow, this is an unbelievable moment? That really sticks out in your mind as the most amazing thing—like, you can't believe you're doing this, or you can't believe you're here?
It won't print as well as it came across, but I remember Sandy, Ron and I —people would pair up/share sleeping quarters/hang out— we went to a department store and all the clerks there, the girls were all over Ron. Two stories: Ron points at me and says, he's in the band too, and all of a sudden they're all over me.
But a better story: Sandy and I are somewhere, we stop at a fruit stand. There was a family with two daughters there. The two daughters saw the van.
They see us and come running and they have a Wailers album. And they ask us to autograph. I said, “Hey, I'm just the roadie,” and they were like, “I don't care!” So I signed it, "Best wishes, Lance Lambert." so somewhere out there, there is an album inscribed like that.
Oh, I have another story...
They're playing in Burien — a club there, like a dance hall or skating rink or something. Concert's over. Tearing down the equipment. The exits doors on the side "CRASH" and burst open and about six or eight teenage girls come flocking in and they all gather around me. And they're squealing and saying "Give us something! Give us something! Give us anything!" And I had some Wailers calling cards, so I gave them each a calling card (like, business cards?) Yeah, and I didn't bother telling them I wasn't in the band at that point. And it was like I just gave them each a $500 bill.
Do you have any mementos from those times? Back stage passes? Ticket stubs?
Nothing. And I'm a guy with lots of scrap books filled with everything. It's crazy. I have a picture of Sandy standing next to the van. I have sadly one bad picture of me climbing into the station wagon. I have Wailers posters I've picked up over the years. But yeah, I wish I had more.
Something I'd like to say about the Kingsmen—I was in Vegas about 15 years ago. There was a concert at The Aladdin. It was Jan and Dean, The Kingsmen, The Shantees (sp), and the Shantelles. Jan and Dean headlined. All four groups took a break (I do have a great, one of a kind poster for the event, made up by the hotel). The bands each were set up at tables to sign autographs and stuff. At the time I think there were two original guys in the group. I said, "I certainly don't expect you to remember me, but I will always remember when the Wailers were sitting at a patio killing time before the show and you guys pulled up in your car because you were staying there, too. As soon as the word "Wailers" came out of my mouth, the other three or four guys stopped talking to whomever they were talking to and scooted their chairs over, and sat there and talked. And this is a direct quote in my memory, "You know, all we ever were was a Wailers-wannabe band." If the Wailers version of “Louie Louie” would have come out a week or two earlier, and it would be their version you always hear."
Through all of this, from '59 until now, I've always thought the Wailers are just a really great rock and roll band. And it's always frustrated me and every one of their fans that they weren't bigger. The rest of the world deserves more Wailers music. You look at them now and they're being recognized, busy and still performing. They just released "Two Car Garage", a new CD with The Ventures. They recorded a bunch of stuff and it's the best version I've ever heard of "Louie Louie."
February 19, 2010