The Fabulous Wailers have held a strong presence in Pacific Northwest rock-n-roll history and for good reason. They were very popular with the dance scene, not only in our neck of the woods, performing at the Evergreen Ballroom in Lacey, but all the way to a national broadcast appearance on “American Bandstand.” Replaying the music provides a sensory experience of what the excitement was all about. Just power up the old turn table and put on a vinyl album of theirs. The sounds will take you to when the organ piano, bass guitar and full sound filled the Evergreen Ballroom along with hundreds of dancing, bopping teenagers.
When the Wailers started making their rounds to clubs and dancehalls, the Evergreen Ballroom, familiarly called The Green, had already been a long-time staple for avid dancers. Walter Sholund and his wife opened the venue in 1932. By the time The Wailers performed there, the dance floor and stage had already seen a lot of action over the course of about three decades. People were driving out from Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater and down from Tacoma to dance from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. Social media reactions and fan website reflections about the dance hall’s history and favorite performers show that the joyful memories never faded.
The founding members of the Wailers are regional locals from Tacoma. Some of the members were 18, and some of them were just 16, still in high school. John Greek, a trumpet player, along with Woody Mortenson, an acoustic bassist, started out playing together at Clover Park High School in Lakewood, Washington. As needed, they added to their duo depending on the needs of the next gig putting on their Dixieland-band style of music. Their first notable addition was Rich Dangel as a guitar player. His added element was a hit, which led to more requests and bookings. Later, Greek brought Mark Marush and Mike Burk, Stadium High School alum, to the band adding a saxophone and drums to the set.
They first named themselves The Nightcaps and began making their mark in the Pacific Northwest music scene. John Greek reportedly found the word wailers on a piece of jazz sheet music, and it became the band’s new name. The initial group was made up of Greek, Dangel, Marush, Burk and Kent Morrill who sang and played piano. Not long after their start, Greek made way for new member Buck Ormsby. Performing and promoting themselves as a band instead of focusing on a person as the headliner was a unique and successful angle. The group was very DIY, driving around putting up their own posters and renting out venues to hold what they called Wailers Dance Parties. They performed in granges, community centers, dance halls and even Bellarmine Preparatory School. One such exciting performance, on the last day of the term at Stadium High School, ended with a shut down from the principal.
The music is lively. The Wailer sound is alluring and elicited dancing in its time because it is a faster beat than its orchestra music predecessor and not a slower rhythm and blues pulse. It has energy and a distinct sound of a deep bass and an electric organ piano. They brought in new voices like Rockin Robin Roberts from the Bluenotes and Gail Harris. The band’s popularity was twofold: the teenage dance events and the new sound. With the additions of electric guitar, organ piano and booming voices, they offered something new. A big hit early on was “Tall Cool One,” in 1959, originally named “Scotch on the Rocks,” an instrumental song that made the Billboard 100 chart for 13 weeks. That same year, the band traveled to the East Coast, signed on with Golden Crest Records, were featured on “American Bandstand” and interviewed by Dick Clark. It was with Golden Crest that they released their first album “The Fabulous Wailers.” Instrumental in their own successes, members Morrill, Roberts and Ormsby started the Etiquette Records label. Their first single was Rockin Robin Robert’s “Louie, Louie,” which became a local number one hit. In 1961, the Wailers played The Spanish Castle in Des Moines, Washington recording their album with Etiquette Records, “The Fabulous Wailers at the Castle,” which sold 40,000 copies in the region.
Countless performers and bands of nearly every genre crossed the stage at The Green from 1932 to 2000 when the whole structure burned down. Fire took all of the memorabilia but not the memories. The Wailers were among the many famous names to command the stage. Not only did they perform there themselves, but they also played along with other famous musicians. As time went on, they continued to record and stayed together as a group with some members leaving to other bands and new members joining, until 1969. The Wailers are recorded in the history of the Evergreen Ballroom and in Pacific Northwest rock-n-roll.