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Guitar, Bonnie (b. 1923): The Northwest's Trail-Blazing Pop Pioneer
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Musician, songwriter, singer, and major hit-maker -- Seattle's Bonnie "Guitar" Buckingham, is one of the biggest stars to ever emerge from the Pacific Northwest's music scene. And her path to fame was one that saw her become an early "crossover" artist: never satisfied to find a niche and rest on her laurels, Guitar created songs that alternately scored on the pop Best Seller charts and/or on the country music charts all the way from the 1950s up through the 1980s. But far from focusing solely on her own career, the multi-talented artist also contributed her skills as a (rare female) session instrumentalist, talent scout, record label executive, audio engineer, and session producer to the success of many other aspiring young talents. She will be remembered by history as a pioneer in realms of the music biz then traditionally dominated by men.
Born to John and Doris Buckingham in Seattle on March 25, 1923, Bonnie was initially raised in a home at Redondo Beach along Puget Sound. Later, the family (including her five siblings) moved inland to a farm just outside the rural town of Auburn. Exposed to plenty of music early on -- both her father and uncle, Bert G. Buckingham, were old-timey fiddlers -- her two older brothers shared a flat-top Gibson guitar which they passed on to her at the age of 13.
Three years later Bonnie began to compete in area talent shows. Her first victory -- at Seattle's Rialto Theater (708 1st Avenue), where she sang Jimmie Rodgers' country blues classic, "Mississippi Moon" -- led to others and soon she joined a musical revue that toured small theaters across the region during the early years of the Great Depression. Still absorbing all the music she could and honing her singing and guitar-picking chops, by 1942 she adopted her first of several stage-names: "Bonnie Lane."
The Old Barn Dance
Dedicated to learning all she could, Bonnie took lessons over the years from prominent local instructors including Bobby Fisher, Joe Farmer, and Al Turay. But the teacher who had the greatest impact on her musicianship -- and life -- was Seattle's Paul Tutmarc (1896-1972) who provided musical instruction from his downtown studios (806 Pine Street). Tutmarc (who was 27 years her senior) took a particular interest in Bonnie -- one that apparently helped lead to a divorce from his wife, Lorraine, in 1943. The following year the teacher and student married, moved to a home in Renton, and soon began gigging together at the Eagles Nest lounge atop the Eagles Auditorium (7th Avenue & Union Street) in Seattle. After that, their trio played rooms like the Elks Club and the Surf Theater Restaurant.
Before long, the Tutmarcs were recruited into the K-6 Wranglers -- a country band that was promoted by the region's preeminent country/western DJ, KVI radio's Buck Ritchey. This high-profile band -- which also eventually included Woody Guthrie's brother (Jack "Oklahoma Hills" Guthrie) -- played all the big roadhouses and dancehalls in addition to regular radio spots, and so the offer was readily accepted. Although the Tutmarcs were had been musically diverse enough to perform everything from pure pop to Hawaiian to light jazz and all sorts of standards, they now began focusing on their country chops: Bonnie strumming her National Electric Spanish guitar, while Tutmarc played one of the Audiovox brand lap steel guitars that he'd been manufacturing and marketing since about 1934.
For the Record
KVI's K-6 Wranglers show aired from about 1944 through 1947, and along the way Bonnie was challenged to pen a song about yodeling. A prolific songwriter from an early age, Bonnie quickly cranked out "The Two-Timin' Yodeler," which charmed listeners and around 1948 Seattle's pioneering record company, Morrison Records, issued the Wranglers' first 78 rpm disc (backed by "The Old Barn Dance").
Over the next few years the Tutmarcs led additional sessions -- including "Sailing Through The Sunny San Juan Isles" and "Old Montana Cowboy" -- that were also released by Morrison. By 1950 the Tutmarcs were recording country tunes like "Cowboys Serenade" and "Ain't You 'Shamed" for a new local label, Rainier Records.
Town & Country
Ever the versatile musician, at one point Bonnie carried on performing country music with Tutmarc two nights a week at the Silver Dollar Tavern (408 2nd Avenue) -- and on other nights of the week sang with a few local big-bands, including the Abe Brashen Orchestra and also with Wyatt Howard's Orchestra at the Town & Country Club (1421 8th Avenue). At one point she recorded "If You Would Only Be Mine" with the Show Box Theater's Norm Hoagy Orchestra for Listen Records, and in 1952 that label also issued her recording of two pop tunes ("Don't Blame Me" / "I'm In The Mood For Love") as credited to Candy Wayne.
In the early 1950s the Tutmarcs had a daughter -- Paula -- and built a custom-designed dream house (2514 Dexter Avenue N) overlooking Lake Union on Seattle's Queen Anne Hill -- a home that included space for their Paul & Bonnie's Guitar Studio, where they gave musical lessons.
Hooray for Hollywood
It was in about 1952 that a local songwriter asked Bonnie if she would record demonstration tapes of a few original songs that she wanted to shop around in Hollywood. Bonnie consented and before long phone-calls were coming in from California asking if she was in fact the singer on those tapes. Well, it turned out that the tapes had gotten to the right ears and no less a figure than a big-time music industry insider, Herb Jefferies (former vocalist with Duke Ellington's Orchestra in the 1940s) was inviting her down to Hollywood where he wanted her to audition and possibly do a screen test for MGM pictures.
Tutmarc must have been somewhat excited for his wife -- after all, decades prior he had been the one who Hollywood courted: back in his crooning days his trip down there led to appearances in two early movies. But, then again, he was rather protective -- and even downright jealous -- over his pretty wife. Nevertheless, the three -- Paul, Bonnie, and their 18-month old baby, Paula -- headed down to check out what lay in wait for them. Instantly impressed by Bonnie's beauty and talents, tempting showbiz opportunities were dangled before her. However Tutmarc began to get upset about all the lavish attention being showering on Bonnie by various industry bigwigs and he threatened to take their baby home to Seattle if she stayed for her MGM screen test.
Return to California
Back home in Seattle, Bonnie cut another demo tape -- at Seattle's primitive Electricraft Inc. studios (622 Union Street) -- and in 1955 it found its way to Malibu, California, where her masterful guitar-playing caught the ear of record producer, Fabor Robison. As the operator of a studio and three independent country/pop labels, Abbott, Radio, and Fabor Records -- which had launched the careers of country stars Johnny Horton, Jim Reeves, Floyd Cramer, and Ferlin Husky -- Robison invited Bonnie to an audition.
This time Bonnie was determined not to let another opportunity slip by and she signed an exclusive contract as an in-house session player. But that contract contained a clause that would later cause her trouble: It stipulated that she had a deal that precluded her working for any other studio or label in all of California. And thus began an exhilarating phase of her career, one in which -- as a member of the recording studio's house band -- Bonnie would play guitar on many sessions by talents.
More importantly though: through that intensive daily exposure to the ways of a production studio, Bonnie quickly soaked up plenty of recording techniques and tricks. Before long she was serving as a sort of assistant engineer -- an unheard of role for a female at the time. And an accumulation of audio production "arts and sciences" that would do her -- and many others -- very well over subsequent decades.
Dark Moon Rising
Robison finally agreed to record and issue some tunes featuring Bonnie -- but first he felt that she needed a more marketable stage name: and that is how she became Bonnie Guitar. But even then, there is room to doubt his sincerity in this effort: although Robison did allow Bonnie to cut a few singles for his Radio label – including: "If You See My Love Dancing" and "Hello, Hello Please Answer" -- they were mostly minimalist productions hobbled by the lack of a backing band. Although her performances were admirable, even critics at The Cash Box magazine noted the obvious (as recollected by Bonnie): "When this young lady gets the right material and the right arrangement she'll have a hit record"
It was late 1956 when Bonnie found the "right material" -- a song called "Dark Moon" (by Ned Miller) that Robison was struggling to record with Dorsey Burnette -- and after pleading for a chance to cut it herself, her wish was granted. With a major stipulation: Bonnie agreed to wave any potential royalties in exchange for permission to cut the song. Produced with the "right arrangement" -- Bonnie playing her Gretsch Country Club guitar, along with a bassist and Miller playing baroque treble figures on his capo'd guitar -- "Dark Moon" was issued on Fabor Records in March, 1957. It became an instantaneous a hit across California.
The Big Time
Meanwhile, Robison cut a deal with a bigger label, Dot Records, and by March 30th full-page ads in Billboard magazine began crowing: "The Biggest Smash Of The Year!" Then, only days later, Dot's "Dark Moon" broke out onto the national pop charts and Bonnie's career skyrocketed.
Summoned to New York City to appear on the CBS network's Ed Sullivan Show, Bonnie got the full "pop-star" treatment: upon her arrival in Manhattan, she was picked up by a limousine which drove her to the alley entrance of the theater, at which point crowds of screaming teenagers surrounded them, chanted her name, and rocked the vehicle back and forth. After making her way inside, Bonnie met a number of other stars backstage (including Seattle's Frances Farmer, who sang "Aura Lee" on that same show), and then performed her hit with perfect elegance. In the wake of that broadcast (on June 30, 1957), "Dark Moon" raced its way to national pop hit status by reaching Billboard magazine's (No. 6) slot and Bonnie soon embarked on concert dates with the likes of the Everly Brothers, Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps, the Del Vikings, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Sam Cooke.
Bonnie's follow-up 45, "Mister Fire Eyes," soon saw her back on Billboard -- this time with a true crossover hit, scoring on the pop charts (No. 71) as well as the country charts (No. 15), and she began working both scenes with television appearances on Dick Clark's American Bandstand (October 29,1957), and then on West Coast programs like the Ranch Party and Gene Autry's Melody Ranch show. Along the way, Bonnie was named Most Promising New Vocalist (in a tied vote with Johnny Mathis and Polly Bergen) in Billboard magazine, and after performing for the Grand Ol' Opry at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium a few times she was offered a regular spot on their performance roster. But, just as she would do when offers came in to play the showrooms in Las Vegas, Bonnie declined in order to continue the studio work that she so loved. Yet even that situation soured when Robison became greedy and demanded that she designate him as her Personal Manager -- a role that would give him full control all of her assets. Bonnie resisted and was cut loose.
By the fall of 1958 Bonnie was back home regrouping in Seattle -- and that's when she crossed paths with a local promotion man, Bob Reisdorff, who worked for a record wholesaler, C&C Distributing. On the side, Reisdorff had dreams of forming his own label, and by the end of the year he'd brought Bonnie in as a partner to help guide the Dolton Records company.
And that combination of Reisdorff's promotional skills couple with Bonnie's studio production acumen would quickly achieve great things: working from Joe Boles' Custom Recording studio in West Seattle, the label's debut -- a recording of "Come Softly To Me" (by the Olympia teen doo-wop trio known as the Fleetwoods) -- rocketed to international hit status. And that disc's (No. 2) position on Billboard's pop charts was soon surpassed by the Fleetwood's (No. 1) international hit, "Mr. Blue." And from there, Dolton's streak of success continued with national hits for other Northwest teen bands including the Frantics and Little Bill and the Bluenotes.
All this action (and wealth) came so fast and furious for the young company that, alas, Bonnie and Reisdorff soon began to butt heads. Even though the March 5, 1960, The Cash Box magazine showed the duo as all smiles on their cover, when the influential radio-man, Bill Gavin, saluted Dolton's efforts by naming her as his "Top Producer" of the year, Reisdorff was irked. Although Reisdorff easily acknowledged her studio skills, he'd begun to resent that she was actively scouting, signing, and recording area talents including Spokane's rockabilly singer, Gary Hodge, and a couple local black groups, the Playboys and the Four Pearls who all saw Dolton releases. (Intriguingly, one published account even asserts that Jimmy "Jimi" Hendrix's teen band, James Thomas and his Tomcats, were also courted by Bonnie (Willix). Perhaps due to Dolton's infighting, the band's Boles sessions (which occurred after Hendrix split to join the army in 1961) were ultimately issued as a 45 by Seattle's Nolta Records.)
Downs and Ups
Tensions reached such an uncomfortable level by 1960 that Bonnie settled accounts with Dolton and walked away with their sales promotion man, Jerry Dennon, to join forces in a new albeit short-lived enterprise: Jerden Records. Unfortunately even though the duo had plenty of skill and experience in the biz, their efforts to duplicate Dolton's streak of success failed, and after the release of a handful of good-but-not-magic Northwest rock 'n' roll singles Jerden was mothballed and the partners parted ways in 1961 -- with each ending up down in Hollywood: Dennon promoting various independent labels and Bonnie trying to revive her career.
Bonnie was soon hired as Artist & Repertoire (A&R) head -- an historically unprecedented position for a female -- for the country division of the biggest country music label around, RCA Records. In addition, RCA issued her next few 45s and Bonnie began to work her way into the national country scene by touring widely with country stalwart, Eddy Arnold, and doing gigs with countless other stars including Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Sonny James, and Willie Nelson. It was in 1965 that Bonnie was signed directly to Dot -- only this time it was as an artist, producer, Acting Vice President, and country A&R rep for Dot's parent company, ABC-Paramount.
Living in Two Worlds
The following period would be a thrilling one: Bonnie could record her own sessions and she had full studio access and a substantial production budget to sign and record other talents. Making the most of the arrangement, Bonnie produced a number of pop tunes for rock bands including Portland's New Tweedy Brothers, Vancouver B.C.'s Original Caste, and even her own teenaged daughter, Paula, whose "Freedom's Child" (issued under the stage-name, Alexys) was broke by Seattle's KJR as a Top-10 West Coast hit in 1965.
But Bonnie's own singing career was also enjoying a serious resurgence. A string of hits began with March, 1966's Hot-100 pop hit, "I'm Living In Two Worlds," and it also included country winners: July's (No. 14) "Get You Lie The Way You Want It," September's (No. 21) hit album, Miss Bonnie Guitar, and October's (No. 24) "The Tallest Tree." All this effort was rewarded when the Country & Western Music Academy named her their Top Female Vocalist for 1966 and the following year brought her biggest hit ever with the (No. 4) single, "A Woman's Love." 1968 saw her score with, among others, the (No. 13) hit, "Stop The Sun," and "I Believe In Love" (No. 10) -- while that year (and the following) again saw her nominated by the Academy.
From Guitar to DiPiano
By that point in time Bonnie had begun to spend less time in Hollywood and Nashville and much more time on her idyllic 82-acre ranch outside of Orting. And after she married a gentleman named Mario DiPiano, they began a new life together raising quarter horses. But, the record biz was never too far away and in the 1970s, Bonnie scored a few more minor hits for labels including Columbia, Paramount, MCA, and 4-Star Records.
But in January, 1983, Bonnie's heart was broken by the death of her long-ailing husband and she withdrew from public life. After time did a bit of its healing, she accepted an offer to perform at the Businessmen's Club of the Notaras Lodge in the Eastern Washington desert town of Soap Lake -- a supposed one-off gig that wound up lasting through 1996.
Hall of Fame
As the 1980s wound down, Bonnie was signed to Playback Records where she cut a half-dozen singles between 1988 and '89 -- and one, "Still The Same," hit the country chart's Top-100. It was in 1989 that Seattle's Northwest Area Music Association acknowledged how her talents had dramatically advanced the recording arts in the Pacific Northwest and inducted her into their NAMA Hall of Fame.
In 1991 Germany's Bear Family label issued her Dark Moon compilation CD. When Seattle's music museum, the Experience Music Project (EMP), opened in 2000 its Northwest Passage exhibit featured the achievements of Miss Bonnie Guitar.
The K-6 Wranglers Present a Jack Guthrie Songbook (Tacoma: Western Entertainment Enterprises, ca. 1946); Warren Brier, "'Dark Moon' Brightens Career: Bonnie Guitar, Hometown Girl, Comes Home to Plug Records," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 17, 1957; Music Vendor magazine, March 30, 1959, p. 13; "Bonnie Guitar," Variety Magazine, February 19, 1958, p. 55; "Bonnie Guitar," Variety Magazine, March 4, 1965, p. 83; author interviews with: Bonnie Guitar (recorded 1985 & April 14, 1989), tapes in author's possession; Bonnie Guitar (November 16-17, 1995, videotaped by EMP at Notaras Lodge, Soap Lake); Bob Reisdorff (recorded 1988 and 1999), tapes in author's possession; Jerry Dennon (recorded in Seattle December 3, 1988, etc.), tapes in author's possession; Ross Anderson, "Bonnie Guitar's 'Last Hurrah,'" Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 9, 1986, pp. L-1, L-5; Peter Blecha, "1989 Northwest Hall of Fame Awards: Bonnie Guitar," The Rocket, May 1989, p. 20; Emmett Watson, "Like a Fine Wine, Bonnie Guitar's Tunes Improve with Age," The Seattle Times, June 20, 1989; Mary Willix, Jimi Hendrix: Voices from Home (San Diego: Creative Forces, 1995), 82; Joel Whitburn, compiler, Top Pop Singles 1955-1986 (Menomanee Falls, WI: Record Research Inc., 1983); Joel Whitburn, compiler, Top Country Singles 1944-1988 (Menomanee Falls, WI: Record Research Inc., 1989).
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Bonnie Guitar, Dark Moon CD, autographed, 1991
Courtesy Peter Blecha
Bonnie Guitar, promotional photo, ca. 1944
Courtesy Peter Blecha
Tutmarc Trio: Marlin Hickerson (l.), Bonnie (Guitar), Paul Tutmarc, ca. 1950s
Courtesy Peter Blecha
"Dark Moon" Fabor Records, 45 (No. 4018), 1957
Courtesy Peter Blecha
Bonnie Guitar, promotional photo, 1957
Courtesy Peter Blecha
Bob Reisdorff, Bonnie Guitar, the Fleetwoods
Cash Box magazine, March 5, 1960
Courtesy Peter Blecha
Bonnie Guitar, autographed photo, 1957
Courtesy Peter Blecha