Don Julian Bernier, known as Wenatchee’s godfather of rock and roll, helped introduced Central Washington to America’s newest pop-music genre in the late 1950s. Born in Winthrop in 1937, Bernier studied broadcasting at City University in New York and then took a part-time position at KWNW-AM in Wenatchee, where, except for one year working at a Chelan station, he remained for more than 35 years. Known for his outrageous on-air stunts, his shenanigans and lively morning radio show sparked both laughter and indignation among his listening audience. In 1961, he founded his own record label, called Julian Records. During its 10 years in business, Julian Records signed 11 Central Washington rock-and-roll bands, including the Aztecs, the Talismen, and Billy and the Kids. Bernier left the radio station and moved to Long Beach, where he died in 2010 at the age of 73.
"Godfather" of Rock and Roll
Don Julian Bernier (1937-2010) was a radio disc jockey, music promoter, and owner of his own record label in Wenatchee. He is generally acknowledged as the first to bring rock and roll to Central Washington audiences in 1958. Bernier and his younger sister Sheila were raised in Winthrop by Adrin (or Adrian) and Adeline Bernier. He was class valedictorian at Winthrop High School and attended City University in New York, where he studied broadcasting. He took a job at a Geneva, New York, radio station for a short time before returning to Washington in 1956, where he applied for jobs at stations in Goldendale, Yakima, and Wenatchee. He was hired initially for a part-time position at KWNW-AM in Wenatchee (The station later changed its call letters to KMEL-AM and then KWWW-AM). With the exception of one year spent working at KOZI-AM in Chelan, Bernier spent the remainder of his career, more than 35 years, at the same Wenatchee station.
Bernier married Winona Evelyn Burbridge (1939-2021) in 1959 and the couple had two children: Wendy and Julie. They were divorced in 1976, and she married Larry Burbridge two years later. Like her ex-husband, Winona charted her own path in life. She was said to be an excellent fast-pitch pitcher, rode a Honda Dream 500 motorcycle, and worked for General Telephone for 35 years.
When Bernier was hired at KWNW, there were only two radio stations in the area, both AM format. The competition, KPQ-AM, had a playlist of mostly 1930s and 1940s music. There were no FM stations in town. Thanks to Bernier’s early interest in rock and roll, Wenatchee was listening to Bill Haley and the Comets, the Beach Boys, and the Beatles before they were heard on other Eastern Washington radio stations. "'He was our godfather of rock ‘n’ roll. He truly was the first person who brought rock ‘n’ roll to Wenatchee,’ said [former colleague Dave] Herald … ‘There was no one more funny on the air than Don. Several generations literally grew up with him in the Wenatchee Valley … Radio was not just a job to Don, it was his life'" ("Don Bernier Taught Wenatchee ...").
Looking back at his career several decades later, Bernier spoke about the early days at KWNW. "The groupies flocked to the station. And the mothers were concerned. You couldn’t hear Seattle stations here. You couldn’t hear Spokane stations. And rock ‘n’ roll was on the rise. FM was blank. You couldn’t hear anything. We had them by the tune. And we winged it a lot because it was new … We had no one telling us how to program our station like they do now" ("35 Years of Rock ...").
Bigfoot, Nudists, and George Washington
As part of his morning show, Bernier was game for just about anything, the more outrageous the better. His on-air pranks were legendary, ranging from crazy April Fool’s jokes to broadcasting from the Sultan Nudist Camp, which caused a few angry phone calls even though it was a radio interview.
One prank got the local police involved. "Bernier alerted his radio audience one April Fool’s Day in the mid-1960s that a mudslide had pushed part of Recreation Park down Orondo Street. The prank created a traffic jam. 'They had no sense of humor at all,' Bernier said of the police who came to the station … wanting to know what the disc jockey was up to" ("35 Years of Rock ..."). Other Bernier stunts included attempts to attract UFOs to land in the Wenatchee Valley, and a search for Bigfoot that involved Bernier driving a motorhome complete with remote studio to Blewett Pass to interview the elusive creature.
To celebrate Presidents Day one year, Bernier dressed up as George Washington and tried to broadcast his morning show from a rowboat while crossing the Columbia River, in commemoration of Washington crossing the Delaware in 1776. Unfortunately, a passing speedboat churned up such a wake that the rowboat was swamped and Bernier’s transmitter was knocked overboard. It sank to the bottom of the river.
Outside the Broadcast Booth
Bernier’s love of music led to several business ventures outside the radio station. In the early 1960s, he opened La Casa Del Gato, or House of the Cat, a pizza parlor on South Wenatchee Avenue that featured local bands. "Bernier would get up on the stage during breaks and tell bad jokes" ("35 Years of Rock ...").
In 1961, the 24-year-old disc jockey founded Julian Records, using his middle name to christen the new venture. In existence for about a decade, Julian Records helped several local groups get their start, including The Aztecs, The Chargers, and Billy and the Kids (later known as Double Image). Many of the recordings were picked up and played around the country. "Since Don was one of the most popular jockeys on KMEL, he had a lot of power in pushing new music and played local music as much as possible, often interviewing groups on the air and advertising their performances ... Don produced all of the Julian recordings, most of which were recorded at Spokane’s Sound Recording Studios" (Julian Records).
Designing the record company’s center label fell to the pressing plant, but Bernier and his partner Robert Blaine Gifford hoped it would look like ocean waves. Instead the label was a mix of pink and green – an attempt to mirror the colors of Wenatchee’s Apple Blossom Festival. To complement the color scheme, the partners chose the name Apple Capitol Music. This created some confusion in 1968 when the Beatles launched Apple Records. "Both Bernier and Gifford received countless calls over the years from people believing them to be the Beatles’ record company" (Julian Records).
Giving Voice to Local Musicians
Julian Records released its first five singles in its first five years. Year six (1966) was its most productive period, with the company producing five records in one year. The label’s sixth release was a song by the Talismen, one of Wenatchee’s top rock-and-roll groups at the time. Their single, "She Was Good," "quickly climbed the Top 40 survey at Wenatchee’s KMEL Radio, a station where Julian owner Don Bernier worked as a disc jockey and program director. Funded solely by Bernier, the record was pressed in a small quantity, causing the 45 to be sold out locally in the first week of its release. In August, 'She Was Good' was featured as #19 on Richland Washington’s KALE (960 AM) 'Young American Top 40 Survey'" (Julian Records Facebook).
To find up-and-coming musicians, Bernier often attended high school and middle school dances, looking for groups to sign up. "At the height of Beatlemania, Bernier produced dozens of records for local garage bands, including The Chargers, Aztecs and Billy and the Kids. The musicians, mostly middle- and high school-aged kids, played dances and clubs throughout North Central Washington. The last record, by Frank Cook & the Nightraiders, was released around 1968" ("For the Record ..."). Billy and the Kids recorded two 45s on the Julian label in the 1960s. The group went on to open for Paul Revere and the Raiders and the Kingsmen, and later changed its name to Double Image. "Without the interest of Don Julian Bernier, a true pioneer and music lover, giving a voice to the local talents of East Wenatchee area, their bands’ journey may have been much shorter" ("Billy and the Kids").
The Aztecs came from a small wheat farming community called Waterville, near Wenatchee, where they played senior proms and country fairs. After they signed with Julian Records, "they released 'World of Woe' and 'Why Can’t You Tell Me' in late fall 1967 with 'World of Woe' getting extensive airplay on Wenatchee’s KMEL radio. Interestingly, the song was picked up by an Australian company in the mid-2000s to be included in a compilation album of 1960s rock and soon after generated an almost cult following on the internet, popping up on hundreds of internet sites where fans have expressed their wish that more Aztecs songs were available. Record collectors from around the world were seeking copies of the original 45 RPMs and paying top dollar for the copies that were still available" ("The Aztecs").
The Chargers, another Wenatchee band, took first place in a talent show in the mid-1960s at Pioneer High School. The prize was a recording session with Julian Records. The group chose an original song, "Taxi," for the A side and recorded "I’m So Alone" on the flip side. "Taxi" rose to No. 3 on the regional radio charts. "Relatively unnoticed outside of Washington, the Chargers have made a resurgence as a result of collectors’ interest in the ‘Taxi’ single, which fetches high-price purchases on the market" ("The Chargers").
Reviving the Label
Today  recordings by Julian Records are hard to find. During its 10 years, the label signed 11 bands. A decade ago, some collectors were willing to pay more than $300 for a Julian 45 single. In 2012, Wenatchee resident Dustin Hays tried to revive the label, hoping to issue re-releases and compilations featuring Julian artists. But Bernier had sold the masters to a collector in Michigan who was unwilling to sell the rights. Hays then turned to preserving the stories behind the records while the musicians were still alive. "Hays said one of his most rewarding moments was watching the Chargers, now in their 60s, reunite last spring at the Clearwater Steakhouse in East Wenatchee. 'There are moments that musicians have when they look at each other and know it sounds great,' Hays said. 'It was crazy to see them giving each other that look after 44 years of never playing together. As a musician and someone who loves the music, it was unbelievable'" ("For the Record ...").
A Career Draws to a Close
By 1992, Bernier had spent 35 years at KWWW-AM, where he advanced from disc jockey to the station’s operations manager. On March 6, 1992, the station organized a tribute to Bernier held at the Wenatchee Center. Northwest native and recording artist Merrilee Rush (b. 1944), famous for her hit single "Angel of the Morning," headlined the event. Interviewed by the Wenatchee World the day before the anniversary celebration, Bernier attributed his longevity in the radio business to a balance of work and home life. When asked if he would spend another 35 years in radio, he responded, "When I do retire from this business, I’m going to move to a town of 300 or 400 people, where a gang is three guys on a street corner. But I’m not considering hanging it up. I’ll probably fall over my microphone someday" ("35 Years of Rock ...").
Bernier retired to Long Beach, where he died on August 30, 2010, at the age of 73. He is buried in Lone Fir Cemetery in Long Beach. He was survived by his daughters Julie and Wendy, both of Wenatchee, and his sister, Sheila Bernier of Kirkland.