Etiquette Rules! The Northwest's Reigning '60s Garage-Rock Record Company

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 4/10/2009
  • Essay 8947
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Etiquette Records -- a trail-blazing firm formed by three young Tacoma musicians in 1961 -- was an enterprise that broke all the old rules. Despite its polite and classy sounding name -- not to mention that of its sister company, Valet Publishing -- Etiquette quickly came to rule the Pacific Northwest's rock 'n' roll roost by producing and promoting raucous and gritty music that came to be favored by teenaged bands and their fans in the region.

Founded as a partnership by three members of Tacoma's top band, the Wailers -- "Rockin' Robin" Roberts (vocals), Kent Morrill (piano / vocals), and John "Buck" Ormsby (bass) -- Etiquette issued a grand total of 26 45s and eight LPs between 1961 and 1967. But it was not quantity so much as quality that made the company successful and influential. Etiquette initially erupted with the world's first garage-rock version of "Louie Louie" -- and went on to issue the classic Wailers At the Castle LP, the Sonics' proto-punk radio hits ("The Witch" and "Psycho") and their longplay masterpieces, Here Are the Sonics and Sonics Boom, among many other revered '60s classics.

The Boys from Tacoma

It was 1959 when Clark Galehouse of New York's Golden Crest record company signed Tacoma's pioneering rock combo, the Wailers -- or rather (according to the band's founder and original rhythm guitarist, John Greek) as the only member over the age of 18, he signed the five-year exclusive contract as the band's official leader.

The Wailers originally formed as an instrumental-oriented combo that featured Greek, Morrill, lead guitarist Rich Dangel (1942-2002), saxophonist Mark Marush, and drummer Mike Burk. Their association with Golden Crest initially resulted in two instrumental radio hits -- "Tall Cool One" and "Mau Mau" -- that summer and a classic LP, The Fabulous Wailers, which was released in December 1959.

But by then tensions between the band and the label had surfaced: Golden Crest had wanted the high-school-aged guys to move to the East Coast where their career could be better managed. But the high-school-aged musicians rejected that plan, which resulted in a drop-off of corporate interest in promoting the band's discs or recording any new ones. Meanwhile big changes were already underway: Back in August they'd lured singer, Lawrence F. "Rockin' Robin" Roberts (1940-1967), away from his teen-R&B group, Little Bill and the Bluenotes, and also added a 13-year-old powerhouse girl singer named Gail Harris.

According to Greek, Roberts started agitating immediately for the idea that the band should cut one of his feature tunes, Richard Berry's old 1957 R&B gem, "Louie Louie." And although the band basically agreed, no one had a solution for the legalistic impasse they still had with Golden Crest. One school of thought within the group went that problems with the New York company could be avoided simply by issuing their next record and instead of crediting to the Wailers, list Roberts as the performing artist. But that debate was creating serious internal tensions -- a battle that ultimately resulted in a string of personnel shifts. Greek was ousted first -- perhaps in part because he was so adamant that the band's next 45 not be credited to Roberts, but also due to concerns like his "beer budget" expenditures while out "promoting" Wailers' records on a solo trip to California. Then around April 1960, the Bluenotes also lost their bassist, Buck Ormsby (b.1941), to the Wailers.

Independence Day

With their formerly friendly relationship with Golden Crest strained to the point of a standoff, the Wailers felt stymied in their desire to cut more hits. But with those concerns over contractual complexities weighing heavily on their minds -- in fact discussions were held about disbanding the group -- it was while sitting at Tacoma's New Yorker restaurant one day that Roberts Morrill and Ormsby hit upon the idea of the guys forming their own label. It was an audacious notion that was supported by only 50 percent of a band that had lingering worries about what Golden Crest's reaction might be. But perhaps doubts that they -- essentially a bunch of teenaged musicians who had no direct business experience -- could actually form and manage an independent commercial record company was the greater concern.

Still, they inched forward by booking time in Seattle at Joe Boles's (1904-1962) home studio (3550 Admiral Way), which had already been the site of hit recording sessions in 1959 for Olympia's Fleetwoods, and Seattle's Frantics -- and even Little Bill and the Bluenotes. After a successful day there, the band emerged with two songs in the can: "Louie Louie" and a blistering romp through Ray Charles' "Maryann." The Wailers knew that they had produced something hot, but they proceeded to waste the following half-year bickering about who would get the label credit: the Wailers or Rockin' Robin.

Etiquette Emerges

But then fate stepped in and forced the Wailers' hand. It was in March 1961 that Ormsby happened by Seattle's Northwest Recorders (622 Union Street) where his former bandmate, Little Bill Engelhart, was completing a session with a new band, the Adventurers, and audio engineer Kearney Barton. Shocked that the song being cut was none other than "Louie Louie," the record exec-wannabe bolted out of the studio and rushed an already pressed (but label-less) 45 of his band's "Louie Louie" right over to KJR radio where the kingpin DJ, Pat O'Day, put it on the air and an instant hit was born.

That was when the Etiquette Record Company (P.O. Box 682, Tacoma) was finally launched. One quick phone-call to a pressing plant in Los Angeles -- in which Ormsby finally authorized them to print "Rockin' Robin Roberts" as the label credit -- sparked a rush-order, and in no time at all Etiquette had their first batch of discs ready to distribute to other radio stations and retail stores. Roberts single took off like the proverbial rocket, becoming a region-wide No. 1 smash hit. Along the way, Etiquette made history as possibly the first successful rock 'n' roll company even run by young musicians. Of course, being youngsters, the various members of the band had egos and before long Etiquette would also be releasing singles credited to Harris ("Be My Baby") and Morrill ("This Pain In My Heart") -- but the Wailers as a unit would create the label's next significant recording.

Rockin' at the Spanish Castle

Recorded live by Joe Boles (with an assist from O'Day) in the fall of 1961 at the fabled Spanish Castle Ballroom -- a 1930s roadhouse located midway between Seattle and Tacoma on old Highway 99 -- the At the Castle LP was Etiquette's first. Aimed, in part, at the anticipated legions of tourists expected to begin attending the Seattle's World's Fair upon its opening on April 21, 1962, the album's liner notes were essentially a sales pitch by O'Day meant to entice young people to attend his teen-dances at the hall.

An instant local best-seller, the LP featured tuff instrumentals and a couple vocal numbers each by Rockin' Robin ("Rosalie" and "Since You Been Gone"), Morrill ("Dirty Robber" and "You've Had Your Chance"), and Harris ("All I Could Do Was Cry" and "I Idolize You"). Small wonder it sold 40,000 copies regionally.

The Wailers & Co.

The company the Wailers kept shifted considerably during this period: Harris scored a solo deal and split for Hollywood and then in late-1963 Roberts announced that he was heading off to Eugene's University of Oregon to continue his studies in biology and chemistry. Figuring his music career was over, he sold his share of Etiquette to Ormsby and Morrill.

Then in 1964, Marush split and was replaced by Ron Gardner (1945-1992) who had played sax with the Solitudes and then the Bootmen -- a band that Marush ended up joining. Meanwhile, the band's auditions for backup singers had resulted in the creation of a new girl-group, the Marshans (Kay Alotta, Marilyn Lodge, and Penny Anderson), who began gigging with them. Then Etiquette's second LP -- The Wailers & Co. -- was issued. It comprised a hodgepodge of stray tunes: Robin's "Louie Louie," a few instrumental Wailers singles issued since 1962 ("Shakedown" and "Tough Walk"), Morrill's exciting raver, "Isabella," and some half-baked Marshans tracks.

Wailers Here, Wailers There ...

Wailers Wailers Everywhere was the title of Etiquette's third LP release. The Wailers were making every effort to become even more professional -- including a taking few trips in the fall of 1964 to San Francisco to conduct sessions at Coast Recorders (where that town's Beau Brummels were cutting their Beatles-esque hits). This new disc presented an evolving band, one that now featured Gardner's impressive vocals on tunes like "Since You Been Gone" and the "Tomorrow's Another Day," which accompanied a classic-styled Wailers' instrumental, "The Wailer," and the kickin' "Just A Little Bit Louder."

In addition, Etiquette had began to employ the services of Barrie R. Jackson -- a 30-something publicist who'd studied advertising at Spokane's Gonzaga University. It was Jackson that soon brought in a fine local photographer, Jini Dellaccio (1917-2014), who would be responsible for creating cover images for Everywhere and the next few Etiquette LPs. As Dangel recalled: "The band hired this guy, Barrie Jackson, as a manager type. And he's brainstorming all these ideas to try and make a splash." Thus the band-members all began wearing laughable matching suits that were divided vertically into sections of light and dark material -- even worse were their ridiculous new new lop-sided "Wailer" haircuts.

"All of a sudden," Dangel sighed, "the Wailers weren't the Wailers anymore. It seemed to me, we were trying to be The Beatles, and that's when I started losing interest. It wasn't too long after that that I got out of the band." Attempting to fill Dangel's key spot in that spring of 1965 was a serious challenge: the Wailers first tried to lure the Dynamics' Larry Coryell, then the Counts' Dan Olason without success. After playing a few dates with the Nite Sounds' Paul Goldsmith, the band finally settled on Bootmen's ace guitarist, Neil Andersson (another Solitudes alumnus), while Dangle resurfaced in the Rooks.

Here Are the Sonics

In the fall of 1964 Etiquette released their first disc by musicians not associated with the Wailers. Ormsby and Morrill had discovered a local garage combo called the Sonics and after recording the band at Seattle's Commercial Productions studio (1426 5th Avenue), a single of "The Witch" / "Keep A Knockin'" was released.

By January 1965 "The Witch" was a No. 2 hit on KJR and the band headed into Seattle's Audio Recording, Inc (170 Denny Way) where they cut "Psycho," which too became a huge hit. Additional sessions led to the release of the best-selling Here are the Sonics LP which included liner notes by Morrill -- and noted Etiquette's new corporate street address in Tacoma (4425 6th Avenue).

Riverton Records

As Etiquette picked up commercial momentum they ultimately issued -- in addition to a dozen Wailers 45s -- singles by various local teen acts including the Marshans ("I Remember"), Mayalta Page (aka Marilyn Lodge) "Don't Worry About Me Baby," the Bootmen ("Black Widow"), the Galaxies ("She Said I Do"), and the Rooks ("Believe In You").

With all the product flooding the local radio stations, it was decided that rather than dilute impact of Etiquette's presence, what was needed was a sister label. Named after Riverton -- a tiny community (at S 134th St. and Pacific Highway S) near the Spanish Castle Ballroom -- Riverton Records debuted in July 1965 with "Forevermore" by Olympia's Bootmen, which was followed by discs from Portland's Paul Bearer and the Hearsemen ("I've Been Thinking"), Walla Walla's Hawk and the Randellas ("I Don't Wanna Know"), and even a cool Beach Boys-inspired tune, ("All of My Nights and Days") by the Breakers (who were actually the Wailers working under a pseudonym).

Etiquette's Glory Days

On a role, Etiquette would continue to accelerate their string of releases -- starting with the fall of 1965's less-than-satisfactory holiday themed LP, Merry Christmas from the Sonics, The Wailers, The Galaxies. Cut at Tacoma's tiny country/western facility, the Wiley/Griffith studio, the album featured irreverent garage-rockin' holiday tunes, including the Sonics' "It's Christmas," which sounded a bit like the Kinks' "Tired of Waiting" mashed-up with the Drifters' 1963 hit, "On Broadway." Although the Kinks didn't complain -- hey, they were big fans of the Sonics -- the owners of the publishing rights to "On Broadway" did object, causing Merry Christmas to be pulled from the market.

Late-1965 also issued in what was the Wailers' toughest set yet, the Out of Our Tree LP which again featured band photographs by Dellaccio -- and a new drummer, Dave Roland (ex-Regents and Capris) who'd come aboard after Burk had quit that summer. Also cut with Bill Wiley, and Gardner's punky originals, "You Weren't Using Your Head" and "Hang Up." Wiley/Griffith also yielded the Sonics' highly revered Sonics Boom LP in February 1966, and that same year saw the release of a solid retrospective multi-artist compilation, Northwest Collection Vol.1.


In the spring of 1966 Etiquette issued its final hit single, the Wailer's stark ballad, "It's You Alone," which became a promising West Coast hit. The band headed off to play some hippie dances in San Francisco and Los Angeles where Jackson -- by now the Director of Etiquette Productions and Valet Publishing -- was working from an office suite on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. The giant United Artists label soon stepped in and picked up the single for national distribution, and additional sessions were booked at United Western Recorders (6050 Sunset Boulevard) which resulted in the Outburst! album.

Coming full-circle, Etiquette Records' last and final single was performed by the same singer as their very first release: "Rockin' Robin" Roberts. Issued around November 1966, Etiquette No. 26 featured "You Don't Love Me" and a remake of the Wailer's 1965 single, "You Weren't Using Your Head." Those tunes had actually been cut during the Outburst! sessions: Ormsby had called Robin -- who was by then working as a biochemist at Dow Chemical in San Francisco -- and invited him to join the band to record a couple tunes. Roberts was supposedly so excited about recording that he was seriously considering returning to the world of music once again.

Meanwhile, promotional copies of the new 45 were pressed up and all set for distribution but only weeks later -- on the night of December 22, 1967 -- all such plans came to a sudden halt when news arrived that Roberts had perished as a passenger in a nasty car-wreck on Interstate 5 in California. Those were tough times for everyone associated with Etiquette: the Sonics broke up within months, the Wailers cut one additional LP for Bell Records before disbanding, and Etiquette Records itself fizzled out by 1968.

Reissues and Revivals

For a decade the Etiquette catalog was dormant -- but then in November 1977 the label made a surprise reappearance when Paul Revere and the Raiders' former manager, Roger Hart (who seemed to be in cahoots with Morrill), resurfaced as Etiquette's new Executive Vice President. He announced the release of a Special Edition, two-LP Wailers Greatest Hits set (ET-LP 22296-97) which was marketed by Etiquette/Sea-Port International Records out of Hart's hometown of Vancouver, Washington.

A growing sense that there was a residual demand still out there for their sound caused the Wailers (Dangel, Morrill, Burk, Ormsby, Gardner, and Harris) to play a "20 Years of Rock & Roll" reunion show on August 19, 1979, at the Aquarius Tavern (formerly: Parker's Ballroom, at 17001 Aurora Avenue N), and a Showbox Theater (1426 1st Avenue) gig soon after.

The next step in reviving Etiquette's legacy was actually one that caught Ormsby a bit by surprise -- and that occurred around May 1980, when Hart (allegedly with a nod from Morrill) partnered with Bob Jeniker (d. 1998) -- a savvy retailer and operator of the Park Avenue Records label which would become renowned for some great post-punk discs by Portland's Wipers and Seattle's Visible Targets. That collaboration resulted in the release of an ambitious six-LP Northwest Collection box-set which -- thanks to Jeniker's European media connections -- garnered an avalanche of critical raves for the vintage sounds of the Wailers and Sonics.

Required Etiquette

Because that box-set had mainly been assembled from old records rather than the original master tapes or disc-stampers, its quality was sub-par and Ormsby set out to make things right over the next few years by reissuing the individual Etiquette discs in proper form. By 1984 Ormsby had formed a talent management firm -- Northwest International Entertainment (2442 NW Market Street, No. 273) -- and reactivated Etiquette Records with a string of releases by current rock bands including the Mark Shaffer Band, the Neil Rush Band, and Jr. Cadillac. Then in April 1985 Ormsby responded to the whimsical, though unsuccessful, grassroots campaign by locals to have "Louie Louie" named the official Washington State Song, by issuing the first new Etiquette single in two decades -- "Louie Louie" / "Rosalie" which was credited to  Rockin' Robin Roberts and The Fabulous Wailers.

Meanwhile, Etiquette moved forward by issuing new recordings -- including 1986's Snake Dance LP by the Kinetics -- and then, a sister label, Suspicious Records, was launched in 1987 with Morrill's Hard to Rock Alone solo LP. In addition, a live tape of the Sonics playing a teen-dance at Salem, Oregon's armory in 1966 emerged and was issued as the Fanz Only / Live disc -- and a decade later, Etiquette would issue Dangel's solo LP, New Evidence.

Etiquette Productions

By now Ormsby had settled into new headquarters near Seattle's University District. His Northwest International Entertainment, Inc. and its subsidiary company, Northwest International Music and Marketing Services were based in the same building as Etiquette Productions and the 55th Street Studios (5503 Roosevelt Way NE). By 1991 Etiquette was releasing its classic LPs -- and a definitive Sonics compilation, Here Are the Ultimate Sonics -- on compact disc, along with cutting deals with various European labels.

In 1993 the label issued a definitive Wailers compilation, The Boys from Tacoma, and the band began reuniting more regularly -- including memorable gigs at the Showbox, the Crocodile Cafe (2200 2nd Avenue) in 1995, Tacoma's Swiss Pub (1904 S Jefferson Avenue) in 1998 and 1999, and at EMP's Grand Opening in June 2000. Over the past decade, two outside labels -- London's Ace Records and New York's Norton Records -- have done an admirable job in keeping Etiquette's proud garage-rock torch burning brightly through the licensed release of excellently remastered discs that boast beautifully redesigned graphics and passionately reverential liner notes -- and thus, the original visionary spark behind Etiquette Records still rules!


Peter Blecha interviews with Rich Dangel and Gail Harris, 1986 (portions included in KVI radio's The History of Northwest Rock 10-hour show first broadcast in March 1987), Little Bill Engelhart (October 1983, etc.), Kent Morrill (1983), Rich Dangel (January 24, 1987, 1998, etc), John Greek (April 28, 1988), and Buck Ormsby (September 9, 1983, January 19, 2009) tapes in author's possession; Peter Blecha conversations with Barrie Jackson (1983) and Jini Dellaccio (1983-1996); Bruce Smith, "Etiquette Discography" Golden Oldies Times, Seattle 1980; Alec Palao, liner notes, The Fabulous Wailers at the Castle / & Co, Big Beat CD CDWIKD 228, 2003; and author's archives.

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