By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Tacoma’s legendary instrumental rock band The Ventures won admission into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. Later this month, they’ll become the first rock and rollers to be honored by the oldest hereditary monarchy in existence today.
On Monday, June 28, at the Seattle office of the Consulate-General of Japan on Queen Anne Hill, The Ventures will receive the illustrious Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette award from the Japanese government in recognition of their contribution to the development and enrichment of music culture in Japan, as well as to the promotion of cordial relations between Japan and the United States, Consul Akihiro Fujimori said.
Don Wilson, one of the co-founders of The Ventures, will be on hand to receive the award, along with band members Nokie Edwards, Gerry McGee, Bob Spalding, and Leon Taylor.
According to Fujimori, The Ventures are the first pop/rock music group to receive such an honor, which includes a medal for each recipient, awarded directly from His Majesty the Emperor of Japan.
The Order of the Rising Sun is the second most prestigious award that the Japanese government can bestow, after the Order of the Chrysanthemum (presented almost always to royalty, military leaders, or politicians).
“[Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs] nominates candidates for consideration to [Japan’s] Prime Minster, based on recommendations submitted by Japanese Embassies and Consulates worldwide,” Fujimori said.
Wilson first visited Japan in 1962. The company booking the band’s initial Japanese tour did not have enough money for the full lineup, so only the late Bob Bogle, the other co-founder of the band, went with Wilson.
“We were totally unknown [in Japan],” Wilson recalled. “[The Japanese agents] wanted to put a couple of Japanese guys behind us, stand-up bass and drums. They had no idea what rock and roll was. They were playing Glenn Miller music.”
The Ventures spent their first tour opening for singers Bobby Vee and Jo Ann Campbell. On their second tour, they did not have to worry about opening for anyone. Publicists and industry professionals worked around the clock to promote their music in Japan.
Wilson remembered touching down for their second tour and having 5,000 people waiting for them at the airport.
“We went over there four times a year, three weeks at a time,” Wilson said. “[We played in] downtown Tokyo, in a big place that holds 3,500 people. They were lined up around the block, about five abreast. We played three shows, one after the other. People were still trying to get in. We played in Yokohama and Osaka, the big cities. Had I known we were that popular, I would’ve asked for more money!”
The Japanese dubbed The Ventures’ guitar-driven sound “teke-teke” music, a reference to the driving beat. The band played almost all instrumental pieces.
Wilson pointed out that there was no language barrier. Young people all over the country grabbed guitars and plugged into the sound.
Japanese clamor for their music was almost scary in its intensity. According to Billboard magazine, in 1965, just three years after their first tour, they had five of the top-selling Japanese singles. The Japan Times reported that The Ventures outsold the Beatles in Japan by a ratio of two-to-one. The Beatles placed 35 albums in the Japanese charts — but The Ventures placed 37, and they might have more to come.
This is not The Ventures’ first commendation from the Japanese government. In 2004, they earned the Japanese Foreign Minister’s Award.
“[This award] goes to individuals and groups that have been contributing to promoting friendly relations between Japan and other countries. The commendations aim at praising the outstanding achievements of individuals and groups among them, and further promoting the understanding and support of Japanese people for their activities,” Fujimori said.
Fujimori notes that the Foreign Minister’s Award was presented to The Ventures as a group. The band members will receive the Order of the Rising Sun medals as individuals.
Wilson said he did not remember an awards ceremony for the Foreign Minister’s Award. The Ventures will not perform at their Order of the Rising Sun ceremony, he said. But from what he understands, Japanese musicians will play “Walk Don’t Run” and some other trademark songs on traditional Japanese instruments including the shamisen, a fretless three-stringed instrument.
“I think it’s incredible,” said Wilson, in reaction to the new award. “I don’t know that there’s a better honor than that, being honored by the government and by the Emperor.
Wilson thinks the Emperor’s honor might be “bigger than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” ♦
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.