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Originally published June 28, 2010 at 9:38 PM | Page modified June 28, 2010 at 9:56 PM

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Tacoma band The Ventures receives award from emperor of Japan

The Ventures, the Tacoma instrumental rock band started in 1958 by a couple of construction guys who bought $15 pawnshop guitars, on Monday at Seattle's Japanese consulate received the prestigious Order of the Rising Sun medal awarded by that country's emperor for the band's contribution to Japan's culture.

Seattle Times staff reporter

When you've been Big in Japan for the past half-century — and are one of America's most durable, influential and well-liked exports to that country — you get a historic medal from the emperor.

On Monday night, The Ventures, the Tacoma instrumental rock band started in 1958 by a couple of construction guys who bought $15 pawnshop guitars, were guests of honor at the Queen Anne mansion of Japan Consul General Kiyokazu Ota in Seattle.

The group's list of accomplishments in Japan really is quite astounding.

When the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, that organization called The Ventures "the most successful instrumental combo" in rock history.

The band estimates that since 1960, it has released 280 to 300 albums (an estimate because there are so many compilations) and sold 105 million LPs and CDs worldwide, with its two biggest singles being "Walk, Don't Run" and the "Hawaii Five-O" theme.

Of those 105 million records, 40 million were sold in Japan.

These days, one estimate is that there are 600 Japanese tribute Ventures bands.

When the band arrived for its first tour as a complete band in 1964, remembers Don Wilson, who plays rhythm guitar and is co-founder of the group, "We were a guitar group, with no language barrier."

Wilson lives in Sammamish; the other members are spread around the country.

Back in 1964, says Wilson, 3,000 to 5,000 fans greeted the band's arrival at the Tokyo airport.

Wilson and co-founder Bob Bogle, who died in 2009 at age 75, had actually played in Japan in 1962, but only as a duo. The promoter told them he could only afford two musicians, paying each $1,000, says Wilson.

He told them they could use pickup musicians, which was fine when the two played at U. S. military installations that had musicians who played rock 'n' roll.

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But it didn't work out when they played at Tokyo hostess clubs where they had been booked, and the backup musicians "were used to Glenn Miller," says Wilson.

Bogle and Wilson decided it was simply better to go on stage as a duo, although the audience of male customers probably didn't care, says Wilson, as the men were talking to the hostesses.

By 1964, though, in Japan, "We were like the Beatles," says Wilson.

Actually, in terms of record sales back then, better than the Fab Four, he says. "We were outselling them two to one."

The Japanese even have their own particular description of The Ventures' sound.

It is "teke-teke," that rapidly descending guitar glide from one pitch to another, such as in the surf classic "Pipeline."

The band mostly covered others' hit tunes for its many albums, often grouping them into themes, although five singles it composed in the 1960s and 1970s specifically for the Japan market went to No. 1 there.

Says the recognition from the Japanese consulate, "The Ventures' unique 'teke-teke sound' ... grabbed the heart of many Japanese young men and women. These young fans in turn formed groups of their own, thus creating a huge boom of electric-guitar sales in Japan."

At the ceremony here, the band members were each presented a medal in The Order of the Rising Sun category, a group of medals that originated in 1875.

The Rising Sun group symbolizes "energy as powerful as the rising sun." The medals then are broken into classes such as the Gold Rays with Rosette medal, which the Ventures got. It gets a No. 4 ranking in the eight-class group.

That's a lower ranking than the Rising Sun medal given Clint Eastwood, but the same as that given to George Takei, Mr. Sulu in the "Star Trek" series.

The consulate also says the award is presented mostly to individuals, and Monday was the first time a band — "members from the foreign pop music genre" — had been given the honor.

"From the emperor of Japan!" boasts Wilson about the award the band got. "I mean, that's almost as high as you can get."

At the Monday ceremony, Consul Ota told The Ventures he was a big fan. He was 12 in 1965, says Ota, and he remembers the reaction from kids back then at this new sound: "We were electrified."

Over the years, the band has had various lineups. Two crucial members of the group have passed away.

Besides Bogle, drummer Mel Taylor died in 1996 at age 62, and was replaced at drums by his son, Leon Taylor.

Other members of the band getting the medal were lead guitarist Nokie Edwards, who joined in 1960; lead guitarist and bass player Bob Spalding, who joined in 1981; and lead guitarist Gerry McGee, who joined in 1968.

Just how Big in Japan are The Ventures?

Well, in July they're again touring there, playing in venues that hold from 1,500 to 3,500 fans, just as they have pretty much every year since 1964. They've done more than 2,400 shows there.

And, as always, the band will note that in the cities they play, there will inevitably be a Ventures tribute band.

In some cases, such bands have taken the tributes to extremes.

For example, back in 1966, a documentary called "Beloved Invaders: The Ventures," chronicling a concert tour in Japan the previous year, was released for the Japanese-only market.

Some years later, a Japanese tribute band called the M-Ventures made "All About The Ventures," a video in which its band members wore exactly the same stage outfits right down to the skinny black ties that the real Ventures had worn in the documentary.

Using seven cameras, the tribute Ventures played every song the real Ventures had played in their film, and used exactly the same camera angles and cutaways.

Edo Yamaguchi, 61, an actor and TV personality in Japan, also leads a tribute band, called Tokyo Ventures.

He was interviewed in an e-mail exchange that was translated by the Japanese consulate here.

Yamaguchi remembered being in high school and hearing The Ventures on the radio.

"When I heard that distinctive 'teke-teke' sound, I was immediately mesmerized and rushed to the nearest record shop ... I was totally fascinated by their music, the cool allure. ... "

He estimates there are 600 Japanese tribute bands like his.

Yamaguchi says it became a phenomenon in which baby-boomer guys formed rock bands — "old-men bands" — settling on The Ventures "as their music did not require much singing, and it needed only a small group to perform."

But then it's not just old-men bands that keep the band Big in Japan. Wilson says there is the occasional letter from a Japanese teen.

"I get a fan letter from a 14-year-old. 'Oh, my gosh, I love your music!' I'm learning to play guitar, and my dad and uncle have all your records!' " says Wilson, who is 77, and has no plans to stop touring.

This is, after all, a band honored not only by the emperor, but one for which the Japanese don't mind at all bestowing the term, "Beloved Invaders."

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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