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Rock ’n’ legend: Last of the ‘Louie Louie’ hit makers dies in Mexico

Ex-Wailer Buck Ormsby, yielding a classic Thomas guitar he played in the band’s heyday, stands before several prints of an exhibit of equally classic like-era rock ’n’ roll photographs on display at the Tacoma Public Library in 1993.
Ex-Wailer Buck Ormsby, yielding a classic Thomas guitar he played in the band’s heyday, stands before several prints of an exhibit of equally classic like-era rock ’n’ roll photographs on display at the Tacoma Public Library in 1993. Staff file, 2014

John “Buck” Ormsby, a member of The Fabulous Wailers rock band, died Saturday, his 75th birthday.

The Tacoma rock legend’s death in Mexico immediately followed a fall while on a trip there, according to his longtime partner Pamela Mills Ruzic.

“He was just getting ready to come home,” Ruzic said from the couple’s home in Tacoma.

The Wailers had several members before bassist Ormsby arrived. But he, Robin Roberts and Kent Morrill formed the group that would in 1961 release their biggest hit, “Louie Louie.”

They led the vanguard of American garage rock bands in the 1950s and 1960s — grunge before grunge existed.

“Louie Louie” was originally recorded by R&B singer Richard Berry. Roberts came across the song while working in a Tacoma record shop in the late 1950s, according to a 2012 story by KPLU (now KNKX).

The Wailers gave it the distinctive arrangement it has had since, though a version by the Kingsmen is the most well-known.

“We thought it was a hit, a total hit. We thought this would be a monster,” Ormsby told KPLU.

Their success led to an appearance on “American Bandstand.”

“We were thinking it was gonna be over in a couple of years,” Ormsby told The News Tribune in 2009.

Ormsby was also a member of Tacoma’s Little Bill & the Blue Notes in 1950s.

Former Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma saw the Wailers in person in 1960 while a student at the University of Puget Sound.

“Of course I saw them on ‘American Bandstand’ as any good Stadium kid did,” Baarsma said. “We all rushed to the TV set.”

Baarsma and Ormsby are Stadium High School graduates.

“Louie Louie” became so popular it was up for consideration as the official state song by the Washington Legislature in the 1980s.

In 2004, Baarsma worked on “Louie Fest,” an attempt to set a world record at the Tacoma Dome with 1,000 guitars all playing the song.

That’s when I really got to know him,” Baarsma said.

Per long standing tradition, the song is played at Mariners games during the seventh-inning stretch.

Ormsby occasionally performed with Morrill as The Wailers as late as 2009. Morrill died in 2011.

Ormsby made his home in Tacoma with Ruzic.

“We’re Tacoma boys, “ Ormsby told The News Tribune in 2011. “We moved back here from the places where we were living to get back to our hometown.”

Ruzic said she was on the phone all day Saturday with Ormsby’s friends.

“He has a huge amount of devoted friends,” Ruzic said. “The music community is putting together a big memorial for him.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor

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