Surf the Cumberland
By Daniel Cooper
AUGUST 18, 1997: "The best band to come out of Nashville since Ronny & the Daytonas!" So trumpeted Los Straitjackets' producer Ben Vaughn in the press kit for the masked ones' 1995 debut album. For those having trouble placing the reference, Ronny & the Daytonas ruled the dragstrips of Nashville with their 1964 smash "G.T.O." Cruising through songs like "California Bound" and "Hot Rod City," they were Tennessee beach bums, surfing the Cumberland and navigating the dead man's curve at the corner of 16th and Demonbreun. That they were no more a real band than the Archies is immaterial. Ronny & the Daytonas nearly did for the Nashville studio system what the Standells did for the garage, and they even had their own Brian Wilson, an elusive character named John Buck "Bucky" Wilkin.
Wilkin's efforts to bring Surf City to Music City can be heard anew on Ronny & the Daytonas: G.T.O./Best of the Mala Recordings, a well-packaged and well-annotated 20-track compilation released on Sundazed Records. The songs are full of arcane period code words like "scrambler," "coupe," "a-go-go," and something repeatedly referred to as (cough, cough) a "rail job." Sounding at its best like what English producer Joe Meek did on his summer vacation (check out Bob Holmes' deadly organ hook on " '32 Studebaker Dictator Coupe") and at its worst like what the Lettermen did on permanent vacation, the Sundazed set, above all else, documents teen-aged Bucky Wilkin's quest for life's higher meaning. "I just wanted to be one of the Beach Boys," he says.
These days, Wilkin lives quietly in a Hickman County campground, in a trailer with a screened-in porch, and with a few stray cats and kittens roaming about, living off his kindness. Inside, his RV contains all the accouterments of home entertainment. His video collection even includes The Last Movie, the hallucinatory Dennis Hopper fiasco filmed in Peru as a follow-up to Easy Rider. Wilkin wrote most of the soundtrack music for The Last Movie, and he appears briefly onscreen, performing at a madcap guitar-pull with the likes of Kris Kristofferson (in his film debut), Michelle Phillips, and Peter Fonda.
The son of songwriter Marijohn Wilkin ("The Long Black Veil," "Cut Across Shorty"), Bucky Wilkin performed a time or two as a child on the Ozark Jubilee in Springfield, Mo., and as a teenager in a rock 'n' roll combo at a roller rink on Thompson Lane. He committed his first important act of musical deception at the age of 16, when he wrote and played several guitar instrumentals for an MGM LP based on the popular early-'60s television series Mr. Novak. "Didn't have anything to do with the TV show," he says. "They used the title."
The album was produced in Nashville by Nick Venet, a wonder boy California hipster who had produced some of the Beach Boys' early sides. Venet took Wilkin under wing and most likely--Wilkin can't remember for certain--introduced him to arranger Bill Justis, a veteran of the Sun studio in Memphis who helped out with the Mr. Novak record. In 1964, Justis and Marijohn Wilkin started a publishing company, Buckhorn Music. The first tune they published was one that Bucky wrote in physics class at Hillsboro High: "G.T.O." A sports car enthusiast, Wilkin got the idea from Car & Driver.
"March 1964, they compared the Ferrari GTO to the Pontiac GTO," he says. "It's a famous article."
Justis hired a crew of young musicians to back Wilkin on "G.T.O.," and they recorded at the Monument studio downtown, with Justis producing--sort of. Though he had scored a deal with Mala Records in New York, and though he had made all the arrangements with the musicians and the studio in Nashville--in short, though he had done everything a producer-publisher was supposed to do in 1964--Justis forgot to stay sober for the session. According to those who were present, he slept in the control room while "G.T.O." was being cut.
By the summer of '64 (that awesome rock 'n' roll summer of the Beach Boys' "I Get Around," the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night," and Dean Martin's "Everybody Loves Somebody") Ronny & the Daytonas had a nationwide hit. They also had the foundation for a natural corporate sponsorship deal, but the powers-that-were in Michigan failed to appreciate the Daytonas' dragstrip aesthetic. "We never got together with Pontiac," Wilkin says. "They sort of gave us the cold shoulder. It was like they had the hit car and we had the hit song. They tried puttin' out their own song. It was just miserable."
Further complicating matters, promoters were eager to book Ronny & the Daytonas, but in real life there was no such group. Not to be stymied by such petty detail, Wilkin put together a series of road bands and hit the usual one-nighter hot spots--Louisville, Memphis, Okinawa. They even played a week-long package gig with Chuck Berry and others at the Paramount Theater in New York. "We were doing like two or three shows a day doing matinees and stuff," he says. "Really hard-core old-timey show business. It was great." When lucky, Wilkin could talk studio buddies like Buzz Cason, Bobby Russell, and Bergen White into leaving town for a show. But mostly the road-band Daytonas consisted of whatever aggregation of Nashville pickers Wilkin could pull together on short notice. "We mainly just worked in the South and a little bit in the East," he says. "We didn't get any further west than Texas. Never played California."
In the end, two full albums were recorded for Mala (with Justis upright and hands-on), the second of which included the lovely ballad "Sandy," a Wilkin-Cason original that hit Top Forty radio in early 1966. Following Daytonas logic, the second album was recorded mostly in Munich, Germany, while they were on a USO tour, and was built on lushly orchestrated ballads. Explains Wilkin, with the amusement of hindsight, "I said, `Well, since we did all upbeat songs on the first album, I'm gonna do all ballads on the second album.' And...Justis said, `Great, we'll go to Munich and hire the strings.' "
Shortly thereafter, Justis and Marijohn Wilkin had a falling out over Buckhorn Music and parted ways. Having thus lost his producer, Wilkin approached Chet Atkins at RCA. Atkins agreed to sign him, but since Wilkin was a pop artist, Ronny & the Daytonas' singles moved through RCA's New York office. Which is to say they barely moved at all. The final indignity occurred when RCA squashed a Wilkin original called "Delta Day No Time to Cry," which he describes as having been a "vaguely anti-war song" that merely "referenced the agony of the soldier."
"They were the supplier to the war effort--RCA Electronics owned RCA Records at the time. So for anybody to even talk about the war was a no-no." Says Wilkin, RCA refused to promote the record, so he called it quits, leaving over an album's worth of unissued RCA material in the can. His subsequent LPs were recorded under his own name for Liberty and United Artists, respectively.
Though the Daytonas never made it to California, Wilkin did. He had traveled out west to visit Nick Venet a time or two, and he returned circa 1969-70. "By then it was a different world," he says. Kristofferson was there too; he and Wilkin had known each other since 1965, when Kristofferson entered the Nashville music industry as a Buckhorn writer. In Los Angeles, Kristofferson introduced Wilkin to Dennis Hopper, which is how Wilkin ended up contributing songs to The Last Movie. "Dennis was so rich and crazy at that point that it didn't matter, you know? I mean you're successful, and they throw money at you, and he said, `OK, well we'll all go to Peru.' "
As Wilkin spoke of such things--of Nick Venet and Mr. Novak, of The Last Movie and "Delta Day No Time to Cry"--the strangely vast panorama of his relatively brief career emerged, as did the hilarity of his being forever known as simply the auteur of a '60s hot-rod classic. But Nashville is like that sometimes. The known stories veer down side paths to terrain exotic as the snowpeaked Andes, then reconverge in the woods of Hickman County.
Meanwhile, not a year goes by that "G.T.O." doesn't appear on a flurry of internationally distributed surf compilations, or that some young band doesn't rediscover the Daytonas catalog. Take, for instance, Untamed Youth, who have covered three of the California-style tunes that appear on the Sundazed collection. Says Wilkin, fully appreciative, "They're a garage band out of Kansas."
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