The Gems of Walla Walla, Washington, got on the radio because of donuts. Founded in 1958 as a high school band around Paul Wheeler on guitar and vocals and Ron Overman on bass and vocals, the Gems were bound and determined from the jump. Overton’s uncle owned the Spudnut Shop in nearby Richland, which sponsored the Spudnut Show on KTL, and booked the band to fill time. When guitarist Jim Reid moved back from a year away at Columbia Basin College in Pasco, he heard his younger friends on the radio—and promptly joined the band. Larry Loney on drums completed the lineup in 1960. “We played live music on the radio,” said Reid, “I think it was once a week...but it gave us a reason to work hard at it right away. We got real serious.”
From their perch on the local airwaves, the Gems quickly booked gigs at school dances and local venues. They played the Natatorium in Walla Walla, the Cascade Club in Springfield, and the Division Street Corral in Portland, mostly playing covers of rock tunes, with a particular affinity for instrumental tunes. But the Gems also had a rare taste for the exotic, performing “Hernando’s Hideaway,” from the musical The Pajama Game, and Santo & Johnny’s “Slave Girl,” mimicking the steel guitar parts on a regular electric. They’d originally bought their instruments from Vincent Rizzuti at Uptown Music, and now he paid them back, bringing them into his studio in 1961 to record. Rizzuti pressed up 500 copies of “Hernando’s Hideaway” b/w “Slave Girl” on his own label, Uptown Records. The Gems followed up later that year with two tracks cut in Joe Boles’ basement studio, “Punchappy” b/w “Bread ‘n’ Butter Twist,” released on Boles’s own Virgelle Records in late ’61.
Overton, Wheeler, and Loney graduated from high school in 1962, and the Gems promptly caught the attention of Lavender Records’ Pat Mason, who booked acts around the northwest. “He had us lined up, the first ones we played with—the Ventures. We couldn’t believe it,” said Reid. It turned out their heroes were down to a two-man operation, Nokie Edwards on lead guitar and Don Wilson on rhythm. “We knew their songs very well, so they were surprised at that. They used our drummer and bass player...We went on these bookings that whole summer with them, up into Canada, Washington, Oregon.” Their partnership also produced an unreleased demo disc, as Edwards and Wilson took the Gems into the studio in Seattle in 1963 to record “Sub Rosa” and “La Raspa” in an ill-fated attempt to get them signed to Liberty Records. “We sounded too much like the Ventures,” said Reid.
Mason arranged a final recording session for the Gems at his own Cascade Club in 1963, recording a cover of “Shout” and an original tune, “Talk About Your Woman,” written and sung by their new keyboard player, Duane Gusse. This final 45 was issued on Lavender in 1964. By 1965, with two married members, the band grew weary of the touring life, moving to Portland, Oregon to book a year-and-a-half-long residency at the Wormhole club inside the Big Apple Restaurant. “Once we got into a club atmosphere and not going for the big record stardom or whatever, it became work,” said Reid. “We just decided to get on with our lives.”
Ron Overton went to play in Don & the Goodtimes, founded by local legend Don Gallucci, something of a secret rock hero. Gallucci was pivotal in two events that shaped the sound of all subsequent rock n’ roll—he was the teenage keyboardist who played the sizzling organ riff on the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie,” and he would produce Fun House by the Stooges in 1970. Forty-two years later, in 2007, the Gems reunited to talk and reminisce—and agreed to bring their instruments the following year. Initially planning to play for friends and family, the band found themselves booked at several local venues, and, despite living in four different states, have reunited every year since. “It’s always been fun because it’s like nothing’s changed,” said Reid, “like we’re young again.”
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