Sadly, he'll wail no more.
Wailer No. 1, Kent Morrill, lead singer and keyboard player for seminal Tacoma garage-rock band the Fabulous Wailers, died on April 15 after a long battle with colon cancer. He was 70.
"We thought he was gonna pull out of it. We really did," says Buck Ormsby, Morrill's longtime friend and Wailers' bandmate since 1960. "It just became too much for him, you know. He just went through a lot of hell in the last two years."
But Morrill's musical legacy lives on. And it's sure to be standing room only Wednesday night, May 4, when a who's who of classic Northwest rockers pays tribute to their fallen peer with a free show set for 7 p.m. at Tacoma's Temple Theatre.
The Sonics' lead howler, Jerry Roslie, will tackle "Louie Louie," an obscure R&B number penned by Richard Berry that the Wailers revamped into the definitive Northwest party anthem in 1960.
Virtually every regional garage band played "Louie Louie" in the 1960s, thanks to the 4-4 rock version that Morrill, Ormsby and the late Rockin' Robin Roberts released as the debut single of their label, Etiquette Records. (Roberts sang lead.)
The Kingsmen got the glory when it came to "Louie," but their version was patterned after Tacoma's hometown heroes.
"The Wailers should have had the glory of ‘Louie Louie,'" insists Rock and Roll Hall of Fame disc jockey Pat O'Day, who promoted many of the band's early shows at the legendary Spanish Castle in south King County.
"Fame of any kind is 75 percent talent and 25 percent luck," the San Juan Island resident says. "Kent had all of the talent, all of the skills, all of the emotion, all of the writing ability to be a big star. The fact that he didn't become one was just a case of luck."
Roslie's band mate, Freddie Dennis, will take on a couple of Morrill's signature tunes on Wednesday, Wailers set staples "Dirty Robber" and "Lucille."
The latter was, of course, a golden age hit for Little Richard, an artist Morrill would have first seen as a kid at Lacey's defunct Evergreen Ballroom. Fans could hear that influence in Morrill's fiery delivery, even as his health waned toward the end.
"He came from a time when you sang rock ‘n' roll and you sang ballads," O'Day says. "And if you listen to his ‘Dirty Robber' you're hearing the best of rock ‘n' roll. And if you listen to his ‘It's You Alone,' you hear the best of ballads. He was a Roy Orbison-type singer who could do it all, and do it with great emotion."
Merrillee Rush and the Kingsmen's Barry Curtis are also confirmed to perform on Wednesday, along with Wailers alumni Dave Roland (drums), Neil Anderson (guitar) and Gail Harris (vocals.)
Though not confirmed, Ormsby says he's also reached out to garage-rock vet Paul Revere, who was already slated to perform locally with the Raiders on May 5 at Snoqualmie Casino, and drummer Mike Burk.
Burk is now the sole living member from the original Wailers lineup. But the Tacoma resident hasn't drummed for his old band in decades.
Little Bill & the Bluenotes were the first Tacoma rock band to score a national hit in 1959, a few months before the Wailers parlayed their debut single, "Tall Cool One," into an appearance on Dick Clark's American Bandstand. And later the Ventures achieved international stardom as they laid down the foundation of surf-rock with "Walk, Don't Run," "Perfidia" and other hits.
But many, including Ventures co-founder Don Wilson, point to the Wailers as the band that set the stage for the next five decades of brilliant Northwest rock.
"I wore their album out," Wilson said in 2009, recalling how obsessively he'd listened to the Fabulous Wailers as he learned to play guitar in 1959.
"I still have it," he said. "From me trying to learn their songs, all those tracks turned white on the vinyl. That's how many times I played it over and over and over."
"They had the popularity in Tacoma more than any of us," recalls Little Bill & the Bluenotes namesake Bill Engelhardt.
"Kent was the only real singer that we had in Tacoma," he recalls. "There was nobody like him. He had a range that was amazing. Even as a young kid he had that range."
"He's just a major, major, part of the Northwest rock 'n' roll story," O'Day says. "The Wailers started that scene that created the Sonics, that created grunge.
"The Northwest scene would have never been the same without Kent Morrill and the Wailers."
Many marvel at Morrill's showmanship and passion for music, which continued right up until the end. Engelhardt recalls chatting with Morrill after his final performance with the Wailers, in February at the Snoqualmie Casino.
"So I said to him, ‘Do you think you're gonna be able to do the Roy Orbison show?'" Engelhardt recalls, referring to the tribute show Morrill had scheduled there for June. "And he says, ‘I have to. It's being advertised.' And here he was sitting there very weak, very pale. And I thought, ‘He's still the showman.'"
"He wanted to release another album," Ormsby says. "But you know how that goes. He didn't make it, so we're gonna try to cover what he's already done. And maybe we'll release some other things by him or the Wailers featuring Kent."
Among tentative releases Ormsby cites are Hard to Rock Alone, Morrill's unreleased solo record, and a DVD of that last show at Snoqualmie.
"Everybody wants to see that last show, you know," he says.
But more daunting is the prospect of keeping the band going without his old friend, something Ormsby says Morrill was adamant about in his last days.
"When he said that to me I went, ‘Whoa!' It's a heavy deal, you know," Ormsby says, expressing uncertainty about the future. "I haven't given a whole lot of thought to that one. My mission now is to give him a good sendoff with a lot of people who remember him."
O'Day says he would also be involved with a fundraiser for Morrill's wife, Toni, to be held at Snoqualmie Casino. But details had not yet been released.
"The Northwest has lost a great musical treasure," O'Day says. " And the fact that he didn't achieve great stardom was no disappointment to him because he was a guy that was very, very devoted to his religion. He was devoted to his buddies in the Wailers and devoted to his friends and his family.
"We don't have to cry for his disappointments because he knew how good he was and that's what counts."
The Fabulous Wailers Concert for Kent Morrill
Wednesday, May 4, 7 p.m., all ages, no cover
Temple Theatre, 47 Saint Helens Ave., Tacoma, 253.272.2042