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Surf's up

Surf's up

Don Wilson still gets excited playing the many hits of the Ventures, a group he co-founded almost 50
Surf's up
Don Wilson shows his award from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Ventures rhythm guitarist Don Wilson had been speaking on his house phone for nearly 45 minutes when his cellphone began to ring.

“Hold on,” he said, pausing mid-sentence. “Listen to my ring tone.”

The jingle that drifted over the receiver, while tinny and distorted, was still instantly recognizable thanks to its trebly guitar line and accompanying horn arrangement. The theme from the 1960s and 1970s TV show “Hawaii Five-0” was one of The Ventures’ biggest hits, and now it’s what Wilson hears every time his cellphone rings.

After 50 years and, by Wilson’s count, 250 albums, The Ventures’ music still gets Wilson excited, as evidenced by his enthusiasm over the ring tone. (He never did answer the call.) According to Wilson, when The Ventures perform at Albany Riverfront Park on Thursday, the audience can look forward to “good time, happy music.”

“I’ll tell ya, we always have a great time,” Wilson said. “People say, ‘Oh, you guys look like you’re having a great time, having fun,’ and we still do.”

The show is part of Albany’s free Alive at Five summer concert series, which began last week with Dennis DeYoung. Now in its 20th year, the series runs for 10 weeks during the summer, with all concerts beginning at 5 p.m. on Thursdays.

The Ventures

With: Rocky Velvet

When: 5 p.m. Thursday

Where: Corning Preserve, Albany Riverfront Park

How much: Free

More info: Call 434-2032, or visit www.albanyevents.org/alive_at_five.

Each concert has a theme that covers a different genre of music, including the DeYoung show, which was “Classic Rock Night,” and The Ventures’ performance, “Beach Night.” According to Melli Rose, public relations coordinator for Albany Special Events, the goal was to feature popular groups “for all different types of musical tastes.”

The Ventures have been associated with surf music since their first hit in 1959, “Walk, Don’t Run,” arguably one of the first surf songs, defining the sub-genre before it even had a name. However, The Ventures are not strictly a surf band; the group’s latest album, “Rocky,” currently only available in Japan, includes the theme song from the film “Rocky” and other songs that Wilson described as “inspirational hits.”

Wilson said he has accepted the surf label, although it has taken him some time. In fact, some of his favorite Ventures material is the group’s surf music.

“I’ve kind of gotten used to it; it used to bother me,” Wilson said. “We’re not just surf. God, we had a Bach and Beethoven album out with 35 pieces; we’ve done all different kinds of things. It just so happens, because of our association with “Wipeout” and “Pipeline.” “Walk, Don’t Run” was actually the very first surf song; the term wasn’t coined yet. We can’t get away.”

The Ventures’ other claim to fame as one of rock music’s best-known and best-selling instrumental acts is perhaps a more accurate description of the group’s sound over the years. Although the group has been defined by its instrumental status, Wilson originally did sing lead in the band.

“ ‘The Real McCoy’ was our first recording. There was a TV show with Walter Brennan called ‘The Real McCoys,’ and I used to do an impression of him,” Wiilson said. “We thought we needed a gimmick of some kind. So we did the rock and roll thing, ‘da da-da da-da da-da,’ then I’d say something in that voice. That didn’t do much.”

According to Wilson, when the instrumental “Walk, Don’t Run” became a hit, the band’s label suggested that The Ventures shouldn’t try to sing anymore. The song was discovered by Ventures guitarist Bob Bogle on the 1957 Chet Atkins album “Hi-fi in Focus.”

“He played it in kind of a classical, jazz style, and we’d just learned to play guitar about a year before that; we couldn’t do that — so we ‘Venturized’ it,” Wilson said. “Playing these clubs, you can get an idea, when we played ‘Walk, Don’t Run,’ nobody had ever heard it; Atkins didn’t have anything yet; it was lost in an album. People used to come up to us and say, ‘What was that song you just played? Can you play that again, we really like that.’ We wound up playing it four times a night, people liked it so much.”

Big in japan

Vocal versions of Ventures songs do exist, however, in Japan, where artists often add Japanese lyrics to the group’s instrumental hits.

“We had about five standards [in Japan] from 1968 to 1972, and the five songs all went to number one twice — our instrumental, and then the vocal came out and went to number one,” Wilson said. “They’re standards there today; every Japanese person knows those songs.”

The band has had a large following in Japan since their first appearance in the country in 1963. While The Ventures’ popularity in the U.S. reached its zenith in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the band has continued to chart in Japan up to the present day with 20 number one hits in the country so far, according to Wilson.

“One reason for that is that it’s instrumental, they love guitar music,” Wilson said. “A lot of their old music is played in a minor key, and a lot of ours is in a minor key. We picked up on what their old music likes were, and wrote songs for them.”

“Walk, Don’t Run,” which remains Wilson’s sentimental favorite, was placed in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2006. The band itself was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame only this year, despite having been eligible for 22 years.

“We’re the biggest-selling instrumental group in music history; that should have been enough, but we never were [inducted],” Wilson said. “As it worked out, it’s better that it happened now, when the 50th anniversary comes up. If we got in right away, it might have been forgotten about.”

Although popular music in the U.S. has shifted away from instrumental music, The Ventures’ influence can still be heard in many popular groups and musicians today. The list of guitarists and other musicians who were influenced by Ventures songs includes George Harrison, The B-52s, Peter Frampton and Billy Joel.

“I met Billy Joel backstage at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and he said, ‘You know, one of the very first songs I learned on piano is ‘Walk, Don’t Run,’ ” Wilson said. “I asked, ‘Can I quote you on that?’ That’s a thing — he’s one of my favorites.”

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