Who was/is Bonnie Guitar ? - CDs, Vinyl LPs, DVD and more
Bonnie was born on March 25, 1923 in Auburn, Washington. Hers was a musical family: father, John Buckingham, was a farmer; and, like his brother, Bert, an amateur fiddler. Her two elder brothers shared a flat-top Gibson guitar. From early on, Bonnie was a jazz fan. "When I was five," she remembers, "we lived behind a big dance hall where all the bands came through. I'd creep out of the house and would sit on a bench listening to bands led by people like Bumps Blackwell [whose later credits included producing Sam Cooke, and discovering, producing and managing Little Richard]. My mother worked in the dance hall, and they had a band come through every Saturday – it was incredible.
"That's when I fell in love with the clarinet and tenor sax players like Ben Webster; later alto, and Johnny Hodges. The only kind of music in our house, though, was pop singers like Nick Lucas and Gene Austin; and my father liked Irish tenors. I, on the other hand, could listen to Ella [Fitzgerald] and [Mel] Tormé all day, and Anita O'Day."
When she turned thirteen, Bonnie took up her brothers' guitar. "I wanted to be a clarinetist, but the school's band director played clarinet, and we only had one. He wouldn't let me play guitar, because to him it was a hillbilly instrument. I tried other instruments, but I only wanted to play guitar. My brothers had a nice little Gibson; and when they got tired of it, they passed it on to me.
"As a guitar player," she continues, "I loved Nick Lucas's records." Lucas was the singer and instrumentalist who, in 1922, is said to have played the first guitar solo ever recorded, and whose hit records (mostly in the 1920s) included Always, Bye Bye Blackbird, My Blue Heaven, I'm Looking Over A Four-Leaf Clover, and Tip Toe Through The Tulips.
Bonnie told Linda Ray for a 2007 'No Depression' feature, "I'd try to copy off those instrumentals. I also listened to a lot of folk, like Woody Guthrie, or Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club of France. One of the things I used to like to do was to take a song and put as many chords to it as I could, and running bass lines. I studied all those things. I took lessons as often as I could."
She took up singing, and before long was appearing before audiences; first in amateur shows (her first 'win' was at the Rialto Theater, with a version of Jimmie Rodgers' Mississippi Moon) and talent contests, and then professionally – though for Depression-era wages.
She also took lessons from a number of teachers; oddly never learning in the process to learn to read music. One of those teachers was Paul Tutmarc.
He made a strong impression, and no wonder. First, he was a divorcé 27 years older than his pupil. Second, he was an experienced entertainer; having experience with a vaudeville troupe based in his native Minneapolis, though he'd relocated to Seattle in the early '20s to work in the shipyards. Before long, he'd become a celebrity throughout Washington state; first on Tacoma's radio station KMO, and with Sam Wineland's Orchestra at the Broadway Theater. Moving to Seattle, he performed on radio station KJR, and in various vaudeville houses. Like many of the singers Bonnie heard while she was growing up, he was a tenor.
But for bad luck – and maybe a bad partner – Tutmarc might have become even better known; and much richer. In the early '30s, he and Art Stimson developed what appears to be the first pickup to electrify acoustic instruments. The pair was discouraged from patenting the device, Tutmarc's son has written, because "after investing $300 with attorneys who initiated a patent search with the government, Tutmarc was ultimately advised that their pickup design was non-patentable because the telephone companies had already patented similar devices.
"One can imagine the shock then when Tutmarc…eventually took notice after a Los Angeles-based firm began selling their 'Electro String Instruments' in August 1932. Then, in the spring of 1933, the Dobro firm began marketing their All-Electric model of electrified Spanish-style guitar." The device was patented; not in the form Tutmarc had been advised was unpatentable, but - and this made all the difference - as part of the overall guitar design. Art Stimson, by then living in Southern California, was listed as assignor on Dobro's patent application; he had evidently sold the invention for just $600, forgetting to send half the proceeds back to his former partner in Seattle. In the meantime, Tutmarc, who had also been working in bands exploiting the current Hawaiian music craze, had been manufacturing lap steel guitars under the Audiovox brand.
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