Surf, Sand And Oklahoma
One Oklahoma boy created the California sound of Ronny and the Daytonas.
With its manic drum intro and wild wawahhhh-wawawawawawahhhhh chorus, Ronny and the Daytonas’ “G.T.O.” roared out of speakers like a jet-fueled dragster in that summer of ’64, the last great year for the distinctly American rock ‘n’ roll genre that came to be known as surf ‘n’ drag.
The template had been struck a couple of years earlier, when the first Capitol Records single by a new band called the Beach Boys featured a tune about surfing (“Surfin’ Safari”) on one side, and one about hot rodding (“409”) on the other. Before you could say “Surf’s up!” a whole passel of acts with names like the Rip Chords, the Hondells, the Surfaris and Jan & Dean were roaring up the charts with records about motorbikes and dragstrips and beautiful beach bunnies standing wistfully by the lonely sea, spreading the powerfully seductive image of a sun-drenched endless California summer all across the USA.
Here in Oklahoma, we may have been a good 1,400 miles away from that action, but we were by no means immune to its pull on our hearts and souls. After all, we could dream, couldn’t we?
Ronny and the Daytonas, who produced a classic tune in each of the surf ‘n’ drag categories (respectively, the lush, melancholic ballad “Sandy” and the raucous “G.T.O,”), were one of those West Coast bands that fired our imaginations – or so we thought. Actually, the boys in the band lived even farther from Southern California than we did.
Boy might be more accurate. And Oklahoma boy would be even more accurate still. While he was joined in the studio by fellow musicians like Buzz Cason, Bobby Russell and Bergen White – who would become well-known country-music figures – and on the road by many different players, high schooler John Buck Wilkin was the guy behind the whole thing. Ronny and the Daytonas started in a Nashville studio, but Wilkin came from Oklahoma, having been born in Cherokee and raised for the first 11 or so years of his life in Tulsa.
The family had relocated to Music City because John’s mother, Marijohn Wilkin, had become a successful country-music songwriter. (Her hits included “Long Black Veil,” “Waterloo,” and “P.T. 109”: later, she’d co-write the gospel standard, “One Day at A Time,” with protégé Kris Kristofferson.). In 1963, she started a publishing company with another well-known Nashville figure, musician and arranger Bill Justis.
“They met through a producer from the West Coast, Nick Venet,” remembers Wilkin. “He was a staffer at Capitol Records, a real young guy. He’s my all-time hero in the music business. He was kind of a cosmic, spiritual, big-brother connection to the West Coast sound.”
In fact, Venet will forever be known as the man who signed the Beach Boys to Capitol, kicking off the whole surf ‘n’ drag craze. He also produced their first two albums for the label. It was just one of the many things he did for Capitol Records, some of which would take him to Nashville.
“Nick would come down here and do some sessions, hire Bill as an arranger and hire me as a musician, when I was like 16 years old,” adds Wilkin with a chuckle. “So he gave me a very early break.”
So did Justis.
“Bill and my mom had just started the company, and he said, ‘Well, if you want to do some recording, write some songs, and we’ll see what we can do.’ So, basically, I didn’t have to go out and pay any dues,” says Wilkin. “A lot of guys play in bars for 20 years before they get a break. All I had to do was walk in the studio.”
Even if Venet hadn’t shown up in John Buck Wilkin’s life, the teen’s own songwriting and singing would’ve been heavily influenced by Southern California acts like the Beach Boys.
“Totally,” he says. “They were my heroes, and they were what was going on. They were the people I was listening to on the radio. They’d started around ’61, so they were already a big deal. I was late to the surfin’ scene. But then again, I was landlocked and removed from it,” he adds, chuckling again.
The first tune he wrote and recorded was called “Hey Little Girl.” Through Justis’ connections, he got it released on Mala Records, a small New York label that produced more than its share of hits.
“Bill said, ‘Well, we’ve got to have a group name,’” Wilkin recalls. “So I made up a list of about 20 names, and he liked Ronny and the Daytonas the best.”
After “Hey Little Girl” failed to make the charts, Justis took the youngster aside and said, “Write me a hit.” And Wilkin did – penning the verses for “G.T.O.” during his high school physics class after seeing a layout about the new, souped-up auto in Car and Driver magazine. The song shot into the upper reaches of Billboard magazine’s Top 40 charts in 1964, peaking at No. 4 and joining the Beach Boys’ “I Get Around,” Jan and Dean’s “Dead Man’s Curve,” and the Hondell’s “Little Honda” on the list of endless-summer songs that, at least for a while, countered the British invasion of rock ’n’ roll radio that the Beatles had begun a year earlier.
The band charted twice more in ’64 with tunes in the same genre, “California Bound” and “Bucket T.” and began touring. But since Ronny and the Daytonas weren’t really a group, notes Wilkin, the road band “was a different bunch of guys every time.”
“It was whoever I could get,” he adds. “If we were playing around the South, I’d try to get as many studio guys as I could – those who were willing to go out. We would rent a trailer and go to Alabama or Mississippi or Florida. If it was Texas, we’d fly. But we didn’t tour all that much and I always lost money on the road, so it never was great.”
Except, he says, for the work he did with the USO. “You didn’t really get paid anything, but it was a chance to travel, and they treated you nice.”
It was during one of those tours that he cut most of the second Ronny and the Daytonas album, Sandy. The title track had already been recorded in Nashville – “pretty much by me alone, on two two-track Ampex quarter-inch reel-to-reel machines,” he says.
“We had been doing a USO tour in Germany, and Justis called from Nashville and said the label wanted an LP right away,” Wilkin recalls. “Justis came to Munich, where he had recorded before, so he knew the studios, where to eat, what to eat. We spent two weeks in the dead of winter in Munich, and that’s where the lush sound originated. The orchestra players were from the Munich Symphony, and worked all day for what the lesser Nashville string players would get for one three-hour session.”
Even though “Sandy” was the only track from the disc that charted, the Sandy album is a beautifully bittersweet set of songs that sounds, now, well ahead of its time. It proved to be the final LP for Ronny and the Daytonas, although Wilkin continued to work in the music business, and still does.
He also remains quite proud of that disc.
“I was trying to do something good, and I think there are some unique qualities about it,” he says. “I really don’t think you can say it sounds like anybody else you’ve ever heard.”