Excerpted from an article by Kathleen Kiefer
By permission of the author
Country music fans all over the world are mourning the recent passing of Soap Lake’s own Bonnie Guitar. Here’s a look back at Bonnie’s remarkable career.
Bonnie Buckingham was born in 1923 at Redondo Beach, Washington into a musical family. Her father and uncles were fiddlers and her brothers shared an antique flat-top Gibson guitar that Bonnie inherited when she was 13. At age 16 she won her first big talent show at the Rialto Theater in Seattle. Soon afterward, she joined a traveling music group that toured small theaters around the state and the Pacific Northwest.
In 1944 she married Paul Tutmarc, a well-known Seattle area music teacher. Paul was 27 years her senior. Together Bonnie and Paul played many of the big roadhouses and dance halls in the Pacific Northwest. They were popular guests at well-known Seattle music venues including the
Eagles Nest, the Silver Dollar Tavern, and the Town & County Club.
In 1955 one of Bonnie’s demo recordings reached producer Fabor Robison in Malibu, California. He invited Bonnie to audition and quickly offered her a contract as an in-house session musician. For the next three years, Bonnie worked in Fabor’s production studio learning recording techniques while serving as production assistant. It was during this time that Bonnie changed her last name to Guitar.
In 1956 Robison was working on a recording of Ned Miller’s song, Dark Moon. He reportedly wasn’t happy with the results from the composition he recorded with rock n roll singer Dorsey Burnette. Bonnie pleaded her case for Robison to give her a chance to cut it herself. In an interview with Historian Peter Bletcha, Bonnie described what happened:
“I told Fabor I’d give up my royalties to be able to record that song. I knew in my mind, as little as I knew, that it was a hit song. I just knew it. So, we went right in the studio and started working on it, and I sang and played lead guitar......”
She did indeed give up her royalties to the song and from this deal was born the most popular version of the song ever recorded. In 1957 it became an instant California hit. Shortly afterwards it broke in national pop charts and Bonnie’s career took off. She went on to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show. Then came her hit “Mister Fire Eyes” a true crossover hit followed by appearances on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch Show and the Grand Ol’ Opry.
Back home in Seattle, Bonnie’s good fortune brought her in contact with record wholesaler Bob Reisdorff whose dream was to start his own record label. With Reisdorff’s business connections and Bonnie’s production talent, they formed Dolton Records Company. Their debut production was the song, “Come Softly To Me” by the Fleetwoods, an Olympia teen do-wop trio. The song was No. 2 on the Billboard charts. Bonnie went on to produce songs for top Northwest teen bands including the Frantics, Little Bill and the Blue Notes, the Playboys and the Four Pearls, all with releases on Dolton records. The partnership with Reisdorff eventually dissolved, but, by then, Bonnie Guitar was recognized as the first successful female record producer in the country.
In 1961 Bonnie was back in Hollywood as director of Artist and Repertoire (A&R) in the country division of RCA records. She toured with Eddy Arnold and performed gigs with Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Sonny James, and Willie Nelson. In 1965 Bonnie was signed to Dot Records as an artist/producer, and as country A&R rep for Dot’s parent company, ABC-Paramount. In 1967 she was awarded the Academy of Country Music Awards Female Vocalist of the Year. Throughout her career, Bonnie produced 13 studio albums, 7 compilation albums and 39 singles.
By the late 1960’s Bonnie had remarried and was spending much of her time on her ranch in Orting, Washington. There, she and her husband, Mario DePiano, raised and raced quarter horses. After the death of Mario in 1983, she retreated from public life. A year later, she was invited to become a regular performer at The Businessman’s Club of Notaras Lodge in Soap Lake, Washington. She accepted the offer and moved to Soap Lake. She played at the Club through 1996.
After “retiring”, Bonnie entertained family and friends with impromptu jams and occasionally played concerts at nearby venues. On her 91st birthday she was recognized by the state of Washington and was presented with a flag that had been flown over the state capital. A declaration was read from the Washington Secretary of State declaring Bonnie Guitar to be a “Washington State Treasure”.
Bonnie was featured on "Northwest Profiles" on KSPS-TV in 2014. Watch it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehRVVo5bOnY
Bonnie Guitar died January 12, 2019, in Soap Lake, WA. She was 95 years old. A Celebration of Life is planned for Saturday, February 16th, 3PM, Las Brisas Conference Center, 323 Daisy Street (Hwy 17), Soap Lake, WA.
The Story of Earl McKay, Soap Lake and the Horror of Buerger’s Disease
It was called a death by inches. Diminished GIs came home from World War I haunted by the horror of an unimaginable war in the trenches. Then, their extremities began to blacken, become gangrenous, and have to be surgically removed. This malady confused doctors and was often misdiagnosed. Eventually came the dreaded name for it: Buerger’s disease. There was no cure. Before succumbing to the collapse of their lungs, many of these young American men lost both arms and legs and lived their remaining life as torsos.
Buerger’s disease victims were desperate for help. The medical community could only offer a series of amputations. Charlatans abounded. It is no wonder that a young army private from Wilbur, WA, looked to the curative properties of the water in nearby Soap Lake. Without surgery, Earl McKay had been given a life prognosis of three months. Earl had grown up hearing about how the Indians had been visiting Soap Lake for centuries to find help for various illnesses.
He asked his doctor whether Soap Lake waters might help his condition. “You’re committing suicide” was the doctor’s response. McKay, staring at death, felt he had nothing to lose.
McKay spent his next (and supposedly last) three months bathing in—and drinking the waters of—Soap Lake. On the day he should have died, he looked at his legs to discover they were no longer black. By the end of 1919, Earl’s body was working normally again. In all, he lost only one big toe to amputation.
You have to understand that Soap Lake was not an easy cure. Buerger’s disease eats away at flesh and exposes nerve bundles—some as big as a man’s thumb. Submersion in the lake water caused excruciating pain, and the pain continued even when the patient came out of the water. The men (and a few women) who came to Soap Lake seeking help were both desperate and incredibly brave.
The second man who came to Soap Lake for “the cure” came in 1930. By chance, a Seattle newspaper reporter heard about McKay’s recovery and wrote up a human interest story. Bill Williamson lay in the Veterans Administration facility in Walla Walla. He’d had Buerger’s since 1921 and had endured 25 surgeries. Both his legs were amputated to the knee and just two fingers on his hands remained whole. Bill’s wife read the Seattle newspaper story and brought her broken husband to Soap Lake. The cure caused horrific pain, but Bill persevered. It took months, but gradually the pain ceased and Bill’s skin grew pink and normal. He was healthy for the first time in ten years.
McKay and Richardson became evangelical about Soap Lake’s waters. There was no rigorously conducted scientific inquiry to validate their experience. But, Buerger’s victims steadily came to Soap Lake and there was much anecdotal evidence of improvement. No one claimed that Soap Lake waters cured the disease. Both McKay and Richardson soon discovered that their symptoms began to return when they were too long away from the lake. And, because the cure was so excruciatingly painful, many patients did not have the wherewithal to endure until their symptoms were arrested. McKay and Richardson sought research funding from both governmental and private funders. Indeed, Bill Richardson lost another part of his leg (and his ability to wear protheses to walk) when he once stayed too long lobbying in Washington DC.
Sufferers - both famous and not - sought help in the waters of Soap Lake. At one time, nearly a third of Soap Lake’s residents were Buerger’s victims. Doctors from all over the state of Washington encouraged patients to bathe in the lake - for help with Buerger’s and other diseases. According to Moses Lake resident, Dick Deane, his aunt, Madeleine Deane, was Eleanor Roosevelt’s dear friend. Aunt Madeleine, who lived near Warm Springs, AK, often visited Deane’s folks in Grant County. She was commissioned by Mrs. Roosevelt to collect bottles of Soap Lake water to be used by President Roosevelt to relieve his polio symptoms. Aunt Madeleine delivered the water to Eleanor in Arkansas.
On November 11, 1938, with money appropriated from the United States Congress, McKay Memorial Hospital opened to care (for free) for US military veterans suffering from Buerger's. Non-veterans were treated for $6 a day. Unfortunately, Earl McKay died (at age 44) just two months before the hospital opened.
For slightly more than a year after it opened, Buerger’s research was conducted by TJ Tatherrece, MD. His research conclusions? “The results of this investigation indicate that the spa treatment of Buerger’s disease at Soap Lake, WA, is not a specific treatment for the disease. However, the ulcerative and gangrenous complications of this disease can be treated successfully in a large percentage of cases with this type of treatment.”
Shortly after the opening of McKay Hospital, Soap Lake fell upon hard times. There was drought. The Great Depression was ongoing. World War II began. The great crowds of people who had been coming to Soap Lake for its medicinal properties diminished. In addition, medical research established a clear connection between Buerger’s Disease and smoking. This explanation comes from the Mayo Clinic:
Cigarette smoking greatly increases your risk of Buerger's disease. But Buerger's disease can occur in people who use any form of tobacco, including cigars and chewing tobacco. People who smoke hand-rolled cigarettes using raw tobacco may have the greatest risk of Buerger's disease.It isn't clear how tobacco use increases your risk of Buerger's disease, but virtually everyone diagnosed with Buerger's disease uses tobacco. It's thought that chemicals in tobacco may irritate the lining of your blood vessels, causing them to swell.
While Buerger’s disease continues to plague areas of the world where citizens heavily consume cigarettes, the incidence and severity of Buerger’s in the United States has decreased significantly. Still, for many other reasons, health seekers still come to Soap Lake - to swim and relax and enjoy its medicinal waters.
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