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.
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