Forgotten Artists: Bonnie Guitar

Paul W. Dennis | January 14th, 2009

Bonnie Guitar

Born with the last name Buckingham, Seattle native Bonnie “Guitar” was a true renaissance woman who moved from role to role during the course of her long career. You name it, this 85 year old has done it: singer, songwriter, session musician, producer, executive and record label owner.

Bonnie Guitar learned several musical instruments during her adolescent years–becoming especially proficient on guitar–and before graduating high school she had already written several songs. During the early 1950s she recorded for Fabor Robison’s Fabor label, which also featured such artists as Ned Miller, Jim Reeves and Jim Ed & Maxine Brown. By the middle of the decade she had moved to Los Angeles where she worked as a session guitarist, playing on records for a number of big name (or future big name) artists, including Ferlin Husky.

In 1957 Bonnie signed with Dot Records, a label she would be associated with, off and on, for many years. Her big break occurred shortly thereafter when she recorded the Ned Miller-penned “Dark Moon.” Her version soared to #6 on the Billboard Pop charts, selling nearly a million copies along the way. Unfortunately, her label also issued a pop version of the song by noted television actress Gale Storm, who appeared on such shows as My Little Margie and The Gale Storm Show. Storm’s very similar version, no doubt aided by her greater fame, reached #5 on the Billboard Pop charts, also selling nearly a million copies (and outselling Ms. Guitar’s version by a few thousand copies). Bonnie made many television appearances in the wake of her success with “Dark Moon.”

In 1958 Bonnie formed her own record label, Dolphin Records (soon to be renamed Dolton Records), where she produced a number of acts, the most successful of which, the Fleetwoods, had a million seller with “Mr. Blue.”

Wishing to focus on her own career, Bonnie sold Dolton Records and went back to recording her own music for Dot (later ABC-Paramount), and eventually became an A&R director for the label on the west coast. After several years of focusing on A&R work, Bonnie got serious about her recording career again, and in 1966 scored several hits including “I’m Living in Two Worlds,” “A Woman in Love” and “I Believe in Love,” which all made it into the top 10. After 1967 the hits fell off–she had no further top 30 chart entries.

Perhaps this was to be expected, as by 1967 Bonnie was already 44 years old–rather long in the tooth, even in those days.

At the first annual Academy of Country Music Awards in 1967, Bonnie Guitar was named Top Female Vocalist, but this was essentially an award for past services and accomplishments. She would continue to perform until 1996, and still makes occasional appearances.

Discography

As far as I know, there is only one Bonnie Guitar CD available, Dark Storm issued on Bear Family (Germany). It features her recordings from 1956 to 1958, so it catches her two biggest pop hits (“Dark Moon” and “Mister Fire Eyes”) but misses her country hits for Dot. This CD is available at Collector’s Choice Music.

Other than that, you’ll need to do some vinyl hunting. While Bonnie Guitar had one of the prettiest voices ever to sing country music, her 60s output has some rather syrupy backing–the full “Nashville Sound” treatment–which sounds more easy listening than country at times (although most of it is vastly superior to today’s pop country). Despite the musical arrangments, Bonnie Guitar is an outstanding singer whose voice shines through–always.

  1. CMW
    January 14, 2009 at 6:46 pm

    I love your work on this series, Paul. I don’t comment on these entries as much as I probably should, but I appreciate the education and think you’re doing a real service to the online country world. Thank you.

    It was nice to learn a bit about Bonnie Guitar, whose name I’ve come across a few times without ever really stopping to investigate. She does sound like quite the renaissance woman! Pretty amazing.

  2. Razor X
    January 14, 2009 at 6:52 pm

    Ditto. I’ve heard the name Bonnie Guitar before but didn’t really know anything about her or her music. Thanks for the education.

  3. Jim Malec
    January 15, 2009 at 9:00 am

    Is the music player working for everyone?

  4. Leeann Ward
    January 15, 2009 at 10:17 am

    It wasn’t last night, but it is now.

  5. Brady Vercher
    January 15, 2009 at 10:32 am

    It’s magic!

    That Bear Family release is available at Amazon as well, for anyone interested in it. Considering the dearth of female producers even today, I think it’s pretty remarkable that she was one of the first way back in the 50′s.

  6. Rick
    January 19, 2009 at 8:53 pm

    I had never heard of Bonnie until she made the Top 100 Women of Country list over at Country Universe awhile back. She is definitely an amazing gal who broke down a lot of walls and glass ceiling barriers in the country music world in the 1950′s and 1960′s. Its a good thing she was working here in Los Angeles where the mindset in the music industry wasn’t as rigidly sexist as the “good old boy’s system” in Nashville at the time. L.A. Rules! (lol)

    I was not familiar with the song “Dark Moon” until I purchased the excellent country music soundtrack to the obscure 1997 Bill Paxton film “Traveller”. Mandy Barnett croons an absolutely beautiful version of this song along with covering other classics like “Dream Lover” and “Searching (For Someone Like You)”. Highly recommended. (Uh oh, it seems I’ve gone off topic yet again…)

  7. kerry Yanasak
    February 23, 2009 at 6:13 pm

    I spoke Guitar (my neighbor when I was a kid) a couple months ago and she still practices the guitar a few hours every day.

    She has the most beautiful voice I know.

  8. Katrenia
    July 28, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    Was fortunate enough to know Bonnie Guitar. She no longer performs but will always be a grand lady of the guitar.
    Bonnie now lives in a small trailer in Soap Lake Washington.
    A lady always.

  9. sharon
    August 29, 2009 at 10:18 pm

    a good friend of bonnie’s is trying to find her. he use to play music with her many years ago. is she still living in soap lake wash. and how can he get in touch with her. is she listed in the phone book. he is going to see another friend of theirs his name is deb, who is being inducted into the cowboy hall of fame in Pendelton oregon in sept. please help me if you can. thank you

  10. René Fabre
    July 13, 2011 at 9:04 pm

    Nice article on Bonnie, Paul. Back in the day (1968 – 1971) I worked for Bonnie Guitar as a guitarist, arranger, and song writer. I spent a lot of wonderful times then at her ranch in Orting, Washington. Her daughter Paula and I did an album in Nashville in 1969 for Don Tweedy Productions.

    Ironically (I’d suppose), my Dad, Al Fabre, a very gifted accordion player worked with Bonnie back in the late 40′s and 50′s when she was married to Paul Tutmarc.

    I haven’t seen Bonnie for years. I found Paula on Facebook and we all hooked up a few weeks ago in Tacoma. Bonnie was (is) one of the most meticulous artists I’ve ever known. She informed me at our get together that she’s rehearsing for a new gig and going back to work!

  11. Margie Seim
    September 1, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    I met Bonnie after her wonderful Christmas concert in Soap Lake in 2007. She is remarkable on stage, captured the sell-out crowd, and still has that beautiful voice. She has a nice house in Soap Lake where she lives. It has been a privilege to know her.

  12. Phil Slater
    January 21, 2012 at 2:09 am

    I was the Drummer for Paula’s band
    that rehearsed on Bonnie’s ranch in Orting Wa.
    in ’68-’69.
    We were writing and practicing songs for Paula’s album
    and we would arrive on Friday and go home on Sunday
    (Bonnie also bought the band all new equipment)
    I used to talk to Bonnie for hours
    I was not aware of the great songs and voice
    that she had!
    (It was Beatles and 60′s music for me back then.)
    But, now looking at the legacy she has left with the country music industry.
    I find her to be in the “Patsy Cline League” of brilliant!
    She has worked and performed well into her Eighty’s and I totally admire her!

    Phil,

  13. Don M. Howard
    December 25, 2012 at 12:57 pm

    Bonnie,
    I’m Bea Terry’s son and need to talk to you about book I’m writing. I’m on Facebook from Sanger, Texas, phone: 940/395-1207

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