Walla Walla rock 'n' roller is here to stay

Guitarist Craig Tarwater's back in town, showing he can still really shake it down.

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Walla Walla native Craig Tarwater, holding a guitar he put together from various parts, toured, recorded with and played on the same stage with many of rock 'n' roll's greats. He's now giving guitar lessons and working locally with Jimmy Lloyd Rea and the Switchmasters.

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The Frets was a local band that played in the Walla Walla area in the early 1960s. Pictured, clockwise from left, are guitarist Arian Gibb, bass; Steve Allen, rhythm, Craig Tarwater, and drummer Don McCoy.

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Craig Tarwater, with student Danielle Stephens, who works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, ensures she is holding the guitar comfortably with little stress on neck and back.

So you want to be a rock 'n' roll star.

Maybe guitar lessons from someone who's shared the stage or recorded with music legends such as the Byrds, Jackie DeShannon, Canned Heat, Iron Butterfly, The Doors and Buffalo Springfield will do the trick.

Walla Walla native Leslie "Craig" Tarwater, whose resume includes those and other rock giants of the 1960s, recently hung out his shingle to teach at Blazing Guitars, 1726 E. Isaacs Ave.

Tarwater, 65, says he was on a spiritual journey when he left Walla Walla in the late 1960s and found the California music scene in the late 1960s.

Then, coming full circle he returned to Walla Walla Jan. 14, 1989, on his mother's birthday. His original intention was just a temporary emotional refueling stop, but he decided to remain.

He found a great deal of musical success in California, but here he said he could see the sky and breathe the air, which you can't do in L.A.

"I was out riding my dad's bike, looking at the beautiful sky and all the green, the trees," he says. "My sister said I could do what I do from anywhere, why not stay?"

His love of music started early, as did his talent with the guitar. He listened to music his mother collected - singer Mario Lanza, guitar/vocal duet Les Paul and Mary Ford, and Elvis Presley.

Tarwater started learning the guitar shortly before his eighth birthday. One memorable moment was playing "Hound Dog" in the living room for relatives.

He became a music sponge as a boy, taking in all he heard. "Anything that Les Paul did struck my fancy. We had TV by 1955, we watched the Mitch Miller hour (‘Sing Along With Mitch') and ‘Your Hit Parade.' "

Locally he was with the band Hawk and the Randelas, which produced a record and played often at the legendary Natatorium recreation complex on Wilbur Avenue.

Earning a rep as a solid guitarist, he then started gigging with top artists. He played in a back-up band for a Dobie Gray concert and toured the Pacific Northwest with The Drifters. He left for California in May 1966, met people and changed bands quite often. After the Randelas, he worked with the Sons of Adam, then moved on to The Daily Flash.

In LA he met several people who would influence him, such as Grammy winning producer Val Garay and songwriter Rick Dey, who collaborated on "Just Like Me," made famous by Paul Revere and the Raiders.

Tarwater said he was usually was in the right place at the right time and made connections, and being around excellent musicians improved his own playing that much more.

"I've been able to move from side to side, here and there and as a result I've been a speck of dust close to entertainment giants." He said that most often it was a great pleasure to work with them.

"Really it's how you conduct yourself. Apparently people liked the way I play the guitar," he says. "Under circumstances where I'm comfortable or under ideal circumstances with world class musicians or those that are simply much better than I am, I can get sucked up to their level."

One thing he struggled to over come was his inner shyness. "People said they were so taken with how I played, so courteous about their compliments," Tarwater says. "I usually said something that was too self deprecating," then learned to simply say "thank you."

"It took a long time to put it into perspective and learn about loving, in all ways to all people."

Tarwater went on to play with the band Love with Arthur Lee, and then on to the band 2 Guitars, Piano, Drums and Daryl. The name "Daryl" refers to Daryl DeLoach who later joined Iron Butterfly.

When the mid '70s rolled around, Tarwater left the professional music scene for another love: race cars. He worked as a Porsche mechanic and helped build a championship car. He said he always liked building things, and that also included guitars.

But playing music was his first love and he wanted to share that with others; so teaching guitar became the next logical step in his life.

In Walla Walla his students range in age from 6 to people in their 50s. "The guitar has been nothing but magical fun all of my life and they can have that, too," he says.

In a recent lesson his student, a 7-year-old girl, was working hard to be focused, not absolutely perfect. She wasn't nervous, just concerned.

He spends the first half-hour with new students to make a connection. It's a trait he applies to his life and relationships as well.

"I just get it," he says. "I've just developed a ‘no fear attitude.'"

In addition to the lessons he's also working on recording material soon to be released, working with Jimmy Lloyd Rea & the Switchmasters and Dan Goodell, co-owner of Blazing Guitars.

He takes responsibility for all his life's choices, good and otherwise. "I've never had a bad day that I didn't have a hand in."

But that said, he still strives for excellence, focusing on being genuinely himself.

His basic rule of living: "Treat everyone with respect because that is the only way to live."

Karlene Ponti can be reached at 509-526-8324 or karleneponti@wwub.com

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