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Gary Olinger, from Trona to big-time rock and roll

By LAURA QUEZADA News Review Staff Writer

It is always good news to learn that a hometown boy had unusual success in their chosen field. That is the case with Gary Olinger, former Ridgecrest resident and graduate of the Trona class of 1958.

Gary Olinger
Gary Olinger (MUG)

Olinger was well-known in Ridgecrest in the 1960s when he played drums for The Hustlers. At the time, they were considered “surf music” and covered popular hits of the day. Olinger tells us, “Everybody loved ‘Secret Agent Man’ and ‘Proud Mary.’ Mickey Meyers used to do this thing; it was pretty funny. He would put on makeup and a skirt. And it was very weird and the lipstick was oversized. It was a take-off on a Jerry Lewis thing that he did.” Myers would spout a quote from Jerry Lewis. “And it was hysterical. Everybody loved it.”

After a few years, the band was playing three nights per week in a club that was named  Fat and Charlie’s Go-Go Joint, which became JD’s. “Everybody had that sense of being part of the band and that made it more enjoyable for the entire audience and everybody at the bar.” The band played the Batman theme song, “Whenever there was a fight or stuff going on, and that let the doorman know they better start looking because there are problems. We had a great following and it was a lot of fun. It really was. Little did I know what was gonna happen with me the rest of my life, but it was great fun.”

The music group The Hustlers
Gary Olinger, top left, was well-known in Ridgecrest in the 1960s when he played drums for The Hustlers. Cliff Riddle Photo

When the band’s schedule expanded to four nights, they thought, “Maybe we could make a living at this.” They got booked in Pomona and a promoter wanted to send them on the road. Meyers’ wife didn’t want him on the road. One band member was in the Navy and got stationed on the East Coast. The band broke up. “It was a great deal of fun while it lasted, and we enjoyed each other; there was no fighting that broke up the band or any of that stuff. It was just life. Family obligations.” This was not the end of Olinger’s music career. He went on to be a professional musician for 40 years. “Gail McConkey, who had a lot of acts that she booked in smaller venues in San Bernardino and Ontario and places like that, heard me play when the band started dissipating. She asked me if I wanted to go on the road.

Janis Joplin
Fans fondly remember the iconic voice of the late Janis Joplin.

“That was a pretty big decision but I went to of all places Roswell, New Mexico, and started playing with a group called The Novies. That led from one band to another. I ran into a guy named Buck Ram, who was the manager for The Platters. He got me hooked up with a band in San Francisco. I went from band to band in San Francisco for a while. I wound up very briefly playing drums on the road with a group called South Coast Boogie Band, or the San Francisco Blues Boogie Band, or whatever they wanted to call it. And then our lead singer died of an overdose.

“It was Janis Joplin.”

Olinger continued playing in San Francisco, then went back to Southern California. “That’s where I met David Rhodes. We put together a group called Tall Cotton and did quite well in the Southern California area. It was a country rock band because it was right after the Urban Cowboy craze.“

Olinger isn’t quite sure when he retired from the music business, he thinks the early 90s or late 80s. He went on to be a chef and a beverage manager for a resort. He married Roberta and moved to Wacom County in Washington State, where he opened a restaurant. “I found out that ownership in a restaurant was not as fun as working for somebody in a restaurant.” He changed vocations, and for 12 years, he was a bus driver for the Washington State School Bus System. He sold his drums and picked up golf.

Talking with Olinger, one is once again reminded of what a great place Trona was before corporate downsizing reduced it to its current state. “I lived there on three different occasions. The first time was during the Second World War. My dad worked for American Polish and Chemical Corporation and then we moved down to LA because it looked like greener pastures, I guess and then we moved back. I was in fourth grade, I believe, and then I stayed there until I graduated from high school in 1958. It was a marvelous, marvelous place to grow up before the place went to wrack and ruin.

“When I was a little kid in third or fourth grade, we would take off out in the desert. Everybody had guns and bows and arrows and slingshots and everything else, and we would go hunt lizards. The only prerequisite was when it got dark enough to where the street light would be on, you better be back home, and that was it. And that was how I grew up – free. I mean it just it was absolutely wonderful. I could expound on it for hours. It was one of the most wonderful places on the planet as far as I was concerned.”

He tells a story that portrays the nature of small-town living. One Halloween, “Joe Tankersley, Darren Sagaris, Bill Tansley, Carl Hall, and I all went out to egg some friends of ours out in West End, and I lived at The Point (Pioneer Point in the far east end of town). So we took my dad’s pickup and went out there. Yeah, we had a great time. We were laughing. We get back to the house. There’s my dad standing on the porch with some buckets and mops. He tells us, ‘Gets your butts back there and clean up the mess.’ That’s the kind of community where you couldn’t do anything at one end of the valley without everybody at the other end of the valley knowing about it.”

In the December 15, 2023 issue of The News Review, Trona alumni Shirley Krebbs Reed, recipient of a 2023 Presidential Rank Award, stated, “If some kid from Trona reads this, they can maybe realize that there are possibilities for everyone coming out of Trona no matter what your situation is.” Olinger’s story could have the same impact.