Rockin' the Great White North

April 23, 2006, courtesy Jim Slotek, Sun Media, Calgary

           Toronto harmony boys The Four Lads had a million-selling hit whose title was one possible answer to the question "Did Canada rock in the '50s?"
           It was called No, Not Much.
           In the years during which Elvis went from truck driving in Tupelo to swiveling on Ed Sullivan, Canada did produce some very nice million-selling acts. "Nice" was the way to describe our specialties -- crooners and do-wop bands.
           The Four Lads (Standin' On The Corner), The Crew Cuts (Sh-Boom) and The Diamonds were the big three whose songs were hummed all over North America. The three acts received Lifetime Achievement awards at the 1984 Juno Awards.
           Of the three, the closest to rock 'n' roll was The Diamonds, of Little Darlin' fame. According to industry bible Cashbox, that song and The Stroll (which inspired a popular dance) were the sixth and 30th most popular singles of 1957 and 1958, respectively.
           And let's not forget our teen idols, Ottawa's Paul Anka (Diana, Put Your Head On My Shoulder) and his doppelganger from Thunder Bay, Bobby Curtola (Fortune Teller, Aladdin). Were they rock 'n' roll? Well, Diana had a saxophone in it, which to some minds made it devil music. But that's kind of stretching it in retrospect.
           The Canadian rock 'n' roll scene developed so slowly that there really wasn't a Canadian rock 'n' roll scene. Those who did make it had to move south.
           Both Anka and Curtola had girls screaming for them all over North America while they were still in high school. Everywhere except at home, that is. Anka, having broken big, played a hometown concert in 1956 where some high school classmates booed and threw things at him. "The non-acceptance of (successful) Canadians by Canadians was an attitude that prevailed for quite a while," he told Sun Media. "My journey started at a very young age, and there were some rough moments in terms of how we identified with each other."
           Ronnie Hawkins noticed we discriminated against our own, too, when the rockabilly legend moved up to Toronto in 1958.
           "They didn't have one local band playing anywhere advertised that I could see," the Hawk says. "The mentality of the club owners was that Canadians won't come out to see Canadians. And I said, 'Well, that ain't true with hockey, is it?' "
           The attitude worked in his favour. "A couple friends of mine told me about Toronto. They said, 'There's no local bands to compete with, they're very nice and everything's union and all that, so you get paid."
           The rockers, however, were out there. And Ronnie says that after a couple of years in town, he engaged in a bit of subterfuge to get the locals gigs. "I'd tell the booking agents that I knew some acts down in Arkansas.
           "I ended up recording seven of those kids on my label (Hawk Records), and I'd get disc jockey friends of mine to give them airplay. There was Larry Lee & The Leisures from London, Robbie Lane & The Disciples (who ended up replacing The Band as Hawkins' backup band after Robbie, Levon and the boys left to join Bob Dylan).
           "And there was the band that ended up having the name Crowbar. (Lead singer) Kelly Jay was my roadie. We used to call him Sasquatch."
           If Toronto was in an ice age in the '50s, there was rock 'n' roll activity out in Vancouver, as Ronnie found out when he toured there.
           "I went coast to coast, and Vancouver wasn't the same as the rest of Canada. There was a bunch of different music going on there."
           The West Coast was alive with country-influenced rock 'n' roll bands. And many of them are still available today on CD -- as European imports. "There've been several compilations of '50s Canadian rock 'n' roll recently, all out of Europe. The Europeans are onto this stuff even if we're not," said music journalist/author Nick Jennings, whose book Before The Gold Rush was turned into a CBC special this year.
           "There's one compilation called Shakin' Up North: Canadian Rockabilly Volume One, from Bear Records in Germany. Then there's this Dutch label called Collector Records. They've put out no fewer than seven CDs in a series called Early Canadian Rockers."
           There's also an album called Real Gone Aragon: Roots Rockers And Rockabillies, a tribute to the B.C.-based Aragon Records, which recorded many of the seminal Canadian rock 'n' roll acts.
           The acts had names such as Jimmy Morrison & The Stripes (who had a kid in the lineup named Ian Tyson, who'd move on to much bigger things in Toronto), Les Vogt & The Prowlers (who had a hit called Rock Me Baby), The Rock-a-Tunes (You're Some Kind Of Nice) and The Peace River Rangers (Teenage Boogie).
           As well, artists who'd later become dyed-in-the-wool country acts started out as rockabilly acts. Among them: Edmonton's Dick Damron and Ottawa's Ted Daigle (who had a hit in 1959 with Mary Lou, the same tune Ronnie Hawkins and later Bob Seger recorded).
           Of course, "hit" back then meant you heard the songs on the radio -- not necessarily that they sold millions of copies.
           "Like a lot of Canadian music, pre-Cancon, a lot of it sold locally depending on how much push it got from a local deejay," Jennings says. "A lot of the time, these singles would have pressings of 500 at a time, and they'd shop them around, and there'd be a second or third pressing depending on how well they sold it.
           "The problem was we didn't have a record industry. It was like the 'Wild West' out there. Labels like Aragon were small concerns, and they didn't have the dollars to play around with promotion and pushing this stuff. It wasn't until the '60s that major labels in the States started opening Canadian offices. Capitol Records was the first, and it really gave a push that allowed bands to break out of their hometowns."
           That's why the doo-wop groups and crooners had to go to New York in the '50s to get their big breaks. And it's why Windsor-born Jack Scott, the closest thing we had to a "Canadian Elvis" (19 U.S. singles, four top-10) broke out of Detroit.
           In the late '60s, all that was to change -- big time -- with Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot and The Guess Who.
           But at the birth of rock 'n' roll, Canadian rockers had to be content to play for love, not money.

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