I have forever remembered the coming of the new year of 1960. The incident that keeps that new year hour indelibly vivid is of myself Robbie and our friend Pete Traynor in Robbie's kitchen on First Street in Toronto's east end playing cards or monopoly; when the clock's hands pointed to 12 the year 1960 had arrived and Peter stood up and shook our hands saying happy new year gentlemen.
Not only would this new year end the uninterrupted first phase of my playing career of about 2.5 years (at least a year of which I'd spent figuring out how to play drums) that began in the spring of 1957 about to conclude in the Suedes' final performance at Merton Hall in Toronto's Davisville area, but retrospect also reveals the start of momentous social and political happenings that coincided with that phase's end and the birth of 1960. For in 1960 Kennedy ran to be and was elected US President; Castro defeated Batista and brought communism next door to America, and in 1962 the United States faced Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba. In August 1963 Martin Luther King marched on Washington; and I left Flint Michigan and the USA for the last time to perform in Canada in mostly northern Ontario where roads wound between huge bolders and clouds hovered near the wind shield as we road to mining towns like Kirkland Lake, Timmins, Rouyn-Noranda ,and Amos Quebec,and Kapuskasing near James Bay; sometimes the car'd break down on a lonely stretch of road in a snow storm; the closest I'd get to the U.S. again was Sault Sainte Marie Ontario on the northermost U.S. boarder town of Sault Sainte Marie Michigan. That November President Kennedy was assassinated.
The first part of 1960 was depressingly uneventful. When Robbie left for Arkansas with Ronnie Hawkins I was without a band and without contacts with other musicians. It was as though I 'd never played in a band arriving right back where I 'd started in the spring of 1957; only now there were no neighbourhood friends like Willy and Harry.
In the two and a half years since I 'd started playing drums, my non musician friends had grown up, gotten jobs and started families. My friends over that period had been the musicians I 'd been working with,and they had hailed from all over and continued to travel to locations even more distant than their origins. It was as if the only way to stop my isolation was to find some musicians and start gigging again. Then the whole world would be my friend.
At 19 years of age I was "a has been" that never was. Within 6 months I turned 20 and returned to house painting with my father.
That autumn in 1960 while JFK was running for president, I was still house painting in the third floor of a mansion-like triplex in Toronto's Cassa Loma area. Out of the blue, I received a call from Blake Fordham. He introduced himself as an Oakville neighbour of Scott Cushnie, the Suedes pianist, who about a year before had told me about someone he knew, who if he'd had musical talent might be a great performer. Blake, soon to become Kelly Jay, was that exciting prospect.
Blake was then a student at Ontario College of Art who had formed a band with other OCA students including Buddy Burke, a Toronto guitarist, vocalist, who'd had a hit record entitled "That Big Old Moon"*. The band needed a drummer. We rehearsed at OCA, and played a few gigs at local dance venues including some at Merton Hall a walk south east from the Davisville subway stop, the last place the Suedes played about a year earlier. We also played at a club in Hamilton Ontario backing a Black lady vocalist. I remember she used to sing a tune called "A Hundred Years From Today", kind of a spiritual blues which I don't think I ever heard again. Kelly must have replaced Mike Grys by then; and either Rob or John was on guitar and Brian or Chuck played electric bass. I was still uncertain of my drumming abilities and was thrilled when she called us her boys.
This group with Kelly on vocals, Mike Grys on piano, Brian Kirkwood/Chuck Daniels on bass, and myself on drums became the Jamies . But it disbanded in the spring of 61, when I began rehearsing with a trio comprising guitarist,Don Steele of the CBC's Country Hoedown, bassist and vocalist John Armstrong of the CBC choral ensemble, the Gino Sylvi Singers, and myself on drums and vocals.
We performed all the latest hits in three part vocal harmonies written and arranged by Don. Excepting Don's vocal part writing, originality of sound or expression was never a concern; each new tune had to be as much like the original recording as possible. Learning a new song required our getting together at Don's apartment and listening to each new recording as a group. There was little opportunity for improvised soloing, swinging, or rocking & rolling because of the rigidity of expression imposed by the requirements of imitation.
I recall that we performed mostly at The Bermuda tavern, a smallish club a few doors up from the Zanzibar Tavern on Yonge Street owned by Dave Cooper's uncle Harry. Another club Steeles Tavern just south of the Zanzibar was where, a few years later, I first became aware of Gordon Lightfoot performing to a handful of patrons in a small upstairs lounge where I used to go for a drink between sets at the Zanzibar. The last I recall of Don's group was playing at Grand Bend a club on the Hawk's summertime circuit in the fall of 1961. I was singing Who put the "Bomp in the Bomp Sh' Bomp", while Ronnie Hawkins cheered us on from the club's doorway.
The Grand Bend job in the fall of 1961 was the last trio date that I can remember because by the autumn of 1962 the Jamies then with Rob MacEachern on guitar and Kelly on piano and vocals and Brian Kirkwood on bass were back together and on the road. The Kelly Jay and the Jamies road trip that I recall most vividly is our ride to an engagement at a hotel in Amos, Quebec in October 1962 while the world hung on every move of a Russian ship on the way to America's blockade of Cuba, and the nuclear holacaust we'd all been dreading for much of our lives.
As far as we knew no one in Amos spoke English; and except for a church steeple above a dense cluster of surrounding trees the town as we approached seemed almost invisible.
But the hotel accomodation was comfortable: its staff and clientel were hospitable and friendly; and we somehow managed to communicate with bits of French and English. Our favourite tune back then was Elvis Presley's recent hit, "Return to Sender". We also performed at the Zanzibar in Toronto where MacEachern on guitar was soon replaced by John Till with whom Brian and I maintained a bass, drums and guitar trio able to work with vocalists such as Terry Roberts in the Brass Rail and the Zanzibar when we did not have work with The Jamies
Toward 1963 Kelly Jay and the Jamies began working in the Midwestern United States: Michigan, Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin. On some of these engagements Billy Kent performed as vocalist. Kelly continued to play piano, sing and M. C.. Since he had performed with the Suedes, Billy's performances had become a British accented caricature of Rompin' Ronnie Hawkins.
But in Illinois Billy's performances did not go unnoticed.
A country singer doing a radio broadcast from an Aurora Illinois hotel every Saturday afternoon became a Billy Kent imitator. This Illinois performer who I remember as "the Screamin' C" had, in adopting Billy's style, become a third generation Hawkins imitator. Through "the Screamin' C" Hawkins' style had come full circle starting with Ronnie in the U.S., taken to Canada where it was picked up by U.K. born Billy Kent who returned it to the U.S. and gave it to the Screamin' C who knew Ronnie only through the stage antics of Billy Kent, a Brit.
I still remember our journeying from Aurora to play at Harold's Club in Peoria, Illinois. Screamin' C's arriving with his trunk of essential equipment including his "Cat Coat" had followed us all the way to Harold's Club. When we, Kelly Jay and the Jamies, got on stage; to our dismay, Screamin' C strode unannounced onto the stage feet first in the middle of our show, screamin' like a siren. His self financed drive from Aurora, and his inviting himself to stay the night in the band's office-like residence above the club ended abruptly with his screaming that something bit him in the night and I never saw him again.
Harold's Club had a big painting of Harold hanging over the bar. The bar tender whose name I can't recall used to send flowery love letters to his girl friend in Chicago which he dictated to the in house Black vocalist who said that because he was not getting paid did not have the bus fare to leave the club and Peoria even if he'd wanted to.
The bar tender was always talking about a character called the Rabbit as in "Dey got da Wabbit in da Twick bag". I was never certain what that meant, but maybe it had something to do with what happened to the care taker, Bill Procter, who when he fell asleep on a bar stool was given a hotfoot by the bar tender and a white man who when Bill awoke with a shriek retorted I ain't afraid of you Bill Procter.
Behind the bar was a trap door to somewhere that the bar tender or anyone behind the bar might disappear. I still can only imagine what might have been behind that door that was used like a theatrical entrance and exit.
And it was not just the day time shenanigans of the characters who worked at Harold's, and that trap door behind the bar, and the "hotfoot" that evoke images impossible to dismiss; it's hard to forget the image of Kelly Jay over six feet tall riding a go cart and laughing all the way round the track as he struggled to keep his legs on board during a recreational stint away from the club.
I just read that Richard Pryor had worked at Harold's Club around 1963. I performed there in 1962 or early, 1963. I recall that the in house vocalist's, MC's first name was Dick ( Gregory?)I know that we used to introduce the house singer, MC. as "Dick", but now I realize that I may have carelessly filled in his surname with the name of the once popular Dick Gregory. Now that I'm aware that Richard Pryor, perhaps "Dick" Pryor was a native of Peoria and that he worked Harold's Club the year that I was there I wonder if my uncertainty about Dick's surname might allow the the placing of Pryor in my vacant surname memory blank? ) He was a soft spoken singer with a mellow Brook Benton quality.
Some years later I asked someone who claimed to be familiar with Peoria, and Harold's Club, how the club'd been doing when he saw it last. He said that it had been replaced by a parking lot. Maybe it was true, or maybe he was just echoing the sentiments of the pop lyric "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot".
Today I came upon a Stanford University project photo of Harold's Club taken within a couple of years of the time I performed there on that same stage with its acoustic piano, on drums like the white lacquer set I played in precisely that same spot on stage. To the right, just before reaching the stage and the piano from which Kelly Jay used to play and sing is the corner of the bar where I used to enjoy daily performances by the pork-pie hatted bartender, Bill Proctor the caretaker, and another man who showed gunshot wounds to prove he wasn't afraid of Bill Proctor; and unforgettable dialogue between Dick and the bartender. But an image that I don't think I recall is the real full length representation of Harold himself whom I knew only by the larger than life idealized portrait of him that hung over the bar as though watching over that mysterious trap door and the daily antics at the bar. next: The Beatles
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*Years later,2016, I've recalled that Budy's hit recording of "Big Old Moon" was as much country in style as rock and roll maybe more so; but to us early rock and roller/rhythm and bluesers it was what we'd been hearing on the radio with Gerry Lee, Elvis and Little Richard tunes that made it and Buddy memorable.Peter De Remigis