While Winnipeg may be best known as a blue collar, meat-and-potatoes rock ’n’ roll city, we also have the distinction of producing some of Canada’s (and the world’s) best children’s entertainers. What is further surprising is that three of the finest were once all together in one group. In the mid 1970s, future Juno Award winners Fred Penner and Al Simmons, along with Bob "Sandwiches Are Beautiful" King and drummer Mike Klym, were collectively known as Kornstock. Together they rocked the pubs with laughter.
"We would sing Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer in July in a bar," recalls Simmons. "Or Sesame Street songs. The more outrageous we could be, the better."
"I was this folk guy on acoustic guitar," says Penner, "and the stuff Al was doing was full-out bar band stuff but with Al’s unique level of insanity. I was in shock that this could actually work. Al was so outrageous. Who knew where it was going to go?"
Simmons’ career began rather inauspiciously. "I knew I wanted to be an entertainer, I just didn’t know what route to take. Growing up, my dad had an eclectic record collection and I seemed to lean toward Dean Martin and Homer & Jethro records." By the early ’70s, with encouragement from Speed Walker, Gary MacLean and Len Andre, Al formed Out To Lunch.
"Our first gig was at the Plaza Hotel on Osborne. That was trial by fire. I still have some of the requests from that show and they’re unbelievably nasty. My mom and sister came to see us and it was so embarrassing. We had only nine songs. I’m amazed we got through the evening without being killed. They absolutely hated us." It took Simmons a couple more gigs to discover his forte. "I figured that if I put on a silly hat and acted out the lyrics to an inane rock song, it was hilarious because the words were so dumb."
Penner took a less outrageous route to a music career, beginning as a folk singer at Kelvin High School performing with The Folk Four and later The Underside. "There was this wonderful eclectic melting pot that was happening in the coffeehouses back then," he says. Having renowned local bandleader Jimmy King as a father, Bob grew up surrounded by music. Mike Klym was a veteran of the D-Drifters.
Although Simmons and Penner had known each other in sea cadets years earlier, it wasn’t until Out To Lunch folded in 1973 that the two joined forces. Simmons was rehearsing a new lineup when his old friend dropped by. "Fred sat in the kitchen playing along to every song we were doing. The guitar player got fed up and walked out," recalls Simmons. "So Fred joined the group. Fred knew all these folk songs and I had all these comedy songs but neither of us knew each other’s songs." King and Klym came onboard and Kornstock was born.
"I learned a whole lot about spontaneity and how to roll with the punches and shifting gears with absolute ease and amazement to the audience working with Al," acknowledges Penner. "In the middle of a song he would suddenly stop and shout, ‘Number 4!’, and immediately that was our cue to grab our Snap, Crackle, Pop hats and go into the Rice Krispies commercial. Completely out of the blue. People would be stunned. There was nothing consistent to hold on to. There was always these tangents to give your brain a jolt. You never knew what was going to happen. There was so much spontaneity."
"There was a competition between Fred and I but that’s what partly made it work," states Simmons. "It was kind of schizophrenic. Mike kept telling us ‘Do the comedy. You guys are so funny when you talk to each other.’ " According to Penner, "Kornstock was really Al’s trip. I thought the insanity was great but I wanted to find a balance. I wanted to sing a nice song and not be just crazy all the time."
A turning point came in The Pas. "We did a show for school kids, which we hadn’t done before," recalls Simmons, "and they loved it. So we did more of them. Bob had all these great songs about sandwiches and bats that we’d never heard before. They were wonderful. The fact that we could take our bar show and perform it for kindergarten kids without changing much was quite astounding."
Following a tour of summer festivals in 1977, the group called it quits. Their finale was rather prophetic. "On the last chord of the last song we ever played in the last set," Simmons remembers, "the fifth peg of my banjo popped out. I never played five-string banjo again."
While Simmons and Penner went on to enjoy great success internationally as solo children’s entertainers, King’s songs Sandwiches Are Beautiful and Brother For Sale would be recorded by dozens of artists, including the Olsen twins of Full House fame. All three continue to perform for all ages.
"The thing for me was always to make contact with the audience, to engage them, make them participate," says Penner. "That was the key to Kornstock. It was good preparation for my later career."
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