Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/5/2016 (354 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
As an ardent vinyl collector for more than five decades, as well as a zealous Manitoba music booster with an eye to preserving our local music history, I have in recent years been drawn to searching out albums that are unique to our province.
In many cases, these are albums that weren’t huge sellers nor on major record labels. Quite the contrary, the artists who recorded these gems may have financed the recordings themselves for small independent labels and sold them to a loyal fan base.
Several of these album covers boast local imagery only a Manitoban would recognize, rendering them of even greater significance to posterity.
Here, for your edification and nostalgic pleasure, I offer a few samples of fascinating local recordings that have crossed my path (all quotes are from previous interviews). Perhaps one day these and others like them will be enshrined in a Manitoba Music Hall of Fame for future generations to appreciate.
Born in Prince Albert, Sask., Leon Isenberg began his music career playing accordion in dance bands while still in his early teens. Following the Second World War, he moved to Winnipeg. Here, having moved to the Hammond organ, he formed the Leon Quintet and performed in clubs and dance halls across Western Canada.
In 1962, Montreal-born trumpet player and vocalist Harry Ellsworth, who had previously worked with Jose Poneira’s band at the Rancho Don Carlos on Pembina Highway, invited Isenberg to join him for a two-week stint in the Scarlet Lounge at the popular West End restaurant Rae & Jerry’s.
Two weeks stretched into a 22-year gig. Their lone album was recorded live in the lounge circa 1980 by local producer and drummer Wayne Finucan and features many of the duo’s best-loved selections, such as Yellow Bird, I’ve Got You Under My Skin and Havah’ nagilah.
According to bandleader Jimmy King, who furnished liner notes for the album, the live recording came after years of requests from loyal fans. Many of you may recall Leon Isenberg as the owner of American Hi-Fi downtown.
Harry Douglass and the Deep River Boys formed in Hampton, Va., in 1937. They performed on radio in New York during the war and scored a hit in 1948 with the song Recess in Heaven. A popular nightclub act, the group toured the world, often in the company of dancer Bill (Bojangles) Robinson.
They first appeared in Winnipeg in 1946 and over the years became regulars at city clubs, including the Rancho Don Carlos. By the time this live recording was made at the International Inn hotel (now the Victoria Inn) in the latter ’70s, Douglass (also known as Harry Douglas) was the only original member.
Besides musical talent and showmanship, the group was also noted for its humanitarian work, performing at hospitals, seniors residences, schools, homes for people with mental disabilities and, as the liner notes point out, "reform institutions."
Accompanying the Deep River Boys for this energetic live set are two of Winnipeg’s finest musicians, Reg Kelln on drums and bass player Ron Halldorson. The album was recorded by John Hildebrand of Century 21 Studios (owned by the Paley and Hildebrand brothers of the Eternals) and released on Gibraltar Records, believed to be owned by Douglas and Mickey Levine and likely its one and only record.
By 1966, the fortunes of Winnipeg’s the Guess Who had slumped. After scoring a North America hit with Shakin’ All Over the year before, the band was unable to follow up their success with a strong single. By the end of that year, keyboard player Bob Ashley had left the group. His replacement was 18-year-old Burton Cummings from local band the Deverons, who brought a much-needed shot of adrenaline to the group.
Suitably energized and armed with several new songs, the quintet journeyed to Kay Bank studios in Minneapolis in early February 1966 to record their third album, It’s Time, for Canadian label Quality Records.
What makes this album fascinating beyond the band’s harder rock sound is while lead singers Chad Allan and Burton Cummings were both in the band and on every track, by the time the album was released in the summer of 1966, Allan had quit, replaced by another ex-Deveron, Bruce Decker. Decker did not play on the album but is in the cover photo with the rest of the band, not Allan.
Of further local interest is the location for the photo: the five band members are shown on the branches of one of Kildonan Park’s most iconic climbing trees, long since cut down.
In the mid-’60s, Mickey & Bunny Sheppard — Ethelbert-born Modest (Mickey) Sklepowich and Orissia (Bunny) Ewanchuk from Rosa — were major stars in Canadian-Ukrainian communities across the country. Signed to local V-Records, owned and operated by Alex Groshak out of his home on Fleury Place in Windsor Park, their 1964 debut album Mickey & Bunny Sing Ukrainian Country Music sold more than 10,000 copies.
At their peak, the couple were earning $60,000 to $75,000 annually. Mickey boasted he purchased a brand new Cadillac every year. Their success was based on an ability to sing songs in both languages, a style known as "half na piv" — half Ukrainian, half English. Their big hit This Land is Your Land was presented in that style and sold more than 70,000 copies.
"We were helping preserve the Ukrainian language for young people," says Bunny. "We also introduced them to traditional Ukrainian music they had inherited but didn’t know about."
The duo released 13 albums for V-Records, including their 1966 album Award Winning Presentation, featuring a speech from then-mayor Stephen Juba congratulating the duo on their success. They toured Canada more than a dozen times, sold out Toronto’s Massey Hall for three nights and appeared at Detroit’s Ford Auditorium. The duo even played in Las Vegas.
"They were cultural ambassadors unifying the mostly isolated rural Ukrainian communities as well as generations," notes musicologist Brian Cherwick.
Mickey & Bunny recruited Winnipeg band the D-Drifters 5 as a backing band on the road and for recordings. Formed by Fraserwood’s Romanyshyn (a.k.a. Roman) brothers, with Dave on accordion and bass and Tony on guitar, the band — including Ihor (Yogi) Klos on fiddle, Mike Klym on drums and saxophone player Andy Pokolinski — had been together for a few years before backing Mickey & Bunny.
The D-Drifters 5 also recorded on their own for V-Records, releasing five albums of Ukrainian dance music, including On Tour, At a Ukrainian Concert, Traditional and Original Ukrainian Songs and Ukrainian Dance Favourites.
Versatility was the band’s calling card. "We always thought of ourselves as a rock ’n’ roll cover band, but we could play anything," says Dave Roman.
In 1965, the D-Drifters 5 released an album of Beatles and British Invasion pop songs sung in Ukrainian. Including She Loves You, Please Please Me, From Me to You and Needles and Pins, the album was a hit in the Ukrainian community.
"Yogi and I and my mother translated them," says Roman. Groshak dubbed the band "the Ukrainian Beatles."
Bill and Sue-On Hillman are western Manitoba music royalty. Either under their own names or as the Western Union, the Brandon-based duo, who taught high school by day (both went on to lecture at Brandon University) and rocked on weekends and summers, have released more than a dozen albums and toured the world in a career spanning some 50 years, beginning with Strathclair-born Bill Hillman’s mid-’60s band the Dovermen.
Their ninth album was recorded in Durham during a seven-week U.K. tour in 1979. Backing the Hillmans in the studio was well-known U.K. show band Desperado. The album features many concert favourites, plus seven original songs by the duo, including the single Sail on 747.
Assisting on the tracks is keyboard player Alan Clark, who later joined Dire Straits. The following year, the Hillmans were deservedly voted Entertainers of the Year by the Manitoba Country Music Association.
Winnipeg clothing manufacturer Monarch Wear, owned by the Steinberg family, made the hippest jeans in the mid-’60s. Tee*Jays were tight-leg, low-waist blue jeans marketed directly to the teen crowd, a novel idea for the time.
"The product was uniquely styled and coloured for the teen market," notes Monarch Wear vice-president of marketing Ivan Berkowitz. Jeff Black was menswear buyer for the Bay’s three stores in Toronto.
"It was just when perma-press fabric was developed for boys’ pants," he recalls. "The main attraction was that Tee*Jays jeans were always wrinkle-free and stayed neat-looking. You didn’t even have to press them. They could come right out of the drier, and you could wear them. They were the next generation in teen’s clothing."
When a trademark snafu prevented the company from using Tee*Jays, the new slogan became "Jay is out; Kay is in" as the company re-branded as Tee*Kays. In an effort to connect further with teens, Monarch Wear signed a licensing deal with Columbia Records’ special-products division in 1967 to release Music to Wear Tee*Kays By, featuring tracks by Columbia Records artists Simon & Garfunkel, the Byrds, Cyrcle and Paul Revere & the Raiders.
The album was available for $1 at record stores and clothing outlets across Canada.
Ray St. Germain is regarded as the godfather of Manitoba rock ’n’ roll music, having released one of the first rock records here, 1958’s She’s a Square.
Beginning in the 1950s as a rockabilly singer in the Elvis Presley vein, he later found great success as an all-round performer and in the country music market. He hosted CBC Winnipeg’s edition of Music Hop in the mid-’60s and became a top nightclub and concert draw throughout Canada. His many television credits over the years include hosting My Kind of Country, Ray St. Germain Country and Big Sky Country.
St. Germain held a long-standing engagement at Winnipeg’s Ramada Inn, where a live album was recorded in 1983, capturing a fun-filled set that includes St. Germain’s many musical impersonations.
Backed by his longtime band — guitarist Denis Hamerstedt, Paul Podwodworny on drums and bass player Ted Mayor — plus daughter Kathy St. Germain on additional vocals, the album was recorded by Wayne Finucan and Clive Perry for local Rayne Records, with glowing liner notes from the president of the Ramada Inns chain.
Having cornered the Ukrainian music market, V-Records sought to tap into the thriving ethnic Italian community in the latter ’60s by signing the La Rosa Trio +1 (Carmine LaRosa, Gary Rogers, Mike Sambork and Ted Hicks). Singer Carmine LaRosa was well-known in the local music community, fronting the Thunderstorms.
"We were more versatile than just a rock ’n’ roll band," says La Rosa. "I sang the Italian songs like Volare, and we did Trini Lopez songs and country & western. We also played weddings and socials for the Italian community."
The trio’s second album, A Party — Italian Style, in 1966 featured the band covering well-known Italian songs such as That’s Amore along with other hits such asIt’s Now or Never and Sway. The front cover boasts a photo of the group seated alongside two local fashion models at Chan’s Moon Room on Main Street.
Local booking agent Frank Weiner of the Hungry I Agency created Franklin Records in 1967 as a means to promote his growing stable of artists through radio airplay. Beginning with the Gettysburg Address, many local bands including the Mongrels, the Fifth, Chopping Block, Electric Jug & Blues Band and Blakewood Castle garnered radio attention across Canada for their Franklin singles.
Sugar ’n’ Spice, featuring the three Murphy sisters — Kathleen, Maureen and Aileen — became the label’s biggest success with their 1969 recording of Cruel War, which hit the Top 10 right across the country.
In 1970, the label released its only album, Winnipeg, a compilation of local hits (including Cruel War and the Fifth’s raucous Tobacco Road featuring future Harlequin singer George Belanger), with a liner note by CFRW DJ Charles P. Rodney Chandler, who declares this is the "Winning Winnipeg Sound!"
Sign up for Einarson’s summer Magical Musical History tours at heartlandtravel.ca.