Fifty years ago Monday, en route from London to San Francisco to begin their first North American tour the following night, the Beatles made what was expected to be a routine refuelling stop in Winnipeg.
What resulted, however, was far from routine. Alerted by radio stations to the Fab Four's stopover in our fair city, hundreds of Beatle-besotted teens descended on Winnipeg International Airport, packing the outdoor observation deck and the entrance to the runways. A phalanx of Mounties kept the throng safely back as the crowd unleashed a deafening chant of "We want the Beatles!"
Spotting the pandemonium as the plane, renamed Jet Clipper Beatles, taxied in, manager Brian Epstein coaxed the four Liverpudlian musicians to acknowledge the mass of screaming fans. Stairs were hastily moved into place as the four Beatles emerged from the plane, waving to the crowd. Descending the stairs, they were immediately besieged by reporters seeking comment on the commotion. Thus, Winnipeg became the first spot in Canada where the Beatles set foot.
The visit lasted no more than 25 minutes before the band was back on the plane and on its way. But not before 17-year-old Silver Heights Collegiate student Bruce Decker bolted past security and up the stairs where the Beatles had just been standing. Nabbed and carried off by two Mounties before he could meet his heroes, Decker became an instant celebrity to the cheering teen crowd. Dubbed "Decker's Dash," the story made front-page news in the papers the following day, and a homegrown hero was born.
"We couldn't see anything from the observation platform," Decker recalled in what would be his last interview in 1985, "so we sneaked down to the ramp. It was fascinating to see the Beatles in person here in Winnipeg. I just figured I could make it up those steps, and I no sooner thought of it and I was gone. I had to get a closer look at them. The crowd roared when they saw me go. Just as the Mounties were wrestling with me, I caught a glimpse of the Beatles through the door and they were chuckling. Afterwards, kids crowded around me, touching me and screaming. The girls thought there was some kind of magic about me just because I'd got so close to them."
While Decker would enjoy a star-crossed music career before following academic and historical pursuits, he would forever be remembered for this impulsive action. Even Beatles biographer Mark Lewisohn requested details of Decker's Dash for his second volume on the Fab Four, to be published by 2020.
Donald Bruce Decker was born and raised in St. James. He took up the guitar after seeing local band the Galaxies perform at a community club.
By 1964, he was good enough to join North End band the Deverons, whose star was rapidly rising on the thriving teen-dance circuit. Deverons' frontman and piano player Burton Cummings was already a dynamic performer.
"It wasn't very long before we were working every weekend, without a night off," Decker recalled.
Decker's good looks, gentle demeanour and blond Brian Jones-style hair made him an object of female attention. His Beatles moment furthered his teen stature. In 1965, the quintet released the single Blue is the Night, backed by a Cummings composition, She's Your Lover, recorded at CKY-AM's Main Street broadcast studio. Their followup single, Lost Love, was composed by Cummings and Decker.
"Burton and I wrote that on a Sunday afternoon at my parents' house," Decker recalled. "We played it onstage at the next gig, with Burton and I sitting at the piano with the words on a sheet of paper."
Before the single was released, Cummings was lured away by the Guess Who at the end of 1965 to replace keyboard player Bob Ashley. Cummings had no hesitations.
"It came as quite a shock to us," Decker said.
The Deverons carried on with replacement Wayne Arnold from the VIPs. In May 1966, Decker, too, joined the Guess Who, replacing Chad Allan on rhythm guitar. His tenure would be brief, a mere three months, during which the band toured Saskatchewan.
Although he didn't play on the recordings, Decker's photo graces the Guess Who's 1966 album It's Time.
"I found the whole experience really alien," he remembered. "Our personalities didn't really mesh. I was pretty naive and so was Burton, I think. I didn't really have much fun, and have few memories. In the end, I was told I was just a hired hand and wasn't pulling my weight."
The Guess Who's Jim Kale said "Bruce just wasn't the right guy for the band. We were already veterans of the road, and he was just a kid who still had a Winnipeg attitude."
Decker enjoyed a stint with the Electric Jug and Blues Band, where drummer Grant Boden remembers him as a fun-loving band member. "Bruce had a great stage persona," he notes.
In the mid-'70s, Decker was living in the country.
"We shared a rented farmhouse out near La Salle for a couple of years," recalls friend Peter Feniak. "We swam in the river, hauled water from the La Salle (River), dug an outhouse pit. It was country living. Bruce was a remarkable, wonderful and unique guy. Always thinking, planning, making things happen. Often, I'd wake up in the morning from my part of the farmhouse and find he'd been up all night reading and making notes on huge sheets of computer paper. I knew about his earlier music career, but he was into literature and philosophy as much as music in those days."
After getting an honours degree in English, Decker spent 12 years with the Festival du Voyageur. As friend David Lee recalls, "Bruce worked really hard under tough Winnipeg winter conditions at getting the log cabins together for the annual Festival du Voyageur."
Decker's passion for Canadian history led to his researching and cataloguing a collection of rare glass negatives of early settlement here and around Barrie, Ont. He also played bass in hard-rock band Honey Throat.
In 1979, Decker reunited with Cummings and the other Deverons for a sock hop at St. John's High School that was filmed for the Cummings TV special Portage & Main.
"It felt as if we had never stopped playing, or time hadn't passed," Decker mused.
"Bruce seemed genuinely happy during the Deverons reunion," Cummings said.
Hitchhiking home to his parents' house on the night of Aug. 24, 1986, Decker was picked up by a young man who had also offered two girls a lift. As it turned out, the police were in pursuit of the man, and a car chase ensued. Making a high-speed turn near the former Birchwood Inn on west Portage Avenue, the car rolled, killing the three passengers instantly. The driver survived and was charged but remains at large to this day. Decker had been heading home to celebrate his 40th birthday the next day with his family.
"He had lots of good friends," his father Morley told one of the local papers. "He was an easygoing, wonderful boy."
Adds Cummings, "What made his tragic death even more senseless was how well-liked Bruce always was."
Sign up for John Einarson's Off The Record fall music history classes at mcnallyrobinson.com.