Recently a friend asked me who I regarded as the greatest or most significant musician/singer to come from Manitoba. That's not easy when you consider the illustrious roster of talent our province has produced. Manitoba artists, those either born or getting their start here, account for well in excess of 100 million records sold worldwide. Indeed, while Manitoba accounts for roughly 2.5 per cent of Canada's population, the CBC stated last year that some 12 per cent of all working musicians in Canada claim Manitoba as home.
While names like Neil Young, The Guess Who, BTO, Loreena McKennitt, Terry Jacks, Daniel Lavoie, and Lenny Breau immediately spring to mind, my answer surprised him: Bob Nolan. Bob is acknowledged as one of the greatest American songwriters. Few know of his Winnipeg roots.
Born Clarence Robert Nobles on April 13, 1908, the boy who would grow up to become Bob Nolan lived at 53 Lansdowne Ave., in the North End. His father, Harry, worked as a tailor while his Irish immigrant mother, Flora, was employed by the Manitoba Government Telephone Company (later Manitoba Telephone System).
The Nobles lived hand to mouth, moving frequently. When Clarence was eight, his father abandoned the family and moved to Arizona. After spending time with his paternal relatives in New Brunswick (long erroneously credited as his birthplace) and Boston, Bob joined his father in Tucson in 1921, where his name was changed to Nolan (Harry joined the U.S. army under that name in 1917). Bob later reversed his given names to Robert Clarence Nolan.
In 1929 he relocated to California in search of a career in music. Teaming up with Tim Spencer and Leonard Slye (aka Roy Rogers) they became The Sons of the Pioneers, releasing their first recordings in 1934. The group's distinctive mellifluous cowboy harmonies were widely appealing and their success lasted well into the 1950s. They were the first country and western act to appear at Carnegie Hall and headlined in Las Vegas. They even sold out Madison Square Garden.
Bob appeared in more than 90 movies, often alongside Roy Rogers, and was the singing voice for cowboy movie star Ken Maynard. He also co-starred with John Wayne in Rio Grande and sang the theme song to the 1956 John Ford classic duster The Searchers.
Bob would go on write more than 1,200 songs. However his best-known compositions are Tumbling Tumbleweeds and Cool Water recorded by The Sons of the Pioneers. It's on these two songs, widely regarded as two of the greatest cowboy songs of all time, that Bob Nolan's legacy rests. Both draw on his time in Tucson and the barren desert that surrounds it. Recorded in the 1930s, these songs have become cultural icons covered by well over 100 artists from Hank Williams, Frankie Laine, Bing Crosby, Marty Robbins, Eddy Arnold, Perry Como, The Boston Pops Orchestra, The Lennon Sisters, Lawrence Welk, Willie Nelson, and Johnny Cash to Joni Mitchell, The Supremes, Don Everly, ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith, Leo Kottke, and the King himself, Elvis Presley. The Coen Brothers' 1998 cult film The Big Lebowski included Tumbling Tumbleweeds while the animated Rango in 2011 featured Cool Water. Even actor Clint Eastwood recorded a version of Tumbling Tumbleweeds. It's reported that the granddaddy of modern country music, Hank Williams, opened and close his concerts with Bob Nolan songs.
Bob is honoured in the Cowboy Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Western Music Hall of Fame. He also received a BMI (Broadcast Music Industry) award for his songwriting.
Bob Nolan passed away in 1980 at age 72. Through the dedicated efforts of longtime fan, Brandon poet/songwriter Brian Levi Bergquist, Bob Nolan was posthumously inducted into the Manitoba Country Music Hall of Fame in October 2012 on the occasion of the current version of the Sons of the Pioneers' appearance at Pantages Theatre. The event, held at the Fort Garry Hotel, was entitled Bringing Bob Nolan Home.
Bergquist received what remained of Bob's ashes from his family (some of Bob's ashes had been scattered in the Mojave Desert) with the goal of one day enshrining them in a Manitoba Music Hall of Fame. "We were literally bringing him back to his hometown," says Bergquist. "This is where he belongs. Bob was the poet laureate of the West. He's the greatest musician to come from this province. It's important that he be remembered."
This past February, The Sons of the Pioneers paid Brian the highest tribute by making him the first honourary member of the group. Brian has set up a scholarship fund in Bob Nolan's name.
-- With thanks to Elizabeth Drake McDonald, Larry Delaney and Dwight MacAuley.
John Einarson hosts My Generation Saturday mornings from 10 a.m. to noon on UMFM 101.5.