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Dance party Dad

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Sugar 'n' Spice, making their Teen Dance Party debut, interviewed by Bob Burns.

JOHN EINARSON Enlarge Image

Sugar 'n' Spice, making their Teen Dance Party debut, interviewed by Bob Burns.

BOB Burns was Winnipeg’s very own Dick Clark. As host of CJAY’s popular Saturday afternoon American Bandstand 

Teen Dance Party , the self-styled "oldest teenager" was more than a television personality spinning records for boogalooing teens. Burns was a mentor, friend, counsellor and role model.

"He encouraged all the good stuff in a way that didn’t sound like a lecture," stresses former Teen Dance Party Pepsi Pack dance team regular Marta Rehberg. "He was like an older brother or a father."

"The most important part of the show was the kids," Burns once said.

"Bob was respected, someone on our level," remembers friend Ray Wheeler. "Someone we could talk to and who was free to give advice."

Winnipeg-born Burns began his career in radio as an announcer at CKGB in Timmins, Ont., before moving on to CFTA radio in Thunder Bay. When CJAY TV opened in Winnipeg in 1960, Burns joined as a staff announcer.

In 1963, he replaced Peter Jackson (PJ the DJ) as host of Teen Dance Party . He was 29, but he proved adept at relating to the younger generation.

"Bob taught us that dancing was OK," notes Wheeler, "and he made it fun. What made it special were his timing, presentation and delivery of each song. He was passionate about the music, about what was happening and we all were tuned in.

He broke down barriers of being from the North End, south or West End. We became better for it as we made new friends and started going to each of the area dances."

Bob’s wife, Idola, had to put up with Bob being away almost every weekend at the community clubs with us, recalls Rehberg. "He always looked after us, even in the tougher neighbourhoods.

He treated us like family. We were invited over for barbecues and things. We were like his other children. He spent a lot of time with us."

"He had high expectations for us and we all wanted to live up his expectations," notes Teen Dance Party regular Sharon Benjaminson.

"If you showed up as a slob, you wouldn’t get on the show. We were all very conscious of our clothes and liked to dress up. Bob would always come around and tell us we looked lovely in this very formal and gentlemanly manner.

And he’d ask the boys if they had complimented their dates on how they look. He really believed in the niceties and instilled that in a lot of boys."

One boy who benefited from Burns’ expectations was North End tough guy Jack Skelly. Meeting Burns turned Skelly’s life around. "Bob did a lot to help Jack because Jack was on the road to a lot of problems," says Benjaminson.

Skelly became a regular on the show and travelled to community-club dances with Burns and the Pepsi Pack. He went on to a lifelong career in the music business.

Burns’ passion was music. His record collection was extensive and his knowledge of music impressive. "Bob was a real connoisseur of music," says Rehberg.

"His first love was the music, and he taught us about the music and what to listen for. We were just into the beat and dancing, but he opened our eyes to the musicality."

Burns’ prominence in the local music scene led to roles as manager of the early Guess Who, as well as producer of its recordings along with those by the Eternals, Fifth, Good Fortune, the Deverons, Love Cyrcle and North Dakota’s Tradewinds 5.

Burns produced Shakin’ All Over , the record that launched the Guess Who. He also produced The Cruel War for Sugar ’n’ Spice.

"I looked on Bob as being a mentor," acknowledges Sugar ’n’ Spice manager Michael Gillespie. "He had been and done almost everything we had dreamed of doing at that stage." The eight-piece group made its debut on Teen Dance Party.

"Having Bob Burns introduce the band to the public, we couldn’t have asked for a better start. He was a tremendous promoter and a real confidence-booster for the band. He gave us all the advice he had and really appreciated it all. He wasn’t afraid of sharing his advice and experience."

"The more I got to know Bob over the years," muses Gillespie, "the more I got to understand the depth of what he was involved in in the music business. We should have been a lot more impressed at the time because he was a major player on the scene. The number of artists he was involved in was quite impressive."

As the Eternals’ Ron Paley recalls, "We quickly learned Bob knew key people in the music industry. He had a small office at Channel 7 where most of the business deals with us took place. There were always two guest chairs, and you just never knew who might pop in to see Bob.

One day when we were reviewing plans for our first recording session with Bob producing, a young long-haired singer walked in. It was Neil Diamond. He had just completed a show in Winnipeg.

We chatted at length with him, played him some of our demos in the TV control room and Neil’s comment to all of us was the importance of writing music with a hook.

Shortly after that, one of Diamond’s songs, I’m A Believer, got recorded by the Monkees." In August 1964, Burns became the first Canadian television personality to interview the Beatles during their brief, 20-minute stopover in Winnipeg.

When he introduced himself to John Lennon with "Bob Burns from CJAY Television," the cheeky Beatle replied, "That’s not my fault." As Burns remembered, "He had a smart-aleck answer for everything." Despite heroic personal efforts to extricate the Guess Who from disastrous circumstances and an extortionist third-party deal, Burns took the fall for their ill-fated U.K. trip in February 1967. 

Teen Dance Party folded in August 1968. Burns went on to produce Young As You Are before returning to radio in the 1970s at CKY FM and continuing to be actively involved in music production. In later years he joined the staff at CJNU Nostalgia Radio.

"Bob told me how much he enjoyed doing what he loved to do, being on the air," recalls station manager Bill Stewart.

Perhaps fittingly, Burns’ last public appearance was a launch event for The Best Of Franklin Records CD in September 2009, where many of the bands he produced reunited. He died in Winnipeg on Oct. 25, 2010 at age 76.

Those who recall the glory days of Teen Dance Party never forget Burns’ closing remark.

"This is a Burns called Bob saying be good because it’s smart to be good."

Sign up for John Einarson’s weekly Off the Record classes at mcnallyrobinson.com

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