Duncan Wilson was my first guitar hero. While George Harrison, Brian Jones, Jeff Beck and Zal Yanovsky were my vinyl heroes, Duncan was the first real live guitar player I admired.
I first saw him playing in the halls of Grant Park High School in late 1964. He was playing a red Harmony Rocket guitar with a group of school mates under the name T.C. & The Provincials. I was mesmerized by this guy in black horn-rim glasses a couple of years my senior who was already a gifted guitar player while I was still randomly plunking away. I wanted to be Duncan Wilson.
Although we lived on opposites sides of the Grant Park Shopping Centre (consisting at the time of Clark's and a Dominion store), I would turn up my Harmony amp in my basement in the ridiculously naive hope that Duncan might be walking by and ask me to join his band.
By 1966 Duncan and ex-Provincial Garth Nosworthy were in The Mongrels playing community clubs and school sock hops throughout the city and beyond. Through a few lineup changes over the years, Duncan remained the heart and soul of the group.
"He was our musical director," recalls Garth. "He could play anything. Duncan learned the latest songs from the radio with usually one listen. He heard the chords and harmony and could transfer that to the guitar or piano. Need three-part harmony? Ask Duncan. Not only would he teach you your part, he had a knack so that you always remembered it. He had never had a lesson but he could play anything."
Not exactly. I never knew until many years later that as a youngster Duncan played the coronet and was a wiz on the accordion (an instrument he would return to late in life) before moving on to Hawaiian guitar and ultimately regular guitar. He and I both shared the same guitar teacher, albeit briefly (three lessons for me), named Rose, who taught from her apartment near Palmerston.
Duncan's mother Dorothy was his greatest supporter. Not only did she tolerate years of band rehearsals in their Hector Bay basement, she also co-signed many loans over the years so that her son and his band always had the equipment they required. "She had a credit relationship with Winnipeg Piano that lasted years," chuckles Garth. "For Duncan, the sun rose and set on this mother."
The Mongrels were our heroes at Grant Park. It was rumoured that Duncan and Garth were earning more money than their teachers.
"In the 1960s, being in a band in Winnipeg was the thing to do," states Garth. "It was a chance for fame and fortune in the long term and a great way to meet girls in the short term." They even cut records under the tutelage of Randy Bachman, who supplied the band with songs. Duncan called them "Randy's Rejects," the songs the Guess Who wouldn't record. Funny Day, Sitting In The Station and My Woman were all local hits.
At the 1971 Lake Riviera Pop Festival, I was playing with Fabulous George & The Zodiacs when I broke a string. Standing in the wings watching us, Duncan quickly handed me his Gibson guitar to finish our set. Returning it afterwards, Duncan paid me the highest compliment saying, "How come it never sounds that good when I play it?"
After the Mongrels folded, Duncan joined Dianne Heatherington's Merry-Go-Round, where his songwriting skills were honed. One of my favourites of his was The Great Garbage Strike. He later played in St. Silver and Papa Pluto before forming popular New Wave-ish rockers Les Pucks, who stormed the local pub scene in the latter '70s. In later years, Duncan and wife Linda Zagazewski operated Zee Booking Agency. The Mongrels reunited in 1987 for the Shakin' All Over reunion concert and were far and away the best of the local bands. They were even joined onstage by Burton Cummings. During the closing all star jam, Neil Young borrowed Duncan's Gibson Les Paul guitar. Duncan always insisted that Neil left some of his DNA on those frets.
But there was a whole other side to Duncan beyond music that I and many others never knew. A dedicated animal lover, he cared for rescued dogs for Small Animal Rescue for decades, providing them with the love and affection they lacked. He was also a reverend with the Winnipeg Spiritualistic Church, counselling and providing support services for its congregation. "He was a deeply caring individual," Garth stresses.
In March of last year, I had the good fortune to play alongside Duncan onstage at McPhillips Street Station. No longer the skinny long-haired kid he knew back in the day, Duncan looked me up and down before smirking, "John, what happened to you?" He kept his own health issues private. It was a wonderful night that would become Duncan's last live performance. He passed away following a brief battle with cancer on May 27, 2012. While in palliative care Duncan told a friend that he wanted me to sit down with him so he could share with me all his recollections and experiences throughout his many decades on the local music scene. However the end came too fast for the friend to get word to me.
Tomorrow evening at 7:30 p.m., Duncan's guitar, the one Neil Young played, will be enshrined in the memorabilia case at the Pembina Salisbury House restaurant alongside instruments from Winnipeg's music elite.
"If ever anyone from Winnipeg should have made it big it was Duncan Wilson," muses Garth. "He was unquestionably one of the finest musicians Winnipeg has ever produced."