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Manitoba's rock roots run deep

Calgary has dubious claim as Canada's music capital

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/6/2015 (759 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Canadian rock-music elder statesman and proud Winnipegger Randy Bachman recently declared, "Calgary is the music capital of Canada and maybe North America."

Wait, what? The man who penned Prairie Town, a paean to the joys of growing up playing rock 'n' roll in Winnipeg, and enlisted fellow Winnipeg rocker Neil Young to wail it with him, is, if not singing, then talking a different tune these days. Interesting that Young recently said, "Winnipeg was the rock 'n' roll capital of Canada as far as I was concerned." Hmm.

Smoke pours out of a  Bannatyne Avenue apartment building in May. The building appeared on the front cover of  a Guess Who album.


Smoke pours out of a Bannatyne Avenue apartment building in May. The building appeared on the front cover of a Guess Who album.

Steve Bell performs with the WSO at the Centennial Concert Hall in 2010.


Steve Bell performs with the WSO at the Centennial Concert Hall in 2010.

Lenny Breau


Lenny Breau

What's the reasoning for Bachman citing Cowtown as ground zero for Canada's music history and not, say, Toronto or Winnipeg? The $168-million National Music Centre (NMC) being built in the Alberta city. Calgary is betting huge bucks on the notion that if they build it, people will come.

When you look back on the early roots and evolution of Canadian popular music over the last 60 years or so, Calgary is most definitely not the city that immediately comes to mind as a wellspring for influential Canadian musicians, nor a breeding ground that drew young artists from across the country such as Toronto's Yorkville enclave in the '60s or Vancouver's Gastown in the '70s. Hailing from Calgary, the Stampeders scored a dozen hits in the '70s after moving to Toronto. But apparently that doesn't matter.

Cleveland's surprise successful bid to become the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum was based on the claim pioneering DJ Alan Freed first used the term 'rock 'n' roll' there to describe the jumped-up blend of rhythm and blues, country music and doo-wop that was driving teenagers to distraction in the early 1950s.

Seattle's architecturally impressive Experience Music Project draws its location from being the childhood home of guitar wizard Jimi Hendrix. The Country Music Hall of Fame is housed in the country music capital, Nashville. Macon, Ga., not Atlanta, houses the striking Georgia Music Hall of Fame. Why? Because the Allman Brothers band hailed from that city. An abandoned train station in Lubbock, Texas, birthplace of Buddy Holly, is home to the tiny yet nonetheless impressive Buddy Holly Center.

So why is Calgary now "the hub of Canadian music history," as a recent newspaper article asserted, and not other Canadian cities with a true claim to that history? It's simple: money. Calgary has both deep private pockets and tri-level government support to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.

It doesn't hurt that the prime minister's constituency is in Calgary (the feds have ponied up $40 million for the NMC). As one music-industry insider recently admitted, "Calgary may not have the music history, but they're acquiring it."

With millions in their coffers, the National Music Centre is aggressively pursuing the flotsam and jetsam of decades of Canadian music history from coast to coast. Want to see Bachman's 1959 Gibson Les Paul guitar, the instrument that defined the sound of Winnipeg's the Guess Who on their 1970 international hit American Woman? Go to Calgary, where it now resides.

So where does this leave Winnipeg? Our city has always rightfully enjoyed a widely acknowledged position as one of this country's leading music centres. The number of major music movers and shakers in a variety of genres that have emerged from this city and province is staggering. And I'm not just talking about Bachman, Young, the Guess Who, Burton Cummings and BTO, although those names alone give us a significant leg up in the credibility department.

Born and raised on Lansdowne Avenue in Winnipeg's North End, Bob Nolan would go on to found legendary group the Sons of the Pioneers with Roy Rogers and pen two of the greatest cowboy songs of all time, according to the Smithsonian Institute -- Tumblin' Tumbleweeds and Cool Water. (The latter was the first song a young John Lennon learned to play on his guitar). St. Boniface-born Lucille Starr became the first Canadian female country singer to sell a million records with The French Song. Mr. Seasons in the Sun, Terry Jacks, was born and raised in south Winnipeg. Francophone superstar Daniel Lavoie hails from Dunrea and got his start playing community clubs in St. Boniface as a teenager.

Opera star Tracy Dahl, Broadway star Len Cariou, Celtic music queen Loreena McKennitt, renowned children's entertainers Fred Penner and Al Simmons, guitar genius Lenny Breau, '50s entertainer Gisele MacKenzie, Our Pet Juliette, the Crash Test Dummies, Parachute Club's Julie Masi, two-time Grammy nominee Fresh I.E., Grammy winners the Duhks, Downchild Blues Band boogie-woogie pianist extraordinaire Jane Vasey, Métis fiddler Andy Dejarlis, Tom (Life is a Highway) Cochrane, violin virtuoso James Ehnes, Canada's bestselling Christian contemporary singer/songwriter Steve Bell, Prairie songbirds the Wailin' Jennys, the Weakerthans, jazz stalwart Dave Young, groundbreaking First Nations country band C-Weed, bluesman Big Dave McLean... there are a few of the talents who got their start here in Manitoba.

Even Sesame Street's Oscar the Grouch is a Manitoban, having been named for North America's pre-eminent folk-music authority, Winnipeg-born performer and broadcaster Oscar Brand. Moreover, the Beatles first set foot on Canadian turf right here in Winnipeg.

We have the history in spades. While Calgary can claim legendary cowboy singer Wilf Carter and more recent artists such as Tegan & Sara, Jann Arden, Paul Brandt, Fiest, and k.d. lang, not forgetting those Sweet City Woman boys the Stampeders (dare I mention Nickelback are Albertans?), they can't hold a candle to our lengthy roster of talent.

So what are we doing to acknowledge and celebrate this? Not much. Unlike Calgary, what we don't have is the money. Nor, it seems, the will.

It took Liverpool more than two decades to realize the tremendous tourism potential the city had been neglecting. Now Beatles-related tourism is a multimillion-dollar industry annually and a boon to the city's previously sagging fortunes. A series of plaques throughout the city commemorates significant musical events or landmarks, while tours and museums including the Beatles Story and rebuilt Cavern Club celebrate the city's prominent position in music and popular-culture history.

London, too, has come to embrace its music history, with commemorative plaques, signs and tours. These two cities have the history and know-how to market it. Drive around Macon, and you'll find streets named for a couple of Allman Brothers band members and a plaque outside the band's once-communal residence.

The recent fire that gutted an apartment block on Bannatyne Avenue in Winnipeg's core area underscored our lack of historical perspective. That building was featured on the front cover of the 1971 Guess Who album So Long, Bannatyne, which sold worldwide when the local band was at its peak of popularity. Guess Who fans from across the continent made the pilgrimage to be photographed in front of it. It was iconic. Yet, few here knew its history. That's only one example of our woeful neglect of our city's pop-culture landmarks.

The modest house on Bannerman Avenue where Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman, Canada's own Lennon and McCartney, wrote many of the Guess Who's early hits, including These Eyes, Neil Young's Grosvenor Avenue home from 1961 to 1965, where he nurtured his songwriting and music ambitions and where his band the Squires rehearsed, the old Winnipeg Free Press building on Carlton Street that housed CKRC radio and a tiny recording studio where Young made his first recordings (and was told by recording engineer Harry Taylor, "You're a good guitar player, kid, but you'll never make it as a singer"), the site of Young's debut live performance (January 1961 at the Earl Grey Community Club with a band named the Jades), the two-storey house on Scotia where Randy Bachman assembled what would later become Bachman-Turner Overdrive, the locations of the notorious Cellar club, the Twilight Zone, the Hungry I, the Pink Panther, the Blue Note Café, the Town 'n' Country (where a young Barbra Streisand was fired) and the Stage Door, to name a few, Bob Nolan's home on Lansdowne Avenue, the Paddlewheel, Winnipeg's airport, where the Beatles first landed in Canada, Lenny Breau's homes in West Kildonan and St. Vital, the spot where Neil Young first met Joni Mitchell, Kurt Winter's Chevrier home, which was immortalized on the back cover of So Long, Bannatyne... These are merely the tip of the iceberg. There are many landmarks that go unrecognized in our city.

Looking beyond music, there are further unmarked sites such as the home of Charlie Thorson, who created Snow White for Disney and Punkinhead for Eaton's, Terry Fox's home, the homes of William (Intrepid) Stevenson, Monty Hall, David Steinberg, television writers/producers Allan Blye, Perry Rosemond and Aubrey Tadman, Hollywood actress Deanna Durbin and more. Winnipeg is also home to Levy's Leathers, the largest guitar-strap makers in the world.

Located in the old fire hall at the junction of St. Mary's and St. Anne's roads, the St. Vital Museum includes a tribute to local music history centered around Guess Who founding member Jim Kale's gold and platinum records, multiple Juno awards and memorabilia, along with photos and materials from the likes of St. Germain and Breau. The Salisbury House restaurant at 759 Pembina Hwy. includes a glass case with memorabilia and photos, including one of Cummings' pianos and a restored 1948 Rock-Ola jukebox. (David Rockola, who founded the famed company, hailed from Virden.) The Manitoba Music Museum website offers a treasure trove of photos and information on local music history. These are all worthy starts.

While Winnipeg boasts an extensive array of murals throughout the city (the Guess Who is depicted on no less than three), it's not enough. Approached recently about commissioning a mural celebrating one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century, Bob Nolan, the mural-organizing group has yet to call back. However, since the Bannatyne fire, Heritage Winnipeg has expressed interest in talking about a possible series of commemorative markers.

So if you want to see Bachman's guitar, you can travel to Calgary. It'll be in a glass case alongside memorabilia acquired from other Canadian artists from across the country. But if you want to see and experience the real history of Bachman, Young, Nolan, Starr, Breau, Lavoie and many other Canadian music legends, you'll find it right here in Winnipeg. Sure, we're not Liverpool and don't have that same cachet of music history. But don't forget that, like Liverpool to London in the '60s, Winnipeg rose to challenge the more established music scene, largely located in Toronto, in the '60s and 760s. Neil Young knows that.

It's time for our own deep pockets and three levels of government to step up. We may not be home to the prime minister, but the minister of Canadian heritage hails from Winnipeg.

We have the opportunity to stake our claim to our unparalleled music and popular-culture legacy by acting to commemorate and celebrate it.

We don't need to spend $168 million to create that history. It's already here. But if we don't act, someone else will be telling our stories.


Sign up for John Einarson's summer series of music history classes at mcnallyrobinson.com.

Read more by John Einarson.


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Updated on Sunday, June 28, 2015 at 8:18 AM CDT: Changed photos.

4:32 PM: Corrects spelling of capital.

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