When Winnipeg’s Ralph James takes the stage at Toronto’s Kool Haus on March 21 to be inducted into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame, the over arching sentiment will be that the musician-turned-talent-agent thoroughly deserves the honour.
"He’s the hardest-working guy I’ve ever come across," says longtime friend Howard Mandshein, the veteran radio announcer who has known James since they were both cutting their teeth in the music biz in the 1970s — James as bassist with legendary Winnipeg rockers Harlequin and Mandshein as on-air jock at the fledgling CITI FM.
"Even now, as successful as he’s become, he’s still out checking out the talent in the bars and clubs.
"He’s been everywhere in the country but he’ll still get on a plane to go see a band. So I’d have to say that all the success he’s earned, he’s deserved," Mandshein says.
James is president of the Toronto office of The Agency Group, a company that he and senior vice-president Jack Ross co-founded in 1996 with the international talent agency’s founder, Neil Warnock. Since then, James has enjoyed incredible success as the agent responsible for such massively successful Canadian acts as Nickelback, Billy Talent and Three Days Grace.
James says his passion for music began as a teen, growing up in River Heights and attending Grant Park High School.
"We’d go and play hockey at River Heights Community Club and sneak upstairs to see The Guess Who or The Squires (Neil Young’s first band)," he recalls.
"The scene in Winnipeg at the time was unbelievable — and it still is— but at that particular point in time we were shown that there was an opportunity to have a career in music. It became my love, my passion."
James played on the local and Western Canadian scenes until Harlequin, the band he formed in 1975, earned an international recording contract with Epic Records in 1979. Three gold albums — Victim of a Song, Love Crimes and One False Move — followed and the band toured South America, Europe and all over North America until the mid-’80s. James stopped performing a couple years before the band stopped, but he remained involved.
"That was certainly one of my proudest achievements — keeping the band together for a decade and getting past square one," James says. "We didn’t go all the way but we had a good group of guys with brains and work ethic and we did pretty well.
"I think what we’re most proud of now is that we’re all still friends."
Though he’d grown tired of touring, James hadn’t lost his passion for the music business.
In the late 1980s he went to work with Rob Hoskin at Hungry I, then Winnipeg’s top booking agency. There he became involved with local acts such as Monuments Galore, The Watchmen and Liquid Bone Dance before moving to Toronto, Vancouver and Toronto again in the first half of the ‘90s.
All the while, James was building up a roster of acts and looking for a chance to bring Canadian music to the rest of the world. Opening The Agency Group’s Canadian office brought him that opportunity.
James has lived in Toronto since the mid-1990s with his wife, Mary Ellen, and 17-year-old son Matthew. But he’s still very much a proud Winnipegger.
He speaks in glowing terms of the city’s current music scene and still enthuses about the halcyon days of the late ’70s and early ’80s, when Harlequin was going strong and 92 CITI FM was the band’s biggest radio supporter.
"What a time that was. What a station that was... Andy Frost, Neil Hiltz, Brother Jake, J.J. Johnston, Magic Christian, Howard Mandshein..." he says. "I’ll tell you what — Winnipeggers stick together, and we are everywhere."
Kevin Walters, president of the Manitoba Music industry association, confirms James’ affinity for his hometown.
"Ralph has always retained his close ties to Winnipeg and he’s long been a supporter of Manitoba musicians," Walters said. "The Agency Group books all kinds of Manitoba acts and Ralph has always been in their corner."
Asked for his reaction to being named to the Hall of Fame, James laughs.
"I thought ‘What does this mean? I’m not getting out of the business any time soon!’" he says.
"But my three advisors are my wife, Jack Ross and Lorraine Webb (his assistant) and I talked to them and they all said ‘What? Are you nuts?’
"So I’ll be there and I’ll happily accept the honour but I’m still going to follow my passion.
"I still love music... I mean, what else am I going to do?"