Ukrainian treasure Record label operated out of a Windsor Park house in the 1960s provided a home to local and Western Canada acts devoted to another kind of wheatfield soul
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/03/2022 (201 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
‘While a song lives, Ukraine lives.” — Anonymous
Ukrainian music has been part of the local, cultural fabric for well over a century and nobody captured that sound better than Alex Groshak, who founded V Records, a label devoted almost exclusively to Ukrainian-Canadian acts, 60 years ago this spring.
Groshak, who died in 2007 at age 82, was working as a sales rep for a Winnipeg record company when he recognized traditional Ukrainian music, the sort played at weddings and social functions across the province, wasn’t readily available for the home market.
Working out of a spare room in the Windsor Park home he shared with his wife Olga, he established V Records, thereby introducing popular Ukrainian performers such as Tommy Buick, Mae Chwaluk and the Primrose Trio to the buying public.
On that note, say pryv’it to Ben Strewens, arguably the world’s pre-eminent V Records collector. With close to 200 of the independent label’s titles populating his shelves, the 43-year-old father of one believes he’s only a handful away from having ’em all.
“It’s hard to say because there doesn’t seem to be anything written down that would let a person know precisely how many were released,” says Strewens, a resident of Tolstoi, a hamlet near the Canada-US border regarded as one of the earliest Ukrainian settlements in Western Canada. “I file mine by catalogue number so if there’s a certain number in the sequence missing, I know that’s an album I’ve yet to find. What it might be, though, is anybody’s guess.”
Without a doubt the most valuable V Records release has zip to do with Ukrainian music.
Neil Young was 17 when he entered the studio in 1963 as a member of the Squires, to record The Sultan, which was released as a single on V Records together with a backing track, Aurora. Only 300 copies were pressed, and only 10 are believed to still be in existence. The last time one came up for sale, it commanded in the neighbourhood of $5,000.
In the early 2000s Young was putting together Archives Vol. One: 1963 – 1972, an exhaustive, eight-CD box set of his early material. One problem: as rare as The Sultan is, the Kelvin High School alumnus didn’t have a copy to call his own. That’s when he reached out to Mike Groshak, son of V Records founder Alex Groshak, to ask whether they had anything kicking around.
“He left a message on our (answering) service and I got back to him, to let him know we still had the master of the recording, and we’d be happy to ship it to him,” Groshak says.
Let us guess: Young was so thankful that he told the Groshaks to name their price, in regards to remuneration for the ultra-rare piece of wax. Um, not so much.
“He gave us some concert tickets and a copy of the box set, and when he was done redoing the master, he sent us a copy of that, too, though he now has the original acetate,” Groshak says. “It’s kind of a fun story to tell; how, back in 1963, nobody in the city seemed too interested in Young and (The Sultan), till my dad said he’d happily put it out on his new record label.”
— David Sanderson
Strewens was six years old when his paternal grandmother moved into Donwood Manor, in North Kildonan. There was never much to do when he visited there, owing to the fact she spoke little to no English aside from, “Here, eat.”
So instead of sitting in the living room listening to his father and grandma going back and forth in Ukrainian, he’d head over to where she kept a stereo and small pile of record albums, one of which was This Land is Your Land by Mickey and Bunny, a husband-and-wife duo that sang in Ukrainian and English, and whose record sales in this part of the world in the mid- to late-1960s rivalled those of the Monkees and Rolling Stones.
“I especially liked that one, probably because I was already familiar with the title track. When I got a bit older, I actually borrowed it along with a few more of her records, to make cassette copies for myself,” he says.
OK, so maybe Strewens ceased listening to Ukrainian music as he got older, opting instead for flavours of the day such as rap and hip hop.
A few years ago, however, the self-described picker was poking through boxes at a garage sale and darned if there wasn’t a copy of that same Mickey and Bunny album priced at a measly 50 cents.
He added it to the rest of what he was purchasing and on the way home thought, “You know, I should collect these records, especially with it being a Winnipeg label and all.” (There was no mistaking that; the back cover of almost every early release was clearly marked, “Manufactured and distributed by V Records Ltd., Fleury Place, Winnipeg 6, Manitoba.”)
“I file mine (V Records) by catalogue number so if there’s a certain number in the sequence missing, I know that’s an album I’ve yet to find. What it might be, though, is anybody’s guess.” – Ben Strewens
“I’m going to be flat-out honest with you, I still enjoy the music,” he says, reaching into a zippered carry-case to pull out a selection of LPs and singles he brought along for show-and-tell purposes.
“I’ve been listening to a lot of Peter Hnatiuk lately for a story I’m writing for my blog (www.classicalgasemissions.com) and I still get as much of a kick out of an album like If I Was Prime Minister as I did when I heard it as a kid.”
The first record he shows off carries the long-winded title, The D-Drifters 5 Sing Beatles Songs and Other English Hits in Ukrainian. (Trust him, he says with a wink, you’ve never really heard She Loves You till you’ve heard it sung in Ukrainian.)
That is a somewhat tough one to find nowadays, he explains, because it’s also coveted by Beatlemaniacs who are after anything, pretty much, having to do with the Fab Four.
Less difficult to net is anything by the aforementioned Mickey and Bunny, simply because of how many of the pair’s records sold back in the day, as much as 75,000 copies each.
Oh, and if oddball jackets are your jam, you should definitely keep an eye/ear open for Award Winnipeg Presentation, the cover of which features a shot of former Winnipeg mayor Steven Juba handing Mickey and Bunny a community service certificate.
“I am discerning to a point; a lot of these records were well-played and if something looks like it was cleaned with sandpaper, I won’t buy it, even if it’s just a buck or two,” he says, correcting a writer’s pronunciation, when we take a stab at Roy Mykytyshyn’s surname while turning over an interesting-sounding LP dubbed Divorce Ukrainian Style.
“But if the vinyl looks to be in good shape but the cover’s seen better days, I’ll still pick it up, then hope to find a better-looking cover another time.”
With all that’s been going on in the world lately, Strewens says he’s definitely considered making more of an effort to reconnect with his Ukrainian roots. He’s certain he has relatives in Ukraine on his father’s side, and wishes he had “dived a bit deeper” when he was younger, by studying the language.
“I do know some (Ukrainian), but that’s probably more from listening to my records than anything else,” he says, getting ready to cue up a copy of Peter Lamb Sings & Plays Old Tyme Ukrainian, containing Sundown Polka, Riverside Polka, Polka from Oakburn… you get the idea.
“But with the war that’s going on, some of the songs — especially the older folk tunes — definitely take on added meaning.”
“I do know some (Ukrainian), but that’s probably more from listening to my records than anything else… But with the war that’s going on, some of the songs– especially the older folk tunes — definitely take on added meaning.” – Ben Strewens
Mike Groshak, one of V Records founder Alex Groshak’s four sons, chuckles when asked what the V in his dad’s company’s name stands for.
“As far as I know, it doesn’t stand for anything; I grew up being told he simply picked a letter out of the blue,” Groshak says, when reached by phone at his home in St. Vital.
Groshak says his dad initially got the label off the ground by approaching popular acts, and offering them studio time along with the opportunity to work with a professional producer and engineer.
Before long, the shoe was on the other foot, with singers and bands contacting him from as far away as Alberta and Saskatchewan with hopes of landing a V Records deal for themselves.
“As far as I know, it (V in V Records) doesn’t stand for anything; I grew up being told he simply picked a letter out of the blue.” – Mike Groshak, Alex Groshak’s son
“He started out with V Records, and in the ’70s he added a few other labels — K Records, UK (for Ukrainian) Records and, I believe, Sunflower Records — to the mix,” he continues, mentioning during its heyday the company issued music on vinyl, cassette and eight-track. There are even a few CDs floating around that came out before his dad wrapped things up in the early ’90s, he adds.
“Dad used to deal mainly with stores like Macleods and Kresge’s, and when they started to close outlets from coast to coast, that kind of spelled the end of things,” he continues.
“It is interesting how many people still remember those old records, mind you. I was at (MPI) the other day, and when the subject came up, a young lady who was helping me started telling me about her dad’s record collection, and how he still has a bunch of V Records. It’s always nice to hear those kinds of stories.”
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.