Cultural crossover: Label tapped into demand for Ukrainian music
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/07/2015 (2688 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In the mid-1960s, the biggest-selling Manitoba-based recording act wasn’t the Guess Who, but Ukrainian-language country duo Mickey & Bunny.
Their recording of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land, sung in both Ukrainian and English, sold more than 70,000 copies, making them one of the most successful recording artists in Western Canada.
Mickey & Bunny recorded for local V-Records, which Alex Groshak established in 1962 and operated out of his home on Fleury Place in Windsor Park. Groshak was a visionary who saw a vast untapped market for ethnic music in the Ukrainian-Canadian community.
“I feel that Ukrainian music is very unique and one of a kind, given to us by previous generations, and it should be preserved for future generations,” he said in a 2005 radio interview.
“There was no exchange of cultural information (between Ukrainian-Canadians and Ukraine) during the Cold War, so people here had to create their own culture and music,” says Brian Cherwick, a former Winnipegger with a PhD in Ukrainian folklore and ethnology.
Already a veteran of the music business, having worked for Phonodisc, Quality and Regis Records, Groshak recognized the potential with V-Records.
“There was a big demand for Ukrainian music for weddings and socials,” he said in the radio interview.
The label featured artists such as Tommy Buick, Jim Gregrash (no relation to Joey Gregorash), Peter Hnatiuk, John Yuzyk, the Royal Polka Kings, Peter Lamb, the Primrose Trio, Mae Chwaluk, Joe Jedraski, Anna Kraichy and Peter Picklyk — all well-known in the Ukrainian community — playing and singing popular Ukrainian songs. But the most consistently successful V-Records artist was Mickey & Bunny.
Ethelbert-born Modest Sklepowich (Mickey) and Orissia Ewanchuk (Bunny), who was from Rosa, met serendipitously.
“We actually met in the middle of the Arlington Bridge,” chuckles Bunny. “I was in a car with a friend who knew Mickey, and when we saw Mickey coming in the other direction, we stopped in the middle of the bridge. Mickey asked for my phone number and called me the next day.”
Playing guitar and singing since his early teens, Mickey was a pharmacist by trade, while Bunny was a qualified school teacher (she would later teach Ukrainian language classes). They married in 1957.
Under the name Mickey & Bunny Sheppard, they began performing in bars, where Groshak spotted them and signed them to his fledgling label. Their debut album, 1964’s Mickey & Bunny Sing Ukrainian Country Music, sold more than 10,000 copies.
“Mickey was the driving force,” Bunny says. “He had so much energy.”
Mickey understood the entertainment business and how to make money. At their peak in the mid-’60s, he said the couple earned $60,000 to $75,000 annually and purchased a brand-new Cadillac every year.
Often mislabelled a polka act, Mickey & Bunny leaned more toward the twangy, pop-country sounds of Bakersfield’s Buck Owens. Their success was based on an ability to sing songs in both languages, a style known as “half na piv,” half-Ukrainian, half-English. Their big hit This Land is Your Land was presented in that style.
“We were helping preserve the Ukrainian language for young people,” Bunny says. “That song really connected with younger people. We also introduced them to traditional Ukrainian music they had inherited but didn’t know about.”
Their success came quickly.
‘They were cultural ambassadors, unifying the mostly isolated rural Ukrainian communities, as well as generations’– Brian Cherwick
“We were playing the Winnipeg Auditorium, and Mickey looked out the window at all these people standing outside waiting to get in. He thought there must be someone else performing next door,” Bunny says.
The duo released 13 albums for V-Records and toured Canada more than a dozen times, selling out Toronto’s Massey Hall for three nights (yielding a “simulated live” album) and appearing at Detroit’s Ford Auditorium. They even played in Las Vegas. But their strongest base remained rural Western Canada, where they toured often, appearing on television and radio.
“They were cultural ambassadors, unifying the mostly isolated rural Ukrainian communities, as well as generations,” Cherwick says.
Early on, Mickey & Bunny recruited Winnipeg band the D-Drifters 5 as a backing band on the road and for recordings. The band was formed by the Roman (a.k.a. Romanyshyn) brothers, who were originally from Fraserwood. Dave played accordion and bass, and Tony played guitar. The band, which included Ihor (Yogi) Klos on fiddle, Mike Klym on drums and Andy Pokolinski on saxophone, had been together for a few years when Tony was hired to back Mickey & Bunny on tour.
“Mickey would hire additional musicians in each place they played,” Dave Roman says. “Then he realized he needed a full-time band, so he auditioned us. We barely got through the second song when he stopped us and said ‘You’re hired.’ ”
It was a big step for the band.
“I made more money the first night with Mickey & Bunny than I did in a whole month working as a draftsman,” Roman says.
But the merger was not without its hurdles.
“Mickey fired Yogi after two weeks,” Roman says, “because Yogi wouldn’t do what Mickey wanted.”
Besides working with Mickey & Bunny, the D-Drifters 5 also recorded on their own for V-Records, releasing five albums of Ukrainian dance music.
“The albums came about because Mickey Sheppard had his own studio in his house (at 11 Gillia Dr.) in West Kildonan,” says Roman.
Versatility was the band’s calling card.
“We always thought of ourselves as a rock ’n’ roll cover band, but we could play anything,” Roman says.
In 1965, the D-Drifters 5 released an album of Beatles and British Invasion pop songs sung in Ukrainian.
“Yogi and I and my mother translated them,” Roman says.
Groshak dubbed the band “the Ukrainian Beatles.”
By the latter ’60s the D-Drifters, as they were now known, left Mickey & Bunny for a career on their own, becoming an instant sensation.
“Because of our association with Mickey & Bunny, people knew who we were,” Roman says. “Our first gig was at the Lincoln Hotel, and people were practically knocking down the door to get in. We couldn’t believe it.”
Over the next two decades, the D-Drifters remained one of the top bands in the province and beyond, playing pubs, dances, weddings — you name it. A later lineup included a pre-BTO Fred Turner.
“We did very well in the music business, even though we never had a hit record,” Roman says.
Mickey & Bunny divorced in the early ’70s but continued to perform and record for a few years. Mickey then went out on his own (at one point employing local blues guitar legend Billy Joe Green on guitar), while Bunny embarked on a teaching career up north for several years.
Their hit version of This Land is Your Land received official recognition with inclusion in the national archives in Ottawa.
“We couldn’t believe how two small-town people could create such a big to-do,” Bunny says. “The Ukrainian community loved us and loved that music. It was a glorious eight- to 10-year run.”
In an effort to duplicate the successful Ukrainian model, Groshak sought to tap into Winnipeg’s bustling Italian-Canadian community by signing popular performer Carmine La Rosa and releasing records in Italian. La Rosa had been around the local scene since he arrived in Winnipeg in 1954 at age 10.
“My parents were already here, so they sent for me to come over by boat all alone,” he recalls. Within weeks, he was singing at popular Pembina Highway restaurant Mama Trossi’s.
“They would bring me at 6 p.m. for the dinner crowd, then I would sleep in the back of the restaurant until about 2 a.m., when they would wake me up to sing for the late-night crowd after Rancho Don Carlos closed. I was taking home $35 to $40 a week, which was more than my mother made working in a factory for 60 hours a week.”
He remembers the night he performed at the Royal Alexandra Hotel on Main Street and took home $70.
A friend of the family offered to take young La Rosa to Chicago to sing in restaurants and clubs.
“He would make sure I went to school and send my parents $200 a month,” La Rosa remembers. “They said no. I had only been reunited with my family for six months.”
La Rosa later hooked up with friends from Churchill High School to form the Thunderstorms. The band was a popular attraction at community clubs, later graduating to bars throughout the city, including Chan’s Moon Room, the St. Charles Hotel, the Town ’n’ Country’s Gold Coach Lounge and the Black Night.
“We did six months at the Black Night,” La Rosa says. “I used to perform with the band in the pub until it closed at 11, then go sing with the guitar player in the lounge until midnight.”
Like the D-Drifters, the Thunderstorms courted broader appeal.
“We were more versatile than just a rock ’n’ roll band,” says La Rosa. “I sang the Italian songs like Volare, and we did Trini Lopez songs and country and western. We also played weddings and socials for the Italian community.”
Groshak approached the band at a gig at the Lincoln Hotel and offered to record them.
The La Rosa Trio +1 (La Rosa, Gary Rogers, Mike Sambork and Ted Hicks) released a couple of singles and two albums on V-Records, Italian Songs and A Party-Italian Style.
“We were an experiment for V-Records,” La Rosa says. “The Ukrainians over here didn’t have access to music from home, so there was an existing market here. Alex tried to do the same with the Italian community here, but Italians were able to get records from Italy. You could go to Nucci’s Records and buy the latest Italian records from home. You didn’t need a cover band to play those songs.”
La Rosa says the French community ended up buying more of his records than the Italian community.
Perhaps V-Records’ most famous release was a one-off single in the fall of 1963 by Winnipeg rock band the Squires. Only 300 copies were pressed and used by the band for promotional giveaways.
The band’s frontman and lead guitarist was a teenage Neil Young, who composed both sides of the 45. Recorded on July 23 at the CKRC radio station, The Sultan, backed by Aurora, were both guitar instrumentals in the vein of the Shadows or Duane Eddy that made nary a ripple on the local scene until Young found fame years later.
Roman attended the recording session.
“Neil impressed me because he had the right idea, writing your own songs,” he said. “That’s what I wanted to do.”
Nowadays, original copies (there have been bootleg copies in circulation for years) of the rare 45 change hands for thousands of dollars.
“My dad pressed that as a favour to CKRC’s Bob Bradburn, who produced the record,” says Mike Groshak, who replaced his father as head of V-Records in 2007 when the latter died.
La Rosa crossed paths with Young in 1961 when the budding musician played bass with the Thunderstorms for a couple of gigs.
“Neil was a bit of an odd individual back then,” recalls La Rosa. “Kind of anti-social, withdrawn and introverted, more reserved than the rest of us.”
In 1965, Young brought a new version of the Squires to Mickey Sheppard’s basement studio, where they cut two of his songs, I’m A Man (And I Can’t Cry) and I Wonder.
“I don’t know whatever happened to those songs,” Bunny says.
Decades later, Young found the tapes and released the tracks on his massive box set, Archives Vol. 1 1963–1972.
Relocating operations to 221 Flora Ave., Groshak expanded his record enterprise with offshoot labels such as K and UK, the latter featuring Bill Woloshyn’s popular Interlake Polka Kings. He also imported dozens of titles from throughout Europe in an attempt to corner the market on ethnic recordings in Western Canada. Unfortunately, the gamble did not pay off, and the label suffered financially.
“That’s when things started to fall apart,” Mike Groshak says.
One-time V artist Ness Michaels (a.k.a. Nestor Shydlowsky) formed Sunshine Records in the mid-’70s to compete with Groshak. Although no longer active, V-Records still exists in name under Mike’s direction.
“The real joy was in allowing people to hear their own music,” stresses Mike. “It was a cultural explosion for Ukrainians, and V-Records did a lot to preserve both the language and culture.”
Born and raised in Winnipeg, music historian John Einarson is an acclaimed musicologist, broadcaster, educator, and author of 14 music biographies published worldwide.