Manitoba’s blues roots date back to 1960s


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Winnipeg may be a long way from the Mississippi Delta and Chicago’s South Side, but that hasn’t stopped this city from fostering a vibrant blues scene.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/07/2016 (2444 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Winnipeg may be a long way from the Mississippi Delta and Chicago’s South Side, but that hasn’t stopped this city from fostering a vibrant blues scene.

Beginning in 1960s-era coffeehouses such as the Ting, Wise I and Latin Quarter, blues performers found like-minded supporters for their music.

Blues bands brought exciting electric blues to clubs, pubs and universities. Hotels on the Main Street strip such as the Occidental, Bell, Brunswick (where guitarist Billy Joe Green offered his unique brand of electric blues for several years) and Sutherland offered blues music before the Royal Albert, Marlborough and Viscount Gort hotels began hosting regular blues jams and booking blues performers.

‘I think the blues found me more than anything.I liked thetimelessness of it. Blues is never in or out. It’s always there’– Brent Parkin

Beginning in the mid-1980s under the management of Rick Penner, the downtown Windsor Hotel became a blues bastion. The Manitoba Blues Society formed in the 1990s to promote and encourage blues music and publish their newsletter, Blues News.

The roots of the blues stretch back to the American South slave experience and the post-Civil War exploitation of poor sharecroppers. Initially an acoustic music played by the likes of Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell and the King of the Delta Blues, Robert Johnson, the music migrated north with the post-First World War movement of African-Americans to industrial centres. Cities such as Detroit, Buffalo, New York and Chicago became the home of the blues in the 1950s. The juke joints of Chicago’s South Side were raucous and rowdy, and acoustic blues artists couldn’t provide the sound demanded by such audiences. So an electric blues sound emerged as blues players plugged in their guitars and miked their harmonicas. Muddy Waters (born McKinley Morganfield to sharecroppers in Clarksdale, Miss.) moved north to Chicago in the 1940s. By the 1950s, he and his band, which included Little Walter Jacobs on harmonica, presented a raw and exciting electric blues sound that would have both an immediate and enduring influence far beyond Chicago.

Up to the early 1960s, blues remained the domain of African-Americans. Although embraced by the folk music revival of the latter 1950s, few white musicians, with the exception of John Hammond Jr., did more than dabble in a few blues songs. It was a fringe music form that did not enjoy widespread commercial appeal. However, across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom, pockets of blues aficionados revelled in the emotion of the blues and sought out rare recordings by American blues artists, often difficult to find in U.K. record shops. These blues enthusiasts came together to share both their dedication to the genre and their record collections. From this would emerge groups of musicians who played blues music, often with the zeal of missionaries out to convert the unwashed masses.

In early 1964, the British Invasion hit North American shores like a tsunami. Led by Liverpool’s the Beatles, British musicians found a ready, willing and eager market for their brand of rock ’n’ roll. It’s often been noted these British recording artists, the Beatles included, were merely playing back to American teens their own music, much of it African-American, that had been on the periphery of popular music. The first wave of the British Invasion was dubbed Merseybeat for a sound derived from the Beatles’ early recordings and associated with the city on the Mersey River (whether its practitioners hailed from there or not). Merseybeat was generally lightweight, clean guitar-strumming, toe-tapping pop confection. But as the invasion continued, a rawer, more compelling rhythm and blues sound began to be heard on our shores from bands that were part of the London blues scene found in several key clubs such as the Crawdaddy and Marquee. These bands weren’t interested in holding your hand.

Beginning in the summer of 1964, with Newcastle band the Animals’ cover of House of the Rising Sun, about a gambling father living in a brothel, the sound of the British Invasion took on a harder edge. The Rolling Stones (who took an obscure slow blues, Little Red Rooster, to the top of the U.K. charts), the Kinks, Manfred Mann, Them (featuring Van Morrison), the Yardbirds, the Spencer Davis Group and the Nashville Teens brought the blues influence to the pop charts.

For many North American teens, myself included, it was these British bands that introduced them to the blues. They piqued my curiosity to seek out the original artists whose songs they covered such as Jimmy Reed, Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. (The Rolling Stones took their name from one of his songs.) I was initiated into a whole new world of music I knew nothing about yet had always been there.

“When we looked beyond the pop hit singles of these bands,” notes veteran singer/harmonica player Fred Dugdale, “we discovered all these great blues songs that appealed to us more.”

“Once you heard Muddy Waters, that’s it,” says Mojo & the Nighthawks’ Sandy Chochinov, who came to the blues from these secondary sources. “That’s the whole story of the blues right there.”

The Electric Jug & Blues Band — Grant (Rhaps) Boden, Blair (Zac) Wheaton, Don (Stork) Macgillivray, Dennis Faraci, Ray Lovell and former Deverons and Guess Who member Bruce Decker — has been acknowledged by the Manitoba Blues Society as Winnipeg’s first blues band. The sextet emerged from the Down-to-Earthenware Jug Band made up of students from Silver Heights and Kelvin high schools. Like Bob Dylan in 1965, the jug band turned electric the following year and played the blues for both teen and university crowds.

“We weren’t used to playing dances, but we learned quickly,” states drummer Boden, who says the band’s repertoire was initially drawn from folk blues before tuning into the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Blues Project.

Butterfield’s mixed-race band from Chicago and New York’s Blues Project offered an electrifying take on Chicago blues and, like their U.K. contemporaries, reinterpreted the original masters.

Audiences loved the Electric Jug & Blues Band’s approach.

“We made blues and jug band music danceable and appealing to younger audiences. We would do some long, extended jams because (lead guitarist) Faraci and (harmonica player) Stork were so good on their instruments. In fact, we wouldn’t have been a blues band without Stork. He was the sound of the band.”

A well-known figure on the local music scene, Stork was Winnipeg’s first blues harmonica virtuoso. His forte was Chicago blues.

“I played single-note harmonica through a microphone held in my hand and that through an amplifier to thicken the sound,” he explains. “No one in town had heard that before.”

He cites Paul Butterfield as his inspiration but also received some tutoring from legendary bluesman Sonny Terry when Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee performed at the Fourth Dimension coffeehouse. “Stork was a fascinating guy to watch,” says Boden.

Besides being a popular attraction among fraternities and the fine arts crowd, the Electric Jug & Blues Band landed a coveted spot opened for the Monkees at the Winnipeg Arena on April 1, 1967. Boden believes it was Decker’s father’s connections with the Centennial Committee that got them then gig.

“I think the audience thought we were the Electric Prunes,” laughs Boden. “That was the first time we ever witnessed all that energy from the audience focused on the stage.”

The band removed their shoes before taking the stage. “I think that was to ground us,” says Boden.

The Otis Crow Blues Band initially coalesced around students from St. John’s High School in 1966. Singer Fred Dugdale, a classmate of Burton Cummings, had been playing in rock bands with guitarist Al Beischer. Cummings directed guitarist/bass player Tom Paige, a.k.a. Otis Crow, to the two. Dennis Appler joined them on drums and later Harvey Basler on bass as well as keyboardist Terry Sulymko.

“We played the typical songs of the era, including the Beatles, but we realized that we were just like all the other bands,” says Dugdale. “But once we heard the first Paul Butterfield Blues Band album, it really excited us, so we moved into that style, and it made us different. We were knocked out by the power of that Chicago-style blues.”

Convincing community clubs and high schools to book a blues band was a challenge, says Dugdale.

“When people heard the name ‘Blues Band,’ they would say no. But when they heard us, they loved it. They didn’t realize that the bands they liked such as the Stones, Cream and Led Zeppelin were basically blues bands.”

In 1967, when Butterfield added horns to his band on the groundbreaking album The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw, that became the catalyst for Otis Crow to expand its lineup incorporating a horn section — sax player Joe Dutkevich, Dennis Blackburn on trumpet and trombone player Mike Murphy. When the Pigboy Crabshaw lineup of Butterfield’s band played UMSU in 1968 (booked by UMSU events co-ordinator Grant Boden), Butterfield and guitarist Elvin Bishop partied at Otis Crow’s Pembina Highway rehearsal hall.

“They loved Canadian beer, so they hung out with us,” recalls Dugdale, who says one wall of their hall was painted as the cover of the Crabshaw album. “They were very interesting guys to talk to. We really didn’t do any playing though.”

The band briefly changed its name to Brass Tacks before folding in 1970. Dugdale then hooked up with River Heights-based blues band Pig Iron, who had been together since late 1969. Bassist Ralph James and harmonica player Greg Baert had been in a band called Country Dog Shit before joining Grant Park students John Hannah and yours truly on guitars, along with drummer Rod McFadyen from St. Paul’s High School, to form Pig Iron. The band drew its repertoire from the British Blues Boom of the latter ’60s with bands such as Savoy Brown, the Keef Hartley Band, early Fleetwood Mac and John Mayall’s Bluesbeakers. Pig Iron was a popular act at coffeehouses throughout the city (often sharing the bill with jazz and bluegrass groups) and played the Fireplace club on Pembina. When Hannah quit to join Chopping Block, the others recruited keyboard player Peter Valentine and Dugdale and continued to bring electric blues-rock to enthusiastic audiences. Their last gig was the June 1970 Assiniboine Park Love-In.

Baert teamed up that summer with Mojo & the Nighthawks. Mojo was drummer Seymour Koblun, who hailed from River Heights. The other players — Sandy Chochinov on bass, keyboard and sax player Leonard (Lewsh) Shaw, guitarist Dave Garber and Laivy Kaufman on sax — hailed from West Kildonan. Chochinov cites Baert as the key blues instigator.

“Greg turned me on to so much music I’d never heard before. Blues, jazz, Miles Davis,” says Chochinov. “I had never heard Muddy Waters or Chicago blues before.”

Baert’s own introduction to the blues came via an unlikely source. “My mother was a jazz and big band singer, so I heard all this great music from the time I was a little kid,” he states. “She would play these records and sing to them. A lot of it was kind of boogie-woogie stuff. She loved Louis Jordan’s jump blues. So this stuff was all around me.” Baert picked up the harmonica in junior high.

The Nighthawks rehearsed in a second floor room at 90 Albert St. in the Exchange District. Rehearsing in the basement was a band called Loose Goose with Fred Dugdale. Dugdale would check out the Nighthawks sessions and eventually threw in his lot with the band.

“I heard them playing Butterfield’s East-West and was blown away,” he recalls.

Mojo & the Nighthawks made their debut at a free gig at the YMHA before going on to play coffeehouses.

“Coffeehouses were fun to play because they were smaller and more intimate,” Chochinov remembers. “My fondest memory is playing Get Together 71 downtown when they blocked off the streets.”

The band, minus Dugdale, relocated to Toronto in late 1972, where Chochinov, Garber and Shaw ended up backing former Winnipeg singer Dianne Heatherington.

Before splitting up, the Nighthawks placed an ad on the wall of a Toronto music store. Former Ronnie Hawkins backup singer Beverly D’Angelo responded.

“She was great,” recalls Baert. “We rehearsed with her for two weeks, then she got a gig with a touring Godspell troupe.”

D’Angelo went on to success as an actress in the National Lampoon’s Vacation movies.

Without a doubt, the godfathers of the local blues scene and its elder statesmen are Brent Parkin and Big Dave McLean. Neither was born here, but on moving to Winnipeg they set about establishing a strong blues music presence. Like many others, Parkin’s introduction to blues came via second-generation artists including the Lovin’ Spoonful’s Night Owl Blues.

“I think the blues found me more than anything,” Parkin says. “I liked the timelessness of it. Blues is never in or out. It’s always there. Once I heard B.B. King’s and Albert King’s guitar playing, that piqued my interest in a big way.”

Beginning in 1972 with the Black Jack Blues Band, Parkin’s reputation as one of the country’s finest blues guitarists came with his next band, Houndog, formed in 1976. Initially a trio, Houndog later expanded to include harmonica player Gord Kidder (who also worked with Big Dave), bassist Barry Dunford, Ian Haslam on drums and ace piano player Harri Vallitu. The group toured the country playing bars, clubs and the festival circuit, but their home base was the Royal Albert Hotel.

“That was our main gig,” says Parkin. “We were like the house band there.”

He cites the Royal Albert as pivotal to the local blues scene. “Winnipeg was really lucky to have a bar similar to Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern that brought in blues artists. It was central to the blues scene evolving here.” Parkin also organized regular blues jams at several pubs throughout the city.

By the ’80s, Parkin was fronting the Stingers and opening for the likes of B.B. King, Otis Rush, Billy Boy Arnold and Gatemouth Brown. He continues to wow blues fans as a solo performer and recording artist.

Big Dave McLean’s blues journey began in his teens via the folk circuit, playing guitar, harmonica and washboard in various ensembles, performing jug band and old-time songs until a chance encounter with his own personal mentor and inspiration.

“I saw John Hammond Jr. at Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto in 1969, and he absolutely blew my mind,” McLean says.

“I’d never heard this kind of music before coming out of one guy. So I kind of thank him and blame him for getting me started in the blues.”

Throughout his career, McLean has performed alone or fronting Chicago-style blues bands.

“I used to play the Occidental Hotel, the Bell, the Sutherland,” he says. “They were the only places that would hire the blues. It was like the Wild West or the south side of Chicago. I just figured if you want to get something happening, you have to start somewhere. I got the Bella Vista going, I was a part of the Royal Albert days, Times Change(d) club, I hosted a blues room in the basement of the Marlborough and I ran jams for nine years at the Viscount Gort.” Along the way, McLean developed a close relationship with Muddy Waters.

“Dave McLean has been stalwartly keeping up the blues tradition for years,” says blues guitarist and acolyte Colin James, who produced McLean’s debut album.

While the local blues scene has produced many fine blues artists in recent years, Parkin and McLean remain Winnipeg’s best-known blues ambassadors.

“You can’t fake the blues,” Parkin muses. “You have to commit to it, and it has to be in your bones. Anyone can play a blues song, but you can tell the guys who really tune into the blues.”


John Einarson writes about Manitoba’s music history.

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John Einarson

John Einarson

Born and raised in Winnipeg, music historian John Einarson is an acclaimed musicologist, broadcaster, educator, and author of 14 music biographies published worldwide.

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