June 5, 2020

Winnipeg
10° C, A few clouds

Full Forecast

Winnipeg Free Press

ABOVE THE FOLD

Help us deliver reliable news during this pandemic.

We are working tirelessly to bring you trusted information about COVID-19. Support our efforts by subscribing today.

No Thanks Subscribe

Already a subscriber?

Holding pattern

Manitoba's Ray St. Germain has played with some of country music's best over the past 65 years; the entertainer and radio host is celebrating his 80th birthday in July, but COVID-19 has hit pause on a big family celebration for the time being

Asked what he’s been doing to pass the time since COVID-19 shut down the live music industry in mid-March, veteran entertainer Ray St. Germain, forced to cancel six shows of his own thus far, leans forward in his lawn chair, adjusts the collar of his black windbreaker and casually strokes his chin.

Ray and Lenny

Ray St. Germain no longer drinks alcohol, but acknowledges he was known to enjoy a beer or two back in the day. Drugs are another story, he says.

After meeting Lenny Breau in 1956 when the two of them played together in the Hal Lone Pine band, they became fast friends, often hanging out after shows and shooting pool into the wee hours. One of the most important lessons he ever learned was when he and Breau showed up 10 minutes late for a gig because they'd been "enjoying" themselves a bit too much, and Hal Lone Pine, Breau's father and the leader of the band, fired the pair on the spot.

Ray St. Germain no longer drinks alcohol, but acknowledges he was known to enjoy a beer or two back in the day. Drugs are another story, he says.

After meeting Lenny Breau in 1956 when the two of them played together in the Hal Lone Pine band, they became fast friends, often hanging out after shows and shooting pool into the wee hours. One of the most important lessons he ever learned was when he and Breau showed up 10 minutes late for a gig because they'd been "enjoying" themselves a bit too much, and Hal Lone Pine, Breau's father and the leader of the band, fired the pair on the spot.

"Hal hired Lenny back a week later, and me the week after that, but I’ve never forgotten it, and have never been late to a show since," St. Germain says.

St. Germain and Breau, whose first wife was St. Germain's sister, parted ways professionally in the early 1960s but remained in touch. St. Germain says when he realized Breau, a virtuoso jazz guitar player, was addicted to heroin, he tried everything he could to get him “off that junk."

"I remember one time he did a show at the Playhouse, where I could tell he was completely strung out onstage," St. Germain says, his voice dropping a bit. "The second he was back in his dressing room, some guy came up to him offering him more drugs. I was like, 'Get that s--t away from him or I'll f-----g kill you.'"

St. Germain says he was "surprised but not surprised" when he got a call in 1984 from the Los Angeles Police Department, letting him know his ex-brother-in-law had been found dead in a swimming pool. (Although Breau's second wife, Jewel Breau, was a chief suspect in the death — a coroner determined Breau had been strangled before ending up in the pool — she was never charged.)

"He was one of my best friends and drugs did him in. I tried talking to him, I tried to help, but there was nothing I or anybody else could do. That's one of the reasons I'm so against drugs, in every way."

— David Sanderson

"I’d never grown a beard my whole life, so instead of sitting around staring at the four walls, I decided this was as good a time as any to give ‘er a shot," says the respected singer-songwriter, who debuted his new, hirsute look earlier this month while performing an original number, I’m Mighty Proud I’m Métis, inside the Bank of Montreal building at Portage and Main to help mark the sale of that historic piece of property to the Manitoba Metis Federation.

This is a banner year for St. Germain, host of The Metis Hour x2, which airs Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on NCI-FM. Not only does the father of five, grandfather of seven and great-grandfather of two — he apologizes if any of those numbers are off by a descendant or two — turn the big eight-oh in July, he’s also toasting 65 years in showbiz.

Seated in his backyard on a warm, spring afternoon, he asserts the adage "time flies when you’re having fun" is definitely true in his case. Snapping his fingers, he says it feels like yesterday when he first appeared on the CJOB Western Hour, a radio talent show broadcast live from the Dominion Theatre in the 1950s.

Ray St. Germain keeps his voice in shape by singing for 90 minutes every morning.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Ray St. Germain keeps his voice in shape by singing for 90 minutes every morning.

"Just the other night I was watching something on TV about Rich Little and thought to myself, has it really been 40 years since the two of us had supper together at the International Inn, after one of his shows in Winnipeg?" he continues, breaking into a grin as he recalls how he ended up paying the entire tab that evening after noticing the master impressionist seemed in no hurry to reach over for a bill a server had deposited on their table an hour earlier.

In previous years, St. Germain’s children and grandchildren, many of whom are professional entertainers themselves, have made a point of celebrating his birthday in style via large, family get-togethers where everybody takes a turn at the microphone belting out their favourite tunes. With the majority of the St. Germain clan spread across the continent, as far as Vancouver, Nashville and Las Vegas, it’s appearing more and more likely any planned festivities to mark his 80th will have to be put on hold for the foreseeable future, he says.

"Everybody’s been messaging me in a panic, saying, ‘Dad, we have to do something.’ But my wife Glory and I have told them it’s OK if we have to wait a year. It’s not like I’m going anywhere, any time soon."


St. Germain grew up on St. Michael Road in St. Vital. Every so often, he’ll slowly cruise by his childhood home just to see if the old oak tree — the branches of which he spent hours exploring — is still standing.

St. Germain in earlier days.

St. Germain in earlier days.

As a youngster, he always looked forward to holiday gatherings when, without fail, his grandmother would fetch her fiddle the second the dishes were washed and put away and proceed to play for hours on end, accompanied by his uncles and cousins on accordion and guitar. Always anxious to participate, he was thrilled when his parents signed him up for music lessons at the age of 10.

In time, he became proficient enough at the 12-bass accordion that days before his 15th birthday, he was invited to play with the Rhythm Ranch Boys, a country-swing outfit that was booked at dance halls throughout the province every Friday and Saturday night. His big music break occurred in 1956 when he was a member of a different group, one that primarily covered songs originally recorded by "new" singing sensation, Elvis Presley. One evening while they were performing at a venue called Rainbow Dance Gardens, St. Germain, who had since swapped the accordion for a guitar and microphone, was told between sets there was somebody in the audience who wanted to have a word with him.

It turned out Harold Breau, an RCA-Victor recording artist from Maine who went by Hal Lone Pine, was there with his wife, Canadian-born country music singer Betty Cody. The pair had recently moved to Winnipeg to produce a live radio show for CKY. Impressed with St. Germain’s playing and singing, Lone Pine wanted to know if St. Germain was interested in joining his ensemble, which included his and Cody’s 15-year-old son, guitar wunderkind Lenny Breau.

St. Germain on stage in 1977.

SUPPLIED

St. Germain on stage in 1977.

St. Germain was tempted to accept the offer on the spot, but there was a problem: the Hal Lone Pine band was on the road as many as seven days a week, recording their radio program in towns and communities throughout Manitoba. He had just started Grade 10 at Glenlawn Collegiate and wasn’t sure how turning his back on his studies to play music was going to go over with his parents.

"My mom was like, ‘Are you crazy? You can’t quit (school),’ but my dad was more interested in what I was going to be paid," St. Germain says. "When I told him my salary would be $75 a week, a small fortune in those days, he said, ‘Are you kidding me? Go!’"

St. Germain spent the next several years criss-crossing Western Canada with Hal Lone Pine, often opening for Grand Ole Opry legends such as Johnny Cash, George Jones and Skeeter Davis. ("Sure, if, ‘Hey, kid, get the hell out of my way’ counts," he says with a laugh, when asked if the likes of Cash or Porter Wagoner ever spoke to him.) In 1959, he penned She’s a Square, a rock and roll tune he managed to record at a studio in St. Boniface. Attributed to Ray St. Germain and the Satins, She’s a Square was released as a single on Toronto-based Chateau Records. The song, backed with another St. Germain composition, If You Don’t Mean It, cracked the Top 10 in several Canadian markets. Married at 19 and with a baby on the way, he decided the time was right to part ways with Hal Lone Pine, and move to Toronto to seek fame and fortune as a solo artist.

"I had a hit record in my back pocket and was convinced I was going to make it big. Too bad Toronto wasn’t as ready for me as I was for it," he says.

Failing to find work as a musician and needing to support his wife Barbara and their daughter, Chrystal, St. Germain temporarily accepted a position as a control operator at a car dealership. The three of them returned to Winnipeg the following year. Thanks largely to his father-in-law, who put in a good word for him, he landed a job at the Winnipeg Grain Exchange as a mailroom assistant.

"Barb and I bought a little house on Berrydale (Avenue). I packed my lunch and took the bus to work every day; I even wore a Fedora," he says. "I still sat in with bands every now and again but did I think that was the end of my music career, especially after our second daughter, Cathy, was born in 1962? You betcha."


When he’s out shopping for groceries or filling his vehicle’s gas tank, St. Germain is most often recognized for his 13-year tenure as the host of Ray St. Germain Country, later titled Big Sky Country, an award-winning variety show that aired in the 1970s and ‘80s on CKND-TV. Every once in a while, someone who’s followed his career from the start will want to discuss his TV work from the 1960s, long before he was winning Can Pro awards for his efforts at CKND.

Some of St. Germain's cassettes and eight-tracks.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Some of St. Germain's cassettes and eight-tracks.

In 1964, while he was still employed at the Grain Exchange, he was hired by CBC to emcee the Manitoba segment of a weekly national TV series called Music Hop Hootenanny, the Toronto host of which was none other than a 24-year-old Alex Trebek. St. Germain was still hosting that show 12 months later when his boss at the Grain Exchange delivered an ultimatum: what was it going to be: A) the mailroom or B) TV? He went with B.

Music Hop Hootenanny opened more doors, culminating in 1969 when he was invited to audition for a new Toronto-based variety show, The 1969 Electric Powered Television Show. As host, he would be required to perform in front of a full orchestra, singing everything from Glenn Miller to Blood, Sweat and Tears, in addition to introducing guests such as Anne Murray and Gordon Lightfoot.

He was definitely interested. But because the hour-long show was going to be filmed in Toronto, he was hesitant to move his family — by then he and Barbara had three children; Ray Jr. had just been born — from Winnipeg without some measure of job security. All he’d been told in that regard was that Texaco, the show’s sponsor, had signed on for five years, but there was a clause stating it could be cancelled after the first 13 weeks if it didn’t prove popular.

“It was amusing because when I started singing with Rocki Rolletti around 1980 I was always introduced onstage as Rita Rigatoni. Whenever I told people my real name, and that I was Ray St. Germain’s daughter, they didn’t believe me. ‘No, you’re not,’” they’d say. ‘Oh yes I am,’ I told them.” – Cathy St. Germain

"To make a long story short, I got the job, we all moved to Toronto, only for me to get a knock on my dressing room five minutes before our 9th episode and be told that was it, they were pulling the plug on us in four weeks’ time," St. Germain says, blaming the reason for the show’s dismal ratings on the fact it aired opposite The Dean Martin Show, a big-budget American production that regularly featured Hollywood heavyweights such as Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope as guest stars.

Things turned out OK in the end, obviously, when the late Izzy Asper, who founded CKND-TV in 1975, enlisted St. Germain to produce and host Ray St. Germain Country, a program that served as an important showcase for Canadian talent.

Cathy St. Germain, the second eldest of St. Germain’s five children (after getting divorced from Barbara in the early 1970s, St. Germain married his second wife Glory Doerksen, with whom he has two children, in 1976), says she wasn’t particularly thrilled when she learned Asper intended Ray St. Germain Country to be a family affair, during which her dad was expected to perform one or two numbers every week accompanied by his kids.

St. Germain's albums.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

St. Germain's albums.

"He told me how it’d be great, how I’d get paid, blah, blah, blah, but at the time, being 16 or whatever, singing on TV with my father and sister wasn’t something I was all that interested in," she says when reached at home in Vancouver, where she lives with her husband Mike Reno, lead singer of Loverboy. (True story: years ago, when Cathy told her dad whom she was dating and what band he was in, St. Germain replied, "Sounds great." Then he turned around, headed to the record store and asked if they had any albums by "the Loverboys." Back home, he slipped the newly-purchased disc into the CD player and muttered to himself, "Hey, I know that one...and that one...and that one," while listening to hit after hit.)

Cathy eventually came around to the idea. Not only that, in time, accompanied by her father and sister Chrystal, she gleefully belted out tunes such as Roy Orbison’s Blue Bayou in front of 15,000 people during Schmockey Night (kids, ask your parents) at Winnipeg Arena during the run of the show.

"Dad taught me tons, especially to be professional at all times and always be on time," says Cathy, who went on to front her own band, Cathy St. Germain and the Rage, in the early ‘80s. "It was amusing because when I started singing with Rocki Rolletti around 1980 I was always introduced onstage as Rita Rigatoni. Whenever I told people my real name, and that I was Ray St. Germain’s daughter, they didn’t believe me. ‘No, you’re not,’" they’d say. ‘Oh yes I am,’ I told them."


In his 2007 autobiography, I Wanted to be Elvis So What Was I Doing in Moose Jaw?, St. Germain lists his genealogy, tracing his family tree to Pierre St. Germain, a member of the 49th Rangers, a group of Métis scouts who accompanied and protected the British-Canadian Boundary Commission while they surveyed the international boundary between Canada and the United States in the early 1870s.

Some of St. Germain's memorabilia.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Some of St. Germain's memorabilia.

Funnily enough, St. Germain, a member of the Manitoba Aboriginal Music Hall of Fame, the Winnipeg Friendship Centre’s Aboriginal Wall of Honour and the Aboriginal Order of Canada, grew up completely unaware of his Métis roots.

"South of where we were in St. Vital, down where the Perimeter is nowadays, was where we used to say the ‘half-breeds’ lived," he says, taking a drink of water. "I remember taking the bus to school and seeing these kids having to walk miles to Norberry (Junior High School), and thinking how glad I was not to be one of them poor people."

In the early 1960s St. Germain took up photography as a hobby. One evening as the sun was beginning to set, he snapped a few pictures of his paternal grandfather, who lived directly across the street from his parents’ place, while he was sitting on the front porch. After developing the roll of film, he spent time examining the shots he’d taken of his grandfather, thinking to himself, "Boy, with that lighting does he ever look native." A few days later he showed the pictures to his father, repeating how the shading made "Grandpa look like an Indian."

“I don’t know why it was never discussed at home but after I found out we were Métis, I started doing a lot of studying while I was on the road, travelling to gigs.” – Ray St. Germain

"Well, son," his father began. "There’s something you should probably know..."

"I don’t know why it was never discussed at home but after I found out we were Métis, I started doing a lot of studying while I was on the road, travelling to gigs," he says. "After reading one book — it was called something like Louis Riel: Hero or Traitor — I wrote a song called The Métis, which got quite a bit of airplay in Western Canada."

St. Germain chuckles, recalling the time he was booked to sing his new hit single on The Tommy Hunter Show. Standing backstage, waiting to go out in front of the cameras, the show’s producer congratulated him, mentioning he’d read about the song in the trade industry publication Cashbox. He just had one question: what’s a Métis, pronouncing it as if it rhymed with fetus.

"I still enjoy telling that story before I break into The Métis nowadays," says St. Germain, who joined the Manitoba Metis Federation in 1998, and began hosting his radio show shortly thereafter. "It’s a guaranteed laugh, every time."


 

St. Germain was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Awards Hall of Honour in 2010. He’s still going strong a decade later.</p></p>

BRIAN J. GAVRILOFF / EDMONTON JOURNAL FILES

St. Germain was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Awards Hall of Honour in 2010. He’s still going strong a decade later.

St. Germain is a firm believer in the idiom "use it or lose it."

Every morning, seven days a week, he spends close to 90 minutes warming up his voice by accompanying himself on acoustic guitar or singing along to CDs, ones he recorded himself or big band compilations from the ‘50s and ‘60s. When he was in his 20s, he gained a reputation for being able to hang onto a high note for "bars and bars and bars," he says, and he’s never forgotten the advice of an early vocal coach who preached to him over and over again that practice makes perfect.

Wayne Hlady, who books St. Germain through the firm Bravo Concert Productions, likes to teach up-and-coming music acts they can learn a thing or two by emulating St. Germain, a previous winner of the Manitoba Association of Country Arts’ male vocalist, recording artist and entertainer of the year awards.

"To me, Ray is the Paul McCartney of the local entertainment industry. I tell bands every time they go onstage, conduct yourself like Ray St. Germain, whether there are 10 people in the crowd or 10,000," says Hlady, founder of the Beatles tribute act Free Ride. "I’ve shared a stage with him a few times myself and believe me, there’s always some little trick or tip I pick up on, just by watching him from the wings."

St. Germain's awards include Manitoba Association of Country Arts’ male vocalist, recording artist and entertainer of the year.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

St. Germain's awards include Manitoba Association of Country Arts’ male vocalist, recording artist and entertainer of the year.

Hlady recalls an occasion a few years ago that featured Free Ride and St. Germain co-headlining an outdoor event that took place on the grounds of the Immaculate Conception Church and Grotto in Cooks Creek. There were close to 2,000 people in attendance and he was more than a little surprised when St. Germain arrived without a backing band in tow.

"I said, ‘Ray, this isn’t supposed to be some unplugged show, not in front of this many people.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Don’t worry about a thing.’ Then he walked out on stage and heck if he didn’t get a goldarned standing ovation before he even played a note. Of course, he had the crowd in the palm of his hand for the next 90 minutes," Hlady says.

Taking a deep breath, St. Germain shakes his head at the very mention of the "R-word." Now that his annual family casino show includes some of his grandchildren, he’s having too much fun to even think about parking his pick anytime soon, he says.

"Talking about retirement reminds me of a conversation I had three years ago with Kenny Rogers’ manager, after I opened for Kenny at Club Regent, at what turned out to be his last show in Winnipeg," says St. Germain, referring to the Country Music Hall of Fame inductee who died in March at age 81.

"He told me this was probably going to be Kenny’s last tour because he wanted to spend more time at home. I said something like that’s too bad, but he said, ‘That’s OK; after all, Kenny’s 77 years old.’ Then he looked me up and down and said, ‘Say, Ray, how old are you, anyways?’"

"I told him I was turning 76, to which he replied, ‘Oh. In that case, good luck."

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

David Sanderson

Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.

Read full biography

Your support has enabled us to provide free access to stories about COVID-19 because we believe everyone deserves trusted and critical information during the pandemic.

Our readership has contributed additional funding to give Free Press online subscriptions to those that can’t afford one in these extraordinary times — giving new readers the opportunity to see beyond the headlines and connect with other stories about their community.

To those who have made donations, thank you.

To those able to give and share our journalism with others, please Pay it Forward.

The Free Press has shared COVID-19 stories free of charge because we believe everyone deserves access to trusted and critical information during the pandemic.

While we stand by this decision, it has undoubtedly affected our bottom line.

After nearly 150 years of reporting on our city, we don’t want to stop any time soon. With your support, we’ll be able to forge ahead with our journalistic mission.

If you believe in an independent, transparent, and democratic press, please consider subscribing today.

We understand that some readers cannot afford a subscription during these difficult times and invite them to apply for a free digital subscription through our Pay it Forward program.

The Free Press would like to thank our readers for their patience while comments were not available on our site. We're continuing to work with our commenting software provider on issues with the platform. In the meantime, if you're not able to see comments after logging in to our site, please try refreshing the page.

You can comment on most stories on The Winnipeg Free Press website. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or digital subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press print or digital subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

By submitting your comment, you agree to abide by our Community Standards and Moderation Policy. These guidelines were revised effective February 27, 2019. Have a question about our comment forum? Check our frequently asked questions.