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This article was published 6/9/2014 (2367 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Timing is everything. In the early '80s, while trio Elias, Schritt & Bell were enjoying tremendous success locally with their mellow, acoustic-based original songs sung in mellifluous harmonies, the music world was embracing harder rock.
"It was just the right time locally for what we were doing," recalls singer/songwriter Steve Bell, "but it was the wrong time internationally because music had gotten very testosterone; angry, edgy music. Beauty seemed to not be in vogue. All the record labels told us, 'Great sound, guys, but 10 years too late.' "
Together a mere three years, Elias, Schritt & Bell are remembered fondly for their exquisitely crafted music. The trio also served as the launching pad for Canada's most-acclaimed Christian contemporary recording artist, multiple Juno Award winner Steve Bell.
Tim Elias and John Schritt were childhood friends growing up in Winkler. By their early teens, they started singing together, making their debut accompanied by a bass-playing friend known as Foot in the audio-visual room at Garden Valley Collegiate. Elias played guitar, Schritt played sax and flute.
As the Mountain City Ramblers, the three played the rural summer-festival circuit. With no real musical ambitions at the time, Elias ended up in Winnipeg by the late '70s. A roommate and budding entrepreneur brought a tape of Elias and Schritt to the attention of respected local musician Bob Fuhr, who was working out of Roade Studios on Grosvenor Avenue. Fuhr tapped the two to sing on commercial jingles.
"I had to drag John kicking and screaming from Winkler. He didn't want to leave," says Elias. "We ended up working in the studio constantly and earned a lot of notoriety."
The two became fixtures at the studio. As the Chip Munks, they also sang in Fuhr's band Buffalo Chips. Around 1979, jingle writer Mike Rheault brought Steve Bell into Roade to sing on commercials, working often with Elias and Schritt.
Born in Calgary and raised in Drumheller, Alta., Bell had moved to Stony Mountain as a teen, where his father served as chaplain of the federal prison. Bell learned guitar from inmates and was already performing in the Alf Bell Family Singers, travelling to other churches to perform on weekends.
"We had these matching outfits, so it was like we were the Christian Partridge Family, and I was Keith Partridge," he laughs. "Singing was the glue of our family. Dad preached, and we sang."
Enrolled in music at Brandon University, Bell withdrew a week before classes began, taking a job at a Winnipeg music store and joining jazz-fusion band Dega.
Encountering the two Winkler singers at Roade Studios was serendipitous.
'I thought that if we hung on long enough we would get a record deal and be successful, but it just wasn't our time'
"They were just wild and wacky and had long hair and sang all this hippie music, which was foreign to me," says Bell.
The two singers introduced him to the music of artists such as Bruce Cockburn, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.
"I had no context for that kind of music," notes Bell. "I grew up listening to the Carpenters."
How the three came to perform together for audiences was purely by chance.
"John and I had a gig booked at the Norwood Hotel, but then John couldn't do it," says Elias. "So I asked Steve if he would do it with me. We rehearsed together as a duo. Then John came back, so we just added the third voice. The crowd went crazy for us."
Within weeks, the trio was drawing crowds to local clubs and lounges.
"For the time, we offered something different," says Schritt, "a little more folky with harmonies."
Elias remembers, "We were booked into a lounge called Step 33 at the Portage Avenue Northstar Hotel. It was a Monday night, and the manager was hassling us. He wanted us to wear matching uniforms. All we had that matched were white T-shirts and blue jeans. Then he looked out the door before the lounge even opened, and we had people lined up both up and down each of the 33 steps up to the room. He quickly changed his tune with us."
The trio played dates in southern Ontario with up-and-coming teenage comedian Jim Carrey.
"We would go over really well, but then Jim would come on and just slay everyone," recalls Elias. "He was amazing. No one could follow him."
The trio also toured with the Pointer Sisters.
"They sabotaged our set by preventing us from using the whole PA system," says Elias. "Our harmonies weren't being heard. So we told our backing band to leave, and the three of us sat on the edge of the stage and played and sang acoustically. You could hear a pin drop in that auditorium. The Pointer Sisters left us alone after that."
CBC financed the recording of an album of original material called Awakening. All the songs were written by Elias, except for two by Bell.
"Elias, Schritt & Bell was mostly Tim's band," says Bell. "He wrote 90 per cent of the songs, got most of the bookings and drove the vision."
Nonetheless, it was Bell who penned the group's most-requested song, Jenny. The trio held the top-selling local album spot for 14 months.
"I always believed there was only one pressing of the album," says Elias, "but I found out only recently that there had been 13 pressings. Obviously, it sold well. Where did that money go?"
Despite the local acclaim, all the major labels turned them down.
"It just wasn't what was selling, they told us," says Elias.
Recently married to Shirley, the former receptionist at Roade Studios, and not willing to endure months on the road, Schritt left the group in 1983.
"The reality was that besides the music, we didn't have a lot in common," says Schritt.
Elias and Bell formed the short-lived group Motet.
"That was our attempt at being new wave or punk," Elias chuckles. "We sucked."
Elias and Schritt ultimately moved into the recording business with Tim Elias Productions and Schritt's Channels Recording, enjoying long careers.
After scuffling around with a few local bands, Bell found his calling.
"I started thinking of myself as a failed bar musician," says Bell. "I wrote very little back then, but I started picking up the scriptures around this time, especially the psalms, and I heard melodies simultaneously. All of a sudden I was writing daily. In a six-month period I wrote probably 90 per cent of my first four solo albums. I started to think, 'Maybe I'm a songwriter,' but I didn't know what to do with it."
Eventually Bell and producer Dave Zeglinski formed Signpost Music in 1989 to record and distribute his albums exclusively. He also began performing his songs in churches across the province and eventually across the continent, including performances with orchestras.
"Basically, I'm a storyteller and a songwriter. I tell my stories, sing my songs and get off the stage."
"Steve is one of the nicest guys I ever met in my life," says Elias. "He was already religious back when we worked together. That was the background he came from. But we were all pretty squeaky-clean and innocent."
In hindsight, Bell muses, "Elias, Schritt & Bell was a sideline group that none of us initially took all that seriously. But the public response was so swift and enthusiastic it quickly became the group that gave me a permanent place in the Winnipeg music scene. I didn't think of myself as a career musician in those days. I was mostly killing time while I tried to figure out what I was supposed to do with my life. But those years brought so much affirmation that I began to consider if music wasn't my first obligation."
Burning Ember: The Steve Bell Journey, a feature documentary by Refuge 31 Films, premières Sept. 18 at Grant Park's Landmark Cinema. Advance tickets are available from stevebell.com.
"I don't want people to buy my music because I'm a Christian or not buy it because I'm a Christian," says Bell. "I want them to buy it because it's good music. Judge it on the merits of its music -- the melody and the lyrics, not the label."
Two years ago, Elias, Schritt & Bell reunited for a benefit for Marymound School.
"We had to change the song keys because our voices weren't the same anymore," notes Schritt, "but it was fun."
Adds Elias, "The room was full of our former fans, which made it a great experience."
The three remain friends.
"Back then," reflects Elias, "I thought that if we hung on long enough we would get a record deal and be successful, but it just wasn't our time."
Join John Einarson Saturday mornings from 10 a.m. to noon for My Generation on UMFM 101.5.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, music historian John Einarson is an acclaimed musicologist, broadcaster, educator, and author of 14 music biographies published worldwide.