We have a bunch of old James Muretich clippings that we've been sitting on, so let's carry on with this, the first of a two-parter about Calgary's musical history.
Saturday, March 21, 1987
Explore Calgary's rock 'n' roll legacy this weekend as Herald rock critic James Muretich documents a pivotal era in the city's music scene. Today, in the first of a two‑part series, he looks at the roots of rock in the late '50s, when Tommy Chong led The Shades and the world was relatively innocent. Sunday, Muretich follows the rise to success of The Stampeders and the full flowering of the hippie movement in 1970 when Janis Joplin and Festival Express rolled into town.
By James Muretich
(Herald staff writer)
Tommy Chong still vividly remembers being summoned over the telephone to Mayor Don Mackay's office in 1958. "I was told the mayor wanted to see me at his office. I thought `Great, what am I going to get, the key to the city?' " says Chong.
It wasn't likely since the future member of the comedy team Cheech & Chong was in one of Calgary's few rock 'n' roll bands at the time, The Shades. The group played a tough brand of rhythm 'n' blues and rock (Little Richard, Chuck Berry) in a city where such shows regularly ended up in fights.
"Many times I remember putting down my instrument, going into the crowd to kick ass and coming back on stage to play. We never did need a bouncer at our gigs. I could take a beating as well as the next guy," says Chong.
So, it was no surprise when Chong was greeted by a stern-faced Mayor Mackay (forced out of office a year later for improperly using 35 sacks of city-owned cement), the Chief of Police and the people who ran the Legion halls.
"They said legally we can't close you down, but we've had so much trouble after your dances we'd like it if you didn't play this holiday weekend.
"He made it clear it was a threat to get out of town without really saying it in so many words. I thought it was a great excuse to leave Calgary," says Chong.
Rock 'n' roll in Calgary was here to stay, but Chong wasn't. Still, there were other people in town purchasing Silvertone guitars at Sears and imitating their newfound musical heroes.
Like most cities in North America, many of Calgary's early rock acts — such as Keith Hitchner and The Bebops — came out of country music and its rockabilly offshoot, as had Elvis Presley.
In 1956, however, two events left the youth of Calgary all shook up: the appearance of Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan show and the release of the movie Rock Around The Clock, with its famous title track by Bill Haley and The Comets.
It wasn't long before city teenagers were heading out to dance to such bands as Lance Riley and The Renegades ("I remember Riley didn't know how to play his guitar, so he never plugged it in," says Greg Thomas of The Esquires).
It was the beginning of a surprisingly vibrant Calgary rock scene. Its age of innocence lasted from the days of Presley shaking his hips to the mid-'60s, when rock 'n' roll was a fresh frolic.
Gradually, innocence gave way to an age of experience when Calgary bands and clubs became more experimental, more creative, as did the '60s in general.
It was a strange yet fascinating musical trip that ultimately led some Calgarians to fame and fortune, such as The Stampeders or drummer Floyd Sneed who went from playing in an early '60s Calgary band, The Virtues, to bpcoming part of Three Dog Night.
Naturally, in the beginning, the music was mistrusted by the media. A 1956 Herald article on a Bill Haley concert commented: "youngsters flipped, spun, twirled and clapped to the boisterous thumping beat almost completely devoid of tune."
Still, by 1959, CFAC (then known as CHCT) radio had a rock 'n' roll program hosted by Stu Phillips which ran for 30 minutes weeknights and a full hour Saturday afternoon. And by 1960, when Calgary's population was just over 235,000, much of the musical emphasis had shifted from rockabilly and early rock numbers to the popular guitar instrumental style of the day.
Epitomizing the new sound were The Ventures, of Walk Don't Run, and a New Mexico band, The Fireballs, whose 1959 hit Torquay established them as one of the most popular bands here.
Both bands performed at a downtown ballroom called The Gardens which, along with Penley's Ballroom, held teen dances on Saturday afternoons. There were also dances at Bowness Park, though they were eventually shut down because of problems with drinking and fighting.
One of the most popular bands was The Esquires who had the twangy style down to a fine art. "Our big influences were The Fireballs, Ventures and The Shadows. We tried to duplicate their songs exactly by using echo machines and the same kind of guitars," says drummer Greg Thomas.
"We also worked hard on choreography and had about seven routines, all of them numbered so we could yell out to each other which one we were going to do."
The first local pop hit came courtesy of Mel Shaw who recorded the single Mean Lover on his own label, Sotan Records, in 1960. It featured Shaw talking over a honky-tonk beat ("I phone you up and say hi baby and you take too long to guess it's me") and made him a minor celebrity.
As a result, The Royals asked him to become their manager. Shaw accepted and soon changed both the band's name and image.
"I changed their name to The Masquerades and had them go undercover so people wouldn't know who they were. Now that I think of it, they looked like terrorists. They were totally in black and their faces were covered," says Shaw.
"One of the reasons they did it was," says Thomas, "everybody in the band was so ugly."
Another popular young act at the time was The Echos (later becoming The Echo Tones), anchored by future Stampeder Ronnie King. Like many other bands, it often turned community halls into sock-hop havens.
"There was a lot of competition to draw the bigger crowds," says King. "There was one time when we were playing the same night as Floyd Sneed's Virtues. So, to get more people out, we had the wrestler Sweet Daddy Siki — a big black dude with white hair — come out and sing Stagger Lee with us.
"I remember he was on stage, doing the song, when a fight broke out. He jumped off stage, pulled them apart and came back up to finish the song," says King.
Despite its growing popularity, the rock scene was largely ignored by the city's newspapers, leaving the field wide open for a fanzine called The Voice and published by Shaw.
"There wasn't one article on The Stampeders, for example, until 1971. So, The Voice was a forum, a voice for bands when there was none," he says.
However, radio and television cautiously tried to tap into this new market.
By 1962, CFAC radio had - deejay Don Lamb spinning rock 'n' roll platters. It also presented a TV show called Guys And Dolls, hosted by Bruce Northam and featuring The Masquerades and later The Stampeders as its house band.
CFCN had Don Wood as its premiere rock radio disc jockey and host of its TV show — Teen And Twenty. The house band was The Esquires and one of its camera operators was a young man named Ron Barge who went on to local fame as Buck Shot.
Wood, whose nickname was Whoopee (which led to such things as 'Whoopee's One To Watch' — i.e. his pick of the week), often took good-natured verbal shots at his on-air rival: "This is the show that comes on like a lion and not a Lamb."
The two programs were Calgary's answer to Dick Clark's American Bandstand and were exceedingly popular locally. In fact, a 1963 Teen Party sponsored by Teen And Twenty drew about 5,000 people to the Stampede Corral.
Teen And Twenty embodied the innocence of the era.
"It was good clean fun. We cut the audience off at age 19 to keep any potential problems down," says Wood. "We had a dress code and the Teen And Twenty Regulars, in their cardigan sweaters, who would help with things like running the soda fountain," says the television host who was barely older than many of his audience.
"I was 18, just having a good time playing the hits for people. Girls liked me but, to be honest, I was more into cars."
Guys And Dolls also had its own extravaganzas, including broadcasting one of its shows live from Frank Sisson's bowling alley, Triangle Bowl, while a 26-hour dance marathon was under way with 32 couples and eight dance bands.
"The police told me I was crazy to hold a marathon like that because we had some pretty rough gangs in the early '60s," says Sisson.
To ensure it went off smoothly, he assembled the "ringleaders" in his office and made them swear not to cause problems. "The cops told me afterward they didn't have one robbery that night."
As the '60s progressed, and with The Beatles and the British Invasion making an impact, a new sound and style emerged.
One of the popular new bands was The Paint Brushes, which had evolved out of The Echo Tones; it also featured Ronnie King on guitar.
"In 1963, The Paint Brushes was an original psychedelic idea," says King. "We would tape up our guitars and paint them so they lit up in the dark. We were the band that glowed in the dark."
"And when The Beatles were happening, I remember doing some Beatles' tunes and even wearing Beatles' wigs one night."
Meanwhile, the band King was soon to join, The Stampeders, was still known as The Rebounds. The Rebounds, formed by Rich Dobson and Brendan Lyttle, played their first dance in 1963. Their first recording was a radio spot for Kentucky Fried Chicken.
However, when the omnipresent Mel Shaw began managing the band and brought in King, the name was changed to The Stampeders in 1964. As usual, Shaw also had a new image for the group.
"Mel said we were going to be cowboys playing rock 'n' roll music," says King. So, they donned cowboy hats, began appearing on Guys And Dolls regularly (where Shaw booked bands for the princely sum of $10 a week).
The Stampeders cut their first single in 1965 — House Of Shake, their nickname for a local club called The Conquistador.
It was a pop-rocker in the early Liverpool style: "C'mon along baby, lay down your dollar. Get ready to scream and I mean holler. It's a swinging spot for the wide-awake, right in the heart of town, it's called the House of Shake."
But the times were a changing and when Woodward's stopped sponsoring the Teen And Twenty show in 1964, CFCN altered the program.
"We picked up on the girls in the cages from that period and, as a result, changed our name to Whoopee A Go Go," says Wood.
"We even started scalping clips of the latest British bands from American program tapes sent to CFCN, like the Red Skelton Show.
"We'd tell the kids they could see more on Red Skelton but, what the hell, we showed it first."
Rock 'n' roll even invaded the Stampede in 1965 when it held a Teen Fair on the grounds, featuring such acts as Jimmy Gilmer and The Fireballs, The Stampeders, The Esquires and The Skeptics.
An advertising supplement for Teen Fair promised "the best time for the beat music crowd in a long while."
However, the early innocence of the Calgary rock 'n' roll scene was slowly coming to an end: the Beatles were about to experiment with sitars and drugs. Local bands were changing too, with heavier acts like the Shades Of Blonde doing raucous versions of The Who's My Generation, burying the appeal of Ventures-style instrumentals.
So, it was only fitting that on New Year's Eve, 1965, Whoopee A Go Go — a symbol of the earlyyears went off the air for good.