Sunday 3 July 2016

CCPS Miscellany: Rock Retro - 1966-72

Here's the second part of James Muretich's early history of Calgary's music scene, with some great info about one of our favourite early bands, the 49th Parallel.

Rock Retro

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. Saturday, in the first of a two-part series, he looked at the roots of rock in the late ’505. Today, he concludes with 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)

Calgary may not have been a music mecca like London, but the swinging Sixties still affected the local scene as rock’s early innocence gave way to an age of new experiences just as surely as The Beatles had gone from“ She Loves You" to singing about turning people on.

It was a time when the Calgary rock scene grew up, step by step.

By the time the Sixties had run its course, spilling over into the early ’70s, two expatriate bands had achieved international success, many other local acts released impressive records, hippiedom arrived and the city experienced its own mini-Woodstock.

A teen-oriented club like Surfers A Go Go was a sign of things to come. Located in downtown Calgary, it had a 16-foot cut-out of girl in a bikini straddling its door.

“You had to walk through her legs to enter and then you could either take the stairs or use a slide to the basement,” says owner Dave Horodezky.

Spanning the mid-’6os, Surfers A Go Go was one of the spots that, like the Blind Onion and Haunted House, catered to the youthful rock crowd. All of them were non-alcoholic, though many patrons brought their own libation.

“The police turned a blind eye, as long as you weren’t bootlegging,” says Blind Onion owner Harris Dvorkin.

The scene could and did get rowdy regularly.

“It got pretty crazy sometimes at Surfers,” says Horodezky. “There were nights when a bouncer would send someone up the slide. And there was one Stampede where we had a midnight bash with 300 people in the place, but there were at least 3,000 people in the street Outside. So, we piped music out to them. Eventually, the city had to come with firehoses to disperse the crowd.”

In 1966, Calgary was still conservative in its lifestyle compared to the drug-influenced hippie scene in San Francisco. As well, most bands were doing cover material rather than original compositions.

However, the scene had altered enough to make The Esquires - which had formed in 1958 and originally modelled itself after The Ventures - feel out of step with the times.

“The changes in music became disillusioning for us. I remember when The Beatles first came out, I didn’t like them because I thought their harmonies were off,” says Esquires drummer Greg Thomas.

The Esquires had recorded a series of singles on the Barry label in the early ’6os and decided to head to Los Angeles in a last-ditch attempt to make it big.

“I remember we were in one studio and The Rolling Stones were in another one re-dubbing some things from the night before. We were so green that when the engineer asked us what kind of sound we  wanted, we said, ‘Well, sort of like what Phil Spector did with the Righteous Brothers,’ ” says Thomas.

In the end, The Esquires were so disappointed with the outcome that the songs were never released.

Still, the beat went on in Calgary.

“Calgary had some amazing talent. There was a buzz in this town like no other town I went to, and we travelled coast to coast,” says guitarist Danny Lowe who was the leader of the popular Shades Of Blonde, which later became 49th Parallel.

“Back then people thought some of the best music happening in the world was right here in town,” says Neil MacGonnigal, an interested spectator during the era.

Certainly, the Shades Of Blonde, with their dyed hair and bell-bottom trousers, was a local band that was happening.

“Danny Lowe was just a downright, filthy rock ’n’ roll guitarist. He knew how to make his guitar honk,” says musician Dennis Planidin.

The Shades of Blonde even had their screaming legions, a la Beatles.

“We played at some event Hudson’s Bay sponsored downtown and it was just like The Beatles,” says Lowe. “We were literally mobbed and we thought, ‘Hey, we’re happening now.’

Mel Shaw, who was managing The Stampeders, thought the same thing.

“The Shades Of Blonde were starting to become more popular than The Stampeders in ’66. So, we decided to try our luck out East. I knew that the lethargy of playing in one city would kill The Stampeders if they stayed.

“That was the trouble with Calgary,” says Shaw. “The bands playing here would become really good, but once they got to the tap there was nowhere to go but down.”

So, the six-man band, Shaw, his wife and two kids piled into a 1956 Cadillac, with a 10-foot U-Haul trailer in tow, and set out for Eastern Canada.

Success didn’t exactly embrace The Stampeders immediately.

“When we were recording Be A Woman for M-G-M in New York (in 68), I used to give blood for five dollars just so I could send postcards back home telling people that I was having a great time in New York while I was actually eating salami on dry buns,” says bassist Brendan Lyttle, who quit the group in 1969 but later rejoined them as their road manager.

It wasn’t until 1971 that The Stampeders (then a trio) enjoyed their international hit Sweet City ,Woman and returned to Calgary to perform at the Jubilee Auditorium after a five-year hiatus.

The other major success story to come out of Calgary was The Original Caste.

The group’s creative core, Bruce Innes and Dixie Lee Stone, met at The Conquistador club and soon became musical and marriage partners with the formation of the North Country Singers, later renamed The Original Caste.

Innes was a highly respected guitarist and former college chum of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, while Dixie Lee was Calgary’s best-known female singer, having appeared on such TV shows as Guys And Dolls and Calgary Safety Roundup as well releasing her first solo single in ’63 Come To Me - on Shaw’s Sotan label.

Unfortunately, there were only a few places for their folk-oriented material in Calgary, such as the Pig’s Eye and the Bombay Bicycle Club. A singer by the name of Joni Anderson (later known as Joni Mitchell) also performed at these spots while attending art college here.

They, too, took to the road and ended up in Los Angeles with a record deal.

“After One Tin Soldier became a big hit, Quality Records in Toronto sent us a telegram in LA. saying they had heard one of the band members was Canadian," says Dixie Lee. "We said, 'Hell, we're all from Canada.'

"That's why we left the country... because nobody knew  or cared about their own musicians."

Another band that left the city in pursuit of success was Shade of Blonde, which, after arriving in Los Angeles, changed its name to 49th Parallel.

“We ended up staying at the Hollywood Centre, which was THE place to live if you were in a band,” says Lowe. “We used to eat breakfast with The Doors at a place called Stan’s Restaurant and I’d be in the parking lot at the Hollywood Centre playing my acoustic guitar, and Janis Joplin. would come over and sing along. At the time, she was just another girl - of sorts.”

49th Parallel sounded like a cross between The Rolling Stones and B.T.O. and was signed by RCA, which released its 1967 debut single, Labourer.

“The single was picked by the Gavin Report (an important music trade report in the U.S.), along with a Rolling Stones song and Sonny Cher’s The Beat Goes On, as a guaranteed hit. Oh well, two out of three picks ain’t bad,” says Lowe.

By the time 49th Parallel returned to Calgary for good in ’69, a lot had changed.

Clubs like Fryar’s Den, Piccadilly Square, Haunted House and the San Francisco Streetcar had come and gone. The latter had featured a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge that people could walk across to board a streetcar that then moved back and forth over the dance floor while the band performed on it.

Rock radio had also finally hit Calgary in 1967 when CKXL became a top-40 rock, 24-hours-a-day station. It sponsored battles of the bands where the best groups became known as XL bands and had their gigs promoted on air.

One of the city’s most popular bands from 1968 to the early ’7os was Happy Feeling. It released a self-titled album, four singles and even had its own Calgary TV show, called Happy Feeling, which featured the band performing both in the studio and in film clips (sometimes using slow-motion or fast-action footage) shot on location in the city.

“We had a real light image, but I think Happy Feeling was really more of a white black group in that we did songs like Sweet Inspiration and Rascals’s material,” says singer Jim Aiello. “We toured with Roy Orbison and he told us that we had something he hadn’t heard in a long time.”

The group signed with the Avco/Embassy label in the US. and Barry in Canada. In 1968, Happy Feeling travelled to Clovis, New Mexico, to record with Norman Petty who had recorded Buddy Holly’s classics and managed him as well.

The Clovis connection remains one of the most intriguing aspects of the Alberta music scene in the ’6os.

It stemmed from a friendship between George Tomscoe of The Fireballs (a popular New  Mexico act that often performed in Alberta) and Edmonton’s Wes Dakus of Wes Dakus and the Club 93 Rebels. Dakus ended up recording in Clovis, and other Alberta acts followed.

“Going to Clovis was like walking into a scene from The Last Picture Show,” says Aiello. “It was a little town and we ended up recording in the same garage that Buddy Holly did all his material in.”

Unfortunately, Petty’s hit-making days were over. Happy Feeling’s album sounded dated, despite some strong soul-pop material, and the group failed to make it big outside Alberta.

Gainsborough Gallery also suffered the same fate when it recorded two singles with Petty in 1970: Life Is A Song and Ev’ry Man Hears Different Music.

“We were less than moderately successful with those records and I think that if we had been in Los  Angeles, with a more free-thinking producer, we could’ve been very successful,” says Planidin, who played with Gainsborough Gallery from 1967 to 1972 under the name of Denny Paul.

“Stylistically, we were into a jazz-rock thing. We had 20 tunes and could do a four-hour gig with those.

“We opened for Country Joe and The Fish and blew them off the stage. They had the record, but we had the band.”

Gainsborough Gallery also opened the Apollo in 1969, a posh rock club located in the old Prophetic Bible Institute on 8th Avenue SW. used by former Alberta Premier William Aberhart for his Sunday radio broadcasts. The irony of a rock club operating out of a former Bible Institute earned the Apollo an article in Time magazine.

With its history, pipe organ, balconies and two-tier stage, it was indeed an impressive nightspot and hosted such acts as The Kinks and the Guess ,Who as well as numerous local and regional bands.

Apollo owner Horodezky remembers the scene changed dramatically in ’69.

“It was like the beat generation suddenly came to Calgary. There were never any problems at the Apollo, unlike Surfers, because people were into smoking grass rather than boozing, and booze was what brought out the ornery element.

“We even threw open the place, at times during the week so that the kids in sandals, army jackets and jeans had a place to crash,” says Horodezky.

Local bands also began experimenting more.

Richter Ten (formerly Adanac Reply) scored an original 30-minute concerto and opened for Iron Butterfly at the Corral.

“The bands were becoming far more original, even psychedelic and were doing pretty off-the-wall lyrics,” says keyboardist Miles Jackson of Richter Ten. “Around that time it seemed like everybody on the rock scene was doing acid.”

The Stampede also got back into rock in 1969 with the three-day long Summertown, which included
Canadian rock bands.

“It was a response to CKXL’s criticism of the lack of things for young people to do at Stampede,” says Ken Staroszik, one of the organizers.

“The next year it expanded to seven days and we had acts like Edward Bear and Chilliwack. It was a time when 'we thought we could do anything.”

The full flowering of the local hippie movement and its attendant rock scene came in July of 1970, when the Festival Express rolled into McMahon Stadium. Featuring such acts as Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, The Band, Sha Na Na, Montreal’s Mashmakhan and various local acts, such as Gainsborough Gallery, it was Calgary’s Woodstock, with music spread over two days and 24 hours.

Bill Musselwhite summed it up in the Herald as “a two-day high in a different world, a remarkably good world.”

Festival Express acts also went to the Apollo for an all-star jam session.

However, the euphoria was short-lived. In 1971, the liquor laws changed the legal drinking age from 21 to 18, effectively killing the non-alcholic, youth-oriented clubs.

Soon, With bar bands pushing liquor rather than creative boundaries and With the hippies gradually going into hiding or simply disappearing, an era in Calgary’s rock history came to an end.

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