Montreal to Edmonton Sundown: China Doll and Corona

Gerry Wand earlier commented at length about his association with the late John Witmer. It struck me that he had a lot to say about the Canadian music scene in the 1970s and 1980s, having been the drummer for the rising Canadian recording act Fosterchild, among other bands. I asked if he would convey some of his recollections from those times. Here is one, as to how a Montreal-based musician starts to build his career in Vancouver and Edmonton:

I headed out from Montreal to the “Wild West” in 1977 to see what it had to offer. I was 26 years old, had no ties, and had heard so many stories about the majesty of the the Rocky Mountains, the power and smell of the ocean, and the thriving music scene.

Montreal was a great place to cut your teeth, much like Toronto. It was very competitive until Donna Summer and The Bee Gees pretty much destroyed the club circuit for us budding and up and coming rock stars. Disco had hit with a vengeance, and along with it came the mirrored balls, huge sound systems and dj’s…no one was interested in watching a bunch of scrappy looking Montreal thugs jam out on “Stormy Monday” for 45 minutes at a time anymore.

My great uncle John Roden, who was a parade drummer in the Black Watch Regiment, pretty much lit the fire for me at around the age of 12 years old, but drummers such as Jerry Mercer and Whitey Glan inspired me to seek out and try to master the drums.

I left my job at a Sears warehouse in Montreal, arranged through a friend to deliver a car, from Montreal to Calgary, for someone who purchased it at an auction. It was a black Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, complete with the big gold bird spread across the hood….What a Car !

I dropped the Firebird in Calgary, and took a train through the mountains towards Vancouver. The train that I was booked on left in the evening which worked out beautifully, because when I woke up early the next morning, we were in the middle of the mountains and got to experience quite a bit of the trip during daylight.

After only a few days of pounding the pavement in Vancouver, I was lucky to find a job selling jeans in what was called at the time a Thrifty’s jean store. The timing couldn’t have been better, since most of the money that I had saved up for the trip was guzzled up by the Firebird.

I was getting pretty settled in out there after a few months, until I met up with a bunch of guys who backed up a singer/piano player named J.C. Stone. They persisted, and finally talked me into doing what they called “the A circuit of prairie clubs”. That included places like the China Doll Restaurant in Saskatoon and the notorious Corona Hotel in Edmonton, a far cry from being considered the “A” circuit, as I soon found out.

I had met Sgt. Don Bailey before J.C. Stone, when I first arrived in B.C. Sgt. Don Bailey was a Vietnam war-hardened and decorated U.S. Marine. He was mixing some local bands in Vancouver and building his own sound system, with the intention of starting up his own sound and light company.

I got to know Don quite well and, as the story goes, he was a special ops guy in the Marines and was wounded by a sniper’s bullet while they were actually on the hunt for that particular sniper. The sniper had been living in the trees in a forest area next to a field and was causing havoc with the US troops in the area.

He picked up on Don, who was positioned in the tall grass, and shot him in the back. While recovering from his wounds in the U.S., he received notice that he was to return to Vietnam for more action. He passed on that idea and decided that being involved with rock bands in Canada would be a better job. The last I heard, he took advantage of Carter’s amnesty plan and went home.

I don’t remember all of the members in The J.C. Stone band as it was called, but John Harrington and Lee Pence were on guitars and Bob Johnson aka J.C. Stone was on piano and vocals, while I was on drums. Sgt. Don Bailey was our sound person. J.C. Stone had a single out called “Carrie’s Gone” and we were his support band for this ” prairie circuit tour”.

I don’t think we made it past the sound check at the China Doll. I remember the owner being pretty upset when he heard us play a couple of songs after we got set up the afternoon we arrived there, following about a two day drive. I knew then and there that I should have stayed in beautiful B.C. I guess the booking agent sold us as a band that covered Tom Jones, Paul Anka and Barry Manilow songs, just to make his 15%. I don’t remember and probably don’t want to remember who the agent was. “Rocky Mountain Way” and “Walk This Way” were just a little too strong for the China Doll.

After being fired from there, we made our way to Calgary, rented a couple of motel rooms, and waited until our booking agent found us somewhere to go, which ended up being a two week stint at the Corona Hotel, in Edmonton.

Calgary in 1977 looked like the moon, in the dead of winter. It was just white and barren. There was no big development going on at the time. It seemed like a small, snow white city, in the middle of flat surrounding space. It just looked barren in the snow, just like the moon.

We managed to get through the two weeks at the Corona, but decided to part ways at the end of it. Most of the band went back to Vancouver, except for our sound person, Sgt. Don Bailey, who went down to Calgary, while I stayed up in Edmonton. I really had nothing to go back to B.C. for, as I had quit my day job and given up my apartment to do this fabulous tour.

OK, so now I’m in survival mode: I have about $100.00 in my pocket, my drums, and a duffel bag with some clothes in it.

Edmonton turned out to be a great and supportive place. I had met some musicians during my two week adventure at the Corona Hotel, one of them being a bassist and vocalist named Randy Lloyd. Randy was putting a band together at the time, so I started doing a little rehearsing with him and a guitarist named Shaun Cooney, but I still needed to make a living, so I started doing some casual wedding gigs and one night fill-in engagements with different people around town.

When I think back now, Randy Lloyd was probably a big part in helping me make some of those connections so I could at least feed myself while we worked on his and Sean’s project. Randy later was a member of One Horse Blue, a band that achieved significant success in Canadian country rock music, releasing several albums. Randy passed away far too soon, in 1987. Throat cancer, I heard. Shaun Cooney recently returned to playing music, after a thirty year hiatus, as a member of Edmonton’s Big Daddy and The Blues Hounds.

In Edmonton at the time, Sundown Recorders was the place to go when you needed to get your songs out. The studio was owned by Wes Dakus, who had been quite famous in the 1960s, particularly in western Canada, with his instrumental group, Wes Dakus and The Rebels. Wes later had a lot to do with the success of One Horse Blue. A lot of great music came out of that studio, by such artists as Hoyt Axton, One Horse Blue, Bobby Curtola, Gary Fjellgaard and Fosterchild, the band with which I was later associated. The studio operated from 1972 to 1987. A lot of its audio recordings ended up being donated to the Provincial Archives of Alberta.

There was a restaurant near Sundown Recorders, frequented by a lot of musicians, who went there to grab a cheap burger, gossip, and just generally talk about what’s going on in the local music scene. One conversation led to another, and I was told that if I was really stuck, I could crash out on the bench in the storage room at the back of Sundown. That’s one thing that I admired and still admire about the people of Alberta. They will always give you a hand up, if you are truly sincere about getting up.

Sundown was my home on occasion, and a British flag was used as my comforter. There, messages were left for me, mostly from country bands looking for a drummer to fill in for a casual engagement, or for a short stint on the road. The road trips were good, because along with them came a real bed, sometimes meals, and usually a TV.

When I think back to what we valued then as musicians, our economic and comfort expectations were quite modest. The music was everything.


About brucelarochelle
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