Today we remember the sad case of B.B. Gabor, a man who seemed destined to be a big name until as with so many others, fate and real life intervened. B.B. passed away this day in 1990.
B.B. was born Gabor Hegedus, younger son of a wealthy Hungarian family. However, his family fled Hungary “one step ahead of the Russian tanks” during the Hungarian revolution, and landed in London. No longer rich or among the social elites, the Hegedus’s scraped by in a working class neighborhood. His brother Istavan says growing up, “I don’t recall that interest in music (of B.B.’s) … we did have a grand piano in Budapest, but I was the only one who had to practice it.” That changed though in Britain. B.B. caught a bit of the Beatlemania, and bought himself a 12-string guitar which he practiced relentlessly. Around the beginning of the ’70s, both brothers moved to Canada, settling in Toronto’s artsy district near the Queen Street strip famous for its nightclubs. “His musical contacts began to blossom,” Istavan says, “by 1973 he was playing in several bands.”
He became well-known on the city’s club scene and by 1979 signed to Anthem Records, a large indie company which at the time had Rush on its roster. By then he’d changed his name, the B.B. being a nod to B.B. King, while keeping the Gabor, as a tribute to the Gabor sisters and his family heritage. Anthem brought in house producer Terry Brown (who did a number of Rush albums) to produce his first, self-titled record. The album sounded right for the times and right for Toronto, a city quick to embrace new wave. The record featured quirky, generally upbeat-sounding songs that fit in well with the likes of Talking Heads, XTC or Elvis Costello (whom fellow Torontonian rocker Carole Pope compared him to) of the early-’80s. Gabor wrote or co-wrote nine of the ten songs (the other being a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”) and did the lead guitar as well as vocals; various other local studio musicians completed the band including guitarist David Bendeth who’d go on to tour with the Police and write songs for Jeff Beck and Joe Cocker. The record was described as the musings of “a wide-eyed immigrant surveying his surroundings with wonder and fright.” “Metropolitan Life”, a single from it and “Laser Love” illustrated that; his childhood fleeing Russian invaders still was on his mind with songs like “Nyet Nyet Soviet” and “Moscow Drug Club”.
The album was a hit in his hometown (it was the #40 album on the year-end charts at the local new wave station, CFNY) and moderately popular across the rest of Canada – “Nyet Nyet Soviet”, for instance, just barely missed the top 40 but stayed on the national singles chart for 15 weeks – and it earned him a nomination for a Juno as Most Promising New Artist. He lost that to Graham Shaw (who became no more famous than Gabor) , but so too did Bryan Adams! He did win the U-Know Award as Best Male Artist though, something voted on by the public.
However, that was about his career zenith. One of the few interviews with him (at least that are archived) from that time period referred to him as “frantically wild, moody and absurdly jocular.” His second album, Girls of the Future, was a bit more experimental and failed to connect, and he split up with his wife. He was also hospitalized for mental health reasons in 1981, which further illustrated his bipolar nature. His brother recalls picking him up at the hospital. “In hindsight, always 20-20, we should have noticed something was amiss. He had bouts of depression as a teenager.”
He moved to Vancouver, then for a short period in the mid-’80s, went to upstate New York to try to cut an album with Todd Rundgren producing, apparently doing a little session work for other artists Todd was working with then. But the album never came together (one track, “Celtic Cross”, was released on a re-release of his original record; it was from a demo his ex-wife had that was marked “ Rundgren”) and things went sour. He moved back to Toronto but found little market for his music and ended up killing himself in 1990 at the age of 41. B.B. Gabor, a sad reminder that sometimes our worst enemies lie within rather than rolling down our streets.