March 24 – Myles Looked Miles To The South For Hit Inspiration

The 1990s were a good decade to be a Canadian female singer! Celine Dion’s heart – and voice – would go on to become an AOR superstar, Shania Twain set sales records on country charts, Sarah McLachlan created Lilith Fair and essentially a whole new genre of music (“adult alternative”) and Alanis Morrissette created the anthem for spurned women everywhere in the form of the 30-million selling Jagged Little Pill. But before all that, another Ontario lady with the initials “AM” had her moment in the sun – Alannah Myles. She hit #1 in the U.S. this day in 1990 with her song about Elvis, “Black Velvet”. It had been a top 10 hit at home the year before, but curiously it did better elsewhere – not only did it top the charts in the U.S., but it did in Switzerland, Sweden and some other lands and got to #2 in the UK and New Zealand! However, it still won the Single of the Year Juno Award in Canada.

Although women might have been doing it for themselves then, Myles owed some to her then boyfriend Christopher Ward. Ward was a well-known radio DJ turned TV VJ in Canada, and had minor success as a singer himself. He helped finance her demo record, get Atlantic Records to sign her and wrote this massive hit. He was inspired after visiting Graceland in Memphis on the 10th anniversary of Elvis’ death as part of his TV job. Atlantic also got a country singer, Robin Lee, to do a country version of it, but Myles was the one which hit paydirt. According to ASCAP, it was the most played song on radio in the U.S. in ’90 and it won her the Grammy for best rock performance by a female. Her debut album went diamond at home and platinum in the U.S. Her career went downhill somewhat after; she kept fluctuating between hard rock and adult contemporary pop which probably didn’t help the marketers at Atlantic. Although she did score a #1 song in Canada in ’92 (“Song Instead of a Kiss”) ; her website seems to indicate she’s not been very involved in performing or recording for the last eight years. Thus she is considered a One Hit Wonder elsewhere. But when your one hit is the biggest hit ever written about Rock’s biggest star… that’s not bad!


March 20 – Canada’s Diamond In The Rough

One of Canada’s great musical secrets put out one of their best works 34 years ago. Ending the ’80s by foreshadowing the growing roots rock or Americana movement of the ’90s, Toronto alt-rock/country band Blue Rodeo released their sophomore album, Diamond Mine on this day in 1989.

The group fronted by duel-guitarists/vocalist Greg Keelor and Jim Cuddy had built up an impressive following around their hometown through the past five years by way of almost constant shows, and had established themselves nationally with their 1987 debut, Outskirts. Diamond Mine built upon that by drawing on, and expanding, the strengths of their live shows and of the first album – energy, melodic songmanship and an seeming casualness.

An album designed for CD, it rambles through 57 minutes of material, with many of the songs segued together with piano ramblings from their original keyboardist Bob Wiseman. The result gives the effect of a live piece recorded straight to tape, slightly looser than their debut but less-shiny than their next work (1990’s Casino). The band left their Toronto comfort zone to record it in New Orleans, with the help of fellow-Torontonian producer Malcolm Burn (who’d later win a Grammy for his work with Emmylou Harris and had just finished off working on a solo album for his friend, super-producer Daniel Lanois).

The album had what would become the band’s trademark mixture of slower, usually hurting pop ballads sung by Jim Cuddy, such as “House of Dreams” and “Girl of Mine” with more uptempo, country-rockers typically fronted by Keelor, such as the title track and “How Long?” (this one actually with Cuddy on the lead and Keelor adding harmony) , both top 30 hits in Canada. The duo’s writing skills have seldom shone brighter than on tracks like the witty breakup song “Florida,” the heartfelt country ballad “The Dime Store Greaser and the Blonde Mona Lisa” or the protesting “God and Country.”

Reviews at home were good, although it went largely unnoticed elsewhere. Rolling Stone did write about them a little while later, noting that they are “often compared to another Canadian institution, The Band” and adding they “developed a strong roots sound that draws from a charismatic mix of American pop, country and blues” and name-dropped Graham Parsons, the Everly Brothers and even the Beatles in their story. Allmusic would later grade it 3-stars and consider it “Dylanesque.”

The work paid off -at home. It got to #4 on the Canadian charts (and actually hit #2 on country charts while getting airplay on rock radio simultaneously) and would soon hit triple platinum, one of 11 platinum or better albums they’ve racked up domestically. The following spring, Blue Rodeo won the Juno (Canadian Music Award) for best group on the strength of the CD. Outside though, like Tim Horton’s coffee and maple glazeds, it remains pretty much an unknown pleasure.

March 18 – Bad Back But Heart Of Gold

Having a bad back isn’t fun, but they say every cloud has a silver lining. For Neil Young, it turned out to be a “gold” lining, in more ways than one!

Neil hurt his back sometime early in 1971, and that made it difficult to stand up for long periods of time, and limited his ability to play his electric guitar. So he decided to sit down and take it easy, literally and musically. He began writing and playing some acoustic material on his old acoustic six-string. And that turned out to become Harvest, his fourth album. Which in turn was his only #1 album (in both Canada and the U.S) and at 4X platinum, with about six million or more copies sold, his biggest-seller. Although it contained the controversial song “Alabama”,( which piled upon “Southern Man” led Lynyrd Skynyrd to rebuff him with “Sweet Home Alabama”) and “The Needle and the Damage Done”, much of the album’s success was due to its first single. “Heart of Gold” hit #1 in the U.S. this day in 1972. As with the album, it remains his only chart-topping single in both countries. And it made the top 10 in Britain and New Zealand as well, even charting in Japan.

The weary, country-ish song was written for his then-love, actress Carrie Snodgress, with whom he had a five year relationship and a son. Neil had being playing a slightly different version of it, on piano, at some concerts before he recorded it in Nashville, but seems like the Tennessee session got it right. He played harmonica and acoustic guitar on it but added in some top-flight Nashville session players on it like Ben Keith on steel guitar and Kenny Buttery on drums. And, the cherry on the top, he happened to run into James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, who happened to be in town taping a Johnny Cash TV show, and they went back to Neil’s place and sang backing vocals.

The song was obviously right for the times, and has endured what’s more. CBC Radio in Canada ranked it as the third best Canadian song of all-time back in 2005 and Rolling Stone has consistently listed it among their 500 greatest songs of all-time, noting it “signaled the arrival of a new countrified prettiness that would come to define the laid-back Seventies.” But one person who wasn’t thrilled with it was Neil himself. He said “the song put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch.”

Another was Bob Dylan, who says in general he likes Neil and his music but he felt it was a rip-off of his style. He’s said “the only time it bothered me that someone sounded like me was when I was living in Phoenix, Arizona in about ’72 and the big song at the time was ‘Heart of Gold’…(I thought) s*** that’s me. If it sounds like me, it should as well be me!” That considered, it’s perhaps ironic that “Heart of Gold” was replaced at #1 by America’s “Horse With No Name”… a song many people complained was a total rip-off of Neil Young’s sound!

March 17 – St. Patty’s Favorite Band Sing About Noah’s Fave Animal

Seeing as how it’s St. Patrick’s Day, why not have a listen to a “spot of the Irish”? And although we’ve looked plenty of times at acts like U2, the Cranberries and Sinead O’Connor here, none of them go so far as to reference their homeland in their name. Enter the Irish Rovers. Who, oddly enough were from Canada. Anyway, on this day in 1968 they were sitting at #3 on that country’s most influential singles chart of the day, the CHUM chart, with a song that would become their trademark and an American hit as well – “The Unicorn.”

The Irish Rovers formed in Toronto but had its roots firmly in Eire. It was initially almost entirely comprised of guys who’d been born there but moved to Canada while young (although the original lineup did include one Scottish ex-pat for variety.) Chief among them ere the Millars, brothers George and Will and a cousin, Joe. Their mom suggested the name, taken from an Irish legend about a ship called the Irish Rover. It fit them well since the lads played essentially traditional sounding but lively Irish folk music, using mostly acoustic instruments like guitars, mandolins, fiddles and of course, accordions.

Their reputation as a fun live act grew in Canada through the ’60s and they landed a deal with Decca Records. Their lucky charm, as it were, which led them to a pot o’ gold was finding this song written by Shel Silverstein. Silverstein was a multi-talented Chicago man who was a frustrated baseball hopeful. He said, as a teen in the ’40s “I’d much rather have been a good baseball player…but, I couldn’t play ball. Luckily the girls didn’t want me. Not much I could do about that. So I started to draw and write.” And that he could do well. He soon became a popular creator of comics (notably for Playboy) and writer of poems and children’s stories. One of which was “The Unicorn”. He also dabbled in music, and wrote other songs that became hits including “A Boy Named Sue” by Johnny Cash and today’s other feature bit , by Dr. Hook.

The Unicorn” was a semi-humorous, semi-sad poem about the Bible story of Noah’s ark. As Shel figured, God told Noah “go build me a floatin’ zoo” and to be sure to get two of every animal before the rains set in. But alas, the unicorns, “loveliest of all” the animals were too foolish to get on the ship, preferring to play and splash in the growing puddles. Eventually Noah had to sail off without them – hence today “you won’t see no unicorn.”

Although ostensibly less-Irish than most of their material (typical of their other songs on the album was one called “Pat of Mullingar”) it was their ticket to stardom. The fun-sounding ditty with the sing-along chorus appealed to kids and adults and sounded folkie enough to make inroads with the Greenwhich Village crowds. Soon they were appearing on American TV shows like the Smothers Brothers and the song took off and was certified gold there. By 1971, they had their own Canadian variety TV show (which was shown in quite a few foreign markets including Ireland) which attracted guests of the caliber of Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell.

The Unicorn” went to #7 in the U.S., #4 nationwide in Canada and #5 in Ireland, their only hit there. Eventually it would sell an incredible eight million copies. Since then they’ve only had one more notable hit, “Wasn’t that a Party” in 1980, but they’ve kept on roving and singing, putting out an album as recently as last year and remain a fairly popular live act. More remarkably, George Millar is still one of them and a son of a different Millar, Ian is in them. All of which has the Irish Emigration Museum have an exhibit featuring them as one of “Ireland’s greatest exports.”

March 2 – Marsden Embodies The Spirit Of Radio

Happy birthday to a Canadian broadcasting legend – David Marsden. Marsden, aka “The Mars Bar”, aka “Dave Mickie” is rather timeless, after all! Happy birthday to David, a personal friend of mine here.

It’s not often we particularly notice let alone laud, a presenter of music rather than a creator of it, but then again it’s not every day a radio personality is enshrined in the Rock & Roll hall of Fame, has a hit single written about him and is honored in his country’s Parliament. All of the above apply to Marsden.

A friend of Richard Manuel (who’d later go on to be in The Band) as a youth, Marsden managed his band The Revols while at an age most of his contemporaries would be in school still. Soon after he managed to get a gig on radio in Ontario and quickly became one of the most popular DJs in the country, first as the speed-talking “Dave Mickie” then under his own name. He moved to Montreal just in time to be able to hang out with John and Yoko during their bed-in then returned to Toronto to be the first to spin Dark Side of the Moon (coincidentally enjoying its 50th anniversary this week) on air in North America, as detailed by the Toronto Star this week.  By the late-’70s he took over a tiny, cash-strapped suburban dance station, CHIC, and turned it around by making it into one of the continent’s two main, ground-breaking alternative rock stations – CFNY. We’ve often noted Canada, and particularly Toronto were particularly responsive to new wave and alt rock long before the rest of the continent; CFNY was why. Nicknamed “The Spirit of Radio”, Rush wrote a song about it…and featured a cartoon Marsden in the video when they made one. Soon that station boasted over half a million listeners and was breaking artists like Depeche Mode, Psychedelic Furs, The Smiths and REM long before most people had heard of them and artists like Julian Cope (here’s a good one from him released this day in 1987) The Stranglers and The Art of Noise who never did quite break through in a big way on this side of the ocean, not to mention local acts like Blue Rodeo and the Tragically Hip.

Since then, he formed an internet radio station in the 90s (!) long before it was a concept most people grasped, has been featured in a documentary about radio personalities, I Am What I Play, and is now running a new internet station playing a mix of classic ’80s alt-rock and new material.  It all stems from his passion for music and dual philosophies regarding it : there’s only two types of music, “good” and “bad”, and “be curious.” Concepts we could use a lot more of in broadcasting these days. Moreover, Marsden has remained constantly energetic and welcoming to everyone who crosses paths with him. We wish him many more years of stuffing “mars bars” in our ears!

February 27 – The First Of Gord’s Gold

If you could read the Billboard charts, you’d have seen that Canadian newcomer Gordon Lightfoot was doing pretty well 52 years ago today. His first American hit, “If You Could Read My Mind” had peaked at #5 this day in 1971. Earlier the song had hit the top of the charts in his homeland, where the folkster was already a bit of a big deal.

The song was from Gord’s fifth album, but first on the Reprise label who’d spared no expense in the recording of it in L.A. Kris Kristofferson, Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks and John Sebastian are among the other musicians who appear on the record, but for this song a more basic arrangement was used, with Gord on guitars – often 12-strings – and a number of violins arranged by Nick Decaro.

Simple in production and obvious in theme, the lyrics though showcased Lightfoot’s talents with words and crafting memorable melodies. The song was inspired by his own divorce and written “sitting in a vacant Toronto house.” One might surmise with lyrics like “I’d walk away like a movie star, who gets burned in a three-way script” that the first Mrs. L left him for another man. Probably her loss but the public’s gain.

The album it came from was initially titled Sit Down Young Stranger, but Reprise quickly renamed it If You Could Read My Mind when the single became a worldwide hit. He admitted in a documentary that he fought the label tooth and nail over the title change – but once it quickly tripled in sales he relented and learned not to second-guess them.  The album got to #12 in the U.S., where he was being compared to a northern Bob Dylan, and #20 in Australia. At home, it hit #8 during its run of nearly a year-and-a-half on the sales chart. The record also contained his go at “Me and Bobby McGee” which did well on country charts.

The Dylan comparison is all the more apt since Bob himself has commented that when he “first heard a Lightfoot song” he “wished it would last forever.” Since then he’s had some 15 top 40 hits (including “Sundown”, an American #1 song) and a double-platinum greatest hits album at home and been awarded the Governor General’s Award, the highest honor for Canadian entertainers, as well a similar accolade from Queen Elizabeth.

And if you find yourself thinking, “that song sounds vaguely familiar even though I haven’t heard Gord singing it for awhile”, you may be right. It’s been covered by artists including Liza Minelli, Glen Campbell and, most powerfully, Johnny Cash since. Then there’s Whitney.

In 1987, Gordon had sued Michael Masser, not exactly a household name, for plagiarism. Masser had composed the song “The Greatest Love of All”, a platinum selling single for Whitney Houston the year before. Lightfoot explained “it really rubbed me the wrong way. I don’t want the present day generation to think that I stole my song from him.” Eventually he dropped the lawsuit as he thought it was doing more to harm Whitney than the actual writer; at that point Masser apologized publicly for the faux pas. Ironically, Duran Duran have said that the chorus of “Save a Prayer” was loosely based on the melody to “If You Could Read My Mind” as well, but didn’t get sued. Perhaps ‘fessing up is the best policy…because who knows if people could read your mind?

February 7 – Forgotten Gems : Cowboy Junkies

Seeing as how it’s February and Valentine’s Day is just a week away, let’s recall a happy song that might be highly relevant to many this month as the Forgotten Gem. The surprisingly upbeat and optimistic “Anniversary Song” by Cowboy Junkies was on the charts this week in 1994.

We say “surprisingly” because the Toronto-based band were known for being low-fi, low-key and rather sombre (to say the least) sounding, mainly because of their major label debut, The Trinity Sessions. As the L.A. Times put it, up until this point, the Cowboy Junkies made “hushed” music that would have “warmed a librarian’s heart.” For their fourth RCA album, Pale Sun, Crescent Moon, guitarist/songwriter Michael Timmins said “we definitely wanted to bring the volume up a bit,” adding “we’ve been moving away from The Trinity Sessions feel for awhile.” But, his sister Margo, the singer, might not have been initially keen on the idea. “She’s very mellow and mild,” he said of her, “and she’d prefer to sing ballads.”

Preferences aside, she, and another brother, drummer Peter (as well as bassist Alan Anton and touring member Ken Myhr who also contributed heavily to the record) went for it, and embraced not only the slightly more rock-ish sound and the theme. Margo described that as “there is love and there is all that conspires to steal love away.”

While there are some dark songs on the album that dealt with the latter, “Anniversary Song” is a pure, happy love song perhaps best summed up by the verse in it “have you ever seen a sight as beautiful as a face in a crowd of people that lights up just for you.”

The public seemed to be willing to embrace the more upbeat Junkies described by allmusic as “refreshed and revitalized.” The album itself went to #25 at home in Canada, and became their fourth straight gold (or platinum) record, but the single hit #10, at the time their best-showing on Canadian singles charts. It also made the Billboard alternative rock chart south of the border , rising to #28.

If you’re wondering what the various Timmins’ sound like these days, people Down Under and in the northeastern corner of the U.S. can find out soon. They have a new album out this spring and are on tour, and have shows this week in Adelaide and Perth, Australia and in April they begin doing a number of shows in the U.S. Midwest and Middle Atlantic states.

February 6 – 50 Years On, Politicians Still Love Those Tin Soldiers

One of the great anti-war anthems of the Vietnam era made itself known to American protestors, a few months after it had been a hit in Canada. “One Tin Soldier” by the Original Caste debuted on Billboard‘s top 40 this day in 1970. It eventually rose to #34 there (after being a #6 hit in Canada and #1 on that country’s then-most popular radio station, CHUM Toronto) . A similar cover of the song by the also gone-and-forgotten band Coven would scrape up to #27 a year later; that was recorded for the Billy Jack movie, but quickly pulled from circulation by that band’s label due to legal wranglings.

Technically, The Original Caste isn’t gone and forgotten; a version of the band, featuring original singer/keyboardist Bruce Innes is still working in their native Canada, but they’ve had little commercial impact since this one, which went gold in the Great White North.

One Tin Soldier” was the first hit song written by Brian Potter and Dennis Lambert, a California duo who did quite well in the ’70s writing other hits including “Ain’t No Woman LIke The One I Got” for the Four Tops and “Don’t Pull Your Love” by Hamilton, Joe, Frank and Reynolds before moving on to work in the studio and producing Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy and Player’s hit “Baby Come Back.” This one didn’t quite sound like those others but was a perfect fit for the times, with its folksy sound, Joan Baez-like vocals and of course, the heavy and timeless moral theme. the song tells of the aggressive valley people who attack the mountain people in order to take their “treasure”… to find after the battle all the “treasure” was a rock saying “Peace on earth.” The title is referenced in another great anti-war anthem of a few months later, “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

January 29 – Sarah Topped A Flood Of Canadian Talent Doing Good

Yesterday’s birthday girl, Sarah Mclachlan (she turned 55 in case you were wondering) was busy showing again why she was given the Order of Canada. And that the message of Live Aid lived on two decades later. On this day in 2005, she headlined a concert at GM Place in her adopted hometown of Vancouver that she’d hastily arranged along with Nettwerk Records boss Terry McBride. It was to raise funds for charities helping victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami which had occurred a month earlier.

Sarah was winding down her tour and promotion for the late-’03 album Afterglow but had done a set on Good Morning America the previous week. She had, of course, experience setting up multi-star concerts through her involvement in the successful Lilith Fairs or the late-’90s.

A sell out crowd of 18 000 turned out to see the event, including according to local newspaper the Georgia Strait, an “older portion…dressed in their Sunday best.” The crowd was “bitch-free” according to the newspaper, with only one police officer, a female patrolling the arena halls “eating an overpriced hot dog” seen. Sets included ones from  Avril Lavigne, Sum 41, the Barenaked Ladies (whom apparently “drew the largest applause and brought everyone to their feet”) , Raine Maida (of Our Lady Peace) and his wife Chantal Kreviazuk and perhaps most surprisingly, comic Robin Williams “resplendent in a crimson suit” were on before Sarah’s set. the four hour event was event hosted by TV comics Brent Butt and Rick Mercer and . The show raised over a million dollars (about $3 million by some accounts) and she did it again two nights later in Calgary.  The event took place a week after a similar and even larger benefit concert in Wales drew 66 000 to see a lineup headlined by Eric Clapton, with Jools Holland and Manic Street Preachers among others on the bill.

January 27 – People Couldn’t Bear It If It Really Was Edward’s Last Song

A few years before Rush took flight, another Toronto trio was having a decent, if short, run in the sun. On this day in 1973, Edward Bear had their first song hit the U.S. top 40… oddly enough with a ditty called “Last Song.”

Bear had begun in the Ontario city some six years earlier, playing many of the same cafes and clubs Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot frequented, and got signed by Capitol Records in 1969. It was pretty much the brainchild of Larry Evoy, the band’s main writer, singer and drummer. He got the name from a Winnie the Pooh book; the careful reader of A.A. Milne will find that Pooh’s real name is “Edward Bear.” Evoy’s pop interests were counter-weighted by the original guitarist, bluesy Danny Marks and a jazz-inspired keyboardist, Paul Weldon. Although their early sound was blues-rocky enough to have them open for Led Zeppelin once, Marks left the band early on and the band soon found a niche with soft rock tunes that largely populated their four albums.

they found great success in their native Canada in the early-’70s, where “Last Song” was actually their fifth top 30 hit out of seven eventually. It was however, their only #1 hit in Canada (spending two weeks on top before being bumped out by Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock”) and their only sizable international hit, making it up to #3 in the U.S. and #2 in Australia. Evoy says the inspiration came to him easily: “it was literal. I would go to sleep with my light on, hoping she’d think I was still awake and would drop by.” The next single, the apparent sequel, “Close Your Eyes” was another big hit in Canada but only made it to #37 Stateside, and soon after Edward Bear went into permanent hibernation.

Weldon went on to become a successful architect and graphic artist; Marks a respected blues guitarist and eventually a radio host with a nationwide show playing jazz and blues. He remembers the Bear days. “The real danger of being so big, so young was that it seemed too easy,” he says noting at the time he was surprised that after Bear he was soon “playing every strip joint on Yonge Street” in Toronto and known as “the king of chicken wing bars.”

As for Evoy, he and his wife run a horse farm in Ontario and he also is in charge of the Edward Bear catalog and publishing rights. “In the States, where all those oldie goldies stations keep playing our songs, it’s almost a full-time occupation,” he says, adding “it’s wonderful to know that our songs still have this life so many years after they were recorded.”