Gordon Burnett
Gordon Burnett

In Memory of All The Unsung Heroes

The recent passing of broadcaster Gordon Burnett took me to thinking back to a time before Canada's music industry grew up, became civilized and paid taxes. 

Burnett was 95 when he died last month and his passing was singularly acknowledged in an obituary that appeared in the St. Catharines Standard. No celebration of his colourful and illustrious life was possible beyond his children, as Burnett's peers and his wife had already been called to their graves.

He flew Lancaster bombers in Operation Torch during WWII. It was an era romanticized in Casablanca, but in reality a battleground that came with an horrific attrition rate. 

He survived and returned to take his first job at CKFH in Toronto. He went on to excel working with Roy Thomson's rough and tumble collection of Northern Ontario radio stations, then quit and launched the West Indies' first commercial radio station, in Trinidad. 

It was now the mid '50s and Burnett returned with the money and the confidence to win a broadcast license and launch CHOW AM in Welland, Ontario. The year was 1957. A decade later, he married Suzanne Rochon and a new chapter in his story was about to unfold. 

Rochon was university educated, artistic, smart, business savvy, persuasive, and stunningly beautiful with chestnut hair and green eyes. When she met her husband-to-be, she had been a journalist, a model, voiced commercials for NBC in New York, travelled widely in Europe, and was fiercely proud of her Métis heritage.

In 1967, CHOW flipped from its easy listening format to all-country. In time, these two became a further force to reckon with in cobbling together the Canadian Country Music Association (CCMA), which was officially established in 1977. 

It was a time when Canada's country music scene was starting to be tamed after years of being populated by a troupe of characters as colourful as a Barnum & Bailey handbill, with personalities louder than a herd of thundering elephants, and most fueled by wild ambition that turned them reckless, wealthy or both.

Back in the late '50s and early '60s, there was a significant rockabilly scene on the prairies west to the Rockies. A few bootleg recordings exist today that partially tell the story of this unwritten chapter — a collection of one-hit and no-hit wonders who played weekends in church halls and barn square-dances because the liquor laws at the time barred bars from offering live entertainment.

It was an era when Cash, Conway Twitty, and other Nashville names travelled with their bands and equipment in beat up cars with long fins and crashed three to a room in no-name motels and in homes where the husbands were either working overnight or out of town. It was an era when most were barely getting by and a few were making all the money. Some things in life seem to repeat themselves.

It is a chapter that melded into the '60s and then the '70s, when another rough and tumble collection of sinners, songwriters, and dreamers started to modernize Canada's country music business.

It was a movement without real focus until Springhill, Nova Scotia's Anne Murray became a national and then international celebrity, and the Maritime 'Mafia' (manager Leonard Rambeau, husband Bill Langstroth, and producer Brian Ahern) became a presence in the CCMA and in record company boardrooms in Toronto, Nashville, and LA.

Those early years were pioneered by a largely uncredited and sometimes discredited rag-tag collection of music industry pioneers. The list of basement record labels that burst on the scene is a book in itself, most of them featuring one or two artists and none excepting Royalty Records still around today. 

The characters that populated those early eras truly were memorable, although their memories and their stories have gone with them to the grave.

There are a few artifacts and time capsules that remain. Singer-songwriter Dick Damron from Bentley, Alberta wrote The Legend and The Legacy, a now out-of-print autobiography that can be retrieved in the reference section of most city libraries (Quarry Music Books); and for 32 years Larry Delaney covered Canada's country music scene in excruciating detail as editor and publisher of Country Music News.

One of the more successful indie labels of the time was Boot Records, started by Stompin' Tom Connors and his manager Jury Krytiuk. Boot operated out of a single office squeezed into a drab industrial park in the butt-end of Toronto. 

Connors from my perspective was an intemperate blowhard and Krytiuk was a man who could hide a penny better than any magician. Between them they created a legacy that was nothing less than a miracle. Everything about the label lacked flair. In fact the company logo and the artwork used on Boot album releases were as bad as bad could get, and yet these two were the first to sign Rita MacNeil, the Canadian Brass, and Liona Boyd. 

These were unknowns in the day and so Connors and Krytiuk paid the rent selling skid loads of records by saccharine sounding acts such as The Emeralds, husband-wife duo Donna & Leroy, and the unsweetened majority shareholder, Stompin' Tom himself.

In Winnipeg, there was "Ma" Henning, a woman who could be more abrasive than a shark's skin with an exterior as hard as an armadillo shell. A Russian immigrant, Elizabeth Henning had been shortchanged in the looks department, but she had a natural born talent for business and was given to acts of extreme generosity and kindness when it pleased her.

She was also crazy about old-time country music. Henning had come to Canada with nothing and died leaving a small real-estate empire and a legacy that few who knew her would ever forget. 

Her base was the Downs (Motor Hotel) in Winnipeg, and her heart was swept up by her love of the musicians and the songs that graced her stage. It should be mentioned here that Ma Henning also found a loving husband who was a presence in her professional life as well. She died in the summer of 2009, at the age of 76.

There were many others: Ted Daigle, broadcaster and a onetime rockabilly (small 's') star; Charlie Russell, another broadcaster, who penned several uproariously funny songs that lambasted the federal government, and Canada's Postal Service in particular. 

And then there was "Weird" Harold Kendall, who spent two decades at CKWX in Victoria and weekly let his opinions about new records fan out across the country as if they were proclamations from God on high.

There were dozens of others deserving of recognition, some of whom started record labels with nothing more than a week's wage, a belief in the stars they promoted, and a desire to pick themselves up from backwater towns that rose and fell at the whim of logging and mining companies of the time.

Among the labels were Laurel, Broadland, Rodeo, Condor, Periwinkle, Mustard, Zero, Gaiety, and the aforementioned Boot and Royalty Records. MCA and RCA were also active at the time, and RPM magazine tracked the singles and reported on the stories of the day. 

Names associated with the labels included Jack Feeney, Don Grashey, R. Harlan Smith, and Art Snider. There were many more.

Suzanne Rochon-Burnett died of a brain hemorrhage in 2006. She was 71. It would be another nine years before her husband, Gordon was to pass her way again. I only met them a few times and they too were memorable. Not rough-and-tumble like many in the era but refined, thoughtful, interested in what one had to say and as a team they were destined and determined to make the world a better place.

Sometimes in the moment, Canada's music industry forgets its pioneers. The industry was built by men and women who gambled most of what little they had, and did it because they loved the music and believed it possible to forge something from nothing and make people care about what they did.

To the Gordon Burnetts and Suzanne Rochons of this world, the industry owes much, even as their legacies and their stories get overlooked with time.

Leave a comment