Few Canadian record industry veterans have had as fascinating a life in music as Doug Chappell. Prior to a very prominent career working in top positions at A&M, Island, Virgin and Mercury/Polydor, Chappell spent a full decade as a musician, playing bars and dance halls throughout Ontario.
His primary gig was as bassist in The Mid-Knights, later renamed Richie Knight & The Mid-Knights. They scored a major chart hit in 1963 with “Charlena,” and that earned them slots opening for The Rolling Stones and playing on Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars.
Chappell possesses excellent recall for those heady days and he has great stories to tell. To get a sense of just what the music scene in Toronto in the early ‘60s was like, we sat down over beers recently for this Industry Profile.
Strolling down memory lane, Chappell attributes the first ever concert he saw with getting him hooked on rock ‘n roll. “It was Elvis Presley playing Maple Leaf Gardens in 1957. I was coming out of Grade 8 and my mother bought me a ticket. That was such an eye-opener and that’s when I thought ‘this wouldn’t be bad’ and I started to pick up on playing music.”
“I started out playing guitar, but I was a shitty guitar player, in a couple of really tiny high school bands. I went to York Memorial Collegiate, at Keele and Eglinton in Toronto. A guy at the school, George Semkiw, had a band running from 1959 called The Mid-Knights.
"They were rather a ragtag band but they were playing a few gigs. A whole bunch of guys left so he was rebuilding the band and he said ‘wanna play bass?’ I said ‘sure.’ A drummer came in at the same time, then Richie Knight [real name Richie Hubbard] became the singer and it coalesced around 1960.”
The group quickly found themselves part of a thriving live music scene, playing dance parties both in Toronto and throughout Southern Ontario.
“We replaced the big bands as dance bands,” says Chappell. “The kids wanted rock n roll. A funny thing is the kids would dance to the bands then sit during the records played in between sets with the DJ. We were very danceable, we’d do all kinds of r 'n b that the kids would never hear on the radio.”
Chappell credits close friend Semkiw with turning him onto r ’n b and the blues. “He took me into the r 'n b camp and away from listening to CHUM on my transistor. I soon realized my true love is early r ‘n b.”
He recalls that “we were out playing in these dance pavilions where the old big bands used to play. There was the Broom and Stone in Scarborough, the Scarborough Farmers Market, a downtown Toronto place called Rock Haven. There was no booze in these places. The drinking age with 21, so instead of kids going to bars they went to the dances.”
“In those days we were paid maybe $35 for the band for a Sunday night. It could be up to $60, so with six guys in the band we got $10 each. It wasn’t the money. We were doing it for the excitement of playing music and it remained that way through to ’63.’
“In the early ‘60s there were just so many of those dance clubs. You could play three months and not hit the same place twice. This was not just in Toronto but outside too. One Sunday night gig was at Delhi down in tobacco country, so we’d drive down for the show. The Catholic church had halls and they were running lots of dances to make money.
“One great place we played a lot was the Balmy Beach Canoe Club in Toronto, until the building burned down. We had a Tuesday night gig there in the summer. It had a spring floor you’d see going up and down. The wood amplified everything, so the bass sounded great in it.”
Other regular venues on the circuit included Crang Plaza, The Met, Mazaryk Hall, The Jubilee Pavilion in Oshawa, and The Pav in Orillia. “It was crazy how many good bands there were then,” says Chappell. “On a Friday night, you’d see all the bands’ cars heading out of town to play shows. We’d run into each other when we stopped at service centres for a bite.”
To Chappell, this era in Toronto starts in the late ‘50s. “There were a few bands out then that sort of got lost in the shuffle in terms of people remembering them. One was Bobby Dean and The Gems, led by Bobby Dean Blackburn. An interesting band called The Spices featured an Asian sax player called Vince. There was Robbie Lane and the Disciples, Tommy Graham had a band, and there was Little Caesar and the Consuls too. They all played r ‘n b, and the scene was nothing to do with what was on CHUM."
A turning point for The Mid-Knights came in 1962. “We came out of high school in the spring, George and I and a couple of the other guys. We said ‘we need to tighten the band up. Let’s go play the bars on Yonge Street for the summer.' I was 19 then, but we all got fake id to get into the bars. We joined the Musicians Union then, as they controlled all the bars."
Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks were giants on the scene then, and Chappell and his bandmates would catch their Saturday afternoon shows at the Concord. Also gaining a reputation in the clubs was David Clayton-Thomas, with his group The Shays.
Another gathering place was the Long and McQuade store. “Every Saturday morning most of the bands would meet there, crowding into the tiny store to get guitar strings, picks guitars and amps. It was the only place I ever knew that’d let a kid sign his name and walk out with $1000 worth of gear, promising to come back and pay $10 a week! Talk about faith. Both the Jacks were musicians and were good that way.”
Venues the group played residencies in included The Edison and the Brass Rail, later a famed peeler bar.
Some of the business practices of the day were on the shady side, Chappell notes. “You’d sign the union contracts but then on pay night we got the cheque, signed the back, and gave it to the club owner. If it was $900 a week, he gave you $600 and pocketed $300. All the bars played that game. To work the strip you had top give up some of your money.”
One gig by The Mid-Knights in a Yonge Street bar would prove career-changing. A promo man for local label Arc Records was impressed by the group’s cover of the song “Charlena,” originally done by LA group The Sevilles. Arc head Bill Gilliland saw the group, then took them into the label’s studio in early 1963 to cut the track.
After becoming a hit on CKEY, it caught the attention of the very powerful CHUM, and soon soared right to the top of their chart. That was very rare for a Canadian act in those days, with "Charlena" reportedly being the first No. 1 there by a Toronto band.
Chappell later realized the reason the song became a hit. “We’d been playing the song for 18 months to crowds of 1,000 kids at the dances. That’s a lot of kids. When it was on the battle of the bands on CKEY, they started phoning. When CHUM started playing it their phones were going crazy too.”
The single went on to sell platinum (100,000 units) and having a hit proved a financial bonanza. “Suddenly we went from 60 bucks a night to 5 or 600 bucks a night. That was really good money. In 1963 the average annual wage was around $100 a week.”
As Chappell says, other bands on the scene took note. “They went ‘shit, if they can do it why can’t we?’, so everybody headed into the studio. The Consuls had a hit with ‘Hang On Sloopy’ and Grant Smith and the Power had ‘Keep On Runnin’.’ Not big big hits, but everybody was starting to make some pretty good money. That was sort of the change point from this being a cottage industry to ‘hey there’s some money in this sucker.’”
The hit status of “Charlena” got Richie Knight and the Mid-Knights a slot on Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars that summer. Clark’s syndicated radio show was launching on CHUM, and the success of “Charlena” on the CKEY chart came to his attention.
“Our manager asked him if we could play his show, and he said yes. Dick & Dee Dee, the Dovels and Brian Hyland were on the show, but we were the only ones with a song on the chart that week. The show was at Maple Leaf Gardens on July 19, 1963. The only person I knew in the audience there was my girlfriend, now my wife. It was her 17th birthday.”
Chappell recalls that the stage setup “was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. There was no PA system, no lighting, just a PA microphone powered by a 20 watt amp. We did three songs there to a mass of 18,000 kids, standing on the floor and filling the stands too. The drummer is playing live with no mic. I had an extra bottom for my bass amp so I had two sets of speakers and people tell us we were loud!”
He adds that “it was a freakout to see Dick Clark walking around swearing like a trooper -‘those c***suckers better get their fuckin asses out there’.”
In April 1965, the group had another big show at MLG, opening for The Rolling Stones. Though big fans, Richie Knight and the Mid-Knights never got to see the Stones. “We couldn’t get out front. Local bands were seen as the scourge- ‘play and get lost.’”
One of Chappell’s favourite stories also has a Maple Leaf Gardens setting. ”There was a rule back then from the musicians union. An act playing the Gardens had to have 31 Local 146 members paid for the gig, whether they played or not. One night I put 31 guys together for the Jimi Hendrix show, but we didn’t play. I went backstage to get the money from Jimi’s manager and he said ‘meet us back at the hotel tomorrow morning.’ I got there and they’d gone.
“We filed a grievance with the union and I sued them. Then when Jimi and his manager were at Madison Square Gardens they were told ‘you must pay Brother Chappell and the Toronto musicians x amount of dollars or you aren’t going onstage.' They got the money, sent it to me and I paid off the other bands!”
Post “Charlena,” the group put out other singles, but none hit big. When Knight left the band in late 1965, they reverted to The Mid-Knights Blues Band as the band name, and recruited a new singer who’d later become a Canadian legend, Richard Newell aka King Biscuit Boy.
“When Richard walked in through the door, we changed from being chameleons to being a blues band. Our sound was pretty straight blues. Newell was a great singer and he lived hard. When he walked into our audition, he didn’t look like a rock n roll star but man when he started to sing, we went’ this guy looks white but he sounds black-ohmigod.’ We took him on immediately.”
Another new member to join the group in this era was keyboardist Richard Bell, who went on play with Ronnie Hawkins and become a top session player and a member of a later version of the Band. “Richard was a wonderful guy,” says Chappell. “He liked playing and was looking for adventure. I think he went to Livingstone’s Trip first then Hawkins grabbed him. He had an apartment size piano and that was so heavy! No roadies and we’re hauling B3s and Leslies and pianos upstairs.”
In their period as a fully-fledged blues band, The Mid-Knights expanded in size. A four-piece horn section and two drummers brought the count up to ten players at one point. Following the departure of Newell and Bell, the group added vocalists Frank Querci (formerly Robert E. Lee) and Karen Titko. Another name change saw them become The Mid-Knights Revue, and their repertoire leaned towards Stax/Volt style soul and r ‘n b.
The Mid-Knights finally called it a day in 1969. Chappell recalls that the writing on the wall became apparent after a gig in a high school. “After a young girl called me sir, I walked into the classroom that was our dressing room and said ‘hey guys it’s over. They’re calling us sir!’ We’re too old for the kids. We played out the gigs then folded the band.”
His last stint as a touring musician came backing up a vocal group The Five Counts. “Our keyboardist and I ended up with them on the road for a year, doing clubs,” he says.
Needing a steady paycheque to support his family, Chappell went looking for work and that’s when his record label career began.
Looking back on his ‘60s experiences, Chappell would like to see his band given more recognition as a factor in the development of the so-called Toronto Sound of the ‘60s. “I always read where it says the Toronto Sound started in 1965 with Mandala and Domenic Troiano. The Sound was based on two ingredients, the Hammond organ and a fuzz guitar, plus the r ‘n b influence. I remember our keyboardist in 1961 bought a Hammond organ and we were the first Toronto band to have one. Our second keyboardist bought a B3 in late ’63.”
The Mid-Knights also worked closely with legendary equipment maker Pete Traynor, a crucial figure on the scene, as Chappell explains. “George Semkiw got together with Pete, working on little power amps that they could overload to get that fuzz guitar sound. Then Pete got into really making amps. I bought a 200 wattter that had 6 or 8 10-inch speakers in the bottom. Such a powerful amp. He made great stuff.”
The members of The Mid-Knights remain friends. “We get together once a year for a summer BBQ,” says Chappell. “We did a 50th anniversary reunion gig with Robbie Lane at Hollywood on the Queensway in 2013. The place was packed, and it was a pretty damn good gig."
Chappell’s first job in the record biz was doing local promotion for A&M Records. “In those days there were a whole bunch of people that didn’t really know what they were doing,” he says.
After two years he moved into National Promotion for the label, a position he held for a decade (1974-84). “In 1984 I got a call from Charly Prevost. He was finished managing Supertramp and was working with Chris Blackwell at Island US. He told me ‘Chris wants to open up in Canada. Are you interested?’ I’d built a great team at A&M and felt it was time for a change, so I flew down and met with Chris."
Chappell got the job as President of Island Canada, a new label with a staff of four. He’d later find out that Blackwell was on the verge of bankruptcy then, but a string of hit records rescued Island.
“We had the Bob Marley best of, Legend, early U2, Robert Palmer, and Frankie Goes To Hollywood, one of the craziest things I ever worked on.”
After nearly three years at the label, Chappell became frustrated at not being able to sign acts. “Chris didn’t want to sign bands from out of here. He would only sign acts he loved. I took him Glass Tiger and kd lang, and he passed. Many years later at a convention Chris told me “I never regretted not signing Glass Tiger but I sure missed with kd lang.’”
“I was feeling ticked off,” says Chappell. “I listened to every tape coming in through the door. That is how I found The Northern Pikes. I got a tape at Island and I kept it as I knew I was going.”
The next label stop on Chappell’s journey was as head of Virgin Records in Canada. “After the death of Bob Muir, Laura Bartlett suggested me to the guys in England to try to get me to run Virgin. I met them and I said ‘only if I can sign acts.’”
“They agreed and once I got in there I signed The Pikes immediately. Fraser Hill and I went out to see them in Saskatoon. They played with the joy of rock ‘n roll. The kids were digging it and they were playing as hard as they could. That struck a chord inside me.’
The first Northern Pikes record was a hit, as was another new Virgin signing, Rita MacNeil. “That came from Brookes Diamond sending me a tape,” says Chappell. “I played it in the car, and I had to pull over as I was crying to ‘Flying On Your Own.’”
“I played it for the gang next morning and they said let’s go. We co-signed her with A&M, our distributor. We worked it and they sold it. Rita was one artist who knew exactly who she was.”
Other Canadian signings Chappell takes pride in were Lori Yates and the Chris Taylor-led One.
“We signed fair number of acts, but my only regret is I didn’t get one good pop elsewhere. It was the Americans and the Brits on the inside and everyone else on the outskirts trying to get in. That truly was frustrating.”
Changes at Virgin came when label founder Richard Branson sold the label to EMI. Chappell stresses that “Deane Cameron [head of EMI Canada] was very good with us. He wanted us to stay as a boutique label.”
Chappell’s next and final label stop was as President of Mercury/Polydor in Canada. “Gerry Lacoursiere came to me next. He was running Polygram and he asked me to take over Mercury/Polydor and turn it into a label where music was No. 1.”
“I learned country music there. We had Terri Clark and then the Shania Twain phenomenon. Good grief! We held onto our asses and rode that bucking bronco. Before hearing that album [1995's The Woman In Me], I wrote it into our plans. I skedded it for 50k sales, as the first one had done 30k. Then it’s a million-seller! That was like my time at Virgin when we had a million-seller with Paula Abdul.”
Reflecting on his philosophy heading labels, Chappell explains that “The one thing I prided myself on was ‘let’s not be musical snobs.’ Every artist we have a record from, well somebody signed them and believed in them. They deserved a chance . Our job was to take it as far as we could get it.”
Doug Chappell closed the chapter on his record label story in 1997, when his time as President of Mercury/Polydor ended in September that year.
He remains a passionate lover of music, and is a prime mover in efforts to get veteran Canadian stars inducted into the Hall of Fame.
He looks back on his journey with great affection, stressing that “the business was nothing but good times overall. I got to deal with great artists, managers, and radio guys. No regrets.”