The incomparable Mr. RCA himself, Ed Preston
The incomparable Mr. RCA himself, Ed Preston

In Conversation With Ed Preston

The best part of writing for FYI is connecting the dots – music past with the now. I’ve interviewed Duff Roman, Roger Ashby, Richard Flohil, Ted Woloshyn, David Clayton-Thomas, Arnold Gosewich, Bernie Finkelstein, Mendelson Joe, Jamie Vernon, Ian Tyson, Karen Bliss, Nicholas Jennings, Rob Bowman, John Brunton, and Jane Siberry.

Jazz, country, blues, pop, a full spectrum of artists and business folks who have built and maintain this growing Canadian scene.

I’m a bit partial to those who laid the groundwork, then, as time catches up, step aside for the next generation. These conversations are a reminder; none of this occurred in a vacuum or overnight. I feel fortunate to catch up with Ed Preston who many know as Mr RCA, but judging from this interview I think Ed would have loved to talk more about playing the drums – that jazz kit that rumbled and rhythmed the first time he heard Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. Enjoy!

That connection between you and the foundation of today’s country music scene is undeniable. How did this happen?

Oddly enough, my drumming days started in the clubs in Hamilton – the usual bar mitzvahs and stuff that went on. Years ago, Harold Kudlats, who made a lot of bookings, convinced a lot of us to work in the clubs because entertainment was coming. The bars in Hamilton, for a long time, had no entertainment. We put together the group, the Count Four, which was more jazz oriented than anything, but soon learned we had to play pop songs and the American Songbook. Most of the solos were jazz tinted through my playing days, and I was an Oscar Peterson lover all through my teens.

It didn’t matter which side of the music street you were on; Oscar had a profound influence.

I studied classical until I was seventeen, I guess. I started drumming in a boy’s brigade band and then into the air cadets and my parents humoured me - buying an old second-hand set of drums with lights inside; the whole deal – big picture on the front of the bass drum. I only had them a couple of weeks before I made my first seven dollars – and then, I was hooked on drumming.

Who did you pattern yourself on as a drummer?

My favourite was certainly Gene Krupa who I saw at the old arena in Hamilton, and I guess my favourites then became Buddy Rich and Louis Bellson. I saw Bellson playing with Tommy Dorsey behind a kit of twelve drums at the old dance hall on the lake. It was a marvellous place to see a band. The stage was quite high, and even if you stood in front of the bandstand it was slightly over your head. When the theme song started they had a large silver curtain that rose like a scene out of a Hollywood movie. The Palace Pier!

What was the Main Street Jamboree Show?

We had a radio show on CHML on Saturday mornings called The San Western Review, a country music show. We got so much mail from that, and in those days it was Hank Snow, Hank Williams, Wilf Carter, Sons of the Pioneers, Eddy Arnold – that kind of stuff.

The requests were amazing, and they put me in charge. I learned to appreciate country fans from the letters they mailed in – it got to me. Because of its success, station manager Tom Darling thought we should be doing more with country – but it should be live. He spent about three weeks in Nashville with the Grand Ole Opry people, so he knew all of the ‘tricks of the trade’ when he came back here. They then appointed Gordie Tapp. Gordie was doing a show called ‘What’s on Tap?’ I produced that. It came on at 11 p.m. and it was all jazz.

Gord wasn’t about to jump in on this. Tommy explained how it would work and that he should try and create a character for it. His original emcee name was Gaylord and he did this ‘Cousin Clem’ thing as part of the schtick. We then recruited country acts from all over the country to audition for the show –Jack Kingston and the Main Streeters, which I became part of. One of the first acts was the Hillbilly Jewels: Joe Brown of The Browns was the bass player in the group, Maurice Bolyer, the banjo player and he played throughout on everything. He was unbelievably fantastic.

Wally Traugott played fiddle in the group and was classically trained. If you Google him, you’ll see Wally Traugott became the best mixer/lacquer cutter on the west coast working for Capitol. They insisted he do most of the Beatles stuff. Wally and I played together, I guess about five years.

How big of an audience was there for country music then?

It was growing. It was the days when Hank Williams just passed away. We brought up American acts and they played every Saturday night. The radio show went on to become a television show on CHCH. We’d rehearse all day Saturday then do the show live at night. They brought up everybody from Lefty Frizzell to Glen Campbell; you name it. At one point, there was a home show in Hamilton; three days it was Brenda Lee, three days it was Sonny James. I got to play the whole week with them. Brenda Lee’s manager asked me to audition; they were looking for a drummer. I got the job, but I had three kids and I just couldn’t see going on the road that way. Their guitar player gave me a good lesson about what road work was like in those days. Buses and station wagons.

What’s the story behind the autographed Les Paul and Mary Ford photo?

While training to be a classical pianist my teacher thought I was ready to do the Ken Soble’s Amateur Hour – I was only about thirteen or fourteen years old. I auditioned, and they said the music was well-played and then they asked if I could play ‘boogie woogie.’ I played a little bit at school by ear. I played for them, and they nodded when it was over. I told them I was surprised they had me play that. They said they had a young kid on two weeks prior who drew the most mail the show had ever received. The audience went crazy for the guy. He said it was a young black guy from Montreal – turned out it was Oscar Peterson.

After that, I had to do my tenth-grade exam, and my adjudicator was Ernest Seitz. I didn’t know until years later when working at CHML when Les Paul and Mary Ford came out with ‘The World is Waiting for the Sunrise’ and I noticed Ernest Seitz's credit on the label and thought it couldn't possibly be the same guy.

It was one of the earliest Canadian country songs I remember from my CHML days. Capitol Canada was impressed with the way I promoted The Les Paul and Mary Ford recording of “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise” when it first came out so they let the powers-that-be in L.A. know. I soon received a nice note from them and an 8 x 10, which said, ‘Thanks a Million,’ -  two in fact.

In 1947, I was offered the job at CHML as music librarian and that was at a time when they were starting to block program a lot of stuff. They had a program called Make Believe Ballroom based on an American show by the same name. They played maybe fifteen minutes of one artist. My job was to sort through the 78s’ in the library and put in separate bunks. Oddly enough, I went straight to the Oscar Peterson section – they had about ten 78s’ of Oscar’s first recordings, When I left RCA decades later the last thing I got them to release were those original recordings which had been lost. The masters had been shipped to Japan. RCA Japan put out a two-record set of his very first recordings. We mastered from their CDs and released in Canada. He was playing a lot of ‘boogie woogie’ and never wanted to help promote. He didn’t think he played great then.

Is this the recording that has ‘Sheik of Araby?”

Yes! I have the Japanese pressing, Canadian and American of it.

I’m probably thirteen and drop in Woolworths and thumb through the nickel record bin. I come across an EP with the Original Jass Band – ‘Livery Stable Blues’ and Oscar’s ‘Sheik of Araby.’ I played and played always wondering how two hands could play so many notes so fast and cool. How did you make the transition to business side of music?

I had been quite successful in breaking and launching music at CHML. They were all middle of the road things like Teresa Brewer – “How Much is that Doggie in the Window" and “Wonderland by Night."

Bert Kaempfert?

Yes, we got a copy from Europe and started playing before it was popular. The phones rang off the wall.

We sold tons of records for RCA with Ed Ames, ‘Try to Remember.’

Jack Feeney who was head of the Ontario division RCA – we knew each other. He used to work at Bob Moody’s Record Bar in Hamilton when we broke records. He talked to me over a year and suggested I get into the record business. Charlie Camilleri at Columbia hounded me in Hamilton all of the time. He had an alternative motive for coming to Hamilton. He was in love with a girl at the record bar at Heintzmen’s. He ended up marrying Peggy. She was a great vibe player when I was in my teens.

I decided on RCA because Charlie did such a wonderful job at Columbia in promotion and I didn’t think I could add much to that, but RCA, I thought, was dragging a bit as far as promotion was going and the job that was offered was Ontario promotion man. That’s how I started.

What were a few of the acts your worked on?

I was only on the job a few days when I got a call from New York saying John Gary was to be at the Elmwood Casino in Windsor. I had to gather up a bunch of promotion stuff and run down to Windsor. As it happens, all of the New York heavyweights from RCA - the top guys from Michigan, New York state – all came up for this event. I got to meet a lot of guys in a hurry and learned a lot in a hurry.

During the early stages at RCA, they came to me and said they weren’t going to get me the money they originally promised – maybe I should take on a few sales accounts. I took it on not wanting to leave after making a move. That turned out well for me. I ended up sales manager and promotion manager for Ontario.

You were also behind acts like Carroll Baker, Family Brown and the Mercey Brothers.

Carroll Baker knocked me out. She was one of the acts like Dolly Parton, when she steps on stage you know you are going to have a good time. She just had it. I had talked to her manager for a while about her progress and had watched since my days on the jamboree. When she did that spot on the Juno Awards singing "I’ve Never Been This Far Before" – which is a Conway Twitty hit, yet hadn’t been done by a female – it was so powerful and the first time a Juno audience came out of their seats for a country act. It was amazing. We signed her within days.

The Mercey Brothers had had a record out in the US when I joined them. The Good Brothers, I signed them right on the noontime TV – Elwood Glover Show.

When you called, it dawned on me it’s been 70 years in the business. I’m 86 now. You know Carroll hasn’t changed a bit – still a character and kicks her shoes off.

When I became president of RCA I inherited the record pressing plant and recording studios in Toronto, and Montreal. We had engineers George Semkiw, Hayward Parrott, Barry Keane was A&R for a while until he started playing drums with Gordon Lightfoot. Jack Feeney produced most of the country acts for us. He did the Carlton Show Band, Dick Nolan – I think he did a Wilf Carter album as well.

Do you keep up with the industry these days?

Yes, I’m an avid reader of FYI. I don’t listen to any rap or hip-hop stuff anymore. I was a big supporter of disco when it came out. KC & the Sunshine band – those guys were great. We got a million records for all of those people. Got gold records for Bob Marley.

What’s Ed up to these days?

I’m reading a lot. I’ve done the Clive Davis book and Randy Bachman - Neil Young. Read all of those lately.

Robbie Robertson's Testimony?

Not yet. I told my daughter to get me that. There’s a good book called, ‘Here Comes the Night’ by Joel Selvin - a lot of industry stuff, those payola deals. We didn’t have to do much of that kind of thing. Not like the other side of the border. We had good one on one relationships. The Toronto stations and Nevin Grant in Hamilton; those guys were all great. They’d be honest with you – ‘I don’t have room on my chart this week for that kind of record, but – if something opens next week, you’ve got it.” You’d get it! I don’t think I could handle the business today. My style was one on one!

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