The half-century of Warner Music Canada is now available for viewing online. The massive project falls into three distinct categories. First, is a history of the Canadian artists at WMC, both domestic and internationally signed between 1967 and 2017, that includes 80 essays and comprises 35,000 words penned by former company Sr. VP Kim Cooke. There is also a collection of video interviews with staffers past and present, conducted by current VP Steve Waxman in consort with Cooke, and a third component that includes archival footage and photographs, starting with the company’s founding in 1967 and running through to today’s roster.
This isn’t just a puff piece about the company and a slick overview of the artists affiliated with the bunny label, but an exhaustive and erudite history of a company that has represented some of the greatest artists in Canadian music history. There’s a real sense of pride and affection put into the entire project and all involved deserve praise. Particularly noteworthy are the entries for Streetheart and Loreena McKennitt.
Below are two extracts from the Warner Music Canada history, as penned by Kim Cooke
1967: It Was A Very Good Year
In music and the world at large, and especially here in Canada, the year 1967 has a special resonance. At home, on the occasion of the country’s 100th birthday, a young and charismatic Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau held the world’s attention while his hometown of Montreal hosted the rightly celebrated and exuberant Expo ’67 World’s Fair. Excited and exciting, to say that Canada was rockin’ in 1967 would be an understatement, a young country just coming into its own.
Meanwhile, on a global level, music was fomenting cultural revolution. From the hippies in San Francisco, Carnaby Street and swinging London, and even in staid Toronto with the Yorkville scene, contemporary music of all stripes almost contemptuously rejected the strictures of decades past, authoring a new musical language, with boundaries pushed daily, the new celebrated, the old tossed to the curb. The Beatles were in the eye of the hurricane and on June 1, 1967, with the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, canonized the album rock era, setting a benchmark of excellence musicians still strive to reach 50 years later.
Against that raucous musical backdrop, quietly and anonymously a new company, Warner-Reprise Canada Ltd. was formed in Montreal. Within five short years it would be an emerging powerhouse, metaphorically grabbing the established music business by the short and curlies and threatening its hegemony.
But first, let’s revisit a well-known but still thrilling story: in 1958, legendary film mogul Jack Warner was convinced to enter the burgeoning music business, establishing Warner Bros. Records. After the decidedly undistinguished and financially unsuccessful first few years, the label began to gain traction. And, in 1963, Warner orchestrated the friendly purchase of Frank Sinatra’s Reprise Records. At this point, a kind of alchemy was brewing, courtesy of changing musical and cultural times, and a handful of talented execs. In short, Warner Bros. Records got on a march in the 60s: the comedy fiefdom of Allan Sherman, Bob Newhart, Tom Lehrer and Bill Cosby, a superstar folk act in Peter, Paul and Mary, a long hot run by the Everly Brothers, and a renascent Frank Sinatra along with his middle-of-the-road pals Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., were just a few of the drivers of an emergent Warner-Reprise.
As the second half of the decade wore on, a succession of remarkable signings took place, the stuff of music business and cultural lore. Though the Kinks had been a staple act on Reprise since 1964, the explosion came in 1967. Between August 1967 and December 1969, a mere 28 months, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Jethro Tull, Arlo Guthrie, Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, Pentangle, Fleetwood Mac and Randy Newman would ALL be signed and release their Reprise debuts. Process that a moment.
Not to be outdone, Warner Bros. proper chipped in with pop hitmakers Petula Clark and The Association, then two signings of considerably greater long-term importance – The Grateful Dead in 1967 and Van Morrison, who bowed with his transcendent masterpiece Astral Weeks in December ’68.
But in early 1967, one thing was already crystal clear - this abundance of musical riches would not be constrained by the borders of the U.S.A. It was time to spread the Warner-Reprise brand internationally, and where better to start than next door in friendly Canada.
Al Mair’s list of achievements in the music industry would fill a novella, but in 1968 the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame member and co-founder of Attic Records was then managing Gordon Lightfoot. Al tells a tale eerily foreshadowing what would happen on Blue Rodeo’s debut album two decades later: “Lenny Waronker had signed Gordon to Reprise and in 1970 we released Sit Down Young Stranger, which Lenny had also produced. Initially, it was not a great start to the Reprise relationship. The album was selling well in Canada but just OK in the U.S. Then, with our backs to the wall, salvation came in the form of a Seattle DJ who, out of the blue, started playing ‘If You Could Read My Mind.’ It ended up going all the way to number 5 in America.” Reprise re-released the album as If You Could Read My Mind, reaching number 12 on the Billboard album charts. Had it not been for that Seattle DJ, Gordon Lightfoot might never have become the legend that helped define the folk-pop sound of the 1960s and 1970s. He has 16 JUNO Awards, been named a Companion to the Order of Canada (the highest honour for a Canadian civilian), received a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame and in 2012 was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
And below, over an hour's worth of aural history