In music and the world at large, and especially here in Canada, the year 1967 has a special resonance. At home the country was celebrating its 100th birthday, a young and charismatic Pierre Trudeau was on his way to changing Canada’s political landscape while his hometown Montreal attracted the world’s attention with the hugely popular 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 Bros. - Seven Arts Records of 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 a 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 1965, 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 hit makers 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.
By 1967, the executive team at Warner-Reprise in America was gelling into a lethal force. Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker were in the early stages of hall of fame careers, flanked by key creative lieutenants like Stan Cornyn, Joe Smith, Bob Krasnow, Mike Maitland, Ed Thrasher and more. And Phil Rose, a part of that W-R gang on the business end, was charged with launching Warner-Reprise Canada.
Prior to joining Warner-Reprise, Phil Rose had worked for Compo, the Canadian company that then distributed Warner-Reprise in Canada. Phil’s choice to be the first President of the newly minted Canadian company was a no-nonsense veteran of RCA Canada, Ken Middleton, who had worked his way into a senior management position at the Nipper, as it was known, over the course of a dozen years.
On August 31, 1967, Warner Bros.-Seven Arts Records of Canada Ltd. was duly incorporated and set up offices on Brunswick Street in the Montreal suburb of Dollard-des-Ormeaux. Joining Ken Middleton was Joe Edwards, a courtly veteran of the music business financial wars. The branch manager in Montreal was Jacques Chenier, soon to play an important role in Quebec A&R. Gord Edwards became the first Ontario branch manager, setting up an office in north west Toronto on Chesswood Drive.
In 1970, Ken Middleton relocated the head office to Toronto, bought a tract of land in Scarborough, and supervised the design and build of a brand-new company head office and warehouse at 1810 Birchmount Road. The elements that would lead to market domination were gradually falling into place.
1967 -1972: Going for Gold In America
The pre-Cancon airplay Canadian music business was, shall we say, a far more intimate affair than the robust beast it would become in ensuing decades, and for artists who wanted to grasp the proverbial brass ring, there was only one direction in which to head – south of the 49th. So it was that a series of Canadian artists found their way on to the Warner Bros., Reprise and Atlantic labels stateside.
Vancouver’s The Collectors hold the distinction of being the first Canadian band to have their music distributed by the brand new Canadian Warner entity. Fronted by Bill Henderson, The Collectors were originally signed to California label Valiant Records, which was purchased by WB in in 1967. The Collectors would issue two albums for WB - 1968’s The Collectors and 1969’s Grass and Wild Strawberries - before morphing into Chilliwack and having a solid chart run throughout the 70s and early 80s.
Throughout the history of the Canadian music business, there are few characters as colourful, successful, loved and honoured as Bernie Finkelstein. In 1967, he was a scrappy 23-year old finding his way in the artist management business and fresh off some success with his first client, Toronto’s The Paupers.
For his sophomore outing as a manager, Finkelstein assembled songwriter/guitarist Keith McKie and guitarist/pianist Gene Martynec as the core of a new band named after Toronto’s endearingly funky neighbourhood that sprawls south and west from the corner of Spadina and College. Kensington Market’s launch coincided with the Summer of Love and the fevered goings on in nearby Yorkville where the band debuted at the Night Owl on June 4, 1967. In August, Finkelstein added a major free agent to the lineup in Luke Gibson, fresh out of Luke and The Apostles. Overnight, Kensington Market was the hottest band in town. The young entrepreneur then pulled off a coup by striking up a relationship with producer Felix Pappalardi and his manager Bud Prager, who was able to facilitate a record deal with Warner Bros.’ New York office. Red-hot from his work on Cream’s 1967 masterwork Disraeli Gears, Pappalardi produced Kensington Market’s Avenue Road, named after the Toronto thoroughfare, which was released in 1968. Critical applause was immediate - The Globe’s influential music critic Ritchie Yorke pronounced it “probably the finest album ever cut by a Canadian group.”
In 1969, the band delivered its sophomore album Aardvark, again produced by Felix Pappalardi. Now featuring future Syrinx leader John Mills-Cockell on synthesizer, Aardvark was a step back commercially, but not aesthetically – Bernie Finkelstein unreservedly calls it Kensington Market’s finest recorded moment. But by then, the band’s home turf of Yorkville was in decline. With unrelenting heat from the cops and city elders, and hard drugs invading the scene, Toronto’s own version of the Aquarian dream was going sour. Against that backdrop, Kensington Market would soon splinter.
As for Bernie Finkelstein, he went on to found True North Records, release well over 500 albums, garner every accolade imaginable and manage Bruce Cockburn, which he still does to this day.
In 1968, soul music was experiencing a glorious peak and blue-eyed soul was right there with it, best exemplified by The Young Rascals and their string of superb hit records. Perhaps it was no surprise since The Rascals recorded for Atlantic, that Ahmet Ertegun, acting on a tip from Phil Spector, bought The Mandala’s contract from Decca subsidiary K-R in early ’68. With guitarist Domenic Troiano and powerhouse vocalist Roy Kenner in tow, success seemed right around the corner. But it was not to be, as the Soul Crusade album sold poorly and by mid-‘69 the band had broken up. But Soul Crusade yielded a glorious musical legacy in the form of the album’s first single “Love-Itis.” A stone classic, J. Geils Band would revive it on their 1975 album Hotline, yet again on Atlantic. It’s important to note that Warner Bros. did not buy Atlantic Records until 1969 so the original release of Soul Crusade came out in Canada via Atlantic/Quality. But in 1985, WEA A&R man Bob Roper re-issued the album with new artwork (the original could not be found), adding the band’s seminal K-R Records singles “Opportunity” and “Give and Take” for good measure.
The Holy Trinity – Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot
Looking through the lens of time, it’s hard to imagine that one label would sign and release debut albums from three Canadian icons, all within the space of one year, but that’s precisely what Reprise Records did with Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot. The mind boggles at the mere possibility.
Their stories have been captured elsewhere in microscopic detail so we won’t repeat them here, but a few brief observations are in order.
Consider the ramifications 50 years later of those signings:
Joni Mitchell: Joni is universally regarded as the greatest female singer/songwriter ever, in particular the seven studio albums released between 1970 and 1977 - Ladies of the Canyon (1970), Blue (1971), For the Roses (1972), Court and Spark (1974), The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975), Hejira (1976) and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977). Each is an unalloyed masterpiece, the pinnacle of lyrical and musical sophistication and the basis for the adulation that still envelopes Joni to this day.
Neil Young: 1968-2017. As of the release of his September 2017 Hitchhiker album, 45 studio albums and counting, plus a brace of compilations and live recordings, ALL have been released by the Warner Music Group, all on Reprise, save for the five Geffen albums from the 80s, itself then distributed by WMG. Where Joni stands in the pantheon of the greatest female singer/songwriters, so stands Neil on the male side. Over five decades, his influence on other artists, both musically and in defiant rock ‘n’ roll attitude, is not less than monumental.
Gordon Lightfoot: 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.
Jesse Winchester was born in Louisiana and grew up in Memphis - so what’s he doing in this narrative? In 1967 he moved to Montreal, evading the draft as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war, and in 1973 he would become a Canadian citizen. That fact and being a superb artist and songwriter with a 45-year career are more than enough reasons to include him here. He would record eight albums for Warner Bros.-distributed Bearsville Records, starting with Jesse Winchester in 1970 through Talk Memphis in 1981. They’re all fine recordings but the debut is a particular beauty. Produced by The Band’s Robbie Robertson and including Robbie’s Band-mate Levon Helm on drums, it has a similar charm and rustic patina as the first two iconic Band albums. Songs like “Yankee Lady,” “Biloxi” and “Brand New Tennessee Waltz” have become songwriter/Americana standards and for very good reason. Appropriately, Jesse Winchester would receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from ASCAP for his contributions to the art and commerce of song writing.
By the early 70s, Randy Bachman had already scaled the rock ‘n’ roll heights with The Guess Who and would do so again later in the decade with Bachman-Turner Overdrive. But his sandwich effort, Brave Belt, is decidedly less well known. Formed as a trio with his brother Robbie on drums and former Guess Who member Chad Allan, Brave Belt released two albums, Brave Belt 1 in 1971 and – you guessed it - Brave Belt 2 a year later, both to little notice. But the music recorded for Brave Belt 3 had an altogether different outcome. Reprise dropped the band after Brave Belt 2, at which point Randy shopped the music aggressively. Mercury Records liked what they heard and Brave Belt 3 became the first Bachman-Turner Overdrive album, launching a hard rock juggernaut that would sell over 30 million records. Oops! File under can’t win them all.
1971: Kinney Music Takes Its First Steps In To The Domestic Market
The domestic roster of the variously named Canadian Warner companies started slowly but steadily gained momentum as the 70s wore on. The first domestic signing was a single by the Montreal born artist Karen Young. Released on Reprise, “Garden Of URSH” was a slice of gentle folk/pop then extremely popular – think Poppy Family and The Bells and you’re in the zone. The single was a modest success, climbing to #35 on the RPM top 100 singles charts. Karen went on to record many jazz albums, and she is the mother of contemporary jazz vocalist Coral Egan.
In the early 70s, there were two noteworthy domestic releases. The first was Dusty Shoes from Winnipeg rockers Next, released in 1971. Signed and produced by then Kinney Music’s first A&R man John Pozer, the band had a solid local following but national fame was elusive and there would not be a follow-up recording. There is one important Next footnote: band member George Belanger would join Harlequin in the mid-70s, contributing lead vocals to a series of Jack Douglas-produced hit singles for that gold selling band.
The other is rather more famous in record collector circles. Toronto blues rockers Whiskey Howl have quite a story. Immediately after their first performance in early August 1969, they were added at the last minute to the first of two shows at Led Zeppelin’s second Toronto performance of the year, on August 18th at The Rockpile. Less than a month later, on September 13th, they joined John Lennon and many others for the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival bill at Varsity Stadium. That heady beginning did not immediately lead to a record deal as it wasn’t until 1972 that John Pozer signed the band. Of note is the producer of the self-titled Whiskey Howl album – none other than multi–instrumentalist and Allman Brothers producer Johnny Sandlin, who brought with him a young piano player, Chuck Leavell, soon to become famous as a session player, Rolling Stones sideman and Allmans member.
Despite its undeniable excellence, Whiskey Howl did not break through. By 1974, the band had called it quits, living on in the hearts and minds of blues enthusiasts to this day.
WEA’s tentative steps into the domestic market were not reserved solely for English Canada. In Quebec, Montreal branch manager Jacques Chenier had Francophone A&R responsibilities and he would connect with an early signing. Twin siblings Richard and Marie-Claire Séguin were making music together in the late 60s as part of the group La Nouvelle Frontière, recording two albums for Gamma Records. In 1971, brother and sister then stepped out professionally under their own name, and Jacques Chenier was there with a contract. A self-titled debut album hit the street in 1973 and generated a major hit single with “Le train du nord,” a cover of the famous Felix Leclerc song.
Though Tom Williams would soon join Al Mair to found Attic Records, in 1973 he was sharing national radio promotion duties with Mike Reed at WEA. He offers a memory: “Les Séguin were fantastic. I flew in to Montreal for the release party the branch threw in a hotel ballroom. The place was packed. At that time, I wore an Amish hat. Richard borrowed it in the middle of the party and never gave it back!”
A second album, En attendant, followed in 1974 before Les Séguin moved on to other labels, but it was only the beginning for Richard and Marie-Claire. The siblings both pursued solo careers post the dissolution of Les Séguin in 1977. Richard was first to hit the big time. In 1978, he collaborated with Serge Fiori, ex of the hugely popular Harmonium, which had just disbanded. Fiori-Séguin’s Deux cent nuits à l’heure was a major hit, going double platinum. Richard would go on to a celebrated career in ensuing decades, and in 2012 was honored by SOCAN with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Marie-Claire would also enjoy a solid career, recording seven solo albums released over three decades.
It’s perhaps a good time to comment on the company’s progress in its first five years. Now called WEA Music of Canada Ltd., the seeds sown in 1967 were in full bloom by 1972. Atlantic Records had been purchased by Warner Bros. in 1969, followed by Jac Holzman’s Elektra in 1970. And David Geffen’s Asylum, initially a subsidiary of Atlantic before merging with Elektra, had launched like a rocket in 1972 with The Eagles, Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell. By the early/mid-70s, the combined might of these labels and their artists was not less than awe inspiring. Many of the biggest international artists of the day – The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Abba, Bad Company, Neil Young, Roxy Music, The Doors, The Eagles, Jackson Browne, CSNY, James Taylor, Black Sabbath and many, many more - were distributed under the WEA Music of Canada Ltd. banner. It is perhaps no surprise that the company would win the JUNO Award for Best Record Company in 1972, ’73 and ’74. Meanwhile, the domestic roster was about to shift into a higher gear.
The astute reader will have noticed a common theme about the early domestic Warner signings – one album and out. That would all change with the signing of Ray Materick to the label by new A&R man Gary Muth who joined the company in 1974. Materick would release three albums on the Asylum label (the red-hot Asylum logo was one that Materick wanted to associate with). His first and best-known album was 1974’s Neon Rain. Recorded at Manta Sound and produced by ex-Kensington Market member Gene Martynec, it generated a genuine hit single with “Linda Put the Coffee On.” Best Friend Overnight followed in 1975 and Midnight Matinee in ’76. The latter two were produced by Don Potter and feature a very young Daniel Lanois. While Ray Materick’s association with the company would not be long term, the three albums he made were all credible, critically well-received recordings. Ray is still making music to this day.
Kate & Anna McGarrigle
In 1975, Warner Bros. made a momentous signing, inking Montreal-born sisters Kate & Anna McGarrigle to the label. A folk masterpiece, their eponymous 1975 debut, co-produced by the legendary Joe Boyd with Greg Prestopino, was and still is universally lauded to this day. Rolling Stone called it “a singer-songwriter session up there with Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Neil Young’s Harvest.” Whoa! Press plaudits don’t get much better than that. The UK in particular embraced the album and Kate and Anna went on to be especially popular there.
Faced with following up a debut masterwork, the sisters knocked it out of the park a second time with 1977’s Dancer With Bruised Knees, which again met with universally ecstatic critical praise. Record sales however continued to be modest. Kate and Anna’s finely wrought visions were simply out of step with the rock colossuses then striding the globe and dominating commerce. For 1978’s Pronto Monto, Warner Bros. handed the producer chair to David Nichtern, known to liner notes sleuths as the writer of Maria Muldaur’s sublime 1973 hit “Midnight at The Oasis.” An attempt to meld the sisters’ delightful folk whimsy with a more commercially palatable appeal, Pronto Monto was solid but didn’t raise the sales bar. WB and Kate and Anna then went their separate ways, but the sisters would go on to record 11 albums in total, maintaining a high level of critical reverence right up to Kate’s death in 2010 at age 53.
True Myth, out of London, Ontario, was produced by band members and Fanshawe graduates Tom Treumuth and Gary Furniss, with oversight from production legend Jack Richardson. Their self-titled debut had the distinction of being the first album to be digitally recorded in Canada and only the second ever, after Ry Cooder’s 1978 Warner Bros. masterwork Bop ‘Til You Drop. True Myth was recorded using the father of digital recording, Dr. Tom Stockham of the University of Utah’s prototype 2-track Soundstream recorder, operated by two of his graduate students.
Firmly rooted in the then massively popular prog scene, airplay and sales were scant. But True Myth’s leader, Tom Treumuth, whose last name inspired his band’s moniker, was destined for a much larger role in the Warner Canada story a few years down the road.
Christopher Ward was then in the early stages of a multi-faceted and very successful career. Starting on City TV’s City Limits show, he would later put in five high profile years as a VJ at Much Music before leaving to helm Alannah Myles’ career. But in 1978 he released Spark Of Desire for WEA. A soft pop/rock record co-written with his good friend/music industry lawyer/Degrassi alumnus Stephen Stohn, it yielded a top 20 single with “Maybe Your Heart,” but commercial success for the album was minimal.
After a decade-long gestation/frustration period, the domestic WEA Canada roster, to put it bluntly, needed a hit. And Winnipeg’s Streetheart would come to the rescue. Blessed with a GREAT front man in Kenny Shields, along with Daryl Gutheil (keyboards), Paul Dean (guitar) and the rock-solid rhythm section of Spider Sinnaeve (bass) and Matt Frenette (drums), Streetheart brought hard-nosed rock to their hard rock town, and then to all of Canada, generating four platinum and six gold albums for WEA Music of Canada and later, EMI. A&R man Gary Muth: "The first time I saw Streetheart was at the Knob Hill Hotel, an honest to goodness blue collar, slightly dangerous, rock ‘n’ roll bar in Scarborough, Ontario. In other words, the perfect setting. As an A&R man, you look for original material, musicianship and stage presence. These guys had it all - and the audience in the palms of their hands. In that dingy bar, they came across as rock stars. I was gobsmacked from the moment they hit the stage. They were the real thing and I knew that we had to sign them."
Road-tight and ready to record after honing their craft on the western bar circuit, Muth put the band in the studio with producer George Semkiw. The result, 1978’s Meanwhile Back In Paris, has been referred to as one of the best Canadian rock debuts ever, and it’s not hard to understand why. While songs like “Pressure,” “Look At Me” and “Just For You” made a visceral impact, the song that broke the band, that defines them, is “Action,” which sounds as fresh and feral today as when it was waxed nearly 40 years ago. What people might not know though is that the album almost never saw the light of day. “They were taking forever in the studio,” recalls Muth. “At one point, Ken Middleton said that we were spending too much money and that we should shut it down. Instead, I just started throwing invoices in my desk drawer until the album was finished.”
At the time of the album’s completion, I was a new hire as Atlantic and Elektra Marketing Manager and thus charged with quarterbacking Streetheart day to day. I recall running up to Ken Middleton, breathlessly exclaiming “This is going to blow up.” The sage President smiled and nodded, but the kid was right – Meanwhile Back In Paris became WEA Music of Canada’s first gold AND platinum domestic album.
1979’s Under Heaven, Over Hell, produced by Nazareth’s Manny Charlton, brought more hits, including two covers, Them’s “Here Comes The Night” and the Stones’ “Under My Thumb.” It also brought platinum sales and WEA Music of Canada’s first ever American release of a domestically signed act (on Atlantic), though to no avail sales-wise. It’s also noteworthy that a full five years before the launch of MuchMusic, WEA commissioned the making of a music video for “Under My Thumb” that effectively captures the live essence of Streetheart. It lives on via Youtube today. The Under Heaven, Over Hell cycle did end on a down note when Paul Dean and Matt Frenette decamped to join a new band from Calgary called Loverboy. They would do just fine – Loverboy’s life to date album sales are well north of 10 million units.
With 1980s Quicksand Shoes, produced again by Manny Charlton, the bloom began to fade on the relationship with WEA. Bereft of hits, album sales dipped from platinum to gold.
Change was in the air and later that year the band accepted an offer from EMI Canada.
It was a relatively brief, extraordinarily intense relationship – three albums in three years - but both Streetheart and WEA Canada emerged as winners. The band sowed the seeds of a 40-year live career while a still young company, seeking its A&R bonafides, proved it could find, sign, record, develop and market platinum level talent.
Sadly, the extraordinary frontman Kenny Shields was taken before his time in July of 2017.
While The Band was never signed to a Warner Music Group label per se, no narrative of this sort would be complete without a mention of the 1978 release of The Last Waltz, the aural document of their famous November 25, 1976 swansong, recorded live at Winterland in San Francisco. If there ever were musicians that felt like they belonged on Warner Bros. or Reprise, it was The Band. This album, exhaustively chronicled elsewhere, is the closest it ever came to reality.
Warner Bros. had another Canadian artist on the label in the late 70s. Via his song writing partner John Capek, Marc Jordan had attracted the attention of a heavy hitting U.S. A&R man and producer in the person of Gary Katz. Katz would produce every one of Steely Dan’s beyond brilliant albums, from Can’t Buy A Thrill in 1972 to Gaucho in 1980, and amass a sterling record in A&R at ABC Records and Warner Bros. That all led to the release of the finely crafted Mannequin album in 1978 which featured a pair of AC airplay staples in “Survival” and “Marina Del Rey.” A second effort Blue Desert would follow in 1979, this time produced by guitarist Jay Graydon. In 1993 Marc would record Reckless Valentine for U.S. independent Sin-Drome Records. Warner Music Canada licensed that record which went on to win a Producer of the Year JUNO for Marc and co-producer Steve MacKinnon. It remains an overlooked and quite stunning recording. Marc’s outstanding career as a songwriter and performer is decades long and he is still writing and making music today.
It might be said that the same good fortune that smiled on Marc Jordan also found Oakville band The Kings. Just as Marc caught Gary Katz’s eye, so it was that in 1980, while tracking at Nimbus 9 studios in Toronto, producer Bob Ezrin, fresh from producing an album called The Wall by some band called Pink Floyd, happened to drop by The Kings session. Liking what he heard, Ezrin offered the band to Elektra, which had been after him to bring them an act.
The Kings Are Here began a saga that continues to this day, with The Kings still playing live dates and the double A-side single “This Beat Goes On/Switchin’ To Glide” still a staple on classic rock and oldies radio. It was a pervasive multi-format smash, driving gold album sales in Canada and charting the album as high as #74 in America.
A second Ezrin-produced album Amazon Beach was hit free, quickly ending the relationship with Elektra. But the Kings and “This Beat Goes On/Switchin To Glide” undeniably carved their niche in the Canadian musical zeitgeist, one hit wonder or not. I suspect we’ll be hearing that song for decades to come. This beat goes on indeed!
Seymour Stein and Canada
“Record Man” is an appellation reserved for only the greatest music execs, for those who have signed and developed multiple genre-defining artists. Seymour Stein is a Record Man par excellence. On top of that he is a Record Man with a special and pronounced interest in Canada and Canadian artists, and he will make numerous appearances in this volume.
In the late 70s, Seymour’s Sire Records had aligned with Warner Bros., and together they would change the course of popular music, as Seymour would sign Talking Heads, The Ramones, Depeche Mode, The Pretenders, Madonna and more. In the 80s and 90s, he would continue that red-hot roll. Peripatetic, forever on a plane, he would sign great artists from many countries, including k.d. lang, Barenaked Ladies, Rheostatics and Corey Hart from Canada.
In the late 70s and early 80s not only was he signing the artists that would define his legacy, he was picking up disparate labels and artists for the Canadian market! One such pact was with a U.K. label, Statik Records, that had a Montreal-based electro pop band on its roster. Such is the unlikely path by which WEA Canada found itself in business with Men Without Hats.
Band leader Ivan Doroschuk and manger/producer Marc Durand were a potent team and in 1982 they dropped a bombshell on the world with the Rhythm Of Youth album and the single “The Safety Dance.” With a synth hook that could define the term earworm, “The Safety Dance” was a global smash, topping the dance charts, reaching number 3 pop in the U.S. via Backstreet/MCA, and hitting the top 5 in three other world markets. In Canada, the single went gold and the album platinum.
Seymour’s musical relationship with Canada began as a little boy listening to Wilf Carter recordings. And it continues today, as Seymour recently paired Warner Music Canada with Canadian rock icon Corey Hart’s Siena Records.
The 80’s: It’s The Music, Baby!
Bob Roper, fresh from a stint as Director of Marketing for promoter Michael Cohl’s company CPI, became WEA’s fourth A&R man in early 1983. His arrival coincided with that of WEA Canada’s second President Stan Kulin who succeeded Ken Middleton when the latter retired, also in early ‘83.
Stan, famously, would roam the halls on Birchmount Road, occasionally exclaiming “It’s the music, baby!” It was a light-hearted saying with a dead serious undertone – Stan always emphasized that we were in service of the artists and their creations, and that no individual should ever let the company’s explosive success go to their head.
Stan’s arrival was a significant inflection point in the history of the company, as he immediately took a decidedly more aggressive attitude to building a domestic roster. And Bob Roper, energetic and single-minded, was the right man at the right time to act on Stan’s mandate. He would sign a remarkable 17 acts in 6+ years in the A&R chair.
In Bob’s early tenure there was a signing flurry: Cherie Camp, Darkroom, Ann Mortifee, Images In Vogue, Idle Eyes and Messenjah. Let’s run through some highlights:
Idle Eyes was the brainchild of Vancouverite Tad Campbell. The self-titled debut album Idle Eyes generated a smash hit single and video, with “Tokyo Rose” making it all the way to #16 nationally and receiving extended exposure at MuchMusic in the era when that outlet could help break an act. A second single “All Day” followed it into the top 10. This would be Idle Eyes’ peak, underscored by a 1985 JUNO Award for Most Promising Band and national tours with artists like Bryan Adams and Red Rider.
Messenjah holds the distinction of being the very first reggae band to secure a major label contract in Canada! Formed in Kitchener in 1980, they recorded Rock You High independently which led to their signing to WEA and its reissue in ’83. With 1984 seeing the release of the well-received Session, the band then went on to appear in the hit movie Cocktail. Sadly, they were bumped at the last moment from the blockbuster million selling soundtrack in favour of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy!”
By 1982, Vancouver’s Images In Vogue had a hot reputation in their hometown, and on the back of two EPs would soon open not one but two Depeche Mode tours. Bob Roper took notice and in September of ’83 the band was signed to WEA, recording a self-titled EP that would change their fortunes. That platter contained “Lust For Love,” which became the band’s signature song, garnering extensive airplay on Toronto alternative rocker CFNY, at college radio and wherever non-mainstream music was played. It also sold a respectable 10,000 units – good business for an EP.
By the time of IIV’s full length release, In Your House, percussionist Kevin Crompton was already devoting substantial time to his decidedly more alternative side project, Skinny Puppy. The album led to a JUNO nomination for IIV as Most Promising Group, but by then the band was fractious and it was time for a parting of the ways.
It’s a long-held axiom in the music business that there are far more financial failures than winners. While Bob Roper’s early signings did not shoot out the lights on the album sales front, some memorable music was made. But those that know Bob know that he has always been a focused and relentless individual. And in 1984, he hit the motherlode with the signing of Honeymoon Suite.
Formed in ’81 by Niagara Falls native Johnnie Dee, two years later the band had coalesced around guitarist Derry Grehan, drummer Dave Betts, keyboard player Ray Coburn and manager/svengali Steve Prendergast. Then fate intervened. The band had recorded a demo of a song called “New Girl Now” which they entered in a talent contest hosted by Toronto rock station Q-107. Who should be one of the judges but Bob Roper: “I heard the song at the Q event and the next morning immediately hit the phones and tracked down Steve Prendergast. This was a band I flat out had to sign.”
Here is where our producer friend Tom Treumuth makes a dramatic re-entry at WEA. Recorded in two weeks at Toronto’s Phase One Studios and mixed at The Farmyard in the UK, the Treumuth-produced Honeymoon Suite album was crackling with an undeniable youth and energy. It detonated upon its release in June ’84, generating four hits, all written by Derry Grehan – “New Girl Now,” “Burning In Love,” “Wave Babies” and “Stay In The Light,” ultimately selling north of 300,000 units in Canada. Warner Bros. Records signed on for America and “New Girl Now” got close, connecting in several U.S. markets, ultimately peaking at 57 in Billboard.
For album number two, the band and WEA went big time, hiring the red hot and rising producer/engineer duo of Bruce Fairbairn and Bob Rock to make The Big Prize, released in1985. Three hits ensued: “Feel It Again” (written by Ray Coburn) became their first U.S. top 40 single, “Bad Attitude” (which made it into the final episode of Miami Vice) and “What Does It Take,” their first ballad hit. A new American artist paid attention to The Big Prize. Liking what he heard Jon Bon Jovi hired Fairbairn and Rock the following year for a platter called Slippery When Wet, most recently certified 12X platinum. The Big Prize did fine too, going double platinum in Canada and reaching #6 on the album charts.
After a forced hiatus when Johnnie Dee was hit by a car at LAX, the band returned in 1988 with Racing After Midnight, this time produced by Warner Bros. staff producer Ted Templeman, he of the gargantuan production resume, including The Doobie Bros., Van Halen, Van Morrison and many more. The album also charted #6 in Canada and spun out one major hit, the top ten “Love Changes Everything.”
Through the lens of time it seems a quizzical decision but in 1989 after only three albums, a hits compilation, The Singles was released that included two new songs, “Still Loving You” and “Long Way.” Somewhat premature or not, the album was absolutely loaded with hits and generated platinum-plus sales.
1991’s Monsters Under The Bed was recorded at Le Studio in Morin Heights, Quebec and produced by the eminently qualified Paul Northfield (Rush). But chart magic was not afoot and the album failed to reach even gold status.
Eight years had produced four albums, plus the singles compilation, and an untold number of shows. But Nirvana’s Nevermind had come out the year before, grunge was king, and the type of hard rock that Honeymoon Suite made was suddenly an anachronism. It was time for the band and WEA to go their separate ways. There would be sporadic post-WEA albums and compilations, none recapturing the glory years, but here’s the thing: the core Honeymoon Suite repertoire proved to be indelible. It is still regularly heard on classic rock and oldies radio to this day, and the band is still out on the hustings playing their hits for a paying audience.
For WEA, after showing they could play the rock game at a high level with Streetheart, they doubled down and then some with Honeymoon Suite, selling 1,000,000 units in Canada over the five albums. The company was coming into its own in the domestic A&R arena, and even bigger successes were right around the corner.
Frozen Ghost was formed in Toronto out of the ashes of EMI pop rockers Sheriff, which had dissolved after initially having little success (that would later change, and dramatically). They started life as a studio duo with Arnold Lanni wearing multiple hats – sole songwriter, guitar player, keyboard player and producer. His partner, Wolf Hassel, played bass. A basement demo caught Roper’s ear and a deal was consummated.
The self-titled Frozen Ghost debut was released in 1986 and connected immediately, with the anti-censorship single “Should I See” going top 30 in Canada, and all the way to 4 at rock radio in America via Atlantic. FG would tour North America with Howard Jones and Thompson Twins and bag a Most Promising Band JUNO and a nomination for the “Should I See” video.
Arnold Lanni then did a very smart thing with far-reaching consequences – he took the second album advance and built a north Toronto studio (The Arnyard) where the second and third Frozen Ghost albums were made. Arnold went on to produce many other artists there, including Our Lady Peace, which became a huge act for Sony. The Arnyard is still in business today as Vespa, owned and run by Harry Hess, ex of rockers Harem Scarem who are soon to make an appearance in this story.
That second album was Nice Place To Visit. Two singles would chart, “Round and Round” going top 20 and “Dream Come True” reaching 34.
Here’s where Arnold’s former band Sheriff unexpectedly re-enters the picture. EMI re-released a ballad “When I’m With You,” which connected in a big way, going all the way to number 1 in America. Arnold put Frozen Ghost on pause until the Sheriff commotion died down, not re-emerging until 1991 with Shake Your Spirit. Two singles charted. “Head Over Heels” made it to 16 and “Cry (If You Want To)” hitting 36.
Similar to the Honeymoon Suite timeline, it’s now the grunge era, and Arnold would pull the plug on Frozen Ghost, opting to devote himself fully and successfully to production.
The compilation The Essentials would surface well down the road in 2005.
There must have something in all that water in Niagara Falls. At the same time as Johnnie Dee was incubating Honeymoon Suite, another local lad, Gerry McGhee was doing the same with what would become Brighton Rock. Enter Q-107 – again - and Steve Prendergast – again. Prendergast recognized the potential in a song McGhee’s former band had submitted to a Q contest, signed on as manager, convinced them to change their name, and brought the band to Roper. If at first you do succeed, do it again, this time with a distinctly hair metal approach!
First up was 1986’s Young, Wild and Free, produced by metal maestro Michael Wagener. Atco picked it up for America and with videos rotating on Much and never-ending touring, a Canadian gold record was achieved three years later.
Jack Richardson was behind the board for 1988’s Take a Deep Breath, which shot past gold to 70,000 units sold, making it the band’s biggest success. Then-16-year old Canadian supermodel Monika Schnarre starred in the video for power ballad “One More Try.”
For 1991’s Love Machine the band dropped keyboards in a conscious decision to distance themselves from the glam rock tag and live up to what they were at their core – a hard rock band and a good one. Love Machine became a third consecutive gold album.
But the same changing times and musical styles that helped spell the end of the Honeymoon Suite contract also caught up to Brighton Rock, and the relationship came to an end.
The Essentials would surface in 2006 as part of the company-wide compilation series.
Bob Roper was not shy to take chances with artists that had recorded elsewhere. His signing of Trooper raised eyebrows at the time, as the band was perceived to be well past its 70s peak. But Roper knew something, as Last of the Gypsies, released in 1989, showed the band still had enough gas in the tank to go gold.
At this point, it’s appropriate to introduce Dave Tollington to this tale. Dave would spend 25 years at the company (1977-2002), much of it in a senior executive role and charged with overseeing the domestic roster. A&R reported directly to him from 1989 onward. To say that he did yeoman’s work in that role would be an understatement, as we shall illustrate.
Ian Thomas/The Boomers
Bob Roper looked backwards again with the 1988 signing of Ian Thomas for the Levity album. Ian already had an impressive resume as an artist, racking up a series of gold albums and hit singles with his recordings for the GRT label. While Levity did not set cash registers ringing, Ian’s next step fared better. Aligning with drummer Rick Gratton, guitarist Bill Dillon and bassist Peter Cardinali (each a seasoned and respected musician), Thomas observed that this combo felt like a band rather than a solo album. In consultation with Dave Tollington the decision was made to use a band name, The Boomers, in wry deference to the players no longer being in the early bloom of youth. What We Do was released in 1991. Slow out of the box in Canada, fate improbably intervened when a retail chain in Germany of all places, got behind the album and started promoting it heavily instore. The album caught fire there and went on to sell 20,000 units! Art of Living followed in ’93. “You’ve Got To Know” was a top 20 Canadian single and had a solid chart run in America via Wildcat Records/MCA.
The Pursuit of Happiness
Every label has “the ones that got away” and Warner Canada is no different. We’ll leave that dirt mostly swept under the rug though the curious tale of The Pursuit of Happiness is worth noting. Then and now, one of the music industry’s most fun and colourful characters is Jeff Rogers. As a young man, he cut his teeth in the management game under Steve Prendergast’s wing, working with Honeymoon Suite and Brighton Rock before leaving in 1986 to open his own Swell Management (It’s still active today). Around that time, he hooked up with TPOH’s Moe Berg, an Albertan just relocated to Toronto. Moe had written a seething piece of punk-influenced rock ‘n’ roll called “I’m An Adult Now,” a low budget video for which was garnering all kinds of play on MuchMusic. Enter Roper who Jeff knew from the Prendergast days. WEA licensed the two-song 12” of “I’m An Adult Now” b/w “She’s So Young” to take advantage of the increasing heat around TPOH. Negotiations for an album deal immediately started…and foundered just as quickly. The two sides simply could not resolve a couple of crucial deal points. It took Jeff another couple of years but eventually Chrysalis Records stepped up with a deal. Todd Rundgren signed on to produce the Love Junk album which went on to sell platinum and is regarded as one of the all-time great Canadian rock records. Ouch! Sidebar: Jeff Rogers shortly thereafter hit the management motherlode, selling 10,000,000 records with Crash Test Dummies.
Spirit of the West
In the late 80s, Bob Roper and Dave Tollington, now working closely together, had a philosophical conversation about A&R. It was simple in its essence, far reaching in its implication and results. That notion: don’t chase the market. Sign quality. Let the artists make their music. The market will find you.
One of the first examples of this new philosophy was the signing of Vancouver’s Spirit of the West. Already with a trio of albums on WEA-distributed Stony Plain Records, SOTW jumped to the mothership with 1990’s Save This House, produced by Danny Greenspoon. Instant paydirt. While the album had scant connection with the album charts or commercial radio, campus radio and the critics ate it up. Two songs, “Save This House” and the beer-drenched “Home For A Rest,” became classics. John Mann, Geoffrey Kelly and confreres’ first album for WEA would eventually be certified platinum. The new A&R philosophy had borne its first fruit.
1991 brought the Joe Chicarelli-produced Go Figure. A quantum leap forward sonically, it delivered two more Spirit standards, “D For Democracy (Scour The House)” and a re-make of “Political.” The results, fuelled by ever larger touring: another certification for gold. It also marked the debut of long-running and much-loved drummer Vince Ditrich.
At this point, your faithful correspondent, newly installed in the A&R chair, was bestowed a plum assignment - to work with the band on their next recording, Faithlift, superbly produced by Michael-Philip Wojewoda. That mostly involved staying out of the way as Spirit was at the peak of its powers. Blessed with particularly stunning artwork, Faithlift was both a classic and Spirit’s biggest selling album, going platinum. The sublime single “And If Venice Is Sinking” broached the top 30 and songs like “5 Free Minutes,” “Sadness Grows” and “Is This Where I Come In” were instant classics of the Spirit canon.
Two-Headed followed in1995 but did not sustain the momentum, as the market reacted quizzically to the darker material and sales retreated below gold. But the band continued to be a touring juggernaut and in May of 1995 two hometown shows at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver were recorded. With the addition of two studio tracks and comprised of all new material, Open Heart Symphony captured two joyous nights of music making and temporarily restored equilibrium.
However, 1997’s Weights & Measures failed to connect and it was clear in its wake that the relationship had run its course.
Special mention must be made of the definitive Spirit of the West anthology, 1983-2008 Spirituality: The Consummate Compendium. It’s a beautifully annotated 2-disc, 32 track voyage through the Stony Plain and Warner albums, with new songs and rarities.
To close the Spirit of the West story, it’s necessary to comment on the deep humanity and abiding talents of the individuals. Your writer is proud to call John Mann, Geoffrey Kelly and Vince Ditrich friends to this day, and the love and admiration that their fellow musicians have for them is palpable. The June 2015 final Spirit of the West show, in Toronto at Massey Hall - their first time playing the grand old lady of Shuter Street - was an emotional evening that those in attendance will never forget.
Aside from the country artists Bob Roper signed, which are dealt with separately, we have nearly covered all of Bob’s signings at WEA. He would move on to new challenges in 1990 but it’s fair to say Roper left a major and lasting body of work from his six plus years at the company. His contributions are generally under-appreciated in this writer’s view. Hopefully these stories will help to right that wrong. In fact, there are two artists of massive significance with a Roper connection still to talk about – Blue Rodeo and Loreena McKennitt.
We’ll return to those tales shortly…but first, let’s check in with the U.S. labels, who were not sitting around while Roper was doing his thing.
It would take a novel to properly chronicle the career of David Foster. We won’t attempt that here but a couple of numbers will give you a succinct overview: 47 Grammy nominations; 16 wins. Enough said.
The relationship between Foster and the Warner Music Group has been long, illustrious and immensely profitable for all involved. It started with a bang in 1985 with the Foster-produced soundtrack to the movie St. Elmo’s Fire on Atlantic Records. Driven by the two-week Billboard number one single, “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man In Motion)” by John Parr, the soundtrack went double platinum. Foster immediately followed up with a platinum self-titled solo album in ’86. In 1988, Calgary hosted the “Winter Games” and Foster’s song of that name drove Symphony Sessions to just shy of platinum. 1990 brought River of Love and in ’91 Rechordings.
The Foster relationship with WMG would lead to his Atlantic-distributed label 143, then platinum-selling Reprise vocalist Josh Groban, and the artist we’ll talk much more about later, Michael Bublé.
In 1983, managed then as now by Allen Moy, 54:40 released a six song EP, Selection, via Vancouver collective Mo-Da-Mu Records, and followed that in ’84 with a debut full length, Set The Fire. Reprise caught wind of the band’s growing reputation, signed them and sent them off to Mushroom Studios in Vancouver with producer Dave Ogilvie. The result was 1986’s 54:40, a classic album beginning to end. Ripping rock ‘n’ roll (album opener “Baby Ran”), hooky pop (“I Go Blind”) and extended improvisation (“Me Island”) all combined to make 54:40 a breakout record and huge critics’ favourite.
We can’t talk about “I Go Blind” without mentioning Atlantic artists Hootie & The Blowfish. That band’s 1994 Cracked Rear View was a phenomenon, selling an incredible 16 million units in the U.S. and another million in Canada. Here’s the heartbreaker for 54:40: Hootie recorded “I Go Blind,” but it was a last-minute scratch from Cracked Rear View. But things still turned out reasonably well for the band. “I Go Blind” first made it to the soundtrack of Friends, then a red-hot television property, and Hootie did finally release their version on the 2000 covers record, Scattered, Smothered and Covered. Lo and behold it was a hit, charting all over AC radio in America and reaching #13 in Canada. But one can only ponder the impact on 54:40’s lives and career if the song had not been cut from Cracked Rear View!
1987 brought Show Me, produced by Dave Jerden and featuring more of the same tight, hooky yet relentlessly innovative rock. Songs like “One Day In Your Life,” “Walk In Line” and “One Gun” helped propel the album to gold in Canada.
In 1989 the band went back to Dave Ogilvie for Fight For Love. “Miss You” and “Baby Have Some Faith” added to the band’s growing and impressive repertoire of great material.
While Canada was selling respectable quantities of 54:40 CDs, progress in America was muted and Reprise dropped the band after the third album. A Canada-made compilation was clearly in order, and in 1991, the 17 track Sweeter Things anthology was released. Collecting 54:40’s best songs on one CD was the spark that belatedly lit the sales fuse, as that album would soar well past platinum, helping set the stage for an extraordinary career that continues to this day.
k.d. lang recently joined the elite group of artists that have been associated with the Warner Music Group for 30+ years, rotating from Sire to Warner Bros. to Nonesuch. Born in Edmonton and raised in Consort near Red Deer, in the early 80s k.d. would walk into an Edmonton recording studio run by Larry Wanagas.
Wanagas, no dummy, heard a once in a lifetime voice and signed on as manager. In 1984, A Truly Western Experience (first released on Larry’s Bumstead Records and later by WEA) started k.d.’s unstoppable rise. “I’ll never forget k.d. lang turning the town on its ear with her residency at Albert’s Hall at the Brunswick House on Bloor St.,” recalls Steve Kane. “At the time Toronto had an active Rockabilly scene and at first people seemed to lump her in with that crowd. But those shows announced the arrival of someone and something unique.”
Enter Seymour Stein who promptly signed her to Sire Records worldwide. A remarkable twelve album run has ensued, the first half dozen for Sire, starting with Angel With A Lariat in 1987, and fuelling a career that has made her a global star and Canadian icon. Among the many highlights: the pop breakthrough of “Constant Craving” in 1992 from her biggest commercial success, Ingenue; 2004’s double platinum Cancon covers record Hymns of the 49th Parallel on Nonesuch, including her rendition of Neil Young’s “Helpless.” Then there’s the song that she performed at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, which has become her signature tune - Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” That only scratches the surface of an outstanding artist and one of the greatest singers of the last 30 years. “I think k.d. lang is one of those handful of artists who defies simple genre classification,” says Kane. “She simply makes k.d. lang music.”
Jane Child was a Scarborough-born synthesizer player who chose Warner Bros. among several label suitors because they agreed to allow her to fully write, perform and produce her debut album. The unheralded release of her debut album Jane Child in 1989 caught everyone by surprise when its single “Don’t Want To Fall In Love” soared all the way to number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 AND number 6 R&B (she was for a brief time referred to as the female Prince). However, the good news ends there. The single airplay did not translate to album sales and a 2nd single was not successful. Warner Bros. did release a second album Here Not There in 1993 to little notice.
An American A&R man walks into a bar…no it’s not a joke, it’s the true story of Kon Kan, aka Barry Harris. In 1988 Atlantic Records A&R rep Marc Nathan was visiting a Toronto club where Harris was DJ-ing and heard Harris’s “I Beg Your Pardon,” a sample heavy pastiche rooted around the chorus of Lynn Anderson’s country chestnut “Rose Garden.” Nathan bought several copies of the single and Atlantic test marketed them. The reception was positive and the debut Kon Kan album Move To Move was released in 1989. “I Beg Your Pardon” was issued as single, becoming a major hit in several global markets and going top 20 in the U.S. and Canada. Like the Jane Child tale, subsequent releases didn’t come close to the first hit. A second album Syntonic was released in 1990 but its singles had only fleeting contact with the charts.
By the time Daniel Lanois’ Acadie appeared in 1989 on Warner-distributed Opal Records, he had shot to superstardom as a producer for his work on two U2 albums, The Unforgettable Fire and Joshua Tree, Peter Gabriel’s 1986 breakout So, and Robbie Robertson’s self-titled first album post The Band in 1987 (we’ll come to it in just a moment). All of that served to make the arrival of Acadie hotly anticipated, though nobody was quite ready for the recording Lanois delivered. “Masterpiece” is sorely overused as an adjective but it is truly merited here. A transcendent listening experience from beginning to end, WEA Canada can be proud of rallying behind the album, driving it past gold without a whisper of commercial airplay. Hats off to MuchMusic which recognized its brilliance and supported it heavily. Nearly 30 years down the road, Acadie still resonates and its place in the pantheon of all-time great Canadian recordings is secure.
It took four years for a follow-up to arrive. A classic “slow burn” listen, 1993’s For The Beauty of Wynona is another superb recording that belongs in any serious record collection.
The 1987 Daniel Lanois-produced Robbie Robertson album solo album was recorded for Geffen Records, then part of the Warner Bros. empire. While it may have been a long time coming post The Band’s late 70’s dissolution, it was well worth the wait. Critical acclaim was universal and the album was a hit all over the world, although nowhere bigger than Canada. It spun out a series of hits that included “Showdown at Big Sky,” “Sweet Fire of Love,” Somewhere Down The Crazy River” and “Broken Arrow,” a monster hit for Rod Stewart two years later. And the JUNO Awards certainly approved: In ’88, Robbie won Album of the Year, Male Vocalist and Producer trophies en route to a double platinum certification. Not a bad comeback Robbie!
1991 would bring Robbie’s ambitious New Orleans-themed Storyville album, although by that point David Geffen had accepted a $700 million dollar offer for his label, moving from the Warner Music Group to Universal in a tectonic shift in the music business.
In 1987, former WEA recording artist and MuchMusic VJ Christopher Ward came to see Bob Roper, seeking a deal for his then girlfriend and aspiring recording artist Alannah Myles. Bob felt that the deal was too steep for the Canadian company, but knowing that Atlantic Records was looking to sign a female artist, he tipped his associate at Atlantic, Tunc Erim, to Alannah. That simple inter-company courtesy lit the fuse on what would become one of the biggest records in the 50-year history of Warner Canada, although the plot would not unfold for another two years.
Please permit your scribe a personal reminiscence: In 1989 I was still serving as the Atlantic and Elektra Records marketing manager. We knew the Alannah Myles record was coming. On February 16, 1989 Christopher Ward called. “Can I come up and play a song?” Christopher played us the finished master of a song he had mostly written, with a finishing contribution from Dave Tyson. It was “Black Velvet.” Work in the business long enough and you will have moments when you are thunderstruck by a piece of music, when a monster success is a certainty. I played “Black Velvet” for as many people as I could that day.
Mostly co-written by Christopher Ward and Dave Tyson and produced by Tyson, Alannah Myles was released in March of 1989, and it was everything the company expected and more. A bit surprisingly, “Black Velvet” was not the first single choice. That nod went to “Love Is,” and it did its job beautifully, charting high at rock radio and top 40. Album sales exploded and would not taper for 18 solid months.
By the summer of 1989, it was hammer time. With one hit single in the back pocket, heavy touring and video play, and the album already platinum, WEA Canada dropped “Black Velvet” to radio. Every label cherishes songs that react, that push the consumer’s buy button and “Black Velvet” did exactly that, rocketing to the top of rock and top 40 radio and staying in power rotation for what seemed like forever. As fall rolled around, the Alannah Myles album was red hot with a remarkable 500,000 units sold in Canada.
But in America, it was…crickets. Nothing had connected out of the box. At the half million mark, the Canadian company was now making Atlantic look bad. Fully aware of the “Black Velvet” Canadian story, Atlantic started seeding the track in America. It is the proverbial radio fable and we’ve heard it before, but two stations, one in Missoula, Montana and one in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania started playing “Black Velvet.” As it did in Canada, the track eventually exploded, hitting number 1 on the Hot 100 on March 24, 1990, staying there for two weeks and spending 24 weeks in total on the chart. A decade later, BMI would honour it with their Millionaire Award for over 5,000,000 plays. That dear reader, was a hit single!
It was also the peak of the album in America. Atlantic would have some modest success with “Still Got This Thing” charting at 36 on the Hot 100 and just cracking top 20 at mainstream rock. After that it was over and out.
Not so in Canada. Far from it. “Still Got This Thing” and the ballad “Lover of Mine” were spun out as hit singles, the latter hitting the top of the pop and AC charts in 1990.
It’s a good time to run down the accomplishments of the Alannah Myles album. Canada first:
All told, the Alannah Myles album would sell 5,000,000 units worldwide. Bob Roper’s tip to Tunc Erim three years earlier had paid off big time.
We can say this about Alannah’s 1992 follow-up album Rockinghorse: all “unsuccessful” follow ups should go double platinum! Largely a footnote today, that is both how Rockinghorse is perceived and what it sold. Under the heading of “if it ain’t broke,” the same team of Tyson and Ward wrote most of the album and Tyson produced it. And they did good work – Rockinghorse was a strong album, definitely underrated, but coming anywhere near close to the first album was simply too much to ask. First single “Song Instead of a Kiss” was a legitimate Canadian hit, going to number 1 at two formats, but failing to dent any U.S. chart. Sales south of the border and globally fell off precipitously.
There would be one final Atlantic album, A-lan-nah in 1995, but the heady days of 89/90 were long gone by then. Sales were insignificant and Atlantic and Alannah would part company in its wake.
For Alannah, Christopher Ward and the WEA Canada staff, the Alannah Myles album was one incredible, indelible ride. Alannah was the first Canadian Warner artist to achieve the elite Diamond sales plateau. She would later be joined by Barenaked Ladies, Alanis Morissette and Michael Bublé but the premier distinction is all hers. And “Black Velvet” is inescapable on classic rock, AC and oldies radio to this day, fattening the SOCAN accounts of Chris Ward and Dave Tyson commensurately!
Let Christopher Ward have the last word: “Alannah, Dave and I are, to this day, proud of the work we did together and the amazing response it received. And it's truly a Canadian story. Yes, Alannah was signed to a legendary and powerful American label, but it was the insight of Bob Roper at WEA Canada that got her there and the relentless efforts of the people at the Canadian label that sustained the album while the Americans figured out what to do with it. The only person who foresaw any of this happening was the artist. I remember the day when Alannah met Kim Cooke at WEA and when he complimented her by saying, ‘I think you could be looking at a Platinum album in Canada,’ she smiled and said, ‘Platinum? I'm going to sell a million!’”
We return now to the domestic WEA roster and two of the greatest artists the company has ever signed. Both of them started with Bob Roper, who handed off to Dave Tollington. It’s Dave’s stewardship through 2001 that stands out when viewed through the lens of time, as you shall see.
Blue Rodeo has been so extensively chronicled that the story of this great band and their 30-year continuous relationship with Warner Canada is well known to anyone with even a passing interest in Canadian music.
Rather than going down that road in detail yet again, let’s tell a few personal tales and shine new light on a couple of recordings.
The story of how Blue Rodeo came to be signed is especially poignant. Bob Roper’s relationship with Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor went back to their Hi-Fi’s days when Jim and Greg were still living in New York. Similarly, he knew Blue Rodeo’s first manager John Caton from Caton’s first band The Arrows. But an unsung heroine of the piece was JoAnn Kaeding. JoAnn is still kicking it 40+ years into a stellar career music business career. Today Jo is working for Sony in New York as VP International Marketing, handling global press and marketing campaigns for everyone from Miley Cyrus to Celine Dion. But in the mid-80s, she was part way through a nine-year run as publicist at WEA Canada. Young and music-driven, she was on Queen Street in its heyday when she first encountered Blue Rodeo cutting its teeth in the street’s clubs. Roper had heard demos and initially had taken a pass – his rejection letter was famously reprinted in the booklet accompanying the band’s Greatest Hits album - but Jo was dogged, continually urging him to see the rapidly improving band live. Even after a pivotal gig at Nag’s Head North in Toronto, attended by very few except WEA staffers, the company didn’t offer a contract. But JoAnn continued to be a cheerleader, and in time Roper was able to structure a deal whereby Blue Rodeo would sign to Caton’s WEA-distributed Risque Disque imprint which had the crucial support of FACTOR. Risque Disque had a short but colourful life, after which Blue Rodeo releases would appear on the WEA label. But hats off to JoAnn Kaeding for her unrelenting zeal and to Bob Roper for finding a way to sign a band that early on was commercially out of step with the marketplace, no matter how great their music.
It’s 1986, and enter producer Terry Brown, very well known for his work with Rush, Max Webster and more. So began the protracted recording of the Outskirts album, which finally hit the street in March of 1987. Initial commercial response might be best described as…tepid. First single “Outskirts” did not connect – remember rock dinosaurs still had a stranglehold on FM radio and the widespread embrace of roots music/Americana was still down the road a bit. With the album stalling it was time for radical thought.
Let’s hit the pause button again and pull back to 30,000 feet for some perspective. Down the 30-year history of Blue Rodeo’s relationship with Warner Canada, there have been broadly two eras. The second era, 2002 to the present, has been superbly captained by Steve Kane and his staff. Considering that the band could have written its own ticket anywhere, Kane gets all kinds of credit for keeping Blue Rodeo contented and recording for Warner Canada throughout the new millennium. The captain of the first era, through the presidencies of Stan Kulin and Garry Newman, was Dave Tollington. In 1986, Dave was the marketing manager for the domestic roster. By the late-80s, Stan Kulin saw that Dave was a particularly intelligent, musically savvy and hard-working lieutenant, and in short order promoted him to the Senior VP/Managing Director level. From that perch Dave would be the prime creative and business liaison with Jim, Greg and, a bit later, Sue de Cartier, from 1987 to the end of 2001.
Back to Outskirts and the need for radical thought. There’s nobody better than Dave to tell the story: “The band had wanted ‘Outskirts’ as the first single. And although ‘Try’ was the obvious knock-out punch, a set-up track that perhaps displayed the band’s broader elements was not a bad idea…and we loved ‘Outskirts’ anyway. But radio wasn’t having any of it. And so we rolled out ‘Try,’ knowing this was a do or die single for the album, if not for Blue Rodeo itself. At the time, I was good friends with John Martin, having known him well before he started The New Music and took the helm at MuchMusic. As such, we trusted each other and spent a lot of time playing loud noisy jams at my house, as well as turning each other on to new music at his place. Subsequently, John fell in love with ‘Try’ and although he hated the video, he put it in heavy rotation all summer and into the fall...not only because he simply loved hearing the song, but also he wanted to prove that Much could sell a record he believed in, all on its own. Unfortunately, John was not able to prove his point…at least in Blue Rodeo’s case: the same 5,000 records we shipped that summer just sat there. But as smaller radio stations – one by one – started adding ‘Try’ in the fall, a little investigation revealed that radio programmers were watching Much closely for cues on Canadian artists. Then Ontario branch manager Herb Forgie came up with the idea of a ‘Blue Bucks’ incentive program – a scheme whereby our promo, sales and display reps, along with stores, were incentivized through an arcane system of goals, customized to each rep and store. Rolling it out nationally, it worked beautifully, unifying everyone into a Blue Rodeo machine, building the buzz, influencing the hold-outs and eventually ratcheting up sales to Platinum and beyond. Although the incentives weren't big, Warner field reps and retail loved the competition…and no question they loved Blue Rodeo.”
In a spectacular bit of foreshadowing, future Warner Music Canada President Steve Kane, already a fan of the band, was an enthusiastic participant in the Blue Bucks campaign while working at Records On Wheels on Yonge St. in Toronto.
To say that Blue Rodeo’s career was launched would be an understatement. “Try” went to #6 pop, #3 AC and #1 country. And Outskirts has now sold in excess of 500,000 units. Wow!
It was very quickly apparent that Blue Rodeo had the musical goods to go the distance. In short order Diamond Mine, Casino and Lost Together had consolidated the Outskirts breakthrough, each spinning out hit songs, each achieving multiple platinum sales and cumulatively generating genuine stateside interest. High level touring and JUNO nominations and awards were flowing. But the best was still to come.
By the end of the Lost Together cycle, the band was gasping for breath. After four albums and eight years of non-stop touring, they were gassed and badly in need of some down time. As it happened, their deal was almost up. A bit of creative lawyer-less wrangling between Cuddy and Tollington then bought the band some breathing space, and Warner some additional albums. Central to that breathing space was the quick recording and release of a new album, one that would trigger advances from the new deal and afford Blue Rodeo a year at home in order to recharge. For the past few years, the band had been hosting “Blue Rodeo and Friends” gigs during the Christmas holidays and Tollington suggested a recording equivalent – a quick and easy “semi-live” album that would suffice as the first album under the deal. And although Dave’s not sure to this day if his suggestion was indeed the genesis of what was to come, word came in the spring that the band was preparing to record at Greg Keelor’s farm using Doug McClement’s Livewire mobile truck.
Two sessions took place, June 21-25 and July 5-9. Musical friends on hand for the first session included Sarah McLachlan, Andy Maize and Josh Finlayson of Skydiggers, Anne Bourne and Andrew Cash.
Dave Tollington visited during the first session and sets the scene: “I drove up to Greg’s farm on one of those hot days in late June and arrived early evening, just as the fireflies were starting to appear. The scene, the vibe was magical, with family, friends and children scattered about, like a mini-Woodstock. I remember sitting on the floor in front of Bazil, in what I think was Greg’s living room. Bazil was on a stool with his bass. On his left side was Greg on another stool, with Sarah McLachlan perched beside me, in front of Greg. On Sarah’s other side was Jim Cuddy, leaning into her ear and singing a harmony for ‘Know Where You Go’ (Jim had been harmonizing so long with Greg that he instinctively…knew where to go). Someone then shouted outside for everyone to be quiet and recording began. And I don’t think I took a breath until the song was over, the whole experience being sheer magic – like catching some of those fireflies in a bottle.”
News of those sessions spread like wildfire through the musician community and the business – remember we’re in the pre-internet era – and everyone was pumped to hear the results, certainly including your correspondent. It’s time for one of the most incandescent memories from my time at Warner. A call comes in that Five Days In July was mixed and mastered and would I like to hear it? Just a little bit! I drove to Jim Cuddy’s house in Riverdale and we went for a ride, listening to the finished album in my car (on cassette!) as we cruised Lakeshore Boulevard. Like everyone in the company, I was a Blue Rodeo fan but I was not prepared for what I heard that day. That album, its songs, its vibe, were clearly a jump to a whole new level. Completely amazed, I can remember saying to Jim something to the effect that everything is going to be different now. He looked at me quizzically and said “Really?” seemingly not sure what to make of my blubbering.
But what a record! It sits comfortably in any listing of the top 10 greatest Canadian albums of all time. There were two monster hits, “5 Days In May” and “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet,” which both went top 10 pop and AC. “Bad Timing” cracked the top 20 and “Head Over Heels” the top 40. “5 Days” and the exquisite cover of Rodney Crowell’s “Till I Gain Control Again” were both hits at country radio. But moreover, the album held together as a complete work - a rare nirvana in the music world. MuchMusic pounded the videos endlessly. And there is the not insignificant matter of over 600,000 units sold and counting, Blue Rodeo’s high-water mark commercially.
The irony, of course, is that Blue Rodeo never did get that extended time off, with the response to Five Days In July launching their career into a whole new orbit.
Those are a couple of tales from the early days of Blue Rodeo, but the story continues today under Steve Kane’s direction. Kane: “The night before I started at Warner Music Canada, I turned to my wife and said ‘Hey, I get to work with Blue Rodeo. How great is that?’ I’d been a fan since the first time I saw them at the Cabana Room in the Spadina Hotel on the recommendation of Queen Street West’s legendary cowboy Handsome Ned. I’d bought every one of their records and had lost count of the number of times I’d seen them live.” If it was time to pass the torch, Kane, consummate music fan and collector, could not have been a better person to pass it to. Coincidentally, the Greatest Hits release, a figurative end of a chapter, had just come out, followed by the especially excellent Palace of Gold, driven by the hit “Bulletproof.” Palace of Gold brought a fresh new energy to the proceedings.
And Warner represents the band proudly to this day. Having Blue Rodeo on the roster pays a special dividend for the company. Kane again: “Blue Rodeo has been a secret weapon for us in signing artists. It never ceases to amaze me how often a potential signing will remark on how great it would be to say that they are on the same label as Blue Rodeo. The fact that the band has been with us the entire 30 years of their career says that we are a label that can truly become an artist’s home.”
In what has become a regular summer ritual, Blue Rodeo recently played a sold-out Budweiser stage in Toronto during the summer of 2017, performing songs from down through the decades for their adoring fans. To paraphrase a label-mate of theirs, long may they run!
Lynda Lemay’s story is extraordinary in every way, and it is mostly unknown in English Canada, a wrong we will attempt to right.
Born in the small town of Portneuf (half-way between Trois Rivières and Quebec City), Lynda was emerging as a singer-songwriter in the late ‘80s when Warner Canada's Jean Lamothe enters the scene. Although now a giant of the Quebec music business after a stellar decades-long career at Warner Canada and Sony, Jean was in the French A&R chair for WEA in 1989. In that capacity, he signed a deal with a company called Les Productions Lied, specifically for Lynda Lemay.
In 1990, Lynda would debut with Nos Rêves. Despite the album's nod to conventional pop aspirations, Nos Reves met with little success at the time (although it has gone on to sell 35,000 units over the years). By 1993, Dave Tollington had become the executive in charge of A&R, including the French operation. And that year, Dave had a transformational experience witnessing Lynda’s performance at the Granby International Song Festival: “The reaction was something I’d never seen before. At some point in each song, the audience was giving Lynda standing ovations, cheering madly. And when I looked at their faces at the end of the songs, I saw tears everywhere – either from sadness or happiness, depending on the lyric.” Lynda the ingénue had obviously arrived as a mature and powerful writer and performer, not beholden to the vagaries of the pop charts.
For 1994’s Y, Tollington gave Lynda the creative control she craved and the album launched Lemay’s career with double platinum success.
1995 brought the 4-song EP La Visite. Although it did well in Québec, more importantly it served to further fuel Warner France’s increasing interest in Lynda.
With the stage having been set, what follows is one of the wildest tales in the history of Warner Canada A&R. In 1998, Lynda Lemay, a major aesthetic and commercial triumph, was released in Canada. In France, the pot was on the boil - no less an icon than Charles Aznavour had seen Lynda live at the Montreux Jazz Festival, fallen in love with her as an artist, and signed her to a publishing deal. Enter a take-no-prisoners new manager, Francois Flamand, who soon made a preposterous demand – that Warner Canada fund a 42-show residency for Lynda at L’Européen concert hall in Paris. Here, the genius of Dave Tollington comes into play again. Taking a page from his Blue Rodeo Five Days In July negotiations, Dave traded the necessary financial commitment for an extension to Lynda’s soon-to-expire contract. Cue the month of shows in Paris, with the first half being performed, as Dave expected, to a mostly empty hall. A miraculous event then took place. Charles Aznavour’s partner, Gérard Davoust, convinced a journalist from Le Nouvel Observateur, the most prominent magazine of the time, to attend Lynda’s show. The next day, Paris was set on its ear with an over-the-top rave review like the city had not seen in years. From that day on you couldn’t get near the place. Warner Music France personnel even had trouble getting in!
In 1999, Lynda Lemay Live is released. Though it attained very respectable platinum sales in Canada, the album exploded in France, reaching number 2 in the charts. In its wake, Dave and Hélène Morin, (who became Warner’s French A&R manager) were presented with French gold discs in April of 2000, a proud moment for the Canadian Francophone A&R operation.
Lynda Lemay was now a huge star in France, and the march was on: From Du coq à l’âme through to Décibels et des silences, a remarkable NINE straight Lynda Lemay albums have charted top 5 in France, with two at number 1 and two more at number 2. In total, Lynda Lemay’s catalog sales now exceed 4,500,000 units.
With only Blue Rodeo ahead of her, Lynda Lemay can lay claim to the second longest-running domestic relationship in Warner Canada’s 50-year history.
Loreena McKennitt holds a distinction at Warner Canada that will be difficult to top – she is the all-time biggest selling artist to be associated with the company domestically. Over 10,000,000 units were sold, principally generated by three extraordinary recordings: The Visit, The Mask and Mirror and The Book of Secrets.
Born in Morden, Manitoba, Loreena has stated that music chose her rather than she it, and by the early 80s she had left behind her rural farm upbringing and aspirations of a career as a veterinarian. Relocating to Stratford, Ontario, she could later be spotted playing harp near St. Lawrence Market on Front Street in Toronto, an early vestige of Loreena as a live performer.
Her debut Elemental would arrive in 1985, followed by To Drive The Cold Winter Away in 1987 and Parallel Dreams in 1989.
The internal machinations of how the company’s relationship with Loreena developed are worth recounting. Billy Johnston was the long time Warner Bros. marketing manager at WEA Canada. (He is also your writer’s mentor and friend of more than 40 years.) A keen and knowledgeable music fan, Billy’s quiet gnome-like presence would pervade and contribute to the company for 30 years. His ear was always to the ground and one key contact was Tom Plewman (brother of Jeff Plewman, aka Nash The Slash), proprietor of London, ON classical music store The Madrigal. Tom was constantly in Billy’s ear about the sheer quantity of Loreena’s independent albums that he was moving. Billy tipped Roper, and Roper, in a final grand gesture before he moved on, invited Stan Kulin to see Loreena live at the Winter Garden Theatre in Toronto.
A few words about Stan: he was a great man and an exceptional leader in many, many ways, which demands a separate essay of its own. But for an old school record guy who started at RCA in the 50s before that Presley kid was signed, he had exceptional instincts when it came to A&R. And the morning after that Winter Garden show, he made one of the most important calls of his 16-year tenure as President, suggesting to Dave Tollington (to whom he had just given the A&R department in Roper’s wake), that he strike a deal with Loreena.
On May 3, 1991, the HMV flagship store on Yonge Street opened. Dave was there and spotted Loreena thumbing through the classical racks. He approached, introduced himself and, being aware of her already prodigious independent success and artistic integrity, simply said, “If ever one day you feel you might need a record company, we’d like to be that company.” Perspicacious move Dave! Handing his card to Loreena, he left. And when that call came from her the following week, negotiations began.
And now a few words about Loreena the businesswoman: your writer has been privileged to work with many fantastically gifted musicians down the years, but the combination of extraordinary musical talent AND extraordinary business acumen is relatively rare. Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy stands out in this regard but Loreena may be the greatest example. For three decades plus she has run her own label Quinlan Road, kept control of her masters and publishing, and self-managed her career, all the while researching and making truly exceptional recordings that delivered musically and commercially. It’s extremely probable that had she focused her talents elsewhere she would have been a successful corporate CEO, politician, ambassador, brain surgeon or whatever (in fact, Loreena currently serves as the Honorary Colonel for the entire Royal Canadian Air Force).
The relationship with Loreena proved to be exceptional, but her critical bar was so high in all areas – musicianship, recording, mastering, packaging, marketing, live performance – that in turn it took an equally exceptional person on the record company side to work hand in hand with her. And that person would be Dave Tollington. Working closely together in an extraordinary professional relationship over the course of nearly a decade, heretofore unimagined levels of success were achieved around the world.
After cutting its teeth in the 80s, A&R at Warner Canada had come fully into its own with the successes of Loreena and Blue Rodeo.
Back to the three core Loreena albums. The Warner deal kicked off with The Visit, perfect timing as it caught the artist in full creative bloom on her fourth recording, a thoughtfully researched meditation on all things Celtic. Allmusic.com sums it up nicely in choosing The Visit as their favorite Loreena recording: “(The Visit is) a quietly majestic tapestry of worldbeat and Celtic pop that effortlessly weaves together traditional and contemporary songs into lush showcases for her fluid voice and harp.”
Sharp ears in the person of senior A&R exec Roberta Peterson at Warner Bros. in Los Angeles caught the vibe and the bunny signed on as Loreena’s record company in the U.S. via Warner Music Canada (as did Warner Music International companies around the world).
Six years of priming the pump with her independent releases, many live performances and her own burgeoning mailing list had paid off in a big way. But with The Visit going on to sell 500,000+ units in Canada with Warner Music, how was it possible for an album with virtually no commercial airplay to achieve such heights? Tollington put it this way: “As described in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (which Loreena gave me early on), The Visit simply ‘tipped.’ Where other records required hundreds or even thousands of spins on commercial radio before we saw the needle move on sales, one play on CBC radio would induce a measurable shift in Loreena’s album at retail. She was that kind of artist. Though hard work and touring were obvious factors as well, her word of mouth was ferocious.” The Visit would go gold in the U.S. and also kick-start Loreena internationally, with Brazil of all places achieving gold. In total, it sold several million worldwide.
1994’s The Mask and Mirror took Loreena to Spain and its centuries of musical heritage. Three of her most famous recordings “The Bonny Swans,” “The Mystic’s Dream” and “Marrakesh Night Market” can be found here. Commercially, Loreena continued to explode as The Mask and Mirror sold millions more worldwide, including four times platinum in Canada and gold in America.
A notable seasonal EP, A Winter Garden: Five Songs for the Season, would be released in November 1995 and go gold in Canada.
The Book of Secrets, released in 1997, would be the last in the trio of Loreena’s 90s Celtic-themed albums, inspired by and written during her global travels of the previous few years. For this recording, she took it up a notch, bringing her musical entourage to Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in the UK. The results were customarily excellent, but a seismic eruption was about to interrupt Loreena’s seasoned creative template.
Warner Canada’s Randy Stark, then heading up radio promotion for the domestic roster, proposed the idea of taking “The Mummers’ Dance” to pop radio. With the singles charts and Loreena’s music being oil and water, seemingly opposing forces in musical nature, this was a heretical notion. But one thought led to another and DNA, a British production duo, were hired to do a remix of “The Mummers’ Dance.” Up to that point, Loreena had achieved major success in every facet of her career, except conquering the top 100 singles chart. That would all change with the release of “The Mummers’ Dance.” Working the same magic they had with their chart-busting remix of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner,” DNA added electronic percussion and accented the naturally addictive chorus of the song. The results were absolutely explosive. The remix of “The Mummers’ Dance” would be a hit all over the world, going top 10 in Canada and reaching #18 on the Billboard top 100 singles, even charting top 20 at Modern Rock. Good call Randy!
The impact on album sales was huge: four million worldwide sales, double platinum in America peaking at #17 in Billboard, 4X platinum in Canada and top 30 in 10 other markets.
Unfortunately, just as Loreena’s career was soaring in 1998, life intervened in a most cruel fashion when three of her closest friends lost their lives in a boating accident. Accordingly, that year Loreena founded The Cook-Rees Memorial Fund for Water Search and Safety, raising nearly C$4 million for water safety education and research, with a major portion of the money coming from sales of her 1999 Live in Paris and Toronto album. With 15 hard years of career-building behind her, Loreena then took an extended hiatus from recording new albums until 2006’s An Ancient Muse, by which time she had moved on from the Warner Music Group.
An altogether remarkable human being and artist nonpareil, Loreena McKennitt remains active today, recording and touring and contributing to her causes. Her list of awards and honors is lengthy, including multiple Grammy Nominations and JUNO wins, as well as being a Member of the Order of Canada.
A last word from Dave Tollington: “Apart from the incredible music, my time with Loreena was a glorious journey through geography, business and heights of success I don’t think either of us ever contemplated at the beginning. So much richly nourishing water flowed under that bridge for me, both professionally and personally, and I’m thankful I can call her a friend to this day.”
Based around the duo of Harry Hess and Pete Lesperance, Harem Scarem was brought to Dave Tollington by post-Bob Roper A&R man Greg Torrington. Six albums would be released via Warner, from the self-titled debut in 1991 through to Big Bang Theory in 1998, with domestic sales quickly declining from minimal to minuscule. So why continue the relationship? In one word: Japan. That country, whose domestic artists comprised most of their music market, retained an appetite for Harem Scarem’s brand of hard rock well into the late 90s. They were stars there, selling appreciable quantities of records, touring well and being chased down the street by adoring fans. The Warner Japan marketing manager would travel to Toronto every six months to meet Harry with a shopping list of requests: a best of ballads with a new song, a new EP with a new song, a live album with a new song. Pete and Harry would rush in to the studio and write and record new material, practically having a finished master before the rep was on the plane back to Tokyo. And that was all funded out of Canada by Warner Music, which profited nicely from the arrangement.
One of this writer’s favourite Canadian artists is the crazy-talented, enigmatic, eminently kooky-in-a-great-way Jane Siberry. Toronto-born, by the early 80s she was signed to WEA-distributed Duke Street Records for whom she would make four excellent albums.
The 1984 arrival of both MuchMusic and her second album No Borders Here was fortuitous. One of her signature songs, “Mimi On The Beach,” was embraced by college and alternative radio, select top 40 stations, and the nation’s music station, which supported its video heavily. 40,000 units were sold, setting the stage nicely for 1985’s The Speckless Sky, which included a substantial hit in “One More Colour.” The Speckless Sky would go gold in Canada, at which point Reprise bought Jane’s contract ex-Canada from new age-oriented indie Windham Hill, although Duke Street continued to hold Canadian rights. 1988’s The Walking was a conceptually ambitious album. Reprise tried to market Jane as a contemporary of highly regarded musical progressives like Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel, but sales retreated. 1989 brought Bound By The Beauty, a more accessible recording which restored some sales equilibrium.
But Duke Street was not long for the world, folding its tent shortly thereafter, at which point Reprise added Canada to its contract. All of that set the stage for Jane’s crown jewel, the extraordinary 1993 recording When I Was a Boy. For the first time Jane shared production duties, with Brian Eno and Canadian Michael Brook, to remarkable effect. The production was superb and cutting edge, but the songs, oh the songs! The spectacular “Calling All Angels,” perhaps her most famous effort, was a duet with k.d. lang. “Love Is Everything,” “Sail Across The Water,” “Temple,” the gems just kept coming. Today, When I Was a Boy is generally regarded as her career high point. Stephen Holden in The New York Times summed it up well: “Without preaching, this passionate and transporting album is about as close as pop can come to being sacred music.” Amen to that.
Maria would follow in 1995. Jane was a noted fan of Van Morrison and some have called Maria her Astral Weeks. Both albums have stellar jazz musicians, superb playing and extended improvisational pieces in common. Alas Maria fell through the sales cracks despite positive critical notices for its bracing and creative music.
Jane and Reprise would then part company, at which point Jane embarked on an initiative for which she does not get enough recognition. She was one of the very first artists to set up her own store on the just emerging internet. Sheeba was dedicated to selling “all things Siberry,” with order fulfillment handled out of her Toronto home.
Far-sighted and a creative visionary in music and in business, Jane Siberry remains one of the most extraordinary artists to pass through the Warner Canada portals.
The 90’s: It’s The End of the Century
By the early 1990s, a vibrant indie scene was flourishing in Canada with several bands mining the area of acoustic pop with great success. With the influential Blue Rodeo and Spirit of the West already on its resume, Warner Music Canada seemed to be a likely home for the best of these bands.
In 1992, Dave Tollington, always with an ear to the street, caught wind of Regina’s Waltons whose indie record Lik My Traktor was generating strong critical acclaim.
Right before Christmas that year three things happened in rapid succession: Dave signed The Waltons on December 21, he trusted me with the A&R portfolio on the 23rd, and then The Waltons were announced as the opening act on a major national Barenaked Ladies tour kicking off at the end of the following January. The company got down to work at hyper speed, prepping the reissue of Lik My Trakter in time for the tour. For Dave and I, it was the start of an enjoyable, successful and action-packed five years working together in that relationship.
The Waltons barely left the road following that BNL tour and at the end of that long hard slog, Lik My Trakter was a well-earned gold album and is regarded today as a minor Canadian classic. A 1992 CASBY for Best Debut Album and a 1994 JUNO for Best New Group were cherries on top.
If you chose to look at that early 90s explosion of Toronto artists with hot-selling indie cassettes as a horse race, the steed that pulled far away from the pack was Barenaked Ladies. BNL has spent almost its entire 25-year+ recording career with Warner Canada, first with Sire Records, then Reprise and later as a direct signing. Let’s recount a bit of the history with a few personal tales for good measure:
Dave Tollington: “I acquired a copy of the infamous Barenaked Ladies yellow cassette and was listening to it over and over on a plane ride from Vancouver to Toronto. At one point, the flight attendant spotted the cassette case and asked if I was really listening to bare naked ladies. I said yes, well sort of…and explained that was just the group’s name. But that didn’t stop her from borrowing the cassette case and passing it around the cabin. And as I heard the giggling pass through the seats, I knew then there was no stopping Barenaked Ladies and luckily, we did manage to work with the band through Sire.”
Your writer: While still in the National Promotion gig, I’m in my office one day when the phone rings. It’s Seymour Stein, Sire Records President, with his lawyer Rick on the line. Seymour, calmly but with an edge in his voice, says, “Kim, are the Barenaked Ladies a good band worth signing?” “Absolutely,” I replied. “They’re red hot, the talk of the town.” At which point Seymour goes off on a blue rant instructing his now cowering lawyer to “get the F$%%^&* deal done.” And it was, leading to the famous contract signing at Scarborough City Hall.
Me again: July 25, 1992. At long last, BNL’s debut album Gordon is released. Humour was a huge band calling card and a good old-fashioned promo stunt was clearly in order. On release day, your writer dressed up as the alien from the CD booklet - green face, gold cape and all. With long-serving Warner staffers Ken Green and Dale Kotyk in tow, we hit every radio station, retail and media outlet we could. The photos from that day continue to bring smiles.
And what else can you say about Gordon, except this: “Enid,” “Grade Nine,” “Be My Yoko Ono,” “What A Good Boy,” “Brian Wilson,” and especially “If I had A Million Dollars.” The result: the second Warner Canadian artist Diamond certification!
Though Gordon had shot out the lights in Canada, the album barely caused a ripple in the U.S. And there was trouble on the horizon. Sales slipped to “only” double platinum on Maybe You Should Drive, fuelled by super-hit “Jane.” Andy Creeggan decided the pop star life was not for him and moved on, and the band would make a management change.
But what a change. Terry McBride was already justly famous for his Nettwerk Records whose marquee artist Sarah McLachlan, was then exploding globally. He was also well-known in the business for his embrace of technology and his patient micro approach to management and touring. Step by step, McBride delivered opportunities for the band in America, which gradually generated exposure and airplay, which he then followed up with live shows, which slowly created a rabid fan base. Rinse and repeat. By 1996, the live album Rock Spectacle became their first U.S. gold record. A free concert in Boston, which drew 80,000 fans, was a warning shot. The stage was set for the phoenix-like career resurrection of Stunt in 1998.
Your writer was then out of the A&R chair and tasked with overseeing the operations of the three U.S. labels. We had heard the lead single, Ed Robertson’s remarkable “One Week,” and were collectively floored. On a call with Terry, he announced that the video would not be Cancon. I was aghast. “We won’t get airplay,” I cried. Terry brushed off my concern. Score another one for Terry. The big budget U.S. shoot for “One Week” delivered a fantastic clip which went straight into International heavy rotation at MuchMusic. The song and the video were monster hits in Canada and Stunt would go on to 4X platinum status here. But the real story was America. Stunt entered Billboard at #3 and sold four million copies while “One Week” made it all the way to the top of the Hot 100.
The phoenix had risen. Written off by some as a novelty act post Gordon, BNL - with the expert stewardship of Terry McBride - had shown their staying power, hitting new heights both commercially and musically on Stunt. And they were now arena level stars in America.
And nearly 30 years on the band is still firing on all cylinders. Post the departure of Steven Page, the quartet of Ed Robertson, Tyler Stewart, Kevin Hearn and Jim Creeggan has developed a very successful summer touring package “Last Summer On Earth,” which sells out sheds across America. Meanwhile the band’s latest album, “Fake Nudes,” was released in October 2017, in advance of their largest Canadian tour in over a decade. And the ubiquitous theme music to the hit TV show Big Bang Theory has helped introduce the band to a new generation of fans. The constant throughout it all? With the one exception of the 2010 EMI-distributed album All In Good Times, Warner Music Canada has been BNL’s Canadian label partner since 1992!
One of the most curious and interesting sagas down the 50 years of Warner Canada is that of Toronto-born Darrin Kenneth O’Brien, far better known as Snow.
To call Snow a one-hit wonder is unfair as his second and third albums, 1995’s Murder Love and 1997’s Justuss had some success in far-flung markets. But this story is really about Snow’s 1993 debut 12 Inches of Snow and the out of nowhere phenomenon it became, fueled by the monster global hit single “Informer.”
“When I got the first phone call from the U.S. label about Snow, he was in jail,” recalls Warner Publicity VP Steve Waxman. “He was given a leave to come to Toronto for a day of press and I booked him on the TV show Electric Circus. He and I sat in a restaurant across the street from MuchMusic prior to the interview and he was so nervous, he couldn’t even swallow water, let alone eat anything. Six weeks later he’s on the Arsenio Hall Show woof-woofing and performing ‘Informer,’ which by then was the hottest song in North America.”
“Informer” spent 7 weeks at #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart while the album 12 Inches of Snow sold 8,000,000 copies worldwide.
High fives to Dave Bidini, Tim Vesely and Martin Tielli, the founding core of Etobicoke’s much-loved Rheostatics. Though their Melville album, released in 1991 on Intrepid Records, would be enough to cement their indie rock legacy by itself, much more was to come. At that point, they were managed by Nigel Best, whose other client just happened to be Barenaked Ladies. When Seymour Stein signed BNL, Nigel of course took the opportunity to promote the Rheos. Seymour, ever the music fan and signer of visionary music, inked Rheostatics to Sire as well. Cue one of the most critically lauded Canadian albums of all time, Whale Music. Based on the Paul Quarrington novel, it routinely lands in the top 10 of those periodic computations of great Canadian recordings.
In 1995, with a major label budget, the band headed to Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, with Melville producer Michael-Philip Wojewoda back at the controls for the recording of Introducing Happiness. Another quirky and brilliant platter, it’s remembered today in part for Tim Vesely’s gorgeous “Claire.” A hit single that very nearly was, “Claire’s” chorus drove the song maddeningly close to a full-on mass market breakthrough. While it did crack the top 40, “Claire” did not go all the way, though you can still hear it today on more enlighteningly programmed radio stations.
The Rheos would go on – and are still going on – to decades more recording and live shows. But bless Dave Bidini, Tim Vesely, Martin Tielli and the various drummers that filled the chair, for being a unifying thread in Canadian alternative music down these nearly 30 years.
This narrative has covered several “biggests” and “firsts.” But now it’s time for the “biggest” yet. Like Gretzky’s 92 goals, or Cy Young’s 511 wins, it’s a mark that may not ever be topped at Warner Canada. The artist is Alanis Morissette, the album is Jagged Little Pill and its unassailable accomplishment is being the biggest selling album in the history of Warner Music Canada, ever, period, International or Canadian.
There is a litany of numbers surrounding Jagged Little Pill and we will run some of them down, but the larger, more interesting question is, how did it all happen?
On the business and creative side, it all starts in Ottawa in the late 80s where Leslie Howe and his partner Louise Reny, then of the Ottawa duo One To One, discovered the very young Alanis and started developing her. Enter the long-term visionary in the Alanis story. John Alexander, then an A&R executive at MCA Canada, was interested in One To One and went to Ottawa to woo Leslie. While there Leslie happened to introduce John to Alanis – and John switched his pursuit to her! Signing her to a MCA Canada record deal and a worldwide publishing deal, Alanis went on to make two successful dance/pop albums, platinum and gold-selling respectively.
John continues the tale in the early 90s, post the expiration of the MCA Canada deal: “By then, I had moved to New York as Head of East Coast Acquisitions for MCA Music U.S. (MCA’s publishing company). I had just picked up Alanis’ publishing option when she expressed the desire to be singing her own stories, to be writing her own songs. I put the co-writing process in motion. As a teenager, she moved to Toronto and took an apartment in the Beaches where she connected with local writers, then did the same in Los Angeles. Around that time, I thought about Glen Ballard, who was a good friend of mine and an in-house writer on the MCA Publishing roster. Glen agreed to write with Alanis and there was an immediate palpable connection between them. That soon morphed into recording on spec in Glen’s home studio. The result was Jagged Little Pill. I first took it to MCA Records in the U.S., which passed, three times, and let their first right of refusal clause lapse. I had brought in Scott Welch as manager by then and between us we shopped every U.S. major label. They all passed. But our attorney Ken Hertz got the music to Freddy DeMann at Maverick. I’ll never forget what Freddy said after listening to the album in Glen’s studio: ‘You’ve found the female Bob Dylan of our generation.’ That’s the story of how Alanis Morissette ended up on Maverick.”
In June 1995, Warner Canada held its annual sales convention In Banff, Alberta. As was the custom, new artists, both domestically and internationally signed, were showcased. The venue that year was a funky joint called Wild Bill’s, which only had a modest, low-slung stage. Definitely not high class. But the artists who played that year certainly were! One was a native Albertan country artist, some kid named Paul Brandt (much more about him later). The other was Alanis Morissette. Warner Canada has a long list of veteran employees, and Ottawa sales, promotion and marketing rep Mary Jelley is one of the longest serving, at 30+ years. In her Ottawa home town, Mary has had a ringside seat for the entire Alanis phenomenon, including the MCA period. She talks about her experience in Banff: “I knew Alanis Morissette early in her career when she was the pop princess of Ottawa. I had seen her perform a few times, and it was NOTHING like what I experienced in Banff. Alanis was confident, on fire, passionate, and just a little enraged. No longer the little girl. She blasted through songs from Jagged Little Pill, flailing all over the stage and you just KNEW you were witnessing something incredibly special. The hair was standing up on the back of my neck. I remember thinking about her transformation, and how her songs seemed so devastatingly honest. By the end of her performance, everyone was speechless. It was one of those ‘moments.’
“Knowing that radio and the media in my market would already have a preconceived notion about Alanis, I went around with my pre-release cassette, not telling anyone who it was. Their feedback was incredibly positive - until I told them who it was. Most were completely blown away, but there was also some resistance. One station came right out to say they would never play it. Eventually they ate their words!”
And in summer ’95 the tsunami hit. Los Angeles radio station KROQ famously started playing “You Oughta Know,” and to say it erupted would not do it service. Long time Warner Canada sales guru Doug Raaflaub tells this wry tale: “I was in Los Angeles on business and was chatting with (legendary Warner Bros. sales head) Lou Dennis about Alanis. Lou kept it short and sweet: ‘Get out of the way kid, this one’s on auto-pilot.’ In Canada, we watched it average around 30,000 units a week for the next 18 months.”
It wasn’t all about “You Oughta Know” of course. Six singles would be released of which the third, “Ironic,” was arguably the biggest. But the album sales are mind boggling. Jagged Little Pill appears – these types of computations can be hazy - to be the 13th biggest selling album of all time, with certified sales of 25 million and claimed sales (though not verified by certification) of 33 million. In Canada, it is certified double diamond (two million sales). It stands with Shania Twain’s 1997 Come On Over and two Celine Dion albums as the only four double diamond certified Canadian artist recordings.
And it also wasn’t just about Jagged Little Pill. Through 2008, Alanis would release seven albums plus a compilation for Maverick, the second of which, 1998’s Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, would sell north of six million units worldwide, be certified four times platinum in Canada and generate a major hit with the single “Thank U.”
Alanis’s Maverick recorded output would continue to generate global sales in the millions to the end of her relationship with the label.
In 2015, at Alanis’s request, John Alexander and Glen Ballard inducted her into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.
John offers a final thought: “Every A&R person has a dream to find an artist that can make a meaningful musical statement to the world. My blessing was the extraordinary talent of Alanis Morissette.”
Three decades into his career, St. Catharines native Ron Sexsmith has earned his place among Canada’s and indeed the world’s finest songwriters. He’s also one of just a few artists – Jane Siberry and Barenaked Ladies are two others – to have both a domestic and international signing relationship with the company.
Flash back to the very early ‘90s when Ron befriended Bob Wiseman, then Blue Rodeo’s keyboard genius. In fits and starts around Blue Rodeo’s touring schedule, Bob would produce Ron’s Grand Opera Lane, independently released in 1991. In time, it would lead to Ron signing a publishing deal, then a record deal with Atlantic-distributed Interscope Records. Ron’s eponymous major label debut would follow in 1995. Interscope had spared no expense. Mitchell Froom produced. Daniel Lanois produced one song, played and contributed photography. The band was A list killer players. And what a debut it was, featuring some of his most well-known songs: “Secret Heart” has been recorded by everyone from Rod Stewart to Nick Lowe to Feist while “There’s A Rhythm” and “Speaking With The Angels” are superb pieces of songcraft. Ron Sexsmith truly is a gem from a songwriter’s songwriter. Musical luminaries like Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney would sing its praises and the album made most year-end best of lists.
That debut would set the framework for what has become an extraordinary career that has produced 14 critically-acclaimed albums earning Ron the reputation as one of Canada’s most gifted songwriters. He has been honoured with 8 JUNO nominations for Songwriter of the Year, and his 2013 release, Forever Endeavour, won the JUNO for Adult Alternative Album of the Year, Ron’s third JUNO win.
Special mention must be made of 2011’s Long Player, Late Bloomer which is Ron’s commercial high-water mark and one of his finest recordings. With Bob Rock in the producer’s chair, it went on to make the Polaris Prize shortlist and garnered a JUNO nomination for Adult Alternative Album of the Year.
“There was a night in Halifax where I watched Matt Mays, City and Colour and Jim Cuddy among many others perform their favourite Ron Sexsmith songs,” reminisces Steve Kane. “It was clear to me that his fellow artists held him in the highest regard and, personally, I put him in the same league as Gordon Lightfoot and Ray Davies.”
Spend any time on the scene in Toronto and you will encounter Ron on a stage, at a favorite watering hole, or contributing musically in some fashion. Still the warm, gentle and self-effacing soul that he was way back when, his wicked sense of humour is also never far from the surface. And regular as clockwork, every two years or so he can be counted on to deliver a quality new platter of wry observations on the human condition.
It’s now time to write about my own five years in the A&R chair, 1993-1997. It’s very important to stress the teamwork aspect of that period, notably between Dave and me. He was my boss and the business guy, but also intensely musical and very much on the hunt for talent himself. It took us a moment to find our footing but find it we did and we went on to do some good work together. That said we also occasionally fought like cats and dogs about artists to pursue or not pursue, and looking back we were both right and both wrong. And other Warner employees played crucial roles in the story, as you shall see.
All throughout 1993 I was thrilling to the radio hits I was hearing on CFNY from Vancouver’s Odds and their second album for Zoo/RCA, Bedbugs. With “It Falls Apart, “Jack Hammer” and “Heterosexual Man,” it was killer, guitar-driven, lyrically whip smart rock ‘n’ roll with a dash of the punk rock they grew up with. I connected big time.
One Sunday morning I’m having lunch with renowned video producer Cherie Sinclair and a friend of hers, Jim Rondinelli, who just so happened to have produced Bedbugs. We’re all still half-comatose when Jim casually mentions that Zoo had just dropped the Odds. Well, I dropped my fork, literally. The next day I was on the phone to manager Chris Blake beginning the waltz. It was a battle. Bedbugs had sold around 30,000 and RCA Canada was in on the band too. And it was a hard call for Odds as they already had a relationship with RCA via the Zoo albums. I decided to fly to Regina for a New Year’s Eve show to show my zeal. I’m not sure to this day if it really made a difference, but Odds chose Warner’s offer.
In the mid-90s, Warner had several great songwriting and vocal duos – Cuddy/Keelor of Blue Rodeo, Andy Maize/Peter Cash of Skydiggers, Ed Robertson/Steven Page of the Barenaked Ladies – and Craig Northey/Steven Drake were front and centre among them. Odds’ 1995 Warner debut, Good Weird Feeling, was chock full of vocals from both (all songs were diplomatically composed by “Odds”). For the label, the timing was great. The gestation period of the two Zoo albums laid the groundwork for a platinum explosion on Good Weird Feeling. Five singles were released: “Truth Untold” and “Eat My Brain” both went top 10 while “Satisfied,” “Mercy To Go” and “Smokescreen” also charted. Video also played a sizable role. Check Youtube for the still hilarious “Eat My Brain” clip wherein Odds siphon gas from Tom Wilson’s truck, then later steal Moe Berg’s Oldsmobile convertible. MuchMusic smartly supported it to the hilt.
Reprise Records President Howie Klein called one day. “We’re putting together a second Friends soundtrack. I’m holding a slot for the Odds but I need a master in a month.” That was too good an opportunity to pass up so I called Craig Northey and laid out the challenge. He got right down to business and on time, delivering “Someone Who’s Cool,” the biggest hit of the band’s career and one of their finest moments musically and lyrically. It went on to spend 8 weeks at #1 at rock radio while reaching #2 at top 40. All that and top 10 airplay on second single “Make You Mad” drove 1996’s Nest to gold. But so much for Friends 2. Elektra had Odds in the U.S. (yet more of Seymour Stein’s work with Canadian artists) and when Elektra President Sylvia Rhone heard “Someone Who’s Cool” she thought it was a hit and pulled it from the soundtrack. Friends 2 never came out.
But all was not well within the band. Steven Drake did a slow fade away from Odds around this time, opting for a very successful career in music production, helming recordings by The Tragically Hip and 54:40, among others. That incarnation of Odds would formally call it quits around the turn of the millennium, although happily, they have reunited and still include Odds gigs amongst their many musical ventures.
In 1994, Green Day released Dookie and it took off like the proverbial rocket, eventually selling 1,000,000 units in Canada. Re: Warner’s interest in The Killjoys, this was a propos of nothing, except to say that the so-called pop punk sound was at its apex at that time.
Out of Hamilton, ON and also a trio like Green Day, The Killjoys were discovered in 1993 by a young lawyer, Sander Shalinsky, who loved what he was hearing: “They reminded me of Bob Mould’s Sugar!” enthused Sander. He shortly brought long time music veteran Cliff Hunt into the management picture and together they would turn over every stone in support of The Killjoys.
By 1994, The Killjoys had recorded their debut album Starry and entered a song, “Dana,” into CFNY’s New Music Search contest. The winner of that contest would receive a tidy $100K and some serious support from the nation’s number one alternative rock outlet. The stakes were high. The Killjoys would make the finals but did not win. Nonetheless “Dana” received a ton of airplay plus vocal on-air support from much-loved and indefatigable then-CFNY DJ Dave Bookman. Warner decided to jump in and reissued Starry at the end of 1994.
Starry was harbouring a secret weapon and it may be the song most associated with The Killjoys today. “Today I Hate Everyone” was a scabrous screed, rooted in punk, that should be played back to back on air with TPOH’s “I’m An Adult Now.” The band made a cheap and cheerful video that connected with MuchMusic programmers, bringing them to a national audience en route to a Best Video JUNO nomination. The Killjoys leader/vocalist/songwriter Mike Trebilcock would also share an artwork JUNO nomination for Starry that year.
With a bigger recording budget, 1996’s Gimme Five took The Killjoys to another level, generating meaningful national alt rock airplay for “Rave + Drool,” “Soaked” and “Look Like Me.” In the summer of 1996, The Killjoys played Edgefest in front of a crowd of 35,000, “soaking” the crowd with water guns. It was a peak live experience for the band. There would be another peak at the 1997 JUNOs – The Killjoys won the Best New Group award.
Melos Modos, released in 1997, was a successful attempt at a by degrees more mature sound. Sadly, it failed to find an audience. Melos Modos slipped away quietly, but it’s an overlooked quality recording, well-regarded by those who sought it out.
It is a beautiful thing that, 25+ years down the road, Skydiggers will inevitably play two shows at the Horseshoe in Toronto at Christmas this year, as they do every year. The shows will be packed and many guest musicians will join them on stage in a vibrant musical throwdown. Such is the longevity of one of Canada’s most loved bands.
In 1995, Skydiggers were dealing with not one but two label bankruptcies which had left their first three superb albums in distribution disarray, an energy sapping blow for any band. At this point, my new friend Patrick Sambrook looked me in the eye and said “you should sign the Skydiggers.” It wasn’t a hard sell as the band included great songwriters – Andy Maize had already written one of the all-time great Canadian ballads “I Will Give You Everything” – and fine players. And they were pals with roster-mates Blue Rodeo in what was a very nice familial vibe. Road Radio was released in August, 1995.
Sadly, the relationship would only last one album. Andy Maize and Peter Cash were a dynamic lead vocal tandem and when Cash announced his departure post Road Radio, the band and the label could not get on the same creative page for the follow-up (which turned out to be the very well-regarded Desmond’s Hip City.)
But I prefer to view the relationship as short but sweet. First, Road Radio was and is a fine album that stands the test of time. And Warner did its job and did it well. Fuelled by Andrew Cash’s “You’ve Got a Lot of Nerve” and a Andrew/Peter Cash co-write, “What Do You See,” for the first time the band got consistent radio promotion and video support, which they richly deserved. The result was 25,000 units sold for Road Radio.
The road is long and winding. It means a lot to me that Andy Maize and I remain friends to this day.
Thrush Hermit, Weeping Tile and Son: Sowing the Seeds of Success in the Mid-90s At Warner Music Canada
A seemingly disparate trio of artists, Thrush Hermit, Weeping Tile and Son, each with debut albums released between 1995 and 1997, share a common career through line. Thrush Hermit came to Warner Music Canada via Elektra Records, while Son and Weeping Tile were domestic signings. Exactly none of the music these artists released for Warner created much of a stir commercially at the time, but they merit inclusion in this story, because, in each case, it signalled the arrival of a singular talent that would bloom in due course. Let’s tell each of their stories:
This Maritimes signing again involves our Canadian music loving friend Seymour Stein. By 1997, Seymour had moved within the Warner Music Group to Elektra Records. Elektra A&R man Darren Johnson, who had been watching the local scene, had raised his hand to sign Halifax’s indie/alt stars Thrush Hermit, fronted by Joel Plaskett, Rob Benvie and Ian McGettigan. Johnson enlisted Seymour to help convince the apprehensive band.
After a couple of well-received EPs, the band headed to Memphis to record Sweet Homewrecker with Pavement producer Doug Easely, passing on more commercial producers and hewing to their instincts and roots. Unfortunately, the good news ends there as it was quickly evident that the label and the band were not a fit, and Elektra pulled the promotional plug shortly after the album’s release. Actually, the good news didn’t quite end there, at least for the band. Their lawyer was smart enough to include a buyout clause in the contract so Thrush Hermit got a tidy sum of dough upon their exit, providing financial stability for a period of time.
In 1999 Thrush Hermit would record their classic Clayton Park album for Sonic Unyon before calling it a day shortly thereafter. As for Joel Plaskett he has gone on to well-deserved stardom in Canada and recognition as one of Canada’s greatest contemporary songwriters and live performers. Your author has had the privilege of working with him these past 15 years and it has been one of the highlights of my time working in music. Go Joel!
Bonnie Fedrau was an A&R scout at Warner for three years, from 1992 under Greg Torrington to mid-1995, working with me post Greg’s tenure. Bonnie was the quintessential club rat in the 90s, out most every night, trolling Toronto’s stages, looking for talent. Her work ethic and gregarious, loquacious personality won her many friends in the industry and among musicians, friendships that last to this day. One of the bands that caught her eye early on were The Saddletramps out of London, Ontario. Or more accurately it was their very young female singer, Sarah Harmer. Sarah would eventually leave the Saddletramps and attend university at Queens in Kingston, where she would settle. At some point in 1994 your correspondent and Bonnie happened upon Sarah playing a solo set at the late, lamented Ultrasound club in Toronto. For me it was one of those moments. I loved what Sarah was bringing and immediately commenced to woo manager Patrick Sambrook and Sarah in her new band incarnation, Weeping Tile. It wasn’t easy. Patrick had a high bar for his artist, wanting a U.S. hookup. At the time, Atlantic had a development imprint called Seed and an A&R rep there raised a hand. It took a while but a deal got done.
The first music to be released was a 1995 remastered CD version of a seven- song cassette that Weeping Tile had released independently, called eepee. If you’ve ever wondered what mastering can do for a recording, compare the un-mastered eepee cassette to the mastered CD. The difference was magical and the extraordinary songs on that recording found new life in the CD version. “Basement Apt,” “Dogs and Thunder,” “The Room With The Sir John A View” and “Westray” are among Sarah’s finest compositions. Simply put, eepee is an outstanding piece of alt/folk, if you will. It was a long way from the mainstream but campus radio and any kind of alternative programming caught on. A fledgling career was launched.
The Cold Snap album was also released in 1995, followed by Valentino in 1997. Both were solid recordings that earned the band critical applause and a small but devoted following. But the commerce was modest and in 1998 Warner dropped Weeping Tile.
With full respect to the other Weeping Tile musicians, it was always about Sarah Harmer for me. Sarah’s very next move was a solo album, You Were Here, on which her abundant talents fully blossomed. Now signed to Universal, a new version of “Basement Apt,” with a catchy rhythm loop added, busted down the doors at radio. All the while the critics swooned, with Time Magazine christening it Album of the Year. You Were Here went platinum in Canada. After grinding it out for a decade in the nation’s bars, Sarah Harmer was a star.
Bonnie Fedrau had moved on to other opportunities by then, but we both took solace that, in time, our belief in Sarah Harmer had been rewarded, just not at Warner Music.
When Bonnie Fedrau accepted an offer from EMI and moved on in 1995, I was on the hunt for an A&R scout. One candidate was persistent in a good way, and that was Steve Jordan. So started a friendship that’s at 22 years and counting.
Jordan was then and is now a hardcore music man in the best sense of the phrase. His love of music is palpable and his knowledge of many genres deep and extensive. It’s no surprise that he would go on to conceive and successfully launch the Polaris Music Prize where he works today as its Executive Director. Jordan will pop up a few times in this narrative and the first is with the artist formerly known as Son.
In mid-1995 Jordan threw himself into his new gig and in a short period of time tabled Jason Beck’s – aka Son’s - independent recording called Thriller. Jordan recalls, “I found it on the indie rack at Sam’s and thought ‘the cheek! I have to check this out, even if it sucks.’”
It did not suck. Jordan: “It grabbed me on first listen. It had the attraction and charm of something lovingly homemade, but it was not lo fi. Listening to that record was like leafing through a history of the cleverest and most inventive pop. Like Elvis Costello was fronting The Revolution. There were obvious chops but they weren’t waved in your face. I may have even liked it better than the other Thriller!”
It was a brave first signing for Steve and prophetic as we shall see. Innovative as it was, Thriller would be well-received critically but was otherwise out of step with the larger market. Warner could not find an entry point and the radio gates remained firmly closed. Commercially Thriller did not emulate its namesake.
But the label did not bail after Thriller and Jordan was green lit for Son to make 1997’s Wolfstein. Jordan: “Wolfstein was recorded in Toronto. I told Jason to take his advance, buy some home gear and rent a house to make the record. He chose playwright Thompson Highway’s house in Cabbagetown.” Nominally a concept record, it showcased Jason Beck’s emerging skills as a producer, but the darker content moved it even farther away from any kind of commercial success. Jordan’s contrarian take: “A misunderstood classic.”
By this time the air was out of it and Jordan had to part company with his first signing.
Far from being the end of Jason Beck, it was actually the beginning. Taking his third album guaranteed video money, he decamped to Berlin, re-inventing himself as Chilly Gonzalez with eye-popping success over the last twenty years. Just a few highlights:
Steve Jordan, for his very first signing, put his backside on the line, presciently spotting a nascent talent, and gave him his start. Respect to that, and to you Steve!
These three artists, each with humble beginnings commercially, have gone on to highly laudable aesthetic and commercial career accomplishments. And they all got their start at Warner Music Canada in the mid-90s!
Wide Mouth Mason
I’ve written about solid professional chemistry and the relationship between Dave Tollington and Wide Mouth Mason was a perfect example. Dave tells a great story about how he found their indie debut cassette The Nazarene: “Of the thousands of tapes that came into the A&R department every year, hundreds were passed on to me…along with hundreds more that came in directly. But constant interruptions made listening to tapes impossible in the office. And so, once a week after work, I would throw a few dozen into a bag, pick a Toronto main street and see how far it went, tossing cassettes onto the back seat as I worked my way through the bag. One night, I picked Dundas St. and made it all the way out to Dundas, Ontario before coming across a tape by band called Wide Mouth Mason. After two songs, I slammed on the brakes, turned around and flew out to Edmonton a couple of days later to meet them, rarely having been so sure about a band before. But like Loreena, they were in no hurry to lose their indie status. I remember drummer Safwan Javed in particular grilling me on just who I thought I was and how I got this fancy job. And so I started at the beginning – Windsor, bass, James Jamerson...and Saf stopped me there. ‘You know who James Jamerson is?’ Of course, I said (this was well before the Funk Brothers doc). ‘Well…that’s all I need to know. Let’s go!’ Of course, competition soon weighed in, but we did manage to sign the band, albeit with the Motown bass player’s name essentially sealing the deal. And that was half the fun – you never knew how the serendipitous humanity involved in the business would work out, which in Wide Mouth Mason’s case was several gold albums.”
The eponymous 1997 debut Wide Mouth Mason was amazing beginning and kicked off a crazy great ride. Remember, this was an unknown band upon release. But Wide Mouth Mason connected instantly and in a big way. Rock radio gave them a massive embrace, with the company rolling out three singles that all charted high at the format – “This Mourning,” “My Old Self,” and especially “Midnight Rain.” Video also played a big role, with MuchMusic providing enthusiastic support.
A key aspect that blew everyone away was the live show. These three guys in their early 20s from Saskatoon – Shaun Verreault (guitars, lead vocals), Safwan Javed (drums) and Earl Pereira (bass) - had emerged fully formed with absolutely remarkable chops, sounding like veterans with decades of playing experience. As such, live performance was a major component in their success. With the band was constantly on the road through ’97 and ’98 supporting the airplay and building an audience, we had numerous opportunities to see them live in small venues. And they were always scalding hot, metaphorically reducing clubs to ashes. We would frequently emerge from their shows spent from the sheer kinetic energy in the room. They played the album tracks of course, but also killed on several classic covers including Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” and a variety of Prince songs. No question Wide Mouth Mason was the real deal on stage.
Then as now, Steve Waxman was running Warner Canada’s publicity operation. He was a huge Wide Mouth fan and had this great experience on the road with the band in America: “Atlantic Records had released Wide Mouth Mason in the U.S. and the band scored an opening slot on a Kenny Wayne Sheppard tour on the eastern seaboard. I headed out on the road with the band to try to get them into radio stations for interviews and to get radio programmers out to see them live. I watched in awe as night after night they won over these crowds that had never heard of them before. One notable night came in Lexington, Kentucky after the band had just finished an incendiary set. There was no dressing room backstage so they had to walk through the crowd to get back to the tour bus. As they descended from the stage, the audience rose as one and gave them a standing ovation that lasted until they disappeared out the door.”
The band’s live show earned them a number of enviable gigs. In 1997, they played the Montreux Jazz Festival where no less a music titan than Van Morrison invited Shaun Verreault to join his band for the night. Down the years they would open for The Rolling Stones on five different occasions, as well as ZZ Top and AC-DC.
Although the band’s 1999 sophomore release, Where I Started, earned a second straight gold certification, subsequent releases didn’t fare as well and by 2002 Wide Mouth Mason and Warner went their separate ways.
In 1995, the Warner domestic roster was cooking on high heat. Five Days In July was red hot for Blue Rodeo, Loreena McKennitt’s career was igniting globally, and Great Big Sea was becoming the biggest thing to ever come off the Rock. But still there was appetite for more. I was restlessly scanning the market for opportunities when one presented itself right in front of my eyes – Virgin America had dropped Colin James.
The super-talented, blues-rooted guitar player from Regina had been one of the first signings at the launch of Virgin’s U.S. operation. His three recordings for them had done respectable business in the U.S. but HUGE business in Canada - the self-titled 1988 debut was 3X platinum, 1990’s Sudden Stop and 1993’s Little Big Band both 2x platinum. I swooped in.
Veteran manager and impresario Steve Macklem was then handling Colin’s career and he did well for his client in the negotiations, including extracting a U.S. release commitment from Elektra up front. Recording of 1995’s Bad Habits album took place at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas with Chris Kimsey producing. Kimsey’s resume is massive, but one highlight is his lengthy relationship with The Rolling Stones that ran all the way from Sticky Fingers to Steel Wheels. He had qualifications in spades.
Colin’s allmusic.com discography lists 17 albums over nearly 30 years, and for their “Album Pick,” a designation sometimes bestowed on their choice for an artist’s best album, they chose Bad Habits. Pretty cool! It was a lovely way to start a relationship. While it wouldn’t hit the sales heights of the Virgin albums, Bad Habits still shot past gold to the 70,000-unit mark.
The relationship with Warner would eventually last a decade, running from Bad Habits through 2004’s Traveler. Four albums would go gold and the second volume of the Little Big Band series in 1998 would be his biggest selling album for Warner Canada, soaring all the way to the 150,000-unit mark. A personal highlight was the superb National Steel album, an acoustic affair which the company pushed to gold despite it not being rock radio friendly.
Thirty years down the road Colin James continues a successful career, regularly releasing new music, filling concert halls coast to coast, and playing the music that first captivated him in his youth.
Heather Pollock is a treasured friend and now one of the music industry’s go-to photographers. In the mid-late 90s, Heather discovered and began working with Sarah Slean, a young classically-trained pianist, singer and songwriter from Pickering, Ontario. By 1997 and barely out of her teens, the enterprising Sarah had recorded an entirely charming six-song EP, Universe, which she released on cassette. Sarah would be the last artist that I would raise a hand to sign before moving back to the U.S. division at Warner Canada in 1998.
It would be a gradual process. Sarah followed Universe with her first full-length independent recording Blue Parade, its release celebrated by a still memorable performance at late, lamented Toronto venue Ted’s Wrecking Yard in August 1998.
At Warner, Strategic Projects guru Alan Fletcher’s annual Women In Song compilations were massive successes, selling around 400,000 copies each. Alan helped out by placing Sarah’s songs on two W&S comps. The license fees and mechanicals helped pay the rent in those formative years. Over the course of several years, Warner would help nurture an artist the company had first met when she was a teenager. By 2002, Sarah Slean’s art was coming into its own and she was an emergent star.
Sarah went on to release three albums for Warner, plus a series of EPs and two collections of material from her archives. Each of the three core albums would sell in the range of 25,000 units - very respectable business for an artist working mostly outside the limiting strictures of commercial radio.
Night Bugs from 2002, was co-produced by Sarah with a young Hawksley Workman, introducing some of her best and most well-known songs including “Eliot,” “Duncan” and “Sweet Ones.” 2004’s Day One featured several producers including Sarah and Dan Kurtz, later of Dragonette. A third fine recording, The Baroness, would follow in March of 2008. Each is a worthy beginning-to-end listening experience.
Sarah and Warner would part company after the 2010 Beauty Lives B-sides release.
What was it about Sarah Slean that attracted me back in 1997? In a word, the art. Sarah Slean is an Artist, full stop, capital A. She is incredibly bright, well-read and cultured, truly a sentient human being. You can see it in her artwork, her website, her photos and her videos. You can hear it in her voice and her deep and literate lyrics. She is also an utterly compelling live performer. And her resume continues to grow. She is a three-time JUNO nominee, a two-time Gemini nominee, has published two books of poetry, and continues to record and tour today.
Warner Music and Atlantic Canada in the Early-Mid 90s
We’ve discussed how Stan Kulin had accelerated the company’s domestic A&R activity when he became President in 1983. Considering that he had responsibility for well over one hundred employees and was shepherding yearly commerce into nine figures, he still found time to take a personal interest in the pool of domestic artists available to be signed. Nowhere was that more evident than in Warner’s activities in Atlantic Canada.
Stan was a good personal friend of Sam “The Record Man” Sniderman who had a cottage on Prince Edward Island and spent a considerable amount of time there. And as it happened, Atlantic Canada in the early 90s was on fire as a source of talent, both traditional music and rock. Those two elements provided a harmonious platform for some aggressive Warner A&R activity.
In 1992, two catalytic events put Nova Scotia on the musical map for Toronto’s talent hungry major labels. First, Halifax’s Sloan exploded out of the ECMAs and soon signed to Geffen Records imprint DGC. At the time, every Atlantic Canada town had a young band with its roots in some form of punk/grunge/alt rock - it was a healthy, vibrant, DIY scene. Then, Capitol Records hit a monster home run on the traditional side with The Rankin Family’s Fare Thee Well Love, selling an incredible 500,000 units.
By February ’93, your correspondent, newly in the A&R chair, was at the ECMAs in Halifax with Stan Kulin and Dave Tollington, carefully watching the goings on. Sam Sniderman was also in Stan’s ear about a Newfoundland traditional band called The Irish Descendants and pressed him to investigate. The Descendants were fronted by the affable Con O’Brien, who, now as then, runs the O’Brien family whale watching boat out of Bay Bulls, NFLD. Con was up for trying to spread the band’s popularity off the Rock and a deal was done. Warner was in the right place at the right time and the band’s second album, 1993’s Look To The Sea, quickly went gold.
1994 would bring their best album in your writer’s view. Gypsies & Lovers featured a fine cover of Donovan’s “Catch The Wind” and a stirring version of Stan Rogers’ classic song “Barrett’s Privateers.” Gypsies & Lovers became a second consecutive gold album for The Irish Descendants, which was followed by 1996’s Livin’ On The Edge and ‘98’s Rolling Home. The inevitable compilation The Best Of The Irish Descendants surfaced in 1999.
But we’re not done with our friend Con O’Brien just yet though. He makes a crucial appearance in our saga very shortly. Please do stay tuned.
A fixture on the scene at the ECMAs in ’93 and ’94 was Cape Breton’s Natalie MacMaster. Leave aside the fact that she was young and beautiful with a cascading mop of blonde ringlets, Natalie was also a superb fiddler with an impeccable musical pedigree – she was the niece of Maritimes fiddle legend Buddy MacMaster and a cousin to Ashley MacIsaac, very soon to make his own mark. Natalie was a Sam Sniderman favorite and Stan, who by then had taken a shine to Atlantic Canada music in general, soon was a big fan as well. At the Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1995, I flew out to watch Natalie wow a crowd of 10,000 and offered a record deal that day.
First out of the chute was 1995’s No Boundaries, a lovely album with a few tricks up its sleeve, in part courtesy of producer Chad Irschick who had helmed that huge Rankins album. Forgive me if this starts to sound rote: it was another gold album. My Roots Are Showing, from 1998, is a lovely album of jigs and reels sub-titled Traditional Music of Cape Breton Island. The title really does say it all.
Producer Gordie Sampson helped push the envelope on 1999’s In My Hands, starting with a spoken/sung vocal on the title song that perhaps pushed Natalie out of her instrumental comfort zone. Guest appearances by American multi-instrumentalist Mark O’Connor and an Alison Krauss lead vocal contributed to Natalie’s most contemporary recording to that point. And yes, you’ve got it – it was yet one more gold album for Natalie and Warner!
A brief sidebar from the “ones that got away” file: In February of ’93 at the ECMAs in Halifax, I find myself at a ceilidh on Barrington Street in the middle of the night, and I’m riveted by a teenage fiddle virtuoso tearing it up, yes, in a kitchen party. It was Ashley MacIsaac. Ashley and I chatted a few times that weekend – he paid me an unexpected midnight visit, asking many questions about the music business – and I met his young manager Sheri Jones for the very first time. Little did I know that weekend would be the beginning of a 25-year personal friendship and professional relationship with Sheri, who is simply outstanding! But Sheri and Ashley chose to develop his career at home and on the road for a bit. Fast forward a year to St. John’s NFLD and the ECMAs of 1994, and Ashley destroys the hotel ballroom with an explosive electric full band performance. I lost my mind. But so did others. EMI was in hard and so was my friend Allan Reid, on behalf of A&M. When the dust had settled, Allan and A&M had won the day. I was devastated, even more so when Ashley’s debut album blew up to multi-platinum status. Losing a competitive situation is part of the game, but that one stung, especially as an A&R newbie.
Demand for music from the region was so strong nationally that in retrospect it was relatively easily to generate a procession of gold records, as Warner did at the time. And though the company did a good job at marketing, Warner was definitely sharp-eyed and very aggressive on the A&R front in Atlantic Canada. Stan had made it clear that the region was a personal priority for him, and we were charged with delivering.
It’s important to say at this point that it wasn’t all business - we genuinely loved the artists, both as musicians and as people, having now discovered the rollicking joys of Atlantic Canada culture. Perhaps the best example of this was Con O’Brien of The Irish Descendants inviting Dave Tollington to his wedding in late August 1993. After Dave and the band’s manager Fred Brokenshire fished an overboard sailor out of Lake Ontario at a Toronto yacht club, the two then flew to St. John’s the next day and almost capsized in 35-knot winds while sailing in the Atlantic, before celebrating the newlyweds with Stan and Marie Kulin in Bay Bulls.
The age-old aphorism “luck is the residue of design” now comes to mind… and Stan’s focus on the region was about to deliver a success that would surpass even EMI’s with the Rankins.
When Dave returned from the wedding, he told me that he had asked Con what was happening musically on the Rock and Con had given him a list, one that included a band called Great Big Sea. Con related that this Great Big Sea had played their ever gig on March 11, opening for The Descendants. As it happened I had just started dating a young lady named Jennifer who, coincidentally, had been raised in Newfoundland. (Jennifer is now my wife and mother of our two lovelies, Norah and Henry). I had met her in mid-July – at an Irish Descendants gig of course – and as we headed out to dinner in early September, I asked her about the bands on Con’s list. She then reached into her purse and presented me with a cassette of the first independent Great Big Sea release. Kismet! And so, I started sniffing around and was shocked to be told that GBS’s self-titled cassette had sold an incredible 17,000 units on the Rock alone. True or not it piqued my curiosity. Just a few days later the phone rang. It was a cold call from none other than Great Big Sea’s Sean McCann. We had a lovely conversation but Sean’s last comment still rings in my ears: “We’re just looking for a little help getting off the Rock!” It turns out that cassette was recorded on March 13, two days after the Descendants gig. The synchronistic wheels were beginning to turn for Great Big Sea and Warner.
Although any further progress slowed to a trickle over the winter months, Dave returned to Atlantic Canada that spring to attend the COCA (college entertainment buyers’ conference) in Halifax, in advance of the company’s convention in St. John’s. Alhough Dave didn’t actually see Great Big Sea perform, he was present when Alan Doyle announced from the stage that the band’s suite in the Lord Nelson Hotel was “awash with beer!” Perhaps a humorous throw-away line to other ears, Dave reported a few days later in St. John’s that those few words had been the light bulb that flashed the full potential of this singular music we’d been pursuing on the East Coast: “I realized then that this wasn’t just traditional music with a contemporary flair, but a full time all-inclusive celebration of life, accessible to everyone from coast-to-coast. And the buzz going around the conference only confirmed that Great Big Sea could be the band to deliver on that promise, on every campus, in every bar and concert hall, from Cape Spear to Vancouver Island and everywhere in between.”
On our return, Louis Thomas, one of the great men of the Canadian music business, who was now managing the band, calls me… and he’s testy. “Are you signing the band or not?” Good work Louis. That metaphorical bucket of cold water was the wake-up call we needed. The band was shortly booked to play the Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto, and Stan, Dave and I were in attendance. That performance sealed the deal.
Danny Greenspoon, known to the company for his work with Spirit of the West, signed on for the recording of the Warner debut. Sean and I met for coffee during the sessions and had another simple but indelible conversation. Me: “How’s it going in the studio Sean?” Sean: “Everything is good, but we’re looking for one more song. We play Slade’s ‘Run, Runaway’ live. What do you think of that?” Sean’s notion was a stroke of genius and fortunately I did not get in the way, giving it a thumb’s up.
GBS turns in Up and I can remember thinking “this is good, we’ve got 35,000 units here.” I was right but also very, very wrong. An unsung hero of the early GBS days was photographer/graphic designer/video director Andrew MacNaughtan who designed several GBS album covers including Up and shot multiple videos for the band. The first, for “Run Runaway,” was filmed in Newfoundland. Light-hearted and fun, like the band, the “Run Runaway” clip was an unexpected catalyst, with MuchMusic totally buying in. What happened next was extraordinary and in hindsight might be viewed as the same kind of “tipping point” that we discussed with Loreena McKennitt’s The Visit. Granted, the band was enjoying an increasingly rabid fan base in Atlantic Canada and MuchMusic was lending support. But without the benefit of any kind of major national commercial airplay, Up simply exploded and just kept on going. Today it’s certified 4X platinum. My 35,000 units was trumped to the power of ten and then some.
For 1997’s Play, GBS stayed with a successful template, bringing back Danny Greenspoon in the producer’s chair. By this point GBS was simply unstoppable. “Ordinary Day,” “When I’m Up (I Can’t Get Down)” and their tremendous version of REM’s “End of the World” cemented Up’s breakthrough and Play went on to be certified 3X platinum.
Live, Great Big Sea had become a total juggernaut. Jack Ross was GBS’s agent for the entire run: “Great Big Sea was first and foremost a live band. They first mastered their craft in St John’s, then across Newfoundland, into the Maritimes and across the country. Their work ethic was tremendous. They started in pubs and on campus, moved up to clubs and then, like few others ever do, to concert halls and arenas. Because of their acoustic setup, they could play anywhere, and did. They quickly made friends with Warner label mates Spirit of The West and Blue Rodeo. Both invited GBS onto their stages and introduced them to their fans. The band was a serious headliner at festivals and in concert throughout Canada for well over a decade. It was not unusual to see three generations of family members at GBS shows enjoying the ever-entertaining Newfoundland kitchen party that always erupted. They were beloved for their original mix of Celtic rock ‘n’ roll and they never stopped working hard to entertain their fans.”
Great Big Sea would spend their entire recording career with Warner, 16 years in total, from Up in 1995 through to Safe Upon the Shore in 2010. Ten albums were released plus the 2012 deluxe 20-year compilation XX. In addition to the blowout sales of Up and Play, Turn and Sea of No Cares went well past platinum while five others hit gold. Total Canadian sales are close to 2,000,000 units.
All things do pass, and in 2013, Sean McCann announced his departure from the band, opting for a change in lifestyle. Alan Doyle and Bob Hallett decided, at least for the moment, to call it a day with Great Big Sea as well. Meanwhile, Sean continues to make music as a solo artist. Alan Doyle is increasingly well-known as an actor, but that isn’t all. His second book and his second solo album, produced by Bob Rock, both dropped in the fall of 2017.
As for Great Big Sea and Warner Music, Con O’Brien’s tip to Dave Tollington in late August 1993 had borne fruit that we could not have imagined back then.
The incredible three-year period, 1993-1995, that generated the signings of The Irish Descendants, Natalie MacMaster and Great Big Sea is a glorious part of the Warner Canada domestic roster story. And the Maritimes is still important to the company today. Louis Thomas brought Matt Mays to Warner in 2002 and Sheri Jones’s new and talented Nova Scotian clients Port Cities are also handled via the company.
In November 1996, Steve Jordan’s phone rang in the A&R department. It was our manager friend Bernie Breen. Steve had seen an early Big Wreck show and wasn’t overly impressed, but Bernie had some new Big Wreck music and asked if he could come up and play it. Steve asked if we should take the meeting and I said yes. Professional courtesy for our friend Bernie. We were extraordinarily happy that we did. Bernie floored us with roughs of the key songs that would make up the In Loving Memory Of… album and we were immediately engaged. Lead vocalist/guitarist/writer Ian Thornley had a voice perhaps redolent of Chris Cornell or Eddie Vedder, and he could flat-out play the guitar.
Bernie was partners with The Management Trust’s Jake Gold and Allan Gregg at the time, and the entry point to sign Big Wreck was the usual request of the day – a committed U.S. release. We got to work. I sent music to five U.S. labels, inviting them to an upcoming showcase performance at the Horseshoe Tavern. Three responded and made the trip. Two are lost in the mists of time – I can’t remember who they were – but Big Wreck was all about Atlantic’s Craig Kallman, who handily won the day. Dave Tollington tells the story: “Now, I admit to a little paranoia here. At the time, we used to say that if you wanted to meet A&R reps from our US labels, just visit a club in Toronto. Even though we ultimately all worked for the same company, all was fair in love, war…and A&R. And so, my first rule of thumb was to never let a US A&R rep out of your sight (assuming you even knew they were there). And when Craig Kallman came up from Atlantic to see Big Wreck at the Horseshoe (Feb. 6, 1997, to be exact), I followed my rule of thumb and picked him up at the Four Seasons. But when we arrived at the club, I couldn’t find any parking. Being that the band was about to go on and I didn’t want Kallman to miss a note, I let him out at the entrance. After circling around, I found a parking spot and finally came in…but couldn’t find Kallman. Damn! I broke my own rule. And so, I checked the usual places – behind the soundboard, by the bar and in front of the stage. He was nowhere to be seen. After the band finished their set and left the stage, I rambled slowly downstairs toward the dressing room and there was Kallman sitting next to Ian Thornley scribbling down his home phone number – a classic example of American hustle. In fact, my trick in a competitive situation had been to leave the room after a couple of songs if I really liked the band, call the manager and demand a meeting immediately, with competing reps assuming I hated the band. I guess Kallman’s trick had its own twist – leave the floor, find the dressing room and connect with the band the second they left the stage. But now I had another problem.”
Which takes us into the business end of the Big Wreck story. Flash back to the early 90s when WEA was having solid success in the country world with George Fox – and getting nowhere in America. It was quickly evident that Nashville wanted its hands all over any country signing they were to be involved in, and was not much interested in picking up another company’s work extant. So Dave and Stan tackled the issue head on with Warner Bros. Nashville’s legendary President of the day, Jim Ed Norman. Together they mapped out the
details of a joint venture signing – which company paid which expense – and how the revenue was shared, having the template then approved by Warner Music Group head office in preparation for any future artist we found that Warner Nashville wanted to develop. The arrangement would soon be used very successfully in the signing of Paul Brandt in 1993, with Paul’s debut album becoming a massive success, going 3X platinum in Canada and gold in America.
Let’s go back to Big Wreck and Dave: “After seeing the band at the Horseshoe, Craig Kallman was sold. But Breen, Gold and Gregg were still insisting on a guaranteed U.S. release, and the chances of a U.S. release were vastly improved if the U.S. label signed you directly, especially if that label was sitting right there and loving the band. At the same time, we'd brought Kallman to the party and we all felt we should somehow go home together. But, as Kallman asked, how do you sign a band to two labels? Easy, I said. We’ve already done such a thing, via a Joint Venture template pre-approved at Group level. And so, on the back of the George Fox-inspired Paul Brandt deal, we signed Big Wreck. And if I’m not joining too many dots here, Billy Talent followed several years later in much the same fashion.”
Just shy of one year after Bernie Breen played those roughs for Steve and me, Warner and Atlantic released In Loving Memory Of… in October 1997. And we were immediately off to the races. This was a record tailor-made for rock radio, and it was embraced whole heartedly at the format. In Canada, three singles would be rolled out: “The Oaf,” “That Song,” and “Blown Wide Open.” Each was a smash. Each went top 10. And Big Wreck was everywhere at rock radio from the fall of ’97 well into 1999.
There were two other major components in play: 1. The band could really deliver live and toured extensively, including a major national jaunt opening for Dream Theater. 2. MuchMusic was a big factor. Each single had a big budget, superbly creative video, and each was embraced and played in heavy rotation.
In September of 1999 In Loving Memory Of… was certified double platinum.
But in America, despite a full court press by Atlantic, success was much more muted. “The Oaf” did go top 10 at Mainstream Rock and top 25 at Modern, but album sales topped out around 100,000 units, and Atlantic was not able to get a 2nd single away.
For Warner Canada though, the signing of Big Wreck featured an A&R operation on its game and hitting on all cylinders, both creatively and in business, generating major rewards for the artist and the company.
Following the release of The Pleasure and The Greed in 2001, Ian Thornley would retire the Big Wreck brand for a decade. In 2012, Big Wreck re-emerged on Warner Music Canada with the critically acclaimed album Albatross.
For his first signing in the Warner A&R chair, Steve Blair raised his hand for an overt run at radio airplay with Wave, the Niagara Falls duo of vocalist Paul Gigliotti and songwriter Dave Thomson.
Wave would release two albums for Warner. On 2001’s Nothing As It Seems, Blair’s goal of hitting a home run on the pop charts was achieved and in a very big way. First single “California” was a genuine smash, going all the way to #1 pop. Follow-ups “Think It Over” and “Sleepless” also charted, driving Nothing As It Seems to gold. Good start Steve!
A second album State of Mind streeted in October of 2002. Though first single “That’s How It Feels” hit the top 10 and “Don’t Say Sarah” went top 20 album sales fell off sharply and Paul and Dave would soon go their separate ways.
Dave Thomson has since gone on to a very successful career as a songwriter, residing in Nashville.
When Steve Jordan moved on from Warner, Steve Blair hired a new A&R scout. Though Jen Hirst would be a shooting star, both at Warner and in the music business, she would spend just three years at Warner before moving on briefly to Last Gang and EMI and then to a career away from music. But her track record was both daring and unerring. Rich Terfry, aka Buck 65, was the first.
Born in Mount Uniacke, Nova Scotia, north of Halifax, Rich grew up a hip hop kid, famously climbing a tree in his backyard to listen to Halifax college station CKDU. By 2002 he had already released an astonishing seven independent albums and had begun to build an international audience when Jen brought him into Warner. Buck 65 now had a national platform to showcase his restless interest in music of all sorts and his abundant skills as a rapper, DJ, producer and front man.
He got right down to work. Square was his maiden voyage for Warner and it immediately scooped JUNO nominations for Alternative Album and Album Design. Talkin’ Honky Blues was his commercial high point, selling north of 30,000 records without anything close to mainstream radio play, though “Wicked and Weird” stuck its head up in alternative circles. And it might be his aesthetic pinnacle as well. As much country as it was hip hop, allmusic.com adroitly called it “Tom Waits for the hip-hop crowd.” Enough with just nominations - Talkin’ Honky Blues went on to win the 2004 JUNO Alternative Album award.
Four more albums (Secret House Against the World, Situation, 20 Odd Years and 2014’s Neverlove) helped define Buck 65 as one of the hip-hop world’s most unique voices.
In 2008, Rich Terfry began what has become a very successful career as the host of CBC Radio 2’s afternoon drive show, taking occasional leave to bring Buck 65 back to the stages of the world.
Commercially though, Buck 65 was a warm-up act for Jen’s next signing. Stay with us.
In her interview with Warner, when asked the stock question, “What band would you sign if you had the job,” Jen Hirst replied, “Billy Talent.”
Jen had made friends with Ben Kowalewicz when he worked at Toronto radio station The Edge, becoming a fan of his band Pezz, which was building a following in its hometown of Mississauga. When a legal challenge to the name Pezz arose, the band quickly metamorphosed into Billy Talent. Now at Warner, Jen Hirst would doggedly, unreservedly champion the band.
Jen’s passion paid off and in the fall of 2001/early 2002 a Warner demo deal was approved. Jen and A&R head Steve Blair worked with the band on settling on Gavin Brown to produce their demos. Gavin flipped over the band and brought publisher Mike McCarty to see them at a rehearsal. Mike bought in, as did Atlantic Records.
It had taken six months from Jen Hirst’s arrival, but the dominoes were finally lined up. Atlantic and Warner Canada got together and signed Billy Talent.
“I remember thinking that Ben was such an intense singer and performer that either he was going to burn out after three weeks of touring or these guys were going to be massive,” recalls Steve Kane.
Gavin Brown, naturally, produced Billy Talent’s self-titled debut at The Factory in Vancouver, with Chris Lord-Alge mixing. They got it right and then some. We’ve covered many major sales successes in prior eras at WEA and Warner but Billy Talent would be the first grand slam home run under Steve Kane’s stewardship. First single “Try Honesty” hit alternative and rock radio like a sledgehammer, while “River Below” went top-10 as a follow up.
If there was a band that defined MuchMusic’ s rock programming in the ‘00s, it was Billy Talent. At the 2004 MMVAs, they garnered six nominations, walking away with the Best Rock Video award for “Try Honesty.” How to top that? In 2005, they had EIGHT nominations. Somehow that year they topped even those eight noms with one of the great promo stunts of recent times, rolling up to the awards show on Queen Street in Toronto in a tank! Outstanding!
In fact, that year the entire music industry lined up to salute that spectacular debut. There were three 2004 JUNO nominations and a win for Best New Group, while the band would go 3 wins for 3 nominations at the CASBY’s over 2003/4. On the sales front, Billy Talent is now on its way to 500,000 units sold in Canada. It sits alongside a very small group of peers as one of the biggest selling debut albums in the 50-year history of Warner Canada, and very deservedly so.
For fans, there was a three-year wait between BT and BT II in which the band toured relentlessly across North America and Europe before hitting the studio, again with Gavin Brown, to begin recording the follow-up. Billy Talent II picked up where the first album left off. It debuted at number one on Soundscan, moving a lofty 48,000 first-week units. First single “Devil In A Midnight Mass” was a major hit and the JUNOS bestowed a Best Rock Album award in 2007. Billy Talent 2 sold very nearly as well as the debut in Canada, and is actually the band’s biggest-selling record globally with over 1,000,000 units under its belt.
Two albums, two massive successes in Canada but - and you’ve heard this story before - things weren’t going as well in America, with Atlantic struggling to find a market entry point for the band. In Europe though, Billy Talent had believers in Warner Germany’s head Berndt Dopp and marketing manager Ole Kirchoff who, together with promoter Bernie Schick, devised an extensive European tour plan. Following Germany’s lead, the UK, Finland, Norway and other European territories fell in line soon afterwards, highlighted by sold-out gigs from London to Hamburg and beyond.
Billy Talent II was the album that helped light the fuse in Germany, debuting at number 1 in the charts. In the country’s 2007 ECHO Awards, the band won Best Newcomer International, while the album captured Best Rock/Alternative International, in each case beating out a tough slate of competitors.
Billy Talent’s relationship with Warner Canada is now at the 15-year mark and going strong. Three more albums have followed and the band have sold a total of 3,000,000 records worldwide, in addition to winning multiple JUNO and MMVA trophies.
It’s also important to emphasize the brotherhood that is Billy Talent. Still together in their original incarnation, the band members have rallied around drummer Aaron Solowoniuk, who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2003. It’s remarkable that Aaron was able to handle the rigors of the drum chair for over a decade. Rather than hide the disease, Aaron has shared his story and established F.U.M.S., a foundation to raise money and awareness for youth affected by Multiple Sclerosis.
One of the great relationships down the decades at Warner Music features Rob Lanni and Eric Lawrence and their company Coalition Music. It is both a management company that handles Simple Plan and emergent star Scott Helman, and a co-venture that includes releases from USS, Our Lady Peace, Justin Nozuka and more. And it’s now so much more with the formation of the forward-thinking Music Incubator that Rob and Eric established in a re-purposed convent in Scarborough. The relationship started in the late-80s with Frozen Ghost and Wild T and the Spirit and it thrives today, rooted in the extraordinary relationship, personal and professional, that Rob and Eric enjoy.
And of all the artists Rob and Eric have managed down the years, Simple Plan may be at the pinnacle in terms of commercial success. A five piece from Montreal making pop/punk music, Simple Plan attracted the attention of Atlantic imprint Lava Records which scooped them up. The first album out of the chute in 2002 was No Pads, No Helmets…Just Balls. Commercially it would follow a curious path. Four singles were released: “I’m Just a Kid,” “I’d do Anything,” “Addicted,” and “Perfect.” None of the first three have much to brag about in terms of chart success but the fourth, “Perfect,” became their biggest U.S. single, hitting 24 on the Billboard Hot 100 while going top 5 in Canada. When the dust had settled, the album had been certified double platinum in Canada and the U.S., platinum in Australia and Silver in the U.K. What a start!
Still Not Getting Any followed in 2004. Produced by Bob Rock, it spun out more hits and put the band over the top in Canada where it was certified 4X platinum. Globally, the band kept adding far-flung markets to its list of successes while still going platinum in America.
MTV Hard Rock Live, from 2005, presented their hits in a live setting. That preceded a self-titled album released in 2008 which featured contributions from no less a production titan than Swedish hit-meister Max Martin. Though the band’s sound continued to have global sales resonance, Canadian sales dipped to “just” platinum and a half. Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo and Natasha Bedingfield contributed to Get Your Heart On 2011. Then, after a five-year hiatus, Simple Plan returned in 2016 with Taking One for the Team.
Give Simple Plan credit for resolute consistency. They started as a pop/punk band in 2002, sold seven million records worldwide, including comfortably north of 1,000,000 in Canada, without any major change in style. It was and is about killer hooks, loud guitars, and time-honoured teenage lyrical themes, five studio albums in.
Their list of awards is frankly quite astounding. Among them are six MMVA Your Fave: Group awards.
But there is another aspect to Simple Plan’s career that very much deserves mention: in 2012 the band was awarded the Allan Waters Humanitarian Award by the JUNOs for the Simple Plan Foundation, an organization that focuses on teen issues. To date, it has raised $1.5 million dollars for a very good cause. They have also received the Allan Slaight Humanitarian Spirit Award.
Rock ‘n’ roll and the music business have been very good to Simple Plan and they are reciprocating in grand fashion. Hi fives to Simple Plan for that!
One day in 1992, Warner Canada’s Steve Waxman was having a conversation with Warner Bros. publicity legend Liz Rosenberg about Reprise artist Josh Groban. In passing, Liz asked Steve if he had heard the Michael Bublé record yet. “Who’s Michael Bublé?” replied Wax. And with that humble beginning, the story of Michael Bublé and Warner Music Canada kicks off.
Michael’s career numbers are out of this world:
The story of how Michael Bublé came to the attention of David Foster, via former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, at whose daughter’s wedding he sang, is the stuff of legend. But there is another story, about the beauty and nuance in the spectacular relationship between Michael, his management and Warner Canada that needs to be told.
Steve Coady’s first contact with Michael was pre-Warner: “I went to a theatre show, Forever Swing, with my wife. Post show, we met the cast and ended up hitting a bar together. And the cast happened to include Michael. I thought nothing further of it until one day the phone rang and it was David Foster, talking up Michael. It felt good to be able to say, ‘We’ve already met!’”
The company connected immediately with what Michael Buble was all about and rose to the challenge of introducing him. Steve Kane tells a seminal tale about an industry launch show, in Toronto at Front Street jazz grotto The Reservoir Lounge: “The Reservoir was a small jazz bar that Michael had played when he was starting out and living in Toronto. The room was quite small but we still had to beg folks from retail, radio and media to join us, because nobody could quite get their head around what this kid was doing - standards, the American Songbook, Sinatra and The Rat Pack. It was also the first time the company had seen him perform, and from the first song, you could see the light bulbs going off above people’s heads, everyone realizing that this was an entertainer and interpreter of song, and not a novelty act.”
The self-titled debut in 2003 was a hit out of the box in Canada, quickly followed by Come Fly With Me in 2004. But we pick up our narrative in 2005, in Niagara Falls of all places. Kane: “The company was gathered in Niagara Falls for a convention and Michael came to our party suite to perform a few songs. It was a loose, casual affair, with Bublé doing a few silly songs along with a handful of standards, and bantering with the team he had come to know from his promo trips. At one point, Michael asked if we’d like to hear a song that he’d written with Amy Foster and his musical director Alan Chang. That song was ‘Home,’ and as he sang, Buble transformed from entertainer/interpreter to Artist. It was a remarkable moment that people in the room felt strongly, especially Steve Coady, whose eyes welled up when he realized that he’d just heard a hit single by Michael Buble that also happened to be Cancon!”
And so it was that “Home,” from 2005’s It’s Time, made Michael Buble a household name, not just in Canada but around the world. Check these stats for the definition of a hit record: 14 weeks at #1 Canada AC, #4 Canada Hot AC, #20 Canada CHR and #30 Canada Country and #1 for 2 weeks at AC in America. Today It’s Time is just shy of 900,000 units sold in Canada, making it the 5th biggest selling Canadian artist album in Warner Music Canada’s history.
By now, JUNO and Michael Buble were inextricably linked. Michael already had an avalanche of nominations and wins, and would go on to appear on the show four times, then host in 2013 in Regina. Steve Waxman has been with him every step of the way and has some fine tales from the front lines: “Edmonton. His first JUNOS. He flew his entire family out to celebrate - Mom, Dad, siblings and the famous granddad Mitch. It was then that I knew that he was a real family man and would never forget where he came from. Halifax. He had won a ton, as usual. Bruce Allen asked me to make sure that he behaved himself in the press room. When I brought Michael back to the hotel after the show, he wanted to mess with Bruce so he had me carry him in to the bar like he was blind drunk. Calgary. Never one to be afraid of interacting with fans, Michael jumped out of the limo on the way to the red carpet and ran into the crowd, having fans taking selfies with him. I waved off security until it was time for Michael to go live on the red carpet. It freaked everyone out but we had a great laugh about it. “
It’s Time was just the start of a white-hot roll for Michael. Call Me Irresponsible, released in 2007, was a standards album on which Michael took his art to a new level. It was another huge hit all over the world and is now past five million units sold. But the crazy was about to start, in the form of 2009’s Crazy. Bob Rock joined David Foster in the producer’s chair, and Michael proved that co-writing “Home” was no fluke. “Haven’t Met You Yet” was an encore song from the same writers, with an encore performance on the charts – it spent 20 weeks at #1 Canada AC, peaked at #6 Canada Hot AC and #22 Canada CHR. In the U.S. It went to #1 for 3 weeks AC, #8 Hot AC and #21 CHR. Michael can sing them, and there’s no question he can write them too!
Christmas, released in time for the 2011 holiday season, is where it all came together aesthetically and commercially for Michael. Michael assumes the Crosby/Sinatra Christmas crooner role, and does it brilliantly, connecting in a huge way with the marketplace. Christmas is his biggest selling album in Canada, having achieved the coveted and increasingly rare Diamond certification for sales of 1,000,000 units. And appropriate for the season, it’s an evergreen, going gold each year!
You can tell from the stories above that Michael Buble is a particularly special artist for Warner Music Canada. But this is a two-way street. What does the other side have to say? Bruce Allen is a legend in the management business and has been Michael Bublé’s manager for his entire tenure at Reprise: “There is no doubt that when I heard rumors about a Michael Bublé album, I was skeptical. But the combination of Foster & Bublé delivered the goods that set the table for many successful albums to follow. We knew we were ‘different,’ in that there were not a lot of ‘pop’ songs on the record. There were hits, but from long ago. We needed a believer. We got a lot of them. Steve Kane rallied the troops. But we needed someone in the trenches. We ended up with a loud Irish girl, Jo Faloona, who was in charge of marketing Michael Bublé. We talked what seemed like every day for months. And little by little we made progress. Together, with Jo and the company not willing to give up, and with Michael Bublé's do anything/go anywhere attitude, we moved mountains and changed attitudes. It was a highlight of my career. Jo Faloona is not at Warner anymore. She is in my office now. So the whole team is still together. Steve Kane, Doug Raaflaub, Steve Coady, Dale Kotyk and Steve Waxman. And there is no stopping us!”
In the mid-2000s, future Warner Music Canada A&R head Ron Lopata was developing a number of Canadian artists, helping them with their song writing and studio recording chops. One of those artists was Hamilton native Tomi Swick. Tomi was championed at Warner by Steve Blair and Jen Hirst, both for his voice – mellifluous and strong, almost Thom Yorke-like in spots – and his songs. Tomi’s 2006 Warner debut, Stalled Out In The Doorway, made an immediate impact. At the 2007 JUNOS, it grabbed a Pop Album of the Year nomination while Tomi himself won the New Artist trophy. In an increasingly difficult market where sales of debut artists were frequently miniscule, Stalled Out rang up a respectable 15,000 units.
Unfortunately, it was not to be a long relationship. Tomi and the label parted ways after a less successful second album in 2012.
Tegan and Sara
The near 20-year career of Calgary’s Quin sisters is remarkable in many ways. The candor and intimacy of their lyrics. The remarkable connection with a hardcore fan base. Their photography, imaging, and the marketing of that image have been extraordinary, as have been their adroit use of social media and all the tools of the contemporary music business… and musically, of course. Their restless muse that started in plaintive singer/songwriter fashion on the 1999 independent debut Under Feet Like Ours gradually morphed over the course of several albums into the alternative pop/rock of The Con. And most recently, they have achieved full-on pop stardom with Heartthrob and Love You To Death. It is immensely admirable in every respect.
Let’s pick up the narrative in 2007. Tegan and Sara had long been signed to Neil Young’s Vapor label in America. Vapor, in turn, had a joint venture arrangement with Sanctuary Records. But just months before the scheduled July release of The Con, Sanctuary was on the verge of slipping into bankruptcy. There was a scramble to find the right new deal on short notice, and an agreement was reached with Sire/Warner Bros. worldwide.
In Canada, Tegan and Sara had just been signed to MapleMusic Recordings for The Con, though the new Sire arrangement would be worldwide, post The Con. The Con was a breakthrough for Tegan and Sara, commercially and artistically. Produced by Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla, The Con is arguably the sisters’ alt rock pinnacle. Reviews were superlative, and while the debate is ongoing re: Tegan and Sara’s best album, The Con is always in the discussion. Commercially, it would debut in Canada at number 4 on Soundscan and be certified gold. To top it all off, The Con won the 2004 JUNO for Best Alternative Album and made the Polaris Prize shortlist.
After 2009’s Sainthood, Tegan and Sara moved from Sire to Warner Bros. Records proper. Four years would elapse between Sainthood and 2013’s Heartthrob. The wait was worth it as Heartthrob was a bombshell, but in a great way. An ineffably brilliant pop album, masterfully produced by Greg Kurstin, Heartthrob catapulted Tegan and Sara into the mainstream globally. Two smash hits, “Closer,” and “I Was A Fool,” were ubiquitous at multiple formats of Canadian radio throughout 2013 and 2014, both earning multi-platinum certifications. And Heartthrob is Tegan and Sara’s biggest selling album to date in Canada with sales well past platinum. Critical response was equally strong, with global tastemakers lavishing praise. Heartthrob would have a prominent place in year-end best of lists, and Tegan and Sara repeated on the Polaris Prize shortlist. The JUNOS also saluted in a big way. Heartthrob won Pop Album of the Year, and “Closer” won Single of the Year, while Tegan and Sara scored the Group and Songwriter trophies. In America, “Closer” became Tegan and Sara’s first gold certification.
Greg Kurstin returned in the producer’s chair for 2016’s Love You To Death with critical response remaining uniformly strong. Allmusic.com puts it this way: "This is pop music that is all heart all the time, and for that, the sisters deserve every accolade that comes their way."
Although Toronto’s Scott Helman turned 22 in fall 2017, he’s already an established musical presence in Canada. His star was in ascendance from the moment he launched in 2014 with the seven-song Augusta EP, driven by two hits: the platinum single “Bungalow” and “That Sweater.” To top off that incredible launch, the JUNOs chimed in with Breakthrough Artist and Pop Album nominations. Then, at age 20, Scott performed “Bungalow” on the live JUNO broadcast, an accolade rarely bestowed on one so early in their career. And no, we’re not done yet. Scott performed on the MMVAs in 2015. He then toured the U.S. and Europe with Walk Off the Earth, who asked him to guest in the video of their cover of The Weeknd’s “I Can’t Feel My Face.”
With this extraordinary level of accomplishment on an EP, you might assume that Scott arrived fully formed and ready to conquer the world. In fact, the opposite is true. Scott’s success on Augusta is a testament to the entire Warner team, but especially Warner A&R director Ron Lopata, who signed him to a development deal when he was just 15. Ron tells the story: “I met Scott when he was 15 1/2. I'd met his manager at a party and he showed me a video clip he'd taken of this kid. There was something about him, so I invited him down to my studio, put him behind the mic, pressed record, and asked him to just sing away. When I looked through the glass, there was this 15-year-old kid. When I turned away there was an artist that sounded at least ten years older. Scott’s artistic sensibilities and vocal prowess have always been well beyond his years. The team at Warner decided to allow this young artist to develop his craft and take the appropriate time to do so. It has been an amazing journey and story that’s just getting started. There's no question that Scott is the real deal. “
Scott just took the next step in his career with the release of his first full length album Hotel de Ville in May of 2017. Meet him just once and there is no escaping the feeling that a special young talent is just at the very beginning of what promises to be a long and successful career.
Saskatoon’s Sheepdogs might win the “most unusual route to a major label deal” award. In 2011 they were scuffling, trying to generate career momentum on the back of a series of independently recorded albums, when a kind of musical miracle happened. Dine Alone Records founder and the band’s manager Joel Carriere had the quite brilliant idea to submit their music to Rolling Stone for consideration in a contest the magazine was running. As Doctor Hook and the Medicine Show had declared in their 1972 hit record, every band wanted to appear on “The cover of the Rolling Stone,”…and garner a contract with Atlantic Records, which were the prizes the magazine was offering. Not only did The Sheepdogs make the final 15 contestants, but they won. And in August 2011, they became the first unsigned band ever to grace the cover of RS. The longest of longshots had come in, and The Sheepdogs’ lives were turned upside down, in a great way.
They were suddenly the toast of the music industry in North America, making several appearances on late night TV and playing the hippest festivals. Their Learn & Burn indie album, featuring the first version of “I Don’t Know,” was reissued with Warner distribution and promptly went platinum. Then the Atlantic deal kicked in. They bowed with a five-song EP, appropriately titled Five Easy Pieces, that spun out two top 10 rock radio hits, “Who?” and the re-recorded “I Don’t Know,” en route to selling a robust 25,000 units. JUNO came calling in a big way with three nominations and three wins, for Single (“I Don’t Know”), Rock Album and New Group. What a difference a year makes!
A big fan of the band, the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney agreed to produce The Sheepdogs’ Atlantic debut album. Recorded in a two-week whirlwind in Nashville, that self-titled LP, released in 2012, neatly captured the Sheepdogs’ genuine love of classic rock, particularly the Southern boogie variety. The album is drenched in the Black Keys’ sonic signatures, and that’s a good thing - “The Way It is” and “Feelin’ Good” were both major hits at rock and alternative radio, both going to number 1, both being certified gold, and driving The Sheepdogs’ debut well past gold.
Joel would then extricate the band from the worldwide Atlantic deal but Warner Canada remained the Canadian label for Future Nostalgia, released in 2015. Critical response was positive, although it did not have the same success at radio as the debut.
Looking back half a decade, the entire Rolling Stone affair seems somehow Cinderella-like, catapulting a previously unknown band into a very bright spotlight. But The Sheepdogs can be proud of what they have accomplished thus far in their career. They handled that spotlight with flair and a brace of hit songs, taking their place alongside a long list of great prairie rock bands who have preceded them. It will be interesting to see what music they bring us next, but it’s a given that the music will be authentic rock ‘n’ roll delivered from the heart.
Courage My Love
Twin sisters Mercedes (vocals/guitar) and Phoenix Arn-Horn(vocals/drums/synths) along with bassist Brandon Lockwood are Courage My Love, a trio that has become regulars on the Vans Warped Tour across North America and veterans of numerous headlining tours of Europe.
“We met Mercedes and Phoenix when they were 17,” says Ron Lopata. “Since then we’ve been blown away by their development both as songwriters and performers. Their new album, Synesthesia, has shown the kind of growth we wouldn’t have expected this early in their careers.”
And Courage are very much the poster children of the contemporary record business. Remarkably motivated and self-reliant, they tour hard, developing a core fan base city by city, and they find a way to do it without running up a huge tour support bill. Check their website to see the savvy way they drive merchandise sales, online and at gigs, with a varied array of t-shirts, music and swag.
In America, where they don’t yet have a record company, Synesthesia has nonetheless rung up 500,000 streams to go with 1.6 million in Canada. Global Spotify plays are near 2,000,000. Impressive.
Very likely sooner than later, Courage My Love will deliver the song that delivers pop stardom. But those who are watching closely will know that it’s also the product of a special type of vision and diligence. Courage My Love has something special going on.
When Modern Space’s Sean Watson Graham approached Ron Lopata in the street and asked him to come see the band play, he had no idea what he was getting himself into. Rather than a club, he was taken to their apartment where the band, then a trio, exchanged instruments with one another after every song. As weird as that first encounter was, Ron saw something special in the band. Their debut single, “Pen To Paper,” received significant modern rock radio airplay and earned them a spot in Spotify’s Spotlight 2016 program.
Before signing with Warner Canada Philip Sayce had toured the globe with Jeff Healy and Melissa Etheridge, earning himself a reputation as one of the world’s best blues-rock guitarists. He had released four independent albums before the label heard him on a Spotify playlist and picked up his album, Influence, for Canadian distribution. His recording of the Ten Years After classic “I’d Love To Change The World” was a Top 20 rock radio hit in Canada.
Both Matthew Good and Chantal Kreviazuk were already established stars in Canada when they decided to sign with Warner Music Canada. Chantal came to the label with two platinum and two gold albums in her catalogue. In 2010 she took a break from recording and focused on writing for others, building an impressive resume that includes contributions to albums by Avril Lavigne, Kelly Clarkson, Pitbull and Drake.
In his storied career, Matthew Good has released 16 albums since 1995. In that time he has won two JUNO Awards with the Matthew Good Band and two more as a solo artist. In addition to a successful musical career, Matthew has established himself as a political and mental health activist.
Throughout its 50-year history, Warner Canada has had a long commitment to country music, and never more so than now with a roster that includes Brett Kissel, The Washboard Union, Meghan Patrick, Aaron Goodvin and The Abrams.
But let’s pay respect to the company’s history in the genre. The very first domestic country signing was Frankie Gibbs, whose Dry Your Eyes album came out in 1974. Check Youtube for the audio of a great song called “Follow That Dotted Line.”
Making a significant country music distribution deal in the 80s, WEA inked Brian Ferriman’s Savannah Records. Brian went on to win innumerable awards in the country field and was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame. Savannah’s roster in the 80s and 90s included Michelle Wright, Gary Fjellgaard, Matt Minglewood, Terry Carisse and Anita Perras.
And mention must also be made of Stony Plain Records, whose roster has included Corb Lund and still includes the immortal Ian Tyson.
Warner’s first major success in country music got signed from a demo sent through the mail to the A&R department – yes it does actually work on occasion! Bob Roper remembers it well. “I was in my office opening envelopes of new submissions and got this finished cassette that had an IGA sticker on it. It was George Fox. It looked cheesy but I put it on and started to listen. I went about my business day with the record playing in the background. Something about it caught my ear and after a couple of days, I took it down to Stan and said ‘Am I crazy or is there something here?’ A little while later Stan came down and suggested that I give George a call. I dialed the number and a little old lady’s voice said that George was in the barn, and asked me to hold on for a minute. I heard her call out, ‘George, there’s a man on the phone from Warner Bros.’”
It turned out that George had sold three head of cattle to make that first album. It would be an investment that paid off handsomely. On a cross-country fly-fishing trip to Alberta, Stan Kulin famously pulled up to the Fox family ranch in a motorhome to have George sign the contract! From 1988-1995, George would release five albums for the company, along with a Greatest Hits album in 1997. During that time, he was a national star, earning four gold albums, the CCMA Male Vocalist trophy three times and the JUNO Country Male Vocalist Award three times.
George was also an unwitting catalyst on the business end for Warner Canada. Warner Bros. Nashville did release a couple of George’s albums in the U.S., to little notice. And the frustration with that process would lead Dave Tollington and Stan Kulin to negotiate the joint venture template that would shortly be used to stunning effect with the signing of Paul Brandt, and later Big Wreck and Billy Talent.
Montreal-born Patricia Conroy made three fine albums for the label from 1990- 1994. The last, You Can’t Resist, was her aesthetic and commercial peak, generating five top 10 singles. Post her recording career, Patricia moved to Nashville where she successfully focused on her song writing, which included co-writes with Warner Canada’s current female country star, Meghan Patrick.
As George Fox’s Warner career was beginning to wind down, another Albertan would become the company’s biggest success in the genre. In the summer of 1993, Warner domestic National Promotion VP Randy Stark and I caught wind of a song on a MCA Records radio compilation by a Calgary-born artist, Paul Brandt. We LOVED Paul’s voice, and discovering that he in fact wasn’t signed to MCA Canada, we immediately established contact. The 1993 CCMAs in Hamilton were a turning point. Seeing Paul perform live at a showcase sealed the deal on our enthusiasm… but not quite yet on signing Paul. Randy and I then met Paul for lunch in downtown Toronto and everything seemed to go well. As we left the restaurant, we saw RCA’s President Bob Jamieson heading in right after us to make his own pitch to Paul!
And here is where the George Fox-inspired joint venture template paid dividends. I shopped Paul’s demos to Warner Bros. Nashville Head of A&R Paige Levy. She got it right away and Dave Tollington got the deal done in front of a hard-charging RCA. For the next two years, Paul went to school, as in Warner Nashville finishing school. With Paul’s new Nashville management and Paige’s direction, they worked on everything from photography and imaging to song writing and eventually, recording. The day the finished album arrived was nothing less than a revelation. Two years of hard work had paid off in spades as 1996’s Calm Before the Storm was a first listen monster! The album generated four huge hit singles, led by “My Heart Has a History,” which went to #1 in Canada AND the U.S., and the award-winning ballad “I Do.” Calm Before the Storm went on to be certified 3X platinum in Canada and gold in America. The joint venture template had borne its first fruit for Warner Canada and Warner Nashville, and in spectacular fashion.
Paul would release four more albums on Reprise through the year 2000 before moving on. Through his career, Paul has become the most-awarded Canadian male country artist in history, as well as the most played Canadian country artist at radio in Nielsen BDS history. This past September, Paul was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Association’s Hall of Fame AND re-signed with Warner Music Canada for a new album coming out in the Spring of 2018.
Two other Canadian artists would pact with the U.S. labels. New Brunswick native Chris Cummings was signed to Reprise in 1995 at age 17, releasing a series of albums into the next decade. His 1996 debut, Somewhere Inside, launched four top 5 singles and went gold. Family trio The Wilkinsons, from Trenton, Ontario, had a brief but illustrious career. In 1998, the single “26 cents” was a smash hit, going to #1 in Canada and top 5 in the U.S. Their Nothing But Love release for Warner Bros.-distributed Giant Records also went gold.
Although Warner continued to have a strong country roster of American acts coming out of Nashville, the domestic roster lay barren for the first ten years of the new millennium. “We’d been out of the country music business for a while, because quite frankly, there wasn’t anything out there that got me excited,” says Steve Kane.
Alberta is the home of country music in Canada for a good reason. It might be something in the air or the soil, but quality country artists just never stop emerging from the province. It’s perhaps time to invoke the spirit of fellow Albertans George Fox and Paul Brandt in this story because a through line is definitely emerging.
Kane: “When Brett Kissel showed up, he came to us almost fully formed. He’d been doing this since he was 12, was a big fan of contemporary country music and knew what kind of songs he wanted to sing. On top of that, he had a deep knowledge of the classics. Brett was the full package.” A native of Flat Lake, Brett Kissel is only 27 years old, but has already collected 10 CCMA Awards, including twice being named Male Artist of the Year.
“I had actually noticed Brett a few times at the CCMAs, when he was really young, and was impressed by his moxy,” recalls Steve Coady. “Fast forward a few years and one day I was called in to one of those boardroom auditions that can be tough for both the performer and the audience. It was Brett, and he killed it, playing for two solid hours.”
“It was supposed to be a 30-minute meeting,” continued Kane. “But after he’d played us his own songs, we got to talking country music. I started throwing out names like Lefty Frizzell and Hank Snow, and didn’t he just pick up the guitar and sing everything I threw at him!” “At some point, I had to leave for an appointment,” says Coady picking up the story. “The next time I saw Kane, the first thing he said was ‘we have to sign this kid.’”
To set up Brett’s debut album, Coady took him on a near coast to coast tour of country radio stations, where Brett would knock it out of the park with his songs and his charm. When it was time to drop “Started With A Song” – the prophetic first single and album title track – Brett had country radio in the palm of his hand. Started With A Song delivered no less than five top 10 singles at country radio, driving the album comfortably past gold. At the 2014 JUNOS, Brett won the Breakthrough Artist trophy and scored an always elusive performance slot on the Sunday live broadcast.
2015’s Pick Me Up did exactly that, picking up where Started With A Song left off, spinning out four more top 10 singles, including the #1 “Airwaves.” Chalk up gold album number two for Brett. A third Warner album, We Were That Song, will hit the street in December 2017.
Without a doubt, Brett Kissel has quickly become the standard bearer for today’s outstanding Warner Canadian country roster, the most robust in the company’s history.
Steve Coady has a clever pitch line for Bowmanville’s Meghan Patrick: “If a group of country music industry pros sat down to construct the perfect female country artist, it would be Meghan Patrick.” He’s got a point: she’s a down to earth, crazy talented songwriter with a killer voice. Meghan’s career got off to a great start with her 2016 debut Grace & Grit generating four top 20 country singles. And what a fantastic 2017 CCMAs for Meghan. On the same night, she walked off with both the Rising Star and Female Vocalist trophies!
In 2017, the bluegrass-inflected Vancouver trio The Washboard Union became one of the most popular touring groups on the Canadian country music scene. Their 2015 major label debut, In Our Bones, delivered the Top 10 singles “Maybe It’s the Moonshine” and “Shot of Glory,” as well as the concert fave “Head Over Heels.” The group earned yet another Top 10 hit with their 2017 summer single “Shine.” In 2016 the band won the CCMA Rising Star award as well as Roots Artist of the Year. In 2017, they repeated as Roots Artist of the Year and won Country Group of the Year at the Western Canadian Music Awards.
Spirit River, Alberta native Aaron Goodvin first made a name for himself as a songwriter – he has a co-write on Luke Bryan’s two million-selling Crash My Party release – but he was always destined to be an artist in his own right. Aaron’s self-titled debut featured the Top 10 hits “Woman In Love” and the summer smash, ”Lonely Drum” immediately putting him on the country music map.
Rounding out the roster are Calgary-born country rocker JJ Shiplett and Kingston, Ontario’s The Abrams, who have the distinction of being the youngest Canadian artists to grace the stage of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.
In the fall of 2017, Warner Canada’s commitment to country music is at an all-time high. In fact, the entire Canadian country music industry just acknowledged that commitment by recognizing Warner Music Canada as Record Company of the Year at the 2017 CCMAs. That’s the first time since 1993 that a major label has won the award! And the re-signing of Paul Brandt, newly inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, adds an exclamation point that the label can be especially proud of!
In 2016 LaCrete, Alberta’s High Valley won their second consecutive Group/Duo of the Year Award at the Canadian Country Music Awards. Earlier that year they had signed a worldwide deal with Atlantic Records, which scored a top 20 hit in the U.S. with their previously-released indie single “Make You Mine.” In Canada, their major label debut, Dear Life, delivered hits “Every Week’s Got A Friday” and the #1 smash hit “I Be U Be,” making Brad and Curtis Rempel the first Canadian group to top the charts in the Nielsen BDS era (since 1995).
As Warner Music Canada concludes its 50th year, it’s important to reflect on the critical role that Canadian artists have played in the company’s history. These eighty-plus essays feature the creativity of an extraordinarily diverse and gifted group of musicians. Combine their artistry with the vision and hard work of Warner Canada employees from several generations, and indeed from the Warner Music Group at large, and you have the recipe for 50 years of outstanding cultural achievements and commercial successes.
Steve Kane: “One of the things that Warner Music Canada continues to believe is that Canadians want and deserve to hear their own voices. This is a vital and important culture that gives birth to many different genres with world-class songwriters, producers and performers. It is our duty as a major record company, staffed and run by Canadians, that we play an integral part in telling our own stories.”
Warner Music Canada has had four Presidents during its first 50 years:
Ken Middleton: 1967 – 1983
Stan Kulin: 1983 – 1998
Garry Newman: 1998 – 2003
Steve Kane: 2003 to present
SR. VP/Managing Director, DOMESTIC
Dave Tollington: 1989-2002
Dave had executive responsibility for the A&R department and also took an active role in scouting, signing and developing talent during that period.
Eight different people have sat in the lead A&R chair for Warner Music Canada:
John Pozer: 1970 – 1973
Gary Muth: 1974 – 1980
Jim Campbell: 1980 – 1982
Bob Roper: 1983 – 1990
Greg Torrington: 1990 – 1992
Kim Cooke: 1993 – 1998
Steve Blair: 1998 – 2010
Ron Lopata: 2010 – present
Assisting in scouting and developing domestic talent over the years: Bonnie Fedrau, Steve Jordan, Jennifer Hirst, Victor Mijares and Kelly Anglin
The nomenclature of the Canadian Warner operation has evolved over its 50 years, particularly in the early days. Here are the six different company names and the periods they were in effect:
Thanks and Acknowledgements
This endeavour would not have been possible without the memories and files of a great many friends and associates from down the decades of the Canadian music business. You are listed below alphabetically by last name, and I thank you all profusely:
Andy Abbate, John Alexander, Bruce Allen, Kelly Anglin, Dave Bidini, Rob Bowman, Bernie Breen, Jim Campbell, Joel Carriere, Gene Champagne, Steve Coady, Susan de Cartier, Ian D’Sa, Joanne Faloona, Bonnie Fedrau, Bernie Finkelstein, Piers Henwood, Jennifer Hirst, Leslie Howe, Cliff Hunt, Safwan Javed, Mary Jelley, Bill Johnston, Sheri Jones, Steve Jordan, Joanne Kaeding, Steve Kane, Stan Kulin, Jean Lamothe, Eric Lawrence, Mario Lefebvre, Ron Lopata, Alexander Mair, Andy Maize, Michael McCarty, Doug McClement, Loreena McKennitt, Helene Morin, Allen Moy, Gary Muth, Garry Newman, Joel Plaskett, Heather Pollock, Doug Raaflaub, Pat Reid, Ed Robertson, Jeff Rogers, Bob Roper, Jack Ross, Patrick Sambrook, Sander Shalinsky, Kevin Shea, Gary Slaight, Randy Stark, Rich Terfry, Ian Thomas, Louis Thomas, Dave Tollington, Paul Tuch, Larry Wanagas, Christopher Ward, Steve Waxman, Dale Weiser, Ed Wesseling, Tom Williams, Michael-Philip Wojewoda.
Three people merit special thanks: