Rockin’ in the Great White North

Apparently Canada – the home of Your Home for Vintage Leisure – is a nation of polite apologizers. But one thing we here at SoulRide have never apologized for is claiming our own. I often get the perhaps unfounded feeling that the proud nation of the United States is sometimes reluctant to admit that some of the players in the history of the entertainment that the country is so good at providing were not born in the land of the free and the home of the brave. While they have no problem celebrating the fact that a singer or actor may hail from somewhere exotic like, say, Australia or somewhere romantically intriguing like Sweden, there sometimes is a lack of acknowledgment that every now and then, believe it or not, major contributors in the area of entertainment have decided to do the world a favour and travel south of the border from the Great White North to allow their gifts to be transmitted to the wide world; a transmission that has perhaps the best chance of happening in the US. My favourite, I think, is actress Mary Pickford. Pickford was a pioneer in the American film industry, a “significant figure in the development of film acting” and someone who “defined the ingenue type in cinema”. She was known as “Queen of the Movies” and “America’s Sweetheart” – and she was born in Toronto.

L: Toronto’s Mary Pickford, born Gladys Smith – the same as Elvis Presley’s mom. R: The Canadian Red Ensign, sometimes used as the nation’s flag prior to the Maple Leaf being adopted in 1965.

But here we are talking about music and in honour of Canada Day, an annual federal statutory holiday that celebrates the anniversary of Canada’s confederation that occurred on July 1, 1867, I thought we’d shine a light on some of the singers that found success in the US and abroad during the rock & roll era. While I’m no expert on the apparatus that was in place at the time, no doubt it was difficult for Canadian acts to get exposure if they continued to operate in their home land. Traveling Stateside to New York City or to the West coast was what was needed and that may not have been easy or possible in every case. So the fact that these Canadian acts found success is remarkable as they had to overcome some geographical obstacles to do so. I thought we would go chronologically and look at some of the artists that were popular and highlight some of the “greatest hits” from Canadian performers of the golden age.

The Crew-CutsToronto, Ontario // St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica, one of the oldest churches in Toronto, was dedicated on August 29, 1848 and is located on Bond Street in the Garden District. The Cathedral’s services feature choir singing by the students of St. Michael’s Choir School, a semi-private Catholic high school located next door to the Cathedral. The choir school gifted the world with two fine vocal quartets, the members of which were good friends of each other. Initially, friends Rudi Maugeri and John Perkins joined two other boys to form a group. Maugeri and Perkins decided to instead focus on their studies; the other two boys later joined two others to form the Four Lads. This prompted Maugeri and Perkins to believe they, too, could have a career in music. The two recruited Perkins’ brother, Ray and Pat Barrett and the Four Tones were born.

The boys began working clubs in Niagara Falls and upstate New York but hedged their bets by keeping their jobs with the Canadian government. They eventually quit those jobs, though and traveled to New York to appear on Arthur Godfrey’s TV show, but soon returned home to open for Gisele Mackenzie. The group was performing in Sudbury in a typically bone-chilling Canadian winter when they got an invitation to appear in Cleveland. They drove all night in minus-40-degree temperatures to perform in that Ohio town where they met DJ Bill Randle who christened the group the Crew-Cuts and arranged for them to sign with Mercury Records.

The group wrote and recorded “Crazy ‘Bout You, Baby” in 1954 and it became a Top Ten hit in the US (#8). Then they turned their attention to what was happening on the rhythm and blues charts and became experts at covering songs by other artists. The Chords were a group out of the Bronx that had recorded a doo-wop version of the Patti Page hit “Cross Over the Bridge”. Their record company reluctantly allowed the group to place a song they had written on the B side. That song – the legendary “Sh-Boom” – proved the more popular tune (#9 Pop, #2 R&B) and became a pioneering rock & roll hit. The Crew-Cuts recorded a version and released it in mid-1954. It became arguably the first rock & roll song to hit the top of charts; it stayed at #1 for nine weeks during the late summer of ’54. I suppose it should be said that here is where the conundrum of white artists achieving bigger hits with the songs of blacks than the original artists did begins. An unfortunate aspect of the history of the music business. The Crew-Cuts version was also a #1 song in far-flung Australia. The Chords’ version is superior but that group could not sustain itself and soon disintegrated.

The Crew-Cuts followed up “Sh-Boom” with hits like “Earth Angel” – another cover and a Top Ten hit in the US and the UK for the boys from TO – and “Ko Ko Mo (I Love You So)” which was also a cover of a rhythm and blues song that the Crew-Cuts took to #6. After a total of 13 Top 40 hits in three years, the glow dimmed for the Crew-Cuts and by 1957, they had begun to fade out of sight. The group has gone down in history, though – the first rock & roll song to reach the top of the charts was recorded by a Canadian group from Toronto.

The Four LadsToronto, Ontario // Connie Codarini and Bernie Toorish found themselves a duo after Rudi Maugeri and John Perkins – future Crew-Cuts – bailed on them for something as silly as their education. Undaunted, the lads recruited Jimmie Arnold and Frankie Busseri and settled on the name the Four Lads when they learned the Four Dukes was already taken. The four boys went to New York where they were recruited by Columbia Records’ famed A&R man, Mitch Miller, to sing back-up for Johnnie Ray. Subsequently, the Four Lads can be heard on Ray’s huge hits “Cry” and “The Little White Cloud That Cried”.

My copy of the Lads on Kapp.

Striking out on their own, they scored Top 40 pop hits through 1952 and 1953 with songs like “The Mocking Bird” (#23) and “Somebody Loves Me” (#22). They struck paydirt the following year with a Top Ten hit, “Skokiaan”, which lead up to their most successful run. After releasing three singles that did not chart at all, the Four Lads issued “Moments to Remember” on July 18, 1955. One of my favourite things to hear is an old song about old times. As we today reminisce about the 1950’s, it’s charming to hear a song from that time that was also waxing nostalgic for a previous era. “Moments to Remember” is a song about just that; looking back fondly to memories of the past, something that is the very essence of what we do at Your Home for Vintage Leisure. DJ Bill Randle was again instrumental in a Canadian group’s career as he plugged this tune on the radio which drove it up to #2 on the US pop charts giving the Four Lads their first gold record.

At the start of 1956, the same songwriting team provided the boys with their next hit – also peaking at #2 – “No, Not Much”, another gold record. Only weeks later, the Lads released their take on the Frank Loesser show tune “Standing on the Corner”, a charming number they took to #3 as their version outperformed Dean Martin‘s, released at the same time. 1957 got off to a good start, too. Robert Allen and Al Stillman had written two previous hits for the Four Lads and the same team penned “Who Needs You?”, a song delivered in the Lads’ fine style that contained the same ironic lyrical imagery as “No, Not Much”.

The boys slowed down in 1958 releasing only three singles, placing all in the Top 40. Times were changing though and the group’s popularity soon waned. However, The Four Lads can boast an impressive chart run; from 1952’s “The Mocking Bird” through to a new version of that tune they released in 1958, the group from Toronto scored 23 Top 40 hits with 8 reaching the Top Ten.

The DiamondsToronto, Ontario // The story of the Diamonds is similar to the stories we have already heard. Formed in Toronto, the group got their start performing in a show put on by a Catholic church. The boys traveled to New York where they appeared on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts which brought them to the attention of Coral Records. For Coral, the Diamonds recorded an early Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller tune, “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots”, which didn’t chart. The group traveled to Cleveland where DJ Bill Randle yet again came to the aid of a fledgling vocal group from north of the border, setting the boys up with Mercury Records.

Early singles for Mercury included cover versions of songs that had been hits for other vocal groups. The Diamonds placed “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” in the #12 slot in early 1956 and followed that with their rendition of “The Church Bells May Ring”, scoring another Top 20 hit. The Diamonds released many more moderately successful singles through 1956 before really putting their timeless stamp on the music of this era.

My copy. “America’s Song Stylists” – from Canada!

On February 8, 1957, the Diamonds released “Little Darlin'”, another cover version of a song that had been recorded a month earlier by the Gladiolas and was written by that group’s leader, Maurice Williams, who would soon change his group’s name to Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs (“Stay”). The Diamonds’ version became a huge hit, reaching #2 US Pop, #2 R&B and #3 UK. “Little Darlin'” was eventually ranked the Number 3 song of the year 1957, quite an achievement in a great year for music. After three consecutive Top 20 songs – including their Top Ten cover of the Rays’ “Silhouettes” – the Diamonds put one more indelible stamp on the music of the golden era. “The Stroll” was an incredibly cool, mean and grinding song with an infectious saxophone part that the group placed as high as #4 on the charts. Together with “Little Darlin'”, the Diamonds can boast two of the most recognizable songs of this time, songs that never fail to conjure up visions of the 1950’s.

Through 1958 and into ’59, the boys were able to score 4 more Top 40 hits including the title track for the film Kathy O’ but then, inevitably, the music scene passed them by. Interestingly, founding member Dave Sommerville (born Guelph, Ontario, died 2015) left the group in 1961 and became a folk singer and actor using the name David Troy. He would eventually co-write “The (Ballad of the) Unknown Stuntman”, the theme for the 1980’s TV show The Fall Guy starring Lee Majors – who also sang the tune – as stuntman Colt Seavers. Dave’s own Hollywood Hills home was used on the show as Colt’s home. And later member of the Diamonds Glenn Stetson (born in the Ottawa Valley, died 2003) opened Little Darlin’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Palace in Florida that became a notable venue for performances by many of the greats of rock & roll.

Paul AnkaOttawa, Ontario // The only teen idol of the golden era to hail from Canada was Ottawa’s Paul Anka. Actually, it would be more accurate to say; one of the biggest teen idols of the golden era was Canadian Paul Anka. Born in our nation’s capitol, Anka was the son of Lebanese Christians and was another on our list to get his start singing in church. While still a teenager, Anka traveled to New York to audition for Don Costa. What set Anka apart from most other singers of the time was the fact that he was a full-fledged songwriter who was composing the music and writing the lyrics to his own songs, the first of which was an ode to a girl from church he barely knew. “Diana” has become one of the songs that is most emblematic of the mini-era of popular music circa 1959 when the teen idols emerged and things became cleaner and neater. “Diana” may actually be on a very short list of the most recognizable oldies of all-time and it has gone down as one of the most successful singles ever by a Canadian. In 1959, it was a worldwide #1 song, reaching #2 US Pop.

© The Ed Sullivan Show

Anka is known today for his songwriting almost as much as for his chart hits. He wrote songs for other singers of the day, most notably “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” for Buddy Holly and “Teddy” for Connie Francis. Later, he would compose the theme for The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and the English lyrics for the French song “Comme d’habitude”, giving them the title “My Way” and providing Frank Sinatra with one of his most notable recordings. Indicative of his later connections with Las Vegas, Anka penned “She’s a Lady” for Tom Jones. His theme for the war film The Longest Day was also the official march of the Canadian Airborne Regiment. But back to the hits.

Paul followed up “Diana” with 1958’s “You Are My Destiny” (Top Ten in the US and UK) and other Top 40 entries until 1959 when he scored one of his biggest hits, “Lonely Boy”. Another song written by Anka, “Lonely Boy” – just as identifiable as “Diana” – was Anka’s first #1 song and stayed at the top for 4 weeks. This started a run for Paul as he followed up with three more Top 5 songs, all legendary recordings; “Put Your Head on My Shoulder”, “It’s Time to Cry” and “Puppy Love”. Between “Diana” in ’57 and “Remember Diana” in 1963, Paul had 24 Top 40 hits including 8 Top Tens but like so many others his sound gave way to other sounds and his popularity waned. However, unlike so many others, Paul Anka was able to forge a second act.

Paul became one of the first pop acts to perform successfully in Las Vegas and he also returned to the charts in a big way in 1974. “(You’re) Having My Baby” went to #1 and was the first of four consecutive duets with singer Odia Coates, all of which landed in the Top 15. This chart success in the mid-1970’s – almost 20 years after his start – cemented Paul Anka’s reputation as a hit-maker and a survivor. Add to this his prolific songwriting and canny business acumen and the result is a career that makes Paul a true Canadian icon.

Jack ScottWindsor, Ontario // Giovanni Domenico Scafone, Jr. found fame in the late 1950’s as Jack Scott (1936-2019). Windsor is located directly across the river from Detroit – it’s where many Canadians will cross over into the States – and as a child Scott’s family moved to a suburb of Detroit where he began his music career while still a teenager. Jack broke out in 1958, charting all six of his singles. Out of the gates came one of Jack’s two biggest hits, “My True Love”, a song written by Jack and one that reached #3 on the US Pop charts. It also reached #5 R&B, #9 in the UK and it topped the charts in Scott’s homeland. The B side, “Leroy”, was also a Top 30 track. Later in the year, another composition by Scott, “Goodbye Baby”, hit #8.

1959 was an off year by comparison, with Jack only scoring with the strutting rockabilly number, “The Way I Walk” (#35). Scott came back in 1960 with three straight Top 40 songs. In fact, the first two became something akin to standards and have been recorded over the years by many different artists. The first was “What in the World’s Come Over You”. Penned by Scott, it scaled the upper reaches of charts the world over, including reaching #2 way down in Australia. The song was eventually recorded by the likes of Les Baxter, Eddy Arnold and Wanda Jackson. Both Sonny James and Tom Jones had hits with the song on US Country charts. The second was the stirring “Burning Bridges”, one of Jack’s two highest-charting songs as it reached #3 in the US. This one was later essayed by prominent artists like Glen Campbell, Sonny James, Connie Francis and George Jones. Somehow, NFL quarterback Terry Bradshaw was allowed to release a total of five albums over the years and “Burning Bridges” was on his debut in 1976. Notably, Jack recorded this tune in a duet with fellow Canadian Carroll Baker which charted on the Canadian country charts in 1992.

Anka may have been the teen idol, but Scott was every inch the rockabilly rebel. © Bear Family Records

1960 spelled the end of Jack Scott’s chart run though he remained persistent; he continued to release three or four singles every year for the next decade despite none of them charting. Jack flamed brightly for a short time and actually cut a unique swath through our beloved golden era. It has been said that Scott shares a rarefied air with only Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley as having one of the finest voices among white rock & rollers and his body of work is one of the most convincing. In fact; “Scott (charted) more US singles (19), in a shorter period of time (41 months), than any other recording artist except for the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino and Connie Francis”. And let’s not forget that he wrote all of his hits except “Burning Bridges”. Jack Scott passed away in December of 2019 but remains today always a welcomed voice on oldies radio.

Let’s wrap up our look at Oldies from the Great White North with some of the biggest hits by Canadian artists, based on their performance on the US Pop charts

Chart Pos’nTitleArtistOriginYear
45“Clap Your Hands”The Beau-MarksMontreal1960
41“Fortune Teller”Bobby CurtolaPort Arthur, Ont.1962
10“Istanbul (Not Constantiople)”The Four LadsToronto1953
8“Crazy ‘Bout Ya Baby”The Crew-CutsToronto1954
8“My Home Town”Paul AnkaOttawa1960
7“You Are My Destiny”Paul AnkaOttawa1958
6“Ko Ko Mo (I Love You So)”The Crew-CutsToronto1955
4“The Stroll”The DiamondsToronto1957
3“Earth Angel”The Crew-CutsToronto1955
3“My True Love”Jack ScottWindsor1958
2“Little Darlin'”The DiamondsToronto1957
2“Moments to Remember”The Four LadsToronto1955
1“Lonely Boy” (#1 for 4 weeks)Paul AnkaOttawa1959
1“Sh-Boom” (#1 for 9 weeks)The Crew-CutsToronto1954

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