BILL AND SUE-ON HILLMAN
A MUSICAL ODYSSEY
Music Influences: 1943-1961
Continued from Part I
The Bend Theatre in Strathclair was a magic place that showed two movies a week, hosted many local concerts and, occasionally, brought in a touring music group. In the '50s, Winnipeg radio station CKY had a Saturday morning show that featured a regular live country band. The bands would use the show to plug their live performances around the province and most of them found their way to our theatre quite regularly. Station DJs, such as Porky Sharpeno, would moonlight as emcees on these shows and would usually plug the show all week on their radio shifts. The stage shows featured a nice mix of country songs and instrumentals, pretty girl singer, cornball humour, audience participation, costumes, lighting (black light was a favourite gimmick), and sale of photos, programmes and songbooks. Many years later I would refer to a Ray Little Show songbook for the lyrics to the Kentuckian Song that Sue-On recorded for our fourth album. (The song had originally been featured on the soundtrack of a '50s Burt Lancaster movie, The Kentuckian.) After digging through stacks of memorabilia I finally found these obscure lyrics . . . on one of the inside pages beside the picture of the smiling steel player, Tex Emery.
The Bend Theatre stage show that stands out most in my memory, however, was the Hal Lonepine / Betty Cody Show in the mid-'50s. Accompanying this husband and wife singing team was their 15-year-old son, Hal Lonepine, Jr. on Gretsch guitar. The kid was incredible . . . and he later became even more incredible when he set the guitar and jazz world on its ear. In those later years he dropped the Jr. stagename and performed under his real name: Lenny Breau. The show also featured the Ward Sisters and a steel and bass player who came out later in a Grampa Jones type costume and persona to add a bit of comedy relief. The guest singer was a very young and dynamic Elvis impersonator named Ray St. Germain. Ray also went on to become a major performer with hit records, international tours and his own television show. One of our greatest thrills was meeting Ray, one of our early influences, many years later at the Manitoba Association of Country Artists Award Show. We and Ray were both up for the Manitoba Entertainers of the Year Award. . . and Sue-On and I were more surprised than anyone in the room when we were announced the winners of this major award.
The big old 78s in my collection just didn't have the pizzazz of the new unbreakable 45s and LPs with their stacking turntables, colourful photos and peer acceptance. So, for many months leading up to Christmas '56, I started a campaign to make my parents very aware that our old turntable was terribly obsolete. Success! Under the tree that year was a portable RCA record player that could play all three speeds and all sizes of records. Along with this technological marvel was a selection of records from various members of the family: Elvis' second album, Bill Haley, Pat Boone and Crazy Otto (my Aunt Merna was a real fan), Tennessee Ernie Ford (my Nannie was a fan), and a few more. My record collecting and guitar playing now went into full gear as I could hide away in my room and play along for hours every day, picking guitar riffs off my growing collection: Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Lonnie Donegan, Dale Hawkins. This collection grew in leaps and bounds when I joined the RCA record club: Chet Atkins, Hank Snow, bluegrass, etc.
The arrival of my transistor radio meant that I now had a constant musical companion while doing chores. It was a sad day when this 7 transistor Standard, pocket-book sized radio ended up at the bottom of the lake during a boat accident. But was soon replaced by a big multi-band Sharp which brought in stations from all over North America. This much larger boom box served me well a few years later when I spent my summers spray painting houses, barns, bins and elevators.
Great changes were also wrought by the arrival of television in our home. There wasn't much of the new music on the tube but the Ed Sullivan Show had the occasional rock act: Elvis, Buddy Holly, The Everlys, Buddy Knox -- and CBC's Hit Parade show and Country Hoedown had some interesting moments. But the early days of TV were magical. I 've tried to share some of the excitement in the CKX-TV Overview chapter of this Odyssey.
My Harmony Monterey archtop had served me well but it had many limitations. One day while thumbing through the new Simpsons-Sears mail order catalogue I came upon a picture of a guitar that seemed to offer everything I wanted in an instrument: a shiny black, gold-flecked Silvertone electric guitar. The price was way out of my range but my grandmother had been saving her pension cheques for an emergency such as this. The story and photos of this guitar, and of each guitar that came after is featured in our Favourite Guitars I Have Known... and Own chapters.
Around this time, weekend country dances became a fairly regular social event. Most towns had old time dances that featured local musicians but the best teen dances were at the Oak River Arena Dance Gardens. The town was small but they brought in some fairly big names. One night that stands out featured Marty Robbins and his band. Marty was riding high with cross-over pop/country hits that included the classic El Paso. This was an event to look forward to because of the great guitar work on his hits (the guitarist on the record was Nashville legend, Grady Martin). On this particular night, however, Marty's long-time lead player (name forgotten) fell sick and had to leave the stage. Marty ended up playing lead himself for the rest of the night . . . occasionally sitting informally on the front of the stage. This was the first time I had ever heard fuzz guitar as the lead player had used the effect on Marty's hit, Don't Worry 'bout Me. Story has it that the effect was discovered in the studio by accident when a guitar amp malfunctioned because of a loose tube.
A few years later, whenever I went with the gang to functions in nearby Newdale, I always looked forward to having a coke or hot chocolate in Soo Choy's Paris Cafe because he always had a good stock of magazines to browse through. We were sometimes served by his pretty young daughter,
Sue-On, a pretty and bubbly little girl who had recently come from Hong Kong with her mother. Her older brother Kenny and I were friends and classmates through grades 11 and 12.
I was a member of the Royal Canadian Air Cadets for eight years -- having joined as a Junior Cadet at age 11. My two weeks at Air Cadet 1960 Summer Camp in St. Jean, Quebec, gave me the opportunity to jam with another guitarist - a real treat because there were very few players around home. He wasn't much better than I was but he did a nice version of Honky Tonk and soon I had another riff to my slowly growing guitar repertoire. Another memorable music experience associated with Air Cadets was the singing of a seemingly limitless number of bawdy ballads on the many military bus trips we took over the years -- songs I haven't had much occasion to sing since as there hasn't been much demand for them in mixed company.
The summer of '61 closed the first chapter of this musical odyssey. With a suitcase of clothes, box of books . . . and guitar, I moved into Brandon College Men's Residence. I remember that my first record album purchases I made down at Brandon Musical didn't impress many of the guys in the dorm: Don Reno & Red Smiley bluegrass, Bob Dylan, Hank Snow with Anita Carter, The Staple Singers, Elvis Presley Gospel Album, Frank Sinatra and Dinah Washington. For me though, it was a sort of musical rebirth. Within a year I was playing guitar on a daily live TV show and was the proud owner of a new Gretsch guitar.
Grand old Westinghouse radio ~ Cruising Down the River ~ I'm Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover ~ Jimmie Wakely ~ Roy Rogers ~ Gene Autry ~ Blackhawk ~ Disney Comics and Cartoons ~ Straight Arrow ~ Nabisco Shredded Wheat cards ~ Breakfast Club ~ Clair de Lune ~ Superman ~ Pep ~ Radio Dial ~ WSM ~ Toronto Star Weekly Tarzan Sunday Page ~ 5 Cent Coverless Comics ~ John Russell Fearn ~ Movie Serials ~ Radio and Cereal Premiums ~ Lone Ranger ~ Cheerios ~ Tom Corbett Radio, Comics and G&D ~ SFX & Organ on Radio ~ Hardy Boys ~ Zane Grey ~ Edgar Rice Burroughs ~ Whitman ~ Tennis ~ Football in the Snowbanks ~ Baseball ~ Cisco Kid ~ Shadow ~ Eddie Arnold's Cattle Call ~ Bomba ~ Saskatoons ~ Mosquitoes ~ Sun Records ~ Elvis ~ Cash ~ Perkins ~ JL Lewis ~ Harmony Monterey ~ Silvertone Electric ~ Rock 'n' Roll ~ Doc Williams Guitar Course ~ Chet ~ Gretsch ~ Fudgesicles 6 Cents ~ Popsicles 5 Cents ~ MAD ~ Double Bubble ~ 3D Comics ~ Mighty Mouse ~ Three Stooges ~ Prince Valiant ~ Cinemascope ~ Tree House ~ Father's Hunting Knife ~ Wild Flowers ~ Snow Caves ~ Sloughs ~ BC & Quebec Air Cadet Camp ~ Empire Stadium Football Usher ~ Bike ~ Fair Day ~ Rupert Annual ~ George Formby Movies ~ 78s ~ 45s ~ 33 1/2 albums ~ Lonnie Donegan Skiffle ~ Cliff Richard Shadows ~ Hal Lonepine and Lennie Breau Western Shows ~ Sabre Jets ~ Ventures ~ GI Joe Comics ~ '49 Meteor ~ SF Mystery Book Clubs ~ Classics Illustrated ~ Working Summerfallow ~ Playboy ~ Board Games ~ Home-made Jetan board ~ Piano Lessons ~ Glasses ~ Sgt Preston ~ Farm Chores ~ Help Magazine: Kurtzman, Elder, Davis, Wood, Roth ~ Humbug ~ Saturday Night 25 Cent Allowance ~ Big Little Books ~ And Now In The Very Words of Mr. Burroughs... ~ Nautilus Atomic Sub baking soda and vinegar
TO THE HILLMAN MUSICAL ODYSSEY CONTENTS
Copyright 2001 Bill Hillman
BILL & SUE-ON HILLMAN