A rare glimpse of early Canadian rock
High school dance recording of band
that became the Guess Who released after 46 years
Sun ~ February 09, 2008 ~ John Mackie
In 1962, someone set up a microphone in front of a young group at a high
school dance in Winnipeg. Forty-six years later, the recording is being
released. The group was Chad Allan and the Reflections, which would
later achieve fame and fortune as the Guess Who. And the long-delayed
recording is a charming glimpse into pre-Beatles rock and roll in Canada.
The songs on Early Roots are mostly covers. Guitarist Randy Bachman
leads the group through a letter-perfect version of the Ventures' instrumental
Don't Run, while piano player Bob Ashley rips it up on another instrumental,
Boogie, originally recorded by the immortal B. Bumble and the Stingers.
But if there's a revelation, it's the lovely version of
I Love You More
Than I Can Say, a Buddy Holly-style song written by Holly's former
bandmates Sonny Curtis and Joe Allison. In 1961 it was a hit for Bobby
Vee, a Holly soundalike from Fargo, N.D.; in 1980, it was a hit for Leo
Sayer. Chad Allan's vocal is subdued and heartfelt, subtly channelling
Holly in a vocal hiccup. It's a reminder that once upon a time, Allan was
arguably Canada's top rock and roll singer, equally proficient on ballads
like I Love You More Than I Can Say and rockers like the Guess Who's
breakthrough hit, Shakin' All Over.
But that was a long time ago. Sadly, all that rockin' and rollin' did
a number on Allan's voice, which is more or less shot. "My doctor told
me not too long ago that my right vocal chord is actually paralysed," says
Allan, who turns 65 March 29. "Which means my left vocal chord is doing
most of the work. So it is a bit thrashed. As a matter of fact, it's a
miracle I'm able to talk right now." His voice ailing, Allan left the Guess
Who in 1966, before they made it big. He later formed a band called Brave
Belt with Bachman, but quit it as well, just before the band changed
its name to
Thus, he now lives in a small apartment in Burnaby with his wife Christine
rather than in a mansion. And he still makes his living playing, rather
than living off royalties. Most of his gigs are at old folks' homes, where
he plays piano, guitar and accordion. "I can sing when I play the seniors'
homes and hospitals," he explains. "I sing to the extent to lead them in
singalongs; that seems to work fairly well."
Allan had the tape which became Early Roots. Actually, his father
William Kowbel did. (Chad Allan is a stage name -- he changed it because
his real name, Allen Kowbel, wasn't "very commercial.") "My dad was the
librarian," says Allan. "He collected and compiled all this stuff way back
from when we started in the late '50s and '60s. He kept scrapbooks and
saved posters and stuff." William Kowbel passed away in 2005, five years
after his wife. After his death, Allan moved stuff out of their Marpole
apartment with Marty Kramer, an old Winnipeg chum who has worked on and
off with the members of the Guess Who for decades.
Kramer spotted the 1962 tape, which was probably recorded at Melrose
school in Winnipeg, where Allan and the band's then-manager Brian Roberton
(the man who taped the show) had gone to school. He hatched a plan with
Jamie Anstey and Larry Hennessey (of JACK-FM's Larry and Willy show) to
release it on CD, plus make copies of some early '60s gig posters to sell.
The disc kicks off with four studio tracks, including the eerie lament
to Buddy Holly, the Reflections' debut 45.
Buddy Holly was Allan's hero. "When he passed away in 1959, ohhh," recalls
Allan. "It was February, wintertime in Winnipeg, and I remember coming
back from school. I saw the newspaper lying on the front step as I was
coming in. The headline was 'Big Bopper, Richie Valens and Buddy Holly
die in a plane crash,' and whoa -- I felt like a brother had died. Because
I was learning all his songs: I would play those records 'til they were
like white, the 45s."
Allan didn't write Tribute to Buddy Holly, Geoffrey Goddard did.
It was a minor hit for Mike Berry in England, largely because of the imaginative
production by the legendary Joe Meek. Allan heard it through his high school
friend Wayne Russell, a music nut who would send away to England for the
latest hits."The British would take chances, whereas Canada seemed kinda
conservative," says Allan. "He would bring out [45s by] Johnny Kidd and
the Pirates, Cliff Richard, Shane Fenton, all these bands. Gerry and the
Pacemakers. We knew of the Beatles way before they hit North America, because
Wayne had all this stuff. I would take tapes of these songs to the guys.
'Who are these Beatles? The harmonies are just amazing!'"
In any event, Tribute to Buddy Holly is impossibly rare. It was
released on Canadian-American records, which agreed to press and distribute
the initial run of 300 copies if the band gave the label $100. The first
100 singles are even more collectible -- the label mistakenly pressed Allan's
ballad I Just Didn't Have the Heart on the A-Side, but listed it
as Tribute to Buddy Holly. It was corrected on later editions. Both
songs appear on the new CD.
Some of the early Reflections posters are also reproduced in the CD
booklet. One advertises "a terrific three-hour show of distinctive vocal
and instrumental stylings" at a roller rink in Winnipeg Beach, a resort
town. "We were basically set up in the middle, and they would roller skate
all around us," Allan chuckles. "They started roller skating at midnight,
for 75 cents or a dollar."
The CD and posters were originally supposed to come out last September,
when the original Guess Who (that is, pre-Burton Cummings) was going
to reunite for a one-off show in Winnipeg. But the show never happened
and the CD wasn't released until now. It's available at Neptoon records
on Main Street in Vancouver. Copies of the posters should be available
for sale at the next Vancouver Record Collectors Association show, April
6 at the Croatian Cultural Centre.