By Lisa McDonald
Live Music Head
(originally published in two parts at FYI Music News Feb 3 & 5, 2010)
With the Westminster Press Junior Reporter of the Year award tucked under his arm, a young jazz and blues enthusiast left Britain in the spring of 1957. Upon landing in Canada, Richard Flohil found himself immersed in the live music scene of downtown Toronto. Blown away by unexpectedly finding Louis Armstrong alumni playing in an upstairs joint on Yonge Street the first week he was here, Richard Flohil’s passion for live music was set ablaze. Tearing up all the bars, clubs and dumps of the day, an eighteen year old Flohil soon developed a reputation as an expert in the genre.
In addition to securing work as a writer and editor in various publications, Flohil took it upon himself to learn all aspects of the music business particularly artist management, music publicity and concert promotion. By the late 60s, and after several trips stateside building relationships with just the right Americans, Richard Flohil was the one to bring Sleepy John Estes and B.B. King to Canada for the very first time; presenting them to sold out audiences at Toronto’s Massey Hall. And this accomplishment was followed by bringing over Muddy Waters as well. Over the past decades, Flohil’s enormous enthusiasm for great music has garnered him not only an impressive body of work, but has gained him respect and admiration in the blues, jazz, and roots music community, nationwide. Being there in the early days to shape the careers of artists like k.d. lang, Colin James, Justin Rutledge and Loreena McKennitt, Flohil also managed the Downchild Blues Band for pretty near forty years. He’s also involved in just about every folk festival you can possibly think of.
With a colourful flair for the well-spoken word, Mr Flohil has lectured at both the Trebas Institute, the Harris Institute for the Arts and continues to receive invitations to speak at industry events from Vancouver, B.C. to St. John's, Newfoundland. Tirelessly maintaining a schedule of presentations at Toronto’s Hugh’s Room, Richard Flohil and Associates also represent, in some way, shape or form, a roster of artists including Paul Reddick, Serena Ryder, the Good Lovelies, Shakura S'Aida, and Treasa Levasseur.
And after five decades in the business, Flohil’s curriculum vitae now includes “recipient of the SOCAN Special Achievement Award”, an honour he graciously received at a prestigious Roy Thomson Hall ceremony in November 2009; an award which seems to stimulate him even more as the number one cheerleader of any new young artist he takes under his wing. Now, let’s see if Richard has a few interesting tales to tell, as we re-visit some of the steps along the path of his illustrious career...
Your bio indicates you immigrated to Canada from Britain in 1957. Can you tell me a bit about your childhood, what kind of music you grew up listening to and what eventually led you to become a Canadian resident?
I was 18 at the time. And if I didn’t leave England I would’ve been put in the army for two years, “so they can make a man out of you”, my dad said. But I was a boy reporter so I got differed from national service until I finished my apprenticeship. I thought they’d forget me by the time I finished, but they didn’t. During the medical I was asked, “you can’t see very well, can you?” I said, “no”. Allowed to leave the country, I headed for the American immigration office. But when I got there I was asked to fill out all these forms with questions like, “is your grandmother a communist?” I thought to myself, this is stupid! And then I figured well, Canada is handy. The Canadian consulate asked, “is your heart beating?” I said, “yes”. “Do you have a passport?” I said, “Yes”.
Come on in!
Exactly. And when I arrived here in April of ‘57, Toronto was a very different town than it is now. My first day, I stayed at a place called The Ford Hotel. It was a grotty fifteen-storey place situated near the Bay St bus station and I was packed in, four to a room, with these grumbling English immigrants. (in an old British accent) “They told me the sidewalks was made of gold. Well they’re not! I’m a pipe welder and the best job I get is for a pipe fitter, well!” It was awful and I got the hell out of there as soon as I could. In my first few days, I took a walk down Yonge Street where I saw a sign, “Tonight and all this week... Earl Hines and his All Stars”. I thought, “what?!” When I asked the bartender, “Earl Hines is here? The same guy who played with Louis Armstrong in the 20s?” “Yea, yea”, he says. “Well how much does it cost to get in?” I asked excitedly. “It’s free, but you have to buy two beers.” I thought, “this is the promised land!” And to this day, I can still remember all the members who were in the band.
What was the name of the bar?
It was the Colonial Tavern. It had three levels at the time. But later there was a big fire and the centre was gutted and the second floor was made into a balcony. Another place I went to was the Town Tavern at 12 King St E. The first night there, I found a rotund black pianist from Montreal on stage. It was Oscar Peterson, who I’d never heard of at the time. And then on my fourth night in Toronto, I went to Maple Leaf Gardens...
And you’re not even in town a week yet.
... for the Irving Feld Parade of Stars, which later became the Dick Clark Parade of Stars. But the Irving Feld Parade of Stars had (in an announcer voice) “a sensational fifteen year old hit songwriter and performer from Ottawa... Paul Anka! And from England, the sensational fifteen year old... Cliff Richard!” The best thing about the Parade of Stars was the bill also included Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Laverne Baker, and John Lee Hooker. Jackie Wilson may also have been on the bill, but I can’t remember for sure.
Well, that’s one helluva line-up! One would think you were at the Apollo Theatre in New York City rather than Maple Leaf Gardens.
Well, except for Cliff Richard! (laughs)
Yea, who thought to put Cliff Richard in with the likes of those acts?
Irving Feld was a circus promoter who got turned on to early rock and roll. Cliff Richard had hits and that’s all that mattered. Everybody got three songs.
A variety show.
I also found a trad jazz joint led by trumpet player, Mike White. Whatever happened to him I don’t know. And later, I found some great R&B at some real seedy hotels; the Warwick, the Winchester...
The Winchester in Cabbagetown?
The Winchester was on Jarvis St, I think. And the Warwick was a rough joint but the music was great. And the other places on Yonge St were the Brown Derby, Le Coq ‘dor, and the Brass Rail, which wasn’t a strip joint then. And then I started to get some job offers; one was to be a reporter in Timmons and had I took that job, I may have been the one to discover Shania Twain! But instead, I went for a job interview at the Woodstock Ingersoll Sentinel Review; a daily paper on the other side of London. I remember going there in snow up to my ass thinking, I can’t do this!
Why not just work in Toronto?
Well, I nearly got hired by the Globe and Mail. There were reasons why Canadian newspapers hired U.K. and Australian trained reporters. The way they did it was they apprenticed with no money and changed your job every four weeks. And by the end of three years, you’ve covered sports and everything. I edited the women’s pages for three months, or the lifestyle section as it’s now called, of a small daily paper. I was pretty good and I won some prizes.
So when you came here in 1957, you came with a vast knowledge of music?
No, I really didn’t. But when I was at boarding school I was absolutely useless at everything except long distance running. The run was always on a Wednesday afternoon and I found the faster I ran, the quicker I could get to the shower and the quicker I could get to the common room to commandeer the radio and listen to the BBC jazz club.
Ah, so school was all about the radio on Wednesdays.
It was either long distance running or playing rugby covered up to your ass in mud! The first record I ever bought was by an American entertainer and long forgotten film personality by the name of Phil Harris. Harris had a song called That’s What I Like About the South.
What was playing on BBC radio that had you so excited?
The BBC Jazz Club’s signature tune was Duke Ellington’s Happy Go Lucky. I really loved it. But when the 50s came along, the pop music scene was really awful. All I heard was show tunes and musicals and the jazz thing was remarkably amateur. Pretty much anyone could have a go at it. I tried to play trumpet, but I was terrible.
Who were your favourites at the time?
I had three favourites. Ken Collier, who was a heavy duty New Orleans purist; Humphrey Littleton, a 6 foot 6 tall band leader who was distantly related to royalty, his father being a house master at Eton, one of the poshest private schools in the whole country; and Chris Barber. But then the British record companies, and remember we’re talking 78s now because the LP hadn’t been invented yet, would put out two records each month; two from the jazz and blues series and two other 78 rpm records. They might be bad British trad jazz or something great like Louis Armstrong. I bought ‘em all. The first be-bop record I got was Dizzy Gillespie, which I hated. But Louis Armstrong was god. I loved the classic records Armstrong made in the 20s, first with the Hot 5 and later with the Hot 7, when Earl Hines got involved. Armstrong’s band never worked as a band; they would just go into the studio and cut stuff. And to this day, 90 years later....
I love Louis Armstrong!
Louis Armstrong was so far ahead of the rest, it was scary. And as a session player, he played with a lot of blues singers. The first one I remember hearing him play with was Bessie Smith. Bessie Smith may have been unknown to white people at the time, but she was a huge star in the black community.
And who were some of the other artists releasing records?
The first country blues record I heard was by Sleepy John Estes. Estes swallowed half his words (laughs) and I couldn’t understand him, but I loved the sound of it. By the time I got to America and took my pilgrimage to Chicago to meet some of these people, I figured I knew all about the blues... the struggles of African Americans in the rural south, who were transplanted into urban society... I read all the books, all the sociological studies; and there was some truth in it all, but I tell you, until you’ve actually heard it live... until you’ve walked into a bar on the south side of Chicago, a working man’s bar like Smitty’s Corner and find Muddy Waters on stage wearing a gun metal grey suit, black shirt and white tie, with hair cocked up to here... you don’t know nothin’! I’d always listened to the records in the context of the potted sociology, but seeing Muddy Waters on stage, sitting on a high stool... he was a handsome man...
A lady killer!
When Muddy said, “I’m the seventh son of the seventh son, born on the seventh day of the seventh month, and the seven doctors say ‘you born for good luck’; I got seven hundred bucks, baby, don’t mess with me...” Every woman in the place came on the spot!
(laughs) Oh, baby!
What an eye-opener! Hearing that was a bit different than the sociological stuff I’d been reading. And seeing Howlin’ Wolf was the same thing.
How long after this was it that you brought Muddy Waters and BB King to Toronto?
Well, what happened was I made some friends in Chicago, one of which was Bob Koester, who’s still alive god bless him. Koester started a record label called Delmark. He also had a big record store which is still there, called The Jazz and Blues Record Mart. I haven’t been to Chicago since the mid-60s but Bob was my entry to things; sort of like the agent of things. There were a couple of incidents that happened on the west side where I could have got in serious trouble; being the wrong shade of pink in the wrong part of town...
in the United States of America!
I was a cock-eyed Englishman.
Wait a minute, back up a little bit, you were in Toronto because you couldn’t get into the States...
I couldn’t get into the States to live permanently but I could visit. Basically, when I started working and got real jobs, I would travel to Chicago and meet all these people. But having a couple near misses in rough neighbourhoods, I started thinking about bringing musicians here, rather than me going there. The first artist I brought over was Sleepy John Estes.
Where did you learn to deal with borders and customs and stuff like that?
It was a lot easier then. It was an era when America sent musicians around the world, not armies. It was an era when the State Department sent Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee to India. A time when Louis Armstrong would tour, and Benny Goodman would go to Russia. These days, thirty thousand troops are sent to Afghanistan... (sigh). No, don’t get me started!
Okay, more about the musicians you brought here...
The second one we brought over was Muddy Waters with his amazing band. I can’t remember whether it was James Cotton or Little Walter on harmonica, but Otis Spann was in the band. When I first saw Otis play at Smitty’s Corner, it was the first time I’d ever seen an electric piano. And he had an amp that kept coughing and sputtering, which he would whack every now and then with a wrench that he kept on top of it (laughs). Smitty’s Corner and Silvio’s on the west side of Chicago where Howlin` Wolf played, made Grossman’s Tavern in Toronto look like the Imperial Room at the Royal York Hotel. We’re talking major dumps. The first time I went to Smitty’s, no white cab drivers would take me. I had to get a black cab driver. And after the cabbie dropped me off, I remember everyone stopped talking when I walked in to the club.
You were the only white guy.
And Muddy wasn’t on stage yet. I remember walking up to the bartender with my English accent, which was more English then, and raising the name of Chris Barber because Muddy Waters had done his first tour of the UK with Chris Barber’s band. I didn’t know Chris Barber at the time, but I pretended I did. I said I was a friend of Chris’ from back in Britain. The bartender yelled out, “Muddy!”
And Muddy Waters came over?
Yes. I introduced myself and Muddy was very welcoming; a man of great grace. He sat me down with a piano player by the name of Sunnyland Slim. And Sunnyland Slim bought me a steak.
They must have thought you were pretty cool, the only white guy to walk in the place.
And then there was the first time I walked into Silvios. A Mexican hooker called me over and asked, “you got any protection?” I shook my head. “I’m it,” she says, “sit yourself down”. She was obviously well known around Silvios and she bought me a drink. When Howlin Wolf hit the stage, he was the largest, ugliest black man I’d ever seen! He wore braces and sang sitting down. He also played harmonica. There were two sax players standing on either side of him and there was a guitar player, a bass player, and a drummer. They were called Howlin’ Wolf and the Killing Floor Band. Howlin’ Wolf had worked on the floor of the stock yards, killing cows. I also remember a cop standing directly in front of the band; with full uniform and gun. Being conscious of my difference, it made me nervous. And when I suddenly heard the smash of broken glass and turned to see two people with broken beer bottles approaching each other...
Oh my god.
... the cop lumbered forward and put a hand on one guy’s shoulder, ending any hostility before it started and yelled out, “two more beers over here!” (laughs) But the music... the music still does to me now what it did then. Later on, while I’m earning this rep as a blues expert, which is a highly dubious proposition but why Mariposa hired me to go to Chicago, I met Dick Waterman. In the folk scare of the early 60s, Waterman was responsible for finding many of the blues musicians who seemed long forgotten. And when he found them, he gave them new guitars, new teeth and whatever else was needed to put them on the road to play for white audiences who were seeking authenticity. And one of the blues guys Waterman brought up was Son House. Son House was a serious alcoholic and the only way to ensure he would perform was to buy him a bottle of bourbon. Every day Waterman would decanter bourbon into little airline bottles and Son would be allowed a little bottle every half hour, which kept him drunk, but not too drunk to perform. Waterman and I are still friends all these years later.
So this was the start of bringing these acts to Toronto?
Yes. We presented BB King in ’68, I think it was. We put BB King in Massey Hall and the tickets were $2.50 and $4.50. A folky friend of mine, David Ray, was the opening act. And I made money! I made $700 and BB still remembers it. BB King has a memory like, you have no idea.
Tell me about the early folk festivals.
My first folk festival was a life changing event because up till that point I was only into early jazz and blues. I was asked by Mariposa to host a workshop at Innis Lake and this is when I saw Buffy St Marie, Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, Ian & Sylvia, Phil Ochs, and the Staple Singers all on the same bill. Some people will say, “folk festivals are just for girls with large breasts who haven’t shaved their armpits and helicopter dance in big billowy dresses wearing Birkenstocks”, but I get evangelical about folk festivals. It’s so easy to see old favourites like Lightfoot and then unexpectedly fall upon someone new, someone great like Alejandra Ribera.
Does this still happen to you?
All the time! If you’re open to what I call “accidental music”, you just may be unexpectedly blown away. One such time for me was at a bluegrass session featuring Daniel Curly. Curly incidentally has the best hair I’ve ever seen, outside George Jones. Curly was on stage with his band and another band from Virginia, along with a kid called Chris Thile (from Nickel Creek). I sat side stage and watched while these young bluegrass acts blended together with the senior statesman of the field. And I guess I’m a suck but I was so moved, I wept. Last year I turned 75 and the Winnipeg Folk Festival people said, “You’ve been part of this event since we started. We’ll send you a plane ticket and reserve a hotel if you’ll be our guest. I said, “Well, sure. And I’m good to help.” Next came, “Aaah, then could you host the daytime stage from 11 till 6 for three days in a row?” Now, I can’t sing, I can’t play an instrument, I dance very badly (and never in public unless I’m really wrecked), but I can talk, as you can see. So I accepted their offer and hosted the stage.
Scene: A bedroom in the “official” hotel for the Philadelphia Folk Festival; a guitar is being passed around, as are beers, cigarettes and joints. Participants: John Prine, Steve Goodman, Loudon Wainwright III, Jim Croce and Murray McLauchlan. As an observer, Richard Flohil is slumped on the floor behind one of the beds...”
I’ve had a number of these things happen, and I have a much better story....
But I’m an enormous fan of Loudon Wainwright III. Do tell!
Well, Loudon Wainwright is a grumpy, miserable, old....
Well yes, (laughs), those words have been used to describe him once or twice...
You know, after I volunteered to do publicity and press for Mariposa, I became more involved with other people at other festivals in other cities. Just like as a kid finding out about jazz and blues, suddenly I’m finding out about singer-songwriters and as a writer myself, (although my song writing consists of one third of one song which I made 16 bucks at so far and that was years ago), I was exposed to a whole bunch of different sounds. And if it came from the heart, I was into it. I went to the first Vancouver folk festival. I was at the first Winnipeg folk festival. I was at the first or second folk festival in Owen Sound. And I became very involved with all of them. And in that Philadelphia hotel room, it became almost competitive between the five of those artists. Stevie Goodman or John Prine would come up with a real good song and Murray would have to follow. I won’t tell you some of the nonsense that went down.
There was certainly some rock and roll hedonism along the way. And I’m so glad; very glad... groupies and drugs and stupidness...
How horrifying! (laughs)
I don’t remember Jim Croce being in that hotel room. But I do remember him in the lobby and he was tiny, just like Janis Ian.
Janis Ian! I sure remember the song At Seventeen.
Both Prine and Goodman played Mariposa for the first time around 1969-70. I still have all the programs. And I did press once for Loudon Wainwright. I really like Goodman and I see John Prine every now and then. I use to work with a concert promoter Rob Bennett, who I’m starting to work with again. And he brought in a whole bunch of people over the years for me to do press for. But the first band I really got involved with was the Downchild Blues Band and that began around 1969. Donnie (Walsh) came to my office looking for management. And the first time I saw them at Grossman’s Tavern, I got thrown out.
(laughing) What did you do to get thrown out?
I wasn’t getting any service, so I yelled out, “Hey! Can I get a drink over here or what?!” That’s all it took. And this big black waiter named Rocky yelled, “You! Out! You’re barred!”
(laughter) So much for customer service.
I wasn’t getting any. It was silly. My involvement with Downchild ended this year, after 39 years. But back then, I also got a job with CAPAC (Composers, Authors and Publishers Association of Canada ). CAPAC was one of the two performing rights societies that eventually became SOCAN (Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada) in the early 90s. CAPAC hired me in 1970 to edit their magazine. I had already been editing different trade magazines, my first job being the assistant editor of Electrical Contracting and Maintenance in Canada and then I edited Canadian Woodworker, Canadian Lumberman and Furniture and Furnishing. I was writing stories about machinery and installation in furniture factories!
Well, they say good writers can write about anything.
But it was boring shit. When CAPAC said, “we have a music magazine and would you....” I said, “yes!” And it was while I worked at CAPAC that I first met Gordon Lightfoot.
Really? Tell us what Lightfoot was like in the early 70s.
Gord was drinking a lot and so was I. Falling over him in a bar one night, I told Gord I was working for CAPAC and he said, “oh yea? I’m going there tomorrow!” I said, “well, come to my office first and I’ll take you up.” My office was in the same building, but on a different floor. So Gord came to my office first and I took him up and introduced him to the general manager. Gord signed up with CAPAC and that was the end of it, or so I thought. But later, I got a call from the manager asking, “do you actually know musicians?” I said, “yea”. He gave me an American Express card and told me, “your job now is to take musicians to lunch and tell them what a great organization CAPAC is”. (laughs)
How come nobody gives ME an American Express card and tells ME to take musicians to lunch?!
I was spending a grand a month. I would write two or three pieces every month and over a year that’s a lot of articles. I did that for twenty years.
Who did you write about in your first article for CAPAC?
Gordon Lightfoot! I also did the first cover story for Canadian Musician.
And who did you write about for that?
Do you have a favourite article that you wrote?
I did one with Ben Kaye for CAPAC. Ben Kaye was a small time Montreal agent and manager who represented some of the cheesiest artists you’d ever heard of. Kaye was short with slick-backed greasy hair, very Jewish, hyper; and he broke the mould. I went back to read that article a few weeks ago, and I was reminded how hard it was to get a grip on his story. But I was paid really well for it and I got myself a swanky apartment.
What made you leave CAPAC?
There was a merger in the works and I figured well, I’m ready to leave now anyway, so why not get out before the shit hits the fan? I joined The Record with David Farrell and Larry LeBlanc, but I kept the relationship with CAPAC going for another four years acting as a liaison between members and the organization.
The Record; was that a magazine or a paper?
At first it was just sheets of paper stapled in the corner. It was a paper that became a magazine. I was the record reviews editor. I may have missed one or two, but over seventeen years I pretty much wrote something for every issue.
Is it true you were a radio personality at Q107 until you played an Anne Murray record?
I wasn’t a personality, but the station had me in every morning at 9am to play acoustic music for two hours. And there was this one time when a listener called in and said, “do you realize you’ve been at this for two hours and you haven’t played a single record by a female artist?” I said, “You’re right!” Now, I always did have admiration for Anne Murray. Some of her choices of material are a little dodgy, but I think she has an amazing voice. The following week I played an Anne Murray record. The Q107 sales guy was driving up to his cottage at the time, heard it, and drove his car into a ditch.
(laughter) I think it’s safe to say this would be the first and only time Anne Murray was ever played on Q107!
I call it IQ of 7.
Q107 provided the soundtrack for my teenage years straight through my twenties and thirties. I may only listen to it occasionally these days, but I hope it will always be there.
Led Zeppelin recorded how many, five albums? And out of the 50 or so songs, how many will you hear on Q107?
Whole Lotta Love.
And Stairway to Heaven.
But if Q107 disappears, classic rock will no longer be found on the dial.
Well, I’m sure we’ll still hear it. But popular music needs to keep changing. That’s what it’s all about.
So what new music do you listen to? I’m sure it’s not what’s coming out of Canadian Idol.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen an episode of Canadian or American Idol. I think those shows give people a false impression of how you succeed in the music business. I specialize in what’s termed “roots music”; music that has informed popular American culture; blues, country, singer-songwriters, and their ability to present memorable images with good tunes. But along the way, there was a whole bunch of music that I never got involved with; music that just went by me. I wasn’t interested in progressive rock, but I liked some heavy metal because of its blues influence. And I never got into contemporary Canadian classical music, unless it was used in a film soundtrack.
But you’ve been an enormous supporter of local talent in local venues, especially at Hugh’s Room. What is your relationship with Hugh’s Room?
I was doing a series of shows at a place called Ted’s Wrecking Yard and it was awful. Half of the room couldn’t see the stage so there was no reason for anyone in that part of the room to shut up and listen. Why should they? They couldn’t see anything. There aren’t many venues to properly hear singer-songwriters so when Hugh’s Room opened, I went there and told them, “Look, I present shows. Can I present shows here?” Hugh’s Room said, “sure”. My pitch to them was, “if I come in and do shows, it’s my money so I’m the risk. You can sell the booze and food, but I’ll take the door to pay the artists and myself.” Now this deal has changed a bit over the years, but I’ve brought in many local acts as well as international acts like Guy Clark, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and Kelly Joe Phelps. I think I’ve presented 10 shows a year and I’m probably up to a hundred by now. I also serve as a resource for them. I’ll get calls from Hugh’s asking, “what ticket price can we charge for whoever and what about this act, has anyone heard of them?” There are so many good acts; I can’t be involved with them all, but I’m really interested in finding and working with new young artists. In fact, I do too much work for new young artists. I guess I think when they get big, I’ll be there to reap some of the rewards. But you know, this doesn’t happen. After I bring an artist to a certain point and a big record company or some heavy duty manager gets involved, I’m on the discard.
This has happened to you a few times?
Many times! k.d. lang, for one.
But you don’t come across as bitter in any way. You seem to carry a childlike enthusiasm for it all.
Well, I’m very proud to have helped people. And one of the exceptions to the discard would be Loreena McKennitt. When Loreena made her first groundbreaking record deal, Warner Brothers said, “Well, we don’t need him anymore.” But Loreena said, “no, Richard helped bring me to this dance.” Loreena McKennitt is an artist who has sold 16 million records on her terms and on her label. She is a fascinating, complex and loyal woman. And 25 years later, I’m still involved with her career. It was Loreena McKennitt who presented the SOCAN award to me at Roy Thomson Hall.
Yes, tell me about the award from SOCAN.
Receiving the Special Achievement Award from SOCAN was a prestigious thing and I got it basically because of my support of new young Canadian artists. Artists like Serena Ryder and Justin Rutledge, neither of which I have a great deal to do with anymore, but in the early stages I introduced Serena to the woman who now manages her. I introduced Justin to the record label that now represents and manages him. I was so touched when Loreena said, “If you are a young artist who was mentored by Richard, you are fortunate indeed.”
I guess you don’t always realize how influential you are.
I don’t. Someone once told me, “Richard, when you walk into a club everyone goes, aaah!” I said, “You’re joking! That’s not me at all. Not at all!” But when I had my 75th birthday party at the Horseshoe Tavern; (a major drunk and the stripper’s up on YouTube by the way), Shakura S'Aida said something that also touched me. She said, “I’ve been doing this for years but until Richard got involved, nobody knew about it.” She did the happy birthday thing for me.
Really? Was it similar to Marilyn Monroe singing for President Kennedy?
She moved the back wall out! A lot of my friends in contemporary pop music or folk music had never heard of her. The girls from Six Shooter Records went, “who the fuck....?” If you’d seen Shakura S'Aida at the Women’s Blues Revue at Massey Hall the other week, aah! Poor Sass Jordon had to follow her. And you simply can’t follow Shakura S'Aida, end of story. Nobody can! The only person you would dare put on after Shakura S'Aida, and this is an old trick we use to do at festivals in the old days... you put on some old black blues singer.... just out of respect.
So, you’ve said many left you to go with big labels. But who are these labels? I thought all the labels were folding.
Well, it’s not necessarily that they go off with big labels, but artists do move on. Young artists search for a believer, so you hang with them until someone comes along who can do a better job. This happens at every level. I mean, Avril Lavigne left Nettwerk to go with Irving Azoff. One of the artists I’m working with now is Ariana Gillis who is absolutely astonishing. I’m a huge fan and she’s an artist who’s going to make it. But making it now isn’t what it was. There are too many artists trying and the money and infrastructure of big record companies has crumbled and....
How did you manage to avoid all that corrupt record company stuff?
The artists that I cared about, with few exceptions, weren’t part of that game.
Perhaps people like yourself are becoming more important again as we go back to the grass roots level of things.
I read something the other day... “it’s who you know that’s important; more important than the talent”. Now I wouldn’t say it’s more important, but it’s as important.
So what exactly are you doing for your current roster of artists?
It varies. I never call myself a manager. Shakura calls me her gatekeeper. She’ll send stuff my way and I’ll deal with it so she doesn’t have to. I get an awful lot of people offering me stuff, but I can’t take it unless I like them and I like their music.
So you won’t take on someone you don’t believe in?
Every time I’ve tried to do that I’ve fucked up badly. I’ve had some real serious failures. Another young artist I work with is my assistant, Jadea Kelly, who has a wonderfully unique voice. It’s very soft and airy; early Emmylou Harris-like or early Iris DeMent. I love working with Jadea.
Do you get involved in the recording process?
Not really because I don’t have that musical ear. What I look for is the hook, the story. Like Shakura; I could tell you she’s a black blues singer with a big voice, but... did you know she was born in Brooklyn, raised in Switzerland, speaks three languages and is such a movie buff that the film festival hires her every year to interview directors? If I were to tell you Alejandra Ribera’s father is an Argentinean waiter and her mother a Scottish actress, you’d say... “oh, that’s interesting.” And when I worked with k.d. lang, I would tell people, “she dresses from the bottom of the Salvation Army box, wears stupid glasses and...” I never tell them they have a great voice. People will find that out for themselves.
And it makes for writing interesting artist bios.
I hate writing bios now. I’ve written far too many of them. But every now and then you get a good idea for one. Like the first time I talked with Alejandra Ribera, I noticed a tattoo on the inside of her wrist. I said, “What’s that?” She said, “It’s a word in Spanish. It means, ‘listen to me’. “Thank you!” I said, “That’s the lead to the bio and the rest will write itself!”
So did you feel honoured receiving the Special Achievement Award from SOCAN?
Were you nervous?
No. I can speak in front of people anytime, from an audience at Roy Thomson Hall to a festival stage in front of 17,000 people. I do think I spoke a little long though. It was an incredible honour.
Did SOCAN stick the cane out and pull you off stage or start the music?
No. My speech is actually posted in the Notes section of my Facebook profile. But having received this award, I hope no one thinks I’m going off to be quiet, because that’s not going to happen. The thing that keeps me interested in finding new artists is obviously the voice, the songs, and the talent, but the artist also has to have the ambition, the energy and the drive; like Andrea Ramolo. I’ve heard better singers and I’ve heard better songs, but I’ve never met another singer who’s gone out on her own and booked 80 dates in a row from here to the Yukon and back again. And Andrea did this in a van with just her bass player for four months. She booked them and she did them. Andrea Ramolo is now, with some advice from me I suppose, signing a deal with Tim Thorney and once he’s finished with the new Alanis Morissette, he’ll produce Andrea’s project. Thorney has a record company deal with Universal which will get Andrea’s record released.
Is it true you have 11,000 vinyl and CD recordings in your living room, office, bedroom, and bathroom?
I sold a third of them because I needed the money. (laughs) I was running out of space anyway.
When I heard this, I thought you must be in competition with Jeff Healey. I heard Healey had 25,000 78 records. And speaking of Jeff Healey, I’d like to hear about your relationship with him.
I don’t think people really knew just how remarkable Jeff Healey was. I think one of the problems of being in Toronto is we took him for granted. Jeff stopped being a rock and roll star because, although he loved that music, his passion was really for American pop music of an era where hardly any of it has survived. And record collectors are a strange breed, let me tell you. A friend of Healey’s said to his wife Cristie after Jeff died, “if somebody comes by and offers you $500 to take these 25,000 records away, take it.” Some of the jazz stuff Jeff had was extremely valuable and was sold in bits and pieces on eBay and whatever, but the bulk of Healey’s collection was valueless and went to the University of Toronto. But I tell you, Jeff had a mastery of that collection.
Because he could tell you exactly what he had?
Not only that, he could find it! One time when I was at his place, I asked, “Do you got anything by Harry Roy?” Harry Roy was the English leader of a little Dixieland dance band. Now, Healey’s basement was the length of this room and a half with rows upon rows upon rows of records. They weren’t even in paper packets and many were in shitty condition. Jeff bought them second hand, third hand and eighth hand in some cases. Anyways, he gets up, “Harry Roy, yes, Piccadily Rag, 1941, Parlophone R3942, hang on...” And he pulls the record out of the stack. I don’t know how he did it!
Were the shelves lined in Braille?
No, absolutely not!
Apart from doing publicity for him the last five years of his life, my involvement with Healey started when I was in England. My wife and I organized a trip back there to coincide with a Chris Barber show. As I mentioned, Barber was one of my earliest heroes. We bought tickets, went to the show, and when I was getting him to autograph the cd afterward, I told Barber I was over from Toronto. Barber said, “Oh, I’m coming to Toronto in the summer to play some dates with Jeff Healey.” I said, “No kidding?!” So when I got back, I called Jeff and said, “I’ll do press for nothing.” Jeff said, “Well, I got a bit of a problem. I promised Chris I would pay his airfare, put him up in a hotel for a week and pay him $500 a gig. But I only got two gigs.” I said, “Well, there’s got to be 400 ex-pat Brits like me who grew up with this guy and who would love to see him so... I’ll present two nights at Hugh’s Room!” When it came time, I picked up Barber at the airport and brought him into the city.
You must have loved that.
(laughs) It was great! We sat at the bar in the Marriott Hotel and Chris said to Jeff, “So, what do you want to play?” And Jeff said, “Well, what do you want to play?” And Barber said, “No, I’ll play whatever you want to play.” Jeff said, “Well there is this song I really like called It’s Tight Like That.” Barber said, “Oh yea, I know that.” And Jeff said, “Yea, it was recorded by the (I can’t remember exactly, but) Seven Gallon Jug Band.” And Chris said, “Yes, that was the Clarence Williams group.” Jeff says, “Yea, the record came out in Britain and the B side was In The House Blues by Bessie Smith.” Chris says, “Yes, it was on Parlophone.” And Jeff says, “Yes, Parlophone R394221....” (laughter!) I was sitting there following this exchange thinking, what a couple of fucking loonies! (laughs) Jeff met his match with Barber, I think. Soon after, I got Healey to sign with Stoney Plain, who I worked with.
What did you do for Stoney Plain?
I connected them with artists like Jeff Healey! (laughs) I wrote their monthly newsletters. And I wrote Holger (Petersen)’s speeches and all kinds of stuff. By the way, Jeff Healey gate crashed my wedding reception.
I can’t find it anymore, but I have a picture taken at the reception of the three least likely people to ever be in any one picture: Jeff Healey, Sylvia Tyson and Raffi! (laughter).
I read a Richard Flohil quote somewhere that said: “It isn’t a matter of nostalgia or sentiment for the good old days - it’s a matter of spreading joy. The joy of finding old music that’s as relevant today as it was when it was created. And the only thing that’s better is when you find new artists and new music.”
Did I say that? Well, it’s true. The first time I heard Ariana Gillis, she was 16 years old performing two songs at Hugh’s Room. A funny little kid who wears Wellington rubber boots, and from the stage she said, “Well, I’m 16 years old (everybody applauds) and I’ll be milking this for all its worth because I turn 17 on Wednesday!” (laughs) You can’t help but love the girl. And she’s all of 19 now. Check her out on YouTube. She’s got some weird stuff on there.
Do you still teach the Music and Media course at the Harris Institute?
No, I gave up. Kids don’t read anymore. How can you talk to kids about media when they don’t read? Kids read television and computer screens. Business is now conducted by computers and kids don’t read newspapers or books. I understand the new paradigm of communications, but I’m just appalled when I ask a classroom of sixteen kids, “what was the last book you read about music?” And only one kid raises their hand. I mean, I think YouTube is the greatest miracle since the parting of the Red Sea, but really! I’ll lecture at Harris and once a year I’ll do presentations at Fanshawe or Mohawk College because the interesting thing about teaching at these places is you can spot the one or two smart kids in every class. They stick out like sore thumbs. And it’s those kids who will do alright.
The way news is being delivered has completely changed. I can’t tell you the last time I bought a newspaper, and I like reading the newspaper! Twitter is now my main source for news. But actually, more and more headlines are opening up to video. Perhaps this is adding to the reasons why kids don’t read.
One thing kids have that I’m envious of is keyboarding skills. Mine are shitty. I’m a really shitty typist. But what really worries me is the whole philosophy of “free”.
Yes, that’s definitely part of the problem. It’s a free-for-all and because of this, no real value is placed on anything anymore.
Rogers Television has this local show where I met the producer. They would love to have all these great Toronto acts like the Good Lovelies, Alejandra Ribera, Andrea Ramolo, etc, but they won’t pay. And when I asked if we were to go ahead and do it anyway, “would we at least get a copy of the tape?” I was told, “well, you would have to buy that.”
“And if I buy it, can I use it elsewhere?” No, I was told. I thought, “Wait a minute, this is Rogers Communications whose annual profit is how many billion? I’m being asked to provide free programming, but I have to pay for a copy of it and I can’t use it where I like!”
Today is the anniversary of John Lennon’s death. Do you have any memories of John you’d like to share?
John was the only Beatle I ever met. But I didn’t like him at all. He was an arrogant shit.
Really? Where did you meet him?
It was a press thing. John Lennon was an amazing songwriter, but to tell you the honest truth, “imagine all the people living for today...” Well, fine for you mate, you’re a multi-millionaire! There’s no question that the Beatles are enormously influential and Lennon and McCartney were a perfect song writing team. But Lennon was a naive idiot. And as for song writing teams, I think Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo are very similar to Lennon and McCartney, at least in the way they operate. You know which songs are Cuddy’s and which ones are Keelor’s, and they share the royalties. One without the other wouldn’t be the same, just like Lennon and McCartney. I don’t think Lennon made a record anywhere near as good as the Beatles. And I don’t think McCartney did either. To sandpaper it, fix it or however they did it, they needed each other. And Jim and Greg have been doing it that way for a long time too, God bless them. Jim Cuddy came to my birthday party at the Horseshoe and sang with Justin Rutledge.
|Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor, Blue Rodeo|
Nice! Last time I saw Cuddy, he walked into Hugh’s Room to see Loudon Wainwright III. Can you name five of your all time favourite artists?
Louis Armstrong, who I think is the single most greatest musician of the twentieth century; Duke Ellington, Muddy Waters, Emmylou Harris and Solomon Burke, who I think is one of the last great R&B voices from the classic heroes. Burke can’t walk anymore so he gets transferred from the wheelchair to a throne on stage. But when he was walking, I saw him on stage with 3 backup singers, 4 horns, a Hammond B3 organ, drums, bass, guitar and a concert harpist. He was introduced as, “the king of rock and soul, Solomon Burke!” And in his own sweet time, he came out with arms outstretched under a full-length cape. One guy in the band had the job of taking the cape and spinning it off stage like a cartwheel. It was brilliant. And if you were looking away for even a second, you’d miss it. I’ve known Solomon since the 90s, got to know him when his career was in the shitter and he was playing Club Bluenote or some bar up on Mt Pleasant. I said, “Man, that cape thing is so great!” Solomon said, (in a Solomon Burke voice), “I tell ya, those days I had a dwarf in the band man. It was little Sammy walking behind me under the cloak. I drop the cloak and the cloak rush off stage...” I love Solomon. I just adore him. One of the best live acts I’ve ever seen.
The cape thing makes me think of James Brown.
Well James Brown and Solomon Burke were rivals. They both came up around the same time. Burke was much less groove oriented, but Brown was an arrogant mother****er. There was a time in France when James Brown showed up for a press conference two and a quarter hours late! At one point I stood up and said, “Well you can sit around waiting for this bastard, but I’m out of here!” We found out later that the problem was a white limousine was sent for him instead of a black one.
But the thing is, Brown’s hotel was across the road. James Brown could have walked to the press conference in thirty seconds! (laughs) It was totally stupid.
(laughter) I love James Brown.
I saw Brown many times in concert and he was great.
Can you tell me something about your relationship with Leon Redbone?
Leon Redbone is an astonishingly funny, wry character who is exactly the same off stage as he is on. Redbone’s music is filtered through Groucho Marx and WC Fields. He tells jokes like the ones in American medicine shows from the 20s and 30s. Somebody gave me a song once and said, “give this to Leon, it’s perfect for him.” When I gave it to Leon, he asked, “when was it written?” I said, “last year.” “I have no interest in anything written after 1940,” Redbone replied. Leon Redbone is a unique artist. In a NOW magazine interview, Leon is quoted as saying, “people are worried about selling their personalities, but I’m all about playing old music and I think the only consideration should be, ‘how well do I do that?’ Just like the only consideration of a blacksmith should be ‘how good are the horseshoes he makes’. The rest is irrelevant.”
Did you take Redbone out for breakfast since he’s been here?
His first show was on Saturday, but he came in on Thursday so we went out for curry.
You had curry for breakfast?
It was dinner. Redbone did some interviews on Friday, a show on Saturday, two shows in London on Sunday, and then came back to Toronto and did a show on Monday. He’s taking today off, but tomorrow he’ll do the final show at Hugh’s Room and it will be filmed for a DVD. Every single show is completely sold out.
Good for Redbone. He just keeps on going. I guess it’s like when you hit a certain age and still smoke cigarettes; you may as well keep smoking.
I think it was 1970 when I quit smoking. I was presenting a show at Massey Hall that featured Bobby Blue Bland (Bland’s very first appearance in Canada), Buddy Guy (who I met in Chicago in the 60s), and Lonnie Johnson (an incredibly influential guitarist, and his last ever appearance, having died shortly afterward). It was a memorable show. I lost $1200 I didn’t have, but there was a great after-party. When I woke up the next morning, I quit smoking and every time I see Bobby Bland, I thank him for that. Hopefully I’ll see him again when I’m in Memphis next month.
You’re going to Memphis?
My upcoming travel schedule is silly. First I’m going to Australia for Christmas to attend a festival. And then in January I’ll head to Memphis where I’ll be receiving the “Keeping the Blues Alive” award from the Blues Foundation. And then I’ll go back to Memphis again in February where I’m involved with Beaver Suite, who will showcase 34 Canadian artists at the Folk Alliance event.
A showcase in Memphis focusing on Canadian artists?
Yes. When the Toronto Blues Society (for which I’ve been associated with in one way or another for many years) called to say they would pay good ol’ Flo’s way to Memphis, I said “fine”. They went on to say, “but while you’re there, would you mind doing a key note address?” I said, “sure”. And then they said, “oh, and could you be one of the judges for the international blues challenge (or whatever they call it)?” For of a free hotel room, I said, “of course!” While there, we’ll probably go to Al Green’s church....
I love Al Green! I’ve been to Memphis but I didn’t get to any churches.
Memphis is a city I’m ambivalent about. I’ve been four or five times now. It’s a sketchy place. You could be walking down the street and be totally cool, but one wrong turn, and uh-oh!
I’ve only been once, but that happened to me too... I went down the wrong street somewhere around Sun Studio.
There are old blues men who wander around of what little is left of Beale St, but Memphis is a ghost town... Elvis fell off the toilet here; Jeff Buckley went for a swim there; Martin Luther King said, “I think I’ll get a breath of fresh air” on the balcony over there.
WC Handy has a monument on Beale St if I recall.
Handy has a monument, but he didn’t die there. I’ve done Graceland and been to the Civil Rights Museum, etc., but I don’t do the tourist things anymore. The only thing that can get me out of the hotel now is Gus’ Fried Chicken.
Between 1988 and 1992, you were the artistic director of the Mariposa Folk Festival. But back in ‘72, when you were simply doing publicity for them, a Canadian icon gave you a hat. What’s the story there?
Stompin’ Tom Connors gave me a hat. I’ve since lost it but it was beaten to shit anyway.
Why did he give it to you?
We’d fallen over or something; drinking. I don’t remember. But I presented Stompin’ Tom’s first Massey Hall concert and it was sold out to the walls.
When was that?
The early seventies. And do you remember Across This Country; a Stompin’ Tom concert filmed in the Horseshoe Tavern?
Yes, I have that one in my dvd collection.
I’m sitting in the front row.
I think everyone would agree, Richard Flohil is first and foremost a fan of music. During a speech in front of the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals, Richard was heard saying... “please remember, as I have tried to do for almost 40 years... if you can’t make music, you have a duty, a solemn obligation, to help make music happen.” I couldn’t agree more.
Richard Flohil website
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