Hank Snow

 

Born: 1914, Brooklyn, Nova Scotia
Debut: 1936
Died: 1999
Genre: Country

Achievements: Canadian Music Hall of Fame, American Country Hall of Fame, 70 Hit Singles on Billboard Country Charts, Sales of 80 million albums.

Notable Songs: “I’m Movin’ On”, “The Golden Rocket”, “I’ve Been Everywhere”, “I Don’t Hurt Anymore”, “Hello Love”. 

While Wilf Carter founded Canadian country music, another arose to become its godfather. The internet’s All Music Guide refers to Hank Snow as “Canada’s greatest contribution to country music”. It’s no wonder; during his 30 year career, he scored more than 70 hit singles on the United States’ Billboard Country Charts and sold over 80 million albums. Hank Snow and Wilf Carter (ten years his senior) shared two things in common besides being Canada’s foremost country stars of the time: they were both from the same Province and they both ran away from home. 

Snow was born in Brooklyn, Nova Scotia in 1914. When he was eight, his parents divorced, and he moved in with his grandmother, before rejoining his mother four years later when she remarried. Snow’s stepfather, however, was abusive, and he ran away from home. For the next four years, he served as a cabin boy on a fishing boat. He began singing for the fishermen. When he was 16, he returned home and, having ordered his first guitar from Eaton’s catalogue for $5.95, hoped to launch a singing career. His first show was a performance in a church basement in the town of Bridgewater. Encouraged by the response, he travelled to Nova Scotia’s biggest city—Halifax—where he began gigs in local bars and clubs. In 1936, he married and landed a regular paid program on the network Canadian Farm Hour. This exposure led to his receiving an invitation to audition for RCA Victor in Montreal. He signed with them at the end of the year. He recorded his first two original songs: “Lonesome Blue Yodel” and “Prisoned Cowboy”. 

During this time, he was nicknamed “The Yodelling Ranger”. He had a regular show on CBC Montreal in the early 40s that made him a national star. He switched to CKCW in New Brunswick in 1944, changing his stage name to Hank the Singing Ranger, since his voice had deepened and he no longer yodelled. 

Now a big star in Canada, he began the task of cracking the U.S. market. RCA refused to release any records in the U.S. until he first gathered an American fan base. He played in several shows but failed to gain fans. RCA rewarded him for his diligent attempts by releasing his first record in the U.S. in 1949—”Marriage Vow”. It charted but lasted only a week. In early 1950 Snow met honky tonk legend Earnest Tubb who gave him a slot at the Grand Ole Opry. But his performance was not well-received. About to abandon hope and return to Canada, Hank Snow’s big breakthrough arrived in the summer of 1950. 

Hank Snow released the song “I’m Movin’ On” and it began its strapping ascent up the Canadian and American charts. Not only did it reach Number 1 but it remained there for a remarkable 21 weeks! This remains an all-time record. The song was the first of seven Number One hits by the Nova Scotian. In the next five years, he was to score a whopping 24 Top Ten hits. In 1954, Snow almost broke his own record when his “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” stayed at Number One for 20 straight weeks. By this time he had become an international star with a particularly strong following in the United Kingdom. 

It is possible that if it wasn’t for Hank Snow, there would never have been a king. By “king” we are talking about Elvis Presley. By 1954, Snow had become a regular at the Grand Ole Opry. Its directors had refused to allow the amateur Elvis Presley on the show. Hank Snow took them aside and talked them into allowing Elvis on stage by using the king as his opening act. He then introduced Elvis to Tom Parker. In 1955, Snow and Parker formed the management team Hank Snow Attractions and signed Presley, launching the king’s career. 

(An interesting side note on this is that Snow wanted Elvis to do country songs and Parker rock and roll. This dispute may have been the primary cause of a falling out between Snow and Parker, ultimately resulting in Snow dropping out and Parker taking sole control of Elvis’ career.) 

Snow continued to churn out hits in the 60s but in the latter half of the decade things began to slow down as he wasn’t able to make the transition to the newer country-pop sounds. In 1974, however, he scored big with his monster hit “Hello Love”, his last chart-topper, making him, at 59 years, the oldest person in the history of music to reach Number One. (26 years later, Kenny Rogers, broke this record). 

In 1979 Hank Snow was inducted into the American Country Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. Having been an abused child, he established the Hank Snow International Foundation For the Prevention of Child Abuse. Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Ashley MacIsaac, and Emmylou Harris, among others, have covered Hank Snow songs. 

Hank Snow passed away in 1999, twelve days prior to the new millennium. He was 85 years old.

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Wilf Carter

 

Born: 1904, Port Hilford, Nova Scotia
Debut: 1932
Died: 1996
Genre: Country
Achievements: Canadian Music Hall of Fame
Notable Songs: “My Swiss Moonlight Lullaby”, “Alpine Milkman”, “There’s a Loveknot in My Lariat”, “Blue Canadian Rockies”.

Canada’s first male singer-songwriter star was probably Nova Scotia’s yodelling country-music legend Wilf Carter (known as Montana Slim in the United States). Though wholly unlike French folk songstress La Bolduc in music and in person, Carter’s life mirrored hers in many ways. Both spent much of their time touring, both were involved in serious car accidents, and both died of cancer. 

Born 1904 in Port Hilford, into a poor family of nine children, Carter was inspired to begin singing after he saw Swiss performer “The Yodelling Fool” touring Canada. He left home as a teenager after a falling out with his strict Baptist father concerning prayer service attendance. He taught himself to play the guitar and, in 1923, settled in Alberta to work on the grain fields, break horses, and compete in rodeos. He began performing at local dances and soon created his own yodelling style now called “echo yodelling” or “three-in-one yodelling”. He approached a local radio station in Calgary to audition as a live-broadcast performer. Station management saw potential in him but suggested he return after a year of gaining some more experience. He did just that but auditioned for a different radio station—CFCN (“The voice of the prairies”). This was in 1930. The station hired him to sing on their Friday night hoedowns called “The Old Timers”.

His talent was soon picked up by national radio, CRBC (prelude to the CBC). The Canadian Pacific Railway hired him to entertain eastern Canadian summer tourists who wanted a taste of the west. He accompanied the horseback trail riders, singing, yodelling and telling stories around the campfire at night. A couple years later, RCA in Montreal recorded Canada’s first hit country record, Wilf Carter’s “My Swiss Moonlight Lullaby” / “The Capture of Albert Johnson”. 

In 1935, Carter went to New York City and performed on one of the stations there. He was offered to start his own show—The Wilf Carter Show. The story goes that a New York secretary was typing the lyrics to one of Carter’s songs and asked him what name she should put on it. Carter replied, “Anyone’ll do”. She typed “Montana Slim” as the author and the name stuck: his records released in Canada were labelled “Wilf Carter” and his records in the U.S., “Montana Slim”. 

He earned enough money in New York to purchase a ranch for himself in Calgary in 1937. He moved among the CBC, CBS, and NBC over the next few years. But in 1940 he injured his back in a car accident in Montana and, unable to perform, retired from touring until 1949 when he sold his ranch and bought a farm in New Jersey. In 1950, Carter attracted over 50,000 people during a week’s performances at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto. 

In 1952, he moved again. This time it was to Florida. He began touring with his daughters a new act called “The Family Show With The Folks You Know”. They toured Australia in 1953. Carter’s recording contract with RCA ended and he signed on with Decca, recording in Nashville with a backing band that included Chet Atkins. His record sales dropped steadily, however, and he left Decca in 1957, financing recordings himself then leasing them to one of the major Canadian record labels. 

Carter lived a dual existence travelling between Calgary and the U.S. for many years. He semi-retired in the 60s. In 1964, he played at the Calgary Stampede Grandstand Show and became a perennial figure there. He also made numerous appearances on the Tommy Hunter Show. In the early 80s, he toured with his contemporary Hank Snow. In 1985, he was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. He formally retired, after his final album, What Ever Happened to All Those Years, in 1988 when his hearing began failing. Over the course of his career, Wilf Carter recorded over 40 LP records, both original and compilations. 

In 1996, Wilf Carter was diagnosed with stomach cancer and died two months later.

La Bolduc

 

Born: 1894, Newport, Quebec
Debut: 1929
Died: 1941
Genre: Folk
Notable Songs: “La Cuisinière”, “Si Vous Avez une Fille qui Veut se Marier”. 

La Bolduc, also known as Madame Bolduc and Mary Rose-Anna Travers was born in 1894 Newport, Quebec in the Gaspé to a very poor and large family. Her father taught her how to play traditional instruments of Quebec culture: the fiddle, accordion, harmonica, spoons, and Jew’s harp. Bolduc is considered to be Quebec’s first singer-songwriter and she is perhaps Canada’s first as well.

As a teenager, Bolduc offered casual public performances, playing the accordion, at the logging camp where she served as cook and her father as a lumberjack. In 1908, she moved to Montreal and worked as a maid then, later, at a textile mill. 

She married in 1914 and her first child was stillborn. She had three successful births after that but two of them died before age two. Of her dozen or so pregnancies only four of her children reached adulthood. Her husband ran into difficulties securing work and they were very poor. Bolduc began to spend increased amounts of time entertaining friends with her music. 

Her rise to fame began with her friend arranging for her to fill in for an absent fiddler in Conrad Gauthier’s troupe. Gauthier was impressed by Bolduc’s talents and requested her to return for subsequent performances. By 1928, she was a regular in the troupe. Her talent caught the attention of folk singer Ovila Légaré who recommended her to musical producer Roméo Beaudry who signed French musicians onto the Starr Records label. Bolduc signed a recording contract to make four 78 rpm records for the company and made her first recording in April 1929: the French folk song “Y’a longtemps que je couche par terre”. It was a commercial flop. 

That Christmas, however, a subsequent recording was released: “La Cuisinière”. It sold over twelve thousand copies which, at that time, was unprecedented in Quebec. She became a household name in the province. Because of the success, Beaudry had her release a double-sided record every month. By the end of 1930, she had recorded more than 30 songs and collaborated with other artists. In 1931, she embarked on a three-month tour of Quebec with Juliette d’Argère. The following year, Bolduc formed her own touring troupe, performing around the Montreal area. Encouraged by the first set of 50 performances, earning $2000 (a lot of money in those days), the troupe expanded their tours into Ontario and New England through the end of the decade. 

The successful formula the troupe used began with Mary Bolduc performing her newest songs. Then the troupe would perform comedy sketches, ensemble songs, folk songs and vaudeville routines. Most performances included a segment where amateurs would perform, sometimes for cash prizes. They would close with Bolduc singing some of her most topical songs. She often took melodies of folk tunes and wrote her own lyrics (a prelude to “Weird Al” Yankovic, perhaps). Bolduc wrote the song “Les Cinq Jumelles” about the famous Dionne Quintuplets which was set to the tune of “Little Brown Jug”. She also wrote “Les Américains” about Americans weaselling their way into Montreal to obtain liquor during their Prohibition. 

In 1937, La Bolduc was involved in a head-on automobile collision which gave her a broken leg, nose, and a concussion. When she was admitted to the hospital for treatment, doctors discovered a cancerous tumour, and she began radiation treatment. This put her out of commission for a year. When she returned to the limelight, she made a couple of new recordings, one of which—”Les Souffrances de mon accident”—was about her accident. 

La Bolduc died of cancer in 1941. Despite a life fraught with troubles, her songs were happy and joyful with lively rhythms.

Guy Lombardo

Born: 1902, London, Ontario
Debut: 1924
Died: 1977
Genre: Easy Listening
Achievements: Canadian Walk of Fame, Canadian Music Hall of Fame
Notable Recordings: “Boo-Hoo”, “Powder Your Face with Sunshine”, “Seems Like Old Times”, “Sweethearts On Parade”. 

Gaetano Lombardo, an amateur singer and owner of a tailor shop in London Ontario, had five sons, and he had four of them learn to play musical instruments so they could accompany him. His son Guy learned the violin. The brothers formed their first orchestra while still in elementary school and rehearsed at the back of their father’s tailor shop. 

In 1924, Guy Lombardo with three of his brothers formally formed a big dance band called The Royal Canadians. They promoted themselves with the slogan “The Sweetest Music This Side of Heaven”, though, in addition to “sweet” dance music, they also played some “hot” jazz. Gauging public response, they gradually shifted over to the easy listening sound which they made famous, opening the doors for future acts like Canadian Percy Faith.

In the beginning, with brother Carmen singing, Guy was simply the band’s violinist but he soon took the lead as conductor. After achieving success in Canada, the band decided to travel to the United States for a recording session in Richmond, Indiana, where trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke made his legendary recordings. From there, the Royal Canadians landed a regular gig in Cleveland, Ohio where they altered their name to Guy Lombardo & His Royal Canadians. They proceeded to Chicago and then, in 1929, to New York City, which became their permanent home base.

By 1930, with Louis Armstrong naming them as his favourite for their purity of intonation, Lombardo had not only achieved international renown but also the top dance band in Anglo America. His orchestra was featured at New York’s Roosevelt Hotel, and their New Year’s eve broadcasts, with their rendition of “Auld Lang Syne”, became a regular staple of celebrations across North America and a permanent tradition, even continuing a few years after his death to honour his memory. Their recording of the song is still the first played at New Year’s in Times Square. 

The band also recorded a long string of hits running from 1927 to 1954, not only performing covers but writing much of their own material as well. It is estimated that his total worldwide record sales ranged between 100 and 300 million copies. Lombardo appeared in the film Many Happy Returns and became an accomplished speed-boat, hydroplane racer, winning a number of awards, including the Gold Cup in 1946. He also invested in a seafood restaurant and became director of the Marine Theatre at New York’s Jones Beach. 

To honour Guy Lombardo’s memory, a bridge and an avenue were named after him in his home town of London, Ontario. His birth home still stands at 202 Simcoe Street. A commemorative plaque is featured at the entrance of a retail store marking the site of a subsequent Lombardo home. 

A year after his death in 1977, Guy Lombardo was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. In 2002 he was given a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame in Toronto.

The Beginnings of Canadian Music

Before the prominence of Canadian Jazz in the 1940s and rock ‘n roll in the 1950s, Canadian music can be divided into five main genres: classical, ragtime, easy listening, folk, and country. The Canadian Encyclopedia credits Canada’s first singing star as Chambly, Quebec’s internationally renowned soprano Emma Albani, whose operatic debut was in 1870. The most popular traditional Canadian song (even up to the present day) was first published in 1879. Its composer remains unknown. The song, of course, is “Alouette!” Shelton Brooks, a jazz and ragtime singer-songwriter, though born in Canada, established himself as a performer in Detroit, U.S.A. where he grew up. Another ragtimer was piano prodigy William Eckstein who earned the nickname “Mr. Fingers”. Two of his compositions have made into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame: “Lest You Forget” (1922) and “S’Nice” (1923).  

From what we gather, Canada’s first big music star who composed some of his own music and sold phonograph records was Guy Lombardo who, in 1924, formed his easy listening band, The Royal Canadians, with his brothers and friends. They achieved international success, creating “The Sweetest Music This Side of Heaven”. During his lifetime, Lombardo and his band sold between 100 and 300 million phonograph records. 

The first Canadian solo singer-songwriter to arise was perhaps Quebec’s folk star Mary Rose-Anna Travers, also known as Madame Bolduc or La Bolduc. During the peak of her popularity in the 1930s, she was known as the Queen of Canadian Folk Singers. Her style combined the traditional folk music of Ireland and Quebec, usually in upbeat, comedic songs.

The first man to sing his way to fame, debuting in 1930, a year after Travers, was guitarist and yodeler Wilf Carter, the grandfather of Canadian county music, known in the United States as “Montana Slim”. Another notable folk/country star at the time was fiddler Don Messer. Country music’s godfather emerged a few years later in 1936; Hank Snow was to chart over seventy hit singles on the United States’ Billboard country charts from 1950 to 1980. In the 1940s, “Canada’s Number One Cowboy Singer” Earl Heywood appeared and went on to write over 300 songs during the course of his career. 

Though Canadians and Americans shared a fondness for country music, the styles the two countries created were somewhat different. This is adequately summed up in this excerpt from a Wikipedia article: “Canadian country as developed by Carter, Snow and Earl Heywood, used a less nasal and more distinctly pronounced vocal style than American music, and stuck with more traditional ballads, [travelling songs] and narratives while American country began to use more songs about bars and lovers’ quarrels. This style of country music became very popular in Canada over the next couple of decades.”