After playing harmonica for more than 40 years, George McConkey finally feels he is getting to the venerated status of “old blues guy”.
Nicknamed Harmonica George, he started playing when he was young. Through sheer stubbornness, he has never let up on music since.
Growing up in Toronto, McConkey spent every summer at the family cottage on Go Home Lake near Georgian Bay. “Every weekend, my dad would invite the guy up the hill to come over to drink beer and play darts,” he recalls. “He would bring along a squeezebox and a harmonica, and I would lie in bed listening. I was intrigued.”
McConkey says he bugged his dad until he finally bought him his first harmonica. “I knew this wouldn’t be a fleeting interest,” he says. “I knew that if I had an opportunity, I would make something of this. It was a sixth sense.”
McConkey started fooling around playing cowboy music until his ear got turned on to the blues in high school. Not knowing how to read music, he would listen to records and try to hear the nuances and emulate the notes. “I wore those records out,” he says with a smile.
McConkey’s family eventually headed to Alberta. At age 15, he played his fi rst public appearance when his father dragged him onto a stage at the Legion in Edmonton. “They said I was a good player, but I needed to dress better,” he says of the plaid shirts he favoured at the time.
There followed gigs at open houses and coffee houses. Then, at 19, he found himself in Dawson City, playing at the talent show at Diamond Tooth Gerties and at the Downtown Hotel.
A year later, he was in Whitehorse playing with a band at the Kopper King every Sunday from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. “We ended up earning $15 each and two free jugs of beer for 12 hours of playing,” McConkey says with a laugh. “We couldn’t believe we were getting paid to do something we loved.”
After various odd jobs and more gigs in Whitehorse, Dawson City and Vancouver, McConkey finally settled permanently in Dawson, with his partner Brenda, in 2006.
McConkey is a well-known session musician in the Yukon, having played on various CDs, including the Juno award-winning recording ETSI Shon with Jerry Alfred and The Medicine Beat.
He has also opened for Blue Rodeo and Prairie Oyster, and has performed by invitation for Prince Charles. In 2000, he co-founded the Undertakin’ Daddies, whose album Post Atomic Hillbilly was nominated for a Juno the following year.
McConkey has played in Switzerland, Holland and England, as well as China, and has just returned from performing in the Czech Republic.
In 2008, he felt the need to do his own project, and released his fi rst CD, Tin & Bone, which he paid for himself. Currently, McConkey is raising the roof in the Westminster Tavern (aka the ‘Snake Pit’) in Dawson City every Friday, and is also planning a possible second CD.
Despite his musical successes, he remains humble. For the past two years, he has been taking online lessons with harmonica virtuoso Howard Levy. “If you think you’re done [learning], you’re cheating yourself,” he says. “There’s so much more out there.”
McConkey has always made music a first in his life. He plays from the heart with a sincerity and honesty that resonates with his audience. “For what I know how to do, I’ve seen it through to the point of people loving it, and I love it too,” he says.
“As long as it’s reciprocal, I’ll keep doing it.”