Musical Friends

They’re doing it One More Time.

For the fifth year in a row, two of the Yukon’s most popular – certainly most durable – musical groups are teaming up for a show loaded with nostalgia and upbeat melodies.

Hank Karr and Company and The Canucks will get together at the Yukon Arts Centre next week to do what they’ve been doing for more than half a century: giving audiences music that makes them want to dance.

Not that dancing will actually be encouraged.

“Last year I made a mistake,” Karr admits. “I mouthed off that there was some room to dance, and it peed some people off, because a few came up and they were standing in front of them.”

“And they couldn’t see,” Canucks lead singer Ed Isaak pitches in.

Neither Karr nor Isaak is ashamed to use the n word when asked what draws audiences to their shows.

“It’s a nostalgia crowd,” they say in unison.

“And I guess that’s the kind of music we play, same as Hank,” Isaak says.

“The thing I hear is, ‘Finally, we get to hear some music,'” Karr adds.

“I’m a country singer. I always have been, and I can’t change. When I listen to the stuff that’s coming out of Nashville now, I am ill. Because it’s about as close to country as Ray is to Lawrence Welk.”

This draws a big guffaw from Canucks keyboardist Ray Park, who started as an accordion player (like Welk) and even studied the instrument for two years at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.

As the only one who actually reads music, and as a former music teacher, Park also serves as de facto musical director of The Canucks.

On the surface, the combination of the two groups might seem a little strange.

Karr is most closely associated with country music and iconic northern ballads such as Al Oster’s “Paddlewheeler” and “My Book of Yukon Memories” as well as his own composition “After Yukon”.

The Canucks, on the other hand, are known for their eclectic blend of swing, blues, jazz and popular musical genres from the 1950s and onward.

“We’ve never been into the heavy rock or anything, because that’s another era,” Isaak says.

Combined, however, the two groups appeal to a broad spectrum of musical tastes.

“We’re both capable of doing a little of everything, which is nice. We can cover everyone,” Isaak says.

In fact, the recent pairing is nothing new. In 1978 the two groups joined forces to record and perform for a while under the name Gold Fever.

Despite their deep connection to the Yukon, Karr and the three members of The Canucks – drummer Red Lewis is the third – actually all met in Vancouver several decades ago, in that curious mixing-and-matching characteristic of the music business.

As a teenager, Lewis started playing nightclubs in Vancouver’s Chinatown. It was at a new club called The Forbidden City that he met Park.

“It was May 12 of 1955. I still know the date in my head; it’s in my heart.”

After a three-month tour with country singer Evan Kemp, the pair decided to pursue music full-time. They headed to the United States with strict instructions from their manager.

“We were told, ‘I want you to stay clean. Don’t mess around with drugs, no drinking, no smoking on stage, that kind of stuff. You have to be a clean group,'” Lewis recalls him saying.

“That’s the image that we set, and we pretty much kept it our whole career.”

Living in rooms above their agent’s office near the famous Los Angeles corner of Hollywood and Vine, they got to meet and perform with such stars as Loretta Lynn, Jimmy Durante and Doris Day.

In 1960, Park returned to Vancouver. Lewis went on to Las Vegas, playing with a trio that still carried the name he and Park had used – The Canucks.

Isaak and Karr, meanwhile, had met in Vancouver in 1958 and played together off and on in various bands.

Four years later, when Park was operating a music store, he sat in one night with the big country band Isaak was playing with. Before long, the two decided to play together, and started a band called … The Canucks.

One of their first stops was Fairbanks, AK.

“So we were at two ends of the United States, two Canucks groups,” Lewis says.

Exactly how, and when, the four made their various ways to Whitehorse is a bit hazy.

Isaak and Park had made a brief stop here during an Al Oster album-promotion tour of Alberta, BC and what was then the two northern territories.

“When I got back and I’m with Ray, we’re playing at the Cave supper club, and an agent wanted to talk to us about three months here,” Isaak recalls.

“And I said, ‘Three months up there? My God … boardwalks and sand and gravel.’ Anyway, we thought the money was pretty good for three months, so that was it.”

In Isaak’s memory, that three-month stint at the Whitehorse Inn was in 1963. Karr remembers it as 1965.

Karr was living in Ketchikan, AK at the time, but visiting Vancouver and sitting in with some friends at a Legion gig. That’s when Oster invited him to fill in at the Whitehorse Inn for two weeks while Isaak and Park were on vacation.

“I got here the day after Rendezvous,” says Karr. “The place was dirty, there was garbage all over Main Street. Two o’clock in the afternoon, people were drunk. I thought, ‘Oh God, this is going to be a long two weeks!'”

First impressions were clearly not favourable.

“I didn’t like it here. I wanted out immediately,” Karr admits. “But boy, it grows. You meet a few people and they’re not distant friends. They become buddies.”

Red Lewis remembers his arrival vividly. In March, 1967 he was supposed to start with a new group at the brand-new Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, but decided to make a two-month excursion to visit his family in Vancouver first.

That’s when he ran into Park, who invited him to join him for a couple of weeks at the Kopper King.

“December 12 of 1966, that’s when I drove into Whitehorse, and it was cold, like minus 45 Fahrenheit. And I had a truck that I bought in Phoenix, Arizona, with a little heater in it. Freezing.”

When he parked the truck in Whitehorse, he knew it wasn’t going to operate again in the Yukon winter without some kind of help.

“I didn’t even know what a block heater was,” Lewis confesses.

Over the years, Karr and the Canucks would continue to cross paths, sometimes playing together as Gold Fever, sometimes playing alternating engagements at hotels in Prince George and Terrace, BC. owned by the former proprietors of the Klondike Inn.

The Canucks later spent seven summers in Watson Lake, performing their popular Canteen Show for the tourist trade, and were the house band at the Taku Hotel for several years in the 1990s.

When the two groups perform next Thursday, they will bring more than 300 years of combined musical experience to the Arts Centre stage.

Besides the three well-seasoned Canucks, Karr’s group includes guitarist Merv Bales, who is in his mid-70s, and “the two kids” – rhythm guitarist Tom Barnaby and drummer Wayne Smyth, both in their 50s.

They also promise to summon the spirits of some major musical stars of the past, including a man in black and a very flamboyant pianist from the early days of television.

The One More Time show is June 23 at 7:30 pm.

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