The birth of local rock and roll

Rock and Roll Comes to Newfoundland and Labrador: An Archive started out as a collection of interviews on a DVD and a compilation CD of some of the province’s early rock and roll. A book with photos and more anecdotes collected by the same archivists (Greg Dodd and Wayne Sturge) came out just before Christmas of 2008.

For whatever reason, by the end of the 1950s, local rock and roll seemed to be boiling furiously just under the surface, and as soon as 1960 hit, its sound started reverberating from all corners of the province. And I don’t mean just St. John’s. Bands with names like The Lincolns, The Deltones, and The Mar-velles were coming out of places like Grand Falls, Labrador City, and Corner Brook.

Two of the most popular bands to appear in the early 1960s seem to have appeared simultaneously on opposite coasts of the island: The Ravens on the east, in St. John’s, and The Ducats on the west, in Port-Aux-Basques. Both bands started in some shape or form before 1960, but as soon as the middle of that year hit, they were playing an undeniably rock and roll sound.

What was happening to make this happen?

Step one:

The first ever written reference to rock and roll in the province, according to local rock historian Greg Dodd, was an ad that ran in the Daily News in June of 1956.

“Rock and Roll with Ray Caldero and his 6-piece dixieland band, stars of radio and TV,” the ad proclaims. “Direct from New York City.” The dance was held on Tuesday, June 12th, 1956, at the Memorial Stadium from 9pm to 1am. Admission was $1.

“They’d definitely fill the stadium for that dance,” he says.

These were kids who were hungry for fresh music in a conservative time; when books of etiquette were popular, and the collective obsession of having a lawn that looked as good as your neighbour’s came to be.

Rock and roll was the antidote. It was raw and human, even though it was often played with electrified instruments. Underneath the neat, matching suits, rock and roll musicians were starting to play music that was shook the decade up.
Local radio in the fifties was similarly conservative, but with one important exception. The American armed forces radio station, Voice of the US (VOUS) was like having a main line to the heart of rock and roll. WWII saw American army bases built in Goose Bay, Stephenville, St. John’s and Argentia, and each base maintained non-commercial radio stations for the troops stationed there. Unlike other local stations, who were limited in what they could play for prudish or commercial reasons, VOUS was free to play the music the troops wanted. Kids were eager to tune in to hear music that wasn’t big band, that wasn’t traditional folk, and, hopefully, it was music that would aggravate their parents.

“Any place there was a US military base, rock and roll was beginning to show its head,” says Dodd.

Here in town, Fort Pepperell was the American armed forces base (in the area now known as Pleasantville.) It had a radio station with its own DJs, and was one of St. John’s only sources for rhythm and blues. On VOUS, jazz and rhythm and blues were chirping through transmitters and into local teenager’s ears.

Rocky Wiseman, drummer with the early Newfoundland rock and roll group The Ravens, remembers the station clearly.
“It was fabulous. We got to hear all the original R&B stuff as it would come out,” he says. “On the other stations, you were lucky to hear Little Richard or Fats Domino.”

“They’d rather play Pat Boone’s version of ‘Ain’t That a Shame’ than Fats Dominos’, for instance. Can you imagine?”

Wiseman says rhythm and blues records weren’t so hard to come by at the time either. Down on Water Street, there was a shop where he’d often go to buy old jukebox 45s for 20 cents each, and routinely wear them out—particularly the ones by Little Richard.

“When Little Richard came on the scene with ‘Tutti Frutty’, it was like hearing something from outer space,” says Wiseman. “If you weren’t there, and didn’t live through it, it’s hard to grasp. You can’t experience living through the fifties. You can have someone tell you the story, but it’s not the same.”

Step two:

Rocky Wiseman says amps and electric guitars were appearing more and more often around that time, and that must have played a role in the local birth of rock and roll.

“Guys were scrounging guitars, amps, whatever they could get,” he says. “But it’s not the guitar or amp that makes the sound, it’s the person playing it. If I had a Steinway (piano) it’s not going to do me much good… But put Harry Connick Jr. there and there you go.”

But contrary to what Wiseman says, his first encounter on the drums as a teenager he was a total natural. Listening to the Little Richard records over and over had burned the groove in his brain, he says.

“I just played away and they said, ‘are you sure this is your first time?’,” he says. “And that’s part of playing. If you don’t listen you’re not going to play well.”

Greg Dodd and Wayne Sturge even claim in their book it was the strict religious school system in Newfoundland that, in part, helped bring the devil’s music to town. Band and choral classes, as well as singing at church services was required for students. That was where many early local vocal groups first found their chops.

Take, for instance, The Four Jays. They were group of four St. John’s high school kids who started singing doo wop—a vocal rhythm and blues style—in the late fifties. They started performing on local radio so often that at the height of their regional fame, they even had a fan club. For fifty cents you could be a member.

Step three:

Some members of the Four Jays went on to form The Ravens, one of the most well-known Newfoundland bands at the time.

Meanwhile, in Port-Aux-Basques in 1959, a benefit concert was being organized to raise money for the families of the victims of the Springhill mining disaster. A group of five friends got together for the show, and had such a good time they decided to form a band. After a string of names based on the number of members (The Three Teens, The Four Teens, The Five Teens) Lew Skinner came up with the name The Ducats (Sometimes written The Du-cats.) They too would become one of the most well-known Newfoundland bands of their time.

And, amazingly enough, they’re still perform regularly.

“We’ve been on the go longer than the Stampeders,” The Ducats lead guitarist and original member Lew Skinner tells me on the phone. “We preceeded the Rolling Stones by a month.” He’ll be celebrating the Ducat’s 50th anniversary in June of 2010.

But were they the first Newfoundland rock and roll band?

“Whether we were the first rock and roll band or The Ravens were, I’d say we were within weeks of each other.”

“I remember in 1960 there was a picture up in the high school of The Ravens,” Skinner says. “It was a clip out of the Evening Telegram, I believe, and that was the same time we were playing, and their instruments they had were identical to the ones we had.”

Was it that some kind of tipping point had been reached which was making rock and roll pop up simultaneously across the province? This wasn’t just happening in Newfoundland, it was happening all over the place.

“We were all R&B fans, we all listened to the black artists of the time.” says Wiseman. “And it was the same for The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Van Morrisson. If you listen to their stories, they’ll name the same artists…”

30-second audio clips:
The Ducats – Hey Hey Woman (1964)
The Ducats – Hey Hey Woman (1964)

The Ravens – Young Blood (1965)
The Ravens – Young Blood (1965)