Vancouver got its shot of rhythm and blues from Calgary.
“The Calgary Shades — Tommy Melton, Tommy Chong, Bernie Sneed, Wes Henderson and Floyd Sneed,” Bill Reiter, instantly rattles off their names. Reiter, who ran a record shop in Chinatown and hosted the radio show, Groovin Blue, on what became CKLG-FM, has had a lifelong interest in R&B.
“They came here in 1956-57 and changed the face of music not only in Vancouver but in Western Canada,” he continues. ” Most of them were from families who’d settled in Alberta from Oklahoma. Later they moved to Calgary and then the band came here.”
“I’ve always been community minded,” explains Tommy Chong. “I inadvertently formed a teen club (at a local Legion). The dances were fine but after the dances would end the kids had nothing to do. They’d go to a party and the police realized we were the starting point.”
So, the police told the Calgary Shades to get out of town, leaving the city with a rhythm and blues scene The Calgary Shades had started.
“Because of us,” Chong admits. The Shades’ repertoire of Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters songs were learned from railway porters or football players, of which Melton was a former Stampeder. Melton was a hero in Calgary and famous as The Shades’ dancing front man.
Turfed out of Calgary, the move to Vancouver was natural for Chong. His father had been born in Vancouver and had filled Tommy’s head with irresistible romantic visions. Plus their manager/drummer, Sam Carruthers, pushed for Vancouver.
” I have a poster of them from 1960 at the Moon Glow cabaret in Vancouver, “says Rob Frith of Neptoon Records. ” Jayson Hoover ( Henderson ) is Wes Henderson’s cousin. Wes and Tommy were in Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers. Floyd went into 3 Dog Night and I think was married to Tommy’s sister.”
The Calgary Shades evolved into Little Daddy and the Bachelors and won a battle of the bands for which they were awarded a recording session, emerging from Aragon with Chuck Berry’s Too Much Monkey Business and Chong’s Junior’s Jerk.
They settled into the New Delhi Cabaret, during which they developed a floor show, Chong doing acrobatic tricks with his guitar, a la T-Bone Walker or, later, Jimi Hendrix, while Melton developed his act further as a dancer.
“We found our home,” notes Chong. “It was an R&B club and we were the band there for a year.”
In so doing, Little Daddy (Melton) and The Bachelors (whomever was in the band) more or less set the template for future rhythm and blues bands. Black singer with a horn section.
Once in a while, the band would leave home, even touring as far south as Los Angeles. It was in L.A. that Chong fell in with a comedy troupe and was introduced to his future partner, Cheech Marin.
In San Francisco, the band met Bobby Taylor.
“Bobby Taylor was a funny guy,” Chong explains. “It was his idea to call us Four Niggers And A Chink.”
Taylor originally came north to Vancouver to be The Bachelors’ drummer, but, once he sang, “That was the end of Tommy Melton.”
The controversial name appealed to Chong’s nonconformist nature and it got worldwide attention, but nobody showed up at the first and only Four Niggers And A Chink gig except for a female wrestler and stripper known as Lawdy The Body. She complained that she could see the niggers but couldn’t identify the chink. Chong’s father, oblivious to the club billing on the marquee, protested, assuring her that that kind of language had no place in his club. He was body-slammed by Lawdy for his trouble.
This was at the Elegant Parlour, owned by Tommy’s father, and the culmination of a trip that began after the band had left the New Delhi, toured both the U.S. west coast and B.C. interior, landed another house gig, this time at the Shanghai Junk, and threw dances at a theatre it had found at 9th and Alma and renamed the Blues Palace. The band booked the first Vancouver appearance of the Ike And Tina Turner Revue, ostensibly to pay the rent but it “made a shitload of money.”
As before, the police got wind of the band’s activities and wanted to close The Blues Palace.
The success of The Blues Palace dances was seized upon by Jim Wisby of Oil Can Harry’s who went on to book Ike And Tina into the Commodore Balloom no less than 10 times.
By then, Chong’s parents had bought the Elegant Parlour, located in the basement of what was then the Retinal Circus, 1024 Davie, and what is now Celebrities.
“The Parlour was the go-to club; that’s one of the reasons R&B happened here.” Chong swears. He recalls the night his band, now known as Bobby Taylor And The Vancouvers played a sold out Elegant Parlour the same night The Rolling Stones were booked upstairs to play at the Retinal Circus and James Brown was across town at the PNE Garden. When Brown finished his show, he took his entourage to the Elegant Parlour, effectively packing the place. Chong remembers Mick Jagger and the other Stones unsuccessfully trying to get into the club.
“That was the power of rhythm blues in this city, and that was thanks to us.”
It’s a great story if that’s what happened, but The Rolling Stones’ second Vancouver show was July 19, 1966, at the Forum, before the Retinal Circus opened a year later, and their second show here was June 3, 1972, at the Coliseum about four years after the Retinal Circus closed. The police were called in both times.
During its 18 months, the Retinal Circus was crucial to the developing local rock, presenting acts as diverse as Seeds Of Time, Mother Tucker’s Yellow Duck, Painted Ship, My Indole Ring, United Empire Loyalists. As well, it hosted important touring bands such as Velvet Underground, Youngbloods, a nascent Allman Brothers, Blue Cheer and Country Joe.
Vancouver got its shot of rhythm and blues from Calgary.