It’s one of the strangest lucky breaks ever. An obscure Canadian musician gets discovered by a big star and whisked away to Hollywood.
But that’s not the whole story. The road to fame is rarely a straight line, so hold on while we follow Ken Tobias through the twists and turns on the way to his biggest hit.
Tobias is from Saint John, New Brunswick, and was as close to a child star as you could find in that port city in the 1950s.
“I’ve been on stage since I was four years old,” says Tobias. “My first gig was at the old Zellers store on King Street, I was in there singing and modeling. They paid me a bag of candy, and I thought, ‘Oh God, I want to do this,’ and I really liked the applause.”
From there, he teamed up with his brother Tony and started doing folk music when it became hot. They had their own show on local radio and ended up becoming professional performers. On Dominion Day (now Canada Day) in 1964, Tobias was chosen to represent Atlantic Canada on the nationally broadcast concert from Parliament Hill. Introduced by young CBC host Alex Trebek, Tobias sang his composition, “This is the Maritimes.”
The Ramblers, as the Tobias brothers’ group was known, entered a music competition show called the Dartmouth “Y” Hootenanny, and the taping was released on an LP that same year. The group played a song Tobias wrote called “Little Drops of Water.” Another performer, Patrician-Anne MacKinnon, recommended them to her friends at CBC Halifax, and a year later when Tobias graduated from high school, he joined the band on the TV show Music Hop.
There, Tobias teamed up with Brian Ahern, a guitar player who hired him into his group The Badd Cedes. Ahern got him into the cast of the nationally-broadcast Singalong Jubilee, where Tobias was given solo slots alongside a lineup that included Anne Murray. The Halifax scene wasn’t big enough to hold these budding stars, so Ahern went off to Toronto, producing Murray and others, and Tobias got offered steady club work around Montreal.
At first, Montreal was a bust for Tobias and his group Crystal Staircase. When that band ended, he regrouped with a couple of old Saint John buddies — Charlie Clark and Mike Waye — as the band Book of Tobias. It was during this time in 1969, that Tobias got a fateful phone call.
“My manager phones me up and told me Bill Medley [of The Righteous Brothers] was at the Holiday Inn, literally on the end of my street. He said to get my guitar, they had said ‘If he can get here in five minutes, we’ll listen to you.’ I ran down the street with my guitar, and knocked on the door. Billy’s conductor, Michael Patterson, was standing there with a beautiful tuxedo top, a frilly thing with a bowtie, and in his boxer shorts and garters for his socks. That’s show business, you don’t put your pants on until you’re ready to go so you don’t wrinkle them.
“He said, ‘Sing me a song or two.’ He listened and then got on the phone to Bill in the next room and said, ‘Come in and hear this guy.’ Bill came over, really nice, big voice, and said ‘Hi Kenny, how are ya?’ I sang a couple of tunes and he said, ‘How would you like to come down to the Copa tonight and be my guest?’ My eyes sparkled and I went ‘holy cow.’
“I went down, sat in the front row, and in the middle of the show, he stopped and said, I’d like to introduce you to one of Canada’s up-and-coming, blah blah. It was real show business. One of the things I learned in Hollywood is that it’s not who you are, it’s who you’re with.”
That might have been the end of the story, a one-time meeting with fame. But Tobias decided to stick around after the show to speak to Medley some more.
“I follow a spiritual path, have done so for sixty years, and I’ve always believed that the dark side tries to stop the good side,” says Tobias.
“I’m sitting there after the show, everybody’s gone now, and Bill goes up to the piano, and starts to play, just calming down from the gig. I’m sitting there, and there was a guy sweeping the floors. He looks at me and goes, ‘What the hell are you doing here? You think you’re as good as this guy? You’re not going to go anywhere.’ He started to do all this negativity. And I thought, ‘this is the dark side, possessing this guy, trying to hurt this big moment.’
“Then Billy calls me up to the stage and says, ‘I’m working on this tune Kenny, I’d like to get your opinion on it.’ And in my mind I thought, ‘Ken, if you’re ever going to tell the truth, this is the time. If you don’t like it, say so. If you do like it, tell him.’ So I gave him my opinion as a songwriter. He turned around on his stool and looked at me and said, ‘How’d you like to come to Hollywood?’
“The dark side tried to stop me and the light side won, as far as I’m concerned.”
Tobias did move to Hollywood, and signed to Medley’s production company. Medley produced his first single, “You’re Not Even Going To The Fair,” released in 1969. It got some attention in Canada, but not much in the United States. The problem was that Tobias didn’t have the proper papers that would allow him to work in the U.S., so he couldn’t do any shows to promote himself. Eventually, he had to leave Medley’s company, which couldn’t get him the needed paperwork.
Here’s where the real twist happens. While Tobias was in Los Angeles following his supposed big break, it turned out he’d left some of his magic back in Montreal.
Remember Charlie Clark and Mike Waye, the guys from Book of Tobias? Since Tobias had left for Hollywood, they needed a new gig, so they joined Cliff Edwards in his group The Bells. When the band was in need of material, the pair pulled out an old Tobias song, “Stay Awhile.”
First it took off in Canada, eventually hitting No. 1 on the charts. Then it started hitting the Top 20 in other countries, such as New Zealand and Australia.
Tobias was oblivious to it all, until he got a phone call from the company that collects songwriter royalties.
“I got called by BMI Canada, I was in Hollywood, and they said, ‘Ken, did you know that your song is climbing the charts?’ I said, ‘No, really? What song?’ They gave me the phone number of BMI in New York so I could call them the week ahead to get the numbers. I was watching it climb every day. They said, ‘Do you want some money?’ I said do you think I could have 300 bucks? They said, ‘How about 3000?’ That told me I had arrived.”
Eventually the song peaked at #7 in the Billboard Hot 100, and #4 in Cashbox.
By then, Tobias had signed with Burt Sugarman’s production company, which had been able to get his work permits sorted. He made a couple of early ’70s albums and had a string of singles that broke through in Canada, including the beloved Cancon staple “I Just Wanna Make Music.” But there was never any breakthrough in the U.S., and not even any promotion from his record company.
Eventually, Tobias found out why.
“I went to the guy who was heading up the publishing department. He said, ‘I gotta tell ya something. You don’t understand the business here. They’re running this company at a loss. This is the company that offsets the other companies. You have the good company that makes a lot, so you have the other company that’s failing, and you put them together so you have low income tax.’ They were just hanging on to me.”
Tobias was able to get out of his contract with the help of an entertainment lawyer and his brother, Tony. He moved back to Canada and started a second run of hits with Attic Records, including “Every Bit Of Love” and “Give A Little Love.”
He also moved into soundtrack work for television, film, and dance. In the ’80s, he started painting, developing a network of galleries and clients across North America. In the 2000s, he moved back to Saint John to help care for his mother, and painting became his main interest.
He still has deep respect for the man who gave him that first big break.
“Bill Medley was one of the kindest, best gentlemen,” says Tobias. “Along the way, I met many famous people, and Billy stood out.”
As for “Stay Awhile,” the song he left with his friends ended up selling over two million copies and made its mark as one of the biggest hits of 1971.