December 05, 2020
By: Bob Mersereau
They may not have been Canada’s biggest early rock ‘n’ roll stars, but they sure left their mark. Ottawa’s favourite group of the early 1960s, The Esquires, opened the door for the rest of Canada’s rock and pop groups with a series of firsts. The band won the first of what became known as the Juno Awards. They made the first-ever rock music videos in the country. And most significantly, by signing with Capitol Records in 1963, they became the first rock band in the country with a major label contract.
Sixty years on, it still amazes the band’s founder and lead guitarist, Gary Comeau. “When you look back at it, it was all quite surprising, we were just kids having fun,” says Comeau, still living in Ottawa. “Clint (Hierlihy), the bass player, and I had a little group in high school called The Fairmonts, and we played the usual church halls, bowling alleys, stuff like that. That band lasted about a year, and we went our separate ways. Then out of a fluke of luck, my parents bought a house in Ottawa, and his parents bought a house, and they were about a block away, so we connected again. We started talking, and said, let’s start another band, and that was the start of The Esquires, the end of 1961.”
It was a great time to be in a band, as teen dances were the main source of entertainment each weekend. The early hints of the British Invasion were being felt in cities with a strong tie to the old country, which Ottawa certainly had. The Esquires quickly became popular thanks to a fondness for Cliff Richard’s backing group The Shadows, and their hot instrumentals. “We were the band in Ottawa I guess,” says Comeau. “Ottawa was just as lively as Toronto was back then, the groups just didn’t get out of town as much.”
One person who did take note was local writer Sandy Gardner, who raved about The Esquires in his music column for the Ottawa Journal. Word started to spread outside of the city as well, which led to a high-profile gig. “We got asked, with a bit of luck, and through Sandy, to play the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars in Montreal,” says Comeau. “It had a bunch of big stars in it, Johnny Tillotson, Gene Pitney, The Shirelles, and also we backed up Andy Kim that night. In the audience were some of the Capitol Records reps, who had been told about us. We got signed to Capitol thanks to A&R executive Paul White, a wonderful man. We ended up going to Montreal again to record our first single, “Atlantis,” which was a Shadows tune. It wasn’t the greatest recording, because back then the recordings in Canada weren’t great quality. But it came out alright and it sold well.”
The band by then included Comeau, Hierlihy, second guitarist Paul Huot, diminutive drummer Richard Patterson, and when they did a vocal number, singer Bob Harrington. The big numbers were still the instrumentals though, with Harrington’s numbers relegated to the b-sides. As for star-power, it was actually Patterson who gained most of the attention, thanks to his big personality versus his small height, less than five feet tall. “People loved Richard, he was different, he loved to talk. We got to do lots of things because of Richard. He would get up on stage and sing “Peanut Butter,” people loved that. When anybody wanted to talk to the band, they talked to Richard. It was my band, but that was fine, that’s the way it was, he was a true entertainer.” The pair remained life-long friends, and were in a couple more bands together, until Patterson’s death in 2011.
Then came that video, another case of luck and timing rather than planning. They were approached by a company looking for a band for a new product they were introducing. “It was something they had in Europe, which was a jukebox with videos, and this company had the rights to it in Canada,” explains Comeau. ” We were asked to do it, it wasn’t to go on TV or anything, just to be on this video jukebox.” Called the Scopitone, the jukeboxes would also play 16mm colour films, and had first been installed in bars and restaurants in France in the late ’50s. They never really caught on, and barely made a mark in North America, fizzling out by the end of the ’60s. The Esquires were filmed doing both sides of their second Capitol single, “Man From Adano” and “Gee Whiz It’s You.” “We were told to show up at a certain place, everything was set up for us, and we just mimed,” says Comeau. “Now it’s in the national archives (Library and Archives Canada) as the first Canadian video.”
Being on Capitol Records meant more perks and the best exposure for the group. As the British Invasion exploded in 1964, the group was a natural choice to open shows for the visiting superstar groups from England as well as the U.S. “Capitol was really good to us,” says Comeau. “The most fun of all that stuff was all the people we toured with. The ’60s were a lot of fun, man. We really took advantage of it because it was a time that could never happen again. The first big one that we did was The Rolling Stones in Ottawa and Toronto. I met Mick Jagger and the others. After the Stones, the Dave Clark Five was a lot of laughs. The bands we played with treated us really well, and we were really friendly with them. The Beach Boys tour was fun because I spent a lot of time with Glen Campbell, he sat with me on the plane and we had a lot of laughs. Roy Orbison was so nice, he was really a sweetheart.”
And yes, the shows were just as crazy as legend has it, and the kids screamed just as loud for The Esquires as they did the headliners. “Especially with The Rolling Stones and The Dave Clark Five,” says Comeau. “In Toronto, playing with the Dave Clark Five, it was so loud you couldn’t hear the music, even for us. It was like a whole different world. Then we went back to the hotel, and there were about a thousand kids there, where we were staying, as well as The Dave Clark Five and Bobby Curtola. We went out on our balcony, and the kids went nuts, screaming and yelling. Then Bobby Curtola stepped out on the balcony, the floor below, and he thought it was all for him. The kids were more oriented to bands then, I think.”
It was also at Maple Leaf Gardens, then Canada’s most important venue, that Walt Grealis, founder of the brand-new RPM Magazine, surprised the group with one of its brand-new RPM Awards, for 1964’s Top Vocal Instrumental Band. That’s the award that eventually became known as the Juno, in 1971. And The Esquires had indeed become primarily a vocal group by then, with a new lead singer, Don Norman. “Don sounded just like Cliff Richard, and then it turned into a vocal band with harmonies and everything, a typical pop band of the time,” says Comeau. That led to the group’s biggest hit, “So Many Other Boys.”
There was an album too, Introducing The Esquires, recorded in Montreal at RCA Studios, produced by bass player Hierlihy and featuring several tracks written by the band. 1964 had been a banner year for The Esquires, but a few months was a lifetime in pop music in those days, and the next year was tumultuous. It started with Hierlihy’s departure from the group.
“Clint had left, and we brought in Brian Lewicki on bass, and he was a lead singer too,” says Comeau. “He wanted to do other songs, and it wasn’t the material we were known for, it was more bluesy. It was fine, but it just wasn’t appropriate for the band, I thought. So I said no thanks, I’ve been in the band since the end of ’61, I’ll do something else. Then Don said the same thing, he was getting pushed aside, he wasn’t into that bluesy stuff as a vocalist, so he quit. He and I bumped into each other on Sparks Street, and I said, ‘Hey, do you want to start a band?’ So we started Don Norman and the Other Four.”
The Esquires continued on with a couple more singles for Columbia Records, and a bunch of personnel changes. Before the group petered out at the end of the decade, a young Bruce Cockburn was in the ranks. Comeau kept the faith in a long and respected line of Ottawa bands. He joined The Townsmen with ex-Esquire Paul Huot, and then the pair brought in drummer Richard Patterson for the successful Canada Goose. The early ’70s saw Comeau playing pedal steel in the group James Leroy With Denim, which scored a couple of national hits and toured cross-country. Then once again, Comeau found himself on Capitol Records with his late ’70s group Coyote. In the ’80s he moved into production for other groups, and radio and TV commercials.
Anyone with that much time in rock ‘n’ roll has no shortage of amazing stories, highs and lows, and cautionary tales for those who think it was all glamour and fun. Still, Comeau knows his first band, The Esquires, a band of firsts, was part of something special. “Think of kids making, 500, 700 bucks a week, that was pretty heavy in the ’60s. There was a lot of respect, which when you look back at it was surprising because we were just kids.”