By: Bob Mersereau
In the early 1970s, there wasn’t a better showcase for a young musician in Canada than Singalong Jubilee. In the days before cable TV was widely available, many Canadians only had a couple of channels, and Singalong, broadcast from Halifax on CBC-TV, regularly grabbed over two million viewers. The show had already made national stars of Anne Murray, Gene MacLellan, Ken Tobias, John Allan Cameron, Edith Butler and Catherine McKinnon. So how did you get a coveted spot on a singalong show? Simple. You partied with them.
Now, we’re not talking about wild parties. One in 1970 even had a 14-year old kid entertaining them. Of course, this was one extremely talented 14-year old. Her name was Shirley Eikhard, and she was partying with the Singalong gang that summer thanks to her parents, June and Cecil. They all met up at a legendary bar in Charlottetown, the Prince Edward Lounge, when the Singalong Jubilee show was doing a taping in the city.
“My mom was a fiddle player and my dad was a bass player,” Shirley says. “I’m originally from the Maritimes (Sackville, N.B.) and we moved up to Ontario in 1963, but having been around music people, I picked up the guitar, and started writing my own songs when I was about 11 years old. It was 1970, at the Prince Edward Lounge, owned by Johnny Reid. My parents were playing there, a week at the club. And on Saturday night, Karen Oxley, Jack Lilly, I think Garth Proude, Georges Hebert, a few people from Singalong Jubilee came over, and there was a party after the show. I got up and sang some of my songs at the party. And then Karen Oxley said, ‘Hmm, interesting. Do you want to send me a tape?’ And she didn’t say anything other than that, just send me a tape. So I sent her a reel-to-reel tape, and the next thing you know, (Jubilee producer) Manny Pittson called me, and then I’m flying down to Halifax to do two songs on the show.”
The talented youngster did two songs she had written, “I’ll Be A Rover” and “Together.” And just like that, Shirley was one of the family. It was the first of a half-dozen appearances on the TV show, and as she found out quickly, once you were part of the Singalong family, good things had a tendency to happen.
“Then out of nowhere, I got a phone call from Capitol Records in Mississauga,” says Eikhard. It would have been early in 1971. My dad drives me up, and we sit down and they say, ‘We want to play you something.’ On the tape I had sent for Singalong Jubilee, I had a song called ‘It Takes Time.’ Manny Pittson had played ‘It Takes Time’ for Anne Murray, unbeknownst to me, and now we were sitting there and Capitol was playing Anne Murray singing my song. I have to thank Karen Oxley for all of this, it was because of her that that whole thing came about.”
Murray had already recorded the song, but Capitol had a problem. The company couldn’t release it without Eikhard’s permission, and there needed to be a publishing agreement in place as well. Eikhard didn’t have a publishing deal, but Capitol offered a quick solution. They had an in-house publishing company called Beechwood, and they offered up a contract on the spot.
“Here’s the irony of this crazy story,” says Eikhard. “I’m 15 at the time, Anne had already done the song, it was already recorded and ready to come out, which meant we had all the cards, we didn’t have to give up anything. But my dad didn’t know any better, I said, ‘Dad, don’t you think we should talk to a lawyer?’ He said, ‘No, you’re going to blow the deal.’ I had the smarts at 15 to say we should be talking to a lawyer before we sign anything, and he said we have to sign this thing. I think they were dumbfounded. That’s the thing that was so upsetting, we didn’t have to give the publishing away at all. My father looked at me like I was the stupid one. He thought I was crazy wanting to talk to a lawyer. Those are the kinds of things that happen though, you learn from it and move on.”
Instead of being able to negotiate a great deal, Eikhard got signed to a seven-year contract, which gave Beechwood the rights to everything she wrote. However, Eikhard still had some cards to play. “It Takes Time” became a single for Murray in April of 1971, just a few months after her smash hit, “Snowbird.” Eikhard’s song was a Canadian hit, No. 1 on RPM’s Adult Contemporary chart, No. 6 on the Country chart, and No. 26 on the Pop chart, which meant she was getting played all over the radio dial. Now Capitol had another offer. They were interested in signing the young talent as a recording artist as well. But this time, Eikhard knew how to play her cards.
“RCA got wind of Capitol looking at signing me as an artist,” says Shirley. “RCA auditioned me in Toronto, a guy flew in from New York. I was writing some guitar instrumentals at the time, and one of my instrumentals got sent down to Chet Atkins in Nashville (head of RCA operations there). I ended up going to Nashville to meet him, and he recorded one of my songs, ‘Pickin’ My Way.'”
Let’s pause for a moment in the story to take that in. This 15-year old Canadian, who already has written a hit single for international star Anne Murray, has just had a guitar instrumental she composed recorded by one of the very best guitar pickers of all time, Chet Atkins. Not only that, he named his 1971 album after the song. Okay, back to Shirley’s story.
“Chet got interested, saying, ‘I’d like to produce this girl.’ So there became this thing between Capitol and RCA. Because we had signed this publishing deal that was seven years long, the only way we could get that negotiated down was for me to sign with Capitol Records. So that’s why I didn’t end up going with RCA. I only did that one album and a couple of singles for Capitol, but I came down from seven years to three years in my Beechwood contract that way.”
Her Capitol album came about by way of another happy accident, and yes, at another party. “My parents were playing at the Oshawa Civic Auditorium opening for Merle Haggard. There was a guy in his band (The Strangers) named Bobby Wayne. There was a party after the show, and I sang a couple of my songs for Bobby, and he said, ‘Oh my god, I gotta call (Haggard’s producer) Earl Ball.’ Earl flew up from Nashville, I sang some songs, and he said, ‘Okay.’ That’s how the whole recording side of my career got underway.”
Ball was a widely-respected and well-connected pianist and producer, who worked out of Nashville and Los Angeles. He took Eikhard to L.A., and just like that she was recording in the famous Capitol Tower studios. For a band, Ball brought in the famous LA Express, best known for working with Joni Mitchell, including Larry Carlton on guitar and Max Bennett on bass. She recorded the songs she’d done on Singalong Jubilee, including her own version of “It Takes Time,” “I’ll Be A Rover” and “Together.” In another studio down the hall was Earl Ball’s friend Hoyt Axton, author of the huge hit for Three Dog Night, “Joy To The World.” Axton offered up one of his tunes, “Ease Your Pain.”
“Earl really liked the song, and then he said, ‘Hoyt’s band is here, let’s just march in and put a vocal on it,'” says Eikhard. So Axton and his whole group made a guest appearance on the album. Then Axton asked for a favour in return. “He said, ‘Would you come in and sing backgrounds on one of my records?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ I ended up singing with Linda Ronstadt. She and I were the backup singers on his rendition of ‘Maybelline,’ the Chuck Berry song. But it was never meant to be. They ended up taking me off, but at least I got to sing with Linda Ronstadt. It’s one of the highlights of my life.”
More good things came from the sessions. One of the band members liked “It Takes Time” so much, he passed it on to his friend Kim Carnes, who recorded a version later in 1971. When Eikhard’s album came out the next year, she was still all of 16 years old and had a hit Canadian single of her own. She was a huge fan of Ian and Sylvia, and her version of Sylvia’s “Smiling Wine” was a No. 1 Country and Adult Contemporary hit in Canada.
Not a bad start for a teenager. And there was more, much more to come. As well as her own albums, she’s continued to be a favourite songwriter, especially among women. The list of her covers includes more by Anne Murray, plus Emmylou Harris, Cher, Alannah Myles, Ginette Reno, Rita Coolidge and Sylvia Tyson. And there was that little hit for Bonnie Raitt, “Something To Talk About,” but that’s another big story.
It all got going at Singalong Jubilee, and Eikhard still loves to think about that family that welcomed a kid into their ranks. Now she realizes that not only were they fine and generous people to her, but they were also world-class talent as well. “From my point of view, when I went to do my album in Nashville and Los Angeles, we’re talking about Fred Carter Jr., and Larry Carleton on guitar,” says Eikhard. “When they heard the versions and arrangements from Singalong, they went, ‘Well, we can’t top this, let’s do what they’ve done.’ Garth Proude’s bass riffs and everything. I was really impressed with the fact that our boys here were as good as it gets. There’s the beauty of Karen Oxley, right? I had no idea what she was going to do, and she didn’t promise me anything, she just thought, I heard something in this girl.”
Singer Karen Oxley was a regular on Singalong Jubilee from its start in 1962 and led the show’s vocal chorus. Her career was cut short by multiple sclerosis, and she passed away in 1992.