By: David McPherson
A little boogie-woogie, buckets of blues, and heaps of rock ‘n’ roll. That’s Crowbar. Frank Davies, owner of Daffodil Records, the label that released three LPs by these musical miscreants from Hamilton in the early 1970s, knows this cast of characters better than most. He introduces us to the band behind Bad Manors, Crowbar’s debut, which turns 50 in 2021.
Kelly Jay, aka ‘Captain Canada,’ the leader, singer, keyboardist, songwriter, immovable force behind and in front of the group, and promotion man extraordinaire – was rock ’n’ roll’s ‘Andre the Giant’! A walking mountain of a man and memorabilia, he would carry the Ghetto (John Gibbard) – lead guitar wailing, and Roly Greenway – yanking his oversized bass, on each of his shoulders while singing and playing boogie-woogie piano, all at the same time, to the delight of their many fans! The band was rounded out by the rock steady and always beaming drummer Sonnie “Come Va” Bernardi, and the ‘Frenchman’ Rhéal Lanthier from the Gatineau Hills – the other lead guitar – he of the silky soulful, smooth sounds and even sweeter disposition.
Released in February of 1971, Bad Manors garnered rave reviews from the Canadian music press. Major U.S. music publications, like the Village Voice and Rolling Stone, also took notice.
“Bad Manors is an important record in Canadian popular music history for many reasons,” Davies explains. “I am always hopeful that new, younger generations will continue to get to hear it because of its unpretentious infectious joy and wonderful musicianship, not to mention the anthem that helped make it famous.
“It was an unforgettable time that we didn’t want to end but knew it must,” he adds. “It had a carnival atmosphere surrounding it from the day we started until 8 a.m. on December 7, 1970, when I headed straight from the studio at the end of one of many all-night sessions to deliver the final mixed tapes to Capitol, our record distributor.”
The album’s title is a nod to the six-bedroom century-old Georgian farmhouse along Mohawk Road on Hamilton Mountain where Crowbar and their friends partied, created, and even some members lived. Reflecting on the Bad Manors’ sessions, Davies recalls a joyful time. “It captured a group of musicians at their absolute peak.”
While “Oh What a Feeling” is the most well-known cut from Bad Manors, other notable songs include: “Murder in the First Degree,” “Too True Mama,” and a cover of The Yardbirds’ “Train Kept a Rollin.’”
TOBOGGAN PARTIES & PROCRASTINATION
The primary memory the pair of surviving band members from these sessions (Gibbard and Bernardi) remember is how little time was spent on pre-preproduction. “Some of us were spending time ‘woodshedding’ on our individual instruments, and there were occasional jams at the house, sometimes involving visiting musicians and friends, but a fair amount of drinking and smoking of illegal substances also took place!” Gibbard says.
Toboggan parties on the attached hillside property were a regular occurrence during these carefree days; a lot of mulled wine was consumed out of wineskins.
One afternoon, one of Gibbard’s bandmates casually mentioned they were due to start recording in a week. Within the hour, short-term pre-production started.
“Necessity being the mother of invention, one of the first ideas suggested was based on a James Brown medley that Roly, Rhéal, and Kelly had worked up pre-Crowbar for a club ‘house band’ they had in Winnipeg, named The Ascot Review,” Gibbard recalls. “The idea was to strip the lyrics and come up with our own. Someone came up with the hook melody, and everyone jumped in on harmonies. What we had was not anything sounding like James Brown. There was way too much of a rock ‘n’ roll feel involved, and the vocal harmonies also detracted from JB’s take. I discovered, years later, that the ‘Oh What A Feeling’ melody was likely drawn, unconsciously from memory, from the rain dance scene in Woodstock. I hadn’t seen the movie at that point, so that was a great surprise.”
COVERS & FLESHING OUT THE REST OF THE ALBUM
Gibbard says creating Bad Manors was a true collaboration with everyone contributing ideas: “Roly submitted ‘Mountain Fire’ and ‘Train Keep Rollin.’’ Kelly brought in ‘Too True Mama’ and ‘In The Dancin Hold.’ We also covered a few old hits: ‘Let The Four Winds Blow’ and ‘Baby Let’s Play House.’ Joey Chirowski and Kelly doubled on piano for ‘The House of Blue Lights,’ and Rhéal covered an old country tune by Johnny Horton called ‘Cherokee Chief’.’ Crowbar had an additional member at this time named John Rutter. He went by the name of ‘Johnny Rhythm’ back before Crowbar (in the early to mid ’60s). He supplied the ‘Prince of Peace’ song and production idea.”
Under a time crunch, Gibbard admits there was no time to create an album full of originals. “Rhéal and I had been working on some little two-part guitar ditties for fun, and it was decided those could flesh out the rest of the album,” he adds. “Kelly recorded the short monologue part for ‘Oh What A Feeling’ on a hand-held cassette recorder in the bathroom, and that was added in a musical break-up part of the song.”
Guests on Bad Manors included Steve Kennedy, a well-known sax player from Dr. Music, who laid down a baritone sax solo on “Too True Mama.” “The first note of the solo was just below the range of the sax, so he accomplished it by sitting down and wrapping his foot into the bell of the horn, which resulted in the correct note,” Gibbard recalls.
“LET THE FOUR WINDS BLOW” & THE HIDDEN F-WORD
Davies shares some little-known trivia. “If you listen carefully during the Ghetto’s blazing guitar solo on the Bad Manors track ‘Let The 4 Winds Blow,’ you will hear lead singer Kelly Jay say, ‘Not that fucking guitar solo again,’ which has now been heard subliminally on radio thousands of times. Kelly was punching in his lead vocal over and over in the studio during the sessions for this particular song, and of course, we used the guitar solo as a cue for his entry/exit – to the point where on the 100th ‘take’ he could take no more and emitted those immortal words. It sounded so natural. I just couldn’t bear to take it out, so we buried it just under the track. The few of us who knew would smile every time we heard it!”
OH, WHAT A FEELING
Bop bada baa, Bop bada baa. This nonsensical phrase opens “Oh What a Feeling,” which was the first-ever CanCon hit single and the most popular track from Bad Manors. For those in the know, this phrase had meaning and was a bit of an inside joke: the password to gain entrance to Crowbar’s hangout Bad Manors in Ancaster, Ont. The song was co-written by lead singer Kelly Jay Fordham and Roly Greenway in the farmhouse on Mohawk Road that still stands. The single reached gold in Canada, but due to the perceived drug annotations in the song, it didn’t receive airplay south of the border. “It’s a song with just one chord,” Fordham told the Hamilton Spectator in 2011 when “Oh What a Feeling” was inducted into the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. “OK, there’s actually two. There’s a key change in the chorus, but basically, the whole thing is in the key of Bo Diddley.”
Tom Wilson (Junkhouse, Blackie & The Rodeo Kings, Lee Harvey Osmond) still recalls the watershed moment when he first heard this key ingredient of Canadian rock songs. He was 10-years-old. Lying in the back seat of his parents’ Austin Mini, on the way to visit his aunt, the song blasted from the radio’s speakers, broadcast by local pioneering station CKOC-AM. “It rolled over me and ignited every pore in my body,” Wilson says. “The DJ came on after the song ended and said, ‘That was, “Oh What a Feeling” from Hamilton’s own Crowbar.’ I sat up in the back seat. I didn’t realize that any art of significance happened in my hometown. Hearing that song was the opening of the doors of opportunity and possibilities for me. I thought if somebody from Hamilton can make something this good, then anything was possible.”
The Hamiltonian never imagined more than 25 years later, a band he fronted (Junkhouse) would cover this song for the soundtrack of a Canadian television series (Due South). Then again, he jokes, it was appropriate that a “bunch of knuckleheads” from Hamilton paid homage to the Crowbar classic. Wilson admits until he was asked to cover the song, he didn’t know how to play it and felt daunted by this request from Frank Davies. “We brought everything we had to that recording,” the songwriter recalls. “Like all Junkhouse sessions, we just wanted to get the song down before we beat the shit out of each other!” Kelly Jay loved the Junkhouse version. That, for Wilson, was the ultimate compliment. Davies adds: “That cover proved yet again that when you put a great artist together with a classic song, it takes on a new life all over again.”
“Oh What A Feeling” accolades:
- Used as the logo/theme for the 25th anniversary of the JUNO awards in 1996 and the title track of the biggest selling box set in Canadian music history: Oh What a Feeling.
- The theme song of the Ontario government’s long-running Participaction public fitness program.
- Inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2011
- Became a SOCAN Classic the same year (awarded by SOCAN to songs that have registered more than 100,000 logged broadcast performances).
BAD MANORS FAST FACTS
ARTIST: CROWBAR (featuring: John “The Ghetto” Gibbard; lead and slide guitars, vocals; Rheal Lanthier – lead guitar, vocals; Jozef Chirowski – organ, vocals, piano; Kelly Jay, piano/vocals; Roly Greenway, bass, vocals, percussion; and Sonnie Bernardi, drums, vocals, percussion)
ALBUM: BAD MANORS [Crowbar’s Golden Hits Vol.1]
RELEASED: January 18, 1971
STUDIO: *Toronto Sound Studios
LABEL: Daffodil Records
PRODUCER: Frank Davies
ENGINEER: Terry Brown
*Toronto Sound was Canada’s first sixteen-track recording facility and was designed, owned, and operated by studio manager/chief engineer Terry Brown.