This Week in Music History: January 21 to 27

Jan 21, 2013

By David Ball

The old adage “Timing is everything” certainly applies here…

Blues rocker Colin James scored his chart breakthrough when “Five Long Years,” the second single from his 1988 self-titled debut, entered the Canadian Top 40 on January 22, 1989.

The 24-year-old Regina-born hotshot guitarist broke onto the music scene at a time when blues was in the midst of a decade-long renaissance thanks to the inroads made by contemporary artists Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Gary Moore, along with the return to prominence of 1960s and ’70s era giants Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton.

Colin James’ 1988 self-titled debut album – gotta love the lightning-bolt guitar strap

But as it often goes, blues guitar phenoms are already well-known commodities long before the release of any sort of official album – and James was no exception (other examples are Derek Trucks, Joe Bonamassa, Gary Clark Jr. and Ottawa’s Sue Foley). By 1986 James had earned a reputation in blues and rock circles as a brilliant young guitarist and fiery live performer who proved he could hold his own opening for his early mentor, Stevie Ray Vaughan, on several defining North American tours.

Still, “Five Long Years” and the album’s other James-penned hit, “Voodoo Thing,” signified his commercial coming out party and offered a perfect introduction to his immense talents. The debut was also the fastest selling album in Canadian history, so it’s no surprise that James (who is also a gifted singer) won the 1989 JUNO Award for Most Promising Male Vocalist of the Year. The category’s other nominees included Jeff Healey, Art Bergmann, Andrew Cash and Michael Breen.

Colin James with Stevie Ray Vaughan duelling it out on stage, circa 1986

Of course, you can’t talk about the winner of six JUNO Awards and a staggering 16 Maple Blues Awards without keying in on his killer guitar chops. Unfortunately, I’m going to save this discussion – and why James is a rarity among technical lead players – for May, when he’ll be celebrating his birthday. Book it!

 

All of the revolutionary power trios from the 1960s and early ’70s – Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and, of course, the heaviest of them all, Peter Paul and Mary – had one thing in common: a badass drummer. One of these acts might not seem like the others, but “Puff the Magic Dragon” has been known to melt faces. OK! OK! Onto the matter at hand!

Hendrix had Mitch Mitchell and Ginger Baker anchored Cream, but another hard rock pioneer, Mountain, and the band’s Canadian drummer, Corky Laing, are almost always included among the best of the best power trios.

Corky Laing circa early 1970s

Born in Montreal on January 26, 1948, Laing is perhaps best known for providing the thunder for guitarist Leslie West and bassist Felix Pappalardi in Mountain. However, his career has remained interesting 40 years after his famous group first disbanded.

Mountain: Leslie West, Felix Pappalardi and Corky Laing. (Check out Corky’s cool jacket!)

Laing landed his first professional job time-keeping for the legendary doo-wop quartet The Ink Spots. He eventually switched to rock with the group Energy (who were produced by Pappalardi), but left in 1969 when he was recruited by Mountain to replace original drummer N.D. Smart. Although Laing missed out on Mountain’s celebrated gig at Woodstock, he was hired just in time to collaborate on the band’s pivotal 1970 debut Climbing! and their pre-metal signature hit song “Mississippi Queen,” which he co-wrote. Mountain split up in 1972, a year after the release of the partially live Flowers of Evil; however, the band reformed off and on in various guises for the next 40 years, but never again with its most famous lineup (Pappalardi was shot and killed by his wife in 1983).

A few months after Mountain’s initial breakup, Laing co-founded the short-lived power trio West, Bruce and Laing, which was comprised of Leslie West and Cream bassist/singer Jack Bruce. Some of Laing’s other non-Mountain projects include his critically acclaimed 1977 solo debut Makin’ It on the Street, as well as collaborations with a diverse array of talented artists, including Bo Diddley, John Lennon, Ten Years After, Meat Loaf, Mahogany Rush, Men Without Hats and Cork, the “almost” supergroup he formed in the late ’90s with Jimi Hendrix bassist Noel Redding and Eric Schenkman (the Spin Doctors guitarist is the cause for the “almost”).

In 2003, Laing and West co-authored the Mountain narrative Nantucket Sleighride and Other Mountain on-the-Road Stories, and in 2007 Laing recorded an audio autobiography titled Stick It!

Laing calls Toronto’s trendy Liberty Village home, which explains why he occasionally makes surprise guest appearances at live gigs in and around the downtown core. I was fortunate enough to see him join heavy blues and Mountain disciples Gov’t Mule on July 31, 2000, at the Comfort Zone (or as I call the cramped low-ceiling dingy dive in Toronto’s Chinatown: the “Uncomfort Zone”). On this blurry booze-filled night, Laing helped the powerhouse trio kick out the jams on two covers, Mountain’s “Never in My Life” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing.” (I had to look up the particulars, due to the reason provided at the beginning of the previous sentence.) Shockingly, one month after the Comfort Zone show, Gov’t Mule’s founding member and bassist Allen Woody (also of the Allman Brothers) was found dead in a New York hotel room. As a giant Allman Brothers fan, the unexpected and terrible news hit me like a perfectly thrown George Chuvalo left hook. But today I feel damn lucky to have witnessed the original Mule lineup one last time, with Corky Laing no less.

 

“Don’t Shed a Tear” by Paul Carrack peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 on January 25, 1988, the highest chart showing in his long and sometimes illustrious solo career.

Whatever, right? Well, have you ever wondered why the ear-pleasing mid-tempo pop ballad by the journeyman English singer still airs in semi-regular rotation on almost every pop-based radio station across this country? Carrack had other hits with three of his former bands – Ace, Mike + The Mechanics and Squeeze – but “Don’t Shed a Tear” loosely qualifies as Canadian content because it was previously recorded and co-written by JUNO Award–winning Toronto musician and producer Eddie Schwartz. Curiously, the single didn’t do particularly well in Canada, stalling at No. 34 on the RPM Top 40.

I’ve never been a fan of Carrack et al., but his work with both Squeeze (“Tempted”) and Ace was generally fantastic (I’m purposely overlooking his Roxy Music stint). By the way, ever since I started writing this Carrack story I can’t seem to get the chorus from Ace’s hit “How Long” out of my freakin’ brain… and I write reeeaaaaalllly sloooooow. Here’s what’s in my head spinning and torturing me right now: “How long has this been goin’ on?” and repeat… and repeat… and repeat… Aaahhh!!!

Sorry, but I’m ending on a sombre note, my favourite Carrack-sung tune: “The Living Years.” I don’t care too much about Mike + The Mechanics, but I get really darn emotional every time I hear their heartbreaking 1989 hit. Anyone who has dealt with the loss of a father without having a chance to say goodbye knows exactly what I’m talking about.

Next week: The Crew-Cuts and Streetheart

“Mississippi Queen” by Mountain (original album track)