By David Ball
Many have come close, but scant few have actually earned the right to wear the “Biggest Rock Act in the World” championship belt. I can think of only three Canadian artists – Neil Young (several times), Rush (circa Moving Pictures) and, for about a year, Bachman-Turner Overdrive – who can rightfully lay claim to the elite of the elite title worn at one time or another by The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Van Halen, U2 and Radiohead.
Some of you might be thinking: BTO??!! You better believe it! For a couple of years, the influential Winnipeg quartet ruled the planet with a string of massive hit singles, including “Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” and “Takin’ Care of Business,” as well as three consecutive Top 5 hit albums: 1973’s Bachman-Turner Overdrive II, 1974’s Not Fragile (Billboard No. 1) and 1975’s Four Wheel Drive. Plus, they were one of the hottest touring bands in North America.
A big part of the group’s popularity can be attributed to the “T” in BTO: Fred Turner. The bassist and singer, also known as C.F. Turner, was born on October 16, 1943, in Winnipeg.
After playing in a number of groups in Manitoba’s largest city throughout the 1960s, Turner was asked to join promising local rockers Brave Belt as their touring bassist in 1971. At the time, Turner was in a cover band called D-Drifters, and his talent caught the attention of Neil Young, who recommended the bassist to Brave Belt’s Randy Bachman and Chad Allan, both formerly and famously of The Guess Who.
As luck would have it, before the recording of Brave Belt’s second studio album Allan packed his bags, and Turner was hired as his replacement. After a third Brave Belt LP failed to materialize (although demos were already in the can), management convinced the group (consisting of Turner and brothers, Tim, Robbie and Randy Bachman) to change their name – and Bachman-Turner Overdrive was born.
I’m not going out on a limb by stating that Turner is one of Canada’s most criminally underrated talents. (I’ll bet $$$ that noted BTO disciples, The Sheepdogs, would wholeheartedly agree with me, too.) Although Randy Bachman was the recognizable star of the group due to his role in The Guess Who and was responsible for some of BTO’s big hits, Turner’s contributions were equally vital. He wrote and sang lead vocals on many of the band’s best-known songs, including “Let It Ride,” “Roll on Down the Highway,” “Blue Collar” and “Gimme Your Money Please.”
Robbie Bachman has suggested in many interviews over the years that BTO’s transformation from Brave Belt’s country leanings to loud arena rock anthems occurred only when Turner officially came into the fold. He brought in the harder edge and attitude, and a grittier vocal delivery.
Randy Bachman moved on to a solo career in 1977, and BTO released two albums with bassist-singer Jim Clench in 1978 and ’79, with Turner moving over to rhythm guitar. Various BTO incarnations carried on until 2010, including a few with Randy – but Turner is the only member of the original band to appear on every album.
As a fan of Randy Bachman’s CBC Radio One music program “Vinyl Tap,” I welcome all the self-promoting that goes on by the famous host. He keeps the legacies of his old groups fresh and alive on an almost weekly basis while raising the international profile of the old BTO co-leaders’ recent reunion tour – as Bachman & Turner – along with the release of the duo’s 2010 self-titled album, a solid return to their mid-’70s prime.
Hair premiered at the Off-Broadway Anspacher Theater on October 17, 1967. The award-winning, tribal, counter-culture musical was written by lyricists James Rado and Gerome Ragni, with music provided by Montreal’s Galt MacDermot. The renowned Canadian composer’s catchy melodies on iconic songs such as “Aquarius” and “Good Morning Starshine” underscored the true essence of the late ’60s Summer of Love flower power.
The original Off-Broadway production had a limited six-week run and went through several rewrites before its official Broadway opening the following April. One of the changes included making the story more realistic: the far-out, hippy-dippy space alien aspiring to be a cinematic director subplot was altered, replaced by a real, live and decidedly less flaky human character.
The Broadway production ran for 1,750 performances, while the soundtrack featuring the original cast sold three million copies, garnered several hit singles and won a Grammy Award in 1969. Because of its timeless qualities, Hair has not once been out of production since its inception. Immediately after its initial late ’60s run, touring companies brought the musical to most countries around the world, and international revivals have popped up every few years, including the acclaimed Broadway production in 2010. The inevitable film adaptation was released in 1979.
MacDermot followed up Hair by composing the music for three successive and successful rock musicals: 1971’s Two Gentlemen of Verona (Tony Award–winner for best musical) and 1972’s Dude (featuring Canadian cast member Salome Bey) and Via Galactica.
Because of his love of jazz, funk, classical and popular music, MacDermot has enjoyed an equally impressive non-theatrical career, highlighted by his Grammy Award–winning collaboration with saxophone great Cannonball Adderly on “African Waltz” in 1960. He also provided the scores to the 1970’s Ossie Davis–directed blaxploitation flick Cotton Comes to Harlem (starring Redd Foxx) and Rhinoceros, a little-seen 1974 feature starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. One of his songs, “Cold Coffee,” can be heard in Norman Jewison’s teriffic 1968 film The Thomas Crown Affair. MacDermot was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2009.
Robbie Robertson’s self-titled solo debut was certified gold in the United States on October 21, 1988. Released in North America exactly one year earlier, the nine-song JUNO Award–winning effort was co-produced by Daniel Lanois and Robertson, and, as surprising as this sounds, it also marked the ex-leader of The Band’s debut as a lead singer (the guitarist and songwriter was relegated to backup duties, by choice, during the pioneering rock group’s 13-year tenure).
Some of the star-studded musicians who helped out during the recording sessions included Robertson’s former Band mates Rick Danko and Garth Hudson, Lanois (percussion), Tony Levin (most notably his stick/bass work on the smoky hit single “Somewhere Down the Crazy River”), Peter Gabriel (who sings a duet with Robertson on the Richard Manuel tribute single “Fallen Angel”), Terry Bozio and U2’s Larry Mullen Jr., The Edge and Adam Clayton. What?! No Bono or Sheryl “I’m on every high-profile album ever recorded” Crow?!
Robertson’s debut went two times platinum in Canada in the winter of 1989, and a slicked-up but otherwise honest cover of its leadoff track, “Broken Arrow,” became a Top 20 Billboard hit for Rod Stewart in 1991.
The Toronto-born, Canadian Music Hall of Fame member (inducted with The Band in 1989) and officer of the Order of Canada released his fifth solo album in the spring of 2011.
Next week: More Celine Dion and Crash Test Dummies
“Not Fragile” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive, live 1974