Behind The Curtain: Chuck Jackson
By Erin McCallum.
Each instalment of “Behind The Curtain” is written with the intention of investigating – and uncovering – something exclusive about the featured artist. The most effective way to do that is to study the career of each artist, research what is already documented, then address the remaining curiosities with a direct conversation. In almost every edition of this column, it’s a tall order to offer readers something that has never been published - the artists featured here are ones who are well documented, and notable contributors to the Canadian Blues Collective. Although that challenge is always present, the notoriety each featured artist possesses presents an opportunity to reach further, without having to make basic introductions. Many times, years of study are required in order to enter an interview with enough knowledge to ask the appropriate questions - this month’s edition is a good example. The study of singer, songwriter, musician, and entertainer Chuck Jackson has been an ongoing operation for a couple of decades. There is much to know about Jackson; he’s been actively on the music scene for over half a century, and his contributions have permeated the Canadian Blues Collective beyond his recordings and performances (The most obvious example of that is his title of co-founder of the long-reigning Southside Shuffle; the Port Credit Blues festival is one of the most notable in Canada, is in its 25th year, and Jackson is still very much at the core of the festival’s operation.). As is standard with this column, it is always encouraged for readers to seek more information about the featured artist via other sources – there is more to know than can be featured within the confines of this article, and this forum’s intention is to look within the bio to discover something new.
Knowing that Jackson has spent over half a century dedicated to music (he is in his 53rd year, by my own account), the leading question, for me was about what inspired or influenced him to dedicate a lifetime to music. Information can be found, citing artists such as Big Joe Turner, Otis Redding, and Junior Wells as musical influences for Jackson (and the influence is very plausible when examining his work), however, it is reasonable to think that there is more to discover. With the intention of learning what personal experiences or influences led to Chuck Jackson’s decision to dedicate a lifetime to music, it made sense to find out what happened prior to starting his professional career. The one-on-one conversation went ‘on the record, and the first question was direct: “What led you to your love of music?”. Jackson candidly paints a picture of his personal history, providing context to how music came to be imbedded in his life:
“I was born in the 50’s, and brought up by my grandparents, thinking they were my parents. I found out that my oldest sister was actually my mother, eventually, but they raised me. When I was 5, my mother – who I thought was my sister – got remarried and wanted to take me, but I stayed with my grandparents, because they were the ones who had always raised me, and they are the ones who I knew to be my parents. At my grandparent’s house, we used to take in a lot of boarders who would come and stay over – a lot of them were from the East Coast. Kitchen parties were such a big thing on the East Coast, and so, that was something that I was exposed to and experienced when I was a kid. When I was maybe 6 years old, I used to sit with my sisters and watch American Bandstand with them; it was on after the Mickey Mouse Club, which I would sit and watch. I can remember seeing Fats Domino on American Bandstand, and I couldn’t stop singing “Blueberry Hill” – I loved it. I was singing all the time – I can remember being told that maybe I shouldn’t be singing at the dinner table, but other than that, I couldn’t get enough of it. So, American Bandstand and shows like that introduced me to music when I was a kid. When I was 7 or 8 years old, I was listening to all kinds of music on transistor radio; everything from Elvis to Hank Williams. CHUM was big back then – I used to listen to the top 40 and hear all kinds of country music. By the time I was in grade 5 at school, I had music class; and the music teacher was that typical music teacher who was kinda just teaching us all to play typical folk songs that we weren’t particularly interested in; songs like like “I’se The B’y”… That teacher got sick, and the substitute teacher was the guitar player for Robbie Lane and the Disciples, (Robbie Lane and the Disciples is a Canadian Rock band who reached commercial success in the late 60’s, and is still actively performing in Canada today) which changed things, because it opened up music that was much more interesting than the typical folk style songs we were learning before. Close to that same time – in grade 5 – me and my buddies decided to start a band. It turns out that I was the bass player in that band by default, because all of the other positions in the band had already been taken (for interested readers, Jackson’s first bass was a Saturn). Our first gig was at the Port Credit Legion playing for the veterans; we knew like 7 songs, and we played them all – then played them again after we ran out of songs to play. I don’t think we were very good, and I don’t think they liked us very much; they told us we were too loud. After we had stopped playing, there were bagpipers that started playing, and they were loud. I was given a quarter and was asked to call a phone number, and to see if that person could come down and play a couple of songs…So, I called, and the person on the other line said he’d come down, and sure enough, he was there in about 20 minutes. Turns out, that person was Tommy Hunter – and I knew all of the songs! (For context, Tommy Hunter was a Canadian Country music performer, known as “Canada’s Gentleman”) That was my first gig, and from about the age of 12, that’s what I’ve always wanted to do, and music has always been the main thing I’ve done.”
In learning portions of Jackson’s personal history, it is clear that the music was in league with his life from his early years. What Jackson has outlined is by no means a full description of his musical influence, but it does offer credible proof that by the age of 12 his exposure to – and understanding of – a wide range of genres provided him with a diverse foundational knowledge of music, prior to taking the stage for the first time. When considering the content featured in this column, it is reasonable to draw a conclusion that Jackson’s diverse schema prior to his first performance served him on stage at that very first performance at the Port Credit Legion. In addition to those earliest experiences, the conversation with Chuck Jackson yielded stories that serve as clues; ones that reasonably provide insight on how he arrived as the artist and performer people experience today. Of note to the Blues community: in conversation for this column, Jackson recounted seeing Buddy Guy for the first time live in 1969, which, by his own account, provided another opportunity to expand his already versatile schema, respecting music and live performance. It is also worth noting that Jackson started writing songs in 1970. Another portion of Jackson’s biography provides evidence that his depth of knowledge and exposure to many genres of music continued to permeate his professional career; he has fronted bands and performed a variety of genres (including Country, playing with Show Bands, R&B, disco, Blues Top 40 bands, and more) over the course of his professional career.
For those who are familiar with Chuck Jackson, the consensus is that he’s always been known as an effective entertainer, regardless of the music being delivered to an audience. In continuing the quest to provide insight to readers, the next curiosity was in discovering more about that aspect of Jackson’s approach to music in live performance. When asked what Jackson thinks might have contributed to being an effective on-stage entertainer, he offered:
“Being an entertainer is its own craft. You know, every Sunday, we used to watch the Ed Sullivan Show, and you could see a variety of things – and it was all entertaining. It’s something that a lot of really great singers never learn – they get up there and they freeze, or they just sing…but, you want everyone in the room to feel like they are right there with you, being part of it, because the truth is, they are. You know, until I was in grade 5, we moved around a lot. We never had much money, but everyone was always welcome at our house – I think that has always informed my idea of entertaining. I think that even watching shows like the Ed Sullivan show showed me; we would watch the Ed Sullivan Show every Sunday, and it was an entertaining night – you could see anything on that show, but no matter what it was, it was all entertaining. Also, back in the 70’s, I used to do shows on the East coast that were two weeks in the same venue, and by the time you were there on Sunday afternoon, you knew everybody in the room. That really helped develop the ability to connect to people from the stage and be an entertainer. Over time, you learn what works, and it becomes part of what you can do on stage wherever you are.”
As the conversation continued, Jackson was asked to share his thoughts about what has changed in the live Blues music landscape in the past half century. In lockstep with the entire conversation, he offers another candid reply:
“A lot has changed, but I’d like to talk about what hasn’t changed. What hasn’t changed for me is the excitement of doing what I do; it doesn’t matter if it’s a $5 gig at the Legion, a matinee on a Sunday, or a big stage – that excitement is the same, every time. And, I think that excitement is shared by a lot of people. To see where the Blues has come in Canada, I think the Blues is alive and well; when I first started the Southside Shuffle, there were, like, three Blues festivals that really had a foot in the ground. Now, there are so many - and I think that’s a tribute to all of the artists who continue to make the music, and all of the people who are out enjoying it.”
Ensuring readers of ‘Behind The Curtain’ access something exclusive to this column about Chuck Jackson, he was asked what his biggest lesson has been over the course of his entire career. The direct question yielded a direct answer:
“Perseverance. Never giving up. I wasn’t a great student in school, I didn’t grow up with much in the way of money, and I never thought of myself as a very good singer. I had people telling me ‘you’re never gonna make it in this business’. I don’t consider myself to be the best at anything, but, I think that putting everything I’ve got together is something that people find entertaining. Perseverance is the biggest lesson that I have learned.”
As the conversation drew its conclusion, it made sense to ask Chuck Jackson one final question; he was asked to share something that people may not know about him as an artist. His answer provides the conclusion that perhaps all readers of this edition of ‘Behind The Curtain’ would draw on their own while reading what has been put on record here:
“I don’t think people necessarily know how eclectic my musical influences are. I listen to everything – Country, Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jazz – everything. I listen to all genres of music – I’m not a music snob – I love, and listen to, all kinds of music.”
In objectively examining the curiosities that prompted this investigation, it’s reasonable to conclude that Chuck Jackson’s versatile knowledge and love of music has been the driving force and common thread of his life and career. Interestingly, this feature is one that does not refer to notable projects that Jackson has been recognized for (Downchild, Cameo Blues Band, Hogtown Allstars, and a litany of others could be referenced), but rather, focuses on what it is about Jackson personally that paved the way for his accomplished career in music.
As this edition of “Behind the Curtain” draws to a close, I trust that readers of all varieties have gained something more about the artist of mention, and it inspires further investigation. Every artist featured in this column has a biographical foundation that cannot be covered here, so it is always encouraged to find out about the music and career that substantiates these conversations. In Chuck Jackson’s case, there is a lot of information to find via other sources. This article is a regular monthly contribution, published exclusively in the Sound Café magazine with the intention of providing a deeper insight into the Canadian Blues artists who are at the core of the Blues music Collective.
Photo Credit: Vince Jones.
Touring blues musician, Erin McCallum's formal post-secondary education was in media studies (news, radio), graduating from Humber College in Ontario, she went on to be mentored by Canadian News Hall of Fame inductee, Robert Holiday, and she is a regularly published writer in music and investigative journalism, having focused on music for the last six years. Erin has an exclusive monthly column in The Sound Cafe featuring musicians and industry professionals from across Canada who work predominantly in the Blues & Roots genres.
Erin McCallum. Big Voice. Big Sound.
Check out the Erin McCallum Blues Legend & Legacy Distinction
Read more from Erin ...