Behind The Curtain: Gary Kendall
By Erin McCallum. Photo Credit: Milton Young.
For people who have read previous instalments of “Behind The Curtain”, they have likely come across references to a member of the Blues Collective whose name has been synonymous with the Canadian Blues music scene for over 50 years: Gary Kendall. Multiple members of the Blues Collective who have carved a career via Blues music can cite a story, discuss important moments in their careers, and lend credit to Kendall when discussing what lead them to where they are today. To put it into context: I am one of those members that can serve as evidence to that claim; my first interaction with Kendall was in the form of a “cold call” when I was a teenager in college, tasked with writing and producing a radio documentary featuring the history of the live music scene in Toronto. Kendall graciously entertained my call, sharing a wealth of information - and it served as hard evidence that not only did Gary know a lot about the live music landscape we see today, but, he has also been a part of its development. Gary Kendall’s bio is vast and accessible; for those who are interested in learning more, it is possible to do so via many platforms, and it is certainly recommended.
One of the greatest challenges, when profiling an artist like Gary Kendall, is to decide the most appropriate place to shine the spotlight. When biographical information is readily accessible - and remains ever-evolving - it can be difficult to find a new point of interest that serves the purpose of this particular article. Kendall is an artist whose career is one I’ve studied for over half my life, and for this reason, there is room to use that knowledge to offer readers the exclusive look ‘behind the curtain’ they are expecting when they read this column. Even considering this, it took me almost a decade to decide how an article featuring Kendall should be framed. Objectively looking within Kendall’s biography, and asking the right questions with a foundational knowledge while in conversation, will provide that exclusive understanding that perhaps can’t be found in print elsewhere.
In this month’s feature, portions of an in-depth conversation with bass player Gary Kendall will provide insight by investigating his origins in music, certain notable moments of his career, and his role as an influencing contributor to the live blues music scene, from Kendall’s perspective. It is worthwhile for readers to approach this edition with a basic understanding of Kendall’s presence on the Canadian Blues scene. In addition to his contributions as a bass player in notable projects (such as Downchild, The Maple Blues Band, The Kendall Wall band, The Hogtown Allstars, and more), he has also successfully served other roles (such as Bandleader, Promoter, Songwriter, Producer) in the Canadian Blues industry that have had significant impact beyond his career itself. People who are familiar with the Blues music scene in Canada will likely know who Gary Kendall is – his offerings, both on and off the stage, have been unceasingly adding to the Blues scene as we know it, and it is widely accepted that his efforts have been pertinent to its growth and development as well. The information offered in the aforementioned is a very simplified account of Kendall’s merits though, and does not summarize his career or contributions in full. For a more detailed understanding, I, again, urge people to seek out more via another resource.
Knowing that Kendall’s life has been steeped in music, the first curiosity in conversation was about his very first gig. There’s merit in learning, in Kendall’s words, what it was like, and if it served as inspiration to commit a lifetime to music. Although that moment is perhaps undocumented elsewhere, Kendall recalls it effortlessly:
“The first gig I ever played is one you’d [ver.] remember. I was young – probably 16 – and it was very early in my dream of wanting to play music. I didn’t know too much, but I had an electric guitar (it was a Stella, for interested readers), and an amp. By that time though, I was already designated as a bass player…we ended up getting a gig, so I played the bass lines on the guitar. I don’t think we got paid, and we didn’t know many songs. We played a community hall for a going away party, and we played maybe a dozen songs over and over again. It was a crazy night – a lot of underage drinking and guys and girls doing sex stuff in their cars in the parking lot…. It was wild, and I liked it. We (the band) probably weren’t that great, but I thought ‘that’s Rock & Roll…yeah!’”
Given his account, it’s reasonable to think that Kendall’s first gig did indeed serve as inspiration; following that self described “crazy night”, he continued pursuing a life in music. In 1963, he landed his first residency gig, and by his own account, Kendall recalls realizing that the money generated by that residency offered opportunity – he started saving his gig money and used it to purchase his first bass guitar. This decision, perhaps, identifies the epicentre of a theme which appears to be present in the defining moments of Kendall’s career; the ability to recognize – and create – opportunity to advance his music aspirations. A fitting example of that ability can be found by looking forward in Kendall’s career to his contributions with the Kendall Wall Band, which is definitively recognized as a band that changed, and helped develop, the live Blues music landscape in Toronto. It is impossible to fully describe the impact the Kendall Wall Band had on the live music scene within this feature, and this is another good example of there being merit in discovering more elsewhere - a comprehensive documentary called “The Way We Was” can be found via YouTube, and it is highly recommended to those who would like a greater understanding of the Kendall Wall Band and how it nourished the live Blues music scene in Toronto. I trust that readers will continue this investigation with the understanding that the Kendall Wall Band was a significant contributor to the Toronto live Blues music scene for both artists and patrons at the Black Swan during the tenure of the regular Saturday Blues Matinee show. The success of the Blues Matinee, by my account, lasted about a decade - and during that time, the Kendall Wall Band hosted countless artists and patrons. In addition to the strong foundation of live music that Kendall was at the helm of generating, something else of great importance was also happening: the long-running series was also reaching beyond the Black Swan via cross promotion with other venues, regular entertainment, guest appearances, talent sharing, and VIP memberships. These methods were part of the success of the series, and elements of that method are practised today within the live Blues music scene. A current example of where a guest-oriented weekend afternoon matinee series shows sustainability is, unsurprisingly, led by Kendall in St. Catharines, Ontario. The example being made, it is also worth noting that there are other longstanding guest-oriented weekend afternoon matinee series that continue to thrive amidst the ever-evolving landscape of live music in Canada. Although there was an existing live music scene during the era of the Kendall Wall Band, it is fair to think that the Saturday Blues Matinee at the Black Swan, front-lined by Kendall’s efforts, made a substantial and long-lasting impact on the scene and how it has developed.
Photo Credit: Harry Dunbar Photography.
For those who understand a more complete account of Kendall’s career, a reasonable curiosity might be if Gary Kendall realized in real time that his work was making significant contributions in the Canadian Blues scene. Citing his successful endeavours with the Kendall Wall band at the Black Swan as an example, I asked for his thoughts. Kendall says:
“I had no plan on having any influence on the scene in Toronto – I was just trying to hang on. By the time I got to the Kendall Wall band, I had already gone through the Toronto Blues scene as a working musician. When I started the Kendall Wall band, I was at a turning point in my career, because I didn’t know what to do next. I thought about alternative jobs in the music business, and what I could do to survive. In 1983, I found the Black Swan because I was trying to manage another act at the time, and wanted to get that artist a booking. On the back of that, the Swan told me that they wanted to do a Saturday afternoon, so I put a band together and labelled it The Blues Matinee. Over time, it evolved and improved – I got into self promotion, and I learned a lot about networking, and we kind of built it up. The special guests we hosted were an addition that happened over time as the matinee got better; we were playing with all the Blues Greats that were playing at Albert’s Hall. It took off, and it was a great run for about 10 years. It really was something that came together because I didn’t know what to do next. I did know that I only wanted to work as a musician, and the opportunity to create something really good was there.”
Using the success of the Saturday Blues matinee and his self determination to start his musical career as two examples, an underlying truth about Gary Kendall comes into focus; while carving out a career as a Blues musician, he was also creating opportunities for success by taking the initiative to learn about – and become skilled at – other aspects of the music landscape. When asked to offer his comments on “doing a bit of everything” in the music business, Kendall offers his thoughts, and gives readers a greater glimpse of his involvement in the music scene that reaches further than his own musical practices:
“I made the decision that I wasn’t going to do anything that wasn’t related to music – that’s what I wanted to do, so I watched the people around me and how they promoted shows and clubs, and I started connecting with people and developing a media list, and a fan list. Bluestime Productions became a thing, I think, in the mid 90s; I was at the Silver Dollar working alongside Barb Isherwood doing publicity; and it (Bluestime Productions) became a conduit to work with other bands when I took it over myself. I’ve been able to promote clubs, bring in other artists, or get something going, which is something that has allowed me to stick with the decision to focus on being a full-time musician. Now, my main focus is to use those skills and apply them to the projects I am working on.”
In the process of being a self-motivated artist, committed to a life playing the bass guitar, Kendall has extended opportunities beyond his personal ambitions with his efforts; this article only grazes the surface with a few examples of contributions he has made, and the list continues to grow today. With enough information provided in this edition, however, it is justifiable to ask Kendall what it feels like to be an influencer within the Canadian Blues music Collective. He offers this:
“I don’t think of myself as an influencer, but, if I am seen as that…. that’s what you should be. If you’ve been in a long career, like me, you should serve in a mentorship role. If I’m someone who has an influence, that’s a good feeling; you want to be seen as a contributor. ‘Making it’, to me, has never been about being a star – it has always been to be a working musician…When you realize that – accomplish it - you know when you’re doing it right, because you’ve earned your place, and the respect of your peers. That’s when you take what you’ve got and try to be a good mentor to others while you contribute.”
Investigating what resides ‘behind the curtain’ by looking within that notable career (and asking the right questions) has, indeed, provided that exclusive insight which can only be uncovered by asking Gary Kendall directly. As the in-depth conversation started to conclude, Kendall was asked what advice he would offer to aspiring musicians who would like to carve a career taking a path similar to his. He shares advice that he heard years ago from the legendary Downchild leader Donny Walsh:
Clearly, Gary Kendall has heeded that advice. 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 them to investigate further. 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 the credibility in these conversations. This article can be found each month as a regular contribution via the Sound Café 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: Harry Dunbar Photography.
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. www.erinmccallum.com
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