STOMPIN' TOM CONNORS:
SUDBURY SATURDAY NIGHT
By Dan Crossley
Today's Seniors, October, 1990
Stompin' Tom Connors is back stompin' on his board and winning back his fans across Canada.
It's been 15 years since the boot-pounding Connors, who sings bout truck drivers, coal miners and fishermen, quite the music business to settle anonymously in a small Ontario town.
But now he's back with a ferocity, with his famous:
The girls are out to bingo
That's the song that propelled Tom to fame at the Maple Leaf Hotel in Timmins, Ont., where in 1964 the bartender offered to buy Tom a beer is he would sing a song.
Connors ended up appearing at the hotel for more than a year. A Peterborough waiter named him Stompin' Tom, and from there on his fame grew into adulation by smitten fans and an annual income topping $100,000.
Tom is a man of drastic decisions. His biggest one affecting his career happened in 1972 when he squared off with the firectors of the Canadian National Exhibition.
He had agreed to appear in the Grandstand, bringing his own band, sound equipment and lighting for a two hour show in front of 20,000 people.
He looked forward to the night, and told the CNE people he was happy with the $2,500 fee they proposed for his group. He asked management to draw up a contract for him.
But a close friend who had a copy of a contract the CNE had signed with American country star Charlie Pride pointed out a startling fact: Pride was hired to sing, with Connors' group to back him, for a fee of $35,000 - for only six songs!
Tom hit the roof. He had won Canada's Juno awars three years in a row as top country singer, while Pride had won the US equivalent only once.
Tom told the CNE he wouldn't appear, and said he would not ocnsider signing at the CNE unless the directors adopted a policy of booking at least 60 per cent Canadian talent. The CNE argued that it hired 95 percent Canadian talent - but Tom replied that 95 percent of the entertainment budget went to American or foreign acts while the paltry five percent of the money went to Canadians who performed 95 percent of the work.
Country music writer Henry McGuirk points out that "there were even statements made at the time to try and discredit Tom by suggesting he was a racist and was simply refusing to work for a black man.
"It seemed that they would go to any length to deflect attention away from the real issue which was to have Canadian talent headlining at the Canadian National Exhibition."
Tom had plenty of battles. In 1978 he packed up his six Juno awards and sent them back to the awards committee. He complained bitterly about "Juno Jumpers" - Canadian entertainers who worked mainly in the U.S., but who returned to Canada for a few days to pick up their Juno awards. "The next morning," Tom ovserved, "they would be on a plane bound for Nashville, New York or Los Angeles."
Tom's lifelong crusade to have Canadians perform in Canada for reasonable fees, and to have their records played on Canadian radio, has earned him a general ban on the airwaves. The exception in recent days was an appearance with Peter Gzowski on CBC's Morningside. Here, he lambasted private radio stations for ignoring Canadian talent, including his own.
He says Canadian music should dominate Canadian airwaves most of the time. "The present situation with US music domination would not happen in any other country in the world. If you turned on the radio in any other country, you would hear the music of that country!"
Tom points out that "some people put their selfish desires ahead of the common good" - pointing to radio station owners and operators. He fumes:
"Any Canadian worth his salt who sees something wrong with our country would do far better staying here and helping to improve the situation instead of running away from the problem." Some decide to return and take "a peep" to see if circumstances are good enough for a short stay.
Tom notes that when Americans bring their talents to Canada, they sing songs about America and American pride. "They make no bones about who they are and no excuses for what they are." He says Canadians are fools for not using American tried and tested marketing strategies.
"If the japanese and others could do it, why not we?" he urges. Tom removed himself from the Canadian marketplace, swearing he would never perform again.
But he began stroking a fiddle, and soon he managed a passable tune on the instrument. He even recorded his newfound ability, on "Fiddle & Song", his most recent recording with Capital Records.
Capital, in fact, decided to re-issue a back catalogue of Connors recordings, including "Bud The Spud". "Stompin' Tom Connors and the Moon Man Newfie", "Stompin' Tom at the Gumboot Cloggeroo" and "The Unpopular Stompin' Tom".
Tom had recorded 33 albums on his own Boot Records label, 12 of which captured gold status. He was the subject of a movie: "Across This Land", which reflected his lifestyle of riding the rails throughout Canada.
He nearly froze to death in a boxcar. He and a hobo friend set fire to the car and nearly fried to death until they arrived at a siding and slipped away.
Tom knows Canada and its ordinary Canadians. He's viewed every season from every province, and says he knows every blade of grass.
He always had a burning desire to see Canada and to claim freedom from what he considered oppression. He was unhappy with his Skinner's Pond foster home in Prince Edward Island and before he was 13 had run away nine times. Each time the mounties brought him back.
But on the final escape he bought a CNR train ticket, and kept his head down as police watched for him on the island ferry boat. In Saint John, N.B., Tom befriended a longshoreman who got him a job, despite his tender years, on the docks. Tom was big and looked old enough to work.
But he was caught as a juvenile runaway and put in school by the Saint John Children's Aid Society.
Then he met a 19 year old merchant seaman, Raymond Fleek, who sold Tom his wallet and identification for five dollars (to buy booze). Tom employed Fleek's name to sail Atlantic waters on the Irvingwood.
But the shipping line soon discovered two Raymond Fleeks were receiving paycheques - and Tom had to revert to his own name - without any penalty for the ruse.
He loved sailing, and several of his voyages took him to the Magdalen Islands and a friendly, beautiful Lena Welsh, who today is Mrs. Stompin' Connors.
But before romance came, there was several years of singing and guitaring across Canada. His friend Steve Foote recalls a time when in Montreal, foot-sore in a bus depot at Christmas, they each owned a nickle to their name. They parted for a few minutes, and each returned with an identical Christmas gift for each other - a nickel chocolate bar. The exchange brought tears to their eyes.
When Tom arrived in some little town, he invariably ended up singing on local radio. But Timmins was one town where the radio station turned him down. When he showed up at the Maple Leaf Tavern broke, weary and thirsty for a beer, he couldn't imagine the bartender's offer would launch his career into full flight.
Tom remained as feature performer at the hotel for fourteen months. The main room was expanded three times to accomodate the crowds who fought to see Tom. This led to a daily half-hour show that lasted for two years.
He's had delegations from the north ask him to refrain from singing "Sudbury Saturday Night". On one occasion he threatened not to sing the controversial song and let the patrons tear apart the room in anger. The delegation left in defeat.
Now, at age 53, Stompin' Tom is visiting 70 centres from east to west. "I guess a lot of folks will be wondering why I am hitting the road again," he remarks to me. "Well, it's a lot ofthings, really... the requests for Stompin' Tom to appear at various functions have increased each passing year.
"Why, the past couple of years I must have had over 100 enquiries from P.E.I. alone.
"And they came from everybody - from people having backyard do's to big and small promoters all over Canada. If there are that many wanting Stompin' Tom in P.E.I., it stands to reason that there must be a heck of a lot in the rest of the country!"
Acquisition of all of Tom's original material by Capital Records increased awareness of his music. "k.d. lang offered to have me on her television special, which I kind of thought might be a good thing to show folks that Stompin' Tom was 'still right in there' so to speak," he told me.
"It would also alleviate all those demands - or so I thought - and I could go back to my daily routine at home. But it didn't work out that way."
Tom realizes the radio scene is no better for Canadian entertainers today than it was 15 years ago. "The fans who believed in me all those years deserve something. Then there are all the university kids and others who appreciate what Stompin' Tom has been trying to do... that Stompin' Tom has stood by his guns and is just as determined as ever to proclaim the message."
After Tom visits his long list of arenas, concert halls and theatres from Owen Sound to Pentiction, and possibly back to Sudbury, he'll be warmly greeted by his lovely lady in the giant living room with cathedral ceiling in the anonymous town he calls home. When he's not warming up to son Tommy, he's practising on his violin, intending to become an expert.
And he's working on words that are not all that crude and folksy. In recent days, he's turned out some verse that one might say is closer to the spirit of man and somewhat ethereal:
I am the wind, Without foe, without friend. I have no home, no cares to tend; All alone I am the wind.
It's a copyrighted 1988 (Crown-Vetch CAPAC) music piece that Tom includes in his repertoire. It illustrates his sensitive side. But nobody's betting it will outscore "Sudbury Saturday Night", "Bud The Spud", or a lady in colourful clothes called "Wild Alberta Rose".