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Howie James | Don't Be Ashamed

Special to
The Globe and Mail

January 30, 2008

TOM HAWTHORN

THE KING OF
THE QUADRA CABARET

B.C.'s answer to
Tony Bennett
spins a new disc

VICTORIA -- The last time Howie James released a recording, his hair was black and Brylcreemed, his dinner jacket was white and snazzy, and he was appearing every night at Vancouver's swingingest nightclub.

In the 1960s, the crooner was the King of the Quadra Cabaret, a finger-snapping, bow-tied, string strangler who was British Columbia's answer to Tony Bennett.

He had his own band in the Jamesmen. He played every night for years on end to packed houses, and it was said no entertainer in the city was better paid. The Vancouver Sun called him the "coolest of them all."

Jack Wasserman, the city's last great saloon columnist, told his radio audience, "You haven't lived until you've heard him sing tunes from Sesame Street to the slightly spiffed midnight mob."

Pay five guys or one? It was an easy call for club owners.

Mr. James summed up the following 30 years in three crisp words: "And then nothing."

Now, on the cusp of his 76th birthday, the Nanaimo resident is releasing the first album of original material in his life. It is his first recording of any kind since a souvenir platter was released to promote his long-running Quadra Cabaret gig.

The new compact disc is to be released during a Saturday afternoon show at Hermann's Jazz Club in Victoria. Mr. James will be joined by his nephew Reid Jamieson, a rootsy singer-songwriter who produced the record.

The title track is Don't Be Ashamed, a light song he wrote on reflecting on a series of poor personal decisions. ("Only fools and dead men never try and, Mister, you ain't living till you've learned how to cry.") He's also written a homage to his town (Harbour City) and to his wife (20 Years).

He had never considered himself a writer until he was encouraged last year by his nephew and their shared manager, Carolyn V. Mill. "The songs just seemed to flow," he said. "Really weird."

Maybe that's what happens when you put aside the pen for decades at a time.

The singing career that once made him the toast of Vancouver seems so far off as to have been a dream. Did he really appear on national CBC telecasts? Model jackets for the Bay? Sing a duet during a telethon with Mr. Spock of Star Trek?

Incredible.

He's come a long way from an upbringing in which the relatives with running water were considered the wealthy side of the family.

The Jamieson clan settled in an Ontario hamlet whose name comes from the Ojibway for a "bend in the river." Powassan is just south on Highway 11 from Callander, where, not long after Howie celebrated his second birthday, five little girls were born to a family named Dionne.

His father, a logger and a trucker, was a tough man to please, so his sons were eager to earn money in their own fashion. A brother taught Howie some chords at age 12. He got a gig playing country songs on Saturday afternoons on radio station CFCH in North Bay. His pay was a princely $7 a week.

In the winter of 1949, Howie Jamieson quit school to become a Prairie Rambler behind a cowboy singer named Happy Russell. "Ten dollars a night," he said. "Grew up fast."

The band relocated from Peterborough, Ont., to Prince Albert, Sask., where at last the backup performers had a prairie on which to ramble. They performed Eddy Arnold and Hank Williams tunes live on the radio.

When he tired of Prince Albert, which happened about the time of the first snow, he enlisted in the army. Not only would he have a job, but it would be the first time he could say his residence had an indoor toilet.

The young private was shipped to Victoria, where he had an epiphany. "I saw a man mowing his lawn on Jan. 10, 1951," a humdrum sight to the locals but so shocking to a snowbound Easterner that he vowed never to leave Vancouver Island.

Later that year, he served as an honour guard lining the front path to the Empress Hotel when Princess Elizabeth visited a city named for her great-great-grandmother. The heiress presumptive to the throne was close enough to touch, he recalls, although he dared not move a muscle. Later, he did get to kibitz with the Prince, whom he considers "a man's man."

On his release, not finding much calling for radar and gunnery instructors in civilian life, he cleaned toilets on the railway for $1.27 an hour. He drove trucks until he got his union ticket and a good job building transmission towers along the shore of Harrison Lake.

His big musical break came after he befriended Danny Romaniuk, who released an album with his Tumbleweeds in 1962, featuring the singing of Mr. James, his venerable family name now shortened to a show-biz monosyllable. The legendary swing musician encouraged him to learn, of all things, jazz guitar. A country troubadour expanded his repertoire just as the liquor laws were about to be revamped to initiate Vancouver's great cabaret age.

As a favour, Mr. James filled in for Mr. Romaniuk, a two-night stand turning into a six-year gig. Patrons at the Quadra, at 724 Seymour St., climbed a long flight of stairs to a 250-seat room with red velvet wallpaper staffed by comely waitresses in fishnet stockings.

The owner, Gordon Town, charged men a $2.50 cover charge even on weeknights, while ladies were admitted free.

"Gordon figured a good singer attracted the women, and the men followed the women.

"It was sophisticated," Mr. James said. "We wore tuxedoes, or a dinner jacket. Everybody dressed up."

During the run, the club released an extended-play recording with four covers of contemporary hits, including Georgy Girl and That's Life. Patrons bought it as a souvenir of their big night out.

As fashions changed, Mr. James grew his sideburns long and moved to other venues, such as the Living Room ("a basement that once housed bank records"). Over time, the lounge acts moved from downtown to the suburbs and, eventually, into obscurity.

The grand days of the Vancouver cabaret scene are but a memory. You get a sense of the class of the era on this new recording, as a stylish singer shows he's still as cool as Chilly Willy.

New record Spring 2008
CD release show Feb 2nd Victoria BC

LISTEN! Don't Be Ashamed (mp3)



 

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