ROCK TO THE MUSIC: THE STORY OF BOB DAVIES AND THE RHYTHM JESTERS, 1996, by Marc Coulavin. For many years, Canadian musicians have had to find fame abroad before being acknowledged at home. Quite a few of Canada's most famous performers have had to head South in order to get any kind of recognition. Bob Davies is no exception. Accordingly, he went to New York City to make his first recordings and had a brief brush with notoriety. When he returned home, however, he faded into relative obscurity until a few years ago, when some of his early material was compiled for a reissue album. Bob Davies was born in Montreal, Quebec, on May 3, 1937, and grew up in the Verdun neibourhood. He was the only child of Mildred and Cyril Davies (not the famous British blues musician). Although his father came over from England and his mother up from the United States, both lived the rest of their lives in the Montreal area. Cyril Davies worked for the Canadian Army, as a purchasing agent for the hospital in his later years, while his wife worked for the Bank of Montreal.
Davies's father played the harmonica and would quiz young Bob on the tunes he was playing, but that was the extent of his musical upbringing. The boy showed an early interest in music and entertaining, singing at Cubs and Life Boy camps. Unlike many musicians of his generation, he never got involved with the school band at the high schools he attended, Woodland and Verdun High. Instead, he was prompted to get his own guitar, at the age of fourteen, when a friend showed him his new guitar. Davies convinced his parents to let him acquire an instrument from Peate's Music Store on an installment plan. In the early stages, the money from his paper route went towards payments, but his parents soon had to assume them. The youngster taught himself to play through numerous hours spent practising at home, strumming along to the record player.
Davies left school after grade ten and got a job at the stock market working as a marker-board boy. In 1953, he formed his first group, The Down Yonder Boys: Brian Kempster on Hawaiian (lap steel) guitar, Fred Curry on lead guitar and himself on rhythm guitar and vocals. Davies then teamed up with Norm "Curly" Robertson, who, according to Davies, just materialised one day: "When you're playing guitar on the porch, kids walk by. Curly was French-Canadian and spoke broken English. He said he had an accordion and could he get his accordion." Davies replied that he didn't like accordion, and that he wanted a bass player. "A week later he showed up with a bass. He had traded his accordion in. So we started practising together. He played slap bass and before long we were singing harmony and auditioning for shows." They joined an amateur troupe called The Blue Sky Revue, as a country and western musical comedy duo, under the name Slim and Curly (Davies being "Slim," of course). As part of that outfit they garnered some attention: "When I was seventeen, in 1954, we had the opportunity to audition for a night club called the Hale Hakala and we got the job. We started playing weekends at the Hale Hakala and then touring through Quebec." They entertained at such local venues as the Siscoe Club, t he CafÇ Domino, and the Morocco Club in Val d'Or, Quebec. Their hillbilly repertoire included songs like The Browns' "Looking Back To See," and Webb Pierce's "More And More" and "He's In The Jailhouse Now," as well as songs that Davies had written. Slim and Curly got on Opportunity Knocks - a radio talent show that catered mostly to highbrow classical acts, opera singers and the like. Nonetheless, they came in second place. Davies took that (and the fact that he was making a month's salary in one night) as a sign that he should pursue a career in entertainment.
In 1955, Davies's friend Danny Smith introduced the pair to Rick Munro, from Ahuntsic (a northern neighbourhood of Montreal). Munro initially joined them on lead guitar for a weekend gig in the Laurentians, but fit in so well that they decided to continue as a trio. Montreal photographer Johnny O'Neil was about to print up a batch of promo photos for the group and was going to put their name at the bottom, so they had to come up with one on the spot. The idea came from a newspaper article which had called them "full of rhythm and energy" and from the fact that Robertson did a lot of comedy, bringing to mind the word "jester." Thus, they became The Rhythm Jesters. The Rhythm Jesters were doing quite well in night clubs in the Montreal area, where they were sometimes billed as "The Rock'n'Roll Kids." One of the local newspapers inevitably pegged Davies as "our town's answer to Alvis [sic] Presley" on account of their set, which included covers of Presley's versions of "Baby Let's Play House," "That's Alright, Mama" and "Blue Moon Of Kentucky," as well as current favourites by other artists such as "Tutti Frutti," "Be Bop A Lula" and "Shake, Rattle And Roll." The Rhythm Jesters also appeared regularly on a Friday night show, The Hometown Jamboree on CFCF radio, whipping the studio audience of - mostly female - fans into such a frenzy that, the first time, they had to be escorted away by Montreal's finest. About that time, CKAC producer Lucien St Amand tried unsuccessfully to pitch some of their demo tapes to Montreal-based Canadian RCA Victor, then a major country label in Canada, whose roster included both Wilf Carter (Montana Slim) and Hank Snow.
In the summer of 1956 they ran into Emmett McGoogan, who played drums and acted as a tutor for a child singer named Little Billy Mason, also originally from Verdun. Mason didn't have a band at the time so they all joined forces. George Goldner of Rama Records, in New York, had spotted the Frankie Lymon-soundalike Mason on a talent show and wanted him to cut some records. Initially, Goldner took them into the RCA Victor studios in Montreal, but he didn't like the sound. So they packed all their equipment into a rented trailer, hitched it to Munro's convertible and headed for New York City. Goldner booked them into Bell Sound studios, which he used for many of his acts. Davies remembers Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers coming in right after them. The three or four hour session yielded four sides. "I Love My Baby" and "Make Me Your Own," both written and later recorded by Davies, were issued as by "Little Billie Mason" (perhaps mimicking the "ie" in Frankie). Goldner, hedging his bets, pulled the classic move of also putting out a single by the group at the same time. It paired a Bob Davies/Rick Munro collaboration called "Rock To The Music" with The Rhythm Jesters' version of the New Orleans classic "My Bucket's Got A Hole In It" (via the Hank Williams interpretation), retitled "Hole In The Bucket" for the occasion. Interestingly, the label on this record would have you believe that these are instrumentals, which they are most definitely not! Both discs were on the market by November 1956, just in time for the Christmas rush. Billy Mason's was also issued in Canada by the Compo Company on its Apex label, while The Rhythm Jesters did not get the benefit of a domestic release.
Immediately following their initial singles, Little Billy Mason and the Rhythm Jesters were featured, both as a solo artist and as a group, in an Alan Freed Rock & Roll Revue at The Apollo Theatre (a year before Buddy Holly made his famous appearance), along with The Moonglows, The Cleftones, The Harptones, Eddie Cooley and His Dimples, The Pretenders, The Angels, The Lanes, The Joytones and Sonny Knight. On many shows, Mason would perform as a separate act backed by the Rhythm Jesters, who would also play under their own name. Around this time, the Rhythm Jesters also appeared on Paul Winchell's nationwide ABC TV show Circus Time, where they were spotted by Frank Sinatra's agent. He decided that they would be the perfect warm-up act for his artist's tour "down under." The Rhythm Jesters were working at the Holiday Tavern in Toronto, Ontario, when they got the news. "It was kind of a grungy little place, but they featured rock'n'roll acts like Bo Diddley and others, and they payed well. We got the call from our agent, Paul Kalet, late at night and we were pretty excited." remembers Davies. The ads for the February 1957 Australian shows, produced by Lee Gordon, billed them as "America's newest rock'n'roll sensation." The only other artist on the bill was American singer Patti Jerome. The Rhythm Jesters arrived in Sydney, via Chicago and Honolulu, and waited for Sinatra to appear. While they waited, they played on the radio, and received many offers from local clubs. Unfortunately, due to the terms of their visas, they were unable to accept them. In the end, Sinatra never showed up and the tour had to be cancelled.
Shortly after their return to North America, the Rhythm Jesters and Billy Mason headed back to the Bell Sound studios for their second session and cut four more sides. The top side of Billy Mason's single was another Bob Davies-penned tune: "Thinking Of You," which Davies also later recorded himself and Mason re-recorded (for Barry Records). The flip was a version of the old Jimmy Davis chestnut "You Are My Sunshine," set to a calypso beat. The other disc came out as by "Bob Davies and The Rhythm Jesters" and featured two originals: a slow burner with an infectious guitar riff called "She'll Never Know," and a steady medium tempo rocker with a hypnotizing beat, emphasized by the crack of McGoogan's snare drum, titled "Never Anymore." Both records were released on Rama in the U.S. and Apex in Canada. Following the release of their second efforts, Mason and the Rhythm Jesters appeared on Alan Freed's Easter Jubilee of Stars at the Brooklyn Paramount on the same bill as Charlie Gracie, Buddy Knox and Jimmy Bowen and The Rhythm Orchids, The Cellos, The Cleftones, Bo Diddley and His Band, Anita Ellis, The G Clefs, The Pearls, The Heartbreakers, The Harptones, Bobby Marchan, The Rosebuds, The Solitaires, The Dell Vikings and Alan Freed's Rock'n Roll Band with Sam "The Man" Taylor, Big Al Sears, Panama Francis and Freddie Mitchell: quite a bill! There is a picture of the marquee for this show in Norm N. Nite's Rock'n'Roll Yearbook. The Rhythm Orchids and The Rhythm Jesters, attracted to each other by the similarity in their names, became fast friends at this show. Davies recalls jamming with them and Bo Diddley in their dressing room, and going to parties with Jimmy Bowen and Buddy Knox.
On account of legislation designed to protect children, Billy Mason could only perform in theatres and similar venues. The Rhythm Jesters, however, were not fettered by such limitations, and Paul Kalet booked them on a twenty date tour across the United States, hitting places like The Canyon Lake Club in Rapid City, South Dakota - where Davies was billed as "Canada's own Elvis Presley" - The Crossroads Inn, The El Capitan Club in Hawthorne, Nevada, and Wally Jacobs' Desert Inn in Tucson, Arizona. After the tour, the Rhythm Jesters returned to their home base and continued to play at various clubs around Montreal: the El Morocco, the Top Hat CafÇ, the Hale Hakala, the Bellevue, the Beaver Club and Vic's CafÇ, as well as the Bal Tabarin and Chez êmile in Quebec City. They shared the bill with Mel TormÇ and Sarah Vaughn when these artists appeared at the El Morocco. A review of one of their many return engagements at the Top Hat CafÇ in Montreal, in early November 1957, describes their act this way: "They electrify their audiences with wild rock'n'roll songs, leaving the younger ones screaming in a high pitched frenzy. One of the best features of the act is a hilarious Elvis Presley impersonation handled very capably by Bob Davies, who looks and acts more like Elvis than Elvis does."
In 1958, the three original Rhythm Jesters split from Billy Mason and Emmett McGoogan, who was replaced by Dave Holtzman for another tour across the United States. They hit many of the same spots their previous tours had taken them to and appeared on KOTA-TV in Rapid City, South Dakota. After the tour, Holtzman surrendered his drum stool to Dick Grant. A little later that year, Curly Robertson joined the U.S. Air Force and was replaced by Lloyd Hiscock, who in addition to bass, also played trumpet and piano. This lineup played a lot around Quebec - including the Musicians' Union Labour Day Festival at the Montreal Forum - as well as in Ontario and throughout the United States, but they never recorded. In 1959, while they were playing at a club in Hawthorne, Nevada, the Rhythm Jesters received a call from Billy Ward - who managed The Dominoes, of course, but also The Champs, riding high in the charts with "Tequila" at the time. He had heard about them through a mutual friend. It was arranged for Ward to see the group perform at the Heralds Club in Reno. Having witnessed their show, he offered to take them back to California with him, produce them and get them into the movies. But Davies had been planning to get married after the tour, so they turned Ward down and went home to Montreal instead. As it turns out, the group disbanded shortly after anyway. Davies pursued his career as a solo act, taking part that year in Talent Caravan, a national show on CBC TV.
Davies married Celina on July 11th and took up a residency as the Master of Ceremonies at the Cavendish CafÇ, a job he would keep until 1964. Also in 1959, he wrote "Come On Don't Be Mean", with his friend Bob Ouimet from Verdun, and recorded the song as a duo with Joyce Germain, a friend of Ouimet's (Germain later went on to make several singles of her own, including one backed by The Beau-Marks and a Beatles novelty). This song, which includes both frantic Elvis-influenced sections and contrasting slower parts, was recorded at the RCA Victor studios in Montreal, with former Rhythm Jester Rick Munro on bass, and the guitarist and drummer from another local outfit - The T-Birds. The flip side is a nice ballad titled "That's How Young Love Should Be." The record was released on the local Zirkon label. The ballad side made the local charts besides tunes such as "Clap Your Hands" by fellow Montrealers The Beau-Marks, "Muleskinner Blues" by The Fendermen, " Only The Lonely" by Roy Orbison, and "Because They're Young" by Duane Eddy. Later that year, Davies was featured on many of the vocals for a budget album of country covers recorded by local outfit Wayne King and his Country Boys (Rod Gordon, Pee Wee Lafleur, Geri O'Brien and Bruce Applebee). Meanwhile, Davies was still appearing nightly at the Cavendish CafÇ, where he was billed as "The Canadian Jellyhips," in a lighthearted reference to Elvis. During his years there he had the opportunity to hire an old country artist, who had fallen out of favour. This person turned out to be none other than Zeb Turner, of "Chew Tobacco Rag" fame. Davies would also occasionally go on short tours of Quebec and Ontario, or play out-of-town dates. He appeared regularly on the Jimmy Tapp and Like Young TV shows, and he would sometimes drop by The Monterrey or The Blue Angel taverns, on his night off, to do Elvis covers with the Stoltz Brothers ("Rock'n Roll Riot"), Scotty Stevenson ("Red Hot Boogie") or the Hachey Brothers.
Davies' next recording venture - and biggest hit - was a tribute to hockey star Gordie Howe. The song came about as Davies was sitting around with some friends watching a game on TV. "That Howe's great." someone said. "The greatest of them all" Davies added, and he had the chorus for his song. He went over to his neighbour Moe Chapman's apartment, where they finished off the lyrics. Davies recorded the tune for Globe, who released as by Big Bob & The Dollars in 1963; its flip side was a fast pop-rocker titled "You." The record was a sizeable hit in Montreal, Toronto, Detroit and other hockey towns, where it was sometimes played in arenas before games (indeed, I have heard it a couple of times on the radio in Toronto, in recent years!). There was a French language cover by Les Baladins around the same time (London FC 598) and Davies himself re-recorded it at least once. The song didn't make Davies any wealthier, because the label owners apparently absconded with the money. It did, however, gain him quite a lot of publicity, and a certain amount of fame. This single was also the first record to feature The Dollars, who would back Davies on many of his future recordings. The Dollars comprised Hugh Dixon on guitar, ex-Rhythm Jester "Curly" Robertson on bass and the previously mentioned friend Danny Smith on drums. Davies had first met Dixon in Quebec City, while on tour with the Rhythm Jesters. He was a young radio announcer, who had come down to see their show. After the show, he invited the Rhythm Jesters back to the radio station where they jammed and made tapes. They became friends and when Davies was about to cut his record he called on Dixon, who, by then, had moved to Montreal. Dixon is an accomplished guitarist and has had several albums and singles issued under his own name.
Through Dixon, Davies met Roger Miron, who ran Rusticana and Click Records. His Bob Davies sings Bob Davies LP appeared on Rusticana in 1963. For this release, Danny Smith's brother Billy took over on drums and Davies's old band mate Rick Munro joined The Dollars on bass, replacing Robertson. In spite of the late recording date, the songs on this album are surprisingly good rockers. Cashbox reviewed "Rock'n Roll Show" and "With You Tonight" (album tracks issued as a single on Click), giving both cuts the nod with a B+ (their highest grade). London Records expressed some interest in releasing this record in the States, but, unfortunately, Miron apparently never pursued it. It was, however, released on that label in the United Kingdom. Other tunes off the album also made Montreal radio station CKGM's Super Six charts. During this time, Davies continued to play clubs around Quebec, including Le Baril d'Huitres, Le Bal Tabarin and Chez êmile in Quebec City, as well as Ottawa and Toronto, also doing the occasional TV show. In 1964, Davies re-formed The Bobsmiths. He and Danny Smith had performed briefly under that name for about a year, in 1961 and 1962. The reunited duo toured a lot, doing Beatles take-offs and hockey and boxing skits, as well as playing Davies' compositions and hits of the day. They were extremely popular in clubs, so Davies assembled an album with songs culled from his Bob Davies sings Bob Davies LP and some new material he had written. This "new" album was also issued on Rusticana and titled, with a tip of the hat to the mop tops, Meet The Bobsmiths. The new songs were cut with backing provided by The Dollars. Davies and Smith moved to Ontario in the late sixties and carried on with their club work in much the same fashion. They put out an album in 1971 - the same year they split. Recorded live at The Derby (a club in Toronto) it is an accurate reflection of what their shows were like then. After that, Davies continued performing on his own. In 1977, he took a year off to recuperate from the toll taken by his many years on the club circuit. These days he is still entertaining, occasionally playing at charity events and sometimes in lounges, on the weekend.
Davies' great recordings have languished in obscurity for far too long. Fortunately, a few years ago Redita Records of The Netherlands (P.O. Box 23812, 2502 GV Den Haag) released a full album of his best rockers titled - appropriately enough - Rock To The Music. With acknowledgements and thanks to Bob Davies. -THE BOB DAVIES / RHYTHM JESTERS DISCOGRAPHY, 1 996, by Marc Coulavin.----------------HF&RV-----------------------