Valley Hennell: Fifty years in BC’s creative community

by • July 6, 2017 • BC Music History, BC Musicians, Current Issue, Front Page, Long Reads, Read Online2023

 by Valley Hennell

My 50 years in the music industry began through serendipity. I wanted to be a lawyer and a poet and somehow managed a career that combines the two.

Age 17, in 1966 I enrolled in UBC’s new Creative Writing Department for six years osmosing writing, theatre, film and radio production. It was a vibrant time on campus, with fellow students Ruth Nichol, Nettie Wild, Brent Carver, John Grey, David YH Lui, Bill Millerd, Bruce Kellett, Larry Lillo, Jeff Hyslop, Richard Ouzounian, Ken Macdonald, Morris Panych and Jeremy Long. For a while I lived in a house behind the Dairy Queen in Kitsilano with the founders of Tahmanous Theatre.

My boyfriend Tary Engel was the drummer for ‘Tomorrows Eyes’ who introduced me to Valdy, Papa Bear’s Medicine Show, Mother Tucker’s Yellow Duck and The Poppy Family. I got my musical education hanging out at the Village Bistro, Retinal Circus, Big Mother and Rohans.

In 1967 working back stage at the UBC Musical Theatre Society (MUSSOC) I met emerging folk singer Ann Mortifee who had just appeared with Josh White Sr. at the Bunk House and performed in George Ryga’s ‘Ecstasy of Rita Joe.’ We decided to try our hand at song writing, spending long hours in her living room, Ann playing her Ovation guitar with me tossing out lyrics. When the new UBC Student Union Building opened in 1968 I produced my first concert and began recording at CYVR (now CITR) campus radio. When I overheard Ann on the phone asking a pittance of a fee for a show I became an artist manager.

We learned by doing. We wrote and staged shows, toured widely and eventually started our own record company, Jabula Records. Ann wrote the score for The Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s adaptation of ‘Rita Joe’, co-hosted a TV series with David Wiffen in Ottawa and played off Broadway in New York in ‘Love and Maple Syrup’. Her six month Vancouver run with Leon Bibb, Ruth Nichol and Pat Rose in ‘Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris’ at the Arts Club Seymour Street made her a household name.

Ann Mortifee with Tom, Doug, and Robbie.

In 1973 Ann introduced me to Doug Edwards whose song ‘Wildflower’ had just gone Top Ten for Skylark, the band that launched David Foster. Doug had signed away his rights and armed with righteous indignation I set out to retrieve them, which took several years, and ended up being administrator of a classic soul standard. Over 45 years, 75 covers and a multitude of sample versions, ‘Wildflower’ became one of the most performed songs in the history of Canadian popular music. In 2011 I accompanied Doug to Toronto when he and lyricist Dave Richardson were inducted into the Canadian Song Writers Hall of Fame. Doug passed away last November, a huge loss to our community.

In 1974 Ann was performing ‘Jacques Brel’ in New York when an older British gentleman handed her his card and said, “I want to record you.” Norman Newall was a legendary producer who had worked with Vera Lynne and Judy Garland and wrote lyrics for the hit song ‘More’ (Than The Greatest Love This World Has Known). He had a thing for the letter M so Mortifee was right up his alley. I negotiated the EMI deal via fax and in 1975 Ann, Doug Edwards and I flew to record Ann’s first album ‘Baptism’ at Abbey Road Studios, with musicians from the London Philharmonic.

When the LP was released Ann’s first ‘One Woman Show’ sold out for months at the Arts Club Seymour Street accompanied by Robbie King, Doug Edwards and Tom Hazlitt. It was the first of Ann’s many successful Arts Club collaborations which included ‘Journey to Kairos’ and the family musical ‘Reflections on Crooked Walking.’ She sold out several runs at the Imperial Room in Toronto, played with the Vancouver Symphony and toured with Harry Belafonte. This year on November 30 we will celebrate her 70th birthday with a concert at Christ Church Cathedral.

In 1974 I began producing concerts for the Brackendale Art Gallery, Thor Froslev’s miraculous amalgam of art and rough-hewn timber near Squamish. When Chris Wootten invited me to do a Sunday night series at the newly opened Vancouver East Cultural Centre, we created Cultural Funk to showcase local artists. The first season featured Joani Taylor, Alexis, Bim (aka Roy Forbes) and a highly recommended trio called Pied Pumkin, who I had not yet seen.

I was freelancing as arts correspondent for the afternoon show on CBC Radio so would interview that week’s Cultural Funk act for a bit of free PR. When I interviewed Pied Pumkin, their lanky dulcimer player spilled coffee in my tape recorder — not a propitious introduction to a man I would marry some three decades later.

On the way to the Cultch I used to stop in Chinatown to buy almond cookies to sell at intermission and when I arrived late to Pied Pumkin’s sold out show, the whole room was on its feet bopping. At $2 a ticket Cultural Funk was an unprecedented success; eventually we raised the price to $5. Around that time Susan Mendelson began selling Nanaimo Bars in the lobby, which was the beginning of the Lazy Gourmet.

The second season, several Cultural Funk artists hired keyboardist Robbie King as a sideman. Driving Robbie home one night I asked him who what he would do if he had a concert of his own. He reeled off about 20 names and I said, OK, you write it, I’ll produce it. Thus ‘Celebration’ was born.

Staged in 1975 to a standing room only crowd at the Vancouver Playhouse, ‘Celebration’ featured a mighty band of 16 singers and players collaborating on Robbie’s soul inspired arrangements.  It brought the musical community and audience together in a way that joyfully raised everybody’s bar. The Vancouver Sun called it “incredible–a breakthrough into untrespassed territory for contemporary music in Vancouver.” Hosted by Terry David Mulligan, the concert was recorded by Clair Lawrence for CBC Radio’s ‘Great Canadian Goldrush’. The next year we staged ‘Celebration Too’ in Vancouver and Victoria and later adapted the concept for the CBC TV special, ‘Cakewalk’.

We rehearsed the first ‘Celebration’ crammed into a CBC studio in the basement of the Vancouver Hotel, before their current building was built. I cannot overstate the importance of CBC in those early years. It provided work and nurtured the development of so many of us by creating opportunities to grow our skills. They would support live performance by recording it, or assist you in developing your concept for television. Their production staff and facilities are sorely missed.

Though not always widely acknowledged, women were a major creative force in the emerging music business.

Val and Ann.

Female singers and musicians were honing their chops and forging careers on radio, stage and in the many recording studios that began popping up around town. Vancouver’s jingle and recording industries were burgeoning. Ann and Nancy Wilson, Darby Mills and Susan Jacks climbed the charts with Heart, Headpins and Poppy Family. Ferron expanded the horizon for singer/songwriters, Valri Bromfield inspired with comedy. Joani Taylor, Alexis, Lovie Eli, Sibel Thrasher, Dee Daniels, Rosalind Keene, Saffron and Camille Henderson, Jane Mortifee, Shari Ulrich, Jennifer Scott, Nancy Nash, Gail Bowen, Linda Kidder… these and so many other women used their smarts, talents and persistence to grow our music scene. You hear their voices regularly on classic hit radio. Many of them are singing professionally to this day.

Behind the scenes, I met many unsung heroes. Lynne Reusch Partridge opened the West Coast office of BMI Canada (which became PROCAN then SOCAN) and taught us the basics of music publishing and the value of our copyrights. Jeani Read was an influential music critic for the Vancouver Province. BJ Cook was responsible for Skylark getting their recording deal with Capitol Records. Vicki Gabereau pioneered women in talk radio. Susan Nielsen managed the early years of hugely successful jazz band Skywalk. Fiona Jackson was as event producer who became a major talent agent. Maureen Jack pioneered many noteworthy events including Music West. Ellie O’Day was First Executive Director of the Pacific Music Industry Association. Joanna Maratta founded the Fringe Festival, Alma Lee the Writers’ Festival. Marjorie McLean and Frances Fitzgibbon shepherded the Children’s Festival, Frances Wasserlein the Folk Festival. Wendy Newman started ArtStarts in Schools. Susan Engelbert fostered and encouraged new talent throughout her 30 year career at CBC Radio. These women provided imagination, organization and administration which became the framework on which our music industry flourished.

To these many colleagues and mentors too numerous to mention — Doug Bankson, Bill Terry, Ernie Fladell — who crossed my path and shared their wisdom, insight, humour, skills and encouragement, here’s to you and the analogue decades that laid the groundwork of all that was and is to come in our creative BC.

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4 Responses to Valley Hennell: Fifty years in BC’s creative community

  1. Karen Lajoy says:

    What a full musical life you have had and continue to this day. Valley you continue to amaze me. Congratulations and thank you for your contributions.

  2. Jim Chisholm says:

    Wow! What an awesome summary of the great people I met or at least was inspired by in the music industry. Thank you for reconnecting me with my history. What a concept!

  3. Wonderful article Valley! Concise, loving, great history capsule.

  4. Richard Skelly says:

    This article really triggers memories…and appreciations for women—some mentioned by Valley—who made a difference to the West Coast music scene.

    * Mothers, grandmothers and aunts who opened up basements or garages for teenage bands to learn their chops. I’m sure there were men who likewise showed such generosity, but—in my experience—women kinfolk were always more receptive to artistic ventures (even if disguised by amps cranked to 11).

    Specific women, in no particular order:

    * Jeani Read (RIP) dug deeper on rock star coverage at The Province than most writers of her day who often emphasized the superficial. She handpicked a worthy successor in Tom Harrison and then became a must-read essayist in the tabloid. Oh yeah, she also reportedly persuaded early ‘70s companion, Bruce Allen, to use his own name rather than a glitzy moniker for his fledgling talent agency.

    * Nicki Dalziel must have found it challenging to enter the testosterone heavy record-promotion business in the later 1970s. But she did her job well as a “ West Coast promo lady” for Capitol Records Canada.

    * Susan Pesklevits, as an upcoming Vancouver singer, didn’t sit demurely by the phone waiting to be asked to join a band. Needing a singer/guitarist for an out-of-town gig, she phoned Terry Jacks. A passing acquaintance from CBC tv days, Terry accepted. Before long they wed and became frequent chart-toppers The Poppy Family. Susan later sang harmony on Terry’s solo smash Seasons In The Sun. Susan persevered through subsequent divorce and business betrayals as a solo artist to continue her career. Susan Jacks has dealt with severe health problems in recent years, but she changed history decades ago by assertively reaching out by phone.

    * Ingrid Moll was combination gatekeeper and referee to the Gastown offices of Bruce Allen and his then-partner Sam Feldman. When BTO hit big, every wannabe star and business sharpie wanted to meet with Bruce. Press minions like myself were pestering for artist interviews as the firm’s artist roster grew. Couldn’t have been easy but Ingrid did her job with firmness and class.

    * Susan Engelbert (RIP) oversaw Great Canadian Goldrush that arguably was the best national rock-radio show of its time on either side of the border. It gave host Terry David Mulligan a national profile which likely helped open doors for his subsequent television career. It also gave Claire Lawrence a landing pad after leaving Chilliwack and producing Valdy. (He later formed Hometown Band and then produced jazz shows for CBC.) I profiled the program for RPM Weekly and was amazed at how calmly Susan kept things from turning chaotic as time ticked down to taping.

    * Phyllis Inglis was a tremendous vocal coach. Tutoring aspiring singers from her Lynn Valley home, she doubtless helped many rockers avoid shredded vocal cords by telling them their proper range and providing limber-up exercises. Bill Henderson (The Collectors/Chilliwack) thought very highly of Phyllis. Decades later, Bill’s daughter Camille has added Voice Coach to her artistic resume.

    * Mary Paul was a renowned Richmond guitar teacher. Mary and competitor Jack Bourne were a duopoly in instructing novices, intermediate and advanced students during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Mary employed other instructors including a young Steven Nikleva who later accompanied Sarah McLachlan and Veda Hille among others.

    * Ferron (aka Deborah Foisy) reportedly absorbed lessons from a hardscrabble childhood in rural Richmond to become a prolific songwriter and a pioneer in the nascent “women’s music” movement of the 1970s. Her best-produced records, like Testimony, garnered rave reviews in Rolling Stone and The New York Times. As a fellow Lulu Islander, I cheered on Ferron as she attained artistic excellence.

    * Sunny Lewis was a transplanted New Yorker who became one of the few dominant women in 1970s commercial Vancouver radio. An all-rounder in what she covered, Sunny made her mark with CKVN/CFUN 1410AM. About a decade ago, I heard Sunny filing environmental stories for Hawaiian Public Radio.

    * Lynne Reusch Partridge and Valley Hennell are both unsung heroines in helping educate composers, regardless of gender, about the importance of song copyrights and the intricacies of the publishing trade.

    In addition to Lynne’s history supplied above by Valley, it’s worth noting Ms. Reusch-Partridge had the music biz in her DNA. She was related to Al Reusch who vastly improved the bunker studio on West Sixth, turning it into Aragon Studio. Aragon was such a fine facility that, after sold, it avoided development for decades under various names such as Can-Base and Mushroom.

    Valley deserves applause for quarterbacking efforts to regain rights for Wildflower’s composers Doug Edwards (RIP) and retired Saanich policeman David Richardson. Her unstinting publishing-rights work also put food on the table for many other clients including the late Robbie King. Don’t be shy, Valley…take a bow.

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