Obituaries, June 23, 2022
This week's notices feature musicians Big Rude Jake, Curtis Lee, Julee Cruise, and Jim Schwall, and chart historian Joel Whitburn.
By Kerry Doole
Big Rude Jake (born A. Jacob Hiebert), a jazz/roots singer/songwriter who was a longtime popular fixture on the Toronto club circuit, died on June 16, age 59. He was diagnosed with small-cell carcinoma of the bladder in spring 2021.
Throughout his cancer treatment, Hiebert continued to share music, hosting weekly Facebook shows and running an online music therapy program for adults with disabilities.
Jakefest, a benefit show for Hiebert and his family, was held on June 9 at Lula Lounge in Toronto, with such comrades as Michael Louis Johnson and Jaymz Bee amongst the 20-plus performers, an A-list cast of Toronto jazz musicians and vocalists. A GoFundMe campaign was also set up to raise funds for Hiebert, and it has now reached $45K.
Hiebert released his debut album, Butane Fumes & Bad Cologne, as Big Rude Jake and His Gentlemen Players, in 1993, and his 1995 release, Blue Pariah, earned critical acclaim. His subsequent discography reached double figures. Long-running residencies at such noted Toronto clubs as The Cameron House, The Rex Hotel, and Reservoir Lounge cemented his reputation as an engaging performer.
As news of his passing spread, social media tributes from his peers flooded in. Here is a selection.
Michael Louis Johnson, founding member of the Gentlemen Players, right-hand-man to Big Rude Jake, 1991 - 1998 - to FYI: " I am currently compiling Jake's entire catalog of song lyrics for a forthcoming book, the Book of Jake. Reading his lyrics, they hit me like a manifesto for cultural revolution, an ethos that made me who I am: As I reflect on Jake's rich life and the deep impact he made to so many people, the final lyrics from his song 7th Avenue ring out:
"And could it be that it was true, that this silent awestruck moon that lit the night, shone for other mortals too? Or could it be that we were blessed, and he existed just for us, transfixed on the spectacle of 7th Avenue."
Jaymz Bee (on FB): "RIP BRJ - I met Jacob Heibert when he first moved to Toronto. He already was performing as Big Rude Jake. We did many shows together and I hired him to sing with The Royal Jelly Orchestra and The Deep Lounge Coalition. I took hundreds, maybe thousands of people to see him during his many years at The Reservoir Lounge (back when Jazz Safaris were a thing) and had many drinking sessions with him. We were even roommates for a while.
"I knew it was a serious cancer battle but hoped he'd be back in the saddle. He got to see the tribute and felt the love - he knew his friends raised a lot of money which will help his widow and child. It's nothing compared to the loss, but I'm so glad he knew how much the community cared. He had his foibles in his younger years, wrestled those demons and turned into a truly great man. Such a tragic loss to us all, especially his family. His memory is certainly a blessing!"
Richard Underhill (Shuffle Demons) on FB: "A loving farewell to Big Rude Jake Hiebert, an erudite and dapper man with a heart of gold and a wit sharper than a Bowery barber's razor. Thank you for the impossibly witty lyrics, the soulful singing and the meaningful music that touched everyone in the bar and let them dream that they too were living the bohemian life of a crooning troubadour. I'm so lucky to have played and chatted, noshed and laughed with such a beautiful man. We've lost a great one and somehow we'll have to soldier on without him. He'd want you to Live Large and follow your dreams. And damn the barricades!" https://bigrudejake.bandcamp.com/
Ellen Davidson (music promoter) - to FYI: "There's a big hole in my musical universe with Jake's death. Such a brilliant songwriter and performer, and so bright and kind. He absolutely stood out but there was no schtick; he lived and breathed his music. Jake could transport his audiences."
Derek Downham - on FB: "A true stalwart of the Queen St/Cameron scene in the '80s/'90s, he paved the way for many of us. A fierce and fearless artist. I used to love watching him and Michael Louis Johnson rip it up. One particular gig at The Government was an exceptional performance. Let’s Kill All The Rockstars always slayed live. I always admired his swagger, and he always treated me with a respect that I appreciated and reciprocated."
Raoul Bhaneja - on Twitter: "RIP Big Rude Jake at 57. Legend of the Toronto music scene, his success and a cult-like following in the 1990s inspired many of us to follow our love of swing, jump, early jazz, and blues and put our own spin on it. An underrated musician and poetic, anarchic lyricist. Condolences all."
Beverly Kreller (music publicist) on FB: "I’m deeply saddened by his passing. He was truly a sweet, generous and talented man. I worked on a publicity campaign for him and got to perform many shows with him or in a lineup over the years. I loved his style. He’ll be missed by many."
Read a feature Jake wrote for FYI in 2020 here.
On Facebook this week, the family posted that it is currently making arrangements for a public celebration of life, with details to be announced in the coming days. Sources, Exclaim!, Wikipedia, Facebook
Curtis Lee, vocalist/guitarist in popular '70s Canadian soul band Sweet Blindness, died on June 14, of a stroke while undergoing throat cancer treatment. He was 74.
Born in Buffalo, he played in Vegas with the 5th Dimension early in his career, then started his own band, Abraham, prior to joining the Toronto band Sweet Blindness in 1974. That group also featured vocalist Bobby Dupont and Lee recorded two albums with them, a self-titled release in 1976 and Energize, in 1977. He went on to play with funk superstar Rick James before relocating to Hawaii. In later years he was musical director at the Unity Church of Maui.
Toronto music veteran Bruce Barrow joined Sweet Blindness in 1977, and he tells FYI that "Curtis was the consummate showman. He would sing, play lead guitar and dance across the stage all at the same time. He could play funky rhythm guitar like no else, or Hendrix style lead and playing with his teeth or he could play jazz octaves like George Benson and Wes Montgomery."
On Facebook, Barrow reminisced about his time in the group: "I was proud to have shared the stage with Curtis for a number of years in Sweet Blindness. We crossed Canada on tour and played to 40,000 at City Hall (CFTR Bay City Rollers Day) to small club dates, arenas, high schools and universities. The venue didn’t matter - Curtis was always an amazing showman giving it his all. After he did a stint with the Rick James band, we played together again in a smooth Jazz house band at Turtles, we called Wabbit – just a fun gig. Curtis and I also backed up singer/songwriter Rex Man." Sources: Bruce Barrow,Citizen Freak
Julee Cruise, the pop singer best known for her collaborations with avant-garde director David Lynch, died on June 9, age 65. Her husband, Edward Grinnan, confirmed the news on Facebook, writing, “I said goodbye to my wife, Julee Cruise, today. She left this realm on her own terms. No regrets. She is at peace.”
Billboard reports that "Cruise’s best-known work is her single Falling, whose instrumental version written by composer Angelo Badalamenti, served as the theme song for Lynch’s belovedly weird 1990 Twin Peaks TV series, later winning a Grammy for best pop instrumental. The singer with the haunting voice also had cameos as a roadhouse crooner in the series and the 1992 spin-off movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me; she sang the closing credits on an episode of the 2017 Showtime TV re-boot, Twin Peaks: The Return. A vocal version of the song with lyrics written by Lynch became a worldwide hit and was featured on Cruise’s 1989 debut album, the ethereal Floating Into the Night."
The versatile actress and Broadway performer was born in Creston, Iowa. Her other notable credits included singing the theme song for an episode of the USA Network drama Psych, covering Elvis Presley’s Summer Kisses, Winter Tears (produced by Lynch and Badalamenti) for the Wim Wenders movie Until the End of the World and collaborating with former Deee-lite DJ Dmitry on her fourth and final studio album, 2011’s My Secret Life.
She also collaborated with everyone from Moby to EDM group Hybrid, Delerium and Prince Paul’s Handsome Boy Modeling School, among others. She was a touring member of the B-52s from 1992-1999 as a fill-in for member Cindy Wilson and described this as the happiest time of her performing life. Sources: Billboard, Wikipedia
Jim Schwall, famed Chicago blues guitarist and vocalist and co-founder of the influential and popular Siegel-Schwall Band, died of natural causes on June 19, age 79.
Alligator Records noted in a press release that "Schwall, known for his distinctive guitar sound -- he played an amplified Gibson B-25 acoustic -- helped introduce the blues to the rock and roll audience with his easy-going, good-natured music. He was also a political activist, a teacher, a photographer and a writer.
Schwall was born in Chicago and picked up a guitar in high school. He first met fellow musician Corky Siegel in Chicago in 1964 while both were in the Roosevelt University Jazz Band. The pair soon discovered their mutual love for the blues and eventually began performing as a duo, with Corky on harmonica and piano and Jim on guitar. They auditioned at Chicago's famed Pepper's Lounge on the South Side, leading to a long-term musical residency at the club.
The pair played with several blues luminaries (who also became personal friends) including Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Otis Spann, Willie Dixon, Junior Wells and James Cotton. After the Paul Butterfield Blues Band moved on, the Siegel-Schwall Band took over their residency at Big John's on the city's north side.
The band was signed to Vanguard Records by Sam Charters in 1965, and they released a total of five albums for the label. They toured coast-to-coast and were instrumental in bringing blues to a whole new audience, performing at the famous Fillmore West, and sharing the stage with rock royalty including Janis Joplin and The Jefferson Airplane. They next signed with RCA's Wooden Nickel imprint and released five more albums.
In 1968, they collaborated with conductor Seiji Ozawa of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, combining for the first time blues with classical music. They recorded an album, Three Pieces For Blues Band And Symphony Orchestra, for the Deutsche Grammophon label in 1973. The album went on to sell over 300,000 copies.
After a hiatus, the Siegel-Schwall Band reformed in 1987 and released the first of two albums on Alligator Records, 1988's Siegel-Schwall Band Reunion Concert and 2005's Flash Forward. Schwall received a Ph.D. in Musical Composition from the University of Wisconsin in 1993. Schwall released three solo albums beginning in 2007, including 2014's Bar Time Lovers for the Conundrum InterArts label. As a composer, he specialized in ballet, opera, and other music for the stage.
According to Corky Siegel, "People should know, Jim was a beautiful humanitarian and a one-of-a-kind musician." Sources: Alligator Records, Wikipedia
Joel Whitburn, one of the pre-eminent chart historians of the last 50-plus years, died. on June 14, at age 82.
After founding the Record Research Inc. company in 1970, Whitburn became one of the leading authors of reference books on the Billboard charts, releasing over 100 total entries of series like Top Pop Singles, Top 40 Hits, Top 40 Albums and Top 40 Country Hits. Billboard notes that "Particularly in the time before the internet made archival chart information widely available, his books proved invaluable in providing the whole industry with reliable chart stats and records, becoming fixtures on the bookshelves for DJs, execs, writers and artists alike. (His accurate reporting also made it more difficult for publicists and labels to credibly fudge the chart achievements of their artists, a notoriously common practice in the early ’ the 70s.)"
Whitburn was born near Milwaukee, in 1939. Growing up as a sports and music obsessive in the ’50s, he became a Billboard devotee after seeing the magazine for the first time on a trip to the city with his mother.
When the Billboard Hot 100 arrived for the first time as Billboard‘s flagship songs chart in August 1958, Whitburn made it his primary focus. He made index cards cataloguing all the relevant information of the songs listed on the magazine’s then-two-page chart spread, tracking their movement on the chart from week to week. When he got a job at RCA doing record distribution in the mid-’60s, having these chart stats at the ready-made him an invaluable resource to the radio stations he would visit.
Whitburn then quit his job at RCA, founding Record Research and publishing his team’s findings, with their first release being Top Pop Singles in 1970. After working out a licensing agreement with Billboard, further series followed, starting with Top Pop Albums and eventually encompassing genre-specific charts for rock, R&B, country, easy listening and more. (Eventually, Rhino Records also started to release dozens of hits compilations based on Whitburn’s books.)
In addition to being a compulsive cataloguer of Billboard chart history, Whitburn was also famous for his peerless record collection — which, he estimated to former Billboard editor Larry LeBlanc in 2013, contained over 200,000 45 rpm singles, as well as “every album that has ever charted [on Billboard] all the way up to today.”
Whitburn and Record Research continued to release books throughout the decades, expanding to new charts and genres, and publishing their most recent full installment of their flagship Top Pop Singles series in 2018. Source: Billboard