The Soul of the Blackburns
Bobby Dean Blackburn has long been a seminal figure in the Toronto R&B scene, and his sons are now carrying on the tradition. Bobby Dean and Brooke Blackburn recently sat down with Bill and Jesse King for this informative chat.
By Bill King
The Underground Railroad wasn’t actually a railroad but a secret path and safe haven for slaves from the U.S. who followed the North Star to freedom into Canada between 1830 to 1860. It was 1619 when the first slave ships unloaded in Virginia.
“My father’s great-grandfather was Elias Earls. He was born a slave in Kentucky in 1833.” Brooke Blackburn tells the story of how Elias went from Kentucky to the Boston area, met an Owen Sound woman named Sarah, and headed north to Canada. The two ended up in what we know today as Chatsworth, Ontario and had a child, Solomon. Settling in Owen Sound area, the town is the most northern terminus (retreat for the Underground Railroad) in Canada to date. From there, Estelle (grandmother) was born, and then came Bobby Dean Blackburn.
As we know, the Blackburn name made its way to Toronto - Bobby Dean Blackburn grew up in the city, and soon became a seminal figure in the Toronto R&B scene. Brooke proudly adds to the conversation; “My Dad is now 77 years old, and I’m one of four Blackburn brothers: Cory, Duane and Robert who are also musicians bound by history and the music of my dad, Bobby Dean Blackburn”.
The family recently came together at Hugh’s Room Live for a celebration of that family bond – music. There are other such occasions planned over 2019. Both Brooke and papa – Bobby Dean dropped in on Jesse King and me at Groove Radio Fridays @CIUT89.5 FM for a chat. Enjoy!
Brooke Blackburn: The Soul of Rock and Roll show to me is the beginnings of rock and roll within the black community. You're talking about Little Richard, and you're talking about Fats Domino. You're talking about Clyde McPhatter, and you're talking about Jesse Hill. You're talking about a lot of different players. For me its the kind of stuff I listened to my father play. I grew up playing with my father since I was about 15. I've always played this style of rock and roll, and you don't hear it very often anymore if you hear it at all. I just wanted to get together with my dad and say I think we need to let the people know where this music came from.
Bill King: The real connection to this is New Orleans. That’s where rhythm & blues originated.
BB: Yeah, it's New Orleans. It's funny that when I started researching, I realized that the music I listened to my father play was from New Orleans.
Bobby Dean Blackburn: Like Huey Smith and the Clowns. It was first R&B and then they changed it to rock and roll. It actually goes back even further to Louis Jordan. The jump blues and doing stuff like “Caledonia” and “Saturday Night Fish Fry.” That's what we used to listen to in the early '40s. My father had all of these old-time records. I think the reason we put this show together was we wanted to show the real roots of rock and roll - which was rhythm and blues and blues and guys like Fats Domino who was my idol and Little Richard and Lloyd Price that were doing it.
BK: There's a style and manner in which to play the piano. When I hear your playing, I think, 'that’s it.' Brooke, you did a beautiful recording your dad and brothers in 2010. You took your time and made a record that really tells that story.
BB: Mainly my brother Cory and bassist Howard Ayee produced it. My dad said OK I want to do it, I'm turning 70. I want to have a full record with my kids and everything, and then we had a great CD release party at the Orbit Room.
Jesse King: How long did it take you to record? Was it live off the floor?
BB: Probably three days of recording. We've played this music with my dad for years, and the engineer was playing the drums. Howard Ayee is the producer on bass, and my brother Cory was engineering and running in and out playing the drums.
JK: Where did you record this album?
BB: At my brother Cory’s studio. It's called Toronto West Sound, and it’s around Lansdowne and Dupont. It's a really good studio, very comfortable and they’ve got a Hammond B3 organ in there and a piano. Corey’s got three closed-in rooms now.
BK: The Blackburn family arrived in 1833 – that would be Elias Earls who was a slave in Kentucky who brought the family up through Boston and entered Canada and settled in Ontario around the Chatsworth, Holland Center, Owen Sound area. Bobby, you still live close to where the family set roots?
BD: I bought 25 acres thirty years up there years ago. We’d go up into the Bruce looking for leeks and morels in the springtime.
BB: Dad started off living in a trailer up there and sold the house down here and started building a house while living in a trailer - right from the foundation.
BK: And you can deal with the winters?
BD: I love them, but lately I've been going to Mexico.
BK: I so much remember Yonge Street early 70s’ when I would see you play the organ at the Zanzibar Tavern.
BD: I was there five and a half years playing from 12:15 to 4:30 p.m. 1969 -74’. We had jam sessions every afternoon and all the great players that were in town like Taj Mahal, Jimmy McGriff, the great Jimmy Smith, Richard Holmes, used to come by and sit in, even the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
BK: You had a screaming organ.
BD: It was a Hammond A 100 with two 122 Leslie's. It was powerful.
BK: Were there any recordings from these sessions?
BD: I used to record every day. I started with reel to reel then I switched to cassettes because they were cheaper. What I didn't know about reel to reel is never record on slow speeds. I’ve still got all these tapes and contemplating what to do with them.
BK: Brooke, have you been through these tapes?
BB: I wrote a song called “Walking in New, New Orleans” which is on the Blackburn record and the second verse talks about I was raised on a reel to reel.
When my father used to come home after the weekends he'd play these recordings, and I'd hear them, and at night when I'm sleeping I’d hear them in my subconscious, wake up the next morning and play them myself on the reel to reel player. I’d listen to all these cats that my father played with all the time.
There’s boxes and boxes and boxes. I did a blues guitar summit recently and I mentioned these tapes, and somebody from the audience asked me what is your father going to do with this because this is strong history? I said I don't know, they are sitting in boxes, and people have contacted him since then. Archival people that want my dad to put them out. Something has to be done with these tapes.
BK: I’ve carried around 15 two-inch tapes since nineteen seventy-four. Four months ago, I passed a few to Mike Haas at Inception Sound and had them baked and collected the stems. It's unbelievable. Jesse has remixed a couple of tracks, mastered and released internationally.
JK: Mike basically converts into 24 tracks digitally, and we get the stems and then we can sit down and mix them. It's great. I mean it's walking into his past. One of these tapes had a track Bill forgot about with reggae Hall of Famers' Wayne McGhie and Everton Paul we were able to resurrect.
BK: “Promises” is now on about 225 stations around the world. We have the stuff with Harvey Brooks of the Electric Flag, Miles' Bitches Brew and Bob Dylan fame recorded in Atlanta with horns and other great players too. Those tracks are getting the first hearing 44 years later.
JK:You guys should do a Volume 1 and 2 of the best of tracks.
BD: The best of the Zanzibar! I have two hundred quarter-inch.
BK: Your brother Duane has that smooth singing thing going on. He sings much like Bobby.
BB: I think I got the grit and my dad and Duane got the soul.
BK: Besides Fats Domino let’s say we’re back in the 70s’ and you're playing the Zanzibar – you’ve got to be singing Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett and Ray Charles?
BD: We didn’t record it, but I did “Hallelujah, I Love Her So” from Ray Charles. That was one of my favourites.
BK: Did you get out and catch the great rhythm & blues groups when they came to town?
BD: I was always playing, but I got to see Buddy Miles at Massey Hall because he came by and sat in with me and gave us tickets to go down, but I didn't get to do it. I met Fats Domino at the El Mocambo. He told me that he did three hundred and fifty, one-nighters to pay off the government for three million dollars in back taxes. And he said the only way he made money that year was that he had total control of all his albums. He brought albums with him, promo pictures and he’d sign them all and sell for cash of course because they used to garnishee his wages every time he played. He ended up paying them off in one year.
BK:Drummer, Buddy Miles popped the snare like no other and what a deep shuffle.
BD: Plus, he was 280 pounds. I'm small compared to him. He was about 6’4”, and when he got on the stage, he played the hell out of the drums.
BB: One of the first Buddy Miles' albums is called Fatback right. It was about him hitting that shuffle with the back of the snare, and I said dad, you’ve got to tell me about that “fatback” groove. Buddy Miles played with Hendrix too.
JK: I love Hendrix’s first drummer Mitch Mitchell who came from the jazz arena. But when Hendrix switched to Buddy Miles, he hit like a hammer.
BK:Buddy Miles played with Wilson Pickett, and it’s said they’d argue and fight on the bandstand and one gig Pickett turns around and tries to stab him and drives the knife through Miles' snare drum then fires him. You must have had some crazy times with musicians?
BD: There used to be a group called Shotgun Kelly and his Nine Sticks of Dynamite, and they played at the Edison Hotel and I used to go down there. They ended up taking Dougie Richardson from my band and going on the road. While on the road three or four of them got killed and Dougie was supposed to be in that car. The driver fell asleep and ran into the back of a tractor-trailer. That was the car that Dougie was supposed to be in, but he decided to go with the other players. He’d have been dead.
BK: The early '70s I put my time in the back of a car or van driving through winters around Ontario. That was frightening.
BD: Black ice. Oh my God.
BB: You know what the problem with Ontario is? If you're travelling like Northern Ontario or travelling to Quebec and I’ll say it on the air - these rental companies don't give you snow tires. They’ve got to do that because in Quebec they provide us with everything and they have snow tires. We’re driving up there in April, and we think we're cool and we get north of Quebec City and it's like a bloody snowstorm. Straight ahead snowstorm. Going north to east, it's a national park. Nothing in between. Cory was saying he doesn’t want to do that again.
BD:Let me tell you a quick story what happened on the way to North Bay - from North Bay to Sturgeon Falls. We had a gig the following week there and I'm going up the highway and this tractor trailer is coming at me and I hit black ice and was spinning out of control and he knew he could never stop. And it just so happened that my car straightens out when he flies past me. I got to Sturgeon Falls and I went shopping for snow tires, the ones with the studs. They didn't have any, so I said put on the regular ones because I'm not going to die up here. I swear somebody was watching over us that time.
BK: It’s the early '70s and we're playing Kingston and it’s a mix of rain and sleet. After the gig, we get into the car and my roadie lights up a pipe loaded with black opiated hashish. We’re getting stoned and I notice the car is slowing. Rain is kicking the windows and we can’t see. Then the car stalls. The dude tries to restart and keeps twisting the key and nothing but a miserable gurgle. We sit there for a good twenty minutes, try again, then the guy opens the door and says, “I’m going for help.” We watch him fade into the black of night and thick downpour.
Forty-five minutes pass and the car is freezing cold so I hop out of the back seat and move down front and twist the car key and like a miracle the engine turns over and we are humming. We then drive forty klicks to an off-ramp and motel. I ask the woman behind the desk if she had seen a frizzy-headed guy with a beard drop in. She says a man fitting that description left with some teenagers. We hop back in the car and drive all the way back and search the roadsides for any evidence of him or kids. Nothing. We wait, nothing.
I look over at Chris Vickery - take charge and drive us back to Toronto. All the way back we do some deep soul searching. We pull in about 6 a.m. and I’m dead tired. I walk in the house and tell Kristine about what had happened when the phone rings. I’m feeling like shit. I answer and the voice on the other end says, “Bill? It’s Ellie. Where are you? I just got in Ellie we couldn’t find you, what happened?” Ellie says, I got back an hour ago. I’m so glad you are safe.” Fuck me!