Today, Jim Jj Johnston Salutes Ralph James

Welcome to JJ-365 Salutes. Over 2018 we pay tribute daily to one of “The Good Ones.” Today we are shining the light on Ralph James.

Today, Jim Jj Johnston Salutes Ralph James

By Jim Jj Johnston

Welcome to JJ-365 Salutes. Over 2018 we pay tribute daily to one of “The Good Ones.” Today we are shining the light on Ralph James.

The music scene in Winnipeg is so rich in history, just great, and I venture to say it always will be that way. We know all the giants that came out of there, and when I first arrived in ’81 you could see Mood Gja Gja featuring Greg Leskiw, Burton Cummings or Randy Bachman at various times, and the newer band scene was terrific too. Among them were The Pumps, Kick Axe, Queen City Kids, Streetheart, and Harlequin.


We all hung, and we all became pals on a personal level. CITI was very influential, and a must stop when bands came to town or came home. Not unusual for the late and great Kenny Shields, Chris Burke-Gaffney, 365’er John Donnelly or guys from Harlequin and Ralph to drop in. Always entertaining and fun to be around that crazy circle of characters.

It was in this month a long way back when Ralph James and 365’er Andy Frost became roommates at 827 Dorchester in Winnipeg. Andy was the Music Director at CITI-FM and Ralph was the bass player of the legendary band Harlequin. Those two were fast friends and are still that way today. Andy’s beautiful beau, the late and great ’Miss P', Patty Bachynski was the CBS Records rep and was on site a lot of the time keeping decorum (a tough job with this bunch!)

The ‘Dorch’ was the place to be, and we all spent a bunch of time over there having a seriously good time. It was a stop for lots of visiting musicians and famous people and a great way to get to know these folks in an informal setting. Andy was also on the CKY Jets Hockey broadcasts, so it wasn’t uncommon to see some of the Jets or visiting NHL players there before or after games.


Ralph and Andy are huge hockey fans (Leafs), and still are, and I swear, the greatest ‘table hockey’ players of all time. If there was a Hall of Fame for that, they’d both be in it. I love that game myself and rarely lost a game until playing either of those two at the ‘Dorch’. They were crazy competitive against each other and actually kept stats for each game in a notebook, scores, notable players etc. and it also had side notes as to who was in the audience. It was pretty humorous to watch those two in action. Lots of noise!

It all started for Ralph when he packed up his bass and left Winnipeg for Toronto in the mid-seventies to seek fame and fortune and joined the band Harlequin. This first version performed on the Holiday Inn circuit as a cover band that never recorded or played original material. The group broke up after only a few months, and Ralph returned to Winnipeg and, along with mates John Hanah, Dave Budzak and Gary Golden, they formed Holy Hanah. This band played original material and was an instant hit in their hometown. However, it wasn’t long before John fell ill, and they now needed a guitar player, a singer and new material. In came Glen Willows on guitar, and George Belanger on vocals and Harlequin took off.


The band began recording demos and travelling to Toronto to perform in the local bars and clubs. It was in one of these small bars in Toronto that Harlequin was discovered by representatives of Jack Douglas, the producer of Aerosmith, John Lennon, and Patti Smith, after they tried to see another band in a larger bar downstairs, but could not gain admittance due to a sell-out crowd.


Douglas helped get Harlequin signed to CBS/Epic Records in 1979, and later that year that band released their first LP, Victim of a Song, (produced by Lachlan MacFadyen and Kent Dobney who were former band-mates of Jack Douglas), which went Gold, and received heavy radio play, particularly in Western Canada. That one yielded the hits like 'Sweet Things in Life', and 'Survive'. Douglas was listed as the record's executive producer and was for the next two albums, Love Crimes (1980) which produced two hits, 'Thinking of You', and 'Innocence', and the third album, One False Move (1982), which contained two more hits, 'Superstitious Feeling' and 'I Did It for Love'. The band toured North and South America for a decade (they were huge in Venezuela. We chuckled when we heard the radio commercials the promoters were running there ....’Harlekeeeeeeen’).

They replaced producer Douglas with The Fixx bassist Alfie Agius for their self-titled fourth studio album which gave them the hit single, "Take This Heart" in 1986. They released their Greatest Hits album with one new track '(It's) No Mystery', written by David Bendeth and Tom Cochrane, and produced by Bendeth.

Everyone played the crap out of those records especially in the ‘Peg where they were and still are genuinely proud of the band (the hits still get a lot of airplay in Canada by the way).

Lots of hanging with those guys at ‘Dorch’ and other places. I especially got a kick out of watching the band participate in 365’er T. Trucker Tim Bradley’s annual wild game dinner. Tim is an avid hunter and would gather us all for his feast. We never knew what we were eating (didn’t want to know), and it was funny seeing these guys over at Tim’s. Kind of reminded me of the 'Fishin' Musician' bit on SCTV.


Then the band broke up.

Ralph became the manager for George Belanger, Harlequin's fantastic singer, and after hearing him deal with agents on the phone, George suggested he become an agent himself. Ralph guffawed and went on a “Jamieson’ rant about agents and told him he was out of his mind and it was something he would never consider. Well, that changed, didn’t it!

Ralph went on to redefine the role of the agent which began at the Hungry I Agency, then the Agency, S.L. Feldman & Associates and then the formation of The Agency Group Canada alongside partner Jack Ross which they built into one of Canada's most well-known agencies.

In 2015 The Agency group merged with UTA, and after nearly two years of joint operation, UTA announced it was shuttering the Toronto office. APA (Agency for the Performing Arts), a full-service agency with offices in London and Atlanta, as well as Beverly Hills, New York and Nashville jumped on the opportunity to hire Ralph and Jack to run a new Canadian office for the company out of 129 John Street Toronto. Jim Gosnell, president and CEO of APA, and Steve Martin, EVP/Partner and head of global music announced, "It's an honour to be in business with such accomplished and respected industry vets as Ralph and Jack. We're very excited to be investing in Canadian artists and The City of Toronto as we continue to expand APA’s global footprint."


Joining Ralph at APA Canada at the time were his clients Nickelback, 54-40, Big Sugar, Billy Talent, I Mother Earth, Danko Jones, Marianas Trench, Walk Off The Earth, The Trews and The Watchmen. Jack’s client list included Bruce Cockburn, Paul Brandt, Sam Roberts Band, Arkells, Lights and Alan Doyle, among others. The guys were well on the highway off the top and haven’t looked back.

The roster has grown to include dozens of others including names like Billy Bragg, Bulow, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, The Cowboy Junkies, Devin Cuddy, Dustin Bentall, Jess Moskaluke, J.T. Julian Taylor, Sam Roberts, Tebey, Shawn Hook, Marianas Trench, Ron Hawkins, Tom Wilson, Kathleen Edwards, Adam Baldwin, and it goes on and on and on. They have close to 60 active agents setting up live performances across the nation and beyond.

Nickelback was a band Ralph really believed in early, even when they maybe didn’t so much believe in themselves. Amazing how that works. Ralph spent a lot of time with them, they jumped on board, and the partnership went on to the massive worldwide success they all enjoy today.

If you know Ralph you know he can dray! One of the funniest and entertaining guys you will meet. He gets on his “Jamieson’ rants, and it’s not hard to howl once he gets started. We used to love the back and forth between him and the late and great Steve Young. We used to hold what we called ‘Drayfest’s” at Barberian’s (Steak House) in Toronto, and once at my place in Prince Edward County.

Funny listening that weekend to those two personalities at the top of their game, going at it and both relentless:

Ralph, or `Jamieson` (as he is called): 'Steve you need to hear and play some of these new bands' Steve: 'Jamieson why do you start? You know I know of most of the young bands out today'.

Ralph: 'I agree, Steve, but why doesn’t a guy play them on his radio station?'

Steve (voice starting to rise): 'Jamieson, the dray is strong. I look after the radio stations; you look after the artists. Ralph: 'But Steve….' Steve: 'Jamieson do I tell you how to do your business? Are you qualified to program radio stations?' Ralph: 'Not really, but Steve I know what they want out there.' Steve: 'So you are a Program Director? You have done market research?'

Ralph: 'Not really but…. ` Steve: 'I program the radio, you take care of the tunes'. Ralph: 'You should really start playing Nickelback Steve. The band works hard…'

Steve (in loud and perturbed Hiltz voice, rarely heard): 'Jamieson, why, why, why do you start!!!! Time for Dray-break! Go fishing with Junior!' (me).

I love to get Ralph talking about those conversations when I see him and always have a belly laugh.

Ralph became one of the most powerful players in the Canadian music industry, and he has a worldwide footprint. He is renowned among artists and industry alike as one of the most industrious and passionate individuals working in music. Harlequin was inducted into the Western Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2006 (Harlequin is still playing all these years later and the original lineup, including Ralph, still does a reunion gig from time to time).

Ralph has been honoured several times as Booking Agent of the Year by Canadian Music Week. Additionally, he was nominated for the Bobby Brooks North American Agent of the Year Award in 2007 and 2008 at the Pollstar Concert Industry Awards, and in 2011 was recognized with the Industry Builder Award at the West Coast Music Awards. Ralph was inducted into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame in 2013.

Ralph’s best friend Andy Frost sums up: “So many stories about Jamieson. I learned a lot from him and the boys in the band including commitment. I’ll never forget early one Christmas morning hearing some stirring about at the ‘Dorch’, looking out the window and seeing the Harlequin vehicle showing up to take Ralph and the band to play a live gig in the states somewhere. Christmas morning, no complaining, no dray, just another day in the life of rock musicians, head down dreaming of the gig, taking stage upon arrival and then kicking ass.”

It’s impossible not to be entertained by Ralph. He is a true original who is very sharp, creative, personable, knows his business inside and out, talented, fearless and crazy successful. He is also one of the most loyal pals a person could have. He’ll be around for a long time to come, and that is good news for us all. Atta be Jamieson, we’re all proud of a guy!

Thank you, Ralph James, for being one of “The Good Ones”. Feel free to like and share Ralph’s positive story. Who is the subject of tomorrow’s JJ-365 Salutes? As they say, stay tuned.

Jim JJ Johnston is the CEO, President and Chief Programming/Talent/Content Coach for JJIMS INC. and works with talent in many different industries worldwide.

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Mireya Acierto/Getty Images

Rick Ross performs during the "Miami Jazz In The Gardens" music festival at Hard Rock Stadium on March 09, 2024 in Miami Gardens, Florida.

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