Tuning in to the trailblazers | The JUNO Awards

Music in Canada before the JUNOS

Call it the mass Maple exodus.

It’s not that Canada hasn’t always been a hotbed for homegrown talent with the potential for global popularity: it’s estimated that London, Ontario’s Guy Lombardo, backed by his Royal Canadians, sold 500 million records in the pre-Billboard era between 1929 and 1952.

Known for such original standards as “Little Coquette,” “Charmaine,” “Home Sweet Home” and “Boo-Hoo” – let alone “Auld Lang Syne,” the traditional evergreen that welcomes the New Year – Lombardo was as close to a household name that Canada had musically exported.

“There’s no question that for several decades, Guy Lombardo was an international institution,” Peter Soumalias, co-founder and co-chair of Canada’s Walk of Fame, told the Toronto Star in 1994. “He is one of only two recipients to have three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The other is Bob Hope.”

Couples dance to Guy Lombardo’s orchestra, ca. 1940 (Bettmann / Getty)

He wasn’t the only one to make a universal impact.

In the mid-1930s, Port Hilford, Nova Scotia’s Wilf Carter relocated to New York and became Montana Slim to U.S. radio audiences.

Montreal virtuoso jazz pianist Oscar Peterson first made global inroads in 1949, the same year Brooklyn, Nova Scotia’s country music legend Hank Snow moved to Nashville.

Later, Ottawa’s Paul Anka, a bona fide teen idol whose popularity was eclipsed only by Elvis Presley, became the first Canadian act to a) land a No. 1 record in Billboard Magazine, the U.S. music industry’s trade bible, with “Diana” – and b) the first Canadian to do it twice with 1959’s “Lonely Boy.” Also making their mark in the ’50s: Jazz arranger Gil Evans and classical pianist Glenn Gould, both from Toronto, as well as city-based vocal groups The Four Lads and The Diamonds.

As the ’50s melted into the ’60s, many Canucks made tangible inroads into the lucrative U.S. market: Toronto bandleader Percy Faith; Ottawa broadcaster-turned-actor Lorne Greene; Montréal’s Andy Kim (who co-wrote and sang “Sugar Sugar” with The Archies); fellow Montréal poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen; Saskatchewan folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie, Fort McLeod; Alberta songbird Joni Mitchell; Toronto rocker Neil Young; Winnipeg rockers The Guess Who; Toronto-based Bob Dylan companions The Band; Springhill, Nova Scotia’s Anne Murray and Orillia’s legendary Gordon Lightfoot.

A 19-year-old Paul Anka makes his debut performance at the Copacabana nightclub in 1960 (Peter Stackpole/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

These influential talents, representing a wide range of genres, were just a drop in the bucket of what our country had to offer, but they all shared a common story: they had to look outside Canadian borders for acceptance before they were wholeheartedly embraced at home, although The Guess Who, Anne Murray and Gordon Lightfoot refused to live elsewhere.

At the time, one could hardly blame them: until 1971, one could argue that the music industry infrastructure to discover and promote Canadian talent was non-existent.

AM radio stations weren’t obligated to play Canadian acts – and because programmers were taking their playlist cues from U.S. charts and tip sheets – most of them didn’t. Radio usually relented only when a particular domestic artist made a dent on the Billboard charts or was embraced by U.S. radio.

On the other side of the equation, Canadian record labels were basically extensions of their U.S. counterparts. Most artist signings were cherry-picked from either south of the border or via the U.K., home of the immensely successful British invasion. Most imprints, which were located in and around Toronto or Montreal, did not have the autonomy to discover and develop local talent.

So, faced with limited options and a limited market, many artists were forced to head south to realize their potential.

This talent drain may have gone unchecked for some time to come, but two men – Walt Grealis and Stan Klees – tired of the lack of respect accorded Canadian recording artists, took matters into their own hands.

Featured Image: Canadian jazz pianist and composer Oscar Peterson (1925 – 2007) in concert, circa 1955. Credit: Archive Photos/Getty Images.