On November 22nd, 1963, US President John F. Kennedy was shot dead as his motorcade slowed round a bend in Dallas’s Deeley Plaza. A short month later, a British group called the Beatles released their double-sided single “I Saw Her Standing There/I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, initiating what would soon be called Beatlemania. Six months earlier on June 13th, at the onset of a seemingly endless Fraserview summer, I turned 13 years old.
Every man in the sprawling Fraserview housing project was a Second War veteran, the father of three or more children and the unwilling but not ungrateful recipient of a lower than average income. These were contracted conditions of the rental agreement. The houses in the project shared four identical floor plans. There were kids everywhere.
At the time, I was the singer for the Epics. The group’s guitarist, Brian Graham was my best friend. Derek Solby, a Killarney High School wunderkind, played the drums and Ken (Tarpaper) Hynds was the sax player. Gerry Andrews played a Fender Jazzmaster, and, with his guitar swung out of the way, the electric organ. It was Gerry who hooked me up with another group - a Fraserview soul band that would soon be called “Little Ramon and the Enduros”.
Gerry had signed on with the nine-piece horn band and had recommended me to replace their diminutive but muscular singer Fuji Forchuk. The remaining musicians were a hard-core crew of soul music fanatics in their mid to late twenties. The singer that preceded Fuji, and who had remained attached, talisman-like, to the band, was Rick Cameron - a quintessential James Dean greaser and a member of the notorious Bobolink Gang. I met with Cameron alone in his kitchen one afternoon to discuss my role in the band - tempering my adolescent admiration of his rebellious cool and juvenile delinquent fashion sense with wary respect and an abject fear that he was probably well accustomed to. It was hard for me to believe that these guys were giving me the time of day - let alone a spot-lit place at the front of their soul revue.
Brian Henderson, the lead guitar player was the fastest, coolest and funkiest player I’d ever known. He wore horn-rimmed glasses, sported a blonde pompadour and played a Fender Telecaster. He was Fraserview’s Steve Cropper. The band’s manager, a burly, hard-assed, unpolished lout, was the drummer’s father. He would occasionally visit us in his dungeon-like basement - where we practiced - and deliver what he thought were inspirational pep talks, in the manner of the Commitments’ Jimmy Rabbit - but lacking the conviction, passion and intelligence. It was this man who announced dramatically, when Gerry and I had finally tired of his two-bit tyranny and given our notice;
“Singers and Guitar players are a dime a dozen.”
Paul, the sax playing Sal Mineo look-alike, taught me ‘the Continental’ - the cool and casual step with which all the players shifted, in perfect rhythmic synch, from side to side - the pivot executed at the drop of the left foot, and then the right.
Fuji Forchuk stayed on to deliver a final unforgettable basement command performance, so that I would be clear about what was expected of me. Wearing a tight white wife-beater over his dark muscular torso, he moved with animal grace and sang ferociously. In the musty basement darkness, lit by a single bare light bulb, he jumped, shook, gyrated and, at one point, rolled on the floor. The band’s manager nodded in told-you-so approval. Fuji was the best.
I watched in hopeless appreciation and dismay, knowing that my thirteen-year-old feet could never fill Fuji’s shiny, black, and lightening-fast shoes. I was convinced I lacked the cool, the charisma and the menacing command of the stage that characterized Fuji and his band-mates, and I was probably right. I was thirteen, five-foot-eight, weighed 110 pounds and could not, for the life of me, get my mother-cut curly hair to stay molded into the essential pompadour position - despite liberal applications of my Dad’s Brylcream. Worse yet, I was a nerdy smart kid at school - I had skipped a grade only two years prior - introverted, socially awkward and nearly always afraid that guys like Rick Cameron were going to beat me up for sport. But for all that, no one in this new band seemed to notice, or care.
At home, alone in my room, I nervously dropped the needle onto a borrowed James Brown LP, ready to begin transposing lyrics and fleshing out melodies. The music filled the room and I was transported to a dark, wild and erotic alternate universe. This was not the clean-cut radio music I knew and loved. This music was dangerous and dirty - too passionate and overt for Fraserview. Songs like “Please, Please, Please” and “Try Me” - unashamedly over-the-top soul ballads - were unlike anything I’d ever heard. A week went by and I was emulating every note and emotional vocal scratch that came from the throat of the man soon to become the ‘Godfather of Soul’.
Singing with a full horn section blowing thick, sweet and menacing chords behind me was thrilling. Jumping on to, and riding, the careening guitar hook of “I’ll Go Crazy” was an exhilarating vocal adventure that was different every night. The tight, staccato horn shots punctuated the funky groove like syncopated rifle shots and kicked into my back as I sang.
I learned to dance - in a fashion. I did the Continental with the band at the appropriate moments. I lost myself in the deep soul groove. I may not have mastered Fuji Forchuk’s moves, and no one ever invited me to throw in with the Bobolink gang - but for a brief groovin’ moment in the long summer of 1963 I was Little Ramon, a soul singer unaffected by the cruel and clumsy teenage reality of his otherwise un-soulful world.