Winnipeg’s musical roots

By John Einarson

Did you know that two of the greatest cowboy songs of all time were composed by a Winnipegger? And did you know that North
America’s foremost authority on folk music was born in Winnipeg? He’s also the inspiration for Oscar the Grouch. Bet you didn’t know that a Winnipeg rock ‘n’ roll band sold more records in 1970 alone than the entire Canadian recording industry combined to that point and even played at the White House. Or that Quebec’s most beloved music star is actually from Manitoba. For a province that accounts for roughly 3.6 per cent of Canada’s population, Manitoba has produced a surprising number of music stars and innovators. In fact, Manitoba recording artists account for far in excess of 100 million recordings sold worldwide.

The swinging sixties

In the 1960s, Winnipeg was the acknowledged rock ‘n’ roll capital of Canada. A thriving music scene centred on neighbourhood community clubs and teen nightclubs became the spawning ground for the likes of international superstar Neil Young, the Guess Who, Randy Bachman and Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and Burton Cummings,among others. But Winnipeg was more than just about rock music. Broadway icon, Len Cariou, (Sweeney Todd,A Little Night Music) grew up here and began his career singing in local clubs and theatrical productions. Lucille Starr, widely regarded as the greatest Canadian country singer, was born here. Her 1964 record, The French Song,became the first million-selling record by a Canadian country music artist. It was produced in Los Angeles by Herb Alpert of Tijuana Brass fame and topped the charts in several countries around the world, including an unprecedented 19 weeks at #1 in the Netherlands. Lucille was also the singing voice of Cousin Pearl on The Beverly Hillbillies TV show. Revered as the greatest guitar player ever, Lenny Breau got his start in Winnipeg playing country music and jazz gigs as well as being the go-to guitarist at the CBC.Lenny’s innovative amalgamation of country, flamenco and classical guitar styles revolutionized jazz guitar playing. In the 1960s, Winnipegger“Our Pet Juliette” hosted the number-one-rated musical/variety show in Canada. American television star Gisele Mackenzie appeared several times on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Jack Benny Show, and she co-hosted the weekly Your Hit Parade. She was born Gisele LaFleche in Winnipeg. And it was here at Winnipeg International Airport on Aug. 18, 1964 at 2:05 p.m. that The Beatles first set foot in Canada and were first interviewed by Canadian media.

International rises to fame

Terry Jacks of The Poppy Family fame (Which Way You Going Billy; Where Evil Grows) was born and raised in Winnipeg. His solo recording of Seasons in the Sun sold more than 13 million copies in 1974, earning him multiple Juno awards. That same year Bachman-Turner Overdrive,formed by Winnipeggers Randy Bachman and Fred Turner, topped the charts in 21 countries around the world. During their time together, BTO earned 120 platinum,gold and silver recording awards. Their signature song, Takin’ Care of Business, was first conceived in Randy’s north Winnipeg home and has become a rock music anthem used in a dozen commercials.

Rock, folk and country music iconoclast Neil Young began his career playing community clubs throughout the city. One of his most enduring songs, Sugar Mountain, was written while he still lived at home with his mother on Grosvenor Avenue. Neil’s album, Harvest, was named the top album by Rolling Stone magazine in 1972. He has played Woodstock, Farm Aid, Live Aid, Carnegie Hall and the biggest arenas and concert halls in the world on his own or with super group Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and released over 60 albums in a career that shows no signs of slowing down. Neil made his recording debut in July 1963 at radio station CKRC’s Carlton Street studio.

Those same neighbourhood community club dances gave birth to Canada’s first rock superstars, The Guess Who. In 1965, Chad Allan & the Expressions were renamed The Guess Who after their raucous recording of Shakin’ All Over topped the charts across the country and dented the United States Billboard charts at #22. Following several lean years and the addition of singer Burton Cummings from local group The Deverons, The Guess Who scored their first million-selling single, These Eyes, in 1969. The song was composed by Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings at Burton’s mother’s house on Bannerman Avenue. This was followed by a string of million-selling singles including Laughing, Undun, No Time and American Woman, which topped the American charts for three weeks running in May 1970, selling over 2.5 million copies. That same year the band sold more records than the entire Canadian music industry and performed at the White House by invitation of fan, Tricia Nixon. American Woman was recently recognized as the greatest Canadian single of all time. The Guess Who continued notching up hits with Hand Me Down World, Share the Land, Star Baby and Clap for the Wolfman.

Winnipeg still has it

In the 1990s, Winnipeg’s Crash Test Dummies became international stars with their quirky brand of folk rock originally conceived at the infamous Main Street Blue Note club. After jamming with old band mates at that club in 1987,Neil Young named his next band and album Neil Young & The Blue Notes. The Dummies appeared an unprecedented three times on Late Night with David Letterman because the host was a fan of the group.

Celtic music queen and world music sensation Loreena McKennitt from Morden, Man., got her start playing Winnipeg’s Rainbow Stage and Hollow Mug dinner theatre and appeared at the inaugural Winnipeg Folk Festival. Loreena has sold more than 15 million albums and performed before Her Majesty, the Queen. The annual Winnipeg Folk Festival has become one of North America’s premier music events drawing artists and fans here from across the continent each summer.

The kids scene

Winnipeg has also produced two of the finest children’s entertainers in the world. Multiple Juno award winners Fred Penner and Al Simmons got their start together in a band called Kornstock before launching individual careers. At one time, over 50 million viewers tuned in to Fred Penner’s Place on the American Nickelodeon channel.

Opera to hip hop

In the world of opera, Winnipegger Tracy Dahl is regarded as a major talent. She made her New York Metropolitan Opera debut alongside Placido Domingo. Internationally recognized hip hop recording artist Fresh I.E.( Winnipegger Robert Wilson) has been nominated twice for Grammy awards and has won several Vibe awards. Dunrea, Man. born Daniel Lavoie began his career playing community clubs in Winnipeg before moving to Quebec to become one of the province’s greatest singer/songwriters. He is also revered in France.


As for that cowboy songwriter, Winnipeg-born singer/songwriter Bob Nolan, founding member of the legendary Sons of the Pioneers along with Roy Rogers, is responsible for penning two of the greatest cowboy songs of all time,Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds and Cool Water. Bob appeared in over 80 movies alongside Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds is one of the most recorded songs of all time. The first song Beatle John Lennon learned to play on guitar was Bob’s Cool Water. (Talk about six degrees of separation!) Bob’s accomplishments have been honoured in the Cowboy Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Hollywood Walk of Fame,the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, the Western Music Hall of Fame,Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Smithsonian Institute.

Oscar the Grouch

And Oscar the Grouch? Winnipegger Oscar Brand is regarded as the pre-eminent folk music authority and has appeared onstage with the likes of Bob Dylan; Harry Belafonte; Peter, Paul & Mary and Joan Baez. He has hosted a popular folk music radio show in New York for over 60 years and wrote the Canadian folk classic, Something to Sing About (This Land of Ours). As an original member of the Children’s Television Workshop, Oscar was so fastidious that they named the grouchy Sesame Street character after him. So by extension, Oscar the Grouch is a Winnipegger, too. Bet you didn’t know that.

Want to learn more about Winnipeg’s exciting music history? Sign up for John Einarson’s Magical Musical History Tour at

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