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|Click on the above "On Air" images to listen to Bobby Gimby's "Canada" theme in either English or French. The patriotic song would eventually earn him the Order of Canada in 1967.|
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All together now - everybody sing
It's become a runaway, flag-waving hit, and here's the wholesome, unabashedly patriotic bandleader who wrote it: the Pied Piper of Confederation himself - Bobby Gimby!
Report written by Frank Rasky for the now defunct, The Canadian, June 10, 1967.
PERFECT. Everybody at Vickers and Benson agrees the image he projects is absolutely perfect for the job.
The advertising agency, hired to handle promotion for the Centennial Commission, was going out of its mind last spring. It was looking for a gimmick that would kick off the campaign to make Canadians aware they were about to celebrate their 100th birthday.
"The government brass in Ottawa had already settled on a centennial hymn and an anthem," recalls Al Scott, executive vice-president of the ad agency. "But I knew neither would work. Canadians tend to be complacent patriots. And the sophisticated city slickers in the newspaper business have almost made it a sin to express enthusiasm about our nation. What we needed was a grabber. A stirring flag-waver that would make everybody feel, 'Gee, this is a real good opportunity.'"
Then, one April morning, Bobby Gimby walked into Vickers and Benson's Toronto office, brandishing the song he had just written. Tapping out the rhythm with a pencil, blue eyes blinking excitedly behind his square horn-rimmed spectacles, his 6-foot 165-pound figure crouched over the desk, his trumpeter's cheeks puffed out like a gopher, Gimby sang out the bouncy lyrics of his Canada song.
"It had real gut feeling," remembers Scott. "And when I realized the catch phrases alternated between French and English...to be sung by children...I really flipped. We needed the bilingual togetherness angle in our marketing campaign. And even the wise guys in the communications dodge can't knock kids. So I knew immediately I had found my grabber."
What's more, Gimby himself (pronounced "Jim-bee") proved ideal flag-waver. Everyman's patriot, Scott pictured him. Mid-prairie. Wholesome. Sincere. Not smart-alecky: Not controversial. Really just folks.
An absurdly youthful 46 who looks like a boy cheerleader ("I was born enthusiastic"), Gimby comes from the Saskatchewan whistlestop town of Cabri ("the train doesn't actually stop there: it just hesitates").
He is a musician of the old-fashioned, aw-shucks-Mom school ("Holy cripes! I'm still a naive country boy at heart. Nothing I'd rather do than kick the leaves in the fall on a little farm").
He deplores the groovy jargon of jazz musicians ("I hate it when those haircutted hipsters talk of 'gig and bag and broads and booze'") and he abhors their reputation as late-night swingers fueled with pot and LSD.
Yet there is nothing amateurish about his own musicianship ("I haven't spent 25 years in the high falutin' music profession; I'm in the music business"). He is a trumpet-playing graduate of TV's cornball Juliette Show and radio's even cornier Happy Gang ("I'm strictly a low-key swinger; I swing andante rather than allegro").
And he is responsible for five Toronto society orchestras ("my apprenticeship with Mart Kenney and his Western Gentlemen in Banff taught me that city folk really like meat-and-potatoes music just as much as us folks from the sticks").
He is also the composer of more than 30 commercial jingles ("Here are the facts about Instant Maxwell House coffee;" "Stay away from snacks...chew a Chiclets and relax.") of about 15 novelty pop tunes (The Cricket Song: When Bessie The Cow Helped Santa), and two rousing patriotic ballads to be sung by children (Little People and Malaysia Forever - which virtually became national anthems in Malaysia where they won him the nickname, "The Pied Piper From Canada").
Indeed, his Canada song has rapidly become the accepted anthem in our schools for centennial year, and Gimby has been dubbed "The Pied Piper Of Canada: 1867-1967." Put another way, it might be said by cynics that the government has gone into the song-plugging business, and that Gimby is being paid an estimated $35,000 a year to plug his own song.
But that would be unfair, for both the Canada song and its composer seem to have captured the public fancy on their own. "All we did was a little nudging to help them catch on," says Al Scott. "But nobody at the agency ever dreamed they'd take off the way they did."
The Centennial Commission bought the Canada song outright for an unstated sum. (Gimby won't say how much, but it's believed to be a "token" fee, with Gimby hoping that any profits be channeled into children's charitable work.) At first, the plan was to use it merely as opening background music for a 30-minute documentary film, Preview '67, to be shown to centennial officials and once on the CBC-TV network. After that, it was to have died a natural death.
Ben McPeek, a Toronto arranger of advertising jingles, got together eight experienced juvenile commercial singers to sing the English part of the tune. Then, with appropriate "holes" left in the tape, he flew to Montreal where Raymond Berthiaume led a similar group of eight professional youngsters in singing the French counter-melody.
While the results of the two separate recording sessions were being fitted together, Toronto film producer Paul Herriott arranged to have about 30 boys and girls released for the day from their Grade 7 classes at Princess Margaret Public School in Toronto's suburban Etobicoke. He filmed the untrained actors at nearby Boyd Park, marching across hill and dale, waving banners, and bellowing their school cheer.
When matched together, the dubbed-in professional voices and the fresh-faced amateur performers proved to be a wow on film. Tom Spaulding, design director of the Confederation Train, recalls looking at it and exclaiming, "That music is exactly the finishing touch we need for the last coach of our train."
Al Scott recollects, "Every centennial official was positively bowled over by that opening shot. They ordered us to make a TV commercial of it real quick."
The ad agency was in such a hurry that it simply clipped the first 60 seconds of the documentary, and it was shown on every TV station in Canada for 26 weeks. Parents and school teachers in each province, according to Scott, phoned the stations clamoring to know, "Where can we get the words and music of that song done by the kids marching through the fields?"
Gordon V. Thompson Ltd., the Toronto music publishers, cautiously printed 10,000 copies of the sheet music. With luck, the company hoped it might sell half the printing at 75 cents a copy. The first edition was sold out within five days. At the last count, more than 50,000 copies have been published, and the orders keep pouring in.
"I've never seen anything like it during my 20 years in the Canadian music publishing business," says Thompson president John Bird. "Three-year-old kids are dancing to it. High school swimming classes want to swim to it. Bike riders want to cycle to it, and drum corps want arrangements so they can beat a tattoo to it. By the end of 1967, I predict every school choir, every school band, every family with a piano in the parlor, will be playing it."
Quality Records, equally conservative, scheduled last Christmas a first-run issue of several thousand 45-rpm discs to sell at 99 cents each. Within 30 days orders had piled up to a total of 75,000. Hiring extra staff and running overtime, the record plant has so far made more than 200,000 copies of the Young Canada Singers vocalizing the Canada song.
"It's an all-time smash record-breaker for a Canadian song," says Ed Lawson, Quality promotion manager. "On some radio station charts, it's even running ahead of The Monkees! By the time tourists are through buying them at souvenir concessions at Montreal's Expo, we expect to sell a minimum of a quarter of a million." This would be the equivalent of God Bless America selling 2,500,000 in the U.S.
In addition, Lawson points out, other record labels in Canada are putting out their versions, so that the Canada song will be "folked, waltzed, rocked and Dixielanded."
It has been spoofed on the Allied label (mimic Rich Little lisping and gargling his way through the lyrics à la Pearson and Diefenbaker). It has been lampooned on the Sparton label (a combo cryptically calling themselves the Department of Public Works yammering the tune in the style of the Mamas and the Papas). More dignified vocal arrangements are scheduled for release in the U.S., England, France, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Japan.
In other words, as Secretary of State Judy LaMarsh has phrased it, the Canada song will undoubtedly be "the only centennial project that will make money for the government."
Gimby has profited by building for himself an overnight national reputation as a sort of archetypal Canadian troubadour. The Pied Piper is on salary with the Centennial Commission for 18 months to pump up adult patriotism and rehearse school choirs in singing his Canada song.
Originally, the Commission had planned to restrict him to leading a parade of marching youngsters whenever the Confederation Train arrived in the first official stop of each province during its 63-city tour east across the country. The Commissioners hadn't counted, though, on Gimby being such an engaging showman.
His zest and rah-rah spirit are so genuinely infectious that it sometimes seems he is being sought as an emcee to preside over virtually every centennial project staged by the hundreds of rural communities that will be visited by eight tractor-trailer Confederation Caravans playing his song.
Last January, his flair for showmanship was displayed at the official ceremony launching the Confederation Train in Victoria, B.C. Gimby turned up at the Empress Hotel wearing what he described as an 1867-style Pied Piper cape -- gold buttons glittering on a two-tone green robe with a red lining.
He wielded what he called a heraldic King Arthur's trumpet -- four feet long, festooned with bangles and beads, and gaudy with 100-year-old pennies glued on to papier-mâché. When he strutted at the head of the 40-voice boys' choir, dressed in their green and blue tartan tams and vests, the spectators had something magnificent to see as well as hear. (Gimby also carries around a supply of Centennial tartan scarves for the children's choirs to wear.)
"I was terribly worried, because I knew the government was taking a gamble by going into show business," Gimby recalls. "But after we'd marched in the rain to the train and given our performance, I saw a little old lady wiping tears from her eyes and she was saying, 'I'm so proud to be a Canadian.' I thought to myself, 'Holy cow! We've scored a bull's-eye.'"
Since then, Gimby seems to have scored whenever he has made a personal appearance. Demands for his presence are so pressing -- whether to adjudicate a band festival in Moose Jaw, Sask., autograph his records in St. Paul, Alta., or tootle his horn in front of 2,000 chanting youngsters as they parade past the Queen in Ottawa on Dominion Day -- that Vickers and Benson's Robert Pugh, who handles the Canada song for the Centennial Commission, spends a good deal of his time steering Gimby through his hectic schedule. (His most thrilling reception was at his hometown of Cabri, where the entire population of 600 "spread the red carpet for me down on the gumbo mud and - oh, boy! - actually presented me with the key to the city.")
His 23-year-old daughter, Lynn, a former CBC makeup artist, has accompanied him from coast to coast to wipe the perspiration off his brow between performances and to answer the bag-loads of mail he receives in each community. (Most are from would-be songwriters submitting centennial anthems of their own, and one of them, a woman poet, suggested that her verses be set to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy.)
Instant stardom does not appear to have swollen Gimby's head. He has endured more than 150 press, radio and TV interviews across the nation, and according to all reports, has conducted himself with unfailing modesty and tact.
He never seems to tire of being asked: "How did you come to write the Canada song?"
"The idea first came to me when I was playing an orchestra date at Manoir Richelieu in La Malbaie, Que., back in the summer of 1964," he replies. "On St. Jean Baptiste Day I saw about 50 kids parading through the streets. The boys were dressed in quaint sacking material, and the girls had flowers in their hair, and they were all singing some delightful folk song in French.
"I thought, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if the French and English kids of this great country could pull together and sing a sing in their own language?'
"Well, that thought stuck in my mind for a whole year. When I finally sat down to write the song, the first eight bars sprang on to the paper instantly. But it took months, working nights in my Toronto apartment and ripping up many pages of false attempts in the morning, before it came out nice and simple."
There is no easy formula for writing popular songs, he says. When inspiration eludes him, he glances through the pages of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations in hope that some passage will percolate ideas. And when that doesn't work, he unblushingly admits he rereads the children's stories of Thornton W. Burgess. "Gosh, it's amazing," he says in wonderment, "what an inspired message you'll find in the adventures of Jimmy Skunk and Reddy Fox."
His daughter, Lynn, can recall only one interview that ever fazed her father. He was a guest on a radio hot-line phone-answer show in Vancouver late one night when a slightly sauced woman called up in a highly sultry voice.
"Bobby, do you remember me?" she said, giving her name.
"Afraid I don't, ma'am."
"Surely you have memories of that romantic August evening 28 years ago?"
"Sorry, ma'am. It doesn't ring a bell."
"Under a harvest moon, when you and I were out on the pasture near Cabri?"
A long silence.
"We were out on a hayride together, and you were playing your trumpet."
"Holy gosh!" A gulp of relief. "Darned nice of you to remember me, ma'am." A hurried goodbye, and a quicker clicking down of the receiver.
"Daddy claims he didn't lose his cool," remembers Lynn Gimby with a smile, "but he was sure sweating heavily that night."
- End of article. Copyright by The Canadian magazine, June 10, 1967. All rights reserved.