He is one of the greatest musical artists that Canada has ever produced. His music has become part of the Canadian cultural landscape and he was arguably the most overtly nationalist songwriter in Canadian history.
Today, I am looking at the absolute legend that is Stompin’ Tom Connors.
Born on Feb. 9, 1936 in Saint John, New Brunswick to teenagers Isabel Connors and Thompson Joseph Sullivan, Connors family were Irish Protestants who had lived in the area for generations.
The childhood of Connors was tough, and poverty and hunger was not unusual for him growing up. His first home was in, what he described as quote:
“the poorest and most rundown part of Saint John.”
There were times that he and his mother would be begging on the streets of New Brunswick and when she was jailed for vagrancy, he was jailed with her. There were times that she would steal to feed the family, including steal food from a Chinese restaurant in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. The family moved often, and eventually Tom and his mother lived with her boyfriend Terrence Messer. The couple would work odd jobs to pay the bills.
Connors would say later in his life, quote:
“I moved more times in my first five years than most people do in a lifetime. Looking back on it, I can see that it must have been tough, being on the road like that. But it didn’t seem that way at the time. For all I knew, every little kid in the world was traveling down some dirt road with his mother.”
As a child, the poverty led Connors to have poor health, including a bout of diphtheria.
Despite the tough times with his mother, it was to her he traces his musical roots. He would say years later quote:
“She used to stand in front of the mirror with a broom for a guitar and play all the cowboy songs.”
Eventually, after his mother was put into a low-security penitentiary for women, Connors was seized by the Children’s Aid Society and spent the next three years being punished by the staff for bedwetting and other infractions. At one point he was put in a washing machine while it was running. He would say later in his life quote:
At the age of nine, he was adopted by Cora and Russell Aylward of Skinners Pond, Prince Edward Island.
The first song ever written by Connors was Reversing Falls Darling, which he wrote at 11.
Connors would say quote:
“They were poems. I wanted to be a poet. I can still remember every word of every poem we learned in grade school.”
By the age of 13, he was playing guitar and listening to the music of Wilf Carter and Hank Snow, which would have a huge impact on him. It was Carter and his songs about Canada that got Connors interested in doing the same thing with his life.
When Connors turned 15, although some sources say 13 including Connors so I will go with that, he would leave home and spend the next 13 years hitchhiking around Canada and working odd jobs, or being jailed for vagrancy. It was during this time of his life that he would see much of the country that would influence his songs and help him create his musical persona of a grassroots songwriter. During the coldest parts of the year, he would often try to get arrested for vagrancy so he could have a warm place to sleep.
In 1956, he was in Nashville where, as Connors related years later, he refused to sell one of his songs to his hero Hank Snow for $75 because he found the offer insulting. Today, that would amount to about $800. Another time, Connors reached Snow’s Rainbow Ranch near Nashville and Snow refused to see him.
Connors would say quote:
“Put down that you asked me what I thought about Hank Snow as a man and I answered no comment. I was crazy about the guy when I was a kid, and I still think he’s one of the best singers around. Let’s leave it at that.”
In 1964, Connors played his first show at the Maple Leaf Hotel in Timmins, Ontario. He was a nickel short for a 35 cent beer and the bar owner said he could have that beer and a second one if he opened his guitar case and played a few songs. That fortunate event would lead to him staying at the hotel for 14 months as a performer, getting a weekly spot on CKGB, producing eight 45 RPM recordings and the legend of Stompin’ Tom Connors was born.
Connors would say quote:
“I had a good thing going for me there in Timmins. By the time I left, that was after about 14 months, I’d got up to about $100 a week at the hotel, and I’d been on radio and television, and started doing shows in places like Kirkland Lakes and then in places like Sudbury.”
Connors would never forget that bartender, named Gaetan Lepine, and the two would often write songs together and correspond.
It was while performing at the hotel that he would pound the floor with his booted foot to keep a rhythm for the song above the noise of the crowd since there was no amplification at the bar.
On July 1, 1967 at a Centennial Day event at the King George Tavern in Peterborough, Ontario, he was referred to as Stompin’ Tom for the first time. The waiter, Boyd MacDonald, introduced him as such and Tom liked how enthusiastic the audience was for the name, so he registered Stompin’ Tom Ltd. the following week.
In 1968, he would write a radio jingle for a tire store in Sudbury in exchange for winter tires on his car.
To avoid damaging stages, he would put a board down. The stompin’ board would become an integral part of his image. These boards would eventually be sold to raise money for charity, including $15,000 in 2011 to raise money for the homeless and mentally ill in Orillia, Ontario. Sometimes during a performance he would stomp a hole through the wood and would then hold it up to the audience and ask for another board.
In 1965, Connors would record his first single, Carolyne.
By 1969, he was recording with Dominion and would release Bud the Spud that year, which became a top 30 hit in Canada. He followed that with Big Joe Mufferaw and Ketchup Song, both which reached #1 in Canada in 1970. Luke’s Guitar hit #2 in 1971.
It was also in 1970 that his song Bud The Spud became a hit in Canada and led to an increase in potato sales in Prince Edward Island. To thank him, a parade was held for Connors through Charlottetown and the Minister of Agriculture presented him with a golden spud.
Connors soon established Boot Records with his manager and released a series of successful songs that hit the top of the Canadian Country Chart.
By the early 1970s, Connors would use his growing fame to champion Canadian content. While commercial radio saw him as a novelty act, he found success on country and university radio stations.
He would say of his decision to sing about Canada, quote:
“My ambition? I guess you could say its to sing Canada to the world.”
In 1971, he was awarded a Juno Award for Best Male Country Singer, which he would win every year until 1975.
In 1972, he released a film This Is Stompin’ Tom and Across This Land With Stompin’ Tom Connors in 1973. He would also tour with his heroes Wilf Carter and Hank Snow.
On Nov. 2, 1973, he married Lena Walsh on a live broadcast on the CBC show Elwood Glover’s Luncheon Date.
The same year he married, he would release arguably his most famous song, The Hockey Song.
From 1956 to 1972, he would use a Gibson Southern Jumbo acoustic guitar that he had bought while in the United States in a furniture store hidden in a case on top of a shelf. He only had $90 with him but he bought it for $80. The guitar was retired in 1972 and his wife Lena would restore it and present it to him as a birthday gift.
While on tour, he would always drive the lead truck and was never the last person to go to bed, which meant his fellow musicians had to keep up with his pace of drinking.
Through the 1970s, he released 12 studio albums through Boot Records, as well as six compilations. He also wrote the song The Consumer, which was an ode to bill-paying. It would become the theme song for the CBC program Marketplace. He would also appear in its opening credits during its first years on television.
Many saw Connors, with his black cowboy hat, sideburns and board stomping as a persona he had created. This was not the case. The National Post would write of him quote:
The black Stetson hat was always worn in public and he refused to remove it for any reason. Even when he met Queen Elizabeth II in October 2002, he wouldn’t take it off and Buckingham Palace likened his hat to a religious headdress. The one time he did go hatless was for his wedding on national television to Lena.
Connors would say of wearing the hat, quote:
“I started wearing it when I was a kid because we didn’t grow our hair long then.”
In 1975, Connors was hired to perform at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto for two hours for $2,500. He then found out that American singer Charley Pride was being paid $35,000 for six songs. He boycotted the exhibition after that, and a few years later would take another stand for Canadian music.
In 1978, Connors returned his Juno Awards in protest over the awarding of Junos to artists who did most of their work, and lived, in the United States. He would then retire from music and conducted a one-year boycott of radio and other media to protest their lack of support of Canadian material.
His letter to the Juno Committee would state quote:
I am returning herewith the six Juno awards that I once felt honoured to have received and which, I am no longer proud to have in my possession. As far as I am concerned you can give them to the border jumpers who didn’t receive an award this year and maybe you can have them presented by Charley Pride. I feel that the Junos should be for people who are living in Canada, whose main base of business operations is in Canada, who are working toward the recognition of Canadian talent in this country and who are trying to further the export of such talent from this country to the world with a view to proudly showing off what this country can contribute to the world market.
Until the academy appears to comply more closely with aspirations of this kind, I will no longer stand for any nominations, nor will I accept any award given.
Yours very truly, Stompin’ Tom Connors”
In his life, he would found three record labels that promoted his own work and the work of others. Some artists who got their starts on his record labels included Liona Boyd, Rita MacNeil and the Dixie Flyers.
In 1986, at Connors’ 50th birthday party, Dave Bidini of the Rheostatics crashed the party and presented Connors with a petition to come out of retirement. With the subsequent article in Nerve Magazine about the incident, written by Bidini, was released, a renewed interest in Connors began.
It would not be until 1988 that Connors returned to performing when he released Fiddle and Song. He would do a few shows on CBC’s Morningside that year, and then appeared with k.d. lang on the CBC special Buffalo Cafe.
In 1990, Connors played a 70-city tour of Canada, including two shows at Massey Hall. That same year, he released A Proud Canadian, which went gold and then platinum in Canada. At one point, performing in a small town northwest of Toronto, he was greeted by 700 people who gave him a standing ovation. He had two conditions on his tour. No radio stations as concert presenters and no interviews with the media.
One man, Rick Ribbel, would say of Connors quote:
“He has flair. Someone who is totally true to himself.”
Connors would say of his decision to retire for over a decade that it was related to the lack of recognition for Canadian artists in the country. He would say quote:
“I’m not saying keep the Americans out. Just give Canadians their due, and we are overdue for that.”
In 1993, Connors was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame but he turned down the induction.
In 1994, General Romeo Dallaire, who was leading the peacekeeping force in Rwanda during the Genocide, played The Blue Berets, Connors’ song about the UN Peacekeepers, in order to keep up troop morale when they were under bombardment.
He would accept a Lifetime Achievement Award from the East Coast Music Awards on the condition that an award be created to honour those who made long-term contributions to the music industry of the East Coast. In 1996, the Stompin’ Tom Award was established.
That same year, he was awarded the Order of Canada.
When the 1990s came along, Connors was being discovered by new generations who liked his emphasis on the history and natural beauty of Canada.
In 1992, his classic song The Hockey Song, was played during an Ottawa Senators game and it quickly became a regular anthem at NHL games.
Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, he would release several albums, full of songs that commemorated Canadian events including Confederation Bridge.
In 2000, he was awarded the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award.
Throughout his life, Connors’ music was always focused on Canada. He would say in 2002 quote:
“It’s a shame everyone today is writing about Nashville and Tennessee. Canadians are wasting their time and doing Canada a disservice by not writing about it.”
While Connors music was rarely heard outside of Canada, The Hockey Song was heard in the United States. When Conan O’Brien taped a week of shows in Canada in 2004, Connors was a guest of honour and he played The Hockey Song, one of the few times he performed on American television.
In 2005, Connors produced at his own expense a live concert film that was declined by the CBC when they stated they were moving away from music programming. The special cost him $200,000 to film. He had sent the film in and was told they would reply within a few weeks. Then, 10 weeks later a new programming vice president sent an e-mail and said they were not going to be showing it.
The CBC would offer him the chance to perform a song as a guest on the Hockeyville series, or as a Life and Times project. Connors would respond quote:
“As far as I’m concerned, if the CBC, our own public network, will not reconsider their refusal to air a Stompin’ Tom special, they can take their wonderful offer of letting me sing a song as a guest on some other program and shove it”
CTV stepped in and broadcast the film. The DVD would go on to sell more than 20,000 copies.
In 2012, Connors released his final album, Stompin Tom and the Roads of Life.
Over the course of his career, Connors composed more than 500 songs, with most based on events or people in Canada, or to honour locales that he performed.
After a life of hard drinking and smoking, Connors died of kidney failure on March 6, 2013. It was estimated that over the course of his life, he would smoke upwards of 100 cigarettes a day.
The National Arts Centre would lower its flags to half mast to honour Connors.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper would say quote:
“We have lost a true Canadian original. Rest in Peace Stompin’ Tom Connors. You played the best game that could be played.”
Knowing his health was in decline, Connors penned a letter to Canadians on his website. It said Canada kept him quote:
At the Air Canada Centre during a Maple Leafs game, fans stood up as The Hockey Song was played after his death was announced.
On March 7, New Democratic MPs sang Bud the Spud in the foyer of the House of Commons to honour him.
His memorial at the Peterborough Memorial Centre was attended by Tommy Hunter, former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, Ken Dryden, Rita MacNeil, Romeo Dallaire and Liona Boyd.
Liberal MP Bob Rae would say of Connors quote:
“Tom was a wonderful voice for Canada, and his music brought cheer to the lives of many. He was a true patriot and embodied the very best of what it meant to be Canadian.”
Corb Lund, a singer-songwriter, would say of him quote:
“Artistry is doing exactly what you want to do in the face of all kinds of challenges and not letting your vision be diluted. He’s 1,000 per cent an artist that way. He did his own thing start to finish, front to back.”
Another Canadian icon, Gordon Lightfoot, said of Connors quote:
“He was a powerful entertainer and he had a powerful voice. He was a great player. He always had great musicians working with him.”
When The Greatest Canadian list was compiled by CBC in 2004, Stompin’ Tom Connors ranked 13th, the highest placing of any artist on the list.
I will finish this episode off with a quote from the National Post, which said of Connors quote:
“He sang of a nation without politics, to its proud history, and to its better angels. His songs remind us that Canada matters, that we’ve built something amazing here, and must take it for granted.”
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, CBC, Wikipedia, Calgary Herald, Montreal Gazette, National Post, The Windsor Star,