Music Radio Sixties

Canada’s International Pop Impact in the 60s

Let’s take a look at the Canadian performers who had entries on the US, UK, and Australian hit singles charts in the 1960s – click here to open the PDF – as a subset of the Canadian Hit Singles Chart (coming soon).

The Canadian music industry through much of the 1960s was simply treated as a US branch plant. The quality of the recording studios, availability of skilled musicians and technicians, and radio support were all lacking.

There was a reasonably vibrant live scene and local heroes in most cities – people still wanted to see live music, scream for teen idols, and dance all night – but that didn’t translate into major-label recording and hit records on the radio. Given that as a domestic scene, it isn’t surprising that international (i.e. US) record labels didn’t come hunting around for Canadian music. Also, the country was musically diverse, and never did create a specific movement like the British Invasion or California’s folk-rock boom. Plus one quarter of Canadian music was generated in French-speaking Quebec, which took it out of international contention (even in France).

There were a few dedicated people who, from the mid-sixties onward, pushed relentlessly for a stronger homegrown pop scene which eventually flowered in the 1970s, but it was still tough sledding in the early days. Many of the best-known and successful “Canadian” musicians moved to the US and spent most or all of their professional careers there. While they have Canadian roots, it makes more sense to describe people like Paul Anka, Neil Young, Percy Faith, Andy Kim, Jack Scott, and The Band as US-based artists. There were also many Canadian-born musicians who moved to the US to become part of American bands – Denny Doherty in The Mamas and The Papas, Zal Yanofsky in The Lovin’ Spoonful, the guys in Janis Joplin’s Full Tilt Boogie Band, several members of Rhinoceros, Bruce Palmer in Buffalo Springfield, Gene Cornish in The (Young) Rascals are a few examples – but they didn’t make those bands “Canadian” in any way. Even The Sparrows packed it in in Toronto and moved to Los Angeles to “make it” from there as Steppenwolf. All the hit songs from the musical “Hair” featured Canadian-born Galt McDermot’s music, but his collaborative work was based in New York at that point.

So if we remove all of these “quasi-Canadian” musicians, we are left with only a few performers who stayed based in Canada while making a significant impact on the international scene in the Sixties. First among the pop groups would be The Guess Who, which had five legitimate hits in the US pop charts in the 60s, and several more in the subsequent decade. The Irish(!) Rovers had their one big pop hit (“The Unicorn” and several lesser charters, although it must be said that they had perhaps the biggest impact of any Canadian-based outfit on the UK and Australian pop charts. Motherlode and The Poppy Family each had a big hit in 1969 as the Canadian scene was strengthening. Bobby Taylor and The Vancouvers were taken under Motown’s wing and had success in 1968 with three charting singles. Montreal’s Beau-Marks had pretty much the only pre-1964 US hit by a Canadian pop group with “Clap Your Hands”, which peaked at #45 in Billboard. And that’s about it. There were a few dozen other performers that got enough US airplay to dent the lower half of the Top Hundred pop charts, but none had sustained impact and most are not recognizable names today.

It may be noted that Canadians generated two US #1 pop hits in the Sixties – Percy Faith’s instrumental “Theme From A Summer Place” (although we have already noted that Faith was a US citizen at that point) and actor Lorne Greene’s spoken-word cowboy story “Ringo”. Greene worked in the US throughout the Sixties, primarily in TV’s Bonanza.

A few Canadians did make a significant dent in the US Country music charts during the decade, although they were primarily based in the US for recording purposes – Hank Snow charted 21 times during the decade, including a #1 with “I’ve Been Everywhere”; Stu Phillips had 8 Country hits in 2 ½ years beginning in 1966; Gary Buck hit #11 in 1963 with “Happy To Be Unhappy”; and Hal Willis’ “The Lumberjack” peaked at #5 at the end of 1964. As for the US R&B chart, Canadians were essentially absent, other than Bobby Taylor and The Vancouvers, despite the Toronto R&B club scene being legendary for the amount and quality of the live performances that happened in its mid-sixties heyday.

Overall, Canadians (even counting Canadian-born but US-based performers) were credited with less than 1 % of the hit records in the US over the course of the 1960s, and an even smaller percentage of the UK and Australian charts. Even in Canada, discounting the pre-1964 radio scene which essentially ignored local acts, it was rare for a weekly Top 100 chart to contain more than ten or sometimes fifteen Canadian singles (although at least those did include several that were recorded in Canada by homegrown artists). This situation persisted until 1971, when federal regulations mandated at least 25 % of radio airplay be given to Canadian performers.