Sharing their love for the blues


While he was still a cast member of Saturday Night Live and before he became a Blues Brother, Dan Aykroyd would summer at his property on Loughborough Lake, and he would often hop on his motorbike in the evening, bound for Kingston and one destination in particular: Dollar Bill’s.

Back in those days, the room tucked away at the back of the former Prince George Hotel, now the Tir Nan Og pub, was the hottest venue in the city to see bands, and many of the greatest blues performers of the time graced its stage, including John Lee Hooker, John Mayall, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, and so on, while also hosting circuit favourites such as David Wilcox and Eugene Smith.

“I remember how long the sets would go. It would go right to the end. The bands were not in a hurry to get off that stage, and the breaks were short,” Aykroyd recalled over breakfast on a downtown restaurant patio recently. “They loved playing that room, for some reason.”

He feels that the crowd might have had something to do with it. It was a curious mix of academics and bikers linked by a love and admiration of music, and it was always an audience that appreciated that they were watching “really special, vintage music.”

“If you look at all of the premier blues rooms across North America, wherever you might find them, the PG was probably right up there with the best of them,” said Aykroyd, who would sometimes bring along his brother, Peter, and father, “Big Pete,” who instilled in him his love of music.

Sitting beside him at breakfast was Peter Lloyd, who was the manager of Dollar Bill’s back in its heyday. Back then, he said, the club had a promotional deal with a local radio station.

“They paid us to live broadcast the bands. We would often have them there for six nights. Ronnie Hawkins there for six nights. John Lee Hooker for three,” Lloyd said about the broadcast’s 1979 to ’82 run. “We would simulcast the first night, and we’d be full the rest of the week.”

The broadcasts emanated from a small, headroom-free space beneath the room’s sunken dance floor, or the “pit below the pit,” Lloyd chuckled.

Thankfully, someone had the foresight to push the record button on the tape deck during those simulcasts. And now those performances have been restored, remastered and transferred onto compact disc for a second time.

The first four-disc compilation, Live at Dollar Bill’s: Bootlegger’s Legacy, was handed out to those who attended a 2014 concert at the Prince George Hotel that raised $30,000 for the University Hospitals Kingston Foundation to buy equipment for the cancer centre.

That will be the cause again — Lloyd’s wife, Brenda, died of the disease, as did many of the musicians who performed on the Dollar Bill’s stage — as the Dollar Bill’s Apex Group returns with another fundraiser, this time a concert by Blackie and the Rodeo Kings at the Grand Theatre on Friday, Oct. 20. And, again, an exclusive new four-disc compilation, Bootlegger’s Legacy 2, will be handed out to the first 450 ticket holders through the door.

The second volume features performances by, among others, Luther “Guitar Jr.” Johnson, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Junior Walker and the All-Stars, Bleecker Street, and the Matt Murphy Blues Band (Murphy would go on to be the guitarist for the Blues Brothers). It also features two-thirds of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings: Tom Wilson can be heard with former band The Florida Razors, while Colin Linden plays alongside Amos Garrett.

“It’s pretty impressive when you see the list of people who came through, and also the quality of the music and the recording,” said the man also known as Elwood Blues, who will be joining Blackie and the Rodeo Kings onstage at the Grand, as will other special guests.

Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Dollar Bill’s was a stop on the blues-music circuit along with Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern, Montreal’s Esquire Show Bar, and Le Hibou in Ottawa.

That’s where a young Aykroyd spent many nights during his last year of university in the nation’s capital.

“You name an R&B or blues star of that time and we all saw them at Le Hibou,” he recalled about the venue at which he once jammed with icon Muddy Waters. “I couldn’t believe that there was somewhere in Kingston that had those sensibilities, so naturally I showed up.”

Dollar Bill’s also benefited because of where it was and what it offered. Since it was between Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa, performers who had a night off in their schedules would often play there because they would rather make money than spend it, Lloyd said.

“It just made sense for the bookers to throw in an extra gig on the way between Montreal and Toronto, or vice versa,” Aykroyd suggested.

“That’s how we got John Lee Hooker for $600, I think,” chuckled Lloyd.

And Dollar Bill’s offered touring musicians something a lot of other venues didn’t: a place to rehearse if they wanted, a restaurant, and hotel rooms to stay in.

Sometimes that didn’t work out as planned, though. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee once played the Prince George, and, while they performed onstage together, they barely spoke off of it.

“They didn’t even want to be on the same floor together,” Lloyd recalled. “And I had them sharing a bathroom. That had to change.”

Of course, musicians also had some requirements, or riders, in their contracts.

While Lloyd had to get a bottle of cheap Thunderbird wine for The Fabulous Thunderbirds, the one that stands out was the rider for the late Levon Helm of The Band. He had two demands: a bottle of sake and burned pizza.

So, after his show, Lloyd took Helm to the now-closed Lino’s restaurant on Division Street, where he ordered a very well-done pizza.

“They would bring out the pizza,” Lloyd laughed, “and he would send it back and ask them to burn it some more.”

Dollar Bill’s started to gain a reputation as a band-friendly venue, and that reputation grew to the point where many of the artists asked to play there, rather than the other way around, Lloyd said.

“You’ve got the artists self-generating their work here because they loved the place, they loved the staff, they loved the city, the feel of the town,” remembered Aykroyd.

Even if the show was over, the night often wasn’t, added Aykroyd, who was often there with friend Wally High, who died in 2008 after a battle with cancer.

“[After the show], it would be back to our place or Wally’s apartment. Those are nights that ended at 4 in the morning, and we would stay until the last dog was hung at the PG,” the former Ghostbuster recalled with a smile. “And then, of course, the joy was that the artist would come to Wally’s house or out to the lake, and you would hear their stories.”

Live music would eventually fade from Dollar Bill’s as it, like so many other venues, embraced the video age and became a dance club.

The blues circuit, in particular, started to dry up as the venues vanished.

“It’s really a shame,” said Aykroyd, whose syndicated radio show, “Elwood’s BluesMobile,” ended this past summer.

“I was in my twenties then, and still learning about the blues, and I would have a young girlfriend come up who had never heard of this artist or that artist.

“And then, after the show, she would walk out bopping and saying, ‘I’ve got to buy all of his records.’ It was so great for introducing that music to young people. Young people today don’t know.”

The second Bootlegger’s Legacy compilation that will be handed out at the Oct. 20 show, though, just might help change that.

phendra@postmedia.com

twitter.com/petehendra

Essentials

What: Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, to be joined by Dan Aykroyd, will play a fundraising concert for the University Hospitals Kingston Foundation to buy cancer-fighting equipment.

When: Friday, Oct. 20, 7:30 p.m.

Where: The Grand Theatre, 218 Princess St.

Cost: Tickets are $82.65 plus handling fee and HST. The first 450 ticket holders get the four-disc compilation Live at Dollar Bill’s: Bootlegger’s Legacy 2. Go to kingstongrand.ca to purchase tickets online.

For more: www.blackieandtherodeokings.com

 



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