By John Swartz
The Downchild Blues Band has been performing their brand of music for 50 years and since June they’ve been criss-crossing the continent.
“Most of the shows have been sold out, if not very close to sold out,” said Chuck Jackson. The band’s lead singer (since 1990) spoke with SUNonline/Orillia by phone on a day off during their western swing. “The reaction has been fantastic. Out west we’ve got some great fans. We had people, when we were in Vancouver, come up from San Francisco to see us.”
There are a number of great Canadian blues bands, Cameo Blues, Fathead, Colin James, but ask anyone to start a list and the first name on it will usually be Downchild. The audiences they’ve attracted for their 50th anniversary tour span the ages.
“It’s interesting because there’s three generations of fans now. The original fans from ’69 are bringing their children, and their children bring their children, it’s a great thing,” Jackson said.
The current lineup, Donnie Walsh, Michael Fonfara, Pat Carey, Gary Kendall, Mike Fitzpatrick and Jackson have been together, for the most part, since 1990, with Fitzpatrick the newbie joining in 2004 (Kendal did two stints, rejoining in 1995). The 50th anniversary celebration began started last June where it all began .
“The kick off was at Grossman’s Tavern. It was the first time we played a bar in probably at least 15 years. It was the original showcase for the band back in 1969. It was a really fun experience,” said Jackson. The tour comes to Orillia Nov. 23 at the Opera House.
“We’ll play some of the classics like Flip Flop and Fly, Almost, and Shot Gun (Blues) and we’ll do some of the old songs from our 20 albums that we dug out for this tour, and we’ll also be playing songs from our last two CDs (Can You Hear The Music and Something I’ve Done).”
On this tour they’ve had a string of opening acts ranging from Paul Reddick, Jim Byrnes, David Gogo and Colin James to some world famous names.
“We just did a show to kick off our tour at the Downtown Jazz Festival in Toronto in the summer and we had Dan Aykroyd and Paul Shaffer; that was really a highlight. There must have been about 30,000 people there,” said Jackson. “It’s a lot of fun getting to play with some of our friends and colleagues over the years, and of course there are a lot of young acts that we’re introducing.”
The Orillia show opens with Suzie Vinnick who is no stranger to Orillia audiences.
“She’ll open up and then she’ll do a duet with me with a song I wrote, Mississippi Women, Mississauga Man.”
OK, we get the Mississauga Man, Jackson lived most of his life in Port Credit, but what’s with the Mississippi Woman?
“There’s a friend called the Mississippi Queen, from Mississippi, who has a restaurant in Hamilton; it’s kind of a tongue in cheek,” Jackson said with a laugh.
Jackson joined the band by invitation.
“I was playing in a band called the Cameo Blues Band. We were the house band at the Hotel Isabella in Toronto. When Donnie and Jane and Pat and those guys – after they come back off the road – a lot of times they’d come into the Izzy and jam with us, so we knew each other. I also shared a house with Pat Carey, we knew each other really well and when they decided to go for a new singer they asked if I was interested,” he said. Aside from founder Donnie Walsh, Jackson is probably the most recognizable member of the band after 30 years tenure.
“It’s a lot of singing of Flip, Flop and Fly. I probably sang it about 5,000 times.”
There’s a lot of memories racked up during that time.
“We’ve got a lot of them, but I’ve got to think one of the highlights was opening up for B. B. King at Massey Hall. After the show he sat with us for about half an hour. He’s just a wonderful man, a gentleman.”
We’ve played with some of the great acts like Joe Cocker, Beach Boys, we played in Chicago at Buddy Guy’s bar, travelled all over the world, played Europe, Norway, Denmark, France, Central America. There’s a lot of great highlights for me over the 30 years,” he said.
One steady gig the band has had is the Southside Shuffle blues and jazz festival in Port Credit which Jackson started in 1999.
“Downchild’s played at every one. Our first year we only had two bands at the park and the park wasn’t licensed. I think we got about 2,000 people and it was just Downchild and Fathead. Now, Downchild has traditionally closed the festival on the Sunday. We’ve done that for about 20 years, and we have over 150 acts and it’s quite the international festival,” Jackson said.
The band and the members have an impressive number of Juno and Maple Blues Awards. In fact, just two days before the conversation the 2019 Maple Blues nominations were announced and Downchild has been nominated for an Entertainer of the Year award and Michael Fonfara and Gary Kendall have been nominated individually. Over the years Jackson has been nominated individually 8 times for a Maple Blues, winning Best Vocalist twice and a Blues With a Feeling award.
Jackson is happy to be playing in the Opera House once gain.
“It’s a great venue. I don’t think Downchild has played it. I don’t remember playing it with Downchild. I’ve done The Last Waltz, I did a Christmas show, I’ve probably played it maybe 3 or 4 times” said Jackson.
“I love the old theaters. They’ve got a lot of warmth to them and the sound is just as great. There are a lot of great theaters in Ontario and of course the Opera House is one of the great ones.”
The show is Nov. 23 at 7:30 p.m. and you can get tickets online.