It's hard to argue that no one flew the Canadian flag higher or wore the Maple Leaf prouder than Stompin' Tom Connors. Born Thomas Charles Connors in St John, New Brunswick in 1936, he spent a short time as a child living with his single mother while she did time in a low security pentitentiary. He was seized by Children's Aid Society and put in an orphanage, before later being adopted by the Aylward family, growing up in Skinners Pond, PEI. He also had musical roots in his family, as his older maternal cousin was Ned Landry, a fiddling sensation across the Maritimes.
At the age of 15, he ran away from home after several previous unsuccessful attempts. With a guitar over his shoulder, he hitch-hiked across Canada, while working at various odd jobs over the next 13 years, all the while putting his experiences on paper and finding the occasional gig in a local tavern. It was these early times that first fuelled his passion for writing about every nook and cranny in Canada, its people, and its culture - from bingo halls and potato farms to the military - from lumberjacks, miners, and fishermen to hockey moms... even Sasquatch couldn't avoid him.
He drifted into the Maple Leaf Hotel in Timmins, Ontario, but was a nickel short of a beer. The bartender, Gaeten Lepine, agreed to give him one if he played a few songs, which happened to be covers of earlier Canadian superstars Hank Snow and Hank Thompson. It led to a second night, then a third, then a 14-month long contract - and the birth of a legend. He stayed in touch for the rest of his life, who ended up co-writing dozens of songs with Connors over the years.
An executive at CKGB saw him perform and hired him for a weekly spot at the local station. This in turn led to the station releasing eight singles on the Quality label. Then Rebel Records picked him up for a pair of albums prior to the label's owner declaring bankruptcy in 1968. The hits during this period included "Sudbury Saturday Night," "The Maritime Waltz" (which he reportedly wrote in only 12 minutes), "Don Valley Jail," and "Benny The Bum." Both of the original releases of these albums featured his name minus the nickname that he became known for - "Stompin'," which he later stated was simply a way of keeping time with the music over a loud crowd.
It wasn't long into his career that he earned that monikor, when after numerous complaints about damaged stage floors, he began to carry a piece of plywood with him that he stomped even more vigorously than before. After stomping a hole in the wood, he would pick it up and show it to the audience, usually accompanied by a joke about the quality of the local lumber, before calling for a new one. It was reported that when asked about his "stompin' board," Connors quipped in reply that it was "just a stage he was going through." He frequently auctioned off these pieces of plywood during his career for charity, often selling for over $10,000.
When the first two records were re-released several years later, the original master tapes had been lost, and were actually re-recorded. His '1967 debut lp, NORTHLAND'S OWN TOM CONNORS, is also the only album to ever feature his picture on the jacket without his trademark black cowboy hat.
"Bud The Spud," "The Ketchup Song," "Ben In The Pen," "Luke's Guitar (Twang Twang)," "My Little Eskimo," "Big Joe Mufferaw," (about Quebec's logging legend Joseph Montferrand), "Gumboot Cloggeroo," and "Roll On Saskatchewan" all helped cement his name in the still burgeoning Canadian country music scene after signing with Dominion Records in 1970. He won his first Juno Award in 1971, for top male country singer, the first of six times he'd give an acceptance speech at the Junos during his career, and began a run of five straight years of wins. He also received his first gold album (50,000) in 1970, for BUD THE SPUD AND OTHER FAVOURITES.
The early part of the decade also saw him release a poorly-received holiday album of originals, but still the hits kept coming over the next few years, along with his first live album, AT THE HORSESHOE. Ahead of his time, he also released two box sets by 1972, each containing 60 tracks. Many of the songs he recorded during this period were American country standards which he'd put his own indelible spin on, including "Wabash Cannonball," "Wolverton Mountain," "Me and Bobby McGee," "Orange Blossom Special," "Yellow Rose of Texas," "Long Gone Lonesome Blues," and "Pistol Packin' Mama."
He toured extensively and exclusively throughout Canada during his career, but got his biggest commercial push when the CBC aired its consumer watchdog program, "Marketplace" in 1972. For the first four seasons, Connors' "The Consumer" was the opening theme, until it was replaced, first by an instrumental version of the song before ultimately being ditched for a new song all together. Other hits during this period included originals like "Singing Away My Blues," "The Curse of The Marc Guylaine" (the only fishing trawler of a set of five that didn't mysteriously vanish), "The Snowmobile Song," and what most critics agree is the greatest sports anthem song ever written, and the song he'd become most synonymous with, "The Hockey Song."
As the decade wore on, he formed Boot Records with Mark Altman and his longtime producer Jury Krytiak, then recorded for Cynda Records. His 1973 live album, ACROSS THIS LAND, was recorded at Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern and featured some of his best known hits at the time, along with his trademark humour and banter with the audience when they weren't clapping along with the songs. It also coincided with a film of the same name, part documentary and part live footage. Always pushing Canadian talent, it also featured performances by Bobby Lalonde, Joey Tardif, Sharon Lowness, and The Rovin' Cowboys, among others.
In '74, he was offered his own timeslot on the CBC. "Stompin' Tom's Canada" was a 30-minute weekly program where he travelled the country, meeting people and hearing their stories. It ran for 26 episodes over one season. When it was over, he returned to touring and recording, penning more classics, including "Gumbbot Cloggaroo," "Ballad of Muk Tuk Annie," "Damn Good Song For A Miner," and "The Olympic Song," in honour of the '76 Montreal games, and also won his sixth Juno Award in '75 for male country artist of the year.
But by '78, he retired to his Ontario farm and family life, and gained headlines for his protest of what he considered "un-Canadian" treatment of artists by the federal government, the CRTC (Canadian Radio Television and Telecommunications Communication). He also had a bone to pick in particular with CARAS (Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences), the body that set the guidelines for Juno Award nominations. Vocally opposing what he considered its encouragement of artists moving Stateside to make it big, and what he considered the relaxation of requirements to win the awards, he gave back the six Junos he'd won. including the one he'd received barely two years earlier.
For twelve years he remained retired, stomping the plywood only occasionally, and only for private parties and special occasions. But when Rheostatics members Tim Vesely and Dave Bidini crashed his 50th birthday party, it resulted in an article published in a Toronto newspaper crying for Connors to come back. His first order of business after that was to start up ACT Records (Assist Canadian Talent), then press STOMPIN' TOM IS BACK TO A.C.T. in '88. He only performed four songs on the record, instead choosing to shine the spotlight on other up and coming artists, including Wayne Chapman, Cliff Evans, Donna Lambert, and Kent Brockwell.
FIDDLE AND SONG followed later that year, featuring the single, "Lady KD Lang," then appeared on her TV special before releasing his first platinum album (100,000 copies), A PROUD CANADIAN. A few compilations followed before 1992's BELIEVE IN YOUR COUNTRY, which featured the title track and a few re-recordings of earlier hits. He also released his first children's album, ONCE UPON A STOMPIN' TOM, which for the most part was also a compilation album of songs tailored to kids.
As the decade progressed, he was awarded an honourary doctorate from St. Thomas University, and was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in '96. Two years later, the closed schoolhouse in Skinners Pond, PEI that he went to as a child was renovated into a museum honouring him, complete with a wax statue of him, though its doors were closed for good a decade later. That same year, what some critics called the best Canadian greatest hits collection ever assembled, 25 OF THE BEST STOMPIN' TOM SOUVENIRS was in the hands of 100,000 people, making it his second platinum album.
In 2000 he received his second honourary doctorate, this time from the University of Toronto. All the while, he continued to record new material for new label EMI, including the 2000 EP, CONFEDERATION BRIDGE. Along with the title track, it featured others songs about Prince Edward Island in honour of its celebration of its centennial. That same year, he also released his second autobiography, "The Connors Tone," and in '02 he accepted another honourary doctorate, from the University of PEI.
As the new millennium continued, new life was breathed into his career and he gained a new appreciation from younger audiences and continued to release material - both new and brushed off versions of old classics, including new renditions of "The Hockey Song" and "The Olympic Song." In '04, he also led the audience in a sing-along of "The Hockey Song" when he was a guest on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" when it was taped in Toronto.
For years the CBC had been requesting Connors do a music special, which he finally relented to doing in 2005. Shot at Hamilton Place at his own cost of over $200,000, it featured his legendary banter with the crowd mixed in between his greatest hits.
But after three months of putting him off, network executives then told him it wasn't going to happen, but would be happy to have him as a guest on its "Hockeyville" series, or even as the subject for a "Life and Times" episode. Connors declined the invitation to do either, rather less than politely. Instead, he put it out himself on DVD. It went on to sell 200,000 copies, making it his first ever double platinum release.
Canada Post, however, did honour him, issuing a second set of stamps in their musical icons series, with him as one of the four artists pictured. In 2012, as he made his way across Canada promoting his own new album, William Shatner led the audiences into a sing-along version of his own unique stylings of "The Hockey Song."
Connors passed away at his home in Ballinafad, Ontario on March 6, 2013 of natural causes, with his family beside him. On March 7, several members of the federal NDP caucus, led by former musicians Charlie Angus and Andrew Cash, performed a group rendition of "Bud the Spud" in the foyer of the Canadian House of Commons as a tribute. A remembrance service was held on March 13 at the Peterbourough Memorial Centre.
Throughout his illustrious career, Stompin' Tom Connors left an indelible mark on Canadians of all backgrounds and walks of life. Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian General who led the UNAMIR peacekkeping force in Rwanda during that country's 1994 genocide reported that it was Connors' ode to the UN peacekeeping forces, "Blue Berets" that helped keep up his troops' morale while under heavy bombardment.
Musically, he also left a stamp on others' careers. Kim Mitchell recorded a non-album version of "Sudbury Saturday Night," and Corb Lund, who covered "The Hockey Song" (complete with a new verse for Edmonton Oilers fans), referenced Connors in his song, "Long Gone To Saskatchewan." Also, Dean Brody mentioned him in his song, "Canadian Girls," and Tim Hus' song, "Man With The Black Hat" was his own personal tribute to Connors. The Maritime group Clompin' Clod also released a tribute album to Connors in the mid '00s, which featured their renditions of several of his hits, as well as their own songs, "What in the Hell's a Stompin' Board?" and "The Saga of Stompin' Tom's Foot."