Based in Vancouver, the core of Blue Northern was formed in 1977 and was centred around on Garry Comeau (not to be confused with Gary Comeau of Esquires, Townsmen) on piano and fiddle, bassist Lee Roy Stephens, guitarist Ray O’Toole (ex of Northwest Company), and Oklahoma native Jimmy Wilson (ex of Cement City Cowboys) on pedal steel and rhythm guitars. O’Toole then introduced the band to drummer Brady Gustafson.
To make their sound more accessible, it wasn’t long before Comeau only picked up the fiddle now and again, having switched to lead guitar. Already getting media attention, by the end of the year American-born Billy Cowsill, ex of The Cowsills, the real-life ’60s family band that inspired The Partridge Family, followed soon after. With management from Jack of Hearts Productions, they continued touring the west coast and booked some time at Don Tarris’ Buttertree Studio in Richmond, BC.
With Cowsill producing, they recorded some material, and in the fall of 1979 released a four-track blue vinyl EP on the indie label, Quintessence Records, simply entitled BLUE. Reps from Polydor became interested in the band, and after signing them to a deal, released “Can’t Make No Sense,” which became a national hit. The label sent them back to the studio, this time Water Street Sound & Filmworks in Vancouver, while also cranking out a second single to the radio stations. Like its predecessor, “Too Late To Turn Back” was penned by O’Toole, and found its way into the top 40 Canadian country chart. The flip side was the previously unreleased “Half As Much,” written by Cowsill prior to his joining the band.
Cowsill, O’Toole, and Wilson all served as producer for their eponymous debut album, in the stores in the summer of 1981. Along with the original versions of “Can’t Make No Sense” and “Too Late To Turn Back” from the EP appearing again, it featured the top 40 hits “You’re Not The Same Girl” and “100%.” As they toured the country, making some TV appearances along the way, as well as doing some shows south of the border. A third single, “Can’t Stop” was also released before the end of the year, and like everything else the band had done, was a pop and country cross-over hit.
Ironically, in ’82 after receiving some votes for Juno and CCMAs (Canadian Country Music Awards), the band was suffering the usual irreconcilable differences, and Gustafson left, replaced by Larry McGillivray on drums. Not long after that, the band imploded and everyone went their separate ways.
Comeau became a highly sought-after sessions man and regarded as one of Canada’s top Cajun-styled fiddlers. After staying in Vancouver for awhile, Wilson eventually moved back to the US, and worked with Queen Ida and the Bon Temps Zydeco Band, and collaborated with Robbie Robertson on a Native American-inspired album (since both have Native ancestry) and PBS documentary. The album, MUSIC FOR THE NATIVE AMERICANS, won a Grammy Award for Best Aboriginal Recording, and the documentary picked up an Emmy Award.
O’Toole meanwhile formed the Ray O’Toole Band and became a fixture as a solo artist in and around the Vancouver area. After spending a few years in his own band, Cowsill formed Blue Shadows, good for a pair of albums. When that band had run its course, he moved back to Alberta, did some session work, and eventually formed The Co-Dependents – good for another two records. But after suffering from poor health for months, due partially to an excessive lifestyle, he died on February 17, 2006 at the age of 58.
Your information is wrong about blue northern….Ray O’Toole wrote and sang can’t make no sense , to late to turn back, 100% , can’t stop and your not the same girl, not billy cowsill. There were no dates with Tanya tucker and no Juno nods…they won five Danny awards . All the hits were Ray otooles who is still playing music today….You and many more people have done this wrong for years saying billy was the singer for these songs….get it right…..Jeannie O’Toole.