Ken Hollis in-memorium
Highschool friends Ken Hollis and Rich Wamil began jamming together in the garage in 1965, and formed their first group, Penny Farthings soon after. Adopting a name they felt reflected the British Invasion they were hearing on the airwaves, they soon became staples around the Kitchener, Ontario area.
Members came and went over the next few years, but with Hollis on vocals and Wamil on keyboards and vocals, the lineup by ’68 also featured guitarist Vern McDonald, Paul Reibling on bass, and drummer Bert Hamer. While writing some material, they shopped some demos around while pounding the streets, eventually catching the attention of execs at Columbia. The first thing the label did was suggest a name change, so Copperpenny was born, taking their name from the b-side to The Paupers‘ hit, “If I Call You By Some Name.”
By that summer, they’d recorded some material, and three tracks were picked as singles over the next few months – “Baby Gives Me Everything” b/w “I’m Afraid Of The Cold,” followed shortly after by “Nice Girl” b/w “Help Me” and “Beezel Bug” b/w “I Gotta Go.” None shook the world’s foundations, nor did they live up to the expectations of some of Columbia’s staff, although “Nice Girl” did make it to #77 on the Canadian RPM chart. This was despite label brass putting little or no effort into promotions, exemplified when the three singles were overseen by a faceless production group at Chelsea Sound.
They hooked up with RCA Records and went into the studios in Chicago with famed producer Jack Richardson (Guess Who, among a million others). While finishing up work on their upcoming debut album, they continued playing gigs, highlighted by an opening slot for Led Zeppelin in Kitchener.
Their self-titled debut album was in the stores in the spring of 1970,and RCA and Richardson’s Nimbus 9 both released singles. But the lollipop melody of “Just A Sweet Little Thing” and the grittier “I’ve Been Hurt Before” both failed to chart. But the final single, “Stop (Wait A Minute)” cracked the top 100, fuelled by Wamil and Hollis trading lead vocals on the song. It got good airplay in the GTA and throughout southern Ontario. With “Stop (Wait a Minute)” getting decent airplay in the Detroit market, thanks to southern Ontario radio’s support, RCA was encouraged to widen its distribution into the US, but the album still failed to make a dent.
Also featured was the psychadelic “Stop The World,” a nine minute epic that when added to the rest of the album, had the critics totally baffled as to what direction the band was going was. The band kept on the road for the better part of a year, opening for the likes of The Guess Who and 5 Man Electrical Band.
Throughout ’71 the band continued to tour while writing their own material. But by the following summer, only Hollis and Wamil remained from the original lineup, due in part to what some members claimed to be financial mismanagement, where their manager Dick Wending kept a reported 51% of all bookings and recording deals. Ron Hiller had replaced Reibling on bass nearly a year earlier, and Bill Mononen replaced McDonald on guitars after leaving to join the short-lived Yukon. With Blake Barrett the new drummer, they signed a new deal with Much Productions, which would see the records released in Canada on Sweet Plum (a branch of London Records), and in the US through Bell’s subsidiary, Big Tree Records.
Their 1973 sophomore album, SITTING ON A POOR MAN’S THRONE, was produced by Harry Hinde at Pac 3 Studios in Dearborn, Michigan. Four singles were released over the next year, beginning with “You’re Still The One,” featuring the unreleased “Call Me” as the b-side and background vocals by Tony Orlando’s stage props, Dawn. It gave the band its first top 40 hit, peaking at #26 in Canada, but still failed to make an impression in the US. A shortened version of the album’s title track (covered by Bobby Bland in 1977) followed, and things looked promising when it became their biggest hit, peaking at #14 at home. Despite some more tour dates and an appearance on CBC TV’s “Drop-In” variety show to help bolster sales, “Rock & Roll, Boogie Woogie, and Wine” and “Where Is The Answer?” failed to duplicate their earlier success, and the band again found itself disillusioned.
Hollis decided to test the solo waters in ’74 by releasing his single, “Brenda,” shortly before Copperpenny released a new single on their own, an upbeat version of the old Gershwin standard, “Summertime.” Within a few months, Sweet Plum had bid a fond farewell to the band, and the members themselves all went their separate ways.
Wamil signed a new deal with Capitol Records, who wanted to promote any project as still a Copperpenny album. So Wamil assembled a group of studio players – Alan Mix (ex-Skylark) and Brian Russell (ex-Keith Hampshire) on guitars, drummer Barry Keane, Eric Robertson on keyboards, and bassist Paul Zaza. They released the soulful “Help Your Brother,” b/w the Motown flavoured “Rollin’ All Night.” But despite the band playing some shows, including opening for Bob Seger and Uriah Heep, and showing up on the CBC TV program, “Keith Hampshire’s Music Machine,” the single barely made an appearance on the charts.
Wamil hooked up with Hinde again to produce the next album – 1975’s FUSE. Unlike its predecessors, which was all original recordings, this album was ten covers – ranging from “Disco Queen” (which Hot Chocolate took to the top 10 earlier in the year), a pair of tracks from Rare Earth (“Good Time Sally” and “Going Down To Miami”), to Van Morrisson’s “Feedback Out On Highway 101” and Bobby Lewis’ “Tossin’ and Turnin’.” But with what critics called the same lack of focus that had plagued the band from day one, “Suspicious Love” was the biggest chart success, which only peaked at #49. The label also tried to capitalize on the holiday market, convincing Wamil and company to record a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run.”
One final single was released, a cover of “Needing You” in 1976, Natalie Cole’s first hit a year earlier. Although expectations were high, the single didn’t chart, and Wamil packed it in, although various incarnations of the band would reunite from time to time. As well as becoming an insurance broker, Wamil continued to perform regularly in the southern Ontario market well into the early ’00s with his new group, Gravity, which also featured Blake Barrett at one point.
After officially leaving Copperpenny, Ken Hollis returned to RCA for a pair of singles, “Our World is a Rock n Roll Band” b/w “Saying Goodbye” (written by Wamil), and then the old Dion hit “Ruby Baby.” His final single was in 1978, releasing “Goin’ Hollywood.” In the ’80s he ran Lulu’s Roadhouse for awhile, Kitchener’s top nightclub. He died at the age of 57 on July 12, 2002, following a heart attack that occurred three days after he was hit by a pickup truck.
Russell, Robertson, Keane, and Zaza all ended up working with Charity Brown, when Hinde agreed to work with her. Keane then later became Gordon Lightfoot‘s drummer. Zaza became a movie soundtrack composer. After he’d left following the second album, Bill Mononen ended up joining Vern McDonald in Yukon, after working in the aviation business. After playing in a gospel group, Sonlight, for a few years, Hiller earned a BA and BEd, Ron Hiller became a children’s music performer, recording under the name Ronno.