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Adopting their name from the Sonny Boy Williamson song “Mr Downchild,” Downchild Blues Band’s roots run deep, first planted in the Toronto jungle in 1963. Singer Mike Smith, guitarists Don Walsh, Tom Extence, and Gary Stodolak, John Lamb on bass and drummer John Tanti got together playing mostly for fun while attending Northern Secondary School at Mount Pleasant and Eginton in Toronto.
By ’68, a new version that had Walsh and his brother Rick, bassist Jim Milne, Tanti, and Dave Woodward became the house band at Grossman’s Tavern. But after a couple of years, they outgrew the nest and flew the coop.They doubled the horns attack by adding Ron Jacobs, and their gigs across Canada and into the Chicago and Detroit areas became more frequent.
They released their independent debut, BOOTLEG, in 1971, starting a career of albums that traditionally featured a few originals mixed in with covers, such as their copies of Taj Mahal’s “Change My Way of Livin'” and Jimmie Rogers’ “That’s All Right.”
After signing with GRT Records, their first single was “Flip Flop Fly” from their sophomore album in ’73, STRAIGHT UP. The song spent time in the top 40 pop list, and made them the first homegrown blues act with a gold single, (50,000 copies). As they continued a relentless tour schedule on both sides of the border for the next few years, and the Walsh Brothers’ “I’ve Got Everything I Need (Almost)” was released as the second single,” also spending time in the top 40. Also included was “Shotgun Blues,” another tune pegged by the Walsh Brothers, which would be covered later by The Blues Brothers during their movie and subsequent soundtrack.
They added Jane Vasey and Tony Flaim replaced Rick Walsh for the next album, 1974’s DANCING. Vasey was a classically trained pianist converted into a boogie woogie rockin’ machine. Walsh’s instantly recognizeable raspy textured vocals soon became trademark, such as in the Elmore James cover, “Madison Blues” and Otis Spann’s “Must Have Been The Devil.”
With new drummer Bill Bryans, next up was READY TO GO a year later, which featured the top 40 single, “Old Ma Bell.” Other tracks like the covers of Andy Kim‘s “Rock Me Baby” and BB King’s “Caledonia” showcased the band’s versatility as they became mainstays across Canada, and regulars throughout the New Orleans, Kansas City, and St. Louis scenes.
But the rigours of touring and recording got the best of the band, and taking a break turned into a full-fledged breakup by 1977. While SO FAR; A COLLECTION OF OUR BEST, the first of what would become several compilation albums, was released, Walsh was out doing his own thing, and as a favour to friend Dan Ackroyd, helped The Blues Brothers by writing a pair of tracks for the BRIEFCASE FULL OF BLUES album in ’78. The other members were also out doing other projects, and Woodward moved to the west coast and joined Powder Blues.
That same year, Walsh reunited with Vasey and Flaim, along with Gary Kendall on bass, drummer Frank Russell, and Tony Rondolone on sax. After signing a deal with Attic Records, they released a pair of albums in 1980 – WE DELIVER and ROAD FEVER. Both produced hits, with Vasey’s “Tryin’ To Keep Her 88s Straight” and “I’ve Been A Fool.”
They streamlined their name to just ‘Downchild,’ and hooked up with legendary artist Spencer Davis for 1981’s BLOOD RUN HOT. their first album after shortening their name to just ‘Downchild.’ Along with the title track and “Hey Hey Little Girl” released as singles, the band had also picked up the touring schedule to include most major blues festivals throughout Canada and the US, as well as studio accolodates from the critics for their choice in covers, like Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” “Natural Ball” by Albert King, and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Nine Below Zero.”
After their last album for Attic was released, the live BUT I’M ON THE GUEST LIST which featured Vasey’s “You Don’t Do” and Walsh’s “One More Chance,” among others, and recorded over three nights at Toronto’s El Mocambo. The record returned the band to their full blown name, for now, though it would be shortened again before long. But shortly after its release, Vasey was diagnosed with leukemia, putting the band on hold while she underwent chemotherapy treatments. She succumbed to the disease in July 1982, at the age of 32. Walsh, who was living with her at the time, got out of the business all together for awhile, and turned to running fishing charters in northern Ontario. Flaim decided to leave to join a working band – Scuffers Blues Band.
Walsh assembled another version of the band a few years later, but the lineup was anything but stable. John Witmer (ex of Whiskey Howl) was brought in on vocals, but left just as quickly when he moved to Vancouver and formed The Bel-airs. Guitarist Mike McKenna (ex Luke & The Apostles) was also in the band for awhile, but left to join former Downchild alumni in the Kendall Wall Blues Band. With Flaim returning on vocals, featuring new vocalist , drummer Marty Vickers, Gene Taylor on piano, bassist Dennis Pinhorn, and a horns section of Bob Heslin and Pat Carey. They cut IT’S BEEN SO LONG in ’87, and then GONE FISHING two years later on new home Stony Plain Records. The album won the Juno for Best Roots and Traditional Album, prior to the re-release of several of the back catalogue as double packaged CDs.
After Walsh received a special award from the Toronto Blues Society, he formed Downchild Records and worked out an American distribution deal with Blue Wave Records. The lineup continued to be altered throughout the decade, including Walsh’s brother Rick stepping back in as vocalist after Flaim had left again. Walsh himself was soon replaced by Chuck Jackson, a former multi-award nominee and winner of the Maple Blues Awards’ Male Vocalist of the Year.
GOOD TIMES GUARANTEED was released in 1994, and featured an immediate return to cross-country tours for the band, while critics and fans alike ate up cuts like the lead-off “Good Times Guaranteed,” “I Can’t Stand It,” and Walsh’s ode to his musical roots, “I Am Mister Downchild.” They finished out the year with a Juno nomination for Best Blues or Gospel Recording.
Other than more compilations and dual-packs licensed to outside labels, recording was limited during the ’90s, and Walsh didn’t regroup the troops until 1998’s LUCKY 13. Walsh meanwhile was also spending a good deal of time in the studios with other artists, either as a sessions man or writer, or producer/engineer, including working with Big Daddy G on his 1998 debut. But with Flaim returning on vocals, varied cast members tagged along for some more tours to close out the decade.
With the turn of the millennium, the band, as well as individual members, began receiving distinctions from both the Junos, as well as the Maple Blues Awards and several other societies. This was continuing straight into 2004, when they released the COME ON IN album, now apparently settling on simply ‘Downchild’ as the band name. With new drummer Mike Fitzpatrick, and with songs like the jiving “Jump Right Up” and instrumentals “Cotton in My Ears” and “Cruisin’,” critics hailed the record as a return to true blues form, something that had been missing from the Canadian music scene for several years.
The record also featured “Dropping Like Flies,” Walsh’s tune about his losses, namely his girlfriend Jane Vasey who died in 1982, and then his brother Rick in late December 1999, and Tony Flaim less than three months later. Ironically, Flaim’s last public performance was a few weeks earlier, at Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern during a Rick Walsh Memorial gig.
Albums were being re-released at a fever pitch, more often than not without any bonus material. And by the time they agreed to a deal with Linus Entertainment and sandwiched LIVE AT THE PALAIS ROYALE in between ‘best of’ compilations in ’07, the new lineup marked over 100 people total that had played with the group at one time or another. With Gary Kendall returning on bass after a 15 year abscence, Michael Fonfara, (ex-Rhinoceros, Lou Reed, Solomon Burke) was brought in on keyboards. Around the same time Pat Carey, owner of a Music degree from the University of Manitoba, joined the horns section around the same time.
They returned in 2009 with the critically acclaimed I NEED A HAT, featuring cameos from the likes of Dan Ackroyd, Colin James, and Colin Linden, among others. Edgier, a bit darker, and with the same sly humour the band returned with tracks like the goove-tinged “Down in the Delta,” “What Was I Thinking,” and “You Don’t Love Me.”
A year later, Donnie Walsh was inducted into the Canadian Blues Hall of Fame for a lifetime of work.