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Not to be confused with any of several American or British groups of different genres and times with the same name, Ottawa’s The Esquires were typical of most mid-sized Canadian cities in the 60s – a group of school friends trying to imitate their idols – the top British stars of the day like Cliff Richard and The Shadows, The Animals, and The Beatles. Even their name was chosen because of its British connotations.
Ottawa was large enough not to be overwhelmingly influenced by what was coming from Toronto, and practically everyone on the block was a member of some band at one time or another. Originally formed in 1962 by guitarist Gary Comeau and bassist Clint Hierlihy, the band was rounded out with vocalist Bob Harrington, Paul Huot on guitars and drummer Bert Hurd. They played local teen clubs and high school dances, and joined the Ontario Musicians Union the next year, which continued them on their way of developing their sound and style.
“I was a Buddy Holly fan and Clint had some albums from England of Cliff Richard and the Shadows – so our sound pretty much came from those roots. There were very few live bands in Ottawa and they were mostly country, so there was nothing to really draw from in this area. As for Toronto, we really knew nothing about that scene until we started playing there a lot around 1964-65. One of our best freinds, who always visited with us when we were in Toronto was David Clayton Thomas. I think he was curious why Toronto fans would like a none R&B band since most bands in Toronto were R&B. The general public liked us and bought our records and always filled the venues where we played, but for some reason the “industry” didn’t seem to take us seriously. They always seemed self absorbed with only Toronto bands,” Comeau explained.
Hurd was soon replaced with Richie Patterson on drums, and a management deal with Sandy Gardner, a local columnist who fancied himself as a manager, soon followed. He got them some prestigious gigs over the next year or so around the greater Toronto area, opening for the likes of The Dave Clark Five, The Beach Boys, Roy Orbison, Gene Pitney, The Dovells, and The Rolling Stones. They also landed a prestigious gig on the travelling Dick Clark Caravan at Stars, which showcased some of the top up and coming talent of the day.
They switched managers and were now with Harvey Glatt, who was also a leading concert producer in the area and the owner of The Treble Clef record store chain. He shopped the band around, and in that fall the band became the first Canadian pop group signed to a major deal, when Capitol Records signed them in the fall of ’63. They wasted no time in pushing the group, sending them to RCA Victor Studios in Toronto, then releasing the instrumental single “Atlantis,” (written by Jerry Lordon and hand picked for the band by Glatt) with “I’ve Lost My Girl” (written by fellow Ottawa native Dave Britten) as the b-side. Oddly, the b-side was credited to Bob Harrington and The Esquires, but an accompanying video was made for “Atlantis,” making it Canada’s first ever music video, and today is now in the National Archive Library of Canada.
“Atlantis” was the first record really simply because we liked it and Paul White who signed us to Capitol was English and also really liked The Shadows. When we first started playing as a band we did a lot of instrumentals so it was natural for us to want to record an instrumental,” Comeau explained.
Another video was made for the second single, another instrumental called “The Man From Adano,” with “Gee Whiz It’s You” which followed a few months later. Again, for some inexplicable reason, the b-side credited the band as ‘Bob Harrington & The Esquires. While continuing the tour dates over the next year or so, Harrington left the group and was replaced by Don Norman.
“Don had joined the band late 1963 and since he was a stronger vocalist than Bob, the band slowly became a full time vocal band. About the only time we played “Atlantis” and “Man From Adano” was in concert when people requested them,” Comeau said.
The band’s first album INTRODUCING THE ESQUIRES was released to much publicity and a warm response in the spring of ’64. Produced by Hierlihy, the album featured “The Man From Adano” and mostly other originals including three more instrumentals, “The Buddy Holly Melody” and a cover of The Isley Brothers’ “Unchained Melody.” The original first pressings of the album also contained “Atlantis,” but became collector’s items as soon as they hit the shelves, as the song was removed from the record’s second pressing.
“The interesting thing is that the album was recorded live off the floor, with one mic for the band and one mic for Don. There was no overdubbing back then. The whole session was rather primitive compared to later sessions. Believe it or not, Canadian studios were not very up to date. The mixer consisted of 2 VU meters and 2 big knobs. We were true pioneers in “pop” recording in Canada,” Comeau laughed. “One of our biggest fans during the Esquire days was a young guy from Winnipeg – Neil Young, hence his band, The Squires. We didn’t find that out ’til a few years after the band broke up. Another really big fan was present Senator Mike Duffy (and former CTV news personality), who managed a band in Prince Edward Island. They followed every move we made right down to the type of boots we wore. We had many a laugh about that with Mike, again many years later.”
“So Many Other Boys” with the flip side “The Oldest Story, both penned by Norman, was released before the end of ’64, and became their biggest selling single. “So Many Other Boys” won the band a Red Leaf Award (precursor to the Junos) that year for Best Instrumental, Vocal Group of the Year, beating out The Guess Who for that honour. The band toured practically non-stop in 1964, making regular stops throughout Canada and into the US.
The new single “Cry Is All I Do” b/w “We’ve Got A Future” saw the light of day in the spring of ’65, but by that summer they’d switched to Columbia Records. Three more singles were released – “Love’s Made A Fool of You” and “Summertime,” “It’s A Dirty Shame” b/w “Devoted to You,” and “Love Hides A Multitude Of Sins” and “Why Should I Care” before the end of the year. But the band was beginning to feel the effects of a changing musical environment, and, along with outside projects and interests with the band members, shows started becoming fewer, and lacklustre efforts from Capitol to try to push the band into the forefront caused their eventual split in the spring of 1967.
Throughout this period they’d all but installed a revolving door, and several people filled every roll in the band. Norman went on to form Don Norman and The Other Four, which also later featured Comeau. Patterson’s friend Brian Lewicki, who played with him years earlier in The Vibra-Tones, first came in on guitars, then switched to bass to replace the departed Hierlihy, and then became the new voice.Filling the bass role after Lewicki switched to vocals was newcomer Douglas Orr, who was still in high school at the time.
“After Clint left and Brian replaced him on bass, the band started to change direction and become more like Toronto bands – much more R&B sounding. I didn’t think that was fair to the fan base we had developed… So I left,” Comeau explained. After he and Huot both parted from the group, John Cassidy, Mike Argue, and then Bruce Cockburn took turns as the new guitarist. Trying to augment their sound, Ted Gerow was brought in on keyboards at one point, and Robert Coulhart replaced Patterson on drums after he left to form Three’s A Crowd with Cockburn.
Patterson then later joined Comeau and Huot in Canada Goose, and played with Tom Rush for awhile before becoming the road manager for James Leroy and Denim, which coincidentally featured Comeau again. Comeau and Huot then briefly joined The Townsmen, before Comeau ended up writing and producing commercials for national TV and radio and producing artists at home, and making an odd side trip to work in Nashville with old friends. Coulhart and Orr ended up forming The Modern Rock Quartet with former Luke & The Apostles frontman Peter Jermyn. Gerow went on to join The Staccatos, which evolved later into The Five Man Electrical Band.
In ’87 a reunion concert was held in Ottawa, featuring Norman, Huot, Comeau, Lewicki, Hielihy, and Patterson to benefit the local Ronald McDonald House, leading to other occasional fundraisers and other gigs over the next decade or so. In 2001, Capitol re-released the band’s only lp on CD.
With notes from Gary Comeau, Richard Patterson, and David Poitras
INTRODUCING THE ESQUIRES (1964) Wonderful Land
A Touch Of Blue
Which Way The Wind Blows
Man From Adano
Buddy Holly Melody
Think It Over
My Blue Heaven