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Steppenwolf’s biker anthem “Born To Be Wild” remains a rock classic and an epitome of the late ’60s west coast rock scene. With its images of freedom, liberty and sexual awakening, few could have known that the roots of the band lay in a Mersey-inspired beat group from Toronto called Jack London & The Sparrows, founded by the song’s author, Dennis Edmonton, aka Mars Bonfire.
Though complete unknowns elsewhere, The Sparrows were one of Toronto’s most popular groups, scoring a Canadian top five hit in late 1964, before internal differences resulted in personnel changes and a musical conversion from jaunty pop purveyors to gritty R&B enthusiasts. Renamed The Sparrow, the new look outfit subsequently moved to New York to record with US label Columbia, but it was only later, once the group had relocated to the sunnier climes of California, that the band finally achieved the recognition it deserved. By then, the group had evolved once again to become heavy rockers Steppenwolf, one of the era’s most successful bands. While “Born To Be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride” have become rock classics, the fascinating story behind Steppenwolf’s rise to fame has remained largely untold.
Jack London & The Sparrows were formed in Oshawa, Ontario in early 1964 by British émigré Jack London (b. Dave Marden, Feb. 16, 1944, London, England) and Dennis Edmonton (b. Dennis McCrohan, April 21, 1943, Oshawa, Ontario). The group’s early music reflected the influence of the British Invasion and London apparently coaxed the other group members to “fake” English accents, in order to convince the audience that The Sparrows had just arrived from England. Shortly afterwards, Dennis’ brother Jerry (b. Jerry McCrohan, Oct. 24, 1946, Oshawa, Ontario) replaced the original drummer and the group began to build up a local following, playing at various venues, such as the local Jubilee Auditorium (which incidentally was owned by Dennis and Jerry’s father).
After moving to Toronto later that year, the line up underwent a reshuffle with London and the Edmonton brothers joined by C J Feeney on organ and Bruce Palmer (b. Sept. 9, 1946, Toronto) on bass. The new line up quickly signed to Capitol Records and scored a #3 hit on the national RPM chart with the debut single “If You Don’t Want My Love”.
Palmer however, soon got tired of “affecting” an English accent and was traded to R&B outfit The Mynah Birds for Nicholas St. Nicholas (b. Klaus Karl Kassbaum, Sept. 28, 1943, Hamburg, Germany) shortly after the single’s release. (Palmer of course would later find fame with The Buffalo Springfield after relocating to L.A. with fellow Mynah Bird, Neil Young). Around the same time, local jazz musician Art Ayre (b. March 18, 1942, Toronto, Ontario) was recruited to replace Feeney, who had left to form his own group, The Spellbinders.
The revised line up immediately set to work, cutting a slew of tracks for an album, “Presenting Jack London & The Sparrows” and a string of singles, of which only “Our Love Has Passed” matched the success of the debut, reaching #7 on the RPM chart in May 1965. By this point, the group was beginning to progress beyond its early British influences and was starting to incorporate more of a North American R&B sound. At the same time, resentment was growing over Jack London’s role in the band. As a result of this growing dissatisfaction, the group separated from London (who went solo) and recorded a final single as The Sparrows, “Hard Times With The Law”, which hit #13 on the RPM chart in August. The following month, the band added German émigré John Kay to the line-up. Kay’s arrival coincided with the departure of Art Ayre, who went on to pursue a career in jazz with the Art Ayre Trio, and his place was taken by former Mynah Birds keyboard player Goldie McJohn (b. John Goadsby, May 2, 1945).
The group then shortened its name to The Sparrow and signed a recording deal with Columbia in New York during early 1966, which resulted in a handful of singles, including “Tomorrow’s Ship”. When those failed to dent the charts, The Sparrow headed for Los Angeles, but following notable opening slots for the likes of The Doors and The Steve Miller Band, split up in the summer of ’67.
Shedding Dennis Edmonton (who subsequently changed name to Mars Bonfire and embarked on a solo career) and Nicholas St. Nicholas, and recruiting two local musicians, The Sparrow emerged as the heavy rock band Steppenwolf a few months later. The former members however, would retain close ties with the new outfit; Bonfire would pen the group’s best known hit and contribute several songs to Steppenwolf albums, while St. Nicholas actually rejoined the band in the late ’60s after leading his own band, TIME. Jack London & The Sparrows essentially were a pop band riding on the tide of the British Invasion, and while the group never achieved wider success, its key members would go on to carve a niche in the more lucrative American market under a new guise.