Earle Heedram was born in Lucea, Jamaica in 1945, and grew up with traditional reggae and ska influences, but also sang in the church choir and occasionally took part in talent shows on the island. He took those vibes with him when he moved to Toronto 20 years later with aspirations of becoming an accountant.
He quickly melted into the ever-expanding urban music scene though, and as the decade wore on, due in part to relaxed immigration laws, an influx of Jamaican immigrants led to a multitude of music clubs to play in the Toronto area. After winning a talent contest some friends had dared him to enter, he decided to pursue music full-time. He was soon a hot commodity on Yonge Street, becoming a regular at Le C’oq D’or and The Hawk’s Nest.
Less than a year later he joined The Sheiks, the house band at Club Jamaica, who after having become a mainstay in Toronto for several years had grown stale according to some critics, which declining audiences seemed to confirm. A rejuvenated group released one R&B flavoured single in ’67 Called “Eternal Love” b/w “Centennial Swing.” But when Raymond Records folded that same year, it effectively spelled the end of The Sheiks, despite having become a popular touring group throughout central Canada.
Along with ex-Sheiks guitarist Rupert “Valentine” Bent, he was courted by Frank Motley, who was instrumental in incorporating R&B into rock during the ’50s. Motley was looking to re-vamp The Hitch-Hikers (not to be confused with a California surf group still going at the time), following Jackie Shane‘s departure to go solo. For the next few years they relentlessly pounded the pavement and stages in just about every small club in Ontario and Quebec, despite often encountering racial ignorance and violence. Their biggest show of note was opening for Natalie Cole in Toronto in 1970 at the Ontario Place Forum, where they received rave reviews.
They recorded their only album that same year with Jack Boswell for his Paragon Records label. The bulk of the material was written by Heedram and Bent, along with a few covers. But with little support from radio or the industry, the hard-edged funk mixed with R&B sank. Over the next couple of years, the band’s dressing room was a revolving door, and several other artists influential in the Toronto scene came and went, including fellow Jamaican Wayne McGhie, keyboardiest Jimmy Carver, and former Skatalites trumpet player Johnny “Dizzy” Moore. The band did release one more single on Heart Records in ’73, but “Mr Fortune” was a financial and chart disaster, spelling the end of the Hitch-Hikers.
After briefly fronting two other groups, Ram and then The Wild Oats, Heedram decided to strike back out on his own, adopting the stage name The Mighty Pope (for his powerful vocals and the Vatican-shaped plot of land his family owned back in Jamaica). He continued on the circuit and played every small club in central Canada that would have him, all the while developing a style that tried to go with the flow of what was popular at the time. Then came disco – and by ’76 his ska, reggae, funk, and R&B were out, and his polyester outfits that some critics said made him look like an Eaton’s pimp were in.
He landed a deal with RCA Canada, who sent him to their studio and Toronto’s Manta Sound with producer Harry Hinde (Charity Brown, and later Shania Twain) and arrangers David Van De Pitte (Marvin Gaye) and Eric Robertson (Moe Koffman, The Majestics, Roger Whittaker). He released the single “If You Want A Love Affair” (a cover of the Jesse James hit a few years earlier) in the summer of ’76. The label’s brass was encouraged enough to finance a full album. This marked the first major label solo LP recorded in Canada by an Afro-Canadian artist, breaking down walls and barriers for future generations of Urban artists.
His self-titled album was in the stores early the next year, and “Heaven On The Seventh Floor” b/w “Tower of Sound” quickly made the top 20 on the Canadian chart, and came close to matching that in the hotly contested US market, as well. Interestingly, American artist Paul Nicholas had his own version of “Heaven” on Canada’s RPM chart at the same time, though it didn’t fare nearly as well, barely breaking the top 100.
“Can’t Get By Without You” followed it onto the charts for Heedram, but didn’t have the holy touch, failing to make the top 40. Not one song on the record was written by Heedram, and was overall a typical disco album, heavy on the dance beats. But executives at RCA opted not to extend his one-album deal, despite some material with Van De Pitte having already been recorded in Detroit.
Trying to re-invent himself, he got picked up by Quality in ’79, who released a five-track album called SWAY in 1979. Produced by John Driscoll and arranged by Gino Soccio, the music was still funk-oriented, but was trying to tailor itself to a wider audience, despite still being labelled ‘disco’ by the critics. “Sweet Blindness” shot up the club charts and Soccio picked up the album for American distribution on his RFC Records. Again, he wrote nothing, but other noteable cuts were plentiful, and the seven-plus minutes version of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” was a dance club natural, as was the title track (a cover of Bobby Rydell’s 1960 hit). Critics weren’t sure what to make of his disco touch on the Bruce Springsteen/Patti Smith hit “Because The Night,” but it too got heavy rotation at the clubs.
The unique version of the Iron Butterfly classic also ended up as the flip side to Freddie James’ “Get Up and Boogie” and was distributed worldwide. But with more and more disco balls being put in the closet, Heedram soon found himself once again without a record label. He carried on performing in clubs for a few more years, then chose to go back to the quiet life of an accountant, only resurfacing on stage on rare occasions for the next couple of decades.
In 2006, his first recording act, The Sheiks, was given a breath of new life when Seattle-based Light In The Attic Records included “Eternal Love” on their compilation album, JAMAICA TO TORONTO: SOUL FUNK & REGGAE 1967 – 1974. That same year, Unidisc re-released both his albums on a single CD, keeping the SWAY title.
After taking part in mini tours in the mid ’00s that celebrated the Jamaican influenced music Canada enjoyed in the ’60s and ’70s, Heedram entered the studios again in 2011 as part of the Sureshot Symphony Solution, singing lead on “Mr Fame & Fortune” on their self-titled album that year.