Skylark was Vancouver’s entry into Canada’s foray into the multi-vocalist, pop/soul era, and was filled with some of the west coast’s most seasoned musicians. They were formed in 1971 when vocalist BJ Cook (ex Soul Brothers, New Breed, Apaches) and her husband, piano/keyboardist David Foster, grew tired of the limitations of playing in Ronnie Hawkins‘ band.
“One night after a gig, he pulled David aside and said ‘Son, you play like Beethoven, but looked like a cadaver on stage, so I’m gonna have to fire your ass.’ – and that was the end of it. David and I stayed in Toronto while we planned our next move. He wasn’t too happy about being fired from Ronnie’s band, so he decided to go back to Victoria to clear his head, and I went back to our apartment in Vancouver,” Cook explained.
They hooked up with bassist Steven Pugsley on bass, another Hawk alumni who Cook had also played with in The New Breed. Before long they added vocalist Donny Gerrard, drummer Kat Hendrikse, and guitarist Doug Edwards, who Cook played with in Soul Brothers. But it wasn’t long before Duris Maxwell (ex Little Daddy and the Bachelors (with Tommy Chong), The Chessmen, The Good Shepherds, Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, Jefferson Airplane, Privelege) replaced Hendrikse on the drums. More personnel changes in the early days involved three singers, including Cook’s sister Carolyne, but by the time they were writing their eponymous debut, Carl Graves became the third singer and percussionist.
They landed a deal with Capitol Records and were shipped off to Sound Recorders in Hollywood. With Erik (The Norweigian) Wangberg producing, they released their self-titled debut in the fall of ’72, adding Robbie King on organ and piano. But by that time, Edwards had left the group. New on guitars was Norman McPherson, a former elementary school teacher. In turn he was replaced by Allan Mix in February of ’73.
The first single was a cover of Ray Charles’ “What Would I Do Without You,” followed by what would become the band’s biggest hit, the Canadian #1 “Wildflower,” penned by Edwards and a Victoria police officer/aspiring musician friend named David Richardson. The track would also make Billboard’s top 10 on its way to selling over a million copies, and would over the years be covered by the likes of Johnny Mathis, The O’Jays, Kenny Rogers, Aaron Neville, Gary Morris, and a dozen others, and sampled by Tupac Shakur and Jamie Foxx. It also landed them on the little screen, when they were featured on “The Midnight Special,” an appearance that also won them rave reviews for their rendition of CSNY’s “Woodstock.”
With Cook handling lead vocals, the tender ballad “I’ll Have To Go Away” was released and climbed its way into the top 40. Other tracks included the lead-off “Brother Eddie,” written by King and Howie Vickers (Collectors, Chilliwack), a cover of Fats Domino’s “I’m In Love Again,” “The Writing’s On The Wall,” written by Domenic Troiano and recorded by himself the same year.
As the band went back to Hollywood to begin work on the follow-up album with returning producer Wangberg, label execs insisted on including “Wildflower” again. Maxwell left in the middle of recording, and was replaced by Brian Hilton. SKYLARK 2 was in the stores in the spring of ’74, with the only single, “If That’s The Way You Want It,” following shortly after, peaking before making it into the top 20. Other tracks included “Love’s A River Flowing,” written for the band by Roger Nichols and John Bettis, “The Love Affair Is Over,” featuring guest guitarist Gaye Delorme, and “Foster Frees,” a particular highlight for Mix. “Playing on that song with Duris was definitely one of the hallmarks of my time with the band. The guy’s always been one of Canada’s best men behind a drumkit, and one of the most under-rated as well,” he commented.
The band embarked on the road, but with little support from the record company, interest waned and the band called it quits later that year. “Wildflower” became one of those songs that seemed to appear on every compilation album on the market, and Collectibles Records released the GOLDEN CLASSICS album in ’96. Really, it was the entire first album, along with “If That’s The Way You Want It,” and its original b-side, “Virgin Green,” which was actually “Foster Frees,” simply re-titled in a stroke of management’s marketing genius.
“There is so much stuff in between…so many players.. We tried for about five years to keep Skylark happening.. but when Donny left, it was all over,” Cook commented.
Following their demise, members went their separate ways, with Foster gaining the most notoriety after the end of his seven year marriage to Cook. Along with a dozen albums, he became one of the industry’s most sought after producers, having worked with Quincy Jones, Celine Dion, Chicago, The Payolas, Kenny Rogers, Lionel Richie, Barbara Streisand, and a gazillion others. As well, his film works resume included doing the soundtrack to “St. Elmo’s Fire.”
Maxwell went on to work with Powder Blues, Doucette, The Irish Rovers, The Temptations, and Heart, among others, and formed his own bands – Brahman and Genni Maxwell, and Country Love. “The reason I left Skylark was because there was an absurd disconnect between the ‘identity’ of ‘Skylark’ in the studio and the ‘identity’ as a ‘live’ act,” he commented. “There seemed to be this fear that if we performed the material from the first album ‘live,’ with the possible exception of “Wildflower,” we’d be seen as a tragic bunch of ‘Air Supply’ wannabes. So we rehearsed old, horrible cover songs to play live. Thus, the whole damn point of recording the album was basically lost. A record company exec stood by the side of the stage at one of our gigs in complete astonishment. “Why aren’t you playing any of the album material?!” Seemed a damn appropriate question actually. In any event, I grew sick of the two identities – and the States – and went back to Vancouver.” He put down the drum sticks in the late ’80s to pursue a law degree. Although he passed the bar exam, he never became ‘a suit,’ and eventually got back into music, with a focus on Aboriginal and troubled youths.
Gerrard embarked on a solo career, recording several hit singles before the end of the ’70s, including “Words Are Impossible,” “He’s Always Somewhere Around,” “For Just A Moment,” and “Stay Awhile With Me.” “Carl and I were both let go for- in David’s words-” turning Skylark into a Black Power band. I was never really down with the direction of the group, got the job on the strength of my rendition of “Wildflower,” a song I neither understood or cared for. I stayed in LA and worked in the studio doing commercials, TV and movie work until that dried up,” Gerrard explained. From there he became a highly sought after studio musician, providing bg vocals for Elton John, Donna Summer, and John Fogerty, and in the late ’90s joined The Staples Singers with Mavis Staples.
Cook moved to Toronto and worked as a studio player, and also wrote the lyrics to the theme songs for the TV shows “Night Heat” and “Airwaves” with Domenic Troiano, and the movie “Meatballs 3.” Graves had a pair of hits in the ’70s, “Baby Hang Up The Phone” and “Hey Radio,” then got out of the business all together.
Once out of the band, Mix returned to Edmonton for awhile, where he played with Katzenjammers, then spent some time in Toronto playing with Charity Brown and then contributed to Copperpenny‘s FUSE album. But by 1975 he’d moved to Los Angeles where he continued to doing session work.
John Verner, a short-lived guitarist in the band’s early days, joined Ambrosia for one album, and also auditioned for KISS (handpicked by Paul Stanley but rejected). He also worked with Frankie Banali of Quiet Riot on an unreleased project, and appeared on an episode of “The Six Million Dollar Man” as Sonny Bono’s guitarist, and eventually took a job with the US Army as a guitar instructor and instrumentalist.