Born in Abercomb, northern Rhodesia (what’s now Zambia) to Polish immigrants, Ted Wesley and his family moved to England at age six, then to Fort McMurray, Alberta three years later. He moved to Yellowknife, NWT in 1961, lied about his age (still only 16 and had to be 21) to work in the gold mines. He also became known for his on-ice skills, playing for Discovery Mines’ Giant Grizzlies.
Not even knowing how to play it, he’d stolen his brother’s guitar when he moved, and within a couple of years was playing in the bar at The Hoist Room in downtown Yellowknife. He’d also met his future wife, and he and Leslie began singing duets together and competing in talent contests. Off and on over the years he’d find gigs to play throughout the north, then south after forming The Tundra Folk with Inuvik’s Andy Steen in time for Yellowknife’s Canada Centennial celebrations.
There he met Bob Ruzicka, known as “The Singing Dentist,” who’d written a whole stack of songs about Canadian culture and arctic life, and was sidelining at nights playing music on CBC Radio. Wesley continued to perform off and on, and during the NWT centennial year in 1970, he was part of a group of performers who travelled on a barge down the Mackenzie River, stopping at every community along the way to perform.
In ’72, Wesley took a trip to Damon Studios in Edmonton and cut his debut album, STRAIGHT NORTH. The album release party for STRAIGHT NORTH was held in the Hoist Room, and featured a slide show of photographs taken by author and Catholic missionary Rene Fumoleau.
With Gary MacDonall producing, and along with a couple of tracks Wesley had written with friend Doug Leonard, the album’s theme was about the country way of life in Canada, and included “Big River” (about the Mackenzie, running northwest from Slave Lake, Alberta to the Yukon coast), to “Aklavik” (about one of the first Hudson’s Bay outposts in the region), and “Northlands Destiny.” Although nothing broke nationally, the album did get some airplay throughout the prairies. It also featured the first version of Stompin’ Tom‘s top 40 country hit “Muk Tuk Annie,” which Rusizka wrote on toilet paper during the recording sssions.
He released his follow-up album, BLACK FLIES & MOSQUITOS in ’73. Again MacDonall produced, this time for Boot Records. Although Ruzicka featured prominently in the credits again, Wesley had also been introduced to Wilf Bean by future NWT Premier Nellie Cournoyea. Been was a Department of Indian Affairs employee who moonlighted as a songwriter in the time of Northern upheavals (The Berger Inquiry, Dene land claim disputes, etc). So the songs he and Ruzicka were writing had a social commentary to them, including “James Bay Hydro-Electric Power Play” and “Wallow In Your Welfare” about the fishing industry’s decline. These melded well with “Caribou Song,” “Ballad of Slim Semmier” (about an Oregon man that became a legend in Inuvik), and “Trapper’s Jig.” Again, no singles were released and he relied on creativity and imagination on the part of radio station programmers.
He didn’t record again until 1976, with Ruzicka and Bean both contributing greatly again on NORTH OF CANADA, recorded in Toronto with a who’s who of studio names, including Gordon Lightfoot guitarist Red Shea. Again with occasional social or political undertones, such as in “Pipeline Promises” and “The Bay, The Church, The RCMP.” But it was the straight out country/folk/roots of the lead-off “Natural Man” and “Long Dusty Road” that became his breakouts with nationwide airplay. Another noteable track was “Ballad of Chuck McAvoy” – the bush pilot that went missing for 20 years.
He found himself on the road from Inuvik to Victoria to Charlottetown for the next couple of years, and made a number of radio and TV appearances. He was also a close runner up to Murray MacLaughlin as Country Male Vocalist of the Year at the 1977 Juno Awards.
But after selling over 70,000 records total and getting some national attraction, outside interests got in the way and Wesley stopped recording. In 1980, he helped jump start the beginning of a nearly 40 year tradition in the first Folk On The Rocks music festival outside Yellowknife. It was after the 1982 edition that Wesley decided to get out of the music business all together. He moved to remote Nunavut to work in a diamond mine, then eventually to Fort Mac.
He released the compilaiton I REMEMBER OUR NORTHERN HERITAGE in 2010, a double CD set of his most memorable tunes.
He’s also spearheaded other musical and cultural performances over the years, including The Northern Magic Show. He’s been working for some time with producer-director Alex Czarnecki of Yellowknife, creating short films with his music put to entrancing images of the North, its animals and the people.