Bobby Kris & The Imperials

  • by Nick Warburton

    For a brief moment in 1966 Bobby Kris & The Imperials were arguably the most popular group in Toronto and one of the best paid on the southern Ontario circuit. Their tasteful rendition of the Dionne Warwick classic, “Walk on By” was one of the most professionally produced singles to be recorded in Canada during the mid-’60s and became a sizeable hit on Toronto’s CHUM chart in January of that year. When a follow up single failed to consolidate their recent success, Bobby Kris & The Imperials underwent a radical change in musical direction. But despite some impressive live shows, the group crumbled at the height of the “summer of love”, leaving only two singles as their recorded legacy.

    It was a long way from the band’s jazzier roots and the original Imperials, formed sometime during 1964 to back up local singer Jimmy Snowdon. Dubbed J S & The Imperials, the very first line up featured guitarist Al Waugh, bass player Brian Sefchek, tenor sax players Jerry Mann (aka Shymanksi) and John Crone (b. 4 February 1945, Toronto, Ontario) and drummer Gordon MacBain (b. 5 August 1947, Toronto, Ontario).

    “That was my first band,” notes MacBain. “I had a couple of guys that I was working with that were friends of Domenic Troiano. Jerry Shymanksi and a fella named Jim Snowdon had a little band going but they needed some members so I took my friends and we joined [them] and that was sort of the first real incarnation of J S & The Imperials.”

    The line up was expanded soon afterwards with the addition of pianist Pat Riccio Jr, who was the son of a famous Canadian big band leader and the group began gigging on the local club scene playing its own unique blend of R&B. Later that year, however, the first of many personnel changes took place when Pat Riccio Jr, Brian Sefchek and Al Waugh left the band. “We asked Brian and Al to leave because they weren’t working out,” explains MacBain. “Riccio had become good friends with Al Waugh and he decided that he was going to leave too.” To fill the gaps, the remaining members recruited former Robbie Lane & The Disciples pianist Martin Fisher (b. 26 December 1945, Vancouver, British Columbia), together with guitarist Eugene Martynec (b. 28 March 1947, Germany) and bass player Rick Dutt (b. Rick Dutkevitz).

    “When Rick Dutt arrived for our first rehearsal [he was] driving a 1954 Ford convertible with huge holes in the top and tyres that were so bald that you could actually see the threads showing through,” remembers MacBain. “I said: ‘Hey man – what are you going to do in the winter?’ and without missing a beat he said, ‘Wear an overcoat’.”

    A former graduate from the Royal Conservatory of Music, Fisher assumed the role of musical director and The Imperials began to play a more diverse blend of R&B and folk-rock. Over the next few months, J S & The Imperials started to establish a footing on the local club scene.

    In May 1965, however, the band underwent a more significant change when Haynes introduced his friend, former Toronto University philosophy student, Bob Burrows aka Bobby Kris, who replaced Jim Snowdon on lead vocals (after Jay Smith turned the job down to go with The Majestics). “Bobby was also an actor,” recalls MacBain. “He acted in Stratford with Christopher Plummer and people like that.”

    Kris’ arrival prompted a change of name to Bobby Kris & The Imperials and led to a number of personnel changes over the next few months. During August, Crone’s former compatriot from early ’60s band, The Gaylords, Dave Konvalinka (b. 4 July 1944, Gimli, Manitoba) took over bass duties from Rick Dutt.

    “Bobby Kris & The Imperials were the first big name band that I got into,” recalls Konvalinka, who went by the name Dave Wayne at the time. “Bobby, Gene Martynec and I started a band while we were in high school. Gene and I attended Runnymede Collegiate and as I recall, Bobby went to Humberside Collegiate. Both schools were located close to each other in Toronto’s westend.”

    The band in question was called The Kondors and over the next year or so it played local high schools and church dances before splitting up in 1964 when the various members went their separate ways into university or college. Konvalinka, who had taught himself how to play guitar at the age of 10, had recently left Ryerson’s Radio and Television Arts and was no stranger to the group and the man he was replacing. “Rick [Dutt] and I go way back and I actually wound up buying him his first bass guitar,” he explains. “He knew nothing about the instrument and I taught him.”

    Rick Dutt, who later changed his name to Rick Haynes, landed on his feet soon after leaving The Imperials when he scooped his dream job. “Rick was a big Gordon Lightfoot fan and had all the records,” points out Fisher. “He took this girl to this concert and Gordon Lightfoot‘s bass player either got busted or didn’t show up for some reason. Gordon Lightfoot went on stage and said, ‘It looks like I’m going to start without my band because my bass player is not here’ and he added jokingly, ‘Is there a bass player in the house?’ And Rick stood up and said, ‘Yeah, and I know all your songs’. He walked up on stage and played all the songs. After the first song, Gordon Lightfoot turned to him and said, ‘You’re my new bass player’.”

    Dutt, however, was not the only Imperials member to move on that summer. Although his former band mate had recently joined, John Crone had been offered a more attractive deal with The Majestics and duly departed a short while later to make way for another Ryerson’s Radio and Television Arts drop out, sax player, Rick Loth.

    With Konvalinka and Loth recruited, the classic Bobby Kris & The Imperials line up was complete. Soon afterwards, the group opened for soul legend Wilson Pickett at Toronto’s Masonic Temple and, as Fisher recalls, Pickett’s guitarist blew the band away. “That’s when I first met [Jimi] Hendrix,” says Fisher. “He was doing the thing where you pretend to play [the guitar] with your teeth.”

    During November 1965, Bobby Kris & The Imperials signed to the Canadian arm of Columbia Records and recorded their debut single, an R&B version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Walk On By” (with a horn arrangement by Rick Loth) backed by Kris and Martynec’s “Travelling Bag.” Released just after Christmas, the single climbed #8 on the RPM chart and was also a top 10 hit in Toronto on the city’s CHUM chart in January 1966.

    Early that same month, the Toronto Telegram had run an expose on the group under the headline: “They’re Out To Develop Their Own Sound.” “They call themselves serious students and they live on music,” wrote Jac Holland, who caught the band playing at the Hawk’s Nest. “They rehearse six hours a day, teach themselves to play three or more instruments and attempt to develop a new sound.”

    In the article, Bobby Kris informs the writer that the group wants to revamp its sound so “we can play the things we want to. We are tired of being imitators, commercializers.” Jac Holland later goes on to report that Bobby Kris & The Imperials are developing a folk-rock deep blues sound based on two saxophones and that their next recording session, which will be in early March, will feature this new sound.

    Sure enough, the group returned to the studio that spring to record a cover of Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs To Me” backed by Kris and Martynec’s “A Year From Today.” Within weeks of the recording, however, Konvalinka and Martynec swapped instruments. “I wasn’t playing guitar on those singles,” explains Konvalinka. “I was hired as the bass player for Bobby Kris & The Imperials and Gene Martynec was playing guitar and then it turned up that I was probably better suited to playing lead guitar and he was better suited to playing bass.” (NB Canadian rock journalist Bill Munson says that at one point Konvalinka and Martynec both played lead guitar on stage).

    With the switch made, Bobby Kris & The Imperials returned to the live circuit. Konvalinka remembers one notable date time taking place at Chez Charles in Chapleau, Quebec, just north of army Camp Petawawa. “I think we stayed a week and almost every night there was a fight because the army guys liked to get really drunk and pound each other silly,” he recalls. “The Chez was a roadhouse in the middle of nowhere and goes down in my memory as one of the reasons I decided not to stay a full-time musician.”

    In another unusual setting, Bobby Kris & The Imperials were hired to play at Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre on 13 April alongside the Canadian National Ballet Company, which was performing Romeo and Juliet. In what was billed as the “World’s First ballet and A-Go-Go Party”, the band performed its latest set in the lobby during the intermission to bemused theatregoers dressed in dinner jackets and ball gowns.

    Once again, the Toronto Telegram ran a story and Jac Holland was present to report on the evening’s festivities.”After Four and the National Ballet Guild have planned a first-in-the-world evening combining the classic and modern, the cultural and pop to create a great teen-age party,” he reported in the following day’s issue of the paper. “The National Ballet Guild decided this production would appeal to a younger audience and would catch the imagination of even those not disposed to ballet. Sort of a sugar-coated pill.”

    The next month, Bobby Kris & The Imperials landed another important opening slot when they were chosen to play at Massey Hall with The Lovin’ Spoonful alongside local acts Susan Taylor, Little Caesar & The Consuls and The Big Town Boys. By this point, the group was moving in a more Chicago blues direction playing John Hammond Jr material like “Judgment Day”. According to Konvalinka, Bobby Kris & The Imperials returned to the studio that month to cut some new material, which sadly languished in the vaults. Some of the tapes, according to the band’s guitarist, were pretty good, but nobody seems to know where they are now.

    With the recordings complete, the group returned to the road and headed for northern Ontario. Konvalinka says the gig, in Port Arthur (today Thunder Bay), was a turning point for him. “I remember that we were playing in Toronto and got a call at a gig on Saturday night to tell us that we had to be in Port Arthur on Monday for a week’s stay at a lounge there. Well, Port Arthur is close to 1,000 miles away from Toronto and we knew that we needed to leave quickly to get there.”

    As Konvalinka remembers the unfolding events, the band set off early on the Sunday morning – the seven band members split between a GMC van and 58 Chev, both with manual shifts. “Only two of us could drive manual shifts – Marty Fisher and me,” he recalls. “The drive almost killed us and it was all we could do not to fall asleep and drive off the highway, which was quite perilous. Anyway, we made it into Port Arthur at some point on Monday morning and went to the lounge where we were to play.”

    The owner greeted the band with some unwelcome news – the police were regularly checking his bar to make sure that the patrons and the musicians were all “of legal age to be in a drinking establishment”. As Konvalinka recounts the ensuing drama, each of the musicians pulled out their ID, some of it fake, and all passed the test. That is until the owner got to Martynec, who blurted out that he didn’t have any ID and that he was underage.

    “Why he said that we’ll never know but it was our ticket home,” says Konvalinka. “We begged the owner for a room to sleep in before taking off and the seven of us wound up in one room with a double bed.” After a couple of hours’ sleep, the despondent musicians headed back to Toronto. With very little money and barely enough to put gas in the car, the band managed somehow to get its hands on some frozen hot dogs that they picked up and cooked on a roadside barbecue in a provincial park. “I’ll never forget that trip,” says Konvalinka. “Trying to cook those damn hotdogs on an open fire, turning them on the grill with a stick and drinking water from a river – and we were big recording stars! Anyway that was it for me and I quit the full-time gig.”

    With Konvalinka gone, Martynec resumed lead guitar duties and in early June 1966, Wayne Davis (b. 28 April 1946, Toronto, Ontario) from The Just Us took over bass. As for Konvalinka, he subsequently shortened his name to Dave Kon and rejoined his friend John Crone in The Majestics a few months later. “In The Imperials all of us were full-time musicians for varying periods of time,” he explains on the reason behind his departure. “I didn’t really care for the full-time scene. I did it because that was the thing we were doing. But it was one of the reasons why I wanted to get out, you know, get myself a regular job plus I was about to get married.”

    He also suggests that Bobby Kris & The Imperials were moving in a direction that he was less than happy with. “The band had a great ride…but then it fell apart when the decision was made to move into the ‘British scene’, get rid of the horns and start playing some really obscure stuff.”

    Soon after Konvalinka’s exit, Rick Loth also dropped out followed by Jerry Shymanski who subsequently joined Jamaican singer Eddie Spencer & The Power in October 1966. “We let the sax players go,” remembers Fisher, who has his own take on the split. “We went five-piece because the R&B thing was really dying and it was becoming old hat. The new thing was Beatles stuff.”

    Amid all this activity, the group’s second single had been released but it didn’t garner the same interest and failed to register on the charts. “There’s a story behind that which was to do with Johnny Bassett,” explains MacBain. “His father owned the Toronto Telegram and CFTO TV as well. He was a rich kid and one of his things that he did was he had this young girl that he backed financially called Susan Taylor. Johnny Bassett loved us because we had the horns [but] during that period of time was when we decided to pair down to a five-piece and kind of go hippish.”

    As MacBain explains, “She Belongs To Me” had literally just been released and one night Bobby Kris & The Imperials were backing Bassett’s prodigy Susan Taylor at Massey Hall when her benefactor turned up to see the performance. “I was standing in the wings wearing my polka dot shirt and Johnny Bassett said, ‘Hey Gordy, you better go get changed. It’s almost time [for you] to go on’. And I said, ‘No, this is what we’re wearing now’ (laughs) and he freaked out. There was nothing he could do. We had already gone our way. We didn’t have our mohair suits any more and no horns in the band and he didn’t even realise. He thought we were the same band but we were a different band.”

    The show went well but as MacBain points out, the band’s second single dropped right off the CHUM chart. “We were at number 34 or something and on the way up and the following week the record was gone. I think in some ways that was the beginning of the end for us.” The streamlined group, however, remained a popular draw and on 24 September 1966, Bobby Kris & The Imperials were chosen as one of 14 local groups to play at a 14-hour pop show held at the Maple Leaf Gardens. The band went on to land a number of support slots at Massey Hall throughout the second half of the year and on one occasion opened for Gary Lewis & The Playboys.

    Around this time, the group also scored a major coup by landing an opening slot for The Beach Boys in Port Arthur. “We decided to fly there [and] it was the first time that we had flown to a gig,” remembers Fisher who paints a colourful picture of the drama that unfolded. With the band camped at Toronto airport waiting for its lead singer to arrive, Fisher recalls Bobby Kris turning up in a leather trench coat, wearing huge black Ray Charles glasses and carrying a brief case that contained his microphone. “[Bobby] shows up looking like a gangster or a dope smuggler,” laughs Fisher. “We said, ‘Bobby we’re all going to get busted!'”

    By this point, Bobby Kris & The Imperials were absorbing an increasingly diverse range of musical influences but behind the scenes Eugene Martynec was getting bored. During May 1967 he left to form the progressive folk-rock group, Kensington Market with singer/songwriter Keith McKie from The Vendettas. “He was always looking for something newer and unusual,” points out MacBain. “We used to laugh and joke at him because he was in to tone poems and making jazz sounds, almost avant garde stuff. He was a different kind of guy. He wasn’t really a rock ‘n’ roll musician.”

    MacBain also feels that Martynec had grown tired of the band’s fine system. “He hated that stuff. He got hell one night for not wearing his cuff links. We had to control him for about two hours.” Rather than recruit a guitarist to replace him, the band took on organ player Jimmy Oskirko, formerly of Jay Smith & The Majestics. The new line up started to experiment with more progressive sounds and played regularly at the Concorde Tavern where the band performed covers of The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” among other things. “We were doing an excellent job,” remembers MacBain. “It was an awesome band. People were awe struck when we played those songs. Jimmy Oskirko was a brilliant, brilliant musician.”

    One of the highlights during this period was opening for Jose Feliciano at Massey Hall. “He opened with ‘Light My Fire’, which was a song that I had hated with a passion by The Doors,” says Fisher. “[But] when I heard it by Jose Feliciano it was a whole different thing. It was amazing. My jaw hit the floor.” By September 1967, however, Fisher and MacBain had left to join Bruce Cockburn‘s Flying Circus. Left without two of his main players, Bobby Kris decided to break up the band and in October replaced Jimmy Livingstone in Livingstone’s Journey.

    “Jimmy had a little mishap and vanished on us,” remembers Journey guitarist Stan Endersby. “We couldn’t find him and there were dates to honour. At first we approached David Clayton-Thomas, who was later in Blood, Sweat & Tears, but he couldn’t make it. A friend of mine called Neil Glen did a job for us at the Penny Farthing and then we got Bobby Kris.”

    By the end of the year, Wayne Davis had hooked up with folk-rock outfit, 3’s a Crowd while Jimmy Oskirko went on to play with numerous bands, including The Christopher Edward Campaign. But that’s not the end of the story. In late May 1968, after Livingstone’s Journey had dissolved, Bobby Kris revived the band with MacBain, Oskiro and Davis. With Fisher pre-occupied with another project and Martynec working on Kensington Market’s debut album, Kris recruited former Jon and Lee & The Checkmates guitarist Larry Leishman (b. 4 April 1947, Dunfermline, Scotland) to fill the vacant spot.

    “That was a good band,” recalls MacBain. “Larry was a good friend of Bobby’s. Bobby used to live with John Finley of Jon and Lee & The Checkmates and that’s how we became friends with [him].” The new line up soon returned to the live circuit with a show at the Night Owl from 13-14 June. Other shows followed intermittently throughout the rest of the year, including one at the Hawk’s Nest on 5 October. During this period, the group opened for a number of local and visiting artists, including B J Thomas, Andy Kim and Bobby Goldsboro. “Kim wanted us to tour with him. Actually, he wanted us to be his band,” maintains MacBain.

    Things were slowly unravelling, however, and following a show at the Night Owl on 19-21 June 1969, MacBain got a call to fly to England and rejoin Marty Fisher in Pete Quaife’s post-Kinks outfit, Mapleoak. Leishman, who had already moved on by this point to work with The Duke Edwards Cycle, subsequently joined Elektra Records’ project, Rhinoceros.

    Bobby Kris, who later abandoned the music scene to become a school teacher, currently runs a health food shop in northern Ontario. It’s a long way from the smoky bars and clubs where his group was one of the most popular outfits on the Toronto rock scene.

    • With notes from Carny Corbett, John Crone, Stan Endersby, Marty Fisher, Rick Haynes, Dave Konvalinka, Larry Leishman, Gordon MacBain, Eugene Martynec, Keith McKie, Bill Munson and Mike Paxman.

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