Dutch Mason

albums w/ jackets & lyrics
Dutch Mason memorial

Dubbed ‘the Prime Minister of the Blues’ by none other than BB King himself, Dutch Mason was born Norman Byron Mason in 1938 in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Both his parents were musical, and at the age of 14 he was playing drums in their Dixieland band, and was already proficient on guitar, harmonica, and piano, as well.

He continued soaking in the different sounds around him while developing his own interpretation of the blues crossed with rock & roll, and joined The Wreckers when he was only 18, a popular group around the area. A year later he formed his first band with him as frontman, Dutch Mason and The Esquires. They worked the Maritime circuit for the next couple of years, and he also became a much sought-after addition whenever other groups needed a helping hand. One of those instances was with The Ducats Showband, playing piano on their self-titled only album in 1964.

Eventually settling into an east coast blues sound with himself on guitar and vocals, he formed The Dutch Mason Trio with bassist Ronnie Miller and Ken Clattenburg on drums in the late ’60s. Their first two albums kicked off the new decade – AT THE CANDLELIGHT in 1970, with renditions of blues classics like “Georgia On My Mind” and “Sweet Little Angel,” and The Band‘s “The Shape I’m In.” The band however was actually a quintet – with help from Joe Sealy on organ and Bucky Adams on tenor sax. The album wasn’t recorded at The Candlelight Club either, rather at Dalhousie University. And it wasn’t recorded live either, but was actually taped over a three day period.

A year later, PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER on Marathon Records included their first single, “Steamroller Blues,” “High Heel Sneakers,” “Crazy Arms,” and “Milk Cow Blues.” Like its predecessor, the album wasn’t actually by a trio, this time including Arthur “Bubsy” Brown’s talents on harmonica and guitar.

They continued touring the east coast over the next few years, making a few stops in central Canada and the northeastern US, as well. But Mason was looking for a bigger sound, and so he dissolved the trio and formed the Dutch Mason Blues Band with guitarist Wade Brown, Rick Jeffery on harmonica, bassist Gregg Fancy, drummer Gary Blair, and Mike Leggett on piano. They landed the steady gig of house band at the Wyse Owl Tavern in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, where they had a steady gig for more than a year.

Mason was offered a steady stream of gigs in the GTA, so for several years that’s where the band made its home base. Before moving back to the Maritimes in 1978, he recorded two independent albums, starting with THE BLUES AIN’T BAD on Owl Blues Records in ’76. For the sessions, singer Janet Simmons and Joel Harris Zemel on guitar and horns were added, and featured nine covers – including the single “Diddly Diddly Daddy” (originally done by Eugene McDaniels), BB King’s “Pawnbroker” and “The Thrill Is Gone,” Willie Dixon’s “I’m Ready,” and Big Joe Williams’ “Baby Please Don’t Go.”

A year later saw the release of the first (and only) album under the monikor of ‘Dutchie Mason’ – JANITOR OF THE BLUES, featuring the lead-off “Down And Out,” “St James Infirmary,” “Mystery Train,” and Mason’s spin on the traditional “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” – “Swing Low Sweet Cadillac.” But as members grew homesick and Mason found himself running out of inspiration, he returned to Nova Scotia, where he continued playing smaller venues along the Canadian and American eastern seaboard for the next couple of years.

But his time in Toronto proved fruitful, having caught the attention of reps at London Records, who backed the recording of WISH ME LUCK in 1979 at Montreal’s Studio Experience. With the covers of Robert Parker’s “Barefootin'” and Count Basie’s “Goin’ To Chicago” as the only single, “Dust My Broom,” “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” a re-recording of “Goin’ Down” from the previous album, and “It’s Your Thing,” the album was widely regarded by the critics as one of the purest Canadian blues records ever recorded, and the best from Mason’s catalogue thus far. That same year, Rainbow Records re-released Mason’s 1970 debut album. this time as DUTCH MASON BLUES.

He signed with Attic Records in 1980, and released SPECIAL BREW later that year. The album was highlighted by the traditional covers of blues classics such as Willie Dixon’s “Young Fashioned Ways,” T Bone Burnette’s “Boss Man,” and Big Joe Turner’s “Honey Hush,” as well as three tracks written by Mason’s bandmates – including the single written by Gary Blair – “Mister Blue.” But by this point Mason’s arthritis had gotten so severe he was barely ever taking the stage. Coupled with diabetes complications, it prevented him from recording or playing more than the occasional show for the nearly a decade.

When he finally returned to the studio in 1991, he wasn’t alone. Having signed with Stony Plain Records, he assembled a backing band that included players from Johnny Winters and Downchild Blues Band, among others. The result was the critically acclaimed I’M BACK, with covers of Willie Dixon’s “Who Do You Love” and BB King’s “Don’t You Lie To Me,” as well as the title track, written by Tony D and Ben Richardson. With D on guitars and Richardson on bass.

That same year saw an idea of CBC Radio finally take fruition after several years in the making. SATURDAY NIGHT BLUES: THE GREAT CANADIAN BLUES PROJECT VOLUME 1 was an album based on the popular radio radio program “Saturday Night Blues.” The album won a Juno Award that year for Best Blues Recording, and Mason himself took home the inaugural Great Canadian Blues Award – as voted on by listeners of the program.

YOU CAN’T HAVE EVERYTHING, a project over two years in the making, saw the light of day in late 1992, and was heralded as Mason’s most eclectic recording to date, featuring his trademark covers, this time eleven of them, including Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah, I Love Her So,” and “Sticks & Stones,” written by Henry Glover and Titus Turner and recorded by everyone from Joe Cocker and Ray Charles to Chad & Jeremy. It also featurd four tracks written by his guitarist for hire for the project, Drew Nelson.

Also in ’92, Attic began re-releasing Mason’s albums, some with slightly altered jackets, and some in double album packages, beginning with SPECIAL BREW and GIMME A BREAK.

APPEARING NIGHTLY, his only true live album, was next up in 1996. But because Mason had officially retired from the business at this point, it was actually a compilation of shows he’d recorded around Nova Scotia in the late ’70s and early ’80s. It included a collection of previously released material, as well as a rendition of the standard “Bo Diddley.”

CBC Radio backed a project to celebrate Mason’s 60th birthday in ’98. To mark the event, a concert was held at the Halifax Metro Centre. In attendance and on the stage was virtually everyone who was anyone in Canadian blues, including Downchild Blues Band, Johnny Favourite & His Swing Orchestra, The Lincolns, Matt Minglewood, among over a dozen others. The show was recorded by the CBC’s mobile unit and released as DUTCHIE’S 60TH BIRTHDAY LIVE!

A year later, a mid ’70s concert Mason performed with Johnny Tornado in Chilliwack, BC was released on Anchors Away Records. GOOD TIMES featured “Who Do You Love,” “I’m A Man, “The Moon is Full,” and “Mojo,” and a supporting cast that included Darryl Havers on keyboards, bassist Brian Scott, Darrel Mayes on drums, guitarist Dave Tailby, and The Doctor on harmonica.

With the turn of the millennium, Mason’s contributions to the music industry were recognized, when he was among the first ever inductees into the Canadian Jazz And Blues Hall of Fame in ’02. Two years later, the East Coast Blues Society held the opening of the Dutch Mason Blues Hall Of Fame in Halifax. Along with the Order of Canada in 2005, he received the East Coast Music Awards’ Lifetime Achievement Award the same year, the first person to receive the honour.

In 2005, Nimbus Publishing released “On The Road With Dutch Mason,” a paperback by Harvey Sawler and David Bedford, Mason’s former harmonica player. It chronicled Mason’s story, his upbringing and influences, and time on the road.

Although still occasionally performing now and again, Mason’s health issues had him confined to a wheelchair for the last several years. He passed away in his Truro, NS home on Dec 23, 2006, a year after The Dutch Mason Blues Festival in Truro was established.

Long time friend and guitarist Wade Brown, who toured and recorded with Mason through much of the 1970s, passed away in 2010 from complications from Crohn’s disease at the age of 63.

  • With notes from Peter Crowe

Wade Brown