Gordon Robert Tapp was born in London, Ontario in 1922, and grew up with music in the house, picking up the harmonica at age 5. He played in the school choir and took guitar lessons, performing in front of local crowds at fairs and the like while growing up. He studied at the Lornie Greene Academy of Radio Arts, and after graduating, landed the job of host in Hamilton as the host for the CBC’s Main Street Jamboree. After a few years of radio, he was offered and took the job of host of CBC TV’s Country Hoedown (where he introduced his most famous character, Cousin Clem) from ’56 to ’65. He then hosted The Performers for a couple of seasons, showcasing up and coming country talent while travelling through Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver.
His international breakthrough came after auditioning for CBS’ summer replacement for The Smothers Brothers in ’69, Hee Haw. Though it was centred around Buck Owens and Roy Clark, the show had a strong Canadian contingent in front of and behind the camera. Comedian Don Harron and head writers Frank Peppiatt and John Aylesworth were from the Great White North, as well, and with Tapp, helped provide a spin on the show’s rural appeal. Shot in Nashville, it was easy for everyone who was anyone to appear on the show, but oddly not one Canadian. But before Larry the Cable Guy and redneck jokes were trendy, there was Cousin Clem, and Mr Gordon The Shopkeeper. Despite getting respectable ratings tho, CBS initially dropped the show in the spring of ’71 as part of the network’s ‘rural purge’ – which also saw the axe fall on The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Mayberry RFD.
But by then he was already branching out creatively, and released three 45s on Columbia Records. Written by Gary Buck and Neil Marrett and b/w “Takin’ City Ways,” “Nobody’s Singing Them Cowboy Songs No More” peaked at #10 on the Canadian country chart. It was also included in the Canadian Olympics Association compilation, YOUTH FOR CANADA – COUNTRY AND WESTERN. “Many Others,” which made it to #44 on the charts, and “Don’t Be Ashamed Of Your Age” b/w “Footprints,” which failed to chart, followed over the next few years. Another single was released in ’78 on Chateau Records which failed to chart – “My Home Town” b/w “Johnny Gunn” – produced by Art Snider and with the makeshift backup group, The Strollers.
He took his comedy and music routine on the road across the country and back home to Canada, and even performed at the White House, where he was introduced to President Gerald Ford as the world’s funniest storyteller. He appeared in a pair of low budget indie flicks – Wild Horse Hank, a 1979 film by director Eric Till that co-starred Linda Blair and Richard Crenna, and wrote and starred in 1983’s Sweet Country Music.
His only full length album on his own was 1980’s BOTH SIDES – LIVE AT THE GRAPEVINE OPRY on Nashville-based indie label, ASR Records. Recorded live in a local club, it combined standards like “If You’ve Got The Time” and “Ain’t It Funny How Time Slips Away” with his comedy routine, including of course his signature song, “Pfft You Was Gone.”
He was looking for a new project and when former GRT sales manager Ed LaBuick launched Cachet Records, Tapp was among the first signees. The label specialized mostly in gospel and traditional country – Ernest Tubb, Ferlin Husky, Nana Mouskouri, and The Man In Black… among others). He contributed 11 tracks to THE GOOD LIFE in ’85, which also featured songs from Ricky Yorke and King James Version, including “Trouble In Amen Corner,” “I Saw The Light,” and “Just A Closer Walk With Thee.”
Although working primarily Stateside, Tapp and his family remained in Ontario, which continued when he started slowing down. That didn’t mean he wasn’t on the stage tho, and Tapp continued making appearances and he even played Santa for Hamilton radio station CHML in his later years. Over the years, he used his stardom for philanthropic purposes, raising money and awareness for the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the Easter Seals Society, among others. His gift of giving earned him the Order of Canada in 19990. In ’99, he was awarded the Order of Ontario, the highest honour in the province.
In 2006 he released his autobiography, “What’s On Tapp? The Gordie Tapp Story – Alias Cousin Clem,” and in ’09 he was inducted in the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame. At the age of 94, Tapp died in Burlington, Ontario on December 18, 2016 from complications brought on by pneumonia.
BOTH SIDES – LIVE AT THE GRAPEVINE OPRY (1980)
If You’ve Got The Time
I Really Don’t Want to Know
Ain’t It Funny How Time Slips Away
You’re The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me
I Wouldn’t Take Her To A Dog Fight
Nobody’s Singing Those Cowboy Songs No More
Little White Wash Building
Pfffft You Was Gone