A native of Halifax, Ritchie Oakley first picked up the guitar at the age of 10, and although Eric Clapton was one of his idols, he began playing Johnny Cash tunes, and performed in front of an audience for the first time at 13. After high school he joined the first of several groups, and in the late ’60s joined Central Nervous System.
After one album, he then joined Soma. But when that band fell apart after a pair of singles and opening slots with Santana, Chicago, and Sly & The Family Stone, he decided to strike out on his own and form his own group. This came about as Mike Shepherd, owner of The Wyse Owl in Dartmouth needed a group for six weeks in ’75 while mainstay Dutch Mason went out on a Canadian tour.
He put together a band with childhood friend and drummer Doug MacKay, ex of Gray Owl, then Horse and one single. They soon added bassist Bruce Dixon (ex of Sandy Road) and Oakley was born. Shortly after, Mike Farrington came on board on vocals, guitars, and harmonica in a somewhat unorthodox fashion. “We would get singers and people out of the audience to come up and sing some songs with the band, a live audition you might say,” Dixon said.
Though their run at The Wyse Owl ended, they soon became regulars at The Misty Moon and The Palace in Halifax, as well as returning to Dartmouth now and again. As they grew, their regular haunts included The Golden Line in St John and The Hilltop in Fredricton. As they built momentum, Jon Lee, who’d played with MacKay in Gray Owl, came into the fold for around six months. He and Farrington both left around the same time, and Wayne Nicholson joined after coming down from Truro to see his chums play.
A little over a year later in ’78, Bill McCauley, ex of Red Eye, sat in with the band for a week while they were playing in Fredricton, and became their permanent keyboards player from then on. They continued honing their chops for a couple of years and gained a reputation for their hard rock approach (somewhat uncharacteristic for the region at the time) while working some original material into their sets.
They cut enough material for an album, and shopped the demos around, eventually getting some interest from a couple of labels. They signed with Halifax-based Nova Records in 1979, but rather than release updated versions of the demos, they went back to the drawing board and continued writing new material. The result was their self-titled only album in 1980. On the backs of three singles – “Ride ‘Em Cowboy,” “Stickin’ With You,” and “She’s Gone,” the record was eventually certified gold after selling 50,000 units, with most of the sales coming from the East Coast.
Along with expanding their live audiences as far west as Ontario, the airplay landed them some gigs over the next year or so opening for the likes of April Wine, Blue Rodeo, and The Doobie Brothers on their east coast tours.
But when Dixon left in 1981, Oakley called on fellow ex-Soma member Donnie Morris to fill the bass duties. They added Dave Gallant as a second guitarist before the year was up, but unable to land a major label deal, they called it quits in early ’82 after a few more jaunts across the islands. A short breath was given the band after its demise, when “She’s Gone” and “I Almost Call Your Name” appeared on a couple of Maritimes compilation records. The latter of those two songs has also been recorded by several other artists, including Maritimes country star Trina.
Oakley went on to co-found Power Unit with Sam Moon for a couple of years, then founded Fandango. He also worked with other artists behind the scenes and in the studios, and spent a few years touring with country artist John Curtis Sampson. He also received accolades in the ’90s from both the Nova Scotia Country Music Association (NSCMA) and the Music Industry Association of Nova Scotia (MIANS). He’s also resurrected various incarnations of Oakley now and again over the years for various festivals and one-off performances.
Lee bounced around in a few groups, including touring with Matt Minglewood. Nicholson meanwhile joined New Glasgow-based Granfalloon in 1982 (basically a reincarnation of his first band, Nite Cult), and enjoyed some local success with the single, “Cheater.” He then went solo, and recorded the first of four albums on his own in 1992. He’s also worked as a producer and session musician for various artists. Since the mid ’90s, he’s also participated in several Horse reunions.
McCauley and Dixon both joined Rita MacNeil’s recording and touring entourages, and Dixon also toured with Roch Voisine in the early ’00s. McCauley passed away in 2001.