The Alberta music scene was full of youth, vigor and a wide array of sounds in the early 60’s, ranging from hardcore country to an early fusion of progressive-roots rock. All the ingredients which made up the mix were the core behind The Stampeders.
The earliest inception was The Rebounds – formed by Calgary highschool friends Brendan Lyttle on bass and guitarist Rich Dodson (originally from Sudbury, ON). BC-native drummer Kim Berly born Kimball Meyer) answered a newspaper ad. He suggested his brother Al (stage name Race Holiday) take over vocals, shortly before Len Roemer was brought in on guitars. But before long Lyttle was out on bass and Rotterdam, Holland-native Cornelius Van Strang (ex of The Paint Brushes) was in, going by the name Ronnie King. His brother Emile adopted the stage name Van Louis after he took over on vocals.
Local cable television guru Mel Shaw took an interest in the group in 1964 and agreed to manage them. They changed their name to The Stampeders to better reflect their roots and soon were developing a country-rock hybrid sound playing the prairies’ b-circuit. They released one single during this period, “House of Shake” b/w “Don’t Look At Her”. Shaw also helped in the exposure department by having the band appear on regular TV variety programs.
By the time they’d worked their way to a more promising chance of making it in Toronto in ’66, they’d developed a steady following throughout the prairies but were finding ‘the center of the universe’ a tougher market to crack. Familiar with everything from hippie-fok music to jazz-flavoured r&b, Ontario wasn’t sure what to make of the ‘yokels in cowboy hats & denim. Unable to get any real interest from the major labels, Shaw formed World Music Creation. Though sporting a grandiose name, the company in fact never dealt with any other artists.
The single “Morning Magic” was the band’s first real ‘break’. Released in 1968 on the independent Caravan label, it’s flip-side was “All The Time”, and tho it didn’t break any sales records, the single did get them some airplay and earn a BMI Award. The added exposure led to a deal with MGM in the US, releasing “Be A Woman” b/w “I Don’t Believe” later that year. Interesting tho is that label execs weren’t comfortable with the band’s ability musically, and hired session players for the songs. Shortly after the band was reduced to a trio, Rich Dodson on guitars, Ronnie King on bass and Kim Berly on drums.
By the time they released “Cross-Walk” b/w “I Don’t Know Where I’m At Sometimes” on the independent Melbourne Records in the summer of ’69, they’d slowly but steadily grown a following, prompting interest from Quality Records. Now signed to a major deal for the time, they came out of Toronto’s Phase One Studios early the next year with the single “Carry Me”. Tho it didn’t make much of a dent south of the border, the tender acoustic feeling scored #1 in Canada and became their first gold single. Terry Brown, future producer with the likes of Rush, Max Webster, Rough Trade and Klaatu was brought in for the remaining recording sessions. AGAINST THE GRAIN was released in 1970.
“Sweet City Woman” (later covered by The Dave Clark 5, Lawrence Welk and over two dozen others) was released – topping the Canadian charts for a good part of that year and eventually selling nearly 3 million copies worldwide. The band won at the inaugural Juno Awards (then called The Gold Leaf Awards) the next year for group of the year, producer of the year and best new artist, as well as single of the year for “Sweet City Woman”. King reminisced, “Someone decided we should have a banjo in that song because of the one line. No one even knew HOW to play a banjo!”
The song’s upbeat cross-over appeal then led to the band signing their major US deal with Bell Records early the next year. They quickly re-released the song for the American audience, eventually peaking at #8 on Billboard. The flip side to the single was “Gator Road”, a swampy-influenced number that gave hint to some of the band’s untapped versatitly. In an obvious attempt to capitalize on the song’s popularity, Bell released AGAINST THE GRAIN under the name SWEET CITY WOMAN. Also on the album were the reflective “Train To Nowhere” and twangy “Oklahoma Country”.
Their instant place in the scene was re-affirmed at the ’71 Junos, when they walked out with the honours in 4 categories, including best group & best single for “Sweet City Woman”. By the time CARRYIN’ ON hit the shelves in the summer of ’72, the band had completed a very successful European tour, criss-crossed North America a couple times and been featured on practically every television variety show on both sides of the Atlantic. The new record followed the path of its predecessor, but instantly showed the band’s versatily, with the progressive “Devil You” as the first single, and then doing a 360 next with the hard-nosed “Wild Eyes”. Inside two years The Stampeders had themselves four hit singles and a pair of gold albums, going from local hopefuls to one of Canada’s hottest rising groups – quite the accomplishment considering the lack of support Canadian radiogave homegrown artists before the implementation of content regulations.
They landed a European deal with Regal Records which enticed another tour of the UK and Holland (where they were particularly popular due to King’s Dutch origins). The tours didn’t stop, and had them in South America, representing Canada in The Rio De Janeiro Song Festival, seen worldwide by what was then the largest television audience of all-time. Though the Americans thought the third single “Monday Morning Choo Choo” was cute, fans in the US never did really catch on to The Stampeders’ country-hybrid sound. Also featured was “Then Came The White Man” with its controversial subject matter. But despite their success, Bell Records dropped them from its roster – leaving them without a US deal.
RUBES DUDES AND ROWDIES was next up and out of the gates early in 1973. Still showing the maturity to successfully incorporate new elements into their sound, their third straight gold record came on the heels of the four singles – “Minstrel Gypsy”, the revved-up rockers “Johnny Lightning” and “Julia Get Up” and Berly’s homey “Oh My Lady”, complete with a full orchestra. A series of tours was assembled, when the band returned to the studios for FROM THE FIRE, released later that year and showed a definite shift – if only in image. The cowboy boots and blue jeans for the most part had been replaced with tie-dyed denim and sequins. Musically the new album was some of their most progressive experimentations yet. This led to two singles, the haunting yet subtle “Me & My Stone” and “Rocky Mountain Home”, and more trips abroad and across North America.
NEW DAY was cut in ’74 and was more experimentation in the studios, marked by the lead-off track and first single “Ramona”. Other hi-lites of their fifth straight gold record were Dodson’s “Marigold” (named for his future recording studio and record label), “Running Out Of Time” and the haunting “Brothers Of The Universe”. The subsequent tour resulted in the live album BACKSTAGE PASS, recorded at Ontario Place and released before year’s end. Capturing their live presence, which was always one of their trademarks, the record featured live versions of “Devil You”, “Johnny Lightning” and a cover of “Blue Suede Shoes”. “I used to ask the guys if we have to play music when we’re on stage. It always got in the way of my comedy routine,” King quipped. Slick editing (for the time anyway) stripped the gags out of the record and left one of the purest live albums of its day, showcasing the band in its most familiar stage – in front of screaming fans.
STEAMIN’ was released the summer of ’75. The first single “Hit The Road Jack” featured a cameo by famed radio DJ Wolfman Jack, stemming from a chance meeting the band had with him during a television appearance in New York. The single cracked the top 40 Stateside and UK and #1 in Canada and Holland. The record was also the first to have two covers – Gary US Bonds’ “New Orleans” – and the flip-side – a remake of Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer In The City”, as well as the tender “Broken Heart Surgery” and blazing “We’re Here To Rock & Roll”.
HIT THE ROAD hit the stores a little over a year later. The experimentation that was one of the band’s trademarks stretched further than ever before. A funkier, jazzier sound was emerging, resulting in the singles “San Diego”, complete with guitar phasers before their time and flutes and “Sweet Love Bandit” and “Playing In The Band” in all their full-horn splendor. All three were written by Dodson – and were his last singles with the band. Another series of tours ensued, making The Stampeders the top concert draw over the previous five years.
Restless for new challenges and upset with what he considered ‘musical straying’, not ‘evolution’, Dodson quit the band during recording the next album, starting up his own recording studio as well as Marigold Records. To fully incorporate their ever-broadening sound, Berly and King continued on with a swelled personnel, including percussionist Gibby Lacasse (later of The Lydia Taylor Band), Ian Kojima (formerly of Great White Cane with Rick James) & David Norris-Elye on horns and guitarists Doug Macaskill – later of Moxy – & Gary Scrutton, basically the same supporting cast for HIT THE ROAD. After a series of abbreviated tours they came from the studios in mid ’77 sans the denim and rhinestones – now in the always-fashionable bell-bottoms and satin & lace shirts. The first single from PLATINUM was the lead-off “Bring The House Down” – a pumped-up rhythm & blues number. Also included was the tender “Pictures Of Love”, the eclectic “Sassy Dance” and “Fool’s Lament”.
Tee Vee International then released the band’s first definitive collection, THE BEST OF THE STAMPEDERS later that year. Though it contained their 20 top hits, problem was this was in the day when companies cut guitar solos and trimmed songs to under 3 minutes to accomodate the 20 songs … also in the day when foolish teenagers bought their Ronco Record Cleaner – subsequently ruining their paper-route money investment.
By this time Berly was becoming increasingly frustrated with the band’s direction and left in 1978, forming The Cry and recording a pair of records for RCA. Meanwhile execs were also uneasy about the constantly shifting of gears and their decline in sales – so their long-standing deal with Quality Records was terminated. Undaunted, King signed with Apex Records and carried on with a new version of the band, featuring his youngest brother Roy on drums. Along with new guitarists Bob Allwood and Gary Storin, BALLSY was released early in 1979.
“I was made (by management) to carry on until 1980 or so. I just wanted to call the band ‘Ronnie King’s Rock Stampede’ – or something. .. everyone knew it wasn’t the same three people as before. But the record was still ok… or I thought anyway,” King said. Featured was a remake of the anthemic “We’re Here To Rock & Roll” from STEAMIN’ and a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Bye Bye Johnny.” But radio execs were having a tough time finding ‘singles’, and the crowds were having a go with keeping up with the group’s ever-changing sound. Lack of sales and the large touring ensemble’s escalating costs resulted in King folding the band by year’s end.
Capitol released a compilation in their OVER SIXTY MINUTES series in ’83. Mixed in with a collection of tracks spanning their career was the previously unreleased jazz-tinged “Za Ba Dee”. Only two years would pass however until the label outdid themselves, releasing a pair of discs called GREATEST HITS VOLUMES 1 & 2 in THE OVER SEVENTY MINUTES series, which extended versions of “Keep Me Running Wild” and “Me and My Stone” and the unreleased “Little Miss America, “Natalie” and “Lookin’ Back”.
The ‘original 3’ – Dodson, Berly and King got back together off and on in the early ’90’s and were inducted into the Alberta Recording Associaton Hall Of Fame in 1994. The release of their first three records on Marigold Records happened two years later.
1998 saw the first new Stampeders record in nearly 20 years. Reminiscent of their country-hybrid roots, they were older, wiser and more mature. SURE BEATS WORKING was a sort of ‘coming home’, returning them to their country-rock roots in what would now be termed ‘new country’. On the album were the reflective “Hometown Boy”, the spankey “Oh Belinda” and title track, as well as updated versions of “Carry Me” and “Oh My Lady”. “It was really nice to see the guys again. We always had a good vibe together,” Dodson said “None of us really thought we were going to get back together after 15 years,” King adds. “Our joke on stage is we’ve been together longer this time than when we first started out.”