Sugar & Spice

Winnipeg’s The Griffins started in 1965 when St Paul’s High School friends Phil O’Connell and Ron Harder on guitars, Don Carrier on vocals, drummer Kenn Richard, and Larry Mahler on bass.

O’Connell’s friend Michael Gillespie started helping out with booking and management duties, and the band was soon playing a couple shows each weekend, covering mostly the British hits of the day. But before long, Harder was replaced by Ken Lowry and his keyboard. Still, commitment from he and Carrier pushed the remaining members to re-evaluate things. Richard tossed out the idea of adding a female component, unique around the Winnipeg scene at the time.

He pointed out his friend John MacInnes of The Mongrels was dating a singer named Kathleen Murphy, just 17 at the time. Along with her younger sisters, Maureen and Aileen, they sang at church and around the area as a folk trio. In an effort to save hurt feelings with Carrier and Lowry, instead of firing them, the Griffins quietly disbanded in the summer of ’67 to make way for the new project – Sugar and Spice.

The sisters, along with MacInnes and his ex Mongrels’ frontman, Geoff Marrin, were added to the core of O’Connell, Richard, and Mahler, and Gillespie convinced them the ticket to success was for the band to only play live outside their hometown, and only after a single was getting airplay. This in theory would help give the impression when playing someplace else the band was bigger than they were, and in the process bring in a bigger chunk of the gate. At the time, the band was lucky to earn $80/night.

Randy Bachman meanwhile was trying to stretch his arms outside of The Guess Who. He wrote both sides of their first single, “Not To Return,” b/w “I Don’t Need Anything” on local label, Franklin Records (Mongrels, The Fifth, Gettysbyrg Address). (Incidentally, Bachman recorded his own version of “Not To Return” in 1970 for his solo debut, AXE).

Recorded in their practice space in an empty warehouse with Franklin’s owner Bob Burns, and arranged by Bob McMullen, the a-side got heavy play on both Winnipeg stations when it was released in January of ’68. It was a hit locally, and a modest hit in other markets. With promoter Frank Weiner’s help, the band was booked throughout the prairies and into Ontario, starting with a show at the University of Manitoba’s Winter Carnival a month after its release. For the one set, they were paid $800.

Producer Bob Burns was also a local TV personality, and he booked them on his Teen Dance Party show. From there, they opened for the hottest groups on the airwaves – including Sonny & Cher and The Who. For their show with The Who in Edmonton, the boys drove on the winter highways in a beat up station wagon, whereas their mother chaperoned the sisters to the show by plane.

Before long, Frank Weiner assumed management duties, and Mahler was fired, with MacInnes taking over the bass duties. Chuck Gorling came in on keyboards, and Mike Elliot replaced Richard on drums, who in turn was replaced by Steve Banman.

“Day By Day” b/w “It’s Growin'” (both penned by outside writers) followed late that spring, but went largely unnoticed. For the next single in early ’69, they turned to a song the Murphy sisters sang as a folk trio, Peter Paul & Mary’s “Cruel War.”. Two versions recorded in Minneapolis – one b/w a reprise of “Not To Return” and one with a French version of the single (“Le Guerre Se Dechaine”).

The tale of a war draftee who dresses as a woman to sneak across the lines to see his love, would end up being their biggest hit when it peaked at #31 and #1 in Winnipeg. It was even picked up for American distribution by White Wale Records (The Turtles’ label), but a printing error said the song was public domain. Peter Yarrow of Peter Paul & Mary threatened a lawsuit, and White Wale stopped pressing.

Winnipeg songwriter Russell Thornberry (then playing with the New Christy Minstrels) penned both sides of their next single later that year – “Something To Believe” b/w “Without You Babe.” Recorded at Winnipeg’s Century 21 Studios, it again to less than hoped for fanfare. Another pair of Bachman tunes – “Whisper Girl Shining” b/w “Judith and the Windswept” suffered the same fate before the end of the year.

In 1970, Kathleen left the group to join The Tweatle Band, and MacInnes, Marrin, and Banman all soon followed her out the door. A re-tooled version appeared that summer – Maureen and Aileen, along with O’Connell and Gorling. A pair of Saskatoon natives – Brian Meissner on bass and vocals, and Laurie Currie on drums had joined, and it was Meissner’s lead vocals on “Angeline” (penned by Gorling and Currie) b/w “It’s Been A Long Time” (which he wrote) that became their next single, that summer.

But liquor laws in the province were changing. People could get into the bar at 18 now, and instead of the band’s audience at all-ages venues, now they were in small clubs. Maureen left the group in January of ’71, and the decision was made to drop the Sugar from their monikor, and reinvent themselves. They took much of the year off, and Meissner was focusing on vocals, so Glen Stewart was brought in on bass.

They went into the studios that December to cut the next two singles, both written by Meissner – “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” featuring him on vocals, which failed to crack the top 40, and its follow-up, “Strawberry Wine” with Aileen Murphy handling lead vocals. It peaked at #25 in March, ’72.

Things were on a downward spiral, bookings were fewer and further in between, and one last single was released in the spring of ’72 – Meissner’s “Just A Little Love” b/w a re-release of “Angeline.” It went nowhere, and Aileen, the last of the Murphy sisters, was gone that summer, and Winnipeg native Suzanne Moirer was brought in.

Deciding a change of scenery would help, the band packed up for Toronto, and were managed by Ray Danniels, who was also handling Rush at the time. But unable to build an audience with the new, heavier sound, before long Bob Walker (Witness Inc and Ian & Sylvia replaced Stewart on bass, and O’Connell followed Stewart out the door. Bob White took over the guitar duties from O’Connell, but by February ’73 the band was no more, and Rush bought their tour bus.

Meissner and Currie stayed in Toronto, forming Liverpool, a Beatles tribute band. That morphed into Aerial a few years later, releasing a pair of albums in ’78 and ’80. Following that band’s demise, Meissner bounced around in a couple of groups, before becoming an advertising agency exec. Currie moved back to Saskatoon, mostly playing in jazz groups and doing radio AVOs over the decades. Elliot taught at universities for three decades before retiring.

Gorling and White moved to Vancouver, where they became a piano instructor and session player, respectively. White then worked as a marketing agent with the West Edmonton Mall, and as the tour manager for hypnotist Reveen.

As for the original band members, O’Connell formed the short-lived Majik, continued working with young bands for awhile, and also worked for Long & McQuade at one time after moving back to Winnipeg. Richard became a professor in Toronto, and worked with Aboriginals in a health centre. Mahler became a well-respected photographer once he’d moved back to Winnipeg. MacInnes got out of the business all together and became a lawyer in Calgary.

After leaving the group, Maureen Murphy moved to Toronto, where she managed up and coming bands, including Fast Eddie, which featured future Aerial guitarist Gary O’Connor, who’d go on to a solo career as Gary O. She was joined by her sisters, and they all joined the Greaseball Boogie Band, which morphed into Shooter – good for one album in ’75. She eventually retired, while her sisters Aileen became a software developer, and Kathleen became a lawyer.

In 2008, the band’s eight singles were given a new life, when they were included in Franklin Records’ double-disc compilation, entitled oddly enough, BEST OF FRANKLIN RECORDS.