These are the Boomers in your neighbourhood: The legacy of Rockin’ Rick

Rick Shermack, better known as Rockin’ Rick, will go down in history as the man who invented Alberta’s most famous shooter.

That’s right, China White was a rock band before it was a drink.

It happened in St. Paul, Alberta, early ‘80s, Rick recalls during a recent interview in his office at Axe Music, where he is co-owner and general manager. China White was opening for Long John Baldry. There was a shooter contest. “What’s a shooter?” everyone asked about this hot new trend in the beverage industry. It was explained that every band coming through this particular bar was invited to invent their own shooter. Didn’t have to twist their arms. The members of China White set to their task with enthusiasm. Several inebriated hours in the laboratory later, eureka! They had it: Half Bailey’s, half white Cream du cocao, spinkled with cinnamon – the last part a happy accident – and pronounced by all as “delicious.”

The rest is beverage history. Shooters, and the China White in particular, took off across the realm. The band would often get to a gig is some town to find their name had preceded them, and quickly capitalized on the extra publicity. The China White remains on bar menus around the world to this day. The band still plays, too.

“If only I could’ve made a buck on it,” says Rick.

He doesn’t seem too broken up about it. At least he has a story.

Those who know the work of Rockin’ Rick will see that his latest project The K-Tels – whose name describes exactly what you’re going to get – just fits into his general modus operandi. The duo, also with co-rocker Brad Pettigrew, makes its debut at Richard’s Pub Monday and Tuesday.

Rick is already well entrenched in the Edmonton music scene – more than just for his day job, though it would be hard to find any professional musician, local or touring, who hasn’t popped into Axe Music, at least for some cables or guitar strings or those new-fangled LED concert lights that use five per cent the power of incandesents. Needless to say, any gig Rockin’ Rick and his pals do these days will have the very best gear money can buy.

This is where a successful career in cover bands can lead you. As we discover in this latest installment of These Are the Boomers in Your Neighbourhood, the covers scene exists in a parallel, yet entirely alternate universe than the one occupied by hard-working, lowly-paid original bands in places like Wunderbar and the Pawn Shop and the Haven Social Club. The cover scene had almost disappeared (for various reasons: Liquor license laws, drunk driving crackdown, the ascent of the DJ), but then casinos saved it. If you thought cover bands were cheesy back in the day, the price of poker just went up.

Don’t forget that one man’s cheese is another man’s solid gold.

“It can’t be schtick,” says Rick. “When we do Evil Grows by the Poppy Family, believe me, if you’re doing it as joke, you’re going to offend people. A few people will snicker, but halfway through they’ll go, ‘Oh! I remember this song.’ People buy into it and they love it.”

It all stems from AM top-40 radio, and specifically CHED when it played music – which formed the musical muse of Area Rockers Of a Certain Age as surely as Nirvana’s concert at the Bronx in 1991 shaped the minds of the hipster Generation Xers who claim to have been there. Rockin’ Rick’s handle was born as a high school radio DJ, his dream at the time to one day be one of the cool CHED announcers like Chuck Chandler or Bob McCord. An impromptu performance at a house party in high school led Rick to become a musician, coupled with his love of the bar band scene in general. His dad was general manager at the Capilano Motor Inn for many years, with its 1,000 seat tavern and AA cover bands rockin’ six nights a week (the hotel is now King’s Christian University; the altar in the chapel is where the stripper’s pole used to be, according to sources that can’t be trusted). Rick says he always wanted to be in the type of band that could do those AA rooms, instead of being booked in the B, C and D rooms often called the “Zoo” or something horrible with “Royal” in its name, and did everything he could to make it happen.

Good money in those days. Fired from his first band (for “not being serious enough”) and determined never to let that happen again, Rockin’ Rick has since formed and fronted a variety of local cover bands whose names might ring a bell. Beyond China White, there was Ten Inch Men – serving briefly as Terry Evans’ musical sidekicks when the K-97 announcer had his own TV show – and The Rum Brothers (with Rick and former booking agent-present used car salesman Kerry Doyle, currently “in a witness protection program,” jokes Rick), starting as a duo and expanded into a casino cabaret act, complete with dancing girls.

And now we come to the K-Tels: AM Gold in 3-D, Three Dog Night, The Archies, the Hollys, Neil Diamond, you name the tune you haven’t heard in 20 years, these guys will remind you, and not once does Rockin’ Rick have any trouble keeping a straight face.

“It’s no joke,” he says. “We are serious about wanting to entertain people.”

It’s difficult to make the switch from cover band to original band. Several reasons: The money sucks, and if you’re trying to introduce original material in your cover band, the point in the show when you declare, “Here’s one of our own songs” is often the point at which the dance floor clears out. None of this has stopped Rockin’ Rick. He’s made a few recordings of his own songs over the years, and in one case an entire full length China White album that never got released. He says the songwriting and recording process is validating enough on its own, never mind the results. Besides, he says with a smile, “You get caught up in the machine, and all of the sudden you’re 30, then 35 …” Stop, please stop.

Rick says he gets much amusement from the odd encounter in the bar, recently a compliment from a table full of young people at the recent Honeymoon Suite concert, where China White was opening: “They said, ‘Hey, band guy! Come here! These guys are great, but you guys have way more hits!’ I just left it at that.”

And just a couple of weeks ago, Rick relates, he was getting his hair cut and the stylist found out he was in a band:

“Oh, which band?”

“China White.”

“Oh, I love those shooters.”

“It’s a long story …”