Cheech and Chong and Gaye Delorme

Cheech and Chong GigCity EdmontonFans and friends remember Gaye Delorme as an incredible guitarist with a wicked sense of humour. He died of a heart attack in the summer of 2011 at the age of 64. He was frail and almost blind from diabetes in the last few years of his life, yet still capable of orchestrating the absurdity of performing his famous Rodeo Song with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra – which cut in with the opening to Beethoven’s Fifth to bleep out all the f***s.

“Got a heater in my truck and I don’t give a DUM-DUM-DUM-DUMMMM!”

Typical Gaye.

The Edmonton musician’s biggest claim to fame may be his largely uncredited role in Cheech and Chong. In fact, according to Tommy Chong himself, there wouldn’t even be a Cheech and Chong if it weren’t for Gaye Delorme.

“He was really responsible for getting me into comedy,” Chong says in a recent phone interview, and he’s said it before. “Because up until I met Gaye I thought I was a guitar player. He had this trick of, ‘hey, can I borrow your guitar for a minute?’ And he would take your instrument and your amp and make it sound like you’ve never heard it before. It’s the guitar I was just playing that never had the right tone; it just sounded like what Gaye used to call “Dick guitar,’ dick-dick-dick, you know? He was such a phenomenal guitarist. He blew everyone away. But he would have these fragments of ideas.”

Comedy ideas, that is.

“Gaye was the genius behind Cheech and Chong. He was the one who gave us our identity,” Chong says. “To this day, we still do his type of humour, that kind of offbeat style, kinda jazz, but pure Canadian.”

There may be only one thing that prevented an alternate history where “Gaye and Chong” became the world’s pre-eminent hippie stoner comedy duo: “You couldn’t team up with him,” Chong says. “I couldn’t even play guitar on the same stage as him … I played with some of the best in the world. I played with Hendrix, but I never played with Gaye.”

Cheech and Chong are still going strong; they can still “pack ‘em in,” as they say in the matter of bong bowls or large performance spaces. They return to Edmonton for a show at the River Cree Casino on Saturday, Jan. 11, where fans may expect hear such favourites as “Earache My Eye” with its famous riffs written and recorded by Gaye Delorme.

Gaye Delorme GigCity EdmontonThey met when the Edmonton-born Chong and his brother ran a strip club called the Shanghai Junk in Vancouver during the ‘60s. It was there that the future Godfather of Ganja would begin to give up being a full-time musician, having already formed what he claims is the “first R&B band in Alberta,” the Shades, that was even signed to Motown Records for a short time, to go into comedy.

Along with booking the occasional band, Chong started producing little routines between the peeler sets. Everyone who worked in the club was recruited. The strippers were actresses. Doorman David Graham (a fellow Edmontonian who went on to become Lenny Breau’s manager) was asked to be the emcee-slash-straightman, and said he’d only get on stage if his boss would do it, too. So Tommy did, basically for the first time without a band. Delorme came to town with his own band (which included Edmonton drummer and future head shop owner Tom Doran), and soon joined the fun. They called their troupe “City Works” and used to enjoy playing pranks on strip club patrons. Chong recalls one:

“You’re got to remember: these are bikers and hardcore sex maniacs who want to see naked chicks. So they’re sitting there waiting for the show to start. The lights would go down and Gaye would come out with his classical guitar and start playing this classical piece. And then this mime artist would come prancing out doing a mime with flowers, pretending he’s picking a daisy and chasing flowers across the stage. The bikers are looking at this: What the fuck’s going on here?! But they’re quiet. They don’t know what to say. We got ‘em hung up! And then David Graham would come out with this cowboy hat and a scarf and a fringed leather jacket and he’d go up the mic and sing, ‘I dream of Jeanie with the light brown fur, Jeanie is my favourite wire haired terrier!’

“At that point, the bikers were really ready to kill people because obviously they weren’t getting naked chicks. So right at that point, I would kick the door open, come onto the stage shirtless with my hair messed up. I had a rolled up newspaper in my hand, I’d walk over to David, look at him and say, ‘what kind of fucking song is that?!’ And I’d beat him with this newspaper. And the audience would just roar. Because that’s exactly what they wanted to do with David. Then we’d black out and bring out the girls. Gaye wrote that whole thing.”

They did that bit and others like it for more than nine months, Chong recalls, slowly turning a Chinatown strip joint into a little comedy theatre. Sadly, the new patrons didn’t drink quite as much as the bikers, so Chong’s brother eventually pulled the plug and the club got back to its bread and butter of naked chicks. But L.A. comedian Cheech Marin was part of the troupe by then, having moved to Vancouver to avoid the Vietnam draft, and together the three of them – Cheech and Chong and Gaye Delorme – started working on material that would wind up making two of the three of them famous.

Chong says he tried to help his funny Edmonton friend break into the Los Angeles scene, “But he was such a Canadian. He couldn’t get out of Vancouver. He couldn’t play the game down here.”

Besides, Delorme had other ambitions.

Now 75 years old, Chong may look like the model for the Zig Zag rolling papers dude, but does not talk like a man who smokes pot all day long. He doesn’t. Like that was apple juice and not bourbon in Dean Martin’s tumbler, those big fat Cheech and Chong reefers were probably filled with oregano. Or dog poop.

“It’s an act,” the Pope of Pop says. “I own it and I grow it and I use it for medicine, but more than anything I’m a bodybuilder.”

As for Gaye, “He never smoked dope. All I’ve ever seen Gaye do was drink. He never liked what pot did to him.”

Imagine how things would’ve turned out if he had.