RIP Tommy Banks: Godfather of Edmonton music
“I can’t wait to read it” is the last thing Tommy Banks said to me a few months ago – in anticipation of the book I’m struggling to finish about the history of the Edmonton music scene. He’s a key chapter.
What a sad deadline to miss. Tommy never got to read it. He died Thursday at the age of 81. His family says details of the celebration of his life will be released shortly. They’re going to need a big building.
From several encounters I’ve had with him over the years, this old-school gentlemen always made you feel like you’re the most important person in the room. As he was with anyone involved with Edmonton music, Tommy was always very kind, enthusiastic and supportive towards my book project. He wrote a glowing recommendation letter for my successful grant application, and was generous with his time in several in-depth interviews.
Tommy’s own words follow – in a draft of a chapter in an as-yet-unpublished book he never got to read about the passion of his life: The Edmonton music scene.
The Man Who Wouldn’t Leave
One dark winter’s night a long time ago, a young man and his girlfriend were hiking on a forested hillside near the Grandview community in Edmonton – when a dark figure suddenly emerged from the bushes near a clearing. It gave the couple quite a fright – but the full shock was coming face to face with local music legend Tommy Banks, outside sneaking a cigarette.
“Hey, man,” he said. “Hey, man” is his customary greeting to people he’s met before but forgotten their names. It works surprisingly well when you’ve met a lot of people like Tommy has.
The couple happened to be music students at Grant MacEwan College, where Banks was the chair of the music program, among his many other gigs. Awkward pleasantries were exchanged; then he finished his smoke and went back to his presumably smoke-free home in one of the city’s richest neighbourhoods. Tommy has made a great living in Edmonton’s music business.
This wasn’t the couple’s first or last encounter with the coolest heavy cat in Edmonton music. There used to be a saying around here: If you hang around long enough, sooner or later you’re going to run into Tommy Banks.
Most famous musicians from Edmonton only become famous after they leave town. Tommy Banks is an example of what happens if you stick around.
Tommy is the Godfather of the local music scene – award-winning jazz pianist, band leader, arranger, composer, conductor, recording artist, producer, talent agent, businessman, teacher, radio host, television host, philanthropist and Canadian Senator from 2000 to 2011 – yet he never wanted to be an “artist.”
He wanted to make money.
“I never had any doubt what I wanted to do,” he says. “I wanted to be a piano player. But the first decision you had to make was whether you want to be an artist, and be prepared to eat Kraft dinner and live in a garret for your art – and thank God for the people who make that giant step. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to have a nice house and a nice car and family, be comfortable and not worry about it, and still be a musician. So the choice was: Shall I be an artist or shall I be a craftsman? In this part of the world, in this country, you have to be craftsman if you want to make a living. You have to say, ‘Yes, I can play country piano on that record. Yes, I know how to produce a record. Yes, I know how to conduct a big orchestra. Yes, I know how to write orchestrations. Yes, I know how to play a jazz concert. Yes, I can accompany a girl singer. Yes, I can put together a good act.’ You had to do all that.
“I guess I got spoiled. I said this is what I want to do, and I did it. That is lucky. I was born at the right place at the right time, took opportunities at the right time, said yes to every offer – and only then learned how to do what they wanted you to do. Even now you have to say when you answer the phone, ‘Hello? Yes, I can do it! And by the way who is this and what do you want?’
“The only credit I’m going to take for any of this is that I worked hard.”
Tommy Banks comes from at least three generations of musicians. His grandfather worked in Vaudeville in the 1920s; his father Ben Banks played piano and guitar in the pit orchestra at the Palace Theatre in Calgary in the ‘40s. His mother Laura was a professional dancer (and future television personality) working in the Palace chorus line.
“My childhood was a Betty Grable musical,” Tommy says. Musicians came over to the house all the time, he remembers, to rehearse, jam, hang out. His parents often took him to the theatre where they worked and the radio station CJCJ-AM where his dad also played in the orchestra. All radio stations had orchestras in those days.
The Betty Grable fantasy came to an end in 1948 when Tommy’s dad got a job in Edmonton – as an executive at the Western Natural Gas Light Heat and Power Company (later known as Northwestern Utilities). Though the Leduc No. 1 oil well had come in the year before, the legendary Alberta “boom” was slow to follow.
“It was sort of a boom,” Tommy remembers. “Alberta was on the receiving end of Equalization until 1963, so boom was not the word, but we gradually moved from being a have-not province to a have province. But until 1963 we received federal subsidies. People forget that.”
The Banks family packed up and moved to Edmonton, taking young Tommy out of Grade 7 in the middle of the school year. The boy hated Edmonton – until he discovered the music scene.
“I discovered that it had a music scene. There was music everywhere when I first got here. Calgary had maybe four clubs. In Edmonton there were all these ballrooms and they all had big bands.”
It was at Sylvan Lake’s Varsity Dance Hall, a popular summertime music venue from 1930 to 1979, where Tommy saw the Sonny Frye Big Band. Until then, he says, “I thought that big band music was some magic arcane thing that was done by wizards in New York. I’d never realized it existed outside of the radio and records.”
Tommy Banks would later become the leader of his own big band.
Another life-changing event was seeing famed vibraphonist Lionel Hampton at the Sales Pavilion, a famous Edmonton venue for the fact it was used to sell cattle during the day, so the whole place smelled like manure at night. This may be why Keith Moon from the Who called Edmonton a “shithole,” but that’s another story.
Even before the slow-starting oil boom, “there has always been a disproportionately high level of musical activity in Edmonton.” Tommy says. It’s like people are starved for it. It goes back to the 1910s, he says, from when you can read copies of the old Edmonton Journal (which started in 1903), or the Edmonton Bulletin (whose first issue appeared in 1880), and stories about Sarah Bernhardt, The Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields and many other stars of the era performing in the town’s major theatres. All the major Vaudeville chains had theatres in Edmonton. Later on came any jazz great you’d care to name: from Duke Ellington to Charlie Parker to Ella Fitzgerald.
“Where did this start?” Banks asks. “I hate using this term, but our city has always been punching above our weight musically.” Who, he wonders, was the musical equivalent of the Citadel Theatre founder Joe Shoctor “who took a leap and said, we’re going to have a music business here? Before I was born, as far back as you can go, that was always the case. I have a picture of saxophonist Frank Sklove, on the stage of the Rialto Theatre with an all-black jazz band, except for him, taken in 1928 or something like that. How the hell did that happen in Edmonton? Jazz had hardly begun.”
The coal boom? He doesn’t know. All he knows is that Edmonton was a good place to develop his musical career. You can make mistakes here and no one judges you. As k.d. lang’s one-time manager Larry Wanagas said: “In Edmonton, you learn by fucking up.”
Tommy doesn’t put it quite like that: “In all those opportunities, I had the right to fail. The same things are true if you’re a writer, an artist or a painter, any creative art. If you don’t have the right to fail and make mistakes, you’re not going to get better. You can do all the training you want, but until you come and see something the way it was intended, on a live stage, that’s how you find out if it works.”
There were lots of live stages in Edmonton by the time Banks came of age in his new home. He counted 18 clubs that ran live bands six nights a week just within a 10-block radius around Jasper Avenue downtown, along with dozens of other venues around the city and in surrounding small towns. Hundreds of musicians were gainfully employed. It was an easy living.
Tommy got his first paying gig at the age of 14, at Club Mocombo (not to be confused with the Toronto venue where the Rolling Stones played), a nightclub on St. Albert Trail. His friend and drummer Don Laver heard Banks play in school and asked the kid to sit in one night because their regular piano player couldn’t make it – and then promptly hired Tommy full time. This was not the only time he would get a gig this way. The piano player’s salary was $14 a show – a fortune for a 14-year-old in 1951.
Tommy remembers the feeling of the first rush: “It was elation. This is it! This is what I’ve always wanted to do and then all of the sudden I’m doing it. I’m playing music for people and I’m getting paid for it. And it’s always still exciting. If it ever stops being exciting it’s time to hang it up.”
Tommy was hooked. He got halfway through Grade 11 when he dropped out of high school to pursue his dream.
“I’m embarrassed about it,” says Banks. “Now I’m a Doctor of Laws without a high school diploma!” he laughs. (He was awarded an honorary Ph.D from the University of Alberta in 1987).
He goes on, “I knew what I wanted to do, but I was wrong in assuming that further formal education would be of no further use to me. When you’re 14 you think you know everything.”
His parents of course tried to talk him out of it, but it was “a half-hearted attempt,” he says, since their son seemed quite determined, and besides had started to make real money. In 1952, again with the help of Don Laver, Tommy got another gig filling in for an AWOL piano player and went on the road with Don (D.T.) Thompson’s Big Band, which in the fashion of the time also featured dancing girls and comedians.
“I learned constantly from everybody I was with,” Tommy says. “I was a kid, the youngest person in the band, and everybody in the band knew a lot more than I did. That’s the best thing for any young musician to do.”
Tommy played a lot of clubs around Edmonton with a number of different bands. There was no issue with being underage because in those days it didn’t matter. Alberta was a “dry” province until 1960. You could only buy booze from an Alberta government liquor store if you filled out a form proving respectable citizenship, but you couldn’t order an alcoholic beverage in a nightclub or restaurant, God forbid an establishment with a band playing and that had unmarried women and men mixing together.
Tommy says with a laugh, “So of course everybody brought their own booze, illegally, and every club had little secret boxes installed under the tables, just the size of a mickey. If you got caught you could just say, ‘Oh, I had no idea how it got there, officer.’”
Men and women – and teenagers, too – would mix and get as drunk as they wanted to the tune of I’m in the Mood for Love or Blue Moon or Moonglow performed by a 14-piece horn band, with Tommy Banks at the piano.
Among other bands too numerous to mention, he also branched off into rhythm and blues with a band called The Scats – complete with red satin jackets, a stand-up piano and a house gig at the Starland Ballroom on Jasper Avenue. A year later, his reputation as a great accompanist growing, Tommy landed a job as the musical director at the Orion Theatre, where he worked with a young Robert Goulet – another famous person from Edmonton who got famous after he left town.
“There has never been a better theatrical singer,” Banks recalls of Goulet, the Tony-award winning actor and Grammy-winning singer (and one-time CKUA announcer) who won a scholarship to the Toronto Royal Conservatory of Music and a ticket out of Edmonton after landing the role of Sir Lancelot in the musical Camelot in 1960. The show was a smash hit in Toronto and on Broadway in New York City.
Robert Goulet never looked back. Tommy Banks, meanwhile, couldn’t leave.
Tommy got his first chance to escape in the 1960s. He’d started his own band, Tommy Banks and the Banknotes, and with singer-comedienne Jean Shannon had enough success around Alberta that they were noticed by the famed William Morris Agency and signed a contract for a string of gigs across Nevada, leading, if things went well, to a residency in Las Vegas. The pay would be $5,000 US a week.
“We’d never seen that much money,” Tommy says. “We thought we finally made it.”
They had to work for it. On most dates on the circuit, the Banknotes were required to play three 45-minute sets from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. – seven nights a week. With Jean Shannon, along with drummer Phil Shragge, bassist Bob Miller, guitarist Bobby Cairns, and John Lipman on trumpet (names familiar in Edmonton’s jazz quarters), the act would alternate with two other bands on a revolving stage. The music literally never stopped. A young Wayne Newton was working the same circuit, staying at the same cheap motels, and he hasn’t left Vegas since.
The money wasn’t as sweet as the Banknotes hoped. After the cost of keeping homes in Edmonton they hadn’t yet decided to abandon for the road, paying their own accommodations, plus union dues, withholding tax and don’t forget the agent’s commission, five large week turned out to be not so much after all.
Worst of all, says Tommy, “We all gambled like crazy. Craps, blackjack, you name it. For one week I had a terrible gambling problem. It got so bad that Phil and I were playing the blackjack tables where you could play for pennies and nickels.”
Broke in Vegas, Tommy was forced to wire home to mom and dad for money to get through the rest of the tour. “I gave everybody a five-dollar-a-day dole to live on, and that was it. At least it was cheap to eat in those days. I haven’t gambled since.”
Despite the bumps, reviews were glowing and the gigs kept coming. The Banknotes were scheduled to appear at Frank Sinatra’s Cal Neva Lodge in Lake Tahoe one weekend, and contracts had been signed to play in Las Vegas the next. On the way, they were playing the Mapes Casino Lounge in Reno, down the street from the swankier room hosting the Woody Herman Big Band (known then as the “band that played the blues” led by the famous clarinetist and Columbia recording artist who played with Benny Goodman; turns out Herman’s wife was from Edmonton). With two 90-minute breaks every night and the two clubs in close proximity, there was lots of time to hang out – and get some sage advice from their elders in Woody Herman’s band.
Tommy tells the story, “We were hanging out at the bar after we were finished playing, and Bill Chase, one of the guys from Woody Herman’s band, asked Bob Miller, our bass player at the time, who has since passed away, unfortunately, where we were from and what the music business was like. And we described it: In Edmonton, we played in the clubs six nights a week, occasionally we’d take time off to do a symphony concert, record and do radio programs during the day and we would play the Yardbird Suite. It was really lovely musical existence in those days. And Bill said, ‘You’re crazy – you want to get into this?! Into Vegas? Do you not understand that I would cut off my right arm to get out of what I’m doing now and get into what you’re doing in Edmonton, where you have all this variety and freedom?’
“We started to think about that, and about a week later we had a band meeting. My bands have never been anywhere near democratic. I am a tyrant. I drove the bus – not literally – and made all the decisions. But at that point we took a vote: Are we going to pursue this career in Las Vegas or pass and go home? And they voted unanimously to go home. So we cancelled our contracts at Frank Sinatra’s club, in Cal Neva Lodge and in Las Vegas. Our agent at William Morris, he was horrified. He said, ‘Are you mad?! You can’t pass this up!’ In those days – things are very different now – the lounge act was the holy grail of playing musicians. He couldn’t understand why we would turn our backs on it. We would’ve been a very successful lounge act and that would’ve been it. But we took a pass and went home.”
They never worked in that town again.
The second chance for escape from Edmonton came a decade later. Well after establishing himself as the guy you call when you need a horn chart for a big band concert, or an orchestra, or accompaniment for some visiting singing star, Tommy helped manage one of Edmonton’s early successful recording studios and record labels, Century II. He and his partners specialized in commercial jingles – “broadcast advertising concepts” as Tommy prefers to call them. He’d taught himself how to write and produce those, too, and made a lot of money. His studio churned out hundreds of jingles over the years, including such local musical lore as Sunshine and Raindrops – Everyday Low Prices for Safeway and quaint radio station bumpers with those classic close four-party vocal harmonies like 630 CHED Weatherrrrrr!
“They were almost works of art,” Tommy says.
He and his wife Ida made even more money as booking agents. His dream of the wealthy craftsman in Edmonton had come true.
Tommy had also already branched out into radio, hosting a Canada-wide live music program from the CBC headquarters located in the Hotel Macdonald – where in one notable episode Tommy went head to head with Oscar Peterson on two pianos.
Then came television, and with no experience whatsoever Tommy figured out how to do that, too. He and two other partners, producer Don McRae and writer Colin MacLean, started a regional talk-variety show and convinced the CBC to run it Canada-wide. Everything was arranged – except for the host. Tommy had been filling in until they found somebody, but there weren’t any good candidates, not even Henry Singer, who was in fact a singer before he was the town’s best-known tailor. Tommy Banks wound up with the job by default. Yet another thing he didn’t know how to do that he had to teach himself. Again, he turned out to be a natural.
He and his partners were summoned to Toronto to seal the deal.
“So,” said one of the CBC executives, “when can you move?”
According to Tommy, Don McRae spoke up first, “Move what?”
The CBC guy said, “Well, you have to move to Toronto to do the show. It’s a network show. It has to come from Toronto.”
And McCrea said, “No, we’re not moving anywhere. If you want this show it’s going to come from Edmonton.”
They argued for a while, with the CBC insisting that it would be extremely difficult to, as they say, “reverse the network,” with some rigmarole about reversing the polarity of microwave TV transmissions.
Tommy says, “McRea dug his heels in and we all agreed. We had no interest in moving to Toronto. It’s just not the kind of place I wanted to live. That was beside the point. We had this Quixotic hyper-Canadian Edmonton pride thing going, like Mickey Rooney: We can do it here! So they guffawed and harumphed and said they’d get back to us tomorrow. We were staying across the street. We waited on tenterhooks that night, and the next morning they said, OK, yeah, you can do it.”
So for the first time in Canadian broadcast history a national television show came from Edmonton. The Tommy Banks Show was performed live to tape from the Student Union Theatre at the U of A four nights a week, competing for the same audience as Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett. Long before Letterman or Leno had their shows, Billboard magazine said The Tommy Banks Show had the “wit and charm of Dick Cavett and the penetrating conversation of David Frost. The difference with Banks is that he doesn’t pretend to be hip.”
The show ran nationally from 1971-74 (and again regionally on ITV for a few years afterwards) – right after the hockey game. It featured uncountable musical guests, every famous comedian of the era, along with more controversial subjects one might find on more modern shows like Jerry Springer. Tommy did a one-on-one with Anton LaVey, Pope of the Church of Satan; and also Tearlach Macpherson, the grand wizard of the Alberta chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. The host came close to the “what the hell is the matter with you?!” line of questioning, but “I treated them with courtesy,” says Tommy on the most widely-hated, if not his most memorable episode of The Tommy Banks Show. He’s more jazzed that they got Milton Berle, Richard Pryor, Billy Crystal, David Letterman, “any comic you could think of,” Tommy says. “I remember the agent’s first reaction when we asked them to come to Edmonton: ‘You want them to go where?!’”
Among other career highlights as the King of Edmonton Media, with stories that could – and did – go on all day, Tommy also entertained the idea of moving to Vancouver for commercial production. They considered going to Los Angeles for television. “We actually did go to Vancouver for one season, saved $600,000 for hotel bills and airfare for the guests. The logical thing would’ve been to go to Los Angeles. You wouldn’t have any hotel bills or airline tickets. It would make a lot more sense – but we didn’t.”
No, Tommy Banks wasn’t going anywhere.