Rockin’ on the Rideau: Ottawa’s Golden Age of Rock and Roll is a passionate account of late fifties and sixties rock in the city. Author Jim Hurcomb, well known for his years as a DJ at CHEZ FM from 1980 to 2000 as well as stints at CKCU-FM, CFRA and Live 88.5, tackles his subject with much enthusiasm.
Hurcomb fell in love with rock as a teen growing up in the Glebe. “I wrote the book because I was afraid the stories and music of this amazing era would fade into the mists of time if someone didn’t chronicle them,” he says. Hurcomb is grateful that the book is in 25 local libraries and in the hands of many in Ottawa who remember those times with great affection. “I was especially pleased that many of the musicians I talked with shared the stories with their families and friends and relived the magical experiences they enjoyed,” adds Hurcomb.
“I wrote the book because I was afraid the stories and music of this amazing era would fade into the mists of time if someone didn’t chronicle them.”
From this book we find out why Ottawa was called the “Liverpool of the North.” The area had a thriving music scene with a number of local bands that played regularly in large venues like The Auditorium and in smaller venues such as hotels and high school dances. Ottawa bands received a lot of airplay on local radio stations.
“There really wasn’t a ‘national scene’ in music in Canada before the 1970s, when Canadian radio stations were forced to play 30% Canadian content,” Hurcomb explains.
Each region was basically a world unto itself, with regional stars rarely breaking out of their home market. Radio stations preferred to play local bands along with the greatest hits from Britain and the U.S. “There were exceptions of course. The Esquires and Staccatos from Ottawa got play in Toronto, and as far East as the Maritimes and as far west as Calgary. But that was quite rare.”
Luckily Hurcomb went beyond the surface for a deep dive into the evolving local rock scene. We learn who played where, the many groupings of various bands, and which famous rock performers visited Ottawa. He included juicy stories like the legendary Animals riot at the Coliseum in 1967 and insight to the tangled and sometimes messy music business in the nation’s capital.
This carefully researched book has a wide reach. It appeals to those who are old enough to have been part of the scene and others who wish they could have been. Kaleidoscopic facets of the musical era are described from the perspectives of musicians, promoters and fans, including live performance, recordings, radio, and TV. The answer and question section featuring promoter Harvey Glatt, founder of CHEZ FM, was pure gold.
Rockin’ on the Rideau quickly reached the top five rock and roll books sold on Amazon.ca. Hurcomb believes there are two reasons for this. In his estimation the period covered was the most exciting decade in history for the core of the baby boom generation. “Everything changed when Elvis burst on the scene and when The Beatles played the Ed Sullivan show in 1964,” he reminisces.
“The music went on forever and the fun never stopped.”
“Music changed, fashion changed, attitudes changed … everything changed for that generation,” he says. The book brings back those memories and even though it is aimed specifically at the Ottawa market, he suspected there was a huge number of people who would be drawn to the stories.
Hurcomb also believes the pandemic contributed to the book’s success. “In these challenging times what better way to escape reality than to dive back into the best years of your life, when the music went on forever and the fun never stopped,” he added.
Visually, the book is compelling. As well as vintage band photos, performance and recording studio shots, posters, graphics, and ticket stubs are included. The black and white cover photo of a young Richard Patterson sitting at his drum kit captures a moment in time. Patterson was a member of numerous bands featured, including The Esquires, The Staccatos, The Children, 3’s a Crowd, MRQ and Canada Goose. As soon as Hurcomb received the photo he knew it was right for the cover. “It just embodied the joy, youthful energy and innocence of the times,” he says.
Rockin’ on the Rideau would have benefited from an index as there were so many bands and individuals involved. But of those many names, there is a notable scarcity of women among them, which was a sign of the times.
“Rock and roll was very much a boys’ club in its early years and this was reflective of society as a whole when it came to the entertainment scene,” notes Hurcomb.
I appreciated the interviews with The Cooper Brothers and Les Emmerson of the Five Man Electrical Band, both of whom gained national attention. Two other notable musicians mentioned who went on to establish careers as outstanding singer-songwriters were Bruce Cockburn and David Wiffen. The wonder of Ottawa music during this era lives on in classic rock with tunes such as “Signs” by the Five Man Electrical Band and “It’s a Long Way Home” by the Staccatos.
Rockin’ on the Rideau: Ottawa’s Golden Age of Rock and Roll is available in eBook, hardcover or paperback from Compact Music and The Record Centre, and can be ordered online from Chapters/Indigo, Amazon Canada, FriesenPress or your local bookseller. Rockin’ on the Rideau 2: The 70’s, has just been released on Amazon.ca and will be available in Ottawa bookstores in December.