Veteran Canadian bassist Gary Kendall talks about his legendary career and experience in the blues

"Blues is my life, the music I play and it defines who I am."

Gary Kendall: Maple Blues Legend

Gary Kendall is an award-winning Canadian bassist, vocalist and band leader, best known for his longstanding association with the Downchild Blues Band. Gary Kendall, originally from Thunder Bay, Ontario, has been a working musician since the late 1960s, in addition to being involved with music as a record producer and booking agent. Kendall played with the Downchild Blues Band during the 1979-1983 period. With fellow Downchild alumnus Cash Wall, Kendall subsequently formed the Kendall Wall Blues Band, which was well-known in Toronto and area during the 1980s and early 1990s. As the house band at Toronto's Black Swan Tavern, the Kendall Wall Blues Band played with such blues legends as A.C. Reed, Pinetop Perkins, Eddy Clearwater, Little Willie Littlefield, Eddie C. Campbell, Lefty Dizz, "Clean Head" Vinson, Eddie Shaw, Carey Bell and Fenton Robinson. Kendall has also performed with such artists as Snooky Pryor, Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson, Big Jay McNeeley, Bob Margolin, Big Dave MacLean, Duke Robillard, Morgan Davis, Zora Young and Phil Guy. Kendall rejoined Downchild in 1995 and has continued to play and record with the band since that time, in addition to contributing to the work of other musicians and leading his own band, The Gary Kendall Band. His own 47 Records label has released the solo recordings, Dusty & Pearl and Feels Real Strong along with the digital singles, This Sacred Ground and Sumlin Around. When not with Downchild, The Maple Blues Revue or The Gary Kendall Band, his insatiable need to play the Blues finds him with Robin Bank$, The Swingin' Blackjacks, Son Roberts and The Mighty Duck Blues Band.


Interview by Michael Limnios

Photo Credits: Paul Jokelainen, Showtime Archives, Ray Vella, Art Theberge, Rick Zolkower

Gary, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues & who were your first idols?
I became a musician when I was 16 years old. I was offered a chance to be in a band before I could really play. It was earn while you learn situation. As a young person I knew that if I wanted to be a real musician I would need to expose myself to all kinds of music. Late at night I’d tune my radio into stations in the U.S. and I would hear all kinds of exotic music. Country, Gospel, Jazz, Rock n Roll, R & B and Blues. It was the blues that I gravitated to the most. There was also a television documentary in Canada on CBC around this time called The Blues. It featured Muddy Waters, Sunnyland Slim, Willie Dixon, James Cotton and many other blues stars. When I was 17 or 18 I heard Muddy Waters, Live at Newport, B.B.King`s, Blues on Top Of The Blues and the first recordings by The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. I was hooked.

 

What was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned?
When I was around 16 years old I got a guitar and was trying to learn how to play with another friend. After a few months we were offered a chance to join a band that was starting. The condition was that one of us would play rhythm guitar and the other one would play bass.  My friend refused to play bass but I only wanted to be in a band so I jumped at the chance and became a bass player. I didn't have a clue about playing bass or music in general. The lead guitar player would show me what to play and I’d do my best. For the next six months I’d played bass lines on a regular electric guitar until I could save enough money for a cheap bass. Pretty soon the band called The Countdowns was playing once a week, I was making $20 a gig and figured this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. We played instrumental rock n roll by the Ventures, The Shadows, The Fireballs, Johnny & The Hurricanes ect.

 

What does the BLUES mean to you & what does Blues offered you?
Blues is my life, the music I play and it defines who I am. I've been in the business for almost 50 years and I’m very happy doing my job.

 

What characterizes the sound of Gary Kendall?
As a bass player I try to create a big, fat, warm sound. In my opinion, the best way to approach bass playing in a blues band is to keep it simple and solid, laying down a good groove and foundation, one that enables the soloists and singers to shine.

 

What do you think is the main characteristic of you personality that made you a musician?
I was attracted to music at a very young age, a fan first and then later I developed a desire to play. Although I tried playing sports and outdoor activities like hunting and fishing, music really took hold of me. It’s hard to explain but it just became the main interest in my life

 

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?
The music business is always changing, that’s what keeps it fresh. The digital age and the demise of the large record companies has made it a lot easier for musicians to create and release their own recordings. The independent approach to the business has forced musicians to take charge and  control their own careers. Currently the number of venues presenting blues in Toronto where I live is getting smaller and smaller which is unfortunate. It means traveling a little more to find an audience but I don't think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

 

Tell me about the beginning with Downchild Blues Band.
Downchild was formed in Toronto in 1969 by Donnie Walsh (guitar, harmonica), Richard ”Hock” Walsh (vocals) and Jim Milne (bass).  Their first real gig was at Grossman’s Tavern on Spadina Ave. It was a steady, 3 nights a week. At first they played for beer and dinner but after they started to become popular the club started to pay them. I saw them there for the first time in 1970. A year later they moved to steady gig at Forbes Tavern on Mutual St. They’d become so popular that other gigs were being offered to them frequently. I was in The James Hartley Band and Downchild use to sub out their gig to James when they had other offers. I became friends with all the Downchild band members at that time. Downcild recorded their first album, Bootleg in 1971. I remember that bassist Jim Milne brought a copy for me over to my house as soon as it came out.  

 

Which is the most interesting period with Downchild Blues Band?
I've been in Downchild twice, 1979-1983 and back since 1995.  Both periods have been completely different. Band leader and founding member, Donnie Walsh is the only musician remaining from my first period with the band.  As long as Donnie’s there Downchild's signature sound remains intact.  During my first period with the band we worked non-stop playing probably 250 or more shows a year. We also released 4 recordings in the first 3 ½ years I was with the band.   It’s hard to say which period was most interesting; it’s always a great band. The current lineup has been together for well over 20 years with no major personnel changes so it’s a pretty strong band.

 

Do you remember anything funny or interesting from the recording time with Downchild Blues Band?
There’s always a lot of humor surrounding Downchild, they’re all pretty funny guys. Over the years there have been a lot of outrageous and hilarious situations but recording sessions are pretty serious. There’s a process that’s been developed over the years that’s pretty efficient. When Donnie has written most of the music we rehearse for a week or so and then go to the studio. The bed tracks are laid down with guitar, keyboards, bass and drums. There’s usually a scratch vocal for a guide. The rest of the instrumentation overdubs and final vocals are done in subsequent sessions. My work is usually finished with the bed track sessions and I don't usually hear anything until the final mix is done.
One of the strangest Downchild recording projects that I participated in was Blood Run Hot, a record that was done in the early 80's. Up until that time Billy Byrans had always been the band’s producer. Attic Records decided that it was time to bring in a different producer. Names like Gregg Allman, Dan Ackroyd, James Cotton and Spencer Davis were mentioned. Spencer came to see the band in Vancouver and hung with us for a few days and I guess that got him the gig. He was a nice guy and we all were familiar with his work in The Spencer Davis Group featuring Steve Winwood.  
The sessions began a few months later in Toronto’s Eastern Sound. It was a well known studio that had been the location for a lot of big hits for the likes of The Guess Who, Bob Seeger, Anne Murray and many others. To the best of my knowledge I don't think any blues bands had ever recorded there. Right from the beginning there were problems.

Our piano player Jane Vasey was having health problems and couldn’t be at the sessions. The plan was to overdub her parts later. She was very important to the music at that time and not having her at the sessions put the band at a disadvantage. Our singer, Tony Flaim, couldn’t relate to the songs that Spencer had brought in and that caused tension. One song, Shot Full of Love was so far off Tony’s radar that Spencer ended up singing it with only three members of the band actually playing on it. I can remember one whole day being spent trying to get a drum sound. Eight to ten hours of moving the drum kit to different locations in the studio and Craig Kaleal trying different snare drums. He even had drummer friend’s drop off other snares to try. I wasted some time when we were recording a cover of Rocket 88 by trying to recreate the guitar sound from the original Jackie Brentson version. The fact that I’m not a guitar player probably had a lot to do with that failure.
It was also one of those celebrity recording studios complete with numerous gold and platinum records on the hallway walls. Although it was summertime the lounge was decorated for Christmas because Anne Murray was in another one of the studios working on a Christmas album. You look up after doing a take and see people like Gordon Lightfoot and George Thorogood in the control room.
They put Tony Flaim in a small hallway by an exit door so he could put guide vocals on the tracks for us. You’d be getting ready to do a take and hear street sounds in your headphones. Tony would open the exit door and in some cases be having conversations with people on the street.  
The result was a real uneven sounding record. The mix varies from song to song and there’s a few songs on it that aren’t really Downchild`s style of music. It ended up being the most expensive Downchild recording ever made and the one that sold the least number of copies.
Fortunately there are a lot of good Downchild recordings before and after this one that are more focused on how the band really is.

 

What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?
When I was with The Kendall Wall Blues Band we were called on to back up numerous touring blues musicians who weren’t traveling with their own bands. Luther ”Guitar Junior” Johnson, Cash McCall, Phil Guy, Big Jay McNealy, Honkin Joe Huston and Snooky Pryor to name a few. The band developed a special relationship with Snooky working with him numerous times.  
Downchild's Massey Hall gigs in Toronto meant a lot to me, once opening for B.B. King and the band’s 40th anniversary celebration there a few years earlier. When I was a young musician one of my goals was to play that venue.
I've been the musical director and band leader for The Maple Blues Awards for the past 13 years. Recently the MBA's began taking place in Koerner Hall at The Royal Conservatory in Toronto. That’s always a special gig.
The strangest gig I've ever been call for was when The Bermuda Onion in Toronto asked me to back up Tiny Tim with The Kendall Wall Blues Band. I new that wouldn’t work so I enlisted the  help of guitarist Danny Marks and his drummer Gord Skinner. We didn't know any of his tunes and weren’t really familiar with his style of music. Some how we managed to fake our way through the entire show. Tim was a great guy, very respectful of the musicians. He stayed in the venue for over an hour after his show signing autographs and talking to his fans, and then went to a radio station to do a late night interview.

 

Are there any memories from Sunnyland Slim, which you’d like to share with us?
In the early 70's I was the bassist in The James Hartley Band. James called me up one day to tell me that one of the great Chicago blues piano players, Sunnyland Slim was in town playing a solo gig at the Meet Market which was a bar beneath the famous Colonial Tavern in Toronto. James was really excited because he’d gone to the club the night before and Sunnyland had asked him to play with him. He was going back the next night and suggested that I come along and bring my bass. We ended up playing the rest of the week with Slim. I’m sure he liked having two sidemen that he didn't have to pay. For us it was part of our blues education.

We were two young musician’s in our 20's, totally immersed in the blues, it’s music and the history. It was our first experience playing with a blues legend and one of our heroes.  Sunnyland Slim was a great musician and a great guy. He really encouraged us and the experience made us better musicians. He was staying at a hotel around the corner from the club but every night he’d drive across town to take us home. For James and me it was like being in the presence of royalty. A couple of years later I was with a band called Dollars and we’d secured a house gig at The Meet Market.  Sunnyland came back, this time bringing singer Bonnie Bombshell with him and we were their back up band for a week. He remembered me from his first time at the club and that broke the ice and made our week really easy and a lot of fun.

 

Do you have any amusing tales to tell from The Black Swan's Saturday Afternoon Blues Matinee?
The Black Swan’s, Saturday Afternoon Blues Matinee with The Kendall Wall Blues Band and special guests was a very good period for my career in the blues. It lasted from 1983-1992. After the Kendall Wall Band broke up I tried forming a couple of other bands to do that gig but it just wasn’t the same. In the beginning it took a couple of years to get our weekly gig at the Swan off the ground. The first two years we did it was pretty dead, not many people were coming out. By the time we got around to year three the club increased the budget so we could bring in special guests. This meant that we could put on a show and not just rely on a jam session. Shortly after that the Donna McCullum who was the booker at Albert's Hall, Toronto’s top blues club at the time agreed to let us use the touring artists playing at that club to be our special guests. This opened up a whole new world.  Their acts were in town for a week and almost all of them agreed to come to the Swan on Saturday afternoon and do a paid guest spot with us. We asked for ½ hour but most of them would play for more then an hour. The list of great blues player that performed with The Kendall Wall Blues Band during our days at the Swan was incredible.  We were able to play with and get know blues greats, Snooky Pryor, Luther Guitar Junior Johnson, A.C. Reed, Mighty Joe Young, Chubby Carrier, Lefty Dizz, Little Willie Littlefield, Pinetop Perkins, Jerry Portnoy, Cash McCall, Eddie Kirkland, Eddy Clearwater and many more.

All the best Canadian blues musician’s were also our guests, Dutch Mason, Hock Walsh, Donnie Walsh, Tony Flaim, Morgan Davis, Tom Lavin and many more. It’s was a blues party every Saturday afternoon from early October to the middle of May (we’d take the summer off). I have some great memories of that gig; it came at a time when I thought my career was over. It gave me a jump start in music that has sustained me to this day. You ask about a funny story, but most of my memories are about the incredible music that was played and how the jam session that followed the guest spot gave a lot of young musicians their start in the business.
I guess the funniest experience there was one day when Danny Marks was the guest. Someone else must have been sitting in on bass because I was up on the club roof getting some fresh air. When I came back down to the club Danny was leading the packed house in a sing a long to Puff The Magic Dragon. It was hilarious; I couldn’t believe that this was happening in a blues club.

 

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?
Musician’s that I've learned the most from throughout my years in the business would be in no particular order Mel Shea, Gene Evans, Donnie ”Mr. Downchild” Walsh, Jane Vasey, Jim Milne, Terry Wilkins, Morgan Davis, L. Stu Young, Michael Fonfara, Pat Carey and Snooky Pryor.

 

Which of the people you have worked with do you consider the best friend?
When you create some great music you automatically become good friends with those who are taking part. I have so many musician friends it’s impossible to call any one in particular my best friend.  They’re all very important to me and my life. My very best friend in the world is my wife Shirley; she’s been with me through it all. She’s handled forty two years + with a musician for a husband very well.

 

                                                                                                 Photo by Ray Vella

Do you have any amusing tales to tell from your meet with Muddy Waters and his Band?
My band Dollars had a house gig in The Meet Market on Yonge St. in Toronto in the mid 70's. The club was owned by the same people as the famous Colonial Tavern. The Meet Market was in the basement of the Colonial. While we were there Muddy Waters and his band were playing in the Colonial one of the weeks. The guys in his band would come down to where we were playing to have drinks because it was cheaper. Bob Margolin was Muddy's guitar player at the time and he and I got to know each other. The gigs were week long so it was easy to spend time together. He and I were the same age so we had a lot in common, besides our mutual love and respect for the blues. Bob use to sit in with my band on his breaks and we'd spend time together at my apartment and his hotel room. Muddy's band did a matinee on Saturday afternoon and Bob set it up so I could sit in.  It was a really big deal for me, I was in my mid 20's and to be on stage with M uddy, Bob, Pinetop Perkins, Luther ”Guitar Junior” Johnson, Jerry Portnoy and Willie ”Big Eyes ”Smith was unbelievable. It’s a great memory, something I've held on to for my entire career. Bob and I are friends to this day and occasionally we run into each other on the road. I've booked him into a Toronto club once and Mike Fitzpatrick and I did a show with him a few years ago so we’ve kept that connection alive.
Once after our gigs finished at the Colonial and The Meet Market I was riding back to the hotel with Muddy and the band to hang out with Bob. When we got to the place they were staying Paul James and his band were just leaving the club in the hotel. Muddy saw some guys with guitars and immediately went over and introduced himself “Hi, I’m Muddy Waters”. Paul and his guys were in shock, they couldn’t believe how open and friendly one of their heroes was.

 

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
Best moment in my career, convincing a Canadian blues record label that was relatively new at the time that I could bring Snooky Pryor to them for a recording if I could be the producer and bassist. Worst moment of my career, after all the recording was completed on Snooky’s album, the record company locked me out of the sessions and wouldn’t let me complete my work. They finished it without me and put out an inferior product. What they did was despicable and unprofessional. Over a short period of time I carried around a lot of anger and hate about this but finally realized that I had to let it go and move on. It just wasn’t worth it, the people who did this are pretty small and will never attain the credibility in the blues world that I have. I think I live a better life then they do and I’m a much happier person for leaving that incident in the past where it belongs.

 

If you go back to the past what things you would do better and what things you would a void to do again?
I don't think I would change much about my career in the blues. It’s been a pretty interesting ride. If I had it to do over I wouldn’t take Snooky’s recording project to the company I've talked about earlier. I would take that project to someone with a little more class and integrity

 

Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet?
I was able to meet Muddy Waters and B.B. King but was too shy to talk to Howlin Wolf and Willie Dixon when I was in their presence. I would have liked to meet Elmore James, James Jamerson and Big Joe Turner.

 

Gary Kendall's official website

 

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