Saturday, July 16, 2011
Today marks the 39th anniversary of the passing of Don Messer's legendary "Singing Lumberjack", Charlie Chamberlain. He passed away July 16, 1972, just two days after his 61st birthday, the 14th also marked the hundredth anniversary of his birth. At the time of his death, he had broadcast with Messer on radio and later television for over 40 years, and to Canadians was a larger-than-life legend. As such, Charlie has become an almost mythical figure, about whom many anecdotes circulate, some more borne of reality than others.
Chamberlain was born in Bathurst, New Brunswick in 1911. His mother was widowed early and to assist, Charlie went to work in the lumber woods at the age of eight. In this setting he became an strong and extroverted youngster who was eager to entertain. During WWI, he allegedly sang to the soldiers on passing troop trains, who would throw coins in appreciation. While riding a train himself, a friend of Don Messer's heard Charlie warbling, and put him in touch with the radio fiddler who was looking for a vocalist. Thus began the mutually beneficial association that made Canadian musical and broadcasting history. Charlie Chamberlain performed pretty much exclusively with Messer for the rest of his career.
Chamberlain is most often recalled as an incredible character, a true "Good Time Charlie". A huge man with huge appetites, he seems to have lived his life "in the moment". Charlie preferred to receive his pay from Messer in cash, even asking for small bills which were easier to spend. He was notoriously generous, and quite freely shared his money with friends and neighbours, and although he was one of Canada's most loved and recognized entertainers, he always kept a day job. During the sixties, when Don Messer's Jubilee was pretty much the highest rated TV show in Canada, many a motorist was shocked to have Charlie pump their gas at a service station in Lakeside, NS.
Modern accounts of Charlie often imply his talent was more as an entertainer than a singer, and by the TV years, which are most remembered, the years of hard living had definitely taken a toll on his voice. The early recordings here, however, show that in his prime, Chamberlain was a formidable radio crooner. I have always felt that the Don Messer band in the thirties and forties was sort of like a northeastern equivalent to what Bob Wills was in the southwest; a popular dance band rooted in the local fiddling tradition that nonetheless could play whatever dancers might request, modern or otherwise. This makes Charlie a hard singer to peg genre-wise, here he sings pop of the day, western songs, and a great deal of Irish novelty material. Unfortunately, there seems to be no recordings in circulation of the many lumberjack ballads for which Charlie was noted in his early radio years.
Tracks 1-12 in this collection are drawn from 1940s Apex label 78s and radio transcriptions, and track 13 is a 1958 radio performance. Chamberlain is backed on these by Don Messer and his Islanders. Tracks 14-23 are the contents of Charlie's only solo LP, a collection of Irish songs first issued in 1967 on the Point label (reissued in the 70s on MCA Coral, shown below). The final track is a solo performance from a 1967 LP of hymns with Marg Osburne. On the LP tracks, Charlie is accompanied by Rae Calder at the organ.
On a personal note, I really enjoy the 78 era stuff the most, in particular "Swinging To The Rhythm Of An Irish Jig", about swing music taking over at the local ceilidh(!), and "I Had A Hat", which cleverly interpolates Miss McLeod's Reel and the Irish air Port Láirge (sometimes called "Rose Tree") in a 1940s pop context. I would like to thank Andyrama for the use of a rare Messer promo LP from which "The Broken Down Piano" and "Goin' Back" were sourced.
Incidentally, there are many great clips of Charlie on YouTube. A couple of favourites are a series of National Film Board vignettes, one of which is here, and a take from Don Messer's Jubilee of Charlie performing Acadian mouth music while Don fiddles "The Old Man and The Old Woman", seen here.
1. The Broken Down Piano
2. Goin' Back
3. Somebody's Thinking Of You Tonight
4. Goin' To The Barndance Tonight
5. Swinging To The Rhythm Of An Irish Jig
6. Valley In The Sky
7. I Had A Hat
8. Jack The Sailor
9. MacNamara's Band
10. It's The Same Old Shillelagh
11. Clancy Lowered The Boom
12. The Tread On The Tail Of Me Coat
13. I'm Alone Because I Love You
14. The Ballymaquilty Band
15. How Can You Buy Killarney
16. The Sweetest Music Comes From Ireland
17. That Old Irish Mother Of Mine
18. With My Shillelagh Under My Arm
19. There's Nothing Like The Smile Of The Irish
20. Isle Of Innisfree
21. The Mountains Of Mourne
22. The Stone Outside Dan Murphy's Door
23. Galway Bay