A Life's Story
October 17, 2020
Master of the 'Winnipeg sound'
Taylor was instrumental in rock's early years in city
By: Alan Small
The idea that there was a Winnipeg sound created during the early days of rock ‘n’ roll is the stuff of legend.
If the legend were real though, the person at the controls may very well have been Harry Taylor.
Taylor was either behind a radio control board, a recording engineer, an announcer or produced jingles for television and radio advertisements going back to 1960 at Winnipeg AM stations CKRC and CKY, and during his retirement at the community station 93.7 CJNU. He last worked at the nostalgia station in December 2019, just a few weeks before he died on Feb. 27, 2020.
"He had his hands in quite a bit, especially in the early years of rock in the ’60s. He was pretty big into it," says his son Rick Taylor, who despite Harry’s persistence that he follow another career path, followed his father into broadcasting.
Harry Taylor entered the radio business as a 20-year-old with CKRC — "He could always remember his start date because it was April Fool’s Day," remembers former colleague Bill Stewart — and he learned the radio ropes as a technician and as an operator, the broadcasting term for the person who works the control board while an announcer or DJ is on the air.
Stewart says Taylor had a great musical ear and played a big role in setting up recording sessions for many of Winnipeg’s early rock ‘n’ roll bands. It was one recording session on April 2, 1964 at CKRC — its studios were in the old Free Press building on Carlton Street — which would link Taylor with rock ‘n’ roll royalty.
He was at the control board that day, directing the recording. On the other side of the glass were the Squires, and at the microphone was an 18-year-old Neil Young, a kid with a guitar and rock ‘n’ roll dreams.
The Squires played and Young sang the song I Wonder during that session. Taylor had recorded two Squires’ instrumentals in June 1963, and he knew Young had some six-string talent.
When asked for his opinion of the songs after the 1964 recording session though, Taylor uttered a sentence that he would never be able to live down.
"You’re a good guitar player, kid, but you’ll never make it as a singer," Winnipeg author and music historian John Einarson quotes Taylor as saying.
That line would take on a life of its own as Young would go on to record hit after hit, including famous songs like Heart of Gold, Southern Man and Rockin’ in the Free World and be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
The quote even became part of a display about the province’s music history at the Manitoba Museum and his old radio pals would bring it up on occasion.
"The irony is that the whole thing with Neil was completely downplayed by dad," Rick Taylor says. "It’s attributed to my dad, which he did say, but there were many people at the same time saying the same thing (about Young’s singing). Someone heard him say it and it kind of stuck."
The story became legend at an event to Einarson’s 1987 book Shakin’ All Over: The Winnipeg Sixties Rock Scene, which had a surprise twist.
"It was a big reunion concert where we got a bunch of the bands from the ’60s to play, and at the end Neil jammed with Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings," Einarson says. Young mentioned Taylor’s famous line and everyone had a laugh, but in the end was gracious about it.
"Harry, along with four or five others were given an award from Neil Young… and Neil said this is the man with the Winnipeg sound," Einarson says of Taylor.
The ribbing didn’t end there either, Rick Taylor says.
"It was kind of a running joke between him and I because I’m very big into music as well. It kind of ate at him," he says. "One of my daughters, two years ago, got married and the father-daughter dance was a Neil Young song. I picked it, Long May You Run. I said to him, ‘Did you notice that?’"
Young wasn’t the only famous person Taylor recorded though. After his days at CKRC and CKY, Taylor joined Winnipeg’s Century 21 Studios as a production engineer. When Century 21 began in 1968 it was the first big recording studio in Western Canada and it was there that Taylor worked with Harry Belafonte during a 10-day recording session, Rick Taylor says.
Harry Taylor was also one of the engineers for the first direct-to-digital recording in Canada when the Mantovani Orchestra released Mantovani The Legend, which was recorded at the Centennial Concert Hall and released in 1981.
"The equipment was actually shipped up from 3M in Minneapolis. They had special mics flown in from Germany," Rick Taylor says. "It was a pretty big deal to be the first all-digital, not tape-to-digital, recording in Canada."
Harry Taylor’s life wasn’t just recording and spinning records for others artists. Prior to his radio days, he played pedal steel guitar with country bands such as the CKRC Red River Valley Boys and the CKY Playboys from 1957 to ‘59.
Owen Clark, a longtime percussionist, University of Manitoba instructor and these days the conductor of the Winnipeg Pops Orchestra, played the drums alongside Taylor in those bands, which would perform almost every night between Victoria Day and Labour Day.
"Harry was the guy who got me involved," Clark remembers. "It was a very lucrative summer. In the 1950s you didn’t make much money at a regular job. I had been working for Burns Meats and I was making $57 a week or something and the Playboys, we’re pulling down anywhere from $150 to $300 a week on the road."
Taylor and Clark were the same age and the two youngest members of the CKY Playboys so they hung out together on the road. A gig in Brandon in 1959 is where Taylor would first meet June Chalmers.
"We met June and my ex, Darlene, at the Palladium club in Brandon in June of ’59 and Harry and I in July went up to Clear Lake for a weekend," Clark says. "We didn’t know June and Darlene were coming up there but they showed up and we started going out. I married Darlene and Harry married June."
The combination of rock ‘n’ roll taking over Manitoba dance halls in 1960 and Taylor’s marriage to Chalmers meant the end of the Playboys and Taylor’s music career, Clark says.
"One of the stipulations for getting married was Harry quitting the band and getting off the road," Clark says.
Beyond the radio and music business, Taylor raced snowmobiles in the 1970s and helped popularize the sport in Manitoba, broadcasting from the annual Canadian Power Toboggan Championships in Beausejour, announcing at races in Morris, Arborg and other communities and writing about the sport in the Free Press.
He also raced in the I-500, a 500-mile, three-day snowmobile marathon from Winnipeg to St. Paul, Minn.
"He took me everywhere, it was fantastic. I met Gilles Villeneuve; he was the factory driver for Alouette snowmobiles at the time before his Formula 1 days," Rick Taylor says. "It was just the coolest thing to be a kid going to these things."
Harry and June, who was an avid gardener, would remain married for 58 years and raise two children, Rick and Shelley, had six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. June died Jan. 8 after a series of strokes and about six weeks later, on Feb. 27, Harry died. He was 79.
They vacationed in Apache Junction, Ariz., near Phoenix, in the winters during their retirement, Rick Taylor says. It was there a few years ago Harry Taylor contracted Valley Fever, a fungal infection common in the southwestern United States, and he struggled with its symptoms in his final years.
Rick Taylor found out how big a legacy his father left when he joined CKY-TV, which shared offices with one of the radio stations Harry worked at.
"There were a lot of guys there that my dad actually recorded," Rick says. "They were pretty big shoes to fill, with him being so extremely well thought of."