A Life's Story
February 13, 2021
Performer, practical joker, proud francophone
Lucille Starr, 82, was first woman inducted into Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame
By: Sarah Lawrynuik
Winnipeg-born country sensation Lucille Starr made her mark on the music industry with iconic ballads, a stunning vibrato — and her va-va-voom attitude.
Starr died Sept. 4 at age 82, in her long-time home of Las Vegas.
Fellow Canadian country singer and friend Sylvia Tyson recounts a story circulated throughout the years: Starr was performing on CBC’s Tommy Hunter Show in the 1980s. Between songs, she had a stack of wardrobe changes, which she had to do just off-camera in the wings.
Being the happy-go-lucky woman she was, Starr wanted to have some fun with it and see if she couldn’t distract the musicians and host recording on set. So, she shook what her momma gave her while in a state of mid-dress — to the howls and cackles of those who caught glimpses of the sideshow.
"She was a wicked practical joker," Tyson said with a laugh. "But that was Lucille."
Tyson can’t remember how she first met Starr; it’s just how it was in those years, she said. Performers were ships passing in the night, playing at many of the same venues and on the same shows but never landing in the same place for any substantial length of time.
Starr, born Lucille Marie Raymonde Savoie on May 13, 1938, grew up on Langevin Street in Saint Boniface. At six, her family moved to Coquitlam, B.C., where she spent her formative years before heading out on the road, eventually settling in the United States.
Over the course of a recording career that began in the late 1950s, Starr released more than a dozen albums, and scored three No. 1 singles on the Canadian country chart.
On a number of occasions over the years, Tyson and Starr did land in the same place long enough to perform together, including two songs that made it onto Tyson’s 2019 album of previously unreleased recordings (along with former husband Ian Tyson): Ian & Sylvia: the Lost Tapes.
In the two duets — Crying Time and Silver Threads and Golden Needles — Tyson and Starr’s voices and twang meld together in a beautiful harmony that recalls a different era of country music.
In 1989, they wrote a song together, Papere’s Mill, in both French and English.
"It was her background: she was French and she maintained her French identity throughout her career. I think that was one of the reasons she was so popular in Europe, is that she could move so easily back and forth between French and English," Tyson said. "She was very proud of her French heritage."
Starr was best known for a song she released in 1965, The French Song. It was A&M Records’ first gold album and was released to global acclaim.
Music journalist Larry Leblanc said the funny thing about The French Song is the terrible audio quality, because it was recorded in the producer’s garage. While that might keep it from replay on modern radio, it doesn’t detract from the beauty of the song, he said.
"I think it’s one of the top records by a Canadian of all time. If you had, say, 10 songs from Canada: Four Strong Winds (written by Ian Tyson), and Gordon Lightfoot’s Early Morning Rain, it’s up on that level," Leblanc said.
The song wasn’t just popular but also hit on an emotional level, especially at a time when divides were deepest between English and French Canadians, he said. The rawness of the sound is iconic, that’s why it was never re-recorded.
"You just can’t get that magic again," Leblanc said.
In a 2010 interview with the Free Press, Starr talked about the pain of that period of her life, as she found herself trapped in a physically, mentally and financially abusive marriage to sometimes musical partner Bob Regan. She talked about how her first husband kept her from seeing any of the money from that song, and tried to keep her from any future successes.
But Starr found her way through it and, on her second shot at love, she found a supportive partner of more than four decades in Brian Cunningham, who she lived with in Las Vegas until her death last year. She was survived by her son Robert Frederickson, and stepchildren Shannon and David Cunningham.
The struggle to define her own path in music and her personal life was all worth it, she said in 2010.
"I went through a living hell, but I loved music that much. I wouldn’t change anything. Well, maybe I would have cut my first marriage a whole lot shorter."
Starr was the first woman inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 1987. She was the first Canadian female recording artist to perform at Nashville’s famous Grand Ole Opry. She was even the yodelling voice for the Cousin Pearl character on the TV classic The Beverly Hillbillies.
And yet, Leblanc said, few people who weren’t alive at the time would even know Starr’s name.
"The problem in Canada is that we have an amnesia of anything that happened before 1970, with a few exceptions," he said. "There’s a whole era of artists that are long-forgotten."
Artists who came before 1970 missed out on the advent of the Juno Awards that specifically celebrate Canadian artists, and Canadian music content wasn’t yet mandated on the airwaves, Leblanc said.
Even in writing this article about her passing, the Free Press found no archival images of the Manitoba-born star.
"Unless we mark this history down, we’re leaving footprints in the sand. This is a good example," Leblanc said.