A Life's Story
November 10, 2023
A Major loss in their lives
Father, friend, chef and longtime local broadcaster left a favourable impression on everyone he crossed paths with
By: Chris Rutkowski
If the love of music and the gift of laughter were capital assets, Ivan Gordon Lemesurier would have been a billionaire. As it was, his passing on July 11 left many to mourn the loss of his soothing, velvet voice introducing a musical selection, a comedic quip or a recipe for an exotic dish, but also sometimes bringing sombre news to a listening or viewing audience.
Other than his family and close friends, most will have known him as Lee Major, a longtime fixture on radio and television, especially at CBC, where he carved out a niche for highlighting Canadian stories and performers.
Born in Medicine Hat, Alta., Major began his career in Yellowknife at CBC affiliate CFYK in 1957. When he moved to CBC Winnipeg his interest in music earned him the host spot for programs such as Major Progression, Music to Listen to Jazz By, and Red River Country. While he did much on-air work in news as well, his passion for music never wavered, and in his later years had a long-running jazz show on COOL-FM (CJZZ) and an “old time” music show on CJNU.
“Another one of the great ones is gone,” says Gerhard Peters, who worked with him at COOL. “Lee taught me so much more about jazz and blues than I ever thought possible. We spent hours editing his old radio interviews and running clips during his evening jazz show. With Lee, there was always more laughter than actual work going on in the production studio.”
As talented as he was on air, Major was also well known for his cooking and baking skills. His children say their father passed along his culinary abilities and style to them.
“All of us boys are all quite comfortable in the kitchen,” his son Tom notes.
“Fondest memories always involve some sort of culinary effort; experimenting, adding flavours and taking hours to prepare something special. We sometimes were the ‘trial audience’ for some far-out cuisine and, although there were a few dishes that are memorable in the wrong way, many items and tastes were acquired and, to this day, find their way to our own tables.”
Major’s prowess in the kitchen once earned him a trip to the World Culinary Olympics with Team Canada. However, he made a point of never wearing the familiar, tall chef’s hat because he had never received official certification.
A discussion of Major’s cooking can’t be complete without including his partnership with longtime friend, local radio icon Don Percy, with whom he was one of the Two Grumpy Guys in the Kitchen. The locally produced TV show (filmed in Percy’s home, no less) featured the pair attempting to create gourmet marvels while engaging in completely unscripted and out-of-control banter.
It was an unabashed success. Percy notes that their first episode garnered 50,000 viewers at 10:30 on a Saturday night.
“One of the best episodes was when Lee was making chicken with dumplings, and because it was only a half-hour show, he didn’t have time to make the dumplings from scratch,” Percy recalls.
”He had bought a package of dumplings at a store and had them boiling while we made the chicken. At the end of the show, he looked in the pot and said on camera, ‘I guess I should have taken them out of the cellophane first.’”
When Major was cooking monkfish for an episode, Percy commented that it was a very ugly creature.
“It’s so ugly, it’s hard to believe there’s more of them,” he quipped.
To which Major responded: “It’s very dark down there.”
Another classic scene was when Major instructed Percy to chop an onion during a show. “Did you wash your hands?” he asked. Percy replied, “Sure. Tuesday, four o’clock.”
The two remained friends for 50 years, often hitting Winnipeg nightclubs such as the Town and Country to crash shows or enter lip-synching contests, but also travelling on cruises as emcees and for personal appearances.
“We had a helluva lot of fun,” Percy says wistfully.
Major’s son Lawrence says: “I am proud to say he passed his sense of humour on to me. He was always quick with jokes to make people laugh, and was always the life of the party.”
“I am proud to say he passed his sense of humour on to me. He was always quick with jokes to make people laugh, and was always the life of the party.”–Lawrence Major
Frankie Glickman produced the news when Major was at CBC, and noted in a book of condolences that Major came up with the idea of going to Winnipeg restaurants and getting the chef to show viewers how (to prepare) the most popular dishes. We then mailed the recipes to all the viewers who phoned the CBC for the recipe. To our surprise, we got hundreds and hundreds of calls after each episode.
“To Lee’s credit, this was a huge success. And a side-effect was that I learned how to cook! Anyone who never tasted Lee’s chili really missed out on something special.”
Longtime radio personality Leslie Hughes also cooked with Major.
“We did an appearance together in which he was supposed to teach me how to make tiramisu or something exotic like that. He was a gifted chef but I was a dunce and neither of us knew this about the other,” Hughes says.
“I could see the horror on his face as I stared helplessly at his ingredients and utensils. He turned the occasion into a warm, funny session to show that anyone could make something delicious, without exposing my inability. We became great pals after that and I felt a real sense of loss when he passed.”
Major was a trivia buff and spent many hours with family and friends, challenging one another, Percy most notably among them. In fact, it was at a party where CKY-TV producer Rod Webb watched the two of them one-upping each other at trivia and realized they would be perfect for a TV show.
“Wow, could my dad ever quote movie lines,” says Major’s son Lawrence. “To this day I do the same; no matter how bad the movie really was, I remember the weirdest quotes.”
Major’s passion for music was legendary. His son Tom recalls that he and his dad often traded favourite guitar tracks and discussed musical history. Lenny Breau and Chet Atkins were some of his favourites.
“A lot of my personal guitar heroes are based on some highly skilled artists that I first heard with my dad,” Tom says. “Anywhere Dad was, there was music. In the kitchen, in the car, anywhere.”
Tom also has great memories of his dad as a radio DJ and announcer.
“Growing up, it wasn’t uncommon to go after school and hang out with Dad at CBC Winnipeg. I spent many hours in the announcer’s room with all of his friends and co-workers, spinning records while waiting for him to finish something on air. No one minded and I was often given a batch of new vinyl to try out. Occasionally, one of the engineers would let me sit in the engineer’s booth and I would both marvel and learn studio mixing.”
Lawrence also enjoyed being in the studio with his father. “I got to be in the CBC newsroom and watch him type his on-air notes with two fingers.”
He remembers that there was a wall in the newsroom with a hall of fame that included his dad.
“I was so proud to see my dad among all the photos with people like Ernie Nairn, Bill Guest, Murray Parker, Garth Dawley and, I even think Peter Mansbridge was there.”
Both friends and family remember Major as a consummate professional, no matter the situation. A classic story is related to his time living in the small community of Sanford. As a well-known local celebrity, he was asked to emcee the annual watermelon seed-spitting contest, and willingly agreed. Ladders were set up in the middle of a hockey rink with contestants perched in their lanes. He announced it like it was a serious sporting event, commenting on each contestant, describing the distances that seeds were spit (whether “loogies” or “dribbles”) and carried on with entertaining banter.
“People in the community appreciated his work and treated him as one of their own,” Lawrence recalls. “I was proud to also be from Sanford and that Lee was my dad.”
Despite Major’s hectic media life, his family always was top of mind.
“The most cherished memory I have is Dad driving me to hockey practice across town as early as five o’clock on a Saturday morning, even if he had the late TV anchor shift the night before. Hockey was my life at the time and my dad was faithfully there for all my games and practices,” Lawrence says.
“I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but I know now that he took both his job and family seriously. He was committed to both getting the interview and me to hockey. He was passionate about what he loved.
“We had to share him with Winnipeg.”
When Major retired from broadcasting (even after his volunteer stints at community radio), he moved to Campbell River, B.C., to enjoy his passion for the beautiful coastline and made many friends locally.
His friend and colleague Gary Grosvenor once asked him what he would do when he retired. Major replied: “I’ve got a great easy chair and 3,000 or 4,000 recordings to listen to, so I won’t be bored!”
His dulcet tones now silent, Major leaves behind a legacy of laughter and music.
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