Origin: Ottawa - London, Ontario, 🇨🇦
Rock and Roll had just taken the world by storm when Debbie discovered her singing voice. She began singing with a small combo, The Starfires, while still in high school, which played the current hits for sock hops and church dances. She experienced an epiphany when she discovered the infectious grooves and funk of Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks (including Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson, who later became The Band). Debbie began to be a featured guest singer with that band during matinees at Toronto’s Concord Tavern(now Long and McQuade). At that time, Ronnie Hawkins, recognizing her talent, asked her to go on the road with him and the band as a backup singer. Debbie chose to go to McMaster University instead, and during her time in Hamilton began exploring choral singing with the McMaster choir, as well as fronting a dance band on weekends. It was at McMaster when she was introduced to the wonders of Jazz – Ella, Charlie Parker, Horace Silver, et al.
Upon graduating from Mac with an Honours Psychology degree, Debbie got a job in London Ontario where she reunited with old friend Ronnie Hawkins, who introduced her to Gordon Fleming, his keyboard and B3 organ player. She resumed her career as a singer after marrying Gordon, and fronted a band, which included her husband, Fred Keeler and John Wetherall from David Clayton Thomas’ Shays, performing in the southern Ontario circuit. Below are the two promo pieces they used to advertise the band in the clubs. They were known as Debbie D and the Gord Fleming Trio. The poster with the trio depicted, was conveniently folded over to eliminate the photo ofDavid Clayton Thomas, the original leader and singer for the Shays. The trio were living hand to mouth, and couldn’t afford a professional poster. By this time, DCT was now enjoying fame and fortune with Blood Sweat and Tears.
THE BEGINNING OF STUDIO WORK
After the birth of her two children, Debbie began songwriting in earnest, and recorded a demo tape of her creations with Gord’s band, and fledgeling recording engineer, Jim Morgan at Captain Audio Studio in Toronto. Studio owner, Ben McPeek, heard Debbie’s tapes, and immediately launched Debbie into the world of jingle singing. Intending to become a singer who would be a producer’s dream, Debbie took music courses in harmony and arranging, so she could learn the best way to communicate with musicians in their own language. Nepotism started it – but she really took hold in the studio scene on recommendations from other singers who enjoyed working with her.
THE MENDELSSOHN CHOIR
She also joined the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir in 1973 under the baton of Dr. Elmer Iseler, and quickly learned to be a crack sight-reader, with a vocal range spanning 3.5 octaves.
STUDIO WORK GALORE
Her vocal versatility, excellent ear, pitch and sight reading abilities led her to become one of Toronto’s top session singers for many years. She has recorded hundreds of jingles, her operatic New Diet Pepsi commercial winning a Clio Award in the late ‘80s. She has added backup vocals to hundreds of albums recorded by artists such as Anne Murray, David Clayton Thomas, Rob McConnell, Oscar Peterson, Shirley Eikhard, Hagood Hardy, Rita MacNeil, Susan Aglukark, Rik Emmett and country superstarAlan Jackson to name only a few. She continues to do backup sessions and arranging for Borealis Records.
LIVE BACKUP VOCALS
She’s also sung backup vocals during live performances with Petula Clark, Engelbert Humperdink, Mary Bailey, Martin Short, Susan Aglukark, Ronnie Hawkins, Rodney Brown, Rob Young, Betty Richardson and many others, including The Lincolns:
THE RONNIE PROPHET SHOW
In the 70’s and 80’s, when television production in Canada was at it’s peak – Debbie was a regular singer on The Tommy Hunter Show, The Ronnie Prophet Show (where she led the vocal backup quartetFree Spirit), Stars on Ice, Downright Disco, Patsy Gallant, Bobby Vinton, and many more specials and productions.. On these shows, she sang everything from pop and country to R& B and funk. During the tapings of Stars on Ice, she had to emulate the sounds of the pop singers of the day, from Diana Ross to Jennifer Warnes on songs used as background for the skating stars. The CRTC in Canada at that time outlawed the televised broadcast of any music that was not recorded by Canadian artists, and thus all background music for the show had to be re-recorded. This was a great thing for Canadian talent in general, and even better for Debbie, who analysed and duplicated with a fine-toothed comb, the styles and nuances of all the great singers of the time. Here’s one of Debbie’s proudest moments on the Ronnie Prophet show – singing backups for the great George Jones in He Stopped Lovin’ Her Today
PREMIER RECORDING “LET ME IN” 1980
In 1980, Debbie released her first solo album for Canadian Talent Library, entitled “Let Me In”. It was arranged and co-produced by Tom Szczesniak and Doug Riley, and consisted of mostly original songs by Debbie, and some penned by Lynne Deragon.
JAZZ VOCAL HARMONY WITH SING-CO-OP-8
Sing-Co-op-8 at the TD Centre: Jamie Ray, Susan Tanner, Debbie Fleming, Judy Tate, Jim Gillard, David Blamires, Vern Kennedy and Bob Hamper.
It was also during the 80’s, Debbie assembled her own jazz vocal octet, known as Sing-Co-op-8. This group was largely a sight-reading rehearsal group, but they recorded for CBC, and performed a few concerts before they disbanded. All the singers in the group were busy session singers and musicians, and scheduling was difficult.
BACKING UP PETULA CLARK
Because of her reputation as an excellent reader and singer, she was hired to sing backup vocals with Petula Clark, legendary British Singer known for her hits “Downtown” and “Don’t Sleep in the Subway“. For 6 weeks, Petula headlined at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto with “The London Palladium Show” backed by Debbie and Jamie Ray. After that show ended, Jamie and Debbie were invited to travel to the U.S. with Petula as she appeared at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, and Atlantic City. In Vegas, Petula was the opening act for George Burns, and, on another occasion, David Copperfield. Debbie and Jamie were also involved in a northern U.S. tour with Petula, and enjoyed every minute of singing with Petula and her world class musicians.
Also in the early ’80’s, Debbie also began working with society dance bands for corporate and private engagements, and with these bands she sang everything from jazz standards, to the songs that were currently popular. She could switch from Cyndi Lauper to Tina Turner on a dime, and she became one of the most sought-after vocalists in this circuit for 15 years.
GROUP SINGING, DEBBIE’S MAIN PASSION
Debbie was also part of a large group of singers produced by Keith Whiting at CBC, called The Gospel Project. In this 20 voice group Debbie sang with Jackie Richardson, Betty Richardson, Jeff Jones, B.J. Reed, Colina Phillips, Sharon Lee Williams, John Rutledge, David Blamires and many others. Debbie wrote original songs for the group which were performed on CBC. Here is a song I wrote, sung by the Gospel Project with solos by Jackie and Betty Richardson He’s Gonna Be There.
After being knocked for a loop by Take 6 in the early 90s, Debbie assembled another group of singers to satisfy her need to re-explore crunchy jazz harmonies, and to rehearse and sing vocal charts that she began to arrange and lift. The group – all crack sightreaders — became Hampton Avenue and under Debbie’s leadership, recorded 3 CD’s and won the Jazz Report Vocal Group of the Year in 1999. Although the larger version of Hampton Avenue has now disassembled, Debbie sings and arranges for The Hampton Avenue-4, who still perform. The 4 have appeared at the 120 Diner, The Jazz Bistro, the Beaches Jazz Festival, and private functions.
BACK TO COUNTRY AND MORE RECORDING
Her love of Country music led to a self-produced solo recording in 1994, consisting of all her own songs, and entitled Nothin’ in the World (That This Old Girl Can’t Do).
Debbie’s country CD was getting airplay, and she became known as a “Country singer”. Debbie was also writing R&B and pop songs, and recording and releasing these songs to radio. In order not to confuse the radio people who had her pegged “country”, she released her R&B songs under a different name – “A.C.Kurrett” (if you say it a few times quickly, you’ll understand the humour behind it). These songs were well received in Canada – especially in Quebec. You can hear three of the singles released by A.C. – Baby Let’s Slow Down, Just a Memory and I Can’t Believe It – on my Reverb Nation page.
After the release of the film O Brother Where Art Thou, Debbie teamed up with two of her Toronto Mendelssohn Choir associates to form ChoirGirlz – who performed and recorded together over a period of 9 years. Debbie was the guitarist, producer, arranger and songwriter for this group.
40 YEARS IN THE MENDELSSOHN CHOIR ENDED IN 2015
Debbie tendered her resignation from the choir in 2015, after lending her voice to it for 40 years. As a result of her association with the choir, and the skills she learned – vocal control, excellent pitch, good sight reading – she was first-call in the studio scene when operatic or classical voices were required.
BACK TO JAZZ
Debbie’s love for Jazz, and standards, led her to reconnect with her cohorts she had met the McMaster Jazz Club – Bruce Harvey and Jack McFadden – and as a trio they appeared at the Downtown Jazz Festival together. In July 2004, Debbie added drums and sax to her trio, and as The Debbie Fleming Quintet, debuted at the prestigious Montreal Bistro in Toronto. During this time, she recorded her first solo jazz album, featuring all of her original songs. The album – Steppin’ Out – garnered healthy air play and reviews.
STILL DOIN’ IT
In 2016, Debbie has just released a new jazz/R&B CD consisting of songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, one of the 20th century’s most prolific songwriting teams. The CD is entitled “Full Circle – Back to Bacharach” and contains much-loved tunes such as Anyone Who Had a Heart, Walk On By, A House Is Not a Home and many more. Full circle refers to the fact that Debbie was singing these same songs in the 60s, when they first came out, and this CD has brought her back to her formative roots. The CD can be purchased by going to the Shopping Cart of this website. For more info about this CD, please go to News and Views, and Deb’s Blog.
Debbie continues to guest with jazz and R&B bands such as the Niagara Rhythm Section; The Virgil Scott band; The Robbie Rox Band; The Betty Richardson Band, John Finley, and Cathy Young. She is a regular singer in the One Stop Jazz Safaris helmed by Jazz.fm’s Jaymz Bee.
She often leads a band at the 120 Diner in Toronto – Toronto’s hottest new live music club, and has appeared at the beautiful Jazz Bistro as well.
To hear some of her recent songs and videos, please go to Debbie Fleming Music, or Debbie’s Youtube Page.
Check out the Events Page for upcoming concerts in which Debbie is involved.
Deb The Songwriter:
When Debbie was six, she began writing poetry very much along the lines of rap music today: rhythmic, rhyming, and all about life as she saw it. She took piano lessons during her childhood, and by the time rock & roll came along, with Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Debbie put her ears to work, and managed to emulate their piano styles in a passable fashion. She and a girlfriend, Patti McDonald, began getting together and harmonizing the songs of the day, with Debbie plonking out the piano accompaniment, and this led to Debbie writing her first songs. The songs were of love, lust and longing, and when Debbie and Patti were invited to join “The Starfires” they added Debbie’s tunes to their roster when they entertained at sockhops and dances.
Once in University, Debbie’s focus was mainly on academics, and the urge to write did not hit her again until after she married and became a mother. Her first stereo reel-to-reel tape recorder, ordered from the Simpson’s catalogue, enabled her to record and overdub vocal harmonies on two channels, and she was in “demo heaven!”. Once Debbie had secured a reputation in the Toronto studio scene, she wrote songs that were recorded by Ben McPeek, Elaine Overholt, Harry Marks and Wayne St. John. Debbie’s first solo album, entitled “Let Me In” was recorded for Canadian Talent Library, and contained many of her original songs arranged and produced by Tom Szczesniak and legend Doug Riley.
As time marched on, Debbie added multitrack equipment to her home so she could add instrumental tracks as well as vocal overdubs. She wrote songs for her own bands, for her jazz vocal ensemble Sing-Co-op-8, for The Ronnie Prophet show and hundreds of other songs, most of which are still sitting in a drawer waiting to be discovered.
She recorded 10 of her country tunes, which were eventually compiled into a CD entitled “Nothin’ in the World (That This Old Girl Can’t Do).” A trip with the CD to Nashville brought many compliments about her songs, but it was stressed to Debbie that in order to “get cuts” with country artists, one had to move to Nashville and co-write like mad. Debbie wasn’t ready for that kind of change in her life, and remained in Toronto.
Meanwhile, Debbie released other songs on compilation CDs, both under her name, and under the pseudonym “A.C.Kurrett”. These songs were more in the pop and R&B vein, and the pseudonym was to prevent confusion with Debbie’s growing reputation as a country artist.
When Debbie’s jazz vocal group Hampton Avenue began to record, Debbie crafted most of the material on their debut CD “All I Want For Christmas” (many of the songs on that CD had originally been entered into the annual Amadeus Choir Christmas Carol contest, two of her songs “Dancing” and “In a Manger” received Honourable mention awards). Her writing for Hampton Avenue proliferated, and two more CD’s were released, most of the material being Debbie’s songs. The vocal arrangements for her songs are available for sale, at http://www.hamptonavenue.com/ and at our Shopping Cart Page. These arrangements are being performed by choirs from the U.S. to Australia and Europe.
Debbie’s notoriety as a writer has led producers to her door looking for material for use in movies, jingles and television background music. One of her compositions, written for Brad MacDonald Music, won a prestigious award in Winnipeg.
Because of Debbie’s association with choirs such as the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, The Amadeus Choir of Greater Toronto, and the St. Paul’s Singers she has written and arranged classical-flavoured vocal compositions which have been sung by the St. Paul’s Singers at St. Paul’s Church on Bloor St. in Toronto. Her Mass in F was a regular offering to the congregation at that church when Eric Robertson led the choir.
Her third solo album, a jazz compilation, called “Steppin’ Out” released in 2004, is entirely made up of Debbie’s original compositions and arrangements.
Debbie Fleming continues to write songs for others to perform, as well as for her own shows. She dreams that some great artist bound for stardom will eventually want to take her music with them to a higher place, and to wider audiences. For some of her more recent songs, recorded in her home studio – please click on Reverb Nation.
Deb the Musician and Arranger
Deb began taking piano lessons when she was 6 years old. She eventually achieved her Grade 8 piano, and Grade 2 theory from the Royal Conservatory of Music, which she used as a credit towards her grade 13 year of high school.
When Rock and Roll hit the airwaves, Debbie was smitten, and her ear was developed to the point where she could emulate Jerry Lee Lewis, Neil Sedaka and LittleRichard on the piano. It was around this time that she also realized that she had a singing voice, and she began singing with a friend, Patty McDonald, writing songs and playing piano to accompany the duo.
As a teen, through her association with Ronnie Hawkins and the great Robbie Robertson, she became smitten with guitar, and taught herself to play chords, and strum along while she sang. During one of the matinees at the Concord Tavern, Robbie allowed Debbie to play a few chords on his famous Stratocaster, and he explained to her that he used a banjo string for his high E string because it stretched a lot easier. A high moment in her life!
Until she met and married her husband, Toronto keyboard legend, Gordon Fleming, Debbie’s musical life was limited to a little playing and singing with small bands for peanuts.
She had always wanted to be in music, but her parents insisted that she work towards a degree in University that would lead to a career she could “fall back” on, and music definitely wasn’t one of those careers! She attended McMaster University, during which she worked with a dance band singing standards. She receive an Honours BA in Psychology, and ended up “falling back” on her degree for one year after graduation.
Debbie Duncan at McMaster
Debbie Sings with McMaster jazz ensemble in 1962, pictured with Moe Spence on Guitar, John Reynolds on bass, and Bill Lang, Drums.
Then she met Gord. Once she and Gord married, Debbie began earnestly making up for lost time, learning as much as she could about music from her talented husband. Both Gord and Debbie began studying piano with a Toronto teacher, Patricia Stewart, and they were both playing Brahms Rhapsodys and Chopin Etudes, and steeping themselves in the classical repertoire. After graduating from U of T, as a mature student at the Faculty of Music, Gord began working as an arranger in the studios, and Debbie, now a mother, would copy his music for him, calling upon her Grade 2 theory she’d learned many years before.
When Debbie began working in studios as a singer, she was asked to arrange vocals for various sessions, and as the years rolled on, she became more adept at notating what she heard in her head.
When she became a member of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, she worked very hard to become an excellent vocal sight reader. This is when her command of music and arranging grew from “instinctive” to “semi-knowlegeable”. Through her many years in the choir, she absorbed the sounds that worked the best with voices, and became an excellent vocal arranger.
When she assembled jazz vocal group, Sing-Co-op-8 in the early 80’s, they sight-read brilliant arrangements by Gene Puerling, Kirby Shaw and Phil Mattins. It wasn’t long before Debbie was inspired to write some of her own material and arrangements for this group, using many of the crunches and harmonies used by the masters.
Meanwhile, Debbie began singing with dance bands for weddings and bar mitzvahs, and although she purchased some of her charts from Richard Maslove, she began to get the urge to “lift” her own charts as an exercise. Although at first it was time consuming, and hard work, Debbie always enjoyed the challenge of isolating each instrument on a recording, writing down exactly what it was playing, and figuring out the chord progressions as well. It wasn’t long before Debbie’s entire book was made up of her own charts. With a singer’s ear for line and harmony, she also became a very good horn-writer. Following local bands like the Brigham Phillips big band and Men From Uncle, she became very cognizant about what works and what doesn’t.
Take 6 emerged on the music scene in the early 90s, and by the time Debbie was inspired by them, her ear was finely developed. The ultimate challengewas to “lift’ a Take 6 arrangement, and try to decipher what those inner voices were doing — and which one was doing what! Her first “lift” of “A Quiet Place” nailed the arrangement, and is always a favourite for her groups to sing.
Once Jazz Vocal Acappella group Hampton Avenue was assembled by Debbie, she was writing and arranging prolifically for this group. She was also learning from young phenoms Dylan Bell and Suba Sankaran, both of whom are musical geniuses, who studied music at York, and who arranged and lifted many other Take 6 arrangements. Sheer heaven! It was such a treat to have people such as Suba, Dylan, Judy Tate, Emilie Claire Barlow, Stephanie Taylor, TomLillington, Tim Olfert, Larry Folk and Don Laws just sight-read her charts on the fly – no piano, no hearing it first - just a tonic hummed by Suba, a count-in, and off they’d go. Yummy!
When Hampton Avenue disassembled, Debbie put together a female vocal trio ChoirGirlz made up of Debbie’s voice, along with two of her Mendelssohn Choir associates, Dorothy McDonall Chiotti, and Mary Ellen Moore. This was her opportunity to learn guitar, as accompanist for the group, and she began taking lessons from the great Steve Briggs of the BeBop Cowboys. Steve began teaching her even more about theory, harmony, and many other things she’s maybe known, but never been able to label. She was the arranger, and the sole accompanist for this bluegrass/country/roots female trio, which recorded three CD’s of mostly original songs before they finally dissolved in 2011.
She continues to sing with and arrange for The Hampton Avenue-4 with Suba,Dylan and Tom; and continues to sing in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.
She is regularly hired to do vocal arrangements for Joe Sealy. and for The Ault Sisters – as well as for Paul Mills and Borealis Records.