Verdun singer paid fun novelty tribute to Howe, Béliveau
Four years before his passing in 2011, I had the pleasure to profile Verdun-born singer Bob Davies, who in the 1960s was nicknamed by some “Montreal’s Elvis.”
Davies recorded a novelty tune in 1963 about Detroit Red Wings’ superstar Gordie Howe, even presenting a copy of the recording to Mr. Hockey in the legend’s hotel room during a Red Wings visit to Montreal.
Not long afterward, Davies recorded a tribute to the great Jean Béliveau, as well. He was delighted with the buzz his songs got when the story appeared in the Montreal Gazette and was happy for us to share the tunes online.
It seems fitting that I post Bob Davies’s “Big John Béliveau,” along with his Gordie Howe tune and the Dec. 4, 2007 feature story that brought that song, and Bob’s other work, to our readers:
Here’s Bob Davies’s Big John Béliveau:
Whether Detroit Red Wings Hall of Famer Gordie Howe was the greatest of them, regardless of the record book, will forever be a debate among hockey fans.
But in the spring of 1963, when Howe was celebrated in a hit song by Verdun singer and songwriter Bob Davies, there was no doubt.
Tonight, the man they call Mr. Hockey will be joined by a handful of other Red Wings legends at the Bell Centre when the Canadiens pay tribute to one of their Original Six rivals, another special event on the road to the Habs’ 2009 centennial.
In Stouffville, Ont., 70-year-old Bob Davies will be thinking warmly of Gordie Howe, both the superstar and the song, delighted that the tune is being heard again today.
It’s no matter that the record didn’t earn him a nickel when its label declared bankruptcy, management vanishing before a single royalty cheque was signed for what finally would be a sale thought to be 200,000 copies.
Davies, a bandleader since his teens, had long been a fan of the gifted Howe, the rugged prairie-born Red Wing. This was almost heresy in Montreal during the days that Maurice Richard was filling the net for the Canadiens.
In rough form, he penned the song in 1959, playing it nightly during his five years as emcee and entertainer at the Cavendish Café on Mansfield St., a popular hang-out with sport types. An Elvis-like act earned Davies the nickname “Canadian Jellyhips.”
A three-minute Howe tune was recorded the following year for Trans-World Records, which never released it. But the catchy song came to life in 1963, after Davies polished it with Moe Chapman, a friend who lived downstairs in their Verdun duplex.
Gordie Howe was recorded in an hour for Globe Records by Big Bob and The Dollars, featuring Davies on guitar and vocals, Dorothy Dodd’s harmony, Danny Smith on drums, Hugh Dixon on guitar and Norm (Curly) Robertson on bass.
Not a bad idea, Davies then thought, to run all this past the subject of the tune.
“I called Gordie up and told him I had this song,” Davies recalls of first meeting Howe at the Red Wings’ Montreal hotel early in 1963.
“I went up to his room with Moe, a 78 rpm demo, a fold-up record player and a neighbour to take a picture. Gordie was alone answering fan mail. He listened to it, shook my hand and said, ‘Well, if you like the idea, go ahead.’ ”
Howe, who never saw himself as bigger than his team, was embarrassed by the tribute.
“Never mind singing it, nobody had ever before said that (he was the greatest),” Howe chuckles today, softly singing the tune over the phone. “I think I gloated the most when I went to bed at night and nobody could see me.”
At the start, Montreal’s teen-beat CKGM – now sports talk’s Team 990 – seldom played the song, reluctant to incite Richard fans with its “greatest” theme.
(Howe owns a six-pound teacup poodle. Its name is Rocket.)
With Howe to appear in a Hockey Night In Canada intermission feature, Davies, then 25, pitched the song to Canadiens general manager Frank Selke Sr.
“Selke told me, ‘Son, this is Montreal, the home of Rocket Richard (three years retired, whose NHL record of 544 career goals Howe was approaching). Your song won’t be played,’ ” Davies recalls.
“But Selke’s son, Frank Jr., would be interviewing Howe on the telecast, and he called me an hour later. I ran a record down to him, and they played it.”
That March, Davies sent it up to CHUM in Toronto, where overnight DJ Bob Laine played it at 5 a.m. to huge audience reaction. It was aired again two hours later to even greater acclaim and became an instant hit. CKGM soon was playing the record into vinyl dust, and it soared on the charts in all six NHL cities.
The tune was featured in the April 23 issue of Maclean’s magazine, a glowing review if you disregard the suggestion that it was “spectacularly unmusical.”
Here’s Bob Davies’s Gordie Howe (Is The Greatest of Them All):
The record was the greatest success of Davies’s career, Big Bob earning no dollars but enjoying an increased profile and more bookings. It also earned him at least one good-natured threat from Canadiens hardrock John Ferguson.
Davies recalls Fergy wagging a finger at him at the Cavendish Café one night and saying that “he’d knock my block off unless I sang about a ‘proper player.’ ”
He played the Montreal Forum in the fall of 1964, opening the Canadian tour of the Dave Clark Five, a sizzling new British band. Five months earlier, he had emceed a huge CFOX-sponsored country and western show on the same Forum stage, featuring the biggest stars of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.
Davies had long been a popular fixture in Montreal nightclubs and on its radio and TV by the time Gordie Howe shot up the charts. His band, the Rhythm Jesters, had been scouted and booked to open a 1957 Australian tour for Frank Sinatra, though Ol’ Blue Eyes never showed and the tour was scrapped.
He had played Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theatre in November 1956 and again the following May at Brooklyn’s Paramount, both times for rock ’n’ roll radio pioneer Alan Freed. These gigs, and a Freed tour, put him alongside Bo Diddley, The Cleftones, The Pretenders and many more.
Davies often revisited sports in his songwriting. In 1963, following Gordie Howe, he penned Big John Béliveau, dipped into football with The Mighty Als of Montreal, then wrote Here’s To Bobby Hull. Next came Has Anybody Here Seen Frank Mahovlich? None would enjoy the popularity of Gordie Howe.
The Howe tune quickly was covered in French by Les Baladins. Davies rerecorded it in 1975, freshened for Mr. Hockey’s arrival with the WHA’s Houston Aeros, where he played with sons Marty and Mark. The flip-side of that Broadland Records 45 rpm was an instrumental that for years was played in lounges for singalongs – karaoke, ahead of its time.
And with former drummer Danny Smith, Davies cooked up a nightclub comedy act, performing as The Bobsmiths. It included the skit “Bang Bang Jeffrey Joe,” based on Canadiens star Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion, whose slap shot would “h’ecko” off the boards.
Davies and his wife now of 48 years, Celina, left Quebec in 1968. He quit performing regularly a decade ago, and for 11 years has sold cars in Stouffville, outside of Toronto. Two years ago he had a bad fall on the ice at work that tore up his shoulder, leaving him unable to play his guitar.
“But I still write like mad,” he says enthusiastically, “and I hope somebody will record a few of them.”
He doesn’t expect that any new tune will weave the magic of Gordie Howe, and that’s fine, too.
“The sportswriters put articles in the paper, the radio guys dug it and a lot of people bought it,” Davies says. “Best of all, Gordie liked it. I only wrote the words. He was the music.”
-Dave Stubbs, Montreal Gazette