Richie-Knight & The Mid-Knights:
The CHUM Success Story
Richie Knight & The Mid Knights started in Toronto around 1959. It was started as "The Mid-Knights" amongst a few high school friends; George Semkiw (Guitar), Leo Donaghue (Sax), John McCanliss (Guitar) and Jim Williams (Drums).
Shortly after they began playing live the obvious next step of getting a bass player was enacted. Roger Woods got the part, and Barry Lloyd joined on piano along with vocalist Rich Hubbard. They stuck together for about a year, but by 1961 only George Semkiw, Barry Lloyd and Rich Hubbard were left. This is where many bands would have packed up and called it quits, but not the Mid-Knights. They went about recruiting new members, who would ultimately become the original line-up of the Mid-Knights.
In mid-1961, after a short run of auditions, the guys settled on Doug Chappell (Bass), Barry Stein (Drums) and Mike Brough (Sax). Given the prevailing trends in the Toronto scene at the time, Barry Lloyd switched from piano to Hammond organ. They began cutting their teeth, building their chops around Southern Ontario. They quickly became a hot live band throughout Ontario. They'd continue playing throughout Ontario, until the summer of 1962. At this time they set their sights on the Yonge Street Strip, where they would play all summer. Throughout this extended live exercise they managed to catch the attention of an A&R man for ARC Records; Toronto-based, country focused record label. He was impressed by a number of songs in their live repertoire, but one in particular stood out; that song, would be Charlena! He brought them to the attention of Bill Gilliland (sometimes producer and Vice President of ARC Records).
Charlena wasn't an original song, but rather one the band had heard on the radio at some point. It caught, not only the attention of the A&R man from ARC, but countless patrons at clubs they played throughout Ontario (this would grease the wheels for it's inevitable rise to hit status in Canada; particularly Toronto and surrounding areas).
Bill wasted no time getting them into the studio at the dawn of 1963. In a one off session one night at ARC studios (with house producer Ben Weatherby), with no overdubs, they recorded Charlena with You've Got The Power (another cover; originally done by James Brown) as a B-Side on a mono tape recorder.
With the recording out of the way (that Bill was sure would be a hit), they started deliberation over the name the band would go by; they ultimately settled on Richie Knight and The Mid-Knights. With this crucial factor out of the way the recordings were readied for release and by mid-spring of 1963 Charlena/You've Got The Power was released on ARC Records.
A local radio station CKEY was first to play the record, but the key to the song's success was CHUM; who didn't begin playing the record until it started to see massive requests from fans. Charlena would ascend to #1 on the charts. This was the first time that a local band had gotten the #1 position on the CHUM charts. The record went on to sell more than 100,000.
This new rush in popularity saw the Mid-Knights with their pick of live gigs; every place wanted them at this time, as with a #1 record, it was a sure thing that they'd pack the house. They would go on to play such memorable locales as: The Balmy Beach Canoe Club, Crang Plaza, The Met, Mazaryk Hall, The Jubilee Pavilion in Oshawa, and The Pav in Orillia. The band’s two biggest shows were at Maple Leaf Gardens, the first was in 1963 while “Charlena” was still on the CHUM chart and the station presented a Dick Clark Caravan of Stars show at the Gardens. The second was opening for the Rolling Stones in 1965.
In late 1963, riding high on the success from their hit Charlena, the band is brought back into the recording studio to record "the Joke/My Kind Of Love + Homework/Come Back-Try Me (which would be released in 1964)." These went on to be minor hits in their own right. Surprisingly, not long after these recordings, Barry Lloyd left the band and would be replaced by Ray Reeves.
As a result of the success, and explosion of Charlena (plus the other minor hits that followed in its wake), many other young, local acts began to take note. This was key to the birth of "The Toronto Sound" and the scene built around it. Little Caesar and the Consuls, Robbie Lane and The Disciples, Jon & Lee and The Checkmates, David Clayton Thomas and The Shays, The Big Town Boys, Shirley Mathews, The Sparrow, The Mynah Birds, The Mandala, The Paupers, and the list goes on! It truly was an influential moment in Toronto music history.
In mid-1964, riding high off the success of their two singles, they released their third "Homework/Come Back-Try Me." This wouldn't be as much of a hit in comparison to their last two singles, but they continued to support it nonetheless. As 1964 turned into 1965 they continued touring, playing locally and promoting themselves, but no new singles would come until 1966.
Feeling the tedium of the “band life” in this stage, 1966 saw Mike Brough quit the band and move to Oklahoma to pursue his moving day job. To replace him, they decided to circumvent the horns and add a piano player to compliment Ray Reeves organ on stage; Rick Bell got the call but he wouldn’t last long as Ronnie Hawkins already had him in his sights.
In mid-1966, the band signed with RCA Victor, and release the soul-tinged “That’s All Right/Work Song.” This was a minor hit but more or less sunk like a stone compared to their last hits. Rich Hubbard would leave shortly after the release of this single, which left a gaping hole in the band. Richard Newell, thankfully, quickly stepped in and became the new vocalist as well as harmonica player. This would somewhat fill the role of the saxophone which they lost earlier that year.
This began the era of the Mid-Knights Blues Band. This iteration of the band lasted just over a year but no singles would materialize in this time. They were a popular live act but failed to shore up a record deal as they were dropped by RCA. Funnily enough RCA didn’t even care enough to spell the band’s name right on the 45 label; instead putting “Ritchie Knight and the Mid-Knights.”
Nearing the end of the “Blues Band” period, Ronnie Hawkins grabbed Rick Bell; again leaving the band staggered. Like in the past however, the band refused to relent; instead adopting a new moniker “The Mid-Knights Revue,” and adding multiple new players on top of the core band. These included adding a second drummer in Bill Pinkerton, Dave Stilwell on trumpet, Rick Cairns on second trumpet, Jerry Shymansky on saxophone, Mark Smith on trombone, and Richard Newell dropping the harmonica in favor of just vocals.
The newly christened band signed to Warner Bros. Records and released one single “Somebody Somewhere Needs You/Soul Man.” It failed to have the same chart success as previous singles, even though live crowds really took to the new incarnation of the band. Ronnie Hawkins would again swoop into the picture like the figurative Hawk he is, and poached Richard Newell; who he’d soon dub him “King Biscuit Boy.” The band bounced back quick recruiting vocalists Frank Querci (Robert E. Lee [possibly of the Robert E. Lee Brigade c.1970]) and Karen Titko. This version of the band created a true R&B experience; much like that of Stax/Volt, with a huge wall of sound type feel.
Unfortunately, with the lack of success and constant revolving door of members, the story of Richie Knight & The Mid-Knights comes to an end in 1969. They were true pioneers in the realm of homegrown bands having success here in Canada. We had solo pioneers like Paul Anka and Bobby Curtola who preceded them slightly, but as far as Canadian bands to take their country by storm, Richie Knight & The Mid-Knights were the first.
There’s another chapter to this story however, and it begins back when they were still signed to RCA. During “The Mid-Knights Blues Band” phase as well as “The Mid-Knights Revue,” the band had access to RCA Victor studios to rehearse, since George Semkiw was a producer there. At the end of a number of practice sessions they would record songs that would hopefully become future singles. These ultimately would never be released and they total 17 songs across three names; the Mid-Knights Blues Band (7), the Mid-Knights “Big” Blues Band (3) and The Mid-Knights Revue (7). Thanks to a brief, joyous and informative relationship with the recently deceased Doug Chappell, I managed to acquire these tracks. I hope to have the opportunity to share them all with you one day as they are truly amazing!
With that, we bring to a close the story of one of Canada’s most important and influential bands. George Semkiw and Doug Chappell would see long and storied careers in the music industry after the demise of The Mid-Knights. I’m thankful to know that the work they and their band mates did will not be forgotten for quite some time. Rest in peace boys!
WRITTEN & RESEARCHED BY: AARON LUSCH
Richie Knight & The Mid-Knights
Richard Hubbard (aka Richie Knight): vocals
Barry Lloyd: piano, organ
John McCanliss: guitar
George Semkiw: guitar
Jim Gwilliams: drums)
Leo Donoghue: saxophone
Roger Woods: bass
Doug Chappell: bass; (replaced Woods)
Barry Stein: drums; (replaced Gwilliams)
Mike Brough: saxophone
Ray Reeves: keyboards; (replaced Lloyd)