Bobby Kris & The Imperials
By Nick Warburton
For a brief moment in 1966 Bobby Kris & The Imperials were arguably the most popular group in Toronto and one of the best paid on the southern Ontario circuit.
Their tasteful rendition of the Dionne Warwick classic, “Walk on By”, was one of the most professionally produced singles to be recorded in Canada during the mid-‘60s and became a sizeable hit on Toronto’s CHUM chart in January 1966.
When a follow up single failed to consolidate their recent success, Bobby Kris & The Imperials underwent a radical change in musical direction. Yet despite some impressive live shows, the group crumbled at the height of the “summer of love”, leaving only two singles as their recorded legacy.
It was a long way from the band’s jazzier roots and the original Imperials, formed during 1964 to back up local singer Jimmy Snowdon.
Dubbed J S & The Imperials, the original line up comprised lead guitarist Al Waugh, bass player Brian Sefchek, tenor sax players Jerry Mann (aka Shymanksi, 2 July 1946, Toronto, Onatario) and John Crone (b. 4 February 1945, Toronto, Ontario) and drummer Gordon MacBain (b. 5 August 1947, Toronto, Ontario).
“That was my first band,” notes MacBain. “I had a couple of guys that I was working with that were friends of Domenic Troiano’s. Jerry Shymanksi and a fella named Jim Snowdon had a little band going but they needed some members so I took my friends and we joined [them] and that was sort of the first real incarnation of J S & The Imperials.”
The fledging line-up was expanded soon afterwards with the addition of pianist Pat Riccio Jr, who was the son of a famous Canadian big band leader and the group began gigging on the local club scene playing its own unique blend of R&B.
In late 1964, however, the first of many personnel changes took place when Brian Sefchek and Al Waugh were fired from the band. “We asked Brian and Al to leave because they weren’t working out,” explains MacBain.
To fill the vacant spots, the remaining members auditioned bass player Rick Dutt (b. Rick Dutkiewicz, 19 March 1945, Toronto, Ontario), who introduced his high school friend, lead guitarist Eugene Martynec (b. 28 March 1947, Colburg, Germany).
“I was told that the bass player and the guitarist were good friends, and if I wanted to audition for the Imperials, I should bring along a guitar player to fill in, so I called my buddy Gene Martynec and asked him to do me this favour,” explains Dutt, who by this point had changed his surname to Haynes. “It turned out that they liked us both.”
As the bass player explains, his Polish father had anglicised the family name from Dutkiewicz to Dutt. It was when the young musician turned professional that he decided to change his stage name to Rick Haynes.
“When joining the Musicians’ Union, the first line on the application said, ‘Name’, the next line said, ‘Professional Name’. I said to myself, ‘Crap! You have to have a professional name’, so I wrote ‘Rick Haynes’.”
The new members had barely joined the band when Pat Riccio Jr quit in disgust over the firing of Brian Sefchek and Al Waugh. His place was taken by former Robbie Lane & The Disciples pianist Martin Fisher (b. 26 December 1945, Vancouver, British Columbia; died August 2005).
A former graduate from the Royal Conservatory of Music, Fisher assumed the role of musical director and The Imperials began to play a more diverse blend of R&B and folk-rock. Over the next few months, J S & The Imperials started to establish a footing on the local club scene.
In May 1965, however, the band underwent a more significant change in personnel when Haynes introduced his friend from Humberside Collegiate Bob Burrows (b. 14 July 1945, Toronto, Ontario, Canada), who replaced Jim Snowdon on lead vocals.
A former Toronto University philosophy student, Burrows had also invested some time in a brief acting career, and according to MacBain had acted in Stratford with Christopher Plummer among others. The new singer took on a new identity as Bobby Kris.
“I adopted the name Bobby Kris so as to hide my new gig from my parents who had threatened to throw me out of the house if I kept on singing that evil rock ‘n’ roll,” says the singer.
“It was apparently ruining my school career, which was probably true but who cares? However, our first gig together was at the Auto show – Dutt got us a job. My dad worked at the Ford Motor company. What was I thinking? I got caught at my first gig and they threw me out of the house. That’s how I ended up living with John Finley.”
Kris’ arrival prompted a change of name to Bobby Kris & The Imperials and led to a succession of personnel changes, starting with a decision to briefly oust Gordon MacBain in favour of Dave Brown from Jay Smith & The Majestics.
“It was a tough decision to let Gordie go,” says Kris. “If you asked me today what one person was the heart and soul of The Imperials over the long haul, I would tell you it was Gordon MacBain, so he was a very popular guy in the band and rightfully so.
“But the ethic was simple. If you could get someone a few steps up the ladder and improve your band significantly you did that. That’s how you got a better band. If The Imperials could have gotten Diane Brooks to sing for them, they would have thrown me out in a heartbeat and so they should have.”
Kris has nothing but good things to say about new recruit Dave Brown: “The band really matured with Dave around,” he says. “He wasn’t flashy at all but solid as a rock back there; he had a wonderful shuffle. But more importantly, he was a mature, sensible guy with a balanced ego.”
A few months later, in August 1965, Crone’s former compatriot from early 1960s band, The Gaylords, Dave Konvalinka (b. 4 July 1944, Gimli, Manitoba) took over bass duties from Rick Haynes, who was given the elbow shortly after he married his girlfriend.
“Bobby Kris & The Imperials were the first big name band that I got into,” recalls Konvalinka, who went by the name Dave Wayne at the time.
“Bobby, Gene [Martynec] and I started a band while we were in high school. Gene and I attended Runnymede Collegiate and as I recall, Bobby went to Humberside Collegiate. Both schools were located close to each other in Toronto’s westend.”
The band in question was called The Kondors, who played local high schools and church dances for a year before splitting up early 1964 when the various members went their separate ways into university or college.
Konvalinka, who had taught himself how to play guitar at the age of 10, had recently left Ryerson’s Radio and Television Arts and was playing in a band with recently ousted member Gordon MacBain.
Rick Haynes meanwhile briefly subbed for Chris Vickery in Jay Smith & The Majestics before moving up to Pembroke, Ontario in the Ottawa Valley where he started a new day job while playing bass and guitar in several local bands.
“We started our family and moved back to Toronto in 1967, again working a day job and playing weekends in bar bands. I was playing bass through one of the first amps built by Peter Traynor,” says Haynes.
‘The most notable of my gigs was a trio with a chick singer, and a guitar player called Don Morley who worked days at Long & McQuade. The band was called The Picnic. In the summer of 1968, I heard that Gordon Lightfoot was looking to replace his bassist. My wife high tailed it out to the record store to get a few of his albums for me. I auditioned for the job, I got it, and I’m with him and the same wife to this day.”
Haynes, however, was not the only Imperials member to move on late summer. Although his former band mate had recently joined, John Crone departed around the same time and subsequently became a member of a new version of The Majestics, formed in early 1966. Crone made way for another Ryerson’s Radio and Television Arts drop out, sax player, Rick Loth.
With Konvalinka and Loth recruited, and Gordon MacBain back in the fold, the classic Bobby Kris & The Imperials line up was complete.
“When we got Gordie back, we were a much better band than we had been before,” says Kris. “Gord was a better drummer too. I have to say I was always happy that we got Gord back. We were fortunate to have done that. Despite the ‘ethic’, there always seemed to be something wrong with throwing him out of the band.”
Sometime in late 1965, the group opened for soul legend Wilson Pickett at Toronto’s Masonic Temple and, as Fisher recalls, Pickett’s guitarist blew the band away. “That’s when I first met [Jimi] Hendrix,” says Fisher. “He was doing the thing where you pretend to play [the guitar] with your teeth.”
It wasn’t the only time that the group rubbed shoulders with the talented guitarist. “We played the Night Owl a lot for a while,” says Kris and “Hendrix actually sat in with us there one night for a couple of tunes. I missed it [because] I was out trying to score some smoke.”
During November 1965, Bobby Kris & The Imperials signed to the Canadian arm of Columbia Records and in one session recorded enough material for two singles.
“I’m not sure if we were at a place called Eastern Sound or RCA,” says Kris, looking back.
“We had to record four songs in their entirety in three hours. That didn’t include any subsequent mixing. I got two vocal takes for ‘Walk On By’. There was no comping or editing going on. The only way you could edit was by physically cutting the tape. They either used take one or take two.”
Their debut ’45 coupled an impressive R&B version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Walk On By” (with a horn arrangement by Rick Loth) with Kris and Martynec’s “Travelling Bag”.
Released just after Christmas, the single climbed #8 on the RPM chart and was also a top 10 hit in Toronto on the city’s CHUM chart in January 1966.
Early that same month, the Toronto Telegram had run an expose on the group under the headline: “They’re Out to Develop Their Own Sound”.
“They call themselves serious students and they live on music,” wrote Jac Holland, who caught the band playing at the Hawk’s Nest. “They rehearse six hours a day, teach themselves to play three or more instruments and attempt to develop a new sound.”
In the article, Bobby Kris informs the writer that the group wants to revamp its sound so “we can play the things we want to. We are tired of being imitators, commercializers.”
Jac Holland later goes on to report that Bobby Kris & The Imperials are developing a folk-rock deep blues sound based on two saxophones and that their next recording session (sic), which will be in early March, will feature this new sound.
As noted earlier, the band’s two singles were recorded at one session. Bobby Kris & The Imperials’ second outing was another impressive release, coupling a cover of Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs To Me” (with an horn arrangement from Konvalinka) with Kris and Martynec’s “A Year From Today”.
Within weeks of the single’s release, however, Konvalinka and Martynec swapped instruments. “I was originally hired to play bass and did so on the recordings, but shortly after Gene and I switched and I became the lead guitarist as I was better suited to playing guitar on the new material we were trying to do,” explains Konvalinka.
“There was a lot of swapping of instruments going on in the band for a while there,” adds Kris. “I can recall that we used to do ‘Watermelon Man’ with three horns. I can’t remember for sure who did what but Eugene also played soprano sax and loved to do that. I think that’s him on soprano on ‘She Belongs To Me’ with Loth on clarinet.”
Bobby Kris & The Imperials continued to maintain a busy calendar of gigs throughout this period. Konvalinka remembers one notable date time taking place at Chez Charles in Chapleau, Quebec, just north of army Camp Petawawa.
“I think we stayed a week and almost every night there was a fight because the army guys liked to get really drunk and pound each other silly,” he recalls.
“The Chez was a roadhouse in the middle of nowhere and goes down in my memory as one of the reasons I decided not to stay a full-time musician.”
In another unusual setting, Bobby Kris & The Imperials were hired to play at Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre on 13 April 1966 alongside the Canadian National Ballet Company, which was performing Romeo and Juliet.
In what was billed as the “World’s First ballet and A-Go-Go Party”, the band performed its latest set in the lobby during the intermission to bemused theatregoers dressed in dinner jackets and ball gowns.
Once again, the Toronto Telegram ran a story and Jac Holland was present to report on the evening’s festivities.
“After Four and the National Ballet Guild have planned a first-in-the-world evening combining the classic and modern, the cultural and pop to create a great teen-age party,” he reported in the following day’s issue of the paper.
“The National Ballet Guild decided this production would appeal to a younger audience and would catch the imagination of even those not disposed to ballet. Sort of a sugar-coated pill.”
At this point, it’s worth mentioning something about the band’s attire and approach to performance. As Kris explains, the musicians had to accept a fine system that was imposed to address such things as being late for rehearsals and other important matters like not having a complete uniform for a gig.
“The guys actually wore really nice three-piece deep maroon silk and wool suits and cool shirts with high boy collars with matching tie pin and cufflinks, as well as watch chains,” remembers Kris.
“For some reason or other I always picture Rick Loth in that outfit. He was a svelte kind of guy and the band looked really classy at the time. I wore a two-piece deep blue silk and wool suit because…well I was different in more ways than one.”
According to MacBain, Gene Martynec was particularly irked by the band’s fine system after falling foul on one occasion. “He hated that stuff,” says the drummer. “He got hell one night for not wearing his cuff links.”
“I think I was the ‘leader’ of the band at the time so I issued Martynec with a fine for not having his cufflinks,” adds Kris.
“He said that was cool…but that he wasn’t paying the fine and most importantly he was quitting the band and going home. When Gene said something like that he wasn’t screwing around. I guess he was in a bad mood or something and had simply had enough.”
Martynec didn’t leave, however, and during May 1966, Bobby Kris & The Imperials landed another important opening slot when they were chosen to play at Massey Hall with The Lovin’ Spoonful alongside local acts Susan Taylor, Little Caesar & The Consuls and The Big Town Boys.
By this point, the group was moving in a more Chicago blues direction playing John Hammond Jr material like “Judgment Day”.
According to Konvalinka, Bobby Kris & The Imperials returned to the studio that month to cut some new material, which sadly languished in the vaults. Some of the tapes, according to the band’s guitarist, were pretty good, but nobody seems to know where they are now.
With the recordings complete, the group returned to the road and headed for northern Ontario. Konvalinka says the gig, in Port Arthur (today Thunder Bay), was a turning point for him.
“I remember that we were playing in Toronto and got a call at a gig on Saturday night to tell us that we had to be in Port Arthur on Monday for a week’s stay at a lounge there. Well, Port Arthur is close to 1,000 miles away from Toronto and we knew that we needed to leave quickly to get there.”
As Konvalinka remembers the unfolding events, the band set off early on the Sunday morning – the seven band members split between a GMC van and 58 Chev, both with manual shifts.
“The drive almost killed us and it was all we could do not to fall asleep and drive off the highway, which was quite perilous. Anyway, we made it into Port Arthur at some point on Monday morning and went to the lounge where we were to play.”
The owner greeted the band with some unwelcome news – the police were regularly checking his bar to make sure that the patrons and the musicians were all “of legal age to be in a drinking establishment”.
One of the band members admitted to being underage and the group was informed that the show was cancelled.
After a couple of hours’ sleep, the despondent musicians headed back to Toronto. With very little money and barely enough to put gas in the car, the band managed somehow to get its hands on some frozen hot dogs that they picked up and cooked on a roadside barbecue in a provincial park.
“I’ll never forget that trip,” says Konvalinka. “Trying to cook those damn hotdogs on an open fire, turning them on the grill with a stick and drinking water from a river – and we were big recording stars! Anyway that was it for me and I quit the full-time gig.”
In early June 1966, Konvalinka handed in his notice and duly departed to subsequently re-join his friend John Crone in The Majestics under his new stage name, Dave Kon.
Looking back, Konvalinka admits that Bobby Kris & The Imperials were moving in a direction that he was less than happy with.
“The band had a great ride…but then it fell apart when the decision was made to move into the ‘British scene’, get rid of the horns and start playing some really obscure stuff.”
As Konvalinka reveals, his departure coincided with the band’s decision to dispense with the two horn players.
Informed that their services were no longer needed, Rick Loth joined The Silhouettes while Jerry Shymanski became a member of Jamaican singer Eddie Spencer & The Power in October 1966, briefly staying with them when Grant Smith took over as lead singer before joining The Midnights.
“We let the sax players go,” remembers Fisher, who has his own take on the split. “We went five-piece because the R&B thing was really dying and it was becoming old hat. The new thing was Beatles stuff.”
With Martynec resuming lead guitar duties, the band brought in Wayne Davis (b. 28 April 1946, Toronto, Ontario) from The Just Us to replace Konvalinka.
Amid all this activity, the group’s second single had been released but it didn’t garner the same interest and failed to register on the charts.
“There’s a story behind that which was to do with Johnny Bassett,” explains MacBain. “His father owned the Toronto Telegram and CFTO TV as well. He was a rich kid and one of his things that he did was he had this young girl that he backed financially called Susan Taylor. Johnny Bassett loved us because we had the horns [but] during that period of time was when we decided to pair down to a five-piece and kind of go hippish.”
As MacBain explains, “She Belongs To Me” had literally just been released and one night Bobby Kris & The Imperials were backing Bassett’s prodigy Susan Taylor at Massey Hall when her benefactor turned up to see the performance.
“I was standing in the wings wearing my polka dot shirt and Johnny Bassett said, ‘Hey Gordy, you better go get changed. It’s almost time [for you] to go on’. And I said, ‘No, this is what we’re wearing now’ (laughs) and he freaked out. There was nothing he could do. We had already gone our way. We didn’t have our mohair suits any more and no horns in the band and he didn’t even realise. He thought we were the same band but we were a different band.”
The show went well but as MacBain points out, the band’s second single dropped right off the CHUM chart. “We were at number 34 or something and on the way up and the following week the record was gone. I think in some ways that was the beginning of the end for us.”
The streamlined group, however, remained a popular draw and on 24 September 1966, Bobby Kris & The Imperials were chosen as one of 14 local groups to play at a 14-hour pop show held at the Maple Leaf Gardens.
Around this time, the group also scored a major coup by landing an opening slot for The Beach Boys in Port Arthur. “We decided to fly there [and] it was the first time that we had flown to a gig,” remembers Fisher who paints a colourful picture of the drama that unfolded.
With the band camped at Toronto airport waiting for its lead singer to arrive, Fisher recalls Bobby Kris turning up in a leather trench coat, wearing huge black Ray Charles glasses and carrying a brief case that contained his microphone.
“[Bobby] shows up looking like a gangster or a dope smuggler,” laughs Fisher. “We said, ‘Bobby we’re all going to get busted!’”
“Any notion that I was the only one stoned on that flight is utter nonsense,” chips in Kris. “From what I remember, some of us gathered at Marty’s place near the airport to take a taxi from there together – and to smoke up before we left so we’d be high in more ways than one!
“I love flying and I wanted to be high for the whole flight, so emptied the tobacco out of a filter cigarette and filled it with pot. This was like going from a joint – Marty’s joints were like toothpicks – to a cigar. By the time we got to the airport, I didn’t know what planet I was on.”
The trimmed down version of the band became far more adventurous musically and began absorbing an increasingly diverse range of musical influences, even briefly changing name to Elizabeth. But behind the scenes Gene Martynec was getting bored.
“He was always looking for something newer and unusual,” points out MacBain. “We used to laugh and joke at him because he was in to tone poems and making jazz sounds, almost avant garde stuff. He was a different kind of guy. He wasn’t really a rock ‘n’ roll musician.”
Bobby Kris concurs: “Gene had a much broader scope about music than anyone else in the band by leaps and bounds. When we were idolising Robbie Robertson, he was studying Chet Atkins. When we were all hot to trot about James Brown, he was listening to Charlie Mingus and Thelonius Monk. He was a great guitarist. He always challenged our limited ideas and that was very good for all of us.”
In early May 1967, the guitarist handed in his notice and formed the progressive folk-rock group, Kensington Market with singer/songwriter Keith McKie from The Vendettas.
Rather than recruit a guitarist to replace him, the band took on organ player Jimmy Oskirko (b. 31 December 1944, Toronto, Ontario), formerly of Jay Smith & The Majestics.
The new line up started to experiment with more progressive sounds and played regularly at the Concord Tavern where the band performed covers of The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” among other things.
“We were doing an excellent job,” remembers MacBain. “It was an awesome band. People were awe struck when we played those songs. Jimmy Oskirko was a brilliant, brilliant musician.”
One of the highlights during this period was opening for Jose Feliciano at Massey Hall.
“He opened with ‘Light My Fire’, which was a song that I had hated with a passion by The Doors,” says Fisher. “[But] when I heard it by Jose Feliciano it was a whole different thing. It was amazing. My jaw hit the floor.”
By September 1967, however, Fisher and MacBain were offered an opportunity they could not refuse and promptly left to join Bruce Cockburn’s Flying Circus. Their departure signalled the end of Bobby Kris & The Imperials.
“I came close to singing lead for Bruce’s band as well,” says Kris. “Until they decided that no one could sing Bruce’s songs better than Bruce. I auditioned…along with most of the other singers in town…and almost got the job.”
Left to his own devices, Kris spent the autumn painting houses until he received an urgent phone call from Livingstone’s Journey in October to cover for the absent Jimmy Livingston.
“Jimmy had a little mishap and vanished on us,” remembers Journey guitarist Stan Endersby. “We couldn’t find him and there were dates to honour. At first we approached David Clayton-Thomas, who was later in Blood, Sweat & Tears, but he couldn’t make it. A friend of mine called Neil Glen did a job for us at the Penny Farthing and then we got Bobby Kris.”
By the end of the year, Wayne Davis had hooked up with folk-rock outfit, 3’s a Crowd, featuring Bruce Cockburn’s friends David Wiffen and Richard Patterson.
But that’s not the end of the story. In late May 1968, after Livingstone’s Journey had dissolved, Bobby Kris revived The Imperials with MacBain, Oskiro and Davis.
With Fisher pre-occupied with another project and Martynec working on Kensington Market’s debut album, Kris recruited former Jon and Lee & The Checkmates guitarist Larry Leishman (b. 4 April 1947, Dunfermline, Scotland) who’d recently been working with The Power Project.
“That was a good band,” recalls MacBain. “Larry was a good friend of Bobby’s. Bobby used to live with John Finley of Jon and Lee & The Checkmates and that’s how we became friends with [him].”
The new line up soon returned to the live circuit with a show at the Night Owl from 13-14 June. Other shows followed intermittently throughout the rest of the year, including one at the Hawk’s Nest on 5 October.
During this period, the group opened for a number of local and visiting artists, including B J Thomas, Andy Kim and Bobby Goldsboro. “Kim wanted us to tour with him. Actually, he wanted us to be his band,” maintains MacBain.
On 16 February 1969, Larry Leishman and Jimmy Oskirko participated in a brief side project when drummer/singer Duke Edwards, who’d known Leishman through Jon and Lee and The Checkmates, called on the guitarist to help put together a band to open for Janis Joplin & The Kozmic Blues Band at short notice for a gig at the O’Keefe Centre.
“As far as I know and remember, the opening band for Joplin was ‘slapped’ together I think with only one rehearsal,” says Oskirko.
A few months later, following a show at the Night Owl on 19-21 June 1969, MacBain received a call to fly to England and rejoin Marty Fisher in Pete Quaife’s post-Kinks outfit, Mapleoak.
With Leishman already working in a trio with The Duke Edwards Cycle (the drummer and guitarist subsequently joined Elektra Records’ project, Rhinoceros late summer), The Imperials were a done deal.
Oskirko hooked up with a number of local Toronto bands, including Zig Zag and also reunited with MacBain when he returned from England in a group that had formerly worked as The Christopher Edward Campaign.
As for Bobby Kris, the singer abandoned the music scene to become a school teacher and until recently ran a health food shop in Ontario.
From time to time, however, he has ventured back into music to record songs with friends. In 1998, he recorded a CD Bobby Kris Now, which was produced by Sam Reid of Glass Tiger fame.
The recording featured a stellar cast of musicians, comprising a 10-piece band that included Steve Kennedy and old friends Larry Leishman and Dennis Pendrith.
“Right now I’m woodshedding and enjoying it immensely,” says the singer. “We did a session for fun about a year and a half ago at a lovely little studio called Chalet Set in the countryside just outside Claremont, Ontario. We had a great time and have four songs in the works. One day we will get those ready to share with others.
He’s also discovered some other treasures in the vault but will wait to release them when he gets a website up and running. The band’s front man is also going forward under his real name, Bob Burrows.
“From now on I will be singing under the name ‘Burrows & Company featuring the vocals of Bob Burrows along with the exquisite contributions of his accomplished musical associates and special guest Bobby Kris’,” he says.
“It will be presented with a rather corporate look and feel. I will gather the finest musicians I can get my hands on and we will perform my own tunes plus maybe a couple by Larry Leishman and tunes by others that have not been trodden to death on the beaten path. I intend to showcase the outstanding talents of people I am working with and most importantly of all, have a lot of fun in the process.”
Many thanks to Bobby Kris, Marty Fisher, Gordon MacBain, Dave Konvalinka, Rick Haynes, Gene Martynec, Jimmy Oskirko, Rick Loth, John Crone, Bill Munson, Stan Endersby, Keith McKie, Larry Leishman, Mike Paxman, Jerry Shymanski and Carny Corbett for their input. I would specially like to thank Dave Konvalinka and Gordon MacBain for the use of their photos.
The CD Bobby Kris Now is available at I-Tunes:
Nick Warburton is a UK freelance writer, who has written for Shindig, Record Collector, the Garage Hangover website and Richard Morton Jack’s new book, Endless Trip.
Copyright © Nick Warburton, 2011. All Rights Reserved.