"One of the most energetic recording sessions ever undertaken..."-Ritchie Yorke, Billboard Magazine
Bessie Grace Gupton was born in Alabama and grew up in Detroit singing gospel music with the Emma Washington Gospel Singers starting at age nine. Her first recording was “Deed I Do” in 1963 as Bessie Watson, backed by the Cannonball Adderly Quintet. She also recorded a number of singles under the name Tobi Lark.
In the mid-60s she moved to Montreal Canada and played at Expo ‘67, then moved to Toronto and worked with Ronnie Hawkins. In 1970, she recorded “We’re All In This Together“ live at St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church with a gospel choir of about 80 singers and local musicians (including lead guitar by Kim Mitchell). The song made it to 38 on the RPM charts in 1970 - it’s a stunning performance.
In 1968 she recorded ‘Time Will Pass You By‘ in Detroit which was released under the name Tobi Legend - it didn’t do much until it got picked up by the Northern Soul scene in the UK (in particular as one of the “3 Before 8” closing songs after all-nighters at the Wigan Casino club). As a result, it features on a number of Northern Soul compilations.
-Brian Parkinson, 2019
They jammed every nook and cranny of St. Paul's Church in Toronto that night in the summer of 1970. The motley group of 500 singers - "long hairs, short hairs, no hairs, suits, saris, shorts and jeans", RPM reported - had come to record Mike McQueen's uplifting 'We're All in This Together'.
McQueen had already released the song earlier that year with his band Cat, but it had met with little success. Enter Terry Vollum and John De Nottbeck, who were billing themselves as Toronto Together and were looking for a way to cash in on the post-Woodstock vibe. And what better way than by cramming as many people as possible, along with some local musical royalty, to make a record with a universal peace-and-love message. Heading things up would be Tobi Lark, an American transplant who was currently singing one of the leads in the local production of Hair, and Dave Cairns of the fledgling group Leigh Ashford.
Vollum and De Nottbeck wanted this to be "one of the biggest music freakouts of the century" (RPM), and so they sought the added help of producer Jack Richardson and arranger/composer Ben McPeek. Invitations were sent out to a who's who of the Toronto entertainment industry - "musicians, singers, producers, radio and television personalities, newspaper critics, their editors and trade writers" - and those who showed up were supplied with candles as they entered. A CBC television crew was on hand to film the occasion for an upcoming TV special.
Of course, Lark was the star of the show. Her resume stretched across much of the sixties with backing slots for the likes of the Impressions, the Four Tops, Ben E. King and Wilson Pickett, among others. She was also a soul singer of considerable talent, having made a number of records, including her 1968 disc (as Tobi Legend), 'Time Will Pass You By'. One person who was there that night recalled (in a YouTube post), "I was in the choir. We were sitting in the pews, candles lit, and I was just this crazy teenager in Grade 9. Tobi Lark was the coolest person I'd ever seen, so beautiful, and what a voice!"
'We're All in This Together' was issued in the early fall of 1970. Compared to Cat's lean rock 'n' roll version, it was a bit of a muddled mess, with Lark's impassioned vocal performance almost lost amongst the multitude of background voices and instruments. Still, it didn't stop the public from buying it, and the record made its way up to #38 on RPM's Hot100 chart.
The press was equally supportive. The Globe and Mail described the session as "belting out love music", while the Telegram called it "a ceremonious atmosphere". The Mississauga Times was even more effusive, with its reporter Peter Donato, perhaps having puffed a bit of the herb, writing that it "added credence to the belief that people of all colours and of all ages can get together for the common purpose of spreading a message through the medium of music."
'We're All in This Together' has been lost to the sands of time, and until recently was not even available on YouTube. Lark would record a pair of country soul singles on Arpeggio in the early seventies before pretty much dropping out of the music business altogether.
But the soul anoraks in Britain would not leave her alone. 'Time Will Pass You By', which Lark had recorded as a demo and which was initially released without her knowledge, took on an almost mythical status. It was played every night at the Wigan Casino as part of the 'Three Before Eight', the final three records traditionally played before closing, and is today considered one of the greatest northern soul records ever.
Lark, who experienced a string of personal tragedies and had stopped singing for a spell, was grateful for the belated attention. "It was like musically I quit," she told Toronto Blues Society in 1995. "I wouldn't work much. But when I would sing and I would notice that people would respond to me. It strengthened me...I know that God brought me through in flying colours."
Tobi Lark: lead vocals
Kim Mitchell: lead guitar
George Semkiw: rhythm guitar
Gord Waszek: 12-string guitar
Jim Morgan: bass
Dave Cairns: drums (on 'Freedom Train')
John deNottbeck: drums (on 'We're All in this Together')
Ben McPeek: piano
Ray Reeves: organ
Craig Richardson: tambourine
'Freedom Train' written by Tobi Lark and John deNottbeck
'We're All in this Together' written by Mike Mcqueen (Cat, Spasstiks)
Arranged by Ben McPeek, John deNottbeck and The Band
Produced by John deNottbeck and Terry Vollum (The Music Company)
Engineered by Dave Greene (A&R Studios)
Recorded live at St. Paul's Roman Catholic Church, Toronto, Ontario
Executive producer: Jack Richardson
Cover photo by Richard Pierre
Sound files and scans courtesy of Canadian Cult Classics (https://youtube.com/@Canadian_Cult_Classics)