A Brief History of Bernie LaBarge
The Canadian music scene of the latter half of the 20th century is fascinating; an industry partially lost to time, at least when compared to our contemporaries south of the border or across the pond. It was filled with thousands of artists who released thousands of singles and albums, in a number of genres, over the decades in question. Surprisingly, this period spawned few lasting mainstream artists, when again, comparing to our contemporaries, we were dwarfed by sheer size, organization and influence. Our own radio listeners and record buyers often opted for records by US and UK artists; this is clearly reflected on our music charts of the time).
Like our rivals abroad, we had a number of “fixers” in the music industry. Known as session musicians, they were often hired for their technical skill, accuracy, knowledge of music theory, and sight-reading abilities. Efficiency was sought and these musicians always delivered, both in the studio and live. Many of these musicians have recorded for decades, adding their personal flavour to hundreds, if not thousands of records. Bernie LaBarge is no exception.
Bernie was born in Ottawa, Ontario on March 11, 1953. His family moved to Burlington when he was 5 years old and as he grew up, he was quickly thrust into a vast musical world at home (show tunes to Motown and everything in between). He began playing guitar at age 11, and his parents tried to set him up with lessons but these weren’t for him. He, like many young would-be musicians, became obsessed with the sounds of the British Invasion (then currently exploding all over the world), and through sheer passion and tenacity learned to play guitar by ear.
The next phase in Bernie’s musical maturing came when local musicians began to capture his imagination (namely Domenic Troiano’s work with The Mandala). The burgeoning scene in Toronto was like a magnet to the young musician, and he quickly set his sights on the bright lights of the city. He began playing professionally in 1967 as a guitarist and frontman, joining his first basement band, The Underground Taxi Service. He joined two more bands (The Royal Banke in 1968 and Stem in 1969) before moving onto his first notable group, Rain. Taxi Service
Bernie was not a founding member of Rain, but rather replaced guitarist Bill McLaughlin. After securing a solid lineup (with Bernie as vocalist/guitarist), the group began recording some new material and hitting the club scene around Toronto to build a reputation. This material they were recording is notable for featuring Bernie’s first original composition “Catwalk” (Axe Records). Released shortly after, the single didn’t fare too well on the charts, and the band ended up splitting by that fall.
Throughout the mid 70’s to early 80’s, Bernie would form or join a number of notable Canadian groups, where he was frontman, guitarist, or both. These groups included George Olliver’s Blue Eyed Brotherhood in ‘74, Stingaree in 76-77, Bond in 78-79, Sweet Blindness in ‘79, Zwol in 1980 and Kearney-King-McBride & LaBarge in 1981 (ultimately recording). Though they played different styles/genres, one thing these groups had in common was masterful musicianship amongst the members, buoyed by Bernie, who shone brightly no matter his musical company.
In 1981, after the conclusion of “Kearney-King-McBride & LaBarge”, Bernie grew restless and, mostly spurred on by his admiration of the decision made by Steely Dan to stop touring and focus on the studio, he attempted that. He mostly focused on his own solo career while still doing record sessions and jingles. He would release his first solo single Dream Away (WEA) (produced by Daniel Lanois) in late 1981 to good success; it still receives airplay today. Bernie continued to write for himself and others, finally landing a contract with Sony Records to record Barging In, his debut LP. That album earned him the Canadian Juno Award nomination in 1984 for Most Promising Male Vocalist, a feat that shocked LaBarge, who himself had no concept of even being nominated.
The career highlights didn’t stop here; he had begun working with the Irish Rovers a year prior in 1983 and would record and tour with them until 1990. He formed his own Mind Over Matter band in 1987. He has toured and recorded with big names such as David Clayton-Thomas, Rhinoceros, Cassandra Vasik, The Dexters, and many more over the following decades. He has been blessed with a talent that many cherish and has enjoyed notoriety as one of Canada’s most revered and sought-after session guitarists/vocalists for most of his career. The world is lucky to have him and awaits his next musical adventure.
Written & Researched By: Aaron Lusch
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