Origin: Toronto, Ontario
The Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967 should have been The Paupers’ launch pad to international fame. Only four months earlier, the Canadian folk-rock band had seemed destined for the top when Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman bought their contract and began hyping them as the next biggest thing since The Beatles.
A month prior to the festival, the group had showcased its talent at a string of well received shows at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, and had spent two solid weeks working up a suitable set list for the forthcoming festival. As Canadian rock journalist, Nicholas Jennings notes in his excellent book, Before The Goldrush, the opportunity to “blow away the competition looked good when the band was scheduled to follow mellow popsters The Association.”
But from the minute The Paupers launched into their set, everything that could go wrong did, and in the subsequent media frenzy, the group’s performance was all but ignored. Within six months, the group once hyped to surpass The Beatles, had lost not only its most inspirational member but was facing mounting debts.
The disappointment of Monterey must have seemed a million miles away from New York’s Café Au Go Go, where, on a freezing cold evening in March 1967, The Paupers proceeded to demolish the headlining act, Jefferson Airplane, then making its East Coast debut. Performing in front of a media and record industry-packed audience that included The Beatles’ Brian Epstein and Albert Grossman, The Paupers couldn’t have picked a better time to make an impression.
The first Canadian rock band to snare a high profile American manager and a lucrative American recording contract, The Paupers never received the adulation and fame that they deserved. Along the way, however, the group recorded two brilliant albums and live was arguably one of the most dynamic and electrifying groups.
Formed by drumming prodigy Ronn (Skip) Prokop and singer/guitarist Bill Marion, two refugees from Hamilton folk-rock group, The Riverside Three, the original Paupers came together in Toronto in early 1965 after the two folkies joined forces with lead guitarist Chuck Beal and bass player Denny Gerrard.
Initially dubbed The Spats, the new name was coined on the way down to a local restaurant. “We had 50 cents among us,” Prokop told The Canadian. “Bill said, ‘Why don’t we call ourselves The Paupers.”
One of the group’s early recordings, Prokop’s “Never Send You Flowers” impressed CHUM disc jockey Duff Roman, who offered to manage the band. With Roman calling the shots, “Never Send You Flowers” was released as a single on the Red Leaf label, and became the top hit on CKEY after incessant plugging by its disc jockey Glen Walters aka Big G Walters.
The sudden exposure led to a stream of bookings, the most notable being a support slot at Maple Leaf Gardens on 25 April 1965, opening for The Rolling Stones. Amazingly, it was only The Paupers’ third public appearance!
The Paupers subsequently recorded a handful of singles for their manager’s own label, Roman Records, but none of the singles charted.
The musicians’ luck changed, however, after landing a gig at the El Patio in Toronto’s hip Yorkville district. While rehearsing for their weeklong engagement, The Paupers ran into Bernie Finkelstein, who was cleaning the premises and offered his services as manager.
Up to this point, the group had been handling most of its affairs; apart from producing the band, Roman had little input other than acting as its publisher. As Prokop recalled to Ritchie Yorke in his book Axes, Chops & Hot Licks, “there had been a lot of hassles and uptightness”, and when Finkelstein arrived “with a lot of flashy ideas”, the group decided to dispense with Roman’s services.
Finkelstein’s fast-talking finesse soon paid dividends when Arc Records offered to record the band that summer. The label, it seems, even got as far as putting a recording to tape – the extremely rare “Heart Walking Blues”.
Interestingly, no one in the band recalls this particular song, even though the Toronto Telegram’sAfter Four section listed it in a July 1966 edition. The most plausible explanation is that only a handful of copies, if that, were ever pressed.
Increasingly unhappy about his role, Marion handed in his notice in early August, citing “hassles regarding his song-writing”, although Prokop adds that Marion also had a real desire to sing R&B, and was unable to find an outlet for this in The Paupers.
In subsequent years, Marion recorded solo material under his real name Bill Misener and also did production work. While his departure scuttled the Arc deal, Finkelstein simply walked across the road to the Mousehole folk club and asked Scots-born singer/songwriter and guitarist Adam Mitchell to take his place. Mitchell would prove to be the catalyst in raising The Paupers’ profile, forging a prolific song-writing partnership with Prokop, and was blessed with a distinctive voice.
Mitchell had caught the band while playing with The CommonFolk that spring and was impressed. “I couldn’t believe it. I thought they were really out of sight,” he told The Canadian. The afternoon Marion walked out, Mitchell was with the band the same day, rehearsing at the Hawk’s Nest.
With Prokop adopting a taskmaster role and Finkelstein charging band members for infractions, the new line practised for no less than 14 hours a day! The strict regime bore fruit as The Paupers quickly developed a tight stage act. “When we came out,” says Prokop, “the group was completely changed. We had a lot of funky, good-time material.”
Debuting at the Broom and Stone, the new line up was an instant success, and The Paupers soon became one of the biggest draws in Toronto’s Yorkville village, performing regularly at the Night Owl, the Hawk’s Nest and Boris’ Red Gas Room. By this stage, the band had developed a captivating stage show, which according to Nicholas Jennings, was “built around earth-shaking drums, a wailing guitar and Denny Gerrard’s mind-boggling bass.”
Gerrard was indeed fast becoming a local legend. Donning his trade-mark Sluggo cap, the inspirational musician would later be voted best bass player two years in a row by US critic Ralph Gleason in Playboy magazine’s annual jazz poll. Beal’s guitar playing was also enthralling, as Nicholas Jennings notes, “it was like an early version of U2’s Edge, full of repeating, tape-looped notes and weird effects.” Overnight, The Paupers had become big fish in a small pond. The more lucrative American market beckoned.
Advised by Harvey Glatt, owner and promoter of Ottawa’s Le Hibou coffeehouse, to approach MGM Records in New York and armed with a four-song demo, Finkelstein flew to the Big Apple in early 1967 and to his surprise, the label signed the band to its subsidiary, Verve Forecast; a first for a Canadian band.
Buoyed by the response, Finkelstein headed over to Greenwich Village and looked up Howard Soloman, the owner of the Café Au Go Go, who offered the band a gig opening for Jefferson Airplane in early March. Finkelstein accepted the booking and headed back to Toronto where The Paupers were riding high with “If I Call You By Some Name”, the group’s debut single with Mitchell. Peaking at #6 on Toronto’s CHUM chart on 16 January, the single eventually sold around 35,000 copies.
Fast forward to March and the stage was set for the group’s US debut at the Café Au Go Go. As those witnessing concur, from the opening bars of “Think I Care”, The Paupers were in their element. By the time they were done, the place was theirs, and critics were not slow in showering the band with praise. Writing in the Village Voice, Richard Goldstein exclaimed: “They have a power and a discipline I’ve never seen before in a performance.”
Post-show, Albert Grossman came back stage and persuaded Finkelstein to sell his interests in The Paupers. “We saw this cat with long, white hair down to his shoulders and Ben Franklin glasses and we didn’t know who he was,” recalls Prokop. “About four days later, he approached Bernie and we had a meeting and signed contracts.”
Grossman renegotiated the deal with MGM and in April The Paupers returned to New York to cut their debut album with producer Rick Shorter. Straddling period psychedelia, acid folk-rock and breezy pop, Magic People brims full of sunny melodies and kaleidoscopic rhythms. Kicking off with the infectious drum-driven title track, the album’s high points include the Byrdsian folk-rocker “You and Me”, the haunting “Tudor Impressions” with its sparkling acoustic guitars and dense harmonies and the angst-ridden “Think I Care”, generally considered to be The Paupers’ definitive song.
With the album in the can, The Paupers flew to San Francisco in early May to play three sets of shows at the Fillmore Auditorium, opening twice for local acidheads, The Grateful Dead and concluding with a support slot for soul sisters, Martha & The Vandellas.
The positive reception to the band’s live shows on the West Coast bode well for the up and coming Monterey festival and anticipation was running high. “While in California we learned ahead of time that we were to play a fairly short set at the festival,” remembers Beal. “So, we decided to put together a non-stop medley of several cuts from our first album, ending with Denny’s bass solo. We got it together and at the sound check everything went well. Actually, several of the promoters and musicians took the time to complement us on our arrangement and performance.”
Introduced by Byrds guitarist David Crosby, who hyped the band to the 30,000-strong crowd, The Paupers took to the stage on the evening of 16 June, and immediately ran into problems. According to some sources, Gerrard had dropped some acid before the show, which may account for why his bass playing seemed out of sync with the rest of the group. Technical problems also afflicted the group as Beal’s amp crackled on and off. Ralph Gleason, who had championed Gerrard in Playboy earlier in the year, later said that the band was one of the festival’s real disappointments.
“The tightness of the band was not only one of our strong points, but turned out to be our undoing at Monterey,” explains Beal. “That night when things went wrong, rather than stop playing, regroup and chat with the audience till things got fixed, we just damned the torpedoes and kept going full speed ahead. As a result, we wound up sinking our own ship. That performance at Monterey, although we didn’t realise it at the time, was the beginning of the end.”
Following the Monterey debacle, MGM sent The Paupers on a $40,000 promotional tour covering 40 cities, and taking in venues like the Grande Ballroom in Detroit, the Boston Tea Party and the Café Au Go Go in New York.
Prokop remembers one particularly memorable incident in Las Vegas. “Denny Gerrard made $3,500 on the poker machines, but the next day he lost it all, and his shirt as well. Really, he arrived back at the hotel one morning with no shirt on.”
Grossman meanwhile was beginning to lose patience – the musicians were spending a huge amount of money on the road but had no hit records to justify the expenditure. The manager seriously considered dropping The Paupers at one stage, but was persuaded to give the band a second chance. Faced with mounting debts, the musicians went on a money-saving spree, travelling to gigs in Prokop’s station wagon.
But if the group’s declining fortunes weren’t enough to worry about, Gerrard’s behaviour was becoming increasingly more erratic as his consumption of psychedelic drugs reached crisis point.
Adam Mitchell remembers one particular incident, which took place following the group’s performance at the Trauma club in Philadelphia. “Denny never made the plane,” he says. “Several days later I got a call at my place on Hazelton Avenue in Yorkville. ‘Adam, it’s Denny…where am I?’ After having him look out the window and read a few licence plates, we determined he was probably still in Philadelphia. How or when he eventually made it back to Toronto, I don’t remember.”
By early 1968, the group had lost patience and reluctantly asked their inspirational bass player to leave. However, as Beal admitted to Nicholas Jennings, the group was a lesser force without Gerrard. “Denny did for the bass what Hendrix was doing for the guitar. Nobody had seen anything like this.” Mitchell agrees: “He was absolutely brilliant as a player. His bass solo, I believe was the most electrifying thing in music I’ve ever seen.”
If Gerrard’s departure wasn’t enough to worry about, Magic People barely scrapped the US Billboard top 200, stalling at #178 in November 1967. The writing was on the wall but The Paupers’ were far from done. In mid-1968, a reconstituted band would return to the studio to record an even stronger offering, the mighty Ellis Island.
The Paupers – Ellis Island
By early 1968, The Paupers were heading towards meltdown. The group had lost its inspirational bass player Denny Gerrard, its debut album had been a commercial failure and debts were mounting. Against all odds, the group rallied and recorded its second album, Ellis Island, arguably one of the best records to emerge from the Canadian rock scene during the ‘60s.
The first step towards re-establishing The Paupers as a major act was finding a new bass player; no easy feat considering Gerrard’s near legendary status. An impossible task, many would agree, but the remaining musicians came up with an excellent substitute in Brad Campbell from The Last Words.
Campbell’s group were no strangers to the Toronto scene. Having released three singles between late 1965 and early 1967, only one, “I Symbolise You” issued on Columbia, had troubled the RPM charts, reaching #28, and no doubt Campbell was delighted to be offered the job.
The new line up hit the road in a bid to revive The Paupers’ flagging fortunes, and a notable highlight during this “difficult” period was a memorable set at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto on 24 February, supporting The Jimi Hendrix Experience and The Soft Machine.
Taking time off the road, The Paupers stopped in Nashville to record three tracks – “All About Me”, “Words I Say” and “See Yourself” but according to Beal the sessions did not go well and the recordings were shelved. Despite the failure to complete any tracks towards a new album, Beal says the Nashville trip was far from being uneventful.
“For me the highlights included meeting Tex Ritter, listening to Flatt and Scruggs record, watching one of the Jordinaires get so wrapped up in a game of ping pong, he forgot that he left his car with the engine running and it ran out of gas, and above all having Floyd Cramer play on our session. It was nuts, we just called his answering service and within 15 minutes, he was there.”
In early May, The Paupers travelled to New York where their new producer Elliot Mazer hooked them up with keyboard player Al Kooper, who had recently been ousted from his group, Blood, Sweat & Tears. Turning his creative energies to The Paupers, Kooper’s contributions complement the group’s performances brilliantly and the resulting album, Ellis Island, recorded at Columbia Studios over several months, remains a hidden gem of late ’60s rock.
Lacking the consistency of the group’s debut outing, the record’s strength lies in its individual tracks. These range from extended hard-rock workouts like “Southdown Road” and “Numbers”(featuring Brad Campbell on lead vocal), to more reflective pieces such as Prokop’s “Oh That She Might”, with a rare vocal outing from the drummer. Adam Mitchell emerges as the dominant writing force and his “Cairo Hotel”, apparently written about a hotel in Washington DC where most of the tenants were down and outs, is particularly poignant.
Another noticeable difference on the album, compared to his predecessor, is the group’s experimentation with exotic sounds – one particular track, “Ask Her Again”, features Prokop on the koto, a Japanese stringed instrument (and a present given to the drummer by Peter, Paul & Mary after a Japanese tour).
Complete with a flick book gimmick, Ellis Island garnered favourable reviews. Chris Keen, writing in the Toronto Telegram’s After Four section on 19 October, raved about the album, arguing that it was a huge improvement on The Paupers’ debut outing. “Whereas Magic People was a shallow album containing numbers from their stage show, all of which were musically similar, Ellis Island is a experience,” he noted. “It is a deep album – there is so much happening in each song that even after hearing it many times you will probably still be making new discoveries.”
With the album in the can, the band realised that it needed to reproduce Kooper’s keyboard parts in a live format, and duly recruited former Fraser Loveman Group member John Ord during late July. As Ord recalls, “I had a little trio called The Nuclear Tricycle that was playing in a bar on Yonge Street. It was a summer job for me and I was at university. Skip heard about me and came in to see me. I went out to Brad Campbell’s house in Oakville to meet the band and they played me the album. I was able to play off the keyboard parts pretty fast and they thought it would be a good fit.”
The quintet quickly reconvened to Ord’s parents’ farm in Fenwick in the Niagara peninsula. Rehearsing intensively for a week in a nearby farmhouse, the new Paupers line-up soon launched in to a small tour. The band’s debut show at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit on 2-4 August proved memorable, not least because the club still had bullet holes in it from the race riots earlier in the year.
During this period, some of the band members flew to New York between dates to do studio work. For newcomer Ord, the musicians’ extracurricular activities contributed to the group’s collapse the following month. “I found out that the band was in a state of conflict and frustration, perhaps partially because some musicians were recording and the others were stuck on the road. In the end, the band broke up and everyone went home to Toronto.”
Things had come to ahead when Prokop announced his decision to leave the band after The Paupers’ engagement at the Electric Circus in New York, which ran from 29 August to 1 September. Although he would subsequently form his own outfit, the big band Lighthouse, Prokop nearly joined Janis Joplin’s new group, soon to become better known as The Kozmic Blues Band, but declined her offer.
Brad Campbell meanwhile landed on his feet. After briefly gigging with the Pozo Seco Singers, he did accept an offer to play with Joplin. The bass player would remain with the troubled singer until her untimely death, appearing in both The Kozmic Blues Band, and its successor, the Canadian-dominated Full Tilt Boogie Band.
With Prokop and Campbell out of the picture but with debts of $40,000, the remaining members decided to carry on. “I recall advocating that we reform The Paupers in Toronto as the band was well known and we could probably do well with a change of members,” says Ord.
The Paupers recruited local drummer Roz Parks from The Creeps and Magic Circus fame and perhaps more importantly, in terms of credibility, brought original bass player Denny Gerrard back in to the fold. Though Gerrard had spent most of 1968 recovering from his drug exploits, he had recently returned to studio and live work with Toronto’s highly rated blues combo, McKenna Mendelson and was in fighting form.
After intensive rehearsals, The Paupers returned to the local club scene, debuting at the Night Owl on 26-27 October. Journalist Ritchie Yorke writing that November in the local RPM magazine, reviewed the show and captured perfectly the new line-up’s potential. “They emerged as a tight, cohesive musical unit, devoid of pseudo-hippiness and brimming over with confidence.”
True the group may have found a new confidence, but this was soon shattered by Gerrard’s erratic behaviour. As Ord recalls, “we did well for a while getting quite a bit of work and playing a lot. Then Denny started to lose it again…missing rehearsals and eventually not showing up for an important concert. In the end we had to fire him and found a new bass player.”
Gerrard’s departure prompted Adam Mitchell to exit the group in April 1969, and while the remaining members carried on for four months with guitarist James Houston from The Magic Circus and bass player Mel O’Brien, it was the same band in name only.
“We did a bunch of local dates with Mel but it was clear that the band was going nowhere real fast,” says Beal. “We knew we needed a record deal and booked some time into the RCA studios in Toronto to do some demos of Jaime’s tunes. Mel didn’t show up for the session and that was it for him. After that none of us had the energy or the desire to start over again so, we packed it in. A sorry end to what was once a pretty good band.”
While The Paupers’ potential was never fully realised, the degree of talent within the band can be gleaned from its best work, and the subsequent achievements of its leading members.
Following a successful career with Lighthouse, Prokop leant his talents to a diverse range of projects, including working with street kids, running an advertising agency and doing jingles. In 1979, he issued a solo album, All Growed Up, and in recent years has played in a reformed Lighthouse. He is currently writing his autobiography.
Adam Mitchell worked as a producer and a musical director before emerging as a successful songwriter; his compositions covered by John Waite, Olivia Newton-John, Art Garfunkel and Kiss to name a few. He also found time to record a rare solo album, Red Head In Trouble,, in 1979 and continues to produce, write and perform in the US and Canada.
Denny Gerrard made sporadic appearances on record throughout the ’70s, most notably on Jericho’s superb eponymous album for Bearsville Records in 1971, and in his work with Rick James’s pre-Motown bands, Heaven and Earth and Great White Cane. Still revered by his contemporaries, Gerrard remains a local legend. In 1997, after years of inactivity, he made a rare appearance on record, playing with Mike McKenna’s blues band Slidewinder.
Chuck Beal briefly worked as a music producer, promoter and manager for Canadian bands, including Jericho. Later, he worked at the Canadian National Institute For The Blind, producing the talking books series and also did some writing and research for CBC radio in Toronto.
Looking back, Mitchell is philosophical about the band’s premature demise. “As incredible as the band truly was, we were victims of just plain bad luck,” he says. “Bad luck, not only that Denny did too many drugs at Monterey and Chuck had a bad guitar chord. But perhaps more importantly, bad luck that we had the wrong record producer, the wrong studio and the wrong label. We were young, the business was new and we didn’t know any better.”
Nick Warburton would like to thank Skip Prokop, Adam Mitchell, Chuck Beal, Jonn Ord, Denny Gerrard, Carny Corbett, Bill Munson, Nicholas Jennings, Martin Melhuish and Ritchie Yorke.
Nick Warburton is a UK-based freelance writer, who writes for Shindig, Ugly Things and Misty Lane music fanzines.