SALT & SUN: THE STORY OF SEA DOG
Sudbury, Ontario at its heart is a mining town. It was a small, working man's refuge, whose populace enjoyed hunting, fishing and a number of other outdoor actives. For the youth growing up in 1960's era Sudbury however, the frustration of being in a remote community shaped their interests. The city experienced a musical boom in the 1960's and 1970’s that would go on to affect generations of future Sudbury citizens; seeing many more bands form in its wake. It was an environment that lent itself heavily to artistic expression.
In the early to mid-1960's, many kids in this boring little industry town were obsessed with the "British Invasion" musical movement; then taking over the world. So blown away by groups like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and The Dave Clark Five, these kids were, that many would go on to pick up instruments and form bands of their own. Inferno 5+1, East African Fair, Taxi/Tote Family, Marketville Riot, Aaron Space, and Nickel; just to name a few! Sea Dog was among the groups to rise from the ashes of these initial groups.
Sea Dog was formed in 1971; consisting of ex-members of the Tote Family group. Founding member Jim Norris formed "Taxi." By 1968, the group had become staples on the local scene in Sudbury. Constant sold-out shows, exposure, and good reviews from local publications convinced them to move to Toronto briefly to try their luck. They'd rebrand as Tote Family and release their first single "Allright Mama/Leave Me Be" in October 1969. Unfortunately, the single failed to chart, but their live reception in Toronto convinced them to stick it out for a while longer.
1970 saw them catch the attention of Yorkville Records manager and sometimes producer Bill Gilliland, who signed them to a deal with Yorkville. Their second single "The Right Girl/Miles And Miles" was released in April of that year. Unfortunately it also failed to chart which caused existing tensions in the group to grow out of control.
The band went through a number of line-up changes that year, with the only original member being Jim Norris. The group had stagnated but was still a great live draw, leading them to try going in a different musical direction. They'd leave their Psych-tinged roots behind for a more boogie rock/blues rock style which caught in with listeners and change their name to Sea Dog. Around this time they'd hire manager Terry Filion, who helped them secure a live audition with the brass at local label “MUCH Records” (CHUM radio's foray into other media) in 1971.
At this point, the lineup was Mark Corbin on bass, Jim Norris on drums, Michael Argue on guitar, and Doug Varty on piano and organ; Argue, Varty and Corbin shared lead vocal duties, while Argue and Varty did the writing. Before they could get into the studio to record however, Michael Argue left the group and was replaced by Paul Weston; guitarist, lead vocals and songwriter. Further line-up changes were undergone with Mark Corbin leaving shortly afterwards; being replaced by Brian Kirkwood (Magic Bubble). Finally, John Redmond was added on electric piano, giving the band a dual keyboard sound. He also sang lead vocals and wrote songs.
With the line-up in place, the band went into the studio in May 1971 to record a pair of singles. First out of the gate was the non-LP single "Show Me The River/Don't Forget It." (Argue compositions)(The band at that time was Argue, Varty, Corbin and Norris) The single had minor chart success in Toronto upon its release in September. This was quickly followed up by "It's A Hot Night (Varty)/Duster" (Argue) in December, which would chart across Canada, having sustained success and allowing them to tour throughout the following year.
MUCH, seeing the success of Sea Dog locally and nationally, decided that an album would be a good idea; they even managed to secure U.S. and European distribution through Buddah Records. January/February of 1972 saw them return to the studio to record. 10 songs were recorded (with Sea Dog and Terry Filion producing), 2 singles were picked, the album was prepared, and the band got ready.
As the spring began, the band was poised and ready to take over the industry. Their first single from the album "I Don't Wanna Hear (Redmond)/Ain't No Use (Weston)" was promoted and released in May. The single charted and had everyone in their circle excited for the album to come out that summer. As they played around supporting the single, MUCH was hard at work, doing promo for the album; which was slated to come out in July.
Upon the album's release, it failed to perform as well as many had hoped. It didn't chart in many markets, and the one's it did chart in were high at best. Undeterred, the band got back out to perform. Soon they'd receive offers to open for the likes of April Wine, Crowbar, Lighthouse, A Foot In Coldwater and Fludd; eventually opening for Brutus and Rush. They were also a hot commodity when American groups came to Canada; opening for Bob Seger, Ike and Tina Turner, Sly and the Family Stone, and Danny & The Juniors.
The rest of 1972 and 1973, unfortunately, were mostly fraught with problems for the band. The line-up changes were constant, the chart successes stopped coming and they lost their manager. MUCH would have them record and release a pair of singles before dropping them entirely. “How It Grows (B.Wright)/Round And Round (Weston)” was released in October 1972. The single was produced by April Wine producer Ralph Murphy.
In an attempt to recapture the band’s former glory, PLUM Records signed them to a brief deal and flew them down to New York to rerecord their top-40 hit “It’s A Hot Night ” (with the original “Ain’t No Use” as the B-Side) in early 1973. They had further plans for the band to record but the label was having financial issues; unbeknownst to the band.
There was a lot riding on the success of their final single. MUCH Records’ lack of faith in the band had made itself apparent; with a full 9 months between this and their last MUCH release and minimal promotion, if any.
While the touring continued and they were well received, the lack of chart success couldn’t be ignored. “Holding Your Hands (Varty)/Round And Round (Weston)” failed to chart in the summer of 1973, culminating in MUCH dropped the band.
Things unfortunately never truly recovered from this point for the band. The line-up changes continued, the recordings stopped, and live dates eventually began to dwindle. By the time 1975 rolled around, the band was no more.
After the band's demise, everyone either went on to other projects, or got out of the business altogether. The only member from start to finish, Varty rereleased "Holding Your Hand" and "How It Grows," then formed the band Lowdown in the early '80s; they’d last 13 years. He and Weston both became sought-after session players. Norris went on to work for Canadian Musician Magazine, and Redmond got an office job with Polygram.
The legacy of Sea Dog and its various previous projects represent some of the earliest success stories of Sudbury’s rock scene. These early bands and the successes they had helped inspire further generations of musicians to pick up an instrument and to tell their story.
Sudbury in the intervening decades has made numerous contributions to the Canadian musical landscape. Hardcore/punk bands like Strange Attractor, Mick Futures, Statues, Vicious Cycle, Ultra Violence Ray; indie and folk acts like Lightmares, Meadowlark Five, Pistol George Warren, Ox, and many more. These groups owe something to their pioneers of yesteryear. Among them, Sea Dog stands above the rest.
WRITTEN & RESEARCHED BY: AARON LUSCH