The Early Beginnings of Henry Young’s Music Career (Part Two)13 min read

10 June, 2017 0 comment

Henry Young in his 30’s

Part One can be found, here.

Henry Young started doing odd jobs and delivering newspapers as a young boy. He managed to save enough money to buy his first motorcycle at the age of fifteen, and that motorcycle gave him the freedom and power to jump on and go anywhere he wanted to go. When he turned sixteen, Henry got a job at the BA (British American) Gas Station on Pender Street and Gore Avenue.  He started as a motorbike mechanic and gas jockey and learned how to do oil changes. He continued with a two-year apprenticeship on how to repair cars, at that same gas station which was next to a stately grey-stone building that housed the Presbyterian Church run by Pastor Yan.

One day a musician named Tommy Chong drove into the station.

“Are you the mechanic?” he inquired.

Henry replied, “No, but can I help you?”

“Well,” said Tommy, “my car keeps breaking down but you can put thirty- five cents of gas in please!”

“If you leave your car for a few days l will check it out” Henry replied.

Tommy Chong, who had just arrived from Alberta decided to take Henry up on his offer, but was concerned that the police would hassle him about having Alberta plates. Henry assured him it would be safe on the garage property.  But Henry loved music and had aspirations of playing a guitar, so he decided to propose a deal to Tommy.

“Tommy, if I repair your car, would you be interested in an exchange for guitar lessons?”

This barter brought the two together and in a very short time they forged a friendship that still stands today.  The income Henry earned was just pennies compared to today, but then so was the cost of a gallon of gas. Henry’s first savings went into buying a motorcycle but the fad of looking cool and driving fast didn’t last. He soon realized that the “biker image” didn’t suit his personality, so a few months later Henry sold his bike for $150, which enabled him to purchase his first guitar, a Japanese “Guyatone” for $35 from the B.C. Music store located at Commercial Drive and 5th Avenue.

“The guitar was a prototype,” Henry explained. “I couldn’t tune it or play it. Once a week I would walk up to the store and have them tune it for me.” When Henry took the guitar home, he didn’t have an amplifier, so when he found an old Marconi radio in the basement he took it apart and tried to make an amplifier out of it. Unfortunately, all he got was an electric shock!

 “I guess it was like being tasered. Once I began to get steady work, I bought my second guitar from BC Collateral. It was a black Gibson, a Les Paul Special. I bought it for $120 and made monthly payments of ten dollars for a year. It had a cracked headstock, but I didn’t know what that was and besides, it sounded way better than my Guyatone.”

His first gig was a teen dance when he was hired by Miss Linda Wong, a former Chinese Drill Team member of the Vancouver Chinese Community. The venue was a building on 37th and Fraser Street across from the oldest cemetery in Vancouver called Mountain View. The band consisted of four musicians and a vocalist. Their paycheque was twenty-five dollars divided by five.

Henry then began filling requests from his teenage friends to play more “teen dances” (dry dances). The first band members were Sid Marchand, Steve Poppil, Victor Lowe, and Henry. Huey Miekle was the original singer (“Little Huey & The Mischiefs”) and then later on Sy Risby joined the group (“Grumpy & The Mischiefs”). It didn’t take long for them to move from teen dances to small venues such as the Commercial YMCA, Capital Hill, Clinton Hall, etc.  They were the first interracial band from Vancouver.

Henry recalls, “I lived with the Lee Family until I was about 17 and then became a boarder for many years with Tommy Chong (“Cheech and Chong).”  Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong, known as “Cheech and Chong” were a comedy duo extraordinaire with their own particular brand of “stoner humour.” They also played musical instruments. Cheech was from Los Angeles; he came to Canada to avoid being drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. Chong was very influential in Vancouver’s r&b and blues music scene, having spent years playing Chuck Berry-style guitar. Cheech and Chong joined forces in 1967 and were very active on the Vancouver scene in the 1970’s.

Smiling Buddha Cabaret

The 60’s & 70’s were packed with popular hits that played daily on the radio. Playing LP’s at home helped to drive the popularity of teens filling the local dance venues; swinging to R&B, R&R, jiving, just vibrating the dance floors. Disc Jockeys like Red Robinson, Dick Clark and the late Fred Latremouille kept the sounds zinging over the tubes.

Jim Wisbey managed the Torch Cabaret on Howe Street across from the Ramada Inn.  Vancouver was flush with openings of new nightspots all over town. The majority of their gigs during this time were secured by word of mouth, not by booking agents.  Wisbey managed many clubs and took a liking to Henry’s group, giving them a one-year contract at the “Torch Cabaret” in 1963. Henry’s group was now playing R&B, and backing up shows for strippers, singers, vaudeville acts and comedians.

After the contract ended, Wisbey renewed it for a further year. Henry’s group and his reputation were now in demand. This circuit now included places like the New Delhi Cabaret, Harlem Nocturne and T’s Cabaret. These clubs were all in the east end of town in close proximity to Vancouver’s Chinatown.

It wasn’t long before Henry was renewing connections with his first teacher Tommy Chong who owned the Elegant Parlour located in the basement of 1022 Davie Street. It was at this after-hours club that he learned to play “funky music.” He did not play jazz at this time in his career. Henry was always open to new ideas pertaining to music and every turn became a learning ground. He taught himself how to read music and with a good memory and fast ear he easily achieved diversity in all genres of music. As time went on he learned how to read and write charts.

A Visit to Saskatchewan

Every type of music and song was zinging  over the tubes. Dick Clark’s “Saturday Band Stand” with teenagers dancing live on stage the late Fred Latroumouille, and Red Robinson DJ’s all contributed to the lively dance scene.  Men were well dressed in suits and jackets accessorized with buttoned-down or rolled shirt collars complete with narrow ties.

Henry discovered later in life that his father had left a wife and daughter in Shanghai, China before he immigrated to Canada. It was customary for people in China and other countries to have more than one wife, but his father had kept this secret from him for many years. It was Kareen, his “considered” half-sister who had informed Henry that his mother was still alive and living in Weyburn.

In 1967 Henry was in Regina, Saskatchewan backing the Wayne & Shuster Show. He was 25.  This was a perfect opportunity to look up the family he never knew. Researching through the local telephone directory he actually found his mother, who was still living with relatives on a farm in Weyburn, Saskatchewan where Henry was born.

Seeing his mother for the first time since he was a toddler must have been difficult. He really didn’t know what to expect. Obviously, like strangers passing one another in the night, this face-to-face meeting didn’t renew the lost relationship between mother and son. Their ability to communicate was limited as she still spoke very little English. Sadly, a cohesive conversation during that visit never occurred. Henry left town the following morning.

Racism

During his much younger years he remembers situations that occurred due to racism. He wasn’t directly involved but remembers the local police hassling some of his older Chinese friends.

“I was just a small shrimp,” Henry explains, but I can still remember the officers and their names, when they said, “let’s go bust some chinks today, we need some exercise.”

The police drove his friends off to a dark location in Stanley Park where they were beaten with billy clubs. There were many instances when these poor victims were left to find their way home in the dark.  In his days there weren’t any gang wars per se compared to today, just kid stuff on the school grounds and neighbourhood; all talk, no action. He had heard about Asian gangs in Chinatown, but never had any experience with these so-called gangs. Working in the clubs there were rounder’s, drifters, and wannabes, but they never bothered anyone unless you bothered them.

Henry’s first band consisted of himself (Ukrainian/Chinese), two Ukrainians, one black, and one Chinese lad. One-day Henry went to pick up a friend. Her father indicated he definitely didn’t want his daughter to go out with a Chinaman and would not allow her to leave. Henry simply stated “He was a redneck.” His daughter did in fact sneak out later and ended up with the black member of the band.

After playing with a mixed band around the east end night spots for some time, Henry thought it would be a nice change to take his group into uptown Vancouver. He approached the musical director, at one of Vancouver’s major hotels to be their house band. They were turned away without even an interview. Calling upon his friend Eleanor Collins, who was a well-known artist, Henry was hopeful that she would have some pull.

At the time, Eleanor was the Lena Horne of Vancouver.  They had worked together on several occasions, including some R&B with her two sons at Oil Can Harry’s, a popular spot during the 60’s into the 70’s. Eleanor was the first Canadian “woman of colour” to have her own TV show on CBC.

Alex Louie, owner of the Marco Polo, employed Henry to play “dark nights” (nights whereby no major acts were booked) as a fill-in between major acts, plus play backup for many shows. These were mainly the R&B and Rock shows.

Henry was offstage while watching a featured performer named Nina Simone at the Marco Polo in Chinatown. He was so impressed with her singing that he approached her during the break about sitting in and playing a set with her.  She interviewed Henry prior to her next set and let him sit in. Nina was quite taken by Henry’s musical talent. That same night, Nina attended the Elegant Parlour (after-hours club) and listened to Henry play again.  Three weeks later, he received the call from Nina to join her band and sent him a ticket to New York City. At the time the “big apple” was famous and well-known for its jazz venues.

Nina Simone Documentary

This opportunity with Nina enabled Henry’s talents to grow tenfold, and created a new learning curve in the music industry. Henry travelled with Nina for a couple of years, returning back to Vancouver after doing the “Chitlin’ Circuit.”

Henry has many stories to share from when he was travelling and working with Nina Simone and how he quickly found out that people in New York didn’t like hippies. During one of their gigs, some of the musicians had long hair. The angry crowd told them to leave or get a haircut. This was during the Vietnam War.

In Atlanta Georgia, the promoters decided to add a few local musicians to supplement Nina’s band. When Nina arrived and found that they had done this without consulting with her, she shouted “I don’t want a bunch of white musicians in my band; I’ve got my own ensemble.”

After the performance in Atlanta, the band went to an after hours rib joint. Suddenly gunshots rang out; Bang! Bang! Bang! The entire band quickly and silently disappeared from the scene. It was a civil disorder between blacks and whites.  With an all-black band Nina’s outdoor concert in Atlanta, Georgia presented quite a scare. Filled with an audience of forty-thousand, Henry found out how militant Nina was. She spoke out to the crowd from centre stage, “Down with the Klan!” meaning the KKK (Ku Klux Klan). The drummer looked up at Henry, “Well, she is in great form tonight!”

It was a year later when Nina called him. She had changed the original formats and was now moving toward funky jazz and more mainstream music. Henry agreed to re-join her band. This only lasted a couple of months, as Henry had to head back to Vancouver for personal family commitments.

Henry’s name is noted on several of Simone’s albums and notably mentioned in Nadine Cohodas’ biography “Princess Noire, The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone.” Just released (2015) is the documentary “The Amazing Nina Simone” by Jeff Lieberman, in which Henry is interviewed.

Returning back to Vancouver, Henry’s reputation worked in his favour. He was now playing at better venues and still backing up acts at the Marco Polo and the Cave Supper Club. New opportunities in film work came from CBC and he began getting corporate gigs through the local booking agents.

Henry played with Nina on and off for almost 20 years.  He travelled with singer Almeta Speaks on a tour to Africa. Sponsored by the U.S. Embassy, this was a goodwill tour in honour of Martin Luther King month.  Henry recalled an incident when, during the tour, he arrived at one of the stops at the airport in Africa to do a benefit. The authorities seemed quite perturbed and unfriendly while proceeding to give him the third degree at the airport counter. They questioned him about his status, where he was born, what was his nationality and whether or not he had a work permit/visa.

They confiscated his passport and said, “We are having the FBI do a security check on you.” It wasn’t until 7.00am the next morning, a courier from the embassy delivered his passport back. Henry continued on the six week (17 concerts) African Tour.  Fortunately, when playing sessions into the wee hours of the morning and then having to catch an early flight, he learned how to become a good sleeper; sometimes on a plane, or a bus and even while standing up. Once he even found himself napping underneath a piano.

On one occasion after missing a flight due to a one-day pilot walkout at YVR, the band made arrangements to be cabbed to Tacoma Washington.  Henry managed to sleep all the way to their destination, the Arizona Jazz Festival.  As a seasoned traveller he said, “I learned to always expect the unexpected.

[Third installment to be continued].


Author Edwin Lee

Author Edwin Lee was born in Vancouver in 1936 and grew up in Chinatown with a close group of family and friends. For years, he had been talking with them about compiling a book of their memories. Eventually, he decided to do it himself and after three years of research and interviews he is proud to have completed his book, Sum Yung Guys: Untold stories of growing up in Vancouver’s Chinatown. As a writer and historian, Edwin documents the history of Chinatown. More Untold Stories from Vancouver’s Chinatown is Edwin Lee’s current project on Vancouver musician Henry Young. Stay tuned for the following installments of this profile on one of Vancouver’s great musicians.

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