Bill Hillman’s career as a musician began in 1961, Sue-On Hillman took to the stage along with Bill when they married in 1966. Since then they have played thousands of venues, entertaining audiences across Canada, in the U.S. and England.
Their popularity owes as much to the versatility of their play list to their talent. Rock ‘n’ roll, country, big band, folk, western, old time, rock, bluegrass, pop, gospel, country rock, originals, cajun – it’s all in their repertoire.
Bill and Sue-On documented their “musical odyssey” as a feature on their multifaceted website, Hillmanweb.com. Now Bill is working on, Gig Notes, an autobiography of their life on the road.
We present the following ’slices of a musical life on the road’ to highlight the diversity of their experiences during the ’60s and ’70s. They capped off that era with the 1979 Manitoba Music Entertainers of the Year Award for Country Music.
Gig Notes: 50 Years on the Road
Guitar for Hire
With a suitcase of clothes, box of books, and guitar, I moved into Brandon College Men’s Residence in the summer of ’61. My first performance in the city was during Brandon College Freshie Parade down Rosser Avenue in September 1961.
While crammed onto a float, dressed in old farm clothes and beanies, we tried to sing while I strummed my guitar. I was soon picking with folk groups, the College band, Blue Angels, the Flamingo Combo, and I was even moonlighting with other groups around town. Lenny Fairchuck, a fiddler, originally from Elphinstone, often picked me up on Saturday nights to back him at a downtown Legion.
The Fab Moptops
My heavy load of playing 4-hour guitar instrumentals in our Blue Angels trio was eased considerably with the addition of an English musician who had taken a physiotherapist position at Brandon’s Assiniboine Hospital. Alan Jones, blinded at a very young age during one of the WWII bombing raids, was a talented keyboardist who doubled on sax.
Alan expanded our repertoire considerably. I was excited to hear all the latest news and records from England sent over by his brother Keith from Northern England. Soon we were hearing about an unusual group that was taking the UK by storm– four weird long-haired guys with a silly name: The Beatles.
Soon Al, who already had been sharing Shadows and Cliff Richard records with me, was adding Beatles records to the mix. I was surprised to recognize many of their songs as being a recent addition to the repertoire of Chad Allan and the Reflections who often played the Brandon Roller Rink.
The New Country Gentlemen
Within a year of arriving in Brandon I was playing guitar on a daily live TV show and was the proud owner of a new Gretsch guitar. Barry Forman and I were Brandon College classmates. Barry and the original Country Gentlemen band had a falling out. Barry still had some TV, dance, Co-Op Neighbour Night and Exhibition bookings to fulfill so we teamed up and used a number different sidemen for awhile.
Our CKX-TV noon and weekly evening shows were live and some of them were nerve-wracking events. The money from these gigs was not great but it did help to pay my college tuition.
Dovermen “Waltz Kings”
In the mid-’60s our Dovermen rock band was hired to play a school dance at the Oak River High School. We played the rock ‘n’ roll hits of the day– the kids were jumping– but the school principal was not happy. “Play some Glenn Miller, play some waltzes, play some old time music… ”
“But we’re a R&R band for teenagers.” He eventually phoned our Winnipeg agent without getting much satisfaction. We finished the gig and took the money and ran.
Our rock band worked as the house band at the Brandon Roller Rink which held regular teen dances. A real perk was getting to meet and listen to the series of popular bands that were booked from the U.S.:
Johnny and Dorsey Burnette (Elvis’ buddies), Conway Twitty (when he was a rocker, before becoming a major C/W act), black blues acts, Jimmy Gilmore and the Fireballs (Sugar Shack) – and the Ventures (Walk, Don’t Run). I had the pleasure of seeing and chatting with them 50 years later at a Winnipeg Casino. Nokie Edwards and Don Wilson are still going strong and touring worldwide.
Fred Smith, owner of the Brandon Roller Rink, became our manager and got us some unusual bookings. He went with us on a tour of Saskatchewan. In the hours before the gig he drove around the towns blaring out promo announcements for the evening shindigs through a giant speaker horn mounted on the roof of his station wagon.
Meanwhile, we were doing phone and in-person studio interviews with the jocks on the local radio stations. By the time we bounced on stage in our Beatle suits many of the teens were convinced that some sort of super group had blown into town. It was around this time that our Brandon manager tried to sell us on the ‘crazy’ idea of putting dancing girls wearing short skirts on stage with us.
A highlight of our rock days in the mid-’60s was our tour as back-up band for Canadian teen idol, Bobby Curtola. During this tour we experienced shades of Elvis/Beatles mania as teens packed every venue we played and the girls pushed in a frenzy against the stage trying to touch their idol and later to get autographs.
This winter tour took us into Saskatchewan – the Regina Armoury packed in the largest crowd there – and east to Portage La Prairie. The most exciting date was in our home base at the Brandon Roller Rink – on New Year’s Eve. Bobby was about our age and was a super guy to work with.
I saved the set lists, written in Bobby’s hand and they are featured on our Curtola webpages. I had a reunion with Bobby 40 years later and those shows are also described on our Curtola webpages.
Stolen Gretsch Guitar: So Long Nashville
In 1965 I did a freelance gig with a Brandon band that played a dance in McCreary. We were invited to a party after the dance and left our instruments in a station wagon parked on the street for an hour.
On our way back to Brandon we stopped at Neepawa to drop off the bass player. It was then we discovered that our guitars and stage clothes had all been stolen. I had lost my treasured Gretsch Nashville guitar, plus my bell-bottom trousers and suede vest. It was a sad trip back to Brandon College.
While attending a concert at Clear Lake’s Danceland, I heard via the grapevine that Randy Bachman had recognized my Gretsch guitar in a Main Street, Winnipeg pawn shop.
Earlier Randy had asked me to order the same model guitar through my dad’s wholesale catalogue. He eventually found a source closer to Winnipeg, but we had crossed paths quite a few times up till now since Chad Allan and the Reflections had often come to play at the Brandon Roller Rink. I also had hung around with them in Winnipeg while attending U of M summer school.
We contacted the RCMP who confiscated the instrument and tracked down the guy who had dealt with the pawn shop. Searching his home in Amaranth they found the remains of my bell bottoms in his stove, but salvaged my suede vest intact.
Six months later Sue-On and I were called over to the McCreary RCMP detachment to ID and to pick up my rescued Gretsch Nashville. A great day.
Sue-On Arrives On Stage
Sue-On had taken classical piano lessons and had sung in a choir – a fantastic voice – so it seemed natural that we start rehearsing an act. She became the featured singer with our band which I renamed The Western Union. In the early shows Sue-On made use of a Hohner keyboard which we had added to the band. She made good use of her piano lessons – combined with whatever knowledge of chording by ear that I could pass on to her.
Later when we trimmed our numbers down to a trio again to fit on some of the pub stages, we had more need of a backbeat to cut through the crowd noise. By this time we had visited the old Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville where they were finally allowing an abbreviated stand-up drum kit.
So, with this as inspiration we bought a snare, stand, high hat and a variety of Zildjan cymbals. We then listened to what drummers appeared to be doing on records and Shazam – we now had what was probably the world’s only Chinese girl singer/stand-up drummer in a country band.
The early shows were fun to do and opened up quite a few other doors for us at the time. More and more, we were able to move from doing pub dates and on to the larger audiences found in arenas, halls, military bases, Winnipeg venues and summer tours.
CKX started to put more time and money into the television shows so that there was a marked improvement in the sets, production, announcing, guests, and promotion.
All Aboard the Federal Grain Train
In the early ’60s Barry and I were hired to play the Rothman’s Booth at the first Morris Stampede. We enlisted singer Russ Gurr to appear as our featured singer at these shows. Russ returned the favour a few years later. He was very involved with the fledgling Austin Thresherman’s Reunion, and needed a back-up band and feature perfomers for shows in front of the event’s new grandstand.
In the mid-’60s Federal Grain Company were looking for a way to exhibit their products and services at Western Canadian fairs and exhibitions. The performing, emceeing, and songwriting abilities of Russ were brought to their attention and they offered him a series of summer contracts. Russ remembered how well he, Barry, and I had worked together a few years back and gave us a call.
The summer shows that followed evolved into full-fledged Western Canadian tours in which we spent many summers travelling to fairs large and small in a convoy consisting of two motor homes, an instrument truck, station wagon, and a stage on wheels. Russ had designed a combination outdoor stage and parade float on a flat bed trailer.
Our routine was pretty much the same for each venue. We arrived in the city/town the night before their fair, meeting the local Federal Grain agents who opened their homes to us and treated us royally with barbecues and warm hospitality. We usually met with the local fair boards and media for which we did TV / Radio / Newspaper interviews.
And the Winners Are…
Bardine Productions of Portland, Oregon booked all the Grandstand acts on our Federal Grain circuit. We were actually part of the Grandstand shows but Cindy and Charlie Bardine were impressed with our band. They invited the three of us to audition for the U.S. Exhibition and Rodeo Circuit.
Sue-On, Barry and I drove to Medicine Hat for the auditions before the many American Exhibition representatives. Competition was stiff and we were up against many Grand Ole Opry performers and other name acts. They were impressed, however, by our Chinese girl singer/drummer, electric old time and wah-wah fiddle and bass, guitar instrumentals, and show vocals.
The Bardines were former vaudeville performers and coached us on stage movements, intros and extros, patter, and in little tricks to encourage multiple encores.
Our summer tour of ’74 took us all over the American North West, where we were billed as the Bardine’s feature act, Sue-On and the Western Union from Canada. We worked mainly evening grandstand shows at county and state fairs, and rodeos.
Other performers on the bill included country singers Jeannie C. Riley, Charlie Louvin, The Blackwood Singers and Hee-Haw’s Archie Campbell, as well as many international variety/ vaudeville acts. We revelled in the many backstage stories that the other entertainers shared: tales of the Grand Ole Opry, the escapades of the early country stars, the excitement of the Bob Hope military tours, the glamour of the Ed Sullivan performances, the glitz of Vegas, and the naughtiness of the Marx Brothers and other experiences in the last days of vaudeville, etc.
Following our return from the summer tour we returned to a full slate of appearances at halls, gyms, arenas, concert halls, universities, festivals, military bases and bars.
We even did northern tours where we played the Trappers Festival at The Pas and flew into isolated Reserves to perform in school auditoriums. Our TV show carried on, but we now worked as a trio with regular appearances by guest artists. Although we were now touring on our own, Russ Gurr gave us a call to back him on two television specials.
Enter Alan Jones again. Al made periodic visits back to visit family in Northern England and during a 1976 trip he visited Burrow-Hunter, a booking agency in Middlesboro. England’s Northeast was a hotbed of musicians and clubs – mainly scores of Working Man Clubs that featured nightly entertainment. Allan made inquiries on our behalf and before long we were booked to do nightly shows in 30 different clubs in that part of England.
Our keyboardist Kevin Pahl agreed to join us and Alan would play with us in the clubs that had a house organ. This was very exciting since my appreciation of English music went all the way back to trad jazz, Lonnie Donegan skiffle and blues, Shadows guitar numbers and the British Invasion groups – especially the Beatles. Much of our repertoire had been learned from imported Donegan, Shadows and Beatles records. We reserved our flight.
To pay for our flight to England we kept up a heavy schedule of bookings right up to flight time. A very demanding set of bookings. In the three days before we took a 747 out of Winnipeg airport we played across three provinces: Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Manitoba.
The Saskatchewan booking was our annual Grad dance in Wapella – an upstairs hall above their library. The kids always expected us to play the “rain dance” during which they all tried to collapse the weakened floor into the library below by jumping up and down. The hall survived another year.
The Ontario booking was in Sault St. Marie after which we naively took a southern route home which looped through the USA. The Customs guys were very leery of musicians and since the three of us were also teachers they thought this must be a cover and we must be part of some drug cartel.
The gung-ho Customs official made us unload all our gear for inspection. Not only that, we had to unscrew the backs of all our speaker cabinets to aid them in their search – hundreds of screws. Eventually their search proved fruitless and they disappointedly waved us on to the next gig. We played that night in St. Claude, Manitoba – another grad dance. We were then poised to begin our overseas adventure.
Bombing the Order of the Buffalo
Our first gig in England, at the RMOB club (Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes), was a template for most of the 30 gigs to follow. The club seated hundreds of people sitting around small round tables just large enough to hold a ring of pints from the bar.
The show opened with the house organist, followed by a variety act, after which we did a show. There was a break for housie (90 ball bingo) after which we did a dance set and the hall was cleared out around 11. Most of the patrons came in for a pint or two, enjoyed the entertainment, played housie, danced and then headed for home for a good nights sleep – many of them worked in factories.
Everything was new and strange for us. We met with a few setbacks setting up: no batteries for the mics, no snare stand for Sue-On, and trying to adapt to Kevin’s Hohner Clavinet and keyboard bass. We felt crushed when the manager exclaimed after the show that we “went down a bomb.” But apparently to “bomb” had the opposite meaning there than it did back home. Whew!!!
Outlaw Ramblin’ Band
Not far from the hotel we played in Whitby was a large Country and Western club where we saw our posters displayed. The C/W club encouraged their dance patrons to wear full western gear, complete with Stetsons, boots, spurs, chaps and gunbelts. In fact, the country seemed to show a real fascination with western lore and country music – a thirst that hadn’t been fully quenched by many of the English artists. This played to our advantage.
We specialized in a style of country rock and spoke in ‘American’ accents. At first the audiences were leery of the accents associated with ‘Yanks’ whom some of them loved to hate, but when we assured them we were from ‘the colonies’ everything was OK, we were part of the family. We share some of the excitement of these performances in our song, Outlaw Ramblin’ Band.
Our final live performance in England was ironically a good ole Western-style barbecue and barn dance near a military base at Stokesley. We were soon homeward bound.
Our feelings on flying home after so many weeks I described in a song we recorded on a later tour of the UK: Sail On 747. A song that has received much airplay over the years.
Back home we had another album to release, a Manitoba gig schedule to resume and were about to go through many surprising turns in life and career…
photos: promotional Dovermen photo: (Clockwise) Warren Hannay, John Bishop, Delkeith Dubbin, Cyril Scott, Bill Hillman
Sue-On and the Western Union promotional photo for the Exhibition Grandstand tour of the Northwestern U.S.A. (L-R ) Bill Hillman, Sue-On Hillman, Barry Forman