Monday, September 21, 2009

A rock 'n' roll CEO gets back to his down-home boogie roots

The Heartbeats in concert in 1963 at Cardiff, Wales. From left: Tom Edwards (bass), Geoff Edmunds (guitar); Johnny Stark (drums), Denny Driscoll (vocals), and the great Dave Edmunds (guitar).

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
September 21, 2009

VICTORIA

In the 1950s, the Edmunds brothers played boogie-woogie piano duets at church halls in their hometown of Cardiff, Wales. After a gig at a private party, they were approached by a sharply-dressed car dealer.

“He was a spiv, a bit of a lad,” recalls Geoff Edmunds. “He was into used cars and he loved rock ’n’ roll.

He asked the brothers to perform at a joint he operated on the side.

“A nightclub! We’re moving up. He offered us 30 shillings. That was big.”

The Blue Moon was a dark, smokey and altogether thrilling venue for Geoff, aged 16, and his 12-year-old brother. It was not far from their row house in Tiger Bay, the tough, busy, mixed-race neighbourhood surrounding the docklands.

The audience at the club was mixed, too. “On stage, two little white guys rolling it out,” Mr. Edmunds said. “Singing Everly Brothers.”

Around about midnight, the front door bursts open.

“In come the gendarmes. Half the audience heads out the back, gone like a breeze.”

The brothers thought they were about to witness the bust of some dangerous criminals.

Instead, the police had come on a mission demanded by a tough-minded mother who wanted her boys back at home.

The anecdote is included in his unpublished memoir. A life story that includes appearances by the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Gates, and Conrad Black, among others, is worthy of the title, “Music, Money and Madness: A Journey into the Bizarre Life and Times of a Rock ’n’ Roll CEO.”

He grew up in a household where his father, a clerk at a flour mill who also served as a firefighter during the war, played the great guitarist Django Reinhardt on the family’s wind-up record player. One day, a merchant seaman in the neighbourhood returned from America with two records — Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame,” and Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.”

He hung out at pubs and clubs, befriending a slightly older girl singer who worked as a cookie packager at a biscuit factory in Tiger Bay. A few months later, Shirley Bassey placed on the charts the first of a string of hits.

Mr. Edmunds and his friends formed a band called The Stompers, later becoming The Heartbeats, a group with a jazzier sound who opened for the likes of such American acts as Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. Sometimes, a coal miner’s son and aspiring singer from nearby Pontypridd handled vocals for the band. Tom Jones also would go on to become a regular on the charts.

Mr. Edmunds’ younger brother, who became an auto mechanic, left the group to form his own rockabilly trio. Soon after, Geoff himself decided he had enough of the uncertainty of moonlighting as a musician. He was working by day as an advertising salesman for the South Wales Echo, which was purchased by Roy Thomson. When a Canadian was sent to the newspaper to shake things up, Mr. Edmunds was convinced to move his young family to Canada to make his fortune.

He was selling ads for the Hamilton Spectator when his mother telephoned with news from back home.

“Your brother’s just hit the No. 1 spot on the hit parade,” she told him.

A crazy, speeded up rendition of Armenian composer Aram Khatchaturian’s “Sabre Dance” became a novelty hit for the trio Love Sculpture, featuring the drumming of Congo Jones and the blistering guitar work of Dave Edmunds.

(The tune actually peaks at No. 2 on the British charts, but he grabbed the top spot two years later with “I Hear You Knocking.”)

The younger Edmunds has gone on to enjoy a long career as a musician and producer, including a stint with Nick Lowe in Rockpile, who, in 1980, ripped up the Heatwave festival at Mosport, Ont. Dave Edmunds released a greatest hits album a year ago.

Meanwhile, Geoff enjoyed success in business in Canada. During the oil boom of the 1970s, he left the Calgary Herald to launch a weekly newspaper in rural Okotoks, which was becoming a bedroom community of the city. he sold ads and covered council meetings, putting in 12 hour days, seven days a week, writing stories at the family’s kitchen table.

“We spiced it up with some good, juicy crime stuff. Grow-up busts. Our circulation boomed.”

He sold the Western Wheel just weeks before Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Policy burst the Alberta oil bubble, settling in Victoria where he eventually formed a company designed to handle help-wanted advertising through the Internet. Jobs Canada Inc. became JCI Technologies Inc. as realty and automobile listings were added to the service.

Torstar, Southam and Microsoft all invested, or had arrangements with the firm, but Mr. Edmunds said his company became doomed once Conrad Black increased his control of Southam to 41 from 19 percent in 1996. Mr. Black made it clear he had no interest in online classifieds, Mr. Edmunds said, leading other investors to bail out.

The news broke and the bubble popped.

“The stock crashed. And I had $12 million worth of stock. I woke up the next day and it was gone. Then I had to fire 135 guys. That was brutal.”

He went into the battery business, selling his Battery Power Online five years ago.

Geoff Edmunds never really gave up on music, either. He released an eponymous album in 1983, gaining a favourable review from the Globe’s Liam Lacey, who praised the songwriting “on the down-home boogie numbers.”

These days, the 69-year-old businessman has placed his memoirs with a literary agent. He’s also working on a new compact disk.

“I’m going right back to boogie-based beats on the piano,” he said. “I want to return to my roots.”

He’s going to call it “True Blue Me.” He has his reasons.

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