Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Loretta Lynn's big break worthy of a plaque

Yup, coal miner's daughter Loretta Lynn got her big break after playing at a jam session in a converted chicken coop in Vancouver in 1960. She made her first recording — "I'm a Honky Tonk Girl" — with Zero Records, a  label financed by a local lumber baron.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 16, 2011


Vancouver turns 125 years old later this year, so the Vancouver Heritage Foundation is looking for 125 places deserving of a plaque.

Voting begins Wednesday on the group’s website.

The foundation, a charitable group, solicited online nominations in a program called “Places That Matter.”

An ad in Billboard, June 27,  1960.
Some members of the public tuned into their inner Chuck Davis — oh, we are so going to miss our avuncular Mr. Vancouver this quasquicentennial year — and suggested all kinds of worthy places.

Parks and bridges, churches and stadiums, even viaducts and corner groceries have been nominated.

One of the more intriguing suggestions is to have a plaque placed on the Granville Mall near Smithe Street to mark the site where the writer William Gibson had the inspiration that led to his coining the word “cyberspace” in his 1984 novel Neuromancer. He had peeked into an arcade, witnessing teenagers playing video games so intently that they were oblivious to their earthly circumstance.

A sports fan can support a plaque at baseball’s Nat Bailey Stadium (where a young Brooks Robinson once impaled his arm on a fence) and Oppenheimer Park (which the storied Asahi team of Japanese-Canadians called home) and the Denman Arena (where the Vancouver Millionaires won the Stanley Cup in 1915).

A music fan can support a plaque at the Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret, 109 E. Hastings St.; or the Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park; or the bump-and-grind Penthouse Cabaret, 1019 Seymour St.; or the psychedelic hangout Retinal Circus (earlier Dante’s Inferno) at 1024 Davie St.

Not to mention the supper club hot spots such as Isy’s or the Palomar or The Cave with its papier-mâché stalactites.

One of the musical suggestions stands out.

Rob Howatson, a magazine writer, nominated the former site of a Fraserview chicken coop behind a bungalow in the 2500-block of Kent Avenue, near Elliott Street.

It is a worthy site for a plaque, for it was an event here that led to the first recording of one of the greatest country music stars of all time.

Yup, Loretta Lynn, the coal miner’s daughter from Butcher Holler, Ky., had to come all the way to Vancouver for her big break.

Born into poverty, married at age 13 to a husband whom she called Doolittle but others knew as Mooney for his history of running moonshine. The couple escaped the limits of Appalachia to live in Custer, Wash., a hamlet a few miles south of the border.

On her 18th birthday, by which time she had given birth to four children and suffered two miscarriages, Loretta received from her husband a $17 Harmony guitar from Sears and Roebuck. He had in mind a singing career for his child bride.

Shy, nervous, uncertain as to her abilities and stumped on her first tryout when asked in which key she planned to sing (“I didn’t know what a key was and don’t hardly know now,” she wrote in her 1976 autobiography), Mrs. Lynn began playing small halls and taverns around Whatcom County, earning as much as $5 per session. “I thought I was a millionaire.”

A few years later, she earned a spot as one of 30 amateurs to perform on The Bar-K Jamboree, a live television show hosted by Buck Owens on KTNT (later KSTW) in Tacoma, Wash. Mrs. Lynn won the contest. Her prize was a wristwatch so cheap it broke the next day. But one of those who caught her performance on television up in Vancouver was Norman Burley, a lumber baron.

Mr. Burley’s riches allowed him to dabble in sports (for a time he owned a share of the Vancouver Mounties baseball club with Nat Bailey, the founder of White Spot restaurants) and entertainment (he financed a record label called Zero Records). Mr. Burley invited the singer to come to Vancouver.

“He said he wanted to help us by giving us a contract to make a record,” she wrote in Coal Miner’s Daughter. “He didn’t wear any red suit or black boots, but that man looked lie Santa Claus to us.”

She performed at a Fraserview dance hall named for its previous use. The Chicken Coop was owned by Irene and Clare (Mac) McGregor, according to Mr. Howatson.

“They fumigated and turned it into a club,” she told the Country Music Association last year.

“We went into that chicken house and there were a bunch of bigwigs who came in to listen to me.”

Don Grashey and Chuck Williams from the record label heard a voice reminiscent of Kitty Wells and as country as a jug of moonshine.

She remembers her wealthy patron being in attendance.

“He came over to me and said, ‘Let’s make a record.’ I said, ‘I don’t know how.’ He said, ‘I don’t either. But we’ll learn together.’ ”

She was signed and sent to Hollywood to be recorded.

The label printed some 3,500 copies of a 45-rpm (Zero No. 107) with “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” and “Whispering Sea.” She made two other releases for Zero before jumping to Decca and launching the career that would make her a superstar.

Mr. Howatson has spent seven months researching the little-known story of the makeshift dance hall. He is still seeking anecdotes and ephemera and can be reached at .

A site selection committee formed by the heritage foundation, including former city councillors Gordon Price and Marguerite Ford, will be guided by the public voting, which ends on the city’s birthday on April 6.

If the Chicken Coop doesn’t get a plaque, then there’ll be “Trouble in Paradise,” as Loretta Lynn will be a “Blue Kentucky Girl” and the committee will have an appointment in “Fist City” with a “Honky Tonk Girl.”

Dressed in a black and white cowgirl's outfit, Loretta Lynn won an amateur talent contest on Buck Owens' Bar-K Jamboree on a live broadcast from Tacoma, Wash. A lumber baron in Vancouver was so enraptured by her performance that he signed her to his fledgling record label.

1 comment:

Anthony said...

Hi Tom, Great post! I came across it while looking for photos for the Vancouver Heritage Foundation's Plaque Presentation to the chicken coop on Sept 16th. They did indeed get voted in, and we're so glad that the location did. We hope to see you at the presentation!! Kind Regards,