This past summer I made a protracted assault on what can only be described as a lifetime of accumulated hard-to-turf memorabilia cluttering every corner of our basement. Carted off to the landfill went my classroom daybooks, something most teachers toss as a celebratory act of passage the day they retire. Following them were dated computer software disks & manuals, dozens of promotional demo recordings of school band arrangements, broken tools, and a trailer load of bits and pieces of scrap lumber I’d squirreled away, thinking it might come in handy someday.
However, remaining untouched was my boxed record collection which includes volumes of weighty 78 rpm recordings of entire symphonies and decades of popular single hit material that had belonged to my parents, plus hundreds of 33 rpm jazz recordings purchased with gig money I earned playing weekend dances during my high school years. Picking my way through the collection, I came across an album released in 1969 titled British Columbia Suite - composed and arranged by Nelson Riddle. Riddle was a Hollywood based Grammy award winning composer best known for his orchestral arrangements during the 1960s and 70’s for legendary crooner Frank Sinatra. He also wrote material for other celebrated vocalists of the era including: Rosemary Clooney, Billy Eckstine, Keely Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, and later Linda Ronstadt.
Peaking my interest in the Riddle LP recording was a testimonial printed on the backside of the colourful multi-paged sleeve jacket written by W.A.C. (Wacky) Bennett, the premier of British Columbia at that time. It read: “It is singularly appropriate that a name as famous in the world of music as Nelson Riddle should be linked at last with a place in this world as well-known and well-loved as British Columbia, Canada.” Bennett went on to say that Nelson Riddle was a very special visitor to BC, a “personality able to convert what he saw in British Columbia into music. The delightful result is a tribute to our Province and a credit to the composer and his fine musicians, as I am sure you will agree when you hear Nelson Riddle’s British Columbia Suite.”
Opposites do attract so the saying goes. In this case, a celebrated American musician and an iconic western Canadian politician appear to have collaborated on a record album released in 1969. Investigating further I was reminded that 1969 was also an election year in British Columbia. Could this elaborate recording in any way have been connected to premier Bennett’s bid for reelection? Was any taxpayer’s money spent on producing the album, perhaps under the guise of tourist promotion? Interesting questions I’ve not been able to verify.
British Columbians of my generation remember W.A.C. Bennett as a one-of-a-kind character. From the summer of 1952 to the fall of 1972, W.A.C. Bennett ruled British Columbia winning seven elections in a row. During his 20-year tenure, Bennett nationalized the province’s hydroelectric industry and put together a ferry fleet scornfully dubbed by the media of the day as Bennett's Navy.
My favorite recollections of Bennett were the humorous cartoons drawn by Len Norris that appeared weekly in the Vancouver Sun. One of the best remembered was called “Now here's the Deal. ” It was published Sept 16, 1964, the day of a border ceremony held at the Peace Arch in Blaine to celebrate the implementation of the Columbia River Dam Treaty. The cartoon depicted Bennett’s lead-footed highways minister Phil Gaglardi at the wheel of a speeding convertible. Cringing on each side of the premier in the convertible’s back seat were Prime Minister Lester (Mike) Pearson and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson.
BC Premier W.A.C. Bennett is explaining to Lester (Mike) Pearson and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson: “Now here's the deal, Phil blacktops the road from California to the Aleutians. Mike gives up the Yukon and Lyndon gives us Washington and Oregon." Pearson and Johnson appear so terrified they seem prepared to cede the territory to get out of the car.
Also I recall watching the ceremony on TV, which was staged at the Peace Arch. A great deal was made of rushing the multimillion dollar cheque handed to BC by the Americans for the downstream benefits of the treaty, to a Canadian bank to take advantage of the institution’s daily interest rate. However, I digress.
Inside the record jacket of British Columbia Suite are twelve unaccredited photos tagged with extensive text. The photos coincide with each cut on the record. Side One - 1. Route of the Haidas shows a BC Ferry plying the Inside Passage, 2. Peace River has the northern BC river meandering its way through the adjacent prairie, 3. Victoria shows the capital city’s Inner Harbour and Parliament Buildings 4. Cariboo - we see a cowboy sitting abreast a horse as he lights up a cigarette akin to the Marlboro Man, 5. Valley of the Swans portrays the bird sanctuary at Creston Flats in northeastern BC, 6. Government House highlights the baronial Victoria residence of the Lieutenant-Governor of BC.
Side Two – 1. Vancouver Nights shows the city’s evening skyline, 2. Okanagan features a fruit laden peach tree high on Penticton’s east bench, 3. Buchart Gardens displays its famous Sunken Garden, 4. Barkerville has a stagecoach making its way down the town’s dusty main street, 5. Garibaldi Mountain shows a skier carving his way down the mountain, and in conclusion, 6. Moving Ahead has a photo of the Vancouver Planetarium with a radiant yellow Jaguar parked in front.
The photo captions are all written in the syrupy touristy descriptive style of the era. For example the text of the final cut Moving Ahead reads: “As a climax to his musical impressions of Beautiful British Columbia, composer Nelson Riddle has caught and compressed the spirit of its people into melodic phases and moving rhythms of memorable quality. Here is the tempo of the times in Canada’s burgeoning West Coast Province, vibrantly alive, urgent with ambition, bright with self-confidence and warm with the hospitality of the good life shared with good friends ----a fitting finale to the series of unique emotional experience so eloquently expressed in British Columbia Suite.”
Although it’s purely speculation on my part, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that the recording had taxpayer support in some disguised way and was likely released to coincide with the summer electoral campaign of 1969. Supporting the hackneyed notion that the best in musical arts has to come from outside our borders, the album’s instigators appear to have looked south to Tinseltown for an American big name to give the project more credibility, at least in their eyes. However that said, British Columbia Suite is a brilliant piece of program music and Nelson Riddle’s compositions do depict our province in a very special way. Understandably, being a musician my only criticism is I wish a Canadian had got the gig. Incidentally, Bennett won the election, his seventh and last.
During my massive clean up of our basement I found this tiny booklet of Tariff of Rates for the Winnipeg Musicians Association dated 1921-1922. The pamphlet had belonged to Pat’s grandfather George Albert Dobbs who was a professional pianist and organist. It was interesting to read the wage rates for playing in Winnipeg’s moving picture theatres before “talkies” made silent films obsolete later in the decade. Along with the new sound technology the jobs of thousands of musicians also became outmoded. Playing from 2:30 pm to 5:00 pm or from 7:30 pm to 10:00 pm netted a pianist or organist $40.00. Those musicians performing as a substitute got an extra $2.00. Playing an evening concert or dance at the classy Grand Trunk Pacific Railway Fort Gary Hotel in downtown Winnipeg brought in $45.00. Taking into account inflation, 1 dollar in 1922 would be worth $13.70 today. Musicians were making good wages in those days.