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James Gordon remembers Shirley Eikhard and the CBC concert that the CBC didn’t show up for

I was so saddened to hear of the passing of a great Canadian songwriter and performer, Shirley Eikhard.

She was an established star in the scene when I met her. We were the same age: 22, but she’d already, at the age of 15, had a hit when Anne Murray recorded her song “It Takes Time,” which Shirley herself put on her debut album the next year. The goal of every Canadian songwriter then was to get Anne Murray to cover your song. Shirley was living the dream early. She had also taken advantage of the new Can-Con regulations and had a real radio hit with her cover of the also-lamented Christine McVie’s song “Say You Love Me.” Shirley’s version actually came out before the Fleetwood Mac one so at first, I thought they had covered her song. Of course, Bonnie Raitt’s cover of Shirley’s “Something to Talk About” sent her into the songwriting stratosphere.

In 1977 though, she and I found ourselves on a plane bound for Inuvik, she the established veteran in the biz already with a recent hit and me just starting out.

Inuvik was a real frontier town then, back before the Dempster Highway from the Yukon made it a little more accessible. Along with a couple of other bands, we were being flown in as part of a government-sponsored July 1 concert. They had flown a cross-cultural selection of Canadian entertainers there to be part of a CBC-televised special, with satellite hookups joining acts from all across the country for a big birthday celebration.

Her talent to humility ratio was ‘off the charts’: remembering Shirley Eikhard

There were two problems with the plan. The first was that the CBC crew accidentally got off the plane in Yellowknife. The second was that no one had bothered to tell the little outpost of Inuvik that a DC3 full of entertainers was arriving at their airport.

There was mass confusion when we arrived. There were about a dozen of us cultural ambassadors on the plane. Shirley had her whole band with her, which was my introduction to her young and scraggly guitar player, known then as ”Danny” Lanois. Not long after that, my band Tamarack recorded its first album at Daniel’s new Grant Avenue Studio in Hamilton.

A Franco-Ontarion rock band that later became famous as the nucleus of CANO was there too, (I was young and impressionable and became totally smitten with their lead singer, Rachel Paiement, who would go on to marry Bryan Adams’ writing partner Jim Vallance, and in fact, it was Rachel who wrote the French verse to “Tears Are Not Enough”), along with the Quebecois singer and later CBC radio host Jim Corcoran, and my group that was there to play traditional Canadian fiddle music. My job was to accompany the fiddlers, act as their tour manager and sing some early Canadian folk songs. I did NOT know my job would also be “concert organizer” and “MC” of the show.
After an overnight stop in Edmonton and our mishap in Yellowknife, we arrived in Inuvik the day before the concert. “What concert?” was the question on all the locals’ lips. Although I was the greenhorn in the group, I was immediately spotted as the “responsible one,” and given the task of figuring out what to do with a plane full of gear and a dozen unexpected guests.

We found our way to the local hotel. This was summer in Inuvik. Twenty-four hours a day of sunshine, they say, except that it rained the whole time we were there, and the town was awash in a great northern sea of mud. A volunteer was dispatched to the Hudson’s Bay post, where he secured twelve pairs of rubber boots for us. Shirley and I found some local officials who arrived to investigate their strange invaders. It was determined that somehow the show must go on. That’s the rule, after all.

After a quick call to the high school principal, the gymnasium was booked for us. Shirley and I decided that we would start the promotion, and we waded through the mud to the CBC radio station, where, in the absence of an announcer, the engineer let us take turns interviewing each other about the impending concert. Word spread quickly. It was the only station in that part of the arctic, and everyone listened in. By show time, we had a full house. Somewhere I have a photo to prove it, featuring close to a thousand pairs of rubber boots covering the entranceway to the auditorium. (No shoes allowed in the gym!)

I remember helping with the inadequate sound system too, and somehow, we pulled off a pretty decent show that was a delightful surprise for the townsfolk. As a reflection of the times I guess, there was no Indigenous representation on the stage though 95 per cent of the audience was Inuit.

The locals were thrilled to see us. They threw a great party for us afterwards. We were all packed into someone’s house. At some point in our late-night impromptu jam-session, our piano player started pining for a piano. Wish granted. A team of burly Inuit were dispatched to the school in a pickup truck. They threw the poor piano onto the truck, and it was in the thick of the party within minutes. There were quite a few local fiddlers and accordion players, which was more my world than Shirley’s, or so I thought. Turns out her mother, June, was a well-known New Brunswick fiddler and Shirley was right at home with that material. We kept in touch a bit after that, sharing memories of that remarkable trip, (of which there is no recording, since of course, the CBC never showed up!), but we were in different musical worlds and we lost track of each other, though she ended up living not far from me.

The news of her too-early death yesterday morning made my heart heavy, though there were good memories to recall and a renewed appreciation for such a great talent and such a warm person. I always thought she was under-appreciated as a real pioneer of the songwriting scene in Ontario-so I’m hoping her passing will stimulate a review of her important contribution to a scene that is losing too many of those pioneers now.

RIP Shirley.

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