Sweet City Woman: The Stampeders’ Rock & Roll Dream

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The_Stampeders.pngFor the first time in his life, 15-year-old Kim Berly was watching a rock band perform live. It was a summer afternoon in 1963, and he was attending a show at the community center in Calgary, Canada, his hometown.

Later that day, when Kim returned to his parents’ house, he pounded out his ecstatic reaction to the concert on an improvised drum set consisting of pots, pans, and an inverted tin lampshade.

After the beat had persisted, on and off, for several weeks, Mom and Dad realized that their son was serious about music and forked over the money for a genuine drum outfit. Kim painted his name on the front head, practiced with some friends for about a month, and decided he was ready to form a real group.

An ad in the Calgary paper turned up Len Roemer, who had a Gibson guitar. Kim thought that was really something. A second ad was answer by Brendan Lyttle, who had a bass, four speaker amps , and a guitar-playing friend named Rich Dodson. Having taken on Kim’s brother Race as their singer, the group, calling themselves the Rebounds, began to play local gigs.

The going was rough. At their first appearance, in a church basement, the Rebounds earned $25 for a show that was regularly interrupted by a gabby priest. Kim says he enjoyed the job, however. He recalls that a few girls watched him while he played.

But the group wanted their fans by the thousands, not by the handful. Their ambitions ranged to hit records and international stardom—even as a local paper was rating them only the 15th most popular band in Calgary.

In the top position was a group called the Paint Brushes. They wore wigs on stage in imitation of the Beatles, had a black light, and owned the biggest amps in town. They also had the distinction of being managed by Mel Shaw.

Mel was the man to know if you were a Calgary musician in the early sixties. He published a local entertainment paper and selected rock bands to appear on his weekly TV show.

Race Berly, having heard that Mel’s car had some electrical problems, got his foot in the door by offering to repair it. Mel wasn’t impressed with Race’s work. (“After he got finished, you’d push in the lighter and the windshield wipers would go on.”) But he listened to the Rebounds and liked their sound.

He presented them on his TV show and, in late 1964, after the Paint Brushes had broken up, made the decision to become their manager. At about the same time, Len Roemer quit the group, and Ronnie King, the Paint Brushes’ bassist, and his brother, Van, joined up. Mel renamed the band after the Calgary Stampeded (the town’s major annual event), and began preparing them for the big time.

It was not to be found in Calgary. The town, in Canada’s Alberta province, about 100 miles from the U.S. border, has the Rocky Mountains for a western neighbor. To the east, south, and north, there exists virtually nothing worthy of mention for hundreds of miles. Edmonton, the province’s capital and largest city (population roughly equivalent to that of Cincinnati, Ohio, is a half-day’s drive away.

In their hometown, the Stampeders were limited to performing at places like the community center and local YMCA; equipment choices were restricted to the stock at Calgary’s Keen Krafts music shop.

Since the band had bigger things in mind, Mel Shaw shifted his sights to the national scene. After a good deal of hustling, he managed to line up gigs on an eastward route to Toronto.

In June of 1966, the Stampeders piled excitedly into Mel’s car, waved goodbye to Calgary, and drove off down what was to them the Yellow Brick Road to Emerald City.

After this hopeful start, they immediately began to encounter the realities of being poor musicians on the road. They slept in the car, in the homes of DJs, in crummy old hotels. Their possessions were loaded in a wobbly, ancient U-Haul trailer. (We used to go down he road at an angle, because one of the wheel things fell off.”) They were poor enough to hassle over how much to spend for dinner.

“The guys used to get mad at me,” Ronnie recalls, “because when we went somewhere to eat, they’d all get grilled-cheese sandwiches or fish and chips or something equally conservative. And I’d order pork chops.”

“Well,” Kim says with a laugh, “the rest of us were starving. Rich was putting money in a container to save up for contact lenses, and this damn guy’s eating pork chops!”

But though the cost of meat still worried them, the Stampeders had at least made their start. They were riding down the highways, stopping for gigs, getting closer to Toronto. CHUM, a radio station there, began drifting in on the car radio. The roads kept widening and, after the boys turned onto Route 401, they found 16 lanes and traffic backed up for 60 miles.

Civilization! It spaced everybody out so much that they momentarily pulled off the road, got out of the car, and stood around laughing and shouting. Calgary had been left behind, and it seemed that world renown was waiting just a short distance down the highway.

Well, I’m on my way to the city life / To a pretty face that shines her light on the city night / Sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet city woman / I can see your face, I can hear your voice / I can almost touch you.

Toronto was a big disappointment to the Stampeders. In two years there, they managed to score only a pair of minor Canadian hits. They were still playing in dumpy bars and clubs, and living, two to a room, in a $16-a-week boarding house. By the end of 1968, Brendan, Van, and Race had had enough of struggling and decided to leave the band.

Brendan now lives in Toronto. Race and Van are back in Calgary. And Ronnie, Kim, and Rich are the Stampeders.

Having persisted at their craft for 11 years, the trip can today boast a string of bestselling albums, 10 Canadian hit singles, and a worldwide smash, “Sweet City Woman.” They have headlined in London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Rio. Last year, they undertook what was to become the biggest-grossing rock tour in the history of Canada. A special 100-page issue of a Canadian music magazine was recently devoted to them. They have gold records from the U.N., congratulatory telegrams from Prime Minister Trudeau and new Cadillacs.

Today, in the midst of a 35-city U.S. tour, the Stampeders are at the American Song Festival in Saratoga, New York, lounging around a dressing room as they await a call to go onstage.

All three of them wear blue jeans and sip beers. Rich is nibbling at cold cuts and laughing as Ronnie does an imitation of Wolfman Jack. Kim, in a more serious mood, is trying to explain how the group has managed to achieve such a large part of their ambitions.

“It didn’t just happen,” he says. “We’ve been at it since 1963, you know? Since 19645 as the Stampeders, and Mel’s been with us all that time.

“I think much of the credit has to go to him. He really believed in the power of promotion. He did everything. Dressed us up in cowboy suits for a while. Sent out bios and all even before we had a record contract. All through the years, wherever we went, he had pamphlets, cartoon books, anything to promote us. Trouble was, in the early days, his hype was 10 times better than the band.

“But we believed in ourselves, and we just kept at it. We began to get more gigs. And then ‘Wild Eyes’ was a big hit in Canada in 1972. And ‘Sweet City Woman’ broke everywhere as an across-the-board hit. And we started to headline. We became an attraction.

“And now I think the promotion has leveled off to where all the ridiculous hype is no more.” Kim pauses for a long swig of beer. “It’s just your ordinary, everyday hype now. Like, you know, getting a guy from Zoo World [where this article first appeared] to come over and interview you…

“But seriously, I don’t knock it. You can’t just sit around and think, ‘Well, we’ll be discovered.’ You’ve got to let people know about you.”

That is exactly the object of the group’s current tour, explains Ronnie, as he slips out of the Wolfman imitation and back into his normal voice. “We feel today that we can hold our own with any group in this country. So we’re just gonna stick to our guns, like we did in Canada. Because it was basically just persistence and hangin’ on that did it for us there.”

At this point, the conversation is cut short by word that the band is due to give its performance. When the writer next sees them, they have changed into flashy clothes and are running onstage to make music for an audience of several thousand.

In the dressing room, they had merely talked about being rock stars; now they looked their parts. Bassist Ronnie King is clad in an all-white outfit, the top parted almost to the waist. Rich Dodson, toting a double-necked guitar, wears a bright red had with a blue feather, grey pants, tall red boots, and a dark jacket. From behind the drum set, the silver bands on Kim Berly’s black, skin-tight body suit glimmer in the stage lights.

Rich leans into his mike, announces a song, and the Stampeders go into action. Ronnie inclines low to the floor, working his bass. Rich does a little dance step and moves to the front of the stage to get closer to the audience. Kim twirls his drumsticks, pounds out the beat, and bounces maniacally on his stool.

All three of them smile.

And sing:

So long, Ma, so long, Pa / So long, neighbors and friends / Sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet city woman / Oh, it feels so good to know she waits / At the end of the line . . .

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