Early Bruce Cockburn - The Flying Circus and Olivus
by Nick Warburton
November 2006 - Nick Warburton is a UK-based journalist, who has written the following article and given us permission to reprint in full here. Enjoy!
3 February 2007 -
By the late summer of 1967, Bruce Cockburn (b. 27 May 1945, Ottawa, Ontario) was about to try his luck in Toronto with an exciting new project. Over the last year or so, he'd enjoyed a modicum of success with Ottawa folk-rock bands, The Children and The Esquires but the music scene in Canada was changing fast. Many of Cockburn's musical contemporaries were eschewing the old rock 'n' roll formats in favour of the new psychedelic scene and the young singer/songwriter was no exception.
Sometime during late August, Cockburn received a visit from a bass player and singer from Toronto called Neil Lillie (b. Robert Neilson Lillie, 27 December 1945, Winnipeg, Manitoba), who'd heard about him through Ottawa group, The Staccatos (later The Five Man Electrical Band). Lillie, a veteran of bands, The Just Us and The Tripp, had recently been playing in a final incarnation of The Mynah Birds (now spelt Myna Byrds) with future Motown star, Rick James (then known as Ricky James Matthews) but was on the look out for new musical partners.
The Myna Byrds had returned home from Detroit a few weeks earlier where they had done some tentative recordings, including cutting a version of Ricky James Matthews and Neil Young's "It's My Time", but imploded when police arrested Matthews at the club, the Night Owl and took him away.
Undeterred, Lillie held out hopes that Matthews would soon be released and began to scout around for potential members for a new line up. "While Rick was in jail, we talked on the phone and I went on to put a new 'Myna Byrds' together to join him at Motown when he was deported back to Buffalo, New York," explains Lillie from his home in Los Angeles.
While fans today might find it difficult to imagine Rick James and Bruce Cockburn playing together in the same band, truth is indeed stranger than fiction and the collaboration very nearly happened. Lillie quickly recognised Cockburn's talent and knew he was perfect as the guitarist for the next 'Myna Byrds'.
During September, Cockburn and Lillie headed for Toronto to look for two musicians to fill out the group and one night popped in to the Concorde Tavern to catch local folk-rockers, Bobby Kris & The Imperials playing. Lillie was already familiar with two of the band's members - keyboard player Marty Fisher (b. 26 December 1945, Vancouver, British Columbia) and drummer Gordon MacBain (b. 5 August 1947, Toronto, Ontario) from playing on the local scene. With The Imperials pretty much on their last legs, Fisher and MacBain were more than happy to sign up to the new project.
With the group readied for Matthews' return, Toronto millionaire John Craig Eaton, who'd been involved with an earlier version of the group when Neil Young was a member, dropped by a rehearsal one day and was immediately impressed. "Neil [Lillie] got [Eaton] on board," remembers MacBain. "We were with him for a little while. We did quite a few parties and things like that for John Eaton's friends and corporate lawyers. We worked with a guy named Morley Markson, who was a friend of John Eaton's who actually took one of the [band's] pictures. He was a pretty well known guy. He designed one of the big displays at Expo '67 called the Kaleidoscope".
The band's elusive front man, however, remained in custody, pending deportation. As the weeks progressed, the group, tentatively dubbed John Q Public, began to learn some new Bruce Cockburn tunes so that a set list would be in place. To survive, the band then began performing as The Flying Circus, debuting with a residence at Ottawa's Le Hibou coffee house, commencing on 17 October.
Unfortunately, when Matthews did finally call from Buffalo months later, The Flying Circus had left Eaton and acquired a new management deal with Ottawa promoter Harvey Glatt, and the Rick James-Bruce Cockburn partnership was never realised. Even so, the Motown connection didn't quite end there, as Marty Fisher recalled in an interview with this author in 2004, the year before he died.
In the first few weeks of the band's existence, Fisher remembers Cockburn returning home to Ottawa to pick up his mother's station wagon and driving everyone down to the Motor City in search of a record deal. "We drove down to Detroit to the famous Motown three houses," laughed Fisher, looking back at the incident. "We're like 'Wow, is this it? We're looking around thinking (incredulously) 'This is Motown Records?' It looked kind of scuzzy. Do you know what I mean? They were looking for a white band [and] we had this meeting with this producer. He said, 'Look, here's the deal. It's 200 bucks a week. That's what we pay you and you sign everything over to us, the royalties, all your earnings and then we pay your salary'. And we said, 'No, we're not giving up our royalties'. Both Bruce and I felt that way about it.
"But that's what the guy said to us," continues Fisher. "He said, 'You don't think that's a good deal? That's what The Supremes get' and he started naming off all the acts. 'That's what they get'. But we said, 'No'. It is kind of funny in retrospect, that, yeah, we turned down Motown Records."
In the immediate future the failure to land a deal with a major label didn't matter. With Harvey Glatt's financial support and encouragement The Flying Circus were in good hands. Back in Toronto during early November, the group got the opportunity to record some material in the studio with Cockburn's former Children cohort, Sandy Crawley. Unfortunately, little is known about these recordings and nobody seems to know where the tapes are now.
More importantly, the group also got the opportunity to record a whole clutch of recently composed songs at Eastern Sound, a tape of which provides a tantalising insight into Cockburn's short (and never previously heard) "psychedelic period".
The Cockburn originals are all impressive and range from the blues rock of the group signature tune, "Flying Circus"" and "I'm Leaving You Out" (which was previously cut with The Children) to more free-form numbers like "Mother". Hidden gems like "She Wants To Know" on the other hand, show the influence of the Toronto scene on his writing.
Interestingly, Bruce Cockburn would never revisit any of these early compositions in later years, perhaps feeling that they were not suited to his singer/songwriter style. This is a real pity because the material he composed during this period has a particular charm and demonstrates a great writer at work.
Of the remaining original group songs recorded at the sessions, Neil Lillie chips in with the funky organ-driven "Last Hoorah", although for some reason it is Cockburn rather than Lillie who handles the lead vocal. Cockburn is also the lead singer on Marty Fisher and Gordon MacBain's lone contribution, the excellent "Where Is All The Love?" which has hit single written all over it.
At the same sessions, The Flying Circus cut several songs by Cockburn's former Children cohort, Bill Hawkins, including "Merry Go Round", the excellent "It's A Dirty Shame" (which features Neil Lillie on lead vocals) and "Little Bit Stoned" (with a lead vocal from Marty Fisher). Fisher remembers the group recording another Bill Hawkins song at the sessions called "The Elephant Song" (actually "It's An Elephant's World"), which, he adds, was "about Bill getting the government grant and buying hash with it!"
Judging by the quality of the songs, it is surprising that none of the recordings saw the light of day at the time, although MacBain suspects it was probably down to Cockburn exercising quality control. "He was a real perfectionist," he says. "If it wasn't exactly what he wanted he would have put the kibosh on them. A lot of that stuff was his very early writing and he probably wasn't all that enamoured with his first work. That's my guess. We all thought it was great but he probably didn't. The reason I say that is because he never recorded any of it again."
That same month, from 14-18 November, The Flying Circus performed at the famous Toronto folk club, the Riverboat. Toronto Star staff writer Peter Harris turned up on the opening night and wrote a largely positive piece for the following day's issue. Under the headline, "Flying Circus has lofty goals", Harris noted: "…the group's material - mainly its own compositions - indicates a relatively thoughtful and serious-minded attitude…and some of the arrangements, particularly on 'Through The Looking Glass' suggests that the group's four members - have set themselves a fairly lofty goal in the pop-rock field."
Throughout the early months of 1968, work began to pick up as Harvey Glatt booked the band at increasingly more important venues. On one occasion, The Flying Circus found themselves opening for soul legend, Wilson Pickett at Massey Hall in Toronto and the Capitol Theatre in Ottawa. On another, they shared the bill with rock 'n' roll singer Roy Orbison. "Before he came on stage, The Candymen, his band, did the whole of Sgt Pepper album with a Farfisa organ and I swear to you it was so well done, we couldn't believe it," says Lillie. "I could never believe that someone could do The Beatles so well."
During this period, Fisher remembers meeting and hanging out with Joni Mitchell and Muddy Waters at Le Hibou. This may or may not have been the same occasion when Cockburn and Glatt accompanied Joni Mitchell to her first meeting with Graham Nash who was playing in town with The Hollies.
Not long after, the first cracks began to appear in the group. During early March, Neil Lillie left The Flying Circus to form his own group (Heather) Merryweather, later moving to Los Angeles and carving out a career as heavy-rocker, Neil Merryweather. "There was a conflict of personalities," remembers MacBain. "Neil was a very flamboyant and eccentric person and his ideas I guess clashed with Bruce at the end."
Lillie has his own explanation for leaving. "The way that happened was, we were rehearsing at some friend of Bruce's basement with a whole bunch of trash all around us. There was these old speakers lying there, so one time I decided, 'Oh, I'm going to take these home and use them for a little bit with my record player'. I was borrowing them more or less. I thought it was garbage so I fixed it up and it turned out to be storage for a well-known sax guy on TV. Bruce was mad at me. By then I was already discontented with the group and I was already feeling like it was time to get out of town."
Lillie's replacement, Dennis Pendrith (b. 19 September 1949, Toronto, Ontario), had played with a number of Toronto bands before, most notably Luke & The Apostles. Interestingly, he'd already replaced Lillie once before when he left The Tripp and the group carried on as Livingstone's Journey.
While Pendrith doesn't recall recording any material with the band after he joined, that didn't stop Cockburn from introducing new songs into the set, such as "Jacob's Ladder", "Morning Hymn" and "Bird Lady", the latter written about a woman in Ottawa who was "like a bag lady". "She had all feathers and stuff and people used to call her the 'bird lady', remembers MacBain. "That was the basis of that song". During this period, Cockburn also collaborated with the late Jimmy Livingstone on the little known song "Saint Martha's Earthworm".
With Pendrith's arrival, the group's road manager Michael Ferry (Lee Jackson of Jon and Lee & The Checkmates fame) suggested a name change to Olivus. The "new look" group immediately began to pick up more high profile gigs.
According to Fisher and MacBain, the group opened for The Jimi Hendrix Experience twice, once in Ottawa at the Capitol Theatre on 19 March and then again a few weeks later in Montreal at the Paul Sauve Arena on 2 April. "We went to a party with them after [the Montreal show] at some place that Harvey had set up. It was almost like an underground garage," says MacBain. "I actually got to jam with Noel Redding who at that time was playing guitar. He was a fabulous guitar player; he was almost as good as Hendrix. Then I stepped down and Mitch Mitchell and Hendrix got up and jammed with Bruce and Marty. We got to meet them all and Noel Redding actually wanted to manage the band but of course we were involved with Harvey at the time."
"J B & The Playboys had a rehearsal space and they had invited [The Jimi Hendrix Experience] to come back and jam," adds Pendrith. "I remember Hendrix arrived after Mitch and Noel and when he arrived there was such awe. There was about a 15-foot space around him, which nobody could go near. He sat on the floor and gradually people started to move over. I had never seen that. Then he got up and played. It was great."
On the Monday night, the day before the Paul Sauve Arena show, Olivus kicked off a weeklong engagement at the New Penelope club on Sherbrooke St West. The group drew favourable reviews from the press and later that week, in the Montreal Star's Friday youth column, Carole Clifford wrote: "The Olivus, the Toronto group everyone's raving about (they were terrific at last Tuesday's Sauve show) will be at the New Penelope until Sunday night. They may make the modball next week."
"There was a club we played in Montreal after the Penelope and [the modball] must have been it," chips in Pendrith looking back. "I think we played there for a couple of days but it wasn't a venue for what we were trying to do."
Before playing in Montreal the following week, Olivus headed back to Ottawa early on 8 April for an evening show supporting Cream, who were playing at the Capitol Theatre. Once again, the two bands met up afterwards, although on this occasion Cream's star guitarist failed to show up. "We got to hang out with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker,"remembers MacBain. "Jack was playing harmonica for everybody. He was a very nice guy, very down to earth and just like one of the boys. Ginger was a little bit more of a character, a flamboyant type guy. We were all disappointed that Clapton didn't come. He was supposed to come but something else came up and he didn't make it to the party.v
In a more unusual pairing, Olivus travelled down to New York, opening for jazz musician, Gary Burton and his quartet at Steve Paul's The Scene from 30 May-2 June. Sadly, the performance proved to be the band's swan song as Fisher explains, "The Young Rascals came to see us and introduced themselves. They said, 'You're a great band and stuff like that'. We were on the cutting edge of what was happening and Bruce wanted to go back to being a folk singer. [There was] no sense in that. Everyone else had gone electric. 'C'mon man, Bob Dylan's your hero and he's electric'. It was a bit of a shame. [Cockburn's] electric stuff was great."
Bruce Cockburn's decision to stop the band in its tracks wasn't the end of his working relationship with Fisher, however. After Olivus broke up, Fisher remembers Cockburn getting a film score job for a documentary about Expo '67 and being asked to write the music. Fisher was touched when Cockburn approached him to co-write the soundtrack.
The collaboration was short-lived. By August 1968, Cockburn's plan to go solo had fallen flat on its face. In need of paid work, he accepted an offer to join a new version of 3's a Crowd with former band mate, Dennis Pendrith and singer Colleen Peterson. The Toronto folk-rock band also reunited him with former Children members, Sandy Crawley, David Wiffen and Richard Patterson. Not surprisingly though, Cockburn's involvement was brief and when 3's a Crowd fell apart the following spring, he began the illustrious solo career that continues to this day. Any reference to his "electric period" with The Flying Circus and Olivus, however, remains firmly buried in the past.
But Marty Fisher and Gordon MacBain still recognised the value of Cockburn's songs. When they moved to England during 1969 with fellow Canadian, guitarist Stan Endersby, they brought a whole bunch of The Flying Circus' songs to a new project called Mapleoak, which was the brainchild of former Kinks bass player Peter Quaife.
In an article for the Toronto Telegram in August 1969, MacBain told journalist Bill Gray why the band had chosen to cover Cockburn's tunes. "Bruce has written so many beautiful songs that just aren't known outside Canada," he said. "They're songs that fit in perfectly with the spirit of Mapleoak, so we're doing them. It's as simple as that."
Sure enough in 1970 the group (without Peter Quaife, who had left by this stage) recorded an obscure album for Decca, which contained a number of songs from The Flying Circus days, including Cockburn's "Flying Circus" and Hawkins' "Frankly Stoned". According to MacBain, Mapleoak also recorded another Cockburn tune, which sadly never made the album. "One song that was called 'Morning Hymn' was brilliant. It was probably everybody's favourite and [Cockburn] never recorded that song. We actually recorded it in England but it was one of the ones that didn't make that album." (NB: Cockburn did end up committing the song to tape as the b-side to his 1972 single, "It's Going Down Slow".)
Fisher and MacBain subsequently returned to Canada and went on to play with a number of artists on the Toronto rock scene. While Fisher sadly died of a heart attack in August 2005, MacBain lives in northern Ontario where he devotes much of his time to song writing. He has recently pitched songs for artists such as Aaron Neville, Wyonna, Chris de Burgh and Roch Voisine.
Looking back on his time with The Flying Circus and Olivus, MacBain has this to say: "It was the most exciting and creative time in all of my musical adventures - I mean what can top hanging out with Jimi!"
Copyright © Nick Warburton, November 2006.
Many thanks to the following for their generous help in piecing this story together: Gordon MacBain, Marty Fisher, Dennis Pendrith, Neil Merryweather, Harvey Glatt, Richard Patterson, Carny Corbett, Mike Paxman and Stan Endersby.
This is an extract from the forthcoming Misty Lane magazine issue 21. To find out how to order a copy, please contact the author.
To contact the author, email: Warchive@aol.com
Nick Warburton is a UK-based journalist who co-managers the Rhinoceros website at: www.rhinoceros-group.com and has written on Canadian artists for the Classic Rock Page at: www.classicrockpage.com/everheardof.htm. He has also contributed to Canadian bands at: www.canadianbands.com and has contributed articles to the collector’s magazines, Misty Lane, Ugly Things, Record Collector and Shindig. Besides this, he has written liner notes for Rev-Ola’s H.P Lovecraft compilation and a forthcoming CD compilation on Australian ‘60s band, The Wild Cherries for Half a Cow Records. He recently helped Universal with the Mynah Birds section on their Motown Singles boxset for 1966 and wrote for Guinness’ Rockopedia in 1998. As deputy editor at the Environmental Health Practitioner at the CIEH in London, he regulars writes for the magazine at: www.ehp-online.com.
This page is part of The Cockburn Project, a unique website that exists to document the work of Canadian singer-songwriter and musician Bruce Cockburn. The Project archives self-commentary by Cockburn on his songs and music, and supplements this core part of the website with news, tour dates, and other current information.