Bobby Dean Blackburn

Best Kept Secrets of the Bruce Peninsula #1

August 2008
© David McLaren

One of the best kept secrets of the Bruce Peninsula is the rustic
Tamarac Inn, built on Tamarac Island at Stokes Bay along with 90 years of history.
It started out as a hunting and fishing lodge and, with all the old knickknacks
and photos on the walls, it’s not hard to imagine Red Green walking in looking
for a meeting. Its former owner ran the place like a tavern and that attracted
a most colourful crowd, especially on Friday nights when the Mad Reefer Band, a
local rock group, served up all the old classics.

The Inn is now under new management – Jess and Lee Royer acquired
the place a few weeks ago along with a few new ideas that I hope won’t scare
off the local clientele and the rock musicians that played there. But the
Royers are starting some much needed renovations and have already turned the
main room into a welcoming place to eat (the omelettes and fries are
delicious). They operate a small motel and a cottage, and eventually they’ll
rent out one or two of the old upstairs rooms. They’re waiting on a new liquor
licence, which always takes too long, but that shouldn’t stop people from
taking a pleasant drive on the back roads of the Bruce Peninsula and across the
short causeway that separates the Island from the mainland.

But what I really want to talk about is what you can find at the
Tamarac Inn during Sunday morning brunch from 11:30 am to 2:30 pm. Bobby Dean
Blackburn is there, cranking out some of the best jazz and blues in the Bruce.
His band mates change with who’s available, but last Sunday Hart Richardson and
Tom Omens were there on trumpet. Frank DeMetteis was on drums, Adam McLaren on
guitar and Dave Williams on bass.

Bobby Dean Blackburn is the great-grandson of a slave who rode the
Underground Railroad into Canada. Bobby Dean’s grandfather, Solomon Earls, married
Sarah, one of the Woods girls from Owen Sound. Theirs was one of the first interracial
marriages in Canada and boy, did that ever put the fat in the fire. Sarah’s
family disowned her and the KKK came calling. As the boys in the bed sheets
were lighting up their cross, Sarah marched out with a shotgun and told them
straight out: “I know every one of you men and if don’t get off my front lawn, you’re
going to find yourself in a whole lot of trouble.”

Bobby Dean started his musical career at the African Methodist
Episcopal Church in Toronto. He sang gospel at the British Methodist Episcopal
church on Shaw Street and was lead singer by the time he was 12. At 13, he made
a demo record that his guitar teacher sent south in application to the Grand Ol
Opre. The Opre accepted him, but his father wouldn’t hear of any of it: there
were no black country singers in 1953.

So … Bobby Dean formed a band in high school and played rock ‘n’ roll
and rhythm and blues. The kids loved it, but this was in the mid-1950s and the
teachers wouldn’t hear any of that either. They didn’t want to see him in
September and the principal told him not to come back.

So … Bobby Dean and the Gems started touring – first dances in the
city, then all over Ontario, before settling for a while at the original Club
Blue Note, the first after hours R&B club in Toronto. His was the first band
in Canada to bring horns (tenor and baritone sax) to rock ‘n’ roll. After that
it was the Zanzibar Tavern on Yonge Street when it and the Silver Rail were the
best places in Canada for jazz and blues and R&B.

When Bobby Dean held court at the Zanzibar, everyone who was anyone came
to play and scout for talent to take back down south. David Clayton Thomas from
Blood Sweat and Tears became a friend; likewise Paul Butterfield, Buddy Miles,
William Smitty Smith from Motherlode and a bunch more.

He toured too – all across Canada for thirty years, but never into
the US. I asked Bobby Dean why he didn’t go south too and he told me, “I wanted
to stay in Canada. If I couldn’t make it here, I didn’t want to make it in the
States.”

Now, when you listen to him play, you can hear the payoff that comes
with years of playing jazz and blues and R&B on your own terms. If you
look, you can find him on the bill of festivals all over: The Collingwood Jazz
Festival, Jazz by the Bay in Thornbury, headliner at the Great Canadian Blues
Festival at Harbourfront in Toronto and, of course, the Owen Sound Emancipation
Celebration Festival, or as he likes to call it, the family picnic.

He loves to play with his sons, Robert, Brooke, Duane and Cory who,
as the Blackburn Brothers, played the Toronto and Montreal Jazz festivals, where
they opened for blues great Mavis Staples. They released their third album not
too long ago and, along with Bobby Dean’s sister Angela (who sang with Dean
McTaggart in the 60s and 70s) they team up with their dad on a new album
called, Bobby Dean Blackburn, Don’t Ask …
Don’t Tell
.

Joining the Blackburns on the CD is a star-studded cast. On sax,
you’ll hear Steve Kennedy who was a founding member of Motherlode, still plays
with Lighthouse and who arranged the horn music on the album. Van Dixon is
there; he played trumpet in the house band at the Apollo Theatre in NYC for 15
years and backed the likes of Wilson Picket, Sam and Dave and Otis Redding. Then
there’s Howard Ayee (Moe Koffman, Rough Trade, Strange Advance, Air Supply) on
bass who also co-produced the album. International saxophonist Neil Brathraite
is there. Joel Morelli, from the Owen Sound music scene, is on guitar. Jerome
Godboo has played with Ronnie Hawkins, Jeff Healey, and a lot of others. He’s
headlined the Montreal Jazz Festival, toured the world and he has 12 albums
under his belt of harmonicas. And on guitar is the versatile, talented and very
busy Donna Grantis.

Don’t Ask … Don’t Tell will be released in Owen Sound and Toronto in October. I’ve heard it. It’s sublime. Buy it.

Bobby Dean’s back in his Gramma Sarah’s hometown, a bit of a legend,
playing what he wants, with whom he wants and where he wants.

Update March 2011:
The weekend after this appeared in the Owen Sound Sun Times in August 2009, the Tamarac Inn was so full, the owners ran out of tables and food. The place was jumping and Bobby was  a big hit. The owners then went south for the winter, but in the Spring they didn’t invite Bobby back.

He was playing at The Pacific Hotel in Wiarton and The Dunes restaurant in Sauble Beach. But neither place advertised the fact and no one knew to come out. Duh. Too bad too – he had a great sax player with him.


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About David McLaren

David McLaren is an award-winning writer. He has worked in government and the private sector, with NGOs and First Nations in Ontario. He is currently writing from Neyaashiinigamiing on the shore of Georgian Bay and can be reached at david.mclaren@utoronto.ca. In February 2015, he won the nomination for the NDP to represent the riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound in the 2015 federal election. See that page for writings during the campaign.
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3 Responses to Bobby Dean Blackburn

  1. Gary says:

    Hi David,

    This is a great piece. I’m helping to pull together an event discussing the history of Black musicians in Toronto, and would like to use your scan of the album cover, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in a ppt. show. Any objections?

    Thanks,
    Gary

  2. Pingback: Big Town Boys | Russ & Gary's "The Best Years of Music"

  3. More early Toronto music history here: https://strathdee.wordpress.com/2012/04/11/big-town-boys/
    Kay Taylor and the Regents were the house band at the Club Bluenote from October 1960 to August 1962. (Bobby Dean and the Gems were the first house band in 1960 and the Regents took over from them).

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