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A candid interview
with Harry Hibbs

Twenty years ago today, Newfoundland lost a favourite son, with the passing of Harry Hibbs.

He was one of this countrys most successful recording artists, with album sales possibly in the millions. That would be impressive today, but in the Sixties and Seventies, when Hibbs was riding high, it was phenomenal.

I managed to interview Harry Hibbs that same year. By then, he had slipped into hiding, apparently to plot a career comeback. I tracked down Hibbs in Toronto, through his brother Marty and, after considerable discussion and some deliberation, the folk legend agreed to talk to me.

During the interview, Hibbs opened up and talked openly for the first time about his troubles with alcohol. He also complained somewhat bitterly about not getting paid for his exceptional record sales.

It was the first time he had spoken to the Newfoundland media in years, so the interview was something of a coup.

It would also be his last. Hibbs died less than five months later.

Following is the article I wrote about Hibbs, from The Sunday Express, July 30, 1989. I apologize for a bit of over-ambitious writing, specifically the phrase inveigled by the salute of the raised chalice, which was over the top. Otherwise, its a decent piece and Im proud to post it here, as a tribute to one of our most famous sons.

Harry Hibbs: Hard Times in Hogtown

By GEOFF MEEKER

Sunday Express Entertainment Editor

Some people still call him Newfoundlands favorite son.

And for roughly a decade, Harry Hibbs was a national sensation - about as famous as a man wearing a salt and pepper cap and playing the accordion can be. During a career that spanned 26 album releases, Mr. Hibbs estimates he has sold about eight million records. (Although two sources that followed Mr. Hibbs career said it was probably correct, this figure is difficult to prove or disprove, for reasons that will readily become apparent.)

Yet it was an astonished Sears personnel officer - by coincidence, a Newfoundlander - who sat across the desk from Mr . Hibbs in 1981, to interview Newfoundlands favorite son for a job in the stock room.

This guy said, Ive seen you somewhere before, Mr. Hibbs said, in a telephone interview with The Sunday Express, from his apartment in Toronto.

He said, Youre not Harry Hibbs, the recording artist, are you?

I said, Yeah.

He said What in the Jesus are you doing here? You're supposed to be still recording, arent you?

Harry Hibbs, the man who scant years earlier was pulling in $5,000 per show, was offered a job as a security guard. Mr. Hibbs declined, saying such duty would allow too much time to dwell on past mistakes, and ended up working in the stock room. Menial as they were, he threw himself into the tasks at hand, working night and day, never letting ignominy cloak his spirit.

For he had been dealt a blow far more painful than any mere fall from grace. Betrayed by the people he had trusted most and robbed of a fortune in earnings, Mr. Hibbs unlovely slide into obscurity was greased by a sudden and deep infatuation with alcohol. Inveigled by the salute of the raised chalice, he drank at his own performances, confident as only a drunk can be. Despite the nodding, winking veneer, Newfoundlands favorite son was obviously hurting, and audiences began seeking their escape elsewhere.

BELL ISLAND NATIVE

Escape is what 18-year-old Harry Hibbs had in mind back in 1962, when he left the mining centre of Bell Island for the steel and glass palaces of Toronto, with his mother and younger brother Marty in tow. His father had died two years previously, leaving Harry to support his family, and his $32 -a-week job at the Diamond Club [on Bell Island] was not cutting it.

A series of odd jobs - including a stint as an armed guard - carried him through some tough times, until Harry finally gathered enough nerve to pursue his first love. He had been playing the accordion since the age of five, shaking down house parties with his dad, who was no slouch on the squeezebox either. In October of 1968, Harry Hibbs released his first album - The Black Velvet Band - and the impact of that work on traditional Newfoundland music is still being felt today.

The Black Velvet Band went on to sell 1,500,000 copies, by Mr. Hibbs estimation. Spearheaded by hit singles, his next eight albums all went gold, with sales of well over 100,000 each. In his glory days, Mr. Hibbs was pulling in $5,000 for some shows (from which he cleared perhaps $1,500 after expenses, still a tidy sum in 1969 dollars).

They said it was a stroke of luck, Mr. Hibbs said, which it was, because I was there at the right place, at the right time. There was no Newfoundland or Irish music on the radio, and no such programs on TV, so we broke the market - we sort of buffed it out.

What happened next almost defies explanation, until you come to know Mr. Hibbs trusting, devil-may-care nature. He was told he was making 42 cents for every record he sold. But he wasn't - not by a long shot.

From Arc (Records), for the first four gold albums, I got $142, Mr. Hibbs chuckled. I got a letter in the second statement saying they had gone bankrupt. This was due partially to my manager as well, because he took off with about a quarter million (dollars) in royalties... He said he was getting the statements, but putting them back into my recordings while I was on the road. But recordings at that time only cost about $4,000.

They did the same thing to Anne Murray. She spent thousands of dollars trying to get her (early) royalties and didnt get anywhere with it.

Mr. Hibbs decided to start from scratch with a new record company. He turned down major-label RCA Records to sign with up-and-coming Marathon Records - only to have them go bankrupt during recording of the second album.

I never even got my first statement off them, because the second album was halfway done three months after the first one. So I went into the studio and took the master tape right off the machine

Canadian artists at that time, like myself, coming out of the factory into the music business, you didnt know anything about recording or anything like that Youre out on the road, doing your thing and theres someone up there pilfering your money away. You go back and say, Alright, Im away for 11 months, when I go back there should be quite a bit of money in my companys account. And you go back and find theres two or three thousand, where there's supposed to be half a million... So youd fight and youd fight and theyd give you the run-around... If I had to have any sense (I would have hired) a good lawyer and he would have handled all this... But I trusted too much to the manager to look after it - he sure did !

NO CLEAR ANSWER

Mr. Hibbs speculates that, if he had been paid for the records he sold, he wouldnt have to work now. As it is, the only way he can even guess at total album sales is by talking to the various producers who witnessed his success - the bankrupt record companies have never given him a clear answer.

When he finally did put his shop in order - every detail of his financial affairs is now overseen rigidly by brother Marty - Mr. Hibbs career had already peaked, and his albums were slipping in popularity. Creditors were knocking on his door, demanding money owed them by the defunct record labels and, though he didnt pay them a cent, Mr. Hibbs did sell off many of his belongings, including his house.

Mr. Hibbs said there were times - however seldom - when he felt unwanted and cast aside.

Once in a while, youd figure that people are after completely forgetting about you. You sort of think to yourself, What are all those years... The people seemed to enjoy themselves while you were playing to them, and helping them to forget their problems. In the meantime, youve got a bunch and youd love to have someone sing to you.

During the early 70s, a nasty drinking habit overshadowed Mr. Hibbs existence. From about 1972 to 75 he was out of control, drinking whenever the opportunity arose - and there were plenty of those. His last waltz with the bottle was in Labrador in 198O, and he says he hasnt backslid since, though he claims he can still handle one or two social drinks. Mr. Hibbs credits the long, busy hours at Sears for helping him kick the habit.

'A LOT OF DAMAGE'

I was at a point there where I didnt care - everything was gone. My boat was gone, my house was gone. So I said... Why should I care about it Im after losing half the audience. (But) I was losing the audience because of drinking... It just didnt click that I was drinking that much. I used to have a couple of drinks, thinking it was great as long as I kept it at a couple... not knowing that I was after downing 10 before I got up to sing a song. Over a two year period, you can do a lot of damage.

He said he still feels guilty about some of the wrongs he has done to his audience, and that he looks forward to a comeback, when the popular appeal of folk music increases enough to make such a foray worthwhile.

You are getting older, youre having what you would call the last kick at the cat. And if that doesnt work, by God, nobody else is going to give you a chance - because they will give you a chance if you say Alright, Im sorry for what I did before... Now I will play the song the way its supposed to be played, with no mistakes or falling around or acting like an idiot.

You assess the damage that youve done, over the period of two years, that you yourself have lost that you dont know anything about. Its an awful feeling, to suddenly wake up after two years and say What have I done? Who have I let down? What have I said on stage? It frightens the hell out of you.

Mr. Hibbs last recording was released over five years ago, and received limited distribution in Newfoundland. He has plans to record a new album later this year, and to visit Newfoundland in May of 1990 for a province-wide arts and culture centre tour.

And the time may indeed be ripe for a comeback. In the Toronto area, a radio show that specializes in down-home eastern music still rates Harry Hibbs as a favorite with listeners.

Harry is still the sentimental favorite of everybody, said Bob Cousins, a Newfoundland native who produces and hosts the Friends and Neighbors radio show out of Brampton. We log roughly 350 phone calls every (show), and our mail shows us that Harry is still... Newfoundlands favorite son.

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  • len
    July 27, 2010 - 14:54

    i was living in toronto at the time when harry was playing at the caribou club, I went there a few times with friends to watch harry play and sing,I loved him then, t was about 22 or23yrs old ,I still love him and now i am 59.I am from nfld and living in ns.and still think of harry as nfld's favorite son.he always will be..still enjoy hes music len,,