Wonderful grand tour

WGB set to begin another round of performances across province

Tara Bradbury tbradbury@thetelegram.com
Published on October 29, 2011

It wasn’t a matter of scheduling or a clash of personalities or a lack of fans that led the Wonderful Grand Band to split, back in 1984: it was a matter of biology.

“There’s a part of the brain that grows faster than the other part of the brain. This part grew too fast and this part didn’t catch up,” says band member Glenn Simmons, laughing. “We’re stupid. Something like that.”

The guys — Simmons, Greg Malone, Ron Hynes, Sandy Morris, Jamie Snider, Ian Perry and Paul “Boomer” Stamp — have got back together now, and are embarking on a tour of the province’s Arts and Culture Centres, starting in Labrador Nov. 3.

This is their second tour in as many years: in 2009, WGB travelled the province, performing together for the first time since their break-up, and without Tommy Sexton, who died in 1993.

Since that time, each of the members has pursued their own careers, all of them in the artistic field — some as solo musicians, some with other bands, Malone as an actor, director and writer. He was never really a musician, he says, and actually had to be persuaded to join the band in the beginning.

“I didn’t think of myself as a band kind of guy,” Malone says. “I was very much into acting, of course.”

“You’re also the best damn dancer in Newfoundland. Well, Mr. Budgell is,” interjects Simmons, talking about one of Malone’s on-stage WGB personas.

The Wonderful Grand Band, combining music and comedy, was the first of its kind in this province when it formed in 1977. Morris was the centrepiece of it all at that time, Simmons said, bringing the guys together. The CBC mini-series “The Root Seller” was the band’s first show.

“CBC had a budget back then for local programs, and they had just done a bunch of things, like ‘All Around the Circle,’ and were looking for something different. They got something different,” Simmons said.

WGB did six pilot episodes of the comedy, which was broadcast nationally with great success. What followed was live performances at Toronto’s Masonic Temple, marking the first time Malone performed with a band.

Even he was impressed with the show, he says.

“There were no holes in that music. It was trad rock like you’ve never heard it before, just bang-bang-bang, delivered,” he says. “I was behind stage as Mr. Budgell, waiting to go on. The boys were playing and I was backstage jumping around, and I thought, shag it, I might as well go on. I jumped over the amp and went onstage and started dancing around, just because it was so good. Then, every night I danced.”

The band would play and Malone and Sexton would come on and trash them, put them down — that’s how it worked, and that’s what audiences found hilarious. After a successful run in Toronto, the band toured the Maritimes and ended up back in Ontario, where the gigs were coming in.

They also landed a regular gig at The Strand lounge in the Avalon Mall.

“We were going full tilt, man. It was a great time. Everyone noticed the sensation we were creating in town. We worked out a deal with CBC, went in and started to do the TV show.”

At the time the Wonderful Grand Band’s musical variety show started, the lineup was a little different: Simmons, Malone, Hynes, Morris, Sexton, fiddler Kelly Russell and drummer Rocky Wiseman.

Perry was replaced by Howie Warden (but returned for the 2009 tour), Simmons was eventually replaced by Steve Annan (but also returned two years ago), Russell was replaced by Jamie Snider and Wiseman was replaced by Boomer Stamp.

The show lasted 40 episodes between 1980 and 1983, and featured appearances by actors Cathy Jones and Mary Walsh, and went over with a Newfoundland and Labrador audience like crazy.

The Wonderful Grand Band show had the highest ratings of any CBC show in history, Malone said, local or national, with an 80 per cent viewership in this province.

“Ron wrote great songs, Greg and Tommy were writing and acting great comedy, and I was rock and roll. We all just did it,” Simmons says. “To be honest, though, I think a lot of people at the time were afraid of it. It was a different time, and things were being said.

“We all had to get unlisted numbers. Two weeks in, I started getting calls: ‘What do you people think you’re doing? It’s shameful, absolutely shameful. You should be ashamed of yourselves.’”

“Oh my God, yes,” Malone adds. “CBC was always getting calls from the archbishop’s office, saying, ‘There’s a crucifix on the wall!’”

WGB recorded two albums: a self-titled debut, released in 1978, and “Living in a Fog,” featuring the hits “Sonny’s Dream,” “Babylon Mall” and “Suzie,” in 1981.

After three years, with all the changes and additions, things got a little unwieldy, so the guys let the band go. Malone and Sexton were longing to do more theatre work; the rock ’n’ rollers in the band wanted to tour with other groups. Individual interests pulled the members apart.

The idea of getting back together for a tour had been bandied about every so often, but scheduling never permitted it until 2009.

Since that tour, the Wonderful Grand Band has done gigs here and there, their last one a show with Dan Akroyd during the Newfoundland Screech Comedy Festival in St. John’s last June.

There’s something much more relaxed about their gigs nowadays, both Simmons and Malone say.

“I’m having more fun. I’m not as uptight as I was before a show back then. You know what everyone can do and what everyone’s been through and you just appreciate what you can do more and you play it better. I enjoy it.”

The new tour — which will feature old material as well as some new characters and new tunes — will stop in Labrador West Nov. 3, Goose Bay Nov. 4, Clarenville Nov. 6, Gander Nov. 7, Grand Falls-Windsor Nov. 8, Stephenville Nov. 10, Corner Brook Nov. 11, Carbonear Nov. 14 and St. John’s Nov. 18 and 19. The band will also make a special stop in Bonavista Nov. 12, after local residents lobbied for them to come there.

“Bonavista wasn’t on the list originally, but they called in to the minister and sent 160 emails, asking for the Wonderful Grand Band to stop there because they missed us last time,” Malone said. “We’re going to do an extra special show for that crowd. They really fought for us, so we’re going there with bells on.”

In conjunction with the tour, WGB is releasing Volume 3 of their television series on DVD. Volumes 1 and 2 were released in 2009.

Ticket information for the tour is available online at www.artsandculturecentre.com.