Sydney native Jordan Bonaparte has a strange childhood memory he could never wrap his head around.
So the 39-year-old, who has lived in Halifax his entire adult life, set out to unlock the mystery of why a three-decades-old image of a man belting out an alcohol-fueled rendition of the Troggs 1966 hit “Wild Thing” on a local community cable television channel has embedded itself in his memory bank.
“My motivation for pursuing this is that I wanted to better understand one of the more bizarre memories I have from my childhood,” said Bonaparte, a married father of two, who has a day job in the insurance business.
But it’s in the evening when he embraces his creative side. It’s then, and sometimes into the early morning hours, that he researches, writes and hosts his award-winning and internationally-popular The Nighttime Podcast. And, it’s through that platform that he embarked on a journey aimed at discovering why the memory of a man called Walter (Chickie) MacPhee just won’t leave his head.
So, he asked his father, John Wayne (Coke) Bonaparte if the memory was real, embellished or just the imagination of a young boy. It was a good place to start as Bonaparte the elder confirmed the legend of the now late Chickie MacPhee.
“He was a celebrity. We got (amateur weatherman and internet sensation) Frankie MacDonald now, but back then Chickie was bigger than Frankie, he was huge,” recalled Coke.
“It was crazy, there were “I Love Chickie” tee-shirts out there, and the Bonnie (Prince) was packed. It was jammed. Everyone knew him, and even though he couldn’t sing, everybody loved him. They were lined up and the place had to turn people away who showed up to see him.”
In fact, Coke went on to confirm that Chickie was often the star of a community cable channel show called Stevie’s Jamboree, complete with a live band at a local venue, that was hosted by Stephen Batherson, the late brother of Roy (a.k.a. Matt Minglewood) Batherson. Raw footage of some of Chickie’s performances, including a 1992 show at the Sandbar tavern in Dominion, have found an archived home on YouTube.
Bonaparte remembers a Saturday night in the late 1980s when his father allowed him and his older brother Jamie (now an Ottawa-based surgeon) to stay up late and watch Chickie in action on television. It proved to be an eye-opening moment, if not a coming-of-age experience, for the then eight-year-old.
“I became his biggest fan because as a young kid who didn’t understand what alcohol was or what being drunk was, I simply thought Chickie MacPhee was some kind of crazy, living cartoon,” he said.
“Sadly, alcohol addiction is the undercurrent of his story, but at that time it seemed that everybody could get behind a hammered guy singing Wild Thing at karaoke.”
Bonaparte chooses not to consume alcohol and only half-jokingly suggests seeing Chickie in an inebriated state may have led him to abstain.
But learning what he did from his father wasn’t enough. Bonaparte wanted to know more about Chickie the person. So he sought out the one-time entertainer’s younger brother Rich MacPhee.
“When he wasn't singing on stage he was very shy, you couldn’t pry a word out of him,” reminisced MacPhee, who along with Chickie grew up with four sisters in the Grand Lake Road area.
“I used to call him Walking Walter because he was always walking. And we always said that Chickie would never hurt a flea and he never made an enemy – everybody loved Chickie.”
Unfortunately, his time in the spotlight would come to an end. A few years after his hey-day, he suffered a head injury in a four-wheeling accident and afterwards, according to his brother, was never quite the same. Chickie would die in December 2015 after a brief battle with cancer. He was in his early 60s.
For Bonaparte, his memories of Chickie MacPhee will forever serve as a link to his childhood.
“I never forgot it and as I grew older I realized just how nuts it was that a drunk guy singing Wild Thing at karaoke had become such a big thing and that he became such a celebrity on television and that they even selling Chickie shirts,” he said.
“That all just stuck with me as one of those really weird and quirky things from my hometown. For one, I don’t think it would happen anywhere else but Cape Breton, and I also think it could only have happened during that period of time during the late 1980s and early 1990s.”
Bonaparte, who has produced more than 100 episodes of The Nighttime Podcast that mainly focus on Canadian crime, mysteries and other weird stuff, recently uploaded a two-part series about Chickie. While he wasn’t sure how his non-Cape Breton audience would react, he said the feedback has been incredible even from people who have never set foot on the island.
“I was shocked by the reaction. It turns out there are many former Maritimers all over the world who seem pumped to hear a story like this because it may have rekindled their memories about times back home,” said Bonaparte.
“And lots of Americans are saying they love hearing stories like that especially given all the bad things that have been happening there. And, for me, it just brings me joy to know that Chickie existed and that he just made people happy.”
Wild Thing. You make my heart sing. You make everything groovy. Wild Thing, I think I love you. But I wanna know for sure.