To anyone familiar with Newfoundland and Labrador culture, particularly traditional music, the sight of a salt-and-pepper cap and accordion brings to the lips one name: Harry Hibbs. The shy young man from Bell Island who became a national sensation in the 1960s and '70s was a symbol for a generation of fairly new Canadians who were trying to find their place in the Confederation. So for them, a new Harry Hibbs CD is exciting news indeed.
A few months shy of what would have been Hibbs' 75th birthday, Avondale Music, in cooperation with Wabana Music and the Estate of Harry Hibbs, has released Hibbs' 22nd album, titled Off the Floor: Songs from the Harry Hibbs Shows. These songs have never before been released on an album (except for "Roses are Blooming," but it is a remixed version). They were tunes performed on Hibbs' weekly TV show, "At the Caribou," recorded at the Caribou Club in Toronto and the Galt Newfoundland Club (in what is now Cambridge, Ontario) and aired on CHCH-Hamilton from 1969-76.
This new album was two years in the making. For producer Russell Bowers, it was something of an honour. Russell is a lifelong Hibbs fan. The first album he ever owned, Harry Hibbs - At The Caribou, was given to him for his eighth birthday. That album, and Harry Hibbs himself, had a profound effect on Russell.
"It was very clear when you went in to the shops that Harry was a star" Russell says of that time. "His records were everywhere, but when you flipped over the back you saw that Harry Hibbs was from Bell Island. And it's not very often you flick over an album or look through the liner notes and you see that the artist is from your hometown.
Russell adds, "Harry is kind of a Ground Zero for what we have as the modern Newfoundland culture. If you go back to the late '60s, there's a lot of movement to get away from what we had been, to modernize, to get rid of this accent - the 'burn your boats' era kind of thing. And Sandy Morris, the guitarist, said, "Along comes this fella, whose schtick is he's a Newfoundlander singing Newfoundland songs. And he's famous in Ontario! And all of a sudden people back home are going, 'Wait a second, if he's famous doing that, why are we changing to fit them?"
"He was the first who said Newfoundlanders could be part of Canada" Russell continues. 'Newfoundlanders didn't have to become Canada, we could be part of Canada. And our identity and our culture and our way of looking at the world was valid."
He adds, "And Sandy Morris also said, basically, Harry established the accordion as the official instrument of Newfoundland."
This new album, Off the Floor, features 15 Harry Hibbs tunes, including one that had never been recorded by Hibbs anywhere, not even on his TV shows. Russell found 'The Four Marys' on a documentary that Hibbs had provided music for in 1974. He plucked the audio from the film and Lyle Drake from Avondale Music cleaned it up for the album. From the opening notes of 'Harry's Two Step' to the closing strains of 'Memories,' it is a record that will have toes tapping - something Hibbs aspired to with every performance, according to the story behind the album title.
Russell explains, "In recording terms, when a musician says they did the album 'off the floor' it means the whole band got together in the studio and they just recorded live to tape. But in this case, I took the phrase from an interview Harry did with Peter Gzowski in 1973." This day on 'This Country in the Morning' Hibbs was playing 'Harry's Two Step' and ended the song rather abruptly. When Gzowski asked what happened, thinking something had gone wrong, Russell says Hibbs replied, "Normally I like to cut the songs off when people's feet are a few inches in the air and off the floor."
The live recordings feature some high-spirited whoops, some familiar voices introducing songs, and what sound like ugly sticks and most definitely spoons keeping the beat on several tracks. This album is destined to be a treasured addition to traditional playlists and well worn by Hibbs fans. Off the Floor: Songs from the Harry Hibbs Shows is available on CD wherever Newfoundland and Labrador music is sold (eg. Fred's Records, Downhome Shoppe and ShopDownhome.com) and is offered as digital downloads on iTunes and CDBaby. - By Janice Stuckless
Click here to listen to one of the tracks off the new CD, an old favourite: "I'se da B'y."