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Hair, and the Brilliance of Dylan Bell

Last night – May 25th, 2017, I crossed off a “bucket list” item that had been on my wish list for 48 years – I sang onstage with some of the original members of the Toronto production of Hair. In fact – I sang Aquarius, as a solo, all dressed up with a headband, and snazzy fringed vest I crafted myself.

It’s a rather long story of interwoven themes and connections, beginning around 1969. I was then married to one of Toronto’s finest musicians – Gord Fleming – B3 genius. We were the new parents of our first child – Gordon junior.

Before the birth of Gordie, I had sung with my hubby and a band in places like the Silver Dollar and the Zanzibar. After Gordie was born, I found myself feeling restless to get back to singing again. I heard about auditions for a new musical called Hair, which was to be staged at The Royal Alexandra theatre, and I decided to audition for it. I don’t remember much about the audition, and while I didn’t get chosen to be in Hair –I was selected to attend the workshops the Hair organization was conducting, to teach promising hopefuls to eventually be assimilated into the production as people dropped out.

Under the direction of George Taros, musical director of Hair, about 30 of us would do trust exercises, and various staging and movement studies for 3 intense hours at a time. The workshops began on Queen St. East – where the Electric Circus was – and then moved up to the newly opened Bathurst Theatre. I fell in love with the whole experience, and got fairly close to some of my cohorts – Judy Marshak, Karen Gold, Jan Kudelka were some I specifically remember.

The show began at the Royal Alex, and was wildly popular — it ran for a year.   Our friend Wayne St. John, who had worked with Gordon at the Zanzibar, was chosen to be in the show.   And Gord was asked to be a sub for the keyboard chair in the show, when he was needed. Eric Robertson and Doug Riley were the main keyboard players, as I recall. I went to see the show many times, when Gord was playing, and I yearned to be part of the show “someday soon”.

As fate would have it, I discovered I was pregnant, and when I told the Hair people this news, they asked me to leave the workshops, as there was a lot of physical climbing and motion that could affect my pregnancy, and could get them into trouble insurance-wise.

I was so devastated, that I felt my life was over, and that my big chance to be in Hair was dashed in pieces.

However, life moved on as it always does, and so did Hair, and in subsequent years  I did manage to have a wonderful career as a session singer, and support my two children as a single mom (Gord and I divorced in 1976 after 10 years together).

Segue to the mid 90’s when I was wanting to assemble a vocal group of good sight-readers to sing jazzy harmonies, using charts by Singers’ Unlimited, and arrangements which I had lifted from Take 6. I asked my friend Phil Dwyer, who was a prof at York U if he knew any students who would fit the bill, and he introduced me to Dylan Bell and Suba Sankaran who were in their late teens at the time. Even back then, their musicianship was astounding – both had perfect pitch, and read “flyshit” as we say in the biz. The group that got together, including Suba and Dylan, was eventually named Hampton Avenue, and we recorded three CDs as an octet – eventually winning “Vocal Group of the Year” Jazz Report Award.

Although Hampton Avenue as a larger group eventually dwindled as people dropped out, Suba, Dylan and our Bass singer Tom Lillington, remained close, and would sing as a quartet occasionally, calling ourselves The Hampton Avenue 4.

At this point, Suba and Dylan were finding their footing as professional musicians, and gained a wonderful reputation as respected singers, musicians, arrangers, loopers – travelling the world and performing.  Retrocity (Suba and Dylan’s project) – which was a vocal band like Hampton Avenue, formed around the same time as Hampton did – in the mid 90’s – but their focus was 80’s pop music, while Hampton Avenue specialized in rich jazz swinging harmonies.

Retrocity went through many personnel changes over those years – but with Dylan and Suba as the main arrangers – thrived, and performed and recorded. I was a huge fan of theirs, and always tickled to hear new brilliant arrangements of my favourite 80’s tunes.

SEGUE: 2017 – April 25. Virgil Scott held his annual “Musicians’ New Year” get together at Timothy’s in Etobicoke. I’ve never missed one of those gatherings since they began a few years ago. It’s a chance to reunite with musicians we used to see all the time when we were all making a living and often working together – always such fun. It was a great band that evening, and Virgil was generous as usual – – bringing up singers to sing songs we know and love. I got up and sang an Etta James and Tina Turner song, and we all rocked it out.

As I left the stage, Kid Carson, who I’ve known for many decades, called me over, and as we talked, he told me about a Hair reunion that was going to be taking place at the Sing Vocal Arts Festival in a month. Was I interested in being a “ringer” with the people they managed to assemble for this?    I think I answered “Does a bear s*&t in the woods?”. And we were off.

Now I should explain here that the Sing Vocal Arts Festival involves NO musical instruments – ONLY the voice, and all the things it is capable of doing. And this is where my friend Dylan Bell comes back into the picture.  He and Suba are artistic directors of this fabulous festival, and Paul Ryan, an ex-member of Hair, and board member of SING, suggested that for the big concert – they should celebrate Canada and the 150th anniversary, and do all Canadian songs – including music from Hair (whose composer, Galt McDermott, was Canadian). It meant that Dylan, and Suba, would have to create a vocal band (Retrocity) to back up the Hair Tribe, some of whom had not sung or performed in 50 years.

It was a lovely surprise for both Dylan and me, that I was brought on board to sing this great concert with The Tribe!

I joined the tribe for their second rehearsal, and it was such fun to sing with people I’ve not met before, and old friends like Amber James and Frank Moore. A fabulous bunch of people. There were some in the group who were uncomfortable with the concept of voices backing us up, and a few dropped out for those and other reasons. We were now 11 – 2 of us – Roxanne Tellier and I – being the ringers to add strength to the vocal sound. I was thrilled to be asked to sing Aquarius, while Roxanne was assigned Easy To Be Hard.

We worked and rehearsed with MP3s of Dylan and Suba tracking and singing his brilliant vocal lifts of the band tracks, taken from the original recording of Hair.

Dylan always felt a love and affinity for the musical Hair – his parents spent the first night of their honeymoon attending the original show at the Royal Alex, and Dylan wore out the Hair LP as a youngster.

I must explain here, that the kind of arranging that Dylan and Suba are adept at – is very labour intensive – listening hard to each instrument in the track, and notating the things they play for the various voices at hand. You have to have a keen ear, a thorough knowledge of the human voice, and its capabilities, and an ability to write it all down so it’s singable. NOT easy, and very VERY time consuming. But Dylan threw himself into the job at hand, and got Retrocity together, and rehearsed with the parts he’d written. Everything was covered, from bass to vocal percussion to guitar parts – NOTHING was left out.

The Tribe had a few difficulties with this new format at first – but once we brought Dylan into our rehearsals, with his lovely enthusiasm, and his uncanny ability to get what notes he needed from us – we were ON TRACK. He was so supportive and open to some changes which some of the original members wanted for their own comfort. He gently nudged us into being performance ready, and feeling secure with his guidance and leadership.

Finally, it was concert day at the Jane Mallett Theatre in the St. Lawrence Center, Toronto.   We went through some blocking, and rehearsed some harmonies, and enjoyed a good hang until Dylan showed up with his sweet smile, and gave us our final notes on performance.

Then we were on!

WOW! We entered the floodlit stage to a sea of glow-in-the-dark headbands, which had been given to the audience before the show.  It was a full house!! Retrocity began their accompaniment to Aquarius, which had become so familiar by now, and I approached the mic and began to sing “When the moon is in the seventh house…..” to a huge applause from the audience, as they recognized a song which had meant so much to them when they were growing up. Fabulous applause at the end of the song and I was brimming with amazing warmth and fulfillment.

“Hair” followed with Kid Carson and Clint Ryan singing their hearts out. Roxanne Tellier did a lovely job on Easy to Be Hard. Harriet Cohen Teaar did a great job of “Air”. Good Morning Starshine and the finale “Flesh Failures/Let the Sunshine In” brought the house down. We were all filled with that magic ingredient of wonderment and magic that takes over your soul when something really special happens (and no, it wasn’t related to drugs or alcohol). As my son wrote, after attending the concert “I had tears in my eyes and all of my guts were trying to burst out of my shoulders for Sunshine. Probably the greatest finale to anything, ever.” Just WOW!

That wasn’t the end of the concert. The rest of the concert – including a set by Suba and Dylan (known worldwide as Freeplay), featuring the brilliant looping technology of Dylan – and a set by Retrocity was phenomenal. ALL arrangements by Dylan, and some by Suba – and there was nothing missing – guitar licks from Glass Tiger, Kim Mitchell, Jane Sibbery, and many more songs by Canadian writers. Lorraine Segato sang her hits with Parachute Club backed by Retrocity, and Elaine Overholt, who was being awarded for her epic contribution to vocal arts, sang Cory Hart’s “Never Surrender”. Leonard Cohen’s Halleluiah was the finale – and included the entire cast, including the Hair Tribe.

As I reviewed the entire show in my mind – it was ALL thanks to Dylan and Suba, and some incredibly hard work, and love pouring into it. Yes – the singers all sang beautifully, but the silent foundation to the whole shebang was Dylan Bell.

Everyone should know this!!!

And I ticked off a major item on my Bucket List.

Here’s a link to a video of the entire Hair tribe show, with Retrocity and Dylan’s amazing handiwork as a singer/arranger/conductor/mentor/and all around loveable guy:

The Hair Tribe is:  Debbie Fleming (Aquarius, and duets); Roxanne Tellier (Easy to Be Hard); *Harriet (Cohen) Teear (Air);  *Amber (James) Wendelbourg (Good Morning Starshine); *Shelly Somers (Good Morning Starshine);  *Frank Moore (Flesh Failures); *Clint Ryan (Hair); *Kid Carson (Hair); *Paul Ryan (Hair); *Jim Peters; *John Stainton*

*Original Toronto cast members of Hair