Grandfathers of the Yukon stage

Dressed in matching suits and packed into a yacht-sized Oldsmobile, the rock 'n' roll-playing Canucks dominated the West Coast touring circuit of the 1950s.

Dressed in matching suits and packed into a yacht-sized Oldsmobile, the rock ‘n’ roll-playing Canucks dominated the West Coast touring circuit of the 1950s.

From California to Seattle, the group flaunted their “Vegas-y” act at halls, bars and bowling alleys all along the banks of the Pacific Ocean.

Then the ‘60s happened.

The British Invasion was in full swing, Elvis was driving a tank in Germany and Bill Haley and the Comets were already playing clubs in Central America.

Jeans and long hair were in. Matching suits were out, and the clean-cut Canucks were starting to feel the crunch.

Luckily, the Whitehorse Inn’s Rainbow Room needed a house band.

A plane ride later, the Canucks had entered a land as yet untouched by tie-dye.

Five years later, they were running the Rainbow Room.

Almost 50 later, the elder musicians—dubbed the Grandfathers of Live Yukon Music—are still playing.

On Thursday, the Canucks, along with singer Hank Karr, are playing Old Friends at the Yukon Arts Centre—a retrospective look at the artist’s five decades on Yukon stages.

The performers attribute their longevity to the Yukon.

Whitehorse gave the musicians a home. They could continue to play, while avoiding the draining—and sometimes deadly—pressures of the road.

The road killed Hank Williams, it killed Buddy Holly and it could very well have killed the Canucks.

“A lot of people don’t last,” said Karr, who made his own move to the territory soon after the Canucks.

Three main bands ruled over 1970s Whitehorse.

The Kopper King housed Karr.

The Canucks played the Whitehorse Inn.

The Bamboo Lounge—current home of the Roadhouse Pub—hosted another band.

Whitehorse was a mining boomtown. Money was cheap and bars were bursting at the seams.

“If you weren’t in the door of the Whitehorse Inn by 8 o’clock at night, you weren’t getting in until somebody left,” said Ed Isaak, guitarist and vocalist for the Canucks.

“Guys would come in, throw a 20 on the table, and when that was gone they’d throw down another one,” said Isaak.

“There was no messin’ around.”

Fresh from the mines and with a few beers down their gullet, workers were well-suited to explode into a brawl.

Bouncers were a necessary investment.

When fights broke out, Isaak—as one of the bar’s proprietors—would often drop his guitar and dive headlong into the melee to break it up.

Still, Whitehorse bar owners avoided the “wild west” of Alaska.

One Fairbanks bar strung chicken wire across the bandstand to protect musicians from beer bottles, said Isaak.

Holster-mounted revolvers were a common sight.

One night, Karr remembered leaving a late-night gig in Ketchikan, only to hear what he thought were firecrackers.

A man wielding a pistol rounded the corner, fired into the air and declared, “I’m looking for a nigger.”

As it was, the Whitehorse musicians constantly skirted the line between good times and liver damage.

“We had to be very strict with each other,” said Isaak.

Facing nightly strings of free drinks, slipping over the deep end was an easy prospect.

“I tried at times, but later on you learn to dump a lot of them down the drain,” said Karr.

At the very least, the players wanted to remain sober enough to “complete the job,” said Karr.

Karr remembered flying up a guitarist to back American country singer Rose Maddox.

Within hours, he was being scooped off the sidewalk in front of the Capital Hotel.

In Whitehorse, the impersonal monotony of touring life was replaced by the comfort and security of a Northern refuge.

“We were more than just musicians; we were part of the community,” said Karr.

“Talk about rogue’s gallery, how come you guys haven’t burst into song yet?” said a neighbouring table of retired coffee drinkers at A&W.

“Be nice, we’re trying to like you,” fired back Isaak.

“They made a movie about that; I think they called it ‘Mission Impossible.’”

Canucks pianist Ray Park showed up late to the interview, holding one eye closed as a result of a recent surgery.

“It should help your piano playing,” said Karr.

The young band, playing six-to-seven hour sets nightly, was receiving stage time that southern bands could only dream of.

“In Vancouver, unless you were a name, you played once or twice a week,” said Karr.

In Whitehorse, the performers could easily rack upwards of 40 hours on stage.

After playing a seven- to eight-hour set, the musicians-cum-bar owners would stay after closing to lock up, and by 10 a.m. they’d be back to sweep the floor or do the accounts.

Weddings, government functions, corporate events—the Canucks Ltd. became the go-to players.

The group became northern jet-setters: Playing an RCMP ball in Inuvik one week, the next, they’d be playing Clinton Creek, the now-abandoned asbestos mining town.

In the 1980s, Yukon-Alaska tourism packed off the Canucks to RV parks and convention centres across the western United States.

Play a couple sets, show some slides, hand out some brochures, and one or two years later, the same tourists would be showing up at a Canucks show in the Yukon.

“They’d remember us—it worked well at that time,” said Isaak.

The Canucks are entertainers, rather than mere musicians.

“Today, I’ll go to catch some band’s show and I’ll think, ‘what show? They’re just standing there playing some music,’” said Isaak.

“We did comedy, impersonations; we’d change clothing on each set,” he said.

Audiences at the Gold Pan Saloon are still riveted by drummer Red Lewis’ dead-on Louis Armstrong impression.

“If you wanted to stay anywhere you had to have some kind of showmanship,” said Karr.

Just like maintaining spontaneity in a marriage, house bands need to keep things fresh to keep their disciples interested.

In 1967, Karr took the full glare of the Yukon spotlight when he was flown down to Montreal’s Expo 67 as a musical ambassador.

Even today, a full schedule of reunions and ceremonies greets the elder rock ‘n’ rollers.

Performing, just like daily crossword puzzles, keeps the dementia at bay.

“(Music) keeps us young, it keeps our mind going,” said Isaak.

By the 1990s, Whitehorse’s “house band” structure had started to come undone.

“If they could bring in someone that cost them less money, fine,” said Karr.

Younger crowds were a factor. Bar owners soon discovered that a single DJ could draw more crowds than a four-piece band.

The bar scene was quickly becoming a thing of the past for the aging performers.

After more than five decades on stage, Karr attributes much of his success to “following his audience.”

Bars are no longer a regular haunt for the country singer.

“The bars got too young for me, and I got too old for them,” said Karr.

Special occasions gigs were next, followed by appearances at the Legion Hall.

Retirement homes may be next.

Karr described seeing a Grand Ole Opry performance by country singer David Houston.

In between songs, the singer pulled out a slip of paper and plugged a couple of upcoming senior’s home appearances.

“I thought, ‘Wow.’”

Hank Karr and Company with the Canucks Ltd. present Old Friends, Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. at the Yukon Arts Centre.

Contact Tristin Hopper at

tristinh@yukon-news.com