Roxanne Tellier:: A Big Hand For The Little Lady

january roxanneOnce again, I must begin by apologizing for not mentioning something rather important in a previous column. I included the Shuffle Demons’ classic tune, “Spadina Bus,” in last week’s piece, without noting that one of the Demons, Richard Underhill, is currently running for the position of Toronto’s next mayor. You can read all about his platform here:

And you can hear another Shuffle Demons’ classic here!

Toronto in 1976 was a revelation to a little disco bunny/slash/folk singer from Montreal.  Montreal had its own varied cliques and clubs, but Toronto was wide open for chick singers.  The circuit was red hot, whether in the city or in any number of small towns eager for entertainment. Pretty much any half decent female could get a gig, even if only in a touring showband.

My vocal influences had always been ballsy women with big voices and big emotions. I was drawn to performers who lived fast and hard, and who could channel their passion and sexuality into their music. Toronto had more than its share of such women.

dianne6The first time I saw Dianne Heatherington perform – at The Colonial, if I recall – I was blown away by her complete command of the audience. This would have been before the release of 1980’s “Heatherington Rocks!” We were rapt, pinned to our seats by her voice and her presence. She sizzled and slithered through a vibrant set of originals and personalized covers. She transformed Bruce Cockburn’s song “Mama Just Wants to Barrelhouse All Night Long” into a seething paean to the power of a woman’s sexuality, and its ability to take a man’s mind off the ugliness of modern life. Although I can’t find a video of “Barrelhouse,” here’s a live clip from ’81 that gives a tiny taste of her presence.

Heatherington was born and raised in Winnipeg. While still in high school, she began singing for the CBC, appearing on several local productions including Let’s Go with The Guess Who as backing band. From there she joined The Electric Banana before recruiting some of the city’s top players to form the Merry-Go-Round.

ÊãDianne also caused a local sensation when she confronted Led Zeppelin in their hotel room. They had been booked to headline the ManPop 70 concert, which also featured The Youngbloods, The Ides of March, Iron Butterfly, Chilliwack, and several local bands, including Heatherington’s own band, The Merry-Go-Round.  Originally scheduled to take place at the outdoor Winnipeg Stadium, a summer rain storm tore down the awning protecting the stage, and soaked the PA system and amps. The promoters hastily moved the show to the nearby Winnipeg Arena, but that venue seated fewer people, and some 800 valid ticket holders, told they could not be seated, started a mini riot.

led zeppelin liveZep had a rain clause built into their contract, and so had already been paid their $50,000.00 fee. It was only through Heatherington shaming them into playing that the band finally hit the stage around 3:00 a.m., using gear borrowed from other bands on the bill, as their equipment had not arrived in Winnipeg. The Guess Who’s Randy Bachman lent Jimmy Page his Les Paul for the show.

dianne10Known for her flamboyant personality and Janis Joplin style voice, Heatherington soon became a local favorite in the Winnipeg pub scene, before getting her own national weekly show, “Dianne,” in 1971, which ran cross-country on the CBC.

She also caught the eye of Kenny Rogers (The First Edition,) who booked them to appear on his CTV television series “Rolling On The River,” and later invited them to Los Angeles to record five or six tracks for him at his studio in Los Angeles.  He also offered her a terrific publishing/recording deal, but wanted her band to consider a change of name. As negotiations went on, bass player Bill Wallace accepted an offer to join The Guess Who. With that, The Merry-Go-Round packed up it’s little horses, and was no more.

dianne-and-mark-c1973Needing a stress break from the musical machinations, she then carved out a niche for herself in a two-fisted cabaret style piano duo with pianist Mark Rutherford. Always an intense, theatrical performer, Dianne’s larger than life personality and their eclectic repertoire earned them a large following, steady work and buzz in the Winnipeg music scene for several years.

But it wasn’t long before the promise of stardom lured her to Toronto, where she was once again diving into the rock world with a band made up of Winnipeg musicians, including Rutherford on keys, Dave Garber on guitar, Sandy dianne heatherington bandChochinov on bass, Seymore Koblin on drums and Len Shaw (Lewsh) on sax, organ and vocals.

For several years she fought a huskiness in her voice that was caused by vocal nodes, a common problem at that time for those of us who worked with poor or non-existent monitors. Following corrective surgery, her hoarseness disappeared, and a clean, dynamic sound returned.

Heatherington’s voice and presence inspired those she worked with, but the deep emotion and rawness so evident in her music extended to her personal life, making her both a joy and a terror to work with. She lived her life with an honest sexuality, and was never long without a lover.

In 1978, a short documentary called “Soul Survivor,” was made about her career, and was subsequently shown in 1980 on CBC-TV.   It would appear that the film is lost to history. You can read more about it here:

heatherington rocks 1980Following the release of her only album in 1980, she was nominated for a Juno Award in 1981 for “Most Promising Vocalist of the Year,” but lost to another iconic singer – Carole Pope of Rough Trade. (Other nominees that year were Michaele Jordana of The Poles, Shari Ulrich and Laura Vinson.)

Fed up, and hearing her career clock ticking, she and husband Gary Taylor moved to New York in ’83, grabbing a weekend gig at Joe’s Bar in the East Village.  For 18 months, she sang country and western tunes on Friday nights, and rocked out on Saturdays.

By the late 80’s, she was back in Toronto, pursuing an acting career, and appearing in television and film (The Liberace Story, Cocktail) before  forming the Dianne Dianne Heatherington in CocktailHeatherington Security Company, which provided 24 hour location security to major budget films and television series, and employed musicians and former musicians she’d met and worked with throughout her career.

But sadly, in 1994, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Despite a courageous two-year battle against the disease, she died at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto on October 22, 1996. She was just 48 years old.

A memorial celebration was held in 1996 at the Opera House in Toronto, and another in Winnipeg in 2008, where many of her former band members paid tribute to her legacy, and a musical scholarship was founded in her name.  Sadly, a tribute website ( containing memorabilia and memories of those who worked with her, seems to have been allowed to lapse.

I’ve been privileged to see many of my musical heroes on stage. Dianne Heatherington ranks alongside the best vocalists and entertainers I’ve seen and heard, and she deserves a special place in Canadian musical history. She should be remembered not just for her talent, but for her intense, exuberant and joyous embrace of life.

= RT =

Roxanne’s column appears here every Sunday 

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DBAWIS ButtonRoxanne Tellier has been singing since she was 10 months old … no, really. Not like she’s telling anyone else how to live their lives, because she’s not judgmental, and most 10 month olds need a little more time to figure out how to hold a microphone. After years of doing things she didn’t want to do, she’s found herself working with a bunch of crazy people who are as batshit crazy and devoted to music as she is, and so she can be found every Monday at Cherry Cola’s, completely unable to think of anything funny to say, as the co-host of Bob Segarini’s The Bobcast. Come and mock her. She’s good with that. And she laughs. A lot. But not at you.


3 Responses to “Roxanne Tellier:: A Big Hand For The Little Lady”

  1. mslobro Says:

    I liked your column. 🙂

  2. Lisa Price Says:

    Great stuff Roxanne…I am grateful for your interest & would love to set the record straight!

  3. Lisa Price Says:

    Roxanne loved your bit on Dianne Heatherington…you did her justice!

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