SUNNY DAYS: THE SKIP PROKOP STORY (PART 9) by Jaimie Vernon

In September 1968 Skip Prokop walked away from his long-time band The Paupers as well as an opportunity to assemble the next iteration of Janis Joplin’s backing band. To those around him it seemed insane to pass up a future living in sunny California. Instead, he returned from the U.S. to Toronto with a single purpose – one he’d already told fellow Canadian musician Paul Hoffert.  In this excerpt from Skip’s book “Sunny Days” he lays out the blueprint for the band that would spearhead the next wave of great Canadian music on both sides of the border and beyond.

THE DAWN OF LIGHTHOUSE
After I returned to Toronto, I called Paul Hoffert, and that afternoon we were sitting in his living room, trying to figure out how we were going to put this Big Band together. I knew I wanted a brass quartet, and a string quartet, and a rock nucleus.

Paul and I discussed who we were going to get, and I knew the rock guys. We, of course, called Ralph Cole for guitar. He was still in Detroit waiting for a call to go to California to work with Janis. I called him and explained what happened. He didn’t hesitate.

I knew all the guys in the Yorkville Village bands. There was a particularly great vocal band called The Stitch In Tyme. I contacted Grant Fullerton and Pinky Dauvin and told them about this idea, and what we were going to attempt. They said they would be interested.

We were all good friends – all the different groups from The Mynah Birds to Bobby Kris & The Imperials – so there was tension in the air about going to a group of guys that you’d known and hung out with to steal two of their key guys. It was like a raider mission. That was the downside. But they looked at it as a great opportunity, and were fully committed. It was a really different idea. It was going to be a huge 13-piece band. Blood, Sweat & Tears were just getting off the ground, but they were just brass.

We started talking about getting horn players and string players. Paul chose the horn players. The cream of the crop, really. We had Russ Little on trombone [previously with The Count Basie Orchestra]; We had Arnie Chycoski on trumpet [from The Boss Brass and Phil Nimmons]. Howard Shore on alto sax [who left Lighthouse a few years later to lead the Saturday Night Live Band on NBC and eventually scored the movie soundtracks to the Lord of the Rings film franchise], and Freddy Stone [who left Lighthouse a year later to join the Duke Ellington Orchestra].

At the beginning it was Don Whitton and Leslie Schneider on cellos, Don Dinovo on viola and violin, and Ian Guenther [who would go on to create Three Hats Productions] on violin.

You have to understand that most of these guys were straight, as in they weren’t from the rock and roll world. They were doing sessions for the CBC and the Toronto Symphony and stuff.

Paul and I had started to write material, and we had a couple of arrangements and wanted to see how this would work. By this time, Ralph had come up from Detroit and was living with us.

LIGHTHOUSE IS CHRISTENED


Photo: John Rowlands

I had bought my Mom & Dad a little five-gallon aquarium. In it there were some stones and guppies, and a little ceramic lighthouse. So one night I’m lying on the chesterfield looking at the aquarium while we were rehearsing. We didn’t have a name for the new band yet and I thought “lighthouse” could be a really good name. So I called Paul and the conversation went down exactly like this:
The phone rang, he picked it up and I said, “Lighthouse.”
He said, “Groovy!”
It was Lighthouse from then on. No one ever questioned it.

A demo was recorded and shopped around, but Skip needed to extract himself from his previous contract at MGM Records with The Paupers. Lighthouse also needed management. It took some time, and some legal wrangling stateside, but both goals were achieved in due course. They were soon signed to RCA Records and offered a significant advance royalty payment against future album sales. Now Lighthouse needed an album, a show, and a tour to get them to the next level. And so the hard work began:

AMPLIFYING THE CELLOS
We were already putting the band together physically, but we needed a sound system so we could road test the songs for the first album [at live gigs]. Problem was, a sound system didn’t exist for a band this big. We had to invent something.

For one thing, there was a huge hassle with the strings. You couldn’t hear them. You can’t put a microphone on them and make them loud enough to hear over the drums and the organ and guitar [without getting feedback from the louder instruments]. It’s why no one had ever done this kind of thing before. It was brutal. You couldn’t play soft enough. You just wiped them out with all the other instruments.

I said to the string players, “In the Paupers we had acoustic 12-string guitars that we wanted to amplify and so we talked to the staff at Larry Syke’s Music, and they had these things called the DeArmond pickups that you could just slide into the hole in the guitar and then plug into an amp. We can get a couple of these DeArmond pickups, drill holes in the cellos, and then just bolt the pick-up onto the cello.”

You could see the colour draining from the faces of these guys right on the spot.
Don Whitton spoke out, “Do you have any idea how much this cello is worth?”
I had no idea. At the time, you could get an exceptionally great electric guitar for about $250. I said, “Five or six hundred bucks?”
“This cello is worth $15,000 so we are not screwing holes or bolting anything onto this cello.”
Immediately the other guys fell in line. Point taken.
We ended up working with several guys on the creation of solid-body cellos instead. The cellos were an inch thick. That took some time.

THE CSANKY SOUND SYSTEM
The focus turned back to getting a useable P.A. up and running. In Canada, there wasn’t even a mix board with enough mix inputs for each of our players. People were still using a couple of Larry Sykes speaker columns, and a few Bogen amps to amplify live shows.

There was a guy named Peter Csanky who was quite brilliant with sound, and the actual physical designing of stuff.  We sat down with him and said, “It’s a huge band. We’re going to need horn mics. We’re going to need inputs for the horns and the strings.”

Csanky started designing the system and it wasn’t a board with faders, it was a giant tuner with all these big knobs. We had three of them stacked. It was the only way we could amplify the band.

THE LIGHTHOUSE TRUCK
We were going to need a huge truck to move the P.A. system around, and all the gear. My Dad worked much of his life at Ford in Oakville, and so we sat down with him and the guys at Ford to discuss a design for a truck. We didn’t want a tractor trailer. We wanted to go with a single, full vehicle. We ended up with the longest truck and sleeper you could legally have on the road without it being a tractor trailer.

The Ford guys did an amazing job. If the bolts needed to be tightened eight revolutions, they did it twelve. They even put a sticker on the vehicle that said, “Belongs to Harry Prokop’s Son, Skip, of the band Lighthouse.”

When our road crew – who had long hair and ponytails – pulled into the truck stops it was dangerous. Almost always people would approach them and ask to see the truck.  Years later the guys fell asleep at the wheel. It went off the road and fell about seventy or eighty feet down a hill and buried the truck’s front end on an angle. The police came and when they opened the back of the truck to check on the equipment there was only a nickel-sized dent on one of the saxophones and a broken key on Paul’s keyboard. The truck was a tank.

THE ROCKPILE – TORONTO – May 14, 1969
with Duke Ellington

Photo: John Rowlands

For our very first live gig, we wanted to do something local, and the plan was that Lighthouse was going to open for Mike Bloomfield’s Super Session at Toronto’s Rockpile. They were billed as the headliner. I was going to play with Lighthouse for the opening set, and then headline with Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper for Super Session.

That whole deal got screwy in the States. They had to figure out if Mike would do it or not. And could he do it? It came right down to the wire. All of a sudden, I got word that they weren’t doing Super Session. The whole show now rested on Lighthouse.


Photo: Stuart Laughton

The night of the show, the place was packed. The publicity we got through Martin Onrot, our promotions guy, was huge because people were going to be able to see this enormous band for the first time.

There was a guy that our manager Vinnie Fusco had hired, who he knew from his time with Albert Grossman named Stu Hertz – of the Hertz Rent-a-Car family. He was a public relations guy, and had been doing a lot of the P.R. work for Duke Ellington.

Duke had been the special guest conductor that week for the Toronto Symphony at Massey Hall. He was on his way to the airport the night we were to play the Rockpile, so Stu said to him, “I have a great idea. Why don’t I get a limo and we’ll get you to the airport.”


Photo: Stuart Laughton

They got in the car and headed up Yonge Street. Then Stu said to Duke, “On the way I just want to stop in so you can meet some friends of mine. They’re young guys. They have a big band – 13-piece. They have strings and horns. It’s like a rock orchestra. Ellington was into it. Stu phoned Vinnie from the hotel to say he’d be there in a few minutes.

Meanwhile, we’d done the sound check and we were waiting in this ridiculously small dressing room with four walls and a wooden bench.  Paul and I were in the dressing, the limo pulled up, and they came in the side door. Vinnie and Stu sat Duke on the bench beside us and pictures were taken. Click Click. Immediately we were ready to go out on stage.

Stu said to Duke, “Just one more favour. Why don’t you go out and introduce these guys? This would be really great. They’d think that was incredible.”
“What should I say?”
“Their name is Lighthouse. Just say something great about them and we’ll head to the airport.”
I forget what the preamble was, but I remember how he ended his intro: “…so anyway – Ladies and gentlemen…I’m beginning to see the Light…HOUSE.”
He didn’t even stay for the show. Stu whisked Duke off in the limo and we do our first number. That made big headlines in the Toronto Star and the Telegram newspapers.


Photo: Stuart Laughton

As for the concert, considering the fact that we only had about an hour or an hour and 15 minutes of material as an opening act, we realized we had to do three hours. We ended up adding solos and extending solos. Everyone was soloing five, six, seven minutes and we’re cuing each other out. It was unbelievable.

I remember saying to Howard Shore, “we’re going to give you this song and we’ll signal you to solo.” Howard wasn’t the kind of guy that did solos, but he did his part like everyone had to. So after extending himself to the limit for four or five minutes, he left the microphone and turned to walk back to the horn-line beside me, I looked at my watch and I was like, “No. No, Howard. You gotta go back out there and play some more. We’ve got more time to kill.”

It was totally crazy, but the people just ate it up.

NEXT TIME: The final excerpt (you didn’t think we were going to reprint the ENTIRE book, did you?)

http://gwntertainment.wixsite.com/bullseye-records

=JV=

Skip Prokop’s “Sunny Days” is available as a 325 page book from Bullseye Publishing
http://gwntertainment.wixsite.com/bullseye-records
Or Amazon
https://www.amazon.com/Sunny-Days-Skip-Prokop-Story/dp/1698098464

Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 41 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 24 years. He is also the author of The Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and editor of “Sunny Days: The Skip Prokop Story.” Available through Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/s?k=Jaimie+Vernon

One Response to “SUNNY DAYS: THE SKIP PROKOP STORY (PART 9) by Jaimie Vernon”

  1. Damon Hines Says:

    What a great way to start a fantastic Canadian rock’n’roll story!

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