Chris Black and his swing­ing brass

The Goderich Signal-Star - - Opinion -

The bands that played the mu­sic made the mem­o­ries at the lo­cal Pavil­ions, dance halls, are­nas and high school gyms.

One of those mu­sic mak­ers of more than lo­cal renown was Chris Black and His Swing­ing Brass. Chris Black and His Swing­ing Brass be­came pop­u­lar mu­si­cal fix­tures on the mid-western On­tario band cir­cuit for over 30 years.

Noel ’Chris’ Black was born on De­cem­ber 25, 1929 in Timmins, On­tario. Black dis­played a mu­si­cal tal­ent while a high school stu­dent that was no­ticed by Big Band leader Al Perini in 1943. Dur­ing World War II when many band play­ers had en­listed, Perini tapped Black to play trum­pet. Perini’s band played the Swing and Big Band tunes of the era at the lo­cal pavs and dance halls dur­ing the dark days of the Sec­ond World War. It also left Black with a love of per­form­ing mu­sic that lasted for over half a cen­tury.

Black played with the Perini band un­til 1948 when he formed his own band The Chris Black Combo, which played at var­i­ous venues in Timmins and Iro­quois Falls. In 1951, Black joined the Royal Cana­dian Air Force as a ra­dioman and trained from 1951-52 at RCAF Sta­tion, Clin­ton. Through­out his 24-year air force ca­reer, Black played trum­pet in RCAF bands. While sta­tioned in La­chine, Que­bec, Chris Black’s Combo played in Mon­treal’s trendy night­clubs.

In 1957, af­ter a three-year stint in West Ger­many, Black re­turned to Canada where he met, Air­woman Jen­nifer Braddy, who joined the RCAF in her na­tive Eng­land.

Jen­nifer Black re­calls that she en­listed as a means of com­ing to Canada be­cause she thought, “it was a beau­ti­ful coun­try.”

When they mar­ried on July 7, 1958, reg­u­la­tions dic­tated that she leave the ser­vice to fo­cus on rais­ing her fam­ily which grew to in­clude three chil­dren, Dean, Kim and Christo­pher.

When Black was sta­tioned in White­horse, Yukon Ter­ri­tory from 1959-64, he per­formed in three bands out­side of his ca­pac­ity as an RCAF Non­com­mis­sioned of­fi­cer. His mu­si­cal lead­er­ship was rec­og­nized when he was as­signed to host Bert Lahr, best known as the Cow­ardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz around White­horse. When Black brought Lahr home, his wife, Jen­nifer, who was a huge fan, was so sur­prised that she never thought to ask him for his au­to­graph. Other celebri­ties that Black worked with over the years were Burl Ives, and the Ir­ish Rovers.

Black was trans­ferred back to Clin­ton in 1964 where he formed yet an­other in­car­na­tion of the Chris Black Combo from lo­cal tal­ent. The Chris Black Combo be­came a pop­u­lar area dance band in Grand Bend dur­ing the sum­mer of ’64. By 1966, Black Combo played six nights a week at Grand Bend’s Vil­lage Inn where the packed house ri­valled Ron­nie Hawkins and the Hawks who played across the street at the Im­pe­rial Ho­tel.

Black says that they were never ri­vals as the Hawks’ Rock-a-Billy mu­sic at­tracted a dif­fer­ent crowd from Black’s brassy mu­si­cal style Ala Herb Alpert and the Ti­juana Brass.

A 1966 re­view in the Lake Huron Shore­liner called the Chris Black Combo “the best of the new BIG BANDS com­ing up!” The re­view raved that, “ev­ery­body likes their danc­ing mu­sic.” Black’s Combo had “the big band sound with a mod­ern twist of their own that fits the mu­si­cal re­quire­ments of the 1960’s like a glove.” The pa­per cred­ited Black with bring­ing “back a yearn­ing for the big bands and that dances when mu­sic re­ally was.

Agents from Detroit’s Mo­town record label came to ne­go­ti­ate with the band for a po­ten­tial ap­pear­ance on The Ed Sul­li­van Show but as the band’s mem­bers were in the Armed Forces it was im­pos­si­ble to sign the combo to a con­tract.

As the Vil­lage Inn’s house band, Black’s six-piece combo was well com­pen­sated for the time at $1500 a week.

This hefty price tag be­came a source of con­tention be­tween Black and Roy Breck­en­ridge, the owner of the Goderich pav­il­ion known as the Har­bourlite Inn. Breck­en­ridge thought the band’s fee ex­or­bi­tant. Black worked out a com­pro­mise deal where the Combo would play for Breck­en­ridge’s pay scale but if they packed the house, they’d play fu­ture gigs at Black’s price. Af­ter the first night’s en­gage­ment, the house was packed and Breck­en­ridge paid Black’s higher wage to keep the dance floor hop­ping.

The Chris Black Combo had ap­peared sev­eral times on CKNX-TV in Wing­ham and CFPL, the Lon­don tele­vi­sion sta­tion but, on September 24, 1966, it was part of the sta­tion’s first colour pro­gram.

For the first time, the band played un­der the name the Swing­ing Brass of Chris Black. Although the band con­tin­ued to per­form un­der the names Chris Black Combo or Chris Black Six, the band was known lo­cally as Chris Black’s Swing­ing Brass.

The Swing­ing Brass played venues in mid-western On­tario from Owen Sound and Port El­gin to Lon­don and Strat­ford. From mess din­ners to high school sock hops, the Swing­ing Brass played the mu­sic that made the night a mem­o­rable suc­cess. At Lon­don’s newly opened Cen­ten­nial Hall in July 1967, Chris Black’s Swing­ing Brass up­staged and stole the au­di­ence from leg­endary Big Band singer, Vaughn Mon­roe.

The evening ended with Mon­roe unit­ing with Black’s Band for the fi­nale. While sta­tioned in Clin­ton, fel­low air­man, Bruce Ra­fuse, de­clared that, “the name of Black was more distin­guished than the base com­man­der.” Black’s du­ties as an NCO with mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence in Wash­ing­ton, D. C from 1967-70, did not pre­vent him form­ing yet an­other combo.

Black’s band played such distin­guished venues as for­eign em­bassies and the pres­ti­gious Wash­ing­ton Golf and Coun­try Club. Mem­bers of Black’s band went on to greater fame.

One mem­ber be­came the key­board player for Buddy Rich; an­other mem­ber played drums for Barry Manilow for over 10 years. He now writes Hol­ly­wood mu­si­cal scores.

Black re­tired from the Armed Forces in 1975.

At his wife, Jen­nifer’s prompt­ing, the fam­ily moved to Goderich where Black owned and op­er­ated Black’s Gro­cery on Bri­tan­nia Street. In 1975, Black’s band opened the Strat­ford Fes­ti­val.

In 1977, Black’s Swing­ing Brass was the fea­tured band at the Goderich 150 Cel­e­bra­tion. Among the other bands to play Goderich that year was the iconic Guy Lom­bardo and His Royal Cana­di­ans who rec­og­nized Black from when he was play­ing in Vir­ginia.

The Swing­ing Brass played its last en­gage­ment on New Year’s Eve 1979 in Strat­ford at the Vic­to­ria Inn. He re­tired from the gro­cery store busi­ness in 1991. How­ever, Black con­tin­ued to play his unique brand of Big Band mu­sic un­til well into the twen­tyfirst cen­tury.

Of Black’s many ad­mir­ers, the most com­mon re­mark upon his re­tire­ment from per­form­ing was, “thanks for the mu­sic; thanks for the mem­o­ries.”

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