Chris Black and his swinging brass
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.”