Wedding guests were Canadian who’s who
Among his peers in the ballroom was world-renowned composer/producer David Foster, a man John knew from those heady days in Yorkville when they were both cutting their teeth in Toronto’s burgeoning music scene. Alan Frew, frontman for the chart-topping band Glass Tiger, was also in attendance.
And the place cards on the tables ran down like a hockey card checklist of superstars, past and present. Recognizing familiar names like Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, Mark Messier and Soviet standout Vladislav Tretiak, John flipped a few over, an ideal canvas to get autographs for his infant son, Jordan.
With each passing speech, The Lincolns’ time for their first set was pushed further into the night. John, much like a professional athlete watching an extended pre-game ceremony from the bench, had his mind elsewhere — on making sure the group was firing on all cylinders once it came time to play.
At some point soon they would be on, he thought, and they had better deliver their best — or better, given the circumstances.
“You want to have the best lineup and the best personnel for a specific gig, and he certainly handled that gig like a sport because he inflated the personnel of the band and cherry-picked the best players. He was like a coach, for sure,” said Jack Semple, a guitarist and lead vocalist for The Lincolns. “He was in his element barking orders to everybody and moving people around. It was brilliant to see.”
Now if only that organ pedal would arrive . . .
Before John was ever a band leader, he was a humble bass player who would ascend to the top echelons of the music industry under unique circumstances — beginning with his family’s relocation to Canada from India as a 13-year-old in 1960.
He had a classical music background from his time at the prestigious Cathedral and John Connon School in Bombay (now Mumbai), where he learned the violin and piano as well as sang in the choir. As he settled with his family in Scarborough, his influences would soon expand beyond Mozart and Beethoven thanks to WUFO 1080, an AM radio station broadcasting just south of the border in Buffalo, N.Y.
“That’s when I heard rhythm and blues and that’s what turned me on to that great music,” the 69-year-old said. “At that time in Canada, R&B was king in Toronto. Yonge Street and Yorkville were the centres of music.”
Inspired by the likes of Motown legend James Jamerson Jr., Larry Graham (Sly and the Family Stone) and Chuck Rainey, John picked up the bass guitar and was soon camping out downtown at venues like Le Coq d’Or and the Colonial Tavern on Saturdays or would skip church on Sunday to frequent the now-famous Riverboat and Purple Onion in Yorkville. There, he could soak in a scene which boasted an astounding talent pool.
John made a name for himself as a disciplined and reliable player in Toronto in the mid-1960s and was recruited by a top local band named Mandala, which later morphed into Bush. When Bush moved to Los Angeles they were signed to a shortlived record deal in 1969.
But it was during the 1970s that his star would rise.
When Bush disbanded, George Clinton recruited John to play with Funkadelic after having previously filled in for Clinton’s other band, Parliament. From there he moved on to what was supposed to be a 10-day stint with Lou Reed in1973 to record Rock ’n’ Roll Animal. Almost two years and three album credits later he transitioned to working with shock rocker Alice Cooper, closing out the decade as a contributor to three more albums, highlighted by the conceptual hit “Welcome to my Nightmare” (1975) and performing on the subsequent world tour.
After residing in New York and L.A. for nearly 10 years, John had an itch to return to his roots by the turn of the 1980s.
“After I finished my stint with Alice I came back to Toronto and I thought, ‘I’ve always wanted to have a really kickin’ ’60s R&B band’ because that’s my background,” he said. “I formed a great band, I was blessed with some tremendous players over the years, we were highly disciplined and I took that band on a mission to play some of the outposts of Canada where I knew there were R&B fans.”
In The Lincolns, John would have a fluid group where he was the only true constant. Musicians came and went over the years but the one thing that was an absolute necessity was that in order to be a member of the band, you had to be able to play at the highest level.
The Lincolns’ lineup over the years included the likes of respected horn players Tony Carlucci, Earl Seymour and Vern Dorge (the latter two from Blood, Sweat and Tears), guitarists Greg Lowe and Semple, Joe Ingrao gracing the keys and Greg Critchley on drums.
Mark Armstrong remembers attending their concerts in Toronto while studying music at Humber College. He was always impressed at how they arranged classic R&B songs and the fact his mentor, Seymour, was a member added to his respect for The Lincolns.
“It was a well-oiled machine, the way Prakash ran the band,” said Armstrong, now a professional saxophonist based in Indianapolis. “There would be an original recording that might have been two-and-ahalf to three minutes long but by the time he was finished with the arrangement, along with input from other people as well, that two-and-a-half-minute song might be eight or nine minutes.”
One night after a show he approached John about coming on board and was elated when he later got a phone call to fill in for a set. Shortly thereafter he was hired on a full-time basis, mere months ahead to Gretzky’s wedding.
“At the time my girlfriend’s parents were very impressed that I would be playing the wedding, (but) otherwise they were not pleased about their daughter dating a musician,” he said. “As a working musician, playing with The Lincolns was, if not the best . . . definitely one of the best gigs you could have. It was a gig that everybody wanted, so it was a big deal mainly because of the high standards that were set in the band and just to be part of it was definitely something to be proud of.”
News of the proposal broke on Edmonton radio in early spring, and while media and fans were focused on the Oilers’ quest to win the Stanley Cup for a fourth time in five seasons, the anticipation of the nuptials grew.
“It was never out of mind that Gretzky’s wedding would be an event,” recalled writer Terry Jones of the Edmonton Sun, a Hockey Hall of Fame journalist invited to attend.
The timeline leading up to his wedding and the weeks following turned out to be a seminal time not only in his career, but in the trajectory of the game itself.
On May 26, 1988 the Oilers swept the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup final on home ice, Gretzky was awarded his second Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the playoffs, and without question he was the toast of the town.
By Aug. 9, just 27 years old and in his prime, he was shipped to the Los Angeles Kings in the most unthinkable and monumental trade in NHL history.
In between the joy of another Cup win and the tears that flowed during his shocking departure from the City of Champions was the wedding of the most famous Canadian athlete that has ever lived.
“It was the most notable wedding in Canada’s recent history,” said journalist Al Strachan, who attended the wedding and, like Jones, is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau was married about 20 years earlier (in highly publicized nuptials with Margaret Sinclair) and I’m not even sure if the country paid as much attention to that as they did for Wayne’s.” Acclaimed composer George Blondheim, an Edmontonian and friend of Wayne and Janet, agreed to help take care of the music for their special occasion.
He arranged for members of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra to play at the church ceremony and performed a jazz piano set prior to the dinner. When the discussion came to picking a band to cap off the celebration there was little doubt who should get the gig.
“The Lincolns were just the best, classiest band you could have wanted to at your wedding,” Blondheim said. “If you place yourself in 1988, The Lincolns toured nationally and across the U.S. They were standingroom only because they were so professional and so good.”
Alper agrees The Lincolns were a perfect fit and it was not surprising that someone with Blondheim’s knowledge would select them to be a part of the soundtrack for The Great One’s big day.
“They could have gone for anyone, they could have had Elton John play and no one would have batted an eyelash,” he said. “For people who knew who they were, The Lincolns were a band to watch when they came into your town. Some didn’t have a clue who they were watching and that they were actually music royalty.”
While many of the wedding guests may not have known of The Lincolns, the Oilers were very familiar with their music. Over the years they had seen them perform many times at venues in Edmonton like the Sidetrack Cafe, the type of place The Lincolns were hired to play for several nights at a time in those days.
Blondheim had phoned John with the offer and they met at the Sidetrack one night several months before the wedding. John recalls Wayne and Janet coming in to see the band that weekend and they spoke briefly after a show. The details were soon ironed out.
As summer officially started and the grand occasion drew closer, the media frenzy began to pick up in earnest. What designer wedding dress would Janet wear? How much did Wayne pay for her ring? Was the champagne really $3,000 a bottle?
On the day of the wedding, thousands of people lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the happy couple and their celebrity friends — including emcee Alan Thicke — as they arrived and departed from St. Joseph’s Basilica.
“Who in the world of sports has had a royal wedding, period? Because that’s what it was without a word of exaggeration,” said Jones, who covered Gretzky’s entire professional career, spanning from the late 1970s in the World Hockey Association until he retired in 1999 as a member of the New York Rangers.
“There was a story on everything. Every part of the wedding was a sidebar. There was a buildup for days of all this stuff.”
John and the band arrived in Edmonton the week of the ceremony to get prepared and the growing buzz became increasingly palpable as the big day drew closer.
“Before the wedding, all these writers were guessing as to what band would be playing at the Gretzky wedding,” he said.
“I’d be laughing to myself, nobody even thought of us, all these pundits naming all these other bands until the day before or something when they found out.”
Suddenly he was getting bombarded from all angles for access to the reception, people phoning him at his hotel or contacting him through mutual acquaintances.
Shaking off sleuthing journalists was one thing, but dealing with people within his own industry was another.
John says the lead singer of arguably Canada’s hottest band at the time put in a last-minute request, through their manager, to sing with The Lincolns.
“I said (to the manager), ‘OK, if he is going to do a song, I’ll give him a choice of a couple of R&B standards and then maybe we will consider one of his tunes, but he’s gotta be there at sound check and if he doesn’t rehearse with me, there is no way,’ ” John recalled.
“He doesn’t show up for the sound check (the afternoon of the wedding). I don’t allow anybody to get on stage with The Lincolns unless we have run through the tunes and I’m satisfied it’s not going to be an embarrassment to the guest singer or to the band.
“Everybody thinks they are going to enhance my show with their presence. Well, if you’re Ray Charles, yeah. If you’re Aretha Franklin, yeah.”
It was clear John didn’t hold him in the same esteem and he never relented on his stance. The show would go on as initially planned, except for one major detail.
Not wanting to leave anything to chance, John made the hard decision of substituting his current drummer with someone more experienced, and so Jeff Stevens was scratched from the lineup, replaced by Critchley, a veteran who had played with the band and was well versed with their repertoire.
Although he would still attend the reception, Stevens understandably did not receive the news well.
Semple explains that the switch was not an indictment of Stevens’ ability as much as it was a testament to John’s musical disposition.
“It hurt Jeff’s feelings but at the same time, Prakash comes from the old school R&B thing,” the Juno Award winner said from his home in Regina. “James Brown had two drummers with him all the time and when one drummer was going to work into the band, he brought his drums and sat beside the stage in the wings and waited for James Brown to give him the look for him to play, and he might go on the road for six months before he got the look, so in Prakash’s world that was totally acceptable to do something like that.”
Two months earlier, Bob Schindle’s heart was racing as sat behind the Bruins bench at Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton, watching Gretzky raise the Stanley Cup high over his head and then gather with his teammates at centre ice for an impromptu team photo in what would be his final game with the Oilers.
His pulse was now pounding for a completely different reason.
The veteran soundman was sprinting up the escalator at the Westin carrying a cardboard box. As he reached the second floor he was stopped by the RCMP.
Ensuring security for an event of this magnitude necessitated a stern inquiry as to what he was holding and why he was in such a hurry.
Explaining as fast as he could, he told the officers that moments ago a call came in to pick up a package at the front desk under the name of Prakash John.
A broken pedal rendered the Hammond organ useless just hours before show time and replacement pedal had been ordered.
“This was like half an hour before they were supposed to play, fingernail-biting stuff,” recounts Schindle, the head of sound for the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. “We were resigned to the fact that this pedal wasn’t going to make it and there wasn’t going to be an organ . . . we got it in and it worked fine.”
With everything in place just in the nick of time, John and The Lincolns took the stage with one pressing matter at hand before they kicked off their seven-song set — the Gretzkys’ first dance.
They would play the backing music while a female vocalist would sing “When a Man Loves a Woman.” What could possibly go wrong now?
“We did the first dance thing and I am probably purposely forgetting the song and wiping it out of my memory,” he said shaking his head.
“She was reading the music off of a stand in rehearsal but I didn’t think she would use it for the reception!”
The Lincolns kicked the show off with “Back at the Chicken Shack,” before transitioning into Motown favourites “Soul Man” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
Almost immediately the dance floor begin to swell, an encouraging sign.
John was further buoyed by the presence of Gordie Howe, who was one of the first people on the dance floor and, as it would turn out, one of the last to leave.
At the time, the man known as Mr. Hockey held the NHL’s all-time record for points (1,850). Gretzky would sur- pass him a year later as a member of the Kings in an emotional “road” game against his former team.
“Gordie Howe and his wife, Colleen, were dancing right in front of the band, as soon as we started playing, he was there. It was amazing to see,” said John, beaming with childlike glee. “He is from Detroit and he said, ‘That’s my music!’ ”
After they closed their set with “Under the Boardwalk” and “Knock on Wood,” Critchley, now a successful record producer and songwriter in Los Angeles, remembers Gretzky thanking each member of the band with “a really warm and connected handshake, like us being there really meant something to him.”
But John couldn’t shake the thought that he left something on the table, even though the consensus amongst the celebrants was the opposite.
“The Lincolns were a huge hit. It was fabulous,” Blondheim said. “They were killer and played their brains out.”
“Pierre Trudeau was married about 20 years earlier and I’m not even sure if the country paid as much attention to that as they did for Wayne’s.” AL STRACHAN
These days, many of the musicians who made up The Lincolns over the years, including a significant number that performed at “The Royal Wedding,” are scattered throughout North America.
From California to the Midwest and across the Canadian prairies, they have enjoyed success in their respective independent music endeavours, as has John, who is now settled in Oakville and actively involved in the career of his son, Jordan.
In early 2016, at the behest of Prince, John was hired by Live Nation as a sound manager for select dates on the late singer’s stripped-down final “Piano & A Microphone Tour.”
The two met a decade prior after Prince watched John perform with Jordan at Blues on Bellair in Yorkville one evening while he was still living in Toronto.
In fact, performing with Jordan is where you are most likely to find John.
Most Monday nights he is perched on a stool at the back of The Orbit Room on College St., bass in hand, doing what he does best, anchoring the backing band for his talented heir.
Occasionally, he gets asked about that midsummer night all those years ago and when it comes up, John still thinks the same thing.
“It was a great event but I am haunted by it,” he said.
“I would have done a free gig for the Gretzkys just to appease my own conscience.”
HOCKEY HALL OF FAME JOURNALIST
Wayne Gretzky gestures to fans as he and his wife, Janet, leave St. Joseph’s Basilica after being wed before 700 friends and relatives in Edmonton.
Inspired by Motown legends James Jamerson Jr., Larry Graham (Sly and the Family Stone) and Chuck Rainey, Prakash John picked up the bass guitar after moving to Canada in 1960.