TRIPPIN’ WITH CHONG
Before going up in smoke, ’ 60s stoner icon started his journey on the West Coast
Tommy Chong has become an icon of the ’ 60s mainly because of the stoner humour he made famous during his years with the comedy duo, Cheech and Chong. They f irst met in Vancouver after Cheech Marin came here from Los Angeles in 1967 to avoid being drafted to serve in the Vietnam War.
At that time, Chong was an influential part of Vancouver’s rock music scene. He had a Motown hit, Does Your Momma Know About Me, that reached No. 30 in the U. S. with his band, Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers.
“ I wrote the lyrics, and Tom Baird wrote the music and was the arranger,” Chong recalls from his home in Los Angeles. ( He still owns a waterfront home in Vancouver that he bought about 30 years ago.) “ Tom later died in a boating accident, but he was one of the best players on the Vancouver scene then.”
During the Summer of Love, Chong and the Vancouvers were touring the U. S., opening for Stevie Wonder, the Temptations and James Brown. One of their opening acts was the Jackson 5, with a young, pipsqueak Michael Jackson.
“ We discovered [ the Jackson 5] in Chicago when they opened for us. Bobby Taylor got them an audition with Motown and later produced them,” Chong says.
He recalls the boys’ father, Joe Jackson, showing Chong the Motown contract before signing it and asking Chong what he thought.
“ I was the whitest guy they knew,” he explains. “ I said, ‘ You can’t go wrong with Motown.’ They sent them to school to learn to dance. It was the first finishing school of rock.”
By then, Chong had spent years playing Chuck Berry- style guitar with various R& B bands.
“ I still have a deformed hand — a thumb that won’t straighten out — because of that Chuck Berry style,” Chong says.
While living in Calgary, where he grew up, he formed the Shades, an R& B band that made a stir when it came to Vancouver in 1959 to play at the New Delhi Cabaret at Keefer and Main.
“ We stayed for a year,” Chong says. “ We never left.”
He and Tommy Melton opened a club in 1963 called the Blues Palace in an old movie theatre at Alma and Broadway.
“ We brought in the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, which had never been to Vancouver before.”
The two Tommys also played in a band called Little Daddy and the Bachelors, which won the battle of the bands contest in 1964 at the teen fair at the Pacific National Exhibition.
The prize was studio time to record a 45- rpm record on the RCA label at Aragon studio. The single, a version of the Chuck Berry tune Too Much Monkey Business, was included on the History of Vancouver Rock and Roll Volume 2 album, which was issued in recent years by Vancouver record store Neptoon Records.
The band’s first drummer was Floyd Sneed, who later joined Three Dog Night. His brother Bernie Sneed was on keyboard, Wes Henderson on bass, Ted Lewis ( who later changed his name to Duris Maxwell) on drums and Tommy ( Little Daddy) Melton on vocals.
Later, Chong opened another blues club, the Elegant Parlour, which was downstairs at 1024 Davie.
“ It’s a gay club now,” he recalls. “ The Retinal Circus was upstairs.”
He remembers that the building owner, Jim Wisby, also owned the Torch nightclub and Oil Can Harry’s, and didn’t charge any rent at first. “ He let us work there until we started making it.”
Bobby Taylor replaced Melton in the house band, which by then included the late Robbie King and Eddie Patterson.
Various musicians would drop by the club, including Jimi Hendrix, then known as Jimmy James. ( Chong said Hendrix jammed for hours with the Vancouvers in London when Hendrix’s career was taking off in 1967.)
The Vancouvers were discovered while the Supremes were playing a Vancouver nightclub in 1965. Two of the Supremes, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, dropped by to hear the band at the Elegant Parlour. They brought Diana Ross down the next night. She immediately phoned Motown Records owner Berry Gordy, who signed the band.
But Chong’s relationship with Motown ended in the middle of 1967, while the Vancouvers were at the peak of their success.
“ I got fired,” Chong explains. “ I had to get a green card [ an immigration card to keep working in the U. S.] and they said, ‘ If you’re gonna do that, you’re fired.’ They didn’t even know what a green card was. ... I got back and they fired me on the spot.”
Gordy later called him and explained it was a misunderstanding, but Chong and his girlfriend Shelby ( now his wife) had already decided to move to L. A., where Chong briefly tried becoming a songwriter, he recalls.
“ I told him I wanted to pursue my own dreams, that I wanted to be Berry Gordy. He said ‘ I can’t argue with that’ and gave me a $ 5,000 severance.”
Chong didn’t last long in L. A. He quickly returned to Vancouver, where his family was running another nightclub, the Shanghai Junk, in Chinatown. Chong played in the house band between strip acts and eventually got the strippers doing comedy routines.
It developed into a sort of “ hippie vaudeville” with Chong as a long- hair stoner. The act’s “ straight man” quit once his wife found out where he was working, Chong says. Someone suggested a replacement — a musician from L. A. known to be a funny guy — named Cheech Marin.
Once the two realized they were doing more comedy than music, Cheech and Chong hit the road as a comedy duo. They were discovered in 1970 by a record producer Lou Adler while at the Troubadour club in L. A., where Canadians Joni Mitchell and Neil Young ( then with Buffalo Springfield), had made their L. A. debuts in the 1960s.
From there Chong went on to make Grammy- winning comedy albums and movies, all with the stoner- comedy theme, often making fun of Sgt. Stedanko, a character based on a real- life Mountie narcotics officer named Abe Snidanko who prowled Fourth Avenue and busted people for drugs during the Summer of Love.
“ When [ Snidanko] retired, his younger colleagues had me sign a poster for him,” Chong recalls. “ I don’t think he’s ever forgiven me.”
( Snidanko, now retired and living in the Vancouver area, says he has forgiven Chong, but declined to talk about his drug squad days, saying: “ I’ve been asked for interviews many times and I’ve refused every one. And I’d like to keep it that way.”)
Chong’s fondest memory of almost 50 years in show business? Getting out of jail, he says.
He was busted in 2003 for selling bongs — pipes for smoking marijuana — with his image on them. Chong pleaded guilty and did eight months behind bars.
“ It’s a badge of honour,” he says. “ Street cred is very important in my business.”
While Cheech and Chong are no longer a comedy team, Chong is currently touring with his comedy partner of 12 years, his wife Shelby. He turns 70 next May.
“ But I’ve got the body of a 68- year- old,” he quips.