Vancouver Sun


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.

 ?? DENI EAGLAND/ VAN­COU­VER SUN FILES ?? Above: Tommy Chong ( left) and Cheech Marin in the 1978 movie Up in Smoke. Far left: Pi­ano player Tom Baird, who wrote the mu­sic to Does Your Momma Know About Me, a Top 40 hit in the U. S. that Chong penned the lyrics to while play­ing in Bobby Tay­lor...
DENI EAGLAND/ VAN­COU­VER SUN FILES Above: Tommy Chong ( left) and Cheech Marin in the 1978 movie Up in Smoke. Far left: Pi­ano player Tom Baird, who wrote the mu­sic to Does Your Momma Know About Me, a Top 40 hit in the U. S. that Chong penned the lyrics to while play­ing in Bobby Tay­lor...

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