A classic shot of George “Keoki” Lake playing his Canopus steel guitar at an Edmonton nightclub.
Thanks to Keoki’s son Rob Lake for sending us the following story Keoki had been working on prior to his passing about his many experiences in music and with noted musicians.
My musical life had its beginning when I was in grade nine at Edmonton’s Parkdale School. I was never really interested in sports and achieved low grades in that subject. However, after school hours I would rush home to listen to those old scratchy 78 rpm recordings featuring music played on a very strange sounding instrument called the Hawaiian guitar. I had a vague idea of what it looked like. Hawaiʻi was a mysterious island somewhere far away! Other kids my age were playing football and baseball, but I was listening to and loving this strange Hawaiian guitar and the music of Hawaiʻi.
One day after school, two gentlemen came to our door, one with a violin, the other carrying a guitar. They were canvassing the district seeking new students. The chap with the violin proceeded to demonstrate the instrument. The violin certainly had no appeal for me! Then, the other chap placed his guitar on his lap, which I thought was rather strange. Normally you hold a guitar close to your chest and strum it. However, as soon as I heard this different style of playing, I exclaimed to my mother, “That’s the sound I hear on those old records!” The chap playing this instrument informed us, “This is a Hawaiian guitar!”
Well, of course, I was very excited and wanted to learn how to play this style of guitar. I signed up for one year of lessons in a class of disinterested kids. I soon learned to play (along with my sister who was also enrolled), eventually surpassing the teacher whose main interest was the violin. Before long I was asked if I would like to take over the class! I was still very young and foolishly accepted, my first teaching experience. (My sister eventually discontinued in favour of tap dancing.)
As the years went by, I continued teaching while at the same time I was actually teaching myself more about the instrument. Eventually, my school days were over. I failed eleventh grade dismally through total lack of interest, and went on to improving my steel guitar ability. Eventually I learned Spanish guitar rhythm and joined my first orchestra, earning a whopping five dollars playing my first dance job in Fort Saskatchewan. Five dollars was a lot of money in those days!
After this first dance job, a promoter, Joe Johnson, asked me to join his orchestra. Joe played string bass but preferred to do bookings, so I ended up playing the string bass and the steel guitar in his band, which played countless country dance halls over the twelve-year period I was with them. I purchased an upright string bass, which proved to be a great idea; I received far more work playing the string bass than I ever got playing the guitar. From Joe’s band I moved on to the Len Deer orchestra where we played casuals for four years at the Macdonald Hotel Ballroom for the J. Percy Page Les Amis Club.
In 1946 I began my lifetime membership in the musicians union (AFM), and with that, my interest in music soared. Over the years, I played with Tommy Banks and with the swinging Mac Cameron Trio, which opened the famed Derrick Golf and Winter Club. That gig lasted nine years. From there, the trio was booked for a few years at the Shasta Cafe on Jasper Avenue in Edmonton.
In the very early days of local black and white TV, at a time when CFRN was the only local TV station, Chris Hamalton, (aka Harry Farmer) arrived in Canada from his homeland of England. He was one of England’s top Hammond organists and was sponsored by CFRN’s owner, Dr. G.R.A. Rice. Harry asked me if I would like to join him on a new TV show called Melody Junction. The thought of being on live TV was quite exciting. This program aired for thirteen weeks. Harry played the Hammond organ and I was playing steel guitar and rhythm guitar. We had a five-piece group. There was no such thing as video taping, editing or patching, so if any of us made an mistake, the show went on live.
Tijuana Brass was the big sound in the mid-seventies. I joined the Brass Trend, a band that copied the Herb Albert sound. What an awesome group that was, led by Edmonton’s well-known Zen Magus. We enjoyed steady bookings at Tita’s Italian Restaurant, the old Edmonton Inn adjacent to the Municipal Airport, and many other venues over an eight-year period while the Tijuana Brass music remained popular.
During the years between 1949 and 1952 I had a Saturday night Hawaiian radio program called Hawaiian Sunset on CKUA radio. The music was very authentic and featured continuous surf sounds throughout each broadcast. Our show was also featured in 1951 on the CBC Radio Network as a summer replacement program. CKUA had made arrangements with an Australian Radio Network whereby music from Australia was heard here locally and my radio show was heard in Australia via 16-inch transcription discs. At the time, this Hawaiian show was the only Hawaiian program heard in [our part of the country].
During this time I became interested in country and western music and hooked up with soon-to-become-famous brothers, Hank and Frankie Rodgers. We did programs originating at the newly opened CHED radio station, which at that time featured live country music with emcee Curley Gurlock. I also did a five-week radio stint at CFRN with Ameen Ganam prior to his move to CBC Toronto where he became known as “King” Ganam on the show Country Hoedown.
Later I was approached by Giovanni Scivoletto to join his quartette as a replacement to the fine bassist Bud Sollitt. The Giovanni quartette was one of Edmonton’s top jazz-oriented groups, and featured Chuck Barber, a well-known arranger, trumpet player and vibrophonist. During this time period, I was also featured on steel and rhythm guitar at the prestigious Trocadero Ballroom for a couple of years. There were a great many musical venues in Edmonton from about 1951 through the late ‘60s—places like the Skyland Ballroom, Starland Ballroom, Rainbow Ballroom and the Trocadero; the list goes on and on. Gigs were plentiful!
During later years, around 1985, I was asked by Maple Records of Toronto to record an all-Hawaiian instrumental LP. I did multi-track recording for the project, playing steel guitar, Spanish guitar, vibraphone, ‘ukulele and bass. The LP sold in the United Kingdom, Canada, U.S. mainland and Hawaiʻi. I actually heard a cut from my LP on an aircraft taxiing to the Honolulu terminal and while grocery shopping in Lahaina, Maui!
During the eighties, I also joined the Gordon Schmitt orchestra, who were playing at the prestigious Edmonton Petroleum Club. Gordon was an amazing musician as he played accordion, vibraphone, marimba, Hammond organ, trumpet, and an assortment of other musical instruments with his five-piece group. He loved Hawaiian music and I was welcomed into his orchestra as bassist and Hawaiian steel guitarist. This enjoyable experience lasted more than two years.
In November 1991, I founded the Trocadero Alumni Orchestra, which consists of eighteen fine musicians and a female vocalist. I started out as leader of the group but soon realized there were others far more qualified for that position. The name of the band originated at an early rehearsal when we noticed that a number of musicians present, myself included, actually played at the old Trocadero Ballroom at 102 Street, south of the old Hudson’s Bay Company building on Jasper Avenue. In fact, the Trocadero Ballroom rose from the ruins of the old Empire Theatre, which was originally a vaudeville theatre.
The story thickens: the Empire featured live talent every Sunday evening under the direction of Jimmy Dent at a time when folks came out to see live acts. No television in those days. I had a Hawaiian trio at the time with a vocalist named Larry Schiller who, while still dressed in his Royal Canadian Navy uniform, sounded like Bing Crosby! We were amongst the last of the vaudeville entertainers before the theatre was demolished.
The current Trocadero Orchestra is still in existence. The only difference is, the alumni, including myself, have retired or passed away, and have been replaced by younger musicians, many of whom are graduates of Grant MacEwan University’s well-known music program. The band is now known simply as the Trocadero Orchestra, now in its twenty-seventh year!
Another great highlight of my career happened when a chap named Toutai Pasi—who was born in Tonga, raised in Hawaiʻi, and educated at the Polynesian Cultural Center—came to Edmonton with his Edmonton bride at the time. Toutai was able to locate me and asked me to join his newly organized group called Cane Fire. This was probably the most exciting experience I ever had in music! Toutai was a fabulous singer, fire dancer, ʻukulele player, and knew the Hawaiian language. For my part, I actually knew more Hawaiian songs than Toutai, so we hit it off famously. During the ten years we were together, we made a CD and did probably over a hundred Polynesian shows in Edmonton, including a huge New Year’s Eve show at the West Edmonton Mall Waterpark! We were featured at the 75th anniversary celebration of CKUA-FM and on other prestigious occasions. I think Cane Fire was the most exciting group of my musical career. Sadly, marriage difficulties caused Toutai to leave Edmonton. He now lives in Anchorage, Alaska, and is still performing.
While in the Islands during one of many, many trips there, Hawaiʻi’s popular entertainer Keith Haugen hired me to play steel on his ʻUkulele Lady CD, which featured one of Hawaiʻi’s foremost hula dancers, Carmen U‘ilani. I also had the privilege of playing bass on steel guitarist Bud Tutmarc’s CD To You Sweetheart, Aloha, which was recorded in Hawaiʻi and featured Hawaii Calls legendary vocalist Nina Keali‘iwahamana.
During all the above, Mary, my dear wife of sixty years, now departed, managed to put up with me as we found time to travel to Hawaii twenty-eight times in addition to many other worldly travels. In what would be my final trip, I was contacted by a Hawaiian group located in San Francisco about a one-week cruise from Vancouver to Kona on the beautiful cruise ship Vision of the Sea of the Royal Caribbean Line. We did three Hawaiian shows daily on board the ship. A wonderful experience!
From 1985 until 2016, I was involved with the Central Lions education program, teaching seniors how to play Hawaiian steel guitar and ‘ukulele. I taught at the Lions Centre for more than twenty-five years.
On June 17, 2017 I was honoured by radio station CJSR in an hour-long live presentation as a “Legend of the Edmonton Music Scene.” It was a wonderful honour and deeply appreciated. I really felt I was doing my best throughout the years to earn a decent living doing what I know best: Music!
Finally, I should mention my thirty years as a leader in the cub program with Scouts Canada, in which both Mary and I received the Medal of Merit. Music, while fascinating, has seldom proven to be a great revenue source to make a decent living. Therefore I accepted employment as sales manager with Heintzman and Company for eight years, followed by two years as sales associate with the Hudson’s Bay Company, and finally twenty-eight years as sales manager with Woodward’s Department Store where I retired at age fifty-five. By golly, it seems I was a busy guy!
In this issue:
Fort Collins Guest John Ely
Newsletter Goes “Electronic”
Waikīkī Steel Week Preview
Unloved in its Homeland?
Ka Oiwi Nani
HSGA Japan’s Fourth Biennial Convention
WCC Hawaiian Steel Guitar Lessons a Success!
Polynesian Meatballs Recipe
A “Techno-Tale” From Kona Beach
My Wonderful Years In Music
HSGA Staff & info