By Alex Taylor
I discovered the Melody Makers a few years back via their self-titled 1963 LP, which has remained a personal favourite of mine ever since. So, while I was writing my last Livewire column, I flipped the disc on to my crusty old low-fi, flicking the repeat switch on the turntable before getting down to work. A dozen spins later and my column was done. I got up, cracked open the phone book at Orsini and commenced dialing — “I’m trying to reach Roberto or Danny Orsini, would you happen to be related to them?” “Sorry” came the reply. Call number two, same question, but this time — “Hold on a second — Dad! Phone!” JACKPOT
I met the ringleaders of the group, brothers Roberto (now 45) and Danny (46). We had coffee and yakked about an entirely undocumented era in Montreal’s rock’n’roll history. Y’see, back in the late fifties/early sixities, there weren’t any teen oriented tv dance shows or music mags. Even radio played only a limited amount of Rock music and then, only at night. Since newspapers like That Star or the The Gazette rarely wrote about rock, little or no reference material exists to prove just how much talent roamed these parts…
The Melody Makers are unlike any other band I’ve ever had the task of chronicling. First off, they were young, really young! Danny & Robert Orsini were born in 1949 and 1950 respectively and grew up in the Notre-Dame-De-Grace (NDG) district of Montreal. Like thousands of others in 1956, they discovered Elvis and immediately took an interest in playing guitar and rockin’!
It took a little nagging before their father signed them up for guitar lessons at The Lasalle School of Music (located on Sherbrooke just five blocks away from their home). There, under the tutelage of Mrs. McBride, the boys would learn theory and practical training. Their dad was very insistent that they learn to read and write music. He figured that if they were gonna do this, they were gonna do it right.
In the course of their first two years at Lasalle, the Orsinis shared a Gibson acoustic (later with an electric pick-up) that their father had purchased. A short while later, Danny bough his own guitar, a Harmony acoustic. In 1958 they purchased a small amp and two full electric guitars — Gibson Melody Makers! With that kind of power in their arsenal, the boy set out to perform. Radio and television in Montreal and throughout much of North America was gong thorugh some serious expansion. Programmers were always in a frenzy to find local amature (read: free) acts to fill the slots until ‘proven’ network material came on. One such radio show was CKVL’s ‘Call Me Uncle’ hosted by Hal Wardell, formerly of Vancouver’s CFUN. His show was extremely popular and drew talent to the station’s Verdun studios like bees to honey!
The Melody Makers quickly became regulars on that show. An acetate of one such show actually survives. It captures a great early rendition of their own “Bedrock Boogie”. One can assume that several more were made over the years, but to date, none have turned up. It was through ‘Call MeUncle’ that several important contacts were made. First, there was Robert Perron. Three years older than Danny, Perron lived in Verdun and honed his skills playing with his high school’s drum core. The boys hit it off right from the start and Perron began pounding skins for the band.
The first gigs the group played were at Orsini Hall (owned by their uncle) and at The Lion’s Club, which had it’s own revue. Virtually all their performances were played as benefits, free of payment. While this might seem odd, one must remember that the Melody Makers were very young. Now, had they been in New York or L.A., they no doubt would’ve been exploited to higher status. In Montreal, they were just a buch of kids having an after school blast! They weren’t in it for the money, or for any other reason but fun!
It was with the Metropolitan Revue that they really made their name. Promoter Eddie Suppple had a few other Rock acts in the fifties, but most of those came and went over time. The Melody Makers hopped on in 1958 and remained with it until their demise. Their earliest gigs were with unrecorded Rockabilly combos The Mad Cats and theHep Cats. Just like vaudeville, the revue had some serious variety: magicians, ventriloquists, all sorts of dancers, physical comedians, singers — you name it! Roberto: “I remember the strangest thing I saw was a contortionist. This little girl was completely double-jointed and she would like face down and take her legs and put ’em over her head. Now that was an act!”
Supple was making some pretty good coin. This guy had connections and did work with just about every organisation under the sun. From Knigths of Columbus to war vets and they played them all! If you blieve their press (and I do!), the Melody Makers played over 400 shows by the time their LP was rleased in 1963. They did gigs in odd places too, like the Douglas (psychatric) Hospital. Roberto: “We would have to pass tthrogh hallways and there’d be tons of screaming from the padded rooms. We woude scoot through that real quick. It was rpetty scar! You would be palying and guy would ocme right up to your face. You didn’t know if he was gond to flip and grab your guitar and start beating you over the head with it!” In some instances when playing in hospitals like The Queen Mary Vets, patients would be wheeled in flat on their beds. Fortunately, for older patients, they had lostds of non-Rock material in their repetoire. The fact that hey could jsut pick up any old sheet music ans dstart playing made them quite versatile. If you thought those situations might have been a little uncomfortable, think of what i must have been like playing behind prison bars!They gigged at two such places, The St-Vincent-De-Paul (in Laval) and a women’s pen. One St-Vincent inmate even looked them up when he was released. He dug the group, so when he got out he wanted to thank them. The boy’s named “Leo’s Twist” after him.
In 1963, they also began playinghops on the west-island with CFOX dejay Don PAsserby. It was through this connection that they worked with instro player Hugh Dixon. Dix didn’t have a fulltime band, so he and boys practiced a few times and p;ayed a sring of hows together. the Orsinis were impressed withhis style and even learned a few tips from him. High Dixon was also responsible for introducting them to theEcho-Chord, leading them to purcase their own soon after.
The band’s first shot at television came with ‘The Paul Lemire Show’ (CHLT), which was in nearby Sherbrooke, Quebec. Danny: “I remeber looking up at the monitor and seeing myself and boy, what a weird feeling.” The show was done live, but subsuqent perfomrance on french channel 10 (CFTM) were taped so the gusy did get to watch themsleves on the box. In the States, they peformed on WCAZ in Burlington, Vermont as well as ‘The Lazy L Ranch’ (WPTL) tv show in Plattsburgh, New York. In addition, they were invited to paly in North Hudson NY’s Western theme park, Fronteir Town!
In early 1963 Tony choma of Plaza Records went scouting for non-unionized talent for his new label. The Melody Makers were his first choice and also the first act signed for n LP. In March they were at Steroeo Sound Studios in downtown Montreal. After eight hours miking and recording, an entire album wasd done. Virtually everything was done in one take and in stereo. As was the practice, multi-tracks were then mixed down to final mono mastgers. Plaza luanched the record in April and sales were very strong. 5000 copies purportedly sold. Many of thee were bought at Met. Revue stops, so these purchases (completely out of regular retail circles) explain the scarcity of the dsic so many year later. Choma actually paid royalities to the group. A whopping 20 cents a disc. Sucy figures dwarf results attained by so-called professional acts in Canada at the time.
The album contains four great originals: “Bedrock Boogie” (which remained a staple in their set), “Leo’s Twist (a frenetic breakneck speed rocker), “Hell Boogie” (homage to Arther SMith, then they go berserk halfway thorugh and kick into high speed!) and Mama’s Twist (not a twist and nothing short of sheer genius!). Danny: “That one came out of a practice in the backyard shed. We just came up with thse ideas by messing around. Robert Perron is responsible for all the howling and wailing in the background. It was just something he threw in.” This number is so wild that no description or comparison can do it justice.
When the Beatles and the British invasion forces stormed the continent in 1964, instro bands in North America were in big trouble. Many messed with thier format or changed with the times. The Melody Makers were always an instrumental band first (They did songs, but because of their age…(er, puberty and all)…did not have full comand of their vocal abilties just yet. So they relly conenctrated on playing the best they could. Over the summer of ’64 Perron split and aontoerh slightly oder drummer was brought in. Lou Peddy had a different sound and approach. He played wrists inverted, making a lot of use of cymbals. He was taught by BobbyMallow who was an NDG redisent and drummer for Paul Anka. Peddy was really big onshowmanship and knew how to market the band inorder to get more attention. Moving with the time, the Orsinis bough new guitars, this time Gibson SG Standards. The guitars had vivbrator arms, were flashy and had an edge that they both apreciated.
In the fall of 1964 they set out to record a follow-up album. seven tunes, including four instrumentals, were cut in the basement of the Wesley United Church. So many years later, it’s unclear whether these tapes were meant as demos for a record deal or as the end product. Whatever the case, no additional recordings were ever made and their 2nd album never materialized. After the British invasion came the garage band explosion. Now there were plenty of rivals on the local scene.
Sometime in the mid-sixties the group egan playing in jazz oriented nightclubs. Sitting in with Nelson Symonds at the Black Bottom Club. Lenny Breay and Ferdy Paterson (the father of Guess Who’s drummer) at the Maiden Inn. They also began playing months on end at The Little Cozy Club and even did a gig at the notorious (Rufus) Rockhead’s Paradise. These were real hot spots were liquor was served frast and strippers danced slow. THe borthers still have fond memories of backing tassle-clad China Doll (as she was professional known) through an extgended version of “Night Train”.
While these clubs were neve avenues for hte band, the ld ones were quickly disappearing. Amagure deejays were replacing live acts at church hall and community centrer dacnes. Gigs were nove enve harder to find. the made the best of it however and even played at The Rose Bowl Lanes. Imagine bowling and diggin’ a fine band. What a winning combination!!
In 1966, Danny ceased taking lessongs and as time went on, enjoyed his role in the gorup less and less. Roberto stuck with thelessons for a few more years and dgradually prgerssed into the jazz domain. After this point, they were only playing weddings and private parties. They both decided to call it quits when all the fun had been beld out of performing. They were still awfully young by R’n’R standards. When htye finally stopped in 1967, they were only 17 and 18 years old. The Melody Makers rocked right through the greastest era in the history of music!