Take note, aspiring rock stars.
Gordie Johnson and his practically superhuman work ethic could teach you a thing or two about making it in the music biz.
The producer, songwriter, guitarist and lead singer for Canadian rock veterans Big Sugar, has been involved in the music industry since he was a jazz player toiling away in dingy Toronto clubs in the ‘80s — a period he credits with teaching him the value of a hard day’s work.
“Sometimes I played from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. … so to me that level of hitting it for a long time, everyday, that seems normal to me,” he said.
“Everybody in the group comes from that background where it’s not exceptional to do 22 shows in a row, 30 nights in a row. That’s what you do, isn’t it?” he asked.
That workhorse mindset has paid dividends for the award-winning blues-tinged rock band that’s charted several hits since their 1991 eponymous debut album, selling over half a million records in Canada throughout their 21-year-run.
The iconic group regularly flexes their eclectic musical acumen, laying southern rock and blues-inspired riffs over infectious reggae rhythms without batting an eyelash.
Their diverse sound is a result of Johnson the music fan, who managed to surround himself over the years with artists and friends that truly inspired him.
“Everybody who plays in the group, although they’re not on the first and second Big Sugar records, these are guys I’ve either been playing with or was strongly influenced by for years,” he said from deep in the heart of Texas, where he spends most of his time when he’s not on the road.
The band went through several iterations — and an extended hiatus between 2003 and 2010 — until it arrived at its current five-person lineup.
In the early ‘90s, Johnson said he would run, in between gigs, to catch 20 minutes of keyboardist Friendlyness and bassist Garry Lowe’s reggae sets at Toronto’s infamous BamBoo Club.
Eventually, the pair got to show off their Jamaican influences on a bigger stage when they officially joined Big Sugar — Lowe in 1995, Friendlyness in 2002.
This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s known Johnson any length of time — he’s been helping to build emerging artists’ careers since Big Sugar “had any success at all,” he said.
In a perfect world, Johnson would still be receiving royalties for first exposing Canadians to bands like The Trews, Bedouin Soundclash, Nickelback and Wide Mouth Mason, — a band Johnson has been playing with this fall — taking them on Big Sugar’s globe-trekking tours before anyone had ever heard of them.
“I didn’t have a lot of breaks coming up, and I thought ‘Gee, sure would have been nice if somebody took us under their wing,’” he admitted.
“I’ve always been a really big booster of our opening acts … I always let them have the full sound, the full lights, we get them a longer set if we can. If they don’t have a dressing room, we take the bus, if they don’t have beer, we give them our beer, food trays, whatever,” he said.
There’s no doubt then that the love Johnson and his band have showed to their fellow rockers goes both ways.
Years after Big Sugar split up because “There began to be an expectation of us just playing greatest hits and the label wasn’t interested in any more new music,” according to Johnson, a stable of the band’s musical admirers clamoured for their reunion.
“Don’t you think you should call Garry, man?” Johnson remembered a Trews member asking him following an impromptu set he performed with the Nova Scotian rockers that was peppered with Big Sugar tunes. “It’s like they were marriage counsellors or something, trying to get us back together.”
After an almost eight-year hiatus, the band was more than ready to get back down to business, and they were determined then, like now, to do it on their own terms, said Johnson.
“We’re gonna keep coming up with new music, we still love the old music so we’re gonna play that too. But I tell you, the day we don’t love it, we won’t play it,” he said, vowing never to become that old archetype of rock’n’roll mythology: the aging, has-been rock star who “just phones it in, plays some greatest hits and leaves after 40 minutes.”
It wasn’t long after Big Sugar’s reunion show at the 2010 World Ski and Snowboard Festival that Johnson was sidelined with carpal tunnel syndrome in his wrist.
For the fist time in decades, he was forced to consider a life after music, but the self-reflection didn’t last long.
“Look, if it’s just not gonna work, saw it off and stick a metal bar on the end of my wrist and I’ll just play the slide from now on,” he claims to have told the attending physician.
Big Sugar returns to Whistler Sunday (Oct. 21) at Buffalo Bills in support of the band’s first ever concert DVD/CD, Eliminate Ya! Live!, which was edited and produced by, who else, but the inexhaustible Gordie Johnson.
Doors are at 9 p.m. with The Balconies opening.
The $35 tickets are available in advance at The Longhorn Saloon or online at www.northerntickets.com.