Canadians have a peculiar ability to downplay—or forget altogether—their artists’ achievements. “Cultural amnesia,” Margaret Atwood once called it. Canada’s first lady of letters could well have been referring to how the fabulous Paupers were (until now) relegated to the delete bins of Canadian music history. Atwood was giving her first poetry readings at Toronto’s Bohemian Embassy when The Paupers were establishing themselves as a legendary live act up the street, in Yorkville clubs like the El Patio and Boris’ Red Gas Room. The group went on to score radio hits such as “Simple Deed” and “If I Call You By Some Name.” But most significant—and forgotten—is the fact that in the months leading up to the Summer of Love, The Paupers were the biggest thing in Canadian music, a band that opened the doors for everyone who followed.
The group’s origins are riddled with irony. Despite their image as mutton-chopped, nehru-shirted Yorkville bohemians, The Paupers were actually four nice, young, middle-class boys from the suburbs. Founder Ronn “Skip” Prokop was so straight that he even performed with the Optimist Drum Corps, a marching band in which he perfected his rhythms with military-like precision. Later, the ironies became more apparent. Credited with pioneering a psychedelic sound, The Paupers steadfastly eschewed hallucinogens. When one member finally did indulge, his mind-altered experience ultimately proved to be the group’s undoing.
Prokop formed the band in 1964, recruiting guitarist Chuck Beal from a music store. Beal brought with him bassist Denny Gerrard, a self-taught musician who purchased his first bass from Beal for $29. Bill Marion, a singer-guitarist who did a mean Little Richard, had already begun writing Beatles-style tunes with Prokop. With initial management by local DJ Duff Roman, the band recorded four singles in 1965, including “Never Send You Flowers” and “If I Told My Baby” on the Red Leaf label and “For What I Am” and “Long Tall Sally” on Roman Records. The group’s popularity was further boosted by several appearances at Maple Leaf Gardens opening for The Rolling Stones.
Marion quit the following year, opting for a stint with the r&b outfit The Silhouettes, and temporarily left The Paupers in limbo. But the others’ fortunes changed when they met Bernie Finkelstein. A Dylan devotee, Finkelstein was working at the El Patio, pushing a broom by day and slinging espressos by night. But he possessed a keen entrepreneurial streak. Assuming a manager’s role, he was quick to offer advice. “What you need is a singer who writes poetry,” he told them, “not pop songs.” Promptly, he walked across to the Mousehole coffeehouse and conscripted Adam Mitchell, a red-haired folkie with a thick Scottish brogue and a 12-string guitar.
Mitchell had been part of the folk contingent that, up until then, dominated the Yorkville scene, a group of singer-songwriters that included Ian & Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and Buffy Sainte-Marie. This group also included Denny Doherty and Zal Yanovsky, before they ventured to New York to join The Mugwumps and then The Mamas and the Papas and The Lovin’ Spoonful respectively. But Mitchell knew which way the wind was blowing. The Beatles were everywhere. Dylan had gone electric. And erstwhile Yorkville folkie Neil Young had already plugged in and joined Rick James in Yorkville’s rocking Mynah Birds band. Change was definitely in the air.
With Mitchell in their ranks, The Paupers began to forge a brave new sound—more folk-rock than pop, and with a decidedly rhythmic edge. Prokop came up with the idea of using additional drums within the group. Recalls Mitchell: “Skip brought in an extra drum kit and split it up, having me play tom-toms and Denny a floor tom and a bass drum turned over so that it made a big, deep African sound. We sounded like a drum corps on LSD. It was a gimmick, but it packed a wallop.” Quickly, The Paupers began developing a dynamic stage show built around thunderous rhythmic openings, Beal’s distorted fuzz guitar and Gerrard’s frenetic bass solos.
Already, Finkelstein could boast that he had Yorkville’s best band, at a time when the fertile Toronto district produced such great groups as The Mandala, Luke & the Apostles, The Ugly Ducklings and The Sparrows (later Steppenwolf). Now, he had his eyes set on the larger, more lucrative U.S. market. With a four-song demo, Finkelstein flew to New York in the winter of 1966-67 to meet with MGM Records, which had a label called Verve, featuring Richie Havens, Tim Hardin and The Mothers of Invention. Cool company, he thought, for a folk-rock band like The Paupers. He could barely contain himself when MGM signed the band on the spot. The Paupers became the first Canadian rock group to land a U.S. record contract.
Finkelstein, now brimming with confidence, headed over to Greenwich Village in search of a gig at the Café au Go Go. “How about a group opening for fellow Canadians Ian & Sylvia,” owner Howard Solomon suggested. “Hmm, what else have you got?” a cocky Finkelstein replied. “Well, there’s a date in March with a band called The Jefferson Airplane,” said Solomon, “but they’ve never played outside California.” Finkelstein, whose band had never played outside Canada, had just read about the Airplane in a new magazine called Rolling Stone. “We’ll take it,” he said with a grin.
With rehearsals for their New York debut underway, The Paupers recorded a folk-flavored single for Verve, “If I Call You By Some Name,” written by producer Rick Shorter, brother of jazzman Wayne Shorter. Featuring the Mitchell/Prokop penned “Copper Penny” on the flip side, it became a major Canadian hit in January 1967, reaching #6 on Toronto’s CHUM chart and selling an amazing 35,000 copies. By the time the highly polished Paupers headed down for their Café au Go Go gig, it seemed they could do no wrong. “We had no fear,” recalls Prokop. “We were a well-oiled machine.”
It was a chilly March day when the band flew into New York. Things were heating up, however, in the Café au Go Go, where a sold-out crowd was eagerly awaiting the arrival of the group from Haight-Ashbury, led by a striking singer named Grace Slick. Celebrities and music-industry heavyweights alike were in attendance, specifically The Beatles’ Brian Epstein and Albert Grossman, who was already managing Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary, Ian & Sylvia and Gordon Lightfoot. Critics and photographers were also there, including Richard Goldstein of the Village Voice and Linda Eastman (the future Linda McCartney). All had come to see the Airplane.
What happened next is now the stuff of legends. The Paupers had planned to simply deliver the same set they did every night at El Patio. As they launched into the opening of “Think I Care,” a surge of excitement raced through the club. Who was this band? The drumming was riveting, the vocals sublime. The otherworldly guitar elicited shrieks of delight, while the bass solos, especially on the r&b raveup “Dr. Feelgood,” left everyone slack-jawed. By the time The Paupers closed with their anthemic “Magic People,” they had the Café au Go Go—indeed the whole of Greenwich Village—in the palm of their hands. Epstein and Grossman were waiting for them in their dressing room. The Voice and Esquire magazine demanded immediate interviews. And Eastman, then a New York freelance photographer, wanted to shoot the group the very next day.
Unbelievably, The Paupers had upstaged Haight-Ashbury’s finest. In the Voice, Goldstein raved about this group that had “swooped out of nowhere, from a scene nobody knew about.” The Paupers, he added, “descended on the New York scene like electronic thunder…their music makes the average combo sound like a string quartet doing Wagner…they have a power and discipline I’ve never seen before in performance. They shatter the clichés about rock and roll.” Finkelstein was summoned to Grossman’s Central Park apartment, where Grossman and his partner, John Court, offered to co-manage the band.
An album deal was quickly negotiated with Verve. The Paupers and Shorter headed into New York’s Columbia Studios to record a collection of songs, including their drum-driven showstoppers “Magic People” and “Think I Care.” The former, with its flower-power message and trippy effects, was later released as a single with the surrealistic “Black Thank You Package.” “Think I Care,” with its delicious punk sneer, was also a later single, back with the fine, non-album track “White Song.” Neither release, however, scored at radio. It was the more conventional folk-rocker “Simple Deed,” with Mitchell’s early folk staple “Let Me Be” on the flip side, that became The Paupers’ next hit, reaching #23 on the CHUM chart.
After Finkelstein sol his interest in the band and moved back to Toronto, Grossman started getting the group major U.S. bookings. These included a May date, opening again for the Airplane—this time at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium. It was around this time that Grossman began boasting that The Paupers were going to be the biggest thing since The Beatles. To make his point, he landed the group a high-profile showcase at the Monterey International Pop Festival near San Francisco.
Monterey was going to be a critical gig for The Paupers after their show-stealing appearance at Café au Go Go. The group spent two weeks rehearsing for the festival, working out a strong, 20-minute set of their best numbers. The chance to blow away the competition looked good when the band was scheduled to follow mellow popsters The Association. The Byrds’ David Crosby hyped The Paupers in his rave introduction, calling them the best thing he’d ever heard. “Just watch,” he told the crowd of 30,000, “you’re going to be amazed.”
As soon as The Paupers kicked into their set, everything went horribly wrong. First, Beal’s amp shorted out, then came back on, spewing a god-awful din. Then, Gerrard’s bass playing started to sound strangely out of sync with the rest of the group. The source of the problem was likely a batch of LSD making the rounds at Monterey. According to Mitchell, Gerrard had dropped some of the acid just before going onstage. Instead of playing verse, verse, chorus, Gerrard played verse, chorus. “Those sorts of things,” deadpanned Mitchell, “can quickly unravel the fabric of cohesion in a band’s performance.”
The Paupers blew the big enchilada. Even Ralph Gleason, the San Francisco Chronicle’s influential critic and an admirer of the band, called The Paupers’ performance a major letdown (Gleason had already sung Gerrard’s praises in Playboy, where the Sluggo-capped musician had twice been voted top bassist in the magazine’s annual jazz poll). Astute observers will note The Paupers’ absence in Monterey Pop, the documentary by D.A. Pennebaker that helped to make superstars out of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Grossman obviously felt the footage would do nothing to advance the group’s career.
More promising was the buzz surrounding The Paupers’ debut album, Magic People, released on July 1, 1967—appropriately enough, since it was Canada’s national holiday. Featuring all of the band’s best numbers, including “Think I Care,” “Let Me Be” and the stirring title track, the album garnered rave reviews in Crawdaddy and Hit Parader. Critics were impressed with the strength and variety of the material, also in evidence on both sides of yet another single from the album: the horn-driven pop of “One Rainy Day” backed with the gentle folk ballad “Tudor Impressions.” In hindsight, Magic People was poorly recorded (at one point, Shorter accidentally damaged the tapes, accounting for the sudden fade-out on “Tudor Impressions”) and failed to fully capture the power of the group’s live show. But it stands as the best surviving document of The Paupers at their peak.
Meanwhile, the band continued to land prestigious gigs, playing the Whiskey-a-Go-Go in Los Angeles and opening Detroit’s Grande Ballroom and New York’s Electric Circus, the latter to a crow that included Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni and Indian sitar guru Ravi Shankar. After their West Coast appearances, the Los Angeles Free Press called them “remarkably pure and exciting” and commented: “It is joyfully unnerving to see a group bound together by other than a mutual regard for dope, stardom, pedestrian ideas of musical mediocrity, and vague dreams of overnight billions.”
By 1968, Gerrard’s drug binges forced him out of the band. Prokop, Mitchell and Beal fired him, replacing him with Brad Campbell, formerly of Yorkville’s The Last Words. A good bass player, Campbell learned all of Gerrard’s parts. But according to Beal, he “lacked Denny’s drive.” Added Beal: “Denny did for the bass what Hendrix was doing for the guitar. Nobody had seen anything like this. Of all of us, he had the most raw talent. But with that talent came the problems that led to his drug use. He got into drugs a lot sooner than the rest of us. Anything Denny did, he did to extremes.”
The Pauper’s second album, Ellis Island, came out exactly one year to the day after Magic People. At Grossman’s suggestion, the album was produced by Elliott Mazer, who later worked with Lightfoot, Neil Young and The Band. A far better produced collection than its predecessor, it featured everything from darker, heavier numbers like “South Down Road” and “Numbers” (sung by Campbell) to the theatrical “Cairo Hotel” and the country music parody “Another Man’s Hair on My Razor.” There were longer, more drawn-out jams and solos—even one song sung by Prokop (“Oh That She Might”). And the eastern, mystical touches that tinged Magic People were suddenly in full flower. “Ask Her Again” features Prokop on a Japanese zither known as the koto, a gift from Grossman labelmates Peter, Paul & Mary.
Ultimately, Ellis Island was a victim of its own eclecticism. Gone were the thundering rhythms and sunny melodies that had been the band’s trademark. In their place was a hodge-podge of styles that confounded the group’s longtime fans. Only the breezy pop raveup of “Julliana” bore any relation to the beloved sound of old. Despite a guest appearance by Al Kooper, who provided keyboard introductions to several songs, the album lacked coherence and commercial focus. Significantly, Verve chose to release only “Cairo Hotel” back with “Another Man’s Hair on My Razor” as a single. Still, for the adventurous listener, Ellis Island is not without its rewards.
Without Gerrard, the chemistry was gone. Not long after the album’s release, The Paupers started coming apart at the seams. First Prokop left, drawn to lucrative session work (he had already played on Peter, Paul & Mary’s “I Dig Rock and Roll Music”). Mitchell and Beal, faced with $40,000 in debts, kept The Paupers going for another year. But by then the band was effectively finished. As for Campbell, his time in The Paupers got him the gig of his dreams: along with several other former Ronnie Hawkins sidemen, he formed Janis Joplin’s Full Tilt Boogie Band.
Where are they now? Skip Prokop, after a long and hugely successful career fronting Lighthouse, is an account executive for London, Ontario’s CJBK AM and BX 93 FM. Adam Mitchell, who went on to release a solo album and produce records for Mainline, Fludd, Ian Tyson and Linda Ronstadt, is now a Nashville-based songwriter and producer. Chuck Beal produces books on tape for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. As for Denny Gerrard, after a brief stint in Jericho, he fell off the radar altogether until resurfacing on the Toronto club circuit with guitarist Mike McKenna.
For some, The Paupers’ Café au Go Go appearance might seem like the band’s triumph, the Monterey debacle its defeat. To be sure, had The Paupers deliver the same kind of performance at Monterey as they did at the Au Go Go, they would have been instant superstars. But dwelling on what could have been is an exercise in frustration. What really counts is all that the band accomplished in those dark days before the dawning of a flourishing Canadian music industry. As Canpop pioneers, The Paupers made a truly wonderful noise. Listening to it again brings back the band in all its pseudo-psychedelic glory. An instant cure for cultural amnesia.
Nicholas Jennings is music critic for Maclean’s magazine and author of Before the Gold Rush, a best-selling book about the Yorkville era of Canadian music in the 1960s, published by Penguin.
Released on Universal Music, 1999.