George Olliver


Interview conducted and transcribed by Jeremy Frey
December 2006



Origins

I took piano lessons when I was a kid. In the late ‘50s, when Jerry Lee Lewis came on the scene, I was crazy about that guy, and I joined one of my high school bands. We put together a group called the Cool Cats. We played for five dollars a night all over different areas around Toronto, different churches and whatever. Then, before I hooked up with Domenic downtown at the Bluenote, I had one last group that I was involved with, with Whitey Glan, called the Belltones. We moved downtown when we found out about the Bluenote. I went down to the Bluenote because my tastes were starting to change from ’59 to ’63, and we started to fall in love with black rhythm and blues music... first of all the blues, with Jimmy Reed, and then Motown music, with people like early James Brown and Little Anthony and the Imperials. I was starting to sing this kind of music with some of my jam bands in Willowdale. The Bluenote had a something called the Floor Show, which was a showcase of different young singers who wanted to sing R&B. I got on that particular showcase, and the owner found out that I had a band called Whitey and the Roulettes, which was a band that I had just finished putting together with Whitey after the Belltones. So we had a chance to go down and replace the band that was already there called the Silhouettes, with Dianne Brooks. We followed them into the Bluenote, and I was walking around on cloud nine. I couldn’t believe I’d landed that gig, because it was the most prestigious R&B gig in Toronto. I was playing keyboards at that time for the band. We were looking for a guitar player, because the original guitar player for Whitey and the Roulettes, Mike McKenna, got downtown, and he didn’t really like the engagement... it was too alien to him. Don Troiano came up to see us from Le Coq D'or, which was a club that was on the same street, Yonge Street. He saw our band and absolutely loved it, so he joined the band with myself at the keys, Whitey, and Don Elliot. It went along for two or three months like that, and then I told Domenic that I’d really like to get out and front the band. We put an ad in the paper for a keyboard player, and that’s how we got Joey Chirowski. He was the last member of the band to join. He answered that ad, and I went out front, and the Rogues were born.

Mandala

"I’ll Make It Up to You" was an original by Donnie, and he also wrote "Can’t Hold Out." "Can’t Hold Out" made it onto Soul Crusade. It was sort of a different version from the original, but it was alright. Martin Onrot was originally going to manage the band, and he fronted the money to cover the cost of the recording, but something happened between him and Domenic where it didn’t quite work out, so at that point, we had the demo, but we didn’t have a manager. Then Donnie hooked up with Rafael Markowitz. I don’t know how that happened, because at that point, I’d given leadership over to Domenic. I was pretty much the leader of the band until Domenic came in. He was such a tremendous asset to the band at that point that I just gave everything over to him. He was the guitar player and the well-known entity in Toronto. He and Rafael somehow hooked up, which was great for us, because he had a kid’s show, The Randy Dandy Show, and he was a very well-known television figure wanting to get into the Brian Epstein type of the Beatles thing that was going on at the time. He wanted to be a band manager too, so that’s how he became our manager. [The matching suits and strobe lights] were all of Rafael Markowitz’s ideas... all of those things were attributed to him. He had the ideas for everything. [The live experience] was tremendous. Domenic came from a very blues type of, rockabilly background, and I came from the Bluenote, which was R&B/soul, so we put those two influences together, and then, myself being a very visual performer and having a lot of James Brown/Joe Tex influences - the dancing and the high-energy type of thing that we added to the show... we had that between the band. When Rafael came in and galvinated that and took all those musical and show influences and put them together and put his influence into it, it was just an amazing thing when it came together.

Domenic was just coming off a run with Ronnie Hawkins and Robbie Lane, who were the two biggest R&B/rockabilly bandleaders. His reputation was that he was the best guitar player in Canada at that point for that kind of music. After he joined Whitey and the Roulettes, we changed the name of the band to the Rogues, which all happened at the Bluenote. We were just in awe of him. He was a great influence, and he galvinated the band. He put us into a great work ethic. Before he came into the band, of course we rehearsed a little bit. But when Domenic came into the band, it was rehearsal, rehearsal, rehearsal... "we’re going to be the best R&B/soul band that ever hit Canada"... and we went along with this, because he had great musical ideas. He wrote the first single, which was a #1 single in Canada, "Opportunity" on Chess, and I had the privilege of writing the flip side of that, "Lost Love," which was a double-sided hit that went right across Canada and made the band. We went on to record "Give and Take" on the Chess label. Those were very, very strongly inducted and directed by Domenic. I had a little bit to do with it, but I must say that he and Rafael put their heads together and came up with those deals and the recording contract.



We recorded "Opportunity" in Chicago, which was a great experience for us. We drove down to Chicago, and we were in the same studio as Billy Stewart... he had a hit with "Summertime" and all those early great R&B hits... the Dells, they sang background vocals on "Opportunity." Then we came back to Toronto, and the owners of Chess Records loved "Opportunity," but they decided we needed a B-side and wanted to hear more of what we had to offer, so they sent Joe Wissert up. He had just joined the Chess recording group, and he later went on to record Boz Scaggs’ stuff. He produced "Lost Love" up in Toronto at Toronto Sound Studios.

"Give and Take" was recorded by an English group, and I can’t remember the name of it, but we took it and we decided to go a different direction with that. We added a few horns to it, trying to be more contemporary, and we aimed at sort of an edgy, Motown sound with that single. We had the great opportunity to record that at Bell Recording Studios in New York. Charlie Koppelman and Don Rubin produced that for Chess Records. We did "From Toronto ‘67" when we recorded "Opportunity." We did that as a possible B-side for "Opportunity." We recorded that at Chess Records in Chicago, but they decided they were going to use "Lost Love." So after we recorded "Give and Take" in New York, we put "Toronto ‘67" as a B-side of that single.

Creative differences

Los Angeles was the high point of the band. We were cookin’ down there at the Whisky-a-Go-Go and the Hullabaloo, which later became the stage for The Midnight Special. We went through both of those singles, and I don’t know what happened... at that point, we had been together for close to four years, and there was a little rift between Domenic and I about which direction we wanted to go. He wanted to go in more of a rock direction, and I wanted to go in more of a R&B/soul direction. We were right at the pinnacle of our career. Instead of sticking it out and getting by the stupidity of the ego trips the band got into, we decided to break up, which was a mistake. We hadn’t really procured the deal for Atlantic yet, but we had started with Koppelman with Chess Records. We were basically recording for Chess Records and that didn’t work out, and in the whole mish-mash of that not working out for Chess, we weren’t agreeing on what direction we should go. I recorded most of the tunes on the Atlantic album, with the exception of "Love-itis," but because I left and they brought in Roy, they went ahead and finished that album with Roy, re-recording all the vocals. Joey quit the band the same time I did, and they bought in Huey Sullivan. They recorded that album and went on for another eight months, and then the whole band broke up, which was unfortunate. I have no hard feelings about [Mandala recruiting a new vocalist]; it was my decision to leave. There was a little bit of resentment right off the top, because I was a kid, but I made my decision to leave, so if they wanted to keep going, bringing in another keyboard player to replace Joey and another singer to replace me, that was their right. I really enjoyed "Love-itis." I thought that was a great cut. I have my own opinions about the rest of the tunes and how they could have been done better. Although I wasn’t the main influence musically in the band, I was an influence, and I would’ve done those tunes differently. If I had known that we were going to get the deal with Atlantic, I probably would have changed my decision to leave - Atlantic was the be-all-end-all record label for R&B artists like myself, because they had people like Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin, and on and on - but I just enjoy the experience of those four years with the group. They were some of the best years of my career.

When Mandala finally split up, Don Elliot was very distraught, because he’d put his heart and soul into that for close to five years. He just decided to give it up altogether. I saw him play a couple times in some local nightclub bands, but he became very distraught and quit the business altogether. Joey Chirowski went on to record, along with Whitey, with Lou Reed and Alice Cooper, and Joey also recorded with Crowbar. Roy Kenner went on to do some of his best vocal work in Bush and he did some guest spots with the Domenic Troiano Band. He really became an excellent vocalist.

After Mandala

I went on to put together my first solo group, George Olliver & the Children, which was together for two years. We toured the New England area... for the first band that I ever put together, it was just great. I had Prakash John, who later went on to work with Domenic in Bush, and Huey Sullivan with that group. It was a great experience for me. At that point, I’d given all the leadership of Mandala over to Domenic, and I was sort of his right hand as far as that group was concerned, but in this particular group, I had a chance to be leader of the group, call out the shots, call out the tunes we’re going to do, write some original material that was right up my alley, because I was more of a soul guy than an R&B/rock crossover, so I wanted to do more of Wilson Pickett, Righteous Brothers, James Brown type of influence. We were together for two years, although we never had a chance to record any stuff, studio-wise. We did some great live performances that I still have tapes of. After that, I put together Natural Gas, which was one of the best recording groups I had together. We did an album which George Goldner produced for Firebird Records. We had a lot of notoriety with that group. We had big hits in all the major trades in the late ‘60s, and we sold quite a few records and really got out front with that. We had some great musicians in that group. We had Graham Lear, who was the original drummer for Gino Vanelli. We had Dave Tamblyn, who went on to play with Ocean... they did "Put Your Hand in the Hand." We were together for three years, and I really enjoyed that group.


George (bottom left) and friends, 1982


I was after Donnie to record the Royals, which was Bobbi DuPont and I together. We had a couple original tunes and a couple tunes that were really popular from the ‘60s that we were doing... some stuff by Sam and Dave and from some other bands back then. [Roy Kenner and the Royals] never got together and recorded. Domenic just took some of Roy’s stuff that he’d recorded individually and some of the Royals stuff that he recorded with us individually and put it together. We never got together, but Domenic put the songs out on the EP together. It was a nice little remembrance of the Royals, because that was the only recording we ever did, and we were together for about three years. We made a very big impression on the European market - Germany, Switzerland, Norway. We were over there for about six months.

The Bluenote live album was the best thing I recorded in the ‘80s. Domenic and I were collaborating at that time, and I approached him to maybe record the band, and he had this idea of recording a live album at the club. Unfortunately, it was never recognized by the industry, but it was a tremendous record of what we did at the Bluenote. The original club shut down in ’69, and then I reopened it with some partners of mine in 1982, and it went for 10 years. It was the #1 R&B/soul nightclub in Toronto. Quality Records came in and recorded that album with myself, Roy, Shawne and Jay Jackson, Wayne St. John, Jayson King, who were my prime special guests at that time. As musical director and part owner of the club, that was just a cloud nine experience for me. Not only did we record that album with some of our great local artists, but we brought in some international artists, who we never recorded with, but we did shows up there with Martha Reeves, Junior Walker, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, Etta James, Mary Wells. It was a nightclub that was just magic every night.

I’m one of the last members of Mandala to be able to work steady in this business. Right now I’m in a gospel/R&B/soul direction. I just finished recording my first rhythm and blues gospel album for my own label, Rapio Records, and we’re going to take it stateside at the end of February, trying to get a deal with that. It’s probably one of the best albums I’ve ever recorded. I was up for a Juno in the late ‘80s for an album that I had on my own label called Dream Girl, but this one is going to be my best work. I’m doing both secular and gospel work right now. I’m very blessed to be able to continue performing.


Bernie LaBarge, Troiano, and Olliver, 2003



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