A brass rock song that flies

The Toronto Sun reports sad news for fans of brass rock:

Skip Prokop, the big-hearted drummer, co-founder and visionary behind Canadian rock band Lighthouse, has died. He was 74.

Band manager Brenda Hoffert, wife of Lighthouse co-founder Paul Hoffert, said the beloved musician died Wednesday in a St. Thomas, Ont., hospital. She said Prokop had been living with a heart condition and was ill for some time.

Born Ronald Harry Prokop, the Hamilton native had his initial taste of international success with Canadian psychedelic rock band the Paupers in the early 1960s. After the group disbanded, Prokop was an in-demand session musician for industry heavyweights including Carlos Santana, Janis Joplin and folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary.

But Prokop envisioned the creation of a rock orchestra infused with horns, strings and a rhythm session. He was able to realize his dream through a meeting with jazz pianist and film composer Paul Hoffert, co-founding Lighthouse in 1968. The duo teamed with guitarist Ralph Cole and some 10 other musicians from the jazz, rock and classical disciplines.

Brenda Hoffert said their first gig on May 14, 1969 at the Rockpile in Toronto was memorable for unexpected reasons. Lighthouse had been due to perform with the musical collective behind the album “Super Session” — but the other group didn’t show up.

“This was Lighthouse’s first gig and they only had a certain amount of material because it was their first gig, so they had to play their whole show twice in order to fill the time,” she recalled in a phone interview on Thursday. “But fortunately, Lighthouse was such an improvisational band that it wouldn’t have mattered, because Lighthouse has never done the same show twice ever.”

The band had chart success and was well-known for infectious tracks like “You Girl,” “One Fine Morning,” “Pretty Lady” and “Sunny Days.”

Lighthouse won Junos for group of the year in 1974, vocal instrumental group of the year in 1973, and outstanding performance of the year in 1972.

The band also earned an early celebrity admirer: Billy Bob Thornton.

In the early 70s, the musician and future Oscar-winning actor was a roadie for the band when they performed in Texas.

“He always remembered that moment,” Hoffert said of Thornton’s encounter with Prokop. “The reason that he did was that he just remembered how kind this guy Skip Prokop was. He was just a roadie with the venue and Skip let him play his drums and he never forgot that. He was just a kid, and this is the kind of thing Skip did all the time.”

More name-dropping: Singer Richie Havens recommended they take their first demo to MGM Records in New York. Their first gig was at the Rock Pile in Toronto, where they were introduced by none other than Duke Ellington, who said, “I’m beginning to see the Light … house.”

Where would you get an idea for something like Chicago with an orchestra? Ask the Canadian Pop Encyclopedia:

As a young boy, Skip Prokop served in RCSCC LION Sea Cadets Corps in Hamilton, Ontario. At the age of fourteen he became Leading Seaman/1st Class as well as Lead Drummer and Instructor in the Corps. Prokop was also one of two cadets chosen nation-wide to serve in the Royal Canadian Naval Band. His leadership qualities won him an offer of scholarship to the Royal British Naval Academy which he turned down to pursue his love of music. He moved to Preston, Ontario (now Cambridge) and played in the Preston Scout House Drum Corps.

One year later, he was accepted by the Toronto Optimist Drum Corps – the world famous Canadian National Champions. Prokop was encouraged to pursue a career in music and perfected his skill as a drummer. He won the prestigious ‘Canadian National Individual Rudimental Drumming Championship’ at the age of seventeen and later that year, placed in the top three (losing within tenths of a point below 1st and 2nd place) for the same title in the United States. A scholarship from prestigious Westpoint Military Academy was offered to him as the first Canadian to be sponsored by a U.S. Senator but turned it down.

While in Toronto, Ontario he graduated from Lakeshore Business College and took a position with the Metropolitan Toronto Police force in the Identification Bureau. Prokop was offered a position with the United States Air Force Blue Angels Presidential Drum Corps at the age of nineteen. At the same time he was perfecting his guitar and piano skills and had started to write his first musical compositions.

He then left the Drum Corps to establish his first rock group called The Paupers who, in very short time, became Yorkville Village’s media darlings and fan favourites. They became the first Canadian group to sign a major US record deal through Verve/MGM. After successfully touring internationally for 4 years on the back of two critically acclaimed studio albums – “Magic People” and “Ellis Island”, the group broke up.

Under the continued managerial eye of Paupers’ manager Albert Grossman (Bob Dylan, The Band, Janis Joplin), Prokop stayed in the US and became one of the most sought after live and studio musicians. He would work with Peter Paul & Mary, Alvin Bishop, Carlos Santana, Steve Miller, Mama Cass Elliot, Richie Havens as well as Al Kooper & Michael Bloomfield. In the summer of 1968 Grossman handed him the unenviable task of putting a band together for Janis Joplin post-Big Brother & The Holding Company (which found him face-to-face with the Hell’s Angels ‘welcoming committee’). But Joplin’s independent spirit found her drifting back to old habits and band-mates and Prokop found himself at loggerheads with attempting to assemble a professional act around an unpredictable circle of hangers on and undisciplined artistes.

Prokop decided to return to Toronto and assemble his dream band – one that would take the Blood, Sweat & Tears idea of a horn-based jazz rock combo and turn it into a full-fledged fusion orchestra with the additional of strings. Prokop had been kicking the idea around as far back as his days with the Paupers – discussing it occasionally with fellow Torontonian and Broadway keyboardist and arranger Paul Hoffert when they’d hang out in New York’s Greenwich Village.

He called Hoffert immediately when he arrived back in Toronto and set about building the musical dream machine. Prokop then called up American guitarist Ralph Cole who had been in a band called The Tyme – an act that opened many shows for The Paupers during their tours stateside in 1967 and 1968 – to let him know that there was an opening in his new group. Cole packed his bags and caught the first flight to Toronto. Prokop then canvassed his old Yorkville stomping grounds looking for additional players. Popular group A Stitch In Tyme were in their deathrows and Prokop snagged guitarist Pinky Dauvin and bassist Grant Fullerton to help round out the core of the group’s rock base.

Still, the focal point was going to be horns and strings so Prokop called around to find the cream of the crop in Toronto’s brass and string instrument players from CBC radio’s session men, producer Doug Riley’s Dr. Music’s session men and anyone else not already attached to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. After interviewing and auditioning dozens of potential players – and finding people that could grasp the idea of a rock orchestra (this was pre-Electric Light Orchestra days) – the first team to sign on were Ian Guenther (strings), Leslie Snider (strings), Don Whitton (strings), Freddy Stone (horns), Arnie Chycoski (horns), Howard Shore (saxophone, flute), Don Dinovo (violin), and Russ Little (trombone).

The 13-piece ensemble crammed into a small garage on Paul Hoffert’s property near the Lawrence & Bathurst area of Toronto where they soon discovered that the strings were all but drowned out by the rhythm section. They immediately set up finding someone that could build new violins and cellos with built-in pickups and solid bodies so that the instruments could be amplified. This was new territory and even amplification as going to be an issue for a 13-piece act on stage.

You’d think finding a stage large enough for 13 players — two percussionists, a keyboard player, a guitar player, a bass player, two trumpet/flugelhorn players, a trombone player, a saxophone player, a violin player, a violin/viola player and two cello players — would be an issue in itself. (However, a St. Louis radio station used the open of the song you’re about to read about to open its news. That would have been at the same time that a Washington TV station used the bridge to the last song in Chicago’s “Ballet for a Girl from Buchannon” as bumper music for its 1972 election coverage.)

This is Lighthouse, and apparently others, at Expo ’70 in Japan — (front, from left) Louie Yacknin, Skip Prokop, Ralph Cole,(back) Keith Jollimore, Howard Shore, Bruce Cassidy, Pete Pantaluk, Larry Smith, Don DiNovo, Paul Armin and Dick Armin. From the Lighthouse website.

This very blog passed on this description of the group:

It’s often been said that watching The Beatles perform on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ in 1964 made a million boys buy guitars, but what made as many steal saxophones, trumpets and trombones from unattended high school orchestra lockers? Lighthouse’s massive one-hit-wonder, One Fine Morning, is practically evidence of criminal intent, the 1971 hit’s flowing groove, bass-slapping attack and hard rock guitar presaging its roaring brass bluster. As the band quakes below, the vocalist—who sounds as if he’s riding aloft a black stallion racing down the beach—shouts “As long as you love me girl, we’ll fly,” as over-stimulated harmony vocals and a breezy acoustic piano “bring it all back home,” as we used to say.

The Verdict: A massive hit single boasting a sky-cracking horn section that retains it majesty year after year (*** ½)

Besides the obvious similarities between Chicago and Lighthouse, one less obvious similarity is that both groups were invited to play at Woodstock, but didn’t. Chicago was going to go, but had a conflict created by promoter Bill Graham, who scheduled the group for his Fillmore West during Woodstock so the group he promoted, Santana, could go to Woodstock. Lighthouse turned down its invitation, though Prokop later regretted it, saying, “I knew it was going to be one big drugfest. I thought you’re not going to be able to get a glass of water without something in it.”

Both did go to the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, where 600,000 people attended. Both groups also recorded albums at Carnegie Hall in New York City (twice in Lighthouse’s case). And both houses had their early songs unforgivably hacked for American radio airplay due to their length. (The song in the next paragraph was used as news sounder music by a St. Louis radio station at about the same time that the Washington, D.C. CBS-TV station used the bridge to the last part of Chicago’s “Ballet for a Girl from Buchannon” as its bumper music for 1972 election coverage.)

Lighthouse’s best known, highest charting — it got to number 2 on the Canadian charts and 24th on the Billboard Hot 100 — and most popular according to its website poll is “One Fine Morning,” sung by later lead singer Bob McBride, who sounded something like a cross between David Clayton Thomas of Blood Sweat & Tears and Jim Peterik of the Ides of March:

Rolling Stone reviewed the album thusly:

Following the pop music scene in Canada teaches one many and myriad virtues, not the least of which is patience. Canadian groups, no matter how highly touted at the offset, seem to require a considerably longer period of time to mature than their English and American counterparts. …

Now, after considerable personnel changes, which have seen the group shrink to 11 members from 13 (with only five of the originals still with us), the now slightly older Y.C.R.F. is happy to announce that Lighthouse’s new effort, One Fine Morning, is everything he hoped and expected the first one to be.

The reasons for the new-found success are many. First off, the group now boasts a new lead singer in the person of Bob McBride, who shows considerably more flexibility and vocal power than his predecessor Pinky Dauvin could ever muster. Secondly, Skip Prokop and Paul Hoffert have now matured as writers to the point where they seem incapable of writing a song which isn’t both highly original and moving. Their more up-tempo numbers (“Love of a Woman” and “One Fine Morning” being the best examples), shake you as well, if not better, than anything ever written by any of their competitors in the neo-big band field to date. At the same time, their “production” type numbers, (“Step Out on the Sea,” and particularly “1849””), display a singular power and mood that almost makes you want to stand up and salute something (a tree, a telephone pole, the mailman, anything).

But probably the most important advancement the group has made is in its new tendency to allow every song to run to its logical conclusion. Previously, the group tended to make shorter two- and three-minute songs, and still attempt to crush all 13 members into each song. Thus, even a number like “The Country Song” from the third album would have horns strings squeezed into its 2:26. On One Fine Morning however, each song is allowed to have their own say without having to compete with the regular rock instruments for the listener’s ear. The result is not only that the record buyer gets and album that runs over 25 minutes on one side and 22 on the other, but also one in which each song has a power and sense of completeness that the previous efforts lacked.

I really can’t conceive of Lighthouse getting much better than this. They’ve been around long enough by now so that they’ve found their own relative level of the ozone, and will probably settle there, sending out music of an equal caliber to One Fine Morning for at least another year or so. But that’s plenty good enough, believe me. I can recommend this album to anyone without fear of getting it thrown back at me.

Unlike Chicago, Lighthouse broke up in 1976, three years after firing McBride for missing recording sessions. Also unlike Chicago, original members returned for live shows, and the group’s been back together since 1992, but fired McBride for the second time. McBride died in 1998, reportedly of substance abuse complications.

According to the always-accurate Wikipedia, Lighthouse has had 25 horn players, nine strings players, six percussionists, eight lead singers, six bass players, eight keyboard players, and three guitar players. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any group with that kind of lineup (though some are counted twice, such as Prokop on vocals, drums and, once, guitar). Lighthouse’s website has the listing of everyone by album.

Prokop’s son, Jamie, apparently took over after his father was too ill to continue with the band. I suppose that’s in the tradition of Julian Lennon, son of John; Jason Bonham, son of John; and Ziggy Marley, son of Bob. According to Lighthouse’s website, a stage show about the band is in the works, presumably not like “Mamma Mia,” which combined ABBA songs with an unrelated story.

Top 10 Flashback says about the subject of this blog:

How could classic rock radio call itself that and not include this song?

Oh, you’ll hear it in Canada.  Lighthouse is one of Canada’s great rock bands and virtually a national institution.  Here in Detroit, we’re fortunate enough to be able to hear AM 580, CKWW, with its unique blend of rarely played oldies, especially songs by Canadian artists, along with the usual oldies radio fare.  In fact, most of the forgotten songs we’ve spotlighted here can be heard there.  If you want to hear this bona fide rock classic on the radio in 2014, you have to tune to a 500-watt AM station across the border (or stream it – I highly recommend you do). …

This is a great song; a jazzy and brassy rock classic that truly deserves to be heard.  Now I don’t have the playlist of every U.S. classic rock and classic hits station handy, but Detroit’s WCSX and WOMC are good examples of their respective formats, and you won’t hear it on either.  No, you have to go to one of Canada’s last AM stations that still plays music, and we’re glad they could share it with us here.  …

Wow, this is a remastered version and it sounds great!  The horns cut right through to the forefront as they should, and it doesn’t sound brickwalled at all.  Good job, remastering engineer!

And Michael Panontin adds;

The title track, leading off side two of this LP, is still Lighthouse’s finest moment, a buoyant paean to love riddled with crisp horns and blistering guitar, not to mention McBride’s lusty vocal performance. …
Though Lighthouse would crack the lucrative juggernaut south of the border once again with the more radio-friendly ‘Sunny Days’, the torrid brass/guitar workout of ‘One Fine Morning’ will forever remain the band’s signature staple up here in Canuckistan.

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