Thursday, March 18, 2010

Just Four Guys Named Shmoe

Take a stroll to Market Square, and wind up at the Empress,
Come and catch the causeway show, if you’re feeling restless.

(D.Harris/J.Sinclair/J.Rogers)

So go a couple of lines from Take Me To Metchosin, a song by a very popular combo that spent most summer evenings through the 1980s, busking on Victoria’s inner harbour causeway. Over their seven year run, Special Delivery aka The Shmoes entertained the tourists and locals that were strolling along the harbour, and in the process built up a following of regular fans with their high-energy show that incorporated tight musicianship, catchy song parodies, humorous patter, and wild and crazy visual antics.

I was living in Vancouver at the time, so I missed most of the band’s heyday, but when I moved to Victoria in ’89, I do remember that after spending my days busking on the harbour, I’d usually stick around in the evenings and hang out with the audience to watch the Shmoes' shenanigans.

Over the years I have seen and listened to many street musicians, and I have to say that the Shmoes rank up there at the top of my list of favorite busking acts, along with Diamantose in Vancouver circa ‘79-‘81, and the Okie Doke Band in Seattle in the early ‘80s.

I recently sat down with fellow busker, one-man-band and former Shmoe, Dave Harris, to get the story behind the band. I could tell from the enthusiasm with which he spoke, that he was enjoying the memories of what was obviously as much fun for him as it was for all the folks that came out to catch the “causeway show”.

CD – What can you tell me about the genesis of the band?
Dave Harris – I was busking on the street as a solo, when I met Jimmy Sinclair. (He’d be) in town visiting from Pender Island, (and) he’d sit in with me on Government Street and play a few tunes on guitar, and I played fiddle or mandolin, so that’s how I got to know Jimmy.
I probably already knew Mike Kraft from the days when we played in front of the Empress (Hotel) under the Captain Cook statue, that’s how I met Mike. He would come down and listen to me playing with the Anonymous Street Band. Mike was a budding banjo player, so he would come and sit in with us when we were the large group, safety in numbers a little bit, he was very green, he’d be real scared, but we’d say “Jump out there”, and he’d do Foggy Mountain Breakdown, and Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms and things like that.
Rod Thomson was another catalyst for a lot of all this. Rod was a little bit older than the rest of us and he played mandolin. He used to come and play with me for free on Government, those were the days when I was really struggling, and he started to teach me bluegrass songs, he knew a lot of songs and he was really into it.
Rod and Mike started living together and doing a little bit of gigging with other guys, and they formed the original Special Delivery band, in early ’79 I think, with a guy named Tom Coles, and I don’t remember who else. They were short-lived, but they did a few gigs.

The other guys ended up leaving, and when Mike came into the group with me and Jimmy he brought the name Special Delivery with him, so it was Rod on mandolin, myself, Jimmy and Mike, and we usually busked under the Captain Cook Statue on top of the causeway.
Around 1980, Rod, Jimmy and Mike went on the road with John Hopkins, but then Jimmy quit and we teamed up as a duo. We used to play a lot at the tourist information up on the top of the causeway, sometimes down below, but a lot up on top. This would be maybe about ’81, something like that, and sometimes my girlfriend of the time, Rhonda Broadfoot would join us as well. Then Mike came back, so we started playing as the three of us.
I was also playing with Jeremy Rogers in a separate thing. We were doing Blue Sky with Rhonda, and Jeremy was playing keyboards with us, so that’s how he came into the group. We didn’t have a bass player really, Jimmy would play some bass, but he was mostly playing guitar, and I was playing fiddle and mandolin, and Mike was playing banjo, so Jeremy came in and covered the bass lines on the keyboard. That basically covers sort of the genesis of the group.

CD – How would you describe the style of music you played?
Dave Harris – We were basically a bluegrass band, certainly when Rod was in the group we were really quite hardcore bluegrass actually and did quite a bit of Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, and Jim and Jesse, that kind of material. I was mostly singing a lot of the material, songs like Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms, I Gotta Travel On, Nine Pound Hammer. I was really into the Kentucky Colonels, Clarence White’s group from the ‘60s, and so I learned a lot of their songs, If You’re Ever Gonna Love Me, and Dark Hollow, Take A Whiff On Me and Last Thing On My Mind.
Jimmy really was the one who brought the diverse repertoire to the group. He did things like the Kinks’ Skin And Bone, and a bunch of songs by Commander Cody & the Lost Planet Airmen, (and) he brought in some John Hartford too, like Steam Boat Whistle Blues, kind of obscure songs. We did all the big hits too Dueling Banjos, Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Rocky Top.
Mike brought a couple of Lightfoot songs into the group, Did She Mention My Name, and You Are What I Am and I did Early Morning Rain, so we had a bit of Canadiana in there as well. The songs that we covered weren’t necessarily always bluegrass, but we covered them in a bluegrass manner, so we were sort of newgrass, in a way.

CD – And some of your most popular songs were the parodies?
Dave Harris – We had quite a few parodies. That was Jimmy’s influence although all of us contributed. I can remember the funny story of us all sitting at Coffee Mac’s, it was an all-night restaurant, now long gone, over at Rock Bay and Gorge. We’d go play and when we were done we’d go home and we lived in that area, so we’d walk over there for something to eat, and sit around late at night yukking it up in a booth, and that’s how we wrote Take Me To Metchosin, which was a rewrite of a Bob Wills tune Take Me Back To Tulsa. It was all written right there in the booth, and we were rolling in the aisles. The waitresses were thinking “Boy, what are these guys on?” We just couldn’t stop laughing, we laughed about it for days. I remember the first time we tried to do it on the causeway, we just about broke down and fell on the ground, we were laughing so hard. In retrospect it wasn’t that funny, but at the time, you know.
Under The Empress of course came from (The Drifters’) Under The Boardwalk. That was Jimmy and another guy Joe Figliola, who played bass with us on occasion down there.
Then we had Just Four Guys Named Shmoe, that was mostly me. Jimmy and Jeremy, and actually even my wife Jane contributed a few lines in that, but that was basically mostly me. That wasn’t really a rewrite, it was just a funny song.”
Other rewrites that we did Bowling Down At Mayfair to the tune of Proud Mary, we did Fumbling Stumblebums to Tumbling Tumbleweeds.
The Polite Rodeo Song, instead of all the swear words it was “I’m overly concerned, you’re causing me to be irate”, that was mostly Jimmy again. Jimmy was into David Letterman who was really big at the time, he had a lot of that same kind of humor, dry wit.

CD – Your show was very visual. Tell me about some of the more popular antics?
Dave Harris – Dueling Banjos was a really big hit for us because when we were doing it, me and Mike would put on silly hats, I’d put the antlers on, it was like antlers on a helmet, and Mike would wear the pig hat and squeal like a pig. We’d each go a different way off to the wings of our playing area, and then we’d run back to each other and lock our heads together like a couple of bucking deer, that would be sort of close to the end of it.
Turkey In The Straw was another really big hit for us. We would put two cases out and run around them doing figure-eights (and) kicking each other in the butt. Of course ring-around-the-bass in Under The Empress, that was another big antic, and in Take Me To Metchosin we’d lie down on the causeway, flopping around like landed carps.
We had one that we called the "Toyota Jump", which was actually a couple of old fiddle tunes, I believe it was Devil’s Dream and Wagoner’s Lad. In the Wagoner’s Lad it goes da-da-dit-da-da, da-da-da-da-da-da-da, so we’d jump on the da-da-dit (jump) da-da, and then Jimmy would yell out “What a fun bunch of guys”. We called it the "Toyota Jump", ‘cause that was when Toyota had their big “Oh, what a feeling” and they’d all jump, it was the big thing for about a year. A lot of our stuff came from television.
The fiddle tunes were the things where we really would usually do a lot of the dancing around, and so things like Orange Blossom Special was another big one for us, we’d go faster and faster, we’d actually use that as a money-grab, we would say “We’re gonna start off really slow, and every time somebody puts some money in we’ll speed up a little bit,” and that sometimes would work.

CD – And you also had some clever lines in some of the songs.
Dave Harris – “Clapping’s the butter, but we sure need the bread.”
CD – Yeah, and “Some folks like to come down close…”
Dave Harris – “…and get into the show, others like to stand up top and hang onto their dough”, and we’d call it (street level) the cheap seats, and things like that.
I should mention the girls, Mike’s wife Sandra, my wife Jane, and Jimmy’s wife Barb, we called them the Shmoettes, and they would sing some backups on some of the tapes, not live. And Jane would go around with the hat for us, that was even mentioned in the Shmoes On Parade song, “there goes Janey ‘round with the hat”.
We had a line about “our omnipresent baby” in Under The Empress. Our omnipresent baby was a lady that was probably an Eric Martin patient, I believe, and we maybe didn’t always handle her with the kid gloves that we should’ve, but she would come down and be pretty outlandish, sort of off-the-wall behavior. One night we were setting up to play and she was hanging around behind us. Anyway, she actually took a swing at Jimmy one night down there, and luckily without even knowing what was happening, he bent down just as she did it and she missed him, so that was sort of the initiation of her as the “omnipresent baby”.

CD – So, the the period we’ve been talking about from 1983 to 1990, that the last year with the group?
Dave Harris – When Rod was in the group in the very earliest years, that was about ’79, but the full-on era of the four Shmoes with Jeremy starts probably about ’82, ’83, somewhere in there, and runs right through until ’88, and then we had a falling out and Jeremy and Jimmy split off and decided they were gonna do their own thing, and Jimmy’s wife Barb came in on bass with them and Mark Bracken played a little bit of guitar with them few times.
Me and Mike Kraft kept going as a duo us and we brought in Dan Clifford for a summer, and then ’89 I think we may have done something different again, I don’t remember exactly, but definitely not with Jimmy.
We had a one month reunion with Jimmy and Jeremy in August 1990, (that) was the last year as the group for sure, and (then) we had another reunion in 2006.

CD – So, where is everyone now?
Dave Harris – Mike Kraft, of course as we know, is playing with the Clover Point Drifters, and living in Sooke, raising his girls who are actually just about ready to leave home, and he coaches sports, and works as a salesman for PFC Natural Foods.
Jimmy Sinclair is following his passion in a way, he always wanted to get more into writing, so he did that when he left town in the early ‘90s, and he just came back maybe three or four years ago, and he’s writing copy and covering sports events for the Sooke newspaper.
I don’t see much of Jeremy, he lives on the mainland. He’s not doing music much at all, I think he’s still in the accounting business of some sort, but I’m not positive exactly what he’s doing.
Rod’s back in Saskatchewan where he was from.
Joe Figliola passed.
The wives are all still with the guys. That’s a success story, all three of us are still with our wives. Jeremy is married now.
I’m still basically doing the same thing I’ve been doing since 1977, and that’s busking. I’ve gotten back to being a solo working as the one-man-band, and I occasionally play with some other people. I’ve started resurrecting a little bit of the old material from way back in the day, and I still do a couple of the causeway hits by request.

Special Delivery released six cassette tapes, 1983’s Highway Roller, 1984’s Special Delivery, 1985’s Just Four Shmoes, 1987’s Midnight Special, 1988’s Under The Empress and 1990’s Shmoes On Parade.
The cassettes are all out of print, but the greatest hits package Shmoes On Parade is available on CD, and can be purchased either from Dave when he’s on the harbour, or at his website Dave Harris One-Man-Band

See Special Delivery aka the Shmoes in action at the following links:
Special Delivery 1990
Special Delivery 2006