Tommy Chong’s entertainment career began at age 20 as the Chinese-Canadian member of the improbably named soul-rock band Four Niggers and a Chink. The band found gigs infrequent with that name and the four black members & Chong reformed as Bobby Taylor & The Vancouvers in 1962.
Tommy even shared lead guitar duties with Jimi Hendrix for ten days in 1962, until the owner of the Smiling Buddha lounge in Vancouver fired Hendrix because “he couldn’t play the guitar properly!”
The band signed to Motown Records and had modest success with one album until Bobby Taylor went solo in 1968. That year Chong returned home and joined an improvisational troupe amidst the hippie heyday going on in Vancouver. Later in that year, an Hispanic actor named Richard “Cheech” Marin would join up with Chong on stage and the two developed an intuitive act based on the observations of the potheads around them.
The seminal stoners Cheech & Chong created their act in Vancouver comedy clubs in 1969. In those days, a free wheeling marijuana culture was alive in the Gastown and 4th Avenue areas, and counterculture figures such as Rand Holmes (creator of Harold Hedd Comix), Cheech & Chong, and others found ready audiences in coffeehouses, hippy newspapers and “Happenings.”
There was no entertainment industry in Vancouver then, and after developing the act for a year, the two stoners vanned it down the Pacific Coast Highway performing at bars, coffeehouses and strip joints before settling in Los Angeles in 1970. The duo scored immediate success with the album Cheech & Chong in 1971 and then went mega-platinum a year later with Big Bambu.
I was fourteen when I bought the album Big Bambu (and memorized it) with the twelve inch by twelve inch gummed hemp rollie included. Although it would be another nine years before I smoked a joint, Cheech & Chong were my introduction to the stoner world (for better or worse). In total, Cheech & Chong made seven albums of comedy and six movies. My kids loved those films when they were released on videotape in the 80’s.
Tommy Chong, now sixty-six years old, was released from Taft Correctional in California on July 7, 2004, having been imprisoned for 268 days after pleading guilty to distribution of paraphernalia. Translation: Chong bongs sent through the mail across state lines = jail.
At the time of his arrest, Chong played the stoner character Leo in That 70’s Show. His charges regarding “Chong Bongs” led to the show cancelling his contract, and his character was dropped.
After Chong’s release from prison, he gained permission from his probation officer to accept a role in the touring version of the off-Broadway show The Marijuana-logues, which has been running for one year in New York City. The conditions of his probation forbade him to associate with any pot-smokers, or to even be in the same building as them! Fans paid tribute to Chong at February 18th and 19th engagements of the three-man play in Vancouver BC and Seattle, Washington state, in near sold-out shows.
The Marijuana-logues tour was scheduled to continue on to Tucson, Arizona, when his probation officer reminded Chong of his obligations to California Corrections. That is, no hanging out with pot smokers! At least not until July 8, 2005, when Chong’s one year probation and its conditions end. Chong told the media that pot smoking was evident at both performances, especially so in Seattle, so his permission to participate was revoked after just two cities. Chong’s intention is to resume the tour in July.
After his late performance in Vancouver, Chong and his limosined entourage went to see a show by a very special old friend of Tommy’s. His old bandleader Bobby Taylor, still going strong, was doing a gig at Rossini’s on Water Street. There, among friends, Tommy took some time to relax, and to sit down with me to talk about prison and his future plans.
“Jail was the best thing that happened to me. I had many epiphanies. Things became clearer to me,” he said, adding “You spent time in a Saskatchewan jail because you’re ‘Marc Emery’ ? me, it was the same thing.”
That evening, Bobby Taylor sang Does Your Mother Know About Me?, which was written by Chong when he was in the old band. The song is from the perspective of a young black man dating a young white woman. Tommy told me that “the listeners really didn’t hear that, and it went on to become a big hit.” In fact, it went to number 29 on the Billboard charts in May of 1968.
Taylor paid his old bandmate great respect with many songs to commemorate their old times from the 60’s. Chong reminisced to me about their years long ago. “We sang People Get Ready at the Orpheum Theatre in 1966 as Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers. Now almost 40 years later, I’m back at the Orpheum in a play.”
An invigorated and clearly robust Chong told me his current projects include a new Cheech & Chong movie being made in LA, as well as The Tommy Chong Unreality Show, a Canadian project. His most ambitious proposal is a Telethon for Multiple Sclerosis with Montel Williams and other Hollywood names, with money raised going to medical marijuana research.