Tommy Chong's Vancouver

The comedian writes about his early years in Vancouver, rock 'n' roll band adventures, stand-up improv comedy clubs, and where his stoner persona came from.

How I came to be a stoner satirist or comedian in Vancouver in the late 60’s was not something I would have predicted. I spent 1941 to 1958 – my life from age 3 to age 20 – in Calgary, Alberta at which point the Mayor of Calgary, Don McKay, kicked me out of the city (more on that later). I was in the army cadets when I was 13 to 16, graduating to the rank of Sergeant. I met fellow cadet, Dick Byrd, and we started doing serious Elvis Presley impressions as Elvis came on the scene in 1955. That’s when I met Tommie Milton, a black singer. We had chemistry, and began a band called The Calgary Shades, a reference to our inter-racial make-up. We were possibly the earliest Calgary rock band ever. We loved black music, which was our passion: Joe Turner, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, black Rhythm & Blues rock and roll.

By 1958, in order to have teen dances – which were often difficult to put on in commercial venues – I rented the Canadian Legion Hall on 9th Ave in Calgary. Let me say this: the reason “rock-n-roll” made parents freak out was because of rock bands like ours! We were popular and attracted rock-n-roll people: rowdy, raucous youngsters, hoodlums, and loud partiers in leather jackets. No alcohol was served, but no doubt some snuck in. We couldn’t play past midnight, and the whole audience – worked up by our wild set – milled outside in a mob looking for excitement. Usually there were fights and brawls after we finished up the gig. Occasionally brawls even happened inside the Legion before we wrapped up. Sometimes one person would know of a house where there was a babysitter or house sitter, and dozens, even hundreds, of wild rock-n-rollers would descend in a mob on an unsuspecting house. They’d storm in, party, and trash the place. It happened fairly often, and the Mayor and Chief of Police blamed our performances for inciting the kids’ rough-and-tumble activities, but as the teen dances were held at the Legion, a no-alcohol venue, they couldn’t revoke the Legion’s permit and we couldn’t be closed down. The Calgary Chief of Police called the President of the Legion and ordered us to a meeting at the Mayor’s office where they mentioned complaints of trashed homes, brawls, underage drinking, rowdy mobs and vandalism, all blamed on The Calgary Shades. The Chief told me there in front of the Mayor, “All of Calgary thinks it would be a good idea if you and your band left town.”

Well, I knew I was destined for Vancouver one day, and this was how it would happen. While performing in Calgary in 1957, I befriended a Chinese bass player from Los Angeles named Raymond Ma who left me a parting gift: one joint and a Lenny Bruce record: The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce. (Much later in the 1970s when I lived in Los Angeles, I become good friends with Lenny’s father-in-law and his mother, Sally Marr. I have known all Lenny’s managers and friends he had before he died in 1966 from a heroin overdose at age 41.) That first Lenny album, going back 50 years now, was so influential to the steps I would later take. That one joint I smoked lasted for over a month, and I never shared it – I took small hits now and then. This first joint changed my life and my perspective, and one of the first insights I had was that I wasn’t meant to be in school; where I was headed was not anything school was going to show me, so I quit that month. I wanted to go to the big city, Vancouver, as soon as the opportunity struck.

And now, sitting in the Calgary Mayor’s office, the Chief of Police and Mayor were giving me that opportunity. It was time to make my move.

We went to Vancouver for the first time in December 1958 and discovered there was already a group named The Shades (they wore sunglasses, hence their name), so we kept our name The Calgary Shades. Our first gig when we arrived was at an Italian gangsters club on the southeast corner of Hastings Street and Main Street. Our drummer Sonny got us the gig, and we were roomed in the rat-hole Astoria Hotel across the street. It is much the same seedy flophouse today, right in that very same spot. When we were introduced to the club manager, he said “Boys, there are two rules here: you eat in the kitchen, and you don’t mess with the waitresses.” I got the clear idea we weren’t to have sex with the attractive women! As you may gather from his opening warning, we looked like a fearsome punk blues band – and did indeed live the rock-n-roll lifestyle, we five rough Canadian brawlers. “So, where are the waitresses?” popped out of my mouth.

But we were really not right for this club. The opening act sang the song Oklahoma, a Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway show tune made famous in the ‘50s by Ethel Merman. Then the emcee introduced us, and we blew the roof off the place with our hot punked-out black R&B. That gig lasted one night before we were fired, but two of the waitresses, Joanne and Marlene, left with us. The next night, five gangsters came to see us at a Chinese restaurant while our drummer and manager Sonny was out looking for a new gig. Each of these enforcers had a baseball bat in hand and they took positions behind each of us. “We want the girls back.” It was a very tense moment, and clearly a consequence of our flouting the instructions to not mess with the waitresses. They took the two women away in their car, and we breathed a sigh of relief. Moments later, the girls ran back into the restaurant, announced they had hopped out the bruisers’ taxicabs at a stoplight, and had returned to stay with us.

That’s when we decided to get the hell out of there! We left the restaurant and piled everything from the Astoria into our bruised and battered Buick. All of our equipment and six people were stuffed in this sorry excuse for a vehicle, and as we pulled up to a red light, we thought we saw the gangsters inside a cab next to us! Sure enough, a taxicab came after us in hot pursuit! We sped like crazy and almost lost them, but then suddenly our car died in the middle of the street! The cab pulled up behind us, and I thought to myself, we’re screwed. “Hey guys, what the hell is going on?” To our surprise, it was Sonny chasing after us to tell us he secured us a gig. He had hopped in a cab when he saw us flee the Astoria! The new regular gig was at the New Delhi Club, where we stayed for months – too long, but the waitresses were hot. Joanne, one of the runaway waitresses from the first place, later ended up marrying Sonny and they had two children together.

All the members of the band had smoked marijuana, but remarkably, we were hiding it from each other and it was some months before we realized we all smoked. In Vancouver there were American army blacks, and a few local blacks. We were totally part of the black pimp-ho culture that you even see today in contemporary hip-hop, but in 1960, it was pretty fearful to middle-class parents. We played all the black hits with passion and wildness. We lasted a year, but I returned to Calgary in 1959 and took a day job. In 1960, after about a year in hiatus, our lead singer Tommie Milton called me. He wanted to reform The Shades in Vancouver. A fan of ours, Daddy Clark, had opened a club in Vancouver’s Chinatown and we were set to be the regular house band.

Chinatown was a block from the main junkie places then, and still is now. I used to even have junkie pen pals that I would write to. Our audiences in part were junkies: heroin or other hard drug users. I didn’t see any hippies, beatniks, or that kind of pot-smoking crowd. The New Delhi Club went under in three weeks and Daddy Clark had to go back to working on the railroad where he had earned the money now lost on the club. That year, the Shades reformed as Little Daddy & the Bachelors. Little Daddy was the nickname for our singer Tommie Milton, and together with myself on lead guitar, Wes Henderson on bass, and Floyd Sneed on drums, we played until 1965. We toured BC more than once, headlined the Regatta in Kelowna, and started going to Los Angeles in 1963 for any gig we could find. In 1964 we met Bobby Taylor at Big Al’s Club in Los Angeles. Bobby gave us a gig once a week, and we traveled from Vancouver to Los Angeles and back every week. I called Vancouver home, but we were a hungry band looking for new places to play.

The first club in Vancouver I ran myself was in early 1964 with Tommie Melton at an old theatre on Broadway and Alma called The Blues Palace. We had no money and talked the owner into letting us use the theatre for nothing if we cleaned it up. To grab a big crowd (and to get The Blues Palace going) we went to a black talent agency in Seattle that handled some hot R&B acts. We booked “The Ike & Tina Turner Revue” for $750. Vancouver was such a rhythm and blues town then, and we sold the place out. That was the first time Ike and Tina had played in Vancouver, and they put on the greatest show I have ever seen, before and since – that show changed this town. We made lots of money from it, too. The Blues Palace only lasted two months though, because our band attracted burly, raucous crowds. The beer bottles, puke and garbage strewn everywhere, combined with noise and unruly rock ‘n’ roll mobs, disturbed the neighbors near Broadway and Alma. I was told by the City Licensing Department to more or less downsize out of The Blues Palace.

My second club was the T-Cabaret in Vancouver’s Chinatown, and the third was The Elegant Parlour, in the basement of The Embassy Ballroom at Davie Street and Burrard. We had acquired The Elegant Parlour in late 1964 rent-free for the first six months to help us make a go of it, and struggled for a few months trying to make enough just to pay the band and the help. That was when I met Shelby, who was too young to get into the other clubs so she directed people to our place. Our band name was still Little Daddy & the Bachelors but when our drummer Floyd Sneed left to be drummer for what would become Three Dog Night, and Bobby Taylor joined our group, we decided to change the name of our band to Four Niggers and a Chink – challenging the mores of the day, I thought; staying true to our punk rock roots. Lenny Bruce would have liked that. When we put 4 Niggers & a Chink as the house band on the marquee of The Elegant Parlour, a firestorm of notoriety quickly descended on the club. We left it like that for a week, and then changed it to 4 Colored Guys and a Chinese Lad, and 4 Ns & a C – after getting the publicity! The marquee had a new variation on the name every week. Tommie Melton, our singer for six years, quit the band at that point. I think he felt the hot Bobby Taylor – who, over 40 years later, is still a fantastic performer – was eclipsing him. Our group settled on the name Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers in early 1966. After Mary Wilson and Nancy Ballard of The Supremes ‘discovered’ us at our club late in 1966, our band got a recording contract with Motown Records to produce an album. Our band recorded my song Does Your Mama Know About Me in 1967, and it remains my Top 40 contribution to the world of pop, going to #29 on Billboard’s Hot 100 the following year (1968) when our album was released on Motown. We had two other songs, Malinda (#48), a Smokey Robinson tune, and I Am Your Man (#85), an Ashford & Simpson composition, both of which made the Top 100 from what would be our only album.

The rumor that Jimi Hendrix and I played together even briefly in a band in Vancouver is simply not true. Never happened. However, I did play with Jimi one night at a club called The Speakeasy in London, England in 1967, and it was my most profound musical experience ever. Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers had played a gig backing up Chris Clark one night, and the gig at the Speakeasy was a one-night reward for doing Berry Gordy a favor and a chance for the band to get some English exposure. We were half way through the first and only set, and the place was basically empty with bored waitresses standing around yawning, when suddenly the door opens. There he was, the black prince himself: Jimi Hendrix, coming through the doors of the club like he owned it. Behind him was his posse of mostly nice looking, intelligent women. Jimi asked to play bass after refusing my guitar I had immediately offered. Bobby kicked off a song, and we wailed the blues for a good hour. Jimi was such an inspiration that our lead guitarist Eddie Patterson had to pick it up a notch and get down with it, playing some of the finest guitar of his life that night.

1967 was a great year on the road for me for many reasons. One night in Chicago when we weren’t playing a gig, I wandered into an improvisational comedy club called Second City and the experience changed my life. I was mesmerized to the point of obsession and began going to every improv theatre club I could find, such as the Committee in San Francisco. Cheech and I later did a couple of their bits in the beginning of our career in 1969 and 1970.

Back in Vancouver, my club The Elegant Parlour had always packed in the audiences in this 1967 to 1968 period, and other bands were booked while we were on the road. Our Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers album was released on the Motown label in March 1968 and we were being booked across the USA. July 1968 was the peak for Bobby Taylor & The Vancouvers because that’s when our album charted and we were in the most demand on the road.

From July 12 to 27, 1968, our opening act for a two-week gig at Chicago’s Regale Theatre was a Gary, Indiana family pop group. We were very impressed with these brothers, called The Jackson Five. Bobby Taylor was convinced they would be huge and took them to Detroit, booking them an audition with our label, Motown Records. On July 23, the Jackson Five had their Motown audition, at which they performed James Brown’s hit I Got the Feelin’. In later years, Motown publicity tried to make the claim that Diana Ross discovered them, but that is pure hype. Bobby worked hard to launch their career, even when Berry Gordy, president of Motown Records, was at first not convinced.

By the end of 1968 I was working as back-up band to Chris Clark when the road manager fired me for being late for a gig. I was applying for my Green Card to continue to work in the US but, now that I was fired, I returned to Vancouver with a new idea germinating in my head: improvisational theatre. The Elegant Parlor’s landlord had sold the building it had been in, so in early 1969 I moved the Parlour to the back of The Shanghai Junk at 205 East Pender Street and Main in Chinatown. The Shanghai Junk, which was run at the time by my brother Stan, was a topless joint and could be a rough place. Sometimes Stan would have to be a “heavy” to get people to pay for their drinks. I didn’t have the heart to fire the strippers when I took over, so when I turned the show into a comedy troupe known as “City Works”, I put the girls in the skits. We had the only topless improvisational theatre in Canada, and it was a total family affair. My parents, whom everyone called Mom and Pop, did a lot of the domestic chores around the building while I transformed the intricate Chinese décor of the Shanghai Junk into a black-walled improvisational theatre. The only thing you could see by the time I had turned it into a performance theatre were the red lit exit signs and the stage. There weren’t any other notable comedy clubs in town, so The Shanghai Junk emerged as a comic venue for all the up and coming comedians.

One day, a Hispanic guy delivering carpets next door came into the club. He was fast and funny, and tired of laying carpets, so I offered him $5 a week more than he was getting laying rugs. His name was Cheech Marin, and he was now making $60 a week as a member of City Works. It was a very creative dynamic with myself, David Graham, Gaye Delorme and now Cheech all trying out different material on the unwitting stripper bar patrons. After the Improv show at Shanghai Junk, we stayed up all night playing very progressive music in the Elegant Parlour. Django, a legendary band, emerged from this era, featuring Gaye on lead guitars, Hans Staymer on vocals, Wayne Kozak on horns, Duris Maxwell on drums, and a nightly lineup of the best singers and players sitting in and jamming until the sun came up.

During that time I met a young hippie on Granville Street. He had long frizzy red hair and was dressed in a long overcoat. It was snowing. He was tripping on acid and sitting on a big bag of garbage. Light soft fluffy snowflakes were falling gently from the night sky, giving the scene an almost religious glow. The hippie smiled a beautiful angelic smile at me and asked me for some spare change. I stopped and asked him his name, to which he replied “Strawberry”. He went on to ask me if I knew where he could spend the night, as he was homeless, so I told him he could live at the club until he got his stuff together. He lived in the lighting booth, and eventually became the light man for City Works. When we bombed on stage he would mock us, and tell us his honest opinion with his stoned-out slow hippie drawl, “Heeeyyyyy, maaaaaaan, that bit reaaalllly sucked!” or “Wowww, maaaan, no one laughed! They hated it!”, prompting a “Fuck you, Strawberry!” from the star performer David Graham. I did impressions of Strawberry when Cheech and I started recording our records, and I eventually became famous for the “Hey, man” stoner persona. But that was Strawberry. That was where the stoner persona came from. You must understand that this character is perhaps my most beloved creation, but it is really only one aspect of my performance – although certainly the most popular act in my repertoire. I saw Strawberry about ten years ago when I was up in Vancouver doing a music gig with Bobby Taylor. He came back stage and at first I didn’t recognize him. He was a grown man wearing a business suit with short-cropped hair, as straight as a Republican lawyer, and he spoke perfect English... but underneath it all, I could see the Strawberry I knew years ago.

Cheech Marin proved to be a very versatile actor; good in all the crazy roles I put him in. His character “Pedro the Mexican/Chicano” was my idea for a character because Cheech was a fish out of water in Vancouver, being the only Mexican around, and this Chicano character and his accents were fresh bits. I usually directed things, and loved our characters developed in City Works at the Shanghai Junk. As our material with the characters “Pedro” and “Man” developed, I could see more and more a future in this kind of stand-up duo performance. Cheech and I spent fifteen months through 1969 and 1970 trying to ‘make it’ in Vancouver. When City Works disbanded in February 1971, we set out down south on a west coast tour of one-night stands, grateful to be able to perform in California in winter where it was much warmer than Vancouver. Later that year we signed a record deal as “Cheech & Chong” with our “Pedro” and “Man” personas, and soon had our first album out. Our second album Big Bambu – with the 12 inch x 12 inch actual Bambu rolling paper included – was voted #1 comedy album of 1972. Our first movie, Up In Smoke, was released in 1978, and we continued making films until 1985.

I still love Vancouver and consider it my home, often coming back to visit family and friends, and do stand-up comedy shows whenever I can – for example, Shelby and I performed at Laugh Lines Comedy Club in September this year. I also pop into Marc’s magazine office from time to time to discuss future articles and check out his store’s cool stuff. I even grabbed a rasta hat on my way out last time! Heeeeyyyy, maaaan, welcome to Vansterdam!

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