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Two bands, a producer, violinist and country singer to join London’s music hall of fame

Canada’s own Singing Cowbody, a world-class violinist, the band who opened for The Supremes and The Dave Clark Five and a band that toured Ontario for decades will be inducted into the Forest City London Music Hall of Fame.

The inductees include country star Earl Heywood, Johnny Stevens and the Canadians, violinist Lara St. John and B.W. Pawley and Plum Loco.


Joe Belanger

Publishing date:

Apr 09, 2021  •  April 9, 2021

Also being honored during London Music Week June 6 to 13 for lifetime achievement will be the late Greg Simpson, who spent five decades in the radio business and working with London musicians and bands and various organizations, including the Forest City London Music Hall of Fame. Simpson died last June after a series of strokes.

“Every year it’s a tough process to identify worthy recipients, because of the incredible music history of London, but our Hall of Fame team did a great job this year in identifying five incredible talents that took our city around the world,” said Hall of Fame curator Rena O’Halloran.

The virtual ceremony will be held June 8 at 8 p.m. live-streamed on the hall’s Facebook page.

London music week also includes the announcement of the music award winners for all genres and the wildly popular music industry workshops, seminars SoundCheck for Success.

Nominees for the music awards will be announced Monday.

Mario Circelli, co-founder and chair of the awards and Forest City London Music Hall of Fame (182 Dundas St.), said “it’s an incredible class of inductees.”

“It really reflects the calibre of talents that’s been coming out of London since the days of Guy Lombardo and his brothers,” said Circelli, referring to the big-band legends who enjoyed international fame.

EARL HEYWOOD 2021 HOF Inductee
EARL HEYWOOD 2021 HOF Inductee

Earl Heywood was a family man first.

But to the rest of the country he was Canada’s Singing Cowboy.

“Yes, he absolutely was a family man,” said his daughter, Pat Cook of Kincardine, who even took to the stage with her father, mother Martha and brother Grant, who is still an active musician.

“He was a good father and a great guy to talk to.”

The son of a farmer, who grew up outside of Exeter, Heywood was inspired by Gene Autry, America’s Singing Cowboy, and influenced by a distant cousin, Gordie Tapp who starred on the television show, Hee Haw and inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, joined by Heywood in 1989.

Heywood died in 2006 at the age of 89. His wife, Martha, with whom he continued to perform in the 1990s, is in a nursing home.

He was a regular for years on the popular radio show CKNX Barn Dance. He was given the moniker Canada’s Singing Cowboy the first time when being introduced at London’s Princess Theatre. He had his own radio show, Serenade Ranch.

During his career, he toured the east coast of the U.S. and in Canada. He appeared on the Grand Ol’ Opry in Nashville, and at a Philadelphia television station in 1953, his back-up band was an unknown group known as Bill Haley and the Saddlemen before he became Bill Haley and The Comets, pioneers of rock ’n roll with hits including Rock Around the Clock and Shake, Rattle and Roll.

Heywood was a renowned songwriter and in 1970 released the 14-song album Tales of the Donnelly Feud, which sold 35,000 copies in Canada, leading to appearances on the CBC’s Stompin’ Tom Connors show. During his career, Heywood would release 10 albums and composed more than 350 songs.

He counted among his friends the legendary Hank Snow, Wilf Carter and Gene Autry, but also Larry Mercey, a member of the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame.

“He was one of my mentors,” said Mercey, now 80, who also got his start at the CKNX Barn Dance and was delighted to hear Heywood will be inducted to the Forest City London Music Hall of fame.

“He was always very friendly and helpful and Martha was his right arm. He taught me to make it a business and he really looked after family and taught me the same.”

LARA ST. JOHN 2021 HOF Inductee
LARA ST. JOHN 2021 HOF Inductee

Lara St. John is missing her home.

“I haven’t been home for more than a year,” said the violinist, whose brother, Scott, made it home ahead of the pandemic and performed with London Symphonia last October. Lara originally was scheduled to perform but couldn’t due to the pandemic.

Instead, St. John has been hunkered down at her New York City apartment with her husband, Steve Judson.
Unable to perform live, St. John has developed a virtual chamber music series featuring a variety of musicians performing in an empty space in her apartment building once occupied by a store.

She has given only a few performances during the last year and was excited to hear of her induction into the Forest City London Music Hall of Fame.

“This is really great,” said St. John, who will turn 50 on April 15. “It’s definitely a big honour coming from my home town.”

The induction follows her being named to the Order of Canada in late November.

St. John has been playing the violin since she was two, the daughter of the late Ken St. John, a former teacher at Medway High School and her mother, Sharie, a retired music coach.

She first performed with an orchestra at the age of four, studied in Paris, made her European debut at the age of 10 with the Gulbenkian Orchestra in Lisbon, toured Europe for three years before studying at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she later received her degree, but where she also was the victim of a sexual assault by one of her instructors which caused a furor when it was revealed in 2019.

St. John went on to do post-graduate work at the Moscow Conservatory and also studied at the Guildhall School in London, Mannes College of Music in New York and the New England Conservatory in Boston.

She has gone on to perform at some of the world’s greatest venues and with major symphony orchestras including Cleveland, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Seattle, San Francisco, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, the Boston Pops, the Knights, the National Arts Centre Orchestra (Ottawa) and with major orchestras across South America, Europe and Asia.

She founded her own record company Ancalagon Records in 1999 and has released 13 recordings since 1996.

Said Circelli: “Lara has played with some of the world’s most prestigious symphony orchestras and venues around the world and she has always taken London’s flag with her.”


Reini Strasser had one word to describe how he felt when he got a call about Johnny Stevens and The Canadians being inducted into the Forest City London Music Hall of Fame

“Gobsmacked,” said Strasser from his home in Melbourne southwest of London.

“After all these years . . . I never thought of myself as anything spectacular. But that was a golden era (of rock’n roll).”

Strasser played bass in the band, behind singer and front man Johnny Stevens and alongside drummer Billy Hilton, lead guitarist Ken Gough, organist Lou Crockett, piano player Joe Dengler and sax player David Atwood.

The band, which played R&B in the style of bands who were part of the British invasion, was formed around 1963 and included members of The Belaires and The Hi Fi’s, first calling themselves The Johnny Stevens Sextet before settling on Johnny and the Canadians when they went to New York to sign a record deal that led to two singles, Say Yeah! and A Million Tears Ago written by Gough and Crockett.

Eventually, they were managed by the late Saul Holliff, who promoted and managed Johnny Cash for 17 years.

Their popularity surged and they worked full-time, touring throughout Ontario and Quebec, often sharing the stage with other stars, including Ronnie Hawkins, David Clayton Thomas and Bobby Curtola.

They once rejected a month-long tour of Florida when the promoter suggested they needed to replace their singer, who was black.

Strasser said the late Stevens, a native of Nova Scotia, was the leader of the band, handsome and a great singer but, unlike most front men, not egotistical.

“He could charm an audience and he was always smiling,” said Strasser, who left the music business when the band folded in 1967, working instead as a technologist for several firms.

“He was always very polite and well spoken. The guys all got along good. There were a lot of practical jokes. But the group stayed together where often you see bands break up over personality conflicts.”
There was no real negative stuff among the guys.”

Johnny Stevens and the Canadians played all the major venues of the day and opened for The Dave Clark Five and The Supremes in London arenas.

Circelli describe Johnny Stevens and the Canadians as a “ground-breaking” band who helped break down racial barriers, the late Stevens one of the few Black front men in Canada in the early days of rock ’n roll.

PAUL MILLS 2021 HOF Inductee
PAUL MILLS 2021 HOF Inductee

The chemistry wasn’t quite the right mix for Paul Mills.

Today, there are dozens of Canadian musicians and thousands of folk music fans across the country who are quite happy about that.

The musician, musical arranger, graphic designer and retired record producer/engineer who began life studying to become a chemical engineer is being inducted into the Forest City London Music Hall of Fame.

“I’m thrilled, flabbergasted,” said Mills, who became a member of the Order of Canada in 2018.

“I couldn’t believe when they called and told me. It feels wonderful.”

Mills is a chemical engineering graduate of Western University who gave up that plan when the pull of music, especially folk, proved too strong.

“I played guitar and I would play with friends and I joined the folk music society (late 60s) and then just realized ‘I’m not an engineer, I’m a musician’ and I added it all up and decided I’d become a record producer,” said Mills.

It was a decision that had a major impact on the Canadian folk music scene. Besides working as a producer for the CBC, Mills went on to produce records for such luminaries as the late Stan Rogers (all his albums except one), Ron Hynes, Sharon, Lois & Bram, London native the late Laura Smith, Natalie MacMaster, John Allan Cameron – close to 200 albums since the early 1970s.

It was the CBC Radio that gave Mills the break he needed in 1972 when he was hired as a music producer then moved to the radio drama department as producer and executive producer.

On the music side, he conceived and produced a national folk music program called Touch The Earth hosted by Sylvia Tyson.  On the drama side, he helped develop the award-winning series, The Scales of Justice which was later adapted for CBC Television. He eventually became a senior manager for CBC Radio.

Mills is a founding partner of the Borealis Recording Company and he owned and operated his own production company and recording studio called The Millstream for 20 years.

Stan Rogers was his best friend, who died tragically in 1983 when the Air Canada plane he was on flying from Dallas to Toronto caught fire in the cabin. The plane made an emergency landing but Rogers and 22 others died after five crew and 18 other passengers escaped.

“I would have to count Stan as one of my favorite artists to work with,” said Mills. “He was a kind-hearted man, but he could be very head-strong.”

When asked if there was one able he produced that he’d call his “favorite” Mills laughed.

“I like them all.”

B.W.PAWLEY & PLUM LOCO 2021 HOF Inductees
B.W.PAWLEY & PLUM LOCO 2021 HOF Inductees

The gravelly voice on the phone cackled with delight.

“I think it’s great,” said Brian Pawley, on hearing his old band, B. W. Pawley and Plum Loco were being inducted into the Forest City London Music Hall of Fame. “I’m very surprised.”

Pawley was the lead singer and rhythm guitarist in the band which also included John Till (who backed Janis Joplin in the Full Tilt Boogie band), Ken Kalmusky (a bass player who played in Ian and Sylvia Tyson’s Great Speckled Bird) and Billy Hilton (a local London drummer who had played with the Johnny Stevens and the Canadians) and Dave Warner on piano.

They played the bar circuit across the province for more than three decades with a few interruptions and personnel changes along the way.

Their music was what Pawley described as “cow rock” or “crock, Texas-style stuff, sort of rock and country.”

“We had some fun, I’ll tell you,” said Pawley, who moved to Prince Edward Island a few years ago.

They didn’t record an album.

“We were too busy having a good time,” said Pawley of the band that became one of the most popular in the province, even drawing the attention of the Toronto Star which published a half-page story about the band in the early 70s.

Pawley left the band in 1980 to play with Ronnie Hawkins and got to work with Lonnie Mack, John Lee Hooker, Tony Jo White, Sam and Dave, Dr. Hook and opened shows for country stars including Dolly Parton, George Jones and Jerry Reed. In 1983, Pawley got a record deal releasing Too Many Parties in  and Livin Lovin’ and Drinkin’ and toured extensively until 1990 when he re-joined Hawkins for three  months.

He then returned to the region and reformed Plum Loco.

“It was one of those bands where it becomes like family,” said Pawley, who is still playing gigs on P.E.I. “We were all really close and stayed close.”

Circelli said one of the endearing facts about Plum Loco is “they did things their way.”

“They pounded away on the club circuit year after year, which is how you made it back then, playing the clubs, which is how you built and sustained a career in those days. They were a great band.

Two bands, a producer, violinist and country singer to join London’s music hall of fame