The Forming of The Rising Sons - a Burlington band that once stood in the limelight - now doing a reunion in a sold out event

Event 100By Robin McMillan

August 20, 2015


The Rising Sons came to be in September of 1964 in Burlington Ontario when a couple of my friends; Peter Davidson, Dave Best, Ron Canning, and Mike Kotur decided to form a band.

Band Burl Central HS

The crowd at the Black Swan this weekend will remember events like this – it is going to be a blast from the past for those who managed to get a ticket – it is a sold out event.

Dave, Pete and I were already good friends. Actually Peter and I knew each other in grade 5 while attending Burlington Central Public School and we met Dave there. I was transferred to M. M. Robinson High (North Burlington) in 1963, the year of the school’s grand opening. It was there that I met Ron Canning and his friend Mike Kotur, who talked me into practicing with them in the drummer position of the new group. I wasn’t crazy about this at first, but gave in and tried out.

Robin and his Ludwigs at Skyway

Robin and his Ludwigs at Skyway

I was already a drummer with another band in Burlington — some of you may remember “Little Brutus and The Assassins” — but decided to pack it in because nothing was really happening. I contacted Peter, who was a fabulous pianist and organist, and Dave, who was taking bass guitar lessons at the Stan Bernard House of Music at the time. We all got ‘less than professional’ instruments and began to practice at Ron’s house in North Burlington. Of course we had to come up with a catchy name (it wasn’t easy) but the song “House of the Rising Sun” by Eric Burdon and The Animals was hot in ‘64, and it was Dave’s idea for a play on the word sun, so we became “The Rising Sons”.

First photo

It was their first serious photo – their Mothers were proud.

First Audition
Our first audition was at St. Stanislaus Church in Hamilton about four months later, but the audition turned out to be horrible. St. Stan’s politely suggested we practice hard and come back in six months for another try. The whole audition was terrible and we were pretty discouraged. Actually we felt like we were laughed out of the place. Dave thought that maybe he could talk to his father, a prominent doctor in Burlington, to back the group financially with some decent equipment. After some hard persuading, Dr. Best gave the OK and before you knew it, we were in business with the ‘best’ of everything: Fender, Gretsch and Rickenbacker electric and bass guitars, Fender amps, a Hammond B-3 organ with a Leslie tone cabinet (the ‘pipe voice’ of the electric organ), Ludwig drums with Zildjian cymbals, and a P.A. system that was second to none. When we played again at St. Stan’s a few months later, we brought the house down. The Hamilton kids had never seen anything like this before. WOW! We were really on top of our music — tight and professional, with a fantastic sound — and I was up high on a drum platform. The months of practising really paid off and St. Stan’s booked three more dances immediately, and all were huge successes. The Hamilton Spectator wrote that The Rising Sons were the ‘biggest and most popular group’ in Hamilton and surrounding area.

Rising Sons Van 3

It was transportation and it was what they used in those day.

The 1150-CKOC Rising Sons
Soon our group was in huge demand, playing the Hamilton, Ancaster, Dundas, and Burlington area so often that CKOC 1150 radio in Hamilton approached us and asked if we would be interested in being their official “OC Busy Bees” band, and they would promote us on the air and book us for some extra dances. We were known as “The CKOC Rising Sons” and received lots of much-needed publicity pretty well every day. John Stoneham, one of their on-air disc jockeys (now a retired stuntman), usually introduced us at all of our dances.

The Toronto Market
We were pretty pleased that the band was doing OK locally, but we wanted to break into the Toronto market. It was September 1965 and, as luck had it, my father Bob McMillan was the sales manager of Elgin Ford on Bay Street, Toronto’s largest Ford dealership. Dad worked out a terrific promotion for Elgin, bringing in hot rods for a ‘racing weekend’ with the very popular new Mustangs, plus many high performance cars and racers directly from the Ford Motor Company in Detroit. Elgin called the promotion “The Elgin Ford Shindig”. The dealership spent a bundle for advertising with 1050 CHUM and CFRB 1010 as well as all the major newspapers in the city. The Rising Sons were tied into the promotion with two shows per day on Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the Elgin Ford downstairs garage area — three tremendous days.

Robin Burl Central HS

Robin at Burlington Central High School

Thousands of people showed up. The promotion was a massive success and, as a result, we were immediately well known in Toronto. It was this quick start that introduced the Sons to booking agencies and clubs in Toronto. Our first Toronto agency was Bigland. (Later we signed with the Yorkville Booking Agency.) This breakthrough kick-started the group into a bigger market … and more money. We played all the well-known teen clubs including Ronnie Hawkins’ Hawks Nest on Yonge Street (our favourite downtown venue), Club 888 (also on Yonge St.), as well as The Gogue Inn, which had three floors of groups playing at once. If you didn’t care for one group you could go to another floor and check out another group.

Our First Recording
The Bigland Booking Agency was owned and managed by well-known Toronto entrepreneur Ron Scribner, who not only booked the Sons in and around Toronto, but also thought that we should have a record released. He booked a recording session as soon as he could at the Hallmark Recording Studios in Toronto. Hallmark had a four-track recording board, which was a big deal at that time, and it was here that we recorded “Land of A Thousand Dances” released on the Columbia label, featuring Ron singing the lead, Pete singing background, and Mike contributing lead guitar work. This record really didn’t do much, although CKOC played it quite frequently, as did some smaller radio markets in Canada. But once again we received lots more publicity in the Hamilton/Burlington region with autograph sessions in local record stores. The flipside was a song Mike wrote and sang lead on called “Don’t Look Away”, which sounded nice and easy going.

Meeting The Rolling Stones
On Halloween, October 31 1965, The Rolling Stones were in concert at Maple Leaf Gardens, and the Toronto Music Union required Canadian musicians on the scene. They asked us to attend, and Ron and I stayed backstage during the show. What an exciting night! Two limo’s pulled in with a police escort and out walked the Stones. They left for their dressing rooms for about an hour and then decided to come out and look around. Mick Jagger walked quietly to the other end of the backstage area and looked closely at a new Mustang convertible that was parked in the corner. I thought that it was now or never to approach Mick and try to get a picture with the two of us, and to try for an autograph. Everyone knew that Mick wasn’t the friendliest guy in the world, so I walked quietly up to him and in a very polite tone asked, “May I have my picture taken with you and an autograph?” And without smiling, he nodded and said “Sure”.

I knew a photographer from the Toronto Telegram (now the Toronto Sun) and it was all set up. Just a few minutes after the picture was taken a well-known Toronto radio announcer touched Mick on the shoulder and said “Hey, Mick, come here,” and Jagger quickly turned around to the announcer and tried to kick him (but fortunately missed by a mile). You could cut the atmosphere with a knife, but Jagger just walked away thinking absolutely nothing of it. About 20 minutes later Charlie Watts came out and talked with both Ron and me for about 15 minutes. Charlie was very friendly guy and talked all about cities he’d played in and said that he was looking forward to Boston the next night where he would meet some friends.

Standing Sons

The Rising Sons were the Standing Sons and they stood tall

The 5 Rising Sons
Not sure exactly the year — I think about late 1966 — a group from California with the name Rising Suns guested on the Johnny Carson Late Night Show on NBC . The very next day a couple of CHUM’s announcers talked about the ‘Sons’ on the Carson show, thinking they were us, and how fabulous this was for a ‘Toronto group’. This caused a lot of confusion and we had to do something fast. We decided we needed to change our name, but to what? So we simply added the 5 to the name, and it worked out perfectly.

Outside annie's House

Outside Annie’s House

The Second Recording “Annie”
About a year after the Bigland scene, The Yorkville Booking Agency, operated by Bill Gilliland of Arc records, took over our group and booked us to record a new tune in 1966. “Annie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” was a bubble gum song that suited us since we appealed to a younger audience. This 45 was also on the Columbia label. We recorded the vocals in Toronto and the music bed was recorded in New York city because they had an eight track recording studio. WOW, eight tracks! She Just Likes MeThe tune did pretty well as far as getting some air play on CHUM and other stations across Canada and in some better markets like Montreal, Winnipeg, and Halifax. This put us up a few notches, with a little more money again per engagement, and landed us as one of the 14 groups to appear at Maple Leaf Gardens for CHUM’s “Toronto Sound Show”.

Toronto Sound Show
The Toronto Sound Show was September 24, 1966. The other 13 groups appearing were: The Big Town Boys, The Last Words, Bobby Kris & The Imperials, The Secrets (“Here Comes Shack”), Little Caesar and the Consuls, The Paupers, The Spassticks, Luke and the Apostles, Susan Taylor, The Tripp, R. K. & The Associates, The Ugly Ducklings, and The Stitch-in-Thyme. There were two appearances for each group, one in the late morning and another in the afternoon or evening. Many of these groups were signed with The Yorkville Agency, and were also managed by Bill Gilliland, who was a well-known promotional guy in the Toronto area.

Skyway near the stage

Skyway near the stage

About the 5th song in for each group, CHUM radio would cut in and go to ‘live air’ on-stage. Apparently there were about 12,000 kids at the first show and 20,000 for the second! It was like a Beatle concert: kids screaming and trying to get to the stage, police arm-in-arm trying to keep them back. It was an unbelievable experience for all the bands. Ron borrowed my cufflinks (worth about $30, which was not cheap in ’66) and got so excited with the crowd he threw them into the audience and watched the kids go crazy. I brought 10 pairs of drumsticks so I could throw them to the screaming crowds on each side of my drum platform, and the crowd yelled for more.

The Toronto Sound Show was Peter Davidson’s last performance with the Rising Sons, as he was off to the University of Waterloo. We really missed him, especially me, having known Pete for years.

After the show on that very night we had another booking in Belleville for 800 CLUB with DJ Dave Charles, so we had to get away as fast as we could to make the show on time. The kids mobbed us outside the Gardens and climbed all over our van trying to get autographs. We had to have a police escort for two blocks to escape. Needless to say, this show really helped us to get bigger and better audiences in the Ontario market.

The Canadian National Ex.
The Sons also played at the Canadian National Exhibition — better known as the CNE or just plain ‘EX’ — in Toronto, and we performed live many times on the stage behind CHUM’s Satellite Station, just inside the Princess Gates, and other locations around the grounds. I loved radio from about the age of 10, and I used to visit the EX just to sit, watch and listen to the radio stations in action broadcasting live, so it was a real thrill for me to be actually involved with CHUM and the satellite station.

Robin and his Ludwigs at Skyway

Robin and his Ludwigs at Skyway

The 1050 CHUM and After Four
As mentioned above, 1050 CHUM aired weeks of promotion for their After 4:00 show every Wednesday night on CHUM’s Groove-yard Show with Brian “The Prez” Skinner. Weeks before the big show, Brian would pick a spokesman from each group who would be a guest on his radio show Wednesday evenings. Brian took a liking to us, and he and I really hit it off. He invited me to be his guest on his show every other week for about a month and a half, including one evening at the CHUM Satellite Station.

TV and Radio promotions
The Toronto Sound Show also helped promote our record “Annie”. All of the well-known groups that appeared on the Toronto Sound Show became frequent guests on CTV’s coast-to-coast After Four program, and the Toronto Telegram supplement with the same name gave a huge boost for all the groups every weekend. Dave Mickey from CKEY and CHAM broadcast a dance show in Hamilton called “Mickey’s a Go Go” on CHCH 11 Saturday afternoons, and The Sons guested there. We also appeared on WKBW TV in Buffalo, which led to our appearing with the Gentrys, a group from Nashville who had a big hit world-wide with “Keep on Dancing”.
There were radio interviews all across Canada with the CBC and also with many independent radio stations in different towns and cities wherever the Sons were playing. The Toronto Telegram even had a weekly Rising Sons cartoon strip on Saturdays in the After Four section during the summer of 1966. The strip was created and drawn by Kimmy Coons from Hamilton, who at the time was Dave’s girlfriend. Kimmy had managed the group in the formative years. (I was lucky enough to find one of these cartoon strips from The Hamilton Spectator, and would dearly like to find others.)

What was ‘The Village’ all about?
During the 1960s, Yorkville Avenue in downtown Toronto was the center of ‘hippy culture’ in Canada. Many of Canada’s folk musicians got their start playing the coffee houses in this area, and Yorkville flourished as Toronto’s bohemian cultural centre. It was considered by some to be the breeding grounds for some of Canada’s most noted musical talents, including Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Ian & Sylvia, and Neil Young. Funk artist Rick James got his start in Yorkville, as did many others. Yorkville was then known as the Canadian capital of counterculture and the hippie movement. In 1968, nearby alternative college Rochdale, a part of the University of Toronto, opened on Bloor Street as an experiment in counterculture education. Yorkville was truly Canada’s hippie heartland, full of coffeehouses, boutiques, longhairs, draft dodgers, and freaks. Yorkville was also a tourist attraction, the tourists preferring to watch the excitement from the safety of their cars.
In the village, the Beatle-haired kids, drugs and free love were rampant. But the Yorkville hippies were not all love and marijuana. They held a major sit-in protest in 1967 to protect their street from cops, tourists and fume-belching cars. They wanted to preserve their island of co-operation and love from the violence erupting in the world.

The Yorkville Years with The Rising Sons
This was the greatest and most exciting time of all for us, and more than half the fun of those early years and especially 1967 (the ‘summer of love’) was performing in Toronto in the Village. There were fantastic coffeehouses right next door to each other: The El Patio (our favourite Village club) where we played quite often, The Riverboat, The Mynah Bird, The Flick, The Penny Farthing, and The Purple Onion. We loved to eat at the Upper Crust restaurant on the corner just across the street. The great thing was that bands could play from Monday through Saturday every night, which was a great way of tighten up the act and meet people from all over North America.

Expo ‘67 in Montreal
One of our greatest and most exciting experiences was performing at Montreal’s Expo ‘67 in June of that year. We played at the Garden of Stars pavilion. The Garden of Stars was a unique triangular building in the heart of ‘La Ronde’ and featured Children’s Theatre in the morning and then ‘Action Time’ for the younger jet-set, followed by Rock ‘n’ Roll dances later in the afternoon and evenings.

Expo was divided into two sections or islands. One island had pavilions from countries around the world showing their industry and culture as well as fabulous foods. The other island was called La Ronde, where we played. This fun island had more great food plus entertainment, rides and lots to see and do for younger people. The Garden of Stars was host to many great acts from around the world. International celebrities and local acts performed there together. We were at Expo for two weeks, and I must say we were paid very well, although living expenses were extremely heavy. Invited groups would perform an afternoon show for two hours and an evening show for young people from everywhere in the world. When the show started, the floor would open up in sections with go-go dancers appearing on giant round platform stages that would rise up through the floor. Our record “Annie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” was quite popular in Montreal on CFOX the year before, and we were guests on a couple of top Montreal radio stations.

From here it was off for a fun two-week “vacation” to play in Belleville and Brockville at the local Tiki Clubs. The owner of this chain of clubs had a fabulous ‘yacht’ with lots of food on board and BBQs on shore. He invited us into his home and us treated like kings … we loved it there. It was at The Tiki Club in Belleville that I fell for a girl name Cathie, who was sitting close to us at the front table with a few of her friends. I dated her for a few years and married her in 1971 back in Belleville.

Bruce Ley joins The Sons
It was around this time that we brought a good friend of our Hamilton days into the group. Bruce Ley lived in Westdale, a suburb of West Hamilton. He was the bass player with the Hamilton group The Pharaohs, who were extremely popular in the Hamilton and Burlington region. Bruce had a knack for singing softer songs and became the Sons organist, replacing Pete as well as Mike, who left the band shortly after we returned home from a Winnipeg performance.

Bruce wrote a song for his girl friend Jone (no, not Joan) and called the song “To Jone”. This was a pretty good tune, reminiscent of the Young Rascals, and was recorded on the new Yorkville label. It received some pretty good air play in some markets. We changed our name for this recording to “Willapuss Wallapuss” just for fun. I believe Ron got the name from an Alice in Wonderland story. The flip side was named “Sacrificial Virgin” … kind of a spooky sound with Bruce on the organ, with elephant-sounding noises in the background, a trombone, and a chair pushed across the floor, with the rest of us making all kinds of crazy noises. Bruce went on to be a songwriter for children’s shows and did very well.

The Terry Black Comeback
In late ‘67or early ’68, Bill Gilliland approached us and asked if we would be interested in having the well-known singer Terry Black join the group. Terry had some great hit songs — “Unless You Care”, “Only Sixteen”, “Little Liar” to name a few. He had also appeared on some popular American teen shows including NBC’s Hullabaloo, ABC’s Shindig, and Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.

Originally from Vancouver, Terry emerged in 1964 after winning Male Vocalist of the Year at The Maple Music Awards, and had moved to California to join Dick Clark’s Cavalcade of Stars show. After a brief stint in Hollywood — where he came so-o-o-o-o close to playing a role alongside Elvis Presley as Elvis’s younger brother — Terry returned home to Canada. Bill Gilliland signed him to Yorkville along with his arranger, Pat Riccio Jr. (who later became Anne Murray’s musical director).

The Sons didn’t really mind this change and here’s is how it worked. The Sons would play for the first set, then Bruce would take a break during the second set when Terry appeared with Pat to perform a completely different music program. Bruce would then appear again for the third set. This went on for about a year. Sadly, Terry Black died in 2009 after a struggle with Multiple Sclerosis.

The Sons Today    Pete Robin Ron Dave

The Sons Today Pete Robin Ron Dave

The End … Surprised smile
It was October 1968 when we decided that not much was really happening and not much would happen. Times had changed, music had changed, and there wasn’t much to do and few places to play that we hadn’t already done over and over. It was at this point that everyone decided to go their separate ways and try other things. Dave and Ron went back to school to improve their education. Peter was still attending the University of Waterloo. Mike Kotur went to work at Stelco in Hamilton, where his father worked. Bruce headed off to Toronto where he worked in children’s television shows writing songs. I went to work with my dad back in Hamilton and Burlington. A few years later, Terry Black co-founded a band called Dr. Music. You may have heard of them.

Dave now lives in Hamilton and I’ve returned to Burlington. Dave and I talk every now and then, and I see him once in a while. Peter lives in New Brunswick and emails me on occasion. After a stint in Niagara Falls, Ron and his long-time wife Roberta are now in Thorold. Bruce Ley lives on a ranch in Halton Hills. As of this writing, we’re still trying to locate Mike Kotur. I continue to run Rockin’ Robin DJ service and, as near as I can tell, we’ve all survived the experience and are still having a grand time of it.

It’s been 50 years since the Sons’ heyday. On Friday August 21, 2015, four of the original Rising Sons will be performing the music that made them famous. at the Black Swan – it is a sold out event.  As an added treat, they have invited fellow musicians The Ragged Edges, another well known band from the same era, who will also perform.

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