Renowned Guitar Man Bernie LaBarge Readies for his Next Chapter…and More
Bernie LaBarge. Still sharing. The Toronto Sound.
After playing music at hundreds and thousands of shows and recording sessions and related commercial gigs, while earning awards and bringing a lot of joy to fans, what does a talented guitarist/singer/songwriter like Bernie LaBarge do for his next chapter?
Well, for one thing, he kicked off 2020 with a raucous reunion of The Dexters, the hugely popular R&B/soul outfit, calling it “the best time ever.” And, he could be guesting at a TEDx Music talk or writing a book about all he’s learned and acquired in his career from the moment he was inspired watching The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. He told himself he was going to do whatever it took to become a professional musician. In fact, LaBarge’s successful modus operandi sounds like it’s straight out of wildly popular author Napoleon Hill’s work who wrote: “Find out what you really love to do, and then find a way to make a good living doing it.”
“Bernie is my brother. We’ve shared so many happy, fun times together doing what we both love most. I have learned from his guitar playing and I think it’s made me a fuller player. His sense of rhythm and dynamics is a strong suit I admire.” — Alex Lifeson (Rush)
As a result, LaBarge’s laser-focused method earned him a Canadian Juno nomination in 1984 for Most Promising Male Vocalist for his album, “Barging In.” And then he won the Canadian Songwriting Contest in 1986 (Best R&B Song category). Let’s not forget “Dream Away,” LaBarge’s first solo record, released in 1981 and produced by newcomer Daniel Lanois.
Furthermore, LaBarge’s passionate prescription for success has also included: being guitarist/front man for popular performing acts like Bond, Rain, Sweet Blindness, Zwol, Stem, Stingaree, The Dexters, and the George Olliver band; recording and touring with a who’s who of Canadian talent like The Irish Rovers, Doug Riley, Ian Tyson, David Clayton-Thomas, Rhinoceros, Long John Baldry, and many others; and, proudly performing with Hall of Famers like Domenic Troiano, Ronnie Hawkins, John Kay, John Sebastian, David Cassidy, and Rush’s Alex Lifeson. It’s a cracking bio that also includes him performing on hundreds of worldwide jingles (Coke, Pepsi, GM, Ford), and through countless recording sessions with legendary producer Jack Richardson. In the meantime, Bernie managed to squeeze in such high profile TV series Smith & Smith, Party with The Rovers, Danger Bay, and The Doodlebops.
“My dear friend Bernie LaBarge is one of the best rhythm and blues and rock guitar players (and country) that I’ve ever heard! His inate musicality and his blistering solos used to blow me away on a regular basis.” — Neil Donell (lead singer for Chicago)
Most noteworthy, it all goes back to The Beatles. As LaBarge recalls, “I was no different than a million other guys when I saw The Beatles, and heard thousands of girls screaming. But it really was George Harrison’s fault. The band blew our minds, but I loved the way George hung back and played all the interesting parts — a guitar solo and the little licks here and there. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a guitarist and make a career of it. Even though I’d never picked up a guitar, nor really knew what a lead guitar player was, I wanted to be just like George Harrison.”
He adds, “I was fortunate to be born with a good musical ear and good hand/eye coordination. The rest was up to me, including the 10,000 hours and everything else that goes along with that!” Then along the way, one of Bernie’s many high points was playing guitar for the international hit TV show Fraggle Rock, created by celebrated animator/puppeteer Jim Henson: “When I passed the audition, I realized then I was in the big leagues.”
Similarly, like The Beatles to Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Jack White today, LaBarge was mostly self-taught. While he grew up in a musically inclined house, listening to everything from show tunes to Motown, he dropped music lessons after six months, but continued to use his ear and let music enter him through osmosis, explaining, “When the Beatles and the British Invasion came around, I’d hang around a record store, Music Village in Burlington, and learned guitar from listening to records. That store shaped who I am. Many of those ‘10,000 hours’ were spent alone in my parents’ basement with a record player and a guitar.” He quips, “I’m the proud owner of hundreds of heavily scratched vinyl records!”
In 1964, The Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and the die was cast for LaBarge. So, armed with a musical ear, a dream to become a professional musician and the hard-working desire to make it happen no matter what, he couldn’t wait to abandon formal education and pursue his dream: “I was counting the days until I turned 16. My parents were not amused, needless to say!”
“I’ve known Bernie LaBarge for decades. We’ve recorded and toured the world together, and working with him was always a joy. The ultimate groove player and one of the finest blues players alive.” — David Clayton-Thomas
But other intangible factors had come into play for LaBarge’s formula — meeting the right mentors along the journey like David Clayton-Thomas. LaBarge had been similarly blown away watching The Mandala, featuring guitarist Domenic Troiano and vocalist George Olliver in performance. LaBarge recalls “Donnie” as one of the leading proponents of the unique “Toronto sound” — full of the blues, rock and a lot of soul. Troiano’s previous band The Rogues had opened for the Rolling Stones in 1966, and the legend-in-the-making became instrumental to LaBarge in many ways:
“The Mandala was the first live band I ever saw, and they changed my life. Many years later Donnie and I became close friends. Fast forward, coupled with Troiano’s untimely passing, Domenic’s brother Frank asked me if I’d like to have ‘The Tele’ for a bit. I can’t describe what it felt like to come full circle from seeing him play at that high school dance to actually playing his guitar, which oozes the Toronto Sound. It IS that sound, although Donnie was the only one who could squeeze those sounds from it. I am merely channeling what I learned from the master. Donnie’s guitar should be in music museums anywhere and everywhere. I couldn’t have been any more thrilled if I’d gotten the chance to play Hendrix’s Strat or Harrison’s Gretsch.”
“Bernie’s a sweetheart of the musical rodeo: a Telly fella, a Beatles aficionado, guitar chair in The Dexters, a child of the 60’s, and tasteful guitar man about town. When Chet Atkins encouraged us to pick and grin, Bernie took to that to heart and soul.” — Rik Emmett (Triumph)
While he’s still recording remotely, he’s also collecting and building guitars, and digitizing his vast vinyl collection. And, he’s thinking of writing a book, encompassing all the inspirations, lessons learned and advice he’s picked up: “For my next chapter, I’m taking a few people under my wing, more as a historian and mentor than a guitar teacher, turning them onto the music that my mentors played for me.”
So, what tips does he offer young musicians beyond hard work and being driven, which are givens?
“First of all, you’ve got to try and weather the ups and downs. You don’t initially start in this business to make money, but you want to have some fun in the meantime and accomplish something by night’s end or the session’s end, connecting with your audience, band mates, or employer. On top of all the hard work over my career, I’ve always had fun while I was playing my guitar, regardless of the situation. I’m still amazed that I know how to play this thing!”
Next, he continues: “If you choose the self-taught route, you can’t be shy, you’ve got to be a sponge. Talk to other musicians, learn from people, ask questions and go see live shows. You have to absorb things, the essence of the music, and crawl into their soul. They’re laying it out there for you to feel. The most important part about any sort of natural talent is the willingness and desire to learn from your elders and mentors and to use those influences to enhance your personal ability.”
“If you have Bernie LaBarge on your gig, you know you’re covered. He always knows the right thing to play, and always has a smile. When he played with me on the Rhinoceros reunions gig in 2009, it felt like the original band was back together as he covered that guitar part perfectly. When you’ve got Bernie on stage, you’re in for a good time. He’s a great guitar player and a great friend.” — Danny Weis (Lou Reed, Iron Butterfly, Bette Midler, Rhinoceros)
Furthermore, here’s something helpful — LaBarge always strived to be the “worst guy” in any new scenario, laughing as he explains: “I’ve always looked for situations where I would be challenged on stage by players who made me play to the best of my ability, and also forced me to push the envelope. It’s great when you can pull something like that off, and it’s the best way to improve.”
Another tip concerns doing commercial or TV sessions, and he suggests you have to be versatile and also stay cool: “You’ve got to handle pressure — like having Jim Henson or Jack Richardson behind the glass listening to you and you’re recording 52 songs in three days. Sometimes you have corporate clients breathing down your neck, saying things like ‘play more orange.’ So, you grit your teeth and try to turn mediocre pieces into something that fits the moment. The pressure is always there, whether self-imposed or from some other source, but it doesn’t need to affect your sense of humor. I’ve always loved a good challenge.”
LaBarge emphasizes how his goal has always been to make “ear candy” for people: “Growing up, I heard all these records that my sisters were playing in our basement, and I dreamed that someday I would be able to play along with that stuff, so I practised until I could. I wanted to make records, too. And, as my original goal was to be like George Harrison, adding in all those interesting parts like he brilliantly did, I wanted to add things to songs, embellishing things.”
That’s something this guitar man will continue doing, as he keeps “barging in” on new opportunities, while keeping that special Toronto Sound alive.
Check out LaBarge’s homepage, and his Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram. And, drop in on his excellent music on ITunes, Bandcamp, Spotify, Google Play and everywhere else where good music can’t be pirated. PS If you’d like to CLAP for this article, check out Medium’s instructions.