Staying in tune
Roy Forbes didn’t reach the Charlie Patton T-shirt-wearing stage of his life right away. Called the “Father of the Delta Blues,” Patton was a bit of a mysterious figure to most.
Stories of his wild juke-joint performances dot southern blues literature and collections of his raspy voiced recordings have been packaged over the years, but little is known about the man.
Now having spent 40 years in the music business, North Vancouver’s Roy Forbes is well into his Patton period, T-shirt and all. But when reflecting on his career, Forbes, like many artists of his generation, doesn’t start with the legendary Mississippi bluesman. He gets there eventually, but the journey starts with the lads from Liverpool.
“I wasn’t listening to Charlie Patton at 14,” says Forbes, with a laugh.
“My parents were into country music, the gold old stuff like Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb. There was a lot of that growing up. My older sisters listened to Elvis. The first song of his I remember hearing was Blue Suede Shoes. But then the Beatles came along and took the top of my head off.”
In 1967, Forbes got his first guitar; learnt a few chords; hurt a few fingers; and eventually got a band together. They started playing dances around Dawson Creek, Forbes’ hometown, and quickly started writing songs. He was always drawn to composing his own material, Forbes adds, and when you’re playing four- hour-long dances, a healthy mix of originals and covers is a necessity.
In January 1971, then a Grade 12 student, Forbes headed south to Vancouver for a couple days. He had been a Neil Young fan for sometime by that point — the Beatles had opened the door to the likes of Dylan, the Stones and Young to Forbes — but after seeing him perform at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, nothing would ever be the same again.
How could one man with one guitar and a harmonica rack, sitting down nonetheless, hold an audience so captive?
“It was earthshaking for me. A defining moment,” says Forbes.
“I realized you could hold a stage on your own and tell stories. I didn’t realize Neil was in a back brace for those shows and that’s why he sat down. But I started sitting down too.”
Not long after Forbes returned to Dawson Creek, a red-hot band of session players, called Spring, blew into town and asked Forbes if he would open for them. He did. The next day, Spring picked Forbes up from school and took him to Fort St. John where he opened that night’s show.
After relocating to Vancouver shortly after school wrapped up, Forbes found himself about to step on stage and sing at the Queen E, not 10 months since he breathlessly watched Neil Young perform there. And the big-time gigs didn’t stop. Tours with John Lee Hooker and opening for the likes of Supertramp, Santana and the Earl Scruggs Review soon followed.
He then started playing the folk circuit in Western Canada, to rave reviews, and recorded albums for tiny labels such as Casino Records before heading to Los Angeles to do the big-production thing. He quickly realized he didn’t fit the over-the-top LA scene and headed back to Vancouver.
He worked with a band again upon his return, after remembering his love of rock ’n’ roll at a Bruce Springsteen show. He burnt out, however, soon thereafter and took some time for himself.
By the summer of 1980, Forbes emerged once again as a solo act and rejoined the folk festivals for the better part of the next two decades. But when his daughter Suzannah was born in 1989, things changed yet again.
“By that time I had been doing it for nearly 20 years,” he says. “I didn’t make a conscious decision to slow down but I didn’t want to miss out on her.”
To fill the professional hours, he began to produce other artists, write music for documentaries and cut a few tunes for Sesame Street. Ever the record collector, Forbes has also hosted radio shows inspired by his collection of 45s, chock full of those old Mississippi greats a 14-year-old Forbes wasn’t quite ready for, on CBC and CKUA in Calgary.
There’s no real magic to the radio thing, he says, he just does it and “people like it.” But after successfully navigating a career as long as his, requisite highs and lows notwithstanding, Forbes has learnt a thing or two about what people like. And he has also gained some insight about the thing he’s loved all his life — music.
“It’s what I wanted to do since I was a kid and I’m still doing it,” he says, smiling.
“I’ve never had another job. That’s a lot of trench time. But you have to be in it for the long haul. If you keep that in mind, you’ll be okay.”
Roy Forbes will be celebrating his career with two concerts on Sept. 9 & 10 at the Deep Cove Shaw Theatre. Showtime is 8 p.m., tickets are $30. For more information on the shows visit www.firstimpressionstheatre.com.