Downchild Blues Band: Still singing the blues

By Cece M. Scott

The quick-witted repartee and droll rejoinders whiz back and forth like ping pong balls between Downchild Blues Band founder, Donnie Walsh, ‘Mr. Downchild’ and Chuck Jackson, as we sit on a comfortable leather couch, surrounded by the storied history of Toronto’s 70-plus-years-and-counting, Grossman’s Tavern.

The 72-year-old Walsh, guitar, slide guitar and harmonica player, has been the one sustaining constant in the Canadian Blues Hall of Fame and multi-award-winning band’s wild and bluesy ride. Celebrating their 50th anniversary, the band kicked off a multi-city tour June 19 at Grossman’s, the place it all began. Known as the Father of the Blues, Walsh, who taught himself to play the harmonica and guitar, was musically influenced by a Jimmy Reid record he heard at a 16th birthday party.

“We played it all night long,” Walsh says. His love of music, particularly for the blues, propelled Walsh into a job at Record World, where he spent huge amounts of time flipping through records. “There were rows and rows of records – all 45s, in alphabetical order,” Walsh says. “I used to go in before and after work and go through them; I spent a lot of my pay buying those records.” 

Jackson, 66, who won Male Vocalist of the Year at Toronto’s Maple Blues Awards in 1999 and 2007, is the band’s lead singer and harmonica player. “I’ve learned a lot from Donnie in the 30 years I’ve been in the band, although I really don’t know what that is,” Jackson says, as he and Walsh erupt in laughter.

“All I can say is, I’ve learned a lot of habits and broken a lot of habits.” Raised by his grandparents, Jackson’s grandfather played the spoons and was a square dance caller. He appeared occasionally on a CHCH television show, which was taped in the afternoon, and then at night, the musicians would all come back to the house and jam in the kitchen. “I was 6 or 7 at the time and I would sit on my grandfather’s knee and sing Hank Williams songs. I got my first harmonica from one of those guys,” Jackson says.

Memories abound for the pair over their 30 years as band mates, including the many legendary performances of the 100 plus musicians who’ve played, recorded, or jammed, with the band. Opening for Buddy Guy, jamming with James Cotton, sharing the stage or recording with renowned musicians such as Jeff Healey, Colin James, Spencer Davis Group, Colin Linden, and Mike McKenna, all resonate. Of course, the fabled and oh-so-fun “Blues Brothers”, starring comedians Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, was inspired by Downchild. Aykroyd, who calls Walsh one of the best harmonica and guitar players in the world, referenced him as his inspiration for the Blues Brothers’ Elwood Blues character.

With homes in Burleigh Falls (where he lives), Etobicoke, and Costa Rica, Walsh is an ardent fan of both the outdoors and fishing, which he does at his favourite spot, Lovesick Lake. “I like to say that fishing is my job and music is my hobby. I think of myself as a country boy,” he says, with a big grin.

Walsh’s kid brother, Rick, the ‘Hock’ (who passed away in 1999), was a co-founder of the band, and was in and out of it for several years as the band’s lead singer. “He was a great blues singer who wrote some good songs,” Jackson says.

Another greatly missed talent is Jane Vasey, who played piano with the band from 1973 to 1982. She died from leukemia at the tragically young age of 32. “Jane originally dated the sax player, but after they broke up, we ended up together,” Walsh says. “Her death was one of the tougher parts of my whole life.”

The band continues to have a strong core of excellent musicians: Pat Carey, tenor sax; Mike Fitzpatrick, drums; Gary Kendall, bass; and Michael Fonfara (of Rhinoceros/Lou Reed fame), keyboards.

“The Downchild sound has not really changed over the years,” Jackson says. “Although we don’t tour as much, the energy is still there. We can’t do now what we did 20 years ago, so we limit ourselves. I’m 66, but my liver is 111.”

Both musicians agree that they consider themselves lucky to have come up through the industry at a time when there were live venues to play. “The boomer generation loved live music, often following bands around to the different bars we were playing in,” Jackson says. “We learned from each other. Saturday afternoons musicians would come out and jam – musicians that were playing big venues that night – like Massey Hall. I don’t think that a lot of young musicians have the opportunity for that one-on-one experience today.”

“We often played 300 dates a year,” Walsh adds. “I totalled up my gas receipts one year- remember gas was really cheap back then – and it came to over $16,000.”

Both Jackson and Walsh agree that while living life large is exciting, it takes its toll on relationships and families. Jackson, who has two children, Justin, 34 and Sydney, 24, is getting married for the third time next year. Walsh has never been married, but does have a daughter, Angela.

“You don’t become a musician to become a millionaire,” Jackson says. “We do it because we love it. In the old days, we would have a woman in every town. Now when we go to a new town, we say hey, that’s the place with the really good Chinese food.”

Dedicated to promoting musicians, Jackson is the founder and artistic director of the annual Tim Hortons Southside Shuffle Blues and Jazz Festival, which is celebrating its 21st anniversary, September 6 to 8 in Port Credit.

For Walsh, meeting people on the road, in every capacity, is one of the greatest perks. “I’ve really enjoyed the music and the people that I’ve met over the years; at least most of them,” he says drolly.  “And as far as retiring – what would I be retiring from? Breathing?”