#1173: Life Is A Song by Gainsborough Gallery

Peak Month: January 1970
7 weeks on Vancouver’s CKLG chart
Peak Position #14
Peak Position on Billboard Hot 100 ~ did not chart

Originally called The Skeptics, the band was formed when singer/guitarist Mel Degan and bassist Dennis Paul (real name Dennis Planidin) left Edmonton and hooked up in Calgary with singer Jae Mack, Peter Marley on guitars and Ray McAndrew on drums in late 1964. For a few years they performed at coffee shops and clubs around Calgary. Around 1966, they changed their name to The Gainsborough Gallery in honour of the Calgary art museum of the same name (and where they also received fan mail). Tim McHugh joined the band on keyboards.

They scraped together enough money to tape some sessions at Porter’s Studio in Las Vegas in the summer of ’68, but nothing materialized from them except some bad recordings and a lot of debt. After returning home to Calgary, they continued on the circuit for another six months while the singles “My Little Red Book” and “If You Knew” were released on Apex Records to little fanfare and even less chart action. The label soon dropped them and they found themselves looking for new studio options.

After signing with REO, Paul told them about the good experiences he’d had while with The Rebels working with Norm Petty (Buddy Holly producer) in Clovis, New Mexico. They spent a month there, where he pitched different pre-written songs to the band. They convinced Petty to release the album on his Evolution Records label. By the time their debut album Life is a Song was on the shelves for Christmas in ’69, Degan had left for an ill-fated Privelege reunion. But when that fell apart, he was back in the Gallery fold by the following spring. Meanwhile, Mack also left for other projects once the recordings were done. It was also rumoured the group had lost out on an eastern US tour because some clubs didn’t want a mixed colour group, as Mack was of African descent.

The album was full of experimental melodic and psychadelic garage pop, and not one song was written by anyone in the band. The debut single, “Life Is A Song”, was written by The Fireballs’ (“Sugar Shack”, “Bottle Of Wine”) George Tomsco and his wife Barbara. “Life is a Song” climbed to #54 on the Canadian RPM singles chart. Its ten-week stay on the charts fuelled a western Canadian tour. Although Mack appeared on the album, he wasn’t credited. Instead, newcomer Henry Small was, without singing or playing a note, even though his vocals and violin brought another dimension to the group’s live shows. The song peaked at #14 on CKLG.

Life is a song you can’t abide
if you try to sing alone,
the melody written with love
must be sung in harmony.

Living each day just for yourself
cannot bring you happiness,
knowing no love will make your life
such a lonely place to live, such a lonely place to live.

You’ll be searching
for that ray of sunshine
to shine down
and make your life a whole.

When you were born into this world
you were just a child alone,
but there’s a place for everyone
who has a need to need someone.

The song offers a philosophy for how to live in this world moving away from a remote, aloof path toward love and relationship with another.

Gainsborough Gallery - Life Is A Song 45 (Reo).jpg

By April 1970 a second single was released, but “Ev’ry Man Hear Different Music” was cut from the original sessions with Petty. It made it as high as #78 and stayed on the RPM charts for nine weeks. “House On Soul Hill”, the lead-off track from the album became the third single that summer, but failed to crack the RPM top 100. Neither of these follow-up singles appeared on the record surveys in Vancouver.

Frustrated with where the band was going, they called it quits after their contract with REO was up in March of 1971. Small joined Scrubbaloe Caine, then moved to Vancouver where he formed Small Wonder and then joined the Vancouver rock n’ roll band, Prism, after a couple of years on the road as part of Burton Cummings’ band. Henry Small went solo and currently does production and management work. McHugh also moved to Vancouver and became a producer. McAndrew, Marley and Degan all stayed in Calgary and became session players. Dennis Paul is a financial consultant in Arizona. Jae Mack now lives in Tennessee.

Life Is a Song:

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