Morrison cut his musical teeth with Toronto’s The Just Us.

Emily Olesen
The Navigator

Back in the ‘60s, he shared the stage with legendary rockers such as Rick James and David Clayton-Thomas, yet Youbou musician Allan Morrison proves he’s more than just a rock-and-roll footnote. The 65-year-old drummer, now a security worker at the Nanaimo Airport, is currently immersed in an ambitious recording project with another Canadian garage rock relic. 

“I’m the kind of guy that doesn’t like to go backwards,” he says, reclining on a chair. He looks out the window and grins. “It’s nice to reminisce, but I don’t really like to go back. I just like to go forward.”

Morrison, who resembles a finely-aged Peter Fonda (with every ounce of Fonda’s understated coolness), started taking music seriously at age 16, enrolling in drumming lessons to hone his technique and learn how to sight read. Soon after, the suburban Toronto teenager joined The Just Us, a weekend R&B band that frequented the clubs and coffee houses of Toronto’s Yorkville Village, circa 1965.

“[Yorkville is] still there today, of course,” says Morrison, “but now it’s all high-class boutiques and clothing stores. Back in the day, the whole hippie scene was happening there.”

Yorkville Village was Toronto’s answer to New York’s Greenwich Village and San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district—a counter culture nucleus teeming with musical talents like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Gordon Lightfoot, and dotted with bohemian hotspots such as the Purple Onion and the Mynah Bird Club.

In early 1966, Morrison left the group to join The Bossmen, who subsequently backed vocalist David Clayton-Thomas. The group soon released the song “Brainwashed,” featuring strong anti-war lyrics atop a snarling, jazz-infused track: “We won ourselves a victory/The casualties were light/Judging by the news machine/It ain’t much of a fight/60 million people in all of Vietnam/85 per cent of them don’t give a damn!” Needless to say, the single didn’t fare well south of the border.

Morrison was backing the Bossmen when he first met a young Rick James (Ricky James Matthews, as he was known around the village). In 1964, long before he was caricatured by Dave Chappelle, a then-16-year-old James arrived on the thriving Toronto circuit. The Buffalo, New York native was AWOL from the United States Navy. James soon found himself fronting the interracial R&B group the Mynah Birds, the house band for The Mynah Bird Club. The original lineup also included a very young Neil Young on guitar.

Neil Merryweather was another member of both Just Us and The Mynah Birds. “When you see Neil Young today gyrating around and moving like he does when he plays a guitar solo,” he says, “you can pretty much go back to those early days and see him doing it then. He developed his style in his Mynah Bird days.”

Morrison adds that James modeled his stage persona after Mick Jagger and would often perform a repertoire of Rolling Stones cover songs.

Morrison reminisces that James was smitten with his ability to drum in “Second Line” or New Orleans style, which was the upbeat standard with acts such as Wilson Pickett.

“I had gotten this down-pat because this was the style we were into,” says Morrison. “Ricky complimented me and then we went for a walk in the village and got to know each other. We traveled around the village together and were quite tight in those days. We were good friends.”

Morrison initially declined James’ offer to join his band, but he reconsidered when Clayton-Thomas set his sights on New York and The Bossmen folded. In June 1967, Morrison joined The Mynah Birds as they traveled south to Motown Records to record a few demos including “It’s My Time,” penned by Young, who had since relocated to California with Mynah Birds bassist Bruce Palmer to form Buffalo Springfield.

The Mynah Birds, sans Morrison, had already been down to Detroit once before to record an album, but when Motown executives discovered that James was AWOL, the project was shelved. After he served time in jail, they decided to give it another try—especially the Neil Young song.

“[‘It’s My Time’] should have been a hit,” says Morrison. “It should have been a number one song, and that’s what Motown thought too. That’s why they brought us down to do it again.”

Merryweather adds: “We were signed to Motown and they put us up at the Grand Hotel on West Grand Boulevard, a block away from Motown’s Hitsville studio and offices. Motown owned another studio called Goldstar where we rehearsed songs that Rick wanted to record.”

Morrison explains that Motown executives were excited to sign the interracial R&B band. The Mynah Birds wouldn’t be the first in North America—former Stax Records house band Booker T. and the MGS had already released their hit single “Green Onions” in 1962; and Arthur Lee and Love, a racially diverse Los Angeles based rock band, was in the midst of recording their magnum opus Forever Changes, which coincidentally features a song produced by Young himself. But the Mynah Birds looked like they might become another crossover act for Hitsville.

“Unfortunately, after we did the demos, [James] ended up in jail again,” says Morrison. However, James returned to Yorkville and tried to rebuild the group once again—without Morrison, who had lost interest in the group.

Morrison returned to his native Ireland, where he lived for five years before returning to Toronto. In 1986, he relocated to Vancouver and arrived the exact same day as Steve Fonyo put his foot into the water at mile zero in Victoria. He bought a property in Youbou with his wife in 2004 and took a job at the Nanaimo General Hospital as a Protection Services Officer. He soon befriended co-worker Chris McPhie, a fellow musician who runs a recording studio in Qualicum Beach, and was inspired to take up production as a musical outlet.

“I had my own teaching studio, and one of my guitar teachers was Ray Harvey (formerly of Regina’s Kick Axe). Drivin Curran, our bass and keyboard player, approached me to form The Radiators, and we were the house band for five years at the Youbou Pub—we’re still gigging and recording,” he laughs.

Morrison recently began working with singer-songwriter Gordon Dix Jr., a fellow alumnus of the Yorkville scene, who now resides in Victoria, BC. “The project I’m working on now is giving me more satisfaction than any other. Gordon’s songwriting talent is second to none,” says Morrison. His voice exudes enthusiasm.

Dix has penned four original songs dedicated to The Beatles and sent demo copies EMI. The demos have also been released on CD Baby, an indie music website. Dix says that he is negotiating with a few record labels for a larger release of the songs and is also working on recording an album’s worth of material.

“[The tribute songs] need to be produced and perfected, but the public will love them, especially in England,” says Morrison. “Abbey Road Studios is interested, and we’ve had positive communication from Peter Mew, who has engineered numerous albums there.”

Morrison claims that Paul McCartney’s step sister Ruth, a digital media entrepreneur, has also expressed interest in the project.

“Berry Gordie of Motown started with $500, so I am hoping that we can get somewhere in that area,” he jokes.