Last month in Bonavista, Sandy Morris was deservedly awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from Music NL. And what a Lifetime it’s been.
For over 50 years, Morris has been a staple of the Newfoundland music scene, boasting countless album, radio, TV, and film credits and gracing the stage with the provinces’ most talented musicians and then some.
Axes from Outer Space
Morris grew up with music; His cousin played bass in one of the most popular bands in the province during the 50’s/60’s – The Ravens – and he had the first ever Stratocaster guitar in the province. “[The Strat] was like outer space” says Morris, who grew up at the height of the space program. For his 15th birthday he finally got his first guitar and began teaching himself at a time before there was music school, books, or even tuners.
It Started with a Knock on the Door
His first downtown bar gig came with an unexpected knock at his family’s Henry Street home. Morris, under the legal drinking age at the time, says “[This guy] showed up and said ´I hear someone here plays the guitar.´ I said ´Yeah…but I only know about 6 chords.’”
The man was Gordie Love, an extravagant character who wore blue tuxedo suits and performed at a local bar with Go-Go dancers in cages (now The Factory). Six chords was fine with him.
In university, Morris’ playing took off. Underneath the Reid Theatre he and his friends would hang out, smoke, and jam. During lunch hours his brilliantly named group, The Philadelphia Creme Cheese Band, would play concerts that included a psychedelic light show (the first of its kind in the province).
During this time, Morris also played with a band called Garrison Hill. Constantly booked – in those days bars hired bands 6-7 nights a week – he quickly realized music could be a stable career choice.
A Bigger Pond
Although his career was taking off in Newfoundland, Morris looked further ahead and farther abroad, and on New Year’s Eve 1970 he split with Garrison Hill and moved to London, England (the centre of the international music scene) in January of ’71.
“I was playing with the biggest band in Newfoundland, making top dollar and I figured if I can do that here, I could go to a bigger pond and I might be able to scratch my way up to the top and make even more,” laughs Morris.
In typical Newfoundland style, Morris got together with a group of fellow islanders in London who were in a band called Lukey’s Boat (which eventually became Figgy Duff), and they of course asked him to join. “It was a very interesting time…” says Morris, trailing off. We can only imagine what that means.
But, before he knew it, the band had broken up, and perhaps unlucky for him, but certainly lucky for us, Morris never got discovered and he made the decision to return home.
A Wonderful Grand Time
Morris began gigging the Newfoundland music scene once again, and also started in TV working on various CBC series, and eventually Morris was asked to pitch an idea for a show.
“I had always wanted to put a band behind Ron [Hynes],” he describes. So, in consultation with the members of CODCO (a theatre company at the time) they came up with an idea – Greg [Malone] and Mary [Walsh] would play proprietors of a bar and the Wonderful Grand Band would be the house band. The producers liked it and “The Root Cellar” was picked up.
But, the show was short lived (6 episodes), mostly due to what Morris describes as a “culture clash” between the CBC and the CODCO members. However, a year later the band began to play live shows with music and comedy sketches (with the added member, Tommy Sexton) and it took off like wildfire. “We used to play the Strand Lounge at the Avalon Mall and people would go in there for lunch and dinner and stay until the show happened in order to get a good seat.”
It was this popularity that made CBC interested in trying it all again – this time calling the series “WGB.” The show became the most popular on the air at the time, with more watching it than the news, and went on for 3 seasons.
“There were only two stations on at the time so it wasn’t that hard to do,” Morris modestly explains. The band also toured extensively. Morris recalls a particularly memorable visit to Burgeo. “All the kids from the community stood around the motel where we were staying, staring through the windows at us. We had to pull the curtains to get some privacy.”
The act even took them across the country multiple times. Again, Morris describes it as “Interesting times…” and we are left to wonder what that could mean. But, touring nationally was expensive, especially with a 6-piece band, 3 comedians, and a 3-person crew, and this eventually caused the group to pull the plug on it all.
Fortunately, out of it sprang the CODCO TV series, and for Morris this meant even more experience in musical directing, audio engineering, and producing, and eventually led to his long (and continuing) stint with Land & Sea.
Hound Dogs, And Dames, And Vikings, Oh My!
Morris continues to play with the biggest names in local music but a few guest spots with touring artists particularly stand out for him as special performances. This includes gigs with Blues legend Big Mamma Thorton (the original singer of “Hound Dog,” before Elvis ripped it off), Dame Vera Lynn, the woman whom folks credit with getting Britain through the war years with her lovely voice, and legendary jazz guitarist and “Godfather of Fusion,” Larry Coryell.
But, Morris’ biggest audience was a chance 250 million. Celebrations were held in Lanse aux Meadows to celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of the Vikings’ arrival in the New World. Morris was the house band leader and played with various musical acts for the events. It turned out CNN and multiple other international news feeds picked it up, and Morris found himself on televisions worldwide.
No Regrets, No Stopping
A lifetime of work could see even those who began with the most passion get tired or jaded. Not Morris, who touts the sense of community that existed (and still exists) in the local music scene. He says the support young musicians have today through MUN’s Music School and organisations like MusicNL only make it even better.
At this stage, you would think he saw himself as some type of local mentor, but Morris sees it the other way around. “I usually end up learning more from young people than young people learn from me,” Morris states. We’re not sure this is accurate.
When asked if he would ever retire, Morris launches into a story about the time he saw Stephane Grappelli on stage at age 90. “He was not only brilliant musically, he was elegant, stood up all night, and had a glass of champagne on a stool next to him, And I thought, if I could do that – why not?”
Morris continues to play regularly with the Eight Track Favourites, Fretboard Journey, Jamie Dart, Jenny Gear, RASA and countless other acts, and we’re sure that even after his Lifetime Achievement Award there’s lots more to come. Maybe in another decade or two he’ll receive another.