Memories of Skylark with Donny Gerrard
Submitted by Michael Williams
A candid chat with one of the best vocalist on the planet! Canada’s Own Donny Gerrard, the voice of Skylark’s classic “Wildflower”. Last time I saw Donny he was making magic with Mavis Staples, (of the Staple Singers) and we had the opportunity to talk.
MW: You are Canadian. Where were you born?
DG: Originally from Vancouver.
MW: What was it like growing up young, gifted and black and wanting to be in the music business in Canada back then? What was the scene like and what was it like being black in Canada at that time?
DG: Being Black in Canada in the 60’s. It was pretty rare; you could walk down the street and have a whole bus load of people move to one side of the bus just to look at you! The music scene at that time was all night clubs. There were some really good bands at that time; I grew up with Tommy Chong. Those guys were all playing music at the time. My brother was a singer and he had his own band in Vancouver. So I came by it honestly and people would say to me, your older brother can sing you must be able to sing too…they started to ask me to sing and if I wanted to join their band. They didn’t know if I could sing or not. I didn’t know if I could sing or not. I went out for an audition. Lo and behold I could sing and the next week I was playing a gig. That’s the way it unfolded.
MW: It was a serious scene back then with Bobby Taylor and Vancouver’s Jimi Hendrix, was floating around; Hendrix spent a lot of time in Vancouver…
DG: I saw Jimi back then with one of the big R n B soul shows that came to town, like the Isley Brothers, wearing tuxedos. The only reason I knew it was him is because after the show he pulled an amp up at the front of the stage and he stood their whaling with feedback and everything, he was still wearing a tuxedo .He was a member of the band, and everybody turned around and said what is that? For a lot of people it was the first time they heard feedback, that kind of guitar, and people were looking at him like he was nuts or something you know but of course a few years later he was on top of the world!
MW: You said back then people would move to other side of the bus to stare at you because you were black?
DG:The time I was in Vancouver there were a hundred and twenty black people in the whole province of British Columbia. (The sound of laughter fills the room in disbelief) Of course it’s all changed now.
MW: Was it rough on you back then? Or did you notice?
DG:Well you noticed it, but, going back to when I was a kid, people had never seen a black person before so I got teased a lot for being Chinese. Because they knew I was something but they didn’t know what? So I got called the derogatory names for Chinese People. The first time ever I was a little older; the first time I experienced out and out discrimination. You were a rarity there so in a lot of ways it was easier because people often parted the way for you. The music scene was not very happening, that’s why I left to go to Los Angeles. We couldn’t move beyond the nightclub scene in Vancouver. Year’s later Hollywood moves to Vancouver and that was a good time to be there but by that time I had already set down roots in Los Angeles.
MW: How did the whole Skylark thing happen?
DG: That was kind of strange, I was living in L.A. touring with a band from Vancouver and we worked our way back to Vancouver and the band broke up. I was in Vancouver for awhile and ran into my good friend B.J. Cook, they had been out with Ronnie Hawkins and they all split from his band and were starting a new band. She asked if I was interested; I went to the audition and got the job. They already had the record deal with Capitol, and a singer going in; I guess they were not happy with the singer. It was kinda an easy thing, we did some rehearsing, went to L.A. and cut a record.
MW: That was the record, “Wildflower”?
DG: Yep, that was the record!
MW: When you got the song did you feel it was going to be special for you as a vocalist?
DG: No to tell you the truth, I never got it, I’ve never understood that song, I understood it ,but I never understood why the writer took such long way around the words ,to come to the point! So I honestly didn’t like that song as much as other people but of course when it’s a hit you like it much more. There were other songs on the album I liked much better actually.
MW: Did you feel the success of the hit?
DG: No, there was no feeling of success; we toured around a little bit, we were in the States most of the time, I think the song was bigger in Canada. As it was taking off, I never got the feeling anybody knew us! There was always such a name problem, they didn’t know if the song was called Skylark and the word “Wildflower” never comes up in the song. There was name recognition problem there with the group and with the song.
MW: I remember back then Record Revolution (store) in Cleveland had two full window displays for Skylark, it was huge in America!
DG: We would go into a new city and see that sometimes but you don’t know all that is going on, there wasn’t a lot of hype around us, which would have helped, because today groups are more hype than substance and Skylark was the other way around.
MW: when you left the band and went back to L.A. and told people you were the ex vocalist for Skylark, did that have any cache or currency in the music community? Because I gotta tell you that there is no one in the Soul and R n B music that does not know or has not done that song from Luther Vandross, New Birth and the O’Jays for starters.
DG: Yeah, I was always surprised ,Luther , Kenny Roger , Marlena Shaw, there was a jazz version of it, “Wildflower” was recorded a lot but I never tried to capitalize on it . My goal was always to be in a group, a singing group and that’s what Skylark was, and started out to be in the beginning a singing group. It just so happened that song with me singing lead took off, we started out as a singing group. We had a lot of harmonies and things, When we got into the recording studio the producer didn’t like any of the background vocals, we hired outside backgrounds and he didn’t like them either. I ended up recording all of the background parts. The only other voice on that record is actually David Foster. He came in one night when we needed to do a harmony part and I sang one part and he sang the other. There were so many vocal tracks on that album and they are all me and David.
MW: who is not known for singing?
DG: David who does not sing at all.