Jack De Keyzer grew to like Howlin’ Wolf more than the Stones



By Steve Newton

Toronto blues-rocker Jack De Keyzer spent the first decade of his life in England, when the biggest thing in pop music was Cliff Richard and the Shadows. Just before he moved to Ontario, though, the Beatles came along, and it was through the impending British Invasion that De Keyzer’s ongoing love affair with the blues got its start.

“At that time a lot of the radio that we got in Hamilton would be like Motown stuff, and early soul,” relates De Keyzer from his Hogtown home. “Then the Stones and the Beatles came out, and they were doing a lot of R&B and Motown, so I just got turned on to the blues via those bands—and, later on, Zeppelin—the way a lotta kids my age did. I discovered that ‘Little Red Rooster’ was by Howlin’ Wolf, not the Stones, and by the time I was 16 or 17, I kinda decided that I liked him better.”

De Keyzer’s fondness for the blues has led to an impressive career that includes recording sessions with the likes of John Hammond, Otis Rush, Bo Diddley, and Etta James. He’s particularly proud of his work with the latter two music greats.

“In my mind Etta’s one of the best R&B singers of all time,” he raves. “I’d rank her right up there with Aretha Franklin. She’s just got such a killer voice. And Bo Diddley was a real gas to work with because, I mean, the guy actually created his own beat! And in a lotta ways he was one of the first guys to bring the funk into rock ’n’ roll, you know.”

De Keyzer’s history as a hired gun on guitar includes contributions to the work of Chris Houston and Canadian alt-rock bad boy Art Bergmann. He was also a member of Robert Gordon’s live band for a while in ’79, just after the New York rockabilly crooner had split from influential fretmaster Chris Spedding but hadn’t yet hooked up with suicidal stringbending legend Danny Gatton.

At that time, the youthful De Keyzer was sharing the in-concert guitar duties with revered blues veteran Duke Robillard. “I think Duke turned me on to Charlie Christian for the first time,” he recalls, “so I really have to thank him for that.”

A founding member of seminal Toronto rockabilly act the Bobcats, De Keyzer launched a solo career in ’91 with the estimable Hard Working Man CD. He’s currently touring behind his fourth disc, Six String Lover, which brings the 47-year-old picker to the Yale next Thursday (September 26). He last played here at the Town Pump seven years ago, before it became the DJ mecca Sonar.

For a long-time Torontonian, he’s surprisingly aware of how the local live-music scene has been usurped by canned-music venues over the years. “It used to be like I’d go to Vancouver and we’d live there for a month or six weeks,” he recalls. “We’d play all of the outlying areas and a few clubs in town and then head back to Toronto. And now it’s like, you know… There’s just one night!”

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