MUSIC

Stompin' Tom Connors Memorial: Fans Throw Party For Late Canadian Icon

03/13/2013 04:00 EDT | Updated 05/13/2013 05:12 EDT
PETERBOROUGH, Ont. - A public memorial to Stompin' Tom Connors was a joyous celebration Wednesday, as thousands of devoted fans packed the Peterborough Memorial Centre to pay tribute to the late Canadian country icon with songs, signs, suds and one standing ovation after another.

An eclectic mixture of Canadian musicians, politicians and Connors' close friends paid tribute to the unique, black-hatted songwriter behind "Bud the Spud" and "The Hockey Song" while jovial spectators — who had spent the day lining up for access, some singing Connors' songs and sipping beers — responded enthusiastically to every tribute, clip and anecdote.

"We're going to show you we really know how to throw a party," said Connors' longtime promoter Brian Edwards as he introduced the festivities.

Story continues below slideshow.

Stompin' Tom Connors: Hockey Song

While the ceremony had its sombre moments, from the start it was clear that this was not meant to be a mournful event. And given that Connors had an integral role in planning the memorial before his death last week, Edwards and others were able to say with certainty that the rousing tribute was conducted exactly the way Connors would have wanted.

He even handpicked most of the lineup of performers, beginning with a spirited fiddle medley from Billy Macinnis.

Calgary's Tim Hus performed his original tribute "Man in the Black Hat," Connors collaborators J.P. Cormier and Dave Gunning teamed for an inspired medley of "Little Wawa" and "Gumboot Cloggeroo," Sylvia Tyson and Cindy Church collaborated on an elegant version of Connors' "Farewell to Nova Scotia" and former Rheostatics frontman Dave Bidini contributed his take on "Bridge Came Tumbling Down."

Tributes from Connors peers including Rita MacNeil and Liona Boyd were read aloud, while country legend Tommy Hunter sat close to the stage.

In a series of speeches, Connors was remembered as tolerant, authentic, clever and surprisingly warm for a guy who, as Bidini attested, could level an intense stare that initially made him feel "terrified." He was even, according to Edwards, a savvy Scrabble player.

Former governor general Adrienne Clarkson spoke at particular length about her friendship with Connors, whom she remembered as "truly wonderful."

"Stompin' Tom, the man that we're celebrating today, is that very unusual thing: something that we can all agree about as Canadians," she said. "He was a gift to us as Canadians. And I think the secret to his gift was that he knew that he was giving it.

"When Stompin' Tom stomped on that board, he stomped 'Canada, Canada' into our hearts," she added. "We didn't ask for Stompin' Tom. He just blew onto us like a wonderful wind."

The speeches were intermittently interrupted by outbursts of applause, cheering or the odd shout of "We miss you Tom!" from the passionate assemblage.

The evening began with a rare solemn interlude, as nine members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police carried Connors' casket — covered entirely in a Canadian flag — onto the stage. Connors' wife, Lena, then walked out to a rousing standing ovation and placed a black cowboy hat on top.

The memorial then began, and the fans were ready. A technical glitch prevented the audience from hearing the audio during a video of Connors performing "The Peterborough Postman," but some observers were undaunted.

"Everybody sing!" shouted one spectator. Added another: "Come on, we all know it!"

And many pointed out that Connors would have relished the celebratory mood.

"Tom orchestrated this whole thing," said Tyson. "This is his show. And he's here."

While Connors actually lived a couple hours away in Halton Hills, Peterborough made sense for a few reasons. It was there that Connors first received his famous "Stompin' Tom" moniker, a nickname conjured by a waiter at the King George Tavern back in 1967 after observing Connors hammering the stage with the heel of his left boot to keep time.

He subsequently found a particularly warm reaction from the southeastern Ontario town, and was given the keys to the city years ago in an honorary gesture. Brian believes Connors played Peterborough more than any other town.

But on Wednesday night, fans flowed in from all over, from Vancouver to Prince Edward Island, where Connors spent his early life. Many shared their memories of Connors as they waited for the service to begin.

Musician Joe Bulger recalled that when he put out a CD in 2006, Connors sent him a postcard of congratulations.

"We're all here for the same reason," said Bulger, clutching a laminated copy of the letter. "He's a class Canadian and that's all you need to say about the man. There'll never be another Sir Tom."

Added 34-year-old Sara Maclean: "It was very cool to know that this is a piece of history that I got to take part in."

A private memorial was held for the singer Tuesday night.