Canadian rockabilly musician Ray Condo dedicated his career to preserving the roots of rock 'n' roll. Now, there's a crowd-funding campaign underway to commemorate him and his music.
Condo, who died in 2004, is perhaps best remembered for his 10-year stint with the band the Hardrock Goners, who played a fast, raucous brand of country music.
Gayle Hurmuses, a documentary photographer who shot Condo for 19 years, is trying to crowd-source funds to produce a visual memoir of the singer and his bands.
The as-yet-unpublished book, titled Ray Condo's Rock 'n' Roll Party, will mark the 10th anniversary of the musician’s death.
"It's about participating in keeping his name alive and giving people another type of artifact that might be discovered by music historians in another 50 years," Hurmuses says.
Her photo collection includes classic stills of Condo on stage as well as pictures of more personal, intimate moments.
Using the crowd-sourcing site Indiegogo.com, Hurmuses hopes to raise $15,000 to publish 2,500 copies of the book.
Condo was born Ray Tremblay in Hull, Que., and was passionate about music from an early age. He released his first record when he was 16, as part of a band called the Peasants.
He later moved to Vancouver to study painting at Emily Carr College of Art and Design, but again found himself drawn to music. He played with the Secret Vs, a punk band in Vancouver, but eventually relocated to Montreal and formed the Hardrock Goners.
The group released five albums: Crazy Date, Hot 'n' Cold, Condo Country, Hillbilly Holiday and Come On! Renowned for their wild stage shows, the band not only toured Canada but played across the U.S. and Europe as well.
Condo used to complain about the lack of emphasis on musical heritage and was on a mission to restore the old rock 'n' roll classics, says Peter Sandmark, the drummer of the Hardrock Goners.
"Ray used to say that America is always interested in the current fashion and what's the latest thing. Even though it had invented jazz and blues and rock 'n' roll and older country, if you listen to modern country, you didn’t hear that old country anymore," Sandmark says.
That's why Condo, a performer best known for his spontaneous and exuberant live shows, never wrote his own songs. There were too many good old tunes for him to draw on, Sandmark explains.
Perseverance in the music scene
Condo may not have sold millions of records, but he was popular enough in Vancouver that his birthday, May 16, is now officially Ray Condo Day.
"He [still] has really heavy-duty fans," says radio DJ Dave "Daddy Cool" Booth.
While his albums have largely gone out of circulation, they are still sold in Europe by Fury Records.
"In Europe, rockabilly is quite popular still. It's growing, it's a renaissance of rockabilly," says Sandmark, adding that there are as many rockabilly artists today as there were in the 1950s, when the style was invented.
Recognition in Canada was slow in coming for Condo, who was better received abroad, playing at country festivals in France, England and throughout the U.S.
"His name was known in Europe, but I don't think he had a massive impact like, say, the Stray Cats," Booth says, referring to the popular U.S. rockabilly act fronted by Brian Setzer.
"He was a Canadian artist, which was a much bigger challenge here in Canada because to make money in Canada, you had to play places where nobody even knew the word 'rockabilly,’ so he has to be admired for that," Booth says.
When musician Lily Frost, whose songs have been featured on the TV shows Being Erica and Grey's Anatomy, started out in the music scene in Montreal in 1989, she heard about Condo constantly.
"All [the bands] revered Ray. Ray's name came up so many times I felt like I knew him," Frost remembers.
But by that time, Condo had moved back to Vancouver and formed the Ricochets, with whom he recorded the albums Swing, Brother, Swing and Door to Door Maniac.
Frost met Condo in the early ‘90s in Vancouver at the Railway Club, where his name still shines in neon lights. There, Condo heard her perform Aretha Franklin's Hold On and asked her to sing in his group.
"It was interesting how he crossed genres by mixing Elvis with Hank Williams in such a smooth manner you never noticed the tricks," recalls Frost, who says Condo was a friend and mentor.
She dedicated her 2008 album, Lily Swings, to Condo and is writing the foreword for Hurmuses’ planned photo book.
Condo died of a heart attack in 2004, four years after he released the album High and Wild. While he didn’t get rich or gain much notoriety, his influence may be his greatest contribution, says Frost.
"A lot of the people who get the glory have drawn the inspiration from these underground characters who may not have had the business skills or luck," Frost says.
Hurmuses hopes the book will help people remember Condo and his efforts to preserve the history of country and early rock ‘n’ roll.
She says that if she can’t raise the full amount to finance publishing the book,
she'll print it on demand and make it available online.
"It's important to know who your heroes are… it's important to be able to remember them and to keep their names alive,"
Hurmuses says, remembering fondly the times Condo told her that "if you've lost your culture, you've lost everything."