Stompin' Tom Connors, the most successful country artist in Canadian history and Dr. Stompin' Tom Connors to you, received an honorary doctor of law degree from the University of Toronto in the year 2000, and this was not the only award bestowed upon the board-stomping fellow that year -- he also received a Governor's General Performing Arts Award. This and the doctorate were among the first awards that Connors didn't ship back, as he has done with six Juno Awards for Male Country Singer of the Year, and a 1998 Lifetime Achievement prize at the East Coast Music Awards. The Juno trophies, Canada's equivalent of a Grammy, were packed up and sent back to the office, because Connors said he never asked for them, while he asked that the Lifetime Achievement Award be re-dedicated to unsung heroes of the Canadian Maritime music industry. Connors wrote "...for all the folks out there who quit the business a long time ago, I ask for them to write in and let the people know the work they have done, their recordings, and the bands they were in. I would like that list to go along with this award."
This generous, uncompromising artist was the composer of more than 300 songs. He released in the neighborhood of four dozen albums, which sold nearly four million copies. He did it all without ever leaving Canada and thus was the total opposite of every other Canadian country artist of renown, all of whom went to great lengths to become established in the United States. An example would be the extensive string-pulling from Ernest Tubb to get the Canadian Hank Snow on the Grand Ole Opry. Connors not only never toured outside of Canada, he also never embraced the typical subject matter of popular American country songs and instead stuck to singing about -- you guessed it -- all things Canadian, from a Saturday night in Sudbury to the joys of hockey.
He did not begin his singing career until the mid-'60s, when he found himself on the road, penniless. The identifying sound of his stomping foot was at first developed in order to be heard over the rowdy bar patrons at the Maple Leaf Hotel in Sudbury, a mining town that is legendary throughout Canada for being both boring and ugly. Connors was even better known across Canada than the town of Sudbury, and it would be safe to say that every Canadian child grows up getting to know his songs and is usually introduced to them on television, where he appeared frequently. Whereas in the '70s he was considered corny and square, he became a cultural icon among the new wave and punk crowd a decade or so later. In 1997 he published the first volume of what was intended to be a series of autobiographical volumes. The 532-page Before the Fame, covering the first 31 years of his life, was a national best-seller. He attained such recognition without any of the expected career accomplishments such as a hit record. Not only did he never have a single record released in the United States, he also didn't have his first hit country record even in Canada.
Connors was born to an unwed teenager in Saint John, New Brunswick, in the mid-'30s. At the age of three he was spending his time hitchhiking from town to town with her, and when they got to wherever they were going they would beg in the streets. He wound up in several orphanages and a foster home, almost died several times, ran away from a mean foster mother, was apprehended by the Mounties, and sometimes apparently preferred a jail cell to the even worse sleeping conditions available outside. With such a harsh childhood, the simple joy and good humor evident in all of his music becomes something of a miracle. In the initial phase of his career he created a series of albums on the Rebel and Boot labels. Despite being pushed off Canadian country radio as unsuitable for the format, Stompin' Tom's efforts were so well received that he was presented with the Juno Award for six years in a row, an accomplishment no other Canadian artist has even come close to. But Connors became involved in the musical politics of this time between Canada and the much bigger music industry to the South. He said he was sick of Juno Award winners "border jumping" and leaving their native land behind, and so in protest returned his awards and began what was supposed to be a one-year boycott on performing in Canada, again done to point out the unfairness of the oversize competition from the U.S.A.
The logic of not performing in Canada for these reasons was of course questioned by the media and fans in great detail, but stubbornness had always been part of the Connors mystique and it always seems to have worked for him. Beginning this strike at what was the pinnacle of his career, he kept it up for an inexplicable ten years, only to find an audience of happy punkers awaiting him upon his return. k.d. Lang was also becoming a star, and it was suddenly acceptable to be an eccentric goofball Canadian country star. He wrote a song in tribute to her for the well-received comeback album Fiddle and Song released on Capitol -- but only in Canada -- in 1988. One of his most famous songs is "The Hockey Song," which has been played at least once at every single NHL game. And when the final game was played on the ice at Maple Leaf Gardens, of course Stompin' Tom himself was called in to play the song one last time, apparently quite a touching moment. There is a Stompin' Tom museum in Tignish, Prince Edward Island, and in 1999 the street facing this facility was renamed in his honor. Stompin' Tom Connors died at his home in Ontario in March 2013; he was 77 years old. ~ Eugene Chadbourne
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