Biography

This obituary by Carl WIlson captures Ray beautifully.

‘He didn’t do anything halfway’
Singer, player and eternal showman, the hard-living journeyman was a keeper of the musical flame

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By CARL WILSON

Wednesday, April 21, 2004 – Page R7
He liked to quote Duke Ellington: “If you’ve lost your heritage, you’ve lost everything.”

If so, the music world lost a little bit of everything last week, with the death of Ray Condo, singer, sax player and keeper of North America’s musical flame.

Mr. Condo led Montreal’s Hardrock Goners beginning in 1983, and the Ricochets in Vancouver from 1994.New bandmate Ian Tiles found Mr. Condo’s body last Thursday, in the Vancouver co-op apartment he occupied alone. The cause of the notorious hard liver’s death was apparently a heart attack, a few weeks short of his 54th birthday. In a sense, this is a death of a salesman, one of those half-glimpsed journeymen of the music business who work the territory overshadowed by chart hits and their towers of PR babble.

Though Mr. Condo released six or seven albums, from 1986’s Crazy Date to 2000’s High & Wild, they never made much money. Instead, almost any night for 20 years, you might have found this rodeo-suited rainmaker on any sawdust stage in the world — sometimes before throngs at a European festival; more often, for beer money and bus fare in some down-at-heel dive.

Yet Mr. Condo was no Willy Loman; he ported no mundane household wares. He was more of a preacher, with a catechism handed down from the Grand Ole Opry and Sun Records — his satchel full of the treasures of American music, from pre-Louis Armstrong to the birth of rock (but not thereafter).

Many retro acts build a single decade or style into shtick, like some tricked-up rootsy ride at Disneyland. By contrast, Mr. Condo ranged through 60 years of hillbilly boogie, jazz, western swing, country, and rhythm and blues, stirring them into new brews in the gallon jugs of his jitterbug personality and sometimes reckless humour.

“He made it present and made it now,” says his long-time guitarist-friend Stephen Nikleva. “It never had a revival quality about it. I must have done 600 shows with him and there was never a boring one. He didn’t do anything halfway.”

Mr. Condo’s repertoire, nearly all covers, ranged from Count Basie and Billie Holiday to Carl Perkins and Arthur Crudup, plus the more obscure likes of Larry Darnell, Glenn Barber and Lew Williams. He was the kind of music devotee influenced not just by “king of western swing” Bob Wills, but by Mr. Wills’ near-forgotten younger brother, Billy Jack Wills, who pushed that postwar country-jazz hybrid within yelping distance of the innovations of bebop and the passion of hard rhythm and blues.

He had a historian’s (and country boy’s) respect for sources. But he also had the irreverence and immediacy of a former punk rocker and eternal showman. I picture his gangly form in mid-concert, in Stetson and skinny tie, leaning into a particularly ripe verse or chorus with a force that made him seem to be looming up in a fish-eye lens. His vitality was ticklishly hypnotic, and just a little dangerous.

As Village Voice critic Robert Christgau wrote of the Ricochets: “They take over . . . so completely that it’s hard to tell whether the songs were this good to begin with, and beside the point to care.”

With such commitment on stage and off, Mr. Condo was equally beloved by rock-critic intellectuals, sentimental American seniors, and kids from England to Japan who dress painstakingly in 1950s pony skirts, pompadours or motorcycle boots to go cut a rug. He once described his audience as from 18 to 68, taking in “goth kids, rednecks, hippies and rockabillies.”

He called his band the Ricochets, he said, because they “bounced around.” And none of them more than their leader.

Mr. Condo was born Ray Tremblay in Hull, Que., in 1950, to an “Ottawa Valley hillbilly” family of eight children. He grew up with the sounds of Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and — closer to home — Ronnie Hawkins. He got his first guitar at 11, and made an album at 16 with a British Invasion-imitation combo called the Peasants.

After high school, he bummed around the country, “doin’ the Kerouac thing.” By the mid-1970s, he’d made his way to Vancouver. Always interested in drawing and painting, he registered for art school at Emily Carr, but after a single term he was absorbed into the city’s new punk scene, becoming bassist in a band called the Secret V’s.

“I was enjoying the spirit of [punk] a lot,” he said later. “It taught me to stand behind what you do and stick up for it. It gave me an almost militant attitude for what I do.”

He left to paint in Montreal for, he thought, a year. But music pulled him in again: He fell in with a gang of artists in the orbit of Og Records, led by comic “sludgeabilly” duo Deja Voodoo. All fans of hillbilly-punk band the Cramps, they helped bring the 34-year-old Mr. Condo back to his Elvis Presley roots. (He had acquired his new surname after couch-surfing around town so much that he got nicknamed a “one-man condo.” He figured it would render any billboard advertising condominiums a free promo for his new band.)

With brothers Peter and Eric Sandmark (later the Crazy Rhythm Daddies) and bassist Clive Jackson (who would also log time in the Ricochets), Mr. Condo named the group after 1940s rock pioneer Hardrock Gunter. They were in the right place, as Og’s It Came from Canada compilations and Deja Voodoo Barbeques were earning the Montreal scene national attention.

Though loose and thrashy compared with what would follow, the Hardrock Goners toured and recorded for 11 years, till Mr. Condo got anxious to return to Vancouver at last. There, he formed the Ricochets by merging with a local group called the Five Star Hillbillies, led by steel guitarist Jimmy Roy.

This band had the mixed fortune to form just when the 1990s “swing revival” had begun. It led to some higher-visibility, heavily booked years, in which the band’s drive and diversity and Mr. Condo’s punk-bred vocals — with their elasticky Don Knotts twang — stood out from the neo-Rat Pack. Still, being even half-trendy means the bubble can half-pop. Having been through that wringer, an exhausted Mr. Condo put the Ricochets on semi-hiatus in 2000.

He took an offer to do maintenance work for Canadian National Railway, which he thought apt, because it was “a blues job,” Mr. Nikleva recalls. For the next three years, the Ricochets played mainly around Vancouver. Though he wished for recognition — and “a raise” — Mr. Condo doesn’t seem to have craved stardom. He often said that an “authentic” music can be ruined when it gets discovered and “taken over.”

Lately, Mr. Condo was planning a new group that would turn from swing toward a more honky-tonk, garage sound, Mr. Nikleva says. Tours were scheduled this summer for Europe and Australia. And sometimes he still spoke of “retiring to the easel,” to the painting life that was always deferred.

But Mr. Condo’s minor heart attack a year ago proved prophetic. Mr. Nikleva says, “Ray was a restless spirit, a person that was always after change,” not only in his music, but personally. He had loyal friends and fans at home and around the world. But he was nomadic, badly underweight, a poor sleeper and an avid smoker and drinker, despite his asthma and weak heart. He never had a stable domestic life. “He burned the candle at both ends, with all that intensity,” Mr. Nikleva says. “He didn’t really take care of himself, didn’t even have a sense of that, and I think he almost needed someone to take care of him. His friends were concerned about him, but Ray was Ray. It’s like trying to tell the king what to do.”

From that perspective, perhaps it is just as remarkable that he lasted this long — twice the “live-fast-die young” life spans of such heroes as Hank Williams. You may credit his sense of his mission: He carried on to be of service to the music he found most genuine, human and necessary. “Most people don’t know anything about roots music and don’t care,” he told one interviewer. “I happen to think that’s a crime. We all have this heritage that we should respect. If we want to get into the future, you’vegot to know where you’re coming from.”

Otherwise, he joked to another, “You get lost, and you end up paying a hundred bucks for a ticket to an Eagles concert.”