Ray Condo

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

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."

The following is an incomplete list of concerts Ray played the last 8 years of his life...

Thu, Mar 27, 1997 Austin TX
Fri, Mar 28, 1997 Bryan TX
Sat, Mar 29, 1997 Dallas TX
Mon, Mar 31, 1997 New Orleans LA
Wed, Apr 2, 1997 Knoxville TN
Thu, Apr 3, 1997 Tuscaloosa AL
Fri, Apr 4, 1997 Atlanta GA
Sat, Apr 5, 1997 Chappel Hill NC
Mon, Apr 7, 1997 Nashville TN
Thu, Apr 10, 1997 Memphis TN
Fri, Apr 11, 1997 Tulsa OK
Sat, Apr 12, 1997 Springfield MO
Tue, Apr 15, 1997 Kansas City MO
Thu, Apr 17, 1997 Louisville KY
Fri, Apr 18, 1997 Cincinnati OH
Sat, Apr 19, 1997 St. Louis MO
Sun, Apr 20, 1997 Lafayette IN
Wed, Apr 23, 1997 Lexington KY
Thu, Apr 24, 1997 Bloomington IN
Fri, Apr 25, 1997 Daytona OH
Sat, Apr 26, 1997 McKees Rocks PA
Sun, Apr 27, 1997 Philadelphia PA
Wed, Apr 30, 1997 Hellertown PA
Thu, May 1, 1997 New York NY
Fri, May 2, 1997 Boston MA
Sat, May 3, 1997 Portland ME
Tue, May 6, 1997 Ferndale MI
Wed, May 7, 1997 Columbus OH
Thu, May 8, 1997 Berwyn IL
Sat, May 10, 1997 Minneapolis MN
Sat, Oct 11, 1997 San Francisco CA
Mon, Oct 13, 1997 Phoenix AZ
Wed, Oct 15, 1997 Houston TX
Thu, Oct 16, 1997 Dallas TX
Fri, Oct 17, 1997 Austin TX
Sat, Oct 18, 1997 New Orleans LA
Mon, Oct 20, 1997 Birmingham AL
Wed, Oct 22, 1997 Memphis TN
Wed, Oct 22, 1997 Germantown TN
Fri, Oct 24, 1997 St. Louis MO
Sat, Oct 25, 1997 Tulsa OK
Tue, Oct 28, 1997 Nashville TN
Wed, Oct 29, 1997 Nashville TN
Thu, Oct 30, 1997 Tuscaloosa AL
Fri, Oct 31, 1997 Atlanta GA
Sat, Nov 1, 1997 Lexington KY
Sun, Nov 2, 1997 Chappel Hill NC
Tue, Nov 4, 1997 Richmond VA
Wed, Nov 5, 1997 Bethesda MD
Thu, Nov 6, 1997 Philadelphia PA
Fri, Nov 7, 1997 New York NY
Sat, Nov 8, 1997 Rochester NY
Sun, Nov 9, 1997 Bridgewater PA
Tue, Nov 11, 1997 Perrysburg OH
Thu, Nov 13, 1997 Greenbay WI
Fri, Nov 14, 1997 Minneapolis MN
Sun, Nov 23, 1997 New York NY
Mon, Nov 24, 1997 Buffalo NY
Wed, Nov 26, 1997 Pittsburgh PA
Fri, Nov 28, 1997 Dayton OH
Sat, Nov 29, 1997 Cincinnati OH
Sun, Nov 30, 1997 Indianapolis IN
Tue, Dec 2, 1997 Kansas City MO
Thu, Dec 4, 1997 Lincoln NE
Fri, Dec 5, 1997 Denver CO
Sat, Dec 6, 1997 Denver CO
Fri, Apr 17, 1998 Las Vegas NV
Sun, Apr 19, 1998 Denver CO
Mon, Apr 20, 1998 Albuquerque NM
Wed, Apr 22, 1998 Houston TX
Thu, Apr 23, 1998 Dallas TX
Sat, Apr 25, 1998 Austin TX
Mon, Apr 27, 1998 Kansas City MO
Thu, Apr 30, 1998 St. Louis MO
Fri, May 1, 1998 Memphis TN
Sat, May 2, 1998 Atlanta GA
Wed, May 6, 1998 Pittsburgh PA
Thu, May 7, 1998 Columbus OH
Fri, May 8, 1998 Indianapolis IN
Sat, May 9, 1998 Cincinnati OH
Sun, May 10, 1998 Louisville KY
Tue, May 12, 1998 Buffalo NY
Wed, May 13, 1998 Rochester NY
Thu, May 14, 1998 Burlington VT
Fri, May 15, 1998 Montreal, Canada
Sat, May 16, 1998 Toronto, Canada
Wed, May 20, 1998 Perrysburg OH
Fri, May 22, 1998 Pontiac MI
Sat, May 23, 1998 Pontiac MI
Sun, May 24, 1998 Cleveland OH
Wed, May 27, 1998 Grand Rapids MI
Thu, May 28, 1998 Berwyn IL
Fri, May 29, 1998 Combined Locks WI
Sat, May 30, 1998 Minneapolis MN
Fri, Jul 3, 1998 Central City CO
Fri, Jul 3, 1998 Central City CO
Sat, Jul 4, 1998 Central City CO
Sat, Jul 4, 1998 Central City CO
Sun, Jul 5, 1998 Central City CO
Wed, Jul 8, 1998 St. Louis MO
Thu, Jul 9, 1998 Springfield MO
Fri, Jul 10, 1998 Norman OK
Sat, Jul 11, 1998 Tulsa OK
Mon, Jul 13, 1998 Columbia MO
Wed, Jul 15, 1998 Lexington KY
Thu, Jul 16, 1998 Louisville KY
Fri, Jul 17, 1998 Cincinnati OH
Sat, Jul 18, 1998 Dayton OH
Sun, Jul 19, 1998 Ann Arbor MI
Wed, Jul 22, 1998 Colorado Springs CO
Fri, Oct 23, 1998 Philadelphia PA
Sat, Oct 24, 1998 Boston MA
Mon, Oct 26, 1998 Burlington VT
Tue, Oct 27, 1998 Stores CT
Wed, Oct 28, 1998 Providence RI
Sat, Oct 31, 1998 New York NY
Sun, Nov 1, 1998 Pittsburgh PA
Tue, Jul 6, 1999 Rochester NY
Wed, Jul 7, 1999 Pittsburgh PA
Thu, Jul 8, 1999 Allentown PA
Fri, Jul 9, 1999 Bethlehem PA
Sat, Jul 10, 1999 New York NY
Sat, Jul 10, 1999 New York NY
Sun, Jul 11, 1999 Hellertown PA
Wed, Jul 14, 1999 Piegut-Pluviers France
Sun, Jul 18, 1999 Mirande
Sun, Jul 18, 1999 Mirande
Thu, Apr 20, 2000 Las Vegas NV
Tue, Apr 25, 2000 Phoenix AZ
Wed, Apr 26, 2000 Las Cruces NM
Thu, Apr 27, 2000 El Paso TX
Fri, Apr 28, 2000 Alpine TX
Sat, Apr 29, 2000 Austin TX
Tue, May 2, 2000 New Orleans LA
Wed, May 3, 2000 Memphis TN
Thu, May 4, 2000 St. Louis MO
Fri, May 5, 2000 Chicago IL
Sat, May 6, 2000 Greenbay WI
Sun, May 7, 2000 Milwaukee WI
Tue, May 9, 2000 Minneapolis MN
Thu, May 11, 2000 Lincoln NE
Fri, May 12, 2000 Springfield IL
Sat, May 13, 2000 Columbia MO
Tue, May 16, 2000 Santa Fe NM
Thu, May 18, 2000 Salt Lake City UT
Mon, Jul 3, 2000 Minneapolis MN
Tue, Jul 4, 2000 Greenbay WI
Wed, Jul 5, 2000 Grand Rapids
Thu, Jul 6, 2000 Ferndale MI
Thu, Jul 13, 2000 Calella Spain
Fri, Jul 14, 2000 Mirande France
Fri, Jul 14, 2000 Mirande France
Sat, Jul 15, 2000 Tielen Belgium
Sun, Jul 16, 2000 75018 Paris France
Wed, Jul 19, 2000 Amsterdam Holland
Thu, Jul 20, 2000 Rotterdam Holland
Fri, Jul 21, 2000 Amsterdam Holland
Sat, Jul 22, 2000 Munich Germany
Tue, Jul 25, 2000 Winooski VT
Wed, Jul 26, 2000 Portland ME
Thu, Jul 27, 2000 Cambridge MA
Fri, Jul 28, 2000 New York NY
Fri, Jul 28, 2000 New York NY
Sat, Jul 29, 2000 New York NY
Sun, Jul 30, 2000 Sergentsville NJ
Mon, Jul 31, 2000 Arlington VA
Wed, Aug 2, 2000 New Smithville PA
Thu, Aug 3, 2000 Pittsburgh PA
Fri, Aug 4, 2000 Cleveland OH
Sat, Aug 5, 2000 Dayton OH
Sun, Aug 6, 2000 Chicago IL
Wed, Aug 9, 2000 Boise ID
Fri, Aug 31, 2001 Pittsburgh PA
Sat, Sep 1, 2001 Johnstown PA
Sun, Sep 2, 2001 Johnstown PA
Tue, Jul 9, 2002 Green Bay WI
Fri, Apr 11, 2003 Milwaukee WI
Sat, Apr 12, 2003 Madison WI
Sun, Apr 13, 2003 Green Bay WI
Mon, Apr 14, 2003 Green Bay WI
Tue, Apr 15, 2003 Green Bay WI
Wed, Apr 16, 2003 Minneapolis MN
Fri, Apr 18, 2003 Berwyn IL
Sat, Apr 19, 2003 Springfield IL
Fri, Aug 1, 2003 Seattle WA
Fri, Jan 16, 2004 San Diego CA
Sat, Jan 17, 2004 Los Angeles CA
Thu, Mar 18, 2004 Portland OR
Fri, Mar 19, 2004 Phillipsville CA
Sat, Mar 20, 2004 San Fransisco CA

The following are shows on Ray's upcoming calendar when he died
Sat, Jun 12, 2004 Barcelona, Spain
Sun, Jun 13, 2004 Varedo, Italy
Sat, Jul 10, 2004 Worcester MA
Sat, Jul 10, 2004 Salem MA
Sun, Jul 11, 2004 South Kingstown RI
Wed, Jul 14, 2004 Portland ME
Fri, Jul 16, 2004 Cambridge MA
Sat, Jul 17, 2004 E. Hartford CT
Sat, Jul 17, 2004 New York NY
Sun, Jul 18, 2004 Allentown PA
Sat, Jul 31, 2004  Queensland Australia
Sat, Aug 28, 2004 Milwaukee WI
Sat, Sep 18, 2004 Los Angeles CA

 

The following is Ray's letter- in his own hand- to his 2004 summer east coast tour band leader

 

The following is Ray's 2004 summer tour set list that was never performed

 

 

 

 

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