REMEMBERING GORDIE FLEMING
On the morning of August 31, I awoke late, around nine am, due to the fact that I got home from hearing the Kevin Dean Organ Quartet with Mike Murley, Janis Steprans and Dave Laing at Upstairs at two am. At sixty-seven, that's a late night for me. I learned, on CBC radio, that vibraphonist Lionel Hampton had died earlier that day, shortly thereafter the phone rang and it was Heidi Fleming to tell me that her dad, accordionist Gordie Fleming, had also died that morning in Toronto.
The first live jazz I ever heard by Montreal-based musicians was on Saturday, November 11, 1950. It was at the first meeting of the Montreal chapter of the Metronome magazine-sponsored New Jazz Society and took place in the old YWCA on [then] Dorchester Blvd. at Stanley Street. The invited musicians that day were Butch Watanabe, trombone, Sadik Hakim, piano, Bob Rudd, bass and Jack Orchard [an uncle of Jamie Orchard of Global TV fame], drums. All the aforementioned instruments--vibes and accordion, along with the violin--were relegated to the "Miscellaneous Instrument" categories in the jazz polls of the time. Montreal in 1950 had three world-class, musicians who fit into that category: vibraphonist Yvan Landry, violinist Willy Girard, and Fleming, by far the greatest bebop accordionist I have heard.
Seventy-one at the time of his death, he was born Gordon Kenneth Fleming in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada on August 3, 1931. Somewhat of a child prodigy, he toured the Manitoba vaudeville circuit from the age of five. From 1941 through 1945, the end of the World War II, he was in demand for tours of Army camps in Western Canada and began making radio appearances on both CBC and privately owned stations--something he did throughout his musical life. Nightclub work at Winnipeg spots like the Don Carlos Casino, The Flame and Cocacabana followed.
Shortly after an accordion was lost in a fire, he moved to Montreal, the year was 1949 and, although also adept as a pianist and organist, he worked mostly on accordion beginning with a most musical group called the "Quartones", with Gerry McDonald, [who would, in 1977, record Gordie with Buddy DeFranco, Michel Donato and Pete Magadini in Ste. Agathe, for his Choice label], clarinet, Frank Quinn, guitar and Leo Poulin, drums. In late 1950, Fleming and drummer Billy Graham, also from Winnipeg, formed a combo and three years later Fleming found himself playing with a jazz quintet on a Greek liner, the Columbia, crossing the Atlantic and playing gigs with Rob Adams in Cannes at the New Yorker and in Juan des Pines before returning to Montreal on the same liner. Later that year and into the Fall of 1954, he and Adams worked at Chalet Cochand in St. Marguerite in the mountains North of Montreal, hosting jam sessions there as well as appearing on CJAD with Rob's vocal group that also included Bob Hahn. Then it was closer to Montreal for a gig with Adams and Quinn at the Thorncliffe in Rosemere through the summer of 1955 when they returned to Chalet Cochand. That year Fleming also won the Grand Prize on "Opportunity Knocks," a talent program on CKVL. During this period he worked with the Frank Quinn trio at the posh Bellevue Casino and at the Chez Paree and the Downbeat, a comedy club where Jerry Lewis worked prior to hooking up with Dean Martin. Gordie also worked at the not so posh Clover Café on Ste. Catherine Street, just east of the Forum. I remember going there often and hearing him playing not only standards and the bebop tunes of the day, but also outrageous C&W reels--it was at this spot that he told me that he made more money recording country tunes with artists like Hank Snow and Willie Lamothe than he ever did playing jazz. He also worked in the Normandie Room of the Mount Royal Hotel and I remember a night when my dad and I arrived there after a number of drinks in celebration of the life of my godfather, the late Joe Dowd. We were anything but welcomed with open arms but using Gordie's name we were admitted and he joined us for a drink [which we didn't need] between sets. Gordie never forget that incident and every time I saw him after that he would say, "Remember the night you and your dad".
The Canadian All Stars' was the group that gave Fleming a taste of International recognition, a quintet made up of Fleming, Al Baculis, clarinet, Yvan Landry, vibes / piano, Hal Gaylor, bass and again drummer Billy Graham. On Saturday, February 7, 1953 at two pm at the Chez Paree, that group opened a "Jazz Workshop" concert [one that headlined Charlie Parker] playing a six tune set made up of "Jumping With Symphony Sid," "Taking A Chance On Love," "Strike Up The Band," "The Things We Did Last Summer," "Lover Come Back to Me" and "The Lady Is A Tramp." Harold Smith and Abby Smollan, who both had connections with the record industry, took an interest in the group and Smith produced a demo in 1955 that he was successful in selling to Albert Marx, New York based, Discovery Records and, with Landry switching to piano, "Hello Young Lovers," "Taking A Chance On Love," "Billy Boy," "The Things We Did Last Summer," Fats Waller's "Zonky" plus "Some Folks Do," "Winnipegosis" and "Sincerely Yours," credited to Baculis, were released on a 10" lp. [Both Smith and Smollan were members of the Emanon Jazz Society, an important group that grew out of the New Jazz Society in 1951 and Smith also recorded the Montreal trio of Valdo Williams, a wonderful pianistbut Discovery never released that material.]
The latter part of Fleming's stay in Montreal [he moved to Toronto in 1977] found him working with bassist Tony Chappell and the Johnny Holmes Orchestra and doing jazz gigs with people like Jackson Rider, Johnny Lanza, Fred McHugh, Ronnie Page and Billy Graham. In Toronto he was heard with regularity at spots like George's Spaghetti House and Bourbon Street. He returned to Montreal in 1985 to perform at that year's Montreal International Jazz Festival with a group that included another Canadian jazz icon in Herbie Spanier. The latter part of his life was plagued with ill health and he had been hospitalized since suffering a stroke in July 2000. His daughter Heidi, one of seven children, says he continued playing the piano with one hand almost to the end. She states that he died peacefully on Saturday.
Besides the aforementioned recordings, Gordie Fleming did a number of sessions under his own name for the CBC as well as a sideman with musicians like Buck Lacombe, Tony Romandini, Chappell, Johnny Holmes and for Galt MacDermot's "Kilmarnock" label with "Time Machine": Bix Hoover, Rudy Pontano, Rob Adams and Paul Leger and some soundtrack work for the National Film Board with Spanier and Donato. In other fields there was work with Edith Piaf, Pauline Julien and Ginette Reno. There were also performances in honour of Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Fidel Castro and recordings with Cat Stevens, the McGarrigles, Alan Mills and Ti-Jean Carignan. Heidi is presently collecting his recordings and it's hoped that a double CD compilation will result.
He is survived by his children and his wife of forty-seven years, singer Joanne Lalonde. There was a visitation in Toronto on Thursday, September 5 from 7-9 pm at Sherrin Funeral Home, 373 Kingston Road and a funeral took place on Saturday, September 7, at 1 pm at Eglise Ste-Anne de Bellevue, in Ste-Anne de Bellevue, on the western tip of the Island of Montreal.
Michel Donato called him, "The greatest--nobody compares;" Jim Galloway, "Absolutely the best in the world on jazz accordion--a master." Guido Basso stated, "I have nothing but reverence for the man and his genius" and as I said earlier, he was "the world's greatest bebop accordionist".
Gordie, may you rest in peace and thank you, thank you, thank you, for all the wonderful memories on and off the bandstand.
© Len Dobbin 2002