Bobby Curtola, an enormous Canadian pop star in the 1960s, signed on with Coca-Cola as their pitchman in 1964 and toured the country singing “Thing Go Better With Coke”, a song so identified with him that he was often mistakenly credited with writing it. In the summer of 1965 he played St. John’s, Newfoundland but when he left to go back to the mainland Bobby Curtola was short his drummer, Gordie Faye, who’d been smitten by a local girl who lived in East St. John’s. She lived not far up the street from 43 Goodview, the house where young teenager Bill Sharpe lived with his parents and four siblings. There was no room for Gordie to store the drums so one of Bill’s friends on Goodview Street offered to hold on to them if he was allowed to “try them out”. The friend knew Bill was interested in drums and invited him down to show off and next then thing Bill was sitting behind the drum kit. As Billy said to me, “I never met Gordie, just his drums, and we learned beats listening to the Beatles album Please Please Me.” Very little time went by before Bill surpassed his neighbour who tossed Bill out because he’d become the much better drummer. But, as Bill, explained, “too late, he had created a monster, everyday I tapped on the kitchen table with spoons, then on school desks with pencils, until I drove everyone around me nuts.”

That drumming monster never lost his passion which became all-consuming, a drive to learn beats from all parts of the world, eventually forming one of Newfoundland’s favourite performing bands for going on 30 years: Billy and the Bruisers. And his encyclopedic knowledge of music had Coast 101.1 FM come calling, not long after they launched in 2004, to create a Sunday show still on the air: Cool Jazz On The Coast with Billy Sharpe.

Bill’s memory of growing up on Goodview matches his four siblings: the radio played night and day. Music a mainstay at the Sharpe home, their parents listening to big band, jazz, pop, even a little country music like Johnny Cash. With Bill, a self-described “long hair” in the mid-60s, the radio also brought forth the best of British and American Rock ’N’ Roll. It is not that the folk music almost everyone identifies Newfoundland with was not appreciated — certainly parents Ambrose and Mary loved it — but St. John’s teenagers were, well, teenagers! Music surrounded Bill.

A beautiful portrait of Bill taken by his sister Joan

His father had promised Bill a substantial graduation present when he finished high school (grade 11 at that time in Newfoundland, their education based on the British system). The Sharpe household survived on the single wage-earner Ambrose, while Mary managed all finances with thrift and ingenuity. The only way forward for a substantial gift was through the Sears monthly payment plan and for some time Bill had his eye on a Honda 90 motorcycle — much to his mother’s disconcertment. When the big day came for the purchase he happened to wander through the music department on the way to pick out a specific bike. His dad asked him which one and suddenly Bill answered, “Well, let me think about it for a day,” wandering back to look at a drum kit in the music department. When the next day came, his passion for music could not be denied, to the great delight of his mother who hated motorcycles (no matter if only 90 cc), and drums arrived at 43 Goodview. 

Beyond being passionate, what you should also understand about Bill Sharpe is that he is infinitely curious, assiduous in work and something of a hard case. By hard case I don’t mean tough in the sense of street fights (though I’m sure he can take care of himself), I mean he’s someone who, when he understands what he wants, is singleminded in his pursuits — and forgot about telling him he can’t do something. Bill has been the band leader in every group he has played with and openly describes himself as “savage” when it comes to instilling the discipline required to create the sound for which he strives.

Curiosity shaped Bill’s search for beats as he strove beyond listening to the popular music of the day and sought out Latin and African music. Various sounds of percussion formed and melded in his young mind, sounds he took forward with him for the rest of his life. Undoubtedly, that curiosity arising from living on a unique street in a unique town that felt, to Bill, like being on the edge of the world; seeking out world music a natural extension. He says Santana is his favourite band of all time and it’s not hard to understand given Santana’s constant evolution and fusion of Latin, blues, progressive rock and jazz. By the time he was seventeen, Bill formed his first band, often playing seven nights a week. During those early days of music he was out of school, which takes us to his other qualities, his work ethic and single-mindedness.

Along with British based education in Newfoundland in those days, the Catholic system separated boys and girls into different high schools. Those growing up in the heart of St. John’s, such as Goodview, a street only a few blocks (up severely steep hills) from the harbour, went to Brother Rice (boys) or Holy Heart of Mary (girls). The boys were taught by the Christian Brothers. Matriculation, thus qualifying for Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN), required an overall grade of 65 in those days, and both Bill’s English and French teachers failed him on particular assignments so as to ensure his overall marks, including a struggle with math, would not allow him to matriculate. There was provision to apply as a “mature student” at the early age of 19 and that became Bill’s plan. Before the reader write’s off Bill’s thoughts of not making the grade in English and French as merely lacking necessary skills, allow me to take you through his next few years, which also provide testament to his dedication and tenacity.

Behind the drums with ‘The Bruisers’ on George Street

As I said earlier, while out of school Bill played gigs seven nights a week, but at the same time he took courses to upgrade his marks. When he turned 19, he qualified for MUN. Given that the Christian Brothers had noted his lack of skills in English and French, I’m sure you can guess what Bill studied. Yes, indeed, a double major in English and French, graduating MUN in 1974 with a proficiency making him eligible to continue studying for a Masters degree. Which he did over the years, eventually earning his Master of Education, Learning Resources, in 1988. Of course during all that time he played Rock ’N’ Roll seven nights a week. That’s work ethic and single-mindedness; that’s dedication enfolded with tenacity; that’s Bill Sharpe. Who knows, in hindsight maybe those Christian Brothers did him a favour — tell Bill Sharpe he can’t do something and then get out of his way, watch it be done.

With his degrees, Bill became an educator, teaching high school for 30 years. Along the way, he picked up his real estate license, selling houses. What about music? That never wavered and his band in those days, Foxy, played not only local clubs and dances but also opened for St. John’s concert acts ranging anywhere from Alice Cooper to Gino Vannelli to the Guess Who. However, by the early ‘90s and turning 40 years old, Bill thought it time to slow down on the number of gigs he played. He had an idea of a new band, a “project” Bill called it, bringing together a few guys of similar age that he’d known and played with most of his life. Thus was born Billy and the Bruisers, a “project” that started out as a five piece band who would limit themselves to ten or twelve gigs a year, certainly no more than once a month.

Bill on drums, brother Doug on percussion

Ahh unh, here we go with the best laid plans. What actually happened over the next few years was that they went from a five to an eleven piece band, including a horns section put together by recruiting three “young lads” from MUN’s music program and Bill’s younger brother Doug who Bill knew could provide the percussion he was after. (Almost 30 years later all three of the “young lads” and Doug are still part of the Bruisers.) The band entered a Canada-wide SoCan songwriting contest in 1994 — and won. That not only brought them $5,000 worth of new recording equipment, it also brought Sony Music knocking on their door. All of a sudden the little “project” band was an R&B sensation, with a tight sound of horns, keyboards, guitars and percussion, writing original music while covering some of Bill’s favourite bands. Yet the core were family men who’d established full-time careers outside of music. Faced with the choice of going on the road full time as part of the record contract, they collectively decided to turn down the offer.

Nonetheless, they did record, starting with “If It’s Too Good To Be True…”, an album produced by Terry Brown. If the name isn’t familiar suffice it to say Brown, after establishing himself in England as a sound engineer and producer by working with well known music artists such as Proco Harum, The Who, Joe Cocker, and Jimi Hendrix, came to Canada and produced three of the first four albums for a little Ontario band you may have heard of: Rush. Though the Bruisers wouldn’t commit to full-time on the road, they did manage some travel over the years, playing East Coast Canada and Ontario, Bermuda, and one time at the World Jazz Festival in Finland. At the end of this century’s second decade, Billy and the Bruisers can look back at seven records, five TV appearances, and an evening playing with the Newfoundland Symphony. The number of overall live performances? Let’s say it adds up to a few more than the originally planned ten or twelve gigs per year; let’s round it off and call it countless.

When I talked to Bill about how his Cool Jazz radio show came about his essence shone through in the answer. That essence a combination that has made him successful his entire life, mixing together hard work, determination and an entrepreneur’s sense of respecting the customer, however you define the customer — such as, perhaps, calling them an audience. Coast 101.1 FM’s station manager had approached Bill and said he wanted him to put together a weekly blues show. Bill answered, “No you don’t?” The befuddled station manager listened while Bill expanded on that quick answer: “Blues has a limited audience. What you want is a popular jazz show.” Cool Jazz it was. I laughed to myself as I talked to Bill about how he puts together the show because I recalled a few conversations in the past, when I’d chat with him in St. John’s during my visits. I’m an old jazz fan and my tastes run to be-bop, sometimes referred to as “classical jazz”. For the most part, Bill dismisses that era of jazz, with self-involved performances, esoteric sounds, and a rotating formula of solos in every song — now the sax player, now the drummer, now the bass player. I admit, jazz clubs catering only to that genre are small for a reason. Bill’s music formula is simple but inclusive, looking to attract the largest possible listening audience. His programming mix? Say the first song has a male singer, then following will be a female singer, then a group, then an instrumental piece. On a Sunday morning whether you’re listening at your kitchen table or off driving in your car, the three hour program will encapsulate you in the most wide-ranging sound jazz has to offer, touching on everyone’s music tastes.

Billy and the Bruisers playing the George Street Festival 2019

When I was finishing up my last conversation with Bill for this Profile, I reflected on one of my earlier notes that I’d jotted down, the term hard-case, and pondered it as I listened to Bill talk about his inability to understand why so many Seaward family members left St. John’s over the years, moving to the mainland. He didn’t dismiss the economic hardships that exist in Newfoundland but to Bill those hardships represent opportunity. As with his brothers and sisters, there is a grand acknowledgment of their parents, especially their mother. Bill said to me that when his grandfather died his “mother’s family was driven into poverty”. Yet through perseverance and ingenuity, Mary Seaward eventually saved her younger brothers from the orphanage and stayed in that family home on Goodview Street until she died. I think that perseverance and ingenuity lodged deep in Bill at the earliest. When I asked him if he ever considered leaving Newfoundland, the very question appeared odd to him, like it was peculiar to even ask. He referred to his upbringing as living on “a unique street city in a unique city on the edge of the world”. To Bill Sharpe, even raising the question of leaving Newfoundland is unfathomable.

Next up, from the oldest to the youngest. Bob Sharpe has been a sound technician and union activist at CBC for over 30 years and recently became the first Newfoundland member elected to the executive of the Canadian Media Guild.

I hope you come back.

About Ed Seaward

Ed Seaward is the author of a number of short stories and screenplays, including Mother Daughter Happiness, which was a finalist at the 2019 Pasadena International Film Festival…

More About Ed

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