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SOUNDTRACKING: 9 Awesome Minutes With Music Legend Bill Henderson Of “Chilliwack”

by Daniel Colussi | The name Bill Henderson may not be immediately familiar to many readers but no doubt you’re familiar with his work. Henderson has penned some of the most enduring hits of Canadian rock radio and his musical roots are deeply tied to Vancouver, dating back to 1964 and one of Vancouver’s first-wave psychedelic bands, The Collectors. The Collectors were eventually reborn as Chilliwack, of which Henderson was the primary songwriter and sole constant member. With Chilliwack, Henderson penned many radio hits and toured the world, always returning to the city he calls home, Vancouver. Henderson occupies a unique position as one of Vancouver’s pioneering rockers, a true lifer. Read on as Henderson reflects on 40 years of West Coast rock and roll.

The Psychedelic Years

As something like Vancouver’s answer to Jefferson Airplane or The Grateful Dead, The Collectors were a firmly psychedelic group. Hardly slouchers or copycats of the California scene, The Collectors were a band of truly adventurous heads; their self titled debut album famously features the side long, tripped out, psychedelic feast entitled “What Love (Suite).” As someone who was there when it happened, Henderson has invaluable insight on Vancouver’s underground scene of the late 60s.

Can you tell me a bit about your days as the house band of the Torch Cabaret? What was the vibe of the place, what kind of a club was it?

The Torch Cabaret was around Drake and Howe. Lots of people brought a bottle in a bag. We played for “amateur” strippers one night of the week and just for dancing and carousing the other five.

What were the clientele like?

Most nights somebody rearranged someone else’s face with a beer mug. The bouncers took delight in opening the crash doors with guys’ heads who had been fighting. There was lots of fighting. I found it really hard to be around but I liked the music. Our sets were mostly R&B mixed with Beatles and Stones and then our own tunes gradually populated the sets more and more. Luckily we got a recording contract within about six months because, as you can probably imagine, a lot of the clientele were not all that interested in emerging artists with weird songs.

The early years of your career were decidedly psychedelic – the first Collectors album featured a side long track, and the first two Chilliwack albums are heady, trippy affairs. What was it like being in a band Vancouver in those days?

They were wonderful times. When people decide to go to an event because it’s a “happening” and they want to see what happens, it’s a sign of how open people were then to new ideas. And we were full of new ideas so we had a great time. Also at those “happenings” and other similar events the audience was full of poets, painters, architects, musicians too of course. But it was a time when rock music on the West Coast had somehow become a part of the creative arts scene. It was supported by it and contributed to it. We were selected as the composers and recording artists to create all the music for the Canadian pavilion at Expo 70 in Japan. To represent Canada! This kind of recognition was new for rock music.

What bands, films, books, etc. were inspiring you during this time?

The Beatles, the Dead, Jefferson Airplane, the Cream. Composers like Edgar Varese along with the ideas of John Cage; Richard Lester films like The Knack, Italian art films like 8 1/2, French comedian Jaques Tati; Zen philosopher Alan Watts, various current poets.

Who were your Vancouver band contemporaries?

Papa Bear’s Medicine Show, Mother Tucker’s Yellow Duck, United Empire Loyalists, Tom Northcott, Black Snake Blues Band, Hydro Electric Street Car, My Indole Ring etc.

I’ve read that you played guitar on the Electric Prunes’ classic psychedelic album Mass In F Minor. Can you tell me a bit about that?

Our producer Dave Hassinger who engineered the Stones early recordings, The Dead and the Airplane also produced the Electric Prunes. He liked my guitar playing and for that record they wanted something beyond what their guitar player was doing so I was asked. The Mass in F Minor record was produced by Jazz producer David Axelrod who’d worked with Cannonball Adderley and Lou Rawls and many other incredible musicians. He really like my playing too. That was amazing for me. The sessions were done at American Records in Studio City just outside Hollywood. Axelrod was very encouraging and he’d worked with so many excellent jazz musicians that it was very exciting for me.

Were the Prunes at all bummed to not be playing on their own album?

I didn’t talk to them but I think they probably were. I was just a hired hand. I did my best to ignore the politics.

The Golden Era – ’72 to ’78

After the demise of The Collectors the core members of that band – Henderson, drummer Ross Turney, bassist Glen Miller and multi-instrumentalist Claire Lawrence – formed Chilliwack. Slightly rootsier sounding but no less progressive, the first two Chilliwack albums are gems of earthy West Coast psychedelic prog-pop. This was the beginning of the golden era for Henderson and the band. Chilliwack released 8 albums during the 1970s, toured the world and scored several top ten hits. Lonesome Mary from the sprawling self titled double length album Chilliwack was the band’s first radio hit and is a familiar staple of Canadian classic rock radio to this day.

You and drummer Ross Turney had in incredible run; your first half dozen albums featured songs primarily credited to the two of you. What the creative dynamic between you and Ross?

Yeah it was, I think, an unusual writing relationship. We had decided to move out of the jamming vibe of our previous years and try to concentrate on learning to write really good songs. Hits hopefully. Ross, I thought, had a good instinct for it but not a lot of knowledge of chords and melody nor a lot of experience with lyrics. On the other hand I had quite a lot of music knowledge but huge difficulty in actually “hearing” what I’d written in any objective way and so I couldn’t tell my good work from my lousy work. I thought it was all great….or all terrible, depending on the day. So Ross listened to my song starts, commented on them, made suggestions. He had all kinds of excellent insights. It was something I had to have. Ross brought perspective and focus I’d say. I don’t know if he’d agree.

Another massive hit from this golden era was Crazy Talk from 1974’s Riding High. The slinky, sleazy groove of this song features a flange-heavy, druggy-blues riff that is undeniably Floyd-esque. The distinct production of this song was helmed by another B.C. music legend, Terry Jack’s of the Poppy Family (and “Seasons In The Sun” fame).

What can you tell me about working with Terry Jacks on Crazy Talk from Riding High?

I loved Terry’s energy. He really threw himself into his work. Really committed. He also had a lot of experience with recording in the US and knowledge of the sounds of great records. Really detailed ears if you will. I thought he did an excellent job on Crazy Talk.

Fly At Night is a basically a staple of Canadian classic rock radio, a classic track that I grew up hearing on the radio all the time. It’s a massive song that chronicles the experience of being a touring band. Can you tell be a bit about Chilliwack touring in the 70s? What cities did you play across Canada? And to what degree did the band get out of Canada?

The Collectors worked outside of Canada for most of our career. But towards the end we decided to not become Americans and to go back to being based in Canada. Chilliwack continued that. Although we had plenty of US gigs, we didn’t live there. We played pretty much all the cities of Canada. The most important thing that happens during a show is what happens between the band and the audience. I mean that in a subtle way. The spirit stuff that happens. When you have a great gig, you really fly and so does the audience: hence Fly At Night. It’s my favourite experience as a musician and I’m thrilled when we all feel it together. It still happens. And as I’ve grown older I’ve become more consistent with making/allowing it to happen. The entire Chilliwack band is now focused on that. That’s why I still go out and do it.

The 80’s And Afterward

By the early 80’s Chilliwack had evolved into a different beast. The flashes of psychedelia were replaces by a slick modern rock band. Henderson was simply keeping up with the times. On their ninth album and roughly fifteen years into his career Henderson wrote what would become another massive hit for the band, “My Girl (Gone Gone Gone),” a song that strangely struck a chord with Australian listeners, where it was a charted for 28 weeks.

My Girl (Gone Gone Gone) was a huge hit, not just in Canada. What did it feel like to have such a huge hit at a point when you’d already released over a half dozen albums? How much was there a concerted effort to have a hit at this point in the band’s career? Was there pressure to break Wanna Be A Star to a wider audience?

There was always pressure to expand, have bigger hits, bigger audiences. We got to spend many months in the studio on our records because a company with enough money to fund it, believed we could make them money. That was the reality. But always too was the urge to make really good music not just hits. The goal was to make it all happen. My Girl seemed to take us to a new level of fame and acceptance with a broad audience. I didn’t always enjoy the attention and I have to say it taught me how much I liked to be able to walk down the street of my town and have only the odd person recognize me. I also found that I missed carrying my own gear. I enjoyed being a “loved” musician more than being a star.

The Globe And Mail recently ran a piece about the reformation of various Canadian bands as live acts, and Chilliwack was mentioned. And yet you’ve lead an fairly active career. Do you feel that there’s been a resurgent interest in 70s/80s Canadiana that was previously absent? Is there an audience for you today that didn’t exist 5 years ago?

Our audience seems to be continually growing. I put Chilliwack on the shelf in 1988 and didn’t think I’d ever do it again. But since getting a version of the band back together again in the late 90s I’ve learned what I liked about Chilliwack and how much fun I can have with it. Maybe my audience has too. There’s a lot of heart in it now. Lots of young people come up after our shows with vinyl albums of ours that they want signed. I see them out there singing the words. And when I tell them about what it was like in the early 70s and we play them a real wide open jammer, they’re right into it. Very cool.

As someone who’s been actively involved in music for decades – Chilliwack recently celebrated their 40th anniversary – what are your impressions of how music has changed? I’m thinking in particular about the way music in consumed now through the internet vs. the days of LPs and album oriented FM radio?

Music consumption is a weird concept. I don’t know that the different media make the experience of music different. Sure you hear it different places now, through different gear, and it’s bloody everywhere. But when I was a little kid there was lots of music around too and it didn’t mean a whole lot to me until I heard this 18 year old from Memphis who could shake you right up with his incredible voice and sense of groove. And then 7 or 8 years later the Beatles. I didn’t feel like I was consuming something. I felt like I was getting to hear a message that I’d previously been unable to understand. These people expressed it so well. Their love of music was so powerful it didn’t matter what the medium was. Any medium would do. It wasn’t about the medium, it was about the message, the amazing musical experience, and the brilliant skill of the messenger.

What’s on the horizon for Bill Henderson and Chilliwack?

The sun? Sinkin’ low? Rich and orange? I don’t know. I’m taking fiddle classes with my granddaughter. Ton of fun. I love my band and as long as it feels that way I see no reason to stop. I enjoy writing songs about this place, the people who live here. I hope to continue doing that too. The thing about the horizon is, when you walk towards it, you never get there. You move…. It moves. So, life continues to be interesting. Cheers man.



Zulu Records veteran and tunage aficionado Daniel Colussi is the Music Editor of Scout Magazine.

There are 2 comments

  1. In baseball parlance, Daniel hit for the fences with this Bill Henderson interview.

    As a longtime Chilliwack (and Collectors) fan, I loved his questions about the Torch Cabaret, The Electric Prunes sessions and, particularly, Bill’s collaborative years with drummer Ross Turney.

    Along with original bassist Glenn Miller and 1973 add-on guitarist/vocalist/ keyboardist Howard Froese, percussionist Turney left Chilliwack in 1978. The parting was bitter. Litigation ensued, in part, over who owned the Chilliwack name. Always business-oriented, Ross backstopped the band in many ways during those lean years between Rain-O and Lonesome Mary and their eventual national breakout with Dreams Dreams Dreams.

    The legal dispute was obviously settled since Bill and remaining “new boy” Brian MacLeod assembled a new Chilliwack for Breakdown In Paradise. At least a couple of tracks on that LP focussed on Bill’s appreciation for his past bandmates’ vital contributions.

    I recently discovered a terrific 47- minute Chilliwack set on YouTube filmed in November 1977 at Winterland in San Francisco. It may well have been “Too Loud” MacLeod’s first concert with Chilliwack. He’s only seen fleetingly, emerging from the shadows to add third-guitar riffs and third-harmony vocals. But the overall sound and camera work are fabulous.

    Too bad that lineup splintered. The extra guitar and harmony, pushed Chilliwack into Eagles/Little River Band territory. Sadly, of that five-man configuration, only Bill Henderson and Ross Turney are still alive.

    Finally, I always figured Bill’s session work with The Electric Prunes gave someone in Los Angeles the idea to add a similarly-gifted Vancouver guitarist to that psychedelic garage band. Brett Wade soon joined the Prunes. Wade, who later added the sizzling lead to Valdy’s Play Me (A Rock & Roll Song) eventually returned to Canada and formed Stallion Thumrock.

  2. Two years after initially reading this great interview, I now realize part of my initial Comment was incorrect. I subsequently learned that original Collectors/Chilliwack drummer Ross Turney passed away in late January 2014.

    Other deceased members of heyday configurations of Chilliwack include: original Collectors/Chilliwack bassist Glenn Miller (d: 2011), guitarist/keyboardist Howard Froese (d: 1993) and guitarist/keyboardist/drummer Brian ‘Too Loud’ MacLeod (d: 1992). As well, modern-times bassist Doug Edwards passed away in 2016.

    Chilliwack was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall Of Fame on October 27/2019.

    Bill Henderson and the current band will mark the 50th anniversary of Chilliwack in May 2020. In recent years, Bill has worked with Collectors/Chilliwack cofounder Claire Lawrence to write and perform with First Nations artist Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson.

    Collectors lead vocalist Howie Vickers is largely retired from music. And lives in Langley Township. In May 2010, Howie, Claire and Bill performed a Collectors set. It was part of a two-night 40th anniversary Chilliwack celebration at the River Rock Casino Theatre.