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Lane, Robbie and the Disciples

Liner notes from the CD by Bill Munson

This compilation is something of a survey of the career of Robbie Lane and the Disciples, one of Canada’s most commercially successful groups of the 1960s. Not only did the Toronto-based Disciples score a number of cross-country hits, but they also maintained a significant profile on television as host group for the popular It’s Happening TV show. Robbie Lane in particular developed an impressive stage presence that served him well, first as he continued with the show after the departure of the Disciples and later in his solo career.

That the Disciples chose a religious rather than automotive motif for their name is something of a wonder, considering the importance of cars in their history. After all, Robbie was the son of a successful car dealer, the full group had initially operated as the Lincolnaires, and most of the individual musicians had been through other groups with car-and-engine monikers: the Concords, the Convertibles, the Cyclones, the Dynamos, the Rebels and the Spitfires. And, perhaps most importantly, it was the car (and the driver’s licence of course) that allowed the cream of the crop of young musicians in widely separated Toronto suburbs to coalesce into a talented new unit.

Once formed, the young group got its first big break when Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins hired them as insurance against the anticipated departure of Levon and the Hawks from his bandstand. So, months before the inevitable split, you’d find Robbie Lane and the Disciples playing at the second-floor Hawk’s Nest on Yonge Street, Levon and the boys holding forth downstairs at the Le Coq d’Or, and a busy Ronnie Hawkins splitting his sets between the two.

When the Disciples joined Hawkins, in December ’63, the group consisted of Robbie Lane on vocals and occasional trumpet, Domenic Troiano on guitar, Gene Trach on bass, Sonny Milne on drums, Marty Fisher on piano, Bert Hermiston on sax and flute, and Bill Cudmore on sax, keyboards and harmonica. Kirk Shearer soon replaced Milne, and Hawkins’ old rockin’ chum, Stan Szelest, took over from Fisher.

With the departure of Levon and company, the Disciples became the new Hawks while at the same time maintaining their own separate identity. The first release on Ronnie Hawkins’ new Hawk Records label was by Robbie Lane and the Disciples (“Fannie Mae”, the first song in this collection); the second was credited to Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, but by this time the Hawks and the Disciples were one and the same. (The Disciples backed Hawkins on all three of his Hawk singles, including the big hit, “Bluebirds Over The Mountain”.)

“Fannie Mae” is a solid stab at the Buster Brown chestnut, with a nice churning piano and campfire harmonica. The session was produced in Toronto by Scott “Professor Piano” Cushnie, another early Hawkins sideman who’d been brought back to run the Hawk production and publishing operations. “Fannie Mae” was an immediate local hit upon release in July 1964. The flipside, “She’s The One”, not included here, was written by Domenic Troiano, who was soon to leave the Disciples and join what evolved into the legendary Mandala. Troiano’s replacement on guitar was Terry Bush from Jack Harden, Dianne Brooks and the Silhouettes.

The second outing by Robbie Lane and the Disciples, from late 1964, was “Ain’t Love A Funny Thing”. This time out the record was written and produced by guitarist Fred Carter, another Hawks alumnus who’d been working in Nashville. Carter was certainly good at what he did: “Ain’t Love A Funny Thing”, with its fuller use of the horn section, was a hit at the time and holds up well after all these years. And Bert Hermiston’s tenor work still deserves an ear.

Despite a successful arrangement with Ronnie Hawkins, Robbie Lane and the Disciples chose to part company from their mentor in June 1965. This has meant, unfortunately, that a number of additional tracks recorded for Hawk have not seen the light of day; an exception is “You Broke My Spirit”, available on this collection. The song is an impressive collaboration between Fred Carter and Robbie Lane, with backing vocals by the Charmaines, a trio from Cleveland who spent a year or so based in Toronto.

Away from Ronnie Hawkins, Robbie Lane and the Disciples spend a dry year on their own, then rebounded into the public eye as host group of CTV’s very successful It’s Happening show. That profile got them a deal with the important Capitol label, leading to an album and several hit singles – all of them included here.

The first Capitol hit was “Sandy”, written by Dion DiMucci (of Dion and the Belmonts). A strong record throughout, “Sandy” is notable both for Lane’s excellent vocal – Cliff Richard would’ve been proud – and for the fluid guitar work of Terry Bush.

If “Sandy” sounds fresh after 30 years, just wait for the next single! “What Am I Gonna Do” is still a great summer song, heard to best advantage on a car radio tuned to an oldies station.

“You Gotta Have Love” is much closer to the R&B favoured by the band in its early days – presumably because it was the first group original recorded as an A-side. This particular number shows off the considerable songwriting talent of Terry Bush, and also the funkier side of his guitar playing.

Next come two versions of the group’s TV theme song, “It’s Happening”. The first, taped for the show, is surprisingly tough as well. The second version, recorded for release as a single, was naturally much more produced.

Terry Bush’s guitar playing is seen to best advantage on “Baby Ruth”, oddly enough recorded as the theme song for a chocolate bar ad. Subsequently released commercially as by Butterfingers, and a big hit in its own right, the song also featured Gene Trach on bass, Kirk Shearer on drums and Doug “Doctor Music” Riley on organ. Although never an official Disciple, Riley was at the time acting as the group’s musical director on It’s Happening.

With musical tastes changing in the late ’60s, it was inevitable that the Disciples would break up, each member going his own way. Terry Bush’s jingle business (with Doug Riley) continued to stray into the world of the pop chart, with both his own anti-drugs ditty, “Do You Know What You’re Doing”, and the Canadian version of “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing” achieving second lives as hit singles. Bert Hermiston became one of the city’s busiest rock sessionmen, adding his tenor sax sound to an amazing array of projects over the next 15 years or so; Bill Cudmore joined the big local soul band, the Majestics; Gene Trach became a chiropractor; and Kirk Shearer moved on to a successful career in the publishing world.

Robbie Lane himself continued with It’s Happening, but even that had run its course by the end of the decade. He recorded an album’s worth of material in Nashville in 1968, but none of that material has been released until now. This was unfortunate, as “Soul Deep”, in this collection, was soon taken high up the charts by the Box Tops. “Wild Wind” is also from the Nashville session.

It wasn’t until 1974 that Lane bounced back with “M’Lady”. The song was written by Brian Allen (later of the band Toronto), and Robbie simply recorded his vocal over tracks already recorded by Allen’s group of the time, Rose. (The flipside, “Pieces of April”, is also included in this collection.)

Lane’s second single without the Disciples was “Missing You”, written by Joey Miller (who soon gained local notoriety as Justin ’100% Superfly’ Paige). “Missing You” was one of a half-dozen Miller songs recorded by Lane with full orchestral backing and background vocals by Dianne Brooks, Rhonda Silver and others. Lane is in fine form, and the song deserved to be a much bigger hit than it was.

Robbie Lane’s final solo 45, “Stay With Me”, was an attempt to revive an oldie written and performed originally by the Beau Marks, another very successful Canadian group of the early ’60s. The pre-recorded instrumental track was not in Robbie’s key, so he chose to speak rather than sing over much of it. The sensual result is miles from what the Beau Marks could possibly have imagined!

“Stay With Me” was Robbie Lane’s last record for some years, as he moved to the management and club-owning side of the business. However, the time eventually came in the 1980s for a full reunion of the original Robbie Lane and the Disciples. Now, another ten years along, Lane, Bush and Trach plus new musicians still put on a first-rate show, and in 1996 recorded a live CD, Ain’t Dead Yet. A worthy companion to this collection and a most fitting title!



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