St-Antoine Paradise discussion with Skipper Dean

From Rockhead’s Paradise to the Harlem Paradise, from the Alberta Lounge to Café St-Michel and beyond, St. Antoine Street was hopping from the 1930s to the 80s. 

On February 15, 2024, legendary Montreal soul and rnb singer Skipper Dean brought us on a journey through the St. Antoine St. neighborhood in the decades of the 60s, 70s and 80s. The event featured dozens of photos and concert posters to help bring these eras to life. 

Here is an edited transcript of this conversation between Skipper Dean and Montreal historian Louis Rastelli. 

Skipper Dean performing at Harlem Paradise club, c. 1966

Louis Rastelli: So, without further ado, soul and RnB legend, Skipper Dean! 

Skipper Dean: Thank you. It’s wonderful to be here.  

LR: I want to start with a bit of an introduction. You came to Montreal as a child, right?  

SD: Five years old. Born in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.  

LR: And you grew up in Little Burgundy, although we didn’t call it Little Burgundy in those days, right?  

SD: No, we didn’t. We called it Torrance Street. Torrance Street, okay. From Windsor, which is the bottom of Peel Street, and Atwater. That was Little Burgundy. Okay. I’m sure they had other names for it, but we didn’t hear them.  

LR: Well, all to say this was back when the neighborhood was still a neighborhood. You mentioned to me one time that an early gig when you were a teenager was doing the rounds downtown, bringing make-up to cabaret performers. 

SD: I was working at a a pharmacy. They were called drugstores back then. And all the people that worked at the Esquire [show bar] and all of that– yes, I managed to see things I shouldn’t have as a teenager.  

LR: So, you were talking, like, we’re talking 13, 14, 15 here? 

SD: 14, 15. I used to deliver to the Chez Paree. I’d knock on the back door and see all the go-go girls. And yeah, very educational. I got that job just by chance. I happened to go in there to buy something, and they needed someone to help with the stock and all of that. So, I served customers, I delivered, I made a little salary back then.  

LR: So, your first entry into some of these legendary nightclubs was through the back door, when the performers were getting ready? 

SD: Well, they would come to the neighborhoods. So, we’d meet them. We never got to see them perform. But a couple years later, they would come to the church.  

LR: But as a teen you were visiting them without being able to stay and see the show.  

SD: No, no. I was still in high school, so I was just trying to make money. Show business was not on my mind at all, so I just took an opportunity that was given to me, which I did all through my life. I’m very happy about that.  

LR: So you grew up by chance, in a way, right near all of that nightlife, I guess you would walk from where you lived up to…  

SD: Yeah, we’d walk from Windsor to Atwater. We had friends and, you know, you couldn’t walk down the street if you did something wrong. You couldn’t walk from Windsor to Atwater Street without somebody saying “you’re in trouble now!” That was a big punishment, more than a spanking or anything like that. And it didn’t matter if you went down St. Antoine Street or St. Jacques or one of the side streets. Didn’t want to go home, but you had to go home, you know.  

Flyer advertising Denis Lepage and Skipper Dean performing at Harlem Paradise, The Montreal Star, May 28, 1966

LR: So, we’re talking about a couple blocks west of, or east of Mountain, where you would walk down St. Antoine? Was that kind of the main street?  

SD: St. Antoine and St. Jacques. That was our domain. And we all went to the same high school, same elementary school. So, we all lived in all those areas. You know, from there we (later moved) to Côte des Neiges and as teenagers, we’d have dances and parties. I’m talking Linton Avenue, from Linton Avenue to Barclay, Van Horne and Cote St. Catherine.  

LR: So, you started singing almost by accident.  

SD: Well, apparently when we went to a family reunion in Nova Scotia, they were telling me, “Oh, you were always singing and skipping down the street,” you know, singing a song. But singing was not. on my mind. The reason we sang was because there was no television. So, we’d listen to “Oh, Pretty Woman,” all of that stuff, you know. And Lloyd Price, Personality. “Cause you’ve got — personality.” When we’d sing that, I sang that the other day actually, to seniors my age. And I sang, “cause you’ve got…” and everybody replied “Personality,” you know. It was wonderful.  

LR: So, did, in the early 60s, it was a thing to pass the time to get together with friends and sing some of these?  

SD: No, that’s all we had. Not just my neighborhood, all the neighborhoods. 

You know, you had to make your own fun. You had the community. Clubs and all of that, but after that, you know, the word was when the lights go on, on the street, head home.  

LR: Well, the Harlem Paradise opened pretty early on. It was 1962. And you mentioned having a pretty long relationship with that place while it lasted. Were you able to go there?  

SD: The Harlem Paradise, when we were growing up, it was closed. Rockheads was there, but they were shut down. And all of a sudden, Rockhead opened up. Harlem Paradise opened up. And we just started singing, so we never could go there. But, two years later, we were singing at these places. 

LR: Well, now you’re talking about when Rockhead’s Paradise was shut down by the city for a couple of years.  

Flyer for Harlem Paradise Club, The Montreal Gazette, March 12, 1962

SD: And Harlem Paradise as well. They were still there. I think the tavern was still open. And then we had the Chow Mein House. 

LR: So then, it’s 64, 65, 66 when they’re reopened. How did you end up as a teenager starting to sing at places like the Harlem Paradise? 

SD: Well, we did high school dances and all. I mean, for us it was, “oh, we’re making money,” we weren’t thinking about being stars or anything. And we used to sing on the streets all the time, you had Roy Orbison, or you had Elvis, or occasionally Little Richard would slip in here and there. 

But the most popular black group was the Platters then. So, we were all singing that, and then came people like Lloyd Price, Fats Domino. So, we’d sing on the streets. And then one guy said to us, “Oh, you guys are awful.” So we got in a little huddle and we said, “Oh, we suck. We’re not gonna work.” And so we stopped singing. And like a lot of these were the entertainers that would go to the Esquire and all that. And they’d say, “how come you’re not singing anymore?”  

“Well, you said we suck.”  

“We were just joking,” so we started singing again. And these people are, we’re still friends over 60 years, you know. Going close to 70 years, we’ve been friends. And the parents didn’t want the children to come to see us because we were musicians. And now, they still come to see me, so. I remind them, “remember, you didn’t want me.” 

Skipper Dean performing at the Union United Church, photography by Len Senater, c.1993

LR: Was there an association with the dirty side of nightlife if you were going to be a singer in those days? 

SD: Well, the religious people, unless you were singing

el or hymns, you know…  

LR: So, you’re coming into soul and R& B not long after the gospel roots got kind of severed … 

SD: No, we went through the rock and roll phase. And then a Little Richard would slip in and all of a sudden, The Platters were getting gold records. Every song just about was a hit for them, and so we knew them all.  

I still sing those songs, you know. I still go back to before there were soul singers. I go back to Roy Orbison and you know, country music, “Lips, A Little Closer, To The Phone,” those guys. Because we didn’t know about romance, but, you know, we knew how to feel. I mean that, not literally, I mean here [touches chest] . 

LR: Wow, well, one thing that’s amazing to find out, speaking with people like yourself, is that you were nowhere near of age to go to the bars, the cabarets. But there were ways, by the mid 60s, there were some places where there were daytime shows, afternoon shows, where young people could go to see bands. You told me about one place, I think it was the 217, which I presume was the address.  

SD: Yes. On Laurier and Park Avenue. 

LR: And that’s where people like the Isley Brothers and so on played shows, right?  

SD: Yes, we were there and by this time I think I just started singing in a group that I knew nobody I knew would ever see. 

LR: So, you’re already singing and also still a fan of the music. What was it was like to go to the 217? They were daytime shows, right? 

Page from leaflet for the 217 Club show at the Montreal Forum, June 23, 1964

SD: Well, they were on the weekends. Saturday and Sunday. The 217 was maybe three times the size of this room. And you’d get 700 kids in there. Wow. Never a fight. Everybody line dancing. You got 350 people going one way, and 350 people going the other way, and nobody loses a step. 

And all the kids that would come in, they didn’t know that we knew all the dances, because the Americans would come up and they’d be doing it, so we’d be watching. So, that’s what we did with all these kids every Sunday and Saturday. And then the owner was an RnB fan, so the people that worked the Esquire, Sunday was their day off. And so he went down and said, “You’re not working? You feel like playing” you know, “for a bunch of kids?” The Isley brothers, they had Jimi Hendrix in there at the time. 

LR: That’s one of the pictures of Jimi Hendrix in Montreal is at the 217.  

SD: (When Stevie Wonder played there) their bass player was stuck at the airport, and he [Skipper’s bass player] says, “Well, they want me to play.” I said, “That’s nice.” He said, “Well, what should I do?” I said, “Say yes!” He said, “Well, what if I suck?” I said, “Who cares? You can always say, I played behind Stevie Wonder.” And he said, “yeah, you’re right.” And he was great. That second group I was with was very knowledgeable, musically. There was me and one of my best friends at the time, we were the two black guys. Then there were two Jewish guys. Then there were French guys. We were mixed. It worked.  

LR: And then the crowd was mixed, I assume, of the 217 as well. 

SD: The crowd, they were loud. English, French. They were from all over Montreal. Once the word got out, you know…  

LR: I think that building has long been torn down and replaced.  

SD: I don’t know. The last time I was down there was about 10 years ago. It was there then. 

LR: So you performed when Stevie Wonder did a set at the 217.  

SD: Yes. We were called The Presidents. The first group from Point St. Charles, they were called The Blue Jays. And at a certain point we drifted. We didn’t fight. We just drifted apart. And these other guys called me. I never went out looking for a job. I still don’t. I still don’t go looking. 

Advertisement for a benefit concert featuring Skipper Dean with the Avalon’s and Charles Aznavour, 1968

You know, they call me and, and I joined them. You know, I’ve been very fortunate.  

LR: We’re fortunate to have your memories, because we have been doing some research about the 217 in particular. 

SD: Well, the 217 – Trevor Payne used to go there. We’d go there, my brother and his group. We’d go there, and Denis Lepage, who was a genius. All of those guys were geniuses, really, because I’d listen to the songs, learning, and they’d listen to the songs, and when we got together, we knew what part we were going to do, and we never had a problem with timing, or tone, or, or feel. We all had feelings. So, and this is just Italians, French, black, white, yellow. It didn’t matter about colour.  

LR: Well, the music, you must have all just been so excited about the music at the time.  

SD: Well, we all went in because we were going to make ten dollars or something. Maybe five dollars, which was a lot of money then. We always wanted to be the best, and we all became the best, and we still remain friends after all these years.  

A lot of people went very far. I traveled with the Platters. I’ve performed on stages with Paul Anka, we did Charles Aznavour, you know.  

LR: That was a big show, at the time?  

SD: Yeah, and I learned to sing in French. You know, [singing] “Je reviens te chercher, Je savais que tu m’attendais, Je savais que la nuit pourrait se passer l’un par l’autre longtemps.” I love Gilbert Bécaud. I love the Classels. [singing] “Avant de me dire adieu,” Or, “que devenu notre passé.” 

LR: But it sounds like all the young people worked together out of the passion for this kind of music. 

SD: It wasn’t a job. It was fun, and we were getting paid for it, so, that was great. Plus, we had the Oliver Joneses and the Biddles. We didn’t know they were backing us up as ten-year-olds, you know, I forgot all about that. We didn’t know who the musicians were. We just came in. And they’d back us up and they’d play the song in whatever key we were singing. And I don’t remember ever hearing a bad note there. It’s because we loved what we were doing, we were having fun. Plus, the girls, of course, they came around and there was nothing wrong with that. 

And that particular era for us that we could still be friends and we’d get together, and reminisce. “Remember the time you fell off the stage?” You know, that kind of thing, and giggle.  

LR: We’re talking mid to late 60s here, and there’s the 217 and all, but pretty quickly, you were still in your teens when you started singing places like the Harlem Paradise. 

SD: Yeah. That was where Cafe Saint Michel had been. And then when they reopened it, Rockhead’s Paradise never changed the name. Then it became the Harlem Paradise, and downstairs was Soul City.  

LR: Was it the, with the Avalon’s that you first would have performed at the Harlem Paradise? 

Skipper Dean and the Fabulous Fascinations, c. 1966

SD: No. I was with the Fascinations. The Fascinations were The Presidents. And we became the Fascinations. That was the second band. 

And, we had to have uniforms. Somebody always knew somebody. “I can’t afford that,” and they’d say “don’t worry about it.” And the owner of the Montreal Arts Center, he was our guitar player. And we had three Jewish guys in the group. The bass player, the sax player tenor sax, and Alan. He played guitar. And, so, there was a tailor, and they’re looking at this stuff, and they’re saying, “Oh, look, it’s silk and wool.” 

I said, “No, no, no, no, no. I know how expensive that is. No, no, no, no.” “Don’t worry about it.” We got the suits for 35 dollars. They put braid on the collars and from there on…  

LR: Is that when it started, the legendary Skipper Dream Dean outfits?  

SD: Yes, yes, because most of the bands at the time didn’t dress the same. 

The Classels did. They were always in white. A few others, but that’s our time that we started that.  

LR: What was the situation with being a, a teenage performer in a nightclub that wouldn’t let in people under that age.  

SD: Well, some of us looked older. I wasn’t one of those people. I looked ten, for years! One day I was able to, and actually my brother got me into the Esquire show bar. I don’t know how I got in.  

LR: Who you see at the Esquire that sticks out for you?  

SD: Well Frank Motley. He was with, with Jackie Shane. I saw at the, I saw the Platters there. Sometimes we could go to the rehearsals and then they let us in.  

LR: It got shut down around 73, I think, the Esquire.  

SD: Well, I think Norm Silver had enough. It had been years, so…  

LR: I think it was also another situation of losing the license for a period of time and then some other people got it going later on.  

SD: [Indicates to early black and white Fascinations photograph] That’s my brother, Dennis, beside me there. That’s me over here.  

LR: And so that one, you’re performing with The Fascinations. 

SD: That’s the Point St. Charles Boys and Girls Club. We did all of those places, you know. Whoever called, we went, you know. We didn’t care where it was. We played all the high schools, everywhere. Montreal North, Montreal East, Point St. Charles, Côte des Neiges. TMR, we were everywhere.  

LR: Are there any specific places such as church basement or community halls that really stick out? 

SD: Well, before they’d have dances at the Union United Church. There was the Tyndale House on Richmond Street. When I started singing, that’s when we started to have many places to go. You know, I’m saying 700 people in a dance hall. Kids, and everybody laughing and having fun.  

LR: Here’s one that I’m curious about because I grew up not far from Gouin Boulevard and I can’t imagine a discotheque a go-go up there. 

SD: Yep. I went there with the Fascinations and with the Avalons. Right near Belmont Park.  

LR: So, I guess there was a little cluster of venues and nightlife up there.  

SD: Well, that’s the only one we went to. 

LR: (looking at photo) That’s James Brown, with, if I’m not mistaken, Mervyn Dash 

Mervyn Dash, owner of Harlem Paradise Club, (left), with James Brown, and dancer Lillaboo (center), c.1968

SD: Oh yeah, that’s Mervyn Dash. This guy is a radio DJ, I can’t remember his name, Mervyn Dash. James Brown. Lillaboo. She was always the dancer. They had a little spot for her beside the stage, and she’d dance, and sometimes we’d dance together from a distance. And that’s Merv’s partner. And I don’t know who the other fellow is, but we called her, that’s Lillian Jackman. And we called her Lillaboo.  

LR: Was she from Montreal?  

SD: Oh yes. She lived on Coursol right around the corner from me.  

LR: But Mervyn Dash ran the Harlem?  

SD: The downstairs, Soul City. He was my manager for a while, too.  

LR: So he was close with you and he only passed away a number, a few years ago, if I’m not mistaken.  

SD: Well, that reminds me because we were singing that night. And everybody in the club except us and the barmaid was at the James Brown show. And we said, well, nobody’s going to be here. We were there like for two weeks, and James Brown was coming one night. I should have pretended I was sick. He was at the Montreal Forum. I think that was his first time here. 

LR: Well, that would explain that you had not too much of a crowd, I guess.  

SD: Well, we knew everybody in Little Burgundy was going to be there (at the James Brown show). Except us.  

Advertisement for Marvin Gay performing at the Rising Sun club, c. 1978

LR: Did you get to see or meet James Brown in those days?  

SD: Yes. Not then, but… 

LR: Was he as small and tiny as they say?  

SD: Well, I’m not really tall myself, so I’d say no. 

LR: Tell me a bit more about Mervyn, because he managed that club for a number of years, but brought a lot of life to it and really was an important figure.  

SD: I think it used to be a pool room, when we were running around as kids.  

LR: That was the bottom floor under the Café Saint Michel. 

SD: Yeah, yeah. And the upstairs was more of a floor show. And you know, he had a group called the Hot Tamales. Derek Martin was in there. He had a song called “You Better Go.”  

LR: Was it Kenny Hamilton in the Hot Tamales? 

SD: Not. Not the Kenny Hamilton. The Montreal Kenny Hamilton. His song was [singing] “girl. I know it’s getting late. Just another kiss before you say goodnight. Come on and hold me time. No, no, no, no, no. Please don’t close the door.” You know. And as a teenager, you couldn’t get a drop of water in there. We were just so tight together. The Hot Tamales were really a good group.  

LR: So, you were an audience member and a performer at this place? 

SD: [looking at photo] Oh, that’s Rockheads. And see, up above there, all the entertainers who weren’t working, we’d be up on that floor, looking down at everybody. And in between the shows, the band would play. After the show, 10 minute break, 15 minute break, the band would play and people would dance. Then show time. Everybody would sit down.  

Exterior of Rockhead’s Paradise, c.1978

LR: So, you remember being finally old enough to go and see some of the shows at the Rockhead’s? 

SD: Rockhead’s was a little more difficult. He knew me from the neighborhood, so he knew how old I was. “No, no, no. No, you can’t come in here.”  

LR: Was he really almost always at the door with the carnation?  

SD: Oh, yeah. It was, “Welcome,” you know. And then there was lounge, that’s where Oliver and I would play, and there would be Biddles some nights. I think most of the time, Norman Marshall (Villeneuve) was the drummer, he’s still around, and he treated us like stars when we performed. 

LR: I’m a bit curious because you’re a witness to a transition, from the glory days until 71, 72, when St. Antoine and Mountain still had Rockheads, Harlem Paradise, you had the Black Bottom still before they moved to Old Montreal. What do you remember of that area then? It sounded like it was very colorful and there were a lot of characters right there on the street.  

SD: Many, many, many things happened down there. For us as kids growing up, we didn’t know better. One day we were walking up from Mountain Street along Saint Antoine to the next street, Aqueduct, and we saw The Drifters.  

LR: The Drifters?  

SD: Yes. And this is after Benny King. And they stopped us and they said, “Do you know where Whitey’s Hideaway is?” And we said, “You’re the drifters?” And they said, “yeah.” So, it was just around the corner, but we got into a little huddle and we said, “Well, let’s take the long way.” So, we went out to the next street, down and around. And we walked all the way back up the other street, and we said, “Oh, there it is.” And he said, “Thank you very much.” 

You didn’t know who you were talking to a lot at the time. You could have a Sammy Davis Jr. You could have a Sarah Vaughan. You could have a Nina Simone.  

LR: Whitey’s Hideaway sounds like quite an interesting place too.  

Skipper Dean pointing out where Rockhead’s Paradise used to be located, 2023, photography by Louis Rastelli

SD: I went there, but I went there to see the owner, Bobby. I was either delivering something to him or doing something for him. He had his own crowd, you know. His father owned the building, and he had the grocery store at the bottom, and they rented rooms, and Bob had the top floor. 

LR: This is when we were there last spring. We went down with Charles Burke to actually stand in the corner and see some of what was left. You were pointing out what the Rockhead’s Paradise was. It’s kind of sad that it’s there’s not a plaque or anything. 

And there, there we are looking down St. Antoine.  

But I enjoyed hearing some of these stories, and I don’t know if you remember the sort of the street characters that were around back then. You related an anecdote of one time where one of these fellows a policeman dropped his gun…? 

SD: No, no. The man had crutches, okay? He had two crutches, and he would just hobble up and down. He was walking along from one of the alleyways, and there was a cop and a young guy. And he started messing with them. 

And they asked him a question, “what’s your name?” He said, “you got a telephone book? Look it up.” So, this went back and forth, and then the cop took out the gun, and he was, like, waving it around, and Ratman was not to be messed with. 

LR: His name was Ratman?  

SD: Yeah Ratman. He was not to be messed with. And the police officer raised the gun for a minute, and Ratman took one of his canes and knocked it out of his hand. Dropped his crutches and ran over and picked up the gun and he was shooting. Bang, bang, “oh, that’s what you think?” 

LR: And that’s right on Mountain Street.  

SD: Right on Mountain Street, yeah. So, there was a restaurant called Jim’s there. So, we were all in there. All these guys are looking out (the windows), and whenever Ratman raised the gun, all the heads went back in. He he was a character. We never called him Rat Man to his face, “Hi, sir.” 

LR: So that was almost like the corner of downtown, St. Antoine and Mountain.  

SD: A hundred feet down from St. Antoine Street. So you had the grocery store on the corner of St. Antoine and Mountain. Then the next stop down would be the restaurant. And then Harlem.  

LR: But I guess by the early 70s, by 73, 74, it’s really more like Stanley Street where you’re playing it, but where obviously the Esquire already was there, but do you remember feeling a bit sad about things moving away from that area? 

SD: Well, by this time we were all traveling and singing and getting our careers going. That area (Stanley) was dead for a long time and then it came back, everything opened up and people came from everywhere to be there. And there was always a lot of very good entertainment there. 

Flyer advertising Skipper Dean and Les Platters, December 1971

LR: You traveled a bunch in the 1970s. I saw you even went out to Australia and New Caledonia.  

SD: Yeah. I was with the Avalons, and we were just breaking up, and lucky for me, a band called me, and they had five horns, and all the things I wanted, and they did background singing, and they asked me would I join after I knew the songs, and I said, okay. We had a few rehearsals, and they asked me would I do any French songs, I said, yeah, as long as you make sure that I’m not looking foolish. 

With the Avalons I already did Je Reviens Te Chercher. And there was another one I did with Gaston, Le Téléphone. And that’s when I got the call from the Platters.  

LR: Alright, so then, next thing you know, you’re in the Platters, and you’re traveling?  

SD: Well, I really debated. I know we were leaving here and going to Winnipeg, then San Francisco, and then all of the South Pacific. And we were in Australia for four or five months. It was supposed to be a two-month gig. And we were late for Winnipeg. Me and Jackie Richardson. She’s sitting in her place. I’m sitting at mine. And, you know, so we missed the show. We almost missed the boat. It was just not fun. And the group that I should have stayed with, they were excellent.  

LR: The Fascinations you mean?  

SD: No, no. I can’t remember what they were called. See, I’ll remember when I leave here. It was a band I dreamed of having, but I also loved the Platters too.  

LR: That sounds like a very long tour and spending months in the past South Pacific and so on.  

SD: My feeling was I can’t wait to get home away from this group here, you know? So I actually, I did no solos. I did one verse of a Chuck Jackson song, I Don’t Want to Cry, Jackie did a verse, and that’s it. And they did all the other stuff.  

LR: So you were a bit too much of a support singer? 

SD: Well, most of the people in the vocal groups can sing. But I didn’t really think they did justice to the songs because I’d seen other groups and the lead singers usually… you know, you gotta get as close to, you don’t have to sing it exactly, but you gotta get as close to the song as you can. 

So, any song that I do, I try to get as close. I don’t want to be that person, but I want that memory to come back to you. I try to just have that bit of recognition there, and still be me. And so, whoever it is when I do Roy Orbison, I do Roy Orbison, but I do it sort of sounding like him, but being me. And it’s the same with even Elvis, you know, [singing] “return, to sender,” all of that stuff. I take this seriously and, for me, anyone who wants to know about any other singer, like my son, the oldest one, “Dad, I want to sing.” And so I choose a song, and he sings the song, and he finished, and I said, “well, everything was there, but I didn’t feel a thing. I’ll sing a song here. I’m not trying to impress you. I’m just giving you my version and how I feel about it.” I just,want to be me. And most singers don’t. They want to be exact.  

LR: Well, you’re a soul singer. That’s the thing.  

Skipper Dean performing, c.1970

SD: Frank Sinatra’s a soul singer. And when I sing that, “Now the end is here. And now I face my final curtain, my friends. I’ll say it clear. I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain. I don’t like this key. I planned a life that’s full. Traveled each and every highway, but more. Much more than this. I did it my way.” That’s all I want to do. I don’t want to sound like Frank. I want to have his groove. I want the groove.  

LR: Oh, you’ve got you in that version of the song, you’re not just singing it, you’re in it. 

SD: But you could still hear Frank Sinatra, and not necessarily his voice, but you can hear what he feels at the time. That’s how he felt, this is how I feel. I don’t want to be a copy. Most of the singers that I’ve worked with has like Jackie Richardson and Kim Richardson, I’ve worked with both of them. Jackie traveled with us overseas, and we just do it and we have fun. And if it’s a sad song, be sad. And, you know, I see these 90 year old ladies in the senior places and I’m singing, “Only you can make this world seem bright.” 

It’s all about entertaining. And, and that’s what you’re supposed to do, entertain.  

LR: For you, it’s still a passion. It’s still what you want to do.  

SD: I’m going to sing until I can’t. And no one will have to tell me. You know, because I did quit. I said, no, I can’t do this. I’m not feeling it. The bands, they don’t listen, you know, so. But the Oliver Joneses, you know (when they call), “You want me to sing with you?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Well, yeah, of course!”  

LR: Well, you certainly were able to do it across a bunch of different, very different periods. So, you’re in Montreal in the heyday of the soul music, the funk, the 70s. You go off on tour. By the late 70s, early 80s, that music is retro right now. It’s nostalgic. But you just continued on.  

SD: I played some rooms where we would play and we’d finish the song and there would be silence. Dead silence. And, the owner never said stop or anything else, and I said to myself, I’m not leaving this place until I manage to get through to these people. 

And halfway through the week, they started, and the same people that started, they kept on coming back. And then all of a sudden, the ovations, you know, things like that. And the owner said you know, “I watched you, you know, and it was hard and I could see you trying and then finally you broke through,” and to me that was like, the week was beautiful, it’s all about it. Whatever you do in life, if you’re doing it because you care and you want to help people, that’s what matters. And when you see that happen, when I see that little baby smile, or an elderly gentleman, I’m shaking his hand while I’m singing, and he won’t let my hand go, and I’m gently squeezing my hand out. 

That, to me, you know, I’m ready for another two hours. I’m still thrilled to be doing it.  

LR: Oh, we’re thrilled that you are. I hope it continues on. Does anybody here want to ask anything? 

Audience question: Hi, I’m Nadina. Did you realize at the time, like in the early 60’s, at how important Montreal’s nightlife and what you were contributing to was seen across Canada? SD: No. No. No, none of us did. My reaction is, you know, I just say, I hope they like me. That’s my aim. I want you to like me. And that’s it.  

Newspaper article discussing The Avalon’s performing in French, c.1960

Audience question: I saw an article that said “Avalons, le premier groupe noir qui chante en francais.” In Montreal, were you considered the first? 

SD: Well, you had black singers who sang French. But no, we were the first ones to record in French and we sang in French live, you know, and that’s it. 

Audience question: That’s huge, that’s huge for… there seems to be not enough talk about this because honestly. Rockhead’s Paradise, all of these clubs, like I’m originally from Toronto, don’t hold that against me though, but in comparison to Toronto’s nightlife and Montreal, I mean, Montreal put it on the map. 

LR: But that was the explosion of the vocal groups in the early 60s. And I think a vocal group in particular, to have two languages, there weren’t that many.  

SD: Well, first of all as far as singing goes, they had their French section, but they were always listening to English records. And I’ve been very fortunate over all these years that I’ve gone everywhere and we always came out left smiling, you know. So I can’t be sure that we were the first ones out. At the time, it seemed like people were telling us that, so we don’t know. 

Audience questioner 2: In Quebec, yes, but in the world, no.  

SD: Oh, no, no, I know that.  

Audience questioner 2: Were you doing stuff at the Edgewater?  

SD: Yes, I did the Edgewater.  

Audience questioner 2: Do you have any good stories about the Edgewater that you would like to share? Were you doing three sets of one hour?  

SD: Usually they were 40 minute sets, three times a night, yeah.  

LR: People would take vacations in Point Claire in those days, because it was considered out of town almost.  

Audience questioner 2: So would the band stay overnight too?  

SD: Well, we’d hang out because we were getting paid to hang out. 

So, we’d go you know, we’d do it at our show and then we’d go upstairs and come back in 20 minutes or 40 minutes, whatever.  

LR: Would you stay a week sometimes? Like, in the hotel?  

SD: Yeah, we’d be there for the week. Sometimes the weekend, depending on the place, you know. 

Audience questioner 2: How did you feel when all of a sudden disco shows up?  

SD: I was still working. And, yeah, no, I didn’t hate disco. I did a lot of good disco tunes. Because a lot of disco was soulful. It wasn’t always boom, boom, boom, you know. Some very nice stuff, you know. My thing was, if I heard a song and I liked it, I sang it.  

Skipper Dean (left) and Louis Rastelli (right), at the transcribed event at the AfroMuseum, February 15, 2023

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