As a teenager, Wes Dakus was excited by the raucous cacophony of early rock ’n’ roll. Born into a musical family in rural Alberta, he put aside country rhythms to become frontman for one of the most influential Canadian rock groups of his era.
Mr. Dakus, who died of a brain tumour on Aug. 18 at the age of 75, wore his hair in the pompadour style favoured by rockabilly artists. He formed a band, including an older brother, called Wes Dakus and the Rebels – though they were not particularly menacing in their matching suits and skinny ties.
The band became a well-known and popular act in Edmonton, their lineup changing considerably over the years as they played countless dances and sock hops while also appearing regularly on television.
By the mid-1960s, they were making annual summertime pilgrimages to Ontario’s cottage country, playing such venues as Peggy’s Pavilion on Lake Simcoe and another in Huntsville that boasted a triple-deck palladium billed as “the biggest dance floor in Vacationland.” A successful gig at the Canadian National Exhibition ended abruptly when the Toronto musicians’ union complained about the out-of-town act.
“They’re really a fine bunch of boys and they’ve been averaging pretty well sellouts,” an Exhibition spokesman said at the time.
Wes Dakus and the Rebels released two albums and several singles in the 1960s, regularly journeying to a famed recording studio in the American Southwest. While some of their numbers shuffled onto the Canadian charts, the group never found the one hit song to catapult them to widespread fame.
Their most successful record – Lovedrops by rhythm guitarist and backup vocalist Barry Allen – was credited on the label to the singer alone. Over time, the Rebels’ exuberant instrumentals were swept aside as teens became enamoured with Beatlesque harmonies and the sounds of the British Invasion.
Mr. Dakus later moved to the other side of the glass as the owner of his own recording studio. He also had a successful stint as a booking agent.
On his death, more than a half-century after he first broke out on the Alberta capital’s music scene, the pioneering band leader is considered by fans – then teenagers, now pensioners – as Edmonton’s answer to Elvis and the city’s original Mr. Cool.
Crisscrossing the Prairies
Wesley Raymond Dakus was born on April 2, 1938, in Mannville, Alta., a village about 170 kilometres east of Edmonton, to Anne (née Woywitka) and Peter, a construction foreman. His father played several instruments, and family gatherings invariably included impromptu living-room concerts.
Young Wes played football and hockey, though a gridiron injury limited his effectiveness at a junior hockey tryout. Away from the sporting arena, he played steel guitar for a country outfit called the Mohawk Mountain Boys. The energetic beat of Bill Haley and His Comets inspired him to form a band of his own in 1957. It was a nine-piece outfit, including horn players, which was promoted as a rock ’n’ roll orchestra. The frontman played bass guitar.
The new group was performing at a teen dance when Mr. Dakus came up with a name. “The Rebels motorcycle club were watching the door, taking tickets and being security for the place,” he once told the musician Shawn Nagy. “We appreciated having them help, so as a nod to them, I took the band name Rebels.”
Mr. Dakus was a popular though demanding leader, replacing band members if their commitment to the music did not match his own. The group pursued a relentless work schedule, performing as the top-billed attraction at the Platter Party held Saturday afternoons at Edmonton’s Starland Ballroom. When not in their hometown, the Rebels crisscrossed the Prairies to appear at agricultural fairs and weekend dances, opening for the likes of Buddy Knox.
“Wes arranged the car and the trailer, booked motels, booked gigs, provided per diems, organized rehearsals,” Mr. Allen said. “For all that, we tormented him all to hell.” A favourite practical joke on their leader involved a paper cup of water precariously perched atop a partially opened door.
The Rebels shared a bill with Bobby Curtola at Lethbridge’s Henderson Lake Dance Hall the week following the assassination of U.S. president John F. Kennedy. By 1966, display advertisements in the Lethbridge Herald needed only five curt words to announce an upcoming Rebels show: “Wes Dakus, Lake, This Friday.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Dakus launched a bespoke clothing firm with Jim Hand, an Edmonton radio station disc jockey. Hand-Dakus Fashions produced smart suits designed by the leader for his group. The Rebels became a house band for the station, which billed them as the CJCA Rebels, or the Club 93 Rebels.
Through the station, the band connected with Quality Records. The group’s early recordings included a succession of instrumental singles, notably the rockabilly El Ringo in 1960 and the Latin-flavoured Las Vegas Scene written by lead guitarist Bob Clarke.
The Rebels toured Canada with other acts as part of a rock extravaganza show. On one of those tours, the band was paired with the Fireballs, a group from New Mexico who had a No. 1 Billboard hit in 1963 with Sugar Shack. The Fireballs told Mr. Dakus to get in touch with producer Norman Petty, who operated a studio in Clovis, N.M., best known as the site where the late Buddy Holly recorded hit songs.
Instrumental group of the year
The Rebels made the first of several overland treks to Clovis in 1964, recording several singles and two albums of material in succeeding visits. Mr. Petty’s connections led to a contract with Capitol Records, which released a 1965 long-playing record titled The Wes Dakus Album with the Rebels. Although the Rebels placed songs on the Canadian charts, including Hoochi Coochi Coo, they never enjoyed a breakout hit.
Mr. Petty encouraged Mr. Allen, a guitarist and backup singer, to take a turn as lead vocalist on a recording of an obscure B-side originally released by the rhythm-and-blues duo Mickey & Sylvia. In 1966, Mr. Allen had a Top 10 hit in Canada with Lovedrops, with the Rebels providing uncredited instrumentation.
The weekly music trade magazine RPM named the Rebels the Canadian instrumental group of the year for three consecutive years from 1964 to 1966. Mr. Allen also received recognition as most promising vocalist in 1965 and as top vocalist in 1966. Those honours are regarded as forerunners to today’s Juno awards.
The band’s exciting sound also found an audience overseas when radio disc jockey Keith Hampshire, known as Keefers, adopted the Rebels’ Side Winder as a theme song for a show airing on Radio Caroline South, a pirate station broadcast off the coast of England. (The British-born jock later had several hits of his own in Canada, including The First Cut is the Deepest.)
In the United States, an album of material from two sessions in the Petty studios was released on the Kapp label. The LP features cover art of a motorcyclist roaring through a ring of fire and liner notes best described as trippy: “They can turn you on before you know it. They happen. Tune in. There’s a whole thing going on with Wes Dakus’ Rebels. They’re very much.”
A four-star rating (out of five) from Billboard failed to boost the album’s fortunes though.
Kapp also issued a single with drummer Stu Mitchell taking a turn on vocals and the Rebels providing backup. Acid is one of the odder artifacts of the birth of psychedelia, a haunting, spoken-word recital of misfortune to the backdrop of funereal church bells in which the narrator confesses, “I live in a house on Nowhere Street in a town called (pause) LSD.”
In 1968, Mr. Dakus fulfilled a contractual obligation with Capitol by recording a single in which the Rebels were replaced by session musicians in an act described as the New Sound of Wes Dakus. It received little notice.
Moving to the other side of the glass
By then, Mr. Dakus had already begun moving from performance to management. He formed an agency, Spane International, and booked shows on the well-trodden trail his own Rebels had followed across the Prairies, introducing to Western Canada such acts as Hamilton’s Crowbar and Ottawa’s Five Man Electrical Band.
The agency was sold after five years, and Mr. Dakus opened Sundown Recorders, an Edmonton studio in which he handled commercial work, television soundtracks and an array of musicians, including Mr. Curtola, Gary Fjellgaard, Hoyt Axton, Redwood, Fosterchild and One Horse Blue, among others.
Seventy-seven master tapes from the studio have since been donated to the provincial archives.
“I have no faith in waking up and having everything fall into my lap,” Mr. Dakus told Billboard magazine at the time. “Everybody who’s done anything has worked darn hard for it.”
Mr. Dakus also operated independent record companies, such as the Vera Cruz label. Another, Molten Records, was co-owned with Randy Bachman, who at the time was with the Guess Who. In Vinyl Tap Stories, a 2011 memoir, Mr. Bachman describes inheriting some sound and recording equipment salvaged by Mr. Dakus after the famed Clovis studio closed its doors.
Mr. Dakus, who moved to British Columbia in 1995, continued to write songs in semi-retirement. He died in Vancouver of a glioblastoma multiforme brain tumour, leaving his wife, the former Caryl Swityk, as well as a sister and four brothers. A celebration of his life will be held Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Polish Hall in Edmonton.
Wes Dakus and the Rebels served as inspiration to several generations of Canadian musicians, including the Toronto instrumental trio Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, known for their song Having an Average Weekend, used by the Kids in the Hall comedy troupe as a theme song for their TV show.
In recent years, the Rebels’ original twangy rock tunes have been re-released on compact disc and as digital downloads by Super Oldies, a Minnesota-based label owned by Mr. Nagy, a Canadian-born musician. Those obscure, mostly forgotten songs earned rave reviews from critics.
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