Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Bill Langstroth, host of Jubilee Years. (CBC)
Bill Langstroth, host of Jubilee Years. (CBC)

Obituary

Bill Langstroth, a driving force in Canadian country music Add to ...

Back in the early 1960s, Don Messer’s Jubilee was a top-ranking CBC-TV variety show, but Don Messer wanted to tour in the summer instead of sticking around Halifax to record a television series. Unlikely as it sounds, his hot weather replacement was Pete Seeger, the guitar-playing balladeer behind Where Have all the Flowers Gone and Turn, Turn, Turn.

An American protest singer might seem an edgy substitute for Mr. Messer, a traditional and taciturn Maritime fiddler, but it was the era of hootenannies and glee club TV shows like Sing Along with Mitch. Besides, Mr. Seeger was no stranger to Halifax. He and his banjo made annual treks to the True North, where he performed live and led a radio singalong on the CBC.

In December, 1960, Mr. Seeger made a pilot for the summer series, tentatively called Singalong With Seeger, with producer Bill Langstroth. A lanky, raven-haired broadcaster with a knack for spotting and nurturing talent, Mr. Langstroth, who died on May 8 at 81, had already made his name on the Messer show.

“Bill was front and centre,” recalled Jack McAndrew, later head of CBC-TV Variety. “He worked to the strength that Don Messer had, which was that he was a helluva fiddle player, and he built a supportive cast around him.” To compensate for Mr. Messer’s shyness, Mr. Langstroth brought in Don Tremaine as the host of the show. “He was warm and affable,” said Mr. McAndrew, “so Don could remain basically mute and play his fiddle, and then Charlie Chamberlain and Marg Osburne became the two featured performers.”

Producing Singalong with Seeger, a 13-week national show, offered Mr. Langstroth the opportunity to make a younger, hipper show. Then disaster struck. Mr. Seeger withdrew as host shortly before taping was set to begin in June, 1961. A former Communist, he had been found guilty of contempt of Congress for refusing to testify before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, and given a 10-year prison sentence. The conviction was later overturned, but while it was under appeal, Mr. Seeger feared that if he left the U.S., he might have trouble recrossing the undefended border.

With the cameras about to roll, Mr. Langstroth became the solution to his own problem. He and his first wife, Shirley, were part of a “gaggle of thirtysomethings with young families [the Langstroths had a son David in 1953 and a daughter Margot in 1958] who couldn’t afford to do anything,” according to Mr. McAndrew. “So we gathered on Saturday nights in each other’s living rooms and sang folk songs and drank beer or rum.”

That lifestyle was the inspiration for what would become Singalong Jubilee. Together with producer Manny Pittson, Mr. Langstroth quickly put together a cast and a show with singer/songwriter Jim Bennet, blind guitarist Fred McKenna and himself as a singing banjo-strumming host.

In its 13-year run, beginning in 1961, Singalong Jubilee discovered and promoted huge talents such as Catherine McKinnon, singer songwriters Shirley Eikhart and Gene MacLellan, and a husky-voiced blonde named Anne Murray, with a warm alto, a stunning range and a presence that caught the camera’s eye.

When Ms. McKinnon auditioned for Singalong Jubilee in 1963, she was 18 and fresh out of Mount St. Vincent College in Halifax. “I loved Bill,” she said in a telephone interview, describing him as multitalented, with a wonderful laugh and the ability to make everybody feel good. “He had this great sense of humour and he played the autoharp and the banjo and he clowned around all the time. We called him our fearless leader.”

They were like a family that sang and played together, said Ms. McKinnon. “Those bonds were forever.” After appearing on Singalong in the summer, Ms. McKinnon, best known in those days for her haunting performance of Farewell to Nova Scotia, appeared for two years in the mid-1960s on the Messer show, which Mr. Langstroth directed in the winter season.

As for Ms. Murray, the tomboy who liked to perform in her bare feet, she was rejected when she initially auditioned for Singalong Jubilee in 1964 – they apparently had too many altos – but was given another chance two years later.

After joining the show, she became an international star with her recording of Snowbird, a song written by Gene MacLellan, another member of the cast. Of Mr. Langstroth, she said, “He taught me so much in those early days,” mentioning camera technique, lip-synching and three- and four-part harmony. “He took me under his wing, as he did everyone,” she said and although he was “a taskmaster” who “ran a tight ship” he was “a great leader and kept everything so enthusiastic.”

Ms. Murray and Mr. Langstroth became lovers in 1968, as Ms. Murray admits in her memoir All of Me, saying that when they began their affair, Mr. Langstroth was “still married [to his first wife, Shirley, and the father of two young children], almost 15 years my senior and also my boss.” But, she adds, “I was falling in love, fast, and powerless to do anything about it.”

They married on June 20, 1975, on Ms. Murray’s 30th birthday. They had two children together, William and Dawn and separated in the late 1990s. After their divorce, Ms. Murray and Mr. Langstroth remained friends.

William (Bill) Maynard Langstroth was born Nov. 5, 1930, in Montreal, the middle of three children of Cecil Langstroth, an engineer, and his wife, Louise (née Scribner). Both of his parents came from Hampton, N.B., where they returned every summer with their children.

After West Hill High School in Montreal, Bill Langstroth did a fine arts degree at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B.

After a few jobs on local radio, he found a regular paycheque working on a variety show on CBC-TV in Halifax in 1954. Don Messer and his Islanders made a guest appearance and “it blew the switchboard right off the walls,” Mr. Langstroth recalled decades later. Don Messer’s Jubilee, which began as a regional show, moved to a network slot in 1959, with Mr. Langstroth in the control room calling the directorial shots.

He was philosophical about the Messer show’s appeal, especially the fiddle, which he related to “the sound of the sitar, bagpipes or the call of the muezzin from the minaret,” in a 1968 interview. “There is something to this business of vibrations that strikes a responsive chord.”

Despite those inspiring words, the show was abruptly cancelled the following year, creating outrage from coast to coast. Petitions were signed and questions were raised in the House of Commons.

Don Messer’s Jubilee and Singalong Jubilee marked a watershed in Mr. Langstroth’s career. He left Singalong in 1970, the year after the CBC cancelled the Messer show. For several years, he was Ms. Murray’s manager, but most of his restless energy was spent raising their two children while she was on the road building an international career.

“He was my greatest supporter in those early days,” Ms. Murray said in an interview. “He was the one who pushed me over the edge when I had to decide if I was going to continue teaching or get into the business,” she said. “He never doubted for a minute that I could do it. He was like that about everything.”

In the late 1980s, by then best known as a freelance photographer, he embarked on a new venture: croquet. He became the Canadian representative for the United States Croquet Association in 1987, and later the president of Croquet Canada. An inveterate optimist, he predicted that croquet would be as popular as curling and eventually become an Olympic sport. “It doesn’t take vision to see that,” he told The Toronto Star. “If you can keep growth going, damn near anything is possible.”

On the showbiz front, he rescued old tapes of both the Messer and Singalong shows in the early 1990s and hosted and produced a 22-episode series for the CBC called The Jubilee Years, reprising highlights from the classic shows.

Meanwhile, things were deteriorating at home. In a self-critical passage in her memoir, Ms. Murray writes that Mr. Langstroth “sacrificed a good career for me.... And although we had a housekeeper and a succession of nannies … Bill became precisely what I had once prophesied the husband of a touring performer would become – Mr. Anne Murray.”

By the time they separated, three months before their 23rd wedding anniversary, their daughter Dawn was battling anorexia nervosa, and Mr. Langstroth had signed himself into a rehab clinic.

Mr. Langstroth, who had given up smoking more than 20 years earlier, was equally determined when it came to drinking. He joined AA and remained sober for the rest of his life.

He also found love again, meeting his third wife, Frances, at a watercolour painting class in Maine. Among other things they shared, she too had a strong connection with Hampton, the New Brunswick town where he had spent boyhood summers. They were married in September, 2000.

Mr. Langstroth was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in the builder category in 2011.

This spring, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. After he went into hospital for chemotherapy, his heart destabilized and he developed congestive heart failure.

“My father was a wonderful man,” his elder son, Dave Langstroth, said in an interview. “His passing was kind and gentle. What more could we ask for?”

Bill Langstroth leaves his wife, four children, three stepchildren, many grandchildren and his extended family.

Single page

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories