Donny Gerrard’s soothing voice cradled listeners on Skylark’s 1972 hit Wildflower and drew in famous fans but despite working with Elton John and Mavis Staples, friends say he never let his immense singing talent go to his head.
The Canadian rhythm-and-blues vocalist, who died of cancer Thursday at the age of 75, was meticulous with his craft and almost equally reserved in his social life. But when he unleashed one of those aching ballads, all ears were drawn to him.
“Donny had that special sound and presence that you could never replace,” said BJ Cook, the female singer in Skylark, which included producer David Foster as its keyboardist.
“We hit the motherlode when Donny agreed to come into Skylark.”
Yet despite Mr. Gerrard’s talent, he rarely thirsted for the limelight. Some even say he bristled at the idea of being the main focus on stage.
Born in Vancouver on March 19, 1946, Mr. Gerrard earned his reputation at an early age. By the time he was a teenager, word had spread to nearby high schools about his vocal talents.
That’s what drew Al Foreman to a church social event in 1961 to see the 17-year-old perform. He was two years older than Mr. Gerrard, but after the show, the two hit it off almost instantly.
“I just remember being quite captivated by his presence, his voice,” Mr. Foreman remembered.
“And we decided to put a band together the following year.”
Donny Gerrard and the Checkmates lasted about three years on the back of a weekend house gig, Mr. Foreman said.
When it was over, Mr. Gerrard made a leap to Hawaii for a fleeting run in another group before making his return to Canada where he rejoined Mr. Foreman as the bassist of the Night Train Revue for a two-year stint.
All of these roles were just rehearsals for Mr. Gerrard’s big break.
By the early 1970s, he was looking for a new gig and conveniently caught wind of a Vancouver act named Skylark that was on the hunt for a lead singer. The group formed from the ashes of the backing band for Ronnie Hawkins, who fired Mr. Foster because he felt the pianist didn’t mesh with his vibe.
Skylark was keen, but they were struggling to find their male vocalist.
“The minute Donny Gerrard came in to audition, David was just completely blown away,” Ms. Cook said.
“It was the essence of Donny – his voice, his presence, his knowledge.”
The trifecta of Mr. Gerrard’s persona would carry Skylark to success on Detroit radio stations, and eventually win over Rosalie Trombley at Windsor, Ont.’s CKLW-AM who put Wildflower into rotation.
The song spent 21 weeks on the Billboard charts, fuelling sales of Skylark’s self-titled 1972 album, and helping land appearances on some of television’s most prized music shows. That included The Midnight Special, which left Mr. Gerrard feeling a bit uneasy.
“Donny was so nervous doing The Midnight Special that we had to do it twice,” Ms. Cook recalled.
“I thought he was going to faint. He was shy and introverted. He didn’t like to stand up in front. That’s why we did a lot of duets and harmonies, so he wasn’t just by himself. But nobody could sing like him. We all were in his shadow and we knew it.”
When Skylark disbanded after their second album, Mr. Gerrard slowly began to adopt the backing role he seemed to prefer.
While he signed as a solo artist on Elton John’s Rocket Record Company, he also began picking up more jobs as a back-up singer to the stars, including on Mr. John’s 1975 album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, and recordings by Bette Midler, Bob Seger, Neil Diamond and Linda Ronstadt.
In 1975, he made a foray into a solo career with the single (Baby) Don’t Let It Mess Your Mind, a cover of a Neil Sedaka song, and followed it with his debut album a year later, which included Words (Are Impossible), an English version of a hit by Italian singer Drupi.
But Mr. Gerrard’s solo career never delivered the massive hits his record label wanted.
In 1985, Mr. Foster brought him back onto the public’s radar by including him on the all-star Canadian charity single Tears Are Not Enough, which raised money for the famine in Ethiopia. Mr. Gerrard performed alongside Bryan Adams for his part.
In the decades that followed, Mr. Gerrard continued to perform in various bands, stunning new audiences with his voice.
Rick Holmstrom caught one of those shows in Los Angeles around the dawn of the 1990s and he said the impression was so strong that it lasted the better part of a decade.
When Mr. Holmstrom began recording his 2002 album Hydraulic Groove, he tracked down Mr. Gerrard and convinced him to swing by the recording studio to record back-up vocals on a song.
“Donny drove up on a motorcycle, put down one vocal pass and drove off. He was that good,” Mr. Holmstrom said.
Stunned by his talent, Mr. Holmstrom remembered Mr. Gerrard when Ms. Staples began recruiting a band of reliable supporting musicians in 2007.
“My first thought was … let’s get that guy who did that one-pass vocal,” he said.
Mr. Gerrard and Ms. Staples were instant friends and she selected him to sing on her Grammy-winning 2010 album You Are Not Alone.
Offstage, Mr. Gerrard was a sketch artist known for drawing pictures of his bandmates, his friends and people on the street. He also designed and built furniture as a hobby.
Less than three years before his death, he received the surprise of a lifetime when an online DNA test revealed he unknowingly fathered a son decades earlier, before he was married, said Mr. Gerrard’s widow Myra.
Traie Payne, now in his early 50s, was living in Montreal and spent years searching for his birth father. When a match suddenly appeared for a “Donald Gerrard,” he began poking around on the internet and found Skylark’s performance on The Midnight Special.
The resemblance was uncanny, said Myra.
“Mavis and Donny were playing in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Traie was in Windsor, Ont., so they drove up and that’s where they met on Valentine’s Day 2019,” she said.
“[Traie] knocked on his door, Donny opens it and they look at one another and they hugged. ... It’s so beautiful the way it turned out.”
Mr. Gerrard leaves his wife, sons Cooper Gerrard and Traie Payne, brother Kenny Gerrard and sisters Dale Peck and Yvonne Gerrard.