A guitarist, producer, songwriter, studio owner and jingle maker, Tim Thorney had a song covered by Burton Cummings, worked on the hit French-Canadian animated children’s television series Rolie Polie Olie, contributed in the making of memorable music on major advertising campaigns for 7Up, FedEx and Sympatico, and gave space and safe haven to Alanis Morissette at the height of her most frenzied international fame.
As one half of the Toronto music production company the Einstein Bros., the Winnipeg native had a hand in producing iconic Canadian beer-commercial music, including the chummy “Our beer around here is OV” ditty. The Einstein Bros. were responsible for converting the Glenn Frey hit The Heat is On into a jingle that promised much from the Pontiac Grand Am.
In addition to his production and co-writing work, he made six albums of his own: Two with the band the Front, along with four solo efforts. He lived for the thrill of the artistic process and the humanity of collaborations, rather than the recognition and the finished products themselves.
Mr. Thorney died of kidney failure on June 15 at his home in Collingwood, Ont. He was 66. His last meal was a Peanut Buster Parfait sundae. He was burly and red-haired, often attired biker-like in sunglasses and a leather jacket. His gladiatorial build, oversized personality and gruff demeanour belied a nurturer’s generosity and a theologian’s soul.
He had a knack for mentorship and finding undiscovered talent.
After years as a MuchMusic video jockey, Erica Ehm left her high-profile position after a disagreement with management at the national network. Her first call was to close friend Mr. Thorney, who had hired her years earlier as a voice-over artist.
“I was in tears, telling him that I had just quit my job,” Ms. Ehm told The Globe and Mail. “He asked me if I could write songs, and I told him I didn’t know, and that I had never tried.”
The next day Ms. Ehm drove to Mr. Thorney’s house north of Toronto, where they wrote their first song together. Specializing in the burgeoning new-country genre, the two friends would go on to provide songs for (and make records with) such artists as Joel Feeney and the Western Front and two-time Juno Award winner Cassandra Vasik.
“We had a handshake deal,” Ms. Ehm said. “Tim insisted that whatever we wrote, we’d cut things 50-50.”
Mr. Thorney’s most famous collaboration was a multi-album association with Ms. Morissette. He had first hired her as a teenager to do background vocals in Toronto. Later, after a tour to support her blockbuster 1995 album Jagged Little Pill, Ms. Morissette was faced with the intimidating prospect of making a follow-up record.
“All eyes were on me,” the singer-songwriter told The Globe. “People in grocery stores were asking me when my new album was coming, but I didn’t want to write.”
Ms. Morissette turned to Mr. Thorney, who suggested they forget about music and go see a movie instead. When they came back from the film, she felt ready to write a song. It was Heart of the House, the first song written for 1998′s Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie.
“I’ve worked with a lot of producers and writers, and with most of them there is an awkwardness at best, and an outright lack of compatibility at worst,” the seven-time Grammy winner said. “But with Tim, I felt zero judgment – only support and space and championing and loyalty. Those are the most generous things that an artist can be offered, and Tim gave these things relentlessly.”
Timothy James Thorney was born Feb. 4, 1955. His father was James Albert Thorney, who played football for the Winnipeg Rams in a provincial league a rung below the CFL. He later became a vice-president at automotive manufacturer Varta Batteries. His mother, Jacqueline Bridget Thorney (née Grace), was a government worker with Mincome Manitoba, a social experiment in guaranteed annual income in the 1970s.
At River East Collegiate, a young Mr. Thorney once swooped down from the auditorium rafters as a prank, exciting his fellow students while disappointing school administrators. “He was kicked out,” said Tom Thorney, who would later join his older brother in the music production business.
Mr. Thorney graduated instead from Nelson McIntyre Collegiate, where his grades were fine despite hit-and-miss classroom appearances. “He had the worst attendance in the history of the school, because he was playing shows,” his brother said. “But he passed everything because he was gifted, and not just as a musician.”
Mr. Thorney studied religion and economics at the University of Winnipeg, but his heart was set on a career in music. On the way up in the 1970s, he bumped into one of Winnipeg’s most successful musical sons.
“Tim was rehearsing and living with a band on Chevrier Boulevard,” recalled Burton Cummings, former singer-songwriter and pianist with the Guess Who who covered Mr. Thorney’s song Draggin’ ‘Em Down the Line. “It was the dead of winter, and they had no heat on. I said to Tim, ‘Good lord, man, why are you rehearsing in this cold?’ He looked at me and said, ‘Burton, I’m just working on paying my dues.’ ”
In 1979, Mr. Thorney was at an after-show party at a recording studio in Winnipeg where he met the young Canadian singer and voice actress Lisa Dalbello. The two talked alone in a corner of the crowded room while Mr. Thorney casually sang and played piano.
“His performance was rough and intimate, and, musically and lyrically, it was something I had not heard before,” Ms. Dalbello recalled. “We were both just starting to forge our paths. That naiveté and vulnerability allowed us to be mad scientists together.”
Ms. Dalbello convinced Mr. Thorney to move to Toronto, where they worked on songs that ended up on the 1981 album Drastic Measures. Produced by heavyweights Jim Vallance and Bob Ezrin, the album featured guitar player Jeff Baxter (of the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan) and songs co-written by Bryan Adams, Ms. Dalbello and Mr. Thorney.
“When you’re working closely with someone creatively, there can be no defences,” Ms. Dalbello said. “Not only could Tim could listen acutely to someone, he could read them before a word had come out of their mouth.”
Around that time, he met Jody Colero, a young song publisher. He liked what Mr. Thorney was writing, and offered to sign him to a deal. The problem was, Mr. Colero had no money to pay anything upfront. “Okay,” Mr. Thorney said. “I hear people in L.A. eat sushi. Can I get that?”
Mr. Colero borrowed $100 from his father and took his new client to a restaurant, sealing the deal. They would work together for the next 20 years, most prominently as the Einstein Bros., a commercial music and audio production house in Toronto. Clients included clients Molson, Labatt, General Motors and Ford.
“We were the bad boys of the advertising business,” Mr. Colero said. “We were bratty. We did what we wanted, and hoped our clients liked it.”
Once the duo was working in Halifax for a Schooner beer commercial. Because neither had ever seen the Atlantic Ocean, they hailed a cab to take them to Peggy’s Cove, an hour’s drive away. They paid the driver $200, dipped their hands in the ocean upon arrival and made it back to the airport in Halifax with just two minutes to spare for the flight back to Toronto.
“Tim had a bit of monk to him,” Mr. Colero said. “He had a true-blue sense that he was put on this Earth to help people as artists.”
That artistic empathy stood him well with Ms. Morissette. He once gave her his upstairs room in the Music Foundry, the recording studio he owned with his brother on Toronto’s Eastern Avenue. In 1995, the siblings had formed Great Big Music (which later became Tattoo Music), an audio production business that worked in advertising, the record industry and film and television.
Speaking to Maclean’s magazine in 2002, Mr. Thorney told a story about how Ms. Morissette hesitantly began the process that would lead to Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie. He had returned to the studio late at night to find Ms. Morissette at the piano and eager to write a song, but not wishing to be recorded while she was doing it.
“We had one mic on, about 30 feet away,” Mr. Thorney said. “So we had a guy crawl on his belly for about five minutes to bring it closer, so we actually got something. She was so vulnerable.”
Mr. Thorney also spoke to Maclean’s about providing a cocooned environment for Ms. Morissette’s 2002 album Under Rug Swept. “The whole room would be lit, and dressed, with the lights down and candles,” Mr. Thorney told journalist Brian D. Johnson. “Any kind of movement would distract her, piss her off. I didn’t ever, ever want to piss her off. So I stayed low and she would stay focused.”
Mr. Thorney’s last recording endeavour was Villa Sound, a studio he founded in 2012 with engineer Adam Fair. Initially the facility was housed in the basement of Mr. Thorney’s house in the skiing haven of Collingwood, Ont. Later it was moved 20 minutes down the road to Mr. Fair’s 1840s farmhouse in Singhampton.
Mr. Thorney drove the flashiest automobiles and his voice was usually the biggest in the room. Yet, according to Mr. Fair, he was an introvert at heart. “Tim would rather be at home or in the studio than anywhere else.”
Receiving dialysis treatments, he would sit in a chair for 4½ hours, three times a week, and listen to music the entire time. “He would tell me, ‘Today is going to be a Ry Cooder day,’ ” said Rachel Oldfield, his former wife. “When I would go to pick him up at hospital after dialysis, he would tell me stories about Cooder and all the musicians who played on the records.”
Ms. Oldfield, a onetime singer with Canadian bands the Pursuit of Happiness and Parachute Club, met Mr. Thorney almost 40 years ago when she was 24. He soon began hiring her to sing on jingles at a studio outside of Toronto. “I’m pretty sure he hired me as much as he did because I had a car and Tim needed a ride home after the sessions.”
The couple divorced after four years of marriage, but remained close and even lived together the last years of Mr. Thorney’s life. They had no children, but raised four bulldogs together. The last one was a miniature, Buttercup, his companion to the end. Mr. Thorney also leaves his mother, Jacqueline Thorney; brother, Thomas Thorney; and sister, Susan Thorney-Campbell.