Larry LeBlanc, the veteran music journalist, was sharing a table a couple of years ago with Canadian music producer David Foster and rockabilly eminence Ronnie Hawkins at a private dinner. "I remember," drawled Hawkins, yelling and squinting at LeBlanc, "when you were a teenage genius."
Burly and loquacious, LeBlanc can blow back at the best blowhards – Hawkins is a wind-filled all-star in that regard. "Aren't you dead yet?" was his bellowing retort to Hawkins. "I'm tired of writing your obituary, old man.' "
LeBlanc is telling tales, which he does very well. He called The Globe office a few months ago, saying he had a story.
"What's the piece on?" I asked. "Me," he replied, with no shame at all. The guy is a walking encyclopedia of Canadian music, his historical accounts usually told in a first-person narrative, embroidered autobiographically.
And contrary to what he told Hawkins, LeBlanc is not tired of writing anything. It's funny being his age, the industrious 67-year-old says over a casual lunch recently at an east-end Toronto patio. "I was always the youngest person of an older group," he says, pulling a snapshot of Hawkins and himself from the 1960s out of his wallet. "All of a sudden I'm an elder statesman."
He's senior, with memories and contacts strongly intact. Which is why he's currently working for the National Music Centre, the ambitious music museum, concert venue and home to the Canadian Music Hall of Fame set to open in Calgary next year. His official title is "consultant," but he's really the house wrangler.
So far the NMC, scheduled to open in 2016, has raised $125-million of its targeted $168-million budget. When potential donors are hit upon, they inevitably ask, "Why Calgary?" Once that question is answered – "Why not?" apparently does the trick – the moneyed want to know which music-biz movers, shakers and hitmakers are on board with the project. And, in the beginning, many of the big names were not.
"A lot of people," says LeBlanc, "wouldn't take the National Music Centre's calls."
People, for example, such as Bruce Allen, the heavyweight manager of Bryan Adams, Anne Murray and Michael Bublé. Initially skeptical of the institution, when Allen grudgingly opened his mind and agreed to visit the site, it was specifically at the bluntly persuasive LeBlanc's insistence and conditional on his involvement. "I will only come to Calgary if you are there," Allen told LeBlanc.
The NMC, in development since 2008, is the brainchild of Calgary musician and musicologist Andrew Mosker, the centre's president and CEO. Initially working with retired Universal Music Canada chairman Ross Reynolds, Mosker gained traction with people on the business side of the music industry, but the going was tougher when it came to bringing artists on board.
"We were falling short there," says Mosker. "We needed some help."
LeBlanc was recruited in 2013, and the dominoes began to fall. Need to set up a lunch meeting with Leonard Cohen in Los Angeles? LeBlanc's your man. Does Randy Bachman need a nudge? LeBlanc takes care of business.
"He's up to date, and he knows where the bodies are buried," says Allen, based in Vancouver. "The National Music Centre needs guys like him."
Adds Richard Flohil, long-time publicist, promoter and journalist, "He's well-connected and he's not particularly controversial. He can open doors for sure."
Leblanc's alliances are indeed formidable. He's old enough to have witnessed Bruce Cockburn in a metal band and young enough to remember it. "Bruce and I laugh about that," cracks LeBlanc, washing his grilled-cheese sandwich down with orange juice.
The importance of the musicians' support of NMC cannot be overstated. Not only do the artists donate equipment, memorabilia and artifacts – from the 1959 Gibson Les Paul guitar used by Bachman to invent the American Woman riff to stage outfits worn by k.d. lang to Rush drummer Neil Peart's colossal drum set – but they lend their faces to such necessary things as the videos used as greetings to museum attendees.
As for NMC's importance, LeBlanc brings up a dubious Cleveland-based music institution. "What do you think the chances of Bryan Adams getting into the Rock and Roll of Fame are?" he asks. "Pretty good," I venture, to which he acknowledges, "Perhaps."
The Guess Who (perhaps bundled with Bachman-Turner Overdrive) is another future Canadian contender for Hall induction, but what's LeBlanc's point?
"My point is that the story of Canadian music is not going to be written in America, and it's not going to be written in England," he says.
LeBlanc worked on the first two volumes of the three-volume Oh What a Feeling box set of vital Canadian popular music. The most consistent feedback he received on those maple-leafed releases was: "I didn't know those people were Canadian."
The lack of cultural awareness stung LeBlanc, the Canadian correspondent for the U.S.-based Billboard music-trade magazine from 1991 to 2007. "That's kind of sad when you think about it," he says, shaking his head and polishing off his orange juice. "Stories haven't been told."
An untold story, to a wag the level of LeBlanc? Positively unthinkable.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Larry LeBlanc was 68.