In the beginning, there was Gordon Lightfoot, there was Anne Murray and there were free sandwiches. Upon that, the Junos and the Canadian star system was built. Lightfoot could write a hell of a song, sure thing, and the barefooted Nova Scotian mezzo-soprano could sing the chill off winter itself. Potted meat on pumpernickel, though? That's the topper - what a feeling, what a rush.
The 2010 Juno gala, a sure-to-be glittery affair held tomorrow evening in St. John's Mile One Centre, will bear little resemblance to the original ceremonial handout of statuettes 40 years ago at Toronto's St. Lawrence Hall. A live audience of 10,000 (counting a viewing party on the street) will see seven of this year's 39 trophies presented, with performers including Justin Bieber, Michael Bublé, Metric and Drake. The show will be broadcast in high-definition and 5.1 surround sound on CTV (8 to 10 p.m.)
Before 1970, there was essentially no Canadian music industry. Heck, there wasn't even payola happening. Because there was no need. American record labels and radio developed the stars and hit songs and shipped them to Canada like so many Florida oranges.
And then came the sandwiches that changed everything.
"They acted as if they'd never seen free food before," recalls Stan Klees, co-founder of the Juno Awards, speaking about the modest banquet for 250 invited musicians and music-industry members on Feb. 23, 1970. "We ran out of sandwiches in 20 minutes."
The night's first award, then called the Gold Leaf Award, went to Dianne Leigh. When she was announced as the year's top country singer, she just stood where she was. Somebody had to tell her to walk up to the lectern - no stage back then - to collect her trophy.
Klees and co-founder Walt Grealis were winging it. The Gold Leaf Award had been established by the pair with little fanfare in 1964. Voting was done through a readers' poll in Grealis's music trade weekly RPM, with the names of the winners appearing in the magazine annually until 1969, when the idea for an awards ceremony was hatched.
These were drab, unsophisticated days. "In 1970, I had never heard the words 'Canadian music industry' spoken together in the same sentence," says Bernie Finkelstein, founder of True North Records. Adds Klees, "There were no parties before the Junos. There was no social factor to the industry - absolutely none."
In addition to the lack of a party scene - it would come later, strongly, don't worry - there was an apathy among broadcasters and record companies toward homegrown music. There was a sense that if it came from Canada, it had to have something wrong with it.
That dowdy feeling would change. After 1970, the award was newly nicknamed Juno, an homage to CRTC chairman Pierre Juneau, and with the fresh moniker came a growing enthusiasm for the ceremony. Attendance grew - to 600 in 1971, and 1,000 in 1972. That's a lot of sandwiches for an RPM magazine which didn't have a lot of bread. In 1971, to help trim costs, Klees's mother pitched in on the food preparations. By 1972, the growing demand for grub was relentless, as verified by Sabina Klees, the so-called Juno Sandwich Lady who told a reporter: "Last year, I was making all the sandwiches in my kitchen. Chicken, eggs - I make everything I can think of. Sixty loaves I used. And now this year all I can say is that the Canadian recording business has come pretty far."
The lady, who knew from luncheon meat, talked no bologna.
With growth, though came growing pains. Grudgingly and gradually, RPM's Klees and Grealis surrendered control of the Junos. In 1975, the awards were televised for the first time, and by 1977 CARAS and CBC had complete control. The motive was now all about selling records and gaining viewership. Though Klees harbours animosity - "I now wish we had changed the name not to Juno but to 'ka-ching," because that's the sound the cash register makes, and that's what it's about now, the money - he retains a sense of satisfaction. "I do feel good inside, privately."
Most believe that the pride, when it comes to the pioneering role that he and Grealis played in Canadian content regulations and the Juno Awards, is justified. "They were right from the beginning," says Finkelstein. "They fought and they cared and they cried and they shrieked and they yelled and they screamed and they crusaded. And they inspired."