Fred Brokenshire was 19 when he opened Fred’s Records in St. John’s in 1972. It was the city’s first record store. Standing on Duckworth Street, opposite the National War Memorial, in a three-storey clapboard row building, previously vacant after decades housing Calver’s greengrocer, it would attract generations of music lovers, guiding them beyond the confines of Top 10 radio into all genres, while retaining a steadfast provincial focus.
Energetic, creative and the personification of charismatic, Mr. Brokenshire became a key figure in Newfoundland and Labrador’s rich music scene at a time when it was exploding. In addition to helping create the East Coast Music Awards and serving on the Juno Awards Committee, he devoted himself to supporting the province’s musicians and their music.
Mr. Brokenshire died in St. John’s on Oct. 27. He was 69.
“Fred was a visionary entrepreneur and a great lover of life,” said Bob Hallett of Great Big Sea. “He realized long before anyone else that what was holding musicians in Newfoundland and Labrador back was not a lack of talent or inspiration, but a lack of management, distribution, and marketing – in short, we lacked any access to the world stage. Through his iconic record store and then later on many other ventures, Fred put Newfoundland and Labrador musicians on the map.”
Mr. Brokenshire managed the Irish Descendants, a folk group, which became the first band from Newfoundland and Labrador to sign with a major label, Warner Brothers. “He saw an opportunity with us and courted us and next thing you know, he was now managing the band,” Irish Descendants singer and guitarist Con O’Brien told CBC.ca. “There was nothing too big for him to do.”
His influence extended far beyond the province, Mr. O’Brien said. “If you were playing music and had anything that was remotely successful in the early 1990s running up to the 2000s, he recognized that, and he would do his best to try and help the best he could. There wasn’t an act between here and New Brunswick that didn’t have him affect them in some way or form during that period of time.”
Mr. Brokenshire discovered Damhnait Doyle when she was an employee at Fred’s (he overheard her singing in the back room). Her credits include the Canadian No. 10 single A List of Things.
Through his various connections, he also brought in such internationally acclaimed performers as Ireland’s the Chieftains and legendary American singer-songwriter John Prine.
Mr. Prine, who first visited the province in the 1980s, enjoyed playing to Newfoundland and Labrador audiences so much he returned several times and in his last appearance in 2017 welcomed the entire staff of Fred’s Records backstage at the concert.
Branching out from the store, in the 1980s Mr. Brokenshire became a CBC Radio producer with the flagship cultural magazine Weekend AM. Co-worker and host Ken Lawton recalled that “in one show we conducted 17 live interviews in three hours,” a feat he credited to Mr. Brokenshire’s flair for “co-ordination” and “traffic control.”
“Fred’s ingenious intuition for the needs of the audience and his abilities to support, coach and encourage confidence in his on-air talent were unmatched and deeply appreciated. Fred was the best ‘through-the-glass’ studio producer I ever knew,” Mr. Lawton said.
He also gave colleagues, especially young female journalists, breaks and opportunities.
Mr. Brokenshire was also a founding member of the Music Industry Association of Newfoundland, now Music NL, with a mission to ensure every Newfoundland and Labrador musician had representation on a global scale. Music NL has grown to represent 540 musicians and musical and industry groups and lobbies all three levels of government on their behalf.
Nearly a half-century after Mr. Brokenshire opened Fred’s Records, the store promotes itself today as “the most complete source for Newfoundland music in the world.” Its slogan is “For the Record.” The space, with its purple-and-gold exterior and signage in a funky “bottle” font, stocks thousands of releases on CD and vinyl, highlights local acts and hosts launches and concerts.
Frederick Robert Brokenshire was born on April 21, 1952, in Toronto to Jim and Gwen (née Earle) Brokenshire. His mother was from a fish merchant family in Carbonear. Fred was the second of four boys, with brothers Jim, Howard and Earle.
His parents had met at University of Toronto after the Second World War, where his mother was one of the first Newfoundland women to graduate with a degree in health and physical education; in her 50s she would earn a master’s degree in educational psychology at Memorial University and work as a researcher at the Institute for Educational Research and Development and serve on Newfoundland and Labrador health boards. His father, an ex-RCAF flight lieutenant and navigation instructor, worked in industrial sales management.
Popular, active and musical, Fred attended Humber Valley Village Public School and Etobicoke Collegiate, sang as a choirboy and boy soprano soloist at his church, joined Cubs and Scouts, played hockey, and camped with his family from Lake Superior to the East Coast. Not coincidentally, his family’s home resounded with opera, 1940s swing, mambo, military marches, and the Beatles all on the stereo.
In late 1967 the family moved to St. John’s, where Gwen Brokenshire brought her sons to the waterfront on New Year’s Eve to hear the ships, which ritually blew their horns at midnight. This tradition has grown into a major civic to-do, attracting thousands.
Mr. Brokenshire graduated from Bishop’s College, in St. John’s, and attended, briefly, Memorial University of Newfoundland. After doing a few jobs in his teens, he founded Fred’s, with guidance from his father. His three brothers worked there with him in the early years. Mr. Brokenshire also started the music marketing companies Duckworth Distribution, Atlantica and Latitude, as well as opening the restaurant Django’s.
“He could be difficult, and not everything worked out, but he was tremendous company, his family loved him, he never stopped trying again, and I never met a man since who could light up a room like Fred,” Mr. Hallett said.
In 1977 Mr. Brokenshire married Gladys Burke (they were supposed to get married the year before but they went to Europe instead), with whom he had three children. Their daughter, Jane, went on to become a photographer; Burke works for the Association for New Canadians; and Murray is a graphic artist.
He took his children camping to every inlet and cove around the province. “Because of him I can spot an osprey three, four miles away,” Burke said, adding that his father “could always tell where the wind was coming from.” He also sailed from St. John’s to Gibraltar (running into a hurricane), scuba-dived to catch lobsters for supper, played the accordion and learned to fly.
“He was a pirate, a magician and a salty sea dog,” Jane said. He organized elaborate treasure hunts for her childhood birthday parties, could perform such tricks as igniting a pan into flame and then revealing it held jellybeans, or a hamster (unharmed).
Mr. Brokenshire took his children sailing and encouraged them to set out solo in a Zodiac. He could whip up a dish of chicken pesto at a roadside stop, before or after teaching a child how to change a tire.
On Sept. 11, 2001, when the United States closed its borders to air travel and stranded passengers were being billeted to Holy Heart high school near his house in St. John’s, he collected his own bottles of wine and spirits, walked over to the school and set up his own free bar in the parking lot.
Mr. Brokenshire and his first wife divorced in 2014. He remarried, but his second marriage was short-lived.
More than a decade ago Mr. Brokenshire developed early-onset frontotemporal dementia, “which was confusing and difficult for family and friends,” Jane said.
Yet in those early days he started attending art classes and painting. Throughout his illness he was cheerful and peaceful, habitually walking many hours a day and singing a song (Jamaica Farewell). “He could remember all the verses from songs from ages ago,” Jane said. “Even when he had stopped being able to hold a conversation, if you said to him, ‘for the record’ he would always answer, ‘it’s Fred’s.’”
Mr. Brokenshire leaves his children and four grandchildren. At his funeral attendees sang the traditional sea shanty We’ll Rant and We’ll Roar, heard an excerpt from Jabberwocky, and listened to a rendition of The Banana Boat Song from Tim Baker of Hey, Rosetta!.