“I’ll tell you a short story,” former music producer and label owner Stan Klees said to The Globe and Mail in 2004. “I’m in a radio station, and I’m promoting a record, and a guy opens the package, sees the name on the label, and says, ‘Oh, Canadian …’ and flings the record across the room. It hits the wall and shatters.”
It happened in the early 1960s, when the words “Canadian music industry” were rarely spoken together in the same sentence. Before the Juno Awards were established and domestic content regulations were instituted for radio in the early 1970s, the bulk of the industry was the distribution of music produced in the United States and elsewhere. Canada was but a piggy bank for American labels.
The incident involving the vinyl-smashing radio man stuck with Mr. Klees. “I got bitter. I started putting out records in Canada made by Canadian artists and tried to fight the battle.”
He fought and often won. Mr. Klees, a Canadian record business architect who with business partner Walt Grealis co-founded the Junos and galvanized an ambitious and arduous crusade that led to the 1971 imposition of a Canadian song quota on the nation’s radio stations, died in his sleep of natural causes on Sept. 22, in Georgetown, Ont. He was 92.
Broadcasters were dead set against Canadian content regulations, soon dubbed “Cancon.” It was their position that Canadian musicians and the sound quality of Canadian records did not stack up to their American and British counterparts.
In 1967, Bob McAdorey, then-music director of the powerhouse Toronto station CHUM-AM, told The Telegram newspaper that the records produced by Mr. Klees in particular were inferior products. (Mr. Klees later won a libel suit against Mr. McAdorey.)
“Stan and Walt spent years fighting that snotty attitude at radio, and ultimately it was their constant cheerleading and Stan’s crafty lobbying of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission that got Cancon put in place,” music historian Bob Mersereau told The Globe.
“That remains the most significant moment in the history of the Canadian music industry.”
Along with 23 other trailblazers, Mr. Klees was honoured by the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada in 2021 with a SOCAN Guardian Award for the role he played in boosting made-in-Canada content nationally and internationally.
Equally capable of charm and confrontation, Mr. Klees was tall and handsome, with a photogenic smile and a thick flow of white hair that earned him comparisons to the Man From Glad, the television pitchman for the Glad Products Company.
He got his start in the music business as a teenage disc jockey in the late 1940s. By the late 1950s, he had transitioned to the recording side of the industry, doing promotion for acts appearing in the Toronto area.
In 1963, he started Tamarac Records, which had hits such as Good Good Lovin’ by Frank Motley and the Motley Crew and Big Town Boy by Shirley Matthews and the Big Town Girls. He later co-founded the Red Leaf label, home to Little Caesar and the Consuls and their popular single (My Girl) Sloopy.
Whether as a music publisher, talent manager, producer or label executive, Mr. Klees was a tireless champion of Canadian-made music. Looking at the pressing of the Tamarac/Bigland singles Amelia and One Of These Days by Greg Hambleton, two things stand out: One, the “100% Canadian Content” declaration; and two, the artist’s name – Greg Hamon instead of Greg Hambleton.
“I was surprised to see it,” Mr. Hambleton said. “But Stan felt my name was hard to pronounce, so he changed it.”
Mr. Klees managed Mr. Hambleton, who went on to a career in music producing himself. “Stan was a visionary. He started a lot of things that were sorely needed.”
It was Mr. Klees who strongly encouraged Mr. Grealis to create and publish RPM, a trade journal also known as RPM Weekly, RPM Magazine and RPM Music Weekly over its 36-year run (1964-2000). The inaugural issue featured plugs for new singles by Bobby Curtola and Richie Knight and the Mid-Knights.
It grew from a one-page tip sheet sent to radio stations to a proper periodical, always devoted to the promotion of Canadian records – including, often, ones released by Mr. Klees, who looked after advertising and subscriptions while serving as a designer and occasional writer with the publication.
Under the pen name Elvira Capreese, he even contributed a lively (if occasionally muckraking) gossip column. “A very big Canadian group is being haunted by the bill-collectors,” he wrote in a 1969 edition of RPM. “They claim their debts were made by their representative, and they aren’t responsible. Oh, aren’t they?”
The RPM-sponsored Gold Leaf Awards were the immediate precursor to the Juno Awards. At a banquet held in 1970 at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Hall, a dozen statuettes – elongated metronomes made from walnut wood, designed by Mr. Klees – were handed out at an event attended by 250 musicians and industry people.
There was little pomp, ceremony or budget. Mr. Klees’s mother, Sabina Klees, supplied the snacks.
“They acted as if they’d never seen free food before,” Mr. Klees later told The Globe. “We ran out of sandwiches in 20 minutes.”
The next year, the name of the annual awards was changed to “Juno,” after the goddess of marriage and in honour of Pierre Juneau, the head of the CRTC who proposed the legislation that led to the requirement that radio stations to play a minimum of 30-per-cent Canadian content. (That requirement was later increased to 35 per cent.) Years earlier, Mr. Klees had written a series of articles in RPM advocating for just such a regulation.
“Many people contributed, but Stan and Walt were the catalysts,” said Bernie Finkelstein, who founded True North Records in 1969. “They were right from the beginning. They fought and they cared and they cried and they shrieked and they yelled and they screamed and they crusaded. And they inspired.”
In short order, domestic record labels were formed and homegrown stars were developed. “Once audiences heard all the Canadian records on the radio,” Mr. Mersereau wrote in The History of Canadian Rock ‘N’ Roll, “they not only liked it, they bought it.”
Indeed, Ben Goldstein of Goldstein’s Music Centre in Saint John said his Canadian sales increased 20 per cent in 1971. Sam Sniderman, the namesake owner of the Sam the Record Man chain, reported a 25-per-cent jump. “If it’s selling well in Toronto,” a Woolco store in St. John’s made known, “we’ll have it here.”
The Juno Awards also flourished, growing from an industry-only event to a televised gala by 1975. And although Mr. Klees and Mr. Grealis grudgingly sold the Junos to the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences early on, they had literally started the party.
“There were no parties before the Junos,” Mr. Klees, an accomplished bon vivant, told The Globe. “There was no social factor to the industry – absolutely none.”
Mr. Klees was instrumental in the formation of the Canadian Independent Record Production Association in 1971. He had organized a secret meeting at Toronto’s Inn on the Park hotel and invited key record producers to form the group. Now known as the Canadian Independent Music Association, the not-for-profit national trade association represents the English-language, Canadian-owned sector of the music industry.
He also designed the ubiquitous MAPL logo used to signify Canadian content on records. Along with the Juno Awards, Mr. Klees and Mr. Grealis created the Canadian Country Music Awards.
At age 83, he made an unannounced appearance at a Canadian Music Week seminar in Toronto, where a group of young people embarking on a career in the music industry applauded his accomplishments. “Stan talked about that moment for a long time,” said veteran music industry executive Joe Wood, a friend of Mr. Klees.
“At that point in his life, he wasn’t sure anybody remembered him.”
Stanley Klees was born in Toronto on April 29, 1932. His mother was a Polish immigrant who worked at a rainwear factory in Toronto. Later, she opened a restaurant. His father, Stanley Klees, toiled in the shoe repair business.
His childhood was spent in Brantford, Ont., where, at age 11, he performed on a weekly radio program on CKPC as part of a country and western quartet called the Grand Valley Boys. In 1945, he moved back to Toronto. He enrolled at Central Technical School for the radio broadcasting course a year later and hosted Teens and Tunes on CHUM before the decade was out.
Mr. Klees was working for McKay Records Distributing in the late 1950s when he had a game-changing experience. American singer Bobby Darin was scheduled to appear on CBC’s Cross-Canada Hit Parade, and Mr. Klees was tasked with picking up the Splish Splash star at the Toronto airport.
“He was wearing a beige raincoat, and carrying a small club bag,” Mr. Klees told Grub Street online magazine. “He wasn’t as tall as I had imagined him.”
The two hit it off, according to Mr. Klees. After the show, they ate, drank coffee and listened to LPs by French singers Charles Trenet, Jean Sablon, Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour until three in the morning, sitting on the floor of Mr. Klees’s living room.
Not only did they keep in touch, but Mr. Klees later went so far as to say he owed his career to Mr. Darin, who died in 1973 at age 37 from complications after heart surgery. “Over the years, he opened closed doors, which were important for my success.”
Some of those doors were in New York, where Mr. Klees connected with his mentor Bob Crewe, a songwriter and record producer whose work with the Four Seasons led to many top 10 hits.
By 1960, Mr. Klees was running Astral Records, a new company with a modest roster of Canadian acts. He subsequently created his own label, Tamarac Records.
Frustrated with Canadian radio’s lack of interest in domestic artists, Mr. Klees spurred Mr. Grealis, a former Mountie and an old friend from high school, to start RPM, dedicated to the proposition that the pop music above the 49th parallel was worth pushing hard.
The publication was considered a must-read at record companies and among radio programmers for years. But in 2000, when the country’s five major labels pulled their advertising (citing budget cutbacks and restructuring), Mr. Klees and Mr. Grealis folded RPM.
“That kind of hit me like a sledgehammer,” Mr. Klees told The Canadian Press at the time. “We have five major advertisers in this business, and without them we can’t go on. But we’ve been very happy for 36 years, travelling the world, working with artists, getting to know them.”
Mr. Grealis died of lung cancer in 2004. From the living room of his house, Mr. Klees could see the niche in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery where he had arranged for Mr. Grealis to be laid to rest. “I can keep an eye on him that way,” he told friends.
In 2009, Lori Bruner, a former RPM writer and a partner with friends Mr. Grealis and Mr. Klees in the momentum that led to the country’s Cancon quotas, joined Mr. Grealis in the Mount Pleasant niche. Mr. Klees reserved the third side-by-side spot for himself.