Best-selling, Windsor-born, author and spokesman Kevin Shea has been writing acclaimed and treasured hockey books for a few years, but before he had success as an author, Kevin was in a unique position as one of Canada’s record company PR men.
We sat down with Kevin to look back at his time with various record companies and chit chat about some of the celebrity and promo moments that made his music career so memorable.
One such experience involved a radio station, Nirvana and Kevin dressed as a diaper-wearing baby in the heart of Montreal.
Just as a basic background, tell me about the music-end of your career because that was a pretty substantial part of your life?
Yeah, definitely was. So I went to university for Communication Arts at the University of Windsor, not really knowing what I wanted to do. In fact, I wanted to be a sports broadcaster but it led me to a job at CKWW radio, and my radio career went on from there. So I was in Ottawa, early ‘80s, ‘83, I think it was, and a pop adult station, kind of a softer, top 40 station, was not doing particularly well. And the rumor was that it was going to go to Music of Your Life. And so I thought, “Oh my God, there’s no room.” First of all, it’s not a format that I enjoy on a personal level. I do to some degree, but not that I want to work in. But also there’s no room for a music director there, which was a big part of my job.
And so I had made some nice contacts through the music world. And just by absolute fluke, the representative from RCA Records called and said, “Hey, listen, I’ve always respected what you do. And wondered, we’ve got a job opening in Ontario in Toronto, to be the regional promotion representative, and I wonder if you would be interested in interviewing for the job.” And I said, “Boy, your timing is unbelievable. I don’t know how long this job is going to last but sure, I’m open to it.” So the interview was on Boxing Day on whatever year it was, I don’t recall but again, mid ‘80s and it was in Toronto. So I was in Windsor at the time, came up to my way of train with my mom, went to the interview at the Royal York Hotel and realized that, “I’m not sure, it seemed to go fairly well, but I’m not sure it’s what I want to do.” And sure enough, they offered me the job and I thought, “Well, you know what, let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth here.” And so I accepted the job and I started working for RCA Records. It was ‘84 actually, pardon me, ‘84.
So it was a great time for Top 40 then, it was Pointer Sisters and Rick Springfield and Hall & Oates and so many more. It was a really, really fun job. It had a lot of country music as well, Charley Pride and Alabama, Dolly Parton, The Judds, Vince Gill and on and on. So it was a great job. The person who I was replacing was moved up into the national position and I was in charge of all of Ontario to try and get records on the radio. Shortly thereafter, MuchMusic was making it’s debut so I had to get videos played on MuchMusic, and then when artists came into the territory to make sure that I met them. I told them what was going on in our territory with their music, took any winners backstage or people who were to be part of a meet and greet, whatever it happened to be, those sorts of things. And it was just a delightful job.
I had been on the other side, I’d been a music director for a number of years, and had these same people sitting across the desk from me, trying to get me to play records, inviting me to shows and stuff. It was really different. But something that was somewhat familiar to me to take the job on the other side as the promo guy. And so I was with RCA for four years. I went to Warner’s from there to be the national promotion person. I was with Warner’s for three years. I went to MCA Universal after that for two years. And then I went to a company called Attic Records to be their vice president of promotion and publicity and I was there for nine years. So it was a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful career, full of passion, hard work at times, out every night in a bar or a club or a concert venue of one sort or another. But I mean, to be there with music that you, for the most part, love was really, really special. Met a ton of artists who, when I look back now, some of the greats whoever recorded. I was there at the debut of Whitney Houston, for example and things of that sort. So it was a really special time in my life and I treasure every moment that I was in the music industry.
Okay, so you name dropped Whitney Houston, you have to tell me about that.
Yeah, so we had a conference. I can’t even remember what it was, pardon me with the dates but, again, mid ‘80s, somewhere in there, ‘87 maybe, something like that. And at the conference, they would always bring artists in to perform and people that you were to meet and trying to get you ready for the next quarter in or next quarter or year for the record company. So it was a great time and they had a surprise for us and none of us knew who it was or what it was and so they introduced Clive Davis with this young, lovely girl. And she was green as green can be but boy oh boy, when she sang a couple of songs for us, it was extraordinary. But she was a teenager then and it looked like a teenager and she really wasn’t Whitney Houston then, she was the aspiring Whitney Houston.
And so to hear some tracks from her upcoming album, You Give Good Love and… I’m trying to think of the other song that we heard at the time but anyway, You Give Good Love was one and they said that was going to be the first single. And I didn’t know if that was going to go over, this is just me on a personal level, I didn’t know if that was going to go over in our territory. It was good song but it wasn’t really really pop. But sure enough, it went to number one and went further… Oh, I sorry, I’ve missed a really good part of it. So anyway, that was at the conference and then they contacted my boss and said, “Would you do a showcase for Whitney for the new album?” And sure enough, he delegated it to me. So I booked De Blue Note, which was an R&B type club in downtown Toronto. And for a special evening from whatever, four till six o’clock to meet Whitney Houston, but really nobody knew who she was at this point.
And so we had cassette copies of the album and we had already sent it out to all of the music directors, to the journalists, to the club DJs, whatever. But my response… We sent a very nice formal invitation to everybody to come down and meet Whitney Houston, the future superstar of music or whatever we called her. And I had a terrible time getting people to come out. They didn’t know who she was. It was four o’clock in the afternoon, blah, blah, blah, who knows? I begged, I cajoled, I finally had to fill the club. We had some people certainly, but I had to fill the club with club DJs which is fine, don’t get me wrong, but you’re not going to break a record necessarily by the guy who’s playing at the local, at the time, it would be O’Toole’s, but maybe it’d be a kicking… Sorry. I can’t even think of an approximation. But anyway, sure enough, she came out and she was singing to track, which is always a tricky thing. I was there at the soundcheck and she was just incredible, but to sing to track, it’s not necessarily the way that you introduce the artist, singing along to an instrumental track.
Anyway, she came out and she was unbelievable. And she looked much more like the Whitney Houston we’ve come to know, she went from looking like an average, ordinary teenager, to all of a sudden dressing up and had the makeup on and really looked great and people just couldn’t believe it. And they could hardly wait to get back to wherever their job was to write about this new sensation or to go back to the radio station and give that song a second listen to or whatever it happened to be. And I mean, she blew up in the United States first, there’s no doubt, but we had a great, great introduction to Whitney Houston here in Toronto and it spawned the first single You Give Good Love and then it went on from there and later on to How Will I Know.
Anyway, we had three or four number ones in a row from Whitney Houston. And it all started at this little showcase where we couldn’t even get people to come out to see her and the people now, it’s one of those sort of stories like The Police or someone like that where there were 30 people in the place, but now there’s 6 million who say they were there that night, it was the same thing. People who I know were definitely not there, who are now saying “ Oh, Yeah, I was there at the very beginning.” And, “Jeez, I wish I’d kept the autographed cassette.” Or whatever it happened to be and it was like that. I took around a Polaroid camera and had pictures of her with these people. And a lot of people just kind of said, “I’m good, now. I’m just talking. Thanks, anyway.” And didn’t even get their picture taken, now I’m sure they’re really kicking themselves.
I know there’s lots of stories like that. One I wanted to touch on was one that I read, I just don’t recall exactly where I read it. It was only a quote. So I’d love to know the whole story and how it develops. Blue Rodeo. You had a hard time at the beginning, from what I heard?
Oh, my God. Absolutely. So Blue Rodeo was the sensation of Queen Street in Toronto. Playing at the Horseshoe Tavern. The regulars would line up, up and down that sidewalk to get into see them perform. They were the act to see on a live basis, but no record company was touching them because the format was such that, it didn’t fit comfortably into rock. It didn’t fit comfortably into country. It had elements of pop. It just didn’t fit in. And so for the most part, A&R people, artists and repertoire people try to fit things into a box and try to presuppose where things are going to go, “Oh, this would be great to take to Album-Oriented radio,” or whatever and figuring out where it’s to go. And they couldn’t with Blue Rodeo because it just defied that, they had a really interesting sound that at the time really, really was unique. But there was something there because they packed the club every single time without a record deal.
So anyway, all the record companies passed, every single person passed, probably once, twice, whatever, we would see, I’d go to the Horseshoe to see them play like so many others, and you’d see record company people all over just trying to get a handle. You’d see them trying to figure out “Okay, I’ve seen them three times now and I’m still not getting where I could take this.” Anyway our publicity person was a lady named JoAnn Kaeding and JoAnn insisted, I mean, she was a soft, really nice lady but boy oh boy, she was like a piranha on the artist and repertoire reps at our company at Warner’s and said, “You got to sign these guys. You got to sign these guys. You got to sign these guys.” Anyway, finally he came around and he signed the band and all was good. And we got the album, but the band even then was very strong in their opinion of what they were all about and where they wanted to go and so they wanted to go with the title track to the album.
Anyway, and we didn’t think that was necessarily the right track to go with but the band said, “Nope, that’s the track.” And we put it out and they literally got no radio play. I was, at that point, the manager of national promotion. And we couldn’t get anybody to play it. Well, that’s not true, we got one station, CHUM FM played it, because Ingrid Schumacher, who was one of the disc jockeys there, was married to the drummer of the band and so she was able to get them some late rotation on CHUM FM. And that was the only radio station in Canada who would play the track. So we would huddle together and talk about strategies and where did we go wrong, and did we sign, did we go wrong in signing the band or whatever it happened to be?
Anyway, we came back with all kinds of ideas of what we should do next. And we knew that a song called Try was the magic song. But traditional thinking in record companies, at least at the time was that you didn’t go with your ballad too early. You want to establish the band with their real sound and maybe come with the ballad as the third track. Well, we were in danger that if they didn’t get any radio play on the first track, and we went with another track and they didn’t get any kind of traction on it, that Ben would be dropped from the label, the album would be over, who knows what the history would be there.
Anyway, we decided we would go with Try after all, and we had a whole campaign we put together, a marketing campaign, we got it together beforehand to try and fuel the fire a little bit. Record stores, we would get the record store a box full of things, t-shirts and posters and pre-albums and things like that. And if one of our representatives walked into their store, they would get a blue buck for every person in the store, every employee in the store who was wearing the Blue Rodeo t-shirt, and they would get 10 blue bucks if the poster was up and they would get 30 blue bucks if they were playing the sample copy, blah blah blah. And the winner would get, I don’t know a pizza party or something like that, the store that had the most blue bucks at the end of it could reimburse it for a pizza party or some prize, I don’t even know what it was.
At the same time, Jim Cuddy, lead singer of the band or one of the lead singers in the band had his side-job besides music and working with a film company. And so he was able to talk his colleagues into staying and working overnight using the equipment at the film company to put together a video for Try. And they came up with a video and it was pretty good. Not just pretty good. I mean, we liked it when we saw it but MuchMusic for whatever reason added it into Heavy Rotation immediately without ever having the band on the air before that. They loved the video for some reason. And so between fueling the fire with retail and a song that was definitely their signature song at the time. We knew it from when they played the Horseshoe. When it came out, the radio stations started to play it slowly, but it took some time to get the momentum going. But then it took off, plus the video play that they got on MuchMusic.
All of a sudden there was a juggernaut, and it went and we got to, I don’t know where it ended up on the charts, probably top 10 or something like that on top 40 Radio, on Adult Radio, and even some rock radio as well. And it established the band, thank goodness. And they were able to take off from there, but it sure didn’t look very good. It was dire straits before that. So that was the Blue Rodeo story.
I’m sure that’s one of the more difficult experiences you’ve had, but what would be your most difficult experience trying to push a record?
Oh, boy, oh, boy. There were so many. I mean, for all the successes, there were probably 30 failures for every one success that you had. There were some that you really loved on a personal level, but you couldn’t get any traction on it. So this is a good story, it starts off poorly, but it ends fairly well. So if you’ll bear with me with this one. When I was working at MCA Universal, I was the director of promotion over there and we got this demo from MCA for a band called Nirvana. And we listened to it and it’s pretty good, we figured it was college fair. But it had that sound, it didn’t sound like anything else that was on the radio because what was on the radio at the time was that ‘80s hair farmer rock. It was Ratt and it was Quiet Riot and Great White and stuff like that. So there was nothing like Nirvana on the radio at all. Maybe the odd time on an alternative station or at least a modern rock station like 89X in Windsor or The Edge in Toronto but even then, and they weren’t going to touch Nirvana at that point.
So, but we listened to this track and the US was telling us Smells Like Teen Spirit is going to be a big track and we knew that if there was any track on the album that was going to break through for them, in some modest way, it was never going to be a big hit, we just figured we could get a few of the more adventurous rock radio stations to play it, it was going to be Smells Like Teen Spirit. So we released the single to everybody and it was met with crickets. Yeah, there was nothing. Nothing at all. Everybody else, “What are you talking… Come on Shea?” It was nothing. And yeah, I was trying to supplement the regional reps calling all of the rock radio stations, visiting them, doing whatever I could, and nothing. So we got back behind closed doors and at the record company and, “Okay, what are we going to do to break this record? It’s too special not to. We bought into the whole idea like the US that this is going to be the track but they’re not having any luck either. What do we do?”
“So, Kevin, what do you think, what’s your team going to do?” And I pulled a rabbit out of my hat and said, “Okay, I’ve done a few stunts before but it was time to pull another one out. I said, “Okay so, I’ll tell you what, the front cover of this album is a baby, a naked baby chasing after $1 bill. If anybody’s going to play this record, there’s a station in Montreal called CHOM,” C-H-O-M, “And I think they’ve got a new music show, they’re a little bit more adventurous in their programming than stations like Q107 in Toronto and I think, who knows? I’ll tell you what. Why don’t I fly into Montreal dressed like a baby, do the whole baby motif and play the record nonstop throughout the morning so that everybody from their staff as they’re coming into work that day, is going to see a guy dressed like a baby standing in front of their radio stations playing the song over and over again.” And everybody from my staff said, “Yeah right, you’re gonna do that?” I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it. I’ll do it for sure.” They said, “Well, if you think you can get some traction, go for it, Kevin.”
I go, “Okay,” So I got a baby blanket that my grandmother had knit and crocheted, I guess, and I went to a costume store and got a large diaper and a large soother and I bought it, and I got some baby booties somewhere and a little t-shirt that barely fit and this was December. I figured, “Okay. If I’m going to stand outside like that, I better wear some nylons.” So I got pantyhose, I guess I should say. They aren’t nearly as warm as I thought they might be, that’s for sure. And I had a boombox and a bunch of, I don’t know if it was cassette singles or CD singles or whatever, a bunch of them and I flew into Montreal the night before and asked them to give me a wake-up call at five o’clock, because I wanted to be in front of the radio station at 6:00.
So I go to bed and I wake up naturally and it’s quarter to six. It’s like, “Oh, my God, my alarm didn’t go, I didn’t get a call.” I jump in the shower really quickly, pull on my diaper and all the things like that and run down to the front desk with my box of music and I’m kind of giving the hotel desk person shit, pardon my language, but hey, “I didn’t get my call and I’m going to be late.” And they can barely stifle a laugh, because here’s this man, this grown man, whatever I was at the time, 40 years old or whatever it was, dressed like a baby waiting for his taxi to come to take him to the radio station. Anyway, all good, I got there, setup the crocheted blanket in front of the radio station and hit play and Smells Like Teen Spirit played over and over and over again and I was standing there with the soother holding a sign that said, “Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana. This baby needs a home on CHOM.”
And I stood there, and I got lucky. I got really lucky. Sure the staff came in at that point, but what I didn’t realize was that Dawson College was just around the corner from where I was standing at the time. Pardon me, sorry for that. And the kids loved it. First of all, they couldn’t this goof was out front dressed like that, but they loved the song. So everybody wanted to get a copy of it. So they took it with them and then they would tell their friends and next thing I knew there were hundreds, literally hundreds of people standing around me and they blocked the street, so traffic couldn’t get by. The local traffic reporters and the helicopters were flying over reporting that there was some man dressed like a baby on Green Avenue and the crowd has blocked the traffic there. So it was all over the news.
The reporters came down to find out what was going on that was blocking all the traffic and of course everybody wanted to get a picture of the guy with the sign and dressed like a baby, MusiquePlus which was the equivalent of MuchMusic, came down and they had to have an interview as well. So I got a ton of publicity out of that I never even dreamed about and the program director from the radio station said, “Look Kevin, if you believe in the song that much, I’ll tell you what, I’m going to make a deal with you. We’re going to put it on,” I don’t know I don’t think it was called Make It or Break It but it was that kind of equivalent show, “And if it works, we will add the song into light rotation evening time only. If we get calls saying break it, we will never play it again and you are never to ask me about this song ever again. Is that a deal?” I said, “Yeah, it’s a deal.”
Thank God all those kids from Dawson College, plus others, called the radio station like crazy, the phones, when I say literally they didn’t, but they blew up, they got a ton of phone calls. And it was all pro Smells Like Teen Spirit, CHOM FM added the song. And when they found out the CHOM added it, Q107 added it after that and CFOX in Vancouver and it just started to spread from there. Now, I wasn’t the only one breaking it, in the US they were breaking the song at the same time. So don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t doing this in a vacuum by any means. But the fact was we got it off the ground in Canada because I dressed in a diaper in December in Montreal and had some fun. So it didn’t start out so well but it ended very, very well. And even now, on anniversaries like the anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death or something like that, I get called to quote about how, I didn’t hold a gun to their head, but how I forced them into playing the song by dressing up and pulling a stunt on them and that sort of thing.
CHOM had their 40th anniversary, I think it was last year, and I was one of the special guests to come on and talk about the show. And that stuff happens on a fairly regular basis, but God forbid it was just because I was stupid enough to dress like that. And funny enough, I got pneumonia too, from all of that, but I think it was worth it at that point. And there we go. Just to take it one more step, shortly thereafter I left and went to Attic Records, they gave me a wonderful offer to join Attic to be vice president of promotion and publicity over there. And I was feeling as though at MCA Universal that as much as I loved the job and I was being paid very well, we had Guns N’ Roses and Don Henley and I mean, you name it, we just had this monster roster, mostly Geffen Records. And I just felt like you know what, a courier could get these records played on the radio, it really doesn’t tax me and my team that much.
And so I thought if I went to Attic, which was a large independent record company, I could be there from the genesis of the band being signed all the way through. I don’t know if it was the best move, but I was there for almost 10 years. And anyway, the fact that ties it all together, so I leave after the success with Nirvana and was given a triple gold record or whatever, triple platinum record at the time by MCA Universal to thank me for what I did for that. And then the first act I’d worked over at Attic Records was “Weird Al” Yankovic with Smells Like Nirvana and so it’s just kind of very strange but wonderful to work for one band, the actual one and then to come over and first act I’m working is “Weird Al” with his video that pretty much approximated the Nirvana one and his parody of the same song. Life works in mysterious ways sometimes and it sure did there.
Kim Mitchell has new music out this month, I’m sure you’ve got a good Kim Mitchell story.
Absolutely. Well, I don’t have much, he wasn’t with us at first, he was with Alert Records at the time. Attic Records got sold and it was part of a larger company called The Song Corporation, and one of our first signings was Kim Mitchell, at that point. I had a great title, VP of promotion and publicity for now The Song Corporation, which Attic was part of their company as well. But we had one promo rep, it was a shoestring operation to begin with, just because we were a fledgling operation. So I spent a lot of time with Kim at that point, the album was Kimosabe, and taking him around, we had success, but nobody remembers that album anymore, including Kim, although I think he really, really liked it.
I got to spend a fair bit of time with him and he’s just such a great, great guy. And we talked about hockey and family and barely talked about music. He said, “I talk about music all the time, Kevin.” And so we just veered off and talked about other things and just really got to know the guy and really care for him. He’s a wonderful, extraordinary musician, great songwriter, like so much about him, but he’s just a really, really solid guy too, and very, very funny. So really enjoyed my time with Kim Mitchell.
One of the cool things when you work in a record store, at radio station or anywhere that deals with record companies, there’s all these really unique and cool promo items. So coming from the other end, the guy who was actually involved in either the creation or distribution of those, what are some of the really awesome cool items that you’ve been a part of and still actually have at home?
Oh, God. Sure. There’s so many of them, but I’ll talk about one specifically, but just before that. You want to get the attention. So there’s so many records, songs, I guess I’ll say, that are released to radio in any one week. It’s a whole different game now but I’m talking about during my time in the music industry. So you have to stand out against all of your competition. And while I was trying to get my songs, whether I’ll say Warner’s at the time, I might have had five or six releases that week that would go to top 40 radio just as an example. And PolyGram might have had three, and CBS might have had seven, and Capital had blah, blah, blah.
So you have to stand out, they can’t all get added, a radio station might typically add three or four records a week. And they may have received 20 or 24 that week, plus ones from the week before that were getting some momentum and stuff as well. So it’s a fun game more than anything. You have to have a quality song, you have to have a bit of a story, you have to have some momentum, but you also have to try and get the attention of the music director or the people in the music department. So quite often there’s a toy or a gimmick, a tchotchke of some kind that you’ll put in there just because it might sit on their desk, it might remind them to listen to this song or to bring it up in the meeting or whatever it happens to be. So cheesy things at times, too.
We sent a note out to everybody at one point and said, Warner Music is going to give you a satellite dish next week. Oh, this was neat, people thinking, “Oh, I wonder, they’re going to install one on my home, so that I can see the new video for blah, blah, blah.” No, it was a dish, with the band, The Satellites’ name in the bottom, we filled it with jujubes, Saran wrap over the top and the next week we came in with the satellite dish. There you go. And of course, “Oh, come on Shea.” Whatever. But it caught their attention and of course everybody’s dipping their hand into it and they see satellite at the bottom and who knows? Did it help us get ads on Give Me A Little Sign? I think it might have been a few, but whatever. But my favorite one was with the Tragically Hip. Now one thing already is that they’re amongst my favorite acts of all time, to this day. So I have a real special feeling with them. I started with MCA just as Up To Here, their first album was just finishing so I was overseeing promotion with the last single that was released off the album.
And then I was there for all of Road Apples, and Road Apples was a really special album. It was the first one that went to number one for the band, and we had lots of airplay on Twist My Arm and Cordelia and stuff like that. So traditionally, a record company gives out gold records or platinum records to people that really were instrumental in what we call breaking the act, in helping us sell 50,000 copies or 100,000 copies or giving us a ton of radio play or video play or crucial reviews or whatever it happened to be. So you get something to hang on your wall but everybody does that. So I said, “Listen guys,” sitting in my meeting with the senior executives or senior management rather, “let’s try something different here.” Said, “Okay what are you thinking, Shea?” And they knew that I was a little bit off the wall anyway.
I said, “Well, okay, Road Apples is just a nice term for horse manure.” “Yeah we kind of knew that,” or some people, “Oh god, that’s gross.” I said, “Well, okay, so what about if I can find a way to acrylicize horse turds, pardon my language, and put it on a nice little plaque or something like that? We could give it out to all of the key people. Would you guys be open to that?” And everybody’s killing themselves laughing, “You got to be kidding me. How are you going to acrylicize shit?” “Well, let me figure it out. I don’t know, but let me figure it out.” They said, “Well, if you can do it, I think that’d be very cool. How much it’s going to cost?” I said, “I’ll get back to you.” So anyway, I found somebody that would freeze the horse manure, send it by train to a company in Quebec somewhere who would then take it and acrylicize it in a block. A clear block so you could see it very clearly on each side and then we would put a little bit of a walnut base, and the plaque that I put on it would be, “The Tragically Hip Road Apples. Thanks for helping us get this hit together.”
But this and hit was put together a little bit too close so it looks like, “Thanks for helping us get this shit together.” And then the year and the date or whatever. So I came back and said it’s gonna cost us whatever it was, I don’t even know. $30 per block or whatever. “Go for it. A gold record would have cost us 50 or 60, go for it Shea, that’s great. There’ll be some people who aren’t going to want to put it on.” But I say “Yeah, but think of those that are going to talk about it and show all of their friends.” “Can you believe this?” So sure enough, I went into action, talked to a farmer somewhere, I can’t even remember. Coburg as I recall. And he was able to put it in some kind of a container. We shipped it off to Montreal or to Quebec anyway and they were able to put them in the blocks. In the meantime, I was getting the walnut bases and the plaques done and we did 30, 40 of them, I don’t know. And sent them off to key people who had really helped us with it, and I still hear about it from people who, “By any chance do you have any more of those, Shea?” “No, I gave them away in 1987,” or whenever it was.
But I still got mine somewhere and treasure it. It was wacky, there was only one person who returned it. A buyer for Rob Lands which was Sam the Record Man and she refused to put it on her desk. She thought it was disgusting, but everybody else loved it, loved it, loved it. And just thought it was the greatest thing to have this piece of horse manure in an acrylic block on their desk to commemorate their support of the Tragically Hip. So that was my favorite tchotchke or whatever you want to call it at that point.
You have a passion for The Hip, and you worked with the record company. So there must be some magical moment there somewhere.
With The Hip? Well, they were somewhat like Kim Mitchell in a way, that they talked about music all the time. So that when they were away from the on-stage or behind stage, it was refreshing for them to talk about other things. So when they found out that I was a hockey guy, especially Gord Downie, we glommed on to each other and we talked hockey. So I mean, I can just remember one special dinner at the Junos in Vancouver where we were at some restaurant, we had the upper room, it was private, and he was talking about the Boston Bruins and I was talking about the Toronto Maple Leafs and we were comparing notes and who was the best fighter? And what did I think of Bobby Orr, and where did he sit in the pantheon of greatness? And afterwards he embraced me, and me him.
“Hey, thanks, man. This has been so much fun. And it’s so great to not have to sit here and explain lyrics to a song or why we did what we did or whatever as far as music goes, or why I do what I do on stage. It was so great to talk about hockey.” And the other guys were there too, but it was Gord who was especially passionate. Gord Sinclair, the bass player, was a Chicago Black, maybe still is, I’m sure he is a Chicago Blackhawks fan. So he jumped in. We all talked about our first game and his love of Bobby Hall, for example. And each of the guys, Paul Langlois the rhythm guitarist was a Montreal Canadiens fan. So we’ve pretty much covered the Maple Leafs, or sorry, the NHL rather, at that particular time.
And it was just a really fun dinner. They were winning Juno Awards the next night, or they’d hoped to and they certainly did as it turned out, but it was all about hockey for me and for the band that night, and I treasure that memory very much so, especially since we’ve lost Gore Downie.
This would be a good time to talk about the transition to becoming a best selling author. So you gave up the music career at some point and then just headed off into writing about hockey?
So my first book came out in 2000. And so at that point, I was with The Song Corporation, which was a very short lived company, they wanted to be the largest independent, or the smallest major record company. It was a dream and an ill-stated dream. The company didn’t last very long. They bought Attic Records and created the distribution network but tried to be too big, too soon and died a very, very tragic death in January 2001, I think it was. The owner of the company, Alan Gregg, who actually managed the Tragically Hip as well, co-managed with a guy named Jake Gold, he came, sat us down and said, “The experiment is over, I’ve failed you. And each of you is going to be called into the office to find out if you still have a job or not.”
And he got teary eyed and left and we went back to our offices and waited for the phone call. And sure enough, I got called in, said “Look, Kevin, we’re going to have to close down the creative side of the record company. We’re going to keep the distribution network but your job is now redundant. And so you’ve been with Attic/Song Corporation for nine years, so we’re going to give you nine months of severance. Would you like it in one check or would you like it in monthly installments to the end or even every second week, bi-weekly, sorry, payments all the way through.” So at first I said that was the best thing because that would be better for me. But then when I went back to the office, one of the ladies from accounting came in and said, “So what happened?” I say, “Yeah, I lost my job,” and she said, “Yeah, that’s too bad.” She said, “Did you take the lump sum or did you take the ongoing payment?” I said, “well, I took the ongoing payment.” She said, “You fool. We’re taking in trays and garbage pails back to Grand & Toy for God’s sake to get our money back, there’s not going to be any money.”
I said, “Oh my god.” So I went back in, changed my case, got my severance. And sure enough, a month later, they locked the doors and those who were in the distribution arm didn’t get any money at that point. But that was the end of the music career unfortunately. I opened my own little business for a while, a publicity business, and I took most of the Attic and Song artists. So it was Kim Mitchell again and Amy Skye and “Weird Al” and Maestro Fresh Wes and whoever else, I can’t remember offhand. And Molly Johnson, different artist, and I did that for a while but I was finding that cash flow was, as an entrepreneur you would know too, feast or famine. It’s all of a sudden you get a great deal of money to come in and then the next month, you get almost nothing to come in. And that was making me crazy.
One of the things that had happened though, when I was at Attic Records, the boss came to us and the company wasn’t in any trouble at that point, but he wanted to shore up the bottom line a little bit more. And we were all asked to come up with a couple of ideas for projects that would be revenue sources. And so I put in a couple of ideas, compilations, one was called hair farmers I think, and the other one was songs that you would hear at a hockey game. And so I was asked to explain. So as the company got together, there were 14 of us, we had to explain what our idea was. So with hair farmers, I said, “Well, all it is a compilation of rock bands from the ‘80s.” The cheesy rock bands, the same ones I mentioned to you earlier, actually, Dan. Ratt and Warrant and whoever that was coming out at that time, and I just called it hair farmers. And kind of people kind of hummed and hawed a little bit. And then I said the other one was songs that you would hear at a hockey arena. Stomping Tom Connors, and Tom Cochran, big league, but also Europe, The Final Countdown and all the songs that you would hear.
Well, it turns out that both of my ideas flew. Not exactly the way that I had explained them, but the hair farmers one I lucked into a meeting with a guy named George Gross and his father had been a sports editor of the Toronto Sun newspaper and George Jr. met me one day and we got talking and he said, “Oh, I own a…” I guess I’ll call it a licensing company. I said, “Oh, yeah. Like what?” He said, “Well, I mean, for example I own the rights to Wayne’s World.” And oh, my God, the light bulb went on over my head. I said, “Look, I tell you what, I’ve got a compilation of ‘80s rock that’s coming out. How much would it cost me to license Wayne’s World and what do I get?” He said, “Well, you get the name Wayne’s World and you get two pictures of Wayne and Garth from Saturday Night Live.” And I said, “What else?” “Well, that’s it. You license two photos and the name.” “Sounds great, How much?” And he told me, I can’t remember what it was, and went back to attic records and said, “Okay, this compilation can really go, we can call it Wayne’s World. Here’s what we get.” Blah, blah, blah. They loved it.
So we put out this Wayne’s World and I think consumers thought that it was from Saturday Night Live and Wayne’s World. It was just ‘80s Classic Rock and with the logos and stuff on it, and ended up selling 100,000 copies, which is platinum in Canada. The other one was songs that you would hear at a hockey arena. And so in order to get it out there, I had to go to the Hockey Hall of Fame to license a photo of a body, I wanted to call it contact and wanted to put a picture of a body check on the front cover. So I went to the Hockey Hall of Fame and while I was there and met the guys and they were really nice, and we got talking hockey, and I noticed some photos on the corner of the desk. I said, “Oh, my god, Sweeney Shriner. Oh, Mel ‘Sudden Death’ Hill. This is great.”
And named off some players. I said, “Wait a minute, how do you know these guys? “Well, I’m totally into hockey from the 1940s.” They said, “Oh, my God. We could use a guy like you because it’s not necessarily a project that most people would know a great deal about. We’re good with the ‘80s and ‘90s. But going back to the ‘40s, and we’ve got a huge library of photos. Would you ever consider volunteering with us?” I said, “That’d be great.” I said, “But when though? I mean, I have a full-time job. I’m vice president of a record company.” They said “Well…” “Wait a minute, hang on guys. We have summer hours every Friday so I could come over after one o’clock on Friday afternoon and do some work with your photos.” They said, “That would be great.” So that’s what I did and got my foot in the door at the Hockey Hall of Fame without even knowing it.
Attic Records put that record out with the same songs I was telling you about, just hockey themed songs, whether it be with hockey or with the songs that you would hear at the rink, and put it out. It sold 100,000 copies. We partnered with the Hockey Hall of Fame, so that we could use the Hockey Hall of Fame logo and use their marketing as well as ours. And a dollar from every album sold went to the Hockey Hall of Fame. And we sold 100,000 copies of that as well. And that spawned, I think we ended up doing Contact 8 at some point and then we did the penalty box set and all that sort of thing. So it was a long standing compilation of songs that you would hear at hockey rinks and sold very, very well for the company and went from there. But it was the opening for me to get my foot in the door at the Hockey Hall of Fame without even realizing it.
Like I said, it was just fun for me. And then one day they said, “Look, I know you’re probably not going to be into it, but we’ve got a contract coming up to go through all of the photo archives and identify all the players in them. And we think you’d be great, especially for the older photos in the archive. Would you be open to it?” I said, “You’re not going to believe this guys, I got laid off on Monday and I have no job. I’ve got my own little record company. Sorry, my own little publicity company. But I don’t have a job.” They said, “Well, we’re not gonna be able to pay you much, we certainly can’t pay you the same as you were making before.” I said, “It doesn’t matter. I would love it, thank you.” So I started at the Hockey Hall of Fame and here I am, that was 2002 and here I am. It was full-time for a while, and then I went to the Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation, but I still did all of their magazines and their writing and stuff like that. And so here we are 18 years later and I’m still with them. Now I’m back full-time again. So it was a fortuitous break for me and just the way sometimes doors open, and you have to take advantage of the opportunity when it shows itself and that was that.
You basically lived a life around two major loves in your life, music and hockey. That’s kind of cool.
Look, I’ll extend it beyond that. So I mean, I love radio, I love, love, love radio. And so grew up with CKLW and all of the rockers from Detroit, so WRIF, W4, WABX. What else? Did I miss one in there? Anyway, those are the three biggest, plus oh and CJOM and Windsor, which I had been involved with for Junior Achievement when I was a teenager as well. So I was hugely into it and just a radio junkie. So while I was going to university, I was working at CKWW radio. And in fact, they were paying for my education. If I got certain marks, they would pay for the whole thing. If I got B’s they would pay for, I can’t remember what the percentages were but 80% or whatever. So I was working pretty close to full-time hours at the radio station while I was going to university to get my degree in Communication Studies. So it was dream for me hoping that I might be able to get a job in radio someday. And here I’m already working in it at the time and I had teaching assistants who had never been inside a radio station try to teach us how to edit tape together and I was helping them along because that was part of what I did for a living was working in production.
So radio was a passion. Music was a passion. Hockey’s a passion. My dad died of prostate cancer and although I wouldn’t say it’s a passion in the same sort of way, but I love my father and all the things that he did for me and to infuse a passion for hockey and all of those things into me. So at some point, I wanted to consider that maybe there was something bigger than hockey and music and all of these things, as much as I love them. I wondered if maybe there was something bigger and more important that I should get involved with and I got lucky and threw a blind resume out there. And sure enough, I got the job at the Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation.
So I did that for eight years as well, while I still continued to work for the Hockey Hall of Fame in evenings, and write books, and do all of those things as well. So I’ve had four careers and each was a passion in its own way. So I’ve been blessed beyond belief, Dan.
Visit Kevin online at his hockey website kevinsheahockey.com.