When asked to comment on why he’s still playing the blues, Donnie Walsh is typically succinct.
“It’s what I do. I have had pretty good success at it. I’ve had a great musical life so far and so if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”
It certainly ain’t broke. Downchild was at the beginnings of modern blues music in Canada almost 50 years ago and is still thriving.
Walsh and his brother Hock, who died in 1999, formed Downchild (the name comes from a Sonny Boy Williamson song) in the late ’60s and almost immediately became the house band at the legendary Grossman’s Tavern in Toronto.
But to hear Donnie tell it, his love of music began in North Bay, Ontario, where his parents had a hotel on the shore of Lake Nipissing.
“My parents had a jukebox. On Saturday nights everyone would come to dance and put quarters in the juke box. And we get up Sunday morning and it would play all day from the money people had put in the night before.
“I was playing a little bit then taking guitar lessons from a fabulous guitar player named Russell Smith who was part of Irwin Prescott and The Mell-O-Tones, a well known name up and down the Ottawa River Valley. They had a local TV show in North Bay and every time they were on Russ would play an instrumental solo, songs like Walk Don’t Run. He was like Chet Atkins. He could just play the guitar. I took lessons from him for about a year or so.”
But, Donnie wasn’t a good student.
“I wanted to play the guitar but not badly enough. If you’re a little kid, if you want to play the guitar, lessons will slow you down.” So he stopped playing for a time, until Jimmy Reed entered his life. Walsh has told this story many times, but really it never gets old.
“I guess you could start there. I was at my girlfriend’s birthday party when I was 16 and some guys who came over brought a Jimmy Reed record with them. They liked him so much they just stood around the record player almost all night and wouldn’t let anybody play anything else. I had never heard anything like it before. I couldn’t believe it. I was a rock and roll guy. I liked Chuck Berry and Louis Prima and Keely Smith, before that.”
But starting with Reed, Walsh started to explore other blues artists and eventually, after leaving high school early, Downchild was formed. As Donnie says, “playing music worked. I was lucky.”
“Blues people like to hear the Blues and we found an audience right away at Grossman’s Tavern. By our second night the place was packed and it stayed packed until we left. We were the house band Monday to Thursday. He (the owner Al Grossman) didn’t need a band on the weekends because the tavern was already packed.
“We were lucky. We were at Grossman’s for months and months. A lot of other bands were playing now and again but mostly at home. I was really lucky I went and talked to Al Grossman and he said ‘Let’s try it out’. He was a great guy. He liked music and he liked people.”
The first record, Bootleg, was recorded in a makeshift basement studio at Rochdale College.
“Somebody came down and said ‘Do you want to do a record?’ and I said ‘Sure’ and we did a record. The first one we did pretty much ourselves.”
While Walsh was honing his craft as a legendary harmonica player and guitarist, the Yorkville scene was in its final days. But he knew plenty of other people in the music in Toronto such as Mike McKenna of McKenna Mendelson Mainline.
“Mike and I went to school together. He was in same grade but different class.”
Another buddy was the drummer Pentti Glan, who was in the band Mandala and went on to play with Alice Cooper.
After a few years at Grossman’s, Downchild had a hit, Flip Flop and Fly in 1973, followed by I’ve Got Everything I Need (Almost) in 1974, and their career accelerated. They toured, recorded and they even brushed up against Hollywood as Dan Aykroyd has said many times the music of Downchild inspired The Blues Brothers.
The band has been given a lot of credit over the years with helping the careers of other Canadian blues artists such as Jeff Healey and Colin James and has had continued success as a touring act, recording 17 albums along the way.
The most recent Can You Hear The Music won a JUNO award for best Blues album in 2014 (the band’s second) showing they certainly still have what it takes.
Walsh says the band has recorded a new album expected to be released in the fall.
“More of the guys in the band are writing now,” Walsh says. And they are touring out west and back again. They are also performing at the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival on June 29. As Walsh says, “I’ve got no plans to stop. It’s what I do.”
TD Ottawa Jazz Festival
Where: TekSavvy Main Stage, Confederation Park
When: June 29 at 9:30 p.m.