Vance Masters
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Brother 1970In the closing days of 1969, three of Winnipeg’s most distinguished musicians gathered together around the kitchen table of a friend’s house.  All veterans on the music scene, they had played virtually every location available from community clubs to arenas to international venues.  And all three had come to the same conclusion at the same time.  Tired of performing cover versions of other people’s material, they formed a unique partnership, based upon a gentleman’s agreement and a shared desire to prove to themselves, and only themselves, that they had what it takes to make a lasting difference in the music world.  Brother - the name itself denotes the mindset that spurred Vance Masters, Kurt Winter, and Bill Wallace to pen some of the more memorable songs in Canadian music history.

Together for less than six months, Brother garnered a cult following in a very short period of time.  Dubbed Winnipeg’s only supergroup by John Einarson in the book, “Shakin’ All Over”, they collectively composed all their own material and became a collaborative writing team that with any one of the members missing, could not have produced the same caliber of music.  They were musician’s musicians, and it was not uncommon to see more than 50% of their audiences made up of players.  The quality of their performances was such that when they were fired from one of their jobs for playing too loud, the audience in attendance that night protested by picketing the club for several days afterward, tying up traffic on one of Winnipeg’s busiest thoroughfares.

Disenchanted by the politics behind the booking agencies and the musician’s union at that time, Brother refused to join the union or to sign with any one management team and set about arranging their own gigs.  The local agencies brought pressure to bear on the club owners, advising that if the rooms booked Brother, they would no longer receive bands from the agents’ stables of acts.  But Vance, Kurt, and Bill played anyhow, often performing for no monetary compensation - just for the sheer pleasure of getting their music out there.  And they were an extremely close-knit group, choosing to spend almost all their waking time together.  It was practically an “us against the world” mentality that overtook the three, and outsiders rarely understood the inner circle meaning of many of their comments.  Some of their ideas were downright absurd, but that was also a hallmark of the trio.  It was an all or nothing attitude that prevailed, and they fed on each other, building upon a wisp of an idea put forth by any one of the members.  One such intent was to take over The Beatles’ Apple Studios to record their material, with the justification that when the finished product was heard, all would be forgiven for adopting such a drastic measure to get their music heard.  Needless to say, sanity prevailed, but it didn’t stop their dream of recording their material.

Brother was also responsible for putting on Manitoba’s first rock festival.  After reading in the newspaper about an accident victim who died because no hospital in Winnipeg had the necessary equipment to save her life, the three set in motion a fundraiser for the Lynne Derksen Oxygenator Fund.  They organized the now legendary NIVERVILLE POP FESTIVAL on a farm just south of Winnipeg.  Enlisting the assistance of the Mennonite community to handle the financial side of the project, the band took care of all other details for the event.  Nearly every one of Winnipeg’s top acts donated their time for the worthy cause, and well over $10,000 was raised that afternoon.

The band wrote, rehearsed, and re-worked the songs, recording many of their practice sessions.  They shopped those demos around to several record labels, but were rejected by each and every one.  They knew they had a veritable gold mine in at least one of those pieces, yet they were also acutely aware that what they were lacking was a recognizable name within the industry.  And the A & R men in the record companies were now seeking to sign formula acts.  Just look at what was charting in 1970.  The top ten hits that year, according to Billboard, were:

  •  1. Venus - The Shocking Blue 
  •  2. Mama Told Me Not To Come - Three Dog Night 
  •  3. I Think I Love You - The Partridge Family 
  •  4. Tears Of A Clown - Smokey Robinson & Miracles 
  •  5. The Rapper - The Jaggerz 
  •  6. I Want You Back - Jackson 5 
  •  7. Spirit In The Sky - Norman Greenbaum 
  •  8. Vehicle - The Ides Of March 
  •  9. War - Edwin Starr 
  • 10. Green-Eyed Lady - Sugarloaf
Not exactly a conducive environment into which an unknown act from a small prairie town in the frozen wasteland of Canada could introduce songs such as Bus Rider and Hand Me Down World.  The real kicker to the whole thing was that one of the record labels, RCA, would later make a fortune off those same tunes when they were recorded by one of their already-signed groups.  That group was The Guess Who.  And it caused the break-up of the only Winnipeg band, at the time, capable of surpassing the success of The Guess Who.

Much has been written about Kurt Winter’s entry into The Guess Who.  A lot of it has been manufactured promo.  When Randy Bachman resigned from the band, he left a huge writing deficit.  Not only would The Guess Who have to replace an outstanding guitarist, it was imperative they hired someone with songwriting talent, and someone who preferably had a ready catalogue.  In Burton’s own words, “There were umpteen things that The Guess Who ended up kind of stealing from Brother’s repertoire once Kurt joined the band.”  But the true ruthlessness is not in the financial compensation denied to Bill and Vance for their contributions.  It lies in not acknowledging the other two thirds of Brother for the composition of those tunes.  Writing credits were never attributed to Vance Masters and Bill Wallace because The Guess Who didn’t want their public to know that they had to go outside of the band nucleus for material.  18 years later, The Guess Who finally revealed, on the LINER NOTES to an album titled Track Record, The Guess Who Collection, the identity of the real writers of those songs.  Had The Guess Who not usurped Brother’s catalogue, would they have merely fizzled out with the departure of Randy, much in the same manner that occurred after Kurt left the band in 1974?

Kurt, Bill, and Vance did eventually produce one single under the Brother name, but as Bill Wallace so succinctly summed up that session, “All our good stuff was already recorded by The Guess Who.”  The session, financed by Kurt, was recorded in an effort to assuage Kurt’s feelings of self-reproach over what he perceived to be a betrayal of the bond of friendship he held with Vance and Bill.  The record company provided absolutely no promotion for the single.  It received very limited airplay in their hometown as by the late sixties, radio stations had moved to national programming and local DJ’s no longer had the control of their play lists. 

From the book, “American Woman, The Story of The Guess Who” by John Einarson:  In February 1994, Brother made a surprise reunion appearance at a Winnipeg benefit concert for the Museum of Man and Nature’s rock ‘n’ roll exhibit.  By way of an introduction, drummer Vance Masters announced, “Here’s some songs very special to us that I think you’ll recognize, but here’s the way they were supposed to be done.”  With that the trio tore into Hand Me Down World, Bus Rider and Rock and Roller Steam (with the Running Back To Saskatoon riff back where it belonged) to an enthralled audience, most of whom were likely unaware of the musical history lesson before them.

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