Dan Kelly still remembers the fall day in 1964 when a lanky man named Tom Connors walked into his radio-station headquarters with a guitar slung by his side. Connors was looking to set up a show and Kelly, then the program director at CKGB in Timmins, asked him to audition. The young musician’s voice was creaky, but he could play just about any country song that was requested of him. “We agreed to let him do a half an hour every night,” says Kelly. Connors had just taken a room at the Maple Leaf Hotel — where he got a gig playing each night for $40 a week — and things were looking up. After over a decade of hitchhiking, working odd jobs, and playing tunes in people’s houses for scraps, it seemed he had found a home in Timmins. He stayed for nearly two years.
Stompin’ Tom Connors, as he would later come to be known, died in Ballinafad on March 6, 2013, at the age of 77. Throughout his life he weaved local history and legend into his songs to tell distinctly Canadian stories, penning tunes such as the “Hockey Song,” “Bud the Spud” (about a potato-hauling trucker), and many other folk earworms. He would go on sell four million records and was awarded the Order of Canada. “Everybody from coast to coast knows Tom and knew he was singing songs about them,” says Charlie Rhindress, author of Stompin' Tom Connors: The myth and the man — an unauthorized biography.
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Connors was born in New Brunswick and adopted by a family on Prince Edward Island at the age of nine, according to Rhindress. He ran away from home at 13 and traveled the country for another 13 years before turning up in Timmins, by way of Kirkland Lake. He garnered a devoted audience across northern Ontario, with fans relating to the songs about the region’s hard-working, hard-drinking mining towns.
“He was in the right place at the right time,” says Denis Lepine, whose father, Gaetan, was the bartender who got Connors his first gig at the Maple Leaf. He says Connors was looking to stay at the Salvation Army after getting a beer — but was a nickel short. Gaetan told him he could play songs to pay off his tab. “I remember my dad coming home and said he just met this absolutely fascinating fellow,” says Denis, now 61. That led to an 18-month residency at the tavern. According to Denis, who snuck into the Maple Leaf as a kid to watch Connors play, he was an instant hit. “That bar was full every night for two years,” he says.
Connors was a human jukebox. The audience would call out songs for him to play, and Connors would almost always know it. “He had this amazing memory,” says Rhindress. “But, over time, he started to add these local songs to his repertoire.” One such tune was “Carolyne,” which begins with the lyrics, “T-I-M-M-I-N-S/that's gonna be my new address.” Other songs, such as the “Birth of the New Dragon Mine,” became the talk of the town after he performed. “Nobody had ever written a song about Timmins before,” says Kelly. “He was a talent that people loved.”
Eventually, Connors asked Kelly to record a series of singles and press 300 copies, which he hocked all over town. Within a week of the records arriving from Toronto, he was sold out. “Who is this guy?” Kelly says the record producer asking him. “The big stars in this business don't get to sell 300 records in a week.” Kelly says they pressed another 300 copies and sold those off, too. According to Kelly, Connors sold more records in Timmins than the Beatles that year. Some of those early singles would later end up on Connors first album, The Northlands' Own Tom Connors.
Rhindress says that as time went on, Connors began to write more songs about the towns he visited. Connors frequented local libraries, in part to have a roof over his head but also to learn the town’s history. At bars he’d hear stories of local legends and compose songs about whatever town he was touring — sometimes in as little as half an hour. “When he came back the next time, people had been talking about this song, and he’d get bigger crowds,” Rhindress says.
After getting fired from the Maple Leaf, Connors toured northern Ontario before making his way to the Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern. He became a staple at the bar, selling out the venue for nine straight weeks in 1969 — a Horseshoe record.
In 1972, he wrote two songs that propelled him to greater fame: the theme song for CBC’s Market Place and the “Hockey Song.” In all, he published over 300 songs and won six Juno awards along the way.
The songs Connors wrote about northern Ontario resonate to this day. In 2005, Mattawa erected a nearly-six-metre statue of Joseph Monferrant, or Big Joe Mufferaw, and replaced it with a new version in 2017. Mufferaw was a legendary logger of the Ottawa Valley and the subject of a Connors hit. One of Connor’s more well-known songs is “Sudbury Saturday Night,” which depicts heavy drinking and partying. Former Sudbury mayor Jim Gordon recalls meeting Connors at a hockey event celebrating the anniversary of the mining company Inco. Gordon recalls Connors saying, “I’d just like to tell you, never meant to offend anybody when I wrote that song — but that’s the way it was back then.” Gordon’s response? “We love that song in Sudbury!” (He adds that there’s even a statue of Connors by the Sudbury Arena.)
Denis is still amazed that the hitchhiker who became a family friend made it so far. “I don't know if he would have made it anywhere else but northern Ontario,” he says. As a runaway in the north, he thinks Connors fit in with many others who left their homes in search of a new start. “The north was built on a lot of exiled people and codependent people,” he explains.
And the town stuck with him, too. “This town made me understand I could go further. I still have a lot of friends here who have helped me out along the way,” Connors said in a 1999 visit to Timmins, according to the Timmins Daily Press. “The songs about Timmins started it all off. I’ve always been grateful to the people here for giving me that boost.”
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