Oct 15, 2011
Rich Dodson of The Stampeders knew he had magic on his hands when he created the lick that would eventually become the crux of "Sweet City Woman". The band took a chance when they uplifted their Country Rock band from Calgary to R&B-focused Toronto in 1966, but it wasn't long before "Sweet City Woman" made them a sensation. We chatted with Rich about banjos, success and dancing on the 401.
Can you tell us some history behind "Sweet City Woman"?
Well, I wrote it! Then we rehearsed it! *laughs* I rented a banjo on the way to the studio, because I thought it would be a great lick to record on banjo. I think we recorded three songs that day. We did it live off the floor, then we did the vocal overdubbing live, then went on to a couple more tunes. It was just like, bang bang bang. We were well rehearsed. I think it was a 16 track studio, Toronto Sound, with engineer Terry Brown.
We thought it was pretty cool; but we were interested to see the reaction from our distributer Quality Records when they heard a banjo on this track. Trying to get it on commercial radio with a banjo - but we loved it!
How did they react?
They thought it was pretty cool. But we had just had success with "Carry Me", which did really well for us. They wanted to follow it up with another song called "Only a Friend", which was similar. But the general consensus with us was that it was just too neat a little tune to let go - so let's get on with it and see what we can do.
Actually the big station in Windsor, CKOW - which was pretty much the primary station that you'd want to get added to with a new record in the 70s - they didn't play it. They played the B-Side. They thought it was a little too corny! CHUM AM, after a little bit of coercing eventually added it and their phone rang off the wall. Not a lot of Canadian records got added to CHUM AM at the time - it was a fairly Americanized format. So their phone rang off the wall and they said, "well, this thing is really taking off here. We're not too sure about this." So they sent their own people to A&As and Sam the Record Man to count the bins to see if it was really selling, to see if we weren't making it up. And of course it was flying out the door. Just a runaway hit.
Following that, what was the most rewarding thing that came from the song?
I guess breaking in the US. A gentleman named Mark Robbins who worked at Quality Records was informed by Bell Records in New York that if he ever came across a track that he thought was special, to turn them on to it, and they'd shoot him a free TV. So he called Bell Records, sent them a copy, they loved it right away and flew up to see us rehearse down at the old Nash Rehearsal hall at Sherbourne and King. Down in the basement with the rats running around in the dark. They saw us jam and signed us to Bell Records. We had an instant release in the states and it went bang bang bang. Sort of like that word of mouth sharing thing that happens online right now.
You went analogue viral!
Exactly. It just took off like a rocket. Bell put it out right away and it shot up the charts. It was exciting to have something finally break in the US in a big way.
Coming back from Ottawa from a gig at 4am in our old station wagon, we heard "Sweet City Woman" on the radio. You know how get the American stations drifting in at night? And it was, "number one! WABC New York, "Sweet City Woman", Stampeders"! So we stopped the car at 4 in the morning, jumped out on the 401 and jumped around like idiots. People must have thought we were nuts. But it was so exciting to be #1 in New York City.
It's pretty cool to think of how tough it was to get any attention back then. Canadian content regulations had just started after "Sweet City Woman" came out, so our timing was great. Stations had to take a serious look at Canadian records, so it was really helpful to have a strong track at that time.
What came first: the lyrics or the banjo lick?
Well, the lick. I think the lick came first. It was a catchy lick I just loved, and I thought I had to write something to this. We were a country rock band from Calgary in the big city of Toronto. It was just so exciting to be here. We pretty much moved here in '66. It encompasses all the excitement of coming to Toronto, the big city, the land of R&B.
I was living down at Dufferin and King in a little basement apartment. I wrote it there. I'll never forget sitting on the veranda in my rocking chair with my acoustic; a car pulls up right in front of the house to the stop sign and there's "Sweet City Woman" playing on the radio and the guy in the drivers seat just bobbin his head, just loving it! That was just the coolest thing - I'll never forget it. You know, Stampeders is really a Toronto band - we've been here since '66. I've lived here ever since.
It's funny you say that Toronto was the land of R&B, because we have our one R&B/Soul artist covering you on Sunday.
Isn't that funny. It was definitely that kind of town when we came in. It was the land of R&B.
Do you have any advice for Warren?
I'm looking forward to it! Go for it. Reinventing is fantasic. My daughter is working on "Moonlight Desires" by Gowan, that's gonna be a cover for her Parallels band. So, she's doing her cover tunes too.
So - did you eventually buy your own banjo?
*Laughs* Yeah, it's funny. After that I had to go out and buy myself a banjo, try to rig it up and play it live. Wow, it was just so tough cause it would never stay in tune! I eventually started playing the lick on guitar, but I own some good banjos now.
For more info about The Stampeders, visit their website.