Fans of Stompin' Tom Connors lined up around the Memorial Centre in Peterborough, Ont., Wednesday for a chance to say goodbye in style to the legendary folk and country singer.
Stompin’ Tom, who created songs celebrating Canadian places from coast to coast, died March 6 at age 77. His hits such as The Hockey Song, Sudbury Saturday Night and Up Canada Way inspired a devoted following.
Tributes from hundreds of Canadians poured in following his death and many of those fans have made the trip to Peterborough for the public celebration of his life.
It was first-come, first-served seating at the Memorial Centre, an arrangement Connors insisted on as the fairest way to allow fans to join in the tribute. There are 4,000 seats in the hockey arena, and doors opened at 5 p.m. for the tribute to start at 7 p.m.
Stompin' Tom's son, Tom Connors, Jr., reflected on the people who came, some driving for hours for a chance to say goodbye to his father
"I have chills already going down my back. It's wonderful to see all his fans come out. He sung about them —that's what his job was in his life," Connors, Jr. said.
The memorial is free, though fans were encouraged to bring a donation for Kawartha Food Share.
Connors himself helped plan his public memorial, which will include videos, stories, photos, speeches about his life and songs by artists who played alongside him or followed in his footsteps.
In the final two weeks of his life, the singer knew his health was failing and he left instructions with his friend and promoter, Brian Edwards of Rocklands Entertainment, for a public memorial.
Connors, a chain smoker known for his black outfit and hat, chose the venue in Peterborough, the town where he first gained the nickname Stompin’ Tom, because of his habit of stomping his boot as he played.
A private memorial for Connors was held Tuesday and Prime Minister Harper's wife Laureen presented the family with a flag that flew on the Peace Tower on the day Connors died.
His family, wife Lena, two sons, two daughters and several grandchildren, are expected at the public memorial, though they don’t plan to speak.
Speeches will come from former MP and former hockey star Ken Dryden, former governor general Adrienne Clarkson, former EMI president Deane Cameron and Peterborough Mayor Daryl Bennett.
There will be performances, and stories, from artists who played with him such as Dave Gunning, Sylvia Tyson and J.P. Cormier and artists such as Rheostatics frontman Dave Bidini and Nova Scotia country-folk singer Cindy Church who consider him a strong influence. Also on the bill is a Calgary singer who Connors has said is his natural successor – Tim Hus.
"It's a sad occasion, but we're going to make it fun too. We're gonna’ make it a party, like Stompin Tom would've wanted," Hus said.
Legend has it that Connors began his musical career when he found himself a nickel short of a beer at the Maple Leaf Hotel in Timmins, Ont., in 1964 at age 28. The bartender agreed to give him a drink if he would play a few songs.
That turned into a 14-month contract to play at the hotel, where he had his first hit with Bud the Spud.
Connors’ songs celebrated Canadiana – bringing to light Canadian history with songs like Tribute to Wilf Carter, Wop May and The Bridge Came Tumblin' Down and telling stories of everyday lives like The Ferryman, Tillsonburg and Mad Moon Newfie.
A patriotic Canadian, he refused to take his act to the U.S., preferring to make his name touring the towns and cities of his home country.
Some of those songs will be revived in Peterborough Wednesday as fans and admirers gather to remember a true Canadian icon.