Calgary's official song called Neighbours of the World is 30 years old
Tune won 1986 songwriting contest but never got much airplay
A nifty bit of symbolic identity stuff that we can all rally around. Yay us!
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We were trolling through the official Calgary handbook from city hall and discovered we have an "official" song that is also 30 years old. It's a little tune written by a pair of songwriters from — gasp — Victoria, B.C., that's been collecting dust since 1986.
Now I know what you're thinking — you know this song!
But that's not it.
Catchy, far better known, but nope — not "official."
This is our city's anthem:
Is it time to update Calgary's official song? If so, what should the city's new anthem be? Leave your suggestions in the comments section below
According to the city's municipal handbook, Neighbours of the World became the official song of Calgary in 1986.
In the run-up to the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics (that gift that just keeps on giving), the good folks at city hall decided we needed a tune to capture the spirit of the city.
So they ran a national contest, called A Song For Calgary. They received 921 entries spanning the musical spectrum.
"One guy was playing the Hammond organ, probably drinking some scotch singing, 'I love you Calgary.' And there was an East Indian guy chanting," says Denis Grady, who worked for special events and public relations for the city in 1986.
"It just resonated with people," Grady added. "People expressing their sentiments about how much they loved the city."
Even people who didn't live here — like veteran radio announcer Barry Bowman and city planner, songwriter and actor, Tom Loney of Victoria, B.C.
"When we started to think about writing a lyric for Calgary we agreed that one thing we had to stay away from were stereotypical images like oilfields or waving fields of wheat or cattle," said Loney.
"We wanted to get across the idea that what Calgary was doing was saying, "Hey world, we're hosting the Olympic games here and everybody should come and we will be your neighbours to everybody in the world."
So, why a couple of B.C. guys?
Well, Loney was born in Calgary in 1938 and lived here until after high school — when he took off to work as a bush pilot. So he was pretty darn Calgarian and even had a newspaper route through Mount Royal.
Back to the contest...
After listening to a mountain of cassettes, a group of people involved in the local Calgary music industry chose Loney and Bowman's cut.
Given star treatment
Before their winning song was publicly announced, Loney and Bowman were flown to Calgary and given the star treatment by then-mayor Ralph Klein.
"He was part of the whole entourage. We were taken to a hockey game and we were presented with the white Stetson between periods," said Bowman.
The songwriters got a $5,000 prize, a grand piano — donated by Irene Besse — and an Air Canada flight anywhere in the world. Not too shabby.
"They showed us a great time… We loved the time that we were there and we loved the city of Calgary itself."
And then, the controversy.
A Song For Calgary
On Mar. 4, 1987, the city unveiled the top five tunes for A Song For Calgary contest to a full house at the Centre for Performing Arts, which is known today as the Jack Singer Concert Hall.
Bowman and Loney were there and knew they'd already won — but the other finalists didn't.
One was a group of about 100 students in grades 5 and 6 from Colonel J. Fred Scott elementary in northeast Calgary.
"Everybody thought that night that we had won," said Paul Finkleman, who helped the students write the song.
"And then they brought on the final song and they said 'This is the winner.' Nobody really knew of them because they weren't Calgarians. I don't want to come across as sour grapes. I and many other people were upset…. Nobody liked the song," he said.
CBC archive footage from the night of the concert shows the audience clapping and singing along to the winning tune.
- Watch part of the performance in the video above
"Neighbours of the World was played just three times, but that was enough for many folks in the audience to learn all the words of the rousing chorus," wrote Patrick Tivy in his Mar. 6, 1987, column for the Calgary Herald.
In that same article, Tivy also predicted the fate of the tune — that it would quickly fizzle.
"Despite its official status, the song is doomed to be dropped from pop radio playlists within a very few weeks," wrote Tivy.
Ten-thousand singles of Neighbours of the World were pressed and CBS records, now Sony Music, donated them all to the city — which distributed them to schools and radio stations.
"The song tanked after about three to four weeks," said Denis Grady. "It got a little bit of airplay but it didn't catch on in terms of people saying, 'Yeah, that's a great song.'"
Even the songwriters say the tune went nowhere.
"We were very surprised that a few months after this initial weekend, which was just a fabulous time we had in Calgary, the song kind of went somewhere and it's never really been exposed again," said Bowman.
So what went wrong?
Well, Grady says rather than a panel of judges, Calgary's anthem should have gone to a public vote. He says the last time he remembers the song being performed in public was at the closing ceremonies of the '88 games.
And thus, the great unheard hymn of our city.
Vinyl record hard to come by
While Bowman has several hundred vinyl copies of the song "somewhere in his attic" — the Calgary Public Library has just one.
It lives in the local history section of the Central Library.
But guess what? You can't even listen to it.
There's no record player at the downtown location. The 45 is part of the reference collection, meaning the CPL will loan it to you for a few hours — but won't let you take it out of the library.
And now you know the rest of the story.
Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.