Canadian entertainer Gordie Tapp dead at 94

Canadian entertainer and former CBC broadcaster Gordie Tapp, once described as the "world’s finest storyteller," died Sunday at 94.

Host of Country Hoedown, cast member of Hee Haw, Tapp was iconic Canadian performer

Gordie Tapp (CBC Still Photo Collection/Robert Ragsdale)

Canadian radio and television entertainer and former CBC broadcaster Gordie Tapp died Dec. 18 at 94.

Born in 1922 in London, Ont., Tapp was introduced to former U.S. president Gerald Ford as the "world's funniest story-teller." Moving from Guelph, Ont., to Hamilton to Toronto and on to Nashville, he reached millions of people worldwide with his humour.

Tapp worked with the CBC for 13 years in the 1950s and 1960s, hosting the variety show Country Hoedown. He then went on to CBS in the U.S. and starred in one of the longest-running comedy television shows of all time, Hee Haw, as country bumpkin Cousin Clem.

"Everybody who saw him loved him," said Carol Thomas. "He could tell one joke after another." Thomas, 74, has been a friend of the Tapp family for almost two decades.

Getting a start in the golden age

Tapp started in Guelph, quickly getting pulled to Hamilton to develop an evening show in the early days of CHML.

He started in radio with personalities such as Tommy Darling, Paul Hanover and member of Parliament Bob Bratina.

"My relationship with Gordie goes back to hearing him on the radio as a kid. He had a late evening program on CHML," said Bratina. "I can still remember the theme song of it."
Gordie Tapp as Cousin Clem on Country Hoedown in 1960. (CBC Still Photo Collection/Roy Martin)

That show, What's On Tapp, was the beginning of Tapp's career in broadcasting.

Creating Clem

While he excelled as a radio broadcaster, his passion lay in television.

His roots in country started when Tommy Darling, then director at CHML, built a country show, and asked Tapp to join. Main Street Jamboree was born, and Tapp switched gears from jazz to country.

It was a different time in broadcasting, an important time, as Bratina remembers it.

"Gordie came into the broadcasting world in the post-war era, which spawned tremendous new growth in the industry," he said.

"When you sit around a radio these days you don't really hear the same deep resonating radio voices. They don't sound as polished. Gordie came from that same period of time, which was really a golden era of broadcasting."

Main Street Jamboree, which aired on radio and television, highlighted Tapp's comedic abilities, and put him on the map.
Hee Haw ran until 1993, featuring Gordie Tapp, centre, as Cousin Clem, and was the longest running country variety show in U.S. television history. (CBC Still Photo Collection/Roy Martin)

He then moved on to CBC's Country Hoedown, which ran from 1956-1965, for which he created the hayseed character Cousin Clem. His career with the CBC lasted 13 years, and solidified Tapp's place as an entertainer to the masses.

"He had to take on the mantle of country bumpkin Cousin Clem, but he was a very jovial, happy character," said Bratina.

"I never met Gordie when he didn't tell a joke that I don't still tell people today."

Moving south

His success eventually took him — and his character Cousin Clem — south of the border to Nashville to work for CBS Television on Hee Haw. It ran until 1993 and was broadcast internationally as the longest running country variety show in U.S. television history.

As both a writer and a performer on the show, Tapp continued to earn money after it ended, and spent his time working for humanitarian organizations and performing live.

Tapp was awarded the Order of Canada in 1998 for years of unpaid work for medical charities, including Muscular Dystrophy Canada and Easter Seals. He was also elected to the Canadian Country Music Association Hall of Fame.
Gordie Tapp on air, Sept. 18, 1963. (CBC Still Photo Collection/Roy Martin)

"A lot of people in this business sound like your best frien,d and they're really nice people, but it's just a persona. He was a genuinely fun loving, happy guy," said Bratina. "He never put on any airs that he was something special. He was always a down-to-earth guy."

Bringing Clem home

Tapp retired to LaSalle retirement home in Burlington Ontario, with his wife Helen.

He was still performing up to a month before his death, working on cruise ships and doing charity shows, and later visiting local retirement homes and putting on performances for residents.

"He was amazing," said Thomas, who had visited the Tapps just a few weeks ago. "He loved it."

Tapp died in hospital, surrounded by family and friends.

He is remembered by his wife Helen, and his three children, Jeoff, Kate and Joan. His memorial service will be held at the Smith Funeral Home in Burlington, Ont.