Nfld. & Labrador

Wonderful Grand Band receives retrospective honour from ECMAs

The WGB, which blended traditional Newfoundland music with a rock beat and over-the-top comedy, has been recognized for its contributions to Canada's music scene. 

The award honours those who have paved the way for many more east coast artists

This is the Wonderful Grand Band's classic lineup, when they starred in a CBC variety show from 1980 to 1983. (Wonderful Grand Band)

The Wonderful Grand Band, which blended traditional Newfoundland music with a rock beat and over-the-top comedy, has been recognized for its contributions to Canada's music scene. 

The band, often known just as WGB, is a recipient of the Stompin' Tom Connors award, as part of this year's East Coast Music Awards. The awards will be shown Saturday night in a virtual ceremony on CBC Television and on the CBC Gem streaming service at 9:30 p.m. NT. 

The band recorded two albums, helped turn bandmate Ron Hynes's song Sonny's Dream into an anthem, and starred in a top-rated CBC series named after themselves in the early 1980s.

When WGB began, guitarist Sandy Morris didn't think about paving the way for future artists in the province.

"None of us were deliberately thinking we were establishing any precedence or paving any roads for anybody else," he told CBC Radio's Weekend AM

"We were just looking for a gig, basically."

WGB, when they were starting out

Here and Now

1 year ago
From 1980, John McQuaker reports for the National on the Wonderful Grand Band, as they were making their mark on the music scene. 2:03

Greg Malone, the band's energetic frontman who joined WGB after years as a comedian with Codco, said he was immediately drawn to the band, which gave Newfoundland music a sound he had never heard before.

"I always thought the band, they were the best rock band I thought ever, anywhere," he said.

"They gave traditional Newfoundland music such energy and scope, and opened up all kinds of new possibilities for how we can enjoy traditional Newfoundland music and add new music to it."

'Biggest thing in show business'

The Wonderful Grand Band was more than just another band. 

The group formed in 1978, made its name in local clubs and became household names in Newfoundland and Labrador for a CBC Television variety series that ran from 1980 to 1983. (They had been the band in an earlier series, The Root Cellar.)

The band — and the show — included comedians such as Malone and Tommy Sexton, pairing music with sketch comedy. The musicians often appeared in sketches, sometimes playing themselves. 

Comedian Rick Mercer remembers the WGB themselves as comparable to the Beatles while growing up, noting the household television show was something everyone would talk about the day after each episode aired.

"They were the biggest thing in show business. At least in my world, and I think in a lot of people's world in Newfoundland," Mercer told Weekend AM

"More than half the television sets were tuned in every week. Brilliant."

The Wonderful Grand Band, seen in a reunion, became household names because of their variety show. (Wonderful Grand Band)

Mercer said there's an important message to come from the success of the group at the time, that Newfoundland and Labrador can produce just as good, if not better, material than that coming from some of the bigger entertainment hubs such as Los Angeles, New York or Toronto.

Morris and Malone echo the idea, saying the goal of highlighting Newfoundland was always top of mind.

"In a way we felt like we had a mission, we had work to do," Malone said.

"The attitude about Newfoundland at the time was kind of trashy in Canada. And we were just tired of it. We knew how smart and funny and saucy and exciting Newfoundlanders were, and we had a job to show that."

"We also knew we could sound as good as any band from anywhere, we wanted to prove that too," Morris added. ""The band could do anything, they were as good as anyone."

Mercer also said the Wonderful Grand Band was important to his own career.

"It was our voice, right there on television right next to everyone else. And they were bigger stars than the cast of Knots Landing," he said, referring to the prime-time soap opera from the same period. 

"When the Grand Band came on television, honestly it was the first time I was really interested in anything.… When the Grand Band came on, after that, that's all I wanted to do."

President of the fan club

Comedian Mark Critch also credits the group with laying out a career path. 

The self-proclaimed president of the Wonderful Grand Band's fan club was bitten by the entertainment bug early on. Critch said he has an original T-shirt and a poster framed from one of the band's tours in the early 1980s, displayed proudly in his home. 

"When I was a kid I thought, 'I want to be that when I grow up. I want to do that,' and that's why I'm doing what I do today basically, [because of] their influence," said Critch, who has been a star on This Hour Has 22 Minutes since 2003.

And Critch isn't forgetting the music itself. He said Morris is an incredible musician any country would be proud to lay claim to, and Glenn Simmons had the best voice in music in all of Canada. 

"It turned me on to everything. It gave me a sense of humour, it gave me a style of comedy that I love, it gave me a style of music I love and from the Wonderful Grand Band I then went on and learned about other types of music," he said.

"I think it's impossible to overstate the impact the Wonderful Grand Band had."

Now, 41 years after the band first took the stage, Morris and Malone both look back fondly on their time with the band and say they they still feel its strong connection to the province.

"We were just thrilled to connect with our generation, which is what every artist wants to do," Malone said. "We loved or fans, loved those audiences, and it was just a great time."

"None of us foresaw that we would have had as big an a influence on the culture that we ended up having," Morris added. "And I certainly wouldn't change a thing."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Weekend AM