Downchild tour celebrates 40 years

Toronto-based Downchild blues band is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a cross-Canada tour, starting with a show in Nanaimo, B.C. on Saturday and has just released its 18th album, I Need a Hat.
Donnie Walsh (third from right) walks with his band Downchild which is celebrating 40 years with a cross-Canada tour. ((Canadian Press))
Looking back on 40 years with Downchild, Toronto blues pioneer Donnie Walsh doesn't offer much insight on his longevity.

"I love doing it, it's what I love, and the other options weren't so great," a laughing Walsh said in a recent telephone interview.

The Toronto-based blues band is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a cross-Canada tour, starting with a show in Nanaimo, B.C. on Saturday and has just released its 18th album, I Need a Hat.

Walsh was 22 and had jobs driving a cab and a transport truck when he started the band with his brother, Richard (Hock) Walsh, who died in 1999. 

He knew he'd found his calling, but never really occurred to him that it would last  40 years.

"Lots of things have changed, but I mean, the music is still the No. 1 thing that's happening — in my own personal music industry, anyways," Walsh said.

Longtime friend and fan Dan Aykroyd says Downchild's longevity is no fluke.

"It's his superb musicianship, and a masterful understanding of the archive of music from which he's been able to draw from over the years," Aykroyd said in a telephone interview from his farm in Kingston, Ont.

"You've got one of the best electric harmonica players in the world, you've got one of the best guitar players in the world, and he's also a very good vocalist."

Walsh estimates he's performed onstage with 80-plus different players over the years.

A few more will join the band on their cross-Canada anniversary tour, including James Cotton, Colin Linden, Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns and Aykroyd himself, whose enduring friendship with Walsh has given both men an enormous boost.

"There would be no Blues Brothers if it weren't for Downchild," Aykroyd said matter-of-factly.

Aykroyd met Walsh in Toronto in the early '70s and immediately became a fan. Soon afterward, Aykroyd met John Belushi while tending bar at the 505 Club, a now-defunct after-hours night spot that Aykroyd ran for the members of comedy troupe Second City and "anyone else who wanted to drop in."

Belushi came in to recruit for the National Lampoon Radio Hour, and he and Aykroyd chatted over some tunes.

"We were sitting there, listening to the Downchild record Straight Up,"' he said. "And it had the shot glass with a briefcase on (the cover).

"Right there we tried to concoct the idea of doing a blues act. We ended up calling our record Briefcase Full of Blues."

That album, released by Belushi and Aykroyd as the Blues Brothers in 1978, contained two songs written by Walsh — Shot Gun Blues and (I Got Everything I Need) Almost — and Flip, Flop & Fly, which was derived from a Walsh cover.

Meanwhile, Aykroyd continued to be a fan.

Actor Dan Aykroyd said he's been a fan of Downchild and friend of Donnie Walsh, since the 1970s.
"Basically, when we were at Second City, the Downchild music was our theme music for all the great parties, all the great nights, and all the great times we had in Toronto," he recalled; "1970-75, it was all Downchild, all the time."

The release of The Blues Brothers movie in 1980 gave Downchild wide exposure.

"Everybody likes that movie," said the 62-year-old Walsh. "Nobody doesn't get a hoot out of that movie."

Like Jake and Elwood Blues of the film, Donnie Walsh has long had a signature briefcase.

"Somebody in the band found it in a garbage can and wiped it off, brought it to the gig, and figured that since I was the boss, I should have a briefcase," Walsh said.  He says he kept contracts and pencils inside.

Walsh said he quit his day jobs a few months into his career with Downchild knowing that he had found his calling.

"It wasn't full-time pay, but it was a full-time job," he said with a laugh.

"When I started music, I just started music to play music. And it's pretty much the same now."

The tour takes in 16 Canadian cities, including smaller centres like Thunder Bay and Belleville, Ont., and Golden and Maple Ridge, B.C.