by Roger Douglas Bursey
Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers, otherwise affectionately known as Kevin Blackmore, Wayne Chalk, Ray Johnson and Byron Pardy, have been entertaining audiences with their own special blend of music and side-splitting humour. Recently, I caught up with them on their 30th anniversary tour at the Harbourfront Theatre in Summerside, Prince Edward Island.
In true Buddy Wasisname fashion, the interview was fraught with quick wit and good humour. But, in all seriousness, these guys take their ability to entertain us and make us fall off our chairs laughing, very seriously. The other thing they take very seriously is the value they place on each other, which surely comes through on stage, and they tell us how, below.
In today’s world of entertainment, thirty years of performing together is virtually unheard of. Congratulations b’ys on thirty years of success!
KB: Early in 2013, we started our 30th anniversary tour, so we are almost done our 31st year.
That is a long time; that is longer than most marriages. How long do you plan to keep on performing?
WC: We are going to play on into the next life. When we meet the line there somewhere, we’ll jump over it and just keep on playing (laughter).
BP: We are going to play until I get the tractor paid off (laughter).
KB: To answer your question square in the head, we don’t intend to retire. We intend to keep on going as long as we can, because we’re finding it easier to do. There’s a lot of things that come easier as you get older and wiser. You get more efficient on the business end of it. The tour arranging, and the structures, finance, you know, you’ve done it. It’s easier and, if we stopped, well, we’d get the itch to go back on stage. Then, we’d be saying “We threw all that down. And, what did we do that for?” Right now, we do 65 dates a year.
How did you guys come together and how did you come up with the name “Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers?”
RJ: That’s a very old, old question.
KB: The name didn’t come until 1985, when we were asked to go to Toronto to play in a Newfoundland Pavilion of the Caribana series, a big ethnic exhibition. Then, we were forced to come up with a name, but, until that point, we didn’t have a name. I was a solo act, “Buddy Wasisname.” And, we had been considering names like “The Island Three.” We had lots of really bad names.
RJ: Kitchen Utensils (laughter).
KB: What we did eventually, we decided to use the moniker I had been using, which was Buddy Wasisname, and then the other fellers were “The Other Fellers.” It was really a gift of a thing. People were struggling to remember the name, so they would say “Who did you see last night?”, “Buddy Wasisname? And, the Other Fellers?” And, then it stuck! So, it helped people remember. So, simply by forgetting it, people were remembering it. Over the years, the public gave us all kinds of names, like “The Foolish Ones.”
WC: I was walking through the mall one night, going to buy some toothpaste, and some men were off to the side and one ran over to me and said, “We was sizin’ you up. Is you one of them foolish fellas?” And, I said, “Yes, b’y, I am.” He said, “God love you! Keep it up!”
How would you say your music has evolved over the course of thirty years?
KB: B’y, we did nothing until fifteen years ago when Byron joined us (laughter).
So, Byron is the newest member of the group. But, where does he fit in to the greater scheme of things?
KB: He is the best bass player in the group, best musician in the group, he is our arrangement technician, recording engineer, and, now, he has taken on the job of photographer. And, lately, he has been training to take over for me, should something happen to me (KB said this with a wry smile).
Let’s talk about your relationship. How would you characterize your relationship with each other?
RJ: We worked on it, the expectations from each of us is so individual. We try to work it out so that it creates a balance. That is one of the reasons why it has worked so well.
KB: We spend a lot of time apart. By spending time apart, there is an enthusiasm when you come back together. I made a mistake in a previous group I was in. We lived together in the same hotel rooms, in the same flat, played together, and we eventually got tired of each other. I vowed when we started, I would not make that mistake.... You know, you should really spread that intensity out when working with someone over a long period of time.
So, tell me, are you like a family?
WC: We’re good b’y. We try to get to know each other, you find out what pisses the other guy off, and try not to do it! We try to go the other way.
Like all families, everyone has their ups and downs. How did you get through the downs?
WC: There was a need to make a living. We were all doing something before. It gives you a big responsibility to make it work. You do what you gotta do to make it work.
KB: It’s like a marriage that way. When you get married, you make a commitment. The relationship of being buddy-buddy stops, because you have made a commitment to be something else. We made a commitment thirty years ago to make a go of it. The boys abandoned their teaching careers, and I had several business interests, but, when you throw your lot in, you have to drop your heavy egotistical, artistic aspirations. Because now, what you’ve agreed to do is to supply the public with what the public wants, not with what you yourself wants. You have to find out what the public wants you for. And, you work on that. All three of us have worked on that, Ray for his voice and his instruments, playing, and his recitations. We rely on him for his group-based, traditional representation, Wayne for his brilliant song writing and comedic ability, and me for being a fool. And, that is why we work well together. The other thing is, we would have failed a long time ago, were it not for the fact that we took on all aspects of the business and management, and did it ourselves.
WC: The bookings, we had an agent in Toronto for ten years. But, when we got to know the country, the ins-and-outs of the business, the theatres, management, and publicity, we said, we can do this – so, let’s split it up. We do it at home, now. That gave us more time home with our families. Even though you have an office in the house, you are still home.
When you started out, were any of you married?
WC: We were all married, and we all had kids.
When you decided that you were really on to something, and you wanted to take it on the road, how did you convince your better halves that this is something you really wanted to do?
WC: It was different for all of us. In my case, it was black and white. I was going to explain to my family that this is what I would like to try. But, I was not going to do it unless the family said yes. So, what I did, I said, “Is it OK for Dad, for Wayne, to take a year off and try it, and my job is still there.” I don’t want an answer now, I’d like an answer at the end of the week. My 9 and 13 year old, and my wife, came back a week later over supper. I said, “What is your answer?” All three of them said, “We’re behind you. We want you to do it.” Then, after one year, I said “You saw me as an entertainer, you lived with me as a teacher, what do you want me to do?” If one of them had said, “Dad, I don’t want to lose you like that…” But, all three of them said “We prefer you as an entertainer over a teacher.” When I was an entertainer, and I was home, I was fully engaged with them. But, after a day as a teacher, I would come home after a ten-hour day, with my pile of papers, and give them a hug before they went to bed. Now, I come home, I spend time with them, cook meals, and do my business.
RJ: In my case, my wife was very concerned that I was going to give up a Government cheque. She said, “I don’t think so right now, Ray.” We had only one child at that time, so she was concerned. I said, “My love. We hope to take a leave of absence, still a cheque would come to us, and we’ll give it a go. And, we`ll see how the year will progress.” She saw it gradually developing, she saw the light at the end of the tunnel, that it may be working. Then, at the end of the second year, she saw the bookings coming in, and she became more open to it.
KB: My own case is different. I was self-employed. I had my own piano tuning and instrument repair business. At the same time, I was asked to go and do engagements. It was a natural extension. But, there is a timeline. We met in ’83, and I was doing the weekend engagements, and I would ask the employers if I we could come as a trio. Within a very short period of time, we were being asked as a trio. In ’87, they asked for their first year-long sabbatical; and 88, they asked for a second; and ’89, they asked for a third year, and they didn’t get it, and they resigned.
But, during that whole time, I was letting my other business slip, because this was demonstrating itself as lucrative. To illustrate, I was hired by CBC, in St. John’s, to tune a piano. There was a CBC producer, who asked me to lay down a 2-minute piece, four tracks, over-dubbing. I worked 8 minutes, in total, and I got paid the union rate, and made $254 for 8 minutes work. I got $60 for tuning a piano for two hours. So, I realized there was something to this entertainment. Right away, our mark was whether or not we could do as well through our business entertaining as they were doing teaching. And, the first year, we superseded that mark. We had a maturity, the boys were in their thirties, and I was approaching thirty. It was a good demonstration to us that our youth and artistic ambitions were behind us. We realized this was a business, now. It wasn’t art. We attacked it like a business. I remember we laid it all out: this is how we progress across the country, we started doing all those contact series around the country, and to go see all those prospective employers. We made a deliberate attempt.
The reviews all say the same thing, “you captivate the audience,” “you have them eating out of your hand,” and you have them rolling in the aisles.” What is the formula you use to be able to do that, time and time again, especially for 30 years?
KB: I’m glad you called it a formula. We thought about that a lot. One thing we worked on a lot in our group is the balance, the balance of the various kinds of entertainment we could present, the three of us. And, then, you have to have that emotional roller coaster, to be brought high and then into the low (not really a low, but a different kind of emotion). We wanted to draw out the tears and, at the same time, bring out the laughter. And we think about it, we make sure our entertainment represents the three of us really well. I think it’s the combination of the three of us, and the various gifts we offer.
WC: You need to see what you have, see what strengths you have and try to use it all. If we could pole dance, and we thought we could use it to make people laugh, we would do it.
KB: There is another neat little aspect we discovered. We complement one another by our weaknesses. I don’t have Ray’s strengths or Wayne’s, and they both recognize that about me and each other. But, we somehow do very well at supporting one another. When Ray is out there playing a tune, nobody can play backup for Ray like we do. And no one supports me as a comedian better than these guys, because of their strengths as either the narrator or the straight man. In those ways, we support one another. When it comes to singing harmonies behind Wayne’s songs, we do it really well. Those are not our strengths, those are our weaknesses. And, it is important in your own mind that you are not the focus here, the other fella is the focus.
WC: When he is doing his thing, I have to do everything in my power to make him sound good. When you buy into it and believe in it: it’s one thing to have the theory, but it’s another thing to mean it. That’s healthy competition, when you are in front of your microphone, you do all you can to be the focus right now; then, when the others are all doing this, too, supporting each other, it is meant to work.
KB: You mature into it. I say the word is “mature.” You don’t get that right away. You gotta work for that. Byron has been the ultimate bass man, because he is making us all sound good.
BP: That’s the job of a sideman, that’s what you do, you make the other person sound better.
You spend a lot of time on the road. You really enjoy the foolishness. How does that affect your creativity and developing your skits, for example?
RJ: It makes us more creative, and we feed off the emotions from the audience. Like, last night in Saint John, the lady in the front row. This woman had me in stitches. Then, the more I laughed, the more the audience laughed. The one thing I feel is lacking with the PR, in general, you try to get to a radio station to give you an interview. You try to get the newspaper to send a reporter to capture some of this. Like, can you imagine, if that got into a newspaper in Saint John. The popularity of Buddy Wasisname could extend to a whole other audience. I’m not saying we’re bragging, no! There is so much untold about what we do, or where we are.
WC: You have 550 or 600 people in a room, and the object was to get together to have a good time and laugh, and feel emotions. And, you have the people in the audience and the people on stage laughing. It’s like a disease, a fit of laughter. Why do anything else? This is as good as it gets! The audience was feeding us so much last night. Someone sent us an email today asking “Was she paid to do that?” Then, the other fans came back, saying, “They don’t need to do that. They don’t need to plant anyone.”
You really take hot-button issues, serious issues, like politics and religion, and turn it into something light-hearted. How do you do that?
RJ: Oh ya, we’re crackin’ a little bit of fun at them all.
WC: The big thing is to be able to laugh at yourself, first and foremost, then laugh together at all our quirks. We’re not demeaning anyone. I grew up in a community where everyone laughed at everyone else. You had two or three concerts a year, and the object was to find out what happened to everybody, and write skits and recitations, and everyone laughing with everyone else.
KB: You know what, it’s really a matter of just leaving people with a 2-hour, plus, space to make you forget what exists in the world, and have a good laugh and cry. Then we’ve done our job. It’s no more than that. We don’t take all those issues too seriously. It’s important we keep a balance.
WC: People know we aren’t taking sides. We have been asked to endorse a political party. We don’t. But, we’ll find something funny about all of them. If some issue comes up, we’ll do it, we are not putting one down. If we find something funny, we’ll do it.
KB: It’s about being fools.
WC: We’re like the court jester. We can get away with it.
You are such ambassadors for Newfoundland culture. Can you comment on that?
WC: B’y, we don’t try to be ambassadors for Newfoundland culture. Yes, we try to write about it comedically and in other ways. That’s our source. If someone wants to take it and say that we represent Newfoundland culture, then, that’s good, we thank them very much. But, our aim is not to be ambassadors. We are simply being true to who we are.
KB: We are creating from what we know, that is all any individual can do. We draw on our own experience to create. We are a collection of everything in our lives. When Ray comes up with something, he is just being Ray Johnson, and Wayne Chaulk is the same way. We draw on our own past, and turn it around to look the way we want it to.
When you put your shows together, how do you choose the names, like Wring ‘Er Out? Who comes up with them?
KB: We made a deliberate attempt for years and years to bring out a phrase which can seem to reek of Newfoundland flavour, like the Flat Out, 100% Pure, and d’Lard Liftin, which identify where we are from. From a PR perspective, that was important to us, so that people could identify some little piece of ‘Newfoundlandia’ in the tour name. It added to the fact that we were trying to promote a Newfoundland-based act. And, the other thing about it is that there was always something in the show that was hung on that, like the Up Boot tour.
WC: Another advantage of that, too, we said that we don’t want a situation where people say the boys are really good, but I’ve seen them. So, to give the idea that we turn over a new page on a regular basis, we have a tour name. So, every eighteen months, people say “Oh, a new tour, Wring ‘Er Out. That means there is new material. Oh, I haven’t seen that!” That ensures that the show doesn’t feel like it’s old, like they’ve seen it.
Do you try to keep everything fresh and alive?
WC: Yes, but, there is the challenge of balance, because there are pieces in the show you can’t stop doing. And, if you stop, people say, “I like the show, however.…” But, you need the new, and to find the balance is tough at times.
KB: But, the spirits have smiled on us over the years. We have skipped storms and lived through potential disasters that didn’t bring a disaster on us. Luck plays a good part in everything. Everything can be perfect, but, lard jumpin’ dy’in, if that huge storm washes out your van, and you are on your way to a gig, then ….
Yes, speaking of things that happen on the road, what about the story of the banjo blowing off the roof of the van? I read a reference about it on your Website.
KB: That is an interesting thing about the banjo, we lost that instrument on the 401. We ended up going out to Fort Nelson, BC. We talked about it in that very show, that we lost a banjo. A fella from Fort St. John had come to Fort Nelson to see the show, and he said he had a pawn shop and a banjo for sale, and he wanted it to be in the show. But, I said my case and the banjo, together, was only worth about $300. But, he said “Come up and see me.” So, I did, and he had a beautiful Fender banjo. To me, its value was far more than $300. But, he gave it to me for $300 because he wanted it to be in our show. And, it was a better banjo than the one I lost on the road. My banjo playing has not improved, however (giggles).
WC: Byron plays it now, if we need it for a song.
How has social media affected you?
WC: Greatly so. PR is costing us less money. We use Facebook, Twitter, and have built up quite a following. We have 7,900 followers, and are signing up anywhere from eighty to one-hundred, a day.
KB: Standard media is still there. But you wouldn’t believe the reach you get with social media. We’re flabbergasted with what it’s done in such a short period of time. We’ve gone from printed photos we used to get done in Toronto, and now we do everything digitally. It’s so immediate and so fast. We’re from the pre-fax and pre-computers era. All these were big changes in the way we do things.
One last question, we all know you as hilariously funny, but how would you describe yourselves?
KB: We are a four-person, music and comedy trio! We are the only four-person-trio going around the country!
With a fit of laughter at that, we shook hands and I thanked them for doing the interview. ~ Roger Douglas Bursey
Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers perform:
Tonight (April 12) ~ Halifax NS (Rebecca Cohn) 8pm
May 2-10 ~ Various venues in Ontario
June 11-15 ~ Carbonear Newfoundland
Roger Douglas Bursey is a musician, writer and a Newfoundlander currently living in Prince Edward Island.