Interview: George Olliver

“The Blue-Eyed Prince of Soul” George Olliver rolls into Peterborough this month, making a return appearance at the Dobro. George’s career has spanned a few decades making a name for himself across the country as one of Canada’s premier soul singers. In the 60’s he sang and played keyboards with the legendary Mandalas, only to find himself fronting and garnering some US interest. The band opened up for some major acts statesside including the Rolling Stones and Wilson Picket. Their debut single ‘Opportunity’ was voted #1 Canadian single of 1966 by the Maple Leaf Awards and was quickly followed by another TOP 10 success with the soulful “Give & Take. In 1967 George left the group in frustration and formed his first solo band George Olliver and His Children, which toured extensively in the New England area of the U.S. The new group never recorded however, and Olliver subsequently recorded an album for Firebird Records with another musical creation of his called Natural Gas in 1969. The 70’s buzzed by in a haze of gigs and recordings only to find himself in the restaurant business by the early 80’s when he bought into Toronto’s legendary Bluenote Club and became it’s musical director and house band. It immediately became known as the “Home of Rhythm & Blues” in the city. He brought such greats as Sam and Dave, Solomon Burke, Martha Reeves, Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Mary Wells …. the list goes on. During this period George recorded Live at the Bluenote and Dream Girl, the latter of which was nominated for a Juno in 1987.Peddle ahead a few years and George develops a love for prayer and gospel music. His first recording as a gospel singer, “Live at Unionville Alliance” gave him a new direction, and while maintaining ties with his R&B roots, he began exploring his new sound and love of God. His latest Gospel CD “Look Up” has recently won album of the year at this year’s Maja Awards and he took home Gospel Song of the Year as well. With all that God in his life, it’s a wonder he has time to pursue his R&B roots with the Gangbusters… but he has and you can look forward to some of the best in the country. I caught up with George by phone….

Mb: So you’re up in Peterborough playing the Dobro this month and you’ve played here before.
GO: Ya we’ve played a couple of times before. Its a great place to play. Good sound. It’s a wonderful club full of classic people that really enjoy our show.
Mb: So what else has been happening these days?
GO: Well, I just won gospel album and gospel song of the year at the Maja Awards, which I’m very pleased about. We’ve recorded a couple of albums. One was a live gospel album and the new one is a studio album. It’s not all churchy music, its full blown R&B.
Mb: Are you out touring the album across the country?
GO: Not yet, but were getting ready for some extensive promotion.
Mb: I imagine you’re looking to play states-side as well?
GO: Yes, gospel music is huge in the states and its becoming more popular in Canada as well.
Mb: You’ve been at this R&B deal for a long time George.
GO: Ya, a few years.
Mb: How many?
GO: I don’t really like to count. I just say 20+.
Mb: Are you still enjoying it?
GO: Absolutely. I enjoy playing R&B and Blues and playing for audiences that appreciate it. We were up for a Juno for best R&B recording a few years ago. George Olliver and Gangbuster… we recorded a live album in the 80’s….Live at the Bluenote.
Mb: So what do you do in the little spare time you have?
GO: I have a family, so that takes up a lot of my time. I have two teenagers and an older son in Montreal and I’m concentrating on building my career. Having a family has really lit a bit of a fire under my butt, if you know what I mean.
Mb: Are they musical as well?
GO: My oldest son sang on my gospel album a few years ago, he sang ‘Amazing Grace”. But I’m not trying to push them into music for a living because its a hard business these days.
Mb: Did you find it easier to make a living ten years ago?
GO: No doubt about it. We used to play 6 nights a week, now were lucky to play 2 or 3
Mb: Less venues to play or less venues willing to buy live music?
GO: There just aren’t as many venues as there used to be. The economy is bad and lots of places go out of business.
Mb: So what’s the answer?
GO: The economy has to improve so restaurants and clubs can stay in business and so people have more money to go out more often and see music. So people can go to places like Dobro 3 or 4 times a week… and so Kevin can expand his club from 150 seats to 300 seats!
Mb: Absolutely. So anything else you want to say before we sign off?
GO: I just want to say, I hope everyone comes out to see us and that they will get a real R&B show. I don’t want people to think we’re playing Gospel music, because we won’t be. It will be George Olliver and Gangbuster which is a great band with some amazing musicians playing classic R&B and blues.