Trama – Where did this band come from?
In early 1980, my band Shama’s days were over. We had achieved many great things, but fate drew us an ugly hand.
Everyone in Shama came from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario and had attended Bawating C&VS High School. The music program there was by a wonderful teacher named Frank Elliott. Every teen-aged musician who wanted to ‘really play’ came to Bawating for Frank’s instruction.
Although Brien Armstrong had played briefly with Jeff Neill in a high school dance band called ‘Bedwyr Tuckett’, collectively we all barely knew each other. Michael Sicoly and I were ‘Beatle Brothers’ and played the odd gig in pubs (until we were busted for playing underage). It was Jeff’s idea to get the 4 of us together in one band. It took about 2 years to formulate, but it indeed happened.
Back in The Soo, Mike had a band with his father. It was a pop/jazz standard band called ‘Solid Gold’. I had a band that played high school dances and the odd wedding etc. called Balderdash. The band included Rene and Tim Huot, Rosanne and Pauline Bourgoin and myself. It was a great vocal band.
On January 2nd, 1976 Michael Sicoly and I flew from Sault Ste. Marie Ontario to Vancouver BC to start a brand new band with people I hardly knew. I knew Michael of course… and Michael knew Jeff, and Jeff knew Brien. It was a total gamble. We rehearsed for 4 days in a basement of a house in Delta BC and hit the road.
As Shama set it’s course to sail and spear-headed by our visionaries, Brien Armstrong and Jeff Neill, it became our plan to never play Vancouver until we came in as a ‘big band’ so that we would inspire Bruce Allen’s interest. We wanted Bruce as our manager and no one else would do. Bruce had the machine that was behind Bachman, Turner Overdrive (BTO) and reputedly was as ruthless as they came but he got results. He had quickly become the most revered manager on the Canadian music scene and probably North America, and that was the guy in Shama’s sights. He was a major goal for us.
I remember Brien Armstrong picking up a book on BTO that he and I both read just to get an idea of how to deal with Bruce when the day came that he was to be our manager.
We had played for over 2 years in the Alberta and Saskatchewan prairies… back and forth, back and forth, and back and forth. Saskatchewan paid a lot for Shama per week – in those days we were making up to and over $5000.00 a week in those markets, but although those audiences became devoted Shama fans they were ho-hum people to play for. Alberta by contrast would pay roughly half to two thirds of what we made in Saskatchewan, but the crowds were insane and our fan-base was huge. Line-ups would start around the block of most places we played by 3:00pm and 4:00pm in the afternoon waiting for the doors to open at 7:00pm or 8:00pm. It was so silly that we rarely had cameras with us. Those pictures would be amazing to see now.
The money we made in Saskatchewan afforded us some great gear and crew. Outright we owned a full JBL system with a brand new Soundcraft Series 2S board (the first one in Canada), a fabulous light show complete with smoke shows and fire, our own staging, a 5-ton truck and a van. Canada’s ‘Rolling Stone’ Music Express Magazine wrote full-page articles on Shama and numerous other blurbs on the band normally reserved for only big recording acts. Shama was huge in the Prairies.
Word got out to the west coast that we were causing quite a stir and when we finally made our debut at the infamous ‘Body Shop’ Nightclub in downtown Vancouver, Bruce Allen sat at the very front table on opening night to watch us. He obviously liked what he saw and invited us down to his office the next day to offer his services over a handshake.
By that time BTO was over (Randy Bachman had moved on…without him there was no real leader) and Bruce was looking for new hot acts. He had Prism (with Jim Vallance as it’s principle writer and visionary) hitting the charts, Tom Cochrane’s band ‘Red Rider’ finishing up their debut album, and Loverboy in the wings signed to CBS Records and waiting to start recording their first album to be co-produced by Paul Dean of Loverboy and Prism’s producer, Bruce Fairbairn. There was a ‘new’ guy on the scene that had taken over from Nick Gilder’s sudden departure from ‘Sweeney Todd’ after the huge success of the hit ‘Roxy Roller’. His name was Bryan Guy Adams and he had visions of super-stardom. Reputedly Bruce (being the unruly one), had had Bryan Adams ‘dismissed’ from his office several times when Bryan appealed to Bruce to be his manager. Bryan was starting to write with Jim Vallance of Prism and the two of them had a great synergy together as a writing team.
But – Bruce was not interested in Bryan.
Bruce’s reasoning was simple. Sweeney Todd had broken without the ‘Bruce Allen Machine’. In fact, Barry Samuels of ‘Axis Entertainment’ managed Sweeney Todd and Bruce hated that they had success without him. Although Bryan was only in Sweeney Todd for a little over a year to do one album and a handful of tours, Bruce wanted nothing to do with him. Undaunted, Bryan brought his demos down to LA and scored himself a record deal with A&M Records. Armed with that, he came back to Bruce’s office in Vancouver and showed Bruce what he had achieved. They shook hands and the rest is history.
Back to Shama in all of this:
Bruce immediately put Shama in the studio with Jim Vallance producing. The results were less than stunning. Shama had very weak songs that went over great live but came off very substandard when recorded in the studio. The writing was very novice and Shama needed help, but being a proud band, we were reluctant to allow outside writers to come in.
Bruce then decided that since Paul Dean of Loverboy had produced a great demo for their band that landed them a spot with CBS Records, he should be the next person that would take a stab at producing a killer demo for Shama.
Bruce’s plan was simple. He would get Loverboy recorded and out on tour, then do the same with Bryan Adams, then get Shama recorded and out on tour. It was a one-two-three rock & roll punch. Sadly Bruce’s idea was never to happen.
At the time that Paul Dean was coming around to see Shama play and take notes on the songs, a curious and unique business deal was transpiring.
Bruce Allen and Sam Feldman ran ‘Bruce Allen Talent’ which booked all the best bands in the Vancouver area. Bruce also now managed Shama separately from the agency. Bruce Allen Talent was the biggest and best agency of the Vancouver music scene and had most of the biggest and best bands in its roster.
Sam pretty much ran the agency side of the business, while Bruce handled artist management. The only band that Sam managed himself at that time was ‘Trooper’ who was produced by Randy Bachman and had some great success, albeit only in Canada.
Bruce Allen and Sam Feldman had started becoming ‘unfriendly’ with each other, but being smart business people, they decided that they would have the perfect ‘divorce’. They would part company but would each make 50% of the agency and the management. Bruce would keep Bruce Allen Talent solely as a management company and Sam would make 50% of Bruce’s business. Sam would start up a ‘new agency’ called S.L. Feldman and Associates and Bruce would make 50% of what Sam made with the agency. They were out of each other’s hair, but would still reap rewards together as always. A brilliant way to keep money out of lawyers hands in retrospect but it didn’t work out too well for Shama.
Trooper had made enormous strides on a national level and was now the biggest band in Canada. When that happened, they decided to part company with their producer Randy Bachman and look ‘south’ for a producer to see if with that connection they could make their way into the USA. Enter Howard Steele.
Howard Steele was out of LA and had some great success as an engineer/mix engineer for quite a few albums in the mid to late 70’s (Leo Sayer, Burton Cummings, Alice Cooper) and now wanted to make a name for himself as a ‘producer’. So in 1979 he produced the album ‘Flying Colours’ for Trooper. Randy had always run a tight ship in the studio and professionally. No ‘substances’ of any kind. Randy was a practicing Mormon at the time and did not allow anything in the studio. With Randy now gone, it became somewhat of a free-for-all and the album showed it. Ra and Smitty’s writing (with a couple of songs by keyboardist Frank Ludwig) was as great as usual, but it all lacked the magic the band had when Randy was at the helm.
Regardless, in the late spring/summer Bruce had set it up so Shama would back up Trooper to play arenas across Western Canada. ‘Flying Colours’ had not yet been released, but ‘Hot Shots’ (Trooper’s greatest hits album) was burning up the charts so the band was hotter than ever.
The idea was to see how Shama would do on a concert stage.(They needn’t have worried…. We were built for it)
This tour was happening right at the same time that Sam and Bruce were parting company. A strange event was happening in Vancouver due to this ‘partnership split’.
Sam was starting to see all of the agency’s best bands being courted by the smaller agencies now that there was no ‘Bruce Allen Talent Agency’ to speak of and S.L. Feldman and Associates stood to lose some of their great bands to ‘Axis Entertainment’, ‘Barry Samuels’, ‘Marie Hedeman’, ‘Notable Agency’, ‘Siegel Entertainment’… the list is long.
To stop this, they felt they needed to secure some of their main bands to ‘sign’ exclusively to S.L. Feldman and Associates. Enter Shama…
During the entire Trooper tour, Sam was courting Shama to a ‘management deal’. He would put us in the studio with the big LA producer ‘Howard Steele’ who had just done an amazing job for Trooper (the album wasn’t out yet so there was no barometer to see how ‘great a job’ he had actually done).
Sam’s big pitch to us was that he was going to get us into a ‘real studio’ with a ‘real producer’ while Bruce was just getting us together with ‘Paul Dean’… and what had Paul Dean accomplished that was any good? (Indeed, Paul had left Streetheart due to incredibly bad mismanagement of that band and started Loverboy. They were signed due to Paul’s demo, but nobody at that time knew how big Loverboy would actually become.)
After the tour was over, Sam flew Howard up to Calgary to see us play at a nightclub. Howard decided immediately we needed a make over and that we should cut all our hair off, dress ‘new wave’ and have all of our music reflect that.
So we did… step one of Shama’s demise…
I personally remember that the band unanimously had to vote to ‘oust Bruce’ and ‘go with Sam’. I was totally against it.
During the Trooper tour, Trooper’s keyboardist and vocalist Frank Ludwig and I became fast friends. He knew what Sam was doing with regards to Shama and pleaded with me over and over again… ‘Sam is a GREAT guy, but you guys have BRUCE! Do you know how much bigger Trooper would be with Bruce instead of Sam? Do not lose Bruce. You guys have it made!!!
Regardless, the band was starting to buy Sam’s sales pitch and they were on me to agree to this new development. It was in the back kitchen of ‘The Fun Palace’ in Abbotsford BC before stage when I finally caved and agreed that we would go with Sam.
Almost immediately we ‘signed’ with Sam (Bruce was only a handshake deal as all of his deals are). From there we went into the studio. Was it with Howard Steele? Nope!!!
We found ourselves in the studio with Trooper’s road manager Randy Berswick. Now I have nothing against Randy as a person for the most part, but he was suspiciously unqualified for this job. He had ZERO experience, and from what I know of, he hasn’t done anything like that since. You couldn’t help but wonder if we were blatantly lied to in order for S.L. Feldman and Associates to have the ability to say to other bands “You need to come with our agency. All the best bands are… even Shama dropped Bruce Allen as manager to come with us…” Sickening in retrospect.
What was Randy Berswick’s great contribution during that studio time? He suggested that we MUST find a new drummer and fire Brien. He assured us that we three were in fact the real talent and that Brien was just dragging us down.
In actual fact, Brien was the leader of the band, the problem solver, the visionary – and when anything went wrong, he had a way of making it right.
Shortly after, we had a meeting in a hotel room at The Royal Towers Hotel in New Westminster BC to break the news to Brien. I couldn’t even look at him.
It was step two in Shama’s demise.
In April of 1980, I was married to Joanne; Carolyn was 5 and our baby Carman had just been born the previous October 10th. I bought a house that month out in Abbotsford for my young little family. We barely had anything to live on, but we had a house in a decent neighbourhood.
Once Brien was let go, he had the courtesy to play gigs with us until we found our new drummer. That’s the kind of guy Brien was. His wife Brenda would come to shows and sob uncontrollably over the injustice of it all, but Brien, true to form, took it on the chin and still tried to help ‘his brothers’ even though there was absolutely nothing in it for him what-so-ever.
Word was out that drummer Bob Ego would quit Streetheart to join Shama. Bob had taken over from Matt Frenette in Streetheart after Paul Dean asked Matt to play in his new band ‘Loverboy’. Bob was also Jeff Neill’s brother-in-law and like most people was a Shama fan.
There was also talk that drummer Bernie Aubin would quit the Headpins to join Shama. The Headpins was a throw together club act that was put together by Brian ‘Too Loud’ McLeod and bassist Ab Bryant when they were off the road with their regular band ‘Chilliwack’. Chilliwack was about to hit the road again leaving Bernie with nothing to do.
By May/June I had driven out from Abbotsford to a rehearsal space in Vancouver (roughly an hour each way) to wait for drummers that would never show up. On the last one, I looked at Jeff and Mike and told them I couldn’t do this any more. I had mouths to feed. I grabbed my amp and guitar and went home.
Shama was officially over.
Although we had played our cards right at every turn, once we had Bruce Allen as our manager, we lost sight of our own vision and started to let the outside influences destroy our perfect little band.
I had to to find work anywhere I could in Abbotsford. I worked the door at ‘The Fun Palace’ nightclub for a while. It was so ironic being that was the very place where I had finally agreed to a decision that would end Shama for good just a few months earlier.
I found a lounge that I approached to do a ‘solo’ in. They said yes. I was petrified. I had never played by myself ever at that time. I decided to go to a local music store, rent some gear and make ‘back up tapes’ to play along to. I had never heard of anyone doing it at that time, and it was years before the karaoke boom but it seemed logical to a guy who had never played without a full band around him. Now it very common to go see an artist do an ‘unplugged’ show. Back then the only people playing solo was piano players and keyboardists…never just a guitar and voice.
While getting the gear at the store I saw that they needed another person to work there. It was a big store and really only one of the people there was clearly doing ‘all the work’ while the other guy just sat and smoked cigarettes waiting for the day to end. I found the owner of the store and he hired me. I was to start August 1st of 1980. By January of 1981 the manager left to open his own store and I became the manager of Toews Music… but that’s another story.
When Shama ended, Jeff’s marriage to Colleen was on rocky ground so Jeff moved in with an agent named Brian Wadsworth. Now that there was no Shama, Jeff and Mike had nothing to do. Brian had a brainstorm. Trooper was off the road and their drummer Tommy Stewart was such a great guy and loved to play so why not stick Jeff, Mike and Tommy together for a laugh and see what transpired?
The plan was, the new band would come in as a ‘headliner’ for the last two sets on a Friday and Saturday night. The band that was there all week would already have PA, Lights and crew. They would supply the bass amp, drums and Jeff would bring in his own guitar rig. The first gig the band had was at our old friend’s Scott Moir’s new club called ‘Scott’s Fade to Rock’. The first night came and the band didn’t have a name. Scott suggested putting the names ‘Shama’ and ‘Trooper’ together and came up with ‘Trama’. It stuck.
It was a huge success. Other clubs wanted to do this arrangement too. Tommy was a bona fide rock star at that time and the band played older tunes that people hadn’t heard in years (the term ‘classic rock’ hadn’t been invented yet). There was a show on at noon in Vancouver on CFOX radio called ‘Electric Lunch’ where you could hear nothing but music from the 60’s and maybe early 70’s. Trama simply picked their play list from that and the people ate it up. You have to remember this was a brand new thing at the time as most bands played only the most current music on the radio. Bands would seldom or never play ‘oldies’. So ‘Trama’ was the right band doing the right music at the right time.
It worked well for up and coming bands trying to break into ‘better rooms’ as well. They would play there all week and Trama would be brought in at the end. It guaranteed a packed house and exposure for the bands.
After a few months of fun, Tommy had to go back on the road with Trooper. Jim Vallance was essentially just staying at home writing with Bryan Adams at that time and doing commercial jingle sessions, so when he was asked to join Trama he immediately joined.
The band was better than ever musically. Even though Jim wasn’t thought of as a ‘rock star’ like Tommy was, by then the band was very well established and people came to see them anywhere they played. The musicality of the band stepped up a lot with Jim. He was a solid and musical drummer and understood music very well as a multi-instrumentalist, writer and producer. It wasn’t unheard of to see them do a Jeff Beck ‘Blow By Blow’ tune right next to ‘Roadhouse Blues’ and have the people eat it all up. It was a very good trio.
Jeff got the call to join Streetheart in 1981. It was a dream gig for him at the time. Streetheart encapsulated all that Jeff stood for musically… especially discipline. Jeff loves a very tight well-oiled machine and Streetheart was that even after Paul Dean departed and went on to start Loverboy.
With Jeff’s departure, Michael phoned me one day to ask if I would consider playing in Trama with he and Jim. I said yes before thinking it through. After all, I had never been a lead player in my professional career. I was always more of a singer and rhythm guitarist for Jeff in Shama. Never the less, I joined and it was an honour to play with Jim.
After a time however, Bryan’s album ‘You Want It, You Got It’ started to take off with radio play and sales. It was obvious to Jim that he concentrate solely on his writing and stop playing live ASAP. He sadly gave his notice but it was all for the right reasons. Jim and I are still great friends to this day.
Luckily by that time, Tommy was back at home after yet another Trooper tour and looking for something to do. We started playing with Tommy after a few rehearsals out at the music store I still managed. The band was a huge hit with this configuration. Tommy sang where Jim didn’t, and was such a hilarious person to be around the fun was through the roof.
After a time, it was suggested that we do a full week in a club. We decided it would be fun to ‘own’ our own stage and a full week so we played out at a new club called ‘Gators’ in Richmond BC. Since we didn’t have a sound or light tech, The Headpins sound tech Ted Ewasiuk did sound and lights for us that week.
It was a huge success and with that success, we started getting calls to do full weeks in every club in the Vancouver scene and there were a lot of them back then. I was working at the store in Abbotsford 5-6 days a week, sometimes from 9am to 9pm, and then driving the 45-60 minutes to Vancouver to play 10-2:00 am. It was tiring but I was having the time of my life.
We needed a crew. Our first week at ‘Outlaws’ (a massive 800 seat club in downtown Vancouver) we got our team together/ Michael Frelone came in to mix us after being the sound tech for Jerry Doucette. He brought along a young girl (underage at the time) to do lights for us. Her name was Kathy Vandale (now Kathleen Crawford). We all became an instant family. Everyone got along so well and it bordered on perfection at all times. I had never seen such instant camaraderie with so many diverse people.
Trama successes kept leapfrogging over each other. Sellouts everywhere – line-ups – huge fan bases and concerts. We got to back up Three Dog Night in Victoria one night at The Royal Theatre. I was a huge TDN fan (still am) and it was an honour to hear the kind words they had to say about us.
Our old friend Sam Feldman even stepped up to plate. Seeing how Trama was the biggest draw his agency had, he offered to pay for us to go into Little Mountain Sound on his tab and record an EP. We did 5 songs there. Two penned by Michael and three covers that we remade into our own. All the songs were live off the floor with overdubs.
1) I Saw the Light (a remake of the Todd Rundgren Classic)
American Girl (A song Michael wrote about some obnoxious ‘southern girl’ he met on the slopes in Whistler)
Mislead: I’ve always loved this one that Michael wrote. It was actually written back just after Shama had broken up when Jeff and Michael we’re starting to work with Jim Vallance in his home studio. I remember hearing the cassette of the demo of this song from those days and it was spectacular. The guitar chugging along in a ‘cello-like’ pattern was totally Jeff’s idea from those original sessions… and it was a good one
Eleanor: we always loved doing this Turtles song live and it was a crowd favourite. We found we had a little extra time at the end of the Little Mountain sessions, so we quickly added it to the sessions.
One of Sam Feldman’s stipulations for picking up the tab for us at Little Mountain was for us to do this song as part of the sessions. We never did it live that I can recall, and although in retrospect it’s a pretty good pop song for the time, I can’t recall who wrote it and it did nothing for us at all. Regardless we spent very little time on it.. and in a way, it shows.
I’ll Be There in a Heartbeat
In early 1984, we were playing at ‘The Embassy’ nightclub in Vancouver when Tom Lavin (Powder Blues) walked in with a friend of his named Ken Spence. They were looking to record a band at Tom’s ‘Blue Wave’ studio and were shopping for a band that had decent songs to produce. Ken had just recently come to Vancouver after having worked with with Nina Hagen in Germany. The idea was Ken would produce a project to be overseen by Tom. That night in particular, they were really taken with a song Michael had written called ‘When the Rain Comes Down’ so they knew they wanted to record that. The search was on for ‘song number two’ to record. They wanted to hear everything we had, so Michael and I went into Blue Wave one day and sat on stools in the studio with acoustic guitars on. Since I knew every song Mike wrote (I was a fan and supporter) we whipped through everything he had that was deemed ‘ready to record’ onto a cassette tape recorder attached to there studio board for Ken and Tom to listen through. On a whim, we also submitted a live ‘board tape’ that our sound-tech Michael Frelone had recently recorded.
A few weeks previous to all this happening, we were rehearsing at ‘Frams’ in The Fraser Arms Hotel one afternoon before a gig. I had never really written before, but at the rehearsal I threw an idea I had out called ‘One Way or The Other’. It was kind of a ‘nothing song’ but Tommy and to a lesser extent Michael were kind enough to help me finish it. We started playing it live that night and would do it sporadically during our week long gigs. Out of all the songs we submitted to Ken and Tom, it happened to be on that particular board tape and it became the 2nd song they wanted to record.
These sessions were a bit different (especially for Tommy). Because Ken had previously worked with ‘synth based’ acts out of Europe, he wanted to do the drum tracks with a ‘LINN Drum machine’ which was the state of the art drum machine; at that time, fairly recent in the recording game. Tommy helped them program the songs with the LINN Drum’s owner, ‘Kat Hendricks’, but with regards to his ‘organic playing’, he was demoted to percussion and background vocals. Dave Pickell was and is a brilliant session keyboard player on the Vancouver music scene and he was brought in to the sessions as well to provide synthesizer pads and arpeggios that we wouldn’t have thought of doing in a million years. We were mainly a guitar, bass and drums trio… so this was a bit of a departure for us… and although it worked for ”One Way or The Other’ (being a very simple groove), I’m not sure Michael’s song benefitted from the ’embellishment’.
The sessions themselves were painful at times. Bad feelings had started to infiltrate our little unit and some pettiness and insecurities permeated throughout the recording of these songs. I remember being very unhappy with my vocal performance on ‘One Way or the Other’ and begged to redo it, but our allotment wouldn’t allow any extra time, so it stayed as a terrible, ‘first pass’ vocal. Also there was no time to put a proper solo on that particular song either… but here it is with all the warts:
Michael’s song ‘When the Rain Comes Down’, was a nicely crafted little pop song and turned out much better in my opinion (extra keyboards and all):
All in all, to be fair, the sessions costs us nothing and gave me a couple of songs to share here.
The band broke up in May of 1984. It reformed later that year with a new guitarist (Brent Knudsen). By then I had other commitments. In 1984 Jeff had quit Streetheart, come back into town and we had started a power trio with me on bass and Bernie Aubin on drums called ‘Paradox’. That band had it’s own successes and triumphs.
Trama has switched members many times over the years. The name lives on, but there hasn’t been one original member in the band for almost 2 decades now.
On May 10 of 2014, Mike, Tommy and I played in Nanaimo for a nightclub reunion.
The club was called ‘Shuffles’ and it was one of our favorite places to play and certainly the friendships we built in that town still exist to this day. We are extremely happy to be able to do this again. It’s not forever. We all have other lives and commitments now… but to revisit that kind of innocent fun will be a wonderful experience.
Posted March 29, 2014
Trama (Tommy, Michael and I) had a reunion show (one night only) at The Point in Port Moody on Sunday May 25th, 2014
Thanks for reading this little story, and I look forward to seeing your replies back on here 🙂
For the past 33 years, Donnie Underhill has maintained the leadership of Trama and it’s franchise therefore the band’s name is still active at the time of this writing.
These people have all been in ‘a Trama band’ in the Vancouver music scene at one time or another since 1980: