The Downchild Blues Band is a Canadian blues band, described by one reviewer as “the premier blues band in Canada”. The band is still commonly known as the Downchild Blues Band, though the actual band name was shortened to “Downchild” in the early 1980s. The Blues Brothers band was heavily influenced by Downchild Blues Band.
“(Donnie) Walsh has been called the ‘father of Canadian blues’ and with good reason. He is a blues pioneer on the Canadian scene. It was Walsh who paid the highest dues so that later Canadian blues acts, such as the Jeff Healey Band, the Colin James Band, the Powder Blues, Sue Foley, The Sidemen and The Highliners could also enjoy their success. The Canadian blues scene, which has blossomed nicely in the last few years, was relatively barren in the late 1960s when The Downchild Blues Band first started out.'” (David Dicaire, More Blues Singers: Biographies of 50 Artists from the Later 20th Century)
The Downchild Blues Band was formed in Toronto in 1969 and continues to perform today. It was co-founded by two brothers, Donnie “Mr. Downchild” Walsh and Richard “Hock” Walsh. The band’s international fame is partially due to three of its songs, the originals “I’ve Got Everything I Need (Almost)” and “Shot Gun Blues”, and its adaptation of “Flip, Flop and Fly”, all from its 1973 album, Straight Up, being featured on the first Blues Brothers album, Briefcase Full of Blues (1978). “Flip, Flop and Fly” has been Downchild’s only hit single, and became the signature song of Hock Walsh. The band’s musical style is described as being “a spirited, if fundamental, brand of jump-band and Chicago-style blues”.
The band name came from the Sonny Boy Williamson II song, “Mr. Downchild”. The initial band membership was Donnie “Mr. Downchild” Walsh, who remains the sole constant band member, with younger brother Rick “Hock” Walsh on vocals, accompanied by Dave Woodward, Cash Wall, John Tanti, and Jim Milne. They were the house band at the fabled Grossman’s Tavern from 1968 to 1970, managed briefly by former folk musician, Ron Gerston. Classically trained pianist Jane Vasey joined the band in 1973.
The initial blues musical influence on Donnie Walsh was Jimmy Reed. He was later greatly influenced by James Cotton, both in terms of musical style and band format. Walsh and Cotton later became personal friends. Donnie Walsh described these early influences as follows: “Jimmy Reed. I heard him on my girlfriend’s birthday party. Some guys brought a Jimmy Reed album over and that was it, for me. …I’d put him on the record player, and when I went to sleep at night, it would still be playing when I’d get up in the morning. Then I’d play him all day, and it was unreal. Then, of course, I spread out to Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Albert King. Then, I got a job in a record store. A blues record store that stocked 45s only. All alphabetical all around the whole room. You’d go to the Muddy Waters section, and there would be eight Muddy Glasses of water singles. You’d go to the Sonny Boy Williamson section, and there would be five Sonny Boy Williamson singles.”
The band’s first album, Bootleg, is regarded as one of the first independent albums ever produced in Canada. It was recorded over two nights in 1971, in a makeshift studio at Toronto’s Rochdale College. Donnie Walsh and others distributed the album by hand. It was welcomed by major Toronto music retailer Sam Sniderman, of Sam The Record Man renown, who was very much disposed to promoting Canadian music. The record was soon acquired by RCA Records Canada for more general distribution.
According to Donnie Walsh, more than 120 musicians have been associated with Downchild since its 1969 founding. The band has never lost its focus on blues music. While certain band members have left to pursue what was perceived to be a more lucrative rock music career, Donnie Walsh has a different perspective: “Just around when I started there were all these guys in blues bands and of course they were impatient and they wanted to make some more money so they became rock bands. I played the blues then and I play the blues now. That’s what I love. … It’s a living thing, it’s living music. By living and breathing it goes on and what that means is that instead of being the same kind of music somebody else wrote years ago, it lives and evolves. Blues is serious stuff, it’s a heavy kind of music in your soul. You show up with the blues I play, you lighten up. That’s what it’s all about. It’s like medicine.”
In 1982, the band suffered a major setback with the untimely death of keyboard player Jane Vasey, who succumbed to leukemia at the age of thirty-two. Donnie Walsh, who was living with Vasey at the time, took a period of time off to reflect on his future and that of the band. The band came back in the fall of 1982, with both a new singer and a new keyboard player, by way of a live recording from Toronto’s historic El Mocambo club, But I’m On The Guest List.
Despite being closely identified with the band’s initial sound and also being the co-writer, with brother Donnie Walsh, of “Shot Gun Blues”, later recorded by the Blues Brothers, Hock Walsh would leave, rejoin and be replaced as lead singer in the band on several occasions. He was first fired from the band in 1974, shortly before work began on the band’s third album, Dancing. At that time, he was replaced by Tony Flaim. Hock rejoined the band in 1977 and 1985. He was fired by his brother Donnie for a final time in 1990 and replaced by Chuck Jackson. Chuck Jackson has remained the lead singer of Downchild since that time.
Notwithstanding their strained relationship, Donnie Walsh assessed his brother’s ability as follows: “He was a fabulous singer; he could sing the blues better than anybody I’ve ever heard. He had the timing, the phrasing, a fabulous voice… he was just great.” Hock Walsh died on December 31, 1999, at the age of 51, of an apparent heart attack. Performing on his own and with his own bands since 1990, he had been scheduled to perform a New Year’s Eve concert with blues singer Rita Chiarelli. His last recordings were three tracks on 4 Blues, the 1998 debut album of Toronto’s Big Daddy G Review.
Tony Flaim, the initial replacement for Hock Walsh in Downchild and featured on six of the band’s albums, also died of a heart attack, on March 10, 2000, less than three months after Hock Walsh. He was 52. Flaim’s near nine-year association with Downchild covered most of the 1975 to 1982 period, including a period when Hock Walsh rejoined the band in 1977, plus 1986 to 1988. He was succeeded by a returning Hock Walsh, who was fired by his brother for a final time in 1990. During the 1982-1986 period, Flaim was replaced by John Witmer, former lead singer of the well-respected Toronto blues band Whiskey Howl, while Hock Walsh rejoined the band for a brief period in 1985. One of Tony Flaim’s last public performances was at a tribute to the late Hock Walsh, in February 2000, at Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern.
Most of the current lineup has been together since 1990, when Chuck Jackson (vocals) and Michael Fonfara (keyboards) joined Donnie Walsh (guitar and harmonica) and Pat Carey (sax). Sax player Pat Carey was the first to join the current Downchild lineup, in 1985, a year after arriving in Toronto and commencing his Toronto musical career playing with both Hock Walsh and Tony Flaim. Bass player Gary Kendall joined Downchild for a second time in 1995, after first playing with the band during the 1979-1983 period. They were later joined by drummer Mike Fitzpatrick, who first recorded with the band on the Come On In album (2004).
Later accolades include winning a Juno Award for “Blues Album of the Year” in 2014 for “Can You Hear The Music”, Downchild’s 17th album; a nomination for “Blues Album of The Year” in 2005, plus winning the Maple Blues Award as “Entertainers of The Year” in both 2005 and 2006. In addition, the band’s connection to The Blues Brothers has continued. In 2005, when Dan Aykroyd and James Belushi toured as The Blues Brothers, Donnie Walsh joined them onstage at Ontario’s Casino Rama. Donnie Walsh’s song, “I’ve Got Everything I Need (Almost)” was selected in 2007 as one of 125 “essential” Canadian songs, and the only blues song on the list.
Michael Fonfara died on 8 January 2021 in a Toronto hospital, following a two-year battle with cancer.  Later that summer, Downchild embarked on a 50th anniversary tour, long delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (wikipedia)
Bootleg is the debut album from the Canadian blues group the Downchild Blues Band released in 1971.
Having been rehearsing and playing live shows since 1969, the band proceeded to create one of Canada’s earliest independent records. Recorded over two nights in 1971 in a makeshift studio at Toronto’s Rochdale College, Donnie Walsh and others distributed the album by hand. It was also welcomed by major Toronto music retailer Sam Sniderman of Sam the Record Man renown, who was very much disposed to promoting Canadian music. The record was soon acquired by RCA Records Canada for more general distribution. It reached number 62 in Canada in May 1972.(wikipedia)
This debut album was recorded with Don Walsh (guitar), Rick ‘The Hock’ Walsh (vocals), Jim Milne (bass), Cash Wall (drums) and the saxophonists Dave Woodward and Ron Jacobs. This team was a well-oiled blues machine at the time of recording and you got to hear that on the album. No doubt the circumstances of the recording played an important role in the authenticity – the album was recorded virtually live over two nights in a makeshift ‘studio’ set up at Rochdale College in Toronto. The band then self-distributed the album, which is why it is considered one of Canada’s early ‘indie’ albums. However, the major label RCA soon smelled a rat and took matters into their own hands. With success: Bootleg reached number 62 in the Canadian charts by May 1972. Not bad for an originally privately released album.
So much for the genesis, now a bit about the band. According to many experts, the Downchild Blues Band is one of the most important blues bands from Canada. It was formed in the 1960s, later the band name was shortened to Downchild. The band is said to have been a great influence for the (US) Blues Brothers. I could also imagine that the British Blues Band had at least some knowledge of their Canadian colleagues.
And now to the music. You don’t have to dissect blues albums in a big way, the question is usually how authentically a band acted and whether they took other styles into account besides blues. This was the case with Downchild – they offered an entertaining form of blues or blues-rock, which for my taste also offered certain R’n’R or 50s vibes through the saxophone support.
In this sense, the Downchilder mix well grooving or shuffling 50s sound (Rock It, Just A Little Bit, Down In Virginia), Slow Blues (That’s All Right) and more complex patterns (e.g. Messin’ With The Kid).
The band rarely surprises, everything sounds instantly familiar, which is especially strong when the band builds on classic guitar themes (e.g. Don’t you Bother My Baby, Change My Way of Livin’, You Don’t Have To Go or Next time You See Me). The material is played cleanly to rousing and finds its climax, for my taste, in the closing slightly dramatic I’m Sinkin’.
Blues/blues-rock albums are a dime a dozen. After the blues explosion in the UK, one was quite used to ‘adepts’ being able to at least interpret the idols properly. Canada’s Downchild were similar, but a little different. For me, they seem a bit more authentic than many UK bands and musically Downchild were already where the British Blues Band (with the Official Bootleg Album – a hint at Downchild?) or the US Blues Brothers were in the late 70s. Downchild offered all this already in 1971 and it is a pleasure to listen to this album. Sure, in the end it’s ‘just’ an interpretation of the blues, but it seems coherent to me from the first note to the final chord on I’m Sinkin’. (MP)
Ron Jacobs (saxophone)
Jim Milne (bass)
Cash Wall (drums)
Don Walsh (guitar)
Rick (The Hock) Walsh (vocals)
Dave Woodward (saxophone)
01. Rock It (D.Walsh) 3.59
02. Just A Little Bit (Gordon) 3.06
03. Down In Virginia (Reed) 3.36
04. That’s All Right (Rogers) 4.56
05. Messin’ With The Kid (London) 3.24
06. Don’t You Bother My Baby (D.Walsh) 4.07
07.Change My Way Of Livin’ (Mahal) 5.09
08. You Don’t Have To Go (Reed) 3.08
09. Next Time I See You (Harvey/Forrest) 2.53
10. I’m Sinkin’ (R.Walsh/D.Walsh) 3.03
More from the Downchild Blues Band:
The offical website: