Laurie Bower was the musical equivalent of a Swiss Army knife: trombone player, singer, conductor, choral arranger, mentor and even professional whistler.
A mainstay on the Toronto music circuit for nearly six decades, Mr. Bower, who died in Toronto on Jan. 19 at the age of 82, was steeped in the retro swing-era sounds of the big bands and lush vocal arrangements. He may be remembered best for founding the Laurie Bower Singers and co-founding Toronto’s Spitfire Band.
Considered a workhorse in the city’s tight-knit music business, Mr. Bower recorded jingles for thousands of television and radio commercials, ranging from local businesses to Fortune 500 companies – anything that required a big-band sound. And if any of those recordings required whistling, his were the lips to do it.
“He was the go-to whistler,” noted drummer Brian Barlow, who worked with Mr. Bower for years in the studio and on the road, and credits Mr. Bower for getting him started. “He was one of the fairest people in a business where that list is fairly small,” Mr. Barlow added.
Mr. Bower’s smooth trombone slid effortlessly across genres, from toe-tapping swing to languid jazz to Dixieland, to what radio used to call easy listening or adult contemporary. He performed a knee-weakening solo at Montreal Bistro in 2002 while playing Hogtown Blues with Ron Collier’s Big Band. The solo, rendered with a mute and just the right amount of anguish, was captured for posterity on a shaky video posted to YouTube.
He was respected as a technically skillful player – “lyrical, very melodic,” said Terry Promane, co-ordinator of jazz studies at the University of Toronto, who played trombone alongside Mr. Bower in the early 2000s. “Any trombone player who wanted to work was required to play in that style. He knew a million tunes.”
Lawrence Wayne Bower was born in Kirkland Lake, Ont., on Aug. 31, 1933, to George and Rose Bower. He earned a bachelor’s degree at U of T after studying choral technique, music education and the trombone with Harry Stevenson of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. He played trombone in the dance bands of Benny Louis, Ozzie Williams and Mart Kenney before joining the Five Playboys, fresh-faced lads in pinstriped jackets who crooned on CBC-TV’s The Jack Kane Show. (The Globe and Mail called Mr. Bower, then 23, “a 6’-1” blond.”)
He struck out on his own as a trombonist, singer and choral arranger, and became a sought-after session man in Toronto studios. He rose to greater prominence in 1967 when he conducted the Young Canada Singers, a group of 10-year-old children, in the English version of Bobby Gimby’s Centennial-year anthem, Ca-na-da.
In 1969, after singing with several CBC vocal groups, he formed the Laurie Bower Singers, known for their silky covers of pop songs by Neil Diamond, Michael Jackson, even Supertramp, among many others. The three female and three male voices (including Mr. Bower’s rich baritone), backed by an 18-piece band, performed breezy, cascading harmonies to create a mellow sound comparable to that of the Ray Conniff Singers. They made a dozen records, all arranged by Mr. Bower, had a solid fan base and plenty of TV and commercial work.
“He sang like he played trombone,” recalled one of the group’s singers, Cal Dodd, “and he was like a father figure to us.”
Mr. Dodd estimated the group recorded two jingles a day for 25 years, hawking everything from raisin bran to beer to Coca-Cola.
“If you made a record and wanted a background vocal group, you’d go to the Laurie Bower Singers,” Mr. Barlow said. “If you had a TV show and wanted a vocal group, it would be the Laurie Bower Singers.”
In the early 1980s, Mr. Bower co-founded the Spitfire Band with singer Jackie Rae, who got the name from the British war planes he flew in the Second World War, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross. It was intended as a studio orchestra that played big-band standards. But following the success of the group’s first record, the 18 members hit the road, with Mr. Bower on trombone and as vocal arranger.
The Spitfires, pronounced “a success story” by Globe jazz critic Mark Miller, played at conventions, fundraisers and public concerts, and earned a coveted residency in the late 1980s at the Imperial Room of Toronto’s Royal York Hotel. In keeping with the aviation theme, recalled Jack McFadden, who played upright bass with Mr. Bower for 25 years, they performed in 2003 at the unveiling of a statue of the original test pilot of Canada’s doomed Avro Arrow supersonic plane.
Micky Erbe, who played trumpet, recalled that Mr. Bower was a perfect choice to run the band’s day-to-day operations “because God knows he knew everyone.” After finishing their last set in the wee hours, Mr. Bower would announce that he was off to Kirkland Lake to see his mother. “He loved his family,” Mr. Erbe said.
At the same time, Mr. Bower played trombone in other local big bands, including one led by Guido Basso, a trumpet player who conceded that the trombone is much misunderstood.
“It’s a very difficult instrument. It has seven positions, and each position creates different notes” depending on the player’s embouchure, or shaping of the lips, and slide position; “with a trombone you have to find the right spot on the slide.” It’s all in the arms and lips.
“He was a great soloist,” Mr. Basso went on. “Everybody loved to hear him play Tommy Dorsey’s I’m Getting Sentimental Over You. He played the hell out of it. I mean, just right on.”
As for this sort of music, which experiences dips and swells in popularity, “it will never die out,” Mr. McFadden asserted. “It’s the greatest music that ever lived.”
Mr. Bower leaves Marilyn, his wife of 53 years; his daughter, Tracey; and three grandchildren.