Obituary: John Fisher, Victoria’s godfather of the blues

Mention the name of John Fisher — a.k.a. Victoria’s Godfather of the Blues — and one subject always comes up.

The suits.

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Fisher, who died March 14 at the age of 69, loved performing in vintage suits. Sharon Wadsworth, his wife, says the singer-guitarist haunted thrift shops up and down Vancouver Island, searching for good ones. Some of these suits, with wide lapels and eye-popping plaids or prints, reflected the fashions of the 1970s.

Fisher wanted to not only pay tribute to his early blues heroes (many of whom dressed this way) — he hoped to become one.

Or something like that.

“I honestly believe when he got on stage and got those suits on, he changed. He moved into Johnny Shuffles,” Wadsworth said. “That was his persona. He wanted to become that person.”

Johnny Shuffles was Fisher’s pseudonym, his blues handle. Shuffles was a dapper guy who sometimes slipped into a slight Southern twang. Shuffles was a skilled musician who could play slide guitar in an historically authentic manner influenced (as were all slide blues guitarists) by Mississippi bluesman Elmore James.

When people stop talking about Fisher’s suits, they start talking about his stature in Victoria’s close-knit blues community. In this city, blues and blues-rock are especially popular. For instance, since the Victoria Blues Society was founded a decade ago, more than 750 people have joined.

Singer Deb Rhymer, the society’s chairwoman, said Fisher is considered one of the founding fathers of the blues in Victoria. That sentiment was echoed by many, including saxophonist Morgan Onda, who played for years in Fisher’s band Elmore’s Bar and Grill.

“He was sort of like the godfather [of the blues], without sounding too Sicilian about it,” Onda said.

Fisher’s godfatherly status is, in part, linked to his years with Blues X Five (Blues by Five). The group, which gigged from 1965 to 1967, is considered Victoria’s first bona-fide blues act.

The Royal City Music Project, a website documenting the history of bands in Victoria, deems Blues X Five this city’s most influential blues group.

“They were Victoria’s original blues band,” said Glenn Parfitt, Royal City Music Project’s creator. “John was a true blues purist. He was very passionate about being true to his art and his craft.”

Guitarist Norm MacPherson — who went on to play with Skylark, Valdy and Burton Cummings — was a member of Blues X Five. He first met Fisher in the early 1960s.

MacPherson’s older brother, Dave, and Fisher would come home from Mount Douglas Secondary on their lunch hour and after school to listen to music.

Fisher, who had a part-time job at the Greater Victoria Public Library, was able to borrow recordings far removed from the pop hit parade. For MacPherson, it opened up a new and exciting world.

“I remember one time, it had to be ’63, he brought home this record called Exotic Sounds of the East. And it was Ravi Shankar. We listened to this music and were absolutely stunned and blown away,” MacPherson said.

Most importantly, Fisher turned his friends on to blues music by such legends as Big Bill Broonzy. This was before the British invasion of the mid-’60s, when acts such as the Rolling Stones turned the greater public on to the blues.

“John was a very hip guy,” MacPherson said. “He knew music I’d never heard of.”

The teens formed a skiffle group called the 38 Slug Jug Band, which soon morphed into Blues X Five. Emerging at a time when most Victoria bands wore matching uniforms, did choreographed steps and played hits by the Ventures, Blues X Five soon attracted a following.

The band’s big break came when it won a city-wide battle of the bands in 1967. The prize was opening for the Doors at the Memorial Arena. Although Fisher participated in the band contest, he left Blues X Five just before that dream gig.

He’d quit because Blues X Five had — following in the footsteps of the Stones and Eric Clapton — shifted from pure blues to more of a commercial rock sound. Fisher wanted to remain true to the blues, MacPherson said.

Fisher went on to play blues with bands such as John De Conqueroo and Honeybee. Eventually, with wife Wadsworth on bass, he formed Elmore’s Bar and Grill. The group, which continued for 30 years, would become Fisher’s defining blues project.

Elmore’s Bar and Grill, led by Fisher, was known as a tight unit with a real-deal blues sound. However, its most significant contribution might have hosting weekly blues jams at halls and clubs around Victoria. Elmore’s was the house band, backing aspiring musicians and singers who signed up to perform a couple of numbers.

Elmore’s started the tradition at the Fernwood Community Centre.

Over the years, the blues jam moved to a variety of venues, including the George & Dragon (now the Fernwood Inn), Bartholomew’s and Hermann’s Jazz Club.

Victoria’s Bill Johnson, a professional blues guitarist, started playing blues at Fisher’s Fernwood Community Centre jam around 1987.

“It made quite a difference, actually being able to get out to perform in front of people instead of playing blues in the basement,” said Johnson, who had previously played in rock bands. “Their jam sessions became the centre of so many people’s musical endeavors.”

Other musicians also credit the Elmore’s jams for setting them on life-long blues paths. Rhymer (now the host of her own weekly blues jam) knew just one blues tune when she started singing with Fisher’s band at Hermann’s in the early 1990s. She recalls Fisher being unusually welcoming and supportive of her fledging efforts.

Indeed, his ready smile and unflappably genial personality made him a popular figure in Victoria’s musical community. Onda describes Fisher as “the nicest guy in the world.” He was renowned for his willingness to help others.

Onda said Fisher and Wadsworth changed his life by enlisting him as a sideman when he was feeling depressed after a bad marriage. The couple also helped Onda, then unemployed, by hiring him for their company Crossroads Human Services, which provided day programs for the mentally challenged.

Another long-time member of Elmore’s, drummer Charles Gates, recalled Fisher and Wadsworth being supportive when a foot injury and cluster headaches temporarily sidelined his music career.

“They certainly picked me up and help me out a lot,” he said.

Gates said Fisher was an educated person with a “formidable intellect” who was well versed in literature, art and architecture.

Fisher’s father managed a bank in Oak Bay, and for a time in the 1960s, his son worked as a teller. Fisher was clever with numbers — he later served as the Victoria Blues Society’s treasurer. However, MacPherson recalls Fisher’s long hair “caused some conflict” during his tenure as a teller.

Ultimately, he rejected a career in finance. When not playing music, Fisher worked at Glendale Lodge, which cared for the mentally challenged. After its closure, he and Wadsworth formed Crossroads Human Services.

Like other musician friends, MacPherson was employed by Crossroads for a time. He was struck by how Fisher dealt with clients.

“That’s when I really saw a side of him that I had not seen before. That was his compassion and his true humanity for the mentally handicapped. Just an incredible level of kindness and patience and empathy.”

Johnson is another in a long list of musicians who played in Elmore’s Bar and Grill. A Juno-nominated guitarist who has gigged with such blues greats as Hubert Sumlin and Son Seals, Johnson admired Fisher’s skill as a guitarist. His old friend was particularly adept at the finger-picking style employed by Chicago bluesmen to play electric guitar.

“If you could have plopped him down in Chicago, he would have seemed really authentic, playing on Maxwell Street [a favourite haunt of blues musicians] beside John Lee Hooker,” Johnson said.

The Victoria Blues Society has honoured Fisher by establishing the John Fisher Memorial Legacy. The fund will provide aspiring blues musicians the opportunity to attend the annual Hornby Island Blues Workshop.

Before he died at Royal Jubilee Hospital last month following an illness, Fisher donated his collection of kitschy suits, more than 30, to the costume loft at Langham Court Theatre. In later life Johnny Shuffles had switched sartorial gears, opting for a more elegant off-white ensemble.

“He really had it together, right down to the tie he wore and the shoes and everything. And nobody else here was performing at that level, you know,” Johnson said.

“He was an amazing ambassador for the music in Victoria.”

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