Rock of Ages
Harlequin’s George Belanger looks back at five decades of musical memories – and one momentous phone call
By David Sanderson
December 5, 2015
Thirty-five years ago, Winnipeg rock band Harlequin was in New York City recording the followup to its debut album, Victim of a Song.
The record was being produced by Jack Douglas — already an industry giant thanks to his work with acts such as Aerosmith, Alice Cooper and Cheap Trick. One afternoon, while the group was putting the finishing touches on Thinking of You, a track that would top charts across Canada six months later, Douglas bolted out of the studio to take a phone call.
“It was odd because Jack never, ever took calls when he was working,” says George Belanger, Harlequin’s longtime lead vocalist. “When he came back he was super-excited and told us, ‘I’m not allowed to discuss it but you’ll never guess who I was just talking to.’ ”
Belanger admits he’s always been a “curious-type,” so he spent the next week badgering Douglas, throwing name after name at him to see if he would break. Finally, one evening after the rest of Belanger’s bandmates had called it a night, Douglas summoned the singer over, pressed “play” on a nearby cassette deck and said, “Here, get a load of this.”
Belanger couldn’t distinguish who was strumming the guitar, but as soon as the lyrics, “Woman, I can hardly express…” kicked in, he instantly recognized the voice.
“It was John Lennon, my childhood hero,” Belanger says, adding Douglas let him on the secret that he’d been commissioned by Lennon to oversee what would turn out to be the ex-Beatle’s final studio album.
Two nights later, Belanger was taking a break between takes when he heard the phone in Douglas’s office ringing off the hook. Thinking, “Jeez, somebody’s really persistent,” Belanger picked up the receiver.
“Is Jack there?” said the person at the other end of the line.
Belanger replied no and asked the caller if he wanted to leave a message.
“Tell him it’s John.”
“I was like, ‘Holy shit, it’s him!’ ” Belanger says, mimicking Lennon’s Liverpudlian accent. “My mind started racing a mile a minute — I wanted to say, ‘Hi, I’m George from Winnipeg, I’m a huge fan, blah blah blah… ,’ but the only thing I could come up with was… ‘John who?’ ”
2015 marks a pair of significant milestones in Belanger’s career. It’s been 50 years since the Western Canadian Music Hall of Fame member stepped behind a mike for the first time to front a Grade 8 garage band dubbed the Paupers. And it’s been 40 years since he flew to Toronto to audition for Harlequin, a fledgling outfit put together by fellow Winnipegger Ralph James. (Spoiler alert: Belanger landed the job.)
Belanger was born in St. Boniface. He was raised in a strict, French-Canadian Catholic household. Because he was the eldest boy in a family of 10 children, it was expected he would eventually enter the priesthood.
“The tradition back then was you were supposed to give one child of each sex to the church so my older sister went to the nunnery and I went to seminary (school),” he says. “I was thinking maybe I’d do missionary work — that seemed like a noble thing — but that all changed when I hit puberty and started noticing girls and listening to rock ‘n’ roll. That’s when I got another calling.”
Belanger was still a member of the Paupers — a cover band that performed hits by the likes of the Kinks and the Kingsmen — when his cousin Bob Fontaine popped by his Notre Dame Street home one night in 1965 looking for directions to a community club in Winnipeg’s West End.
“At the time, Bob was managing a band from Kenora called Satan and the D-Men,” Belanger explains. “He told me he was hoping to steal the singer of a band called the Shondels and wondered if I could lead him to where they were playing.”
Belanger got his cousin to the show all right, but Mike Hanford, the vocalist Fontaine was interested in, blew him off saying, in a nutshell, “Thanks, but no thanks.” During the drive back to Belanger’s house, a song by Paul Revere and the Raiders came on the radio. Belanger started singing, which prompted Fontaine to pull over, say, “What the hell? You’re doing that perfectly,” and hire him on the spot.
Belanger spent the next decade fronting a number of different outfits, among them Nickels and Dimes (a veiled drug reference, Belanger says with a chuckle, for the amount members were spending on bags of pot), the Fifth and the Next.
“I had just wrapped up a tour with the Next — we’d put out an album with Warner Brothers and had spent a month in Eastern Canada opening for the Downchild Blues Band — when I got a call from my agent, telling me a band called Harlequin was looking for a lead singer,” Belanger says, noting the Next was on the brink of breaking up, due to a lack of commercial success.
Belanger caught a flight to Toronto the next day. He was met by a Harlequin representative who drove him to a rundown hotel in Kirkland Lake, Ont., where the band was booked for the weekend.
James and company tore through a few numbers before inviting Belanger onstage to perform in front of what was essentially an empty house. The drummer, who was doing double-duty as Harlequin’s lead singer, handed Belanger a sheet of hand-written lyrics for a tune called Shame Shame, which would eventually find its way onto the band’s first record.
“Things seemed to click right away, and at some point, a guy dressed in a full hunting uniform came in, sat at the back of the room and started watching hockey,” Belanger recalls. “The Leafs were playing, so after our set was over, we sat down next to him to watch, too. He nodded at us and said, ‘You guys were pretty good.’ It turned out the guy owned this big agency group, so the next thing we knew, we had a Toronto-based agent.”
Harlequin spent a good chunk of the 1980s on the road, touring across North America with acts such as Black Oak Arkansas, Triumph and David Lee Roth. They appeared on a double-bill with fellow Canuck band Saga in Puerto Rico, where they performed in front of 38,000 adoring fans. They also headlined a tour in Venezuela, where their song Innocence had landed in the Top 10.
“We sold a lot of records in England and Germany, too, and we always intended to get to Japan, where we had a strong following, but it never worked out,” Belanger says. (Belanger is the only member from “the old days” still with the band; the original lineup last played together in 2013 at a Songs From Winnipeg event in Toronto, which was tied to that year’s Juno Awards festivities.)
Belanger, a father of two who lost a third child in a car crash when she was 17, will toast Harlequin’s 40th anniversary with a New Year’s Eve show at the Oak. In addition to lesser-known tunes culled from the group’s five studio albums, revellers can expect to hear what Belanger refers to as “the magic seven,” a selection of radio-friendly hits that includes Survive, Superstitious Feeling and I Did It for Love.
“I get that question all the time, people asking, ‘Don’t you get sick of singing the same songs over and over?'” says Belanger, who plays an average of 25 to 30 dates a year with Harlequin. (On occasion, Belanger also sings with the Big City All-Stars, a dance band that performs primarily at weddings and corporate events.) “But I tell them it’s a new experience every time out. And that it’s still tremendously gratifying to see so many people enjoying what I do, after all this time.”
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