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Members include Patrick Ballantyne, acoustic guitar, vocals; Greg Beresford, percussion; Paul Brennan, drums; Chris Brown, trombone; Rich Brown, drums; Al Cross, drums; Matt DeMatteo, drums; Kate Fenner, vocals; Skeeto Gibbs, drums; Nick Gotham, saxophone; Gene P. Hardy, saxophone; Bohdan Hlusko, drums; Kelly Hoppe, harmonica, melodica, steel guitar, saxophone, acoustic guitar; Gordie Johnson, vocals, guitar; Johnny Johnson, saxophone; Kit Johnson, bass; Michael Johnson, trumpet; Molly Johnson, vocals; Garry Lowe, bass; Steve Lucas, bass; Ashley MacIsaac, fiddle; James Monroe, trombone; Walter Morgan, drums; Eric Paul, drums; Pete Prilesnik, bass; Tony Rabalao, drums; Tyler Steward, drums; David Wall, vocals, drums; Paul Anthony White, drums; Terry Wilkins, bass; Stich Wynston, drums; Ken Whiteley, accordion, mandolin, piano, organ; Andrew Whiteman, acoustic guitar, vocals. Addresses: Management--Bumstead Productions Ltd., P.O. Box 158, Stn. E. Toronto, Ontario M6H 4E2, Canada, email: info@bumstead.com. Booking--The Agency Group, 2 Berkeley St., Ste. 202, Toronto, Ontario M5A 4J5, Canada, email: toronto@theagencygroup.com. Website--Big Sugar Official Website: http://www.bigsugar.ca.

Although Big Sugar began as a Toronto back-up group for other artists--mostly jazz singers--the group is now a full-fledged band in its own right. Gordie Johnson, the heart and soul of the band, put Big Sugar together in 1990. Despite numerous personnel changes (over 30 band members in 7 years), and an ongoing search for a permanent drummer, Johnson and company have forged a unique sound. Their music may be based in the blues, but as Peter Murray wrote in Canadian Musician, "The big blues-based guitar sound of Gordie Johnson has many influences, but no simple provenance."

A year after Big Sugar was formed, the band released its self-titled debut album. Although still deeply rooted in the blues, the record reflected the transition Big Sugar was going through at the time, from a jazz-backing band to its own entity, mixing jazz, rock and blues.

After two years of near constant gigging, Johnson and company released 500 Pounds in 1993. Johnson told Keiran Grant in the Toronto Sun, "When we made 500 Pounds, the band had been playing in small clubs, and prior to that we'd been a backup band for Molly Johnson. It'd been listening to a lot of stuff, rockabilly, and old reggae, so that was how we recorded it."

500 Pounds was recorded on the cheap, and Johnson played both guitar and bass on this release. One of the guest musicians was Kelly Hoppe, an old friend of Johnson's. Hoppe and Johnson had played together in the Windsor Dukes in Windsor, Ontario, years earlier and it was for this band that Johnson switched from playing bass guitar to playing lead guitar. Soon after, Hoppe became a permanent Big Sugar member, playing harmonica, organ, sax, and other instruments.

The band continued to concentrate more on their theatric live performances than recording, but in 1995, they did release a CD called Dear Mr. Fantasy. The title track is a cover of the song by Traffic that Big Sugar often expanded upon live. That same year, during a gig, then-drummer Crash Morgan died after suffering a heart attack on stage. Johnson told Mike Ross in an online article, "It brought us to a lot of stark realizations, and caused us to look inward and really commit. I think at that point, I stopped hiring guys to be in my band--and we became a band."

A key member added in this difficult period was Gary Lowe, a Toronto-based bass player who had played reggae and dub before hooking up with Johnson. His musical background added another unexpected element to Big Sugar. Grant quoted Johnson as saying, "I have a rastaman playing bass in the band. He's the senior member of the band, and I've looked up to him for years. To have him working for me now, I'd be foolish not to draw upon his influence. I listened to reggae long before I started to apply it."

Soon after adding Lowe, Johnson thought he had found his permanent drummer in Paul Brennan, a pop/rock drummer who complemented Lowe. At the time, Johnson told Jason Schneider in ID Magazine, "I always wanted to have a solid line-up but it took a long time to find the right combination of guys. I had reggae drummers and rock bass players, that didn't work. I had a reggae bass player and a jazz drummer, that didn't work. Now I've got a reggae bass player and a pop drummer, and that seems to be a nice combination of all the stuff I really like."

Still, questions about Big Sugar's defining genre lingered, especially as the band's audience grew. The band played their music louder so the listeners would understand. Grant quoted Johnson as saying, "It's taken three years of constantly beating people over the head with skull-crushing rock `n' roll volume and stacks of amps to squelch the notion that Big Sugar is a jazz band, or a blues band, or a lounge band. Part of the idea is to juxtapose an unlikely image with a sound."

With Big Sugar's line-up on the same wavelength, the band released the full-fledged, heavy album Hemi Vision in 1996, as part of a new deal with A&M Records. Johnson explained to Tyler McLeod in the Calgary Sun, "The new album is called Hemi Vision because this music is meant to sound like a 426 Hemi [the best engine produced by Chrysler in the 1960s] idling at a stoplight. As soon as the light goes green, you just know. It's the anticipation before the light goes. That was the picture I had in my head before I went in to produce it. I wanted to be able to smell the leaded gasoline when I was done."

Hemi Vision also better reflected how the band sounded live. Loud music is a key element in Big Sugar's dynamic gigs--the band even sells earplugs at its concerts. Ross quoted Johnson as saying, "We play way too loud. You shouldn't be able to hear yourself think. I don't want people thinking. I want them focused on what's going on up on stage." Because Big Sugar has the crowd's undivided attention, the band feels pressure to deliver something more. "If you're gonna speak that loudly you'd better have something to say," Johnson told Kevin Matthews in The Manitoban. "There's a lot of responsibility that goes with playing that loud."

There's more to it than volume. Playing live gives Big Sugar room to stretch in songs. Unlike most bands, Big Sugar plays without a set list. They aim to read the crowd and entertain them appropriately. Matthews reported, "(Johnson) commits to the bombastic rock show with the sincerity that eludes most evangelists of hard rock. His role as entertainer is a question of obligation, service even, as he demonstrates a work ethic and devotion to the cult of arena rock until it seems likely that under that basic black collar is another, either blue, or spangly and clerical."

Just as things looked permanent for Big Sugar, drummer Brennan left the band in the spring of 1997 because of the stress of being on the road combined with the effects of the band's volume on his ears. He was replaced temporarily by ex-member Al Cross, and later permanently replaced by Rich Brown. The new line-up went on to release 1999's Heated, and Brothers and Sisters, Are You Ready? in 2001. At the same time, they released a French-language version of the CD, Brothers and Sisters, Êtes Vous Ready?, marking the first time an English-speaking band released both an English CD and French CD simultaneously in Canada. The put together their greatest hits of their career to date in the 2003 package Hit and Run.

Big Sugar may play loudly, but they play in style. Johnson even has an endorsement deal with Hugo Boss, and embraces the possibilities of big shows and big selling. He told Lenny Stoute in the Toronto Sun, "I want the money, I want the merchandizing, I want the corporate sponsor. It's not just about the material things. I grew up with big arena rock and the larger than life thing is still [real] to me, the heart of rock was born to be big, loud, and explosive."

Johnson and Big Sugar add a big show and a sense of theatre to the blues. Schneider wrote of Johnson's skill, "His trick has been capturing the essence of great old songs and combining them with the energy of youth, the way the songs were meant to be heard ... Great bluesmen have always been master thieves, but Johnson has expanded the game to include funk and reggae. Adding these twists to the music may in fact be the only way the blues will survive."


Big Sugar's Career

Group formed, 1990; released Big Sugar, 1991; released 500 Pounds, 1993; released Dear Mr. Fantasy, 1995; released Hemi Vision, 1996; released Heated, 1999; released Brothers and Sisters, Are You Ready?, 2001; released Hit & Run: Greatest Hits, 2003.

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