Entertainment

Musical Sensation

Langley’s Bernie Grinstead shows off a bit of memorabilia from the days his late wife, Bette Graham — whose photo he holds — had a successful singing career in night clubs and hotels across Canada. Fifteen years after Graham’s death, Grinstead has released 15 of her songs on a CD and sent five to radio stations all over the country. - Brenda ANDERSON/Langley Times
Langley’s Bernie Grinstead shows off a bit of memorabilia from the days his late wife, Bette Graham — whose photo he holds — had a successful singing career in night clubs and hotels across Canada. Fifteen years after Graham’s death, Grinstead has released 15 of her songs on a CD and sent five to radio stations all over the country.
— image credit: Brenda ANDERSON/Langley Times

The two thick albums of photos and press clippings are precious to Bernie Grinstead.

Inside a pair of ring binders, the Langley senior has compiled dozens of old newspaper articles and reviews, interspersed with advertisements and playbills.

Together, they paint a vivid picture of Grinstead’s late wife, Bette Graham, and a four-decade career spent singing in Canadian clubs from Montreal to Vancouver.

As the years pass, black and white images give way to colour — with that quintessential pink 1970s-era tinge.

A few from the ’80s and early ’90s occupy the back pages.

The words and accompanying images document not only a long and successful singing career, but the nearly 50 years of marriage that passed between 1952 and February, 1998, when Graham passed away from cancer at 64.

They’re memories to last Bernie Grinstead a lifetime.

Now, 15 years after his wife’s death, the Langley senior is giving her a voice once again, with the release of a CD titled Sensational Bette Graham.

With record players and cassette recorders long having given way to CDs and digital music players, and at the urging of friends, Grinstead, 82, decided it was time to re-release some of his late wife’s music in a more modern format.

The CD is made up mostly of original songs, penned by Graham.

But it also includes a few covers — The Beatles’ Fool on the Hill, Hoagy Carmichael’s  Georgia on My Mind, Willow Weep for Me, written by Ann Ronnell and  Danny Small’s Without Love.

Graham’s original songs, meanwhile, compose something of a love letter to Canada, with musical tributes to Montreal, the Yukon, Alberta and Saskatchewan, Winnipeg, the Grand Banks and the Okanagan.

Recorded years ago, the telltale crackle of vinyl is evident on many of the tracks.

Rather than just offer the CD to friends and relatives, though, Grinstead decided to try to drum up wider interest, sending five of Graham’s songs to radio stations across Canada.

“I thought, if I’m making them for friends, why not make extra for commercial use?” he said.

“I selected certain (songs) — mainly where she’d written the music and the lyrics.”

Seventy packages went out to radio stations across the country and the first response came from Canada’s public broadcaster.

“It was Vancouver CBC that picked it up and put it on the Web,” said Grinstead.

“Toronto put it on rotation on the radio.”

Combined, the five songs on the CBC website had topped 180 plays by last week.

And now, Grinstead is hearing from of those private stations he included in the mail out.

As to who’s listening, it’s anyone’s guess of course. But, likely, the music is providing trips down memory lane for many Canadians who heard Graham perform live in venues across the country all those years ago.

The couple met in 1951 in Hamilton, Ont. and married the following year. As Bernie’s career with the Royal Canadian Air Force took him to four provinces and across the Atlantic to France, Graham found places to perform each time the couple settled in a new home.

A magician himself, Grinstead became his wife’s manager and producer, booking her into hotels, night clubs and even appearances on local television shows.

In Montreal, Winnipeg and Regina (while Grinstead was stationed at nearby Moose Jaw), she built her reputation as a Canadian songstress, performing at hotels and in nightclubs with names like Chan’s Moon Room, Club Copacabana, Rancho Don Carlos and Club Morocco.

During the the couple’s time in Quebec, Graham performed at Expo ’67.

Within that same period, it wasn’t uncommon to find Premier René Lévesque in the audience, taking in her lounge act. She even performed for Pierre Trudeau once, Grinstead said.

“She did all the big shows in all the big theatres.”

In a lot of ways, he said, it was like playing Las Vegas, with show rooms that held 1,300 or 1,400 people.

Her act included blues, jazz and a touch of country, Grinstead explained. Graham also did revues of favourites from the Gay ’90s and Roaring ’20s.

“These were clubs with a real Vegas atmosphere. There were guys at the door in tuxes. You could tip ‘em a little extra and get a table down front,” he chuckled.

When Grinstead left the air force in the early 1970s, the couple and their two daughters moved to Langley.

Graham carried on working, singing in Vancouver hotels and at the famous Cave Supper Club as well as performing in both Langley and Surrey.

An attractive woman with a strong and yet sultry voice, it was nevertheless Graham’s ability to command an audience’s attention that set her apart in an era of female lounge singers, said Grinstead.

“It was her stage, presence — her delivery.

“She was very unique, she could hold an audience for an hour without any difficulty.”

To hear Graham sing,  click here.

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