“Look, I’ve wiped more liquor off my chin than those other fellas drank, now you want to believe that.”
— Charlie Chamberlain, vocalist, Don Messer and the Islanders, 1969.
With his trademark bowler hat and his silky smooth tenor, Charlie Chamberlain (see image below) was the unmistakable voice of the group Don Messer and his Islanders.
A CBC biography of Chamberlain describes him as Messer’s “hard-living, hard-drinking sidekick.” He certainly did like the occasional swig. Unfortunately, Chamberlain passed away in 1972 at the age of 61.
As I was only nine months old at the time, my memories of Don Messer’s troupe are largely limited to the few black-and-white reruns I remember seeing on CBC television during my childhood. However, I recently discovered an online video clip of Charlie and the rest of Messer’s band that offers great insights into the man and his music.
The movie, just two minutes and six seconds long, is titled Canada Vignettes: Don Messer — His land and his music — Charlie Chamberlain 1911-1972 Pt. 1. It was made for the National Film Board in 1969 to capture Messer’s farewell tour. The long-running CBC TV program Don Messer’s Jubilee had just been cancelled, and there’s a definite air of sadness in the documentary; for Chamberlain and his mates, it’s the end of the line.
One of my favourite scenes shows Charlie reminiscing about sharing smokes and booze at barn dances: “Two dollars a gallon — and you got a gallon of that between the four of ya — you went to a dance with a package of tailor-made cigarettes and you were a millionaire, mister. Everybody was all around ya.”
Now, I could try to describe Chamberlain’s Irish-by-way-of-New Brunswick lilt, his bear-like frame, and his leprechaun grin. But the truth is, there are some stories that are better seen and heard, rather than told.
September is Canadian Country Music Month, and we’re exploring our rich country music legacy with Charlie’s video, as well as those of groundbreaking pioneers like Hank Snow and Wilf Carter and superstars like Anne Murray and Shania Twain. We also have a country music timeline starting in 1918.