DOWNHOME, February 2008

The Legendary Dick Nolan

As part of our 20th anniversary celebrations, Downhome is pleased to present this article from our magazine archives. The following story, written by Sandra Young, first appeared in the "Music and Friends" section of the March 1993 issue of the Downhomer.

Dick Nolan is a Newfoundland legend in his own time. He is certainly an ambassador for Newfoundland and, as such, has taken a part of Newfoundland to various parts of the world in the form of music.

"Aunt Martha's Sheep" was probably Dick's biggest milestone on the road to success. Written by Ellis Coles, the song about the boys from Carmanville stealing the sheep was a very popular Canadian song.

Dick Nolan was born in Corner Brook, Newfoundland's west coast city. His musical career got started at an early age. By the time he turned 14, he was a regular on "Woodland Echoes," a local radio show sponsored by Bowaters pulp and paper company in Corner Brook. At that time, Dick was a member of the group "Blue Valley Boys."

"We played out around the bay a lot," Dick told me in a recent interview. "We performed in places on the west coast such as Woods Island and Trout River, and if anyone had a sheep missing in Trout River at that time, I got it!" said Dick.

Like so many Newfoundlanders, Dick Nolan left his city home (at the age of 20) and headed for the bigger city of Toronto. He went from job to job for a while, until he landed a job as a singing waiter. "I would go to the tables and sing to the customers, then they offered me a job singing," said Dick. "I guess my singing was better than my waitering."

Dick started out doing country music, which was what got him his first big break. Dick's big bass voice, similar to that of Johnny Cash, got him a contract recording Johnny Cash songs. The first album was a success and was followed by another. But that ended the Cash albums because, as Dick stated, "there was only room enough for so much and there was already someone out there doing Johnny Cash songs, Johnny was!"

Later Dick and his band, Blue Valley Boys, became the house band at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto. Dick Nolan and Roy Penney (originally from Corner Brook) played together at that time and backed up all the singers who came to the Horseshoe Tavern, including Charley Pride, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, Bobby Bare and Hank Williams Jr., just to mention a few.

During Dick's stay in Toronto, he recorded several albums, trying to find what the public wanted. In 1966, Dick recorded a "Come Home Year" album and because there seemed to be a strong interest in Newfoundland music at that time, Dick followed right along with two more albums containing Newfie music. "After singing about Newfoundland so much, I began to miss it," he said.

In 1968, Dick packed everything up and moved back to Newfoundland. He spent the next couple of years singing around the island and seriously thought about giving it all up and going back to Toronto again. Fortunately for Dick, he didn't have to because it was then that "Aunt Martha's Sheep" came along.

While playing in Marystown, Dick heard the song for the first time. He contacted Ellis Coles immediately and expressed an interest in doing the song himself. "But it was a long time before he sent me the song," said Dick. "I did some work on the song to get it to suit me and recorded it."

Many years in the music business had made Dick's hopes of having a hit single very dubious. Dick didn't know how wrong he could be, as the song became a "monster hit" for RCA, selling over 300,000 copies. It was one of RCA's biggest hits in Canada and earned Dick a gold record. His next two recordings, "Home Again this Year" and "Happy Newfoundlanders," also became gold records. Dick's dreams were coming true at last.

A "biggie" to every entertainer, the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, became Dick's next reality. "I got to perform with Dolly (Parton), Porter Wagoner, Tommy Cash and Jeanie Pruit," Dick told me. "I was nervous, frightened and had to go out and explain the song to the audience." According to Dick, "Aunt Martha's Sheep" was well-accepted by the audience.

Not long after this, Dick made his move back to St. John's, Newfoundland. While there, he was kept busy doing commercials for Carling O'Keefe. He appeared on the Tommy Hunter Show, as well as the Elwood Glover Show, and had his own show on CJON (now NTV) which lasted for 13 weeks.

The popularity of "Aunt Martha's Sheep" was instrumental in Dick's move back to Toronto in 1978. It was from his Toronto base that Dick recorded other albums and toured Canada, including such far-off places as Yukon and Northwest Territories.

Dick's latest recording, My Beautiful Island, contains such numbers as "Everybody Back Home Misses You," "No More Little Boats No More," "Tears of Saint Anne," and of course the popular title track, "My Beautiful Island." The album is certainly a must for any collector of Newfoundland music.

Dick and his wife Marie are now living in Scarborough, Ontario, and Dick spends his time playing around the Toronto area on weekends. Dick has a keen interest in live radio and is a part-time co-host of the Downhome Radio Show out of the CHIN studios in Toronto.

Dick Nolan, Eddy Coffey and Frank Leblanc can be seen live each weekend at the Pride of Erin in Toronto.

Editor's update to 2008

During his 50-year career, Dick Nolan released 40 albums and recorded hundreds of songs that remain favourites throughout the province even today. In 2005, the music association of Dick's home province, MUSICNL, recognized his enormous contribution to the music scene with a Lifetime Achievement Award. He passed away later that year, at the age of 66.

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