In this series of articles, Dr. Richard Hiebert tells the stories of the Battlefords' great dance bands from the 1940s to the present.
Wednesday, March 23, at the Li King Café in Battleford, I met with Brian Wappel, Don Toovey and, by telephone, Larry Knibbs from Estevan. It was a great interview. I asked questions and took extensive notes. The three former members of the great band Battle Creek shared memories, reminisced and joked about the great times they had playing together. I thank them for the story, and I thank Brian Wappel for editing this article.
Larry Knibbs put the forerunner to Battle Creek together in 1979. Hap Boyer played fiddle, Ed Lafave played guitar, Larry Knibbs played guitar and sang all of the vocals and Walter Korolchuk played bass guitar. Larry also persuaded drummer Don Toovey, who was living in Calgary, Alta. to catch a plane and join the band for its engagements. The band’s first dance was in Vegreville, Alta. They were well-received and were paid the princely sum of $300.
Battle Creek came together in 1980. Brian Wappel, who had been playing with Harry Startup and Bandy, joined the band when Bandy disbanded. Brian played lead guitar, banjo and accordion. Larry Knibbs played guitar and sang lead, Don Toovey played drums and sang back up vocals. Walter Korolchuk played bass guitar and sang back up. Larry Knibbs was the band leader. Frank McConnell looked after the sound board. Al Cook was responsible for selling tickets and promotional T-shirts and hats.
Battle Creek played for all kinds of dances and venues – weddings (the band made a point of learning the first song for the bride and groom for every wedding dance they played for even if they had to “creatively improvise” sometimes), anniversaries, rodeos, community dances and street dances (Larry Knibbs organized the Battlefords’ first street dances). In 1983, Battle Creek sponsored a Hawaiian New Year’s Eve dance at the North Battleford Civic Centre with a catered supper and Hawaiian dancers from the North Battleford School of Dance. The grand prize was a trip for two to Hawaii. To promote the band, thousands of pin-on buttons were pressed and hundreds of T-shirts and ball hats were silk-screened. Brian Wappel’s business, Apple Printing, was a great help in designing and creating the logo and promotional material for the band.
The band played gigs all over the Northwest and beyond – the Battlefords, Vawn, Glaslyn, Saskatoon, Weyburn and Moose Jaw to name a few. Brian Wappel related that “we must have played every small town within a 100-mile radius of the Battlefords.” During its last year, the band played for 112 dances. Battle Creek played every weekend and often three times a week (Thursday, Friday, Saturday). On occasion, they even played on Sunday.
In an interesting side note, on one occasion, Battle Creek was playing in a bar in Wilkie. Both the band and crowd were having a great time. Harry Startup and his band were playing in the other bar in town but things were rather quiet. So Harry and his band shut down early and came over to party with Battle Creek (all of the band members in the Battlefords dance bands were friends with each other and even stepped in to play with their friends’ band if a musician couldn’t make it).
On another note, there is a city in Michigan called Battle Creek. Al Cook’s sister lived in or near Battle Creek and wanted the band to go do a gig there. Promotional material was sent. Some community members got wind of Battle Creek from North Battleford and invited the band to come down and play. The band members seriously considered going down, but ultimately declined.
On yet another note, the band once played for a bull sale in Sundry, Alta. Don left his drum stool in the middle of the bald prairie. A cowboy scooped it up and shipped it back to North Battleford.
Larry, Brian, Don and Walter also seriously contemplated quitting their jobs and going full time with the band. Larry was involved in real estate, Brian owned his own business, Don was working with North West Optical and Walter was a school teacher. In the end, they decided against it.
A fundamental characteristic of Battle Creek was that they liked to have fun, party down, joke around and really enjoy themselves when they played. And, of course, the band’s attitude was contagious. The crowd picked up on it and joined the party. Don Toovey used to wear pink slippers (on one occasion at a wedding dance, a couple managed to acquire Don’s slippers, but with a heroic effort, Al Cook managed to retrieve them). Don also wore one of those giant foam hats. During the dance it invariably made its way through the crowd. The band also brought a garbage bag full of Battle Creek ball hats to dances and traded with the crowd. Everybody wore a lot of different hats during the evening. And there were the jokes. Band members told jokes over a mike – one liners and some a little longer. Once at a wedding, band members engaged in Indian wrestling with the bride and groom. Sometimes the band wore a big nose and big glasses combo on stage to mimic Walter Korolchuk. Brian said, “We laughed so hard and had so much fun.”
Don laughed and said, “We were ridiculous.”
It was all good extroverted fun. This party attitude became a band trade mark.
Don noted that for all of the years they played together, they always had help to tear down and pack equipment out to the bus. This was a testament to their fan’s love and affection for them.
It would be inconceivable for a band with the talent and reputation like Battle Creek to not have the opportunity to open for some of the great professional bands who toured our area. So for example, Battle Creek opened for the Good Brothers at the Agriplex in 1983, and for Ronnie Prophet, the Mercy Brothers dand Glory Anne Carriere at a jamboree at Silver Lake north of Maidstone.
It wasn’t all fun and smooth sailing, however. A band that played over a 100 engagements a year could expect a few rough spots now and then. On one occasion they were playing in a small town and the locals got stone drunk and started fighting among themselves – throwing beer bottles at each other. It was a riot.
When Larry Knibbs' dad passed away, Larry left after the funeral to honour a commitment to play at the Manhatten Ball Room (east of Saskatoon). It was a difficult evening.
Practices were held in Larry’s garage on 110th Street and later at Alec Smith’s house on 97th Street. Often neighbours would get into the spirit of things and start dancing. Practices could last for hours, particularly when there was new material to learn. There wasn’t a lot of joking around at practices. It was serious business. The band felt an obligation to their fans to be the best they could be.
The band drove to dances in a 36-passenger modified tan-coloured school bus. It was insulated, carpeted and had extra heat and benches with arm rests. There was also an eight-foot storage area in the back. “Battle Creek” in large letters was posted on the exterior sides of the bus. All band members had a hand in working on the bus but Walter Korolchuk did the lion’s share. It was an efficient and comfortable vehicle. There was always a designated driver (Walter Korolchuk drove 80 per cent of the time) and the rest of the band could sleep on the way home. The band often pulled into North Battleford at 5 or 6 a.m.
Battle Creek needed a 36-passenger vehicle to haul all of its equipment – large base bins, mid bins drums, sound equipment, guitars and cases and other instruments, mike and music stands, lights and other gear. The band had a huge amount of equipment, all of it high quality and expensive (Fender guitars and Ludwig drums for example). The band needed big equipment because they played a lot of large halls and arenas.
In 1982, the band released a long play album (a Larry Knibbs initiative) with great songs – both original and cover. The cover of the album had a picture of an attractive woman dressed in denim with a Battle Creek pin-on button. Over the years many of Battle Creek’s fans wanted to know who the young woman on the album cover was. Don Toovey said, “It was unbelievable how many people wanted to know.” The band even made it a competition. But my understanding is that the band didn’t tell them and the fans were unable to determine who she was. To this day, only Battle Creek’s album producer, Gord Pendleton, knows who the young woman is.
On the back cover was a Julian Sadlowski drawing of the band in a canoe going up the Battle River (first song on the album). After the album was released, they had a great studio picture of Battle Creek all dressed alike and sporting beards (another band trade mark – they had several different outfits but dressed the same when performing on stage).
The band also released a cassette (identical to the LP in content and cover). There was a mix up. Rosanne Cash had released a new album that was pressed by the same company that pressed the Battle Creek album. Battle Creek ended up with a hundred or so of Rosanne Cash’s audio on their cassettes with her hit album, Seven Year Ache. She also received one of Battle Creek’s cassettes with her audio on it. Don Toovey met with Rosanne and has a picture of her holding the cassette. Another surprise was that every band member received royalty cheques in the mail for Apple Cider, the last cut on the album. The band believes it was used as a promotional tune for an apple festival in eastern Canada.
In 1984, the band released a 45 record with Sweet Canadian Girl on the A side and Dream On on the B side. It sold well.
Above all the band was a family. The band members, their wives and their kids often travelled together to functions on the bus or were at each others houses for meals and barbecues and just to visit. The band members and their wives and families were all Christians and this no doubt contributed to creating a strong bond. The music also drew them together. Don’s daughter Brandy and Brian’s daughter Crystal and his son Justin knew all of Battle Creek’s songs and would sing along and dance in front of the speakers at dances.
During the interview, the affection and friendship Brian, Don and Larry had for each other was abundantly evident. Larry suggested everyone get together for a barbecue this summer. Don and Brian enthusiastically agreed.
Battle Creek was an immensely talented and popular band. It was also unique. There was no other band like it. The band played together from 1980 to 1986 when the band members decided to call it quits. Everyone left on good terms and they are all friends to this day. They had nothing to prove. It had been an awesome run. It was time. It is not likely we will see the likes of a band like Battle Creek again.