Family support keeps music legend rocking
Tony Gosgnach The Interim
He’s known as the “blue-eyed prince of soul” – a leading performer on the Toronto music scene for four decades, who has played with numerous musical legends, including Canadian music hall of famer (and Guess Who guitarist) Dominic Troiano. He has also recorded at the famous Chess studios in Chicago and has even had one of his albums nominated for a Juno award.
But George Olliver counts his family – including wife Patricia and two adopted children from Russia – and knowing God as the greatest blessings in his life. His Christian journey has led him in recent years to form a large-scale musical ensemble called George Olliver and Caught Away, which has released the CD Live at Unionville Alliance, and which continues to perform at church events and festivals, among other engagements.
Born in the Beaches area of Toronto, Olliver and his parents moved to the suburb of Willowdale when he was about six. There, his Christian and musical formation began, as he started singing in an Anglican church choir and his parents enrolled him in piano lessons. Those involvements continued into his early teens.
“Then, some of my friends found out I played piano and the first thing I knew, I was in a high school group called the Cool Cats,” he says. “It was my very first band – a high school sock hop band – way back in the early 60s.”
As he continued his musical endeavours and scholastic studies, specializing in business administration, he was attracted to the musical action taking place at the Club Blue Note, on Yonge Street in downtown Toronto.
“At that point, I was singing a lot and was really in love with rhythm and blues and soul music,” he says. “I got a chance to sing at the club, when, all of a sudden, the house band that had been there – Doug Riley and the Silhouettes – was about to leave. The owner of the Blue Note, Al Steiner, asked if I wanted to bring my group, which was then known as Whitey and the Roulettes, in as the house band. That progressed into Mandala, with Dominic Troiano coming and joining us. He was working with Ronnie Hawkins for awhile.”
Mandala hit it big with the Top 10 single Opportunity, penned by Troiano. The song was backed on the flip side by Olliver’s composition Lost Love. The group made trips to Chicago – staying in Al Capone’s hotel – for recordings at Chess studios there.
“We were one of the first R and B bands to get a break in the recording industry in the U.S.,” says Olliver. “They called white rhythm blues ‘blue-eyed soul.’ We were one of the first Canadian groups leaning toward that, who happened to get a break and a hit record.”
By 1967, Olliver felt the pull to expand musically and left the band to form a new group called George Olliver and the Children. That evolved into a big band called Natural Gas, which was formed along the lines of other super groups of the time, such as Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears. Natural Gas released one self-titled LP.
Subsequent years saw Olliver play a number of roles in the music business – he got into the hotel and nightclub circuit, formed a group called the Royals (which played in Europe), recorded a live album at a revived Club Blue Note and then released a solo album called Dream Girl, which was nominated for a Juno award in 1987.
Throughout that, Olliver had let the faith life nurtured at his Anglican church in Willowdale slide. But he had reached a point where, despite numerous musical successes, something was missing in his life.
“I remembered my church roots and thought, ‘You know, I haven’t knelt down and prayed in a long time. I think I’ll do that,’” he recalls. “As soon as my knees hit the ground, the strength went out of my body and I realized I was having a visitation of the Holy Spirit. All the knowledge I had dedicated myself to during my early teens came rushing back to me … I wanted to come back to the church and be a Christian again.”
In 1992, he was struck by another spiritual experience that led him to find what his whole life in music was about: “It was culminating in bringing in a new ministry for Jesus.”
Through all his musical and spiritual trials and tribulations, Olliver credits his wife Pat for standing by his side. “It’s a hard business, to be a professional singer and musician … God has looked after me and kept me working all these years. But it’s tough work for a wife and I’m so proud of her for hanging in.”
Another burden George and Pat bore together was an inability to have children after 15 years of marriage. It was at that point that the couple decided to investigate the work of the Canadian Christian adoption organization Mission of Tears, which pointed them toward Russia.
“We saw these two beautiful babies and in 1997, we became the proud parents of two Russian children. We went over to Moscow and brought them back. It was the biggest blessing I’ve ever had in my life – next to finding the Lord, of course,” he says.
The boy and girl were from different families and there was initially some concern about whether such an arrangement would work, but all has ended up fine.
Meanwhile, Olliver’s leading toward Christian music ministry led him to record the CD Trials and Love Filled With the Word during the 1990s. Then, in 2002, he formed George Olliver and Caught Away, a 12-piece band that features Jake Langley as musical director and guitarist. Langley captured guitarist of the year honours at the 2004 National Jazz Awards.
“I wanted to do this thing with excellence, and if you’re going to do it with excellence, you have to have excellent musicians,” says Olliver. “My criterion for the band is a belief in a supreme being – the mighty God. Some people in the band are closer to God than others, but the bottom line is they want to perform for him and they want to know about Jesus.”
Even after four decades in the music business – and thanks greatly to wifely support – the future continues to look bright for a man who is leading a Christian super group, while continuing to perform regularly at clubs and establishments throughout southern Ontario.
Olliver has a website at www.georgeolliver.com and can be reached through Joy Ministries at 42 Flint Cr., Whitby, Ont., L1R 1J9. Telephone: (905) 668-6659.