BY LAURA GREGORINI
Len Miller flips open the hard shell guitar case to reveal a HD 28 Martin. He runs his fingers along the herringbone top trim and traditional zigzag backstrip, talking about the details with as much enthusiasm as a classic car collector.
He starts playing the acoustic guitar, singing the first few lines of Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out, a blues standard written by Jimmy Cox in 1923 and recorded by legendary performers such as Bessie Smith, B.B. King and Eric Clapton.
On the coffee table next to the guitar case rests his memoir, My Years in a Band and the Sudbury Blues Scene. The book chronicles his time with Rock-A-Tones, a rockabilly group and later the blues band Hipshake.
Miller spent 30 years as a municipal planner until his retirement in 2006. He kept a journal for work and one for his personal life. He turned to the latter journal when he sat down to write the book, piecing together a narrative by reading old entries, listening to vintage records and sifting through photos. Some of those keepsakes, like his membership card to the Sudbury Federation of Musicians Local 290, are included in the book, which he self-published.
His first diary entry was in 1983, the year he got a “good” guitar. But no matter how much he tried, “I never did get good,” he says.
He is currently taking lessons from John Baxter, a friend from his days studying at Laurentian University. They share the same taste in music and together they formed and played in the Rock-A-Tones and Hipshake.
“We wanted to sound genuine and expose the music we listened to to a broader audience,” Miller says about the impetus for getting a band together in the first place. “We had a lot of fun and we decided to play in public.”
The Rock-A-Tones played its first gig in 1984 at The New Windsor, a bar in Webbwood. They packed the place. That same year the band performed at the Northern Lights Festival Boréal and then had their first gig at the Whistle Stop, an Elm St. restaurant and bar. The band went on to become regulars there and the bar became “the” place to listen to live blues music.
Over the years, Miller played most regularly with Baxter on guitar and Andy Bedard on bass. Other Hipshake players have included Jocko and Shark Chartrand, Kevin Breit, Jim Gamo, Rick Perrault, Jim Ainsworth and Dawson Steen.
Miller’s book is more than one musician’s journey through the Sudbury blues scene. Fragments of Sudbury’s past emerge with Miller’s detailed description of downtown entertainment.
“Almost any day of the week, the downtown sidewalks were crowded with people of all ages,” Miller writes.
“You knew so many people that it often would take more than an hour to walk the length of Durham St.”
Teens would hang out at pool halls and dry clubs such as The Inferno, located on the second floor behind the Wilkinson Building, where friends would try out their latest dance moves.
The Rock-A-Tones played numerous private parties and set up their own public shows. One in particular was held in July 1984 at the Serbian Hall. They sold tickets for $2 each. The party was called a Social Evening for Sunny and Lucille. Sunny Fournier was a band member and his Gibson ES-335 B.B. King model guitar was named Lucille.
To purchase a copy of My Years in a Band and the Sudbury Blues Scene, contact Miller at 705.674.8892.
Looking back, Miller says he wouldn’t change a thing. He last performed in public at Blues for Food in 2015.
“Sudbury has always been my home. I have strong feelings about having lived here my entire life. I had no aspirations to become a professional musician. I just love to be around music.”