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Roy Forbes celebrates in song

NV musician performing 40th anniversary gigs

-Roy Forbes' 40th anniversary concerts, Deep Cove Shaw Theatre, Sept. 9 and 10 at 8 p.m. Tickets $30. Fundraiser for First Impressions Theatre.

HE got to be Elvis, if just for one song.

Roy Forbes was on stage at the 1989 Vancouver Folk Music Festival, backed by musicians who honed their chops at Sun Records, the Memphis label that launched the careers of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley.

Forbes was belting out "You ain't nothin' but a hound dog," and DJ Fontana, Presley's longtime drummer, broke into a roll that Forbes first heard three decades earlier as a child in Dawson Creek.

Fontana played it just like on the record, Forbes says, imitating the machine gun snare that helped make the concert one of the highlights of his career.

"There are no photos," Forbes adds with a laugh.

It's a fitting story for a singer who, despite considerable critical acclaim and dedicated fans, always laboured closer to the shadows than the spotlight.

Five of his 10 solo albums are out of print, but in a nearly one-hour phone interview, Forbes speaks with gusto and without a trace of bitterness about his early days on tour, his towering record collection and 40 years in the music business.

Dawson Creek was a tiny village in the 1940s, but when

Northern Alberta Railways arrived and the Alaska Highway snaked through the farming community, the population exploded.

Born in the thriving town in 1953, Forbes muted the mechanical grunts of the grain elevators outside his window with the rock 'n' roll records favoured by his five older sisters.

"I was surrounded by music," he says. "I think the first thing that really got me was Elvis' 'Blue Suede Shoes.'"

That unpolished, raucous rockabilly left its blue suede footprints on the child.

"One for the money, two for the show," Forbes sings, recounting the tenor that shook his childhood and turned his mother's broomstick into a Gibson guitar.

Dawson Creek continued to grow while Forbes listened to Buddy Holly profess his love for Peggy Sue and watched those four lads from Liverpool on The Ed Sullivan Show. But it wasn't until venturing into Vancouver in 1967 that he discovered the summer of love in full bloom and knew he needed to start a band.

"I think when I was young, I wanted to impress people," he says. "Music was the way I was able to do that."

For Forbes, certain songs are signposts in his life, and as guitar pedals made wah-wah sounds and hippies danced to organ solos, Jimi Hendrix was the singer and "Purple Haze" was the song.

The song and scene left their imprint on the teenager, and after returning home Forbes formed his first band, The Crystal Ship.

"We were the hub of the hippie movement in Peace Country," he says.

Inspired by psychedelic bands of the period, The Crystal Ship played school dances, hobbling students with extended jam sessions that included a 40-minute version of "All Along the Watchtower."

The band reached their peak by composing a 30-minute rock opera about a girl who goes astray in the city before being saved by the Salvation Army.

Forbes laughs a lot while discussing that first band but acknowledges its importance in his evolution as a songwriter.

"There was one called 'Hey Girl' that really seemed like a song," he says, adding that pretty much all the songs they wrote were about girls.

"I probably even said 'girl' like John Lennon," Forbes adds, sliding into a Liverpool accent.

The band faded out, but in 1971 Forbes, performing as Bim and looking like a bespectacled Willie Nelson, released his first solo album. He displayed the dexterity of his guitar playing and depth of his lyrics on songs like "Right After My Heart."

"To me, that was the song I proved I was actually a songwriter," he says. "The first song when I felt like I really hit it."

That country-folk sound with equal doses of melancholy and hope caught the attention of Vancouver's most ardent chronicler, Chuck Davis.

"An 18-year-old lad from Dawson Creek named Roy Forbes came to Vancouver in July 1971 and began to sing professionally. He called himself Bim. He was sensational," Davis writes in The History of Metropolitan Vancouver.

As snow piled up on the sides of B.C. highways that winter, Forbes, just four months out of high school, was one of several musicians crammed into a station wagon with blues legend John Lee Hooker.

"He rode in the front seat," Forbes recalls. "I barely knew who he was."

After driving through storms and being strip-searched at the border, Forbes remembers coming off stage and seeing Hooker and his band waiting for him: "They said, 'Man, you were really bad.'"

Unaware it was a compliment, Forbes nodded politely and headed east for the Prairies, and for tougher audience.

"Are you a boy or a girl?" Forbes remembers the Regina and Saskatoon crowds jeering, taking issue with his long hair and high voice.

"It was the first time I had to face a hostile audience," he says.

Forbes' voice is high and keening, evocative of a pine tree swaying in a strong wind, but he eventually conquered those audiences, possibly because his roots go deep into the blues.

He developed his slide guitar technique from Mississippi Fred McDowell records, saw Lightnin' Hopkins perform, and took a request from Junior Wells.

"Junior Wells said, 'You gotta play my tune, play 'Fly Back North,'" Forbes says, doing his best impression of the raspy-voiced bluesman.

As anyone who listens to Forbes' radio show on CKUA can attest, the singer has a deep and abiding love for vinyl, and it was the first stirrings of that love that took him to country music.

"I hated country," he says. "We used to make fun of it."

Despite not having much money in his pocket, Forbes found himself drawn to a pile of country 78s at a thrift shop on Commercial Drive in 1972.

"I could only afford five or six," he laments.

Listening to Ernest Tubb's tunes about lost love and found booze as well as Hank Williams wailing in a drawl that still reverberates through Nashville today, Forbes was hooked.

"That reawakened my interest in country music and got me collecting these damn records," he says.

Like a musical supply line, his record collection stretches between his garage, the North Vancouver basement where he hosts his radio show, and beyond.

His love of the hisses and pops of records is evident in his lyrics, most notably "About My Broken Heart," where the condition of the vinyl mirrors the emotions of the singer.

"Amid the crackle and the static, her memory plays its part, while the sad voice from the attic, sings about my broken heart."

Despite recording his last album, Some Tunes for that Mother of Mine in about five hours, Forbes says he isn't sure when he'll record another album, but adds his mind is always working on songs.

After 40 years of booking clubs and searching for melodies, performing still holds its allure for Forbes.

"I've often said I'm the most alive on stage - the audience is with you and you just let it rip, and you're kind of standing off to the side, wondering what's going to happen next."

Forbes' next out-of-body-experiences are slated for Sept. 9 and 10 at the Deep Cove Shaw Theatre.

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