Jim Casson’s career has hit a lot of different notes, including some high ones. He’s a professional drummer and percussionist, a music educator, producer, and promoter, a graphic and web designer, and also a farmer, father, and husband.
“I grew up in Fenwick, and I still live there,” he said proudly. “I’m essentially a full-time musician. That’s been my job since I was 20 years old. I’ve recorded six albums of my own original stuff in various genres and styles, and have played on over 80 or 90 albums during my career.”
Casson’s latest musical venture — an album entitled “Davis Hall and the Green Lanterns” — grew out of sheer boredom.
“During the Covid lockdown, [musicians] were all sitting around doing nothing, so there was a serious need to flex our creative muscles,” said Casson. “A friend who was a singer and guitar player had asked me and a bass player to record some music to stream on YouTube and Facebook. Basically, he wanted some karaoke tracks. That expanded into the three of us trying to do something more creative, and the idea morphed into a band that included a tuba player, a couple more guitar players and harmonica players, and some various guys that I knew through my connections in the music business from Toronto, Burlington, Hamilton, and Ottawa. During the lockdown, everybody was interested in doing something, because we were all just bored to tears.”
As he was assembling the album, Casson decided that he wanted to pay tribute to Niagara.
“I have this old map of the region that actually belonged to my grandfather, a 1906 topographical military map that’s got the names of all these old, interesting little hamlets with forgotten names, like Marshville Station and White Pigeon, that were scattered around Niagara. And I was always fascinated with those things. So I started searching around for different names which kind of seemed to fit musically with the compositions.”
You’ll find tracks on the new album called Temperanceville (Fonthill’s prior moniker), Finding Tintern, Gasline, Crowland, Dream of Chantler, and Sulphur Springs.
There is a “Dark Orchard” side to the album, said Casson, referring to his “experimental musical adventure” which involves weaving samples, loops, and spoken word elements into the songs. Casson decided to include a recording from 1963 of local disc jockey Bob Bowland. from CHOW radio in Welland, the station that was most played in his home during his youth.
The album’s name, “Davis Hall and the Green Lanterns,” grew out of Casson’s memories from his youth in Pelham.
“Davis Hall was the big community centre for decades on Haist Street, north of Highway 20,” he said. “I went to nursery school there, and long before that, it was the place where all of the youth dances happened. Anybody who grew up in Pelham in the 1950s would remember Davis Hall. I thought it sounded like a guy’s name. And the Green Lantern was a hangout in Fenwick, now called the Grill on Canboro. It was a convenience store, but also a soda shop where you could get a burger and milkshake. Back in the 1970s, it was the only game in town in Fenwick. It sounded to me like a great name for a backup band.”
He still travels, and plays live gigs on a regular basis.
“I’ve got my bi-weekly thing happening at Peter Piper’s Pubhouse right now, with a group we call Jimmy’s Juke Joint,” said Casson. “[Peter Moore of Peter Piper’s] is very supportive of the blues, and music in general, so it’s nice to have that venue. I play locally, and tour nationally. I was supposed to be flying out to Halifax today for a two-week tour with Downchild Blues Band. Unfortunately, Covid numbers on the rise affected ticket sales, and the tour was cancelled.”
Many will be familiar with Juno Award winners Downchild Blues Band, which has been called “a Canadian blues legend” and “one of the greatest blues bands in the world, period” by the Toronto Star. Canadian film star and Saturday Night Live veteran Dan Aykroyd called Downchild “a great, iconic Canadian act that I associate with wonderful events and summer nights and good times with friends. I’ve never seen people stay in their seats when these guys play. They always rock the house.”
Akyroyd reportedly said that he and fellow SNL comedian John Belushi gained the inspiration for their Blues Brothers act from watching Downchild live in New York City.
Casson has played with many bands over the years. He got a gig with a Pink Floyd clone band after high school, and then teamed up with Jeffrey and the Juniors, a well-known local rock and roll group with a focus on the 1950s and ‘60s. He was part of the Mighty Duck Blues Band, which played for more than a decade every Saturday at The Golden Pheasant, an unpretentious drinking hole frequented by General Motors employees in St. Catharines that was simply known around town as “The Duck” (from which the band derived its name).
Casson said he holds the record for the number of consecutive nights playing at the Chicken Deli in Toronto, a popular jazz and blues club in the 1970s and ‘80s.
“I was there every Monday night for five and a half years with Chuck Jackson’s All Stars, and at least four or five different bands during the week,” he said. “I owe an awful lot to the Chicken, despite the fact that they paid really poorly. But during the early part of my career, I met a lot of different acts there and was hired on after they saw me play.”
After taking drum instruction as a kid, and music lessons throughout high school at E.L Crossley, Casson went on to study music at Mohawk College. He spent a lot of time in the music mecca that is Toronto, then returned to his roots in Pelham with his young family, where he was the founder and artistic director of the Fonthill Bandshell Series.
He has a recording studio in his basement-man cave, where he works on his craft.
“I do my composition on keyboards. I have a recurring nightmare where I get to a gig and find out I’m the piano player,” he laughed. “I’ve never claimed to be able to perform on keyboards, but I can manage. If I want something really good on the keyboard, I hire somebody.”
Casson cut a limited run of CDs of the new album, but expects people will mostly download tracks online at Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple Music, and Bandcamp.
“It’s been getting lots of airplay, including some national coverage, and receiving lots of love from some of the blues and jazz radio shows, like Jazz FM in Toronto,” said Casson.
“A progressive blend of blues, jazz and funk — the freshest sound I have heard in years. Modern music with a dash of retro, and a whole lot of soul,” wrote Brant Zwicker of At The Crossroads Blues Radio.
“I’m loving it! So funkified! Great instrumentation, arrangements, and of course masterful playing. Bravo!,” gushed Cindy McLeod of the Calgary International Blues Festival.
For Casson, It was a fun project to assemble, and different from his other gigs.
“I married a bunch of aspects of my musical world together for the first time, whereas previously I had gone off in one direction or another.”
Asked how much longer he plans to continue performing and recording albums, Casson chuckled.
“You know what they say about musicians and farmers: we don’t have to worry about retirement, because we can’t afford to,” he said. “So I guess I’ll keep playing until somebody strikes me down. I’m 57 now, and starting to think I might be getting good.”