His Life & Career
Bobby Gimby was a Canadian orchestra leader, trumpeter, and singer-songwriter. In 1967, he wrote and recorded a song for Canada's Centennial that would have the entire nation humming and thousands of kids marching down main street. "Ca-na-da, a Centennial Song" ("Ca-na-da, la Chanson du Centenaire") broke every music-industry record, but more importantly, it became an anthem of unity for a Canada deeply divided.
Robert Stead Gimby (far left) was born in Cabri, a farming town in Saskatchewan (pop. 300), on October 25, 1918. His father Albert owned the hardware store while his mother Elsie tended to their four children, Bobby, Jean, Gerry and Marian. Bobby was steeped in music from childhood: Folks around town knew him as The Whistler, since he was always carrying a tune. At 5, he helped his dad build a radio and with it, he discovered the pop music of the time: Jazz.
He ordered his first trumpet at 6 years old from the Eaton’s catalog, and went to meet the mail train every day for two weeks, hoping his new instrument was on it. He would practice his trumpet in the middle of haystacks to dampen the sound, until he got good enough to join the Cabri Brass Band. Saturday nights saw the home turned into a jamboree, as friends descended to sing and dance, and each Gimby joined in on a different instrument. The family was comfortable until A.S. Gimby Hardware burned in a fire, prompting him to auction off their house, uproot the family and head west, to Chilliwack, British Columbia. There, a 17-year-old Bobby got a job pumping gas (and wrote his first radio jingle, for the gas station), joined the Chilliwack Town Band, and started a small group of his own, playing dances around the area.
Pretty soon he grew restless and itched to join one of the orchestras touring Canada at the time: Mart Kenney (whom press had dubbed “The Wizard of the Trumpet”) and his Western Gentlemen. Bobby managed to get Kenney to agree to a private audition, to be held after the orchestra had wrapped for the night — so he went to the club early to hear the band play. Spotting Bobby in the audience, Kenney surprised him by beckoning him to the stage mid-show, asking him to call a tune. Bobby played Sugar Blues, and Kenney invited him to join the band on the spot. Only problem was, Bobby was a good ten years younger than the rest of the band — and looked it — so he did the only thing he could think of to appear older: He grew a mustache. And thus, he found himself out on tour just shy of 18, making a living as a professional musician.
The Western Gentlemen gig took over Bobby’s life and he settled in Vancouver. In 1939, he was drafted to the Canadian Army, where he quickly started an army band, but unfortunately, his military career was cut short when he was unable to serve in active duty due to poor eyesight. This disappointment had a silver lining: Back in Vancouver, Bobby moved into a boarding house where he would meet his wife Grace — another Saskatchewan native — and they married in 1941, adding daughter Lynn to the family in 1943.
Bobby followed Mart Kenney when the bandleader moved his orchestra to Toronto in 1941, but soon thereafter, left to put together an orchestra of his own. The Bobby Gimby Orchestra snagged plum house gigs at The Royal York and King Edward Hotels and sponsorships from the likes of Simpson’s high-end department store. As Bobby’s star rose, opportunities began to knock — in 1945, he joined the long-running daily CBC radio program The Happy Gang, and became such a singing-playing-acting audience favorite that the CBC offered him his own project in 1949 named after his band, the Rodeo Rascals.
This era was the beginning of a long relationship with CBC radio and TV that included his own Bobby Gimby Show, musical-director roles for other projects such as The Juliette Show, and guesting on everything from Wayne & Schuster to Peter Appleyard Presents.
The Happy Gang and ensuing radio and TV projects provided Bobby with a place where he could develop and hone the craft closest to his heart: Songwriting. In the late 1950s, Bobby entered one of the most prolific periods of his life as a composer, writing songs that were recorded by Peggy Lee, Liberace, Nanette Fabray, Rich Little, Ray Bolger, Deana Martin, January Jones (left) and others.
The Ca-na-da Song
1962 would kick off the most important phase of Bobby's career as a Canadian composer, though it started out on the other side of the world.
Bobby was asked to write and perform a song to usher in a newly-independent Malaysia. His daughter Lynn suggested that he turn the performance into a parade of sorts, something involving the audience more than a typical stage show, and invoked a bedtime story her parents had read to her as a child: The Pied Piper of Hamlin. So it was that Bobby wound up introducing “Malaysia Forever” flanked by more than 100 local schoolchildren, who he led through the streets of Singapore with his trumpet, Pied Piper-style. The song became so popular that Bobby decided to record it, and it became the first unofficial anthem of Malaysia. The whole experience planted a seed that would soon grow into something back home.
With Canada’s 100th birthday (1967) on the horizon, in 1964 Bobby started noodling on a song about his hopes for the nation's future. Friction between French and post-imperialist English Canada was at an all-time high, and Bobby felt that a message of unity, sung by the generation who would lead Canada into the future, was not just important — it was urgent. Bobby wrote “Ca-na-da,” crucially weaving together lyrics in English and French, with the idea of having them sung by young children in their own language, and set it to a sort of dixieland street beat. He recorded and pitched the song to the government’s Centennial Commission, who used it in a TV spot, teasing centennial festivities, that began running in 1966.
When the spot aired, the reaction was instantaneous: All across the country, people called in to radio stations to request the song, which led to its release as a single. Schoolteachers, in particular, wanted to use the song in class. Quality Records’ initial printing of 45,000 records sold out almost immediately. As the record’s popularity snowballed, the Centennial Commission saw an opportunity and seized it: They turned the song into the anchor of Canada’s yearlong centennial celebration, working with Bobby to craft a coast-to-coast tour, where he’d perform with local schoolchildren in each and every place where the Centennial Train stopped. To Bobby and Lynn (who was now working as his artistic director) this was an organic moment to turn the Pied Piper idea into a symbol of change, a figure to lead Canada towards a new era of unity.
The original cover art for "Ca-na-da"
Centennial Year turned into something Bobby could never have imagined as a boy growing up in small-town Saskatchewan: For more than 500 performances — wearing the distinctive cape and long bejeweled horn Lynn created in homage to the storybook Piper of Hamlin — Bobby turned the nation into one big party. The man the press quickly dubbed The Pied Piper of Canada led children in song and joyous jazz through the packed streets of small towns and big cities alike (including up Ottawa’s Parliament Hill on July 1, where Queen Elizabeth presided over the festivities).
HRH Queen Elizabeth II is presented with "Canada" during centennial celebrations in 1967
“Canada” topped the charts throughout 1967 and ultimately became the greatest-selling Canadian record in history. More than 50 recordings were made by other artists, and another 250 school choirs and bands created their own versions in tribute. Working with children turned out to be something Bobby loved so much, he traveled extensively to military bases in foreign countries to entertain the children of service personnel, and eventually would go on to write and record albums of children’s music. In recognition of his musical contribution to his country, Bobby received the Medal of Service, and was made an Officer of the Order of Canada.
Bobby and Lynn with Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson
Bobby’s centennial year experience only made him more fiercely proud of his country, and the desire to nurture and promote Canada and Canadians drove him for the rest of his career and life. He kept composing (he penned centennial anthems for Manitoba and British Columbia) and recording, as well as creating and producing radio and TV, but he continued to perform with children across the country, whenever he could.