It all started with a man named Smith. Glenn Smith, to be exact. You may know him as the owner of Ethel’s Lounge in Uptown Waterloo, but if you’ve been following the blues in Kitchener over the past few decades, you also know him as the incubator for the blues in our city. He’s part of the reason that Buddy Guy is playing on The Centre’s main stage and why Steve Strongman is opening for him.
According to local blogger James Howe, Smith began hosting blues concerts at the former Legion building at 48 Ontario Street back in 1985. He ran concerts there for about two years, and his list of performers included Buddy Guy.
Smith later opened up several other bars and offered blues concerts, culminating in what has now become a part of local blues history, Pop the Gator, a venue that was located along the short stretch of Queen Street between King and Charles.
Enter Mel Brown, a Mississippi-born blues powerhouse who relocated to Kitchener to host a weekly jam night at Pop the Gator. He joined the house band and remained in Kitchener for 20 years until his untimely death in 2009. In that time, Brown became a central figure in the local blues scene. In 2007 Mel Brown performed with Buddy Guy. Watch a video from the concert here:
This is where Steve Strongman joins the story.
Too young to legally enter the licensed blues venue, Strongman snuck in to soak in the local blues scene. Brown was performing and awed Strongman. It wasn’t too much longer until Strongman picked up a guitar and started to play. Brown eventually became his mentor.
In 2013, Strongman won the JUNO for Blues Recording of the Year for A Natural Fact. In conversation with Holger Petersen for CBC’s Saturday Night Blues around that time, he explains how he discovered the blues: “I sort of came to blues by way of classic rock bands, and I figured out where they were getting all their stuff. Bands like Led Zepplin. And I love Stevie Ray Vaughan and I started getting in deeper and listening to all the bands that they would list and all the artists that they would list.”
Strongman has played major blues festivals the world over including Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, and Memphis, as well as three appearances at The Montreal International Jazz Festival, multiple appearances at Mont Tremblant International Blues Festival, and at Cisco Ottawa Blues Festival. Born and raised in Kitchener, Strongman now resides in Hamilton.
If it hadn’t been for Glenn Smith, who knows if these two musicians would be playing in the same evening, let alone in Kitchener. But they are, and tickets are still available for their concert at The Centre on April 20. Although this evening will not be the first time that Steve Strongman has opened for Seven Time Grammy Award Winner Buddy Guy, it will be a very rare event that blues fans will not want to miss.