Howard Hall and Eddie Pelletier met while attending Sir James Dunn Collegiate and Vocational School and formed a band in 1958-59 named the Voces (latin for voices). The band consisted of Howard on bass, Eddie on guitar, Bill Kelly on drums and vocalists Frank Tracy and Pat McAlpine.
The group was put together to play at school assemblies etc. Repertoire was mostly folk based songs of the time – Harry Belafonte, Kingston Trio etc. The only other claim to fame for this group was that they won an amateur contest in Brimley Michigan in June of 1959, and then broke up.
Howard and Eddie realized that they were a team and should keep a good thing going and so recruited Keith Stephen (rhythm guitar and vocals) and Chuck White (drummer) and began to practice rock and roll songs during the winter of 1959/60. They named the new group the Fireflies and it all began.
In the spring of 1960 their first break came when the Sault YMCA (which ran teen dances) asked them to audition. It would be some time before their first gig at the “Y” so, in order to perform they rented Laird Community Hall in the spring of 1960 and ran their own dances. The gross for the first production was around $15, but some other revenue was generated by selling pop and chips. Realizing that the band was not quite complete, 15 year old Val Suriano (a bit of a phenom on sax at the time) was added to the group for the Laird performances.
The Fireflies also auditioned for the CBC TV show “Talent Caravan” but lost to Bobby “D” (Drebitt) and the Bobcats – Bobby, the late Bert Leclair, and Raymond Greco and Lou Oliverio. Raymond and Lou later joined the Fireflies. Bobby D and the Bobcats went on to win it all in the Cross Canada talent contest with their unique rock arrangement of the standard Dark Eyes featuring Raymond on sax. Unfortunately, the group broke up soon after their huge success as on their return to Sault Ste. Marie they didn’t have a home base like the Palm Gardens to play at as it had been taken over by the Fireflies.
Howard left in June to work for the Summer of 1960 in Thunder Bay, and Val also was away for the summer when a break that would shape the next nine years came along. The Down Unders, a hugely popular band made up of three Australians – Johnny Macareth (later famous as a TV personality in Australia much like Tommy Hunter on CBC Canada), Eddie Rowe, John Williams, Peter Smith, Ken Poole and Byron Taylor gave up their 5 year gig at the Palm Gardens. The Fireflies took over during the summer of 1960. Of interest is that Ken Poole (from the Down Unders) filled in with the Fireflies on sax during that summer.
When Howard returned from Thunder Bay in August 1960 Eddie was leading the group and had partnered with Ron Cameron to rent the Palm Gardens and the Fireflies ran the dances there for the next several years.
The Palm Gardens (known to many as “the Palm”) was a large dance hall located above the Columbia Bowling Alley on Queen Street near East Street in Sault Ste. Marie, next door to the then City Hall. It was capable of holding up to 500 (and sometimes more) for dancing. No alcohol was served. When Chubby Checker’s Twist came along and Joey D and the Starliters came out with the Peppermint Twist the “Palm” became the Peppermint Lounge.
The Fireflies played dances at the Palm Gardens and the Peppermint Lounge on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights for several years but would occasionally play other places like the St. Mary’s River Boat Club, the Memorial Gardens, the Lock City Hotel and even went on the road to Wawa, Elliot Lake, and Espanola.
The band evolved through the Twist, the Beatles, the Beach Boys and many other groups’ styles. They were to many, unbelievable in their great covers of many current hits. They even opened for the Dave Clark Five when that group came to the Memorial Gardens. The group would jam at the Mid-City Hotel with musicians who were on the road, including Gordon Lightfoot in his early years, Terry and Susan Jacks and the Poppy Family, and numerous others. There were numerous offers to the Fireflies from booking agents and producers but the group personnel were mostly married and had good day jobs they didn’t want to leave.
Memorial Gardens 1962
Personnel in the Fireflies evolved over the years too. Chuck White was first to leave to go to Brigham Young University in Utah. He later had a very successful business career during which he continued to play in a retro rock band in California, but then decided to pursue his first love – painting. He is now famous as an artist (Charles H. White). Chuck was replaced on drums by Lou Oliverio from Bobby D and the Bobcats.
1961 Sault Star feature – Keith Stephen & Val Suriano
Val Suriano was next to leave to attend Berkley School of Music in Boston and was replaced by Raymond Greco also from Bobby D’s band. Keith Stephen left the group in 1962 and was replaced by Don Ford on rhythm guitar and vocals.
Don and Lou Oliverio left the group in 1965. Danny Elkas (vocals) and John Bumbacco on drums replaced Don and Lou. Danny left the group and was replaced in 1968 by Rick Rogers from (Those) Rogues. Danny died in 1995. Howard left the group in 1967 briefly to work in management at a bank in Hamilton ON but returned in early 1968 to rejoin the group.
Of note during the heyday of the Palm Gardens/Peppermint Lounge was that many of those supporting the dances were US servicemen from the NORAD Airbase at Kincheloe (just south of Sault Michigan). There were some really great guys who became close friends of members of the band, and some of these servicemen eventually married Canadian girls.
This was not all fun and games though as there were occasional ruckuses between the servicemen and some of the Canadian boys who were somewhat ticked at seeing the foreigners dancing and chatting up the girls. John Dorrance was a leader in this regard. The band could always humour him though, with his fave – Little Richard’s classic Boney Maroney.
On a hot night in August 1965 disaster struck! the Columbia Hall (Palm Gardens/Peppermint Lounge) and Royaltons Furniture Store which had succeeded the Columbia Bowling Alley on the first floor of the building, burned to the ground. The Fireflies lost all of their equipment including several of what would now be priceless Fender guitars. This ended an era for both the band and the community. The hall had been holding dances since just after WWII.
This left the Fireflies without a base and turned the group into everybody’s favourite wedding, bowling banquet or other social function band. It was probably about time anyway, although there was still some glory to follow in 1968/69.
During the years following the Beatles arrival on the scene, a number of groups of younger musicians began to emerge on the Sault Ste. Marie music scene. Many of these young musicians had idolized the Fireflies, and in fact were into doing something that the Fireflies didn’t for some reason do – original material. These groups included the Vendettas, the A-Men, (Those) Rogues and others. Each of these groups produced records (which by the way, were very good for the time).
Unfortunately, the groups for whatever reasons, didn’t last long with the exception of the Vendettas who evolved into Kensington Market a very successful late 60’s group on the Canadian scene, and whose albums were top sellers in Canada. Keith McKie (still a very successful Canadian musician/vocalist), Bob Yeomans, Bob Yukich, and the late Alex Darou were part of that group as well as Canadian music icons Skip Prokop and Luke Gibson.
When Howard returned to the group in 1968 Rick Rogers from (Those) Rogues had joined the group as rhythm guitarist and vocalist extraordinaire and the group began playing lounges and clubs. Raymond Greco had taken over leadership and booked the group at the Black Knight Supper Club. The Fireflies amazed with covers of the Four Seasons in tight four part harmony, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, the Buckinghams, and many others with the the vocal harmonies being the feature attraction.
Because they were playing virtually every night every week the band became very tight. This lead to gigs at Pat’s Northview in Sault Michigan where only the best of the Detroit-based traveling bar bands were usually booked including Pete Debueuil and the Wanderers (Pete was actually from Sudbury ON) and Lafayette and the LeSabres and many others. Pat’s Northview actually later suffered a similar fate as the Palm Gardens – it too burned to the ground. It was directly across from the Soo Locks.
Alas, the group who was suffering from burn out to quite a degree from playing virtually every night in 1969 (including some Sundays since the Northview was open as it was in Michigan). The Fireflies played their last on New Year’s Eve 1970 after 10 years as probably the most successful band ever from Sault Ste. Marie.
Howard later started a new group Solid Gold before moving to Toronto in 1972. Eddie Pelletier and Rick Rogers became members of country groups in the Sault. Rick still plays regularly but Eddie had some health problems and retired in 1997. Raymond retired. John Bumbacco formed his own group and still plays functions in Sault Ste. Marie including the Royal Canadian Legion on a regular basis.
Howard Hall, after moving to Toronto in 1972 played bass and did vocals for the Frank Evans Orchestra at the Palais Royale in Toronto for 10 years. He later played for the Toronto Harbour Band and in 1998 began to play as a keyboardist/vocalist (one man band) in the Toronto area, which he continues to do.
A rock revival show ’18 Forever’ will take place on December 8, 2007 at the Steelback Centre in Sault Ste. Marie. There will be 8 bands performing including The A-Men and (Those) Rogues and my band The Fireflies.
Thank you Howard, keep us up to date on the upcoming revival show, sounds fantastic!