HalifaxYesterday: Pat LaCroix – The Halifax Three, Jazz and Photography (10 photos)

By Joel Zemel

Canadian performing artists have been making an impact on the international stage for decades. Singers such as Anne Murray and Sarah McLachlan, who reached huge levels of success, began their careers at Halifax venues. A trio that formed in the city at the beginning of the Folk Music craze of the early 1960s, also made their mark – albeit for a short time. They were called The Halifax Three. Its members were Richard Byrne, Denny Doherty and Pat LaCroix, the lone surviving member of the group. In this article, Pat shares his reminiscences of his time with The Halifax Three, a subsequent stint as a jazz singer, and his long career as an award-winning photographer. (see Image 1 above)

Patrick John LaCroix was born on 16 March 1938 in Victoria, British Columbia. He was introduced to music at a very early age as both his mother and brother were amateur musicians. During his teenage years, Pat sang with his brother’s band. After completing high school, he worked for a year to save up money for tuition to Westlake College of Music in Los Angeles, California, where he spent a year studying piano, arranging and vocals. He also fronted the school’s big band.

In the late 1950s, Pat found good company in his fellow students – trumpet and cornet player Arnie Chycoski, versatile musician and future producer Phil Sheridan, and singer/songwriter Gordon Meredith Lightfoot Jr. with whom he formed a Four Freshmen-esque vocal quartet called The Four Winds. The group backed up and recorded with rockabilly star Johnny Stark and appeared on a local television show hosted by singer/actor Bobby Troupe [who wrote the song Route 66]. (see Image 2 above)

Shortly thereafter, the group broke up and Gordon moved to Toronto. Pat decided to travel around England, Germany and Holland (now the Netherlands) singing for subsistence in various bars, clubs and even on Dutch television. After a year, he returned to Canada, made his home in Halifax and immediately began looking for work. He managed to get a radio gig, broadcast nationally on the weekly Strings and Things radio program, and received an opportunity to do a musical television show.

“[I] was thrilled to land a 16-week series on Halifax CBC TV. Just a quiet little show called Trio Time. It featured myself along with two great jazz musicians, Bobby Mercer on guitar and “Red” Mike MacDonald on bass. Following that series, my producer Glenn Sarty put together a 16-week series called The Pat LaCroix Show which featured myself as singing moderator, a 16-piece band, and a bunch of dancing teenagers.

By December 1960, the series had ended and Pat was once again unemployed. Around the same time, Richard Byrne, a local singer/guitarist was also out of work. Two years before, nineteen year-old Denny Doherty had ended a stint with a local band called The Hepsters and was now working as a salesman at the Barrington Exchange, a men’s clothing store and pawn shop. However, fortunes were about to change for all three young men at a New Year’s Eve party in Buddy Burke’s apartment above a popular Halifax jazz club at 777 Barrington Street.

“The party was in full swing…Richard Byrne, who I knew slightly, was there with his beat up old pawn shop guitar and Denny Doherty, who I had not met, showed up. The Kingston Trio was the big deal at that time so we started singing Tom Dooley or one of those tunes. Denny took the melody and I grabbed the third above. Dick just fell into the bottom end. We cranked away at two or three other tunes and someone said, “Jesus, you guys sound great.” We looked at each other and thought, “Hey, we do sound great.” Somehow our voices had that indefinable quality that makes for a fantastic blend. Then and there we decided to become a project. A couple of days later we got together for a serious rehearsal and things just seemed to fall into place by magic…So we decided to have a go at being a group. We decided on the rather prosaic name, The Colonials.”  

After a few intense rehearsals, the trio went public with Richard as their de facto leader (he was the only one who owned a guitar and a car). The vehicle “had started life as a 1957 MGA and somehow Richard managed to weld the roof of a Studebaker low boy on top of it, turning it into a very bizarre looking sport, station wagon. It was definitely a one off. This would be our mode of transportation for the next year or so.”

For the first few months, the trio played their forty-five minute set at frat house parties and aboard ships on the waterfront for free beer or drinks. At one point, Pat called his old producer Glenn Sarty to find out whether he would be interested in building a show around their group. He was, and their audition resulted in a sixteen-week CBC series called Travelling On Home. The show’s producer was Bill Langstroth, who would later go on to host the long-running Singalong Jubilee, and become the husband and business partner of Anne Murray. During the show’s run, the group recorded a few forgettable tunes for a local company, Rodeo Records, and recorded a commercial for IGA. When Travelling On Home wrapped, the trio figured they had gone as far as they could go locally. The next step required a move to Montreal which, at the time, was a humming show business mecca.

Not surprisingly, many artists trying to get ahead in the Folk music industry were far from purists, vying for success despite their own musical preferences. Richard was into writing his own songs, Denny was essentially a Rock and Roller and Pat, a dedicated American Song Book aficionado. But the trio approached their work as Folk musicians with the same professional attitude as they would any other music genre. The key to moving forward in the business was being in the right place at the right time and The Colonials had no trouble getting gigs in Montreal. They played the Venus De Milo Room on St. Catherine’s Street and Lou Black’s Living Room on Mansfield Street. After a few months performing around the Eastern Townships and other small towns in Quebec, they decided to head to Toronto. (see Image 3 above)

In the early 1960s, Toronto was inundated with coffee houses like the Bohemian Embassy, the Village Corner and the Purple Onion. The trio hung out with fellow musicians Ian & Sylvia, The Raftsmen, and Malka & Joso, but it did not take very long before they began to run out of money. The only option was to audition for some national exposure on CBC television shows like Julliette, Parade or the Tommy Ambrose Show. However, the network only wanted big name acts so, it was a no go. They did, however, manage to get the high profile Harold Kudlets Agency to handle them. Almost immediately, the group found themselves working at the upscale Seaway Hotel and The Fifth Peg as an opening act for Bill Cosby. They were subsequently booked for two weeks at the Fallsway Hotel near Niagara Falls. Pat’s girlfriend Patti had been travelling with the group at the time. 

“I was married for 54 years to the best woman I ever met. We were born on the same day of the same year and celebrated our 21st birthdays together in Victoria, where I come from originally. I was singing in a jazz club called The Scene and looked down at a front table at a beautiful Asian woman. She was with a musician that I knew from the Navy band and at the break I went over to say hello. I ran into my friend in the can later and asked him if that was his girlfriend. “No,” he said, “just a date.” I called her the next day. Her name was [Naomi Patricia] Patti Tanaka and she was a student nurse. We never looked back.”

While at the Niagara Falls gig, Pat and Patti decided to get married.

“So, bright and early one morning Patti, Denny and I knocked on the door of the United Church and told the preacher that we wanted to get married. “And what date would that be?” asked the preacher. “Like right now,” we replied…Denny was my witness but we had no one for Patti so the preacher called the church organist to stand up for her. He arranged for us to come back after lunch and we would do the deed. Patti, Denny and I then adjourned to the nearest bar and had a few scotches to get us into the mood. By the time we got back to the church, we were feeling pretty frisky which didn’t exactly thrill the preacher. The only wedding present we received was a souvenir spoon of Niagara Falls which the church organist very kindly donated.”

It was around this time that The Colonials heard about a big time nightclub in Buffalo called the Town Casino. They simply walked into the place hoping for a chance to audition and were met by “a wonderful little Jewish man named Harry Altman.” Altman was impressed with their “chutzpah” and took the time to listen to three tunes. He appeared impressed but told them he only booked name acts like Sammy Davis Jr..

““But,” he said, “I’ll tell you what I’m going to do for you boys. Let me make a call.” He picked up the phone and called Burt Block who it turned out was the president of International Talent Agency in New York City. ITA had all the big folk acts: The Limeliters, the Kingston Trio, The Brothers Four – all of them. “OK!” said Harry, “Burt will see you in his office at 9:00 tomorrow morning…It was into the MGA station wagon and off we headed for New York City. It was now 7:00 p.m. on Sunday. We drove all night and arrived in the Big Apple at around 7:00 a.m. We dozed in the car for a couple of hours and then headed for ITA, and our lucky day began. We did our three best songs for Burt and he said, “OK that sounds pretty good.” He then signed us to a two year exclusive agency contract…He said, “The Colonials doesn’t really work in the U. S.. Where are you guys from?” “Halifax!” we said. “OK, you are The Halifax Three.”

The day turned out to be lucky indeed. Not only did they have a new name and an agent, but Burt Block had called Dave Caplan, the A&R man for Columbia Records and arranged an audition for them. After hearing the same three songs the trio played for Burt, Caplan said they “sound pretty good” and signed them to a two-year exclusive contract to record two albums on Epic, a subsidiary of Columbia Records. Burt also secured a manager for the band. After one more audition playing the same three songs again, Harry Bell, who managed big acts like comedian Shelley Berman, became their manager. That evening, the record company put them up at the Plaza Hotel.

The Halifax Three found reasonably priced accommodations at the Albert Hotel on 14th Street in Greenwich Village. Patti found work at a coffee house on Bleecker Street. The way to make money for performing was to pass the hat or in this case, the basket. Many stars and wannabes graced the stage of The Bitter End: Bob Dylan, Cass Elliot, Fred Neil, Tiny Tim, David Crosby, Bob Gibson. In the evenings, the trio would hang out at a watering hole called The Dugout “drinking and rubbing elbows with people like Dylan and David Crosby, Bill Cosby, Shell Silverstein and Woody Allen who was doing stand up at The Bitter End.”

When it came time to record their first album, Burt Block sent the group over to Warner Brothers Publishing to meet with Artie Mogull, one of their song promoters [and the person who signed Bob Dylan to his first publishing contract]. Artie gave them a tape of a song he thought would be a good fit for The Halifax Three. They took the tape back to the hotel and listened to Bob Dylan playing an out of tune guitar and badly singing a tune called Blowing In The Wind. Richard thought it would never sell because the group was looking for more commercial material. Pat recalls: “I often wonder how my life would have turned out if it had been The Halifax Three rather than Peter, Paul and Mary who recorded that tune. Probably not nearly as well as it did.” (see Image 4 above)

The Halifax Three’s persistence had paid off and with NYC as their base, the good gigs started to roll in. They opened for Shelley Berman in White Plains, NY, and for comedian Adam Keefe at the Village Gate. After the release of their first album the group worked for a month in Fort Lauderdale during the spring break where they also entertained the college kids. By this time, though, Patti had tired of waitressing and decided to get a job as an operating room nurse back in Toronto doing what she was trained to do. And besides, as Pat states: “We needed the money.”

The Halifax Three next appeared with poet/singer/songwriter Rod McKuen on a televised United Givers Fund [United Way] drive concert where afterwards the group met the U.S. attorney general and keynote speaker of the event, Robert F. Kennedy. About this time, the group recorded a novelty tune called The Man Who Wouldn’t Sing Along With Mitch, written by a musician in Mitch Miller’s band. The song got them a guest spot on Miller’s television show which had a huge national following in the United States. It was great exposure and the record made pick of the week on WINS radio in New York.

Unfortunately, the song became an “air hit” whereby all the radio stations overplayed it so much that within a couple of weeks no one would go out and buy the record. Regardless, The Halifax Three got guest spots on the Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin shows. Pat states: “We also were booked on four of the major national Canadian TV shows that emanated out of Toronto. The CBC, who wouldn't give us an audition, were thrilled to have us booked by a New York agent. Whenever we were without a gig we headed back to New York and to the coffee houses.”

“Early in 1963 our second album San Francisco Bay Blues was released and we were being kept pretty busy with some good gigs. In the fall of that year, we were offered a 30 day tour of 15 southern states booked as “Hootenanny USA.” There were five acts on the tour. Glenn Yarbrough of the Limeliters was the headliner along with the Journeymen with John Phillips, a bluegrass funny hat band called the Geezinslaw Brothers, a girl singer named Jo Mapes and The Halifax Three. Michelle Phillips who had recently married John was along for the ride. Denny and John hit it off and this was the first germ of what would end up as the Mamas and the Papas.” (See Images 5 and 6 above)

“Now, this tour happened while things in the Southern United States were pretty much in a state of upheaval. The civil rights movement was in full swing, Martin Luther King was marching in Alabama and the population was quite polarized. When we rolled into Jackson, Mississippi, John Phillips got a call from some civil rights people [the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee – SNCC] informing him that the venue we were to play that night was segregated. What were we going to do about it? With the exception of the Geezinslaw Brothers, who were from Texas, the rest of the acts were from the North. We had a meeting and voted to cancel the concert in protest of the segregation. That evening we hit a couple of bars and were astounded by the degree of unrest and tension that was prevalent in that city. The next morning the papers across the country had the headline: ‘Northern Hootenanny tour cancels concert in Jackson’.”

In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, things were no better than in Mississippi. Three members of the Ku Klux Klan greeted the bus at the venue and started hammering the sides of the bus with chains and baseball bats. According to Journeymen member Dick Weissman, the men yelled racial epithets at them declaring “that if Jackson wasn’t good enough for us to perform in then they didn’t want any part of us either.” No time was wasted getting back on the road and the tour continued on for the next couple of weeks. Shortly after noon on 22 November, The Halifax Three’s young Toronto guitarist hired for the tour, Zalman Yanovsky [husband of actress Jackie Boroughs], was quietly listening to his small portable radio. Suddenly, he yelled out: “Hey, the President just got shot!” The initial reaction on the bus was anger because they thought he was joking, but soon everyone became aware of the dire reality.

The next two concerts of the tour were cancelled and the bus returned to New York. In late November, the tour wound down with gigs at the Washington Coliseum in Washington, DC, the Mosque Theatre in Newark, NJ, and the Westchester County Center in White Plains, NY. Their final concert took place at Carnegie Hall in NYC on Saturday, 30 November 1963. Burt Zell, the road manager of the tour offered to manage The Halifax Three if they relocated to Los Angeles. The group decided to make the move but not before heading back to Toronto to conclude their booking obligations with a performance at the Royal York Hotel’s Imperial Room.

“So after the Imperial Room engagement, we headed for Detroit and picked up a drive away car, a brand new white Cadillac that needed to be delivered to L.A.. At that time you could pick up a car and deliver it to the West coast for the cost of gas. So away we went and drove nonstop from Detroit to L.A. – Route 66 most of the way. Once there we checked in to the Colonial Hotel (interesting name for us) on Sunset strip and waited to hear from Burt. We waited and we waited. Nothing was happening. We spent about three weeks using up our bank roll on the hotel bill waiting for the big gigs that never materialized.”

It just so happened that The Beatles were in the process of turning the music world upside down, which almost overnight signalled the end of the Folk music business. Once it became apparent that all the gigs had dried up and that further success was no longer attainable, The Halifax Three disbanded and the musicians went their separate ways. Richard returned to Halifax and Denny went on to form The Mugwumps in New York City with Zal Yanovsky, singer Cass Elliot, and singer/songwriter John Sebastian. Soon after, Denny and Cass, along with John and Michelle, achieved significant fame and fortune with The Mamas and The Papas. In 1965, Zal and John formed The Lovin’ Spoonful. Pat returned to Toronto where he and Patti welcomed their daughters, Lisa in 1965 and Dana in 1966.

While on tour, Pat’s fascination with photography had grown to the point where he decided that excelling in this medium would be his main goal in life. He spent forty years in commercial photography working for numerous major and blue chip advertising agencies covering everything from fashion to yachts. Six decor posters created in collaboration with graphic designer Gerald George were a huge Canadian success. His work has appeared in Harper’s Bazaar and other national and international magazines as well as in photographic reference books such as Photographis and Creative Source. He has received more than 50 national and international awards. Pat has since resigned from active assignment work and allocates his time to stock photography for Getty Images and fine art photography.

In an online interview, Pat’s daughter Lisa Betts-LaCroix said when Pat started off as a freelance photographer, he would do weddings and take publicity shots for all manner of clientele: rock bands, strippers and drag queens. She pointed out that her parents ran their longtime “brick and mortar” photography business together as partners. Patti would quietly do all the background work such as preparation, business and the like, so that Pat (who was more the front man/extrovert) could focus on his photography and entertaining clients. In fact, whenever her father got an award, he would always acknowledge her mother. Upon receiving a life achievement award in 2008 from the Canadian Association of Photographers and Illustrators in Communications (CAPIC), Pat said to the audience: ”This is not mine. This belongs to me and Patti.”

Pat had also gone back to the jazz club scene, working with musicians like Reg Schwager, Bernie Senensky, Pat Collins, Mike Downes, Charles Mountford, Lorne Lofsky, and his piano teacher, Frank Falco, as well as old Halifax pals, Donny Vickery and David Caldwell. In the early 1990s, Falco, encouraged him to return to his first love of singing jazz standards from the American Song Book. In 2005, he recorded a CD of standards entitled The Ballad Artistry of Pat LaCroix featuring Guido Basso. In Pat’s website bio, vocalist George Evans wrote: “Pat's sensitive touch with this material is a welcome addition to the Canadian Jazz vocal scene. His annual performances for the Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival are a testament to his enduring popularity, and the high esteem in which his fellow musicians and singers hold him.” (see Image 7 above)

Patti LaCroix was acutely aware of her husband’s heartfelt connection to jazz music as well as to the numerous jazz musicians he knew and performed with. She came up with the superb idea of Pat creating a book of character studies featuring one hundred of Toronto’s well-known jazz community. After Patti’s death from cancer in 2017, Pat carried on with the project in collaboration with noted Canadian broadcaster Ted O’Reilly, who wrote the accompanying text. Everyone involved volunteered their time and services. At the end of a three-year period, their work gave birth to the book Toronto Jazz Treasures, with all proceeds from sales going to charity. (see Images 8 and 9 above)

After three years of living alone, Pat established a new, loving relationship with a friend he and Patti had known for years. Nowadays, he spends his time writing songs and trying to improve his piano playing. He candidly states that the sound of his voice no longer pleases him as its quality has diminished with age, so he does not sing in public anymore. This leads one to ponder what manner of project he will take on next. Considering his close ties with family and longtime friends, a constant drive for excellence, and the joy he receives from creating, it is assured that Pat LaCroix will always find the perfect voice for his artistry. (see Image 10 above)

Errata: Pat points out that he sang with the Westlake Big Band only during their rehearsals. As well, the assassination of JFK took place on the same day as the Baton Rouge, LA gig – not two weeks later.

Please note: I wish to acknowledge a band mate of mine from the old days, Eric Mestre, for his contribution to this article. Much of the information about The Halifax Three is from his correspondence with Pat LaCroix. I subsequently contacted Pat who graciously filled in the gaps and forwarded more material to round out the story.

Sources: Pat LaCroix: http://www.patlacroix.com/ ; Eric Mestre: http://ericmestre.com ; Lisa Betts-LaCroix:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WlLAyuQVKKo ; Toronto Jazz Treasures website: http://www.torontojazztreasures.com/ ; YouTube book promo video (ft. Pat LaCroix & Ted O’Reilly): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iAzQhR02CJ8 ; Which Side Are You On?: An Inside History of the Folk Music Revival in America by Dick Weissman; The Evening Star, Washington, D.C.; Scarsdale Inquirer, Scarsdale NY; Setlist.FM: https://www.setlist.fm; Carnegie Hall Booking Ledger.

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