For decades he was one of the most recognizable and most lauded of Canadian rock drummers, holding down the rhythmic fort for the legendary April Wine, as the band sold millions of albums, toured the world and became an integral part of the national musical lexicon.
Jerry Mercer was a fixture on the Canadian music scene even before joining April Wine in 1973, having previously played with popular Montreal jazz-infused hit makers Mashmakhan, a band that had an international hit with the song The Years Go By. In 2008 he left April Wine under circumstances that could diplomatically be termed as ‘strained’. Keeping a low profile in his adopted community of Kingston, Ontario, Mercer stayed pretty far out of the rock scene, especially locally, preferring to sit in with an eclectic array of jazz an world music artists and jam sessions.
Occasionally, in more recent years, he would join former April Wine comrade Carl Dixon (best known for being a founder of 1980s rockers Coney Hatch) at some of his area shows, showing that rock and roll was still very much coursing through Mercer’s veins.
Over the past couple of years, the now 78 year old drum icon has jumped back into rock music with both feet, as he’s now put the finishing touches on a new project called The JerryCo Band. Formed with a bunch of long-time musical pals, including two former members of April Wine, the band is based out of Montreal, and is cobbling together a repertoire of tunes from a wide swath of Mercer’s musical pedigree, some classic rock and R&B, and even some new originals.
And the still-physically imposing but eminently congenial Mercer admits he is enjoying every second of the experience.
“Because of the people I am doing it with, I look forward to every time we get together to play. And the genesis is pretty simple. On my 75th birthday there was a special party going on for me at the Calistoga Grill in Montreal and all sorts of old friends showed up, including Gary Moffet, who I hadn’t played with since 1984. And before the night was out, I got Gary up on stage rockin’ out, and he hadn’t played an electric guitar in years. But he got up there and bravely played a few tunes with me,” he said.
“Kelly Watling was in the audience and was in the group onstage that night and he is one of my favourite guitar players. I played with him and Doug Short in a group called the Big City Band back in the late 1980s when April Wine was on hiatus for a few years. And it was an absolutely fun group, with a great cross section of repertoire of rock and R&B and just bits of everything, and it was a lot of fun to perform. So Kelly and Doug were up with me and Gary that night.”
The final piece of the puzzle came with another April Wine alum, bassist/vocalist Breen LeBoeuf hopped onstage. He played in the band from 2007 to 2011, and is also known for his time with Quebec-based jazz-rock band Offenbach, with whom Jerry would occasionally tour when on break from April Wine in the 1980s.
“So this is how it began; it was a jam night on my birthday and everybody had a good time and we decided to follow up with a proper gig and we called it As The Years Go By and it was sort of based on some tunes from my past including my time in the 1960s with Trevor Payne, from April Wine, my stint with Roy Buchanan and Mashmakhan. Everybody had a good time and it was amazing because they didn’t really know one another. Gary had never really met any of the other players and Breen didn’t know any of the other players. Kelly and Doug had known each other for years, but I was the common thread. I brought them all together later at Gary’s house and it seemed like within five minutes they were like old buds. And then we went down and strapped on our gear and started playing together and rehearsing together, which seemed like breathing it was so easy,” he said.
“There was so much positive energy in the room and it feels to me that The JerryCo Band is a true labour of love and not just on my part. Everybody feels good about working with everybody else. There is a nice chemistry happening. And it’s exciting for me after we picked up two more gigs and have another one coming up on October. We’ve got some footage and some stuff to be mixed to try to get some video out of the gigs that we can use for promotion. And it’s exciting for me to listen to the guys working on the video enthusiastically talking about how great the other guys in the band were playing. These guys are now all friends and are happy whether I am there or not. I know they are going to play together somewhere even if I am not there, that’s how much they’ve connected.”
Mercer spent 35 years in April Wine, performing on their biggest hits and participating on their biggest tours. Things started to turn sour over his last few years in the band, as he came into conflict with band founder/songwriter/vocalist, the always mercurial Myles Goodwyn. It was not a happy parting of the ways.
“In spite of what Myles wrote in his book, which I haven’t read but people have read me the pertinent excerpts, despite what he wrote about firing me, it’s all 100-per-cent totally wrong. Did he want me out of the band? Oh yes. But his way of doing it was to consciously and conscientiously put as much pressure on me as he could. I said to him at one point what would he consider to settle the matter. He told me what he wanted me to do and I thought, ‘wow, that’s a bit heavy, but okay.’ I wanted to settle the matter. I was not enjoying myself anymore and I have always enjoyed music. And anything that contaminates that joy has either got to be rooted out or something’s got to happen because I couldn’t continue like that,” he said, preferring not to get into the details of the arrangement he was negotiating with Goodwyn for his exit.
“I did his request and did it honourably and did it truly, and came to him with all the proper papers that he was saying he had to have in order to believe me. Upon handing him he said, ‘ah, it’s all bullshit anyways. It doesn’t mean anything.’ Whereupon I resisted mightily the urge to just choke the bastard. And that was it. There was no way it could be resolved and as long as he was not going to change, then I had to get out because I started to feel like a whore. I was in there not enjoying myself and more, but just doing it for the money. As long as I worked with him after that point, that’s what it became. So I left, I repeat I left. I left the band, it’s as simple as that.”
After leaving April Wine in 2008, Mercer felt it was a wonderful time to explore some more exotic styles of drumming and so embarked on a phase of his career where he became immersed in the rhythms of the Caribbean.
“I just changed direction completely. I made a few trips to Cuba and began getting into Afro-Cuban drumming and conga drumming and hand drum techniques and all of the different patterns that are involved in Latin music. I steeped myself in that pretty well. And I began to play with a Kingston musician originally from Columbia, a guitarist named Mauricio Montecinos. So I just totally changed direction and went into a different milieu altogether and not one that’s necessarily even popular. But I love Latin music and that was my goal, to learn something about it and get the experience of having a chance to play it on stage a little, which I accomplished,” he said.
“Am I an accomplished Latin musician? By no means. But I always believe it’s important to keep learning and at this point in my life that hasn’t changed. I am 78 and it seems wild that I should be in the process of starting a new project [The JerryCo Band], but it’s a true labour of love and I am doing it with my musicians of choice.”
Long-time fans of April Wine were undoubtedly excited to hear about the reunion of Mercer with his former bandmate Moffet, who left April Wine when the band went on hiatus in 1984, not returning when it reunited in 1992.
“Gary was into record producing for other people for a long time. And he is a good listener and a good producer – that became his thing. He stopped playing electric guitar and turned to acoustic guitar and began to work avidly to learn a bunch of new chords so that he could play the classic American songbook – all those beautiful tunes that the jazz players were playing in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. He ended up getting into a duo and doing that sort of stuff around Montreal while he was doing the producing, but he never once played electric guitar until he got up on my birthday,” Mercer said.
“And now he is simply sparkling out there. At 67 or so he is jumping around on stage like it’s 1982 again. He steps out from the backline when it’s time for his solo and his playing is still physically dynamic. There are a lot of guys that play like demons but they just kind of stand there. Gary still tries to make it visual. It’s just more entertaining for people to see someone whose body and physical expressions match the edge of their playing and what’s coming out the speakers. Kelly does that naturally. He never jumps or moves fast, but swings and sways in a rubber-like motion sometimes and that’s the way he plays. If you listen to Kelly’s guitar he is like that – beautifully loose.”
Most of The JerryCo Band are songwriters, so it’s inevitable that there will be some new music coming to the fore from such an agglomeration of talent. One aspect of the batch of new songs being compiled – again something that should really thrill veteran April Wine fans – is the fact that some material from the late, great former April Wine bassist/vocalist Jim Clench (Ooowatanite, Weeping Widow etc.) may come to light.
“Before he died in 2010 Jimmy Clench was working on a new group with new songs that he wrote. And Kelly Watling was his guitar player. So I just spoke to Kelly recently about this and asking him if there was anything from the days when he was rehearsing with Jim; any old bits and pieces of tape, or notes, or even if he could remember any of the songs. I would love to take a Jimmy Clench original that has never seen the light of day and record it and have people hear it and like it,” Mercer said.
“We all loved Jimmy and so did many fans. So there is potential for originals from a variety of sources, because I know Gary has some stuff, and Breen is always writing. We just haven’t explored it fully because all our time thus far has been taken up with getting a show together which is reasonable and which gives people their money’s worth. At the same time we need to get more gigs under our belt and really develop our own sound: a gig teaches you so much more about yourself as a band than hours and hours of rehearsal.”
Fans in the Kingston area can sometimes see Mercer at the jazz jam at the Musikki Café on Monday nights. As for The JerryCo Band, they are playing a show at the Calistoga in Montreal on Friday, Oct. 20, and then are at the Port Theatre in Cornwall on Friday, Nov. 3, a show that will be filmed for possible future release.
For more information, visit https://www.jerrycoband.com.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at email@example.com.
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